Robert Graves Shows His Courage, but Hates the Moon; Vera Brittain’s Vicissitudes of Memory; Cakes for Edward Thomas and Oversweet Bon-Bons of Affection from Bim Tennant; A Billet-Room Comedy from Rowland Feilding

We have four brief letters to get to, today. But first (at last), a good opportunity to return to the liveliest of the war memoirs. Last night, a century back, Robert Graves went on night patrol. The colonel had called for an investigation into the sounds of German activity, and Graves volunteered–he had figured out that this is the only way to win some measure of acceptance among the philistine Regular officers of the 2/Royal Welch. (It may be, too, that he has retrospectively downplayed his own eagerness to see real action, to prove himself, to take the war to the Huns, etc.)

Today Graves wrote to his father about the most significant natural danger of such nocturnal missions: “the dangerous clear light of an evil-looking moon.” Nevertheless, Graves crawled interminably through the satellite spotlit brilliance of no man’s land until he–and the sergeant who shared the danger of his bravado–located a German working party and returned with its coordinates.

There is a description in Good-Bye to All That of what must be this same patrol:

The colonel called for a patrol to visit the side of the tow-path, where we had heard suspicious sounds on the previous night, and see whether they came from a working-party. I volunteered to go at dark. But that night the moon shone so bright and full that it dazzled the eyes.[1] Between us and the Germans lay a flat stretch of about two hundred yards, broken only by shell-craters and an occasional patch of coarse grass. I was not with my own company, but lent to ‘B,’ which had two officers away on leave. Childe-Freeman, the company commander, said: ‘You’re not going out on patrol tonight, are you? It’s almost as bright as day.’

‘All the more reason for going,’ I answered. ‘They won’t be expecting me. Will you please keep everything as usual? Let the men fire an occasional rifle, and send up a flare every half hour. If I go carefully the Germans won’t see me.’

While we were having supper, I clumsily knocked over a cup of tea, and after that a plate. Freeman said: ‘Look here, I’ll phone through to battalion and tell them it’s too bright for you to go out.’ But I knew that, if he did, Buzz Off [Graves’s most recent nemesis among Welch field officers] would accuse me of cold feet.

So one Sergeant Williams and I put on our crawlers, and went out by way of a mine-crater at the side of the tow-path. We had no need to stare that night. We could see only too clearly. Our plan was to wait for an opportunity to move quickly, stop dead and trust to luck, then move on quickly again. We planned our rushes from shell-hole to shell-hole, the opportunities being provided by artillery or machine-gun fire, which would distract the sentries. Many of the craters contained corpses of men who had been wounded and crept in there to die. Some were skeletons, picked clean by the rats.

We got to within thirty yards of a big German working-party, who were digging a trench ahead of their front line. Between them and us we could count a covering party of ten men lying on the grass in their greatcoats. We had gone far enough. A German was lying on his back about twelve yards off, humming a tune. It was the ‘Merry Widow’ waltz. The sergeant, who was behind me, pressed my foot with his hand and showed me the revolver he was carrying. He raised his eyebrows inquiringly. I signalled ‘no.’ We turned to go back; finding it hard not to move too quickly. We had got about half-way back when a German machine-gun opened traversing fire along the top of our trenches. We immediately jumped to our feet; the bullets were brushing the grass, so to stand up was safer. We walked the rest of the way home, but moving irregularly to distract the aim of the covering party if they saw us. Home in the trench I rang up the artillery, and asked for as much shrapnel as they could spare, fifty yards short of where the German front trench touched the tow-path; I knew that one of the night-lines of the battery supporting us was trained near enough to this point. A minute and a quarter later the shells started coming over. We heard the clash of downed tools and distant shouts and cries; we reckoned the probable casualties.

The next morning at stand-to Buzz Off came up to me: ‘I hear you were on patrol last night?’

‘Yes, sir.’

He asked for particulars. When I told him about the covering party, he cursed me for not ‘scuppering them with that revolver of yours.’ As he turned away, he snorted: ‘Cold feet!'[2]

Graves is not a self-starting sniper, like Julian Grenfell of old, and he is at pains to show us the distinction between courage–going out in the moon, for no great strategic purpose–and old-fashioned bloodthirstiness, namely “scuppering” those German workers opposite. The implication is that he’s willing to play the game–again, what other choice does he have? (the answer: more social ignominy as an unwilling subaltern)–but that Buzz-Off is an old extremist, running up the score in an unimportant league game, and the tournament looming.

But how different is it, really, to take the risk when you could have elected to stay in, to then withdraw from close combat, and let the artillery do your killing for you? It’s a droll tale–or a droll, grim tale–at first reading. But, really, from the personal standpoint (collectively, there may be some slight operational benefit to the British of thus disrupting a German working party and/or maintaining the upper hand) it’s only a sad, grim tale of pointless courage and attritional murder.

More dark not-quite-humor: this episode also spawned a poem–a very, very good reminder of how the war can affect all sorts of writing, not just writing directly about the war. Graves will not be the last to produce a poem that has one foot in fanciful Victorian fairy-land and one in the tormented dreamscape of no-man’s-land, crawling in the mud, shaking a hateful fist at the White Face.

I Hate the Moon is almost a poem of lunacy. But not quite. It’s the poem of a young man not quite sure whether he is fearful or brave, sensitive or brash, engaged in a careful tactical war or fallen into a strange never-ending madness. Most of all, it’s the poem of a young man who knows he will go out again. It closes

But I hate the Moon and its horrible stony stare,
And I know one day it’ll do me some dreadful thing.

He sent it to his father…[3]

 

We’ve seen some wobbles in the friendship between Edward Thomas and the more fortunate Walter de la Mare. But Thomas had admitted to simple envy and, in any event, with the great step taken and Thomas at peace (so to speak) in uniform, the pressure has lessened. And besides–cake:

13 Rusham Rd
Balham SW
31 August 1915

My dear de la Mare

I couldn’t come next week end. My wife is coming up for a day or two with Baby & Bronwen. But my letter will tell you it really wasn’t possible anyhow. As for reviewing, it is almost as well there is none left for me. I couldn’t do it. I had one left over when I joined & it will have to wait till the war is over. Then of course I shall have to find a 3rd trade, if the difficulty isn’t otherwise solved. But I don’t think much about it & never dismally…

There has been a fortnight of the best weather in town, thrown away on drill of course. We shall not go to camp this week or next, most likely. When we do perhaps a cake would find a good home there. Thank you for the idea…

Yours ever
E.T.[4]

 

And a comic tale of brass-hat dodging from Rowland Feilding.

August 31, 1915 Lumbres

More than one surreptitious attempt has been made to oust me from my hospitable quarters by billet-hunting officers of far senior rank to myself, but my kind hostess has firmly refused them on the plea of my priority, and assures me that no one else shall have my room.

Her son Jean, or Johnnie (as she calls him)—a very attractive little fellow who talks English fluently, having
been at school at Margate—has attached himself to me, and follows me about wherever I go on his bicycle.

On our (that is his and my) way home to-day he rode on ahead, and, as I reached his mother’s house, he came out to meet me, with a look of extreme dismay upon his face, and the news that a certain General, who had been before but had been persuaded to go away gracefully enough on that occasion, had returned and insisted upon being given accommodation. He had modestly asked for a bedroom, dining-room, rooms for his servants, and an outhouse for his headquarters: and, up to the present, they had more or less satisfied him by evacuating Johnnie from his bedroom (which Johnnie did not object to in itself), and giving this to the General, who had already arrived in the house.

Quite a comedy was in progress. As I entered the door the whole family—father, mother, son, and daughter—all collected round me, and, while the two last intermittently made faces at the General through his closed door, all in one voice assured me that, whatever happened, I should not suffer.

So my door (and Digby’s: he is home on leave) and our servants’ are always to be kept locked, and the keys are to be handed to Georgina—the maid—so that the General and his servants and staff may not see how much better our rooms are than theirs.

I wonder how long it will last.[5]

 

I am still finding Bim Tennant‘s numerous missives to be uncommonly interesting. He is a very good boy:

31st August, 1915

Darling Moth’,

There was no necessity to send that prayer, I say it every morning, and read my Bible as well as praying every evening. My Captain is very devout and we always pray at the same time, on our knees. My health is splendid. Moth’, and I will take every care of it. There is no likelihood of our fighting yet, and there is nothing concerning me you need worry about at all…

There was a huge Grenadier dinner the other night at which all four Battalions were present, 91 Grenadier
Officers in all. I saw many old friends, and was very happy…

The Fortnum parcel was splendid. Please send some more “Bonbons au Fruit” and Asparagus and Cream. We do like them and they made the whole difference to a little dinner party we gave to three other officers. The bonbons we ate on the march; two or three boxes would be most welcome.

So far so splendid. Padres and dinners and bon-bons, oh my! But Bim’s letters to his mother do begin to cloy a bit. We are reading what was intended to be private correspondence. But…

Darling Moth’,

…nothing will ever make me love any other woman more than I love you, I swear it. At any rate till after I am married. Write back and tell me that you love me as much as you ever did, as I know you do, only it is good to see it…

Your devoted
BIMBO.[6]

 

And finally, Vera Brittain is still struggling still to keep her spirits up. Not only is Roland gone and the world grey again, but human memory, it turns out, is not really up to the demands of young love. The ellipses–hers–are symptomatic:

Buxton, 31 August 1915

Mother says she doesn’t know how two people dare to be engaged who have only been together for short times at long intervals. Six days is the longest I have ever been with you. . .

I keep trying in quiet moments to recall your face to my mind. I wonder why it is so difficult, my dear one, when I can remember ordinary & uninteresting people quite well. . .

When I do manage to revisualize you it is only in sudden flashes which are tantalising by their transitoriness. I don’t know why, but I can remember you best of all as you were on that Sunday night when you came down looking so sleepy and dusted off Mrs Leighton & I to bed![7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. If we have the right day, the moon was six days past full. This would mean, then, that more than half a moon would rise close to midnight, and cast shadows from more or less behind the German lines toward the British. Good visibility for the watching Germans, then. It will cloud over soon... I have spent precious little time crawling around at night, but still, it does seem as if a patrol leaving not long after dark would be in less danger than if it had gone out a few days earlier, with a closer-to-full moon rising earlier...
  2. Good-Bye to All That, 138-9.
  3. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 131.
  4. Poet to Poet, 206.
  5. War Letters to a Wife, 34-5.
  6. Letters, 7-9.
  7. Letters of a Lost Generation, 153.

Kipling Hymns the Doubled Irish; Roland Leighton’s “Perfect Little Villanelle” and Meditations on Tragedy and Safety; A Loss for Thomas Hardy

As we near the end of summer we complete a transitional period, the time between the last offensives led by the old Regular army and the first real assault of the New Army. But there’s more to the expanded army than just Kitchener’s hundred thousands. The Guards–still socially elite, still laying claim to exceptional efficiency in the field–have expanded as well. Tomorrow Bim Tennant will report on a conclave of all the Grenadier Guards, new and old. Today we are in the rather more capable hands of Rudyard Kipling, historian to the Irish Guards, which recently expanded from one to two battalions.

…the heart of man being what it is, so soon as the 2nd Battalion opened its eyes, the first thing that it beheld was its 1st Battalion, as an elder brother to measure its stature against in all things. Yet, following the ancient mystery of all Armies, there were not two Battalions, but one Regiment; officers and men interchangeable, and equally devoted to the Battalion that they served for the time, though in their deeper minds, and sometimes confessing it, more devoutly attached to one or the other of the two…

The historic first meeting between the 1st and 2nd Battalions took place on the 30th August on a march out to St. Pierre, when the units of the different Guards Brigades were drawing in together…

The 2nd Battalion Diary notes a point that the 1st, doubtless through delicacy, omits–that when the merry gathering under the trees in the field was at an end, after dinner, the 2nd Battalion fell in and marched off the ground “before the critical eyes of their older comrades, and the 1st followed.” No fault was found, but it was a breathless business, compared, by one who took part, to the performances of rival peacocks.[1]

And, in one of our more unusual examples of “binary vision,” Kipling would write the same scene again from the perspective of the younger battalion.

There are few records of this historic meeting; for the youth and the strength that gathered by the cookers in that open sunlit field by St. Pierre has been several times wiped out and replaced…

The First promptly christened the Second “The Irish Landsturm,” and a young officer, who later rose to eminent heights and command of the 2nd Battalion, sat upon a table under some trees, and delighted the world with joyous songs upon a concertina and a mouth-organ. Then they parted.[2]

 

Vera Brittain has, at last, won from her new fiancé the text of the poem he had written for her in April.

Monday August 30th

Nursing as usual. A letter from Roland came at tea-time, enclosing his perfect little Villanelle. And the letter was so–oh so sweet! “I am very glad that neither you nor Mother were at Victoria to see me off…”

Vera, it would seem, shares my opinion of Roland’s new access of sympathy. But she should give herself the credit.

He is quite uncanny with his ability not only to sympathise with, but to see from, a woman’s point of view. Quite apart from my personal standpoint, it will be a terrible tragedy if he gets killed–with all this rare
fullness of promise.[3]

No, she gives herself no credit. And, worse, she swerves from praise of her beloved to the constant nagging fear of his demise. It’s touching and sad to see her so blatantly try to deflect the burden of potential grief by placing it upon the shoulders of the world. Can there really be solace in this sort of apotropaic instinct? To see in the future the death of the man you love–it is, of course, fairly likely[4]–is a terrible thing. Does it help, then, to imagine it happening, and to imagine–almost as counterfactual pre-history, the protasis to a potentially life-wrecking conditional construction–what great things the brilliant young officer could have achieved?

