A Violent Crossing of Paths at ‘Bomb School;’ Wilfred Owen, A Poet Born, May Yet Return a Gentleman; Lord Crawford on Women in His Place; Patrick Shaw-Stewart Forgets He’s a Soldier, For a Day; Tolkien Passes Yet Another Exam

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.[1]


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[2]


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…”[3]

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;[4] they both came the same day.’[5]

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…[6]

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

  1. 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...
  2. Collected Letters, 342-3.
  3. Private Lord Crawford, 17.
  4. These would be Arthur "Oc" Asquith and Charles Lister, original "argonauts" and companions of Rupert Brooke.
  5. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 140-1.
  6. Kissane, Without Parade, 143.

Robert Graves and the Loss of Innocence; Charles Sorley is Very Bored

Today is as good a day as any day to discuss a strange sort of turning point in Robert Graves’s story. Several days ago Graves received a letter from a cousin at Charterhouse and wrote about it to his parents. Today, a century back, Robert’s father summarized the unsettling letter in his diary–unsettling because of Robert’s alarming and opaque remark about “unimaginative idiots having given him bad news.”

Good-Bye to All That explains the situation in some depth. In fact, Graves goes to some lengths to organize the story of his own descent from innocence into jaded experience around this little tale: once upon a time there was a younger boy at Charterhouse, one ‘Peter’ Johnstone. And Robert Graves admired and loved him.[1]

Graves, out to cause a scandal with his book, makes much of the frequency and intensity of such passions in British Public Schools. His point–and, scandal-mongering aside, it was a fair point courageously made–is that this is not an issue of homosexual inclination but of adolescent psychology in a brutal, repressive, and all-male environment.[2] Strange to say, however, the perfervid romantic lives of Public School boys were no secret. Here British eccentricity and willful/wishful Victorian thinking combined to allow violent prejudice and semi-tolerance to co-exist. As long as actual sex acts were kept decently out of sight (and, indeed, do not the trysting school children of even our benighted times tend to keep actual sex in the shadows?) sexual passions were often tolerated.

No less a personage than G.H. Rendall–Graves’s headmaster at Charterhouse–endorsed and defined this semi-sentience, informing a conference of Public School masters that “My boys are amorous, but seldom erotic.” Peter Parker amusingly characterizes this “classic pronouncement” as “innocent, complacent, or simply idiotic, but… symptomatic of Victorian and Edwardian thought upon the matter.” True enough—but reading Graves makes “idiotic” seem rather unfair, at least as a matter of historical judgment. Rendall knew what went on, he just thought (or hoped) that it “seldom” flowered into sexual activity, and Graves confirms, at least, that different schoolboys practiced different passions within the same hothouse atmosphere. Both, too, are invested–though for different reasons–in seeing Charterhouse as a location in which innocence persevered.[3]

Graves believed in romantic love and expected to love women, at some point in the future. But his adversarial personality, his Victorian upbringing (his parents were rather old, and traditional) and the adolescent humidity of Charterhouse led to the belief that a handsome, upright boy, intellectually and physically beautiful, was a suitable object for uniquely passionate attachment. He retrospectively classified this as a particular category of “romantic friendship,” but the point is that it would not be right to deny that Graves loved Johnstone.

And then this typical Public Schools Romantic Friendship becomes something a little more specifically Gravesian.(Or “gravid,” perhaps?) Graves was apparently a tremendous prude, and his Special Friend was not to be an object of mere desire, but rather a Symbol, as thoroughly intellectualized as possible.

(The prudery, by the way, is more or less Graves’s own characterization, and it chimes with the opinions of his friends. This fact of his upbringing that was only strengthened by his introduction, at age nineteen, to the realities of military brothels–not that he chose to make use of such facilities, as he was still, a century back, very much a virgin.)

So it had never occurred to Graves that an object so eminently worthy of his intensely pure love might be tainted by actual lust. Platonic–but only to a point. He had, in fact, decided that young Peter–whom he calls “Dick” in the “autobiography”[4]–was to be a sort of pedestal’d image of all the beauty and goodness that the war could never destroy.

Let’s read the relevant bits of Good-Bye to All That:

Bad news from home might affect a soldier in either of two ways. It might either drive him to suicide (or recklessness amounting to suicide), or else seem trivial by contrast with present experiences and be laughed off…

The bad news came in a letter from a cousin of mine still at Charterhouse. He said that Dick was not at all the innocent fellow I took him for, but as bad as anyone could be.

“As bad as anyone could be:” “Dick” was caught in flagrante, apparently soliciting a soldier at a nearby barracks. These are not invented events (Graves admits that he later learned the truth of the accusation, and there is corroboration from other sources) but Graves decides, like so many of those whose mental constructions of an unchanging better life preserved at home are shattered by letters, to disbelieve it, for the present.

“[Dick”] had been my greatest stand-by all these months whenever I felt low; he wrote every week, mostly about poetry. They were something solid and clean to set off against the impermanence of trench life and the sordidness of life in billets…[5]

Something clean. This is a reliable-enough bit of true history, a strangely sad story of how a misfit schoolboy copes with the loneliness of trench life, and of how much any soldier depends on the constancy of those he loves and left behind…  but it’s also Graves shaping stories, preparing the way for the fall of the schoolboy subaltern: the fall away from idealism into the full experience of the sordid uncertainty of the war. This fall will, naturally, be a recurring subject for Graves–and for us, here, as the summer of 1915 ripens toward autumn–fall–and the resumption of the offensive.

The same section of Good-Bye to All That provides a few additional details of particular interest to us.

First, Graves rather confirms our suspicion that Rowland Feilding‘s1/Coldstream are looking down on the 2/Welsh–Graves attributes a contagious pessimism to the entire First Division:

Its spirit in the trenches was largely defensive; the idea being not to stir the Germans into more than their usual hostility, But casualties remained very heavy for trench warfare.

There is no comment from Graves on whether the Guards brigade shared this spirit with the other two brigades of the division, but it would seem unlikely that he intends to include them, as elsewhere in the book he praises the Guards. For Graves this remark is a segue:

Pessimism made everyone superstitious, and I found myself believing in signs of the most trivial nature.

Interesting, then, that Graves situates a nearly complete panoply of trench stories around this confession of superstition: the stability-shattering news about “Dick” comes just after a ghost story, a premonition proved true, and an impossible near-miss–all anecdotes which I will try to work in when thematically appropriate.


Charles Sorley wrote to his mother today, a century back. A slight letter, apparently, but good evidence that he will not alter his usual pleasantly sardonic tone just because mother is on the other end of the post.

29 June 1915

We have now been out a month. Our time has been spent in a tedious preparation for possibilities which will never occur. All our behaviour is precautionary and defensive: from the universal silence one would guess that the Germans are similarly engaged behind that mysterious “pie-belt” which divides the two armies that are both incapable of fight. One day, I suppose, six hours’ bombardment will knock six months’ work to pieces…[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 126-8.
  2. Many of the boys involved in such relationships did come to "identify" (as we would say) as gay, or come as close to doing so as the threat of prejudice and prosecution might allow. Graves made his revelation later on, from the safe perch of his lofty reputation for passionate and disastrous relationships with women, but few then would have been willing to take the position that romantic obsession with other boys--and indeed, even physical consummation of that love--did not necessarily indicate that the boy was permanently homosexual.
  3. Parker, The Old Lie, 61.
  4. Again, if the frequency of instances in which boy love-objects are given names that carry the connotation of "penis" in American slang is other than a somewhat remarkable coincidence, it is news to me. Odd. But unintentional. I think. Still, it's... notable that both Johnstone's actual nickname and his pseudonym both qualify...
  5. Good-Bye to All That, 119-122.
  6. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 282-3.

Edward Thomas Woos His Words; Ivor Gurney Laments the State of Youthful Poetry; Ronald Tolkien Goes for a Fusilier; The Temporary British Soldier in All His Glory: “Excuse Me, is This a Private Trench?”

