Alan Seeger and Henry Farnsworth Take a Hike, Together, and Seeger Capitalizes History and Chooses an Epitaph; Ford Madox Ford Issues Challenges Both Literary and Personal; Colin Mitchell’s “Hooge!”; Robert Frost Writes to a Soldier

(What could be more mulish than beginning a long, multi-hued, and unusually eventful post with a very bad poem? Skip a little!)

I have some (fairly obvious) prejudices to confess. There is a tendency here to read prose–however overtly fictional–for its “historical” value, while at the same time approaching each poem first from an aesthetic point of view and then perhaps working in toward its deeper meanings. This is, in part, because poetry rarely any longer describes specific combat events. The days of the “Light Brigade”–still less of a hundred Greek hexameters of precisely described spear penetrations–are over. Good poetry may help elucidate experience, but there’s little point in reading bad poetry that can’t really be brought to bear on historical specifics. Yet there are still old-fashioned versifiers producing poems immediate and specific enough to speak to a particular event of interest. Can the struggle to render a horrifying defeat in clunky heroic stanzas give insight into the actual experience?

So, yes, there was another aspiring poet in the Rifle Brigade during yesterday’s desperate fighting around Hooge. Colin Mitchell, of the 8th Battalion, hacked out these verses in the aftermath:

Hooge! More damned than Sodom and more bloody,
‘Twas there we faced the flames of liquid fire.
Hooge! That shambles where the flames swept ruddy:
A spume of heat and hate and omens dire;
A vision of a concrete hell from whence
Emerged satanic forms, or so it seemed
To us who, helpless, saw them hasten hence.
Scarce understood we if we waked or dreamed.

“Stand To! Stand To! The Wurtembergers come!”
Shouting vile English oaths with gutter zest.
And boastful threats to kill they voice, while some,
In uniforms of grey and scarlet dressed,
Wear flame-projectors strapped upon their backs.
How face a wall of flame? Impossible!
“Back, boys! Give way a little; take the tracks
That lead to yonder wood, and there we’ll fill
Such trenches as are dug, and face the foe,
And no Hell-fire shall move us once we’re there.
We’re out to win or die, boys; if we go
Back and yet back, leaving good strongholds bare,
We’ll save our lives, perhaps, but not our name.
There’s no one in this well-trained company
Who’d save his skin and perjure his good fame.

I won’t transcribe the whole thing, but it does continue, and Mitchell should be credited with including not just the stirring words of the brave defenders but also descriptions of the damage done by the German weaponry:

…The scarlet splash
Shows everywhere, and everywhere the maimed
Are crawling, white-lipped, to a dug-out where
The doctor in a drip of sweat seems framed,
So hard he works to hide the horrid stare
Of wounds adrip; while many pass away,
And need no lint to bind their frailty,
For God has ta’en them; ’tis their triumph day
And all their sins shall expiated be…[1]

A rather desperate turn, there, in defeat, toward theological consolations.


From the trenches of traditional poetry to the rarest airs of militarized Modernism. Ford Madox Hueffer delivered a review of Blast II today, in the form of an all-guns-blazing counter-attack against the initial critical onslaught. Many of his judgments can only provoke a little grin from we-who-are-burdened-with-the-dramatic-irony-of-the-future–yes, Fordy, indeed: others will find this odd new American T.S. Eliot to be of interest.

Much of the rest of the review is actually less about high art or Modernism or the rendering of brash artistic theory into printed practice than it is about our basic question: how is the war to affect writing? Ford finds the self-declared Vorticists to be somewhat compromised, but admirably, partially, appropriately. He approves of the fact that their work–Wyndham Lewis and all the rest of his flock–has been inflected by the mood of the war, but not changed beyond recognition. They are themselves–modernist tricksters and tub-thumpers, yet, due to the horrors and disasters and disappointments of the war, less “jaunty” about their “larks.”

Ford, as was always his wont, turns toward himself at the end of the piece. But he does so by way of a quotation from Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, foremost of the modern artists who have died on the battlefield:

I have made an experiment. Two days ago I pinched from an enemy a Mauser rifle. Its heavy, unwieldy shape swamped me with a powerful image of brutality. I was in doubt for a longtime whether it pleased or not it pleased me. I found that I did not like it. I broke the butt off; with my knife I carved on it a design, through which I tried to express a gentler order of feeling, which I preferred. But I will emphasize that my design got its effect, just as the gun had, from a very simple composition of lines and effects.

I find that a very touching and wise passage of prose. And I will ask the reader to observe that it contains the thoughts of an artist who had a mystical and beautiful mind and who had been long under fire. Is it not interesting and valuable to observe what such a mind selects? If Blast had presented us with nothing else it would have been justified of its existence.[2]

And I find this a very revealing and precise passage of prose. Ordinarily I would have to follow this up with some coy suggestions about how we must wonder whether Ford will put his money where his mouth is, whether he will risk his flesh for the greater power of his pen. But we’ve got a very handy letter to that effect, to the poet Lucy Masterman:

South Lodge
Campden Hill Road

My dear Lucy,

You may like to know that I went round to the W[ar] O[ffice] after seeing you and got thrown into a commission in under a minute—the quickest process I have ever known…

I can assure you, for what it is worth, that it is as if the peace of God had descended on me—that sounds absurd—but there it is! Man is a curious animal…[3]

Relief, and a sense of peace–as with Edward Thomas. But Ford has a commission, and more writing to do.


And, at last, high in the hills of the Franche-Comté, our two Legionnaires cross paths:

July 31

Walked up to Plancher-les-Mines with Victor Chapman; there met Farnsworth, who is in the 1er Étranger, and we all had dinner together. A dozen sous-officiers–old légionnaires–were in the room, drinking and making good cheer. These were men who had been at Arras, and the camaraderie of soldiers whose bond is that of great exploits achieved in common was of a sort which does not exist among us, and which I envied…

Alas, but that is all. There is no report from either Farnsworth or Seeger, today, on what they thought of their fellow Harvard man and aspiring writer. Seeger, instead, launches into a major philosophical statement-of-purpose:

Perhaps historic fatality has decreed that Germany shall come out of this struggle triumphant and that the German people shall dominate in the twentieth century as French, English, Spanish, and Italian have in preceding centuries. To me the matter of supreme importance is not to be on the winning side, but on the side where my sympathies lie.

Feeling no greater dignity possible for a man than that of one who makes himself the instrument of Destiny in these tremendous moments, I naturally ranged myself on the side to which I owed the greatest obligation. But let it always be understood that I never took arms out of any hatred against Germany or the Germans, but purely out of love for France. The German contribution to civilization is too large, and German ideals too generally in accord with my own, to allow me to join in the chorus of hate against a people whom I frankly admire.

It was only that the France, and especially the Paris, that I love should not cease to be the glory and the beauty that they are that I engaged. For that cause I am willing to stick to the end. But I am ready to accept the verdict of History in this case as I do, and everyone does, in the old cases between Athens and Sparta, or between Greece and Rome. Might is right and you cannot get away from it however the ephemeridae buzz. “Victrix causa diis placuit, sed victa Catoni.” It may have to be the epitaph on my tomb. I can see it on some green slope of the Vosges, looking toward the East.[4]

What exactly were they drinking? This is a serious dose of fatalism, at a time when there is no very particular reason to despair. It seems very American–or, perhaps, German–to write of capital-D Destiny in such Historical terms and to choose to align oneself with some sort of beautifully-conceived disaster.

The quote, from Lucan’s Pharsalia, the maddest and most horrifying of the Latin epics, is well chosen: “the winning side pleased the gods, but the defeated pleased Cato.” This casts Germany as Caesar, the nascent emperor about to destroy the remnants of the old (very oligarchic) republic.

But there is a nearer parallel, a lost cause that has placed a prior claim on the reference: the quotation was a popular choice for Confederate memorials. An ugly association, although perhaps one unknown to Seeger.

Nevertheless, it is unusual to see such a willingness to relinquish the gods and truth and right and history. Seeger, perhaps, is prone to the dramatic gesture–recall his jealousy of Rupert Brooke–and indulging in a stock poetic fantasy of a beautiful and tragic and sacrificial death. But still: Germany’s aggression and responsibility for starting the war were broadly accepted (and have become so once again, mutatis mutandis), and, ever since the great advances of the first few months, the war in the West had been a stalemate. Why relinquish the gods to accept the role of Cato? Isn’t there a war to win?


Finally, today, Robert Frost has received Edward Thomas‘s letter of explanation:

Dear Edward:

I am within a hair of being precisely as sorry and as glad as you are.

You are doing it for the self-same reason I shall hope to do it for if my time comes and I am brave enough, namely, because there seems nothing else for a man to do.

You have let me follow your thought in almost every twist and turn toward this conclusion. I know pretty well how far down you have gone and how far off sideways. And I think the better of you for it all. Only the bravest could come to the sacrifice in this way…

I have never seen anything more exquisite than the pain you have made of it. You are a terror and I admire you. For what has a man locomotion if it isnt to take him into things he is between barely and not quite understanding…

Your last poem Aspens seem the loveliest of all. You must have a volume of poetry ready for when you come marching home.

I wonder if they are going to let you write to me as often as ever.




References and Footnotes

  1. Powell, A Deep Cry, 332-3.
  2. Outlook, 36 (31 July 1915), 143-4; Critical Essays, 185.
  3. Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 60-1.
  4. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 139-41.
  5. Elected Friends, 86-7.

Inferno at Hooge: Donald Hankey Takes One for the Honor of the Brigade and Billy Grenfell Leads the Charge; Congreve and Conan Doyle on the Aftermath of the German Assault; Lady Feilding Abandons the Afterlife; Ford Madox Hueffer Is Changing His Tune

Before we get to an overflowing daily cup of horror and death at Hooge, a brief note and a surprising letter.

First, in an echo of Henry James’s recent bureaucratic vote of allegiance, Ford Hermann Hueffer took a patriotic legal action today, a century back. He’s already English, despite the continental affinities and German ancestry and libels to the contrary. But his name sure ain’t. So,today, he changed it by deed poll. And no: not to the name under which he later became known and under which his great war novel is published. That would be too convenient! Unwilling, as of yet, to remove his surname, he instead swapped out his German middle name for that of his eminently English (what could be more eminently English than a pre-Raphaelite?) grandfather Ford Madox Brown. He had been using it for years anyway, but this officious change presages other official action. Almost there![1]

Next, Lady Feilding. Dorothie Feilding is often cast here as the gay socialite, an occasionally charming, occasionally wretched combination of flightiness and fearlessness. (Largely by dint of her own self-presentation, I hope it’s fair to say.) But, as several of her letters to her father have shown, she is far from mindless or shallow. And–as today’s letter to her mother demonstrates–she has not refused the challenge of matching the faith of childhood–Catholicism, in her case–with the present horrors of war.

