Vera Brittain Despairs, and Savors Unknown Sweetness; John Bernard Adams on a Frenchman Reft from his Family, and the Straight and Narrow; Raymond Asquith Has the Intelligence to Get Himself to England

We plunge back now into Vera Brittain‘s dark nights of the harrowed soul–and of the harried nurse.

Sunday January 30th–Monday January 31st

Night-duty was particularly irksome again…

I was then informed by Miss Spurling that to-night was to be my last night of night-duty. Detestable day-duty! Night-duty is bad enough, but I loathe the thought of day, never any time to oneself, never anywhere one can go to be alone, never the right person to go out with on one’s times off!

Ack. And long days’ journeys, I suppose. Vera does not seem to have any truly close friends by her side in London, nor does she write to anyone–as far as I know–with whom she can be unguarded. It seems hardy sufficient to write to family members, Roland’s family members, and Roland’s friends.

This diary has been closer to a writer’s notebook, at many times, than a confessional, but now Vera simply needs to unburden her misery, somehow.

And somehow packing my things made me realise how utterly wretched I am–how there is no light at all, either in present or future. Last time I was on day duty was when He was still in this world. I hated it badly enough then, though nothing but His existence seemed to matter at all. But how unspeakably I shall loathe it now! And nearly two months have to pass before I am free–free to give myself for a little space to thoughts of Him–nay, to Him Himself. As I packed therefore I wept many bitter tears. I wonder if ever, ever I shall get over this feeling of blank hopelessness, of feeling it is cruel that I should have to suffer so, of wishing I had never been born at all. At present it all gets worse every day. In the utter blackness of my soul I seem to be touching the very depths of that dull lampless anguish which we call despair. And I don’t feel as if I shall ever rise out of it again. I am crushed, altogether crushed, by life–I have no power of resistance left, no courage–not even any desire for courage.

Little, sweet phrases from His letters keep coming always into my mind–& I just cry & cry.

The talk of despair is frightening, but, again, this is the diary of a young, grieving woman, a bad moment’s loneliness unloaded into ink. Hopefully, the exercise brought some relief. It would seem to, as Vera moves on to summarize her recent correspondence. Which is inadequate to her emotional needs but must help, somewhat:

I had several letters this morning. Marjorie Barber has been telling the Lorie[1] about me & says she is very grieved, & is going to write. Clare[2] says she thinks I idealise Him a little, whereas she treasures Him for His faults. So do I–but I see now how small they were in comparison with His essential greatness. Victor’s letter is another great consolation–he is wonderfully comforting. I know now why I felt as if I knew him well when I met him on New Year’s Eve, though really I had seen very little of him at all. For Roland used to talk to him about me; He called him the “Father Confessor” & seems to have felt he would understand even what I meant to Him. A great deal of the letter is about the dawn of His love for me. And though it hurts me terribly, partly because I did not know or realise it while He was alive, yet I must quote some of it here because it is all so infinitely precious and sweet.

“Do you remember the two Karg-Elert pieces that Sterndale Bennett played‘at the beginning of the service that afternoon? One of them, ‘Clair de Lune’, seemed to have moved Him deeply. He said it reminded Him of you in its coldness & the sense of aloofness from the world. He always used to say that He was not worthy of you…[3]

Sweet indeed, even (especially?) at second hand.


To France, now, where John Bernard Adams continues his diary description of the exodus of the Welsh from their Montagne fastness down toward the trenches of the plain.

31st January. This evening was full of the walking tour spirit, the spirit of good company. We were billeted at a farmhouse, and the farmer showed Captain Dixon and me all round his farm…

The walking tour spirit indeed. But that’s not what we’re here for, Johnny boy. So I’ll skip the French manger scene, and go straight to the quiet vignette of the sufferings of occupation:

At 7.0 we had our dinner in the kitchen. The farmer, his wife, and the domestique (a man-servant, whose history I will tell in a few minutes) had just finished, and were going to clear off; but we asked them to stay and let us drink their health in whiskey and soda. The farmer said this was wont to make the domestique go ‘zigzag’; for himself, he would drink, not for the inherent pleasure of the whiskey, which was a strong drink to which he was unused, he being of the land of light wines, but to give us pleasure! So the usual healths were given in Old Orkney and Perrier. Then we were told the history of the domestique, which brought one very close to the spirit in which France is fighting. He had eight children in Peronne, barely ten miles the other side of the line. Called up in September, 1914, he was in the trenches until March, 1915, when he was released on account of his eight children. But by then the living line had set between them in steel and blood, and never a word yet has he heard of his wife and eight children, the youngest of whom he left nine days old! There are times when our cause seems clouded with false motives; but there seemed no doubt on this score to-night, as we watched this man in his own land, creeping up, as it were, as near as possible to his wife and children and home, and yet barred from his own village, and without the knowledge even that his own dear ones were alive. The farmer told us he had gone half crazed. Yet he had a fine face, though furrowed with deep lines down his forehead. ‘Ten minutes in the yard with the Germans–ah! what would he do!’ And vividly he drew his hand across his throat. But the Germans would never go back: that was another of his opinions. No wonder he told us he doubted the bon Dieu: no wonder he sometimes went zigzag…

To-night we can hear the guns. There seems a considerable liveliness at several parts of the line, and strange rumors of the Germans breaking through, which I do not believe. To-morrow we shall be within the shell-zone again.[4]


And now, to his chagrin, well out of the shell-zone, is Raymond Asquith, the newest wart in Intelligence. Ah, but there are perks:

Intelligence, G.H.Q.
31 January 1916

. . . I have been so bleached and blighted by the vacuum of official routine, that I have not had the spirit to write of late. It is settled that I am to go to Folkestone on Wednesday, and the present idea is that I shall stay there till Sunday and then go to London till the 12th when I return here. They tell me that the Metropole is the best place to stay in Folkestone, so I have ordered a couple of bedrooms there and hope to find you awaiting me on Wednesday–if indeed I arrive then. The channel crossing is very chancy just now owing to mines and the boats are constantly held up.

It will be a good change for you and also for me, and may help to make both of us less mopy…[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Their tutor at Somerville College.
  2. Roland's sister.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 312-14.
  4. Nothing of Importance, 92-5/98-100.
  5. Life and Letters, 241-2.

Good-Bye to Montagne for Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and John Bernard Adams; Edward Thomas Remains Mired in Romford

January has been a peaceful interlude in the lives of our three Royal Welch subalterns currently serving with the First Battalion. Everyone  seems to have enjoyed the unspoiled Picard town of Montagne completely. Or almost completely, as Robert Graves informs us with his usual mischievousness, “[t]he Battalion’s sole complaint against Montagne was that women were not so complaisant in that part of the country as around Béthune.” Officers, of course, “had the unfair advantage of being able to borrow horses and ride into Amiens,” where there was a brothel designated for them (and another for the men).[1]

But our boys were too proper to admit such activity. Or too prudish, as yet, to countenance it (as Graves declares himself). Or gay. No, for proper young officers, Amiens was for stained-glass-gazing and Montagne was for regimental recreation and healthful outdoor enthusiasms.