It shouldn’t really be surprising that the epistolary friendship between Edward Thomas and Robert Frost heats up when there is poetry to be discussed. But it is: their fellowship and mutual affection so clearly goes above and beyond the alliance of like-minded poets that we share in their–or, rather, in Thomas’s–sense that something is amiss when criticism of poetry seems to be driving the conversation. Frost, after all, is a de facto guardian for Thomas’s son Mervyn, and their letters touch on love, war, ambition, and despair… nevertheless, they are struggling to maintain over such a distance the fast connection that they forged on their long country rambles. So, really, it is no bad thing when poetry stirs the pot and–to remix to my earlier metaphor–warms the waters just a bit.

Two days ago Frost made this rather amused reply to Thomas’s tortured apologies over his critical and emotional reaction to The Road Not Taken:

Franconia N.H. U.S.A.

June 26 1915

Dear Edward,

Methinks thou strikest too hard in so small a matter. A tap would have settled my poem. I wonder if it was because you were trying too much out of regard for me that you failed to see that the sigh was a mock sigh, hypo-critical for the fun of the thing…

Frost then gossips a little about his own situation–the Frosts are in the midst of purchasing a farm–before beginning the delicate task of modulating his friend’s hopes for the New World.

You may be right in coming over in your literary capacity. Elinor is afraid the rawness of these back towns will be too much for you. You know I sort of like it…

I don’t want to scare you, but I want to be honest and fair…

September would be all right–late in September when people are getting back to town. Bring all your introductions. Some of my new friends will be good to you. Some of them arent good to me even…

And there’s nothing licit to drink here.

Other objections as I think of them.

As for the war, damn it! You are surely getting the worst of it…

Yours ever,


Thomas, of course, will not receive that letter for a week or two. But today he was writing again, confident in his expectation that his successful, blustering friend will forgive the fit of pique. He seems not to have all that much to tell Frost, at first: the Marlborough book is still a thorn in his side, he is aggrieved that Walter de la Mare has won a pension from the government, etc. So why write, and on holiday at that?

It’s not de la Mare’s pension: Thomas is already over his reaction to that–or, really, his meta-reaction, since it was his horror at his own jealousy rather than simple annoyance at de la Mare’s good fortune that has been the real stumbling block. Thomas wrote to de la Mare today as well, exorcising the ghost of friendship-destroying covetousness with a gentle touch of passive-aggression:

My dear de la Mare

I was almost sorry to run into you by chance last week because I should have arranged to see you, but it was an unexpected visit. The week after next I shall be up again & see you. At the moment I am travelling to work off the effects of writing a book on Marlborough, which looks like my last job here. So I am planning to go to America in a month or 2 to see if there is anything to be had there.

You feel a little safer with your pension I hope. There is to be an attempt to get one for me but they say I have a very poor chance in a crowd of more elderly & more celebrated applicants…

How poor freedom is when it is thrown at you.

Yours ever


Amusingly light jabs. But I quote the letter mostly to show that Thomas is not writing to Frost in order to bend his ear about de la Mare.

Of course not: he’s writing to Frost because he has written.

Over the past few days of his post-Marlborough cycling tour with his old friend Jack Haines Thomas has written two poems, including “Words,” which he finished today and enclosed in the letter to Frost. This is surely Thomas’s most important statement on the nature of his poetic art since Lob.

Out of us all
That make rhymes
Will you choose
As the winds use
A crack in a wall
Or a drain,
Their joy or their pain
To whistle through–
Choose me,
You English words?

I know you:
You are light as dreams,
Tough as oak,
Precious as gold,
As poppies and corn,
Or an old cloak:
Sweet as our birds
To the ear,
As the burnet rose
In the heat
Of Midsummer:
Strange as the races
Of dead and unborn:
Strange and sweet
And familiar,
To the eye,
As the dearest faces
That a man knows,
And as lost homes are:
But though older far
Than oldest yew,–
As our hills are, old,–
Worn new
Again and again:
Young as our streams
After rain:
And as dear
As the earth which you prove
That we love.

Make me content
With some sweetness
From Wales
Whose nightingales
Have no wings,–
From Wiltshire and Kent
And Herefordshire,–
And the villages there,–
From the names, and the things
No less.
Let me sometimes dance
With you,
Or climb
Or stand perchance
In ecstasy,
Fixed and free
In a rhyme,
As poets do.

It’s safe to say that this is a poem of subtle complexity. It almost chimes, and seems at first to be heading toward a Hobbity little place of simple rhymes and pattering rhythms. But as in Adlestrop, the inclusion of county names seems to make the verses at once very specific and very English–so just another programmatic poem for the English (or, as in Thomas’s case, Anglo-Welsh, by affinity and ancestry if not language) poet.

The main “point” is deceptively simple as well: choose me, you English words, and let’s make music together! But there’s more to this, too. “Like Lob, Words mingles cultural defence, ars poetica, and more mysterious vistas.”[3]

The cultural defense is perhaps the simplest: there will be little argument from his readers about the value of English words, especially when they are so nicely nestled among those solid stand-bys of English pastoral, the yews and oaks and nightingales.

The second point, though, is stronger than it might look: Thomas often wrote, in critical mode, about the importance of treating words as living, changeable entities, not mere labels. Now he does this in verse, singing the song he has talked in prose, dancing in and among the living verbiage.

And pledging allegiance to the words themselves–the living words, one might say–is more than an empty gesture of reality. It connects, really, to his recent move toward a sort of fatalism. He speaks almost as a sorcerer, summoning the words that they might work their magic through him. Which might seem like a romantic gesture (and indeed there are many reminiscences of Wordsworth in this poem) but for his biography: Thomas is not a robed poetic magus supreme in his tower; he’s a ragged man at a crossroads, desperately hoping that some chance will determine his course, choose his road, relieve his indecision.

There are echoes of Hardy here, too, the grim fatalist of the late Victorian age. Thomas the poet seems to be aligning himself with Thomas the man, declaring that it is the words that have the power, and the events of the world, not the individual’s will–let the man and the poet give himself up to them, and be carried toward his fate.

This, then, is the “more mysterious” aspect of the poem, which Longley locates in its sneaky paradoxes: the strange and the familiar, the fixed and the free. The darker side of permanent quandary has emerged recently in his letters, but this is Thomas writing happily–on a day off, as it were; on holiday.

He will shortly decide to let the world carry him war-ward; but for now he is blissfully content to ask the English language to let him dance with it–and today it has.


John Ronald Tolkien formally applied today for a temporary commission in the Lancashire Fusiliers. Given Tolkien’s status as an Oxford graduate and his service in the Officers Training Corps during this past school year, his acceptance into an expanding regiment was virtually assured. Tolkien requested to be assigned to the regiment’s 19th Battalion (yes, Kitchener’s army is so big now that some regiments have added ten or fifteen battalions to their pre-war complement) and the appointment seems likely to go through. Tolkien’s friend G.B. Smith was serving in that unit and had been lobbying the commanding officer to take him. But the bureaucracy could be opaque.

Tolkien has maintained a scholarly and commendable degree of ignorance about army life, however: Smith wrote to him today to answer recent questions, and reminded him that any books or paints he brought with him into the army would have to be portable…[4]


And a brief letter from Ivor Gurney, today, still in camp, and apparently unable to make a gathering hosted by his friend Marion Scott.

28 June 1915

Pte Gurney, 2nd/5th Glosters, Wintry Farm Camp, Epping, Essex

Dear Miss Scott:

Very sorry, miss, but it couldn’t be helped. They left me uncertain up to the last moment, and the leave was not granted, so I heard, simply through the carelessness of an orderly corporal…

Cut off as he is from the literary world, Gurney has not yet seen a copy of the recently-published 1914 And Other Poems. He must depend on the kindness of reviewers to keep up with the poetic sensation of 1915:

Edward Thomas reviewed Brooke’s poems in the Chronicle, and I got another sonnet out of that—Now God be thanked that has matched us with this Hour–another very good one. It is curious how little great youthful-seeming poetry has been written; and sonnets seem especially fated to be the work of “solemn whiskered men, pillars of the state”.