Friday for sure July 29th I think
(30th really) [30 July]
Mother dear–

I got your long dear letter last night for which many thanks it was a help too because one’s poor mind & judgement is rather inclined to get lost in the dark & inclined to chuck it up at times.

What I mean is, that although the war brings one closer to prayers, doesn’t diminish one’s faith as a Catholic in the smallest degree, it makes one rocky over the root principle of any after life at all, or rather seeing the suddenness & completeness of death so often & so very close to one, somehow does away with the whole theory of a future of any kind. Why should there be one? There isn’t any need for one for us any more than for any other animal. But I do believe the need of religion in a race because it brings out alt the noblest & the best morally & incidentally stands for betterment & continuance of the whole race generally doesn’t it?

This, it seems, is–however friendly and polite–a wholesale apostasy. There is no future, so let us now give religion practical praise for it humanitarian effects.

Therefore I think that even if there is no future existence at all, one has no right to squander one’s life or let things slide, or humanity as a whole would go to pot.

See what I mean? It’s seeing Death in such numbers & such simplicity that makes me think this. Because somehow the fact of Death in the abstract has no ‘fear’ now like it used when one thought about it in the old days. But although still wanting to do the square thing on earth it doesn’t seem to not. It just doesn’t matter anymore somehow. I think people just live & do their best & then die & there’s an end of it–it seems so easy to believe in God but no need for heaven!

This is quite something. To write this to her mother–the mother of a full handful of children serving in danger zones–is to gently propose a complete break. Does Dorothie Feilding have it in her to be a rebel?

Dear me how complicated it’s all getting–I’d better leave it! Because after all I am one in many millions & I don’t really count or matter what I finks.

Have had a quiet day today–haven’t been shot at once & haven’t seen an obus nearer than 500 yds or found more than one ‘malade’ [patient] to conduct..

Much love



So Lady Feilding has lost her faith–at least the specific Christian faith in a tangible afterlife–because of her long experience with sudden death.

Now, reading is not living, and the traumas it conveys are impersonal (an uncrossable divide) and many orders of magnitude less intense. Reading here on a daily basis (bully for you!) is supposed to deepen your understanding of the past and increase your sensitivity to the literature of this period. Which, in turn, might make one more sensitive to the varieties of human experience.

Does literature humanize? Well, I suppose we’ve turned the flank of the very question I was going to get to (and will now permit to retreat, though Lady Feilding has helped us put it in enfilade): does all this miserable suffering, this pointless killing, challenge one’s faith? In god, in religion, in the afterlife, in political processes, in truth, in humanity?


A new devilry today, and a horrifying post-script to the efforts of the 3rd Division at Hooge. More than a week after he was on hand near the crater when a minenwerfer hit the bomb store, Billy Congreve is in reserve when the bad news comes in.

Early this morning the Germans attacked the 14th Division in Hooge, and have apparently captured the whole place. It’s too sickening. I heard the 8th R[ifle] B[rigade] are the people who lost it… We have no news at present of what actually happened, but there is a rumour that the Germans used Flammenwerfer–liquid fire.

This time the rumors were true. Today was the first time flamethrowers–a weapon of which it is especially hard to write–were used on British troops. Death is death, but there is something particularly fearful about men being engulfed in liquid flame. As a technology, flamethrowers are in their infancy, and will, mercifully, never really grow up,  never prove to be a broadly useful means of murder. The ammunition is enormously heavy, the range of the weapon is limited, and it is very dangerous to its users. But it is terrifying, more resistant than other weapons to measured and careful historical prose.

So, despite the reality of the Flammenwerfer‘s deployment today, a century back, and the very real death of scores of men as the German forces stormed the crater’s lip behind the flames, I’m going to turn the describing over to one of our highly colorful “historians,” Arthur Conan Doyle.

It is clear that the Germans mustered great forces, both human and mechanical, before letting go their attack. For ten days before the onset they kept up a continuous fire, which blew down the parapets and caused great losses to the defenders. On July 29 the 7th King’s Royal Rifles and the 8th Rifle Brigade manned the front and supporting trenches, taking the place of their exhausted comrades. They were just in time for the fatal assault. At 3:20 in the morning of July 30 a mine exploded under the British parapet, and a moment afterwards huge jets of flame, sprayed from their diabolical machines, rose suddenly from the line of German trenches and fell in a sheet of fire into the front British position.

congreve july 19 1915crop

Billy Congreve’s sketch showing the British positions (shaded) around Hooge. The German assault today focused on the crater, but then pushed south of the road.

The distance was only twenty yards, and the effect was complete and appalling. Only one man is known to have escaped from this section of trench. The fire was accompanied by a shower of aerial torpedoes from the Minenwerfer, which were in themselves sufficient to destroy the garrison. The Germans instantly assaulted and occupied the defenceless trench, but were held up for a time by the reserve companies in the supporting trenches. Finally these were driven out by the weight of the German attack, and fell back about two hundred yards, throwing themselves down along the edges of Zouave and Sanctuary Woods, in the immediate rear of the old position…

Congreve, Hooge

An earlier sketch, showing the relative position of Hooge, Zouave Wood, and Sanctuary Wood

The position gained by the Germans put them behind the line of trenches held upon the British right by two companies of the 8th Rifle Brigade. These brave men, shot at from all sides and unable to say which was their parapet and which their parados, held on during the whole interminable July day, until after dusk the remains of them drew off into the shelter of the prophetically-named Sanctuary Wood. [bottom right of Congreve’s sketch, at right.]

Another aggressive movement was made by the German stormers down the communication trenches, which enabled them to advance while avoiding direct fire; but this, after hard fighting, was stopped by the bombers of the Riflemen.

Conan Doyle now describes the attempts at a quick local counter-attack, always tactically advantageous due to the difficulty of consolidating new positions under artillery fire.

The two battalions of the 41st Brigade, which had just been relieved and were already on their way to a place of rest, were halted and brought back. They were the 8th King’s Royal Rifles and the 7th Rifle Brigade. These two battalions had been eight days under incessant fire in the trenches, with insufficient food, water, and sleep. They were now hurried back into a hellish fire, jaded and weary, but full of zeal at the thought that they were taking some of the pressure on their comrades…


We have a man in the 7/Rifle Brigade. Donald Hankey had missed the Flammenwerfers by a matter of hours, and he and his battalion had just reached their billets near Vlamertinghe–at around 3:45 AM–when the orders came to return and prepare a counter-attack.[3]

This would be their first attack, and Hankey will soon write about it in a newspaper piece entitled “The Honour of the Brigade.”[4]

The battalion had had a fortnight of it, a fortnight of hard work and short rations, of sleepless vigil and continual danger. They had been holding trenches newly won from the Germans. When they took them over they were utterly unsafe. They had been battered to pieces by artillery; they were choked with burst sandbags and dead men; there was no barbed wire; they faced the wrong way; there were still communication trenches leading straight to the enemy. The battalion had had to remake the trenches under fire. They had had to push out barbed wire and build barriers across the communication trenches. All the time they had had to be on the watch. The Germans were sore at having lost the trenches, and had given them no rest. Their mortars had rained bombs night and day. Parties of bombers had made continual rushes down the old communication trenches, or crept silently up through the long grass, and dropped bombs among the workers. Sleep had been impossible. All night the men had had to stand to their arms ready to repel an attack, or to work at the more dangerous jobs such as the barbed wire, which could only be attempted under cover of darkness. All day they had been dodging bombs, and doing the safer work of making latrines, filling sandbags for the night, thickening the parapet, burying the dead, and building dug-outs…

They had not grumbled. They had realized that it was inevitable, and that the post was a post of honor. They had set their teeth and toiled grimly, doggedly, sucking the pebble which alone can help to keep at bay the demon Thirst. They had done well, and they knew it. The colonel had said as much, and he was not a man to waste words. They had left the trench as safe as it could be made. And now they had been relieved.

Well, I’ve already told you what happens next:

At last they reached the field where they were to bivouac… Away in the distance could be heard the incessant rattle of musketry, mingled with the roar of the big guns. No one heeded it. A motor-cycle appeared at express speed. The colonel was roused, the company commanders sent for. The men were wakened up. Down the lines the message passed: “Stack valises by platoons, and get ready to march off in fighting order; the Germans have broken through.’ The men were too dazed to talk. Mechanically they packed their greatcoats into their valises, and stacked them. The Germans broken through! All their work wasted! It was incredible. Water bottles were filled, extra ammunition served out, in silence. The battalion fell in, and marched off along the same weary road by which they had come. Two hours’ sleep, no breakfast, no wash, no drink.

Here’s where “patriotic propaganda” may intrude on what has been a fairly reserved “spirit of the battalion”/no rest for the weary piece. Or is it wrong to be so skeptical?

A captain said a few words to his men during a halt. Some trenches had been lost. It was their brigade that had lost them. For the honor of the brigade, of the New Army, they must try to retake them. The men listened in silence; but their faces were set. They were content. The honor of the brigade demanded it. The captain had said so, and they trusted him.

They lay down behind a bank in a wood. Before them raged a storm. Bullets fell like hail. Shells shrieked through the air, and burst in all directions. The storm raged without any abatement. The whistle would blow, then the first platoon would advance, in extended order. Half a minute later the second would go forward, followed at the same interval by the third and fourth. A man went into hysterics, a pitiable object. His neighbor regarded him with a sort of uncomprehending wonder. He was perfectly, fatuously cool. Some- thing had stopped inside him. A whistle blew. The first platoon scrambled to their feet and advanced at the double. What happened no one could see. They disappeared. The second line followed, and the third and fourth. Surely no one could live in that hell. No one hesitated. They went forward mechanically, as men in a dream. It was so mad, so unreal. Soon they would awake…

It appeared that there was a trench at the edge of the wood. It had been unoccupied. A couple of hundred yards in front, across the open ground, was the trench which they were/ attacking. Half a dozen men found themselves alone in the open ground before the German wire. They lay down. No one was coming on. Where was everyone? They crawled cautiously back to the trench at the edge of the wood, and climbed in… The storm raged on; but the attack was over. These were what was left of two companies. All stain on the honor of the brigade had been wiped out—in blood.

