I almost missed this one!
Working a few days ahead, I came across a familiar name in a footnote to one of Lady Feilding‘s letters. And just in the nick of time, for you, dear reader.
The name–E.W. Hermon–was familiar because, while drafting this very post, I had passed over a note to include him in the project on the occasion of a bombing lesson gone awry. Perhaps I was right to think that “there’s enough to discuss today, so let’s leave off introducing a new ‘character,’ even if there’s an Event of Accumulating Interest.” So I moved on…
But how can I pass up the chance to note the centennial of another hand grenade accident in which one writer injures another writer’s brother? This is broad spectrum micro-history at its finest, no?
E.W. Hermon had been a regular officer in the cavalry until his retirement several years before the war. He had apparently enjoyed life in the army, but did not want to go abroad with his regiment for many years and be separated from his young family. As a compromise he had joined King Edward’s Horse, a once-rather-irregular unit of “colonial” (i.e. white Englishmen with colonial associations) cavalry that had become first a unit of the Yeomanry (i.e. the cavalry of the Territorial Army), until it was absorbed into the Special Reserve in 1913. Incidentally, Hermon commanded the Oxford and Cambridge squadrons of King Edward’s Horse–mounted versions of OTC units–during the Regiment’s Territorial phase… which means that he was young Tolkien’s commanding officer during his first stint of semi-military service in his first year at Oxford.
Thirty-six at the outbreak of war, married and the father of four, Hermon was one of those mobilized during their annual summer training camps. He spent several frenetic months training with his “part-time” unit before eventually being deployed this spring as a major in command of an independent troop of cavalry–to serve, as all other cavalry were at this point, in the reserve. The Hermons were sufficiently wealthy (Eton, Christ Church; socializing with Grenfells and Feildings of our acquaintance) that Edward brought several of his own horses to war with him, to say nothing of both a manservant, Gordon Buxton, and a groom, Harry Parsons, who enlisted in order to continue to serve their master.
Like many devoted husbands, Hermon promised to write regularly to his wife Ethel. Unlike many others, he did–almost 600 times–and the letters were carefully saved, the bundles unwrapped by his grand-daughter in 1991, and published in 2007. So we will be hearing from Major Hermon from time to time now.
On June 18th he was appointed commander of the 47th Division’s Bomb School, in Hesdigneul. And would you like an anecdotal reminder of the state of the art of grenade warfare at the time? Well: his first letter after the appointment asked for two lacrosse sticks to be sent out–to aid in removing unwanted live grenades from trenches…
30th June 1915
I am sorry to say I has a nasty accident at my bomb school today. I had just started my first lecture with the officers & I always have some perfectly harmless dummy bombs made up fro demonstrations. Somehow one bomb made up with a detonator had been put in my demonstration box with the result when showing the class how it was lit it exploded in my hand. Part of it flew into a box of detonators, 20 of them, & exploded the lot…
The efficient Mills Bomb (which looks like one would expect a hand grenade to look–pin and lever, etc.) is still not being produced in sufficient quantities–hence these ancient bombs which must be lit by hand. The silver lining, in this case, is that they are also ineffectual.
I had a marvellous escape, & why I wasn’t blinded I don’t know. When I lit the bomb it was in my hand & not 12 inches in front of my face…
Hermon escaped with just a few superficial cuts–“the blow to my pride is far worse than the trifling skin rub”–but the young officer on his left, attached to K.E.H. from the Coldstream Guards, “got it a good deal worse.”
This, as it happens, was Dorothie Feilding‘s younger brother Henry.
Two other officers were injured, one in the eye, and Feilding was cut in the face and the wrist, and sent to hospital. His watch, however, seemed to have stopped the largest fragment, shielding his wrist from serious damage. Thus:
I want you to buy me a really good silver wristwatch, which must have luminous hands or figures, as I want to give it to Henry. Have his initials put on it. H.S.F. from E.W.H. June 1915 & I will pay up to £5 for it…
I am off bombing again in the morning…
Paths crossed. Frightening tally of grenade accidents augmented. And now we know the price of a “sorry, old chap, that my error almost blinded you” replacement watch.
Young Wilfred Owen is swaggering verbosely toward a certain decision:
Wednesday, 30 June 1915, Bordeaux
My dearest Mother,
Your letters are very dear to me; but these are days when my side of correspondence languisheth like a leaf in fiery June. I cannot exaggerate the painful feelings I experienced in the first day of my change of air; but at the same time I repeat I have nothing to grumble about here, and am therefore of an untumultuous spirit; whatever I may have of England to regret. But as the School Term seems to start about Sept. 21st, there
is really a mere wisp of time to be consumed before the Return to England…
Ah, the capitalized “Return.” So it has dawned on Owen what this will most likely mean. The forefront of his mind is generally occupied by his aspirations toward poetry–and, indeed, in just a moment he will broach the subject of the war via more thoughts about poetic destiny. But he is writing to his mother, now, and their joint project–since even before his birth–has been the restoration of their (i.e. her) family to a state of gentility. It cannot be for a moment lost to either of them that a very large percentage of the young “gentlemen” have gone for officers and that the swift expansion of the army has created a fortuitous path to the recognition of one’s gentlemanly status.
