Bimbo Tennant, Osbert Sitwell, and Rowland on the Life and Death of Ivo Charteris; Rowland Feilding Paints a War Picture of the Most Frightful Description; Edward Hermon on the Immortality of the Soul; Vera Brittain Prepares; Siegfried Sassoon Meets Robbie Ross

We begin today with a letter from tomorrow, a century back. Edward “Bimbo” Tennant has bad news. Since he is an ostentatiously loving and attentive son, we can chalk up the way he works around to it to sheer exhaustion:

18th October, 1915
Darling Moth’,

I am so sorry I haven’t written to you for some days, but we have been having such a restless and nerve-racking time since Thursday night…

I have not had four hours’ sleep on end since Thursday, but I manage to seize 20 minutes or sometimes 1 hour at odd times in even odder places, so I really manage very well and am as happy as can be expected seeing that dear Ivo was killed yesterday or the day before.

So this, perhaps, is how Lady Glenconner learned of the death of her nephew, Ivo Charteris, son of her sister (and fellow Sargent “Grace“) Lady Wemyss. Charteris, yet another nineteen-year-old Lieutenant, was killed today, a century back, in “a great bombing attack… by several Battalions of different Guards Brigades.”

Osbert and I are miserable about it, for no more lovable person ever stepped. I am terribly sorry for Aunt Mary and Mary, for she loved him very dearly. It is not yet officially stated that he is gone, but I fear it is too much to hope that the rumour is untrue…

How many times now have I declared Loos over “but for” some horrible little anatomic or natural metaphor? Spasms, contractions, ripples, aftershocks…

Well, it is still deadly, and the fighting around the Hohenzollern redoubt continues to be nasty. Little hills loom large, now.

It was fairly successful but we lost fairly heavily, even my battalion which sent its bombers up had over 40 casualties. Yesterday between 10 and 1 we were subjected to a terrific shell-fire, and as our artillery weren’t replying we heard only the awful sound of the approaching high explosive shells  and as they burst, belching black smoke, the earth shook and a shower of small stones and earth descended on us with an occasional piece of shell that whirs like a muffled factory engine and finishes with a thud as it strikes the top of the trench.

There’s no need, really, to connect the news of the death of his cousin to a new susceptibility to the sound of shells, to make this quick segue to his own impressions of deadly experiences a way to express inexpressible loss: Bim has been in action several weeks, now–and that’s about as long as most men can stand it unaffected…

I used to think I was fairly impervious to noise, but the crash upon crash, and their accompanying pillar of black smoke simply upset me, as they pitched repeatedly within 30 or 40 yards, and some even nearer. I don’t think I shewed I was any more frightened than any one else, perhaps I wasn’t.

What made it so racking was that there was nothing to do all the time but sit still waiting for the next, and the next. The strain was awful…

He is tired, strained–and although his close friend and first cousin is dead, life must go on, so it’s to the necessities that he goes next:

Now I must seize a little sleep. Moth’ darling. God bless you, and I trust we may be relieved to-morrow.  Could you send me a box of fairly substantial food?

Ever your devoted Son,
Bimbo[1]

I mentioned a few days ago that I had stumbled upon the letters of the chaplain John Ayscough. He had gone shopping on behalf of Lady Glenconner–for steel helmets. In a few weeks he will answer his own mother’s queries about whether this gift reached its recipient in time:

…poor young Yvo Charteris was already killed when I sent him the helmet. I fear it will make Lady Glenconner terrified for Bim. The officers of our Guards have suffered fearful losses from the very beginning of the war.[2]

Another of these officers–Osbert Sitwell again, Bim Tennant’s friend and company commander–is concerned for Lady Glenconner. Though only a few years older than Bim, he has appointed himself to be the special younger friend of the lady in question, and her son’s protector. And he too, will write of death and the sustenance of life.

My dear Lady Glenconner,

Please forgive me for not having written to thank you for the delightful food you sent me; but we have been so busy fighting. It was very kind of you. Bimbo and I are dreadfully sad over Ivo…

He was such a delightful and promising person. The only thing I can say is that I know he was quite unafraid
of death, having the real understanding of its inevitability, which seems extraordinarily uncommon.[3]

Later, looking back, Sitwell fleshes out this portrait considerably:

I can see Ivo now… Although so recently from school, he was, without any appearance of precocity, detached and ironic, nonchalant, in spite of decided opinions, and manifested in everything about him, even in the way he wore his top hat, innate style… his breeding showed in his whole appearance. He came plainly of a family long used to influence, and to the government of others… he would tell me of Stanway, the Elizabethan mansion that was his family home in Goucestershire, and which he loved so passionately… he would talk with such understanding of the countryside… But though he exhibited this deep, and rather unexpected feeling for nature, yet in all other respects a kind of eighteenth-century reasonableness, or love of reason, governed his outlook and conduct… he did not yield to impulse.[4]

Everyone is getting well practiced at writing eulogies.

 

So there is the microcosm: another bright young boy, another beloved son, another well-remembered scion of the aristocracy dead. And buried?