Like so much in this war, thoughts that really are a bit crazy begin to seem as if they might make sense. “History”–the size of human events, the impersonal awfulness of the war and the way in which it kills young men–is brutalizing to any confidence in individuality. History–but especially the parts of history with massed, long-range artillery bombardments. We don’t need to see the future so clearly (still less to imagine time travel) to imagine the beauty and the horror of the “butterfly effect.” Butterflies, mayflies, foul clouds of corpse-flies…

Buxton, 30 August 1915

Your little Villanelle is just perfect. I did not say much before, because, like you, I suffer from a reticence which only letters can break through. . .  it is far & away better than the poem ‘Into Battle’ of poor Julian Grenfell’s, which the ‘Times’ printed after he had died of wounds…

Grim. And a critical line has been drawn! Loyally, but not without merit.

Vera then turns once again to the question of Edward, the subaltern left behind. It’s funny–and crazy, of course, too–that she trembles with fear for Roland and yet can find no joy, no solace even in Edward’s potentially dishonorable safety…

We don’t know quite what to make of the Edward business. Apparently all the people he is left with have been in the battalion a shorter time than he or are in some way inferior (Thurlow is among them) and others have been taken out some of whom were his juniors both in age and time-seniority. Poor Mother is worrying herself that he may have done something disgraceful . . . of course everyone is liable to sudden temptations and those not always the least immaculate. . .[5]

Mother had a letter in which he said ‘I don’t think I shall soon get over being left behind. If only they had made up their minds about this officer business six weeks ago I could have been in the Artillery by now.’ It was, as you doubtless know, his own Division which refused to let him go into the Artillery on the ground that they couldn’t spare him at that stage. If he hasn’t done anything wrong, I really think they have treated him rather badly…

Edward told me his C.O. was not in the social sense of the word quite a gentleman, & it is quite possible that Edward may have been gently but firmly snobbish in a very aggravating sort of way. I have never seen him snobbish, but I can quite imagine he might be so to someone he disliked…

I wonder if I shall ever feel your arm round me again, and your queer bristly head against my shoulder. Even if there is a Heaven, those sort of things don’t happen there, do they? And somehow a Heaven without those things would seem a very inadequate sort of place now. It was the sweetest hour of my life. And it belonged
only to you.

‘And no one else remembers
Except the moon and I.’[6]

Heaven, history, eros, snobbishness, fate and the counter-factual; a lover in terrible danger and a brother in aggravated safety…

 

And finally, today, the war came home to Thomas Hardy. He has no children of his own, no nephews or grand-nephews or, as of yet, young friends in harm’s way. But he does have three young cousins in the army. Or, as of August 22nd, two.

Mired as we are amidst mourning mothers and terrified fiancées, grief for a cousin would seem to merit less attention. (And it does.) But the young man mattered to Hardy–and no one (not even great tragic writers, perhaps) achieves a balanced social perspective on personal loss. Others lost closer, but this is his closest.

Three days later Hardy would pass the news on to Florence Henniker:

We were much distressed on Monday morning by this brief telegram: —

“Frank was killed on the 22nd.”

This referred to a very dear cousin of mine, Frank George, 2d Lieut, in the 5th Dorsets, who has fallen in action in the Gallipoli peninsula—almost the only, if not the only, blood relative of the next generation in whom I have taken any interest. The death of a “cousin” does not seem a very harrowing matter as a rule, but he was such an intimate friend here, & Florence & I both were so attached to him, that his loss will affect our lives largely. His mother (who was a Hardy) is a widow, & we don’t know how she is going to get over it.[7]

Hardy will write a great deal about George in the coming weeks, and his death can be seen as a less than gentle nudge. The old poet might now reconsider the carefully (if relatively quietly) patriotic position he has held ever since the war’s beginning…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I, 15-20.
  2. Kipling, The Irish Guards, II, 112.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 265-6.
  4. Which is not to say that it is really likely. It is very common to see horrifically high casualty rates and "subalterns lasted X weeks on average" statistics and conflate this into a a greater-than-not likelihood of violent death. No military careers--with the possible exception, I believe, of axis submariners in the second war--actually maintained greater than 50% death rates for more than a matter of months. But such numbers have an ontological gap to cross to reach the one human heart that could be changed by death.
  5. No, I do not think this means what those who know the future might think it means.
  6. Letters of a Lost Generation, 152-3.
  7. Letters, V, 121.

Vera Brittain on Knowledge and Memory; Gilbert Frankau Starts for France; Alf Pollard Gets Medieval in an Outpost

It has been quite a while since we have checked in with Gilbert Frankau, ex-businessman, future novelist, and swaggering subaltern in Kitchener’s army. He, like more than a handful of our officers (Edward Brittain, for instance), found enough antipathy among the hastily-assembled cadre of senior officers in his ramshackle battalion to seek a transfer. His Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant contains a vicious portrait (evidently quite recognizable–there will be legal action) of the “scheming and incompetent adjutant” who had made life impossible for anyone he perceived as a threat.

So, along with his fictional altar ego, Frankau had escaped, in March, into the artillery. This was not an uncommon course: while Kitchener’s army had added scores of infantry regiments to the army’s strength, it was soon clear that there would need to be proportionally much more new artillery than infantry. Once the guns were manufactured (or borrowed from the French) and the men trained, the new batteries were sent into the line as soon as possible. Today, a century back, the 107th Artillery brigade marched away from its training grounds toward the coast–they will be needed for the Autumn offensive.[1]

 

Alf Pollard has decided to aim high. His Lady merits an officer, and so an officer he will be. And why not a diligent officer? Nay–why not a hero?

After rest and leave, Pollard returns with his battalion of the Honourable Artillery Company to the nasty, close-in trenches around Hooge, at the southern end of the salient.

With the knowledge that I would soon be an officer, I spent as much time as possible roaming round No Man’s Land. The Huns were now eight hundred yards away and there was plenty to see in the intervening space. On one of these excursions I came across an excellent Burberry with only five small shrapnel holes in it and which I promptly annexed. By it, in the bottom of the shell-hole where I found it, was a solitary head. It stood upright in the centre of the crater and there was no trace of the body to which it belonged anywhere near it. For some reason it fascinated me. It looked so droll and yet so pathetic. To whom had it belonged?  …I hoped he was a fighter who had done down with his face to the enemy, his courage high and his mouth set in grim determination. That was how I hoped to die if I had to; though I should have liked one second’s warning so that I could breathe Her name. Afterwards, if my head remained to mark the spot, I should like it to be pointing to the trenches I had never reached.

Yes–he is serious. Deadly earnest.

It’s odd to see what seems to be a sort of schlock horror film aesthetic in a writer who professes his enthusiasm for a chivalric/heroic approach to the world. But then again–unless he strays from grandiloquence into outright falsehood–the severed head is… historical.

Pollard is a brave man, a cheerful killer, a “fire-eater” describing his own motivations… so the bathos, I think, is unintended. Have I, as a reader, gone so far into willed sympathy with the suffering infantry of the trenches that I’m entirely around the bend? Have I turned my reading eyes past any understanding of the emotions happy warriors, toward disdain for this sort of bloodthirstiness, especially when expressed in such clunky prose?

I hope not. Maximum readerly sympathy with all writers who shared in this experience is a worthy goal…

And yet I can’t help but read this description as some sort of unintentionally Python-esque variation on Hamlet. The Great White Man-Hunter contemplates not a skull but a still-fleshed and aggressively idealized head, and sees not so much the meaning of his death but his hopes about its mentionable-in-dispatches circumstances…

Pollard goes on to note that he specially enjoys duty in a “listening post in the middle of this desolation. It was three hundred yards in front of our line.” Naturally, then:

I wrote home on the 29th August whilst actually in the outpost.

“–We ought to have a lively time on this outpost with corpses all around us…. I shall take jolly good care that if the Huns try to surprise us none of my command will have their tails down and the surprisers will be surprised.

Surely he won’t be surprised while in the act of penning a letter… But he closes with a solid (ha!) bit of commentary on the new lows of trench warfare:

I have about a hundred bombs with me so out to make a good show. Talking of bombs, bombers in an attack now carry a mace which consists of a stout handle with a huge lump of iron on the end. One, found on the late battlefield, had a number of large spikes in the end as well. It shows what modern warfare is coming to when we have to go back to the dark age for our weapons. They will be serving out bows and poisoned arrows next…”[2]

Well, the poison, at least, is coming.

 

Vera Brittain received today Roland Leighton‘s “short but very comprehensive”[3] letter of the 26th. She wrote back immediately.

Buxton, 29 August 1915

No, somehow ‘the memory and the pain and the insatiable longing for Something which one has loved’ doesn’t sound as if you were forgetting quite as soon as one might have supposed you would, even though ‘each picture flies’.

For my part, I find you still elusive, still intangible, and truly in that way it seems to count for so little that you did come back at all. When I get your letters I feel as though I know and understand you much better than when I meet & see the actual you. You yourself always puzzle me. Reverence–reserve–indifference–in their actual manifestation they are so alike, and the more full of emotion you are, the more alike they become. If there weren’t a few physical signs to help me, if the expression you resolutely drive away from your mouth didn’t sometimes betray itself in your eyes, I should never know you at all…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Flower of Battle, 217-9.
  2. Fire-Eater, 104-5.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 265.
  4. Letters of a Lost Generation, 151-2

Charles Lister is Hit Again; Edward Thomas and Ford Madox Ford Seek Society Among the Other Ranks; Alan Seeger Describes a Circle; Roland Hefts a Happy Axe While Vera Wishes for a Blighty One

More bad news from Gallipoli. Once there were five Argonauts:[1] Patrick Shaw-Stewart is safe, for the moment, on the staff; Arthur “Oc” Asquith has recovered from his wounds and returned to the Hood Battalion. Rupert Brooke, of course, succumbed to blood poisoning in April, while Denis Browne was killed in June. That leaves Charles Lister, who has already been wounded twice during the campaign. Two days ago he wrote to his father.

Hospital Ship, August 26, 1915

Just think, I have been wounded once more, the third time. We were in a trench, observing the Turkish trenches, when suddenly they fired some shells into our trenches. I went along to see what had happened, got my people back into a bit of a trench they had had to leave, then went down the trench, thinking the show was over, and then got it, being struck in the pelvis and my bladder being deranged, and slight injuries in the legs and calves.

I have been operated on, but am sketchy as to what has been done. I am on a hospital ship, comfy enough, but feeling the motion of it a good deal, and I have to be in bed and cannot change my position. The hours go slowly, as one does not feel very much up to reading. However, I got to sleep all right. I feel this will be a longish job, and I don’t know where I shall do my cure–perhaps Alexandria. My doctor is quite happy at the way things are going. The shell that hit me killed one man and wounded the others. Forgive this scrawl, but it’s not easy to write.

There will be no cure. Lister died today, a century back.

So much writing here has been about expectation, about arrival–the poems of anticipation, the agonies of eagerness, the careful recording of each step on the journey to the line. Now, increasingly, there is a burden of survivor’s writing to take up. The diarists and the avid epistolary life-writers must become eulogists, or forget their friends.

In a few weeks time, Shaw-Stewart will write home to their mutual friend R. A. Knox:

I love always to hear from you about people I don’t get news of, but I am almost incapable of writing about Billy, Douglas, Charles. I have had to do so much of it. Balliol of our time has had, I do think, a high proportion of killed; my best friends never seem to get comfortably wounded…  I think you and I are the only ones who thoroughly realise the length and breadth of what we lose in Charles. I think from different points of view we have perhaps understood him as well as any one else, and certainly prized him as highly, and we alone have all College and all Balliol in retrospect of him. He was quite extraordinarily good out here, and supplied an example of how not to grouse, and not to appear unduly to mind being killed, not unneeded by some of the newer drafts of officers. The men, both stokers and recruits, adored him—they always called him “Lord Lister,” which conjured up delicious visions of the aged man of science as a company officer. He had really what the despatches call devotion to duty; he was all the time resisting an intrigue by the Intelligence people (fomented by me) to get him moved there, which was on the point of coming off. He was constantly doing the most reckless things, walking between the lines with his arms waving under a hot fire from both sides; but his last wound, like his others, was from a shell in a trench, and no blame could attach. I think nothing worse can happen. God and the King have both lost a protagonist, and people like you and me the most divine of men.[2]

We tend to see Shaw-Stewart in a humorous vein–he’s one of our best writers of the light-verse letter–or grandstanding a bit about his experiences. But here he is heartbroken, mourning his friend from within their circle, not praising him to those without.

The recipient of the letter is worth at least a brief mention here as well. Another brilliant Oxford classicist, Ronald Arbuthnott Knox had followed the same course as Shaw-Stewart and so many others–Eton, then Balliol. But then Knox, the son of an Anglican bishop, had chosen not business or the arts but the church. Ordained now, he was both a fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, and its chaplain, and swiftly establishing himself as a popular theological writer. As a man of the cloth he will not feel the same impulsion to volunteer for France, but the war will change him as well–Knox will soon convert to Catholicism, which will necessitate leaving his Oxford post. But writerly fame awaits: in addition to his religious writing we will become a genre-defining writer of crime fiction.