Wilfred works around to it:
Another thing: was it not Belloc’s great forefinger which pointed out to me this passage of De Vigny: If any man despairs of becoming a Poet, let him carry his pack and march in the ranks.
Now I don’t despair of becoming a Poet: ‘Before Abraham was, I am’ so to speak…
In other words, there may be poetry in war, and war may be the making of a poet. But I, you see, mother, I am a poet by nature and birthright. The war has other applications:
Will you set about finding the address of the ‘Artists’ Rifles’, as this is the Corps which offers commissions to ‘gentlemen returning from abroad…’
Yours ever and ever—Wilfred
Private Lord Crawford gets into one of his favorite subjects, today: women! Can’t live with ’em, might seem to be in need of their help, so that more wounded men don’t die without ’em… be that as it may, they are distinctly troublesome creatures…
By why settle for misogynist paraphrase?
Wednesday, 30 June 1915
At No. 2 hospital most of the day. The colonel, a man of energy and decision, means to make the officers’ section a marked success. Let us hope he may–there is some scepticism as to whether our personnel will be adequate.
Two nurses arrived to the horror of the unit which intensely dislikes the nurses at this stage of the firing line. Further back and when the wounded men are convalescent and anxious to gossip, the help of nurses is invaluable–but at the earliest stage after being wounded, the patient doesn’t want to have to be on good behaviour. Orderlies and men alike dislike nurses and from all accounts with good cause.
The latter-day editor of Crawford’s letters, Christopher Arnander, breaks in at this point to note that “the feeling may have been mutual–Nurse Jentie Paterson of No. 5 CCS commented in a letter home that ‘orderlies to my mind are all very well, but they can never take the place of women nurses… they lack education, perception, and conscience… being of a different social status… ideas of cleanliness differ…”
This is hardly the point, and it is doubly strange to quote a particularly snobbish bit from a nurse when Lord Crawford is by leaps and bounds the most socially elevated orderly in France. Nasty nurses hardly undo Crawford’s knee-jerk woman-hating, and I would urge the reader to continue to read Crawford’s diary alongside Lady Feilding–and indeed, now Vera Brittain–and to judge for herself whether there is any reason to praise or condemn either gender-category of amateur medical volunteers.
Prejudice: fine, alright, we expected that. But it is passing silly to assess the way in which the medical services have been drastically expanded by passing along “all accounts” fantasies of gossiping prima donna nurses or dirt-caked village idiot orderlies.
So let’s clear the palate with Patrick Shaw-Stewart, who wrote a delectable classicist/orientalist revery to his sister, today, a century back.
Imbros was delicious. It is a prettier island than Lemnos, and with nicer villages, Panagia and Kastro. And the simple joy of being out of shellfire after two months of it was considerable. To live in a tent (they are too conspicuous to be allowed here) instead of a dug-out was also jolly, and as I was temporarily commanding a company I had one to myself. I went over as often as I could from our camp at Kephalos on the east to Panagia over the central ridge and Kastro on the west, where there was delicious coffee and beer and eggs and mullets and marvellous mulberries that dropped into your mouth and covered you all over with blood-red stains that turned blue-black, and you could forget for a day that you were a damned soldier, and talk as best as you could to the amiable Greeks. One of them said to me, “Turkoi skotountai polu?” which I boldly guessed to mean “ Are the Turks being much whacked? ” and I said, “ Yes, rather,” and, in case there should be any doubt, added that we had killed 50,000 and taken 5000 prisoners—so it’s not my fault if Imbros doesn’t come in…
But most of the time we had to parade and drill—you see, you can never parade here or speak to more than six men at a time, for fear of shells, which is bad for their souls—and that was tiring. I’m now second in command of “D” Company (mostly stokers, though not my old ones), having been relieved in command by Ock, who is three days senior to me! Fortunately I have not violent military ambitions and am delighted to have him back, also Charles; they both came the same day.’
Shaw-Stewart can almost make Gallipoli sound like a stop on the Grand Tour, when the mood is upon him.
As the brunt of the war begins to be shouldered by the men of the new armies, Donald Hankey‘s 7th/Rifle Brigade now took their first turn in trenches on one of the line’s most active sectors. We’ve been here before: just yesterday Hankey’s battalion entered the front line between Hooge crater and Bellewaarde Farm, site of the recent one day battle. Today his company suffered its first deaths, as two men were killed, apparently by the German artillery which regularly probed the forward trenches. Tomorrow more shells will be coming over, and by Friday Hankey will take up his pen…
And, in a last glimpse of Oxford, we note that John Ronald Tolkien was passed fit today, a century back, removing the last potential obstacle to army service.
References and Footnotes
- Nason, ed., For Love and Courage, xi-xii, 44, 57-8; the watch is currently in the possession of a ten-year-old Feilding descendent... ↩
- Collected Letters, 342-3. ↩
- Private Lord Crawford, 17. ↩
- These would be Arthur "Oc" Asquith and Charles Lister, original "argonauts" and companions of Rupert Brooke. ↩
- Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 140-1. ↩
- Kissane, Without Parade, 143. ↩