Thomas Hardy Hymns in the New Year–“More Tears… More Severance, More Shock!” Kipling Ponders the Simple Soul of England; Ralph Mottram and Vera Brittain Look Back on a Bad Year

A New Year’s Eve in War Time

Thomas Hardy

            Phantasmal fears,
            And the flap of the flame,
            And the throb of the clock,
            And a loosened slate,
            And the blind night’s drone,
Which tiredly the spectral pines intone!
            And the blood in my ears
            Strumming always the same,
            And the gable-cock
            With its fitful grate,
            And myself, alone.
            The twelfth hour nears
            Hand-hid, as in shame;
            I undo the lock,
            And listen, and wait
            For the Young Unknown.
            In the dark there careers —
            As if Death astride came
            To numb all with his knock —
            A horse at mad rate
            Over rut and stone.
            No figure appears,
            No call of my name,
            No sound but ‘Tic-toc’
            Without check. Past the gate
            It clatters — is gone.
            What rider it bears
            There is none to proclaim;
            And the Old Year has struck,
            And, scarce animate,
            The New makes moan.
            Maybe that ‘More Tears! —
            More Famine and Flame —
            More Severance and Shock!’
            Is the order from Fate
            That the Rider speeds on
To pale Europe; and tiredly the pines intone.

For those familiar with Hardy’s novels but not his poetry… well, actually, this doesn’t give a very good idea of the sharpness of his bitterly ironic later verses. Other than the sharp–and sharp-edged–trimeter, it’s more like Hardy in Dynasts mode, when he could stuff a room full of enormous old-fashioned dramatic furniture and still have room for a thundering pantomime of world-historical significance.


From this gloomy and correct prognostication, we move to a very different contribution from our other representative Great Late Victorian Writer. Rudyard Kipling has had a bad year. Where Hardy grieved at length over the loss of a promising young cousin, Kipling lost his only son–after having used his influence to win the boy a commission despite his disabling myopia. Kipling has not written much since Jack’s death, but he shows much less inclination than Hardy, so far, to modify the tone or content of his war writing.

Yet a strange letter today, a century back. Some of the awkwardness is explained by the fact that we’re reading a re-translation of something Kipling wrote in French, and yet this still seems like important work done in a fairly casual vain. After all, the allies must hang together! And here we have a “heart of England” piece presented for French consumption–it will be published in February in La Revue de Paris

31 December 1915

…There are days when I look at, or rather listen to, these people and say to myself: “If you people aren’t mad, then I’ve gone crazy.” But on looking closer at what they are accomplishing I find that they are saner than I had imagined.

Yesterday, for example, I met in one of my fields, where I have just had some dead trees cut down, the wife of one of my tenants who was gathering up rather heavy bundles of firewood: I helped her load them in her cart. I knew that she had lost a son, a soldier, this summer. Her indifference about the war was monumental. It was because she loved fish. She had written to her two other sons to send her some fish: they answered that it would not be worth the cost of shipping (all this, as you will imagine, slowly developed with infinite repetitions, while she collected her dead wood).

“So, you have sons who are fishermen?” I said to her. “Yes, fisherman, all their lives.” Finally, at the end of ten minutes, I find that she has two sons who serve on minesweepers, somewhere, between Ramsgate and Torquay–she doesn’t know exactly. One of her sons was on two boats that sank: one time the boat was able to be beached; the other time–I repeat her own words–“it was stopped in its course by something that I don’t understand.” The other son, with his captain and three other members of the crew, “was called to see the king and to receive a medal for something. I don’t know what, but it is supposed to be a medal for having saved lives from a boat that hit a mine some weeks ago.” But her main worry is about the fish that she wants in order to “change her diet” and the high price of shipment. She also has two sons in the army (she had three but I have said that one was killed last summer). She does not seem to be much upset: but she wondered about her fishermen: “They have all the time they need for fishing.”

Is this a parable, or an allegory? I don’t know at all: I tell you this so that you can understand from what a strange angle we approach things.

Now Kipling turns to discuss the political question of the moment:

There are at the moment in our village about six young men who haven’t enlisted. Our village does not talk about the 150 who have gone off, and whose names have been duly posted at the churchdoor–those of the dead enclosed in a neat little black border. All the talk turns on the shame and the sin of the six black sheep and on the punishments they’ll get when their comrades come back. Our ministry is undecided and unhappy over the question of compulsory service: it is still very political. Besides, it won’t accept the principle until every Englishman has been convinced that the government has said and done everything one could ask against the principle. Meantime, volunteers continue at the rate of 30,000 a week: people fear the dishonour of compulsion. People don’t make any noise on that little matter. For my part, I think they are wrong, but that’s not at all my affair. I share actively in the disapproval that falls on the six black sheep in our village…[1]


And with that grim foretaste of the less-thrillingly war-bound levée-en-masse–the 1916 law which will shape the armies of 1917 just as Kitchener’s appeal of 1914 was felt in 1915–let’s take a double change of pace to Ralph Mottram, a man who has not yet made his mark. A middle class provincial New Army man, he gave up his job at a bank and joined up in 1914, soon taking the appropriate commission. Mottram is decades younger than Kipling (not to mention Hardy) yet he seems decades older than our jaunty young subalterns–he is, in fact, thirty-two.

His story will be a calmer one, with all the more scope for calm assessment of the way a man moves only through the unfolding present and yet may still make some sense of history. I will get to his great, dateless novel whenever I can, but today I want him to some up 1915, the year of the Rise of the New Armies:

So let us sum up my memories of 1915:

In any completely strange environment, the moderately intelligent human being seeks to examine it by his senses. Mine record this. Semi-darkness. (We could seldom raise our heads from our shelters in daylight.) Illumination by green star shells, which the enemy fired unceasingly and by the sparks struck from every hard object by the rain of bullets fired at us on set lines. Noise. Explosions of all dimension and relative nearness, hissing and whispering; the whiplash crack and shrieking ricochet, stutter of machine gun and ponderous grating of heavy objects moved with difficulty. Odour; carrion and disinfectant, sewerage and chemicals. A sudden wicked sweetness. Gas! A soothing homely whiff of upturned earth. Touch: Wet, sticky, hard, cold, the desperate grip of numbed fingers on bolts and triggers. Wet feet, aching head.

A burdened procession of figures staggering through it all. One crashes to the ground and there arises the cry “stretcher-bearer!” But a little further on, in some improbable shelter, there is singing. Some blatant music-hall tune, and a crackle of laughter. It is so real that I can hardly believe that it is over, these forty years. But it did exist, and we withstood it.[2]


And just two more type-scenes before we close the second year–which was easily the least bloody, I believe. First, Dr. Dunn of the Royal Welch:

December 31st.–At 11 p.m.–midnight in Germany–for five minutes, and again at midnight for two minutes, the German artillery fired a New Year Greeting: we had one man wounded. On our left the second shoot was preceded by a shout from a German, “Keep down, you bastards, we’re going to strafe you.” We retaliated on their front line with rifles and Lewis guns…[3]


Lastly, loss. Vera Brittain will close the terrible year writing, as best she can:

New Year’s Eve 11.55

This time last year He was seeing me off on Charing Cross Station after David Copperfield–and I had just begun to realise I loved Him. To-day He is lying in the military cemetery at Louvencourt–because a week ago He was wounded in action, and had just 24 hours of consciousness more and then went “to sleep in France”. And I, who in impatience felt a fortnight ago that I could not wait another minute to see Him, must wait till all Eternity. All has been given me, and all taken away again–in one year.

So I wonder where we shall be–what we shall all be doing–if we all still shall be–this time next year.[4]



References and Footnotes

  1. Letters, IV, 351.
  2. Mottram, The Window Seat, 230-1.
  3. Dunn, the War the Infantry Knew, 174-175.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 296-7.

C.E. Montague Larks About in a Rat’s Nest–Golumptious! T.E. Hulme Takes on German Nationalist Propaganda

C. E. Montague, sent to France despite not being completely recovered from his grenade accident, is beginning to show his age. All the route marching in France has worn him down, and he has twice spent time in hospital. Back to duty, he has now been assigned to serve as a Provost-Sergeant (i.e. part-time military policeman) at a base depot, and the threat of being classified “permanent base,” i.e. unfit for front line duty, hangs over him. But this 48-year-old non-com is still kicking, and still even has a young man’s romantic appreciation of war:

Dec. 30, 1915

We crocked sergeants had a great Christmas feast in our little mess here. As I speak bad French, and most of the British army speaks none at all, I had to do the Xmas shopping…

It is lovely to see our big guns, hidden like larks’ nests on the open face of the country, banging away at the Germans…

Montague even hymns the beauty of seeing German aircraft driven off by British AA fire, and of the lights of the line at night:

Every few minutes the whole sky glows out with a sort of outward pressure of swelling light, when a star shell bursts; and then the illumination pauses a moment, at its climax, and contracts inwards again. Golumptious. The one thing of which no description given in England has given any true measure is the universal, ubiquitous muckiness of the whole front. One could hardly have imagined anybody as muddy as everybody is. The rats are pretty well unimaginable too, and, wherever you are, if you have any grub about you that they like, they eat straight through your clothes or haversack to get at it as soon as you are asleep. I had some crumbs of army biscuit in a little calico bag in a greatcoat pocket, and when I awoke they had eaten a big hole through the coat form outside and pulled the bag half through it, as if they thought the bag would be useful to carry away the stuff in. But they don’t actually try to eat live humans…[1]

A lark’s nest and a hungry rat; no, a rat’s nest and a lark–Golumptious!