But back to the now. Knox was a mighty Latinist (among his first Oxford students was Harold MacMillan) and he will soon sit down to work on a contribution to the memorial book that Charles Lister’s father will assemble. Knox’s contribution will be a formal elegy–it’s available here, if your Latin is up to the task. Sic transit gloria, etc.

 

Edward Thomas added to his ongoing letter to Robert Frost today, a century back. It’s quite striking how much the army has changed him–for now, at least. He seems to ease off on the self-excoriating honesty, here, and to indulge in a wistful tone so unlike the hard, alert intelligence of his poetry. He complains, yes, and questions himself. But without the rough edge. It’s almost as if he’s abandoned figure studies in slanting light and given himself to the pleasant hurly-burly of genre-painting… such is the calming effect on struggling, lonely man of a sudden immersion in the necessary camaraderie of army training.

I have some time on my hands at Headquarters today & have a pile of 1000 blankets in an empty drill hall to recline in. So far it is very dull defending ones wives & mothers & sisters & daughters from the Germans…

So far I am an indigested lump in this battalion. The men I am up against are mostly clerks of some sort with intelligent newspaper opinions and an interest in their clothes & in keeping up the social standing of the corps… They don’t quite understand what I say except when I say Yes or No. The great majority are under 25.–It is a question now whether I should have been worse off say in the Welch Fusiliers with a mixture of clerks & shopmen & manual workers. Perhaps I allowed myself too easily to be persuaded I could not have stood their ways.  For though I am admittedly a superior person I am not as particular as some people. Well, I dare say any one 100 men are about he same as any other 100…

Nobody persuaded me into this. Not even myself.

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[3]

Well, never mind, I suppose. Thomas is soon once again questioning his decision. And, like virtually every other Englishman socially south of a lordship, he is perpetually worried about fitting in with those “below” him. Which continues to seem an unattractive trait and an intellectual dead-end, no matter how accustomed I become to the England of a century back…

 

And so of course a we find similar concerns in a letter today from our other elderly-man-of-letters-newly-in-uniform, Ford Madox Hueffer of the Welsh Regiment:

To C. F. G. Masterman

3rd Bn. Welch Regt.
Tenby
28 Aug. 1915

My dear C. F. G.

Here I am and hard at it—6 a.m. to 7 p.m. everyday, like any V form boy & at about the same sort of stuff. Literature seems to have died out of a world that is mostly interesting from its contours. (A contour is an imaginary line etc.) But I am really quite happy except for an absolute lack of social life. I suppose you or Lucy don’t know anyone hereabouts to whom you cd. give me an introduction?[4]

Similar, and yet different. From Thomas, the long discursive letter (I excerpted only a small portion) to his best friend across the sea. From Ford, a bon viveur and a man who is practical about his impracticalities, a short letter requesting social aid and abettance.

 

And let’s check in briefly with Alan Seeger.  When last we heard from him he was hopeful that recent troop movements presaged a glorious attack.

Plancher-Bas, August 28, 1915.

Back in Plancher-Bas again! Our march into Alsace, round which I wove so much romance, was only for the prosaic purpose of working on second line defences… We worked five days and then marched back by the same route.

Putting one and two together, it seems to me that the General Staff are at present bringing behind the lines as far as possible, as in our case, the best troops and manning the trenches with second-line formations and territorials. They are recreating a whole armée active, who are not to be put into the trenches, but will be thrown immediately into the next great offensive…[5]

 

Finally, today, Roland Leighton and Vera Brittain. It’s good to report that she is still always in his thoughts.

Bois de Warnimont, France, 28 August 1915

I have brought the Company out woodcutting for the R.E. [Royal Engineers] this morning, and am writing this sitting on a tree trunk in a clearing. It is a glorious morning–very hot outside; but in this world of green and brown it is a sheer delight. The wood is about 3 miles long and covers two little hills and a valley between. Someone has just begun to whistle part of the Overture to ‘William Tell’, and it sounds so appropriate here among the aisles of trees with the ring of axes as a background. And this is war!

I ought not to be sitting down writing this now really. I am supposed to be walking round seeing that the men do their work properly. Before I began this I did a little wood chopping myself, just because I felt a childish desire to & greatly to the amusement of the men, I expect.[6]

Where is the gloomy Roland of yesterday? Well, high spirits and pitching in make for good leadership.

Across the channel in Buxton, alas, we find that the soul mates are out of sync.

Saturday August 28th

To-day has been much the same as all the days–and all will be like one another, I suppose, until he is either killed or comes home again. Oh! if he could only be wounded just a little![7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Or six, if you count Bernard Freyberg, the natural soldier of the bunch. Or seven if you count Frederick Kelly, the rower and composer. And while they may have called themselves "The Argonauts," in faux-ironic-heroic style, their fellow officers in the Hood Battalion called them "The Latin Club." Nicknames, nicknames--so different when bestowed from within than without. But anyway--Freyberg and Kelly yet live.
  2. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 147-8.
  3. Elected Friends, 92-3.
  4. Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 61.
  5. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 151-2.
  6. Letters of a Lost Generation, 151.
  7. Chronicle of Youth, 265.

Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton Struggle to Keep Their Spirits Up; Donald Hankey Again Acknowledges a Hero

Roland Leighton managed both a letter and a telegram yesterday. Today, then, Vera Brittain received both the telegram and the letter of two days’ past. Roland is at a loss for words of his own. Yet he is well supplied, still:

Friday August 27th

I had both a letter & a wire from him to-day. The wire simply said “Till we may live our roseate poem through.” The letter was quite brief. “Nearly at Folkestone now. I am trying not to think of it, but the thought will come. Oh damn, I know it–

Goodnight, sweet friend, goodnight,
Till life and all take flight
Never goodbye.”[1]

Vera wrote back immediately:

Buxton, 27 August 1915

It seems to me that things are still more unfinished, still more ‘left off in the middle’ than they were before. The world, of course, won’t think so—but we learnt in those few days that the farther you go, the farther you see there is to go. I thought when I saw you off in March that nothing in the world could make me feel more deeply than I did then. I was mistaken.

I thought then that if you had kissed me once and we had had even that much of fulfilment, I should be more resigned to whatever cruel thing fate had in store for me. There again I was wrong.

Resignation is a thing of the devil; it can’t come until one has abandoned the hope that hurts so. So now, because you have kissed me, instead of being resigned, I feel an insane impatience quite unlike anything I have known before ‘to be able to hold you & kiss you again even for a moment.’ So much so that last night, looking out at the dark earth lying silent beneath the midnight stars, I said in my mind ‘Oh Roland! Why ever did you exist! And why do I exist! What have we poor mortals done that we should have to suffer so much pain.’ . . .

Writing. This whole project is in praise of writing. And yet writing is sometimes so terribly insufficient. How much of this is about the new intensity of their love and regard for each other, now that they have had a few good days in each other’s company, now that they have formalized their relationship for the benefit of others? And how much is about that kiss, about the sexual awakening of these passionate late bloomers?

Roland has had the more surreal journey, being thrown from home and London and engagement back into the trenches. But Vera, too had gone straight back to war work, and sooner.

My hospital work has lost the little glamour it ever had. I think that glamour didn’t belong to the work at all, but arose from my suddenly getting the thought in between my prosaic duties ‘Perhaps I shall hear to-day that he is coming back.’ But now in the midst of those prosaic duties instead there comes the thought of you saying ‘I don’t want to go back to the Front’—and I wonder if you are finding it as dreary now as I am finding this. Or worse still, just when I have to do the dullest and most practical things, there comes the remembered sensation of the half-bitter, half-sweet thrill of your arm around me, and then I have to clench my hand very tight to keep down—not tears—but the fierce desire to throw everything violently about the room.

And yet all the time I have the feeling that I shall see you again very soon, much sooner than I think. Reason of course says no to this, but intuition keeps saying yes…[2]

We must now again endure the separation–by a few hundred miles, and by the two to four day time lag of the (impressive) postal system–of Vera and Roland. They cannot any longer, but by chance or intuition, match their moods one to the other. So Roland, who has been launching all those romantic missives, is constrained to reply today to Vera’s first letter after her return home. This detailed her rough return from the weekend away into a home atmosphere pressurized with growing concern for the person closest to both of them–her brother Edward, who is proving to be something of a misfit subaltern. Roland, the senior member of their friendship and the more experienced soldier, must offer what advice he can.

France, August 27th

I have just written to Edward. I don’t quite know what to make of it, except that his C.O. probably dislikes him and has taken this opportunity of showing it. In the letter he wrote to me which arrived during my absence he says that the C.O. is a perfect beast and ‘I know he loathes me and I loathe him’. I don’t for a moment think that there is any question of Edward’s not being a competent officer. But it seems to have been all so unexpected. And to be sent back to Lichfield instead of to France must have infuriated him to desperation. . . I am so very sorry about it. I do hope he will not get too depressed and disheartened.

The question of what exactly–what combination of factors–makes it so difficult for Edward Brittain to fit in with certain units is one that will occupy us for some time. But back now to Roland.

I am still very much so myself, I am afraid, and much more than ‘depressed because Vera has gone’. I cannot take an interest in anything out here for its own sake. There doesn’t seem anything worth living for. It is hard that one should have to pay for everything in the way of pleasure: but perhaps the gods will count this as part-payment for Next Time. And yet was it not worth all the pain in the world, dearest?

So they are, by chance or intuition–squint and clap for Tinkerbell and together they can look like fate–in much the same mood after all.

I am very glad that neither you nor Mother were at Victoria to see me off. It was very sad. The men were boisterously cheerful in a manner that deceived no one; the officers walked up and down the platform or stood in little groups, all very quiet and self restrained. There were not very many women there, but there was a look in their eyes that made one turn one’s face away in reverence. ‘It would be so much better if they would not come,’ I overheard one weather-beaten major saying. ‘It only makes it harder.’ They stood very still as the train moved out, each as unconscious of the rest as if she were in a separate world. Only one actually cried–a young girl of about twenty. I thought of you, and I turned my face away again. It hurt so.[3]

Roland is a good writer too. And this enhanced ability to write directly of his own feelings–even as he more closely observes the feelings of others–is surely a product of his intense few days with his new fiancée.

 

Finally, today, a different sort of love and “worship” in wartime. Donald Hankey wrote back to the widow of his “beloved captain.” I don’t know what precisely she had written in answer to his initial letter of condolence, but it can more or less be inferred:

August 27, 1915

Dear Mrs. Hardy,

Thank you very much for your kind letter. I am very glad indeed to think that I have been able to help you at all to bear what I know must be a terrible loss; and indeed it was a relief to myself to write what I did. I have lived a varied sort of life in a good many parts of the world, but I have never met with any one who gave me such a willingness to follow and obey as Captain Hardy did. As long as I live I shall remember him as the one man whom I would have been content to serve under anywhere and in any enterprise…

I remain,

Yours truly,

Donald Hankey

P. S. I do not know whether it is a great impertinence of me to ask; but if you could spare me a photograph of Captain Hardy, I should value it tremendously. He was my officer, and I his sergeant–nothing more than that, except that he was also my hero, and I have not had many.

P. P. S. I have just heard of a saying of our Sergeant Major, which I think might please you. We were discussing an officer who had adopted a very hectoring and bullying manner towards the men, and the Sergeant-Major a very fine simple man said, “But the boys won’t work for ‘im. Now look at Captain ‘Ardy. Why, they’ll work like little neddies for Captain ‘Ardy!”

So they would, because they loved him.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 265. The telegram quote is a catch-phrase (or "code"--see good commentary on the Testament of Youth blog, here) of their own--a line from a poem of Roland's that acknowledges his (partial) awareness of their helpless, poetry-addled plight. The force of "may," here is future subjunctive... The poetry is a snippet from William Henley. As best as I can guess, this is the century-back equivalent of quoting from "Wish You Were Here." Or, possibly, the seven-or-eight-decades-back version, and I am old and ignorant of today's sentimental refrains...
  2. Letters of a Lost Generation, 150-1.
  3. Letters of a Lost Generation, 149.
  4. The Letters of Donald Hankey, 305-6.

Henry Williamson Speeds Phillip Maddison to an Embarrassment of Rich Folk; A Mammoth and a Bath for Rowland Feilding; Donald Hankey on Morale; Charles Sorley is Changed; Roland Leighton is Back in France, Believing and Unbelieving

Soon, Roland Leighton‘s first post-engagement letter from France. But first, updates on four others I have been neglecting.

It’s been quite a while since we’ve checked in with Henry Williamson. It’s a pity, too, since his trajectory is nearly unique here, both as a Territorial amateur who saw action in the Fall and as a young man of middling class status who has now won a commission (without demonstrating anything in the way of officerly self-possession). A great pity, really, since no one wrote their war quite like he did: first a long series of letters home, many of them quite unreliable, then an exhausting series of novels that both closely follow the events of his life and make significant changes to his war experiences–the combined effect is like a memoir fused with historical fiction.

But even overstuffed novels like his rarely dilate on actual dates, and there has been a long stretch now in which both his own activities and those of his altered fictional self have been frustratingly adrift in spring and summer, never alighting on a single day. So we’ll take any excuse that we can get.

Williamson, stationed at Newmarket for several months now as a subaltern attached to the Cambridgeshire Regiment, has responded to social discomfort by doubling down on his ill-chosen identity as a hail-fellow and carouser. So too his fictional self: there are several long chapters of A Fox Under My Cloak set in the spring and summer of 1915, and Williamson makes a bitter comedy of the string of would-be friends and mechanics who lure “Phillip Maddison” into overpaying for one questionable motorcycle after another. These Maddison then rides around producing as much noise as possible. A teenager.

