Alf Pollard Leads an Assault, and Wins a Medal; George Coppard Arrives at Loos, While Noel Hodgson is Relieved, and Composes a Poem

Yesterday, a century back, Alf Pollard received a letter from his always-capitalized Beloved rejecting his proposal of marriage. He went on a champagne bender that, he claims, left him only slightly tipsy. Returning to his tent in the wee hours, he discovered that his new dignity–sergeant of the specialist bombing platoon–was about to be put to the test.

Pollard and the Honourable Artillery Company are holding the line in the Ypres Salient, far to the north of the recent Battle of Loos. But that doesn’t mean that the Germans have been idle. Sometime during that overnight binge the Germans had exploded a large mine under the position held by the Fourth Middlesex, then rushed the crater and dug in on its lip.

We were to counter-attack and turn them out. Only the bombing platoon would be employed. The rest of the battalion would be in reserve.

I mentally rubbed my hands. These were great tidings. It was the biggest opportunity I had had…

And I am mentally licking my chops. Pollard hits all the old-school notes, using the phrases “cover… in glory,” “the whole affair was a game,” and “fighting was in my blood.”

At 3:00, under cover of a short, weak barrage, Pollard’s platoon advanced up a communications trench and toward what had been the British front line, in Sanctuary Wood, hard by (even by the standards of the crowded Salient) the site of the brutal fighting around Hooge in June. Reaching a barricade, they begin throwing their grenades.

The fray had commenced… Bang! Bang! Bang! Zunk! Zunk! Zunk!

For three minutes or so we had it all our own way. Then a shout from one of the men warned me that retaliation had commenced. A thing like a jam tin on the end of a stick came hurtling through the air…

This was all very well, but as long as we were confronted by that barricade progress was impossible. The affair was degenerating into a sort of snowball match except that the snowballs were deadly missiles…

Bad prose and intense action, so let’s follow the action. The first thing Pollard does is to jettison half their grenades. He seems to have been supplied with both Mills bombs (familiar from war movies–a pin, a lever, a short timed fuse) and stick bombs outfitted with percussion triggers and streamers designed to make them fall trigger-side-down. Unless, of course, the bomber whacks them against the side of the trenchduring his wind-up… so Pollard decides that they will only use the grenades that pose less threat to themselves. Given how many grenade accidents we’ve seen, this certainly seems like wisdom.

sanctuary woodInstead of holding his position in the middle of his platoon, Pollard goes over the top, to get around the trench barricade. Thus he leads from the front–which is for the moment a position of safety. Germans in the trenches ahead immediately begin firing, but miss the first target, hitting four of the six men with him.

Pollard soon gets down into the German-held part of the trench and  begins bombing up the traverses with the two survivors. The map at right is not quite right–it shows this position a few months hence, when the front lines have surely been rearranged. But it shows the right area and reminds us of why grenade attacks are necessary, and how they work: each “traverse,” each kink in the trench system, prevents attackers from commanding more than a few yards with their rifles. But they can toss grenades up and over and “around” the corners.

Unless German snipers have been stationed in nearby trees.

There was one curious incident which I shall never forget. I was giving orders to… a little man of not more than five feet four inches. He was standing in front of me listening to what I had to say, when–whist!–a bullet took him through the throat and he fell dead at my feet. Now, I am a six feet two…

Pollard can draw only one possible conclusion from this:

The knowledge that some fate had spared me on that occasion helped me considerably… I used to think, if not once, why not twice?

But this sense of invulnerability does not preclude the near-miss–in fact it seems to invite it. Pollard leads his platoon through the new German positions, and reaches another barricade, when the man next to him suddenly falls.

At the same time my right arm fell to my side… That’s damned funny, I thought. What’s wrong with it? I had felt absolutely nothing. I was still wondering why I could not move it when my knees suddenly gave way beneath me…

Someone held a water-bottle to my lips and I sipped gratefully. It was rum and water, the nectar of the gods. I looked down at my silly useless arm. The shoulder of my tunic was stained crimson…  This was too annoying just as we had got them on the run.

I sank slowly to the ground… the vicious cracking of bombs faded from my consciousness. The fight in Sanctuary Wood was over as far as I was concerned. For the first time in my life I discovered that fainting is not confined solely to the gentler sex.

Pollard is writing mostly in the “modest confessions of a hero” genre, but there is also a hint of the Bildungsroman as tactical instruction manual: we have learned, now, that percussion grenades are a disaster, that leading from the front is worth the danger, and that boys faint too, when sufficiently wounded. His main points, therefore, are that he has finally had the opportunity to show his mettle–not just the static courage demanded of the trench-fighter, but old-fashioned aggressive virtù–and that he, representing all that is best in the volunteer army,[1] is swiftly learning how to conduct proper trench warfare.

We learn in the next chapter of his memoir that Pollard’s colonel recommended him for the Victoria Cross. He professes astonishmen,t but the recommendation is not surprising. Aggressive actions leading to local successes (even if they only offset recent German gains), have been few, and stories of valor–especially by a sergeant shortly to be commissioned–are badly needed to offset the gradual public realization about the “bloody balls up” at Loos.

Pollard won instead the second most prestigious decoration then available to him, the Distinguished Conduct Medal. It was awarded for

conspicuous gallantry on September 30 at Sanctuary Wood… Although severely wounded Sergeant Pollard continued to throw bombs, at the time issuing orders to and encouraging his men. By his example and gallant conduct he renewed confidence among the bombers at a time when they were shaken… He did not give up until he fell, severely wounded for the second time.[2]

Pollard is no shrinking violet, but it is interesting, in weighing the respective pull on his prose of his Victorian romanticism and his instinct for self-promotion, to see how his own account differs from that of the citation. He reminds us that his first wound was not at all “severe,” but merely a spray of shrapnel. (The sniper’s bullet, however, was a serious wound–it was fired at close range, and tore through his shoulder, apparently “tumbling” and thus leaving a larger hole. Recuperation will take some time.) But he doesn’t comment on the fact that his own account has him doing little after being shot but struggle to his feet and then pass out, while the citation focuses on his staying at his post after being wounded.

I don’t want to make a lot out of a little here, pushing dubious close-reading too far. Except, of course,that that’s what I always do, here. Decorations are a notoriously difficult thing to justify. There are no hard-and-fast criteria, and it always seems to be more about the observer and the political context (in terms both of internal army politics and the propaganda job of producing the proper sort of heroes) than about the act itself–Robert Graves recently reminded us of this, and will have more to say on the subject.

But from (or, rather “from,” since there is no real historical continuity, only a re-imagining of the past) the time of the first standardized military decorations (under the Roman Republic) there had always been an emphasis on aggressive valor, the sort of voluntary actions taken by young leaders that are likely to win battles–killing an enemy leader, storming a fortification, climbing a wall etc. Pollard did this, and thus by most lights should deserve his award. His platoon could have been tentative, or turned back; they didn’t, and they took another trench.

Yet the citation emphasizes courage and control after being bloodied–also, of course, a very laudable and important ability, but not what led to success that day.[3] Could there be the beginning of a shift here toward an emphasis on courageous and unflinching sacrifice as the highest military virtue? Perhaps the powers that be are beginning to realize that the war on the largest level will not be a courageous gallop toward Germany but rather a grim struggle to remain in control despite torrential bloodshed? And then perhaps they have begun to reward the microcosm accordingly? Medals will continue to be given for old-fashioned bravura displays of excellence–killing enemy snipers, storming machine guns, taking prisoners, etc. But a shift will come, and eventually most of the highest decorations[4] will be awarded for acts of terribly brave self-sacrifice. The archetypal ancient or early modern hero stands on a heap of enemy dead; the archetypal late 20th century hero throws himself on a grenade and saves his buddies. Is this year–stretching from Rupert Brooke‘s gilding of the idea of sacrifice to awards like this one being steered more toward heroic endurance than heroic initiative–the beginning of the sea change?

 

And then of course I need to note that Noel Hodgson has already earned a decoration, a Military Cross, for leading a successful bombing assault during the main attack at Loos on the 25th. He was not wounded, and he showed both courage and initiative in seeking out a German strong point and helping to eliminate it. So an aggressively heroic young officer…

His Devonshires took heavy casualties, however, and were one of the units that, due to the inefficient movement of the reserves, was left in the line. A man in his battalion described the days between the attack and early this morning, a century back, when they were finally relieved and marched back toward Vermelles:

We had stuck… till Thursday in misery… being wettish, and the chalk mud awful. The men never complained and were splendid. We got no rations, and despite all, stuck it. The officers who came through were very popular with the men. I was plastered with mud. My tunic badly torn with wire, my fingers very tender from crawling on the ground, and my beard terrific.

Charlotte Zeepvalt picks up the story of this relief:

Noel Hodgson found a poem forming in his mind–as he often did on the march. What he took from that first experience of battle, apart from the sheer joy of living, was a deepened appreciation of the men around him; a new understanding of the very best that humanity could be, born in the very worst of circumstances.

Back To Rest

(Composed while marching to Rest Camp after severe fighting at Loos)

A leaping wind from England,
The skies without a stain.
Clean cut against the morning
Slim poplars after rain.
The foolish noise of sparrows
And starlings in a wood–
After the grime of battle
We know that these are good.

Death whining down from Heaven,
Death roaring from the ground.
Death stinking in the nostril.
Death shrill in every sound.
Doubting we charged and conquered —
Hopeless we struck and stood.
Now when the fight is ended
We know that it was good.

We that have seen the strongest
Cry like a beaten child.
The sanest eyes unholy.
The cleanest hands defiled,
We that have known the heart blood
Less than the lees of wine.
We that have seen men broken.
We know man is divine.[5]

 

George Coppard, private of the Royal West Surries, reached the front lines today, a century back. He had been in the trenches before–he notes that his battalion had already taken seventy casualties in day-to-day trench warfare–but knew immediately that this experience would be different.

The battalion proceeded up the communication trench at a snail’s pace, suffering casualties from shrapnel fire. As many troops were coming away from the front line as were going up. Stretcher-bearers with the wounded, fatigue parties, telephone linesmen, runners and parties of relieved troops wended their way to the rear, jamming the narrow trench. The trench was parallel to the Vermelles-Hulluch road, and was only a few yards from it… Wrecked war gear lay about on both sides as we edged forward, including field guns, limbers, and dead horses by the score. Blown up by internal gases, their carcases were enormous, and when punctured by shrapnel or bullets the foulest stench poisoned the air.

At last we reached the top of a slope where the German front line had been before the attack. And there, stretching for several hundred yards on the right of the road, lay masses of British dead… Shells from enemy field batteries had been pitching into the bodies, flinging them into dreadful postures. As they mostly belonged to Highland regiments there was a fantastic display of colour from their kilts, glengarries and bonnets, and also from the bloody wounds on their bare limbs.

Color, it’s true, is usually drained from our imaginative reconstructions of these memories of others. We stain to see the war, yet we forget that it wasn’t fought in black and white. Coppard’s emphasis on color seems pointed. It was colorful, but it wasn’t pretty. And the other senses? As usual, it gets worse.

tower bridge

‘Tower Bridge,’ obscured by smoke

The warm weather had darkened their faces and, shrouded as they were with the sickly odour of death, it was repulsive to be near them. Hundreds of rifles lay about, some stuck in the ground on the bayonet, as though impaled at the very moment of the soldier’s death as he fell forward.[6] In the distance, three kilometres south, and in the midst of concentrated shell bursts, I could discern the huge twin-tower steel structure known to the troops as ‘Tower Bridge…’ It received a steady battering for a few days and its end was only a matter of time. One morning, when looking towards Loos, where a fierce rumpus was going on, I noticed that the tower had gone.

By the end of the morning, today, a century back, Coppard was helping to set up his heavy machine gun in a captured trench of the Hohenzollern Redoubt.[7]

 

I haven’t written much of Gallipoli of late–this project was supposed to focus on the Western Front, after all. But it has been a dismal failure, a fact that is at last being acknowledged by the first withdrawals of the pinned-down infantry. The final evacuation will take months, but the British presence–and the presence of our writers–dwindles. Aubrey Herbert is gone, and, after tonight, a century back, only Patrick Shaw-Stewart will remain.

As night descended on 30 September, the soldiers assembled at Lala Baba, a little height standing between the Salt Lake and the sea.

While darkness shielded their movements, they were transferred with the utmost speed into the beetles [makeshift landing craft] that carried them out across the bay to where the S.S. Sarnia was anchored in readiness. Ledwidge had looked his last on the peninsula…[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Although Pollard joined so swiftly last August that he is with the Honourable Artillery Company, an unusual Regular unit, rather than the New Army.
  2. Fire-Eater, 113-124.
  3. Also very British military trait; Admiral Nelson is the greatest exemplar of the standing-around-and-getting-shot school of leadership.
  4. I only know the stats off-hand for the American Medal of Honor, but these show a marked trend toward self-sacrificial--rather than "war-winning"--acts of heroism.
  5. Zeepvalt, Before Action, 129-30.
  6. Surely some of these could have been so placed after the fighting, to mark the spot?
  7. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 30-1.
  8. Curtayne, Ledwidge, 131. Curtayne's sentence ends with the words "where 19,000 of his comrades in the now shattered Tenth Division had met their death." These numbers are wildly off, however--19,000 is close to the total number of British deaths for the entire campaign, and far more men than the tenth division contained. But it was... no picnic.

Edward Hermon in the Ruins of Loos; Lord Crawford Lauds the Wounded; A Royal Near Miss

With both Dorothie Feilding and the Nursing Sister currently at home, Private Lord Crawford is our only writer with the medical services in the aftermath of Loos.

Wednesday, 29 September 1915

At No. 1 theatre all day. Attended eleven operations, nearly all shrapnel and gunshot wounds. In one case the piece of shrapnel which had caused serious trouble turned out to be a piece of a cartridge clip! And in another case a bullet, when extracted, looked suspiciously like one of our own…

Operation after operation with no time even to swab the floor before the next patient is on the table.

The crush will continue. Crawford writes more about the past few days in tomorrow’s entry:

The work during the last week has been heavy… Great convoys have been rolling in to one hospital or another at all hours of the day–heavily loaded trains pass constantly up the line. And all the men are so happy and cheerful–one actually hears the wounded men croaking out choruses–they are conscious, or feel it, of our impending victory. It is true they have fallen by the way, but they have taken their share and bring back endless stories of the amazing speed with which the German bolted.

And to these men the relief of leaving the front honourably wounded is inconceivable after months and months of killing, anxiety and fatigue. Their frank joy at the luxury of the plain hot soup we give them, at sitting down without restraint, at being beyond the range of gunfire–all this produces a delirious relaxation which makes these heroes quite childlike. Their obedience to our orders is touching, their gratitude unforgettable and, above all, one will remember the gay and hilarious talk of these shattered men. But what a spectacle!

Lord Crawford seems extremely credulous, here. But, as we will see, he is not, or no more than he must be. Although shock at the failure of the British assaults in the spring spurred him to enlist, he, like everyone else, has been hearing for months about how different this attack will be, how massive and how irresistible. And he’s far enough from the front to have no chance at observing the bitter ironies and failures first-hand. Everyone has heard reports of a victory, after all…

He will learn the true dimensions of the battle soon. But what about this account of happily wounded men?

Well, he was there. This is testimony (allowing for any exaggerations on the way from the eyes to the day’s writing session), and not spin to be doubted. Then again, most people are capable of spinning themselves. And then again, again, Lord Crawford does not stick to some cheerful or propagandistic line when he can see for himself:

…We read in our home newspapers of men telling their interviewers that they are longing to be back in France for another shot at the Germans. Their real sentiments are quite different. They feel no personal desire for vengeance against Germans; at least the sentiment isn’t very deeply seated. The man who has been at the front, in the trenches for a few months, longs for his release. A wound, even when severe, is the messenger of freedom. I have never yet met a man wounded or unwounded who wants to return to the trenches or indeed who even says he does. They are much too wise and too plucky to romance on such a theme for those who know, even if they may talk big to people at home. They loathe the actual fighting except for moments of exhilarating success, and ninety-nine per cent of our soldiers pray that they may never see a trench again. They are so naive, so genuine and so sincere in their conversation that there can be no mistaking the sentiment of the army as a whole, that is of those who have learned the truth by the cruelty of their experiences.

Believe me, Lord Crawford begs. But there’s no reason not to–we’ve heard more than one voice from the trenches wax rhapsodic over the chance of a “blighty one,” a wound that will send them to England for a good long rest. And we’ve little bloodthirstiness and, among the experienced, even less hatred of the German front-line troops.

But, as for escaping the burden by cowardly methods, it is reprobated by all. There have been isolated cases of self-inflicted wounds, and there has also been malingering, and straggling which has merged into desertion. There must be weaklings in every army, especially in such an army as ours where many men were forced by pressure and cajolery to recruit quite against their desires. But the courage and morale of the troops is as a whole superb.[1]

 

Edward Hermon of King Edward’s Horse has been stationed just behind the battle, hoping to be used in the open warfare that might follow on the breakthrough. Instead, he has received a series of unusual support assignments. On the first day of the battle he coordinated the reception and transfer of several hundred German prisoners. Next, he was sent up into Loos itself to superintend the removal of captured German guns and other war materiel. Hermon spent several days in the town, which had “moved” from a little behind the German lines to immediately behind the new British front. Hermon does not conceal much when he writes to his wife, but he does avert his gaze very slightly from the worst.