Probably not yet. Rowland Feilding is also on the scene of this assault, and in two days he will describe, in a letter to his wife, what is becoming one of the most thoroughly destroyed sectors of the front:

About 2 a.m. I visited Charles Noel in the Redoubt, and spent some time with him.

This shambles (you can call it nothing else) is about 200 yards in front of our old fire-trench. The part of it which we hold and the communication trench leading to it have been so shelled that, at the time we took them over, they were no longer trenches but ditches, very wide and shallow, with frequent upheavals in the floor, indicating the positions of dead men, now wholly or partly covered with earth splashed over them by the bursting shells and the passage of troops.

It would, I suppose, be an exaggeration to say that the parapets at this place are built up with dead bodies, but it is true to say that they are dovetailed with them, and everywhere arms and legs and heads protrude.

This is really an essential piece of writing. If it’s hard to capture the impact of the horrors of war in verse, it can also be very difficult to record them in prose. Almost everyone, when coming to write of their experiences, seems to permit the extension of the worst of what they saw: An hour of shelling punctuated by a few very close or very deadly bursts can read more like an hour entirely composed of closely packed explosions, an “inferno” that would really be impossible to survive; a stumbling attack into machine gun fire reads as if half the battalion was killed, but the statistics tell us that only a quarter (only!) were hit by the bullets.

This isn’t falsification so much as a misrepresentation of the quality of the lived-through past. We’re bad at that, as a species. (And, on the larger scale of months and years of war, rather than the minutes and hours of battle, one of the serious goals of this project is to attempt a reassessment of the qualities of passing historical time.) The extension of the worst, the crowding out of the less-memorable less-horrible, happens first unconsciously (i.e. the horrors loom large in their memory, while the moments of more ordinary terror evaporate) but is usually boiled down further with literary/historical intent.

History, if it does not purport (impossibly) to be chronicle–everything (but never everything) recorded in its place on the timeline–usually ends up being synecdoche: here are the few described events to stand for the period. Ir’s natural that a writer of war letters or a war memoir dwells upon the worst of war–and natural too, if rather more problematic, when historians follow suit.

Kudos to Rowland Feilding, then, for realizing (even at this early date) that he is about to record a cliché of trench horror, and–further kudos–for grasping that such clichés, coming straight from the front lines and on into the archives, not only do damage to “truth” but also tend to minimize the horrors. No trench can be built largely out of corpses,but a much-fought-over trench can be “dovetailed” with them: arms and legs, here and there, tucked in, like joined beams in a wall or roof.

Even without the staggering linguistic irony–probably not intended by Feilding–of the bird of peace alighting, through this carpentry term, upon war’s worst work yet–this is a wonderful example of fine, precise description of terrible, terrible things.

Interesting, too, is how Feilding goes now straight from horror to regimental spirit–good evidence again (quiet evidence, indirect evidence) of how much one’s pride in one’s unit can sustain the shattered spirit in conditions of fear and frightfulness.

At one place an arm and hand stuck out and dangled across the trench. On one of the fingers was a solid-looking gold ring, and in spite of the fact that, owing to the narrowness of the passage, each man that passed it had to brush the hand aside, it spoke well for the battalion, I thought, that to my knowledge the ring still remained untouched for more than twenty-four hours; and though in the end it disappeared I am convinced it was not taken by any Coldstreamer.

And then there is the soldier’s dawning realization that the constant reports of success do not match with the evidence of his eyes:

The artillery certainly did its work well here. The surface of the ground over a large area has been reduced to a shapeless jumble of earth mounds and shell-holes. The formidable wire entanglements have gone. On all sides lie the dead. It is a war picture of the most frightful description; and the fact that the dead are, practically speaking, all our dead, arouses in me a wild craving for revenge. Where are the enemy’s dead? We hear much of them, but we do not see them. During this fighting I have seen thousands almost count upon my fingers…

I am glad to have found so much excellent reportage in today’s letter. This has been an unexpected bonus, as it were, because I first went to Feilding: he, too, was part of the attack that cost Ivo Charteris his life:

At 5 a.m., while we were standing to, the Commanding Officer (Guy Baring) came hurrying along my trench. He said the plans had been changed, that we had just been detailed to take the place of the 3rd Grenadiers, and that we were to attack immediately. I asked for instructions. He replied: “There is no time for instructions. You must use your discretion.” Thus, as at the Chalk Pit, we had only a few minutes in which to organize our arrangements. Charles Noel’s bombers (No. 3 Coy.) and mine (No. 4) made the assault. I immediately reinforced Noel by sending one platoon under Jackson into the Redoubt, another to the communication trench leading to the Redoubt, and my remaining two platoons, under Daniell, to the first support trench. I myself, having seen the men into position, went into the Redoubt…

The bombers went in with dash, and to start with made good progress. They rushed the barricade separating us from the enemy, and bombed their way for a considerable distance beyond it. The trenches were, however, so flattened by shell-fire that they gave very little protection. At this spot they are, moreover, a regular tangle. There came a point where the party should have taken an insignificant-looking turning to the left, but in the darkness they bombed straight on. The trench they followed became so shallow that presently it ceased to give any cover at all. The Germans, who are always quick to spot a weakness of this kind, lost no time in making good their opportunity. They brought a machine-gun into position; and that ends the story.Our losses were not severe, but bad enough. I do not know what the casualties amounted to in the battalion.

