We last saw Francis Ledwidge being evacuated from Gallipoli. But–alas for the increasingly homesick Inniskillings–the battalion was kept in the area, and it was on a barren mountain ridge near the Greek-Serbian border that Ledwidge learned that his first book of poems, Songs of the Fields, had been published at last. He had recently received an advance copy as well as a parcel from his patron–and Inniskillings officer–Lord Dunsany, who was acting more or less as Ledwidge’s unofficial literary agent. Today Ledwidge wrote back in a mixed mood of bravado, hopeful self-disparagement, and gratefulness:
Thanks very much for your two letters received a couple of days ago. Yes, I received your cigarettes all right. We had a busy day with the Turks when they came, but that didn’t prevent us from smoking them.
So ‘Songs of the Fields’ are out at last. I suppose the critics are blowing warm and cold over them with the same mouth, like the charcoal burner in Aesop’s fable! Jenkins sent me a copy. It is a lovely book and quite a decent size, but my best is not in it. That has to come yet. I feel something great struggling in my soul but it can’t come until I return; if I don’t return it will never come.
I wish the damn war would end; we are all so sick for the old countries. Still, our hearts are great and we are always ready for anything which may be required of us.
I am writing a poem which I will send you when finished; meanwhile I hope my book sells by thousands! I won’t try to thank you for all you have done for me and are doing. You know how grateful I am.
The book was well reviewed, provided one takes the social and national condescensions in stride–and Ledwidge was certainly used to it. There was praise for the poetry, but too often in backhanded reference to his status as a working class Irishman. Even Dunsany described him as a “peasant” while reviewers lauded him as a “scavenger” and an appropriately rural and lyrical voice for the new sort of ranker. But the songs–of the fields, and the birds and the flowers–were still very much what the public wanted, and the first edition quickly sold out.
If he comes home, Francis Ledwidge will come home an established poet.
Bimbo Tennant loves his mother very much, and he seems determined to keep her close, and closely informed. And yet he is flighty, writing in the moment, mind to hand to paper, without much care for context. Imagine receiving this letter, written yesterday, and wondering what has become of the boy since he sent it:
…We expect to go into action on Sunday, on which day you may get this card. I shall probably command the Company (D.V.). The sweets and chocolate came this morning…
He expects, that is, for Osbert Sitwell to go on leave and thus to command the company in some “minor” attack. It is exactly like writing mother from school to tell her that a friend is sick and that, consequently, I might get a chance to play with the First XI! Except for the likelihood of death.
Then, today, no mention at all of combat. No “sorry if you were worried that I am dead or lying wounded,” just picking up from her most recent letter to him, and with practical concerns for Sitwell’s upcoming London leave.
31st October, 1915.
My darling Moth’,
I hope that you are having a good time at 34. I am longing to come home, and hope to in ten days’ time (D.V.) but not much before. Osbert will be coming in a very few days now, in two or three days’ time I expect. Could he live at 34 for the week that he will be in London? He would be out to most meals I expect, and would not be in the way… You see he has nowhere to stay but hotels in London, and they are very expensive, aren’t they? I have told him that I expect it’ll be all right, but he’ll quite understand if it isn’t convenient.
For Sitwell, remember, is not merely the son of a baronet but the son of a remarkably miserly baronet, with a mother in prison and a family estate he would be loath to visit… Bimbo is a good friend, but, yikes–a fickle correspondent.
I rode into Bethune, yesterday evening and back in the dark, after ordering a pair of riding breeches. It is a twelve mile ride altogether, along the road, pavé most of the way, and covered with very well directed traffic of every sort…
It would be a much pleasanter life, if one had one’s friends in the regiment; though I must say I have been lucky in my company and like both my captain and my ensign.
Today we have been digging trenches or rather watching the men dig which was rather boring, and last night we had a concert which was worse…
So you could have gone to dinner with the young pups in the 4th Battalion, no?
He would, however, have missed a repast like the one today’s Bimbo-to-Moth’ letter goes on to describe:
…I haven’t eaten such a nasty dinner for a long time. The “piece de resistance” was a very large and horribly tough chicken, which earlier in the year might have been called a string-chicken. This was followed by a sort of batter-pudding made of runny junket and toast (the latter very hard) and the meal drew to a close with fossilised dates and wizened grapes, together with some octopus saliva that was called coffee. But we were quite good company, about seven of us, and I enjoyed the evening.
Now I must stop, with my best love to Daddy and Clare.
Ever your very devoted Son,
The men, we should recall–the chaps who were being watched doing the digging–are eating tepid greasy soup out of communal pots, with muddy bread and sweet tea.
Amusingly, and to continue this reconstructed non-conversation, Asquith will write tomorrow to his wife about the possibility of quitting the army to run for parliament. So, even though he “did not fancy a ride on the pavé in dark and wet”–again, not doing for a convivial dinner with his (younger) brother officers what Bimbo did for a pair of breeches–he still rejects the idea of the safe and comfortable life of a parliamentarian:
I would far rather sit down to a lean chicken with a couple of gentlemen, than see old Fletcher waving his mutilated hand over the plumpest turkey ever bred on the Trent and am honestly less bored at the prospect of going into the trenches than I should be by a week of meetings and speeches on the Insurance Act and such like skimble-skamble stuff. No doubt when I have had more experience I may revise my values…
A circumspect last word, there.
Asquith is, however, taking care of business. This little note to his wife Katherine–written yesterday, a century back–may well be the best-ever example of a picture being worth a thousand-word “if I should die” letter:
. . . But when can you be going to send me the Trench photograph of yourself which was promised before I left? I have got a dinky little picture of Dilly and if that is found on my corpse instead of a picture of you I know you will give me a wigging in the next world. . .