There were three men in a bay of the trench. One was hit in the leg, and sat on the floor cutting away his trousers so as to apply a field dressing. One knelt down behind the parapet with a look of dumb stupor on his face. The third, a boy of about seventeen from a London slum, peered over the parapet at intervals. Suddenly he disappeared over the top. He had discovered two wounded men in a shell hole just in front, and was hoisting them into the shelter of the trench. By a miracle not one of the three was hit. A message was passed up the trench: “Hold on at all costs till relieved.” A council of war was held. Should they fire or lie low? Better lie low, and only fire in case of attack. They were safe from attack as long as the Bosches kept on firing. Someone produced a tin of meat, some biscuits, and a full water-bottle. The food was divided up, and a shell bursting just in rear covered everything with dirt and made it uneatable. The water was reserved for the wounded. The rest sucked their pebbles in stoical silence.

The survivors of 7/Rifle Brigade held these trenches for the rest of an interminable, hot day. Stretcher bearers appeared

and took away one man, an officer. The rest waited in vain. An hour passed, and no one else came. Two were mortally hit, and began to despair. They would die before help came. For Christ’s sake get some water. There was none to be had.

After night fell, the survivors limped, or crawled back to their own lines, the honor of the brigade–if not quite the line itself–restored

So, now: what is this piece, “The Honour of the Brigade?” Does it belong here, today? Is it fiction? Personal history?

Well, the author has an opinion, which he tells us rather directly:

Note.—The action described in the above article has been identified by correspondents at the front, and so it is necessary to state that although based in the main on an actual experience, features have been freely borrowed from other occasions, and the writer has no authority for placing the construction that he has on the main event.

So we have permission, essentially, to use these descriptions as historical evidence–but only loosely.

This is too modest, however. I think Hankey is refusing to vouch for his stylistic choices more than he is denying his own reliability. It doesn’t read like history, so it can’t possibly be history…  but this idea we can firmly reject, with our very superior post-modern understanding of the genre.

As for the “features,” well, we would err in using specific events in the piece as battalion history. But why would we? And what are these pieces of evidence? Hankey prefers the impressionistic style, and exact events are hard to come by. Which, again, may lead to his demurral but sounds to us, a century on, like a fairly strong recommendation: if you want to know what flank was where on the map, read the battalion history, or Doyle’s quickie, or ask Billy Congreve–but if you want to know what the terror of that confused attack was like. Well.

So it doesn’t feel like a violation of historical principle to announce that the man wounded in the leg “is”–“was,” “represents”–Hankey himself. He has written a scrupulously modest “battle piece” in order both to express “what it was like” and to praise “the spirit of the battalion.” (By all accounts they fought well, despite their failure in an impossible assault.)

Writing in propria persona, after recovering from his wound, Hankey is again unduly modest:

As a matter of fact I wasn’t much good out at the front. I grumbled horribly. I had one good asset, which was that when things became dangerous my nerves (such is my perverse nature) stood quite still. But I had no aggressive valour. The day we charged I had no frantic desire to get at ’em! The whole thing seemed so absurd, and I started off knowing quite well that I should get hit, and not minding very much. The week before we had been under very heavy shell fire and lost a good many men; but that time I knew perfectly well I should not be hit! It was very odd. I felt absolutely certain about it, and wouldn’t have minded going anywhere.

Accounts by other survivors place more emphasis on Hankey’s valor:

Corporal Hankey was splendid. He was badly wounded early in the fight, and was advised to go to a dressing station. He stuck to his post, although the serious wound in the leg must have given him great pain. While he could hold his rifle he remained, and it was only when darkness fell that he would consent to go back. Many others were wounded two or even three times before they would give in.[5]

So Hankey is now a writer who has survived a long day in s scratch trench, bleeding copiously, desperately thirsty, and keeping his head down. This is the stuff of manly virtue and grim pride in the corporate achievements of the company, the battalion, and the brigade. It’s also the stuff of a long war of attrition.


Next to the immediacy of this experience, even history of the stirring-strains variety is pale stuff. Back to Conan Doyle:

There had been three-quarters of an hour of intense bombardment before the attack, but it was not successful in breaking down the German resistance. At 2:45 P.M. the infantry advance began from the wood, all four units of the 41st Brigade taking part in it. It is difficult to imagine any greater trial for troops, since half of them had already been grievously reduced and the other half were greatly exhausted, while they were now asked to advance several hundred yards without a shadow of cover, in the face of a fire which was shaving the very grass from the ground. “The men behaved very well,” says an observer, “and the officers with a gallantry no words can adequately describe. As they came out of the woods the German machine-gun fire met them and literally swept them away, line after line. The men struggled forward, only to fall in heaps along the edge of the woods.” The Riflemen did all that men could do, but there comes a time when perseverance means annihilation. The remains of the four battalions were compelled to take shelter once more at the edge of the wood. Fifty officers out of 90 had fallen. By 4 P.M. the counter-attack had definitely failed.[6]


We have one more man, however, in the 41st brigade, and he was among those fifty officers. The Hon. Gerald William Grenfell–Julian‘s little brother Billy–led a platoon of the 8th Rifle brigade on that doomed counterattack.

Julian and Billy as pages, 1897

Julian and Billy, dressed as pages for a fancy dress ball, 1897

Billy was killed in a charge to take trenches near the Hooge crater. Leading his platoon, he attempted to cross the 250 yards of open ground under terrific machine-gun fire. He had gone 70 or 80 yards when he pitched forward dead.

So Billy is dead too, now, in his first severe action. I know of only a few of his letters, and he had no defining production like Julian’s Into Battle. It’s almost as if the deaths now are coming too quickly to be properly registered–who is Billy? Who was Billy? He was an athlete and he had been a leading light in his class; he was a handsome, popular young man. Many of their mutual, friends found Billy at once more approachable and more brilliant than Julian (others, naturally, disagreed). But I really have no place to “put” him. He’s Julian’s little brother, dead in his first assault, no more than two months into his war.

So forgive a desperate and rather maudlin connection, a weird attempt to grasp at chords of memory: Billy, like so many boys of his age, had seen and read Peter Pan.

He was a public school boy, a scion of the aristocracy, a confident and cheerful young elite. He promised to be an excellent officer as well. Earlier this month he had written that “Darling Julian is so constantly beside me, and laughs so debonairly at my qualms and hesitations. I pray for one-tenth of his courage.” He seems to have received it, and more.

As his platoon assembled in a sjallow trench, preparing to assault strong, uphill positions over an old battlefield well marked for the artillery and machine guns, he might have had a moment of pause. A moment of fear. It’s one thing to act up to the expectation of fearlessness on the playing fields, and even in the trenches. But to realize that you are about to charge into the open is to be alone. What did he feel?

Back to Peter Pan.

Peter Parker, in The Old Lie, his book on “The Great War and the Public School Ethos,” brings two scenes into play. One puts Billy Grenfell in company with Wendy, mother to the Lost Boys. Both exhort their troops as they stare into the face of death. Grenfell, before today’s charge, is reported to have said “Remember you are Englishmen. Do nothing to dishonour that name.” And Wendy, with the boys about to walk the plank:

These are my last words. Dear boys, I feel that I have a message for you from your real mothers, and it is this, “We hope our sons will die like English gentlemen.”

Close, but then again Admiral Nelson gave similar advice another century back. More striking, perhaps, than the similarity in these (reported) exhortations, are Peter Pan’s thoughts at the moment he has grown up enough to lead by sacrifice. Stranded on a rock, buying time for Wendy’s escape, he experiences his first moment of fear. And masters it, with words that–maudlin, maudlin, but what can I do–will echo through this war:

To die will be an awfully big adventure.[7]

So a children’s play seems awfully prophetic–but the juxtaposition relies heavily on an uncertain foundation. The report of Billy Grenfell’s last words is second or third hand, and I have yet to see it securely sourced. So too the description of his gallant charge, which I have taken from Viola Meynell’s book on Julian Grenfell.[8] I’m not sure that it isn’t more or less imaginary, based, in all likelihood, on the posthumous praise of brother officers, whose letters to next-of-kin tended to portray even hopeless actions as meaningfully infused with valor and dash and certainty. But, then again, there is no reason to suspect that he did not say something quite like Wendy, or think like Peter, or lead from the front and die in the commission of an act of gallantry, like his big brother.

But Billy is dead, and with him die the details, as well as the subjectivities of his experience. The writer who survives can write a waist-high pile of memoirs, while the man who is wounded–like Donald Hankey–can tell the story of that day, one way or another (or both). But–and here’s the strange perspective that this project grants–death is not only the extinguishing of a life and the beginning of new misery for those who loved the dead: it’s also an event horizon for war writing.


References and Footnotes

  1. Saunders, Ford Madox Ford, 486.
  2. Lady Under Fire, 97-8.
  3. Kissane, Without Parade, 150-2.
  4. "The Honour of the Brigade" is available here, in what must be an American edition, its honor bereft of its "u."
  5. See The Letters of Donald Hankey, available here.
  6. Conan Doyle, The British Campaign in France and Flanders, Vol. II; available here.
  7. See Parker, The Old Lie, 91.
  8. Meynell, Julian Grenfell, available here.

Lord Crawford the Removal Man; Vera Brittain, Feminist and Pacifist and Admirer of Brooke (The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke, Part VIII)

It must be fairly clear that I don’t know what to make of Private Lord Crawford. His highly unusual decision to become a lowly RAMC orderly surely represents some close approach to an ideal of service, of humble submission to the needs of the nation in wartime–and neither the somewhat whingeing tone nor the bits of real nastiness in his diary should detract from this. It was, after all, intended to be a private diary.

But I think it’s more-clear-than-usual that something else–or many other things–are lurking below the surface of his personality. He left family and business and politics and wealth to serve his nation, which is well and good. But he could have found a high-ranking military sinecure. There is just a hint here of an odd sort of escapism…

Thursday, 29 July 1915

It is said that Lord Kitchener and Sir John French have been in the town today. I did not see them–perhaps it was imagination. Spent some hours removing furniture from the apartment of three professors–their rooms were essential to the proper organisation of No. 2 and there has been a good deal of difficulty in getting them to evacuate. At last we have succeeded–we had to load up three motor lorries full of their trash, and heavy stuff too. They tipped me five francs to be divided by the four of us who carted their stuff away for them.[1]

A lord writing with strange satisfaction about being tipped by provincial French teachers is… well it’s a bit like a British lord going in for a bit of bondage and domination on the side. Thank you sir! Five francs sir! Ah, for the four of us! Merci monsieur!

