Francis Ledwidge is a Published Poet, but the Best Has to Come Yet; Bimbo Tennant, Osbert Sitwell, and Raymond Asquith: All the Grenadiers Talk Tough Chickens, Leave, and Photies; Vera Brittain on the Sacrifice of Nursing; Scandal on Lord Crawford’s Ward!

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”[1] 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.[2]

 

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:

Darling Moth’,

…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.[3] 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…

That reads like a rebuke, for our benefit, of the languid Raymond Asquith, who couldn’t be bothered to make a similar ride. And speaking of that fickle non-dinner date:

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…[4]

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,

Bimbo[5]

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. . .

diana manners cooper 1914

Diana Manner, 1914; posing as the Princess (Leia) of the Coterie

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.[6]

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.[7]

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.

 

It has been a very long post. But, when Vera Brittain is writing to Roland Leighton and once again quoting Rupert Brooke, not yet long enough…

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'[8]

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

  1. 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.
  2. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 135-6.
  3. Evidently the address of their London house.
  4. Asquith, Life and Letters, 207.
  5. Letters, 80-3.
  6. Life and Letters, 207-9.
  7. Private Lord Crawford, 75-6.
  8. Letters From a Lost Generation, 181-2.

Alan Seeger is Alive and Well and Writing Poetry; Olaf Stapledon on Satisfying the Soul; Asquith, Tennant, and Sitwell: a Three Guard Dinner? Music and Loneliness for Vera Brittain

A great hodgepodge of letters, today, on many different topics:

Just a few days ago Alan Seeger was writing a lengthy, suitable-for-publication description of the late September battle. There were rumors that Americans in the Foreign Legion had been killed (one had), which he, for his part, denied. But he has now learned that “he had been reported in the American newspapers as missing or killed in the Battle of Champagne.” He will not be the last survivor erroneously reported dead. Nevertheless, his mother is now suffering through one of the cruelest of the simple ironies, born of confusion and distance.

October 30, 1915

I am navré [sorry] to think of your having suffered so. I had just as soon aim my rifle at the fool who played that trick as at any German. But you know what American journalists are. . . Very soon a week’s permission in Paris. I shall be interested to see my poem in print. But I found a glaring grammatical error after sending it. I am usually more careful. Blame it to the trenches. I am writing you in a little café amid the best of comrades. You must take heart thinking of me as always content and really happy as I have never been before and as perhaps I will never be after.[1]

The poem? I’m not sure which it was, but my best guess is Champagne, 1914-15, which was written in July. In a mild play on the region’s namesake beverage, there is a good deal of Brookean “Sweet Wine,” as well as some older, rather sour notes, such as the invitations to drink up to those that “marched to that heroic martyrdom.” The poem concludes with more or less the precise opposite of Charles Sorley‘s posthumous admonishment:

Honor them not so much with tears and flowers,
    But you with whom the sweet fulfilment lies,
Where in the anguish of atrocious hours
    Turned their last thoughts and closed their dying eyes,
Rather when music on bright gatherings lays
    Its tender spell, and joy is uppermost,
Be mindful of the men they were, and raise
    Your glasses to them in one silent toast.
Drink to them—amorous of dear Earth as well,
    They asked no tribute lovelier than this—
And in the wine that ripened where they fell,
    Oh, frame your lips as though it were a kiss.

This is the poetry of 1870, or 1780, or some other bygone time–it’s nowhere near the cutting edge of even proto-modern verse. It is, rather, on the thick part of the blade: this is what most of the popular poetry of 1915 sounded like.

To which I can only say that they are troops who fade, not flowers, for poets’ tearful fooling…

 

But if it’s time yet for the poetry of suffering, then let’s get back to the Guards and their social life:

Darling Moth’,

The gloves arrived and are very welcome. They came on the 27th and several splendid boxes, some from Glen[2] and some from Fortnum & Mason…

It is very nice and comfortable here, and I hope that Raymond Asquith may come to dinner with us to-night. He is with the 3rd Battalion…

Osbert is going to be made a Captain in a day or two and will probably go on leave before me. He’ll come and see you and tell you about me. I am in the very best of spirits and find a lot to laugh at…

Raymond can’t come to-night. I hope he’ll come some other day…

Now must stop.

Ever your devoted Son,

Bimbo[3]

Raymond! What happened?!? What could have prevented the joy of two such well-connected letter writers crossing paths and crossing forks? Raymond?

I had a note from Sitwell asking me over to dinner with his Battn. which is quartered about 6 miles off but I did not fancy a ride on the pavé in dark and wet, so dined instead at Brigade H.Q…[4]

 

A few days after Wilfred Owen, Vera Brittain, another provincial whom the war has now drawn to London, visited Westminster Abbey. For her–and in this letter to Roland–the spiritual leads directly to the personal:

Vera to Roland

1st London General Hospital, 30 October 1915

I went into Westminster Abbey for a few minutes. The evening service (which is now held in the afternoon because of Zeppelins) was going on. The music seemed to swell & thrill & lose itself in the great arches of the roof, and everything beneath the window was shadow, dimly lit by dusky gleams of sun. I thought of the last time I was in London–when you were here, & to my great astonishment found tears in my eyes when the dream faded. After all, it must be a great inspiration to be you–and such as you. I felt this afternoon that I would gladly work & fight & die, if I could only do one little bit towards saving this beauty from destruction. And that is what You are doing–& have been doing for seven long & weary months. If only you could have been there today–if anything could, it might have made you feel strong to face the dreary, dreary winter that has already begun.[5]

Music, then, is not balm enough for loneliness, with the long winter ahead. And she will need all the energy she can muster, to deal with the winter’s casualties.

Yet few scenes (‘ware the clumsy segue!), by the time the wounded have reached London, will be as raw as the one witnessed today, a century back, by Kathleen Luard:

Saturday, October 30th

A boy came in at 6 p.m. with his right arm blown clean off in his sleeve. He was very collapsed when he came in but revived a bit later.  ‘Mustn’t make a fuss about trifles,’ he explained. ‘We got to stick it.’ What a trifle! He ran from the first to the second trench unaided. The boy who threw his brains on the floor died yesterday, and another is dying.[6]

 

With Vera faltering and Kathleen Luard reporting nothing but traumas, our sole (soul?) successful stargazer in the medical corps is Olaf Stapledon. But even this committed dreamer and young lover is finding that the war is impinging on his thoughts–still, he writes about a philosophical consideration, rather than a physical one, and that perhaps affords us some relief. Today, a century back, Stapledon wrote to his beloved, Agnes, halfway across the world, and weighed the various choices a young man must make:

Friends Ambulance Unit
30 October 1915

 …All but four of us have gone off to HQ to celebrate the anniversary of the Unit’s work in France. I celebrate the anniversary of our last meeting by writing to you in peace and quiet at last… I am sitting at our American cloth dining table with your last letters, and (as a great treat) your photo. The fire is burning merrily, the clock ticks, the dogs are both asleep and the rats are scuttering and squeaking… Your last letter came via America. How I bless that mail, and the extra letters it brings. You tell me about Jack A’s project of munition making. He will be well satisfied to be “doing something,” and I wish him luck and contentment. I confess I cannot see how anyone who “couldn’t kill” can make munitions.

