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!
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]
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..
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.
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…
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.
This would be their first attack, and Hankey will soon write about it in a newspaper piece entitled “The Honour of the Brigade.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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
- Saunders, Ford Madox Ford, 486. ↩
- Lady Under Fire, 97-8. ↩
- Kissane, Without Parade, 150-2. ↩
- "The Honour of the Brigade" is available here, in what must be an American edition, its honor bereft of its "u." ↩
- See The Letters of Donald Hankey, available here. ↩
- Conan Doyle, The British Campaign in France and Flanders, Vol. II; available here. ↩
- See Parker, The Old Lie, 91. ↩
- Meynell, Julian Grenfell, available here. ↩