Today, a century back, Williamson was stopped by a constable for speeding–“quite 25 miles an hour”–and issued a summons. Typically, he avoided facing the music, sending a letter pleading illness when his court date came up. He will be fined £1 as “a warning to some of the other young ‘bloods’ in the army who are rushing about on motor bicycles.”[1]

So that dates us, today, but I want to work back a bit into Williamson’s exposition of these first few months as a new officer, a “temporary gentleman” in the scathing contemporary phrase. The novel at this stage is slow, intermittently funny, and squirmingly painful. We watch as one innocent, idiotic young officer constantly stumbles and then seems to will himself into greater and greater pratfalls. The effect is a little like Blackadder played by Ricky Gervais, except with an even higher ratio of squirm to chuckle.

But David Brent, at least, ran the office. Phillip Maddison is not only the youngest and most foolish subaltern in his new unit, but he becomes the almost perfect foil for a nasty group of quicker, cleverer, socially assured officers. He had, like Williamson himself, wangled a commission in an unfashionable regiment, but one in which, presumably, a young ex-clerk without a Public School background would not be entirely out of place. Unfortunately, he is loaned out, for training purposes, to the Cambridgeshire Regiment, which seems to have so far remained an unreconstructed bastion of the squirearchy. Phillip says all the wrong things and, as always, responds to ever belated perception of a yawning gulf in his understanding by taking a blind leap.

Fox hunting comes up, and Phillip implies that he too has hunted. He is immediately and remorselessly cross-examined by one of his tormentors, and has to admit that he has lied. He fails to pick up on the Public School-like rules of the mess, and then mistakes “Trout Mayonnaise” (good god) for the main course and takes half of it before the other officers have been served. He overhears himself being called a “blasted little cockney” and disastrously escalates the not-so-micro-aggressions of the cool clique into a fraternity-like hazing battle, which he must wage alone. He persistently ignores the sage of advice of a calm older officer who tries to save him from persecution, and is subjected to a kangaroo court “court martial” after which his tormentors serve him with a letter demanding that he leave the battalion or resign his commission.

This nasty assortment of Crabbe and Goyles is led by the perfect villain, Maddison’s company commander, an

eighteen-year-old captain, known to everyone, except Phillip, as “the infant Hercules.” He had left school at Christmas, and seemed to be a favourite of the colonel, because he wrote sonnets and read Greek poets in the original, as well as having been the captain of his school, the rugger fifteen and the cricket eleven. He was fair, blue-eyed, with a pink and white complexion…

It’s Draco Malfoy meets Rupert Brooke. As a matter of fact, being in Cambridgeshire, Brooke makes an appearance of sorts: the colonel–an, old horsey, donnish sort who is infatuated with the Infant Hercules–knew the great fallen poet himself, and is still wearing a black crepe band in mourning.

All this is laying on the trout mayonnaise a little thick. As Williamson generally does. His time with the real life Cambridgeshires can’t have been quite as awful as Phillip Maddison’s time with the “Gaultshires,” but it might have been close. Interestingly, Williamson mixes chapters in which he is at pains to show Phillip’s humiliations with others in which the emphasis falls on his native innocent enthusiasm, which–when coupled with his poor social instincts and broad spectrum anxieties–leads to joy as well as disaster. “Life is a spree,” Phillip thinks, as he tears about town on his motorcycle, making (socially inappropriate) friends and courting the local girls.

If Williamson were a more subtle novelist, it would be hard to relate his character to his historical self. As it is, we can use today’s motorcycle incident to posit a rough correlation. The bike was real, as was the speeding (the statutory limit, in the horsey town of Newmarket, was ten miles an hour!), but in the novel there is an added bit of business about his machine’s lack of a silencer, which earns him a second citation.

This, surely, is a roaring, clanking great metaphor for Williamson/Maddison’s inability to keep quiet. And how does Maddison solve the problem? He thinks it will be amusing if he welds a coffee percolator over the exhaust of his bike, to serve as a sort of attention-grabbing silencer…

So, Henry Williamson was cited for speeding. And he tacked on the silencer in the fictional retelling–life, and art!

But he is also keeping up with a much more significant change to his life-as-novel: in the fall of 1914 he had put Phillip Maddison with a different Territorial battalion (i.e. one with a different war record than a fictionalized version of his real-life battalion would have had) in order to bring him to the first battle of Ypres, when in reality Williamson only arrived in time for the last few skirmishes of the campaign’s close. Now, although (in historical reality) his period as an officer in training will continue into the fall, he is preparing to send Phillip Maddison out in time for Loos, the fall offensive.

Today’s motorcycle incident, therefore, is moved up to May, leaving plenty of time for Phillip to continue to antagonize his persecutors. After the “court martial,” in fact, the fictional bildungsbumbler will draft a letter of resignation and leave it under his blotter, intending to throw it away later. But this, of course, is a novel, and even declassé subalterns have busybody servants…  We’ll see Phillip in France next month.[2]

 

There is too much to get to today to dwell on a mere “life in billets” letter from Rowland Feilding to his wife, but it would be bad form to skip it just because it is so pleasant. Life in billets can be both pleasant and interesting, at least for an optimistic officer of the Guards:

August 26, 1915. Lumbres

I write from by far the most luxurious billet I have slept in since I came to France; where my hosts, M. and Mme. Avot Pierret, to say nothing of their small son and daughter, are so kind and hospitable that they make me feel like an invited guest…

You should see our comfortable bedrooms and the fine linen, and the bathroom, electric-lighted, with the mat and the clean white towels carefully laid out by the neat little French maids each time we have a bath. It is the first time I have washed in a bathroom since I came to the war, and you can imagine the joy of it!

The Company mess is nearly opposite, in the house of a doctor, M. Pontiet, a palaeontologist, who has what must be one of the best private Collections in France of relics of the earliest human period. These include numerous implements of the Stone Age and the bones and teeth, etc., of the contemporary animals, principally mammoths, a set-up skeleton of a specimen of which towers above us as we sit and eat…

What is going to happen next none of us know. There are bound to be lots of changes due to the organization of the new Guards Division. If it is my lot to go elsewhere, I shall be sorry but not surprised. I have already overstayed the average. Before I came. No. 4 Company ran through, I believe, six Captains in six months.

Anyhow, whatever happens, it will be nice to remember that I have commanded a company of Coldstreamers for over three months of the war. And they have been very happy months indeed.

At times I have felt some feeling of despondency and isolation, since I am an old man compared to the boys with whom I associate. But I have, I think, got on well with them, and I have had unswerving support from one and all, and there is much satisfaction in that.[3]

There must be. At 34, Feilding is on the old side for a battalion officer, and the hackneyed witticism will be only too true: he will only get older, and they will only get younger.

 

Speaking of old folks, it turns out that Donald Hankey has an elder (by seven years) brother who serves in the highest ranks of the civil service, currently as secretary to the War Council. Therefore we may believe it when an editor assures us that Donald’s report from the New Armies, below, made it to the desk of Lord Kitchener himself. This is no mediation on heroism or the spiritual challenges of warfare, but a frank and informative report on the morale of the men in the ranks.

Dear Maurice,

I was talking to a reservist the other day who came over from Australia with the first Contingent, and came on to rejoin his old unit. From his description it is evident that the Australians were, judged by an English standpoint, undisciplined. Given their character I say it is a good thing that their indiscipline was put up with. I don’t say the same method would have worked with the New Army, for the English character is less aggressive; but I do say that in the New Army discipline has destroyed individuality.

The men will do anything–if they are told to. But they do it passively, wishing they hadn’t got to. There is no funking; but there is very little individual enthusiasm. Most men are glad if they get a wound which will render them unfit for future service, even if it involves the loss of a limb…

In the English army if one uses one’s common sense one is usually checked–though if one doesn’t use it one may be checked too! But on the whole individuality is discouraged. Moreover, the officers do not take the men into their confidence sufficiently to enable them to understand what they are doing. One is generally acting blindly. The principle seems to be–keep your men’s attention fixed on trifles, and they won’t worry about matters too high for them. However–this is enough…

Your aff. brother,

Donald[4]

 

Charles Sorley is next, straining his strained mental faculties to return a letter to his friend Arthur Watts:

26 August 1915

Your letter arrived and awoke the now drifting ME to consciousness…

Were it not for the dangers dancing attendance on the adjourning type of mind–which a year’s military training has not been able to efface from me–I should not be writing to you now. For it is just after breakfast–and you know what breakfast is: putter to sleep of all mental energy and discontent: charmer, sedative, leveller: maker of Britons. I should wait till after tea when the undiscriminating sun has shown his back–a fine back–on the world, and one’s self by the aid of tea has thrown off the mental sleep of heat. But after tea I am on duty. So with bacon in my throat and my brain like a poached egg I will try to do you justice.

On the whole–except for the subtle distinction that I am at the front, you not (merely a nominal distinction for the present)–I am disposed to envy you. I am moving smally to and fro over an unblessed stretch of plain–a fly on a bald man’s head. You are at least among rich surroundings…

Note–and I think I read this right–that amidst the gentle humor Sorley acknowledges unironically that the good part of his status relative to his friend is that he–Sorley–is at least at the front. He means, perhaps, not so much that he finds trench duty to be perfectly amiable and excellent (although that would be the simplest reading) but that it is, ipso facto, enviable–after all, most of the young subalterns still in England are capable of feeling “heartbroken” at being left behind. He’s acknowledging the envy of the innocent, not expressing an opinion of an experienced officer…

No evident disenchantment. Good thing. But Sorley will do his best to brush the heroic scales from our eyes:

I wonder how long it takes the King’s Pawn, who so proudly initiates the game of chess, to realize that he is a pawn. Same with us. We are finding out that we play the unimportant if necessary part. At present a dam, untested, whose presence not whose action stops the stream from approaching: and then a mere handle to steel: dealers of death which we are not allowed to plan…. It is something to have no responsibility–an inglorious ease of mind.

So half-lit nights with the foam and flotsam of the world–here we have only the little ordered breakers that lap pleasantly merry on the English shores–has its charm to the imagination. Possibly its romance fades by experience and leaves a taste of damp blotting-paper in the mouth as of one who has slept with his mouth–open.

Sorley, in a more ornate style now, turns next to the question of wartime friendship–“comradeship,” perhaps. He could almost be a perfect counterpart to the elder Feilding’s comments, above.

But yet these men–and women–whom you meet must by their very needs and isolations be more distinct and living than the very pleasant officers with whom I live. Very pleasant they are: humorous, vivacious and good comrades: but some have never entered, most perhaps have entered and now keep locked and barred,

The heart’s heart whose immurèd plot
Hath keys yourself keep not.[5]

They have stifled their loneliness of spirit till they scarcely know it, seeking new easy unexacting companionships. They are surface wells. Not two hundred feet deep, so that you can see the stars at the bottom…

Yet here there is enough to stay the bubbling surface stream. Looking into the future one sees a holocaust somewhere: and at present there is–thank God–enough of “experience” to keep the wits edged (a callous way of putting it, perhaps).

Well there we have it–experience is to be valued. Even if it is a terrifying, death-defying experience. Sorley now more or less ratifies the “blithe warrior” image shared by one who had seen him after a bloody patrol. Was I hoping for something else?

But out in front at night in that no-man’s land and long graveyard there is a freedom and a spur. Rustling of the grasses and grave tap-tapping of distant workers: the tension and silence of encounter, when one struggles in the dark for moral victory over the enemy patrol: the wail of the exploded bomb and the animal cries of wounded men. Then death and the horrible thankfulness when one sees that the next man is dead: “We won’t have to carry him in under fire, thank God; dragging will do”: hauling in of the great resistless body in the dark, the smashed head rattling: the relief, the relief that the thing has ceased to groan: that the bullet or bomb that made the man an animal has now made the animal a corpse.

O.K. Freedom in danger–o.k. Even a “spur.” This makes psychological sense, even if it is terrible, a shame. And we might say, at least, that he is remembering and recording the horrors of war. He does not let himself off easily with the sweet relief of learning a man is dead, and not wounded, a burden. Instead he forces himself (and us) to face what this means. So he is preserving his sensitivity–right?

One is hardened by now: purged of all false pity: perhaps more selfish than before. The spiritual and the animal get so much more sharply divided in hours of encounter, taking possession of the body by swift turns.

And now I have 200 letters to censor before the post goes…. You’ll write again, won’t you, as soon as the mood comes after tea? And good health to you.[6]

Nothing, I suppose, could be more obvious than this–war does terrible things even to those who survive.

 

So. It is something, after all, that Roland–socially awkward, with no personal experience of sane adult women, challenged by the apparent flightiness of this young woman he loves, in the very presence of the school friends and inexperienced officers who look up to him–was able to accept Vera‘s demand that he discuss even his horrifying experiences with her.

Vera and Roland are young intellectuals–this fact is essential to each one’s self-image, and to their joint project. Their principled doubt, their resistance to cant and propriety (slight though it may be), their struggle to apply reason to unreasonable circumstances. All that. But, of course, acknowledge or deny it, it’s true that they are romantics both. How could you not be, a century back, if you are reader, but not a cynic; an adult (however young) but innocent of the realities of adult relationships? And after the little romantic whirlwind of Roland’s leave, even this most earnest of prefect/scholar/subalterns finds his grip on reality loosened. All that in less than a week? And now the trenches again?[7] Rationality is going to be a tough sell.