To be a pacifist and stay at home quietly needs great courage: to be a pacifist and do Red Cross work is satisfying: to be a pacifist and yet fight must be torture: to approve of war and stay at home quietly is unthinkable: to approve and fight is honest and unselfish: to approve and make munitions, while you are fit to fight, cannot surely satisfy the soul. Personally I would not make munitions, I would fight. Whatever one thinks about the morality of war, many soldiers are saints. These old French territorials, for instance, “vieux papas” as they are called, are patiently sacrificing all they care for, and smiling all the while…

After further discussing the “gentle” heroism of these sorts of “old daddies,” Stapledon returns to the subject of the acquaintance who professes pacifism but has turned his “mechanical” talents to munitions making.

There is a good history lesson here: Stapledon is mature, thoughtful, and moral; he is a Quaker and a considered pacifist, and, as we can read in the above paragraph, he avoids the pitfall of pride in his own decision to risk life and limb and see terrible things in the Ambulance Corps. And then–perhaps with a hint of irony, but I can’t be sure–he returns to the language and personal code of a typical Oxford man of his time and place:

When a torpille[7] goes off and lands well, it knocks in a trench, buries a few men, tears up a few more, and chucks others head over heels. One big shell has been known to kill fifty men. If one approves, better let the other fellows get a whack at one, it’s only sporting.[8]

“It’s only sporting”–and the “whack” as well–sounds poorly in our ears, this medieval-seeming idea that embraces the logic of the duel or the judicial combat. And we have learned to read “sporting” as a link to that crazed Newboltian congeries of ideas–empire, amateurism, Christianity, racism, competition, etc. Stapledon is using it, if not ironically, than as a simple, handy phrase standing in for a very serious idea–and one that goes more swiftly to the heart of this war than the old idea of battle as a noble trial, whack for well-bred whack.

His point is simply that believing that killing is wrong does not excuse one from that necessary concomitant of killing, namely dying. Stapledon is not making bombs. But if he were, and not suffering their effects, he would have no claim to righteousness.

Yes. And, as he need not point out, he is driving an ambulance well within the range of German artillery. He is not merely ministering to the wounded, but he is suffering the deprivations and risks of war. Pacifism, and courage.

And yet, not a perfect pacifism. He could sit out, wait for the coming draft, and become a conscientious objector. By saving allied lives he aids their war effort. His hands are clean, but his thumb nevertheless rests upon the great scales…

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters and Diary, 174.
  2. A family estate, I think--Glenconner being a family title.
  3. Letters, 77-8.
  4. Life and Letters, 208.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 181.
  6. Unknown Warriors, 28.
  7. French for torpedo, and probably meaning one of the "aerial torpedoes" or very large trench mortars like the German Minenwerfer.
  8. Talking Across the World, 106-7.

Lord Crawford Meets a Young German Gentleman; Wilfred Owen Adapts to the Artists’; John Bernard Adams is in the Trenches at Last

Wilfred Owen has been keeping his mother informed of the tribulations of his first week in the army with frequent postcards. But tonight, a century back, he sat down to write a real letter:

Dearest Mother,

I am dog-tired: N.B. I don’t say exhausted—but stupidly, muscularly tired. I got my outfit some days ago. I have not the patience to give you a list of the contents of my Kit, but it contains numbers of footling things—tooth-brush & razor-brush for example, whereas I had to buy a belt (3/6) and shall have to buy a swagger-cane.

These are regulations special to our regiment, because the discipline is frightfully minute. I spent all last evening polishing my buttons. We are cautioned against appearing in the street with a single over-coat button undone: belt must be worn over the overcoat, collar never turned up (except in very inclement weather when permission is granted to do so) etc. etc. etc. There is no doubt we are as smart as anything except the Guards, whom we ape.

Interesting–and I believe it. Here we have the Artists’ Rifles–once an exclusively professional (i.e. upper middle class) volunteer unit, now a de facto OTC that–for the very reason that so many of its privates will become officers–maintains something of a class standard for its volunteers. Owen tells us that, in attempting to be as smart as the guards, the Artists are in effect asserting their status as the toniest of the non-Regulars, just as the Guards have, er, jealously guarded their special status within the Regular army. Edward Thomas, who, for all his genteel poverty, had been to Oxford and knew many of the country’s foremost writers, was disappointed with the men of the Artists’. Wilfred Owen, who never made it to Oxbridge and has not established himself in a profession, is, so far, quite pleased.

Onward:

Yesterday morning we went a Route March through Kentish Town to Highgate. I had just got my Brogues repaired in time, but those wretches who wore new service boots had to go home by tram!

It’s like being a year out of joint: this is a wonderful mash-up of Henry Williamson‘s travails of a year ago and his more recent attempts to pass as a member of a higher social stratum. But Owen–at least in writing to his mother, hides his insecurities better. If nothing else, this is the difference between a bullying father/timid mother (Williamson) and an overshadowed father/clinging English Mama Rose (though it was the priesthood, rather than the stage, to which young Wilfred was destined).

With officerhood on the horizon, our Wilfred is pleased to admire the sergeants:

This morning we had ‘Physical Drill’ under a special Gymnastic Instructor and it is that which had so bewearied my bones. We do all this in shirt sleeves in Cartwright Gardens, a ‘crescent-garden’ bounded by the usual boarding houses. I have scarcely seen an officer. All our instruction is done by sergeants, who are as chummy between times as they are smart on parade. Impossible to get them out of temper. One is a rare wag, and gives plenty of exercise to the Risible Muscles. I never felt devotion, and not much respect, for any authority or individual in this world since I left the 3rd form of the Institute; but I am beginning again under these fellows. Astonishing what a changed meaning has a Captain or a Colonel for me. If a Major-General approached me I think I should fall down dead. We had to practise Salutes (on Trees) this very morning. You would be surprised how long it takes to do the thing properly.

This aft. was pay-day. Now we waited drawn up in ranks from 3 this evening, till just on 6!! And those at the rear, as I was, never got it after all. Then was the moment when you had best wad up the ears if swearing upsets them.

Ah, so–poetry? Artists? Disappointment?