Siegfried Sassoon loved Montagne the best, since it afforded time for his favorite Kentish pursuits: wandering the hillsides and indulging the lightest of poetically-doomed moods. Then he was appointed transport officer, after which he spent more time with the horses, then wandered the hillsides and indulged the lightest of poetically-doomed moods. For Graves and John Bernard Adams, however, the interlude contained its own interlude of detached duty. Adams was a student at a school for new officers, and loving it, while Graves, an officer of twenty years of age–and almost as many months in uniform–turned out to be one of the two longest-serving company officers in his brigade, and was accordingly called upon to teach.

This was in the “Bull Ring” in Harfleur, one of the main training camps for New Army battalions arriving in France. Graves, lacking any specialist training, taught the basic skills of trench routine and drill. Until, one rainy day, the commandant ordered him to lecture in the concert hall.

‘There are three thousand men there waiting for you, Graves, and you’re the only available officer with a loud enough voice to make himself heard.’ They were Canadians, so instead of giving them my usual semi-facetious lecture on ‘How to be Happy, though in the Trenches’, I paid them the compliment of telling the real story of Loos, and what a balls-up it had been, and why–more or less as I have given it here. This was the only audience I have ever held for an hour with real attention…[2]

Graves–surely as pleased to be lecturing semi-facetiously as Sassoon was to be dreaming a-horseback–will spend several weeks more at Harfleur.

Today, though, the battalion moved on. Sassoon’s diary records a melancholy departure–and little else. But then again he has been looking forward to coming melancholy as much as he had been enjoying Montagne.

January 30

The Battalion left Montagne in raw and foggy weather and marched thirteen miles by Picquigny to Vaux.

Adams does rather better in describing the day’s march–an upbeat marching piece indeed.

30 Jan., 1916. Montague–Vaux-en-Amienois. I found myself suddenly detailed as O.C. rear party, in lieu of Edwards, who has to remain in Montague and hand over to the incoming battalion. At 9.30 three A.S.C. lorries arrived, and we loaded up. I had about forty men for the job. It was good to see these boys heaving up rolls of many-coloured blankets, which filled nearly two lorries; the third was packed with a mixture of boilers, dixies, brooms, spades, lamps, etc. The leather and skin waist-coats had to be left behind for a second journey: I left the shoemaker-sergeant and four men with these to await the return of one of the lorries. As we worked a fog rolled up, which was to stay all day. Edwards meanwhile saw to it that all the odd coal and wood left at the transport was taken to our good Madame; this much annoyed the groups of women who peered like vultures from the doorways, ready to squabble over the pickings as soon as the last of us had departed.

Farewell to Montague. All the fellows were dull. Even Sawyer the smiling, who had been prominent with his cheery face in the loading-up, was silent and dull. No life. No spirit. A mournful lot, save for the plum-pudding dog that galloped ahead and on either flank, smelling and pouncing and tossing his mongrel ears in delight. He belonged to one of the men, a gift from a warm-hearted daughter of France.

A dull lot, I say. I rallied them. I persuaded. I whistled, hoping to put a tune into their dull hearts; and as we swung downhill into Riencourt they began to sing. It was but a sorry thin sort of singing though, like a winter sunshine; there was no power behind it, no joy, no spontaneity. Suddenly, however, as we came into the village, there was a company of the Warwicks falling in, and everyone sang like fury. Baker, one of the last draft, was the moving spirit. But he is young to this life, and later on, when the fog had entered their souls again, he said he could not well sing with a pack on. Yet is not that the very time to sing, is not that the very virtue of singing, the conquest of the poor old body by the indomitable spirit?

It was a fifteen-mile march. At the third halt I gave half an hour for the eating of bread and cheese… We sat on a bank along the road, but after half an hour we were all getting cold in the raw air, and I fell them in again, and we got on our way. Soon they warmed up and whistled and sang for a quarter of an hour; then silence returned, and eyes turned to the ground again. This march began to tell on the older men…

They were men, these, who had been employed on various jobs; the older and weaker men. There was no skrim-shanking, for there was no Red Cross cart behind us. But no one else fell out; the pace was steady and they were as fit as anything, these fellows. Then happened an incident. We had just turned off the main Amiens road, and come to a forked road. I halted a moment to make sure of the way by the map, and while I did so apparently some sergeant from a regiment billeted in the village there told Sergeant Hayman that the battalion had taken the left road. The way was to the right, and as I struck up a steep hill. Sergeant Hayman ran up and told me the battalion (which had started nearly two hours before us) had gone to the left. ‘I’m going to the right, sergeant,’ said I. And the sergeant returned to the rear. Up, up, up. Grind, grind, grind. I began to hear signs of doubt behind. ‘Did you hear that? Said the battalion went t’other way,’ and so on. ‘Ain’t ‘e got a map all right?’ from a believer. ‘Three kilos more,’ I said at the next stop. But some of the fellows had got it into their heads, I could see, that we were wrong. I studied the map; there was no doubt we were all right. Yet a mistake would be calamitous, as the men were very done. Ah! a kilo-stone! ‘Two kilos to——,’ a place not named on the map at all. This gave me a qualm; and behind came the usual mispronunciations of this annoying village on the stone. But lo! on the left came a turning as per map. Bound we swung, downhill, and suddenly we were in a village. Another qualm as I saw it full of Jocks. The doubters were just beginning to realize this fact, when we turned another comer, and almost fell on top of the C.O.! In five minutes we were in billets. . . .”[3]


And back in England, today, Edward Thomas was catching up on his correspondence.

Romford 30 January 1916

Hut 15

My dear Eleanor

Thank you for your letter, the typescript and the photograph of the Island at Looe. I should have written before, but I have had a wretched week because I didn’t get my stripe and the other man did. He was very nice about it and hated taking my place and assuming superiority in the hut and elsewhere. It seems my offence was taken much more seriously than I thought and intervention did no good. It has helped to make me feel dissatisfied with the work I do and more conscious of my failure to teach.

Certainly we don’t teach them as much as we should. Then came the dismal week-end in camp, with everyone away…

Thomas then discusses his (dismal) prospects of getting his verse–still being pseudonymously submitted on his behalf by Farjeon–published in any journal which he respects. Anticipations of Groucho Marx, here. Then there is this curious vignette of a fellow cadet. Motorcycles, it would seems have always been symbols of potentially anti-social behavior…

I am being interrupted now all the time chiefly by a curious degenerate creature who lives in the hut and obeys nobody, almost besotted, very filthy in his ways, and very frank, by no means a fool, and more a gentleman than anyone else, and a little fond of me—he wants to take me out beyond bounds on his motor cycle to drink.

By name Llewelyn. I’ll tell you more about him later.

We are all waiting for dinner, most of us writing letters or reading papers, one man cleaning up. Llewelyn eating an orange after having cooked a haddock at 12. I must get another walk in the afternoon.