It’s amusing, a story to tell–but it’s so odd. Did he keep the money? Who were those other three men? What did they think? I wish we knew…


And Vera Brittain today has upped the ante of poetic identification, once again unleashing the Brookean torrent. But this will be only the beginning of a letter which goes all the way from pretty poetry of sacrifice to horror, futility, and political engagement.

Buxton, 29 July 1915

I am sending you this afternoon the poems of your brother-spirit, Rupert Brooke. I think you will love them all, as I do; not the War Sonnets only, though they are perhaps the most beautiful.

Roland, remember, writes verse as well. No pressure: you shall love these poems… but can you match them? And will a serving soldier necessarily find them as beautiful as he might have thought them a few months before?

Vera next turns to the somewhat vexed question of her brother Edward–Roland’s erstwhile best friend, and the person who brought them together. He did not fit in well with his unit, and sought a transfer to another battalion of the Sherwood Foresters. Now, it seems, he believes that he will shortly be embarking for the front.

We have heard definitely from Edward that he is coming here to-morrow, for, I suppose, the last time…He seems to be taking his 6 days’ leave as soon as possible, so I suppose he is anxious to get it over — as indeed, I certainly am. I almost wish he could go without my seeing him again. Every time I see him I feel he is more indispensible, & it doesn’t do to feel that people are indispensible now-a-days, though I am guilty of it with regard to more than one person…

True enough. But this next bit is interesting, and characteristically perceptive. Vera risks many things when men she loves go to the front, and they risk more. But it can be hard sometimes to discover–and articulate–some of the more subtle risks and losses.

There are some things I feel about his going that I would feel about no one else’s, and which indeed no one could understand unless they had all their life been very fond of one particular brother or sister. But it is like flinging a large piece of one’s Past into Limbo, not knowing if one will ever get it back…

One consolation at any rate is that I think he realises what he is in for as well as anyone can know who has not been out there. You can picture to yourself how coolly he has studied the question of the worst horrors of war, in stories, newspaper articles, and official reports like that on the Germans in Belgium. He has also talked to several wounded hack from the Front, all of whom seem to have been of rather a depressing nature with a great horror of going back. When I spoke to him at Oxford I realised he had fully taken in all that they had told him and was ready to face
what might be…

But is this really a good thing? It is well, surely, not to expect glory and trumpets. But to fully embrace the horrors, and to come to grips with the feelings of men worn down by combat before you even set foot in France?

I think Vera knows that such assiduousness in illusion-puncturing might not be for the best. But she lets Edward slide, and takes up her own reading–and thence to larger questions:

Do you ever see the Times History of the War? There is an excellent account of the battle of Neuve Chapelle in this week’s number though I can hardly bear to read about it, for the thought that you or Edward might get mixed up in a similar barbarous and sanguinary business. It all seems so wicked too—just a pure orgy of slaughter, of terrible and impersonal death, with nothing in the purpose and certainly nothing in the result to justify the perpetration of anything so horrible.

It’s good to see this Vera back again. She has a year of Oxford and several weeks of nursing–and, more fundamentally, she has chosen freely, and chosen freely again, to leave the path that had been set out for her. And throughout the last few months she has had to be the Woman Waiting, driven to desperate anxiety by a week’s chance pause in Roland’s letters, and likely to be driven so again.

But she hasn’t stopped reading, or thinking of the larger picture, however much she slips (and catches herself slipping) into hoping that her “indispensible” loved ones can somehow find safety. She can still see her way not only to pacifism, but to the unavoidable linkage of pacifism and feminism.

War does bring to light the fundamental contradictions of human nature in a state of semi-civilization such as ours. It is quite impossible to understand how we can be such strong individualists, so insistent on ‘the rights and claims of every human soul, and yet at the same time countenance (& if we are English, even take quite calmly) this wholesale murder, which if it were applied to animals or birds or indeed anything except men would fill us with a sickness and repulsion greater than we could endure. I suppose it makes matters worse to have such thoughts, but when you think how easily that pile of disfigured dead is heaped up in a few minutes by a sharp Artillery fire, and yet what an immense and permanent difference each single unit thus shamefully cut off makes to a whole circle of individuals, you feel that if you are not mad already, the sooner you become so and lose the power to realise, the better.

It is no wonder that so many women laugh with such bitterness at the criminal folly of men. It is only because these immense catastrophes are run entirely by men that they are allowed to happen.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Private Lord Crawford, 31.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 135-6.

Old Sergeant Montague on His Great Adventure; Kipling Welcomes Henry James; Vera Brittain Charts Her Course Toward London

First, today, an amusing-and-informative letter from C.E. Montague, venerable volunteer sergeant, to his friend Allan Monkhouse:

24th (Service) Battn., Royal Fusiliers, Clipston Camp, Notts, July 28, 1915

I am a beast not to have written sooner, … but I have never been so busy in my life as during the last few weeks. I am a sergeant now, with all sorts of intricate duties and rituals to behave correctly in; and it is the sacred army tradition that you are not to be told beforehand how to perform new duties, but are to find out by committing all the possible blunders, and some that are almost impossible, in trying to do them as you would in a new-made world of your own. But it is a great adventure and I earn two bob a day…

We have nearly finished our brigade training (the second stage) here and are to move to Salisbury Plain next week for the divisional, or final, stage, after which we are told that we may hope to go out either to Flanders or the Dardanelles. It is a good healthy life here, with about 18 miles marching and three or four hours manoeuvring or drilling on most days, and it is a wild joy to get away from parade-ground niceties to the freer movement of field-days in big hilly heather, where one can get into more human relations with one’s little commando, who are all charming curiosities.[1]


From our oldest writing ranker to a matter of two larger literary lights. (This is of ancillary interest, I admit, but I want us to keep an eye on Kipling, as he will be moving shortly.)

Rudyard Kipling had written apologetically last week to Henry James, in order to smooth over a misunderstanding about his inability to write something for an anthology aimed at stimulating American sentiment in favor of the allies. The (nominally) secret reason that the fecund Kipling can’t produce something is that he will shortly head to France as a correspondent. Today, however, he wrote to James with hearty congratulations.

Brown’s Hotel, London, W. July 28, 1915

We couldn’t love or admire you more than we’ve done all these years but today’s news in The Times makes us all very proud.

This would be the news that Henry James had taken British citizenship, presumably in order to deepen the perplexity of later generations of students of English Literature.

You don’t know what it means or what it will go on to mean not to the Empire alone but to all the world-of civilization that you’ve thrown in your lot with them.

Ever affectionately,



And finally, today, a letter from Vera Brittain to Roland Leighton. Her nursing career advances:

Buxton, 28 July 1915

I am hoping that you will get an early chance of leave for convenience sake as well as for all the other things too, as I really don’t know what I may be doing in the fairly near future… This present Hospital is of course only a temporary affair—though the temporariness may be either long or short according as things turn out. It is not really a Military Hospital, but a civilian Hospital with a military side; it affords however a very satisfactory combination of usefulness to other people with training for myself while I am seeing about other things to do. I am at present very necessary where I am but they expect to be much slacker after the autumn has begun–of course the Hospitals are everywhere but an overflow Hospital more so than most…

I heard a day or two ago that there is a faint chance of my getting into a large London Hospital as a V.A.D. The Hospital is an immense place at Camberwell (No I. London General); it has been established I think since the beginning of the War but has recently been greatly extended & contains over a thousand beds. They have to make a necessary increase in the nursing staff & want more V.A.Ds…

I should love to go there as they get all the wounded straight from the trenches and the V.A.Ds have all the
minor dressing to do. Fully trained nurses are rather scarce just now, and it is counted that two V.A.Ds take the place of one trained nurse (though I don’t think they do really, I had no idea what a capable person a trained nurse was till I went to the Hospital)…[3]

Thus begins Vera’s journey toward becoming a V.A.D.–a member of a Voluntary Aid Detachment. Although the V.A.D. had existed before the war as an outlet for the Edwardian enthusiasm for volunteer work, it had swiftly become the rough feminine equivalent of the volunteer military units that formed in the immediate aftermath of the declaration of war. The ranks of the V.A.D.s are now swelling, and providing a huge corps of second-line nurses. These women lack full training, and as such never receiving the rank or privileges of pre-war nurses–which makes some sense, given that half-trained medical personnel seem somehow more frightening than the half-trained soldiers they will be ministering too. And yet the best men of Kitchener’s Army were absorbed into the upper ranks of the Regular Army without much prejudice attaching to their status, at least for the duration… The doors, for women, opened more slowly and less completely.

Interestingly, Vera Brittain’s diary entry for today is more about the current experience of nursing than her professional future:

Nursing seemed rather lighter altogether to-day. I seemed to get things done quicker. I also began to feel less antipathy to Smith, the man in 5, who has had his great shaggy moustache shaved off, and now looks quite a young man (which he is, only 27) and one who would be very good-looking if he were well. I feel sorry for him now in spite of his incessant ingratitude & grumbling; after all one doesn’t know what he may have been through. I helped Nurse Olive to wash him again to-night.[4]

No, one doesn’t know. And one strains to find out…


References and Footnotes

  1. Elton, C. E. Montague, 113.
  2. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 308-9.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 134-5.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 225.

Patrick Shaw-Stewart is on the Staff and Alan Seeger is on Parade; Edward Thomas Knows What He Is Fighting For

We’ll hear from Eleanor Farjeon is just a moment, but first we check in briefly with Patrick Shaw-Stewart, in Gallipoli, and Alan Seeger, with the evolving Legion in Eastern France.

Shaw-Stewart finds himself, much like Roland Leighton, pulled into the orbit of the staff. He too is a conspicuously clever volunteer, but he is older and highly connected as well. For the moment he is happy to avoid the difficult choice between camaraderie and safety, between the old battalion and the red badges of the staff:

Of course there are obvious reasons against leaving one’s regiment, especially when it contains jolly people like Charles (who is back again after being particularly gallantly wounded for the second time), and Oc, but on the whole I am quite prepared to be passive in the matter, and do what the Corps tells me. So for the moment here I am in inglorious safety on the gilded Staff (“acting G.S.O. III.,” which ought to be paid at the rate of £400 a year), and speaking French for dear life.[1]


And Alan Seeger finds himself in limbo, today:

July 27

Pleasant days here in the rear. Morning and afternoon we generally have exercises, marches militaires, and reviews. But there is always plenty of time on each side of the morning and evening meal to rest, read, or loaf…

The country people here are interesting and agreeable. Next door I sometimes speak with the old man whom one usually finds walking up and down in his yard alone after dark. His son disappeared in the forest of Apremont in October, and has never been heard of since. It was his only son; the daughter showed me one day the photograph of her brother, a fine-looking young fellow, a corporal in one of the Belfort regiments that marched into Alsace at the beginning of the war. It is one of the thousands of similar tragedies with which France is filled these days…

Mean while our plans are completely unknown to us and to the commandement, too, probably. There is a rumor that we shall be here till the 10th of August. Quién sabe?