A modern battlefield is not pleasant I can assure [you]. The dead of both sides were lying very thick on the ground.

No more of that–the letter turns back into a sort of grim half-grown adventure story as he explores the damaged and fast-ruining town.

You would have laughed if you could have seen me creeping down the steps with a revolver in one hand and my electric torch in the other but the late occupants had left & we had great fun going through their equipment & getting ‘souvenirs.’

Hermon and a crew from his regiment brought back two small German artillery pieces–captured “guns” had been a popular and easily-advertised metric of military success for some centuries–and put them on display in order to boost morale (or to stave off its deflation in the wake the retreats). He then returned to Loos and found one house–still occupied by “some women”–to serve as a temporary headquarters. Breakfast, yesterday, was ruined by “a huge shell” which “wrecked two rooms & covered the remains of our meal with so much brickdust & mortar that it quite spoilt the butter we had got which was an awful blow…”

The guns, ammunition, and souvenirs secured, Hermon turned to humanitarian work.

On the 29th we had the house brought down on us three times during the day with very heavy shells & the poor women who I told you made us coffee had nine rooms in their house when we arrived and when we left they had only half a kitchen left & a cellar. One shell that hit our house brought a big four-post feather bed out of the upstairs room & put it in the dining room only to be shortly covered up by the rest of the upstairs storeys coming down on top of it.

OK! there was sufficient excitement in Loos to last a lifetime. We evacuated over 80 women & kids running in ages from 87 to 3 & all the women are out now I am glad to say. When we arrived they begged & cried to be allowed to remain in their homes, but our friends, after losing seven out of their nine rooms, said they would go. If it wasn’t so unutterably sad it would have been ludicrous if you could have seen me at dead of night, with the aid of a small boy of Bob’s size[2] pushing a pram full of ‘lares and penates’ through thick mud, with old Pongo cursing a poor old donkey with twice as much in the cart as he could pull…

The allusion–“lares and penates” are household gods, small symbols of home and hearth–is an apt one, recalling visions of Aeneas leading the ancestors of the Romans from a city in flames into exile. (“Recalling,” because surely most of these well-educated gentlemen got at least as far as book two of the Aeneid…)

Hermon goes on to fulminate against British men who have not yet enlisted. The sight of families uprooted, their homes destroyed, and all their men already away at the war puts some weight behind his instinctive belief that any decent British men should already have enlisted at Germany’s affront to British honor.

But he turns, before the end of the letter, to answer his wife’s frank query:

You ask me if the ‘excitements’ make me feel shaky. Well to start with I didn’t mind them a bit & tho’ not liking I didn’t feel them so much, the man who says he likes shells is a damned liar. Well of course my first 24 hours in Loos was beastly. I had to meet a man there to show me where the guns were. He was in such a state of nerves that I had to send him back, he certainly had a bad day there & there was every excuse, then I had another fellow with me who was too awful too & he kept on explaining to me all the time that it wasn’t that he was really a funk, but that it was his nerves. I must say that at the end of the time I was myself feeling pretty much the same. I simply hated the idea of going near the beastly place again…

I was very frightened about myself as I didn’t at all relish the idea of my nerve not standing the strain & was simply delighted when I found my fears to be groundless so far.

There is no doubt that you don’t know what is in a man till you try him…[3]

This may be the best, most plain explanation of courage we’ve yet had. There is little bravado here, and appropriate sympathy for those who have endured much–and pure honesty in the hope that he will stand up to the challenge as he has “so far.” His greatest fear has been that he will prove to be weak, or cowardly, or lacking the sort of “nerve” that endures under shell fire. So he is relieved; but he seems to understand very well that there is no sort of courage that isn’t eroded by shelling. He has been brave and steady. So far.

 

With one of his batteries smashed yesterday, Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, moved his guns today, a century back. One battery had a narrow escape–one gun was damaged–and Hamilton himself was struck by a spent shell fragment. The move completed, he was summoned to Le Rutoire farm, where he found none other than the Prince of Wales.

It was an awful risk, as whilst he was there they were shelling the farm hard, just over our heads, with bricks and mortar falling all round. General Feilding was with him. I warned them that I has just come along the road and that it was being heavily shelled. They waited till the burst was over, and then went on… They really ought not to have let him come to such a place, but I believe he is always trying to get into the front trenches.[4]

The prince, by all accounts, is chafing in his role as a symbolic presence in France–close enough to be seen by the front line troops, but not close enough to get killed. Then again, with the Guards all together in one Division, he had nowhere else to go to be among his social peers…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Private Lord Crawford, 66-7.
  2. Their eldest; i.e. he was around eight.
  3. For Love and Courage, 102-6.
  4. War Diary, 81-2.

Henry Weston Farnsworth and the Foreign Legion Attack at Last; Kipling Carries On; The Master of Belhaven Under Fire; Agony and Irony for Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton

Farnsworth

Henry Weston Farnsworth

We reach forward a few days for a letter from J.L.V. Sukuna, of the Foreign Legion.

Hospital Complimentaire
17 Pré Aux Clercs,
Lyon (Brettaux), France,
October 2, 1915

Dear Mr. Farnsworth:

At the request of your son, I am to say with real pain that he was severely wounded on the afternoon of the 28th of September last, on the 4th day of the battle of Champagne, a little in front of the German wire entanglements of the second line before the Fortin de Navarin. A large number of machine guns were on the right flank, and in front, where they were concentrating their fire on the leading files of the attacking party, and no stretcher-bearer could possibly reach the spot where he was lying. Toward dusk the column was still being held up. I left for the rear about this time, but all I could do, I regret to say, was to ask medical people to go up if possible. As one who has seen a great deal of him here, I would venture to mention how much his coolness under fire has on occasions helped to steady the section, and how his indifference to danger prompted him at all times to volunteer for the most dangerous posts. Under a withering rifle and machine gun fire, he denied my first word and dug a hole for me, to which act I probably owe my life. Up to the present, no fresh information of him has come my way, but I shall always be glad to furnish any previous news. May I here express my profound and sincere sympathies.

Yours very truly,

J. L. V. Sukuna

Sukuna later wrote a longer account of Henry Farnsworth‘s last day, but it is derivative, melodramatic, and unavailing. They went forward, other units faltered, they were raked with accurate fire. Farnsworth was wounded, and he died.

This sort of thing doesn’t seem to shed any light on the fact that someone’s son or brother was full of plans and projects one morning and shattered, thoughtless flesh by nightfall. Still less does a matter-of-fact explanation salve the pain of those left behind. It’s true, though, that many bereaved parents and siblings will tirelessly seek the “true story” of a death, less from any real hope that it will bring relief[1] than because there is nothing else to do, no other unknown bit of the lost loved one to know. It’s the same instinct that sends the bereaved to childhood picture albums, not the one that sets victims of fraud on a righteous crusade for justice.

This is a sad collision of public history and personal emotion, and one which Kipling–who tirelessly searched for rumors and remains of his son–instinctively kept separate. The bereaved want facts, and they want to know that the death was a “good” one. This, of course, can mean either painless or brave. And those who can give them facts–Sukuna seems to be relatively honest here–are perhaps more aware than any other letter writers of their ability–even their responsibility–to manage or massage or allay the truth. Few audience-specific genre distinctions could be more acute than the writer writing to the bereaved parent and the writer writing to the historian. Kipling surely realized that he must be very clear which of the two identities he was assuming at which time.

There are hundreds of thousands of letters about the last minutes of men doomed to death, written to their wives and siblings and parents. How many of them note that he died in desperate fear, in anger or shame or faithless despair? How many relay the difficult news that he was so torn by shrapnel that he died slowly, or could not control the urge to scream in his final agony?

Letters are no good, for war, past a point. Another reason that, if you want to get a few glimpses of the truth of battle in the Great War–and what other way is there?–you must place your hope with the poets.

There are a few more letters in the Farnsworth volume–the condolences of a consul, Sukuna’s effort to describe their regiment’s role in the great assault. But if the Farnsworths tried mightily, from an ocean away, to understand more of their son’s death, they likely learned little. Henry Farnsworth’s story stops now, and time moves on.[2]

 

Meanwhile, as Kipling has it, the battle continues. Another young letter writer–Bim Tennant–has so far escaped the carnage.

Tuesday, 28th, 2 p.m.

Darling Moth’ and Daddy,

The Battalion took Hill 70 last night, but as all 2nds in command of companies were left behind (in case of heavy casualties) I did not go into action, but remained about 2 miles from Hill 70, among our big guns which kept up a continual bombardment.

I ought to be very thankful I did not go into action as out of 18 officers 11 are now hors de combat, though I believe only one or at most 2 to be dead…  My captain, Flick, has a bullet through the arm, and is for England all right, I expect. This leaves me in the responsible position of Company Commander. I pray God I may fill it with honour during the future engagements…

We were having a very good dinner in the artillery officers’ palatial cellar last night, when our first wounded came along, mostly men shot through the arms, hands, or feet, and nearly all able to walk. I ascertained that Cockey Hoare has a bullet through the leg. But he’s all right…

I saw my first glimpse of the horror of war yesterday, when walking along one of the cobbled streets full of orderlies, cyclists, and military police, some 500 yards behind my cellar. I happened to come along a few minutes after a shell had burst right in the centre of the road, killing six men and two horses. It was terrible. One dead man was a bright greeny-yellow as the result of the lyddite fumes, but the rest were killed equally instantly by pieces of shell. The medical officer who arrived as I came along borrowed my pistol and finished off one of the wounded horses with it. I thought it seemed a shame as the horse had only one or two small cuts and could easily have been seen to. But I suppose they must care for the men first.

I hope you won’t be revolted by these details, but they struck me so forcibly, having never seen such awful results of battle, murder, and sudden death.

This letter, which I have already cut down, is quite a rambler, more like Henry Williamson‘s letters of last year–brave and fearful, sober and euphoric with only a bare minute of scribbling between–than Bimbo’s recent cheery updates on regimental society and his own high spirits. But now he has seen just a bit of the elephant.

Could you send me a few more cigarettes, not more than 2000, for the Company, and some sweets and chocolate for me? I managed to change my shirt this morning and have a good wash. Ivo [Charteris] came and borrowed my razor to shave with. He looked very well and has not been in action yet, he is in our 1st Battalion…

I am very happy and am thirsting for battle…

Will you please tell Mr, Williams that I want my car repainted as its present coat is only temporary. I should like it a dark red with wheel discs to match…

Ever your devoted Son,

BIMBO[3]

So life goes on, in both its grand sentiments and tiny details.

 

As does the battle. Kipling, carrying on now after his own disaster, actually reproduces something like Bimbo’s multi-register etceterativity in his own lofty historian’s voice.

By the 28th September we might have gained on an average three thousand yards on a front of between six and seven thousand, but there was no certainty that we could hold it, and the front was alive with reports—some true, others false—that the enemy had captured a line of trench here, broken through there, or was massing in force elsewhere. As a matter of fact, the worst of the German attacks had spent themselves, and both sides were, through their own difficulties, beginning to break off their main engagements for the bitter localised fightings that go to the making of a new front.

In rain, chalky slime, and deep discomfort, after utter exhaustion, the broken battalions were comparing notes of news and imperturbably renewing their social life. Brigadier-General Trefusis slips, or wades, through rain and mud to lunch with his old battalion a few hundred yards away, and one learns indirectly what cheer and comfort his presence brings. Then he goes on with the remnants of his shattered brigade, to take over fresh work on a quieter part of the line and en route “to get his hair cut.”[4]

 

But perhaps that pulls us back too violently into wide view. There is still suffering enough throughout the area of the attack, and more than one accurate German gun. The Master of Belhaven witnessed more carnage on both sides of the line today, a century back. Firing in support of a second attack by the Guards, his battery quickly realized that their new gun-pits have been located. All three officers of A battery–one of the four under his command–were soon killed. Then a gun in C battery took a direct hit, killing most of its crew.

Suddenly they stopped sending these huge Jack Johnsons into us, and gave us Wooly Bears instead.[5] These are 4.2 howitzers which burst their shells in the air, just over one’s head. They were firing gas-shells, which fill the air with some horrible fumes of ammonia and sulphur. One shakes, cannot speak, and the eyes smart and pour tears. It was impossible to keep the batteries in action…

Late tonight, a century back, he tended to the dead.

We buried the killed in a common grave at the farm, with dozens of men who have died after being brought in wounded. It was a mournful business, in pouring rain and standing in 6 in. of liquid mud.[6]

Only three years to go.

 

For Vera Brittain, the last week has been terrible. She had received Roland‘s too-precipitous warning that he was about to go into action, then waited in vain for news. And then the attack actually began. And then–more cruel irony, of course–news of his safety comes in the form of a renewed notification of his danger.  We step back two days:

Sunday September 26th

I found two letters on my plate this morning–one from the Red Cross, the other a tiny thin envelope from Roland. I opened the Red Cross letter hastily, & found it to be a kindly-expressed information that as I wanted to go to the 1st London General Hospital they would be pleased to appoint me there if the Matron would apply to a certain address    asking for me. Then I opened the one from Roland-without apprehension, though the thunder clouds have so long been gathering over the West that I might have known . . . It was a very tiny note, but God knows it said enough.

I know nothing definite yet, but they say that all posts will be stopped very soon. Hinc illae lacrimae…

…In a way I am almost glad that the great decision is coming at last. Resignation is a horrible deadly thing–but it is not resignation that I feel. No, but my heart has been so torn & seared by anxiety & suspense that the Climax finds me ready to face it. In a few days, I suppose, I shall know whether I am condemned to the loneliness of a lifelong maidenhood, having lost all I love–or else I may have him, & all that he means for me in the future, back again to tend &
serve & cherish in his helplessness & pain. Meantime I can only wait …

Poor Vera is making deals again–there is an implicit bargain with Fate here, or, rather, two: I love him so much that there will be no other, if he is killed now; and, if he survives this battle, then, well, that must mean that he will survive the war.

In this distraught state, the actual news of the assault hit her hard.

Monday September 27th

Yes, it has come. The storm which has so long been threatening hasburst at last over the Western Front. It is a very swift confirmation of the warning in my little message of yesterday. We got up early this morning to have breakfast with Edward, who was going by the 7.56. I, not having been woken up in time, had not even begun to dress. Edward as usual was late. So the Daily Mail arrived in the midst of our hurried breakfast.

The paper has been for such a long time comparatively so uninteresting & always depressing that we have never been in a rush to open it immediately,and I do not know why this morning when we were all in such a hurry it should have occurred to Mother to read it at once. But when she did open it we all exclaimed, for in large headlines was the tidings “Two Real Victories At Last. German line pierced in two places. The French & British take 20,000 unwounded prisoners & 33 guns.”

To omit the rest of this wildly inaccurate article, much of which Vera copies, with commentary, into her journal, feels more like sparing Vera and Roland than sparing us.

Edward went off rather gravely, as he seems.now to expect that he will be called to the Front quite shortly with reinforcements. Victory or defeat–and neither worthy to be weighed in the balance with the one human life beside which the fate of the whole British Army appears insignificant…

Perhaps even as I am writing these words he is lying cold & uncared for in the midst of a mangled heap of slain, suffering or–dead.

Today, a century back, the agonizing wait continued.

I was on the look-out for telegrams & telephone messages all day, but nothing came. I tried to make time pass by walking & walking & then cycling over the hills, for I could not rest. In the town this evening I met Miss Sharp & Dorothy Adie, who both congratulated me on my engagement.

I could not even pretend to be pleased or that I had anything to be congratulated for; it was such irony to receive congratulations on the possession of a fiancé when I did not even know whether he was alive or dead.

There was no peace of mind to be gained from all this walking & wondering…

In those dreadful hours I cursed Providence because I was not a man and in it all. A woman–especially now–has nothing to make up to her for such anxiety and suspense as this…[7]

 

And Roland is safe, of course–the 7th Worcesters have not been in combat. But he will not be safe for long. The ironies double and redouble. Today he wrote to her once again. He can’t do anything but.

France, 28 September 1915

It is rather cruel to disturb people with false alarms. This last one has, it would seem, been as false as the former one of a few days back. There is still time for it to materialise; but that is improbable. Three is a lucky number, and the next may be a real one. I hope so. It depends always on what the other parts of the line–British & French–are doing. One can only wait.

We go into the trenches tomorrow.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Our debased word for this is the faux-precise "closure."
  2. The Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 203-19. I want to add here my sincere thanks to the friend (and reader!) who first brought Farnsworth to my attention, and gave me a copy of the first edition of his letters, published by his parents in Boston in 1916. A regal gift. This copy, with the above memorial portrait inset in an envelope, was inscribed by Henry's father William in 1917 as a gift to M[ark] de Wolf[e] Howe, who will shortly become the editor of Harvard Volunteers in Europe and include several of Henry's letters. The Farnsworths will also donate and endow a reading room in a Harvard Library in memory of their son, an unusual and pleasant memorial. There will be crosses, row on row, and plaques a plenty, and, once Lutyens is called up, some very moving public art. But it's not the worst thing to know that one literary young soldier is remembered by a place filled with books.
  3. Letters, 34-9.
  4. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I, 117.
  5. Yes: I believe that both nicknames indicate the cheerful, profound racism of the British Empire.
  6. War Diary, 80-1.
  7. Chronicle of Youth, 278-82.
  8. Letters From a Lost Generation, 171.