In Billets, France, 26 August 19132.10 p.m.

I got back here at about 11.30 a.m. this morning after a rather tiring journey by train and motor. I found your long letter waiting for me. It was so strange in a way to read something that you had written before you saw me and when my coming back at all was only problematical. And now it seems to count for so little that I did come back after all, so little that I saw and talked with what was no longer a dream but a reality and found in My Lady of the Letters a flesh and blood Princess.

Did we dream it after all, dearest? No; for if we had it would not have hurt so much. I am feeling very weary and very very triste–rather like (as is said of Lyndall)[8] ‘a child whom a long day’s play has saddened’. And it is all so unreal–even the moon and the sea last night. All is unreal but the memory and the pain and the insatiable longing for Something which one has loved.

There is sunshine on the trees in the garden and a bird is singing behind the hedge. I feel as if someone had uprooted my heart to see how it was growing.[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A. Williamson, Henry Williamson, 67-8.
  2. A Fox Under My Cloak, 168-177.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 33-4.
  4. The Letters of Donald Hankey, 307-8.
  5. From F. Thompson's "A Fallen Yew."
  6. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 303-6.
  7. So this, I would say, has been one of the first real tests of what I once blusteringly suggested might be a novel contribution of this project to capital-H History: we get a chance to absorb a historical experience as it unrolls, imperfectly (in the grammatical sense). In real time. It was a few memorable days for Roland, and, then, for us. How different is the reading/learning experience (i.e. the "[re]constructing history, from facts, in our heads" experience) than the usual weeks-in-minutes experience of reading condensed history?
  8. A character in their touchstone book, The Story of an African Farm.
  9. Letters of a Lost Generation, 145.

Charles Carrington is Heartbroken; Robert Nichols is Summoned to an Unknown and Hazardous Bourne

We check in today with two of our less familiar New Army subalterns, both members of the 23rd Division, a unit formed largely of “K3” volunteers–Kitchener’s third “hundred thousand.” One is eager to go, and one apprehensive. So, naturally, it will all work out.

Young Charles Carrington of the 9th York and Lancasters was sent for this morning, a century back. His colonel personally delivered the very worst of news:

in accordance with a regulation beyond his control I was to be left behind, even though he had given me a good ‘confidential report’. Well, I was still only eighteen years old, and didn’t look a year older as I pretended to be. Anyone would have been disappointed but I was more than that; I was heartbroken…

I felt finished, disgraced, and my war over, though it had not yet begun.

And that, friends, is why you have no idea who Charles Carrington is. Of course, the fact that he was left behind when his regiment’s contribution to the 23rd Division was sent to France probably spared him his life, at least for a while. Carrington could not know that the 9th would be roughly handled over the winter and in the 1916 fighting–but he could have assumed it. Eager for the slaughter though he may be, he will remain in England until officers are needed to fill out additional battalions of the York and Lanks.[1]

But when he does get to France (early next year, I believe), we will follow him more closely. Carrington rewards close study because he wrote a good book about his experiences–and then another. So, while we’re here, let’s make use of them. The later book is the one I’ve quoted above, but he discusses today’s disappointment in the earlier memoir as well. His personal misfortune also provides a good reminder of how the regimental system functioned.

Each regiment of the army had its own traditions, recruitment area, and social status (although the latter two were somewhat flexible). Most regiments had provided two Regular battalions, a Reserve battalion or two, a Territorial battalion, and maintained a depot for training and organizational purposes. But in the past year most of these regiments had raised at least a few–and some as many as ten or twelve–“Service” battalions, i.e. not units intended for home defense but rather battalions of volunteers training for overseas service in the present war. Which is to say New Army or “Kitchener’s Army” units. Many of these had haphazardly acquired too many eager officers or were otherwise lopsided. Thus it was up to the regimental authorities, rather than the central bureaucracy of the war office, to decide how to produce properly formed battalions. Of the various various methods used, leaving behind the obvious teenagers seems hardly the worse. Those left behind, however, could not expect a quick posting to some other battalion in the next division to be sent overseas. They were stuck instead with whatever not-yet-up-to-snuff formations their current regiment had.

It was a grave shock to find myself left behind as too young. From the glory of a service battalion, where everyone assumed that everyone else was keen and efficient, I was dropped into the wretchedness of a reserve battalion populated by all the failures and faint-hearts, where the stout fellows had only one interest in life: to escape to France. Here a truth came to light. The further from the sound of the guns, the lower was morale. In the most dangerous places you found the best men.[2]

This is quite a broad claim. First, it must be (briefly) explained that Carrington will remain very much undisenchanted, and thus his “failures and faint-hearts” are set against his high opinion of those early Kitchener’s Army units. Perhaps the very first (K1, or the units of the “First Hundred Thousand”) were generally composed of enthusiastic, healthy men, but many of our writers have developed a low opinion even of  some of these. Chaotic enlistment and amateur officers of widely varying quality could create some troublesome battalions. (Roland Leighton, for instance, was at pains to transfer from one battalion to another, and seems to have had a low opinion of its readiness for war.) And then, of course, once measures were taken to separate the willing from the chary (or the men from the boys) the formations left behind might be very problematic indeed.

Carrington’s views on the lesser (or later) battalions of the county regiments were fairly widely held. Many men of the middle classes had volunteered either out of an excess of sudden zeal or out of a sense of social pressure–this was the place to be, the club of clubs, the necessary qualification for future success in society and business. And many of these, naturally, found ways to filter (junior officers were often subject to the whims of the War Office, but they had far more control over their lives than any “Other Ranks”) away from those units that looked ready for deployment and toward the halt, the lame, and the desk-jobbing. There will come a time in the war when many officers–some effectively psychologically disabled, whether it was recognized or not–were promoted out of combat units or allowed to accept non-combat positions with their honor entirely intact. But not yet–it may be Year Two for the exhausted units of the Regular Army, and the shine is off those Reserve and even the first-deployed New Army units, but for many eager young men it remains true that “glory” can only be found in France, and everything else leaves them feeling inadequate, and suspect. Eagerness is not the only requisite of good soldiering–but it’s a strong start. And whatever opinion one held of the wheat, Carrington was sure he had been left among the chaff.

 

And yet potentially valuable officers might possess more complex feelings about being sent to France. Robert Nichols has already managed a successful poem expressing–nobly, reservedly–his desire to perform well and his dread that, confronted with the test of battle, he might not. In prose he is even more forthright: “I thought I should be killed.” And yet in later writing he would belie, too, the faux maturity of his poetic invocation:

What we felt was exaltation. Beyond that there was a blank… the only alternative to the unimaginable was something decisive,–an event resembling the descent of a great beam of light… And the name of that resplendence was death.

But that was later. At the time, he approached these thoughts through verse. Verse is better: it elevates your feelings and at the same time keeps them at more of a distance. It’s a pair of blacksmith’s tongs, allowing these volatile, molten emotions to be safely, if clumsily, handled at a distance. Here is a bit of one of Nichols’ ‘Five Sonnets upon Imminent Departure’:

If it should hap, I being summoned hence
To an unknown and all too hazardous bourne.
One should bring news charged with this heavy sense:
He has gone further and cannot return…

See, it doesn’t sound so bad.

In any event, boy Carrington was left behind, while Nichols, four years older, was summoned hence. Leaving camp in the early morning hours today, a century back, by nightfall he and the rest of D Battery, 104th Brigade Royal Field Artillery, were already aboard ship.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 76.
  2. A Subaltern's War, 19.
  3. Putting Poetry First, 42-3.

Vera Brittain on Those Left Behind; Charles Sorley at Long Leg; Alan Seeger Takes a Roundabout Route to an Anniversary; Bim Tennant is in Great Spirits; The Congreve Clan Mills About Hooge, From General to Scout

A very long post today–but there’s a novel sort of child-endangerment to reward persistent readers at the end. Meanwhile, normal life resumed, today for Vera Brittain. But can it, quite?

Tuesday August 24th

I went back to the Hospital, and because all interest in it had gone, tried all the harder to think it was interesting. At 6.0 Mother & Father came home, having been on a wild goose chase. Edward’s battalion had certainly gone out, but he himself, to his great disgust, had been left behind with 8 other subalterns including Thurlow to be attached to the 13th Sherwood Foresters (which is the reserve battalion at Lichfield). The reason for this was that the 11th had 38 officers and 8 had to be left behind. These were not necessarily the least competent or the youngest, but the ones the C.O. liked least. Edward has never been able to get on with him, and Thurlow has had this dislike reflected on him. Both Edward & the C.O. are probably to blame. Edward says he is shifty & not a gentleman, and probably shows he thinks so rather more than discipline admits as wise. He means to try for the Artillery again but I do not suppose that will be much good & he will just have to wait till they send him somewhere, whether he waits six weeks or six months.

When we were going to bed I told the family I was engaged to Roland. They received it first as unsympathetically as I expected; I don’t mean this was because of Roland as they both like him as well as they could like anyone so completely above their understanding. But they would have adopted the same attitude towards my engagement to whoever it had been. Father with his usual tactfulness said it seemed very ridiculous because of course Roland wouldn’t come back. I felt inwardly very angry indeed but merely said I thought that all the more reason for being engaged to him while he did exist.

Dear lord. Although it makes me wish it were possible to see Papa Brittain through eyes other than his daughter’s. Can he be this hurtful and obtuse? Or, allowing a more charitable interpretation, how bumbling, really, are his attempts to save his daughter pain?

Vera, perhaps, needs the spark of parental adversaries just now. Is the familiar pressure of opposition better than leaning into the emptiness of potential loss?

But it is a consolation to me to think that I am privileged beyond anything they have ever known, in loving Roland & being loved. Neither of them has the vaguest notion of the love of man and woman & its glory & inspiration and sacrifice.[1]

She suppresses all this in today’s letter to Roland, only asking after their original connection, the friend and brother whose military career has been so rocky so far:

Buxton, 24 August 1915

Apparently Edward is not going out with the battalion. They have 8 supernumerary officers and the Division has suddenly refused to have more than 30 going out with each battalion… Apparently he is very depressed about it all and has mad ideas of trying again for the Artillery. Write to him and find out for yourself about it…

Tell me honestly, does this eliminating him mean he is not much good or that the Colonel doesn’t like him–or is it just luck? I want to know really what you think…  I am sure he’s not a bad officer–he is too keen for that.

Roland, still in London on the last day of his leave, is in much better spirits–it’s a gentler transition then being suddenly thrown back upon the starchy bosom of one’s provincial home. (A slight irony: usually it’s the soldiers who are bewildered by the plunging transition from the normalcy of home into the cautery of battle, and vice versa.)

The Howard Hotel, London, 24 August 1915

In a way I am glad that I am going back tomorrow. If I cannot be with you I prefer to be as far away as possible. How much would I not give to be able to hold you and kiss you again even for a moment! And not being able to, I feel an insane desire to rush back to France before I need, and leave all to memory as all that matters is already left.

I have just written to your Father. It is entirely informative–not interrogative, and merely a brief & slightly formal notification of what the world is pleased to call our engagement. I should prefer that the world knew nothing about it; but that unfortunately is impossible.[2]

So. They are engaged–on their own finicky, hifalutin’ terms–and the leave is over. I feel almost as drained as Vera. But there’s a war on, and duty calls.

 

Having been overwhelmed with Buxton, Lowestoft, and London, it’s time to catch up with a few of our soldiers stationed at points further east. First, Charles Sorley, who wrote a brief note to his mother today, a century back:

24 August 1915

Our work and routine is still the same as ever. We are like the fielder who is put at long leg when a good batsman is at the wicket: not because the batsman will ever hit a ball there, but because, if the fielder in question were to be removed, he would…

This is the best argument I have yet read for the unique usefulness of cricket as a source for tactical analogy. Then again, I haven’t really pursued that quest…

Thanks also for the books. There are now enough to keep our Company Mess going for some time, as time for reading is nearly as limited as time for writing–but by no means quite as much so, because one is often free from duty but in a state in which output is an effort but absorption easy and delightful.[3]

A good reminder both of the importance of reading and the difficulty of writing–our letters are rarely written on the worst days, or in the most exhausted of states. They sing an upbeat song of life in the trenches.

 

And Alan Seeger, his regiment of the Foreign Legion pulled from the line weeks ago for reorganization, is on the move again–or seems to be. We’ll jump back a century and four days and pick up his diary:

August 20.–We were ordered to be in readiness at any moment… Got off shortly after four. Marched to Auxelles-Bas, where, branching to the right, all prospect of going toward Thann and the theatre of fighting near Munster was dissipated.

A beautiful morning as we crossed the continental divide, which separates the waters that flow into the Rhône and the Mediterranean from those that fall into the Rhine and the gray North Sea. Eastward into the sunrise stretched away the fair plains of Alsace. Moments of memorable emotion as we marched singing down the winding road that led us off to this glorious goal…

I am sitting now under a giant pear tree on a green slope outside the town, enjoying the most beautiful landscape as it fades away gradually in the dying daylight. Wide lowlands stretch away–fields of richest green, cultivated acres, hamlets, groves–bounded toward the southeast by the “many-folded mountains” of Switzerland that rise, crest after crest, each one more faint, toward the far clouds pink in the sunset. The boom of the cannon can be heard, more distant now, in Alsace. Two captive balloons are up along the line of the front. An aeroplane returns toward Belfort from a reconnaissance beyond the lines. A convoi of motor lorries raises the dust along the white road eastward. Automobiles dash back and forth. Exquisite peaceful summer evening. The green on forest and field has not begun to be browned yet, but already in the evenings the chill of Autumn is beginning to be felt. Moments of peace, sweet melancholy, resignation, self-content…

Seeger is keeping his hand in with some natural description and beautiful writing, yes–but he’s also preparing himself for the Next Big Thing, for a potentially heroic role in a late summer offensive. But soldiering rarely works out so prettily.