One senses that Montague is hamming it up a little, indulging his boyish nature for the benefit of the friend he writes to… so we can chalk this up to high-spirited humor rather than simple-minded excitement at the proximity of Real War. Yet an old liberal journalist in uniform might be thought to feel the tug of some sort of critical reflex…

And then there is our younger, already wounded, sort-of-radical-modernist, sort-of-conservative ex-soldier (officer) journalist, T. E. Hulme. Writing in today’s The New Age, Hulme is war-noting rather than philosophizing, but the two writerly poses, wouldn’t you know it, seem to be mutually influential. “T.E.H.” the philosopher and “North Staffs” the military commentator are working over some of the same ideas.

Most of us who read both pacifist and warlike literature experience a strange vacillation. When we read the pacifists we begin to understand the reactionaries, and when we read the reactionary exaltation of the heroic virtues, we begin to look for the first time with sympathy on the flat rationalism which takes individual comfort to be the principal aim of existence. After examining pacifist democracy at close quarters we begin to play with the notion that the anti-democratic theory of the State may be true, but further acquaintance with this again drives us back to the flattest individualism. In the end, however, the war puts an end to this vacillation. In a way, which I shall roughly describe below, war brings precision and definiteness to our political ideas, and so does us some slight service.

It will not come as a shock to those who have been reading him to learn either that Hulme has a low opinion of the human ability to draw a straight logical line from core beliefs to the actual actions we take (in this he anticipates a prominent trend in current neuro-pop-science, or, otherwise, exercises a formalized but nonetheless common and timeless good sense) or that he is willing to explain our poor transferal of abstraction into action by means of a foray into formal logic.

After the logicking has been concluded, Hulme follows up with a dense but quite interesting assault on German apologists–the sort who would argue that Germany is fighting from freedom from British commerical-imperial tyranny. Hulme sets out to show that their defense of “German ideals” (as well as their critique of British democracy, an angry elaboration of the old “nation of shopkeepers” canard) fails because it attempts to excuse–or even celebrate–militaristic aggression by cloaking it in a philosophically elevated but essentially bone-headed conception of “the state.”

One of the greatest benefits of our “commercial” spirit is that any Englishman would at once feel this conception of the State and its consequences to be rubbish. Amid many foolish recruiting appeals, I do not remember one which asked us to die “for the State.” I never met a soldier who ever thought of this war as anything but a stupidity. . . a necessary stupidity, but still a stupidity. .  .  (So much so that he is even reconciled to the necessary stupidity of generals.) And this I think is the greatest justification of our attitude that I know.

There is good argument here, although the target author, Werner Sombat, a prominent German Economist and sociologist, seems to be a fairly paperish tiger. There is some laughable stuff, here, as Hulme quotes his adversary at length.

“The commercial people cannot understand war. The most disgusting example of this is the praise given to
the Captain of the ‘Emden,’ for sportsmanlike conduct. On another occasion, some imprisoned Englishmen
offered to shake hands with our soldiers like footballers after a match, and were astonished when they got what they deserved, kicks on a certain part of the body…
“We must get rid of this poison of sport in our midst. We must cultivate only those games which prepare us for war… Away with Tennis, Football, and Krikett!
“So must we Germans (like the Greeks) go through the world to-day with proud, elevated heads, in the certain conviction that we are God’s people. As the German bird, the Eagle, soars high above all other animals, so must the German feel to all the other peoples, whom he sees at infinite depths below him.”
Then Hulme breaks in to torch the tottering paper tiger:
In this breathless silence one can almost hear the rustling of the “von” as it drops from the princely heavens on our energetic author.

So Werner Sombart looks like a fulminating German idiot, bent on suffocating all natural individualism and replacing it with a proto-Fascist assertion of individual identity with the state. Propagandistic mischief managed. But then historical irony–our knowledge of what Germany will become, after this war–drains the laughter into grim silence:

“We have no desire to accumulate possessions… We leave that to the English. But when it is necessary to extend our land possession to find room for our increasing population, we shall take what is necessary for this purpose. We shall set our Foot on places which strategically are necessary for the preservation of our untouchable strength… for Germany is the last dam against the filthy stream of commercialism.”

And, of course, there are others closer to home than the British on whom to blame the “commercial” contamination of Germany’s pure soul… and… yup, there it is. A brief skip around the internet confirms the fact that Sombart, in 1934, will link the British commercial spirit with the Jewish spirit and declare it to be the antithesis of the German ideal…

There’s a later, anti-Nazi book, apparently, but allow me to tentatively claim–having read absolutely nothing of Sombart’s work other than what has been presented by Hulme–that this is a very good example of… well, what? Why theorists shouldn’t write war books? How crusaders always turn on the Jews? Yes… but, more fundamentally, it’s a particularly egregious example of a broader pair of truths: war pollutes philosophy, and propaganda in service of national aggression will always be morally flawed.

Ah, but isn’t Hulme also a philosopher writing propaganda? Yes. But either he’s better at it, or the British motivations in this war are purer (less impure) and ethically superior to the German. Or, you know, both. Hulme is not a war-monger, as the last quotation shows. Or, at least, he is careful to temper what might appear to be war-mongering. What should have been a bluff opinion piece on how to win the war (like the previous efforts of “North Staffs”) has become an essay that only indirectly addresses why it is important to do so. It seems, in fact, more interested in teaching a lesson on the good and bad applications of pure thought to political reality.

This is good writing, but it also may represent a change in Hulme’s own beliefs. He has always been an enfant terrible, a brutally effective haranguer, and an instinctive reactionary. Now, with his first-hand experience of the war, he has come to doubt the wisdom of charging abstract-thought-first into extreme and untenable forward political positions. In another section of today’s essay, where he explains how various assumptions about the nature of the state are proving incorrect, he declares that

I believe that this war has greatly, to their own surprise, converted many men to democracy.

If one accepts–as we tend to do, these days–his insistence that pacifism and democracy need not go hand in hand (those were the days!) then it is tempting to conclude, with his biographer Robert Ferguson, that “it is his own conversion, and his own surprise, to which he is referring.”[2]

References and Footnotes

  1. C.E. Montague, 120-1.
  2. The... Life of T.E. Hulme, 240.

Alfred Hale Faces Conscription; Will Bim Tennant Help a Fellow Out?; Dorothie Feilding Has a Party; Greenmantle’s Hannay Makes Nice in Bavaria

Bim Tennant, the cheeriest cherub ever to serve as temporary Adjutant to a battalion of Foot Guards, writes breezily to his father today of mid-winter adjustments. There’s an interesting bit of business at the end, however:

29th December, 1915

Darling Daddy,

…Thank you very much for ordering the cigarettes, they will be greatly appreciated.

I am glad to hear you had good shooting with Sir Edward Grey and that David shot a woodcock. The weather here is not bad, fairly mild with no rain for two days, but I expect we shall get more soon. I spent a quiet Christmas day in the trenches…

The Adjutant went on leave last night, and so I again fill his post. Archie is on leave, and when he comes back Copper Seymour will go. I expect we shall be out of the trenches for some time now. Cavan has got the 14th Corps, and has taken the Division with him, to our joy ; and we shall go south to the 3rd Army. We shall be within week-end leave distance of Paris, which will be pleasant…

I am sitting in Battalion Headquarters writing this, the Commanding Officer is writing at the same table… Our Battalion Headquarters here is very comfortable being a red brick house hitherto (thank Heaven) untouched by shell, though it is within rifle range of the German line. It is in a slight dip, among trees.

Now I must stop. With best love to all at Glen.

