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. 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?’
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!'
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…
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
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…
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.
I am still finding Bim Tennant‘s numerous missives to be uncommonly interesting. He is a very good boy:
31st August, 1915
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…
…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…
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!
References and Footnotes
- 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... ↩
- Good-Bye to All That, 138-9. ↩
- R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 131. ↩
- Poet to Poet, 206. ↩
- War Letters to a Wife, 34-5. ↩
- Letters, 7-9. ↩
- Letters of a Lost Generation, 153. ↩