I spent the heavy time pleasantly enough in conversation with one who I believe will be one of my best friends. Everyone is willing to make friends, and everyone is eligible; so there is really no guide as to which one shall go for beyond the expression of his phiz. There are now five on special terms with me, one very young, another quite forty, but none artists in any sense, no enthusiasts in my line. So I am still on the lookout…

Yours with dearest love,

Wilfred[1]

 

And in France, an innocent of earlier vintage reached the front trenches today, a century back. John Bernard Adams‘s battalion left billets at 9 a.m. and began the march to the front lines. At either eleven or noon–his diary gives one time and a letter home of next week gives the other–they halted for lunch:

Luckily it was fine, and the piled arms, the steaming dixies,[2] and the groups of men sitting about eating and smoking formed a pleasant sight. Our grub was put by mistake on the mess-cart which went straight on to the trenches! Edwards, however, our Company mess-president, came up to the scratch with bread, butter, and eggs. Tea was easily procured from the cookers. Then off we went to our H.Q. There we got down into the communication trench, and in single file were taken by guides into our part of the trenches: these guides were sent by the battalion we were relieving. I told you that all the trenches have names (which are painted on boards hung up at the trench comers). The first thing done was to post sentries along our company front: until this was done the outgoing battalion could not ‘out-go. ‘ Each man has his firing position allotted to him, and he always occupies it at ‘stand to’ and ‘stand down.’ We were three days and three nights in the trenches. Each officer was on duty for eight hours, during which he was responsible for a sector of firing-line and must be actually in the front trench. My watch was 12 to 4 A.M. and P.M. Work that out with ‘stand to’ in the morning and also in the evening and you will see that consecutive sleep is not easy![3]

‘Stand-to,’ we may remember, is the essential communal observance of trench life. There is always the worry that the Germans will attack in low light–when either the British trenches will be silhouetted by the setting sun or the rising sun will be in their eyes (and vice versa, of course, but never mind). But this semi-practicality aside (for who attacks when they know the entire opposing army is alert?), stand-to is a way of counting the men, and of raising the army up together and reminding everyone of their corporate identity. Stand-to is thus both a bureaucratic and morale stand-in for roll-call and parades.

Adams continues with an evocation of trench routine: the sentries who must be told to stamp their feet in the cold; the long, quiet watches of the night where the war seems to recede until it is awoken again by sudden, mysterious shelling or speculative machine gun bursts…

 

Lastly, Lord Crawford. Yesterday his ambulance unit had an unexpected visitor, and he spent the day attempting to make his fellow medical personnel see the bigger picture. Humanity, what?

Today he needles Matron in a lighter vein than usual:

This evening I made her chuckle by saying, ‘Never mind, sister, this is some consolation for not having the King here—in fact I expect it will give you even more entertainment’–as a German prisoner was brought in suffering from a broken scalp. Lieutenant Buchholz fell with his Taube [light aircraft] into our lives. I don’t think he was wounded, but is badly contused and thoroughly shaken by the misadventure.

One heard mutterings of indignation at the care bestowed on him compared with the smaller formalities and precautions taken with our own officers. ‘Five men to get out a stretcher’–‘Dammed if I will cook for a German’, quoth the cook. I try to inculcate the other view. We can heap coals of fire on this man’s head by good treatment. Every prisoner who returns to Germany having suffered kindly and sympathetic incarceration here will contribute to the huge reaction which is to shake Germany later on.

Ah, right–humanity, or tactical pampering. Still, it’s better than cruelty.

To such men it will prove useless to say we are devilish and inhuman. Their treatment here will give the lie to such a charge and their own experiences will greatly modify the false opinions of their friends and relatives–alas that we have so few Germans to spread our own propaganda.

And today, the reality of keeping a German prionser sinks in:

Buchholz gives some trouble. His wound isn’t serious, but, being a prisoner, he has to be watched. We have formed relays of batmen to do sentry duty and a man with fixed bayonet is always by the bed–but behind the screen, so the sisters insist, although the bayonet gleams and towers over it. Where there is a guard, there also should be found a corporal and at three o’clock this morning I find myself sitting in the dispensary, cold and shivering, but ready to rouse the sleepers at my feet who have already done their turns. The fellows on the floor slumber peacefully…

I write my diary, with three or four hours of candlelight and silence before me. But it is very chilly. My memory goes back to a post house in Siberia somewhere by the Chinese frontier. I can’t remember its name but it meant watermelons or some such thing. Conditions are different but the temperature or the position of the candles as I write, or else some undefined trifle recalled the place to my memory–and fifteen years have passed. But I won’t moralise…

It is 7pm. Except for fifty minutes devoted to meals and their digestion, I have been incessantly on duty, now for sixteen hours and very tired. Buchholz was evacuated today, happily, for he gave us a lot of work. I practically had to carry him from the ambulance to the train. Poor beast–he could have walked alone with ease, but this semblance of weakness, with his head all bandaged up solaced our prisoner. The people on the railway platform behaved with great restraint–likewise our men, on and about the train. Buchholz too was quiet and dignified in a most distressing situation, behaving in a way which appealed to me. I could not help contrasting him with some of our own patients in hospital with their weak faces and vacillating manners. Though young Buchholz is only seventeen, he had a professional and business-like air, lacking in many of our officers of ten years’ service.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 362.
  2. Large covered pots of soup or tea.
  3. Nothing of Importance, 27-28,49.
  4. Private Lord Crawford, 74-5.

A Sister, A Yeoman, and a Grenadier With News of a King; A Sassoon Wounded

Several of our writers were busy today, a century back, with news of the King’s visit to his troops in France. Alas, the weather did not cooperate:

First, our stout Yeoman Edward Hermon:

We left at 8 a.m. & policed the road from Marles-les-Mines, through Bruay-la-Buissière for [King] George to come & go. He came & saw a few soldiers who had marched in from all points of the compass. He looked worried but was to me much the same as usual. He motored to La Buissière & there got on his horse & rode round the assembled masses. It blew bitter cold & rained like Hades all the time & was just about as unpleasant as you could well imagine.[1]

“The same as usual?” I don’t think Hermon was in the habit of hanging out with the king, so perhaps he refers to the royal pose, familiar from illustration and London ceremonials. Nor is Hermon completely in the loop. Kathleen Luard, in a rather brisk and implicitly anti-pomp-and-circumstance letter, knows that something has happened:

The weather is beyond description vile, and the little cobbled streets I wear out my shoe leather on, are a Slough of Despond and a quagmire. The King has been about here yesterday and today, and was to have held a very sodden and damp Review a mile away, only he had an accident riding and had to be carried away instead: no one knows if it was much or not. They didn’t bring him to my Officers’ Hospital anyway.[2]

That was a quick-spreading rumor. It reached Raymond Asquith of the 3rd Grenadier Guards, too, as he will describe in tomorrow’s letter to his wife:

Yesterday we had an awful fiasco. The whole division was to have been reviewed by the King at a place about 6 miles from here but after marching almost to the appointed spot in drenching rain we were told that the review had been put off on account of the weather and so we marched back again. I found out afterwards that the real reason was that while the King was inspecting some other troops earlier in the day his horse had reared and fallen on him doing him some injury though I believe not a serious one. . .[3]

The King will survive, and give his less-than-fully-engaged troops more to twitter about anon.

 

And one final, grim bit of news. Hamo Sassoon, younger brother of Siegfried, had trained as a structural engineer, traveling out to Argentina before the war. When it began he returned to England and was soon commissioned in the Royal Engineers. In May he and his brother had spent a few days in the country with their mother, the first time in several years that the three had been together. (The eldest of the three brothers had long since emigrated to Canada, and spent the war there.)