Ever your loving Son,


Arthur Fawcett wrote asking me to get his brother Gerald a commission in the Army Service Corps, could you have a try?[1]

That last provides an interesting segue–the A.S.C. is, you know, honorable service. Except not really, or not in the eyes of proud or aggressive front line soldiers. It’s safer, less prestigious work. And those who seek it are often suspected of simple (or not so simple cowardice). They want to be in uniform, but they would, like, if possible, to avoid the misery and danger of the trenches…


Alfred Hale, a gentle, fastidious, musical, single, thirty-nine-year-old gentleman of means (and part-time special constable), has had only one thing on his mind at late: the possibility of conscription, much talked about since the failure at Loos. Yesterday, a century back, the British cabinet agreed that conscription would begin early in the coming year. Or, as Hale put it,

The government announced their intention of applying compulsion to all single men who had not attained the age of 41 years. I was staying at Bristol at the time with my father and mother, having spent Christmas with them, and I left for London, I rather think, the day this announcement was reported in the Press. I recollect I travelled up to Paddington with my nerves on edge at the prospect that was staring me in the face. A wounded officer and sergeant discussed the matter in the train going up. The sergeant was all for compulsion at once for everybody… The officer agreed, and said, ‘We must positively get those single men’. I felt inclined to ask what the married men had done that they should be let off, but I could not utter a word. I could only shrink into the corner of the compartment, a nervous wreck about it all…

I tossed about all that night and the next on my sleepless bed at the Arts Club. I saw in cruel waking visions the impossible camp life. There would be, I felt sure, should I not break down and die of it, my utter failure to bear the drill and to fall into the ways that are military, and it would all culminate in my being sentenced to be shot for neglect of a duty I could not possibly carry out, try as I would. This would happen when I got into the trenches. In many cases men of my temperament committed suicide rather than face the recruiting authorities…[2]

Surely some men did (And it is all too horribly true that men who broke down near the front lines were all too often executed). But they did not write memoirs–especially memoirs in which the nominative first person singular pronoun appears fourteen times in two short paragraphs…  It will be some time before we hear more regularly from Hale, but he does, as you see, lend a very different perspective to events.


Lady Feilding has been having quiet times, of late, at her ambulance post in Belgium. Today, a century back, having learned that her mother’s plan to visit her husband (Dorothie’s father) on active service in Egypt has fallen through, Lady Feilding has an invitation. And then she attends a party, of course.

At the Broquevilles’
Dec 29th
Mother deah–

I have a beautiful & lovely plot I have hatched, to make up for your not having gone to see Da. It is that you & Squeaker come & see me!! Pa Broqueville & I have arranged it all…

A decidedly un-flighty five point plan follows (it will not, alas, come to fruition).

Won’t that be nice now? So mind you do it. I should love to do you the honours of No 14 & so would Helene & I would love to give little Squeaks a little jaunt to make up for Egypt falling thro’…

Tomorrow’s letter gives us a taste of the high life–and a subsidiary royalty sighting.

dorothie and Dr. Jellet

Lady Feilding and Dr. Jellet

Had a great supper party here last night, Alexander of Teck, [Admiral] Hely d’Oissel, Halahan & Jelly [i.e. the doctor] & I & Charles [the dog].

Had a very fine supper as the Gen brought us asparagus & someone sent us foie gras for Xmas. Helena very ‘emue’ [emotional] at Teck coming & nearly chucked a fit whenever she met him, & was horrified because he insisted on doing butter & carrying out the dirty plates!

It was quite a joke & he enjoyed himself, he’s a dear old boy & not at all pompous…[3]


Meanwhile, in the fictional Bavaria of Romance, Richard Hannay has been feverish and incapacitated for four days, hiding out in a very cheery, very Grimm forest cottage with a peasant woman and her children. Story time!

…on the evening of the fifth day—it was Wednesday, the 29th of December—I was well enough to get up. When the dark had fallen and it was too late to fear a visitor, I came downstairs and, wrapped in my green cape, took a seat by the fire.

As we sat there in the firelight, with the three white-headed children staring at me with saucer eyes, and smiling when I looked their way, the woman talked. Her man had gone to the wars on the Eastern front, and the last she had heard from him he was in a Polish bog and longing for his dry native woodlands. The struggle meant little to her. It was an act of God, a thunderbolt out of the sky, which had taken a husband from her, and might soon make her a widow and her children fatherless. She knew nothing of its causes and purposes, and thought of the Russians as a gigantic nation of savages, heathens who had never been converted, and who would eat up German homes if the good Lord and the brave German soldiers did not stop them. I tried hard to find out if she had any notion of affairs in the West, but she hadn’t, beyond the fact that there was trouble with the French. I doubt if she knew of England’s share in it. She was a decent soul, with no bitterness against anybody, not even the Russians if they would spare her man.

That night I realized the crazy folly of war. When I saw the splintered shell of Ypres and heard hideous tales of German doings, I used to want to see the whole land of the Boche given up to fire and sword. I thought we could never end the war properly without giving the Huns some of their own medicine. But that woodcutter’s cottage cured me of such nightmares. I was for punishing the guilty but letting the innocent go free. It was our business to thank God and keep our hands clean from the ugly blunders to which Germany’s madness had driven her. What good would it do Christian folk to burn poor little huts like this and leave children’s bodies by the wayside? To be able to laugh and to be merciful are the only things that make man better than the beasts.

The place, as I have said, was desperately poor. The woman’s face had the skin stretched tight over the bones and that transparency which means under-feeding; I fancied she did not have the liberal allowance that soldiers’ wives get in England. The children looked better nourished, but it was by their mother’s sacrifice. I did my best to cheer them up. I told them long yarns about Africa and lions and tigers, and I got some pieces of wood and whittled them into toys. I am fairly good with a knife, and I carved very presentable likenesses of a monkey, a springbok, and a rhinoceros. The children went to bed hugging the first toys, I expect, they ever possessed.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters, 98-9.
  2. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 30-1.
  3. Lady Under Fire, 128-9.
  4. Buchan, Greenmantle, 141-2.

Wilfred Owen Gets Leave at Last; Lord Crawford on Manifold Parcels: Christmas Abundance and the Poverty of Prisoners

A quiet day today, it would seem, for most of our writers. At Romford Camp, Wilfred Owen, though still missing his Christmas gifts from mother, has arranged to come home for New Year’s. He wrote out a quick post card last night, a century back, and mailed it today:

I have just been told that I take my Leave on Wednesday next. But a man in B11 whose Leave dates from Thurs. wants to change with me. This will rather advantage than hinder my arrangements… I have still not had your Parcel. Don’t be stunned if I arrive at an unholy hour; or if I happen upon you before or after my time: and don’t make up a bed—or a feast! For we are fairly sated today!

Your W.E.O.[1]


We haven’t heard from Lord Crawford, Guardian of the Morals of No. 12 CCS, in a while, but we can check in today for some post-Christmas parceled-out ironies. The postal system, excellent though it is, has succumbed to the immensity of Christmas spirit. Yesterday, Crawford’s subject was abundance:

Monday, 27 December 1915

Tons of parcels have reached us and tons more, posted too late at home, will doubtless pour in for the next fortnight. One looks with dismay upon the broken and shapeless lumps which arrive. The SM of the post office tells me that here are now 5,000 bags of parcels lying at Folkestone awaiting transport and escort which the Admiralty cannot supply! The Post Office accommodation is limited, labour is scarce, tonnage is needed for more important goods, and generally speaking the authorities are not over anxious to encourage great generosity at home…

The amateur-technocratic[2] economist in Lindsay is offended by this wastage. Why send a plum pudding when the postage exceeds the cost of the article!

And the amount of time and energy wasted owing to defective packing and addresses! Good people at home wrap up parcels as though they needed transit to the next street…  In fact, there ought to be demonstrations (with exhibits) of how to pack parcels for the front…

But amidst all the well-meaning British wastage, there is want:

Every day at the railway station I see huge barrows loaded with parcels for French prisoners in Germany. All of them are carefully sewn up in canvas or cotton coverings, neatly packed and clearly addressed. The German regulations are very stringent on the subject and, if not followed, the consignment is pinched. A special sort of bread is baked to send to Germany, rolls which appear to pass twice through the oven, hard enough to last for a month and scarcely susceptible to damp. The prisoners soak them in coffee or soup or whatever they have to drink. Fancy having to send bread to Germany! We may be sure the Germans don’t have to send any to their compatriots locked up in Britain.

Yes, well, but Britain’s off-shore-blockade-by-assumption-of-grand-fleet-superiority is starting to have an effect while the German submarine blockade has hardly begun. In any event, Crawford leaves thoughts of Christmas behind as he contemplates the sad duties of hungry Frenchwomen sending parcels to their hungrier prisoner-relatives through the Red Cross:

Tuesday, 28 December 1915

At the station today notices are posted up recommending those who send parcels to Germany to employ wax instead of lead for the seals. The reason is not far to seek. Ten pounds is the limit of weight. The brother of the woman who now supplies me with a bath… is a prisoner in Germany; he was in the customs and was captured early in the war. She tells me that he acknowledges every parcel she has sent–but that every halfpenny she has sent by mandat postale has gone astray. Her weekly parcel consists of four pounds of bread, butter in a sealed tin, jam, preserved fruit, an article or two of clothing and a Paris d’epice…[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 371.
  2. Sure, an oxymoron, but we are talking about a Conservative former member of the House of Lords serving as an orderly, here. It's the Edwardian way...
  3. Private Lord Crawford, 100-1.