Rudyard Kipling’s Boy Jack at Hill 70; Harold Macmillan and Bim Tennant Reach the Front Lines; The Master of Belhaven Supports the Guards; Grim Work for Robert Graves and Frank Richards of the Royal Welch

The Guards Division has spent the Battle of Loos waiting, so far. Today some of the Guards continued to wait, and some attacked, and died.

In a letter of today, a century back, Harold Macmillan, like Bim Tennant and Rowland Feilding in recent posts, describes the long, torturous march up through the clogged rear areas.

Macmillan1

Harold Macmillan, right, and fellow Guards officers clowning around in happier days, September 1915.

Last night (after our 15 miles march) we slept pretty readily as you may imagine. Our guns are keeping up a tremendous bombardment from behind and on each side of us. We can hear the shells whizzing over our heads but one doesn’t mind that; indeed the noise of one’s own artillery is a very comfortable sound. The Germans are not doing much in the way of retaliation; they dropped a few shells short of us and some right over us last night.

We all slept in the open, beside the trenches. It is so uncomfortable to sleep in the trench and the men were so tried after these 2 hard days, that this was decided upon as the best system. We had sentries to watch; and if there had been any sign of shell-fire dangerously near us, we should gave jumped down into the trench. There is of course no rifle fire, as we are at present in the support or 2nd line.

This has to rank high on the list of ingenuousness for all paragraphs that end with an implied “so don’t worry, mom.”

We do not know how the battle is going. There are bound to be fluctuations, and of course some of the New Army Divisions are rather shaky. My chief feeling at present is one of thankfulness that I am in the Brigade of Guards…

I do not feel frightened yet, only rather bewildered. We are all in excellent spirits and health. Please don’t worry at all about me…[1]

Yes, there it is, and the more touching for coming after an admission of “bewilderment.” Bimbo’s letter to “Darling Moth” I won’t go into at any length, but it is much the same, although with a touch of Graves on graves:

…we walked 12 miles, from 3 p.m. to nearly 8 p.m., and then slept in a cemetery where I am now writing at 8.30 p.m. I slept on a waterproof sheet with all my clothes and my mackintosh on, but it was none too warm and I should love to be sent a woolly waistcoat if you can dig out one of mine at home.

The guns have been at it the whole time, and we can hear our heavy shells tearing across the sky just like one hears a rocket going up and then coming down. I love hearing them. As we sit here I can see houses with huge holes in the wall or roof, or only three walls, all around us. And there are several places in the cemetery where shells have pitched and wrecked one or two hideous grave-decorations which are like dolls’ houses with glass fronts and full of black and white bead flowers and tin palm leaves, so you can imagine how sordid they look all smashed up…

We are all cheerful and I am very happy, but we don’t yet know what we are going to do to-day. The guns still continue unceasingly, and all the men are writing letters home…[2]

It may seem a little perverse to begin a day of battle and death with these homelike letters to mother. But that, I think, is the point–or, rather, one of the points–of doing broad-bore, real-time history. Yes, someday, everywhere, many sighs are drained, but on those very same days other bright young subalterns are exhilarated, and continue to look forward, and to write home for warmer clothes. So I guess I wanted the intact pullets up here in front today, before the broken egg.

While most of the Guards Division is still on the road, the 4th Brigade has reached the front lines, and is preparing to attack. To get a little perspective on this phase of the battle, let’s go over to the artillery and backwards in time.

 

Our man in the artillery, Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, has spent the last few days moving his guns south–from the “subsidiary” or “feint” attack in which the 2/Royal Welch were involved near the La Bassé canal to the main effort opposite Loos itself. Hamilton has been in command of his unit–a “battery” roughly equal to a battalion, and representing the independent artillery strength of the infantry brigade to which it belongs–since the death of his colonel on the 20th. Rather unhelpfully, he calls both the large unit and its four constituent sub-divisions “batteries.”

The battle had–from Hamilton’s perspective–nevertheless gone quite well. He fired accurately and often, and enjoyed good communications with his forward observers through buried telephone lines. He makes no mention of a shell shortage. And, naturally, the attack threw everything into chaos.

vermelles to loos

Hamilton’s battery spent yesterday firing from near the upper left of this map toward the lower right. Courtesy of McMaster University.

On the afternoon of the 25th he lost contact with both his observers and the HQ of his brigade, as the infantry moved forward in support of the attack. The broken nature of the ground–“an enormous plain of waste clay land”–prevented bringing his batteries up and keeping them in action:

We wandered about in the dark for three hours, being shelled by heavy guns. It was an absolute nightmare: everyone we asked said something different.

On the 26th–yesterday–his battery was ensconced at Le Rutoire, and without positive orders from Division, Hamilton began to fire at Hill 70, where, it has been reported, a British attack had failed and a German counter-attack was building. This is courageous, in a way, but also irresponsible. Hill 70, of which we will hear much now, is East of Loos, just off the map section above, which I chose because it shows the positions of Vermelles (upper left), Le Rutoire (a bit to the southeast), the German front lines at the start of the battle (in red) and Loos itself.

So Hamilton is firing, based on a rumor, at a hill which is obscured from his vision–except for, perhaps, the very top (contour maps are hard to read!) by the rising ground between them and the buildings on the outskirts of Loos. After firing for a while, Hamilton desisted:

All afternoon I tried to get orders and information from the front, but was unable to do so. I therefore dared not fire anymore.

As it happens, his guesswork was probably fairly good. A feeble attempt to retake Hill 70 was indeed driven off yesterday, setting the stage for another assault.

And so, today, a century back, the battery retrenched, literally and figuratively. While his batteries improved their defenses at Le Rutoire, Hamilton was ordered to attach himself to the HQ of the Guards Brigade,[3] putting himself personally under the command Brigadier Geoffrey Percy Thynne Feilding, who, if my rapid clicking through the peerage was correct, is a first cousin once removed to Dorothie and Rollo and a first cousin to Rowland. The Brigade is planning the attack on Hill 70, and the Master will thus be firing in direct support of Osbert Sitwell of the 2nd Grenadier Guards (our other young Grenadiers, above, are in other brigades of the division).

So much for crossing. Now for the path–an excellent example of why it is so hard to follow up a local advance:

loos to hill 70I had an awful time trying to get up to where General Feilding was. I had to walk about a mile up our own communicating trench and come to our old fire trenches, the ones we had been in till two days ago. After that it was necessary to get out into the open and pass through our wire into thew neutral zone. Crossing the space of some 400 yards before reaching the German trenches was simply Hell incarnate. It was being swept continuously by the German heavy guns and also with shrapnel, to say nothing of rifle-bullets which were coming over the crest. This ground presented a terrible sight, the dead lying about everywhere–principally our own me who had been killed in the assault two days before.

Hamilton made it, and he “was much relieved” when he reached the safety of the German front-line trench. This he would later explore, and become not the last British officer to marvel at how deep, comfortable, and well-made the German trenches were:

I was astounded to see what a palatial place it was. I was specially struck by the officers’ quarters. One of them must have been quite 20 feet underground… there was every luxury.

Hamilton took a newspaper as a trophy, and returned to his batteries. But that will be later–this evening. At 4 p.m. Hamilton/Belhaven watched the Guards attack–not only the (1st) Guards, but the 2nd Brigade as well, which included Rowland Feilding‘s 1st Coldstreams and the unblooded 2nd Irish Guards. He was pleased with his own batteries “distinctly good” shooting, as well as the effectiveness of a smoke screen.

Precisely at the hour, the officers leaped up on to the parapet, immediately followed by the men–this was the 2nd Bn. Irish Guards. There was a shout of “They are off!” and the assault commenced. Almost at once they were lost to sight in the valley in front of us, and, so far as we could see, they had very few casualties to start with.[4]

 

To start with. But they had a lot of ground to cover. Rudyard Kipling will take up the task of writing the history of the Irish Guards, and we will pick up his account of the 2nd Battalion, beginning yesterday, a century back:

The 2nd Guards Brigade, then, waited on at Haquin till shortly after noon, and moved via Nœux-les-Mines, Sailly-Labourse, Noyelles, and Vermelles, large portions of which were then standing and identifiable, to trenches in front of Le Rutoire. Here the German lines had been driven back a little, and Captains Alexander and Hubbard commanding the two leading companies of the Battalion were sent on to look at them in daylight. The results of the Captains’ adventure, when it is recalled that one set of trenches, at the best of times, looks remarkably like another, and that this was far from being a good time, were surprisingly satisfactory. “There was no one to tell them exactly which trenches were to be taken over, but, from instructions given on the map, and in consultation with the 1st Scots Guards who had to occupy ground on their right, they arranged which set of them to inhabit. Owing to congestion of roads, and having to go across much broken country, etc., it was nearly midnight before the Battalion got into the selected spot—an old line of captured German trenches in front of Lone Tree.”

The Lone Tree, site of the tactical-consolation-snatched-from-the-jaws-of-strategic-defeat on the first day of the battle (the little flanking movement given to Phillip Maddison in A Fox Under My Cloak) now becomes a symbol of the intractable problem of trench warfare. Anywhere they have recently been is broken ground, ground they know intimately, and upon which they can bring to bear any amount of firepower. Can the British generals contrive to make this tactical problem into a bitter irony?

This, as is well known to all regimental historians, was a mark of the German guns almost to the inch, and, unfortunately, formed one of our dressing-stations.

lone tree

Lone Tree and environs

Yes: the British commanders chose the most prominent landmark in the area to serve as the primary care center for their wounded.

At a moderate estimate the Battalion had now been on foot and livelily awake for forty-eight hours; the larger part of that time without any food. It remained for them merely to go into the fight, which they did at half-past two on the morning of the 27th September when they received “verbal instructions to push forward to another line of captured German trenches, some five hundred yards, relieving any troops that might happen to be there.” It was nearly broad daylight by the time that this disposition was completed, and they were much impressed with the permanence and solidity of the German works in which they found themselves, and remarked jestingly one to another, that “Jerry must have built them with the idea of staying there for ever…”

canvas2

Day Three of Loos. The Loos Road Redoubt, just behind the original German front line, can be seen in the upper left. The targets of today’s assault are on the right, in the boxes numbered 25 and 31.

Now we proceed to the immediate preliminaries of today’s assault by the Guards on Hill 70.

The attack of their Brigade developed during the course of the day… At half-past two a heavy bombardment lasting for one hour and a half would be delivered on that sector. At four the Second Irish Guards would advance upon Chalk-Pit Wood and would establish themselves on the north-east and south-east faces of it, supported by the 1st Coldstream…

Chalk-Pit Wood at that time existed as a somewhat dishevelled line of smallish trees and brush running from north to south along the edge of some irregular chalk workings which terminated at their north end, in a deepish circular quarry. It was not easy to arrive at its precise shape and size, for the thing, like so much of the war-landscape of France, was seen but once by the men vitally concerned in its features, and thereafter changed outline almost weekly, as gun-fire smote and levelled it from different angles…

Nos. 1 and 4 Companies were to follow and back up Nos. 3 and 2 respectively. At four o’clock the two leading companies deployed and advanced, “keeping their direction and formation perfectly.” That much could be seen from what remained of Vermelles watertower, where some of the officers of the 1st Battalion were watching, regardless of occasional enemy shell. They advanced quickly, and pushed through to the far edge of the Wood with very few casualties, and those, as far as could be made out, from rifle or machine-gun fire. (Shell-fire had caught them while getting out of their trenches, but, notwithstanding, their losses had not been heavy till then.) The rear companies pushed up to thicken the line, as the fire increased from the front, and while digging in beyond the Wood, 2nd Lieutenant Pakenham-Law was fatally wounded in the head. Digging was not easy work, and seeing that the left of the two first companies did not seem to have extended as far as the Chalk-Pit, at the north of the Wood, the C.O. ordered the last two platoons of No. 4 Company which were just coming up, to bear off to the left and get hold of the place.

puits no 14

Detail of the above, courtesy of McMaster University. Hill 70 is at bottom right, with the double line of trenches defending three flanks of the summit. Note the contour lines, and the effect of attacking uphill toward a position 70 meters high

In the meantime, the 1st Scots Guards, following orders, had come partly round and partly through the right flank of the Irish, and attacked Puits 14 bis, which was reasonably stocked with machine-guns, but which they captured for the moment. Their rush took with them “some few Irish Guardsmen,” with 2nd Lieutenants W. F. J. Clifford and J. Kipling of No. 2 Company who went forward not less willingly because Captain Cuthbert commanding the Scots Guards party had been adjutant to the Reserve Battalion at Warley ere the 2nd Battalion was formed, and they all knew him.

Together, this rush reached a line beyond the Puits, well under machine-gun fire (out of the Bois Hugo across the Lens–La Bassee road). Here 2nd Lieutenant Clifford was shot and wounded or killed—the body was found later—and 2nd Lieutenant Kipling was wounded and missing.

This is the only day on which the history of the Royal Irish Fusiliers mentions the actions of 2nd Lieutenant John Kipling. He was Rudyard Kipling’s only son, the eighteen-year-old boy so near-sighted that he needed his father’s personal intervention with senior generals in order to gain his commission. He will remain officially missing for a very long time, his body never to be found.[5]

Kipling will not write directly of this loss, but he will come to write of a dead son, and even of a dead boy named Jack. He had the habit of writing snatches of verse to serve as epigraphs for chapters of his prose, and in a forthcoming book about the war at sea, he will compose a sort of chantey-elegy which, naturally, will be read as voicing the author’s own grief:

jack kipling

2nd Lieutenant John Kipling

“Have you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Has any one else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind —
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

Kipling will also come to write a series of short, brief epigraphs–troubling, easily misread works which we will return to. Here again we must imagine the author to be speaking for himself. But tread carefully. These are formal epitaphs, and the conceit is clearly that the writer speaks in a deep and broad voice, terse lines that come from the voice of the nation. If he had wanted to complete doff his author’s mask and let us see his tears, he would have. These are written by Kipling, and they cannot not be in some sense about his grief–but they are not biographical writings.

My son was killed while laughing at some jest.  I would I knew
What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests are few.

 

Jack Kipling is dead, and the war goes on. The history of the Royal Irish continues, too. There is nothing to say: the life of the regiment goes on even when one young subaltern–or several, or scores–are killed. The historian gives voice to a general fury, a righteous anger on behalf of the soldiers betrayed, and not (merely?) the grief of a father bereaved:

…it does not seem to have occurred to any one to suggest that direct infantry attacks, after ninety-minute bombardments, on works begotten out of a generation of thought and prevision, scientifically built up by immense labour and applied science, and developed against all contingencies through nine months, are not likely to find a fortunate issue. So, while the Press was explaining to a puzzled public what a far-reaching success had been achieved, the “greatest battle in the history of the world” simmered down to picking up the pieces on both sides of the line, and a return to autumnal trench-work, until more and heavier guns could be designed and manufactured in England. Meantime, men died.[6]

 

And those who lived, wrote. Two different bits from Robert Graves, now a survivor of a grand and disastrous battle, positioned around a lost first gem, apparently, from the pen of Frank Richards.

I first became aware of Private Frank Richards’s remarkable writing talent two days after the battle of Loos… we were both lucky to be alive. Dazed with lack of sleep, I was censoring the company letters…

(Richards, we may remember, claims awareness of “Young Mr. Graves” from two nights ago, as he supervised the ongoing rescue and clean-up operations.) With easy condescension toward semi-literate soldiers, Graves now provides us with an example of the genre of the letter home:

This comes leaving me in the pink which I hope it finds you. We are having a bit of rain at present. I expect you’ll have read in the papers of this latest do. I lost a few good pals but happened to be lucky myself. Fags are always welcome, also socks.

Seldom any more… but suddenly I opened a letter to a wounded friend in hospital, giving him a detailed, grimly joking account of what had really happened to the battalion–uncut wire, heavy Germany shellfire, the R.E.’s bungling of the gas operations, the death of three company commanders… I handed the letter to ‘Deadwood Dick’, a regular officer who was sharing a dugout with me. “Can I pass this? I asked.

Graves, surprisingly, gives the swaggering regular the stylish last word. The letter violates secrecy rules, and should be destroyed or heavily censored, but Buffalo Bill breaks character:

“It’s all true, and the official communique will be all lies, and people at home ought to know what goes on… Here I’ll pass it myself.”[7]

So a timely blow for the solidarity of the soldiers–Regular and recent, Officers and other ranks–against the Staff that betrayed them and the government that will contrive to spread lies about the disaster.