In August, Hamo was sent to Gallipoli. Today, a century back, at Suvla Bay, he was severely wounded.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 122.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 28.
  3. Life and Letters, 207.

Raymond Asquith on the Quaintness of Arms and the Men; Wilfred Owen Would Impress; Scones Fit For a King; A Fine Black Splotch Against the Rainbow

Three days ago, he landed in France to join the much-battered Grenadier Guards. Yesterday, a century back, Raymond Asquith met his new battalion. Today, the approach narrative takes a languid detour: to billets! From a letter to his wife Katherine:

27 October 1915

. . . We live an easy life in billets–a little drill in the morning, a walk with Oliver or someone in the afternoon, a bottle of wine at dinner, and a feather bed to sleep on. The most laborious thing one does is reading through and censoring the soldier’s letters. They are usually very long and very dull and full of formulae which hardly amount to idiom. The only things I ever scratch out are the expressions “hoping this finds you as it leaves me” and “now I must draw to a close”. But God knows my own letters are very little better . . .

Obnoxious, again–but witty. I hate to flatter the self-regarding, but yes–he’s a head of his time. This is a keen anticipation of Yossarian’s antics while censoring letters from a hospital bed in the next war.

I constantly think of you my angel…

Keep well and lovely

And to Diana Manners, also today:

. . . This war is a pure convention, like debates in the House of Commons, the birthday honours, and all other public (and most private) events. Usually there is a hell of a din here of big guns, today absolute calm. Why? because the King is at the front and they don’t want a damned noise when he is there. Why have a damned noise at all, whether he is here or not? Pure convention. In the old days when we had no shells everyone wanted a noise, but now we all know there are masses of shells, so why let them off? . . .

Ah, convention. Again–this is repartée, not deliberate analysis. And, yet again, the lightly-and-sprightly presentation undercuts the fact that this is a telling observation. Asquith tosses it off–ah, war is convention, the silliness of distracted generals–but he’s right. War, like anything else–no, more than most things–is not so much driven by well-reasoned decisions as shaped by habits both sensible and strange, well-reasoned and unexamined.

Men stumble forward to get killed, pointlessly, because, well, other men are doing it and they don’t want to be the ones to let the side down. Generals shell the enemy because, well, there is always some strategic principle to invoke, if hardly ever one that is demonstrably necessary–but primarily because the enemy is there, and the guns are here. Unless there is a good reason not to…

This, of course, is only one way of looking at things. Wouldn’t more of France be conquered, and more British soldiers killed, if the allies didn’t keep up their end of the war of attrition?

Perhaps. And–wait, what was that about the King?

First, however, Asquith defies his own predictions about the dullness of his war letters with the following vignette. If he were all cutting wit he would be intolerable–but the Coterie permits some appreciations of loveliness, too. There is convention, but there is unconvention, too:

I think you would love being in billets here; there is a sort of strangeness about it that would appeal to you. Two or three rather muddy officers in the parlour of a French cottage and a few faithful servants, very like soldier servants in books, playing with the women in broken French in the kitchen next door, being sweet to children and making terrible smells with onions; outside big guns booming at a safe distance, dispatch riders, ambulances, etc., rattling over the pavé, in fact all the minor nonsense of war; if only a female spy of consummate beauty with wild hair and pinioned arms could be suddenly brought in by a sergeant major, you would have at once the 3rd act of any moderately bad play not by Galsworthy . . .[1]

I refuse to come gallumphing after the cleverest writers with a highlighters, but please do note that this little bucolic fantasy bases itself on literary expectation. This is a well-read man, not a professional soldier, and he is new to the war: he sees in it the things he has read in books…

 

While Asquith writes to keep up the most important social connection of his old life, Wilfred Owen has thrown himself into the possibilities of being a bookish young gentleman in uniform–and in London! There are new idols–a sergeant!–and old. Poetry!

Tuesday [Postmark 27 October 1915]

I fear I should have written my last card sooner than I did: but you can’t expect to hear every day! I did a full day’s parade today, the arm being only ticklish now. The drill is a curious compound of monotony and qui vive. Fortunately our Sergeant is a gentleman, and, what is more, considers us as such. As a Sergeant I admire & respect him devotedly. Harold Monro himself read at the P. Bookshop this evening, and I had a talk with him afterwards. Dorothy was impressed by his Poems which I left at Alpenrose. Please send me Tailhade: Poèmes Aristophanesques, which is on the top shelf of the Book Case. Don’t send the Pyjamas till I say if we are given any…

Thus Owen writes to his mother for a very special sort of parcel–the inscribed copy of the French Decadent’s poems given to him by the poet himself. This will impress the London literati!

And, finally–innocence! He will not be issued khaki pyjamas.

The enlisting was a plunge, and it has put my wits a little out of breath.

Your own W.E.O.[2]

 

Back to France, now. There are others expecting the King, who has begun an inspection-and-morale-boosting tour of facilities just behind the lines. No doubt Asquith is right to suggest that the British guns have fallen silent–they would have feared inciting retaliatory long-range guns or air raids. But this is a king of England–he should look to the horse!

But I get ahead of myself. Suspense! We’ll catch no more than a glimpse of the king, before his horse, today. Instead, we go to Private Lord Crawford, a very different sort of fellow with a very different sort of monarch-impinged domestic scene.

Wednesday, 27 October 1915

Since the early hours of this morning, we have been scrubbing, washing, decorating, titivating the Maison Warein in expectation of a visit of an august personage. We were told that General Plumer was to come, but we know and see so much of generals that we were left unmoved. In the afternoon, however when we were told the King was to come, interest was shown and also some energy among our tired men. He was due at 4.15pm; tea was prepared by the nurses, ring led by the new matron, who busied themselves with erecting palm trees in new green flower pots. Bouquets galore, ugly linoleum and table cloths, bustle, rehearsals of curtseying in the hall, etc. All I saw of King George was a motor car of superb design, flying past our front door at forty miles an hour. Some say they saw General Joffre, others that the Prince of Wales was with the King and that French too was an occupant. There must have been three cars with cyclists as escort. ‘Well I am disappointed,’ said Bully Beef to Major Kay who had been putting her through a course of curtseying—showing her how to draw back her stout and somewhat rheumatic right leg–‘… to think of the lovely home-made scones we had got ready for him.’[3]

 

And finally, today, after a long convalescence, Lady Dorothie is back! Double rainbows!

Fumes 27th [October]

Mother darling–

Such mud! & such rain! as have taken trouble to greet me here.

I looked out of my bedroom window fatheadedly this morning to a vista of fields & mud: gendarmes & mud, rain & mud, lorries splashing mud, pot holes on the road full of mud, & ‘Daniel’ a mass of mud.