Goodbye. Yours ever

Edward Thomas[4]

Despite Llewelyn’s attentions, Thomas also found time to write to Robert Frost today:

Sunday 30 I 16

My dear Robert,

I wish you would write. I am not greatly enjoying things just now. Baba[5] has been ill. The weather has been muggy. Also I have just been denied the promotion to corporal which I should have had, & which the man I work with has had…

Thomas’s analysis of this incident follows the form of his letter to Farjeon. But he broaches the subject rather differently. Thomas, after all, was the first to recognize the major poet in the American Eccentric, and if he takes Eleanor Farjeon for granted, it is still hardly surprising that he is tentative about hoping for Frost’s approval.

Well, I won’t go on like this, but I felt inclined to volunteer for France when 300 were asked for last week, & I still hope we may (all of us instructors) go if only for a time just to get me out of this camp to a different kind
of mind…

These are the worst days. The only real cure is to get quite alone & write. I can sometimes get the hut empty & write. Then I sometimes write in the train going home late. I must send you one or 2 recent verses. ‘Lob’ & ‘Words’ are to appear in a big hotchpotch called ‘Form’ in March. Otherwise I keep out of print.

This would be the journal he mentioned in his letter to Farjeon–she will be handling the proofs, thank you very much. And Llewelyn, man to man?

The men are still very amusing, especially the worst man in the hut, a big frank half-mad degenerate who does what he pleases. Now he is fondling me to get something out of me. I must shut up & hope to get a letter sent from Steep before long, telling me some news. Goodbye

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 180.
  2. Good-Bye to All That, 181.
  3. Nothing of Importance, 89-92/94-8.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 184-5.
  5. His younger daughter.
  6. Elected Friends, 119-20.

Return and Departure for John Bernard Adams

With January’s end will come the end of the idyll of the Welsh (1/Royal Welch Fusiliers) in the unspoiled countryside around Montagne, in Picardy. Of our three officers with the battalion, Robert Graves is currently off teaching in Harfleur, while Siegfried Sassoon has held down the fort–or, lately, the transport. John Bernard Adams, meanwhile, has returned from an inspiring winter term of school:

As soon as I got back to Montagne I heard a ”move” was in the air, and I was delighted. I was fearfully keen to get back into the firing-line again. I was full of life, and in the mood for adventure. I started a diary. Here are some extracts.

29th January, 1916. Lewis (my servant) brought in a bucket of water this morning which contained 10% of mud. As the mud dribbled on to the green canvas of my bath during the end of the pouring, he saw it for the first time. Apparently the well is running dry. . . . He managed to get some clean water at length and I had a great bath. Madame asked me as I went in to breakfast why I whistled getting up that morning. I tried to explain that I was in good spirits. It was an exhilarating morning; outside was a great cawing of rooks, and the slant sunlight lit up everything with & rich colour; the mouldy green on the twigs of the apple trees was a joy to see. Later in the day I noticed how all this delicious morning light had gone.

7 P.M. Orders have just come in for the move to-morrow. Loading party at 6 A.M. under Edwards, who is inwardly fed up but outwardly quite pleased. Valises to be ready by 6.45 A.M. Dixon grouses as usual at orders coming in late. These moves always try the tempers of all concerned. O’Brien and Edwards are now on the rustle, collecting kit. We have accumulated rather a lot of papers, books, tins of ration, tobacco, etc.

Madame was genuinely sorry to see us go. We gave her a large but beautiful ornament for her mantelpiece, suitably inscribed. The dear soul was overwhelmed, and drew cider from a cellar hitherto unknown to us, which she pressed on our servants as well as on us. We made the fellows drink it, though they were not very keen on it![1]


References and Footnotes

  1. Nothing of Importance, 88-89/93-4.

C. E. Montague Sweet-Talks a Medical Board; The Urchins of France are Mad for the Military

The oldest and the youngest warriors, today. First, Kate Luard describes the local children–not wounded, yet, but only in the grip of military enthusiasm:

Friday, January 28th. One very nice feature of being here is that one gets to know some children… There are two tiny gamins about three and four, in the slummy alley I go up and down several dozen times a day, who sight one afar off, and immediately ‘line the street,’ wherever they happen to be, stiffen themselves with their infant heels clicked together, and fling their little black hands to their little black foreheads, long before and long after one has gone by… there is a boy of about seven in a pink pinny outside my office, who goes nearly mad when any drilling is going on. He rushes into the line of men and does all the drill, echoing all the words of command with loud yells, apparently because he can’t contain himself…[1]


And C.E. Montague, too, must disport himself in review. Forty-nine years old on New Year’s Day, Montague has been wounded in a grenade accident and twice seriously ill. Today, a century back, recovered from his latest fever, he faced a medical board at the base camp at Étaples. He described the scene to his wife:

Jan. 28, 1916

I went in and found the Colonel-Surgeon, who barred me a month ago on the ground of my age, again presiding. He looked up at me genially, when I came to the table, and said, ‘So I hear you want to have another whack at the Germans’. I admitted that I did. ‘How old are you–I mean your real age? ‘Forty-nine, Sir’, said I, ‘but only just’. He laughed a little, considered for a few moments, then looked up again and said, ‘That’s a life-saving medal ribbon you wear, isn’t it–Royal Humane Society?’ I admitted this too. ‘Sure you’re fit?’ I said yes. Another doctor at the table said something about my having been there before. ‘Yes, yes’, said the Colonel, ‘I remember him perfectly. Well, Sergeant, all right’, and he marked me with a big A on the report. I grinned and saluted and made off. He called after me as I was making for the door, ‘Sergeant, I believe you’ll do better up there than some of the young uns’. I thanked him and went, joyfully…

It’s fine that I am off the shelf now and shall see my friends again before long.[2]

Conscription may be about to begin, but the will of the volunteers–as well as the pull of the esprit de corps of their New Army units–is still going strong. Montague, the man who died his hair to enlist, is surely not the typical volunteer. He’s a calm, thoughtful, middle-aged liberal journalist with a wife at home and a fifteen-year-old son… who wants very much to get a “whack” at the Germans before age or illness disqualify him. Well, he will see the trenches soon.


References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 38-9.
  2. Elton, C.E. Montague, 122-3.

Vera Brittain on Recklessness, Trust, and Heroism; Birthday Horror with the Royal Welch; Another Grenade on Kate Luard’s Watch; T.E. Hulme on Modern Man;

We rarely bother, here, with historical events on the grand political scale–what does a humble Tommy or an overburdened company officer care about such celestial epicycles? But two such things today will have direct effects on the serving troops–one relatively minor, but immediate; the other very large but slow to be realized.

Following the decision made by the war cabinet in December, the Military Service Act was passed today, a century back, by parliament. Conscription of unmarried men aged eighteen to forty will now come into effect on March 2nd. One assumes that the punning date is coincidental, but nevertheless: those who would like to imagine that they marched first had best volunteer in the coming weeks.

And as for the immediate grand political event on the calendar, well, today was the Kaiser’s birthday.