August 24.–Likelihood of an offensive in Alsace is not so good now. The reason we came here was to put in six days work on the second line defenses, each regiment in the division doing its turn. This done, we return, they say, to Plancher-Bas! We have already done two days hard labor renovating a second line trench…

News of the fall of Kovno makes these times very grave. This means the breaking up of the last Russian line of defence and the beginning of an indefinite retreat into the interior. How much of this army will be destroyed or fall into the hands of the Germans, as a result of this latest manoeuvre, remains to be seen. Things look badly for the Allies. The only hope of ultimate victory that I can see is the Balkan States marching with us. Today is the anniversary of my enlistment.[4]

 

Let’s catch up as well with Bim Tennant, newly deployed Grenadier Lieutenant, loving and beloved son. Back two days to the first of the inevitable Transactional Parcel Request Letters. But then, in a series of quick paragraphs, he hits almost every other note familiar from others’ early letters home:

Sunday, 22nd August

Darling Moth’,

The lovely parcel from Fortnum & Mason has just come, and very welcome too. Langley didn’t put in my valise the lovely oilskin sheet convertible to a cloak, which we bought. Will you inquire concerning it?

I am extremely happy here, and rode today with Flick (Fletcher) two miles out to lunch with the 1st Battalion, which was very nice. I am very lucky to be in his Company, he is the nicest Captain I have ever had over me, and if one or two people go sick (as they may being not thoroughly recovered from their wounds) he will be second in command, and I shall command the Company, which would be great for me, wouldn’t it?

He just sounds so young. So young. Does he worry that mother worries?

I wouldn’t be anywhere else but here, for the world, darling Moth’, I am on the highroad of my life! and any deviation therefrom would break my heart.

By the way, please send me my camera and some films. Aeroplanes buzz round here all day, and this morning I heard big guns for the first time. I crossed myself.

A notable step of the “approach” narrative. The requests for comforts and luxuries, the assurance of perfect happiness, then the assurance of perfect faith. He bounces back and forth between these two themes now. This letter, after so many stately, patiently composed (and/or diligently edited?) missives, puts me in mind of Henry Williamson–all that sentence-by-sentence bouncing about.

I saw Oliver Lyttleton in St. Omer; he is on some one’s staff. I wouldn’t have a staff job for anything…

Doth he protest too much? I doubt it. I think this is legitimate high spirits, rather than a sense of creeping guilt that his enthusiasm is directly related to the chance that his family will have to cope with bitter bereavement. He’s just so excited! God be praised who has kept us off the staff and away from boring, safe postings in this hour!

We couldn’t get a padre this morning, so we all made dozens of copies of “O God, our help,” and “Nearer, my God, to Thee,” and Flick conducted a very nice little service…

Hoping to see you in two or three months’ time, God bless you, darling Moth’.

Your devoted Son,
Bimbo

Something like Henry Williamson, although in place of the abrading self-doubt and confessions of fear we have brimming confidence. And, as far as we can tell, a much happier family. And, yes, a well-connected, gently bred family as well:

Tuesday night,
24th August, 1915
Darling Moth’,

I am still very well and in great spirits. The Divisional General (Lord Cavan) sent for me yesterday and shook hands with me, and said he was glad I was doing so well and that he was sure I’d be a great Grenadier: he asked me my age and so forth…[5]

Yes–and did he note down your name as a promising future company commander, or did he betake himself to a private chamber to weep at the pity of sending a boy into an endless war of attrition?

 

Speaking of well-connected families, time now too to look in on Billy Congreve. And who do we find with him but the entire Congreve clan, minus Mater. Two weeks ago Billy was dining with Dads after his (Dads’) 6th Division recaptured the Hooge crater. On the 15th he was once again free for dinner, and learned that his younger brother Geoff, a midshipman on leave, was visiting. Visiting the actual trenches, in and around the charnel house of Hooge. Young Geoff

saw all the gruesome sights there were to be seen. He came back with various Boche loot and intends taking the articles back to his battleship.

This is a strange sort of portent, for where Geoff went as a tourist, Billy and the 3rd Division soon returned to fight, and work. He wrote out his frustrations on the 21st:

Here we are, holding Hooge again. We hoped against hope that we were on the Canal line for the winter… Now all our work goes into others’ hands and we come to this beastly place, where everything has to be done over again.

Hooge is in a poor way… The dead bodies, old and new, made everything so fearfully slow, for one cannot dig a yard without coming on some grim relic which has either to be reburied or dug round…

The following day the family’s ranks were once again reinforced. This is a bit hard to believe, but, apparently, the 3rd Congreve boy–Christopher–also visited Dads. He was on the continent for the summer and was now to stay with his Father in and around Ypres for a few weeks. He was in uniform, so visiting the front lines to see the sites (and the occasional shell) was easily arranged.

Although it was a boy scout uniform–Christopher Congreve was twelve.

This sort of whimsical insanity we can’t linger on–there is too much singular fatuousness to get to.

Yesterday, Billy Congreve was taking stock of the line around Hooge. The front-line trenches were now so close to each other that no patrols were needed to bomb the enemy positions. There were “at least 250 dead Boches and a good many of our fellows” in the bottom of the crater.

I heard today that we are likely to have to do a further attack on this front. Of all places to choose on the British front, I suppose this is the worst. I only hope the General puts his heels in and refuses point-blank to do any such mad thing.

Well, let’s bring ourselves up to date…. what would you guess he wrote today?  Can we guess?

24th August

There is no doubt that we are to do this attack. General Allenby was here again today, and I suppose has bullied the General into the job…

This is bad news. And awful generalship, from the myopia and bull-headedness to the social dynamic: a bad choice is pressed upon a senior commander by means of a “bullying” superior.

It’s worse news strategically, and among the first of the many harbingers we will have of the next Offensive, at Loos.

I believe that our show is merely to co-operate with something big down south, which will mean the old game of not getting enough gun ammunition. Apparently modern tactics call for these feint attacks, though I can’t see that they do any good.[6]

 

And one last note, symptomatic and symbolic of a campaign in its death throes: today, a century back, Aubrey Herbert was evacuated from Gallipoli with advanced dysentery.[ref]Fitzherbert, The Man Who Was Greenmantle,
167.[/ref]

 

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 264-5.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 144-5.
  3. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 301-3.
  4. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 148-51.
  5. Glenconner, Letters from my Sons, 2-7.
  6. Armageddon Road, 166-8.

Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton: A Desperate Kiss as the Train Departs; Edward Thomas Updates Robert Frost: Lonely in the Ranks, but Content; Max Plowman Has Had Enough of Ambulances, and Argues for Muscular Pacifism

Updates today on Edward Thomas and Max Plowman, but first, the end of the (in-person) affair, as Vera and Roland spend their last day together. His leave will go on for two days, but hers–granted at the last minute from a sympathetic supervisor at the Devonshire Hospital–is up in the morning. They must part today–for months, at least.

After a farewell to Mr. Leighton and the younger siblings at the station–marked by the old man’s impulsive decision to kiss Vera goodbye–the two lovers took a train to London. Accompanying them was the redoubtable Mrs. Leighton–but she, at least, had some business of her own.

Mrs Leighton to interview her publishers & Roland & I to do some shopping. He & I went off both rather subdued. It was almost painful to be alone together when the knowledge of the impending parting lay like a cloud upon us. With the memory of the previous evening at Lowestoft in our minds, I think we both felt that the only satisfactory way to spend those few last hours would be in some quiet solitary place, where love could ease its desperate pain a little by expressing itself, and perhaps break through that foolish shyness of ours, which even these days had not been able to dispel, once and for all. The knowledge that we had only such a short time left, and even that had to be spent in the publicity of London shops and streets, had a tantalising effect that was irritating & jarring. I had that desperate feeling of wishing it were all over and done with that always enters the present for me when something I hate is going to happen in the near future. I find it hard enough to learn to live for the day, as one must in these times; I find it quite impossible to live for the hour.

Roland went to various shops making small purchases while I waited for him in the taxi. Then I had my V.A.D. coat measured at Hobson’s, where he bought a few more things. I let him choose a pipe for himself at Dunlop’s, so that he would be sure to get one he really liked, & then to his complete surprise insisted on giving it to him with a small brown suede case to keep it in. Next we wandered round looking for a periscope for Edward, and finally landed at a shop where we abandoned the search for periscopes and Roland bought a vicious-looking short steel dagger—in case of—accidents. He handled it with great deliberation, and professional interest, wondering whether it would do for getting between someone’s ribs or not. To see the thing in cold blood & think of its use made me shudder. I talked to him afterwards of the horrible wound it would make and the unpleasant sound of its being drawn out, and though he took an almost morbid delight in playing with it, he admitted that he thought he could not use it himself except under the fierce excitement & madness of hand-to-hand fighting. The sight of this dagger in the hand of one of the most civilized people of these ironically-named civilized times depressed me to morbidness also, and half for professional, half for purely morbid reasons, I made him promise if he got wounded to let me see the wound…

This is one of those areas in which the whole repressed Edwardian/Late Victorian childhood thing takes on an almost medieval cast. Better that, at least, than modern: we could focus on Roland’s civilized reserve and his contemplation of frenzied dagger penetration, or we could move on to Vera’s fixation with the wounds of her exalted beloved.

After a slight disagreement over a present or roses and a long digression about Vera’s principled objection to engagement rings–which she sees as symbolic of male possession of the female–they returned to their hotel.

A gloom seemed to have settled upon us more deadly than actual sharp pain. Finally Mrs Leighton came in, and we were soon joined by Mr Burgin, the author, with whom we had arranged to have tea…

Mrs Leighton, apparently, has a habit of meeting with her male admirers. But I don’t know enough, really, to cast any more certain aspersions.

Is Roland having a good time, I wonder?

Roland played absently with his dagger, but he spoke very little, and I still less. I had to catch the 6.30 from St. Pancras and at last got up to depart. Mrs Leighton came to the door with Roland & me. She told me in the passage she didn’t feel he would be killed, but perhaps would get wounded some little wound, she hoped, that would bring him back to England for a time. He got into the taxi while I said goodbye to his Mother on the steps of the hotel. She told me that if I had any stories or articles any time that I wanted to try & publish, I was to send them to her, and she would give me all the help she could. Then she kissed me goodbye &, holding my hand, told me again in her sweet impulsive way that she liked me very much–really.

I felt as if I wanted to cry. So much I had meant to say to him was unsaid, and yet it seemed, as he agreed, to be no good saying any more. He said very bitterly that he didn’t want to go back to the front, and this glimpse of England and real life had made him hate France more than ever. I couldn’t believe I was really going to part from him; it was so queer to look at him with an earnestness that tried to commit to vivid memory his features, and to think that in little more than a few minutes they would only be an image in my mind.

Finally, at the station, they are alone:

At St. Pancras he wanted to pay for my ticket, but I wouldn’t let him, saying I must assert my independence more than ever now. Again I wished desperately it was over, and yet felt at the same time that for him to go away from me was quite impossible. Conversation was difficult & in jerks. I said I wondered if I should ever overcome my dislike of railway stations & he said decidedly “I never shall.’’

It was difficult to realise that what I had thought about so much–the possibility of finding a man whom I could love, which seemed so impossible–had really happened. “Roland, am I really engaged to you?” I said.

He looked down at me, his face very pale and a kind of quiet blaze in his dark eyes. “Yes” he said, in the low and rather musical tone of his deepest emotion…

When the time for getting into the train came near, the crowd of people round my carriage was very depressing. He said angrily he wished there weren’t other people in the world. I reminded him sadly of a sentence in the first letter he wrote me after we parted before. “Someday we shall live our roseate poem through–as we have dreamt it.” A little wistfully I said that it seemed further away now than ever. He only said “We must–we shall.”

The crowds are pressing in on the two young lovers, the world is weighing heavily upon them. There will be a slightly different tinge to this, in the later version:

…we had perforce to walk up and down the noisy platform, saying nothing of importance, and ferociously detesting the cheerful, chattering group round my carriage door.

“I wish to God there weren’t other people in the world!” he exclaimed irritably.

“I agree,” I said, and remarked wearily that I should have to put up with their pleasant company in a lighted dining-car all the way to Buxton.

“Oh, damn!” he responded.[1]

Improper? Articulately inarticulate? But there are beautiful things, still:

A stir in the crowd indicated the train’s imminent departure. I had made up my mind before that I would not kiss him on a crowded station, but the misery of farewell put that all out of my head and he at any rate was in a sort of despair, quite oblivious of the crowd. He stooped & kissed me passionately almost before I realised he had done it. I got up on the step of the carriage & he stood as near me as he could. He looked away from me a moment & dragging out his handkerchief furtively drew across his eyes. I hadn’t realised until then that this quiet & self-contained person was suffering so much. It was a revelation I would have given a great deal to have had before of his real feeling, & my own value to him. And I felt very sorry for him too, for I had not the least inclination to cry myself. To me it seems that while women make a great fuss about little things, when something happens that really matters we have absolute control of our emotions, but with men it is the other way about.