Most exhilarating when one remembers it is now a daily affair for 4 or 5 months. I had got so accustomed to nice dry roads, I had omitted the fact that mud is a Flanders speciality…

Went to N Bains again… Two gorgeous rainbows in the dunes, & it was rather a fine H Majesty’s theatre scenery effect: the dunes with the sun shining on them, the mist lifting, a huge double rainbow in the middle &, at just the right moment, a nice shell burst, a fine black splotch just against the rainbow –most futuristic!

…The work seems [to be] going very well & old Jelly is certainly running it far more thoroughly & competently than Bevan did, of course now it’s easier there are less people, but things badly wanted sorting out & as long as Bevan was boss we couldn’t interfere. I am going to see the hospital today…

So long darling,

See the hospital she did, and she continues to describe today’s reunion with the rest of the Munro Ambulance Corps in a letter of tomorrow. But, although it is (surely) Lady Feilding’s desire to humbly serve the allied wounded that has brought her back to the front after her long illness, she is already right back to where she had been, as a writer: more interested in describing the dangers of the war zone than the labors of the ambulances, and rather good at it, for all her erratic syntax and unlettered affect.

Things are being done on more businesslike & economical lines & I think the result will be a vast improvement. At least I hope so…

Yesterday they shelled Furnes again but no damage. In the afternoon elsewhere an obus [howitzer, i.e. medium or long range German gun] burst 4 to 5 yds behind the car on the road as I pulled up. But beyond making a few holes in the back of Daniel did nothing–rather luck as it was on the pave, the bits often travel–such is life–who cares.

Yr loving Diddles[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Life and Letters, 204-7.
  2. Collected Letters, 361-2.
  3. Private Lord Crawford, 73-4.
  4. Lady Under Fire, 106-7.

Raymond Asquith on Life in Billets; Two Sketches From David Jones

Jones Fusilier October 26 1915 2David Jones‘s time will come. Well, perhaps not here–little of his unique work can be connected directly to one day’s action. But I will draw upon his war writing as often as I can.

Jones, however, was an artist before he was a writer, and a very good one. Training, now, in one of the newer Royal Welch training camps in Winchester, he executed–and dated!–drawings of two of his comrades.

Jones Fusilier October 26 1915

Images from Hyne, ed. David Jones: a Fusilier at the Front.

I won’t pretend to the expertise necessary to comment on the sketches as sketches. But they do seem to capture the long leisure moments of life in camp. These are men who spend many hours marching, and in drill, and in “fatigues.” These are laborers, of a sort, in uniform–reading, watching the boiling pot.

 

And in France today, a century back, Raymond Asquith takes another step closer to combat.

From a letter to his wife, Katherine:

3rd Battn. Grenadier Guards,
Brit. Exped. Force.
26 October 1915

. . . We met our Battn. coming from the trenches yesterday and marched into billets where we are very comfortable and shall remain if all goes well for about a fortnight, so it is worth while sending things here. There are only 3 officers in my company including Capt. Vaughan who came out on the draft with me and we live and mess together.

The 3/Grenadier Guards are depleted indeed. We recently found one of their officers wounded, with a horror story to tell.

Not to make light of the situation, but, well, yes–to make light of the situation of wealthy officers in billets, indeed. How will this skeleton crew keep itself fortified against the drain of the trenches?

We have an arrangement for hampers to be sent twice a week from Fortnum and Mason with delicatessen etc. At present we have an assortment of cakes and sweets which Rumpelmayer might envy. We had rather a tiresome journey from Rouen here with a good deal of waiting and marching in heavy rain, but we are comfortably housed now in a French village the name of which I believe I am not allowed to state. But in any case I do not know it. I suppose we are 10 miles or so from the firing line. One hears the guns poundering away all the time. We do a couple of hours drill in the morning and nothing much in the rest of the day, though if we can get some suitable ground I believe we are going to have some bombing practice.

The day after tomorrow we are to be reviewed by an important person (a relative of the Kaiser’s). I dined last night with our O.C. (Corry) who has a very good sort of house as H.Q. and gave us 6 courses and a variety of different vintages all good.

There are only 14 officers in the Battn., 1/2 as many as there should be according to the book and only 3 of them have had more than a fortnight’s experience of this war…[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Life and Letters, 204-5.

Wilfred Owen Visits Westminster Abbey; Alan Seeger on the Battle of Champagne, and the Glory of War

Two odds and ends and then a long overdue update:

Steel helmets reached the 2/Royal Welch’s section of the front today, a century back. But the Welch remained merely capped for the time being:

The first wearers we saw were Argylls. To the Adjutant a kilt was the limit of the ludicrous. The sight of one always excited his mirth, which he expressed in Army slang implying that these Jocks wear no under-garment. When he espied one of the objects of his derision in a tin-hat his thoughts found vent in terms of Rabelaisaian ribaldry that made new-comers gasp.[1]

 

Helmets for the jocks, but Wilfred Owen of the Artist’s Rifles doesn’t even have a uniform yet. His arm, though–man is it sore. 

Monday [Postmark 25 October 1915]

Post Office [Postmark London]

I had the first drill this mng: but got off this aft. because my arm is not really well. I went to Watson’s, & shall have my specs by tomorrow. I got full marks for Eyesight test at exam. On Sunday afternoon I went to Westminster Abbey: scholarly sermon on sociology and a dazzling fine Anthem. I am not yet in Khaki. The boarding house still pleases me, but I don’t know if I shall like the servitude of conforming to its menu and hours of meals! The conversation at my table was all against England. I made no objections. Tomorrow I shall surprise them. Many thanks for all the kind letters received. I am quite all right again, now you know. Another injection in ten days.

Yours ever W.E.O.[2]

 

Alan Seeger, whose diary for this period has gone missing, reminds us that he has survived the French component of September’s great battle. He wrote to his mother today, a century back:

October 25, 1915

The regiment is back in repos [rest, reserve] after the battle in Champagne, in which we took part from the beginning, the morning of the memorable 25th September. We are billeted in a pleasant little village not far from Compiegne, quite out of hearing of the cannon. It seems that absurd rumors were current about the fate of Americans in the Legion, so I hasten to let you know that I am all right. Quite a few Americans were wounded, but none killed, to my knowledge.

His knowledge, then, does not extend as far the fate of his erstwhile dinner companion Henry Farnsworth.

The part we played in the battle is briefly as follows. We broke camp about 11 o clock the night of the 24th, and marched up…

The cannonade was pretty violent all that night, as it had been for several days previous, but toward dawn it reached an intensity unimaginable to anyone who has not seen a modern battle. A little before 9.15 the fire lessened suddenly and the crackle of the fusillade between the reports of the cannon told us that the first wave of assault had left and the attack begun. At the same time we received the order to advance. The German artillery had now begun to open upon us in earnest. Amid the most infernal roar of every kind of fire-arms and through an atmosphere heavy with dust and smoke, we marched up through the boyaux [communications trenches]… At shallow places and over breaches that shells had made in the bank we caught momentary glimpses of the blue lines sweeping up the hill side or silhouetted on the crest where they poured into the German trenches…

We crossed the open space between the lines, over the barbed wire, where not so many of our men were lying as I had feared (thanks to the efficacy of the bombardment) and over the German trench, knocked to pieces and filled with their dead. In some places they still resisted in isolated groups. Opposite us, all was over, and the herds of prisoners were being already led down as we went up. We cheered, more in triumph than in hate, but the poor devils, terror-stricken, held up their hands, begged for their lives, cried “Kamerad,” “Bon Français,” even “Vive la France.”