It’s tempting to read this so closely as to go cross-eyed: “aha! Brooke is only ‘very good’ and there is no ‘great’ youthful seeming poetry… how high Gurney must dream!” But no, I think he admires Brooke very much–Brooke is the exception, and the ambition perhaps lies in the fact that Brooke did write good young poetry, but is gone.

And then the letter returns to a pleasant chattiness: here is the soldier in waiting, a state which has driven several of our other New Army men to fuming frustration. But Gurney–a private, remember, and thus entirely prevented from imagining that he might control his fate–seems much better able to tolerate the slow uncertainty…

Well, here we are in camp, and a nice old mix up it is! Whatever is wanted out of the ordinary is at the extreme wrong end of the kitbag. Everything has to come out, and at last in exasperation one stuffs things of hourly necessity in first, and language flows not wisely but too well. This lengthens the act of cleaning up at least 250%. But this is good for me…

At present I am “on sick” with lumbago, a horrid name. But this came just in time to prevent C.B. [confined to barracks] for a dirty rifle, which is thus put off—may it be forgotten!

…There is nowhere to put books here–nowhere! Only in that comic-tragic kit bag, Gott strafe it. A slot machine is what I want, or a valet.

Please excuse writing and the pencility thereof, but nothing else is possible in camp: with best wishes:

Yours very sincerely

Ivor Gurney[5]


Finally, today, here’s a lovely bit from the diary of Aubrey Herbert–our semi-blind, dress-up Guardsman now serving as insubordinate interpreter in Gallipoli. It’s titled, in the anthology in which I found it, “The Origin of a Legend:”

28th June. We have a clerk here, Venables. He has got tired of writing, and, wanting to change the pen for the sword, borrowed a rifle and walked up to the line at Quinn’s Post. There he popped his head in and said: “Excuse me, is this a private trench, or may anyone fire out if it?”[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Elected Friends, 70-2.
  2. Poet to Poet, 203-4.
  3. Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 243.
  4. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology, 69.
  5. War Letters, 31-2.
  6. Chapman, Vain Glory, 174.

A New Experience Beginneth for Vera Brittain; Donald Hankey on War at Sunset

Sunday June 27th

Behold, a new experience beginneth!

I got up at 6.30 & went to the Devonshire Hospital… I ran round the Men’s Day-Room, where meals for the soldiers are served, putting out forks & spoons which seem to be permanently greasy. After that I took trays to patients still in bed. Another nurse & I have three wards to look after, numbers 5, 6, & 7. There were three men in bed in 7, all dears. Two of them were about thirty, & both very anxious to talk & tell me how they got here. Neither of them could walk. One had been 3 months in France in hospital, 12 weeks at Sheffield & 19 in Buxton! The third man was younger than the other two, dark & good-looking. He was very quiet and read, or pretended to read, a magazine while I was talking to the other two. He speaks in a perfectly refined voice & when I afterwards cleared up the table by his bed, he apologised for making such a mess. I rather suspect he is a gentleman ranker…

I wonder if this anecdote–this extremely schoolgirlish anecdote–will weather the transition from Vera Brittain‘s diary to one of her letters to Roland. She continues with some of the highlights of her first morning on the job:

It is very nice to be addressed as Nurse and Sister. After breakfasts & beds I had to dust the wards, wash the doctors’ tables, and put hot water in the jugs…  The military nurses are all quite young & very kind, and showed me everything…

I talked to a Scotch soldier they called “Jock”, who had been there since Christmas, when he was sent back from the front after a month with frost-bitten feet. This man told me he had frequently stood up to his waist in water in mid-winter, and hadn’t had any hot meals either. He also told me how many young officers & men had been shot soon after going out through over-carelessness about putting their heads above the parapet of the trench. The men are keen to have a look at the battlefield, put up their heads to see…

I hear dozens of war stories and if I wished could hear hundreds. The men like to talk about their experiences, and a new person to tell their stories to is quite enough to start any of them off. I had the dinner to see to, and to take to patients still in bed–three upstairs this time–and then I was off duty for the rest of the day. I am only going in the mornings to begin with, but when they get a little busier & I am a little more experienced I shall go in the evenings as well.

Alright, so, high spirits on the first day of a new experience, as well as the satisfactions of feeling useful, of realizing a long-held goal. Anything else going on?

Oh! I love the British Tommy! I shall get so fond of these men, I know. And when I look after any one of them, it is like nursing Roland by proxy. Oh! if only one of them could be the Beloved One.

Nor is that last statement as accidentally ambiguous as it may seem. You really want Roland to be wounded? Well, yes, in a way. Vera has already written of her fantasy that the “Beloved One” might come back safely, honorably wounded, for her to nurse. (That part of the fantasy is self-aware; but I’m not so sure that the erotic aspect is.) And the fantasy persists even upon acquaintance with actual serious wounds.[1]

By tomorrow, however, when she writes to Roland, Vera’s tone has changed significantly–and there is no mention of handsome and reserved gentleman rankers.

It’s not that her enthusiasm is muted in the letter–it remains very high–it’s just that she takes on an uncharacteristic air of self-importance. This I thought odd. She is usually passionate and direct with Roland, and here she sounds almost haughty–it’s almost as if the proud and aloof girl that she believes her classmates see has barged in on the treasured soul-to-soul intimacy of her relationship with Roland. A brief sample:

I can honestly say I love nursing, even after only two days. It is surprising how things that would be horrid or dull if one had to do them at home quite cease to be so when one is in hospital…

I have various things to do, all of which belong to the kind of work which is called probationers’ work. Another nurse & I have three wards to look after between us… I have to take the men their breakfast, prepare the tables for the doctor… dust the wards & make the beds. These latter are not made in the ordinary way but in a particular method you have to learn how to do, & are called medical beds…[2]

But no, this isn’t self-importance. I realize now that it’s relief disguised as swagger: among the many things that Vera has had to suppress is her worry that she might seem frivolous.

Gender is at issue, of course. But it is also not the issue at hand. Yes, Oxford had long been, for her, the promised land, the escape hatch from vapid “provincial young-ladyhood” out into a free and spacious and serious life, while for Roland it was simply the expected next step toward even higher purposes. But the war had changed all that.

No experience, now, for any civilian, is going to compare in sheer seriousness to the stress and daily risk of death that a young infantry officer must face. And so Vera has had to hold herself back, to check most of the strength of character that would push (and had already pushed) the bounds of a conventional relationship between a young man and a young woman. But now she has taken a slight but significant step war-ward.

So we should read this little bit of breathless self importance as a rush of escaped pressure. Its meaning is not “be quiet now, my young officer, and listen to how hard nursing is” but rather “at last I too am doing something that matters.” Their relationship can take a first step toward the equality that they both desire–or, at least, that they both wish to desire.


And just a short note from Donald Hankey, today. A very lovely little letter, actually, that reassures a family member less directly than his previous efforts (and hence, I would think, more effectively). Memories of beauty and belonging help to make the present secure:

June 27, 1915

Dear Grandmamma,

I am afraid it is some time since I wrote, and that I owe you a lot of postcards and at least one letter. The difficulty is that there is nothing interesting to say except what I am not allowed to say!

We have had a very quiet time lately, and I have been more and more bad tempered and sulky. Let us hope that we will soon start fighting, when one will probably be too frightened to be sulky. I prefer not to dwell on this dirty place, but to let my mind rest on the recollection of Elstead, which must be fine just now.

We are come to the Sun’s hour of rest and the time of thinking of your rose garden where all is peace. When I left you after that glorious Sunday visit, as I was walking to Farnham there was a most beautiful sunset, and I stopped to admire it. Looking back, I saw Hankley Common one great mass of purple. This seemed a fitting ending to one of the happiest days I had spent in my life.

I am writing now with my paper on the back parapet of the trench looking over a peaceful scene of meadows deep in grass which no animal will eat, stately avenues of trees marking the main road along which no man may travel, and in the distance are the ruined towers of a fair city in which no man may dwell. Such is war at sunset. A few rifle cracks and the murmur of conversation alone breaks the evening peace. It is the best part of the day–that and dawn.[3]

It’s odd, isn’t it? Our most serious young lady has revealed her inner feelings by being a bit too serious, and now our most serious young man tries a light touch–and strikes home.