But in Good-Bye to All That we find for today a less humorous account of the enormous suffering and little acts of great heroism that come in the wake of battle:

On the morning of the 27th a cry arose from No Man’s Land. A wounded soldier of the Middlesex had recovered consciousness after two days. He lay close to the German wire. Our men heard it and looked at each other. We had a tender-hearted lance-corporal named Baxter. He was the man to boil up a special dixie for the sentries of his section when they came off duty. As soon as he heard the wounded Middlesex man, he ran along the trench calling for a volunteer to help fetch him in. Of course, no one would go; it was death to put one’s head over the parapet. When he came running to ask me I excused myself as being the only officer in the company. I would come out with him at dusk, I said–not now. So he went alone. He jumped quickly over the parapet, then strolled across No Man’s Land, waving a handkerchief; the Germans fired to frighten him, but since he persisted they let him come up close. Baxter continued towards them and, when he got to the Middlesex man, stopped and pointed to show the Germans what he was at. Then he dressed the man’s wounds, gave him a drink of rum and some biscuit that he had with him, and promised to be back again at nightfall. He did come back, with a stretcher party, and the man eventually recovered. I recommended Baxter for the Victoria Cross, being the only officer who had witnessed the action, but the authorities thought it worth no more than a Distinguished Conduct Medal.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. From Downing Street to the Trenches, 147-9.
  2. Letters, 33-34.
  3. Until recently the 4th (Guards) Brigade, now the (1st) Guards Brigade of the Division of Guards.
  4. War Diary, 74-79.
  5. In his father's lifetime, at least. A body that might have been his was located in 1992, but the remains could not be conclusively identified.
  6. Kipling, The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 22-28.
  7. Old Soldiers Never Die, 2.
  8. Good-Bye to All That, 163-4.

Phillip Maddison Goes Once More Into the Breach; Robert Nichols: The Strain Tells on You and Saps Your Strength; Robert Graves and Frank Richards on the Aftermath; Osbert Sitwell and the Guards Reach the Battlefield; Milne is Spared; Tolkien and Mottram Prepare

Yesterday the Battle of Loos began. British troops surged forward, except where they didn’t. In some parts of the line thousands of yards were gained, in others the first two waves were shot down before uncut wire and the survivors ended where they began. The biggest gains were lost when the Germans counter-attacked the depleted British assault troops and drove them back into their reserves, who had stumbled up to the line exhausted and far too late to effect a relief. (“Drove them back” means something like “shot and shelled them until mental exhaustion and the fear of being killed or captured caused them to retreat.”) Nowhere did the British advance come close to breaking all the way through the numerous layers of deeply-delved trenches.

Yesterday’s themes, then–as the battle came to be written–were courage and futility, the willingness of the infantry and the failure of the Staff. Henry Williamson hammered these themes like a toddler with a glockenspiel, and even gave the starring role in one small local success–the improvised flanking assault at Lone Tree–to Phillip Maddison, the alter-ego at the center of his enormous sequence of novels. Today, Maddison continues to rove around the battlefield and witness the historically “characteristic” events of the day. This is fiction retro-fitted to comment on the main themes of the written history. (Williamson was not there, and his heavy reading in the sources is obvious in the novel. Maddison today is less an alter-ego than a time-traveler, sent back into history to be the reader’s roving eye–this might be termed the hidden-camera approach to historical fiction).[1]

And what does he see? First, the slow and blundering advance of the British reserves. Yesterday, the Staff were the villains with their clunky plans and the simple improvised outflanking maneuver was something any boy scout should have recognized. Today it is the scout-ish behavior of the New Armies that embarrasses Phillip: he comes upon none other than the snobbish, Public School-rife New Army battalion of the Gaultshires that he had trained with over the summer, and finds the colonel, the self-regarding old Cambridge don who had presided over the bullying and shallow mess, now fumbling about, trying to get his battalion to its jump-off position by using a compass and aninsufficiently detailed map. So young Phillip takes it upon himself to lecture the elderly colonel, the young old soldier speaking to the elderly neophyte:

and not wait for useless orders. Obviously we ought to go on and fill the gap. We ought to push on, the quicker the better. It’s common sense!

vermelles to loos Phillip leads the battalion back up through no man’s land–still littered with yesterday’s wounded–and over the old German line near Lone Tree. Then he goes up to La Rutoire (the isolated farm, center top, at right) to try to find the battalion’s transport, then back to the battalion where, unaccountably, he chooses to stay with them as they make their futile attack into a “gap” that has long since been closed by newly emplaced machine guns.

There’s another impressionistic scene, now, of the bewildering horror of a floundering attack. Phillip stumbles along as the battalion is riddled with bullets, wondering why he has come. Men fall all around him and don’t get up, and then he falls too–mysteriously, for he is not hit. And then once again, improbably, he comes face to face with the Germans, who come forward to capture the wounded remnants of the Gaultshires… and immediately let them go: they would rather the British deal with their casualties.

This is not all that improbable in and of itself: cold hearts had already figured out that wounding the enemy in many ways slowed him down more than simply killing him. Dead men drain no resources, while the evacuation of the wounded is very difficult–remember all those men yesterday clogging up the communications trenches as the second wave went forward.[2] The Germans have their own wounded to deal with–and things have not quite yet come to such a pass that European armies will murder their foes in cold blood. Yet the cumulative effect is quite bizarre–more Germans, more surviving at the front of an assault?–and perhaps it’s time we left Phillip and his thematic tour of Everything That Happened at Loos, and looked to the non-fictional experiences.

 

On the northern end of the battlefront, where the men of the Middlesex and the Royal Welch had died in a futile attempt to distract the German counterattacks from Loos itself, last night was a mixed operation of rescue and salvage.

We… spent the day after the attack carrying the dead down for burial and cleaning the trench up as best we could. That night the Middlesex held the line, while the Royal Welch carried all the unbroken gas-cylinders along to a position on the left flank of the Brigade, where they were to be use on the following night…

This was worse than carrying the dead; the cylinders were cast-iron, heavy and hateful. The men cursed and sulked. The officers alone knew of the proposed attack; the men must not be told until just beforehand. I felt like screaming.[3]

Robert Graves had also complained, yesterday, of published slights about the Welch’s slow advance, made by a writer from a Scottish New Army battalion to the south that had made good progress. He returns the insult today–the enfant terrible is nevertheless terribly proud of his regiment, you see–thus following in the footsteps of the officers who continued the futile attack because of their loyalty to the Middlesex, another “English”[4] battalion in a unit dominated by Scots. If the Welch failed to advance against insuperable obstacles, well, Graves informs us, the Highland Light Infantry attacked but then fell back, and utterly lost cohesion. The old knock on the Highland regiments seems to be connected (somewhat amazingly) to their tribal past: they are indisciplined savages who “charge like hell–both ways.” Today, after the attack and retreat, they are sleeping, wounded, unvigilant; their officers absent. Graves tells us that he “walked nearly a quarter of a mile without seeing either a sentry or an officer… The trench had been used as a latrine.”

For Graves this is a source for wry humor–“I reported to the Actor that we might have our flank in the air.” But Frank Richards, an old soldier of the regiment, is more deeply offended–and more opportunistic.

In the Royal Welch, if every officer and N.C.O has been casualties the oldest soldier that was left would have posted his sentries and seen for himself that they were keeping a sharp look-out.

But, as it was, he leaves his own battalion to have a “scrounge,” a traditional but hardly respectable activity. Richards finds the “Old Soldier” and two others carrying a rum jar, presumably one belonging to the Highland Light Infantry.

During the next forty-eight hours there were no more cheerier men in France than some of the old hands of my platoon and more brews of tea were made than what had been known for some time.[5]

 

As was mentioned briefly yesterday–perhaps you missed it, it was a bit of a run-on, that post–the fury of the bombardment has also caused the first clear case of psychological injury among our writers. Today, a century back, Robert Nichols left his unit and entered the peristaltic process of army medical treatment today. A letter to his father, perhaps begun yesterday, was continued today or tomorrow:

I’m in hospital for a few days–after a rather thick time. They found me done up utterly in a road after looking for a place and I still feel rather done in–having been knocked down twice, once by the blast of a gun and once by a spent bullet…

Although my nerves have played me false do not think that I disgraced myself–as a matter of fact I think I did all right in that way. But the strain tells on you and saps your strength–for where I was although we were marvellously lucky any moment might have been one’s last–for we were close up and had whizz-bangs, heavy guns, rifles and machine guns against us–I mean where we, the officers, were observing.

Nichols was fortunate to belong to an evidently humane unit, or to come under the care of understanding doctors. The infantry had it worse, in most ways, and officers of the old Regular Army, worried about discipline and fighting spirit in a beleaguered army, did not always take the time to distinguish between emotional collapse and simple cowardice. (Actually, I don’t believe in “simple” cowardice, but the point is not worth arguing. Suffice it to say that it is cruel to punish men for breaking down after being “blown up”–traumatized and often suffering brain injuries–and yet, if the war is to continue, men who are faltering because they are afraid to die must be kept to the task. A perfect delineation of the two will be impossible, which is cruel–but there are many cruelties here.)

Nichols, again, was lucky. His battery commander, writing a few weeks hence, both admits to Nichols’ “suffering from a slight nervous breakdown” and commends his performance:

We did some very hard fighting during his stay in the Battery which he did not mind a bit, also whatever duty he had to perform in action or out he did splendidly and again [I] must say how sorry I was to lose him. So blessed hard for a fellow to be full of fight but his health fails him.

This humane commander–a Captain J. Richards,–will also write to Nichols:

We had a rough time here and most trying, a terrible strain to the strongest and at the time you wasn’t one of the strongest, so you must get thoroughly well this time. I felt awfully sorry for you, poor kid, you did me so well, it’s one thing, although your nerves had gone there wasn’t anything you would not do let it be never so dangerous, and you must admit things were very hot. I reported to the colonel your heart was as big as a lion’s but no one can go against bad health which means rotten bad luck.[6]

I wish I could report more on Richards, or on the details of Nichols’ symptoms and condition. He is the first, but there will be others.

 

Now, the show must go on. Much of the blame for yesterday’s failure should fall to whomever we should consider responsible for the insufficient artillery preparation–the government or the general staff, going back months and even years. But much of the rest–there were initial local successes, and both Loos and Hill 70 were swiftly taken–goes to Sir John French himself, who was slow in allowing Haig, the actual battlefield commander, to take command of the reserves. A few hours of delay there is directly traceable to the retreats of yesterday afternoon.

And today the Guards Division, which Bimbo Tennant had hoped would be promptly “popped” into a gap in the German lines, is still marching to the battlefield. Osbert Sitwell, whose memories are vivid but hazy on the dates, evokes the scene when they first reached it.

…at the earliest hour, we reached the battlefield… For many weeks the Germans had, of course, observed our preparations to attack them. They had been ready. Now the bodies of friends and enemies lay, curious crumpled shapes, swollen and stiff in the long yellow grass under chicory flowers. A dry, rather acrid smell of death, just tinctured with tear gas, hung over the brown Rubens-like landscape…[7]

The attack will resume in full force tomorrow, with the Guards in the fore-front.

 

In many ways  the second day of Loos was something of a lull, which is the most damning evidence of “poor staff work” in preparing for the battle. Fittingly, then, I have a few notes to share about writers still enjoying the peace and plenty of England, there own lulls lasting a little longer yet.

It seems funny to mention A.A. Milne in a context such as this, but his battalion of the Warwickshires was roughly handled yesterday–every officer (I have read this, but not verified it) who entered the fight became a casualty. But Milne was safe, far away from the battle, having qualified for training as a signals instructor.

And Ralph Mottram, who will in many ways write the only successful “major” nineteenth-century-style British novel of the war,[8]got his mobilization orders for France today, a century back.

On the second day of the Loos offensive, I opened a telegram ordering reinforcement officers to prepare to proceed overseas. My own name was among them. It was an error, I knew, for Morton of the Suffolks, but with correct military manners I handed over my job, and took my two days’ embarkation leave.

I was now at grips with stark reality and very grim it was. I had hardly been home all that happy, busy summer. I found Mother, pathetically worn and courageous, nursing Father in what, I tried not to admit, was his last illness. He hardly knew me, and could not find the words he wanted. I do not think he realized in the least that I was just going into the heart of that, to him, unimaginable thing, a European war. I got rid of some superfluous kit and left for France. The old Scots Embarkation Officer verified my papers and said: “God bless you”, surprisingly. We crossed at night, all lights covered and no smoking on deck.

So the staff in France may have blundered, but the War Office is hurrying on the next batch of replacement officers, and they are coming–taking mistakes like a typographical accident of fate in stride. And art will imitate life in this. Mottram’s fictional protagonist Geoffrey Skene, who shares much of his war experience with his creator (although less than Maddison with Williamson), also started for France on this date. Alas–for we will need his keen eye–dates are thin on the ground in traditional novels…[9]

 

And finally, today, J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Wiseman, G.B. Smith, and Rob Gilson assembled today, a century back. At least three of them had met yesterday in the town of Lichfield, and today–if they kept to the plans recorded in their correspondance–the four had lunch together at the Gilsons’ in Marston Green. The Tea Club and Barrovian Society had moved if not heaven and earth then at least family, school, army, and the British rail system to maintain their friendship after school. But these gatherings have been rare.

Perhaps they talked about the first reports of the growing battle. Perhaps they discussed their hopes and fears as their own marching orders loomed. Or perhaps they just did what they always did–read each other’s stories and poems, and talked about their grand plans for literary success and creative fulfillment. Which now must come, of course, after the war…[10]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Spoiler, in terms of writing context, ahead: I don't want to spend the time today discussing this at length, but I've realized that Williamson is reading along with us. He quotes the Official History at length and has certainly read Graves, and probably Richards too. And into today's strange experiences--Maddison speaks with Germans in no man's land for the third time in the war--he inserts an anecdote that seems to come directly from Rowland Feilding's letters. Williamson's Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight is sometimes a challenging, flawed, interesting novel, a baggy monster making a fair bid to represent the experience of a time and place; and sometimes, as in the description of Loos, it's more like an anthology yoked to a ham-handed historical fiction.
  2. The same sort of evil genius designed the many types of land mines which maim more than they kill.
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 161-2.
  4. Few of the Welch officers are actually Welsh, though many of the men are.
  5. Old Soldiers Never Die, 130.
  6. Putting Poetry First, 51-2.
  7. Laughter in the Next Room, 106.
  8. You like that? I got five qualifiers onto "novel," and even forgot to specify "by a veteran," which might be necessary as well. I rule out Williamson ("successful," and "nineteenth-century") and Ford (Parade's End is decidedly Modern), and several other slim one-volume efforts that don't address the behind-the-lines aspect of the war as well as Mottram does.
  9. Window Seat, 220, 227; Spanish Farm Trilogy, 255.
  10. Chronology, 73-4.

The Battle of Loos Begins: Robert Graves, Frank Richards, Henry Williamson, Noel Hodgson, Robert Nichols, and Others on the Bloody Balls-Up

Today, a century back, the battle of Loos began. As an action on the left flank of a larger French assault, it is slightly hyperbolic to refer to it (though many have recently done so) as the greatest action of the war, or the largest battle in human history. But it’s the biggest push yet, a great effort that many on the allied side–although not General Haig, commander of First Army–believe may lead to breakthrough and victory.

So great an effort, in fact that, instead of moving simply from one writer to the next, I will use chronological sub-headings, moving through the stages of the attack and occasionally returning to the same writer later in the day. In this way I hope to give some sense of the overall picture while also recounting the experiences of the assault troops of the first wave, of Phillip Maddison with the gas troops and the (fictional) Gaultshires, of the Royal Welch in the second line against uncut wire, and of the Guards in reserve hastening forward–and to include a little of the fiction and poetry generated by observers and artillery officers.

Gas in the Half Light

A grey, watery dawn broke at last behind the German lines; the bombardment, surprisingly slack all night, brisked up a little. “Why the devil don’t they send them over quicker?” The Actor complained. This isn’t my idea of a bombardment. We’re getting nothing opposite us. What little there seems to be is going into the Hohenzollern.”

“Shell shortage. Expected it,” was Thomas’ laconic reply.[1]

This is Robert Graves, watching with D company of the second battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers from the second line trenches. “The Actor,” by the way, is the officer described by Frank Richards as “Deadwood Dick,” former sidekick to “Buffalo Bill.” Richards describes his view of the attack:

Dawn broke at last and we were anxiously waiting for the time when the Grand Slam commenced. The assembly trenches were about seven hundred yards behind our front line. Dann and I were closely watching to see our gas going over, which we were told would kill every German for over a mile in front of us and which none of us believed in… At last we saw the gas going over in two or three places: it looked like small clouds rolling along close to the ground. The white clouds hadn’t travelled far before they seemed to stop and melt away. I found out later that the wind that should have taken it across no-man’s-land hadn’t put in an appearance and the gas had spread back into our trenches…

We were now told to hold ourselves in readiness to proceed to the front line. I told Dann we wouldn’t carry that rabbit wire any further, so we dumped it in a shell hole…

So much for the worst overburden of the signaller. Back to Graves:

The events of the next few minutes are difficult for me now to sort out. I found it more difficult still at the time.[2] All we heard back there in the sidings was a distant cheer, confused crackle of rifle fire, yells, heavy shelling booming on our front line, more shouts, yells and cries, and a continuous rapid rattle of machine-guns. After a few minutes, lightly wounded men of the Middlesex came stumbling down Maison Rouge Alley to the dressing-station. I stood at the junction of the siding and the Alley.