We advanced and lay down in columns by two behind the second crest. Mean while, bridges had been thrown across trenches and boyaux, and the artillery, leaving the emplacements where they had been anchored a whole year, came across and took position in the open, a magnificent spectacle. Squadrons of cavalry came up. Suddenly the long, unpicturesque guerre de tranchees was at an end and the field really presented the aspect of the familiar battle pictures the battalions in manoeuvre, the officers, superbly indifferent to danger, galloping about on their chargers.

It seems as if the desire of the strategists to break out of the stalemate and return to some version of the grand war of movement that they grew up idealizing has been matched by Seeger’s desire to write traditional, sweeping, poetical descriptions of battle.

It won’t work, of course.

But now the German guns, moved back, began to get our range and the shells to burst over and around batteries and troops, many with admirable precision. Here my best comrade was struck down by shrapnel at my side painfully but not mortally wounded. I often envied him after that.

For now our advanced troops were in contact with the German second-line defenses, and these proved to be of a character so formidable that all further advance without a preliminary artillery preparation was out of the question. And our role, that of troops in reserve, was to lie passive in an open field under a shell fire that every hour became more terrific, while aeroplanes and captive balloons, to which we were entirely exposed, regulated the fire. That night we spent in the rain. With port able picks and shovels each man dug himself in as well as possible.

The next day our concentrated artillery again began the bombardment, and again the fusillade announced the entrance of the infantry into action. But this time only the wounded appeared coming back, no prisoners. I went out and gave water to one of these, eager to get news. It was a young soldier, wounded in the hand. His face and voice bespoke the emotion of the experience he had been through in a way that I will never forget.

Ah, les salauds!” [the bastards] he cried, “They let us come right up to  the barbed wire without firing. Then a hail of grenades and balls. My comrade fell, shot through the leg, got up, and the next moment had his head taken off by a grenade before my eyes.”

“And the barbed wire, wasn’t it cut down by the bombardment?”

“Not at all in front of us.”

I congratulated him on having a blessure heureuse [a blighty one, a fortunate wound] and being well out of the affair. But he thought only of his comrade and went on down the road toward Souain, nursing his mangled hand, with the stream of wounded…

The afternoon of the 28th should have been our turn. We had spent four days under an almost continual bombardment. The regiment had been decimated, though many of us had not fired a shot. After four such days as I hope never to repeat, under the strain of sitting inactive, listening to the slow whistle of 210-millimetre shells as they arrived and burst more or less in one’s proximity, it was a real relief to put sac au dos [backpack] and go forward.

We marched along in columns by two, behind a crest, then over and across an exposed space under the fire of their 77s, that cost us some men, and took formation to attack on the border of a wood, some where behind which they were entrenched. And here we had a piece of luck. For our colonel, a soldier of the old school, stronger for honor than expediency, had been wounded in the first days of the action. Had he been in command, we all think that we should have been sent into the wood (and we would have gone with élan)…

The newer commander, however–like the adjutant left in command of the 2/Royal Welch late on the first morning of Loos–calls off the pointless attack into unbroken wire.

So you have him to thank…

We spent two weeks on the front this time. But as luck would have it, the bombardment that thundered continually during this period did not fall very heavily on the wood where we were sheltered and we did not suffer seriously in comparison with the first days…

We can sum up the results of the big offensive in which we took part. No one denies that they are disappointing. For we know, who heard and cheered the order of Joffre to the army be fore the battle, that it was not merely a fight for a position, but a supreme effort to pierce the German line and liberate the invaded country; we know the immense preparation for the attack, what confidence our officers had in its success, and what enthusiasm ourselves. True, we broke their first line along a wide front, advanced on an average of three or four kilometers, took numerous prisoners and cannon. It was a satisfaction at last to get out of the trenches, to meet the enemy face to face, and to see German arrogance turned into suppliance. We knew many splendid moments, worth having endured many trials for.

But in our larger aim, of piercing their line, of breaking the long deadlock, of entering Vouziers in triumph, of course we failed…

This affair only deepened my admiration for, my loyalty to, the French. If we did not entirely succeed, it was not the fault of the French soldier. He is a better man, man for man, than the German…

What is the stimulus in their slogans of “Gott mit uns” [God is on our side] and “für Konig und Vaterland” [for king and country] beside that of men really fighting in defense of their country? Whatever be the force in international conflicts of having justice and all the principles of personal morality on one’s side, it at least gives the French soldier a strength that’s like the strength of ten against an adversary whose weapon is only brute violence. It is inconceivable that a Frenchman, forced to yield, could behave as I saw German prisoners behave, trembling, on their knees, for all the world like criminals at length overpowered and brought to justice. Such men have to be driven to the assault, or intoxicated. But the French man who goes up is possessed with a passion be side which any of the other forms of experience that are reckoned to make life worth while seem pale in comparison…

The authority vested by Seeger’s combat experience aside (as well as the real question of German war guilt, and how it–or, at least, how the question of being invaders or defenders–might affect morale) this is Romantic clap-trap.

It’s self-justifying, given his decision, as a neutral national, to fight with France. Which is fine by me. But it’s also something a little more sinister–as in the “battle piece” above, Seeger is willfully distorting reality to fit his literary and philosophical preconceptions. Even if everything transpired more or less as he describes, he assumes too much in his editorializing. The German troops were not driven like slaves; French morale will crack first, and worst, etc.

But it’s not the off-kilter moralizing (all but our very best, most sane writers are doing that), it’s the way the righteousness of fighting to defend the more free, more victimized nation slides into a defense of pseudo-Nietzschean praise for war itself.

On the news of a Harvard acquaintance who has decided to join the English, he remarks:

 He refused to be content, no doubt, with lesser emotions while there are hours to be lived such as are being lived now by young men in Flanders and Champagne. It is all to his credit.[3]

Seeger recovers his political equilibrium swiftly, discussing the question of neutrality against an aggressive, Lusitania-sinking Germany. But for a brief moment there he was proclaiming that these are great times to be alive, for war brings glory… righteousness, too. But glory. This is a man who chose war, and then chose France, not vice versa.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 164-5.
  2. Collected Letters, 361.
  3. Letters and Diary, 164-72.

Two Serving Stars of the Corrupt Coterie: Raymond Asquith Lands in France, and is Unimpressed; Patrick Shaw-Stewart on Gallipoli Memories

raymond asquith, 1915

Raymond Asquith, 1915

Raymond Asquith, king of the Coterie, son of the Prime Minister, and “middle-aged, middle-class” Guardsman–we’ve got a writer in the 3rd Grenadiers now, we have–has begun his approach. Today, a century back, he landed in France. Did he write first to his wife Katherine (née Horner, sister of Edward) or to Diana Manners, his co-monarch of the Coterie?