This last paragraph is either lugubrious fake Tennyson or it’s a bit wry–and I’m pretty sure that the light touch is intended. Hankey holds both the winsome scene and its hidden violence steadily within his gaze. No shouting, no exclamations of horror or fury. Ever gently, he produces a swift but sincere sketch of the odd beauties of war.


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 214-5.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 126.
  3. The Letters of Donald Hankey, 295-6.

Vera Brittain Must Work Without Hope; Dorothie Feilding Is Back, and Should Hate Far More to Have Nothing to Do at Home; Private Lord Crawford Has a Bath

Today, a century back, Vera Brittain received a letter written by Roland Leighton on the 22nd. She’s basically done my job for me, quoting extensively from the letter and then commenting on its effect.

Saturday June 26th

I had a letter from him–at last. I am afraid after all his possible leave is something very indefinite & unsettled. He only says “I ought to get it before the end of summer, with luck.” So I must go on disciplining myself to work without hope. Leave even in a month may mean never. A month is such years now, & so much can happen in it.

He tells me they have just taken over some fresh trenches, about 300 yards from the German lines. At that distance they are fairly safe from rifle grenades & suchlike annoyances, but are much more likely to be shelled. “There are trees, hedges & growing corn which prevent one side seeing very much of the other. So much so that the other afternoon I crawled with two men up to within about 70 yards of their trenches, completely hidden in the long grass.” Oh! I wish he wouldn’t do that. It makes me feel more sick and apprehensive than anything. I wonder why they have to do it. For if they were once seen they would never return again.

It’s hard not to feel Vera’s anguish, here. To tell the tale of some close shave past is one thing. To casually mention an apparently voluntary flirtation with enemy fire is something else altogether.

Roland gives the sense that he might do this at any time: it’s not a past-perfect story, but a re-coloring of the ongoing present, a reminder that the amount of danger he is actually in can fluctuate. To Vera, more information means more acute anxiety.

But Roland is bored:

“Everything,” he says, “goes on much the same. It is all most unmeteoric; anyhow…

He asks if I ever knew a boy called J. S. Martin at Uppingham. He was killed out there a few weeks ago. He was in the Royal Irish Rifles &, “though, not intellectually brilliant, one of the most charming persons I have known. I came back from camp with him the many years ago that make last year, when War was a newly-discovered toy which both of us hungered to play with. I was growing to have quite an affection for him. The second of my year now.”

No comment here? It’s a good line, for Roland (in both senses–a nice bit of writing, and a good line for him to take). The implication is fairly clear: some die and can be remembered fondly as innocents. But Roland, surviving, sees himself increasingly as a veteran, a man who has put away his childish toys.

It’s interesting, too, that Vera seems to have absorbed Roland’s world-weariness–or, at least, his idiom for expressing his sense of the sudden-slow passage of time. “Many years” make the year just past, for him, while for Vera a month to come “is such years now.” Kindred spirits? A linguistic influence of his letter on her diary? Ah, but, if so, is it conscious imitation or unconscious borrowing? Or is this is merely an Edwardian-romantic cliche?

He says of his possible leave “It depends on whether we are in for anything exciting, I suppose… It will be so unreal to come back to England for a few hours. Perhaps after all it would be better not. But I don’t think so. I shall have changed so much & you perhaps as well; & I shall have forgotten the Quiet Voice and you the charming art of rebuking it. And everything will hurt because it can only be so ephemeral…’’ He stopped there. It would be daylight, he said, by the time he had finished seeing about a wiring party & could go to bed.

Very dramatic. Vera senses a challenge here. Roland announces that he may visit and it may be wonderful. Or he may not, because it would not be. Roland is perceptive–leave can be profoundly destabilizing for men who have undergone do many rigorous psychological adjustments to survive the stress of the trenches. But that he worries is less interesting than the way in which he expresses his worries to Vera.

Does Roland–tired, burdened with the responsibility for keeping a platoon safe–notice that he is, essentially, calling out his girlfriend? “We may see each other soon, but, you know, I wonder if too much has changed, now…”

What should Vera do?

In answer I wrote the longest letter I have ever sent him. I told him about many things, at first treating him as if he were a public meeting & giving my views about personality being greater than war & impossible to be buried by that which was weaker than it…

Well done!

The challenge returned, however, she goes to up to the attic to recuperate her emotional resources by leafing through old school magazines. Hm. The image of a woman going up to the attic to console herself with printed memories is not a propitious omen.

I spent most of this morning in the attic looking through old Uppingham magazines…  It was so strange looking through those magazines, especially the ones Roland and Garrod edited. It made me feel that either then or now was utterly a dream. I easily recognised Roland’s editorials by the prevalence of his favourite adjectives–“ephemeral”, for instance. I found, too, the resumé of the Headmaster’s speech at Speech Day last year. “Every man ought to be of use his country. If he can’t be that, he’s better dead.”[1]


And in France, Private Lord Crawford continues to prepare for the opening of his Casualty Clearing Station unit. Yesterday he realized his fondest recent ambition:

Friday, 25 June 1915

Ten hours in theatre setting out instruments and sterilizing. Called away during each of my three meals to talk to Lieutenant Dawson–rather hard! Got permission to go into the town. Wonderful hot bath after seven days’ dirt…

And today we get a promising little hint of the enlisted man’s (never mind that he is a nobleman as well) perspective:

Saturday, 26 June 1915

Finishing touches to the theatre. I anticipate some friction between the surgeons–all wish to operate and Dawson, it would appear, expects to do it all.

Interesting. We are widening our perspective to include the view from below the officer class! But hold the congratulations: next comes the first instance of what will be a common theme in Lord Crawford’s diary.

Another source of trouble may arise from the nursing sisters… They bully the orderlies and complain to the officers about trivialities which cause them offence.

So far as soldiers are concerned there is not the smallest doubt that they would prefer to be nursed by the RAMC orderlies–but the British public imposes these nurses on our units. They cause difficulties in commissariat, lodging, sanitation and everything else.[2]

Is this true? I don’t know, but I certainly don’t think so. Would wounded men object to half-trained nurses? Surely–that will be a problem. Is the presence of well-born women sometimes embarrassing to wounded soldiers? Probably. Would they prefer to be re-bandaged and moved from stretcher to bed by a lord-in-private’s-clothes rather than a powerfully competent nurse like Kate Luard? I doubt it very much. Crawford’s lack of the “smallest doubt” is strong evidence that he lacks certain flexibilities of mind.

(To raise the more vexing–and most central–issue, can we ever securely situate the historical truth in the blind crossfire of two such different memoirs as Luard’s and Crawford’s? Nope, but we stick to our historical fire trenches nonetheless–history too is an endless war of position.)

Even laying aside the irony that Mr. Lindsay, here (that would be Lord Crawford’s family name) is himself a combination of lofty intentions and a few weeks of hasty training, it’s hard not to see this as prompted by simple misogyny. At the very least he is lazily content to dream up the worst possible examples and assume that they are representative.


More on Lord Crawford’s vituperation as it develops. A lovely coincidence, then, that Lady Feilding is back today from home leave. She is many of the things he might fear in an amateur female near the front lines: a real aristocrat, a socialite, a young and attractive woman, a high-liver who might well draw the ire of fussy older men as she shares a house with a doctor and a lively social life with various Belgian and French noblemen… and she wrestles her ambulance under fire along shell-rutted roads, and has proven the strength of her will and her stomach through many desperate operations. She has gone out for the wounded, too, at times when male orderlies or drivers have already taken shelter. (How recently I was complimenting Lord Crawford on his wise decision to forgo promotion until he knew how he would stand the sights and smells of the operating theater.)

Fumes 26th [June]

Mother dear. It’s so odd to [be] back in the same old place doing the same old things, same old obus [howitzers, i.e. German big guns shelling the allied rear areas], same old faces, same old late nights same old everything. It’s very nice though to be doing something & entirely a degree of hate. I hated going away from home & coming back, but I should hate far more to have nothing to do at home, so have no grievance at all really.