Who indeed. We’ll come back to Seeger in about a week, but while we’re with him today I want to glance ahead to a divisional parade in order to contrast his reaction to North African military music with Lady Feilding‘s:

Passed a splendid review the day before yesterday at Chaux-la-Chapelle…  The whole Legion was there, and we drew up in a large rectangular field, the woods on one side and a beautiful view of the near mountains at the end. Here we were joined by the rest of the division, two regiments of Tirailleurs Algériens. They filed in behind their music–the famous nouba–whose effect was most novel and émotionnant, an alternation of clairons and a number of curious wood-wind instruments, supported by bass and treble drums…[2]


And Edward Thomas was back on regular duty today, a century back. But he is still billeted on his parents and allowed a lunch break–the better sort of London regiment still does some things at a peace-time pace, apparently. Eleanor Farjeon wrote of their meeting today, and she also found occasion[3] to report Thomas’s pithiest (I won’t stoop to “earthiest”) explanation of his motivations.

So on Tuesday July 27th I lunched for the first time with Edward in uniform…  [later] I asked him the question his friends had asked him when he joined up, but I put it differently. ‘Do you know what you are fighting for?’ He stopped, and picked up a pinch of earth. ‘Literally, for this.’ He crumbled it between finger and thumb, and let it fall.[4]

This quote is inescapable–no writer on Thomas can resist it. Nor should we, as there can hardly be a more trustworthy pair of second hands than Farjeon’s. Literally for English earth. This is at once a simple, powerful, quotable statement and a small mystery. What does it really mean? A naturalist’s patriotism? An intellectual’s reversion to mystic sympathy? I don’t know.

And as for Thomas’s friendships… it hardly seems fair that far-off Robert Frost gets a long, heart-felt letter, while the ever-loyal, ever-helpful Eleanor Farjeon gets only a pinch of dust and a koan…


References and Footnotes

  1. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 143-4.
  2. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 137-40.
  3. Albeit in flash-forward to a country walk yet to take place.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 154.

Edward Thomas is On His Feet; Donald Hankey Turns Propagandist

Edward Thomas returned from sick leave today, a century back. He is back up on his feet–his injured ankle once again strong enough for drill–and so he will lay down his pen. The artist will have to mind his rifle for the foreseeable future…[1]


Donald Hankey is headed to the same place, but in another direction: he has some weeks experience of the trenches now, and has learned that he will likely be sent on an officer’s course and then resume the status he had voluntarily laid down when the war began. And, perhaps due to this coming elevation, he has begun writing again–short, newspaper-worthy essays.

He has not yet begun The Beloved Captain, but he has finished a rather odd bit of hack sociology which will shortly be published under the title “The Cockney Warrior.” It’s quick-and-dirty compare/contrast time!

When war broke out the public-school man applied for his commission in the firm conviction that war was a glorified form of big-game hunting—the highest form of sport. His whole training, the traditions of his kind, had prepared him for that hour. From his earliest school days he had been taught that it was the mark of a gentleman to welcome danger, and to regard the risk of death as the most piquant sauce to life. At school he had learnt, too, to sleep on a hard bed, to endure plenty of fresh air, and a cold bath on even the coldest mornings…

So far so good, and Hankey, though at the moment a humble lance-jack, knows whereof he speaks. He was a Public School boy himself, and a Sandhurst-trained officer, once. And to give him credit, he doesn’t shy away from the more Grenfellite leanings of this thinly-drawn type:[2]

While in his holidays the joys of shooting and fishing, and perhaps even hunting, had accustomed him to the idea of taking life, so that if the odds were even, it would even be a recognized form of sport to hunt, and to be hunted by, his fellow man.

So that’s the officer. And the men?

We who knew him had no doubt about the public-school boy; and when we read of his spirit, his courage, his smiling contempt of death, we told ourselves with pride that we knew it would be so with him. But with the Cockney it was different.

Hankey is serving in a London-recruited unit–one of the K1 battalions of the Rifle Brigade–but he also knows the working class men of London from his days as a home front missionary. So, again, he knows whereof he speaks–which in no way precludes condescension.

Well, he surprised us all, as we have said, and has given to the world the amazing picture of a soldier who is infinitely brave without vindictiveness, terrible without hate, all-enduring and yet remaining his simple, kindly, jaunty self. For the Cockney warrior does not hate the Hun. Often and often you will hear him tell his mate that “the Bosches is just like us, they wants to get ‘ome as much as we do; but they can’t ‘elp theirselves.” At times he has regretful suspicions of the humanity of the Prussians and Bavarians…

Caught up from his civilian life by a wave of tremendous enthusiasm that completely overwhelmed his emotional nature, he found himself swimming in a mighty current, the plaything of forces he could neither understand nor control. But in splendid faith in the righteousness of those forces he is content to give up his will completely, and by swimming his best to do his bit to help them to attain their appointed end…

Cor blimey, ‘ee sounds like a bloomin’ useful sor’ o’ bloke! Perhaps Dick van Dyke can play him in the movie.

The Cockney’s sacrifice of his personality is for all practical purposes complete, and sublimely heroic. He only makes one reservation—the right so dear to all Englishmen—the right to grumble.

Cute. But strangely tone-deaf. It seems just possible that the problem is that Hankey hasn’t realized that the middle and upper classes don’t need to imagine some jolly urban Dickens types into the “New” Army–they just need to adjust the old Kipling stereotype and–ignoring all fussy issues of military prestige and seniority–admit these slum-land volunteers into a nobler/kinder/gentler re-imagining of old Tommy Atkins, the down and outer who nonetheless sticks to his post under the brave leadership of the officer class.

It’s odd to concede that the urban poor are whiny and clueless (?!) and then point out that they are heroes even though they grumble. Would it not have made more sense to suggest that the despised poor have joined the ranks of the despised professional soldiery–who have always grumbled–and therefore that the necessary adjustment in middle class attitude is simply to remember that they are now heroes because they volunteered for noble reasons?

Kipling had already pointed out that the Tommies are smoothed out into a “‘Thin red line of ‘eroes’ when the drums begin to roll.” So why put down the cocknies of the New Army before elevating them in the same way?

Hankey’s biographer James Kissane puts it well: “It is as if England’s chivalry remains unquestionably intact, but its yeomanry–whose long bows and stout hearts won Agincourt–have apparently dwindled into a crowd of good-natured, self-indulgent oafs.”[3]

Anyway. Hankey recognizes the thinness of this piece. He seems to have been writing straight to the perceived desires of the editors, getting his foot in the door, perhaps, and hoping subtlety can return once he has a regular gig.

Stop Press. Parcel labelled “Fresh fruit” just arrived. Thanks awfully.

July 26, 1915

Dear Dorothy,

“The Cockney Warrior” was a piece of blatant war journalism! I don’t know how far I believe in it. I don’t think we any of us love war; but we get on and do whatever has to be done because one is in it and has no real choice in the matter. We would most of us rather be anywhere than where we are; but, on the other hand, I don’t think that under the circs, any of us would care to be back in England, unless we were wounded and couldn’t help it. We have just got some fresh fellows out from England, which makes a pleasant variety. Now I must stop and write one or two other letters.

Yours ever,


P. S. Cakes, oranges, lemons and socks just arrived. Thanks ever so. The well has run dry!

Well, so–he’s written what he thinks will be published, and then written that he thinks differently. He remains upbeat, of course, in writing to cousin Dorothy–but he doesn’t conceal that he feels trapped. It’s all well here and thanks for the socks–but I’m not sure why I’m here, I don’t want to be here, and the only way out is a blighty one. Either way, Hankey has a great deal more to write. And, very shortly, to experience.


References and Footnotes

  1. Hollis, Now All Roads, 242.
  2. And I, of course, have been trafficking in the same stereotypes--it's just a little different, I would submit, when the generalization is adduced in part to contextualize a particular...
  3. Kissane, Without Parade, 147.

Wilfred Owen on The Only Way Left Open to Him; The Royal Welch Take an Eye for an Eye; Lord Crawford Suffers a New Nurse; Another Bomb from Edward Hermon

I haven’t made much use lately of Dr. Dunn’s history of the 2/Royal Welch, mostly because Frank Richards‘s memoirs are in a long stretch of difficult-to-date anecdotes and our other prominent Royal Welch have yet to join the battalion. But today he provides a good reminder of the rather staunch position of this battalion on the aggressive control of the line/live and let live spectrum:

Both sides were burning or cutting the grass in front of their wire to prevent hostile patrols coming too close unseen. On the second night–July 25th–our grass-cutters were fired on, one man being killed. True to the C.O.’s doctrine of an eye, or two, for an eye, retaliation was called for… for the next two nights German working-parties were fired on…[1]


Also doing a lousy job of living and letting live are the men and women of one particular Casualty Clear Station. Or, really, one man and one woman, the rather Dickensian pairing of Private Lord Crawford, the veiled aristocrat, and Sister Alexander, one enormously tough old Scottish nurse. Her nickname in the unit, we are told, is “Bully Beef,” after the tins of famously chewy ration meat.

Saturday, 24 July 1915

…Alas how I groan under the domination of my own very own old woman–Alexander by name. She hails I fancy from Scotland, just over the border. She is full of virtues and on the whole knows her work pretty well. She worries the surgeon and bullies the orderly, all with a smiling countenance. She is rather deaf. Covetousness is her failing–or perhaps an inordinate acquisitiveness. Nothing in the ward is safe from her clutches. She pinches all she can see–for the benefit of the theatre, and now Dawson pinches from us for the benefit of No. 1. The pincher pinched. At times, I permit myself a dim smile.[2]


Edward Hermon is leaving Bomb School and returning to his battalion. But mere hours after he relinquished command there was another horrible accident, in which a man armed and detonated a bomb when his instructor wasn’t looking.

It killed him instantly, blowing off both arms and head, another man of the squad died as soon as he got to the Field Ambulance & a third last night…

Fellows are such fools & will mess with things.

He follows with two anecdotes–probably second or third hand–of gunners tinkering–and even playing football with–unexploded shells. With predictable results.[3]


Finally, today, Wilfred Owen wrote a letter to his good friend, cousin, and fellow aspiring poet Leslie Gunston–which we’ll get to in a moment. Only two days ago Owen had told his mother–at some length–that he had “no news and shall have none, as I hope, before the end of next week.”