Edward Thomas on Right and Wrong and Love and Hate; Siegfried Sassoon’s “Prince of Wounds;” Christmas Comes Late to Alan Seeger and Olaf Stapledon; Raymond Asquith’s Clever Pencil Sketches Trench Theatricals

Yesterday a little restraint seemed necessary, given what Vera Brittain learned. So today we will get to a few things that were written yesterday, a century back. One is Edward Thomas‘s first explicit war poem, a “polemical reprise” of his tortured decision-making process about his own role in the war. It seems to join in medias res one of those endless arguments about the ethics of patriotism:

Thomas 12-26-15

This is no case of petty right or wrong
That politicians or philosophers
Can judge. I hate not Germans, nor grow hot
With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers.
Beside my hate for one fat patriot
My hatred of the Kaiser is love true:—
A kind of god he is, banging a gong.
But I have not to choose between the two,
Or between justice and injustice. Dinned
With war and argument I read no more
Than in the storm smoking along the wind
Athwart the wood. Two witches’ cauldrons roar.
From one the weather shall rise clear and gay;
Out of the other an England beautiful
And like her mother that died yesterday.
Little I know or care if, being dull,
I shall miss something that historians
Can rake out of the ashes when perchance
The phoenix broods serene above their ken.
But with the best and meanest Englishmen
I am one in crying, God save England, lest
We lose what never slaves and cattle blessed.
The ages made her that made us from dust:
She is all we know and live by, and we trust
She is good and must endure, loving her so:
And as we love ourselves we hate our foe.


As far as the cauldrons in line twelve I think I have him pegged. Edward Thomas, god love him, is heartbroken by idiocy. As much he loves England–its countryside, its country people–he loathes those who would proclaim the same love to justify bloodthirsty nationalism. He hates cant, and the swaggering, know-nothing patriotism of the newspapers. Well enough.

The next step, though, seems like an even more radical denial. Thomas has been pained by the extent to which intelligent Englishmen have become raving jingoists–that his father expressed approval of the prosecution of men privately expressing insufficiently anti-German opinions will cause Thomas deep shame–but until now we could read the poem simply as a defense of well-reasoned pro-Allied argument and a rejection of sloppy fury. But no–it’s all noise. His anti-argument argument deepens (and hits home, here) when he includes future historians with the politicians and philosophers who would make sense of the war for their own purposes.

Instead, Thomas aligns himself with the “best and meanest” Englishmen. (Here it is hard not to be a little cynical, and read this as “simple, unhateful rural people, and the few really sensitive intellectuals.”) He has been working around to this idea for some time, especially in the early-war prose which I have made little use of: “my country right or wrong” is a foolish, wicked statement. But working outward from some homely loyalty–the dust that made you–to a larger identification is the best that one can do, in such times. And he identifies, we should note, not with the patria–Latinate, masculine–but with Her, the motherland, whom we love and trust.

Standing alone, the poem is an argument half-made that subsides into something like aphorism or koan. But it is compressed not only in terms of its poetic content but also its personal and intertextual affiliations. We must read into it associations that are not made explicit. That the speaker loves the English landscape and countryside–which Thomas has written about at length–is clear. Less so is the fact that he loves English poetry, which Thomas has recently anthologized, putting his own anonymous efforts directly opposite Coleridge’s “Fears in Solitude,” which he echoes here. And, finally, that although the speaker rejects a noisy, uncritical, loudly-proclaimed love of country in favor of a war-ethos rooted in self-love, the poet has struggled mightily against self-loathing and depression, and barely won through.[1]

This is–uniquely, I think, among Thomas’s poetry–a grudging lyric. He does not want to write explicitly about the war because he believes that poetry can say what needs to be said without shouting it. And although he does the job–rejecting foolish and violence sentiment and declaring, in the end, his own reason for committing to the fight–he is not happy to be here, and will not give in to the temptation to make a pretty, satisfying lyric about an ugly, unhappy reality.

This is Thomas-the-Poet explaining Thomas-the-Soldier, but at the same time as he declares himself an “English Poet” it is hard (and not just because of his affinity with Wales) not to hear a heavier accent on the second trochee: he will be a poet, speaking the felt truth as simply as possible, and damn the petty cases of politicians, philosophers, and historians! And he is an English poet because he is an Englishman, and can be from and of no other place.


Siegfried Sassoon wrote some verses today, a century back, and compared to the suppressed fury and compressed sorrow of Thomas’s war poem it’s like the flourishing of a pretty silken handkerchief. Which the next breeze will whisk away. And yet it’s a break from the rural reverie of his recent diary entries, and an attempt–an immature, halfhearted attempt, to be sure–to be Serious.

In terms of prosody there is nothing new here: the languorous rhythm and dusty diction (and the tragic poetic pose) are familiar, if heightened. But Christmas is still on his mind–or, at least, Christ–and Sassoon has had the idea of producing a lyric driven by an idea–this is a poem of Doubt. Not–yet–doubt in the honor of military service, but doubt–sorry, the grave, capitalized Doubt–in the meaning of the soldier’s current predicament.

sass 12-27-15 Prince of Wounds

Cambridge University Library

The Prince of wounds is with us here;
Wearing his crown he gazes down,
Sad and forgiving and austere.
We have renounced our lovely things,
Music and colour and delight:
The spirit of Destruction sings
And tramples on the flaring night.
But Christ is here upon the cross,
Bound to a road that’s dark with blood,
Guarding immitigable loss.
Have we the strength to strive alone
Who can no longer worship Christ?
Is He a God of wood and stone,
While those who served him writhe and moan,
On warfare’s altar sacrificed?[2]

So here we have some very explicit disbelief (one of Thomas’s “philosophers,” above?) and an opportunistic (and very characteristic) poetic move. Christ is reduced to an idol, while the present flesh and blood of the suffering soldiers is offered as a substitute. This is almost an irresistible juxtaposition, especially for any nominally Christian poet who feels strongly the physical fellowship of fighting men. Others, too, will be forcing their way more furiously away from (or toward) the church, and have all the more reason to confront the doctrine of sacrificial atonement.

But Sassoon is still flailing, as a perusal of the draft and corrections (above) will show. He has been moved to write a poem, but it still seems as if he is pleased to follow the whims of an image, rather than to seize control of his work. Where Thomas’s poem shows the frustrations of a year and a half of soul-searching, arguing, and writing, Sassoon’s is “my beautiful soul + the bodies of soldiers – (religion – Christ’s symbolic wounds) = poem.”


When we last left Olaf Stapledon, he was writing an uncharacteristically cloudy letter to Agnes. Christmas morning and no letters! But yesterday (when I could not bear to break in with happy news), he had added a post-script to his Christmas letter.

Boxing Day, tea time. We all sat down to our Christmas dinner last night round a table groaning under geese, trifle, fruit, crackers, etc. etc. Suddenly in came a belated fellow with a huge mail bag from HQ. Two fellows doled out letters and parcels… I watched every letter till almost the last, and then came a big one from you. My next door neighbour said, “There! Now you’ve got one from her you can be merry.” Think of your Christmas letter coming exactly on Christmas day & at the great feast!

And I like this bit too: she sent him a small volume of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poems, which he declares

the very finest expression of a woman’s feeling that is in the language. I shall read it all now with a new understanding, because of you. You could not have sent anything that would delight me more.[3]


While we’re opening belated Christmas parcels, here’s one for Alan Seeger to rub on his belly, today, a century back:

December 27, 1915.

I received the two boxes of guava jelly in perfect condition–as if they had come from Paris instead of Cuba…

We are here in reserve in case of a German offensive during the flood season, such as they made last year, where our positions north of the river are a little precarious. We face the enemy here at the point where they are nearest Paris. You can understand my satisfaction that our division is among those assigned to the most responsible posts now. Personally I don’t think that the Germans are going to attack and I don’t expect to see action again until next spring…

Seeger has played propagandist before now, but he has also been fairly consistent in his praise for war–the glory, the manliness, the truth, etc.–over and above the specific righteousness of the Allied cause. Which is why it is fairly significant that even as he takes continued pride in being part of a valued unit, he is willing to see (if not to personally cop to) the inexorable and yet ineffectual rise of war-weariness,

the immense secret longing for peace that is the universal undercurrent in Europe now. Only all the nations have waded so deep in blood now that they think it less costly to go right over than to return where they started from, to which a premature peace would be equivalent. So it must go on till it is decided by arms. . . .[4]


Finally, in sweeping up the rest of yesterday’s neglected letters, some choice bits from Raymond Asquith‘s missive to Diana Manners. First, he strives to find the beauty in bombardment:

26 December 1915

. . . I cannot help talking a little trench shop to you now and then, just as you could not help talking hospital shop to all of us. Every now and then the purely scenic effects are so good, not really good, but operatic and sentimental, that I feel sure you would enjoy them if you were here. Shelling and countershelling–especially in the dark–quite comes up to Christmas number standards. The odd thing is that as a method of killing people, it somehow just fails to come off–aims at a million and misses a unit almost every time, but misses it, as far as one can judge, by inches only. Red and yellow flame and tall columns of dirt and smoke and sand-bags fly into the air all round you; clods of earth fall upon your neck, the nose-cap of the shell whizzes over your head with a noise of a thousand bad harmoniums played at once by a maniac, and the most respectable soldiers look too idiotically serious for words, while the most disreputable ones shout with laughter and pour out a stream of obscene jokes. You think at first that everybody in the trench must be dead except yourself and after the thing is over you find that 2 men are slightly wounded. Every now and then you pop your head above the parapet to see whether your shells are doing any damage to the Boches, and you see a line of terrific volcanoes bursting out at intervals of 5 yards all along the German line, but if you keep your head up for 1/2 a minute a 100 bullets whistle past it at once, showing that the Germans are suffering even less than you are.