To Lady Diana Manners
Rouen
24 October 1915

…How I wish you were here, and how you would love it, so much more than I do; the dirt and the difficulty of getting the right clothes (which you would always flashingly surmount) and the utter irregularity and unusualness of it all. You would see.it all so much more dramatically than I do. People complain that the war is not “realised” in England; but as far as I am concerned it is certainly not realised in France. Saturday evening on the Underground is the impression I get…

So Raymond Asquith is too cool for France, and, moreover, he denies the experiential gulf. So far, he is unimpressed. It sounds pretty snarky, as it’s meant to. But in should mean not merely that he intends to maintain an attitude of being haughtily aloof to ordinary sentiment, but also that he expects the war to be “realized” in the actual trenches. So there may yet be an element of innocence, of expectation. It just comes out as drawling contempt…

And to his wife, sometime the same day:

Grand Hotel de la Poste,
Rouen
24 October 1915

We have been on our way to the trenches ever since tea time yesterday: it is now luncheon time today and we have got no further than Rouen. We wait 5 hours at every station and travel like cattle, about 10 in a carriage and always at night so one gets very little sleep…

The men, poor devils, are all shut up with a lot of Indians in a dirty kind of shed in the station until the next train is ready for them.

The officers I’m glad to say are allowed a free run of the town and my Captain and I have succeeded in getting a good shave and a hot bath and in a moment or two we hope to be beginning a thoroughly buffy lunch…

Good God. But we know who the enemy is, don’t we?

We have already quarrelled with most of the staff officers we have had to do with and I can’t tell you the loathing and contempt in which they are held by the others. If you heard the way they talk I believe you would think I was right not to become one…

Too cool for France, and condemned to serve with men too upper class[1] to bother with the quintessential middle class tourist’s checkpoints:

I wonder if I shall get my brother officers to face the cathedral. I rather think not…

Asquith–who has a great reputation for being wittily quick on his feet–does not disappoint. There is quite a lot of interest packed into these first letters. And what is he reading?

I always thought that I should be able to do a lot of reading and writing at the war, but so far–in spite of vast tracts of derelict and unoccupied time–I have read nothing except the Continental edition of the Daily Mail and written nothing except the most banal and laborious letters. One’s brain is even more in abeyance out here than in camp at Richmond or Marlow…

I see clearly that you will always write much better letters from England than ever I shall from France . . .

 

Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 1914

We stray as far east as Gallipoli, now, although we stay within the same tight social circle. If, dear reader, you’re having trouble keeping everyone straight (for shame!), then Patrick Shaw-Stewart is probably best pegged as the backup Raymond Asquith. He, too, is the less-than-pretty, intellectually brilliant, dashing fellow among many better-bred bull swans. The two met several years ago, respected each other, and have become friends.

Given the age difference of a decade–and allowing for Shaw-Stewart’s lack of real connections, and Asquith’s father’s prominence–it’s easy to see both how a direct social challenge between two such similar men was avoided and how Asquith might see Shaw-Stewart as a sort of successor, the up-and-coming and unattached spark plug of the Coterie .

But of course the war is on. Shaw-Stewart, through his close friend and schoolmate Edward Horner, got swiftly into action with the Royal Naval Division. He is an old enough soldier, by now, to not merely snark but also to grumble and grouse. He wrote today, a century back, to Edward Horner–who is also, naturally, the brother of Asquith’s wife Katherine.

I suppose the elements of a grouse are to be found in the situation of those of us who have been here—like me—from the beginning: six months in the field and eight months from England, and every prospect of a winter to go on with. Except for two days in Cairo at the end of March, I have not seen a civilised town or a woman or child (bar semi-human Greek villagers) since February.Indeed, I have scarcely seen a civilian, and was moved to some emotion by the sight of a French journalist in a straw hat and tweed suit who once ventured on to this place.

Charming and nasty, of course–on point for Shaw-Stewart. But amidst the calculated, witty sneers, there is an interesting point coming, about war as experience and experience as the stuff of memory:

In the same period in France I suppose I should have had about four leaves. On the other hand, I should very likely be dead, and that is always important, though it is queer enough when you come to think of it that I’m not dead here. On the whole, I’m not sorry to be here; as a retrospect it will be just not so widely spread (especially the first two or three months) as to be intolerable, which France will be.

Yes. It’s true: it will be hard to write an elite memoir of France–there will be too many common ones. Will a solution present itself? Perhaps. In the meantime, a more quotidian desire:

Nor am I very sorry not to have gone to Salonica…  But one would at least have got a bath at Salonica on the way, and for that I have a great accumulated longing.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory is our pole-star, here, but another book of his, Class, springs to mind. Touring cathedrals may be middlebrow, but "imperviousness to ideas" is the true mark of the well-born, which does, in the English sense, describe Asquith's brother officers better than his nouveau self.
  2. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 150.

A Song From Bimbo Tennant

Only Bimbo today, a century back–and he’s feeling better. No mention, of course, of the “depression” attributed to him by his friend, self-appointed guardian, and company commander.

Officer’s Dressing Station, Béthune,
23rd October, Saturday, 1915

My darling Moth’,

I hope you are not at all anxious about me as my temperature was normal this morning, and I have just had lunch in bed and then dressed. I feel perfectly well, I am thankful to say, and I shall go back in a a day or two (D.V.), as it was mainly that I was “run down,” and these few days’ rest have made me feel another person, and capable of going into a ditch for an indefinite period. The nurses here are quite charming, though mostly old. One of them has just been admiring your photy in my identification disc…

I am now going to write out the three poems I have written while out here, which I hope you will like.

Aha–well, perhaps he is not too down after all. Recovering from the fever, he catches up on his writing. Two of these three–Light And [or “After,” see the note] Darkness and A Bas La Gloire–we have already seen.

Here, then, is the third:

SONG

What man is there, now tell me pray,
What sorry knave or yeoman.
That makes his moan wi’ “Welladay,”
When flouted by a woman?
Who as the sun above him shines,
Doth not ha’ done with sorrow.
And as he lies ’neath summer skies,
Sings “Hey for luck to-morrow.”

For a pleasant day
Will drive away
All lass-engender’d sorrow,
By moss-green bank.
And gold-cups rank,
Sing “Hey for luck to-morrow!”

Or if he married be perchance,
And Madam prove a tartar,
And leads the poor churl such a dance,
That willingly he’d barter
His lawful bed-mate for a span
Of oxen for his plough, Sir,
Yet one fair day he’s glad and gay.
And surely you’ll allow. Sir,

That a pleasant day
Will drive away
All lass-engendered sorrow.
By sweet briar hedge
Or thymey sedge.
Sing “Hey for luck to-morrow!”[1]

A reminder, I suppose, that biographical criticism often fails. Bimbo Tennant is a high-spirited lad, and while this was not perhaps written when he was down with a fever, beginning to show signs of post-traumatic stress, and failing to properly mourn the recent death of his comrade and cousin, it was still copied out and sent with such a state, at best, barely behind him. Yet it doesn’t exactly scream “poem written at dressing station by sick officer in 1915.”