Nothing says “bizarre medieval war of personal umbrage mixed with modern mass war of attrition” quite like celebratory dynastic bombardments unconnected to any strategic intentions. Our three Royal Welch officers are all in the countryside with the First Battalion or on various courses, but Dr. Dunn reports on the carnage:

The Kaiser’s birthday… German guns are more active even than yesterday, when we had 14 casualties… The Archie [anti-aircraft] guns on both sides were blazing away at the aeroplanes, and their shell-splinters rained on us this morning. One whir-r-r ended in a thud and a cry, “oh,” from a seated man. His wrist was broken. He had barely exclaimed when half a dozen men scrimmaged for the nose-cap that hit him, and two grovelled between his feet to get it. There were those who collected nose-caps and driving-bands as connoisseurs collect. Most men in their early days were interest in souvenirs; some were easily satisfied, not a few lost their lives souvenir-hunting.

Dunn is ostensibly a chronicler, and generally a decorous one. But the placement of this anecdote–and the dour head-shaking at the antics of souvenir-hunters–becomes a short, sharp drawing-out of a historical lesson, a proposed imbuing of “chance” and horror with a particular, dire meaning: do not rejoice in the blighty wound or the near-miss, because cruel Providence may only be sighting-in her guns. Dunn’s narrative continues:

Relieved at night… This has been an uncommonly active tour, our casualties greatly exceed the weekly average. Dewhurst, returning off leave, met his company stretcher-bearers carrying down one of the dead; following them was a man with something in a sand-bag. As money, letters, and other personal possessions were taken off the dead and sent home, Dewhurst asked, “Are these his effects?”

“No, sir, it’s his pal”; for of a second victim of the same shell only parts of two limbs could be found.”[1]


Dr. Dunn’s approach bears an interesting comparison here to Sister Luard’s. If sudden death from shellfire is the typical numinous, terrifying incident of front-line service, then accidents play much the same role a few miles back. Last week, Luard reported on the aftermath of local children playing with an unexploded shell. Yesterday, it was grown men, and serious play, with hand grenades:

Wednesday, January 26th. We’ve been busy with a bombing accident to-day. A sergeant-major was killed, and two officers, and two men wounded, who have now been operated on. The baby has gone home, but the boy is still here.

Thursday, January 27th. One of the bombed men died this evening on the operating table. He was the one who threw it: it exploded in two seconds instead of five, when it had only left his hand a yard.

Luard, writing a diary rather than a chronicle, nevertheless resists the lure of interpretation. A faulty fuse–shoddy work? Lloyd George’s fault? Random chance? Cruel nemesis? The ordinary, well-spread-about cruelty of war?

Probably the last. But there is work to be done.

The poor little officer who got badly bombed went down on the train this morning dressed in bandages. He is an Australian, and knows no one in England, so I gave him G.’s address at the last minute in the Ambulance; perhaps she can get someone to hold his hand a little, when he gets to London. He clutched the envelope gratefully.[2]


T.E. Hulme is doing double duty in today’s New Age, writing both “War Notes” against the arguments of prominent pacifists and “A Notebook,” in which he continues to contextualize his two favorite modern philosophers–Moore and Husserl–in light of the historical development of philosophy’s conception of humanity’s place in the world. Hulme explains himself a bit better in this piece than in several prior ones, and the gist of his argument is that there have been three anthropological stages: first there was medieval, “religious” man; then there was the Renaissance, and “humanist” man. Now modernity is upon us, and Husserl and Moore are taking us toward a new, modern man. Toward–but not yet all the way there. So far, I think, philosophical summary may enlighten us about the life of the writing soldier… but I’ll let any enthusiasts of modern philosophy and political invective follow the link if they desire more detail, and head back down into quotidian, human-scale misery.


Vera Brittain wrote to her brother Edward, today, a century back, telling him all she has recently learned about the circumstances of Roland Leighton’s death. It’s painful reading.

three musketeers

The Three Musketeers, from left, Edward Brittain, Roland Leighton, Victor Richardson (Oxford University)

1st London General Hospital, 27 January 1916

I enclose this enlargement from the camp group. Don’t you think it is very good? I do; it gives an excellent idea of all of you. Roland looks like a desperate poet; Victor is very much Sir Galahad gazing after the Holy Grail; and you are–just you, with a very slight touch of the bedside manner. Anyhow, I am glad the only photo of the Three Musketeers is worth having. I have sent a copy to Mrs Leighton, also to Victor.

I got two letters yesterday which, except in the sentiments they expressed, were a striking illustration in contrasts. One was from Roland’s servant; the other from a Captain Adshead who was a subaltern in the same company as Roland w hen they first went to the front.They seem to have been great friends, for although as far as I remember Roland never mentioned him, yet He took him a good deal into His confidence & showed him my photograph.

Captain Adshead is engaged too, so perhaps that was the reason, & it is the reason also why he sympathises so much with me. The servant’s letter is very quaint & pathetic; I have at the moment sent it on to Mrs Leighton, but you shall see it when I get it back. He had been His servant ever since He joined the Worcesters, & had accompanied Him everywhere even to the VIIth Corps Headquarters & the Somersets. The man seems very much distressed & lost without Him. He says he loved Him dearly & that they were such good friends he feels he has lost a brother, & can’t believe He is really gone but that He must be only away on long leave. He gives all the details of His death, but I knew them mostly before & the letter is valuable to me more as a tribute to Him than as a source of fresh information. He does say, though, that in his opinion Roland ought never to have risked going out in front of the line as there was bright moonlight that night & the Germans, who were only 100 yards away, must have been able to see Him with ease. That gives one a little light. Somehow it is all too like Roland in his more rash moods. One can believe that He had been safe so long & trusted in his own luck so entirely that He was beginning to trust it a little too much. And He should have been so careful that last day of all. Yet it is so like Him to have allowed recklessness to overcome prudence just the one time it would be fatal, & to be all the readier to take the risk just when it was greatest…

This sounds right–the “trusting his luck” bit. But nothing could be more futile than an inquest of the rational, irrational, and non-rational calculations an officer under such varying pressures might make. A dead officer.

Robert Graves has a famous bit about calculating what risks to take when, but that–like this–is ex post facto streamlining of a fraught mental process, using conceptual short-cuts (the mathematics of probability; “trust” and “luck”) to parse a decision that cannot be completely penetrated by the conscious efforts of even the very same mind, later on. To say nothing of the questing intelligence of grieving survivors–these decisions, more than most, are a black box, drowned fathoms deep.

In her first reaction–in yesterday’s diary–to these letters, Vera allows herself darker speculation, for a moment:

And I ask myself in anguish of mind “Was it heroism entirely–or was it partly folly?” Certainly at points the two qualities come close. Some people, such as Father, would call all heroism folly; and, in fact, all heroism is to a certain extent unnecessary from a purely utilitarian point of view. No one would have accused Roland of shirking if he had remained in the 4th Norfolks & been now at Lowestoft instead of in a grave in France.

