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.