He still plans to return to England–eventually–and it seems as if his intention is still fixed on the Artists’ Rifles. (Edward Thomas is unknown to Owen and, of course, vice versa, but they have both targeted the same “gentleman’s” unit for its de facto role as a wartime OCS–Thomas is settling, more or less, while for Owen the “Artists” fit his aspirational class identity perhaps better than his current circumstances).

So, soon the war. But Owen was still not in a particularly focused mood:

I want to visit the battlefield of Castillon, where in 1453 Talbot Earl of Shrewsbury suffered the defeat which lost Guienne and Bordeaux to the English for ever. I can’t understand it, but this battlefield will interest me as much as the field of the Marne;—and I am reading a tale of the Punic Wars with more interest than the
Communiqués. There is only one cure for me! I am already quaking at the idea of Parade; and yawning with the boredom of it. Now if I could make it a real, live adventure…

It’s a good thing Owen writes to others as well, for it is hard to tell, when he writes to his mother, just how much of his manic joie de vivre is a pose. Most of it, surely. Although there is surely something to his poetical/antiquarian aspirations, it’s a bit silly to make so much of this supposedly historical manifestation of a very reluctant interest in things military… Owen is reading the papers, and his London trip showed him how real the current war was, even in England.

Today’s letter to Gunston–who had written to Owen about taking an architecture exam at Oxford–shows Owen’s actual state of mind a bit more clearly.

25 July 1915 Bordeaux
My dear Leslie,

I had waited in double-daily expectation of your lines…

Couldn’t you divine why ‘Oxford’ is a banned word with me. Because it is one of my most terrible regrets. I ought to be there, not fuddling among the Vines. I ought to have been there, rather…

You say you ‘hear of wars and rumours of wars’. Vous en êtes là seulement? [Are you the only one?] You hear Rumours? The rumours, over here, make the ears of the gunners bleed…  now I don’t imagine that the German War will be affected by my joining in, but I know my own future Peace will be. I wonder that you don’t ply me with this argument: that Keats remained absolutely indifferent to Waterloo and all that commotion.

Well, I have passed a year of fine-contemptuous nonchalance: but having now some increase of physical strength I feel proportionately useful and proportionately lacking in sense if I don’t use it in the best way—The Only Way…

I thank God for the intercourse you and I have set up between us. I should be a sadder soul if you ‘were not’, or were other than you are…  There is no mere entente-cordiale between us. There is a blood-alliance. If you object to anything in me you will shout at me like a brother…

I have read The Prisoner of Zenda–mediocre! At present I am deciphering a monument of French literature Flaubert’s Salammbo: not that it is difficult reading, but every syllable deserves attention. Flaubert has my vote for novel-writing!

Farewell, fare-very-well-indeed.

Your affectionate Wilfred[4]

This is more than a little revealing. Wilfred Owen is still determined to pose poetically, but he is also willing to admit that his principles and high sense of self-worth (his sense of his own, as-yet-unrealized poetic destiny, that is) have come to seem inevitably bound up in the great experience of his times.

This is, in a way, the carefree young man’s version of what some of our older writers–Edward Thomas not least–have wrestled with over the past nearly-a-year. There is no eagerness to “serve” or to “fight,” and the arguments of principled pacifism, or family responsibility, or historical/poetical aloofness have come to seem not so much wrong (they are, in fact, as right as ever) as irrelevant beside the war viewed from a personal perspective. It is the only thing to do, the only place to be…

It’s a little silly to emphasize this, but (Owen is a little silly, still, so): it’s a big deal for this young man to admit that the “physical” pull of the war is tugging him out of Keats’s orbit. He need not point out the obvious: that few of Keats’s friends and relationships up and joined the (small) British army that defeated Napoleon. Wilfred will need a new idol, eventually.


References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 137.
  2. Private Lord Crawford 29-30.
  3. For Love and Courage, 72.
  4. Collected Letters, 348-50.

Vera Brittain and Dorothie Feilding Are Both Best Pleased with Their Boys on the Staff; Raymond Asquith Goes for a Grenadier; Tolkien the Fusilier Returns to His Mariner

Raymond Asquith wrote a letter to Conrad Russell today, a century back. Most of it discusses society news, specifically the surprise engagement of Venetia Stanley and Edwin Montagu–surprising not least because Stanley had been until recently the (chaste) paramour of his father, the prime minister.  Ah well! Then he springs a surprise:

I have been in camp here for three months, not getting much forwarder, so far as I can judge, either in military efficiency or in prospects of foreign service. So I am now exchanging into the Grenadier Guards, which may sound to you a queer thing to do for a middle-aged middle-class chap like me. But a good many men of my kidney are doing the same thing. It seems to be about the only way of getting properly trained and decently treated by the W[ar]. O[ffice]. and certainly provides the best (and last) chance one is likely to have of being killed on a fairly warm day. I fancy the Huns will be stiff before Xmas don’t you?[1]

This is slightly tongue in cheek (the “middle-aged middle class” bit, I mean, the last few lines being even cheekier). But not that much, actually: Asquith is a great wit–the, er, soul of the “coterie”–and we can trust to the precision of his jokes. He’s thirty-seven, and just about as middle aged as he is middle class.

He is wealthy, well-positioned, fluent in the best society, the son of the sitting Prime Minister… is that really the middle class? Well… yes. He’s at the tip-top of it, perhaps, but in the Grenadier Guards he will be a man with a job and a short family history, and many of his brother officers will bear titles and/or five-century pedigrees and live entirely off of their estates.

And he’s right: exchanging into one of the Guards regiments, which have mostly resisted expansion and thus can lay a real claim (as opposed to the untested prewar claim deriving from their “prestige”) to being more efficient than other units, is his only chance now to get himself killed before the weather turns.


A sweeter relief, today, for Vera Brittain. A card is one thing, but what could be better than a letter “long and intimate?”

I received the long & intimate letter from Roland which I so much desired & also another little one besides. Both came by the same post first thing this morning, but I had no time to read them until 2.0. This has happened more than once & is very tantalising, though I rather like it in one way. Having an unopened letter of his in my pocket gives me the same sort of stirred-up anticipatory feeling that I get before meeting a person I care for greatly & haven’t seen for a long time, or an exam., or an occasion like Speech Day.

Just after lunch I opened them both. ‘‘I have just been reading your first letters over again. There is so much in them that I read & then forget–so much both written & unwritten. Mother was very right (she usually is in those sort of things) when she said that you would be able to write the best possible love-letters. Your letters to me are like an interrupted conversation; and I remember afterwards in odd moments what you said, and wonder sometimes if you get tired of talking to a phantom in the void who does not answer or show that he has understood.”

On this day (18th) they were back at the mining village of Burbure, though they were further south a few days ago at the junction of the French & British lines…

The next part of the letter was not written until the 21st. On that same Monday night that he mentioned in the last paragraph he was wakened at 1.30 in the morning by an orderly with a note from headquarters ordering him to pack up all his things and take a party of 50 men off to report to the Headquarters of the VIIth Army…

I don’t know quite what the Staff appointment means–perhaps it is that they have discovered how intelligent he is. I wish they would keep him there till the end of the war; and for himself, capable as he is at anything, military science would just suit him, and it seems a pity to run the risk of wasting a brain like his on the dirty work.

Ah–the first we’ve heard in quite some time of this argument. Intellectual brilliance should save a man from the trenches! I had presumed it subsumed: too much good sense, whatever the remaining prejudices of Vera’s provincial young-ladyhood and the inevitable snobbery of the young bright college striver. Or, if not entirely subsumed, then more recently worn away by the rigors of nursing… isn’t she herself abandoning her brilliant intellect for the emotional immediacy and physical drudgery of probationer nursing? But no–if only Roland could be rescued!

So what should we conclude? That Vera is willing to claim a higher right to life for the cleverest officers because they are superior to the mere men she is even now coming to care for in sickness and death, or that a few months of loving a man in the trenches–and the recent long-letterless ordeal–has weakened any reasoned resolve to apply her general social and philosophic principles to one specific Beloved.

Time will tell! But… it’s the latter, of course. There are no atheists in foxholes… and perhaps we can say (with the same metaphorical inexactitude) that there are no socialists among the women waiting for the desired letter or the feared telegram.

War is hard–in the trenches and in the hospitals. And hope is needed.

I had another strenuous night to-night. I heard that Dr Sawdon said Johnson would never be able to walk again (though he does not know this yet)…

I felt dreadfully depressed by this; his desire to make efforts to walk is so pathetic. I do hope there may be some faint chance for him still.[2]


And, well, here’s a transition, from the true middle class to the aristocracy, and a sea change in temperament as well. Yet their positions are in many respects quite similar. Anyway. Without further ado, quite a cocktail from Lady Feilding today: some casual racism/orientalism, some freelancing military research, and then the universal joy of family reunions, even in the worst of times.

July 24th

Father dear–

I have at last found news for you about your anti-aircraft guns. The ones you mention have done very well indeed & been a great success. Their only fault was the range the ammunition had. Their present shell fuse only lasted 2,000 yds so were very apt to burst prematurely, but now a new lot with 8,000yd fuses have been served out to them…

The crews are A1 men & the various invention of Osbaston’s a great success. I hope this will interest you & am sorry to be so long answering your questions about it.

After discussing stories of her father’s service in Alexandria, she moves on to sensitively discuss the cultural contributions of French colonial troops in Belgium. Egypt, Algeria–pretty close! We’ll soon hear a different appraisal of the Algerian regimental bands.

I’d give a lot to hear Alouette, there [are] some Algerian troops just rolled up here & with the rippingest regimental band. All sorts of snake charmers instruments & tomtoms & weird things. It’s rather like marching to a fat old lady being pinched at regular intervals till she squeaks who also is being walked just fast enough to make her wheeze.

If they attack with the band they ought to do great things & terrify the enemy to a suitable state of pulp before leaving their trench.

Much love mon cher monsieur Da

Such a big hug – Diddles

Just after writing this letter, Dorothie made good use of her connections and took impromptu leave to hitch a ride with an artillery Major to the southern portions of the British line. There she was able to see both of her brothers in the army (a third is in the navy).

Hurrah hurrah

I saw Tubby & Peter… both as fit as fleas I am mad with joy at Tubby getting that staff job.

Ah, so there’s the connection to Vera Brittain that I’ve been plumping for. Who could blame anyone for being “mad with joy” to see a man they love pulled back from the front line trenches?