Yes, “Dilly” is Diana Manners, doyenne of the Coterie, and Not His Wife. It’s a pretty nice photo, though.
Finally–from Asquith, at least–two more now-familiar symptoms of the return of Trench Normalcy: frequent leaves and routine duties. Asquith is thirty-six while Bimbo is nineteen, but then again Asquith has less than a fortnight’s active service.
Our C.O. has gone off on leave today for a week and my company Commander is taking his place pro tern, so I find myself in command of the Company which is funny enough if one comes to think of it.
In the meantime, he censors the letters.
It was no secret that officers read some or all of their men’s letters, so this may be an amusing jibe by the man in question rather than (just) a creepy invasion of his privacy by his officer:
…a soldier whose letter I censored… alluding to the fact of my joining the Battn. wrote “He seems a very decent officer as yet. If his military style is as good as his classics he will do well.”
He closes then, sweetly–or with tongue in cheek?–with classical pronouncements of affection:
I have determined to devote 5 minutes a day to serious reading and began this morning on the Odes of Horace, pleasantly surprised as I always am to find how astonishingly good they are. It was wonderfully clever of you, my sweet, to find that minute Horace for me. I can see it will be a great resource and a constant reminder of my angel Fawn.
If these odd, witty socialites and their interweaving letters leave something of a muddle, well, then that’s half my fault, since I interwove them. But only half! There is just a lot going on when the Guards are in reserve…
Far from the flirtations of the Coterie, however, an old-school Lord has uncovered the oldest sort of scandal imaginable. This is Private Lord Crawford–who, I remind my readers, does not approve of gossipy women:
Sunday, 31 October 1915
First day of our hospital crisis. At 6am I found an officer from the HQ staff in bed in ward No. 2. He came in latish last night without any kit, without any warning to staff, and he wasn’t entered in the A and D book. This was the climax. The officer has already misbehaved himself in a scandalous fashion and I reported the affair to Sergeant Nunn, who reports to the S[ergeant] M[ajor]–who reports to the colonel, and I was cross-examined. The colonel was greatly shocked and surprised. He interviewed some of our men and was confirmed in the shock he had received from myself. There will be developments. We owe something to ourselves at No. 2 station. Many of us could not afford to be associated with any public scandal. We have long been living on the edge of a volcano. Drink, gambling, disregard of hospital rules, and other things as well–all this was giving us our evil reputation and the time has at last come when we should assert ourselves.
He is dead serious. Crawford worries that this one ambulance unit will become a matter to be mocked in the press, to be pursued by Parliamentary Committees. This, I think, is further evidence that there is some sort of suppressed egomania in his sui generis decision to serve in the ranks. And tell us, milord, whose fault is it?
I had hoped that the new matron would have improved matters. She has contented herself with changing un-essentials. Her mind turns to green flower pots, shining brass and bees waxed floors. Of fundamentals, she is totally ignorant. She is hopeless as a reformer, too blind and too tactless also. A crisis, therefore, has to be brought about and I am glad that it should have been directly owing to somebody not belonging to our own unit.
While it is of course terribly unlucky that the very first instance of illicit sex in the BEF should take place in Crawford’s unit, I think we have all been warned–and should have known, really, without any such warning–that when a man has fallen so low as to come and carouse in a hospital, we must ask ourselves which–or, rather, how many–of the women who are at fault should have already been done away with.
Tomorrow will–in the same fussy, oblique language–tell.
1st London General Hospital, 31 October 1915
I seem to mind nothing now in the way of work. This morning, as I was sweeping our immense ward (one has to do a good deal of housemaid’s work in the early morning before the actual nursing begins because of the usual incompetence of orderlies) I wondered to myself if I should ever be–what I have never yet been–really happy. But I wondered it more from force of habit than anything else. It certainly was not an expression of discontent. any more than it was the result of pleasure in my work. It is always so strange that when you are working you never think of all the inspiring thoughts that made you take up the work in the first instance. Before I was in hospital at all I thought that because I suffered myself I should feel it a grand thing to relieve the sufferings of other people. But now, when I am actually doing something which I know relieves someone’s pain it is nothing but a matter of business. I may think lofty thoughts about the whole thing before or after but never at the time. At least, almost never. Sometimes some quite little thing makes me stop short all of a sudden and I feel a fierce desire to cry in the middle of whatever it is I am doing. I felt like it when a man asked me to wash him to-night & then told me I reminded him so much of a sister of his, only she was fair. It is always some absurd little thing like that. And those lines of Rupert Brooke’s are always coming into my head as I look at the rows of poor permanently shattered people on either side of the long ward–
‘These cast the world away, poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth, gave up the years to be
Of work and joy'
See? Everyone is supposed to despise Brooke and embrace the coming poets of protest, the apt describers of horror and disillusionment and the worst of war, and then–revision!–we are supposed to feel bad for the historical error of failing to appreciate the extent to which Brooke remained the favorite far into the long entrenched misery…
That’s a lot of historical responsibility. So isn’t this the easier path? All you have to do is read the war’s writers day by day. Some will always love Brooke, some never liked him. And Vera Brittain–young, clever, passionate, still relatively inexperienced–well: she likes him very very well, so far…
References and Footnotes
- Or perhaps not "even." If the 17th Baron Dunsany has not earned the habit of referring to clients as peasants, then certainly middle class reviewers should not dwell on a poet's humble origins. ↩
- Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 135-6. ↩
- Evidently the address of their London house. ↩
- Asquith, Life and Letters, 207. ↩
- Letters, 80-3. ↩
- Life and Letters, 207-9. ↩
- Private Lord Crawford, 75-6. ↩
- Letters From a Lost Generation, 181-2. ↩