Next, a mighty contribution to Paul Fussell‘s notion of the “Theater of War” in the trenches (though, I believe, not one that Fussell himself included–I’m right here, OUP, when you’re ready for an annotated update!):

Then the normal scene at night, when one patrols the trenches and there is nothing much doing, would make up amazingly well on the stage–the breastwork of sand-bags, so excellent in their drabness of colour, the rain coming down in torrents, the sentries singing, the Officer splashing round through 3 feet of water, and the men off duty plastered so thick with mud that you can hardly see their equipment, sleeping in attitudes of collapse and fatigue, which would penetrate the hardest heart, and defeat the cleverest pencil…

Never! And finally, his third and feistiest backhand to the Royal Welch and the men of Kitchener’s Army:

We had a Welsh regiment attached to us last time for instruction, tiny little tots, utterly unfit for anything more strenuous than a children’s ball. They would pull a couple of sand-bags out of the parapet and nest in the crevice like swallows under the eaves. One asked oneself if Kitchener was serious.

Forgive me Dilly, for all this rigmarole, I have still big arrears of sleep to make up, and when one is tired the easiest thing seems to be to transfer vivid images from one’s retina to the paper . . .

The things I want fly before me for ever down the paths of sleep.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. See Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 262-6.
  2. Diaries, 28.
  3. Talking Across the World, 118-9.
  4. Letters and Diary, 177-8.
  5. Life and Letters, 230-1.

Vera Brittain is Called to the Phone

Vera Brittain had been on night duty, two nights ago, a century back.

As Christmas Eve slipped into Christmas Day, I finished tying up the paper bags, and with the Sister filled the men’s stockings by the exiguous light of an electric torch. Already I could count, perhaps even on my fingers, the hours that must pass before I should see him. In spite of its tremulous eager-ness of anticipation, the night again seemed short; some of the convalescent men wanted to go to early services, and that meant beginning temperatures and pulses at 3 a.m. As I took them I listened to the rain pounding on the tin roof, and wondered whether, since his leave ran from Christmas Eve, he was already on the sea in that wild, stormy darkness. When the men awoke and reached for their stockings, my whole being glowed with exultant benevolence; I delighted in their pleasure over their childish home-made presents because my own mounting joy made me feel in harmony with all creation.

At eight o’clock, as the passages were lengthy and many of the men were lame, I went along to help them to the communion service in the chapel of the college. It was two or three years since I had been to such a service, but it seemed appropriate that I should be there, for I felt, wrought up as I was to a high pitch of nervous emotion, that I ought to thank whatever God might exist for the supreme gift of Roland and the love that had arisen so swiftly between us. The music of the organ was so sweet, the sight of the wounded men who knelt and stood with such difficulty so moving, the conflict of joy and gratitude, pity and sorrow in my mind so poignant, that tears sprang to my eyes, dimming the chapel walls and the words that encircled them: “I am the Resurrection and the Life: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.”

Directly after breakfast, sent on my way by exuberant good wishes from Betty and Marjorie and many of the others, I went down to Brighton. All day I waited there for a telephone message or a telegram, sitting drowsily in the lounge of the Grand Hotel, or walking up and down the promenade, watching the grey sea tossing rough with white surf-crested waves, and wondering still what kind of crossing he had had or was having.

When, by ten o’clock at night, no news had come, I concluded that the complications of telegraph and telephone on a combined Sunday and Christmas Day had made communication impossible. So, unable to fight sleep any longer after a night and a day of wakefulness, I went to bed a little disappointed, but still unperturbed. Roland’s family, at their Keymer cottage, kept an even longer vigil; they sat up till nearly midnight over their Christmas dinner in the hope that he would join them, and, in their dramatic, impulsive fashion, they drank a toast to the Dead.

The next morning I had just finished dressing, and was putting the final touches to the pastel-blue crêpe-de-Chine blouse, when the expected message came to say that I was wanted on the telephone. Believing that I was at last to hear the voice for which I had waited for twenty-four hours, I dashed joyously into the corridor. But the message was not from Roland but from Clare; it was not to say that he had arrived home that morning, but to tell me that he had died of wounds at a Casualty Clearing Station on December 23rd.[1]


References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 235-6.

Christmas in England with Phillip Maddison, Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen, Charles Carrington, and Vera Brittain; A Peaceful Day in France for Hector Munro, Siegfried Sassoon, John Adams, and Olaf Stapledon; Billy Congreve and Bimbo Tennant Strive to Keep the Hate Alive; George Coppard Succeeds

Christmas Day was warm and rainy in northwest Europe, a century back. But it naturally brings us a blizzard of date-able experiences. First, today, our happy huntsman Siegfried Sassoon. He is so happy, in fact, that he seems to stray from Wartime-France-as-Edwardian-Kent into Tolkien‘s future-past Shire:

This country looks very attractive in the mild rainy weather. Rode after lunch out by Warlus and back through the woods behind Mericourt. The Somme valley looked fine in the twilight; and the country westward with its wooded ridges against the yellow sunset low down under the dark clouds; the many little roads winding away over the slopes, wet roads gleaming in the last light climbing and sinking, the roads that lead to the nowhere of romance. Dear are these fields and woods, dear the solitary trees against such evening skies. I am glad to be alive this Christmas, riding home in the dusk (after a day with the hounds), the little horse stepping it out, and my heart musing in the old silly way–then only the bare brown fields and the dark woods.

And as I rode up Warlus road in the gloom I met an old man with leather leggings and a great blue cloak with a pointed hood, and he stopped to peer at me, as if he were startled at my young face and the gallant little horse, so lighthearted–a dragon-slayer, perhaps. I slew the dragon in my heart when the war began, and it was only a little wheedling thing after all. The Angel is still there, Poetry, with bright wings prepared for flights into the dawn, across the cold hills, O joy–‘wild and calm and lonely.'[1]

Christmas night was jolly, by the log fire, the village full of maudlin sergeants and paralysed privates.[2]

(Paralyzed by drink, that is. Avert the omen.) Yet surely Siegfried (his namesake, too, a dragon-slayer) should have stayed his horse and hearkened closer to the wisdom of this Picard Gandalf?


In the very same battalion as our angelic dragon-slayer is John Bernard Adams, who chose a more traditional–or at least more indoor–Christmas. Sassoon reveled in horse and countryside, while Adams took advantage of free Saturday bus rides into the nearby city of Amiens, and found his angels in the architecture, swimming in infinity:


Notre-Dame D’Amiens, 1915

Of course I went to see the Cathedral that Ruskin has claimed to be the most perfect building in the world; indeed, each Saturday found me there; for like all true beauty the edifice does not attract merely by novelty but satisfies the far truer test of familiarity… down in the mud I had forgotten, in the obsession of the present, man’s dream and aspirations for the future. Now, here again I was in touch with eternal things that wars do not affect…

I was at vespers there on Christmas afternoon, and was then impressed by the wonderful lightness of the building: so often there is a gloom in a cathedral, that gives a heavy feeling. But Amiens Cathedral is perfectly lighted… my imagination flew back to the building of the cathedral, and to the brain that conceived it, and beyond that again to the tradition that through long years moulded the conception; and beyond all to the idea, the ultimate birth of this perfect creation…[3]

He goes on at some length–but, then, it is a wonderful building.


Now to several of our soldiers still in England.

Young Charles Carrington had joined up as soon as he could–in the summer of 1914, when he was only seventeen. Therefore he had been left behind when his battalion embarked for France in the summer, to anguish miserably with an unhappy reserve unit. Until today, a century back:

On Christmas night I crossed in a troopship to Le Havre, being extremely seasick all the way.