‘What’s happened? What’s happened?’ I asked.

‘Bloody balls-up,’ was the most detailed answer I could get.

Among the wounded were a number of men yellow-faced and choking, their buttons tarnished green–gas cases. Then came the badly wounded. Maison Rouge Alley being narrow, the stretchers had difficulty in getting down. The Germans started shelling it with five-point-nines.

Thomas went back to battalion headquarters through the shelling to ask for orders. It was the same place that I had visited on my first night in the trenches. This cluster of dugouts in the reserve line showed very plainly from the air as battalion headquarters, and never should have been occupied during a battle. Just before Thomas arrived, the Germans put five shells into it. The adjutant jumped one way, the colonel the other, the RSM a third. One shell went into the signals dugout, killed some signallers and destroyed the telephone. The colonel, slightly cut on the hand, joined the stream of wounded and was carried back as far as the base with it. The adjutant took command.

It’s interesting to note the different accounts of the wound that incapacitated “the colonel,” Lt. Col. Williams, the commander of the battalion. In the regimental history he is wounded over the eye “from which blood streamed down his face.”[3] Dunn’s account–and Dunn was the doctor that day–has the similar but more clinical “a wound over his eye, from which the blood ran down his face.” Graves, obviously, is implying something rather shameful…

Meanwhile ‘A’ company had been waiting in the siding for the rum to arrive; the tradition being a double tot of rum beforehand. all the other companies got theirs. The Actor began cursing: “where the bloody hell’s that storeman gone?” We fixed bayonets in readiness to go up and attack as soon as Captain Thomas returned with orders. Hundreds of wounded streamed by. At last Thomas’ orderly appeared. “Captain’s orders, sir: ‘A’ company to move up to the front line.” At that moment the storeman arrived, without rifle or equipment, hugging the rum bottle, red-faced and retching. He staggered up to The Actor and said, “there you are, sir!”, then fell on his face in the thick mud of a sump-pit at the junction of the trench and the siding. The stopper of the bottle flew out and what remained of the three gallons bubbled on the ground. The Actor made no reply. This was a crime that deserved the death penalty. He put one foot on the storeman’s neck, the other in the small of his back, and trod him into the mud. Then he gave the order “Company Forward!” The company advanced with a clatter of steel, and this was the last I ever heard of the storeman.

The black comedy lurches on. In the front line, a disaster is unfolding.

 

The First Attack

It seems that at half-past four an R[oyal] E[ngineer] captain commanding the gas-company in the front line phoned through to divisional headquarters: “Dead calm. Impossible discharge accessory.” The answer he got was: “Accessory to be discharged at all costs.” Thomas had not over-estimated the gas-company’s efficiency. The spanners for unscrewing the cocks of the cylinders proved, with two or three exceptions, to be misfits. The gas-men rushed about shouting for the adjustable spanner. They managed to discharge one or two cylinders; the gas went whistling out, formed a thick cloud a few yards off in no man’s land, and then gradually spread back into our trenches. The Germans, who had been expecting gas, immediately put on their gas helmets: semi-rigid ones, better than ours. Bundles of oily cotton-waste were strewn along the German parapet and set alight as a barrier to the gas. Then their batteries opened on our lines. The confusion in the front trench must have been horrible; direct hits broke several of the gas-cylinders, the trench filled with gas, the gas-company stampeded.

There is a good mix of witness, fact, exaggeration, and fiction in that paragraph. Sober histories claim that not a single gas cylinder was actually hit and exploded in the front line, but none dispute the basic problem: a wind so feeble as to useless, and in some cases counter-productive. And, of course,the wrong spanners–here is the flip side of British amateurism and ingenuity and all the rest. Half-trained motley units are hurried together and given none of the best men, then expected to function with little preparation.

Is it irony, then, that the right (southern) flank of the attack was initially quite successful? Somehow, the German wire was cut, and the bombardment was well-timed, and the first wave of troops pushed through the German lines and took the town of Loos.

loos--hulluch

The center of the German positions (trenches in red, the British front line marked by a single dotted line on the left) assaulted today, with the town of Hulluch in the upper right.

There would seem to be an opportunity, there, for fiction. But Henry Williamson is not primarily interested in either irony or tragedy. The long Loos section of A Fox Under My Coat is historical gourmandising, an all-you-can-eat feast in which Phillip Maddison is alternately a raw soul tossed on the eddies of history, a reader’s eye at the center of the storm, and a paragon of historical fiction, transformed into a man of action at the right place and in the right time.

Williamson positions Maddison where he can witness–and play a role in–both general disaster and local triumph.

First, the gas. The hapless Phillip is tucked under the wing of the mercurial, scenery-chewing Captain West:

“God’s teeth, that blasted light stabs my eyeballs… This tea is cold, dammit.” Then, “What’s the time?”

“Four minutes to go, skipper.”

That would make it 5:46 a.m., a century back.

Captain West sprang off the bed, and touching Phillip on the shoulder said quietly, “Come with me.”

Phillip followed… out past men standing up in a sickly light, ominous with rain that hung everywhere in threat above the dead-white parapet. Some were smoking; a few were talking; but all were silent as they watched the two officers climbing two scaling ladders, placed side by side, to look out over the dreaded top.

“No wind,” said Captain West. “Do you agree?”

“Yes, I do.”

West makes Phillip phone through to brigade–the lines still work, before the German interdiction shelling has begun–and tell them that he–West–has, in the absence of the expected westerly (i.e. west-to-east) wind, countermanded the order to release the gas.

Brigade has already been informed of the lack of wind, but ordered by Division Headquarters–far enough behind to ignore the wind, we must suppose–to carry on as planned. There is a timetable, after all. This did happen, yet the tone of this detail seems to be borrowed from Graves’s memoir.

Williamson has placed the “Gaultshires” opposite the town of Hulluch, with the “Lone Tree”–a much-scarred cherry tree–marking the German front line (visible in the center-left, above, in square 17c). From here he and West will watch the attack.

The German first line… lay just behind the turn-over of the imperceptible slope, marked by a stark and solitary tree near the wire-belt concealed by the grass. This front line, on the reverse slope, was connected laterally with the Loos Road Redoubt on Hill 69… one of three dominating the British positions, with the Hohenzollern to the north and Hill 70 to the south. There were many steel cupolas, with splayed slits for machine-gun fire…  The Loos Road Redoubt was the objective of the brigade of which the Gaultshires was the leading battalion.

The Gaultshires take the place, then, of the real 2/Bedfordshires, who were in the 21st Brigade of the 7th Division. Their first wave–the first,[4] in a way, of the long line of doomed British advances that will stalk through the history, literature, and popular mythology of the Grear War–is cut down by German machine guns and rifles. The survivors shelter in shell-holes or lie flat in the sparse grass under the German guns. Nearly every account of Loos quotes the German regimental diary which describes how the German gunners, sickened by the slaughter, spontaneously held their fire once the British began to fall back.

The crackle of rifle-fire came undiminished from over the grassy battlefield pocked by white craters of chalk, and strewn with figures in khaki…

Phillip stood up. Unknown to him, the effect of his presence upon “Spectre” West was calming. Phillip felt no fear. He was a mere spectator; he had no part in what was happening. He was free.

For a moment it is almost as if Phillip is a time-traveler, rather than a favorite of the special fortune of historical fiction. In any event, his freedom is now subsumed in a strange sort of pseudo-adoption, a literary move clunky almost to ridiculousness, yet also moving in the manner of earnest, angry, bluff fiction. West has been ordered to stay behind, presumably in order to command the reserves.[5] Now he reads the situation and sees that any further assaults into uncut wire would be pointless–the Germans are not destroyed; they are simply waiting. Yet there has been an advance to the south, and the German positions behind Lone Tree are outflanked–they don’t need to be attacked from the front.

He calls the higher-ups asking for permission to do this. No: there must be a frontal assault. It has been ordered already–it has been determined. Young Phillip Maddison wonders what they should do, and the apoplectic “Westy”/”Spectre” treats us to another map-exposition scene:

“God’s teeth, I thought you had brains!” went on Captain West, contemptuously…  He flung open his map, knelt down to spread it on the ground, and pressed it with a finger as he cried, “Here is Lone Tree. And here… is where the First Brigade us now, just about to outflank Lone Tree to the north. And here… is where the Jocks on our right have got to. Yet here”–driving his finger through the map into the loamy clay underneath–“is where we are ordered to attack the same uncut wire frontally! And this in modern war–not in the Crimea!”

Not subtle. Nor is Maddison’s sudden transformation. He wanders off, but only far enough for a whizz-bang ex machina to come crashing down and hit Captain West. “Spectre” is gruesomely and mortally wounded. His loyal batman summons Phillip, then supplies his master with a fatal dose of morphine–an acceleration of his previous role as the gentle poisoner-with-whiskey. Now a death-bed scene in a muddy trench bottom:

The jaws worked; the slow, partial swallow; the struggle to articulate. The batman said, “All right, sir, don’t you worry yourself no more. Mr Maddison ‘eard you, sir. ‘Get round the flank.’ Didn’t you, sir?”

“Yes, Westy, I heard. I”ll carry on. Leave it to me. We’ll get round the flank.”

phillip's flanking movement

The scene of Phillip Maddison’s flanking action. German trenches marked in red; each square is 500 yards to the side.

And so he does. Maddison becomes the adopted son of West (oh, Freshman English!) and carries on the flame. Somehow the old regular’s tenacity and courage mystically pass on to Phillip, who at other times is fearful to the point of punishable cowardice.

He will lead the Gaultshires on! And in doing so he seems to depart from fictionalized history and into historical fiction, taking the leading role in a bit of ripped-from-the-headlines heroic initiative, a blow not only for Britain against Germany, but for the infantry in “Westy’s” war against the staff.

The action itself is borrowed from the 2/Welch regiment, who outflanked the Lone Tree today, a century back. In the novel, our haplessly heroic hero takes command of the remnants of the Gaultshires and suddenly inhabits his own boyhood fantasy of himself.

We are meant to think either that “Westy” has inspired him or that his enormous capacity for headlong improvisation and socially catastrophic playacting finally serves him in good stead. Or both–inspiration tips his character flaws into a battlefield asset. Phillip, the quondam coward, misfit, and would-be passive observer now plays the unflappable upper class subaltern, and it works. He simply leads the reserves of the Gaultshires over the top, down along the Hulluch Road (see above), and then, just like in boy scout exercises or training camp, he gives the few commands that swing his scratch battalion to the right. They advance in open order through the wood and find themselves suddenly within the German positions.

And there, heroism and success meet, naturally, with anticlimax. The Germans behind Lone Tree, knowing full well that they are nearly surrounded, and completely out of ammunition, promptly surrender.

Phillip manages a wan joke in German (their English is, naturally, much better than his German) and accepts the surrender. Other troops come up, including an officer who has disliked him in the past and is suspicious of his presence with the Gaultshires. So just like that, Phillip turns over command of the battalion he was not even a member of, and wanders back toward the rear, his inherited quest fulfilled.

He is apparently unaware that he has been very brave and that, in following Westy’s dying injunction to disobey orders, he has helped to secure a large section of German trenches that otherwise would have been lost. There might be grander irony in this if Williamson were, like Graves, always interested in irony and bathos. He is not–this was one good thing that happened on a bad day, and it is given as a sort of mystical reward to Phillip. And now, less like a temporary gas officer resuming an unlikely independence than like an ordinary Joe in the aftermath of a quantum leap, he resumes his role as a sort of choral observer.

He wanted to see his [gas] emplacements, not from a sense of duty (which he did not as yet possess) but out of curiosity. His mind, formed in ancient terrors,[6] brooded romantically on the war: not the war of waves breaking, and dying, upon the foreshore of terror: not the war of each actual laborious moment, but War, an extended dream, the jetsam of combat become quiescent under ceased movement and lost hope. He wanted to walk about and stand and stare and let his feelings possess him, so that he could lose himself in a dream that was beyond nightmare–the romance of war, the visual echoes of tragic action. Gas brassard on arm, he was free; no-one would question him if he appeared to be going about his job. He must visit the Lone Tree, imagine the barbed-wire as it was when holding up the assault…

In the rear he will come upon another battalion of the Gaultshires–the very unit that he had trained with, antagonized, been bullied by, and ignominiously left. They are part of the delayed reserve–the Kitchener’s Army troops who should have been there to exploit successes like the capture of Lone Tree and Loos, but were too far back. Phillip’s road tomorrow will lie with them, as the whole creaking structure of the novel–Williamson’s own story given a sidewise smack with a sledgehammer–contrives to get him back into the battle.[7]

 

For every other character in this battle–especially those who were actually there, sunk in the stew of social pressures and ambitions that keep units from giving in to the sum of the ordinary fears of their members–this was a period of real tension. Yet once the plan broke down and the artillery timetables were out of sync there was sudden leeway. No matter how rigid the army hierarchy was or how explicit orders were it always seems that there was one way for battalion officers to play for time, whether out of circumspection or a simple unwillingness to be slaughtered. They could ask for orders. Even for clarifications to existing orders. With a counter-barrage underway and troops clogging the communications trenches, there was every likelihood that decisions would be delayed for many long minutes, or–if brigade headquarters felt the need to communicate with division, division with corps, etc.–for hours.

 

Attack: The Second Wave

Let’s turn back to the Royal Welch, whose officers now have some decisions to make. They were supposed to be the second wave of the initial assault, but the attack of the Middlesex Regiment, in front of them, has failed–for many reasons. The first is the gas–not only did it not reach the Germans (who were in any case well-prepared for it) but much of it wafted back into the trench, so the Middlesex, rather than choke on their own gas, had attacked piecemeal and unsupported by the timed bombardment.

To all this Graves adds a colorful story of how the brigade trench mortars–operated by one efficient Royal Welch officer and a pathetically incompetent teenage officer of the Middlesex, known as “Jamaica”–had knocked out all but one German machine gun opposite. But that one gun, left undamaged because Jamaica had abandoned his post to care for a wounded sergeant, now pinned down the survivors of the Middlesex attack in the shell craters of No-Man’s Land, where they discovered that their grenades didn’t work. The 2nd Division had apparently not been issued the new Mills Bombs, but been fobbed off with grenades that actually needed to be lit by matches–and it had, of course, rained all night.

maison rouge 26-27

Maison Rouge Alley–not shown on the map for security reasons–was a British communications trench running roughly from the bottom-left-most “B” east through the next “A” and into the British front line. The German positions they will assault are shown in red.

Those of the rest of the Middlesex who had actually left their trenches to attack had either been hit by German artillery–which after all had long ago registered the exact position of the British trenches–or shot down by rifles. Because there was no supporting bombardment the Germans could stand up on their fire steps, head and shoulders above ground level, and take aim. “At this point,” Graves writes, “the Royal Welch Fusiliers came up Maison Rouge Alley.”

The Germans were shelling it [Maison Rouge] with five-nines (called ‘Jack Johnsons’ because of their black smoke) and lachrymatory shells. This caused a continual scramble backwards and forwards, to cries of: ‘Come on!’ ‘Get back, you bastards!’ ‘Gas turning on us!’ ‘Keep your heads, you men!’ ‘Back like hell, boys!’ ‘Whose orders?’ ‘What’s happening?’ ‘Gas!’ ‘Back!’ ‘Come on!’ ‘Gas!’ ”Back’.

In all this confusion, Childe-Freeman loses half his company–B Company–by the time they reach the front line.

Frank Richards, following with A company, paints a very similar picture of these minutes. Meeting some of the walking wounded from the first wave, he asks how the attack is proceeding:

“A bloody balls-up” was the reply.[8]

One man said that as soon as Old Jerrie commenced to shell the front line the gas-wallahs vanished. The trench was soon full of gas, and that was the reason they [the Middlesex of the first wave] went over the top before the bombardment commenced.

So–a bloody balls-up. Everyone agrees. The Middlesex have been cut down, and there can be no hope of success for an attack in daylight against well-fortified, fully alert troops. The very overconfidence of the battle plan gives the Welch something of an out: the first objectives have not been met, and there is no provision for failure, so what do we do?

Leadership problems might provide another excuse: not only are the colonel and his deputy wounded, but now Childe-Freeman collapses and dies, apparently a victim of heart failure.

Nevertheless, the Welch, commanded by their adjutant, Captain Owen, decide to press on.

Two different contributors to Dunn’s history now use a phrase that could be drawn from another century or two back in the regiment’s annals: they call the two companies of the Royal Welch slated to continue the attack a “Forlorn Hope.” This is not technically correct: a Forlorn Hope–the term derives from early modern siege warfare–was a unit of volunteers who led the initial assault against a breached fortress. They were not expected to survive. They were not “forlorn” in the sense of being displeased with their fate but rather verloren–lost. Their job was to draw the fire from the defenders’ cannon and muskets, allowing a second storming party to reach the wall while they reloaded.