Each time one gets the joy of a real good lay at home & is tempted perhaps to chuck things up, one realises it’s only because it’s temporary that ‘bath mats’ are so very pleasant & of all the jobs going in war time I think I have the best. Perhaps hard in some ways, but it is most extraordinary interesting being right at the heart & pulse of things & feeling you count & can help a great deal.

An indoor hospital life at Balham would be like a general who is ‘dégomméd’ [sic] as the French say shellshocked & sent to run transport at a base at Lands End. Just as useful no doubt, but how dull oh Lord how dull!

I’d rather be obussed any day.

The Germans don’t seem to have run out of ammunition while I was away which is a bit ’ard, but seem to have just as much left through a ‘mees’ as ever…

Let’s close the Feilding v. Crawford action (for the moment, at least) by observing that this is a woman who volunteered so swiftly that she was prevented by the British authorities from nursing, driving, or aiding their own under-served army and only then “imposed” herself on the Belgians. Lord Crawford made speeches and wrote letters until April…

But onward. Lady Feilding is back… and laboring, perhaps, under the mistaken impression that she insufficiently fulfills certain modern stereotypes of the British noblewoman: she brought a small, yappy dog back from leave.

I never have a dull minute here with Charles. Life at the front is full of excitement with him about. He bit Dr Jelly yesterday while being given a slug! His journal is roughly as follows:

1st day – 3 dog fights Folkestone.
2 – 1 cat Boulogne quay.
3 – 1 fit on D’s bed in Fumes at 3am & frightened her to death.
4 – Sufficiently recovered to get run over by a car in Dunkirk, came out smothered in oil & appeared by the exhaust in some mysterious way. Was bathed on return much to his indignation & threatened to have another fit however compromised & was sick under the table instead.
5th day – went out to the dunes with me & found something perfectly appalling to roll in, a 6 month old Hun at least he must have dug up I feel sure…

I will not, alas, be making a habit of including doggie diaries here, however colorful… Lady Feilding closes with a reading recommendation:

Read Gibbs’ Soul of the War it is excellently written, a lot about Fumes quite impersonally written & amazingly true as to details. I can’t think how he remembers everything.

Goodnight & bless you all

Yrs Diddles[3]

Amusing. This is Gibbs’ book about Belgium in the fall–Lady Feilding is recommending a book in which she figures as a heroine. And is that last line about (suspiciously) memory a throwaway or a sardonic parting shot? Yes indeed: how are we to trust writers who introduce so much detail after the fact, implicitly asking us to trust in their powers of memory?


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 212-3.
  2. Private Lord Crawford, 15-6.
  3. Lady Under Fire, 81-2.

Charles Sorley Finds War Duller Than Cricket; Edward Thomas Builds Himself a House of Glass

Captain Billy Congreve was off to London today, a century back, for a long-delayed leave. An aide de camp apparently goes on leave when his general does, so the fact that Congreve has recently been expressing so much frustration over the manifold failures of the Bellewaarde attack and the incompetent leadership of Corps is a coincedence. Probably.[1]


Charles Sorley wrote yet another letter today, this one to the master of his old public school, Marlborough:

25 June 1915

Many thanks for your letter. If I had attempted to obey its command and come and stay with you the next week-end, I should have been shot at dawn. That, I submit, is just about as cogent an excuse for not having come, as those old excuses for not having done any prep.

If you have any friends who want an Open Air Rest Cure: if they want sunshine and quiet and good fattening influences: send them out here. ‘Tis a place to rust in, surely. It is duller even than watching a cricket match… So I read Richard Jefferies to remind me of Liddington Castle and the light green and dark green of the Aldbourne Downs in summer…

We have seen as yet neither horrors, nor heroism, nor suffering. The test still lies ahead. To keep our lamps trimmed against that test is our present lot: most damnable. I saw your letter to The Times at the beginning of this month. In the event of Compulsory Service after the war, I wonder how far the Public School system (if at all) will be able to modify and enlarge the army system, with which (in the matter of N.C.O.s) it has half of the principle in common: the N.C.O.s being the prefects of the system, though with little powers of individual action outside stereotyped lines…[2]


And Edward Thomas continues to try the patience of those who love him–both in life and a century after. He badly wants work, both because he needs the money and because he very much needs to do something with himself that is less stressful than stringing together freelance work in a shrunken wartime publishing industry. He needs a sense of identity, something that will soothe his constant yearning toward some sort of exile from himself–either America or the Army. But when his friend Edward Garnett offered to arrange a teaching job for him, he responded with typical self-entangling stubbornness:

My dear Garnett,

Thank you for writing at once… But I can’t really answer till I have been able to think a little more. I can only say now that at first sight you seem to ask me to try to turn over a new leaf and be someone else. I can’t help dreading people both in anticipation and when I am among them and my only way of holding my own is the instinctive one of turning on what you call coldness and a superior manner. That is why I hesitated about America. I felt sure that unless I could make a friend or two I could do no good.

Nor do I think that any amount of distress could turn me into a lecturer. It would weary you if I tried to explain: I don’t justify…

Things are bad enough that Thomas–also occasionally guilty of the sin of pride–is willing to simultaneously reject a job offer and ask for help in getting himself a pension similar to the one recently secured by Walter de la Mare. It’s too late, of course, and Thomas is not the right kind of writer for such an award.

As to the Civil List,’will you ask Hudson? I believe others might speak to Lloyd George. I hate the idea of urging it, but I am urged and I know that somehow or another I must find some sort of safety however low. Anything rather than a continuation of the insecurity of the last three years. Anything (I must add before you say it) rather than make a bold bid. Anything (I suppose) rather than be independent.

However I think I shall go over to America in a couple of months and see what I can make myself do. I shall write again…

Yours ever,

Edward Thomas[3]

Thomas certainly has the courage of his own failings, even–or perhaps especially–those he acknowldges. In another letter[4] to Garnett, he puts it slightly differently:

What you call superiority is only a self defence unconsciously adopted by the most faint-hearted humility–I believe. It goes on thickening into a callosity which only accident… can ever break through. I long for the accident…[5]

Thomas thus writes plainly of the fear he believes to be at the heart of his personality, but this attritional metaphor–the thickening, the callousing of his self-defeating behaviors–is very apt. It seems a terrible waste.

Yet, as with so much self-inflicted agony, it seems to have its role in the artistic process. It would be one thing if Thomas were a good critic, facile writer, fast friend, and foot-dragging depressive whose only insight into his own tortured soul was in letters like this. Ah–but today, a century back, he was a poetic alchemist, sweating through his agonies, bringing enormous pressures to bear… and producing a little eight-line lump of experience transformed, dense and burnished as gold.

This is the entirety of today’s poem, now known by its first line:

I built myself a house of glass:
It took me years to make it:
And I was proud. But now, alas,
Would God someone would break it.

But it looks too magnificent.
No neighbour casts a stone
From where he dwells, in tenement
Or palace of glass, alone.

Here Thomas “compresses his psychological history into a disturbing parable.”[6] He does indeed, although I’m not sure that compression is the best metaphor. I thought of slicing, first, of a poet carving to the very center of himself with fearsomely sharp blades.

But maybe the tools are not so painlessly acute–maybe we are only seeing the very end of a long labor with hammer and chisel. The craftsman has attacked the huge lump of unshapen stone that is himself, and hewed it–in a life-long eye-blink–down to this craggy and revealing little figure.

And what might it mean? There is something of the “fatalism” here that Matthew Hollis saw in Thomas’s recent letters, but Thomas clearly sees it not as some revealed core-of-self but rather as something like the opposite–a disfiguring “callosity” that has built up on a sensitive personality long abraded by depression.

Thomas despairs of willing himself out of the doldrums. We, with our talk of brain chemistry and our long century’s practice straining to actually apply the denial of the mind-body duality which science had taught us, should be more sympathetic to him now than he could have been to himself. Thomas now puts his faith in fate-by-accident. He could force the issue by going to New York, alone, to sink or swim–or he could stop resisting the swell, and lie back, and float, and let the war bear him away.