Next will be base camp at Harfleur and practical training in the “Bull Ring.” Then the trenches, with the Royal Warwickshires. Carrington was “secretly gratified that I had reached my goal irregularly”–he was “eighteen and eight months old.”[4]


And our Artists’ Rifles are taking turns going on leave. Edward Thomas has got his, and spent several days at home, reunited with his entire family, his son Mervyn having just returned from nearly a year in America. Wilfred Owen, slated for the next leave rotation, had to spend Christmas Day in Romford. A promised Christmas parcel did not materialize, but the day was far from a washout. As he tells his mother in a note penned tomorrow, he managed two Christmas Dinners, one in his hut with his platoon mates, and the other at the Williamses, a local family whose sons he had befriended:

Your dear, lovely letter reached me this morning. It was the one thing lacking yesterday to make my Christmas the happiest possible, away from Home. I had no letter, parcel or card whatsoever yesterday; but I had my consolations. The Plenty that overpoured in our Hut of good things was noised all over the Camp. In our Hut ‘it snowed of meats and drinks…’  I had scarcely accomplished my last nut, at 3 o clock (we sat down at 1.00) when my Boy Scout came for me. And not long after I got to the house, we began my second Christmas Dinner, rarely good… Afterwards we played Charades, exactly as we played at Home…

We went to Church Parade this morning as well as yesterday. The Major read the Lessons.[5]


And back to France, where Frank Richards has settled into trench warfare better than most. The quintessential old soldier, he is now assigned to the signallers of the 2/RWF. Signallers were a sort of privileged caste–they had their own work to do (the repair of telephone and telegraph lines seems to have taken much of their time) and it was dangerous work, in well-shelled places–but they also had much more freedom of movement and were exempted from ordinary fatigues.

We had a grand Christmas dinner. We bought two chickens and pinched seven. We eighteen signallers had plenty to eat that day…[6]

Another older soldier–but young in the trade–was Hector Munro, a.k.a. Saki, the satirist. And he’s got some light verse, today, in a letter to his sister:

Am spending a quaint Christmas in a quaint town. The battalion is in the trenches.

While Shepherds watched their flocks by night
All seated on the ground
A high-explosive shell came down
And mutton rained around.[7]

Tidings of comfort and joy. Ah, but there is a war on yet.

George Coppard is stuck holding down the fort–or, rather, the machine-gun nest on a sandbag-breastwork “island” in the flooded British front line. Worse, the first hours of Christmas Day were the last hours for Mr. Clark, an unusually tall officer who had been hit by a traversing machine gun late Christmas Eve. It was impossible to evacuate him over the open, flooded ground, so he died where he was hit, and his body stayed there throughout the day.

Our thoughts turned to home and our loved ones on Christmas Day. No letters came; no parcels; nothing. The soggy rations were of the meanest kind, the only pretence at Christmas being a few raisins covered with hairs and other foreign matter from the inside of a sandbag. Stretcher-bearers came after dark for the dead young officer. They had a terrible job carrying him over the duckboards.

It so happened that Jerry was fated to pay a penalty for the officer’s death; at least that was the way we chose to look at it. Later that night we became aware of activity in front of the German positions opposite us, where the ground rose slightly. Voices came clearly across No Man’s Land, also the sound of hammering. In fact it was the most careless bit of enemy movement in our experience, causing us to wonder whether it was thought that, because it was Christmas night, we would refrain from hostile action.

Although mere enlisted men of a humble line regiment (this is sarcasm aimed at Raymond Asquith, who ordered a basically identical maneuver a few days ago), Coppard and a comrade took the initiative, moving out from their island in order to stalk the German working party. This time, at least, British technology ably abets British aggression:

Leaving the rest of the team on the island, we took the Vickers with muzzle-extension attached and a full belt of ammo. We stealthily worked out way thigh-deep in water until we came to a point fifty yards clear of the island, where we lay on a mound of wet earth…

For a few moments we listened to the noise and chatter coming across No Man’s Land, which gave us true direction. I fired a Very light into the darkness. Its brilliant white glare clearly revealed the figures of twenty or more Jerries spread out near their wire to a width of thirty yards. The majority of them wore the kaiser-like spiked helmets. Giving them no time to disperse, Snowy pressed the trigger of the Vickers, and I fired a second Very light. The flare burst, casting its glare on the tottering ghost-like figures as they fell. Swiftly, as if wielding a two-edged sword, Snowy plied the hail of bullets. Two Jerries ran into their wire and were trapped.

Coppard, as if suddenly aware of what he is describing, shifts belatedly into the passive voice.

The ground where the enemy had fallen was raked with fire, to finish off any crafty ones who might be feigning death. The second flare had just about burnt itself out when the firing stopped. The whole thing lasted no more than thirty seconds.

Coppard and “Snowy” withdraw, and later contemplated repeating the exercise. But this time, guessing that the noises were from German stretcher parties removing the wounded, “we stayed our hand.” That–then, there, for them–was the line that separated civilization from savagery. But ordinary civilized warfare did not preclude the ambush of Christmas night working parties.

The age-old sentiment of ‘goodwill to all men’ meant nothing to us then. With ten million men under arms on the Western and Eastern fronts, the expression was invalid. Jerry retaliated with whizz-bangs and landed one within five yards of our position. This was close enough in view of the scanty cover of the breastwork.[8]


Bim Tennant, too, was hoping for a little sport on Christmas:

I spent a quiet Christmas day in the trenches, killed a large ratto with a stick, and crawled out, armed with pistol and 2 bombs, to within 20 yards of the Boche trench… We met no hostile patrols, and after listening awhile we came back. Two men were with me…


Congreve Christmas

This original sketch by the popular Heath Robinson was inscribed to Billy Congreve, the artist’s Christmas gift to the staff officer

One of our other eager young officers, Billy Congreve, has been up to… well, we don’t really know, since a volume of his diary has gone missing, and the next has been sparse of late. But he has had leave, and he has been busy: two days ago his engagement to Pamela Maude was announced in The Times. He’s back at the front now, and, love affairs and calendars aside, he is in agreement with George Coppard: let the Germans have it. And Congreve, a staff officer with the 76th Brigade, has a considerable ability to affect the local course of the war. So, with the holiday looming, and the engagement announcing, he had drawn up an elaborate plan for a special “hate,” or local raid/bombardment plan, a semi-private celebration.

But above brigade is division, and yesterday, a century back, “a wire came in from the division… saying ‘No action is to be taken by us on Xmas Day which is likely to provoke retaliation on the part of the Germans.'” Congreve expostulated with his diary, “Was ever such an order given before?”

With the hate on hold, Congreve was forced to settle for decorations of holly and mistletoe, and a special parcel:

This morning when I awoke I saw hanging above me a large sack. For some time I was too sleepy to realise what it was, but eventually remembered. It was my Xmas stocking. Almost all its contents were from Pam–parcels of sweets and books, and a silver banknote holder. I had a happy time.

When the Germans opposite began singing, Congreve was forced to pass along the divisional orders to restrain a trigger-happy battalion: “I had to say that we had been ordered to be peaceful, though I think Boche hymns do almost call for artillery retaliation.”[9]


Olaf Stapledon is peacefully pining for a letter from his intended, Agnes Miller. She is a regular correspondent and the postal service is formidable–but then again she lives in Australia and he is at a Field Ambulance post in France.

Christmas Day in the Afternoon. It is a warm damp afternoon, with soft greens and greys in the sky. Everywhere there are little water-color pictures, so to speak–trees, flat fields and sky… This morning I spent chiefly in decanting petrol from drums to tins, a patient-ox-like sort of work. Now come cocoa & Xmas cakes, then talk, writing, reading, Xmas dinner and soon afterwards bed…

It’s weeks and weeks since I heard from you. There have been no mails from England for some days, but even before that it was weeks and weeks, i.e. over a fortnight. If you knew how I am longing for that letter…[10]


Last of our Christmas soldiers, then, is Phillip Maddison. Half-constrained by the biography of his creator–Henry Williamson, too, spent this portion of the war with a non-combat battalion near London–our Gumpish knockabout New Army officer will nevertheless be given cause to reflect on the difference between this Christmas and last. His cousin Willie will write him a letter about his own Christmas in France, this being Williamson’s heavy-handed way of roping in the stock historical point-of-emphasis for today, a century back–namely the non-repetition of The Christmas Truce (although we have seen, have we not, how varied were the local conditions vis-à-vis killing on Christmas.

Christmas Day this year was somewhat different from the one we shared last year, outside Ploegsteert Wood. This time an order came round that there was to be no fraternisation. To see that this was carried out the Corps commander ordered the guns, both heavies and field, to start shelling at 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve. The old Ger. sent over very little by way of retaliation. It turned out that a deserter coming into our lines some days before had spoken of their programme of festivities, and exactly at half past ten at night, or half an hour before Berlin midnight, the batteries concentrated on a particular spot where a dinner was to be held, with Christmas trees and candles, and blow it all to hell. The comment of our C.O. was that “the honours of Christmas Eve belong to the British”.[11]


And Vera Brittain, after night duty and a Christmas morning service at Camberwell Hospital, traveled to Brighton and spent a sleepy day. Knowing that news of Roland Leighton‘s safe arrival was unlikely to come until the morning, she fell asleep early, with happy anticipations for the morrow.