Lady Feilding will expand on this description in a letter to her mother–and it gives a fairly strong sense of the lengths to which an officer might go to please a young Lady:

I want to tell you about my day with the boys. Major Lumsden, the kind man, sent his car all the way up here for me & sent me back at night. Also went to endless trouble collecting the 2 boys for lunch & the afternoon & hacking them down to their lines, Rollo smothered in swanking staff bands & full of bounce & looking too well for words. Honestly really & thoroughly well & in great spirits. Peter too with hardly a scab left & full of smiles. We pottered about all the afternoon & Lumsden took us all to see the big Coventry 15 inch Howitzers he is in charge of…Yr loving DoDo[3]

A nice day out with her endangered brothers, and who can blame her? But less well connected officers must wait their turn for leave, and regular British nurses cannot take random afternoons off… As for enlisted men, they are generally kept within walking distant of base even when in reserve, and only see a few days of leave a year…


A final note, today: John Ronald Tolkien found time amidst his training to finish and date The Happy Mariners, a poem which we discussed when he began it.


References and Footnotes

  1. Life and Letters, 202-3.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 223-4.
  3. Lady Under Fire, 94-6.

Edward Thomas Pens an Unlikely Vision of Splendor; Donald Hankey’s Beloved Captain; Bombs and Games With Rowland Feilding; Roland Leighton on Tears and Desire

Edward Thomas is still writing–another war poem today, a century back.
Out of the wood of thoughts that grows by night
To be cut down by the sharp axe of light,—
Out of the night, two cocks together crow,
Cleaving the darkness with a silver blow:
And bright before my eyes twin trumpeters stand,
Heralds of splendour, one at either hand,
Each facing each as in a coat of arms:
The milkers lace their boots up at the farms.

This is “Cock-crow,” a splendidly condensed poem of preparation. We have the poet–and soldier–in the long watches of the night, the glories of chivalry-inflected combat and the splendid antagonisms of nature… and then that curious last line. Less is more, sometimes, and critics love the gnarled and the ambiguous.

“At one level,” Edna Longley writes, “Cock-Crow reviews the process that has led to his enlistment.” It does–but it’s about as forthcoming as his letters. And it is also an homage–the cock crows in many poems, including Hardy‘s Men Who March Away–and a bit of a misdirection. This, after all, is the vision of a man startled from sleep. Thomas, awake and sharpening his pen, would never be the herald-envisioning sort. Coleridge a century on would need to lace his boots up and get to work…

So if it is not really in the heroic tradition, is “Cock-Crow” then a polished lump of Modern gold? Donald Davie found the poem to be a “small impersonal masterpiece,” with all the “‘hardness’ and ‘dryness’ that T.E. Hulme had asked for, but this seems to be belied by the last line. It’s a hammer blow, alright–the concluding, (too-)perfect pentameter–but one delivered by a subtler sort of craftsman.

Longley wisely reserves judgment, describing the “rhythmic momentum to which the last line may be climax, anti-climax, or reality-check.” It’s all three, but especially the last two. As Longley also notes, “this is the first poem of Thomas’s to feature a martial call.” Again, yes:  but that call is allowed to die away even before the short poem has reached its end. The hammer blow glances off, the vision fades.[1]

Thomas laces up his boots–gingerly–to return to drill, and the milkers go on about their work. But the daily life of the farm isn’t merely a “reality check”–it’s a remembrance of what he has turned away from, what he has given up. He wanted the farm, he longed for that life, but he knew it wasn’t in him. We must think of the soldier’s boots instead, and the milker’s boots do not stand for the “simple life” or “England,” but rather the life Thomas left behind when he went for a soldier.

There will be marching away, now, for Thomas–his ankle is mending, again–and no milking. This is the last poem he will write for quite some time.


Donald Hankey is a member of K1, the “First Hundred Thousand” volunteers to answer Lord Kitchener’s call. His battalion, 7/Rifle Brigade, has been gradually introduced to combat–a sensible policy. But there are no safe spots on the line. The battalion is part of the 14th Division, which has just been swapped into the line at Hooge, in the southern Ypres salient.

This is a familiar spot: after the explosion of a huge (for this stage of the war, at least) men of the 4/Middlesex–a battalion in Billy Congreve‘s 3rd Division–had seized elevated positions around the crater, and the 3rd was rotated to rest. So the New Army men of the 14th Division are now not only being trusted to hold the line, but to hold an active segment, where there is a high likelihood of a German counter-attack.

There was none today, but a more quotidian horror took its toll. Billy Congreve has experienced the large German trench mortar known as the Minenwerfer; which lobbed a missile so large that it was often referred to as an “Aerial torpedo.” Now it was the Rifle Brigade’s turn. Corporal Hankey of C company was unscathed. But D company took the brunt.

This had been Hankey’s original company, in which a man named Ronald Hardy had been his first platoon commander. Hankey was no schoolboy–he was thirty, had himself been an officer, and was shortly promoted sergeant–but he idolized the “Beloved Captain” from the first.

He came in the early days, when we were still at recruit drills under the hot September sun. Tall, erect, smiling: so we first saw him, and so he remained to the end.

And the end came today, a century back:

There was not one of us but would gladly have died for him. We longed for the chance to show him that. We weren’t heroes. We never dreamed about the V.C. But to save the captain we would have earned it ten times over, and never have cared a button whether we got it or not. We never got the chance, worse luck. It was all the other way.

We were holding some trenches which were about as unhealthy as trenches could be. The Bosches were only a few yards away, and were well supplied with trench mortars. We hadn’t got any at that time. Bombs and air torpedoes were dropping round us all day. Of course the captain was there. It seemed as if he could not keep away. A torpedo fell into the trench, and buried some of our chaps. The fellows next to them ran to dig them out. Of course he was one of the first. Then came another torpedo in the same place. That was the end.

Hankey will soon sit down to write the essay “The Beloved Captain,” from which this description was taken. It is very much worth reading, for two reasons: as a writer’s unjaundiced–and, indeed, frankly idealized–depiction of excellent small-unit leadership, and also for its insight into Donald Hankey, who does not fit very easily into our categories–neither blithe Public School boy (though he was, at Rugby) nor laboring enlisted man (though he had chosen that too); neither happy warrior nor incipient disenchantee.

Coming from a very young man from the lower reaches of Britain’s still-solid class system, this might provoke something like cringing resentment and doubt:

Somehow, gentle though he was, he was never familiar. He had a kind of innate nobility which marked him out as above us. He was not democratic. He was rather the justification for aristocracy. We all knew instinctively that he was our superior—a man of finer temper than ourselves, a “toff” in his own right. I suppose that that was why he could be so humble without loss of dignity. For he was humble too, if that is the right word, and I think it is. No trouble of ours was too small for him to attend to. When we started route marches, for instance, and our feet were blistered and sore, as they often were at first, you would have thought that they were his own feet from the trouble he took.

This is idolizing, if not idolatry, and strange in the mouth of a man from the same class, masquerading in a sergeant’s faux homespun. But it’s not all about class. The practical military matter of keeping feet healthy takes–and not nearly for the last time, here–now takes a religious turn. Hankey is a religious man, and intends to minister to the poor after the war, but even many casual Christians found that foot inspections provoked a remembrance of the gospels. Hankey works slowly around to it:

Of course after the march there was always an inspection of feet. That is the routine. But with him it was no mere routine. He came into our rooms, and if anyone had a sore foot he would kneel down on the floor and look at it as carefully as if he had been a doctor. Then he would prescribe, and the remedies were ready at hand, being borne by the sergeant. If a blister had to be lanced he would very likely lance it himself there and then, so as to make sure that it was done with a clean needle and that no dirt was allowed to get in. There was no affectation about this, no striving after effect. It was simply that he felt that our feet were pretty important, and that he knew that we were pretty careless. So he thought it best at the start to see to the matter himself. Nevertheless, there was in our eyes something almost religious about this care for our feet. It seemed to have a touch of the Christ about it, and we loved and honored him the more.

So: the natural aristocrat’s claim to lesser men’s allegiance, and Christ-like humility and concern. To this potent mix is added another familiar ingredient, namely the swaggering charisma of the prefect or team captain:

He had a smile for almost everyone; but we thought that he had a different smile for us. We looked for it, and were never disappointed. On parade, as long as we were trying, his smile encouraged us. Off parade, if we passed him and saluted, his eyes looked straight into our own, and his smile greeted us. It was a wonderful thing, that smile of his. It was something worth living for, and worth working for.

So much so that when Hardy was promoted and replaced by a martinet, Hankey insisted on transferring as well. He was not permitted to go with his beloved captain, but since he would not serve in the same place under a lesser leader, he moved to a different platoon and gave up his sergeant’s stripes. (He has since been promoted corporal, and now suspects that he will soon be sent back to England to take up his old rank and class identity.)

So Hankey was not in the same company when the inevitable happened.

We knew that we should lose him. For one thing, we knew that he would be promoted. It was our great hope that some day he would command the company. Also we knew that he would be killed. He was so amazingly unself-conscious. For that reason we knew that he would be absolutely fearless. He would be so keen on the job in hand, and so anxious for his men, that he would forget about his own danger. So it proved. He was a captain when we went out to the front. Whenever there was a tiresome job to be done, he was there in charge. If ever there were a moment of danger, he was on the spot.

So the Beloved Captain was killed today, acting as a brave and good captain should. It was only a routine bombardment, but it was deadly enough. Is it a total waste?

But he lives. Somehow he lives. And we who knew him do not forget. We feel his eyes on us. We still work for that wonderful smile of his. There are not many of the old lot left now; but I think that those who went West have seen him. When they got to the other side I think they were met. Someone said: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” And as they knelt before that gracious pierced Figure, I reckon they saw nearby the captain’s smile. Anyway, in that faith let me die, if death should come my way; and so, I think, shall I die content.[2]

The Beloved Captain seems to move, in death, from idolization almost to idolatry–can a (presumably) Protestant Captain (and a man whose job requires him not only to take loving care o fhis own men but to direct the killing of others) be a saint? Well. But this is, I think, a good reminder of a foreground fact of Christianity that can be easy for the non-devout or secular to overlook: God became a man.

Perhaps this theological literalism is a bit unfair to Hankey. The fulsome Victorianism of the prose–he is, after all, eulogizing a brave officer, not writing a theological tract–begins to obscure his point. This man was not a saint, but he was a brilliant leader of men, and he inspired in his men the desire for greater efforts. Efforts that will bring them in better stead to the pierced Figure on “the other side?” Well… that’s not for me to say. But it will make them better soldiers.