Well, this we have seen from the officers’ point of view, too–Raymond Asquith recently, for one. And although their families are very different and there is a significant age and class gap, Roland might have proved to be very like Asquith. Then again, Roland seemed to enjoy his brief service with the staff, while Asquith professes to disdain his…

And yes: no one would have openly accused him of shirking. But then again many young men would think less of him all the same. And that would rankle. And Vera knows him well enough:

But heroism means something infinitely greater & finer, if less practical, than just avoiding blame, & doing one’s exact stereotyped duty & no more–& “heroism in the abstract” was His ideal. But during the night–& I scarcely think in the after-time I shall quite be able to describe just what sufferings have been mine during these dreadful nights, I thought of the Heroism, whether touched with recklessness or not; that caused Him to go out in front of the line into the bright moonlight & led to the sacrifice of all that meant so much in the world, all that was so exceptional and brilliant & fine. And I looked out of the ward window to the tall church-spire & to the dark banks of clouds with rifts between them of bright moonlit sky, & cried in the bitterness of my heart “Dearest-oh Dearest! Why did you?”[3]

This terrible pain is muted in today’s letter. This is anticlimax, but perhaps some readers will find, in an echo of Vera’s process, relief in forensic detail. So I will close by excerpting a good deal of what remains.

Captain Adshead’s letter is long & perfectly charming. I will quote some of it to you. . . ‘I was returning from leave when I heard the awful news–my thoughts at once were of you and his mother . . . I wish I had been with the battalion at the time for then I might have seen every detail and perhaps been able to tell you of every little thing that happened until he died. But I have enquired of several people including our medical officer, who got him away. From each I found out that he was cheery up to the last–he was as conscious as I am now. He said he was in no pain at all–only cold–and by and by he said he felt comfortable–and the doctor tells me that he certainly did not think he was going to die. He talked to everyone around him quite in the ordinary way.

‘Then he was taken to the hospital and after several hours was operated upon & seemed to survive it well. What happened afterwards I cannot quite understand–it is a technical reason that I do not understand. As far, as I can find out, he seemed comfortable but very weak–though perfectly conscious and still under the same impression that he was not badly hurt. And then it seems he passed away quite quickly & without word or warning of any kind . . . If only I had been here I might have been able to find out something or he might have given me some message for you. But I can find none at all. I hope you will take comfort when you know that his was not a lonely death–that all the officers & men felt it so keenly. Do not feel that he was lonely–& yet he must have been, for my last wish before I die would be to have my mother and my girl with me before I went.’ . . .

I really think now we have found out pretty nearly all about His end that is to be gleaned. He obviously had not the slightest suspicion–and one can scarcely even blame the doctor for not telling Him as they appear to have been startled by what happened.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 178-9.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 38-9.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 309.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 225-7.

George Coppard on Leave; J.R.R. Tolkien Sets a Date; Siegfried Sassoon Quotes and Misquotes; Wilfred Owen in Fine Fettle

George Coppard, our young machine-gunner with the Royal West Surreys, arrived today in blighty–England–on leave. Enlisted men received leave much less often than officers, and his is not in the normal run of things but rather “compassionate leave.” This was due to the death of his step father, a sergeant in the East Surreys, in a German bombardment some two weeks before.

I arrived in England on my eighteenth birthday, 26 January 1916. It had become the fashion to welcome troops home at Victoria Station. People pressed forward from the waiting crowds and gave me packets of cigarettes and chocolate. Religious organisations provided lashings of buffet fare and hot drinks. It was just marvellous for a Tommy’s homecoming. Leave men carried their rifles, which usually indicated that they had arrived from the front. Most people knew this, and when I went into a pub at East Croydon it never cost me a penny. It was a wonderful thing to feel that people really did care about the Tommies.

In a quirky example of real life retro-prospectively imitating literature, Coppard does exactly what Phillip Maddison did when he came home from the front, namely acquiring a motorbike and zipping around in uniform, encouraging the idea that he was a dashing dispatch rider.[1]


Alas, Coppard only borrowed his motorcycle from an uncle, and did not purchase it from a consortium of officers: for if he had then I would be able to speculate that he had bought the one that John Ronald Tolkien divested himself of a share in right about now. And why is Tolkien selling his share in the motorcycle? Well, it seems, actually, to have been motivated by a general sense that his battalion was not long for England, and would be sent to France in time for the “big push.” But more than a motorcycle will be changing status.

Tolkien wrote today, a century back, to Rob Gilson, informing him that he, Tolkien, and Edith Bratt have set a date for their wedding. Tolkien is twenty-four now, and he has his degree and his commission–the long engagement can be concluded. And so it will be, on March 22nd.[2]


Siegfried Sassoon, meanwhile, is still in a blissfully quotatious poetic mood.

January 26

For I not for an hour did love
Or for a day desire.
But with my soul had from above
This endless holy fire.

Old [Henry] Vaughan the Silurist is the lad for me to-night…

And I am fortunate in having come to the blessed state of mind when earth and light are one; I suppose it is what the mystics call finding Reality. I am part of the earth which for me is soaked in the glory of sunlight and past seasons — ‘sleep, and sunshine, and the autumnal earth’ as R.B. says.[3]

Yes, this mood of mystical anticipation leads–where else?–to Rupert Brooke. Whom Sassoon slightly misquotes: the poem is ‘Safety,’ and ‘sunshine’ should be ‘freedom.’ Should be–but it’s not.


Wilfred Owen, today, has a bit of the same hyper-verbal (and sun-praising) high spirits.

[26 January 1916] Y.M.C.A. [Romford]

Dearest of Mothers,

I send a letter out of sheer lovingkindness, seeing there is no fact, complaint, desire, fear, regret or fancy to be addressed unto you, but only the fact of my sonship, and my greetings to the most gentlest of mothers…

We are now—at last—on our Musketry Course… Many are falling sick about me, by reason of January, and the dead season, but I have not so much as a cold. The hours are still early, and late. But I am never tired, and often walk to Romford in the evening.

So he would, perhaps, be passing Edward Thomas, who prefers to bend his strolls country-ward…

An occasional Ray from the outer world visits me: I may be going in for the 5th Manchester Regiment.

Did you know that no officers can be sent to the Firing Line without 5 months waiting in England?

Your lovingest of Boys


So there is time yet. But he tempts nemesis, surely, with his high good health?


References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 63-4.
  2. Chronology, 77.
  3. Diaries, 36-7.
  4. Collected Letters, 376-7.

Raymond Asquith from the Tropical Glare of Militarism to the Shadow World of Secret Service; Bimbo Tennant a Killer, or Not

Dr. Dunn today describes the exploits of two of the 2/Royal Welch’s more deadly officers. One C.R.J.R. Dolling led an impromptu raid on a German working party, supported not only by artillery and the battalion snipers but by the redoubtable W. H. Stanway. This Boer War veteran sergeant had been commissioned early in the war and was now a captain (acting major) and frighteningly competent soldier. During the raid he gave “occasional but deadly aid to the snipers.” His exploits seem best described in short, simple sentences:

Once he snapped an officer where the German parapet was low. Another day he got a pheasant for the pot. He had a disconcerting habit at one time of keeping his revolver on the table when playing cards, to shoot rats as they ran along the cornice beam of the dug-out.[1]

Well played: it would seem that Stanway has figured out how to combine an officer’s gravitas with an ex-ranker’s efficiency. And hunt each social echelon’s traditional quarry, as well.