References and Footnotes

  1. A Gordon Bottomley quotation, wouldn't you know.
  2. Diaries, 27-8.
  3. Nothing of Importance, 79-81.
  4. A Subaltern's War, 19; Soldier From the Wars Returning, 79.
  5. Collected Letters, 370.
  6. Old Soldiers Never Die, 138.
  7. The Square Egg, 90.
  8. Coppard, With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 59-60.
  9. Armageddon Road, 178.
  10. Talking Across the World, 118.
  11. The Golden Virgin, 115.

Christmas Eve: Edward Hermon at Work, Scott Moncrieff at Mass, Phillip Maddison at the Theater, Richard Hannay in Bavaria, George Coppard on an Island, Vera Brittain Wandering Toward Victoria

It’s Christmas Eve, now, the second of the war. Many of our officers are on leave, or due to begin it. Others yet in France are taking advantage of what they expect–for reasons of wet weather rather than religious sentiment–to be a quiet day.

christmas eve hermonThis would include Edward Hermon, who wrote home today with “no news” other than his work on the construction of winter stables (see the image at right). “How I wish I was going to spend tomorrow with you & the chugs & have them running in, in the morning, with their things.

C. K. Scott Moncrieff, a combat-tested officer of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, was recovering from “trench fever” and jaundice in a hospital in the South of France. He went to Midnight Mass at the cathedral in Nice and spent several hours waiting in line for communion. It was to be his first Christmas away from home.


I’ll follow Moncrieff’s debut with a much-belated check-in on our most elaborately fictional-to-semi-fictional figure, Henry Williamson‘s fiercely self-lacerating doppelganger Phillip Maddison. When we last saw Phillip, he was playing the part of a semi-intentional cad and accidental hero at the Battle of Loos, but he has since returned to England and, fully embracing his paralyzing fear of returning to battle, wangled a transfer into a “navvies battalion,” where he will command politically-shielded laborers expected to do only home service. There has been plenty of time in this slack and socially disparate battalion for Phillip to take leave, head to London, purchase a small motor car (in addition to his obnoxious motorcycle), and make his best effort yet at obtaining an actual girlfriend. But he continues to pinball around within his own head, lurching from one poorly-controlled emotion to the next.

Phillip’s Christmas Eve began with a test to qualify him and several fellow officers for promotion. It consisted of desultory drill maneuvers and then a timed march to test physical fitness, which was immediately diverted by the cynical instructor into a pub. Thus qualified, Phillip took off for London, where he was stood up by the girl and spent the end of Christmas Eve alone in an expensive box in a theater. He finds himself, of course, longing for the comradeship of war–and forgetting that this had been intermittent at best, and usually overshadowed by loneliness, terror, ostracism for cowardice, and various other miseries:

Christmas Eve! Eleven o’clock in London, midnight in Berlin. Now the lighted fir-trees would be on the parapets, voices singing Heilege Nacht. Why was he not there, how could it be the same without him, he thought, as he stood to attention for God Save the King.

And so to Baker Street station, through the darkness without meaning, and the long walk to camp, while he lived in memory upon the frozen battlefield, where the morning star shone white and lustrous in the east.[1]


A far punchier fictional Christmas was had by Richard Hannay, the British secret agent who is traveling all across Germany in the guide of a Boer sympathizer in order to reach Constantinople and threaten the German eastern flank by raising an Islamic revolt (of course). He is now involved in “one of the craziest escapades you can well imagine.” Indeed!

Yesterday, while traveling with a minder–the brutish German agent Stumm–Hannay had met the Kaiser and had a nice chat about Africa and Imperial loyalties. Later in the afternoon Hannay was cornered by the suspicious Stumm and forced to drop his role. After a nice left jab and some rough-housing he succeeded in knocking out the ape-like German, and escaping into the snowy woods, only a few miles from the Danube.

But after a long night and day stumbling through the Bavarian hinterlands, Hannay is feverish and despairing. Until, on Christmas eve, he stumbled from the nightmare Germany of enraged sadomasochists and sad-eyed tyrants into the fairytale Germany of kindhearted cottagers.

He finds a homely light in the snowy wilderness:

The shock of warmth gave me one of those minutes of self-possession which comes sometimes in the
middle of a fever.

‘I am sick, mother, and I have walked far in the storm and lost my way. I am from Africa, where the climate is hot, and your cold brings me fever. It will pass in a day or two if you can give me a bed.’

‘You are welcome,’ she said; ‘but first I will make you coffee…’

Poverty was spelled large in everything I saw. I felt the tides of fever beginning to overflow my brain again, and I made a great attempt to set my affairs straight before I was overtaken. With difficulty I took out Stumm’s pass from my pocketbook. ‘That is my warrant,’ I said. ‘I am a member of the Imperial Secret Service and for the sake of my work I must move in the dark. If you will permit it, mother, I will sleep till I am better, but no one must know that I am here. If anyone comes, you must deny my presence.’

She looked at the big seal as if it were a talisman.

‘Yes, yes,’ she said, ‘you will have the bed in the garret and be left in peace till you are well. We have no neighbours near, and the storm will shut the roads. I will be silent, I and the little ones.’

My head was beginning to swim, but I made one more effort.

‘There is food in my rucksack – biscuits and ham and chocolate. Pray take it for your use. And here is some money to buy Christmas fare for the little ones.’ And I gave her some of the German notes.

After that my recollection becomes dim….I seem to remember that she kissed my hand, and that she was crying. ‘The good Lord has sent you,’ she said. ‘Now the little ones will have their prayers answered and the Christkind will not pass by our door.'[2]

Spies and getaways and fairytales… but this is a fantasy, literal escapism. Where Buchan’s spy darts nimbly through the woods, Henry Williamson‘s books rumble through the woods like a dogged giant, huge and ungainly, knocking the symbolic snow from every tree below. Williamson aims to represent the historical whole, and–just like innocent, foolish, passionate, striving Phillip Maddison–the war is stuck in a rut, churning against itself. It was not over by its first Christmas, nor this one, and–despite that big push due in the Spring–few believe it will be over by the next.

So there is a lull of sorts, and both Williamson and Buchan manage to play on the theme of Silent Night. Yes, well: but the trenches still need to be held, and George Coppard was holding one–or, rather, since the area around Festubert was so thoroughly flooded, he held not a trench but a sandbagged breastwork “island.” This, he will write, would be “one of the worst of my experiences,” which involved crouching “on a small strip of earth” above the water for two days, with only four feet of protective wall in front.

Bent nearly double, unable to stand, we waited as the hours dragged on, longing for darkness so that we could stretch our limbs a little. Watch was kept by periscope. Several times a sniper trimmed the top of the breastwork, making us sweat blood. The barbed wire in front was nearly submerged…

It was Christmas Eve, and just after dark a second lieutenant came to visit us. I think his name was Clark. Among other things, he came to remind us that by order of the Commander-in-Chief there was not to be any fraternising with the enemy on Christmas Day. The whole world knew that on Christmas Day, 1914, there was some fraternising at one part of the line, and even an attempt at a game of football. Troops in the front line a year later were naturally speculating on whether a repeat performance would develop and, if so, where. Speaking for my companions and myself, I can categorically state that we were in no mood for any joviality with Jerry… we hated his bloody guts. We were bent on his destruction at each and every opportunity for all the miseries and privations which were our lot…

Sad it is for me to tell that Mr. Clark was shot through the head shortly after arriving on the island.  A machine gun swept the breastwork and got him. He died on the little strip of earth in the early hours of Christmas Day.[3]


The last person I want to write about today is Vera Brittain. After yesterday there is no bittersweet pleasure in irony, and, if the conceit of the precise century’s absence and presence permits an imagined emotional connection between then and now, today it seems only cruel.

Still on night duty, Vera spent the early morning hours of Christmas Eve “filling the soldiers’ red bags, which we made, with crackers, sweets and nuts.” She felt little of the Christmas spirit, but she wrote today that

there is at least joy in my heart; I can think of nothing else but the probability of seeing him in two days’ time. For I cannot, dare not, call it certainty yet,–dare not even allow myself to feel thrilled.

No. She has one more night of duty before her own leave begins, but Roland is coming, and she hopes, perhaps, that they might… So she will prepare:

In the morning I had my hair washed at a pleasant little shop near Victoria. I found by enquiring at Victoria yesterday that the only boat-train from Folkestone arrives at 7.30 p.m. As it is sure to be late and he may not even come that way, it is of no use my waiting so late on the chance of seeing him, so apparently I shall have to give up any idea I had of seeing him to-morrow. And perhaps after all his family has first right to him.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. The Golden Virgin, 113.
  2. Buchan, Greenmantle, 120-138.
  3. Coppard, With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 59-60.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 295.

Roland Leighton Departs


Roland Leighton

Last night, a century back, Roland Leighton was shot through the stomach as he led a wiring party out toward No Man’s Land.