But it’s 1915, and the enemy are not a hundred yards away; nor are they armed with slow-loading muskets. They are several hundred yards away, behind thickets of barbed wire, and they have bolt-action rifles and machine guns–“machine” in that they load themselves, using the kickback of the last round too chamber the next, in a tiny fraction of a second. And a forlorn hope sacrifices itself explicitly in order to allow another unit to succeed in its wake. So this is (tragically) inexact. Perhaps the idea is that by keeping up their “diversionary” attack the German decision-makers will divert reserves away from the south, thus allowing that assault to succeed. But I think rather that the loose use of the term reflects the core of its meaning: a courageous willingness to be shot to pieces as part of a larger plan.

We are very far, here, from Rupert Brooke‘s pretty nuzzlings of the idea of wartime self-sacrifice. This is the real thing: self-sacrifice not for England, but for the Regiment and the army. Death preferred to discretion in loyalty to an obscure but powerful sort of professional pride.

So then, here are tactics that have utterly failed, in service to a bad strategy chosen for reasons of allied grand strategy. And here are other, older, considerations, less rational but no less real, which cluster together to form that stout but unyielding concept, honor. The Welch officers consider it unacceptable to choose not to attack when other troops have done so.

Never mind the tactics: this attack will not help the wounded and trapped members of the Middlesex. In fact, it will bring down more fire upon them. Nor will disjointed attacks possible succeed in reaching a German trench. Nevertheless, the remainder of B company attacks. The descriptions of this are succinct: “About 8 o’clock the officers blew their whistles and over we went…  Half of B Company fell in 30 yards.”[9]

pope's nose at 97

The “Pope’s Nose” is in the upper right corner of square 27B, above. The machine gun likely would have been in the second or third line, perhaps in the circled redoubt to the northeast, marked with a blue “22.”

Robert Graves takes up the tale:

A few minutes later, Captain Sampson, with ‘C’ Company and the remainder of ‘B,” reached our front line. Finding the the gas-cylinders still whistling and the trench full of dying men, he decided to go over too–he could not have it said that the Royal Welch had let down the Middlesex.

Reputation–honor–is sometimes more important than survival, especially when victory does not seem like it can be gained in either case. This is the stuff of epic, but Graves–a mischievous and controversy-courting author, but one who we now must never forget has seen dozens of men he knew and worked with gunned down before his eyes–is committed to dark comedy,

One of ‘C’ officers told me later what happened. It had been agreed to advance by platoon rushes with supporting fire. When his platoon had gone about twenty yards, he signalled them to lie down and open covering fire. The din was tremendous. He saw the platoon on his left flopping down too, so he whistled the advance again. Nobody seemed to hear. He jumped up from his shell-hole, waved, and signalled ‘Forward!’

Nobody stirred.

He shouted: ‘You bloody cowards, are you leaving me to go on alone?’

His platoon-sergeant, groaning with a broken shoulder, gasped: ‘Not cowards, sir. Willing enough. But they’re all f—ing dead.’

The Pope’s Nose machine-gun, traversing, had caught them as they rose to the whistle.

 

Graves may be guilty of hyperbole–all dead? But not much. Halve the carnage, and remember that roughly half of those shot are not mortally wounded, and you find consistent reports in the sober regimental accounts: “C Company may have gone 40 yards and then the line just fell down;” “Half [of A] company fell in the first thirty yards… the remainder dropped in their tracks and stayed where they were.”[10]

Frank Richards, too, was watching:

Not a man in either company got more than thirty yards… Major Sampson [Captain Sampson of C company] was laying out in front mortally wounded: three men, one after the other, sprung over the parapet and made a rush towards him with the intention of bringing him in but they were bowled over by rifle-fire.

For three hours the survivors–and several died during the interval–waited to see whether the rest of the battalion would come out. The waited in shell holes or scratched shallow shelters with their entrenching tools, and hunkered down.

And as for Graves and D company, well–Jamaica’s soft-hearted damage isn’t done yet. He is found in a communications trench trying to minister to the wounds of the sergeant who had taught and protected him. He is blocking the advance of the Welch, and so The Actor orders the dying sergeant’s stretcher thrown over the top in order to make the trench passable. Jamaica is a pathetic figure–he gets the line “I do think you’re the most heartless beast I’ve ever met”–but he does not win Graves’s sympathy. The dying man gets thrown out into the open so that healthy men–for the moment–can do their jobs with less risk.

Good-Bye to All That wobbles, here: Graves is an innovator, a skilled fabulist, a dire dark comedian. But he hasn’t made the leap to absurdity–Joseph Heller is not in this trench, and Jamaica ministering to the sergeant is not Yossarian crouched over Snowden. Graves is there, in that trench, and not about to expose himself to shell fire before the attack, just for sentiment, or to approve it in retrospect.

Besides, he’s writing a conventional comedy. Everyone has their roles.

And so, horror and bathos:

We went up to the corpse-strewn front line. The captain of the gas-company, who was keeping his head and wore a special oxygen respirator, had by now turned off the gas-cocks. Vermorel-sprayers had cleared out most of the gas, but we were still warned to wear our masks. We climbed up and crouched on the fire-step, where the gas was not so thick–gas, being heavy stuff, kept low. Then Thomas brought up the remainder of ‘A’ Company and, with ‘D’, we waited for the whistle to follow the other two companies over. Fortunately at this moment the adjutant appeared. He was now left in command of the battalion, and told Thomas that he didn’t care a damn about orders; he was going to cut his losses and not send ‘A’ and ‘D’ over to their deaths until he got definite orders from brigade. He had sent a runner back, and we must wait…

While waiting, Graves watches more short-falls from their own bombardment land amidst the remnants of B and C companies, lying in the open between the lines.

My mouth was dry, my eyes out of focus, and my legs quaking under me. I found a water-bottle full of rum and drank about half a pint; it quieted me, and my head remained clear. Sampson lay groaning about twenty yards beyond the front trench. Several attempts were made to rescue him. He was badly hit. Three men got killed in these attempts: two officers and two men, wounded. In the end his own orderly managed to crawl out to him. Sampson waved him back, saying he was riddled through and not worth rescuing; he sent his apologies to the company for making such a noise.

We waited a couple of hours for the order to charge. The men were silent and depressed … Finally a runner arrived with a message that the attack had been postponed…

 

phillip's flanking movement

The Attack of the Devonshires, along Hulluch Road, upper left.

Not every second wave attack met with such a disaster. A few miles south of the Welch were the 8th and 9th Devonshires, in the 20th Brigade of the 7th Division, not far to the north of the “Gaultshires” (note the chapel in the upper left of the map, which also shows the Lone Tree).

The 9th Devons had watched the 8th battalion of their Regiment (it’s unusual to find to battalions of the same regiment in the same brigade, but not unheard of) bunch up before the wire and take heavy casualties. Or, rather, they had struggled forward, much like the 2/Royal Welch, while the massacre was going on:

…as they drew nearer the front the trenches became increasingly choked with wounded from the battalions that had already gone over. There were other hazards too. C Company was held up for an agonising 15 minutes when their machine guns became entangled with the telephone wires. The decision to give up on the congested trenches altogether and move forward in the open seems to have been made piecemeal. Noel Hodgson and the rest of D Company climbed out of Chapel Alley at the chapel of Notre Dame de Consolation, close to the Hulluch Road, at 7.45am…

Almost immediately they began taking heavy casualties. Charlotte Zeepvalt’s composite account continues:

Captain Mockridge was wounded in the thigh, Alan Hinshelwood’s arm was broken by a rifle bullet and Bertram Glossop was shot in the leg. His last sighting of the survivors, Noel Hodgson and Mervyn, ‘the Bart’ Davies, still leading D Company and the bombers forward, was passed on in ‘Pussy’ Martin’s letter:

I got the latest report from him to the effect that Mervyn with an evil leer on his face and his bandy legs twinkling in and out among the bullets was still going strong. Smiler with his bombers was doing great execution against a M.G. [machine gun] in the Breslau redoubt. When last seen Rayner was rushing along at the head of his men somewhere by the German first line, waving a pistol and shouting wildly!

Hodgson and his bombers had been called away to the left to help deal with a strongpoint in the German line, where they and bombers from the 2nd Borders took 150 prisoners.

Noel Hodgson left two accounts of his experiences in the German lines: the Battalion War Diary, which is in his handwriting from 21 to 27 September, and a twenty-two page account on odd sheets of paper, written in the third person, as the grenade officer. But it matches Rayner’s account and others precisely, and presents an uncompromising picture of the conditions they endured. At one point he finds six men killed in their sleep by a single shell, a shortfall from their own artillery. He sees ‘a white hand with a ring on the little finger, ’ and, ‘thinking of some girl or wife at home, bends down to recover the ring, and finds that the hand ends abruptly at the wrist. There is no sign of the owner about.’[11]

Hodgson and grenades

Noel Hodgson and his grenades, before the Battle of Loos

A surfeit of horror, on a long day. But two things here must not be overlooked. First, even when an attack has faltered against barbed wire and machine guns, it can still go forward. Massed assaults of infantry sometimes present nothing more than unmissable targets, where small groups of “bombers” working with whatever cover is available can dislodge defenders.

Second, we have our first decorated New Army poet. “Smiler” Hodgson–the diffident Bombing Officer–will win the Military Cross for his day’s work.

 

After the Reprieve

We return to the Royal Welch, and Robert Graves’s account of the aftermath of the aborted attack.

My memory of that day is hazy. We spent it getting the wounded down to the dressing-station, spraying the trenches and dug-outs to get rid of the gas, and clearing away the earth where the trenches were blocked. The trenches stank of a gas-blood-lyddite-latrine smell. Late in the afternoon we watched through our field-glasses the advance of reserves under heavy shell-fire toward Loos and Hill 70; it looked like a real break-through.

It was–for a little while.  Due in part to French’s refusal to release his reserves to Haig before the battle–nearly every history mentions at this point the flabbergasting fact that there was no telephone linkup between Army and BEF headquarters, so Haig had to send an officer there and back in a car to get permission–and in part to the fact that it is always difficult to hold captured ground when the enemy has had ample warning to assemble a counter-attack force, most of the gains were lost during the afternoon.

At dusk we all went out to get the wounded, leaving only sentries in the line. The first dead body I came across was Sampson. He had been hit in seventeen places. I found that he had forced his knuckles into his mouth to stop himself crying out and attracting any more men to their death…

This awful image was tidier–slightly–in a contemporary poem that goes a long way toward showing where Graves is as a writer now, rather than when looking back, recomposing, and bidding “Good-Bye” in his memoir. The typescript, at right, is held in the First World War Poetry Digital Archive.

dead fox hunter

The Dead Fox Hunter, courtesy of the First World War Poetry Digital Archive

The elegy is mostly traditional and very firmly of a place and class–fox hunting is not the sport of Graves the awkward intellectual, but rather of the old school Regulars (and country gentlemen like Sassoon). We can find a hint of mischief-making, perhaps, in Graves’s hope that heavenly choirs will be shoved aside for celestial blood sports, but, really, this is a straightforward elegy to a brave soldier who did his duty, and died. And it doesn’t much wonder why.

Frank Richards:

During the whole of the night the Company were employed in bringing in the wounded and dead and the enemy didn’t fire a shot during the whole of the night… Young Mr. Graves worked like a Trojan in this work and when I saw him late in the night he looked thoroughly exhausted…

He told a few of us outside the signaller’s dugout how bravely Major Sampson had died. He had found him with his two thumbs in his mouth which he had very nearly bitten through to save himself crying out in his agony, and so as not to attract enemy fire on some of the lightly-wounded men that were laying around him…[12]

The Germans behaved generously. I do not remember hearing a shot fired that night, though we kept in until it was nearly dawn and we could see plainly; then they fired a few warning shots, and we gave it up.

Robert Graves is now in command of B company, one of only five or six officers in the battalion yet unwounded. Thomas, the brave adjutant, will be killed early tomorrow after carelessly exposing himself to a sniper.

Thomas need not have been killed; but everything had gone so wrong that he seemed not to care one way or the other.[13]

 

The Reinforcements

Most writing about major battles in the Great War–including most of what’s above, today–emphasizes the enormous casualties suffered in the frontal assaults of the first wave. And yet most of these were successful. The failure to deal with the barbed wire was a serious problem (that will recur), but no matter how strongly defended a trench system is, the very fact that it is a static defensive system means that massive firepower can be brought to bear against it. If there is enough artillery, well-enough coordinated, then the infantry will be able to advance, and take a trench, or several trenches, full of dead, wounded, or shocked defenders. A more insoluble problem is keeping this advance going while the second and third lines of defense awaken and artillery in the rear begins firing to “interdict” supporting troops moving up toward the front lines and across the former no-man’s land.

Despite the terrible descriptions of men trapped in front of uncut wire andcut down by un-bombarded machine guns, it was this failure–coordinating the exploitation of the gains on the southern flank of the assault–that doomed the assault. The New Army divisions that were to have pushed ahead will be delayed until tomorrow. And the Guards–the vaunted new division of elites–will not be available until the third day of the battle. Kipling’s description of their march evokes the frustration of coming upon a great effort already withering:

At noon on the 25th September the position stood thus: The First Army Corps held up between the Béthune–La Bassée Canal and the Hohenzollern redoubt; the Seventh Division hard pressed among the quarries and houses by Hulluch; the Ninth in little better case as regarded Pit 8 and the redoubt itself; the Highland Division pushed forward in the right centre holding on precariously in the shambles round Loos and being already forced back for lack of supports.

All along the line the attack had spent itself among uncut wire and unsubdued machine-gun positions. There were no more troops to follow at once on the heels of the first, nor was there time to dig in before the counter-attacks were delivered by the Germans, to whom every minute of delay meant the certainty of more available reserves fresh from the rail. A little after noon their pressure began to take effect, and ground won during the first rush of the advance was blasted out of our possession by gunfire, bombing, and floods of enemy troops arriving throughout the night.[14]

 

Rowland Feilding is with the Coldstream Guards, and writes to prepare his wife for the coming assault of the reserves.

September 25, 1915, Houchin

By the time you get this you will have heard that a great combined French and British attack was launched to-day. The weather yesterday was fine, but during the night a drizzle set in which continued till the morning…

Our bombardment of the German trenches continued through the night, reaching its climax in the morning as the moment of assault approached. Then did the fire become so violent that even at Rely, where we slept, though 18 miles behind the line, the ground shook, and my iron bedstead at the “Mairie” rattled at the heavier bursts.

We expected to march shortly after midnight, but this order was cancelled, and we fell in instead at 5.45 in the morning…  and arrived here, very wet, after many halts, at 9 p.m.

As we came within sight of the drifting battle smoke and looked upon the familiar flat landscape and the great cone-shaped spoil-heaps of the coal-mines which stand up like the Pyramids against the sky, a message from Lord Cavan was passed round. It said “that we were on the eve of the greatest battle in history”—“that future generations depended on the result of it”—and “that great things are expected from the Guards Division.” Later, we received the splendid news that our troops had broken through the German line and taken Hulloch, Loos, and Cite de St. Elie; all places that we have looked towards so long from the trenches in front of Vermelles…[15]

Would that it were true.

 

Poetry of Combat: The Second Step

Robert Nichols witnessed the fighting today from a few miles back–but he was no safer. Working the guns, Nichols’ battery was subjected to accurate German counter-battery fire, and although he was not visibly injured, he suffered from concussion and what was beginning to be recognized as “shell-shock,” or the neurological/emotional after-effects of shelling.

But when he wrote of the battle, it was the infantry he strove to make the subject of his poetry. Strove mightily–but awkwardly. This “misdirected attempt at realism” attempts to solve the problem of representing modern war by simply throwing a lot of words at it:

Gather, heart, all thoughts that drift;
Be steel, soul, Compress thyself
Into a round, bright whole. I cannot speak.
Time. Time!
I hear my whistle shriek…
It goes on:

On, on. Lead. Lead. Hail.
Spatter. Whirr! Whirr!
“Toward that patch of brown;
Direction left.” Bullets a stream.
Devouring thought crying in a dream.
Men, crumpled, going down. . . .
Go on. Go.
Deafness. Numbness.The loudening tornado.
Bullets. Mud. Stumbling and skating.

My voice’s strangled shout:
Steady pace, boys!
The still light: gladness.
Look, sir. Look out!
Ha! ha! Bunched figures waiting.
Revolver levelled quick!
Flick! Flick! Red as blood.
Germans. Germans. Good!
O good! Cool madness.[16]

Nichols will improve. The problem, I think, is that this is neither testimony nor insight nor music: he is not recording his own actions for posterity; there is no poetic compression, no cracking open of some kernel of experience; and it’s not, er, much in the way of verse. And although the effect of the staccato, impressionistic lines is modern, the attempt to convey a sort of exhilarating madness as the essence of battle is more Romantic than anything else. None of our prose writers who were there in the front lines today, a century back, were much interested in their own bayonets or revolvers, or in drawing German blood.