Raymond Asquith wishes he could make his career transitions so smoothly. We track back a few days to see what he has been up to as he fights tooth and nail–or not at all, except for complaining in letters to his wife Katherine–against a proposed transfer to the headquarters staff.

3rd. Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
23 January 1916

I’ve just got your letter written in the train. I’m sorry you had that horrible dream about the last supper. I’m afraid you must have got into the habit of regarding yourself as Cinderella. This must be discontinued, as the official orders always say in the Army.

I have just got back from a visit to G.H.Q. They sent a motor for me this morning, and I had quite a pretty drive in frosty sunlight over very skiddy cobbles, and was more frightened than I have been so far in France. I lunched with the head of the intelligence department. General Charteris, who was extremely civil and friendly about the whole thing. I suggested two months as a time limit, but he said it would take me a little time to get into it and he thought 3 months the shortest period that would be useful, so I eventually signed the contract on that basis, and they will take me back here when I have served my time. He called it “Secret Service” to make it sound attractive, but the work seems to consist mainly in collecting and editing the reports of our spies in various parts of France and Belgium. The most pleasing feature of the scheme is that the Department has an office at Folkestone and I shall be sent there for 2 or 3 weeks at the beginning to see how it works on that side. I am to go over again to G.H.Q. on Tuesday and I suppose soon after that to England. I will let you know when they tell me more definitely, and you might come down and live at Folkestone for a bit…

Disloyally, and as a matter of course, Asquith saves his best lines for Diana Manners:

Today, as a matter of fact, I motored over to G.H.Q. and interviewed the head of the Intelligence Department, a very civil Brigadier, who is going to employ me in what he alluringly calls the “Secret Service”. I’m afraid it doesn’t mean a sham beard and blue goggles as I hoped at first…


And today, a century back, to Katherine Asquith once again. Note the new heading:

Intelligence, General Headquarters, B.E.F.
25 January 1916

I motored over here this morning to take up my new duties, but no one seems to be very clear what they are. I sit in a large cold room with 3 or 4 other men smoking, gossiping and occasionally reading a book about the German army, or looking at a map of the Belgian railways. At irregular intervals I go out to meals with Lord Onslow,–a pleasant friendly fellow whom I remember dimly at Oxford just before my time.

I have got quite a comfortable looking billet where Needham has laid out my things. It seems very queer to be living in this twilight world, half soldier half civilian, after the tropical glare of militarism to which I have become inured in my own regiment. At present I feel very like a new, boy at school, unfamiliar with the etiquette, unwanted by either masters or pupils, and utterly supernumerary to the whole scheme of things. However, I daresay I shall get acclimatised by degrees. I have certainly learned during the last year or so to fit into queerer crannies than this.

My prospects of going to Folkestone are, I fear, less bright than they were and if I do go, it will probably be only for a short time . . . I have a terrible sinking feeling just at present, and don’t know how I shall ever get through my 3 months of office work. But, as you know, I should be grousing wherever I was…[2]

Truer words.


Good thing, then, that we’ve got the Cheeriest Grenadier today as well. What’s up with Bim Tennant?

25th January, 1916

Darling Moth’,

I got your letter to-day and was very “sodge” that you have not got any letters from me lately. I expect some have come by now, though, as I have sent you two recently. I sent you one when I remembered your birthday; I am glad to say the pistol came to-day, and has been a constant source of joy, as I am at present stationed in a fort about two miles behind the firing line, and life is none too thrilling. I came here the day before yesterday, and leave it to-morrow; it is considered a “rest billet” but is very uncomfortable…

Next some gossip about a comrade. Then, with no more warning–and no more commentary–than a new paragraph:

I think I shot a German the other day; if I did, God rest his soul.

Perhaps that could be used in post-war primers for German students as an example of (the very simple matter of) rendering conditional clauses in English.

I expect Osbert will come back to-morrow, and I shall probably get off then, D.V…

I wish I had more news, but I have none. Wilsford must be lovely now, I hope all the old friends there are well. It has been glorious here for three days, though it becomes frosty at night. German aeroplanes come over us every day. I can distinguish the Iron Cross on the wings very easily with my glasses…

Please thank Daddy very much for the pistol, as I wrote last night saying it hadn’t come yet. I am longing to see you, darling Moth’…

Ever your devoted Son,


The things people tell their mothers… and don’t explain.


References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 178.
  2. Life and Letters, 237-9.
  3. Letters, 112-14.

David Jones in Billets; Vera Brittain in Despair; Edward Thomas Indecisive

jones 1-24-1916

A sketch by David Jones dated today, a century back, of billets in Richebourg St. Vaast, from A Fusilier at the Front

After tormenting herself by obsessing over what Roland may or may not have known and felt and thought in the hours between his fatal wound and his death, Vera Brittain once again finds herself contemplating the past, and finding there a sad certainty of the future she now inhabits.

In my mind I have lived through his death so many times that now it has really happened it seems scarcely any different from the many other occasions in which the only difference was that it was not an actual fact, in fact I don’t believe even now that I have felt such an utter desperation of renouncement as I did the first time he went to the front. I think my subconscious self must have told me then that I should not have him for long, in spite of my apparent belief, originated I suppose by my desire, that I should. Into my diary of that time, and into all my letters, there seems to have crept in spite of myself a quite unmistakable prescience of death. I was always writing to him about it, & facing it with him from all points of view. I remember writing once, before he came home on leave, “If only Fate will let me see him once again, I feel I could forgive it anything it may have in store for me.” Have I forgiven it? I wonder.

When the beauty of sunrise at the end of night-duty, or a glimpse of very pure sky behind bare tree-branches, takes me for a minute out of myself, I get sudden shocks which shake me to the very depths, of realisation that of all these things he loved so he is conscious no more…

If only the War spares us–He shall be to men as the Arthur Hallam in Tennyson’s In Memoriam.[1]

“Us,” here, means Roland’s survivors. Perhaps the friends who are now writing to her, perhaps his family (i.e. his mother). But most of all her brother Edward, to whom she wrote today. For now, though, the project of memorializing Roland takes second place to plotting out her own path.

1st London General Hospital, 24 January 1916

…Did Mother tell you that I am thinking, of giving up this place when my six months are up, & possibly not going on with nursing any more? It is not just that, much as I have always hated nursing, I now detest it so much that I can scarcely do it well at all, as that I must have a month or two’s freedom in which to think things out & reconstruct life. Life has been shattered into fragments even more than I thought–how much, I realise more & more every day. And I am beginning to realise, too, that my existence won’t be of much use either to myself or anybody else till I have had time to pick the fragments up & reshape them again.

Vera heaps scorn, now, on all of the other “girls” who have become VADs. In her low moods her (not unjustified) sense of herself as a precious intellectual elite reasserts itself. After many sentences of lament, she works around to the question she would pose to her little brother:

Practically anyone can be moulded into a nurse good enough to serve the purpose. And I am beginning to feel that I am quite thrown away on a job anybody can do, instead of finding something in which my brains & education will be of some value. If nurses were urgently required I would say nothing, but there are too many, & since no amount of good work can make you into a Sister or into anything different from what you are to start with, as time goes on there will be too many still more. And since there are other things which, in order that the Country & the War can go on, it is necessary for women to do, would I not be better in one of these? Que dit-tu? [What do you say?]

