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.