The whistle sounded & the crowd moved a little away from the door, but he still stood close to me and as the train began to move he pressed my hand almost violently, and, drawing my face down to his, kissed me again, more passionately than ever. And I kissed him, which I had never done before, and just managed to make myself whisper “Goodbye.” He said nothing at all, but turned quickly from me and began to walk rapidly down the platform. Although I had said I would not, I stood by the door as the train moved out of the station and watched him walking away through the crowd. But he never turned again. What I could see of his face was set and pale. It was over. . .[2]

 

Over. But don’t worry, folks, they were both writing to each other again before the evening was out.

London, 23 August 1915
7.0 p.m.

I could not look back dear child–I should have cried if I had. I am writing this in a stationary taxi drawn up in a corner of Russell Square.The driver thinks I am a little mad, I think, to hire him and then only sit inside without wanting to go anywhere at all… I don’t know what I want to do and don’t care for anything, except to get you back again; and that I cannot do–yet. How far it seems, sweet heart, till we may have our roseate poem through, as we have dreamed it so long.

I cannot write for the pain of it.
[Goodnight, dear Child, good night.]
Buxton, 23 August 1915
Midnight

When I arrived I found no one in the house but servants, one of whom informed me that Father had an overnight wire from Edward this morning to say he was going to France to-night. Father & Mother at once rushed off to Farnham on the chance of catching the regiment before it left, but even so they may have been too late. He has gone off even more suddenly than you did…

My thoughts keep racing feveredly from you to Edward & from Edward to you. So I must do something & writing to you is the only thing I am capable of doing at the moment. How it has all happened at once! . . .

I am trying to recall the warmth and strength of your hands as they held mine on the cliff at Lowestoft last night–so essentially You. It is all such a dream. Often as I have come home by the late train I have seen the moonlight shining over the mountains, but it has never looked quite the same as it did to-night. It is getting so
late.[3]

This is clearly a great moment–a great, potentially terrible moment–in their relationship. In the true story of their “relationship.” Vulgar contemporary word. Their love.

Vera will write a poem, soon, too:

St. Pancras Station, August 1915

One long, sweet kiss pressed close upon my lips,
One moment’s rest on your swift-beating heart,
And all was over, for the hour had come for us to part.

A sudden forward motion of the train,
The world grown dark although the sun still shone,
One last blurred look through aching tear-dimmed eyes—

And you were gone.

 

 

There are, alas, still, other people in the world. Some few.

Two days ago, Edward Thomas began a letter to Robert Frost:

My dear Robert,

…This is my 3rd full week of drill with my foot unhurt & nothing to complain of except 2 doses of anti-typhoid inoculation. I am still billeted with my father & mother, waiting for the announcement that we are going to camp…

I like the life; I don’t mind beginning my day with polishing buttons & badge & the brass of my belt. I quite like the physical drill which is very strenuous & includes running, jumping, leap-frog &c. But so far I can’t talk much to the men I am with. They don’t seek me more than I do them & I am a good deal alone in my minutes of ease. Close quarters in camp may help…

It’s a little too simplistic to treat Thomas’s letters to Frost as the naked truth, but Thomas at least makes a special effort to search deeply and speak plainly. But nothing in this letter really surprises, anyway: the agonizer and freelancer and frequent lapser-into-depressions has found a certain peace in the repetitive, simple, finite tasks of private soldiering, and a release from mental tension in physical exhaustion.

Next, his prospects:

…being over 33 I shall not go on to France at once but come back to London & take my commission there if one is offered… The tendency at present, I hear, is to keep older fresh officers at home. But one knows nothing & one ceases to be curious; I don’t really look forward more than a week, except for a moment perhaps now and then when I am doing extended order drill exactly as if under fire on the battlefield, & more briefly still when the eyes nearly water as we march with or without a band.

Today, a century back, he continued the letter. All this newfound peace and relaxation into a simpler state has affected his reading, too. But he would still read new verse! Or doth he protest too much?

When you write anything send it please, if you don’t feel I am unfit for reading; all I have read since I joined is “Cymbeline” again. I find I read it every year now & find it new & better. I look forward to reading it in peace…

Yours ever with my love to you all

Edward Thomas[4]

 

We have only scattered letters from Max Plowman–there will be a most useful book, so we follow him here in prologue mode–but from what we have seen so far he is committed both to the idea of serving his country and to the pacifism of his Quaker faith. An ambulance unit, therefore, because it combined service, danger, youthful adventure… and a refusal to kill.

But it’s been a long few months in England, and he writes to his brother today[5] to announce a change of heart:

B.W.T.A. Soldiers’ Recreation Rooms,

Friends’ Meeting House, Saffron Walden, Essex

Dear J.,

I told the C.O. this morning I had decided to transfer to a fighting regiment in the ordinary way or take a commission… I’ve taken the plunge… Layton said he’d be very glad to recommend me for a Com. but that he’d think twice or three times before giving me a transfer as a private to another regiment. I suppose simply because he thinks fellow merely transferring do not redound to his credit. I fancy that’s all swank & that he is practically obliged to let me go anywhere I please in a fighting regiment. My point is that I don’t mind a Commission so long as it’s in a decent regiment & I can afford it, but unless I can satisfy myself on those two points I’d rather go in the Coldstreams or any first class regiment as a private than continue to muck about in a second class show… or take a Com. in some filthy understrength rag-time lot–or go bankrupt with a Commission I couldn’t keep up.

Well these are good points all–and Plowman now displays other character traits both stereotypically Quaker and rather heterodox. First, he is very well aware not only of the class distinctions that have always existed between British regiments, but of the way in which these distinctions are shifting.

The Coldstreams–the Coldstream Guards–are an elite unit in every sense. The idea of “Guards” units–garrisoned in the capital, their ranks filled with men of especially good physique, many of their officers aristocrats–goes back to the middle ages. But the British Guards units had been organized along more or less sensible lines. Their officers were socially elite, but the various privileges extended to the units allowed them to claim a higher level of military efficiency as well. In peacetime, the Guards looked good and drilled exceptionally well, since their responsibilities for “guarding” the royal family involved much more ceremonial drill than actual bodyguard work.[6] In wartime, their advantage was probably mostly moral–parade ground drill had no direct application to modern war, but the sense of solidarity and unit prestige translated to enhanced esprit de corps. They have been allowed, as well, to stay small. The guards have only doubled in size, being choosy about their personnel all the way, while many county regiments have expanded five-fold.

Looking at this from a century on it seems odd to conclude that unscientific social selection will make a great difference in the quality of the troops: a new battalion of Guardsmen will have more regimental tradition to stiffen their corporate identity, and perhaps the marginal physical specimens will have been eliminated, leading to a stronger and healthier unit. But then again, taking the best connected and gently bred over the most eager might have a negative effect on the battalion’s efficiency…

What Plowman reminds us is that the “gentleman private” concept has been, this past year, more reality than romance. In peacetime the men of the Guards were probably not likely to be better educated than their peers in the county regiments. And despite the wartime expansion we are still seeing only members of the most rarefied “middle” classes–men from the best schools, with aristocratic and political connections, like Bim Tennant and Raymond Asquith–obtain commissions in the new Guards battalions. Plowman thus sees an unconventional middle way: he’s not such a gentleman that a commission in a good regiment is a sure thing, and he doesn’t want to claim class advantage just to sit around with a second-rate crowd.

Better to be officered by well-trained toffs, I suppose, than to be an officer of the 19th Blankshires–a “fighting regiment,” destined soon for France–and try to lead a bunch of coughing miners having second thoughts about their initial patriotic impulse. (By the way, I’m planning, at some point, to write a giant essay on the great fun everyone has in coming up with obviously fictional regimental names, the better to caricature with).

And then there’s the matter of money: officers earn a great deal more than privates. But then they must spend at their social level. This is changing, and changing fast, even in stodgy regiments, but before the war the daily expenses of an officer–fancy tailoring, keeping horses, huge mandatory contributions to the battalion mess–in a high-class regiment far exceeded his pay. This was one way, as the War Office began to work to change the old system of frank patronage and commission purchase, that the “better” units could stay “better–” their officers were necessarily men of means. I haven’t had the energy to really figure out the financial situation, although I hope to (there are probably some beautiful charts in one of the more recent social histories), but Plowman is probably correct: he would save a little money as a private, perhaps, and more as an officer in a low status New Army unit, but he might go into debt as an officer in a regiment that still sought to preserve pre-war traditions of riding and dining.

So, should the humble, practical member of the Society of Friends go for a solder? Why not stay an ambulance driver? Why not go for a commission, when lesser men are winning them left and right?

Writing soon afterwards to his friend the critic and novelist Hugh de Selincourt, Plowman, aware that this flank march had taken him quite a bit away from his original Quaker-warrior position, turned and charged:

And why shouldn’t I take a commission? You talk of punishment. As far as I can see we are miles & miles away from it. The Germans are in Belgium & France… We’ve Zeppelins overhead & submarines all around us but you write as though we were burning & ravaging Germany, Because a few mad fools talk as though they could exterminate all Germans am  personally to let force have its way & be contented with Belgium & France as they are? Someone has got to resist them. Why not I?

…As to killing I’d a minute’s regret for the other day when I wantonly killed an ant & the idea of killing any man is as repulsive to me as ever, but unspeakably loathly as the job might be I could kill Germans at need in France and Belgium… I do not yield my principles one iota because I live in a world that does not acknowledge them…

It simply comes to this. One either believe in active resistance or non resistance. If I lived in an ideal world…

You know I don’t believe in what are called lives of self-sacrifice but there are times when it is necessary that we should sacrifice our own personal ideals for the sake of our weaker fellows…

…here in one of the meantimes we come across a nation suffering from the gangrene of militarism & we must stop it–we must chop off their gangrenous limbs & however loathly it may be I cannot see how anyone can seriously question the necessity of the job. The real benefit of the War is that it is teaching the unimaginative conscience of Nations the awfulness & futility of arms…

I should go in for training to kill now as cheerfully as ever those Knights did who trained to kill the blatant beast. Not vengefully but of dire Necessity.[7]

Quite a transition. Any middling philosopher should be able to smoothly volley returns to several of those soft-toss claims, but the broader point goes unmentioned. It’s wartime, and Plowman has lost the taste for absolute pacifism. So he will go to a sort of practical pacifism: war is wrong, but “active resistance” against militarism is now necessary. But all this depends upon the quality of one’s information–on truth.

Plowman is not the first young man–and he surely will not be the last–to find his assumptions challenged once he recognizes the ubiquity of propaganda. Germany is militaristic, yes. It should bear most of the burden of responsibility for causing the war. But are Britain’s hands knightly-clean? Shouldn’t the surgeon satisfy himself personally that he is taking on–and taking off–only the truly gangrenous, lost limb?

Our boy Max will have himself a commission before too long…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 189.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 260-4.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 143-4.
  4. Elected Friends, 90-2.
  5. Probably, but possibly a day or two earlier.
  6. Although I believe that it is still the case that elite British guardsmen--elite in a rational military sense rather than a primarily social sense--still do both practical and ceremonial work, guarding the Royals and entertaining the London tourists.
  7. Bridge Into the Future, 35-7.

Vera and Roland and Walking and Sea and Sand and Trenches and Tea and More Walking and Heather and, At Last, a Decent Kiss; Advice for Jack Kipling

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From the First World War Poetry Digital Archive

Sunday August 22nd

I shall never forget this day. It will shine out in my memory like a beacon long after nearly all else has passed into oblivion.

I don’t remember exactly how I spent the first part of the morning, but it was chiefly in wandering about & getting acquainted with the lie of the land which I had seen so dimly last night. The day was showery & rather cold but there were fitful gleams of sunshine between dark clouds. Heather Cliff stands in a position which its name exactly describes; it is almost on the edge of a low cliff which at the back is covered with gorse & heather & in front slopes gently down towards the sea. Between the foot of the cliff, along the top of which runs the promenade, and the sea, is a small flat plain of grass & sand–just the spot for landing & mustering a surprise party of hostile troops. Lowestoft has indeed been afraid of both invasion & bombardment ever since the war began. As a guard against both these two dangers the plain between the cliff & the sea has been thoroughly entrenched & defended with wire entanglements, and on top of the cliff along the front are several machine-gun stations. On this particular Sunday morning the sea, though grey, was calm, and on the horizon a few trawlers were drifting lazily to & fro; it was almost impossible to believe that there was a war on & that this was one of the towns in England compelled to realise it most clearly…

Soon after breakfast Mrs Leighton took me into the drawing-room & showed me her collection of old photographs–chiefly of her children when they were small: Even in those childish photographs of Roland there was more than a hint of the almost tragic sadness which so often comes into his eyes now. And even in those days he had a very marked air of arrogance–that self-confident assurance of being something above the ordinary–which is so characteristic of him to-day. There were very few portraits of Mrs Leighton; she said she did not take well…

I found Roland playing about with his papers in my room. I had previously asked him if I might be graciously permitted to see the poem his Mother had told me about. When I came in he handed me the notebook he always carries about with him & pointing to a particular page said “This is the Villanelle you wanted to see.”