But then again this is not the sort of battlefield that will be carried by elan, by the spirited charge of men who will not disappoint the brave man who leads them. It’s a war of attrition, and artillery is not lightning: it strikes, as well as it can, in the same place, again and again. He who rushes into danger runs the greatest risk of the second salvo.


Roland is at last in receipt of Vera‘s anguished missive:

Vllth Corps Headquarters, France, 23 July 1915
I am so very sorry to have made you anxious about me, but I hope you have got a letter by now.

Alas no. Tomorrow!

The difficulty is not so much to find time to write as to get letters sent off. When we are on the move as we have been so much lately the postal service is temporarily stopped and we cannot either send or receive any letters for perhaps a week. Hinc illae lacrimae

Very nice: “Hence these tears.” This was already proverbial under Augustus–an old cliché. But the original context (in one of Terence’s comedies) is funerary.

Our bright boy is now in demand:

My C.O. came round yesterday and wanted to have me back again with the Battalion. The Camp Commandant wants to keep me here. So I at present don’t quite know what is going to happen. I prefer this to wandering over France doing nothing particular, but on the other hand don’t want to miss any real fighting.[3]


Finally today, a brief note from Rowland Feilding. I would be remiss if I failed to note yet another accident…

July 23, 1915. Bethune

Yesterday was a bad day here in Bethune. In the morning, at bombing practice, one of our officers was
wounded—slightly. In the afternoon, while practising with a trench mortar, three were killed and four or five
wounded, the former including Mitchell, of the Black Watch, who took on Carpentier, the French boxer, last year.

But it gets worse. There is, of course, a good reason for why an amateur army is rushing so recklessly to train and equip itself.

In the evening there were in the town 128 casualties to our troops from shell-fire, including three men of ours.
A great many casualties were caused by a shell which burst in the “Ecole des jeunes filles,” which we use as a barrack. I passed the door with John Ponsonby as they were bringing them out. Certainly, this place is becoming very unhealthy, and I wish the civilians would clear out. Yesterday, I am told, a woman and two children were killed.

It is worth remembering: the Germans have bombed England, and England will return the favor, but the casualties from these primitive escapades will be relatively low. The lines are in Belgium and France, and it is the citizens of those (allied) countries who are suffering the most.

The old man and his wife with whom I am billeted still cling on, though I doubt if they will stand it much longer.
The poor old lady—a dear and very fat—sits down palpitating, each time the shells begin to fly, and counts

A sad picture of normal life in an artillery war. And how does the British Army handle it?

Our artillery has been retaliating pretty severely the last two nights, and to-day nobody would have been surprised at a super-exhibition of “frightfulness,” but so far, to-day, the enemy has not fired a shell into the town. In fact, we have been having a boxing competition; and, to-morrow, we have a horse-show.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 257.
  2. "The Beloved Captain" is available here.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 133-4.
  4. War Letters to a Wife, 28-9.

Edward Thomas Explains Himself Prosily to Robert Frost, and Digs in Deeper in Verse; Edward Hermon Sketches a Bomb; Private Lord Crawford Speculates on Suicide

Hermon letterEdward Hermon included two sketches in his letter to his wife today, a century back. One shows a rather dodgy sort of stick-grenade that is “manufactured locally.” The other–“a great favourite as it isn’t alight until after it has been thrown”–looks like the new Mills bomb. “The others are all alight or dangerous in your hand…”

Yes indeed! This sort of illustrated candor–from a bombing instructor who has already had two close calls–must qualify as an unusually blatant new form of bad-luck baiting.[1]


Over the last few weeks we have watched Edward Thomas‘s slow, heavy-footed approach to a decision. He has enlisted. But the actual making of the decision has remained strangely hidden–a black box in the heart of a man who is a prolific friend and writer and yet remains stubbornly private. Not only does he nurse his melancholy but he throws his reasoning eyes away from the bitter alchemies by which impossible decisions are finally made. This avoidance allows him–thankfully–to approach the deep places obliquely, as a poet should. But it also leaves us in the dark.

Today, however, a century back, he makes his one great effort. He’s writing to Frost, and thus we have every reason to believe that he is harrowing himself to tell the truth. He tells us that he would have chosen escape if he could–farming, writing, no England and no war–if success could have been assured. But it might not have paid:

22. vii 15

My dear Robert,

Your letter of July 8 makes rather sore reading for me now, sitting in the king’s uniform in the rain with a bad heel. That is how it began. Six hours drill & a heavy boot pressing on the big tendon. They say it is not hopeless. It is not my idea of pleasure, but I do want to go right through. My idea of pleasure would be getting in ‘head first up to my ankles in (farm) filth & hard work.’

But it was too pleasant. I really couldn’t imagine it leading to a living. I would plough & hoe & reap & sow & be a farmer’s boy, but without any certainty & not the smallest private means I couldn’t set out as you did. It isn’t in me. Of course I know I shouldn’t starve & that that is all I can say of literary life here. I could not ask my father for anything. He has no more than he needs. Tho it is true that he & my mother have more or less undertaken to look after my family if——–

Yes, “if.” So–and this is perhaps too obvious and too unavoidable for Thomas himself to remark upon it–there is an unavoidable core here of male pride. He would not starve; his children will not starve. It would only be a crushing, emasculating embarrassment were he–still living–to fail so utterly at farming and writing that his father must step in to support his children. But the army will pay him–once he obtains a commission–a decent salary.

This question of financial independence goes almost unsaid, but the honesty otherwise is striking–“it isn’t in me.” It’s not, in the end, a question of ability; it’s a question of confidence, of effort, of belief, of hope.

But he still yearns. The quotations from “The Farmer’s Boy” are very nice and all, but they underscore the point: he’s a writing naturalist and an avid gardener–but a working farmer?

Then Thomas, the burden shifted, moves back into the mode of hopeful futurity. An irony, since he is most excellent when he broods on the past while so many of our once-hopeful young soldiers–worn down by attrition in the trenches–are now beginning to shed that same buoyant futurity and brood instead what they have lost.

But try & forgive me everything by thinking what an asset I shall be in summer camp if I have been in the trenches as well as at Oxford. I believe you know that to find myself living near you & not working for editors would be better than anything I ever did & better than I dare expect. There is no one to keep me here except my mother. She might come too. But I couldn’t in this present mess pack up & get born again in New Hampshire[.] I couldn’t have before I too the King’s shilling. Now of course I have to wait till the war’s over.

But it is hopeless writing about these things, & I haven’t talked about them since you went…

A month or two [ago] I dreamt we were walking near Ledington but we lost one another in a strange place & I woke saying to myself ‘somehow someday I shall be here again’ which I made the last line of some verses

Your ever,

Edward Thomas[2]

So Edward Thomas himself has pointed us back to his poetry.

He has always been a man interested in nature, in being close to the literal, physical ground, the good English earth. So perhaps it’s unfair to see a desire to refute Brooke‘s sentimentalized and sacrificial poeticizing of “forever England” lurking in every turn of the soil. Still, it’s notable that, yesterday, he drew a second poem from a notebook jotting–a few months old–on “Digging:”

What matter makes my spade for tears or mirth,
Letting down two clay pipes into the earth?
The one I smoked, the other a soldier
Of Blenheim, Ramillies, and Malplaquet
Perhaps. The dead man’s immortality
Lies represented lightly with my own,
A yard or two nearer the living air
Than bones of ancients who, amazed to see
Almighty God erect the mastodon,
Once laughed, or wept, in this same light of day.

It’s as if his much-bemoaned labor on a quickie biography of the Duke of Marlborough–those are his famous battles, in the fourth line–has been allowed to yield up a single slight contribution to the writer’s real effort. Such a poem is–for Thomas–surprisingly sentimental, and somewhat simple.

Perhaps. But it is strong, too. Terse and unyielding. Like an English soldier. Like Hardy. This is a tiny Satire of Circumstance, too, one too easy to pass over. But look at where it is situated! The new soldier buries his pipe, and aligns himself, solemnly and patriotically, with the stout heroes of England’s past. But real poets don’t fail to scratch beneath their shallow graves. Beneath are the ancients, the vanished beasts of prehistoric world.

I don’t know. The light of day is the same, but oh, the world is old. This is not a cheerful “immortality.”

This second “Digging” is but the first of a sharp little trio of poems occasioned by the beginning of his military service (and enabled by his immediate injury, which gave him the leisure to write.)

Today he wrote “Two Houses,” another melancholy memory poem, in which a picturesque scene of a riverside house is overlaid (or underlaid) with a vision of an ancient house that had stood there before, a sort of corpse upon which this present pleasantness uneasily rests. This is yet another “poem of departure for war… Thomas’s symbolic abodes split down the middle, into ‘sunny’ and dark’, as if The Manor Farm and The Combe were clamped together.”[3]

A good reading, and surely the right one–picking up as it does on the straightforward intent-to-dichotomize. Ah, but poetry, complexity…  is it too straightforward? Could Thomas be knowingly setting up a hollow comparison–English Picturesque and English Romantic faux-ruins–and implying that he fears his soldiering may bring out a vein of easy, trite poetry? Symmetry and England!


Speaking of which, the good Lord Crawford now reflects on becoming the humblest sort of laborer. First though, a rumination on some of the different ways in which officers and men react to combat stress. I’m not sure about this particular assumption, but–despite the fact that we should take Lindsay’s enormous condescension with more than a few grains of salt–there will be indeed be a surprising “class” distinction in the (observed) behavior of “shell shocked” officers and men.

Thursday, 22 July 1915

There is always a morbid curiosity about operating rooms–ours has no locks and It is moreover used as a passageway between the main building and the dining room. People going to and fro are apt to be mischievous, and need one add, import dirt on their boots. Then again it is essential that the broken-nerved patient should be prevented from messing about in rooms where there are instruments or poisons.

There have been many suicides among officers–few among the rank and file. It is not that the officers are more neurotic than then men–but the fundamental difference is that the rank and file on entering hospital find themselves on improved rations. The comfort of the stomach revives, cheers, consoles and encourages him–even those suffering from terrific wounds rejoice in their victuals if it be only beef tea.The officer does not enjoy this inducement to struggle for life. So his depression is more acute and sad cases are relatively far more frequent.

The man we operated on for the bullet wound in the thigh died early this morning–such a nice, young fellow and with a beautiful face. I should like to write to his mother. I wonder if he has one. He died of a secondary haemorrhage.

Put on my new uniform tonight–my old one is rapidly becoming a disgrace. But working as a porter, painter, artisan and scullery maid does take the shine out of one’s clothes.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 70-1.
  2. Elected Friends, 82-3.
  3. Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 255.
  4. Private Lord Crawford, 27-28.