The poem seems to be a fairly obvious metaphor–revealing but, you know, kind of… brittle. But it’s not just a convenient choice: it’s also a dredged-up childhood memory. Young Edward Thomas, who roamed widely around the outskirts of London, once threw stones over a garden wall just to hear the glass of a greenhouse shatter. He wrote of this memory in prose and now he bundles it into a heavy allusive/allegorical motley.

Thomas has tried to be good, and strong–but he has ended up gleaming, and breakable. His friends worry about cracking the glass, about the little house giving way once more under its own weight–there have been depressive breakdowns before. That he is so well loved by so many is a testament to the fact that reason and external evidence cannot undo depression…

It’s a pitiable situation–one can’t really appeal to one’s friends to make momentous decisions for you, or to take up some sort of custodianship of your intermittent depression. It’s doubly sad for Thomas and for his wife Helen that their marriage has long since ceased to include any close fellowship of spirit, for she would be the one to help him, if anyone could. But she, too, had the most to fear from the threat of the glass house shattering. Nor will the neighbors do it.

Reading the poem with knowledge of Thomas’s glass-house-smashing youth, it seems as if the poet is longing for the past to save the future. It’s memory alone–now personified as chance, as a passing boy filled with a careless greed for new sights and sounds–that can strike, and put him out of the misery of his false and frozen position.


References and Footnotes

  1. Armageddon Road, 152-3.
  2. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 281-2.
  3. Selected Letters, 114-5.
  4. I think. The one from the Selected Letters is dated yesterday; Longley cites the following as dated today, but it wouldn't surprise me if there is some confusion and it is in fact the same letter.
  5. See Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 242.
  6. Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 242.

Robert Graves Participates in a Curio Execution; Charles Sorley Takes Root

Today, a century back, is the date–in the loose-with-the-facts “autobiography,” at least–of one of Robert Graves‘s most entertaining letters from France.

We are billeted in the cellars of Vermelles, which was taken and re-taken eight times last October. Not a single house has remained undamaged in the town, which once must have had two or three thousand inhabitants. It is beautiful now in a fantastic way. We came up two nights ago; there was a moon shining behind the houses and the shells had broken up all the hard lines of roofs and quaintly perforated the grim walls of a brewery. Next morning we found the deserted gardens of the town very pleasant to walk about in; they are quite overgrown and flowers have seeded themselves about wildly. Red cabbages and roses seeded themselves about wildly. Red cabbages and roses and madonna lilies are the chief ornaments.

In such an enchanted/haunted environment we would do well to be on our guard. Is this how Graves perceived things in the moment, or is he re-writing, later, to heighten the theme of ruinous beauty, to established an ironized appreciation of the aesthetics of destruction? Probably at least some of the latter, yet it is not improbably for a young man arriving at a new section of trenches to see them in such a “poetic” way.

Quickly, now, from sophisticated artistic appreciations to a comedy of manners:

One garden has currant bushes in it. I and the Company Sergeant-major started walking along the line from opposite ends without noticing each other. When we did, we both remembered our dignity, he as a company sergeant-major, and I as an officer. He saluted, I acknowledged the salute, we both walked away. A minute or two later, we both came back hoping that the coast was clear and again, after an exchange of salutes, had to leave the currants and pretend that we were merely admiring the flowers. I don’t quite know why I behaved like that. The C.S.M. is a regular, and therefore obliged to stop eating in the presence of an officer. So, I suppose, courtesy to his scruples made me stop too. Anyhow, along came a couple of privates and stripped the bushes clean.

This afternoon we had a cricket match, officers versus sergeants, in an enclosure between some houses out of observation from the enemy. Our front line is perhaps three-quarters of a mile away. I made top score, twenty-four; the bat was a bit of a rafter; the ball, a piece of rag tied round with strong; and the wicket, a parrot cage with the clean, dry corpse of a parrot inside. It had evidently died of starvation when the French evacuated the town. I recalled a verse of Skelton’s…

Too weird/good to be true? The transition to an apt and fairly obscure parrot poem is suspiciously slick…[1]

Machine-gun fire broke up the match. It was not aimed at us; the Germans were shooting at one of our aeroplanes…

This is a very idle life, except for night-digging on the reserve line. We can’t drill because we are too near the Germans…

Today two spies were shot: a civilian who had hung on in a cellar and was, apparently, flashing news to the Germans; and a German soldier disguised as an R.E. corporal, found tampering with the telephone wires…

Graves, toying with the emotions of his readers, leaves this little horror unexplained. Is it rumor? Truth? Mistaken identity? Who was just killed, and why?!?!? Perhaps this is the lesson–life is cheap, etc., and suspicion and violence are too numerous to query. A soldier’s focus should be on the piece of No Man’s Land before him…

Still, it’s a jarring move from these highly suspect “judicial” murders to a set-piece of heavy-handed symbolic comedy.

This one pops up in anthologies, for all that it seems a bit too good to be true. Let’s see, how about a comic story that will show us war as liberation, allowing a young would-be rebel’s disdain for bourgeois convention to shine through:

We officers spend a lot of time revolver-shooting. Jenkins brought out a beautiful target from the only undestroyed living-room in our billet-areas: a glass case full of artificial fruit and flowers. We put it up on a post at fifty yards range. he said ‘I’ve always wanted to smash one of these damn objects. My aunt has one. It’s the sort of thing that would survive an intense bombardment.’ I smothered a tender impulse to rescue it. So we had five shots each, in turn. Everyone missed. Then we went up to within twenty yards and fired a volley. Someone hit the post and knocked the case off into the grass. Jenkins said “Damn the thing, it must be bewitched. Let’s take it back.’ The glass was unbroken, but some of the fruit had come loose. Walker said: ‘No, it’s in pain. We must put it out of its suffering.’ He gave it the coup de grâce from close quarters.

From here the comedy gets darker. They explore an old Norman church, also much shelled, and Graves gives a piece of broken stained glass to this same Jenkins. (Close reading, by the way, reveals multiple instances of forms of the verb “to break.”

“‘Souvenir,’ I said.” Immediately, two Catholic soldiers of the Munsters pass by, of course:

One of them warned him: ‘Shouldn’t take that, Sir; it will bring you no luck.’ [Jenkins got killed not long after.]

And the comedy gets yet more cruel:

One of our company commanders here is Captain Furber, whose nerves are in pieces. Somebody played a dirty trick on him the other day–rolling a bomb, undetonated, of course, down the cellar steps to frighten him. This was thought a wonderful joke. Furber is the greatest pessimist in France. He’s laid a bet with the Adjutant that the trench lines won’t be more than a mile from where they are in this sector two years hence.[2]

There’s a footnote here, dear reader, which reports on the results of the wager. But you’ll have to wait two years…


Charles Sorley wrote two letters to family members today, a century back, in which he adds to our burgeoning collection of trench-dweller-as-small-furry-creature metaphors.

24 June 1915

The war is at present apparently held over until visits from Cabinet Ministers and Labour Leaders shall have ceased. As it is hot there is no objection to this. We lead a mole-like existence: above ground only at night, and even then blind.

But neither side shows a great disposition to leave its comparatively comfortable quarters..

I have absolutely nothing to tell you. There is a very great desultoriness everywhere. I believe I meant to say sultriness, but desultoriness will do just as well. I was expected to say something. The sense of wasting one’s time that haunted one at Aldershot is absolutely nothing to the certainty that oppresses one here. One day a man will invent automatic entrenching tools and automatic mowing machines, which will take the place of infantry in war.

This would not be the time for me to wave my “Sorley the prophet!” flag. He is joking, drawling, be idly dorle… and yet… well, he’s right. All that is indeed coming, isn’t it–and faster than he might think.

For the present one would have thought a spiked wall might have been erected along the British front, with several spiked walls behind in case the first got shattered, and these would do our job as efficiently as we: and would probably stand a bombardment better. I noticed in yesterday’s Times a cheerful statement that we mustn’t mind if the great advance, now overdue, had to be postponed till next spring. I suppose we mustn’t.

What could be more British than a men-as-moles metaphor?

I dunno, trees?