 

Writers and Fictions on a Memorable Day

I’ve tried to sketch something of what the battle was like, both as a major offensive and as a minor watershed in British war writing. But it was also the biggest day of the year, a red-letter date that would stick in many memories. So let’s have just one example of how Loos could stand, in fiction, for one sort of experience.

John Buchan has been busy. His propagandistic quick-fire histories have been selling well, although not as well as his popular thriller, The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was serialized over the summer and will released as a book in October. He has already been sent to report on the second battle of Ypres, and now he is back at the front, an official unofficial war reporter. A man like Buchan can be relied upon to tell the story properly. And he is no fool–or at least he considers himself to be no fool.

Yet just yesterday he wrote home parroting the blithe confidence he had picked up from various generals about the extraordinary success of the coming attack. Nothing of Haig’s pessimism seems to have reached him. Tomorrow, then, Buchan will be writing with evident surprise that the “victory” may have been terribly costly. But he was there nonetheless, to see the great day, the first day in action for so many New Army battalions. And so, in his next fiction, he used Loos as an opportunity to cross his own paths: in Greenmantle, the sequel to The Thirty-Nine Steps, today’s battle will lurk behind all of the derring-do and strangely conceived spycraft as the day that Britain’s New Army was tested and proved its mettle. It reads a little like a later cinematic convention, namely the traumatic preamble to an action movie which must be revisited several times in flashback in order for the hero to overcome a failure and accomplish a new heroic feat…

For more than a year I had been a busy battalion officer, with no other thought than to hammer a lot of raw stuff into good soldiers. I had succeeded pretty well, and there was no prouder man on earth than Richard Hannay when he took his Lennox Highlanders over the parapets on that glorious and bloody 25th of September. Loos was no picnic…[17]

No picnic, but time to escape to the romancers. This is war writing, too. It’s funny: this war will not produce an epic, and although it produced many good novels, it did not produce the kind of novels that vie for the status once accorded to epic. Joyce is hopping about the periphery, slipping back to pre-war Dublin; Tolstoy is gone; Hardy has no more monster projects in him. The first flowerings of novels that don’t so much record personal experience of the war as seek to use it or address it for grand literary purposes are not heading epic-ward, but heliotroping off instead after very different stars. The historians, like Buchan, are bungling their impossible task of combining the accurate history of a “bloody balls-up” with the sturdy narrative confidence in ultimate victory which they must project.

That leaves the romancers–as Buchan is aware. As he will write, next year, in a foreword to the book, “Some day, when the full history is written–sober history with ample documents–the poor romancer will give up his business and fall to reading Miss Austen in a hermitage.”[18]

This, at times, seems like a very good idea. For the history has now been written, most ways, and time and again. And romance has surely retreated–in fact, most “romance,” in the classic sense of “adventure story,” that gets published these days follows in the footsteps of Tolkien and Stapledon: fantasy and science fiction must vastly outnumber military or geopolitical adventure stories. And there are even the thirty-nine footsteps of Buchan to follow too, since his second novel ran away with a new art form and became an excellent cinematic thriller.

In any event, three more years of history and writing–then Miss Austen and the hermitage.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 150-1.
  2. These two sentences, I should note, could be a locus classicus for the challenges of building history--especially the history of confusing events, like battles--from accounts written after. Graves innocently cops, here, to a pre-sorting of his jumbled memories, a messing-with-the-stuff-of-history that is necessarily prior to any decisions to fictionalize what he remembers, and any historian's decision to use or discount his memoir.
  3. Regimental Records, 150.
  4. Or the second, after Neuve Chapelle.
  5. It was also common practice to hold certain officers back so that they could--this is about as horrible as it gets--serve as a cadre to train replacements once their unit had been destroyed in an attack; but in such a case they would be kept far back in reserve, not in danger in the front line.
  6. I.E. his neurotic upbringing under a cold and cruel father.
  7. A Fox Under My Cloak, 300-42.
  8. This is one of the spots at which its easy to see Richards's account being influenced by Graves--or by Graves's. One or both surely influenced Williamson.
  9. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 155-7.
  10. Regimental Records, 151.
  11. Zeepvalt, Before Action, 122-7.
  12. Old Soldiers Never Die, 121-134. Richards may be loyally passing on Graves's account of Sampson, since it doesn't make a huge amount of sense to describe Sampson's gruesome heroic act exactly as Graves does, and then go on to emphasize the lack of German fire at the wounded men.
  13. Good-Bye to All That, 150-161.
  14. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I 115.
  15. War Letters to a Wife, 38-9.
  16. Ardours and Endurances, 36-41.
  17. Greenmantle, 10.
  18. Greenmantle, v.

The Eve of Battle: Sublime Moments from Alan Seeger; Acute Anxiety for Phillip Maddison; Three Welch Fusiliers on Rainbows, Brothels, and S’nice S’mince Pie; Bimbo Tennant and Osbert Sitwell Proclaim and Decry Immortality

First today, three from the Second Royal Welch, who spent most of the day marching back from their front line trenches to Béthune–about ten miles, each way, much of it in clogged communications trenches or around detours–all, essentially to check their bags and coats. On the eve of a battle.

Messing tonight, a century back, together with a New Army divisional staff, Robert Graves overheard a drunken aide of the Divisional general–an old comrade of one of the senior officers of the Welch–confide both that the divisional commander is an utter incompetent and that the attack is going to be a “glorious balls-up.” But what of the Welch themselves?

Doctor Dunn, the battalion doctor and self-appointed historian of the battalion, places the emphasis on the weather and the news, both overly pleasant in their aspect and disturbing in their details.

September 24th–The morning sky was grey. There was more rain; after breakfast it became only a drizzle. Later in the day there was a beautiful and complete rainbow against a louring sky behind the Germans… The wind, what there is of it, is unfavourable to us; very disquieting.

Dunn generally begins each day’s entry by quoting at length from the battalion diary, and he now includes a summary of the overconfident plan of attack (with which Robert Graves regaled us yesterday). Frank Richards, a battalion signaller, was today assigned to B company and assembled with them this morning to hear the plan of attack (before the day’s exhausting march). He remembers being told that they will breakfast, tomorrow, in Haisnes, a town several miles away, through many lines of defenses. This may be simple overconfidence, but it sounds like swagger, a reference to the four musketeers breakfasting in besieged at La Rochelle.

The way the Company Commander was speaking anyone would think we were going to have a cake walk, and when we were dismissed off parade one old hand remarked that if the Captain had said we would breakfast in Hell he would have believed him just the same, or better.

Richards is not shy of giving his own opinion, but he likes to stand off in his memoir and let other salty old soldiers, dimly defined, speak as a chorus. Dr. Dunn, writing unit history, does the opposite, and inserts himself into the narrative. But to the same purpose: injecting some wry humor in anticipation of disaster.

Where will my dressing station be? “Where it is to-night,” I said, “unless the wind change, and I see no promise of a change.” Then we had words, but parted on an understanding. The happy-go-lucky tone of our infantry programme jarred on me in the circumstances.”[1]

Dunn, in other words, will not need to move forward to treat tomorrow’s casualties. This is not a historian’s abuse of his superior knowledge of the day to come–not historical irony but the grim irony of the infantryman, who knows his fate better than the brass. Virtually everyone in the front line battalions, as we will see, saw the lay of the land: the obvious German preparedness for the coming assault, the clumsy deployment of the new, fickle, sinister weapon.

You don’t need a military historian to know which way the wind blows.

Richards and Graves, however, remain committed to giving the earthier details of this last night. Tomorrow the storm, but tonight, humanity with its quirks and urges.

On the march back, after dinner, the men sang, including a popular song which sounds very irritating indeed: “I do like a S’nice S’mince Pie.” It would stick in his head all the following week.

And Richards gives us a scene we haven’t had yet. On the eve of battle, he and his three pals go to meet women in a nearby village. On the way they pass the Red Lamp–the officially sanctioned brothel–in the big town of Béthune.

We saw stretching from the Red Lamp and down the street toward the rue de Aire about three hundred men in a queue, all waiting their turns to go in the Red Lamp.

The Old Soldier berates these men for letting down the side with their unseemly lust, and then he, Richards, and their two pals proceed on their own errand.

Afterwards, they march back to their battalion, to begin the overnight march to their assembly trenches. But Richards is a real infantryman, and Graves is determined to represent such men, and so their last details are true details–the arming scene, old as Homer, but overburdened now, with less beauty and more utility. All the men carry a rifle and bayonet, but also

Two hundred rounds of ammunition…
Heavy tools carried in sling by the strongest men.
Waterproof sheet in belt.
Sandbag in right tunic-pocket.
Field-dressing and iodine.
Emergency ration, including biscuit.
One tube-helmet [a primitive gas mask]…
One smoke-helmet…
Wire-cutters…[2]

And that’s not all. Richards, as a specialist signaller, has more:

During the twenty-four hours we were back in Bethune either the Division or Brigade Signalling Officer had received a brainwave and orders were issued that all company signallers taking part in the attack would, in addition to their D3 telephone, carry one reel of wire, one large and one small signalling flag, also signalling blinds; and each company to also carry a roll of rabbit-hutching wire which with our full fighting order made each of us look like Father Christmas. We were wondering how the hell we were going to get over the top with all of it.

The idea here is that the rabbit-wire will serve as a lattice protecting and carrying the signal of the telephone wire. But of course it is incredibly bulky and still subject to being cut or disconnected–it’s just one of many “signalling stunts” of questionable utility that are pressed onto combat troops after a trial period in non-combat positions.

The truth was that we were very lucky if Battalion Headquarters could keep up communication with Brigade.

And that was during ordinary trench conditions. During an attack it was almost always the case that telephone connections broke down and runners had to be sent from any captured position to battalion HQ, then back to brigade. Any change to prearranged tactical plans were thus delayed for hours, as at Neuve Chapelle.

There is, however, one significant piece of good news:

We were now told that the Argyles and Middlesex were going over first… and we supporting the Middlesex.

The Royal Welch will not be the first men “over the top” in the morning.[3]

 

Nor will the guards. Osbert Sitwell, with the second Grenadier Guards further to the south, behind what will be the main thrust of the attack, remembers the day with a bitterer irony.

Never shall I forget the day before the attack; which was launched on a Monday. In the morning we had to attend Morning Service, with a long, meandering sermon on the immortality of the soul; and, after luncheon, while an air of deathly imported English Sunday still darkened the air, we were given an address by an enthusiastic general, who explained how secret was our plan (“The Germans haven’t begun to get an idea of it!”) and how novel it would seem to the enemy. (Taken together, the talks of morning and afternoon were like lectures, delivered, surely, in the wrong order, on effect and cause.)[4]

He also remembers it incorrectly: the 25th was a Saturday. In all likelihood, Sitwell, writing later and without either diaries or any effort at research, is conflating the news of the overall plan of attack and the atmosphere before the day the Guards themselves attacked–they are, we must remember, an elite division being held in reserve, and will launch their own attack on the third day of the battle.

 

Sitwell’s close friend Bimbo Tennant, in a different battalion of the Grenadiers but still in the same division, gives a more accurate account of the day’s activities–and a very different take on the question of immortality as seen on the eve of battle.

24th Friday, September.

Darling Moth’,

We arrived here at 9 last night after a 21 hours’ march. It rained the whole time, but we got comfortable billets on arriving…  I thought we should stay here a few days but it seems that we march again to-night, though I know not how far. We only came 8 miles last night, the sky was continually lit up by the big guns in the distance and the men, who thought, I believe, they were going into action last night, were somewhat subdued: but brightened on being shown into barns knee deep in straw and having hot tea served out within a few minutes of arriving…

I am in high explosive good spirits and there is not much I fail to raise a laugh about! The “great biff” seems to have gone forward quicker than expected, as we are being shoved forward thus. Now I must stop, I’ll try and write every day, but my letters may only reach you two or three at a time after rather a gap…

I am longing to see you again soon (D.V.) and I have the feeling of Immortality very strongly. I think of Death with a light heart and as a friend whom there is no need to fear.

God bless you, darling Moth’.

Your devoted Son,
BIMBO.[5]

Are the truly vivacious immune to parody? “High explosive good spirits” is a nice bit of levity, and not incompatible with a sincere belief in the immortality of the soul. But death as a friend? It doesn’t seem to be quite Bimbo’s personality…

 

Henry Williamson would probably put it differently, but his Phillip Maddison is a bit of a schlemiel. Or, historically speaking, a schlimazel: his own bumbling is too insignificant to cause much trouble, yet there he is, trembling, just as history’s soup spills in his lap. The first, greatest instance of this haplessness he shares with his creator: both enlisted in a Territorial regiment before the war, more or less on a whim, and in the hopes that weekend soldiering would improve his position with the cool crowd at work. But by putting Maddison into the battle of Loos (while he himself was in England) Williamson has doubled down on the notion that “he” is a helpless satellite, drawn by their tremendous gravity close to the face of history’s great events.

And Today Phillip reaches his first crisis of the battle, before it has even begun. He has spent the day essentially wandering around behind the British front lines. As a temporary gas officer on “secret” duty, wearing a colored brassard on his arm, he can pass through checkpoints and roam by himself–a most novelistic activity, but virtually impossible in a war zone under normal circumstances. (Williamson takes it a bit far–surely the sergeants and privates whom he continually abandons in lonely emplacements with their gas canisters would eventually report his absence.) He has no better reason for his perambulations than to see the preparations for the attack and to acquire a new pistol from a quartermaster by claiming that he has lost his own. He makes no preparations for his own role in tomorrow’s attack.

Which is why he doesn’t realize until the middle of the night, tonight, a century back, that neither of the spanners (wrenches) issued along with the gas canisters fit. Immediately, the trench flâneur reverts to a hapless and terrified child:

What should he do? He was in a state of fear and acute anxiety, afraid to telephone to brigade lest he be reprimanded; afraid to go back to the R[oyal].E[ngineers]. dump, lest he be reported absent from his post.

And wouldn’t you know it, the very company of the “Gaultshires” commanded by his new friend “Westy” now file down the trench. Phillip gets neither help nor punishment, but fulmination. West is annoyed by Maddison’s helplessness, but offended more, it would seem, by his complacency, his assumption that no one will have blundered.

How dare you… stand there and talk to me as though you had not already sized up the whole bloody war, the real war, the only war, which is between the infantry and the staff, who sit on their bottoms and collect all the gongs with their hampers from Fortnum and Mason’s before issuing reams and reams of bumff… thus making a complete balls-up of every battle…[6]

When I began this project, I knew a good bit about 1916 and 1917, when the best of the memoir writers and poets saw the most action. But I remembered that Loos was the one that everyone called a “balls-up.” And so it has proven to be.[7] Williamson, straying from the particular tortured memories of his own experience, goes in for a good deal of cliche in his depictions of the Battle of Loos–Fortnum and Mason’s, for instance, as symbolic of staff luxury, even though their hampers can, believe it or not, make their way up to the support trenches by the regular post.

Phillip Maddison, exhorted and abused by Westy, stumbles over to find that a sergeant of the engineers has already learned of the problem from a colleague serving under a more responsible officer. A corporal has been sent–over the top of the trenches and exposed to enemy fire, because of the crowding of assault troops–to find adjustable wrenches before the night is through.

 

Antepenultimately, we have another occasional poem by Robert Nichols, now very busy with his own part in the bombardment. Unfortunately, it is “evidence” both of what the infantry looked like on this night, to a nearby observer, and of why dialect balladry is not the best way to write the war:

EVE OF ASSAULT: INFANTRY GOING
DOWN TO TRENCHES
Downward slopes the wild red sun.
We lie around a waiting gun;
Soon we shall load and fire and load.
But, hark! a sound beats down the road.
“‘Ello! wot’s up?” “Let’s ‘ave a look!”
“Come on, Ginger, drop that book!”
“Wot an ‘ell of bloody noise!”
“It’s the Yorks and Lancs, meboys!”
Alack–there’s more of this, a leaden effort to transmute lived experience into prose. This process, such as it is, also produces a large yield of cliche.
“‘Ip ‘urrah!” “Give Fritz the chuck.”
“Good ol’ bloody Yorks!” “Good-luck!”
“Cheer!” I cannot cheer or speak
Lest my voice, my heart must break.
Yes, well, Nichols was there–and he wrote this after. The poetry will improve, but this is still a good reminder for one of our basic assumptions, namely that the most searing and effective war writing wrestles directly with the writer’s own traumatic experiences.[8]

 

Alan Seeger, too, has been hearing the guns–for several days. The British attack at Loos, we also must remember (lots to remember, folks), was undertaken because the French insisted that their allies aid them by distracting the Germans during their own grand pair of assaults, near the British at Arras, and away to the south and east in Champagne. Seeger, though a private soldier, has also been told of the great and infallibly glorious plans for a breakthrough. No cynicism here, and no sweetness, but rather swelling, Grenfellite violent Romanticism. The legion will punch through, and then, as he wrote several days ago, a century back,

the entire 8th Corps, including numerous cavalry, will pass through the breach we have made. These will be sublime  moments; there are good chances of success and even of success without serious losses.

And then, the eve-of-battle entry.