Anyhow, I propose to have my holiday–which I really feel I need,–& look round. If Father & Mother bicker much more it may be really necessary to earn one’s living, too–and as I have no longer marriage to look forward to as an ultimate fate, I am thrown on my beam ends again. A girl can do so much more from a purely practical point of view when a man shares her life & goes about with her; it is harder to do things alone. I don’t propose to go back to college while the War lasts, or do other work than war work.

But since this war seems likely to be interminable, it seems it would be better to find something to do which if it does not further, at least does not hinder, as this does, my ultimate object in life. I want to discuss it when we meet.

We have been expecting Zeppelins all night–warned they were coming, lights very low etc…

Possibly a raid that blew up the whole place, one’s self included, would be an easy answer to many problems. But I suppose it is a pity to die or want to as long as there is even one person left who desires one’s life.[2]

These last paragraphs, though raw and written in private grief and petulance, illustrate several different ways in which gender defined the war experience. Vera feels her uselessness intensely, and–this is the mood of desperation rather than a more balanced self-assessment–finds her self trapped in the middle. To care, as a nurse, feels no longer like a gesture of sacrifice, a step closer to the experiential gulf that separated all women in this war from their soldier lovers–it feels like a squandering of the intellectual identity she had pushed so hard to build. And yet she has also been denied her role as helpmeet to an exceptional soldier. There is not even the mounting pressure that men will feel now as conscription comes into play. Little will be asked of her; she can withdraw. But that too would be a failure, a surrender.

What, then, is to be done? She may change her mind about the worthiness of nursing, for one thing. But there is that last sentence, a cliffhanger in real time. Is there anyone else who cares enough?


Finally, today, Edward Thomas catches up with Eleanor Farjeon–sending her, most notably, his powerful recent verses on “Roads.”

24 1 16            Hut 15

My dear Eleanor I have let a long time go by. In the interval I have been home for 24 hours. That is all I could get, and I was really glad to get it…

On the way home I got on with some verses I began last week or at last began thinking towards, and I have now nearly finished them. I shall try to copy them for you before I shut this up tonight.

There is not much that is new except these lines about roads.

Certainly I think your dashes would clear up ‘Rain’ a little. I will put them in.

I would have written yesterday in the train but thought there might be a letter from you waiting in camp and I mustn’t write too many. I spend rather more than all my pay now. This is not a very intelligent remark. It simply means that feeling I ought to economise I hit upon the idea of two letters instead of three—And now I expect I shall have a letter as soon as I post this. I hope so.

This letter also contains his explanation of the “Helen” figure in “Roads” which I excerpted when the poem was written. And, of course, the usual semi-despondent trolling for compliments from Farjeon. Thomas does and doesn’t know how good his poetry is.

One last thing: Thomas has now been confronted with the same choice that had recently been presented to his regimental comrade and camp-mate Wilfred Owen. Will he volunteer?

They asked for 500 volunteers for a draft to France today. 2 or 3 hours to decide. They might probably not have taken me. Anyway I didn’t decide…

Goodbye. Yours ever

Edward Thomas[3]

All roads now lead to France–but that doesn’t rule hesitating at a crossroads along the way, now does it?


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 306-8.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 222-4.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 182.

Olaf Stapledon on Religion, War, and Progress; Siegfried Sassoon is Lifted Up Toward Heaven; Vera Brittain’s Shattered Dreams Lead Her toward the Stygian Spring

Olaf Stapledon continues his letter of yesterday, to Agnes his love across the seas.

We used to complain of having too little work here, but now we are always busy though there is no fighting to speak of. One begins to appreciate slack times when one realises that the winter is passing and the spring cometh wherein no man can slack–for in the spring I suppose they will fire off at one another all the shells they are busily making now, and there will be what a friend of mine vigorously described as a “bloody spring,” like last spring, or worse. Good God why should we have another bloody spring! I am sure neither of the opposing armies wants it. It is as if certain foolish persons were to drive two great herds of cattle furiously one against the other. Why not have let them peacefully graze? And yet that simile is all wrong, for the instigators were part of the herds, & the herds were willing to be roused. In fact it must be admitted even by those whose faith is in democratic control that the war is really a great primitive folk war and not a curious accident and a “put up job…”

This will become a common lament. Stapledon, pacifist and ambulance man, is out in front of the herd in realizing that this war is, given its duration and destructiveness, insufficiently furnished with hate. But only a little. By the end of this year, and all the more so in the mires of the next, many foot soldiers on both sides will be asking themselves why the war grinds on if the men who are doing–and suffering–the grinding do not wish it. Common, but not common–or vociferous enough–to overwhelm the herd instinct to bullishly pursue what it has begun. Another good point from young Olaf.

We should have outgrown folk wars, and “bloody springs.” If we were not so parochial, and did not follow only our tribal gods there would be some hope. Yes, that is surely it! England’s God and Germany’s are parish idols in so far as they differ. All hail to Bahi the Persian prophet who embraces all the Gods and finds their common quality to be the one true God of all the worlds…

Gentle irony, then. Stapledon must know his Exodus, and understand its continuing tribal hold: “My God is a man of war…” Stapledon is saddened rather than maddened, and he smiles away the terror. The trench fighter pacifists will react somewhat differently, in part because of the different things being asked of them. Stapledon has committed himself, but while his work will get more dangerous during major combat, nothing dramatically different will be asked of him than has been asked already. He doesn’t have to think of killing, or of suffering new horrors from unimagined weapons. No–this is a thought, only a thought. He has made his peace with the war, as it were. And he would rather be thinking of other things.

Bedtime. We call the nights more enjoyable than the days. It’s cosy and lazy in bed. Also at night one is not just a cog in the great war machine; one is free of the whole universe, to wander at will. At night also there is less between Agnes and her lover,



And Siegfried Sassoon–blissful outdoor Siegfried–has at last taken an indoor stroll. It’s in much the same register, however. Here he is on the most uplifting and poetical building in all of the British area of the line. (I like this description very much–for its straining poetry, odd prejudices, and mingling of rote monument-approving and genuine emotion–so I’ll let it stand alone, without commentary or interpolation from the Memoirs version. Illustrations, though!)

Last Sunday (January 23) I left here to go to Amiens on a sunny morning, which had turned dull and cheerless by 1 o’clock. The train rambles in to Amiens in one and a half hours, about eighteen miles.

The Cathedral, as one stands in the nave, gives an impression of clear whiteness; the massive columns seem slender, so vast is the place; and the windows beyond the altar are high and delicate, with a little central colour, blue, violet and amber, and the rest white, with a touch of grass-green in the sombre-glowing glass lower down.