[H]e fell on his face, gesticulating wildly, in full view of the company. At the risk of their lives, his company commander and a sergeant rushed out and carried him back to the trench. Twenty minutes afterwards the doctor at the dressing-station put an end to his agony with a large dose of morphia, and from that moment Roland ceased–and ceased for ever–to be Roland.

Thus, writing long afterwards, does Vera Brittain begin her narrative with an excruciating distinction. When today began, a century back, Roland was already gone. But the dying took all day.

Heavily anesthetized, Roland was transferred from the aid post to the nearest Casualty Clearing Station where, early this morning, a surgeon strove to save his life.

[B]ut the wound had caused so much internal mutilation that the doctors knew he was not likely to last longer than a few hours. The machine-gun bullet had injured, amongst other things, the base of the spine, so that if by some combined miracle of surgical skill and a first-rate constitution he had been saved from death, he would have been paralysed from the waist downwards for the rest of his life. As it was, he only came round from the operation sufficiently to receive, “in a state of mazy contentment,” Extreme Unction from the Jesuit padre who, unknown to us all, had received him into the Catholic Church early that summer. ” Lying on this hillside for six days makes me very stiff,” he told the padre cheer-fully. They were his last coherent words. At eleven o’clock that night… Uppingham’s record prize-winner, whose whole nature fitted him for the spectacular drama of a great battle, died forlornly in a hospital bed…


Of her subsequent efforts to learn the details of Roland’s death–reflected above and in yesterday’s post–Vera wrote this:

That was all. There was no more to learn. Not even a military purpose seemed to have been served by his death; the one poor consolation was that his routine assumption of responsibility had saved the wiring party.[1]

Roland is dead, and Vera will now take up a new labor. Much of her writing had been driven by love, by her romantic dreams for the future. Now it will be driven by grief and, at least at first, by a mourner’s hapless sifting of the past. We flash forward a few days or weeks, as her memoir stumbles on:

Later, night after night at Camberwell, watching the clouds drift slowly across the stars, I dwelt upon these facts until it seemed as though my mind would never contain the anguish that they brought me. Had it been heroism or folly, I asked myself for the thousandth time, which had urged him forth to inspect the wire beneath so bright a moon? In those days it seemed a matter of life or death to know.

“All heroism,” I argued desperately in my diary, “is to a certain extent unnecessary from a purely utilitarian point of view…. But heroism means something infinitely greater and finer, even if less practical, than just avoiding blame, and doing one’s exact, stereotyped duty and no more.”

All the same, gazing fixedly out of the ward window at a tall church spire blackly silhouetted against banks of cloud pierced by a shaft of brilliant moonshine, I would whisper like a maniac to the sombre, indifferent night: “Oh, my love!–so proud, so confident, so contemptuous of humiliation, you who were meant to lead a forlorn hope, to fall in a great fight–just to be shot like a rat in the dark![2] Why did you go so boldly, so heedlessly, into No Man’s Land when you knew that your leave was so near? Dearest, why did you, why did you?”[3]

Her anguish will be enhanced, in the coming months, by the sense that he had been “so cruel, so baffling” to leave no message, no Last Letter. (And the discovery of the poem Hédauville will not ease her way toward a more pure grief, either.)

But there will be a very long “afterwards.” I must now entirely break that fourth-dimensional wall which I so cherish, and draw upon Vera’s after-the war. There will be the great memoir, Testament of Youth, but also poetry, including this:


Perhaps (To R.A.L.)

getimage (5)

Oxford University, First World War Poetry Digital Archive

Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of You.

Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though You have passed away.

Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although You are not there.

Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although You cannot hear.

But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of You
Was broken, long ago.


So: long ago. It’s at this point, usually, that snapping back out of the old story and breathing back into the elapsed century brings a good measure of relief. After all, while I chose to work at a century’s remove because 100 is a nice round number, it’s only a number–what matters more is that a century is… long enough. Even Harry Patch is dead and buried these six years, and with him the most immediate pain. There are, of course, still survivors of the war’s horrors–the children of heart-broken parents, themselves now old. But it has been a long time–who can mourn, really, a century later? Or perhaps mourning means many different things.

Yet for the sentimental reader there is now a cruel twist (likely anticipated): Roland’s story will go on, as his survivors cope with his death, his memory. He was a good writer, but it was Vera who brought us here, and Vera who will have to carry on. Brooke and Grenfell welcomed death, to some degree, and their legacies, at least, subsided gently into the panegyrics of friends, admirers, and mothers. Charles Sorley died silently here, out with his battalion, but he will have an unexpected legacy through his poetry, published posthumously through the efforts of his parents. But these are only echoes, here. Roland’s death will remain present in Vera’s letters and diary, which we will continue to read on a regular basis.

We’ll stay with Vera as she picks up the pieces and tries to take care of not only her own grief but also the misery of others. His parents, a little–but especially his friends.

Worst of all, today, dear reader, there is the basic rule of all these epistolary relationships, still in force. I’ve skipped ahead to Vera’s poetry and memoir because I couldn’t let Roland’s death pass in paraphrase or third-hand prose. But the old century will continue to move at its own pace. Letters take three or four days, usually, to traverse the short, interminable distance to London. Telegrams are a little quicker.

Vera is now, a century back, waiting for Roland to come home, expecting him to arrive on Christmas Day at the start of his long-promised leave.


References and Footnotes

  1. Vera's account does not shrink from apportioning blame for this unnecessary heroism. This, again is plausible: the outgoing battalion--the 4th Ox and Bucks, although she doesn't name them--had (apparently) done a lousy job maintaining the wire, and they had not carefully informed their relief of particular danger spots. If the German machine gun had indeed already showed attention to this spot, that information should have been carefully passed on to the relieving officers. Yet Vera seems to take a bitter solace from the fact that his death was not only "meaningless" but also the result of a combination of his dutiful assumption of risk and the simple carelessness of others. It was a waste.
  2. Vera Brittain makes a precise point here: a "forlorn hope"--the doomed but tactically necessary volunteer storming unit of early modern siege warfare--is the epitome of (insane courage and) "utilitarian" heroism. As she well knows, there are no more forlorn hopes, and trench warfare provides much opportunity for dangerous duty and little for useful heroism. He couldn't do well and do other than his duty: "like a rat in the dark" is the opposite of a heroic death in the breach of a fortress, and yet the breach is there--it's only a that it's an entire war of endless fortress and no final heroic storms. Many secondary accounts make Roland's killer a "sniper," probably because this seems somehow more tragic, or more cruel. This is thematically askew, since Vera's point is not that he was gunned down in a dastardly way but rather that he was reduced to scuttling about in the dark. Nor is it factually correct: Vera's own account, based on "letters from his colonel, his fellow officers, the Catholic padre who had buried him, and his servant" is quite clear that it was a burst--"volley," as she has it, is not quite right--from a machine gun, not a rifle. It's possible that this is a misunderstanding, although I'm not sure where the confusion would have arisen. We should always doubt the reports from comrades to next at kin, especially women, since they frequently obscured painful details--details of pain--or simply lied to "spare the feelings" of the weaker sex. But Vera Brittain was certainly persistent, and she may well have written insisting upon the truth and asserting her ability--as a V.A.D. nurse--to cope with it. Since she was told that he was shot in the stomach--a terribly painful wound, and far from the typical epistolary fiction that turns most deaths by bullet into instantaneous head shots--we do not have our usual reason to doubt the accounts...  Still, it is odd that a machine gun was waiting on a spot, rather than traversing (or perhaps it was traversing) and it's certainly possible that a "fixed rifle" has been set up to fire on the gap in the hedge as soon as any movement was spotted. Nor is it impossible that Roland was indeed killed by a sniper, although this would be, even with a bright moon, unlikely. But... it doesn't matter, does it? Running down the details, a century on, is only an enormously attenuated version of Vera's helpless, grieving search for grains of fact, to be snatched at as the rush of life from the broken vessel drains away.
  3. Testament of Youth, 240-3.

Roland Leighton Leads the Way Forward

Under a bright moon tonight, a century back, the 7th Worcesters took over a new position in the forward trenches near Hébuterne. The barbed wire belt in front of the trench had apparently been neglected, and Roland Leighton‘s platoon was detailed to repair it. A conscientious officer, Roland led the way, no doubt forcing from his mind the fact that his leave would begin as soon as he made it through two final days of trench duty.

The communications trench was flooded, so the way to No Man’s Land led overland, through a gap in a hedge. The gap was known to the Germans, and it was being watched by a machine gun crew.

One bullet from the first burst caught Roland in the stomach, tearing through his body. His captain and a sergeant reached him quickly, and in about twenty minutes–twenty minutes of agony–stretcher bearers brought him to the battalion’s Advanced Dressing Station, where the doctor administered morphine. During the night Roland was transported, unconscious, to the nearest Casualty Clearing Station.[1]


References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 241-2, on which more tomorrow.