September 24

We are to attack tomorrow morning. Gave in our blankets this morning; they are to be carried on the wagons. Also made bundles, in order to lighten the sack of all un necessary articles, including the second pair of shoes. We are admirably equipped, and if we do not succeed it will not be the fault of those responsible for supplying us. A terrific cannonade has been going on all night and is continuing. It will grow in violence until the attack is launched, when we ought to find at least the first enemy line completely demolished. What have they got up their sleeves for us? Where shall we find the strongest resistance?

I am very confident and sanguine about the result and expect to march right up to the Aisne, borne on in an irresistible élan. I have been waiting for this moment for more than a year. It will be the greatest moment in my life. I shall take good care to live up to it.[9]

 

And finally, incongruously, the newly commissioned Lieutenant Ford Madox Hueffer met up with his “Imagist” pal Ezra Pound today, a century back. Pound found Hueffer “looking twenty years younger and enjoying his work.”[10] It’s a big war.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 151-2.
  2. Good-Bye to All That, 147-8.
  3. Old Soldiers Never Die, 114-22.
  4. Laughter in the Next Room, 105.
  5. Letters, 28-9.
  6. There's a Fox Under My Cloak, 283-4.
  7. Unless, of course, Williamson is unduly influenced in his choice of language by Graves, Richards, et al... which, after writing the next few days' posts, I now believe to be the case.
  8. Ardours and Endurances, 35-6.
  9. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 159-62. This diary entry is significant also because of an ensuing accident. The little book was now finished, with a note to the effect that "This diary continued in another that I will carry in the pocket of my capote." But this continuation has been lost. So, alas--and as with Billy Congreve--we ware without his description of the battle itself, except for brief bits in later letters.
  10. Saunders, Ford, I, 485.

The Plan of Attack: Robert Graves, Phillip Maddison, Roland Leighton

Robert Graves, as Paul Fussell has taught us, preferred to write his war in the form of a memoir but with the manner of a stage comedy. A very dark stage comedy, that sometimes engages in open battle with its generic opposite, the tragedy.

On the morning of the 23rd, Thomas came back from Battalion Headquarters carrying a notebook and six maps, one for each of us company officers. “Listen,” he said, “and copy out all this skite on the back of your maps. You’ll have to explain it to your platoons this afternoon. Tomorrow morning we go back to dump our blankets, packs and greatcoats in Béthune. The next day, that’s Saturday the 25th, we attack.” This being the first definitive news we had been given, we looked up half startled, half relieved… these are the orders as I copied them down:

haisnes

A section of 36cNW1, courtesy of McMaster University, showing the ground over which the 2/Royal Welch will attack. British lines are on the left of the image (not included on the map, for security reasons) and Haisnes is on the far right. A detail of the same map is below.

“First objective–Les Briques Farm–The big house is plainly visible to our front, surrounded by trees. To reach this it is necessary to cross three lines of enemy trenches. The first is three hundred yards distant, the second four hundred, the third about six hundred. We then cross two railways. Behind the second railway line is a German trench called the Brick Trench. Then comes the Farm, a strong place with moat and cellars and a kitchen garden strongly staked and wired.

Les Briques Farm can be seen in the left center of the map, a tilted, nearly-closed square, a natural fortification, behind four layers of trenches and the farm’s name written between the two railways… les briquesThe orders continue:

“Second objective–The town of Auchy–This is also plainly visible from our trenches. It is four hundred yards beyond the farm…

“Third objective–Village of Haisnes–Conspicuous by high-spired church. Our eventual line will be taken up on the railway behind this village, where we will dig in and await reinforcements.”

When Thomas had reached this point, The Actor’s shoulders were shaking with laughter.

“What’s up?” asked Thomas irritably.

The Actor giggled: “Who in God’s name is responsible for this little effort?”

“Don’t know,” Thomas said. “Probably Paul the Pimp, or someone like that.” (Paul the Pimp was a captain on the Divisional Staff, young, inexperienced and much disliked. He “wore red tabs upon his chest, and even on his undervest.”)

“Between the six of us, but you youngsters must be careful not to let the men know, this is what they call a ‘subsidiary attack’. There will be no troops in support. We’ve just got to go over and keep the enemy busy while the folk on our right do the real work. You notice that the bombardment is much heavier over there. They’ve knocked the Hohenzollern redoubt to bits. Personally, I don’t give a damn either way. We’ll get killed whatever happens.”

We all laughed…

It gets worse.

The attack will be preceded by forty minutes discharge of the accessory, which will clear the path for a thousand yards, so that the two railway lines will be occupied without difficulty. Our advance will follow closely behind the accessory. Behind us are three fresh divisions and the cavalry corps. It is expected we shall have no difficulty in breaking through…”

The Actor interrupted again. “Tell me, Thomas, do you believe in this funny accessory?”

Thomas said: “It’s damnable. It’s not soldiering to use stuff like that, even though the Germans did start it. It’s dirty, and it’ll bring us bad luck. We’re sure to bungle it. Look at those new gas-companies–sorry, excuse me this once, I mean accessory-companies–their very look makes me tremble. Chemistry-dons from London University, a few lads straight from school, one or two NCO’s of the old-soldier type, trained together for three weeks, then given a job as responsible as this. Of course they’ll bungle it. How could they do anything else? But let’s be merry. I’m going on again:..”[1]

 

Tonight marked the fourth and last night that Phillip Maddison–that slightly-unstuck-in-time projection of his author, Henry Williamson–spent supervising carrying parties bringing the gas cylinders up to their emplacements in the forward trenches. Then he, too, will get his orders–not the last parallel we will see to Graves’s experience.

The work was completed that night, when all of the discharging pipes had been carried to the emplacements, and laid on pegs driven into the parapet. It was hard, sweaty work, and slow, too, owing to the ten-foot lengths being most awkward to manipulate round the traverses, amidst oaths and curses among the numerous soldiers in both communications and front trenches.

The R.E. major came to Phillip, and taking him aside, said, “This is X night. Keep it to yourself, my boy.”

“Certainly, sir.”

This signifies the penultimate night: X night, before Y night, which is before Z, the morning of the attack. With that news, a storm broke.

The night was electric with white flash and orange-red bulging flame [from a fire behind the German lines]. Walls and roofs and shattered rafters along the meagre wet street [of Mazingarbe, where he is billeted] were revealed in flash upon flash of field-gun batteries massed in the fields and lanes all around. The south, above the wooded hills of Nôtre Dame de Lorette, the sky was fluttering and quivering as though filled with a thousand butterflies. He stood a while near the broken church, letting his sensations possess him entirely–the awfulness, the strangeness, the majesty, the terrible beauty of it all–to which was added a feeling of secret relief that he would not be going over the top.[2]

 

Roland Leighton has already issued a false alarm–through no fault of his own–but he, too, was told today of the new attack date. And so once again he notified Vera by means of the prearranged phrase:

France, 23 September 1915

I know nothing definite yet; but they say that all posts will be stopped very soon.
Hinc illae lacrimae.
[‘Till life & all . . . ’][3]

Perhaps he feels duty-bound to tell her what he can. Perhaps, too, hurling a missive across that gulf, toward a loved one, on the eve of battle, is the sort of magical gesture that can help a soldier master his fear. It wouldn’t do to leave a connection dangling, and so he must return to complete it…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 145-7.
  2. There's a Fox Under My Cloak, 279-80.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 171.

Kipling on the Lay of the Land at Loos; Frank Richards on German Intelligence; A Poem of the Big Guns from Robert Nichols

Frank Richards, private of the 2/Royal Welsh, has another story of German intelligence (or allied failures of discretion) very similar to the one concocted by Henry Williamson:

On the night of the 22nd I was conversing with some old hands: there was a lull in our bombardment and it was pretty quiet at the time. Suddenly a German from the trench opposite shouted across in English: “You can come over on the 25th, you English swine, and send your gas over: but we’ll smarten you up!”

The next morning Richards will tell two pals the news, and one of them–a colorful character whom Richards refers to as “The Old Soldier”–asks where he got the information from:

“From the Germans,” I said…

“Then it’s bound to be true, man” said Duffy, “the Jerries always gets to know things before we do.”[1]

 

So do old soldiers presage disaster when they tell the story. The skeptic must assert, of course, that, were the coming battle to be a glorious victory, they would give less prominence to these signs of German preparedness. The historian, however–and the lyrical, part-time historian of Empire all the more–must draw from a different bag of tricks.

Kipling, writing as the official historian of the Irish Guards, goes all in for the pathetic fallacy, taking the point of view of the nervous, fearful troops, peering through periscopes or loopholes at the sinister landscape over which they will assault.

It was a jagged, scarred, and mutilated sweep of mining-villages, factories, quarries, slag-dumps, pitheads, chalk-pits, and railway embankments—all the plant of an elaborate mechanical civilization connected above ground and below by every means that ingenuity and labour could devise to the uses of war. The ground was trenched and tunnelled with cemented and floored works of terrifying permanency that linked together fortified redoubts, observation-posts, concealed batteries, rallying-points, and impregnable shelters for waiting reserves. So it ran along our front from Grenay north of the plateau of Notre Dame de Lorette, where two huge slag-heaps known as the Double Crassier bristled with machine-guns, across the bare interlude of crop land between Loos and Hulluch, where a high German redoubt crowned the slopes to the village of Haisnes with the low and dangerous Hohenzollern redoubt south of it. Triple lines of barbed wire protected a system of triple trenches, concrete-faced, holding dug-outs twenty feet deep, with lifts for machine-guns which could appear and disappear in emplacements of concrete over iron rails; and the observation-posts were capped with steel cupolas. In the background ample railways and a multitude of roads lay ready to launch fresh troops to any point that might by any chance be forced in the face of these obstacles…

This is a marked departure, of course, from the strictures of formal history, which claims to present the past as it was, without foreshadowing. Kipling is writing history pre-emplotted as tragedy. (And I have surrendered to the same impulse, here, under much pressure from the sources: all of the writers look back and claim to have seen disaster looming. Even Haig was pessimistic, so the “revisionist”–who would be doing nothing more than striving for good history untinctured by our knowledge of the future–has precious little material to work with.) They did not know, then, just how sturdy the German works were, how completely they had accepted the tactical defensive in planning permanent fortifications.

Better, then, to work with the stuff of tragedy rather than the unborn ironies of history. Now, what would be the most predictable of ill-omens? We’ve had Robert Graves on suicide, but that’s Graves–wild, melodramatic. This attack is not suicidal, it’s half-baked. Half-prepared and ill-considered, over-confident. So–the omen?

By a piece of ill-luck, that might have been taken as an omen, the day before they moved from Thiembronne to the front, a bombing accident at practice caused the death of Lance-Sergeant R. Matthews and three men, which few casualties, on the eve of tens of thousands to come, were due subjects of a court of inquiry and a full report to Headquarters…[2]

 

We have another artilleryman whose descriptions of the battle will be invaluable–the young poet Robert Nichols, whose battery was now coming into action.

BATTERY MOVING UP TO A NEW POSITION
FROM REST CAMP: DAWN
Not a sign of life we rouse
In any square close-shuttered house
That flanks the road we amble down
Toward far trenches through the town.

 

The dark, snow-slushy, empty street….
Tingle of frost in brow and feet….
Horse-breath goes dimly up like smoke.
No sound but the smacking stroke

 

Of a sergeant flings each arm
Out and across to keep him warm,
And the sudden splashing crack
Of ice-pools broken by our track.

 

More dark houses, yet no sign Of life….
An axle’s creak and whine….
The splash of hooves, the strain of trace….
Clatter: we cross the market place.
It goes on for quite some time, but the crucial action is this: the battery passes a church, where the mass is being celebrated. The speaker imagines the scene within, and the beseeches the congregation:
O people who bow down to see
The Miracle of Calvary,
The bitter and the glorious,
Bow down, bow down and pray for us.
The march then resumes:
The town is left, the road leads on,
Bluely glaring in the sun,
Toward where in the sunrise gate
Death, honour, and fierce battle wait.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. Old Soldiers Never Die, 114-5.
  2. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I, 113-5.
  3. Ardours and Endurances, 32-5.

Raymond Asquith on Pleasure and Pain in the Brutal Muddle of the Universe; Vera Brittain is Still in Suspense; Tolkien’s TCBS Makes Plans; Private Lord Crawford Observes the Enemy in Retreat

raymond asquith, 1915

Raymond Asquith, 1915

Raymond Asquith wrote to Lady Diana Manners today, a century back. He is joking–always joking. And serious–because to be thoroughly committed to wit and repartée is to be a deadpan chat Schroedingère: there may be empty malice or sincere feeling inside that box, but we’ll never know.

But we can guess. This is the king of the “corrupt coterie” writing to the queen (not his wife, of course), and, though nothing will ease the commandments to  be decadent, to be cynical, to be clever, I think these are real feelings. Their gilded world, their Edwardian Afternoon, is sliding into ever-deeper shadows. So be merry…

21 September 1915

…You see even in times of profound peace, we who seek for joy, draw bitter and perilous breath: pleasure is the biggest game that any man can hunt, and the shyest–shy as the rhino, wayward as the walrus: the end may come at any moment, the door be slammed upon the flame, the feather blown to Hell by the wind. And now when there is a war, you can hardly hear yourself laugh for the clamour of banging doors and howling hurricanes.

I am not thinking so much of people being killed; so far as my personal crust is concerned it is not broken by anybody’s death in the war, and will not be even by my own. To that extent I nail my crust to the mast; or support it upon the inverted egg-cup of invincible pride and a stiff indifference to the brutal muddle of the universe.

I will not catch at God’s skirts and pray. I will merely send him to Coventry (where by the way he will find himself represented in Parliament by Ramsay Macdonald, so true is it that there is a use for everyone however humble). I am taking quite a short view and thinking merely of the continuous depletion of all the sources of life and joy which has been going on under our eyes for months past. . .

 

200px-Crawford27

Confusticate and bebother these foolish women!

From perhaps our wittiest letter-writer, writing to his coterie’s most charming young woman, we go to the grumpy, fiercely-mustachioed private Lord Crawford, giving free rein to his morbid fear of working-class women. There’s lots of casual sexism, a century back, but Crawford’s frequent resort to animal–particularly insect–imagery is exceptional.

Tuesday, 21 September 1915

The nurses are chattering like magpies this morning and buzzing aimlessly around like bluebottles. They cannot be still for a moment. They are worried, some with sheer panic, others through imbecility; in the midst of their agitation who should stroll in but Mother McCarthy in her grey bonnet. Tumult and confusion. But the old lady asked the way to the colonel’s room. What passed we don’t know, but Evans went in for a moment with a despatch, and he says that Mother McCarthy was standing with her back to the mantelpiece, apparently cornered, and the colonel was smiling that ominous smile which shows all his gleaming back teeth. Who knows what passed? Evans’ inference, combined with the colonel’s vexation yesterday that his men should be messed about by an inspector of nurses, leads us to hope that Mother McCarthy got a good telling off…[1]

 

And to England, where, ironically, things are much worse. A younger nurse has been laboring on, believing–erroneously–that her fiancé is incommunicado because he is involved in a major attack. We go back a few days to get the measure of Vera Brittain‘s agony:

Sunday September 19th

I really meant to sit up and do some writing to-night but I am so tired & have such a headache from the day’s anxiety and suspense that I feel I cannot–before I hear.

Sunday is a dreadful day; no possibility of getting news…

 

Monday September 20th

Only a short entry to-night, as I still have a bad headache from the vigils I of the past three nights. For they are vigils, for even though I have not stayed up, the nights have been so disturbed & restless, and anxiety as much present with me in sleeping as in waking, that I have not had much rest. Time seems to stand still…

 

Tuesday September 21st

I scarcely thought it possible I should have no news to-day, but it is still a case of waiting, & hearing nothing. This morning as I went down to the hospital the day was beginning full of sunshine & a glorious autumn freshness, and to-night as I came back the evening sky was a deep-blue splendour, lit by a moon which tinged the clouds surrounding it with a luminous rosy brightness. I thought how he would have loved it and wondered if his eyes were closed to it forever, or if he was looking up at that same moon, far away, and thinking of me as I was thinking of him…

Mother came into Ward 6 to tell me something when I was revising a very bad poem I had written called “Waiting”. I don’t know what she thought I was doing. Father went off to Brighton to-day. All these incidents just at present pass by & leave no impression. There is only room in my mind for one thought, though to think it is sorrow. I feel as if I could not bear much more suspense, though I suppose it is a case of “needs must”. My heart aches so for him, out there in the danger & darkness.[2]

 

John Ronald Tolkien is, as of yet, far from danger and darkness (although he will one day write of companions, separated, each looking up in hope and fear at the same moon). His friends, in fact, have been busily planning a last hurrah. This will be the “Council of Lichfield,” planned for the coming weekend near the site of Tolkien’s training camp. Rob Gilson will be on sick leave, and the other two members of the TCBS have reported that they should be able to wangle a few days’ leave of their own. Many letters have been flying about–some containing draft poems, of course. Today, a century back, Gilson sent a letter to Tolkien and telegrams to Christopher Wiseman and G.B. Smith, making final arrangements for their meeting on Saturday at the George Hotel.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diaries, 62.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 274-5.
  3. Chronology, 73-4.