Meanwhile we have taken root like trees, and like trees we vegetate…[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Oh, yes, certainly too good to be true. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 344, confirms that the learned quotation from Skelton must post-date today, a century back. Nor does the rest of the rewritten letter have much basis in his letters home at the time--Graves is rewriting freely. Which, again, doesn't prove the inaccuracy (whatever that might mean) of any particular fact, and certainly doesn't require that we entirely reject his writings as evidence for the experience of trench warfare. But grains of salt a-plenty must be scattered...
  2. Good-Bye to All That, 115-18.
  3. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 279-80.

Alan Seeger Will Avenge an Outrage to Art; Private Lord Crawford Prepares

Alan Seeger has been several months with the French Foreign Legion, and he has written detailed letters fairly regularly–some to his mother and others directly for publication in American newspapers. A few days ago, however, he decided to begin keeping a regular diary. It will become easier for us to keep closer tabs on him, now.

Magneux, June 19, 1915.

Left the reserve trenches above Paissy yesterday at 2 o clock… Marched down the picturesque ravine through Moulins into the valley of the Aisne… continued through Merval and Baslieux here to Magneux, near Fismes, where we have spent the night. Many civilians here and conditions apparently quite normal. Saw electric lights and railroad trains for the first time in eight months…

Chalons-sur-Vesle, June 20.

Left Magneux at 3 o clock this morning… arrived at 8.30. Fine summer weather; stood the march well and enjoyed it. A fugitive glimpse of the cathedral towers. I am afraid the Germans are going to bombard Reims and the cathedral as a reprisal for the recent French air raid on Carlsruhe… Would that we could take part in an assault on the Fort de Brimont, where the Germans have placed the heavy guns that fire on Reims and the cathedral. Fitting death for an artist, to fall avenging this outrage to Art in one of its most perfect manifestations.

Aha. This is nice–Seeger has been, for me at least, a bit hard to get to know. He writes solid propaganda and his letters home have been full of skillful but rather self-conscious description. He’s a good writer, but not a particularly interesting one. Seeing the private mind of the “artist”–arrogant, perhaps, but honest–helps to fill out the picture a bit.

And it’s nice to have a man in the French sector–we will spend far more time with Notre-Dame d’Amiens, once the British take over the Somme section of the front, but Reims (or Rheims) is the greatest of the Gothic masterpieces fated to spend its war within range of the guns.

Gorgeous countryside and towering Gothic beauty–is this the truth of la douce France, the heart of the matter, or is it the stage-flat France of the American tourist’s dreams? The artist writes it up for himself:

Appel [role-call] this evening at nine. Took a solitary walk about a mile out of the village. Found a high spot that commanded a wonderful view toward the east, with Reims and the cathedral about 10 kilometers off and beyond Nogent and the heights from which the enemy dominate it. Very beautiful country. The first harvest has been reaped and the tan of the haystacks and stubble and the scarlet of the poppy-fields mingles with the fresh green of the early summer landscape. In the distance could be heard the rifle shots and the occasional booming of cannon, but here all is peaceful and quite normal. The women and children have all returned, the men work in the fields, the church-bells toll the hours and quarters. Sat for a long while looking eastward, till the city and the roofless cathedral faded out in the twilight and the waxing moon brightened in the south. Tomorrow we go to the trenches.

This is so much better than any formal, “writerly” juxtaposition of the grand view and the sharp changes of the short future. Writing like this–simply, directly–Seeger now becomes a more trusted source on the emotions of military experience, and, soon enough, on the realities of life in the line.

June 23.

Came up to the first line trenches at sundown day before yesterday… An immense labor has been spent upon these long zig-zag ditches, often six and seven feet deep in the chalk. Went out immediately on poste d’ecoute [listerning post] until midnight. A very quiet sector here, with practically no artillery nor rifle fire. There seems to be a kind of entente not to shoot on either side. But the reason may be that the trenches here are on a level plain and the tall grass makes each line invisible to the other. The guards, in the daytime, watch by means of a periscope, through which, raised about a yard above the parapet, the white line of upturned chalk can be seen over the tops of the meadow grass and flowers some two or three hundred yards away. We are about four miles up the line from Reims, about a mile out in the plain from the route nationale where the kitchens are. In front of us is the Fort de Brimont. We have a fine unobstructed side view of the cathedral. The chimneys of the city are smoking. This sector is really too quiet, it is a place for territorials. I do not believe we shall be here long.[1]


A hundred miles to the northwest, another of our originals is now preparing for his first real service. Private Lord Crawford has survived his uncomfortable train journey and–rather wisely–is reserving judgment on his own fitness to serve in any responsible capacity.

Wednesday, 23 June 1915

There was a terrific bombardment in the Arras region between 1 am and 2 am this morning. Much the heaviest firing I have yet heard. Yesterday a Taube dropped two bornbs at our victualing store on the railway. They fell just on either side of a train standing in a siding.

Four hours in the morning getting out stores and instruments for the theatre. The colonel wishes me to become a lance corporal. I don’t like the idea. I am in charge of the operating theatre and as such should be an NCO, which gives sufficient rank to confer the power of giving orders. The operating theatre staff is too small to make any promotion necessary; however, I shall have to give way though I begged him to wait for a week until he can judge whether I am capable of the work. Some men’s stomachs make such a task impossible. I must have spent twelve hours in the operating theatre today.

Cannot get into the town. Badly want a bath. Our latrines odious. This afternoon some devious sewers, running haphazardly beneath the floor of our great ward, were opened and somewhat purged. The place still stinks notwithstanding much Cresol.

It is rumoured that we are to send a detachment to Bailleul and also that we are to man an infection hospital in Hazebrouck. This would denude us so much as to make an end of our CCS. How much I should regret the severance of many ties which have grown up in these six weeks abroad; to be placed in another unit, where I know I have no friends and indeed might meet ill-wishers, would be distressing.[2]

This is rather touching. I do not know much about Lord Crawford, but it begins to seem possible that his highly unusual decision to serve in the ranks of the RAMC was motivated as much by quiet corners of his psyche as by high-minded ideas of service in wartime. He is a peer and former parliamentarian, a husband and father, and yet he writes almost as a schoolboy would. (Except, of course, for his unschoolboyish objection to filth.) Not that that is at all unusual–everyone begins by interrogating themselves about honor and courage and eventually finds themselves numbering their friends and loving or loathing their unit accordingly. It’s just, I suppose, that I had expected persistent high-mindedness from Lord Crawford–a welcome rebuke then. Why would he be different? He wanted the feeling of comradeship, and, having found a bit of it, he worries about losing that first glow of corporate affection. Let’s hope the gang from Casualty Clearing Station 12 can stay together…


References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 119-23.
  2. Private Lord Crawford, 15.

Billy Congreve and John Lucy on More Failures at Hooge; Patrick Shaw-Stewart on Julian Grenfell’s Improvisatory Brilliance; Roland Leighton Puts Away an Old Toy

Yesterday Billy Congreve discussed a plan to take a lone German redoubt only twenty yards from the new British positions on the Bellewaarde battlefield, near Hooge. He was confident that a surprise attack–during the lull of the day, since evening and early morning had already become predictable times–with a small group of men could seize it. He even volunteered to lead the assault himself (although he would have been quite confident that such a gesture would be refused).

Congreve’s opinion was ignored–it may have logically been a matter for a few platoons, but when something is planned at the Corps level, it is planned as a Corps-sized operation. Hence the fanfare of a half-hour’s desultory bombardment, which predictably left the Germans both well-warned and undamaged. Today’s diary entry reads, in full:

22nd June

The attacked failed absolutely.

Tomorrow, Congreve will write that he is “fed up with this sort of half-hearted show. It’s not fair on anyone, and must make the Germans laugh…”[1] It’s not fair, perhaps, to condemn an entire organization based on one minor debacle, but it does seem symptomatic. At the very least there is immense rigidity and stubbornness here. Worse, it’s hard not to suspect that the reason “Corps” wants a small attack to be a full-dress affair is that it wants to look busy and impressive. No one will win much notice for an attack so small that staff didn’t even ring up the artillery…

All will be quiet now, even in the Salient’s salient. For a few weeks, at least. Congreve, disgusted and disillusioned, will depart in two days’ time for a six-day leave in England.