Those in my Company, since we came up this time, are twenty-four, all told. These things begin to tell. I have lost, I suppose, ninety men, or half the Company, since we left Lumbres, and Nos. 1 and 2 Companies have lost considerably more, though the gaps have already been almost, if not entirely, filled by drafts from home.

I remained some hours in the Redoubt, which, at the time, was a very lively spot to be in. Fortunately for us, though the German shelling was very severe, it was a little wide of the ground we were fighting upon,—possibly owing to the proximity of many Germans, whose lives would have been jeopardized by closer shooting…

So the mixed attack of Grenadiers and Coldstreams has failed. Now, then, the retribution we have heard described above by Bimbo Tennant:

Our bombing attack brought on the heaviest bombardment I have yet sat under. It was at about its zenith at a
quarter to ten a.m. It lasted for over nine hours, and was intense during a great part of that time. The stream of German shells was continuous. They came in “coveys,” whistling through the air like a storm at sea. As I heard one of the men say—they came “in close column of platoons.” Often they were falling at the rate of quite a hundred a minute.

But our trenches here are like network: they are repeated—parallel after parallel; till not only by their very number are they confusing to the German gunners, but the area over which the fire is distributed is fortunately extended, and therein lies our chance of safety.

It is of course bewildering to be shelled like that. There is no denying that when such shelling happens to be concentrated on the particular bit of trench you are in, as it often is for an hour or more together, it is extremely disagreeable; but, on the whole, the damage done by these huge bombardments is out of all proportion to their cost, and they do not produce the moral effect—or rather the demoralizing effect —which is their sole object.

Once it is over you shake yourself and recover, and if you are healthily minded you soon have forgotten it, just as you forget the other disturbances of life. Yet, to tell the truth, I marvel myself sometimes how human nerves can stand the strain of our existence; day after day, night after night, hour after hour, being shelled; sometimes, for hours at a time, a heavy shell falling every few minutes within a few yards of you, shaking the ground beneath you, half stunning you with the crash of the explosion, and covering you with earth.[5]

 

We’ve had several records of the heavy bombardment today, now, and Edward Hermon, coming up to cope with the aftermath, closes this hard little chapter by turning to bigger questions. He too wrote–today–to his wife of what he had seen:

Well, I got back at 3 a.m. this morning alright after a very unpleasant night. Clearing a battlefield is not an amusement I can recommend except that it has the effect of making one perfectly callous to everything connected with life and death.

I cannot believe that this is the end of life. After what I saw last night I am convinced that the soul of man must be so to speak ‘detachable’. It is impossible that if there is a Divine will ruling all life, I cannot believe that this is the finish. The soul must leave to body to go elsewhere. I saw it last night as clearly as if it was written in capital letters. I buried 41 poor fellows…[6]

 

Lastly, two significant developments today for our writers in England. Although it has been a harrowing day, I want to include Vera Brittain‘s diary. She is starting a new chapter, now, preparing to travel to London, to embark upon a course of “real nursing” among the men shattered by Loos. There will be a few letters, but this is her last diary entry for a month.

Sunday October 17th

I mostly packed all day the things I have to take, and arranged for the disposal, since Mother & Father really are leaving Buxton, of what I did not want to take. I visited the spot where Roland & I sat and talked the first time he came here, and bade it farewell, for even if he & I remain after the War is over, it is not very likely we shall come back to Buxton again. This evening the leaves were falling fast, and the dusk enveloped all the glorious tints of autumn in a sad neutral shade.[7]

 

And, back in England, Siegfried Sassoon, still-in-reserve Lieutenant of the Royal Welch, once again attended a party at the house of Edmund Gosse. Today he met another important member of the literary establishment, Robbie Ross. Ross was famous–infamous to some–as the friend and posthumous defender of Oscar Wilde. He was obviously–if not exactly “openly”–gay, despite the dangers, but he was tolerated in official circles, working as an art critic and journalist and advising the government in several capacities. He was significantly older than Sassoon (who was himself much younger than his twenty-nine years, but the two apparently shared not only artistic interests but a sense of humor and soon became fast friends, with Ross in an avuncular and advisory role.

This will be a crucial friendship for Sassoon. The exact extent to which their shared homosexuality animated their relationship is impossible to gauge, given the need then for discretion, but Sassoon was clearly drawn to Ross’s freedom, strength of character, and loyalty. He, at the very least, showed a way forward for what had surely been troubling, suppressed feelings. And Ross will eventually become an important influence on Sassoon’s poetry–but not yet.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters, 60-3.
  2. John Ayscough's Letters to His Mother, 262.
  3. (Tennant) Letters, 63-5.
  4. Laughter in the Next Room, 106-7.
  5. War Letters to a Wife, 57-63.
  6. For Love and Courage, 117-18.
  7. Chronicle of Youth, 289.
  8. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 203-5.