And why must it? Bimbo clearly has a knack for light verse–I rather like “lass-engender’d sorrow”–and indulging it to keep the spirits up is far from the worse use of his time. And if we must find poetry to be useful (foolish heresy), then we can press the point that “Hey for luck to-morrow” is both a sentiment suitable for any occasion and one of especial moment to a man re-entering a war in which the “chance” patterns of the big guns’ firing will be the greatest threat to his life.

But let’s let an intentionally old-fashioned song be just a song–not all war poetry is war poetry.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters, 68-70.

Lord Crawford on Loyalty; Wilfred Owen on the Ravages of the Needle; Rowland Feilding on Grumbling; Vera Brittain on Nursing in London, and Her Demands on the Universe

Many are the wounds suffered by warriors, and it’s important to keep the Beloved Left Behind well informed, to minimize the suffering of a worried sweetheart or wife or mother with prompt and accurate information on the status of their loved ones at the front.

Or on leave in London, on their first full day as a soldier. We will follow the story of Wilfred Owen‘s sore inoculation shoulder as it develops. Today, a post card to his mother:

Sat. Morn. [Postmark 22 October 1915][1]

In the night the arm got pretty bad. I still feel as if a horse had got my arm between its teeth. But so long as it keeps out of the other members, I don’t mind it. Those who are not right by Monday mng. will be put on Light Duty, which I believe consists of standing still and staring. The men are really ‘picked men most on ’em’, anything but boisterous.[2]

 

Private Lord Crawford–or Lance Corporal Lord Crawford, to give him his new dignity–is, once again, going on about the nurses.

Our new matron (MacCrae) doesn’t make friends. She is harsh in voice and without a gleam of humour. Moreover, she takes furtive methods of obtaining information. It is always considered unpardonable for nurses to cross-examine one man about another. This she did, asking Hyde about me. Hyde, who is a schoolmaster of good standing, works under me in No. 1 theatre. MacCrae came in the other afternoon while I was out. She knows me quite well; we have talked together a dozen times. Here is the conversation between her and Hyde. Sister Andrews present.

MacCrae: ‘Is it Corporal Crawford who works here? Hyde. ‘Yes, sister.’
MacCrae: ‘It is Lord Crawford is it not?’ Hyde:‘Yes, sister.’
MacCrae: ‘Do you like him?’ Hyde–silence–reads a book m his hand.
MacCrae: ‘What sort of man is he?’ Hyde still silent.
MacCrae: ‘It isn’t unreasonable to ask. I merely want to know something about him.’ Hyde–persistent silence–still reads though he looks up to show that he heard her remark.
MacCrae suddenly to Hyde, ‘Are you a painter?’ Hyde: ‘I will answer your question when you have answered mine. Are you a kitchen maid?’
MacCrae: ‘That is a most impertinent thing to say–most impertinent.
Hyde: ‘I have made it a rule never to be impertinent unless the person in question has been impertinent to me first.’

MacCrae left forthwith, followed by Andrews who, as Hyde said, for the first time in our acquaintance seemed quite pleased with me.[3]

So, then, some sort of obscure victory for noble, honorable men over prying, kitchen maid-ish women who are for some reason curious about the fact that a former member of the House of Lords is serving as a medical orderly…

 

An interesting little observation, today, from Rowland Feilding‘s letter to his wife:

October 22 1915 Fire-trench (Guildford Alley), Hohenzollern Redoubt

Nothing more unlike the talk of soldiers as depicted on the stage or in the classics could be imagined than the real thing as we get it here. There are no heroics. In fact, it is rather etiquette to grumble and pretend to be frightened. It is, I imagine, a sort of protective bravado.[4]

 

Finally, we need to catch up a bit with Vera Brittain, who has finally reached London and begun nursing at Camberwell General, one of the largest military hospitals in the country. The first few days saw her spirits fluctuate dramatically, as a spate of short letters to Roland makes clear:

St Gabriel’s Hostel, Champion Hill,
London, 18 October 1915

Dearest —

I have just arrived here & done my unpacking….

We have to be at the Hospital at 7.0 for breakfast & as this place is at least a mile away from there & the only means of transport is a very intermittent bus, we shall have to get up at 5.45 every morning…

I hope you are all right. Nothing else matters if you are only that…

 

1st London General Hospital, 19 October 1915

I suppose I am really what the Sister would describe as ‘getting into it quite nicely’. But of course I hate it. There is something so starved & dry about hospital nurses–as if they had had to force all the warmth out of themselves before they could be fit to be really good nurses. But personally I would rather suffer ever so  much in my work than become indifferent to pain…

There are some pretty ghastly things in my ward..  There is no provision made in these hospitals for any interests besides one’s supposed interest in one’s work.

 

20 October

To-day I have had a decidedly pleasant change into quite a different ward… The four Sisters–especially two of them–are delightful, and there is no other V.A.D. so I have heaps to do, which is the very best thing to prevent me from getting depressed. There are 60 beds in my ward, not all full yet as this part was only opened a fortnight ago. All are surgical cases–mostly very bad. Oh! I don’t want you to get wounded now. I couldn’t bear to think of you with one of these ghastly injuries such as I have to see more or less all the time.

 

21 October

The men being quite well apart from their wounds really makes it all the worse because they are so very conscious of the agony of having the wound dressed. I don’t mind the general butcher’s shop appearance, or holes in various parts of people that you could put your fist into, half so much as having to hold a head or a leg for the sister to dress it while the man moans & tries to squirm about. The orderlies won’t do one or two of the dressings I have to help with—or rather, the Sisters won’t have them, because they seem to be made sick so easily, & one of them who was holding a basin the other night fainted right on top of the patient.

 

Lastly–today, a century back–an admonition, as Roland has fallen silent. It’s a little amusing to see Vera inveighing against sinking into an obsession with one’s immediate surroundings, given the letters above, but this is an old theme with these two. And no less sad for being, now (then), rather common.

22 October

Don’t get too absorbed in your little world over there—even if it makes things easier. It is my great object not to be absorbed in mine. There is so little time to be anything else that it will probably be hard—but nevertheless possible. After all the War cannot last for ever, and when it is over we shall be glad to be what we were born again—if we can only live till then—Life—oh! life! Isn’t it strange how much we used to demand of the Universe, & now we ask only for what we took as a matter of course before—just to be allowed to live, to go on being.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Oddly, Owen must have put the wrong day of the week on this post card. The 22nd was a Friday, which makes sense given his "morning after the shot" complaint and the post mark...
  2. Collected Letters, 361.
  3. Private Lord Crawford, 72-3.
  4. War Letters to a Wife, 65.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 178-80.