John Lucy seems to refer to this action,[2] seeing it as grim testimony to the fact that his own unit had not so much failed on June 16th as they had been given an impossible task:

Eight days later, a similar force of infantry attacked the same position, and the operation was a complete failure. Something was very wrong, and though our defeat was somehow justified, we all groaned. Strange and unwanted doubts assailed the older soldiers. We began to look askance at the staff, and in shame some of us avoided the direct glances of inspecting officers of the higher commands.[3]


This next relationship is an odd one indeed. Patrick Shaw-Stewart had grown close to Lady Desborough in the years before the war, seeming to fall under the spell of her histrionic charm just as bright young men had been doing for twenty-five years. Yet she was the mother of his school friend, Julian Grenfell. Will his death now come between them as his disapproval in life had not?

Shaw-Stewart wrote to the glamorous bereaved mother today, a century back, with memories of her son:

…When I was going to Dunkirk in a great hurry in September, and longing for expert advice, I heard he was in London and I made him come round to Little Grosvenor Street and give me tips. Edward [Horner] turned up at the same moment, and (in spite of my abundant terror of war) we had a hilarious morning. They each put on my Sam Browne, which was rather a peculiar one, in a different way, and Edward (who was wrong) prevailed. Julian was rollicking, just like earliest Balliol, and looking rather funny and very adorable. He gave me his sword because I couldn’t get one in time, and he said he was going to use a trooper’s “because he could do more killing with it.”

Perhaps that should be our last quotation of the words of Julian Grenfell, second-hand though it is. And he did kill, although not with anything so romantic and brutal as a sword. His freelance sniping during the autumn had “bagged” at least three men–not Achilles, but not bad.

I have written down this bare chronicle because it has been running in my head. You might mind very much having all those golden years–as most of them were–recalled to you, but I am almost sure you won’t. I think I am most tremendously lucky to have had Julian in my life as long and as closely as I did. It is not many who have such a glowing fire to warm their hands at. We quarrelled some times, but always slightly. Julian was often immeasurably shocked with me, chiefly (directly or indirectly) at my habit of trying, to the best of my power, to arrange things ahead in my life, to tabulate, and to reduce to as little as possible the pressure of blind circumstance, which, God knows, must anyhow be big enough.

He was, of course, always for letting things happen to him (perhaps he scarcely realised how his personality
made at least some things happen to him which others would have had to seek out with labour) and making happy improvisations. It spoiled a thing for him, even a house-party, if it was obviously well arranged beforehand. I think he dealt hardly with the powers of his own mind. He cramped them to make room for action. Also, he was put off by the disappointments due to his illness. I wish he had been perfectly well all those years at Oxford.

These seem like insights. The circumstances of the letter are very strange–is Shaw-Stewart still smitten with his friend’s mother? Is the praise of such a friend to such a woman after the death of her son really admissible as character evidence? Yet it rings true–Julian Grenfell with his wild willingness to let things run, a mixture of innate confidence (or arrogance) and determination to bend his actions to his philosophical commitments.

But the last bit of Shaw-Stewart’s letter bends back toward mere eulogy:

He had unexampled and endless freshness of viewpoint, than which nothing is more valuable. His last poem is an amazing message to get from him, like others out here, with the news of his death.[4]


Finally, today, Roland Leighton also has death on his mind. Perhaps it is too cynical to suggest that people writing of the recently deceased choose consciously to remember only the best of them. Perhaps–especially when it occurs among those also in great danger– it’s a sort of anaphylactic reaction.

Roland writes to Vera Brittain in a melancholy mood–and with only a shrug for the days she has spent, letter-less and surely anxious. But what has he been doing?

Flanders, 22 June 1914

It is such a long time since I wrote to you last. We have just taken over some fresh trenches and so I have been busier than usual these last few days…

Did you ever come across J.S. Martin at Uppingham… I see that he was killed out here a few weeks ago. He was in the R[oyal] Irish Rifles and, though not intellectually brilliant, one of the most charming persons I have known. I came back from Camps with him the many years ago that make last year, when War was a newly discovered toy which both of us hungered to play with. I was growing to have quite an affection for him. The second of my year now.[5]

Vera will write about this letter when she receives it, so we’ll read it more closely then…


References and Footnotes

  1. Armageddon Road, 153.
  2. Or perhaps a similar attempt to adjust the lines after Bellewaarde--his dating is off by at least a day.
  3. There's a Devil in the Drum, 332.
  4. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 138-9.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 125.

Billy Congreve Doesn’t Like Corps’ Plan; George Coppard Goes into the Line

The “Battle of Bellewaarde” was an attempt to straighten a small German salient in the the larger British Ypres salient. Today, general Haldane of 3rd Division addressed its aftermath. He inspected a small German protrusion into the new British position won that day. Which–to review, for a moment–formed an indentation into the German convexity which still bluntly impacted the largely British-held “Ypres Salient.: It was only a lone redoubt and it was an offense against tidy tactical maps. It must be taken.

Billy Congreve was certain that the thing should be handled swiftly, and locally:

Personally, I believe the way to do it is to rush it during the daytime when everyone is more or less asleep–it’s only about twenty yards. If there is no wire, the machine-guns would never have time to get going and we would be in. I cannot see why one shouldn’t do this. I should like to have a go myself with two platoons of good riflemen. I told the general so!

Later: it has been decided that the Wilts(shires) are to have a go at the redoubt tomorrow night, about dark. There is to be a half-hour bombardment first…  To my mind the half-hour bombardment by a few guns is just like giving a fellow notice that you are going to kick him–but it’s a Corps plan…[1]

A Corps plan: the gruesome incompetence of General Allenby and company have produced a certain failure. Why? Stupidity? Perhaps. But–worse, really–they’re probably doing it that way because that is the way to make the task seem impressive, to use everything they’ve got. This is the staff as the hospital administrator in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, turning on a bunch of fancy machines and losing sight of the patient. It’s ominous that the importance of surprise has been completely forgotten, and what could be a coup de main is being planned for as if it is the movement of thousands of troops across hundreds of yards of no man’s land… Congreve will report back tomorrow, no doubt.


George Coppard of the Royal West Surreys reached the trenches for the first time today, a century back. Last night , in Meteren, the battalion had been assembled, lectured, and read the names of “nearly a score of Tommies who had recently been sentenced to death by courts martial.” Not the sort of detail that the officers tend to remember, is it?

Today, suitably chastened, the Surreys entered the line near Le Touquet.

We took over from Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Regiment, who stayed with us for instruction purposes for a day. I was glad when they finally left us, for the front line was jammed with men, leaving no space to get out of the way for a rest…

Coppard now enters our burgeoning debate about the establishment of non-aggressive “routine” during trench warfare. Coppard provides a frank enlisted man’s perspective: it’s not for him to say whether the dictates of honor or strategy should override a man’s natural instinct for self-preservation.

I soon found there was a routine or system to be followed in trench warfare. If the routine was upset by the outbreak of fighting, it was resumed when the fighting ceased. I learned that the front-line soldier was only concerned with the matter of a hundred yards or so on either side of him. His prime interest was to know all about that piece of land stretching between his part of the trenches and the German trenches in front of him–No Man’s Land. He should know the exact distance across No Man’s Land, any weaknesses in the barbed-wire defenses and the position of any ground features…[2]

So: there is “routine,” and there is the soldier’s responsibility of knowing his own business, his own patch of ground. The rest the soldier might not worry about, since he cannot affect it.

I shouldn’t belabor the officer/man dichotomy, but it really does feel different, here. Many of our officers are busy thinking about strategy on the highest levels–not that the staff is asking their opinion–and, in the personal sphere, kicking against “destiny.” Coppard, by contrast, speaks of the routine of life in the trenches as something which may be interrupted–upset, unpredictably–in much the same inscrutable way in which a sudden summer storm wreaks havoc for harvesters. There’s not much point in speculating what lies beyond the horizon. The only thing to do is to watch the skies, look to the ground in front of you, and hope to weather the weather…


References and Footnotes

  1. Armageddon Road, 153.
  2. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 20-1.