The poem was dated April 25th, 1915, and was called “Violets”. I remembered how on that day he had written me a letter–he was then in Ploegsteert Wood–enclosing some violets from the top of his dug-out which he said he had just picked for me. With this recollection in my mind I read the poem.

Violets from Plug Street Wood,
Sweet, I send you oversea.
(It is strange they should be blue,
Blue, when his soaked blood was red.
For they grew around his head;
It is strange they should be blue.)
Violets from Plug Street Wood,
Think what they have meant to me–
Life and Hope and Love and You–
(And you did not see them grow
Where his mangled body lay.
Hiding horror from the day;
Sweetest, it was better so.)
Violets from oversea.
To your dear, far, forgetting land
These I send in memory.
Knowing You will understand.

I handed it back to him without criticism. I could not have made any; the union of brilliance of intellect with personal love closed my lips quite effectually. Not until after I had parted from him & he sent me the poem enclosed in a letter[1] did I dare to say how perfect I thought this small literary gem of his. I only said “Why didn’t you send me this at the same time as the violets?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “It wasn’t finished for one thing.”

I looked out of the window to the sea below and asked him to take me down to it. We walked across the grass plain & along the sand to the water’s edge. The sea means less to him than it does to me because he has lived close to it on & off all his life, but to me it always speaks of infinite aspirations & dreams & longings. It was just like a dream to stand with him beside me, & gaze out across the water & feel the breeze from the North Sea against my face…

It all felt so ephemeral; I could not believe I had been at my prosaic Buxton home only two days ago. It seemed as if either that or this must be unreal; they did not both feel able to fit into the same life. We walked along the beach & sat down on the end of a breakwater a few yards away from where the waves were breaking on the sand. For a while I said nothing, but looked out across the water and listened to the soothing lullaby of its eternal song. I felt then that I could ask for nothing better of life than to sit there for ever with the sound of the sea in my ears and Roland standing on the beach by my side.

At last we began to talk a little–quite tentatively–about the engagement. He told me his mother had been rather bewildered by the “three years or duration of the War” limitation until he had explained that it was scarcely to be taken seriously…

In a minute or two he offered to show me the trenches on the grass plain & we went along in that direction. We had to pass by one or two rows of wire entanglements, which he said were very bad because they could be penetrated quite easily when only one or two strands of wire had been cut. The long rows of stakes & tangled wires extended right from the foot of the promenade wall to the sea, but in one or two places they were not quite joined together, so as to enable people to get through. Roland took me down into the trenches, which he told me were just the same as those at the front. The parapet was well above his head, & the ground all boarded. He explained to me various technical details, such as the use of periscopes, ways of taking cover from shells, the difference between fire trenches & reserve & communication trenches etc. He told me that the French had a habit of burying a dead man in his dug-out by just putting him inside and blocking up the entrance. The chief disadvantage of this was a consequent shortage of dug-outs. We began to talk about the more gruesome aspects of the trenches & to discuss callousness.

He said one began to take horrors as a matter of course so soon, & I said one found that even in a hospital, where the tending of suffering soon became a mere matter of business, & the sight of pain just an element in the day’s work. Why, even the gentle soothing touch with which one learns to raise a head or smooth a pillow or bandage a limb is only something acquired by practice and only in very rare cases inspired by pity. Roland told me that every day in his trenches he was accustomed to pass by the foot of a dead man who had been buried in the parapet. By this time the foot had become quite black, but he saw it every day & thought nothing of it. I asked him if he thought this callousness was a permanent thing & meant a loss of sensitiveness ever after. He said he did not think so; it was an acquired necessity in war, but he thought that if he left the trenches for a long time & then went back, what he had to do & see would give him the same feelings of horror as they did at first. I said I didn’t think I could ever grow callous about the suffering of someone I loved, especially if that someone were he. Somehow this conversation made me feel very like crying. It seemed so dreadful that anyone could grow callous about the things we had been speaking of–especially such hypersensitive people as he & I.

A good reminder–I suppose, among other things–of one of the dualities of “historical” conversation. This is about Roland, and Vera, and how little they know each other and how much there is to learn–and it’s about how enormously strange their circumstances are. To court amidst coastal defenses and to winnow their knowledge of each other through talk of horror, death, and decay…  how will their love flourish and grow, with such things all around it?

And this conversation is very worthy evidence, too, the historian or the psychologist. Here is what is happening to them–and to people like them–and here is what they think, what they believe. And they are even, probably, correct: they are smart, sensitive people, but horror can wound the psyche, and time can heal it. Usually. Mostly.

After lunch they sit by side in relative seclusion out behind the Leightons’ house. But he attempts no “caress” other than to

put back the hair from my eyes with a very gentle hand when the wind blew it over my face.

It was enough to be near him–in fact that means so much that any further sign of demonstrativeness hurts me and I could not bear it to happen often. I suppose anyone who had seen us sitting there would have thought we were exchanging endearments quite foolish & meaningless to anyone but ourselves, but as a matter of fact we were talking quite impersonally on our old subject of the possibility of a future life…

Side by side, the two young lovers prattle on seriously about the likelihood of the immortality of the soul. Vera’s conclusions:

I should not be troubled much by an absolute certain denial of the immortality of the soul. After all, most of my ideals are independent of whether it is immortal or not–as all ideals, to be of any value, should be. And yet–if he never came back to be part of my life-with what anguish I should seek to believe that “there are no dead”. As for Roland himself, his thoughts of death seem to be associated very little with either hope or fear. He looks upon the ending of life as a terrible & indescribable thing, but five months at the Front seem to have taught him to look upon actual death itself as something inconsiderable & small. In consequence he seems to combine a passionate love of life with an indifference to death quite remarkable even in a soldier. One sees the artist in his keen enjoyment & appreciation of life itself & all things vital & living; the soldier in his resolute schooling of his artistic imagination, the keeping it strictly apart from fear, either of danger or of death. At times again he paradoxically drops both these points of view at once & says that the idea of being nothing at all has an irresistible attraction for him. Into that phase of his nature I cannot enter, for in all my changes of mood I never feel that. I may worship him but–no, I don’t understand him. It is the fact that I long so much to understand him thoroughly–which would take years–& may never even get the chance to understand him at all, which makes the possibility–I suppose I should say the probability–of losing him so terrible to me, & the thought of life without him so infinitely empty.

The conclusion definitely unreached, we rose up, reluctantly rather, & went in to tea, which we were again late for….

After tea, Vera went for a walk with Roland’s sister Clare, and on returning, yes, another walk with Roland:

When we had gone some way along the road, we turned off into a rough path past a thicket to the edge of the cliff. Then he said to me “Let’s sit down here for a little while.” So we sat down there on a soft dry bed of heather, and were very silent for a few moments. Immediately beneath our feet the cliff, still covered with gorse & heather, sloped down to the shore. The sea, as calm as the sound of it was scarcely noticeable, was a vast grey shadow, joining indistinguishably with the sky, over which a thin filmy veil of sombre mistiness seemed to be drawn. Through this shone the faint steady gleams of a pale moon, disclosing but blurring the outlines of all things round, and making the whole world grey.

Then, as I sat there gazing, Roland suddenly put his arm round me and drew me close to him–closer than I had ever been before. At first I half-resisted a little, but in the darkness it seemed absurd to be so shy, so I did not resist long but gave way to him & said half-mournfully, half-playfully, “Well, Roland, I suppose it may as well be now–since afterwards perhaps it will be nevermore.”

“Now or nevermore?” he said dreamily. “Well, perhaps, but I don’t I think so, dear.”

I had taken off my hat because I loved the soft sea-breeze to blow over my face & hair. His arm was round me still & with his other hand he gently played with the little wisps of hair that the wind blew over my face. After a time he rested his head against my shoulder & we became quite silent. . . I never thought that anything would ever happen to me like this. They say every woman has her hour. I don’t quite believe that, for I fear that some have none, & most of the others are lucky enough to have more than one. This at all events was one of mine. I knew I worshipped–and I came very near to believing–what is hardest of everything for me to believe–I was worshipped–worshipped by this brilliant, strong, unsensual being, whose head was so close to mine, bent low with emotion & a kind of awe. As far as I had then lived) it was the sweetest hour of my life.

But in being there, knowing we had been together in life so little, & were so soon to part again, there was such a painful joy & a joyful pain that I could scarcely bear it, & suddenly wanting to come back to earth again for a moment I said “What’s the time?’’ He laughed at the abrupt & intentional bathos, & produced his watch. “Twenty-five to nine,” he said. “We needn’t go yet.”

It is terrible to intrude on this belated moment of adolescent bliss. But we have our binaries to see to, and this is not just a great moment in two young lives, but a great moment in a story, a narrative, a personal history of the war. Looking back, the older Vera Brittain summarized this weekend apart, and in doing so focused on this very scene. Yes, now–“scene:”

Only once, on the Sunday evening, did we recapture for a few moments the lovely enchantment of New Year’s Eve. Sitting together on a heather-covered cliff, looking out at the shadowy sea and the thin veil of sunset mist blotting out the brightness of the sky, we watched twilight deepen into night. Soon the faint, steady gleam of a pale moon blurred the outlines of the cliff and the gorse-bushes, and turned all the world to a luminous grey.

She adds one small but very concrete detail to the scene as it was first remembered and written:

Roland discovered that my hands were cold and put his own leather gloves on them; the gloves slipped on without the fastenings having to be undone. Afterwards I remembered so well the feeling of their intimate warmth…[2]

But “afterwards” we will get to in due time. Back to the diary:

It all seems so unreal when I think of it now, that it is sometimes hard to believe that it really happened. Yet it is one of the few things the memory of which will go with me to life’s end, be that soon or late.

Again I felt his fingers playing caressingly with my hair, and then “You are a dear,” he said, and gently drew my face down to him & kissed me.

Oh! I am glad his kisses come so seldom, for they mean so much that I could not bear the agonising joy of them often. They give me a thrill & a shock; they stir me in a way that the easy voluptuous oft-repeated kisses of a sensuous man would never have power to do. There, on that dark heather-covered cliff beside the sea, I realised the depth & strength of my own passion–realised it & was afraid.

At last he sighed, looked at his watch, & rose, & I too. It was over; the spell was broken. “We ought to be going now,” he said reluctantly, and we turned back along the rough path.[3]

It’s a long diary entry–almost a memoir, almost a novel. Although were it a novel I would expect diligent reminiscences of other heathery kisses of the past century…

And, I should note, I’ve omitted (in addition to editing “for length,” as they say) a total of several pages in which the main subject is Mrs. Leighton and her weepy, over-involved, strangely intense relationship with her son… we have touched on this in the last few days and I don’t want to dwell on it more. It will spoil the kiss!

But she did insert herself once again into the affair of the lovers. They had another late night, and, after Roland went off to sleep, Vera and his mother stayed up late once again, talking of him. Vera–young, small, and overawed–seems not to be aware that she is a sort of emotional prisoner. She feels as if she should be weeping more as Mrs. Leighton discourses on the beauties of her own relationship with her incomparable son. When Roland sleepily comes to break up their party Vera seems to giggle along with Mrs. Leighton in teasing the big Feminist who must see “his womenfolk” to sleep. That he might be unhappy at the number of hours his mother has surreptitiously taken to work on his pseudo-fiancee is not considered as a possible motive.

And this is how Marie Connor Leighton records the entrance of the boy who sees “his womenfolk” recumbent in the middle of the night:

He was stooping over us both, drawing us up. His boyish face had become suddenly the face of a man, his voice was the voice of a man, and his touch and his manner had a man’s power and a man’s dignity.[4]

Vera has not quite cottoned on to the strangeness yet… but it must be hard to look up to a woman–she’s a writer, after all, if not a particularly good one, and she’s the head of her family–who presents herself, on her home territory, as the onlie begetter and previous best friend of the man you love.

If Vera could have read how Mrs. Leighton writes of Roland, she surely would have realized… but the domineering personality is now, and the writing is in the future…

 

Just one more bit, today–Rudyard Kipling to his son John:

Hotel Brighton, Paris. 22 Aug. 1915

Dear Old Man,

I hope you’ll never get nearer to the Boche than I did. The quaintest thing was to watch the N.C.O. gesticulating to his Colonel and me to keep quiet–and to hear a hopefully expectant machine gun putting in five or six shots on the chance and then, as it were, stopping to listen. I don’t mind trenches half as much as going in a motor along ten or twelve miles of road which the Boches may or may not shell–said road casually protected at the worst corners with thin hurdles of dry pine-trees. Also, I hate to be in a town with stone pavements when same is being bombarded. It’s a grand life though and does not give you a dull minute. I found boric acid in my socks a great comfort. I walked 2 hours in the dam’ trenches.

Don’t forget the beauty of rabbit netting overhead against hand-grenades. Even tennis netting is better than nothing.[5]

Well, this answers one question. If Kipling is blustering, he’s not just blustering for the benefit of his wife. But this reads more like high spirits and, given the source, forgivably minor parental posturing.

Fine: Jack Kipling is only setting out, and dad has seen something of war. But it’s hard not to imagine the young lieutenant rolling his eyes at the old man’s suggestions for foot health and trench defense. It’s Year Two, for Pete’s sake, and what could be more 1914 in spirit than a Victorian poet telling his myopic son to bring some tennis equipment to the trenches?

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This gives us a terminus post quem for the diary entry of August 30th.
  2. Testament of Youth, 185.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 249-56.
  4. From Boy of My Heart, available here.
  5. Carrington, Rudyard Kipling, 506-7.