Voutes,_nef,_rosace_ouest_et_grandes_orgues_de_la_cathédrale_Notre-Dame_d'Amiens,_France_-_20080125-02The architecture of the place, leading the eye upward, soars above the gaudy insignia of the service–shrines and candles and pictures (like the great idea of religion—outshining all formulae of office and celebration). The rose-windows are full of dusky flames; with touches of scarlet, apple-green, sapphire, violet, and orange.

The noble arches and pillars are lifted up toward heaven to break into flowers, lilies of clear light, and the gorgeous hues of richer petals and clusters. And the voices of the great organ shout and mingle their raptures high overhead, shaking the roof with glory.

Cathedrale_d'Amiens_-_Rosace_nord_depuis_le_triforiumBeyond the great wrought-iron gate, where the marvellously carven stalls are, the choir are a black bevy against the stars of the altar-lights. They fill the cathedral with their antiphons, while the French are at their meek orisons, old women and tired soldiers in blue-grey, children and white-haired men.


But the invader is here; a Japanese officer flits in with curious eves; the Army Service Corps and Red Cross men are everywhere, walking up and down with the foolish looks of sightseers who come neither to watch nor to pray.

And the Jocks, the kilted ones, their arrogance is overweening, they move with an air of conquest; have we conquered France? For the old English knights and squires and varlets must have moved up and down just as these do, elbowing the fantastic Frenchmen against the wall; their eyes had the same veiled insolence five hundred years ago, l am certain. These wear long capes or cloaks which give them a mediaeval look.[2]



Vera Brittain, meanwhile, is beginning the struggle. Yesterday–perhaps, just perhaps–she may have had an inkling of the other woman she had been up against all along, from the very beginning of her romance with Roland Leighton.

Saturday January 22nd

I had a very sweet & sympathetic letter from Mrs Leighton, who seems not quite to know what to advise me to do… But she says she is sure the light will come, if I will only wait. I bought the Sphere in which Clement Shorter had written a charming little notice of Roland in the Literary Letter part, & had printed “Violets”. The context sounds as if the poem was written to his Mother, but no one reading it could doubt in what relation he stood to the person to whom he wrote it, even though they did not know me.

And today, a century back:

Sunday January 23rd

Just a month ago to-day. And we are still looking for the shattered fragments of that world which the War Office telegram smashed for us. I started to-night to write a little story about him & me…

Two sad sentences, but a hopeful third-and-ellipsis. She is writing, and she seems to imply that she will use fiction, perhaps to enable a clearer assumption of control over the narrative. But it would be foolish to conclude that is a “good sign,” evidence of uplift. The tone of this diary entry from later in the week, describing how she observed the passing of the first month since his death, is really somewhat alarming:

On Sunday night at 11.0–the day of the month & hour of His death–I knelt before the window in my ward & prayed, not to God but to Him. For if the Dead are their own subconscious selves they can surely hear us and know that we are thinking of them even though we cannot know that they know or are thinking of us. Always at 11 p.m. on the 23rd day of the month I mean to pause in whatever I am doing & let my spirit go out to His. Always at that hour I will turn to Him, just as the Mohammedans always turn to Mecca at sunrise.[3]

It’s hard, in a snippet like this, to feel out the boundaries between grief–naturally incorporating romantic tendencies that had been there before–and a deeper crisis. For the young rationalist that she had been, this wobbling toward spiritualism seems almost like an incipient meltdown. She had been capitalizing Him for many months already when he was killed, but these mingling spirits, this almost literal idolatry, seem to go much further…

Vera, we hope, will find her way back from the blood-drenched fountainhead in the far north, around which the restless shades teem. Roland isn’t coming back for a chat…


References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 126-7.
  2. Diaries, 35-6.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 306-8.

Edward Thomas Cuts to the Quick: Now All Roads Lead to France; Olaf Stapledon on War: Futile, Imbecile, Miserable, and yet Withal Magnificent

Friends’ Ambulance Unit
22 January 1916


Somewhere in Belgium there is a wooden shed. At the moment a full moon is shining on it, low and yellow. There is a prim row of tall and graceful trees beside the shed, and an expanse of open field. Inside the building is a stove by which there sit two Englishmen. One is reading, and one is writing. The former is a humourist and a sternly conscientious liver. The latter is attired in a sheepskin coat and a pair of very leaky dirty rubber boots…

Olaf Stapledon has a way with these little sketches. He manages to make slice-of-life letters seem almost mystical. And yet he strives here to puncture some of the mystery. His comrade is reading the bible, while he–the writer in the sheepskin coat–has a novel of Meredith’s. “Neither of them are Quakers. They are the only two nonquakers present in this section. Both are strongly pacifist…”

Even in a letter meant for his fiancée, Stapledon is careful to present his pacifism as distinct from any religious affiliation. Agnes is a Quaker, and Stapledon has pledged a certain fealty to the Friends by joining their ambulance unit. He identifies himself as an agnostic, however, and his pacifism has stemmed more from left wing politics than religious conviction. Have I mentioned that he rowed with Julian Grenfell at Balliol? It seems impossible, but one presumes that they did not discuss pacifism on the Isis.

And Stapledon has seen nothing, yet, that would challenge his beliefs. The ellipsis leads into a description of a drive over terrible roads with a patient in the ambulance, feverish, wounded in the head. Not today can Olaf stay in the peaceful mood of the serious young men in their hut; nor can his imagination rise trippingly toward the stars.

Things are changing rather here. The traffic is far more. We expected to be shelled in our village the other day, but it has not come off yet, in spite of aerial observations taken by an enemy plane. War, war always, futile, imbecile, miserable, and yet withal magnificent. Will it end this year?

A year and a half in, and I still can’t feelingly paraphrase that “glory,” can’t come to grips with that “magnificent…” Stapledon will continue the letter tomorrow.[1]


A few days ago Edward Thomas was writing truly light, tentatively unfaithful verse. Today, a century back, he drafted one of the handful of poems that could stand as his diffident, resilient ars poetica–and that should be recognized as one of the essential poems of this war.

“Roads” may be easy to overlook at first sight–or at the sight of the first few stanzas, anyway. They are light, undemanding–a little march of quatrains in a herky-jerky trimeter, the short phrases flirting with the sort of mild-mannered observation that leads to Thomas, in some quarters, to being thought of as Robert Frost’s lightweight English cousin:

I love roads…


Roads go on
While we forget, and are
Forgotten like a star
That shoots and is gone.


On this earth ’tis sure
We men have not made
Anything that doth fade
So soon, so long endure

This sounds more like Tolkien‘s future than Thomas’s recent past–a Hobbit walking-song that soon begins to chafe its way toward Bunyan. (Not that Edward Thomas could not be a strange sort of Hobbit: being depressive, lean, and very well read would be unusual, but he fits the bill quite nicely in his countryside-loving, letter-writing, roaming, song-singing amicability.) Surely there is nothing particularly memorable here?

But I’ve cheated. The first stanza invokes a goddess–and, this being Thomas, no standard-issue Greco-Roman, but a British tutelary to aid one of the great British wanderers. At first, they are plural:

I love roads:
The goddesses that dwell
Far along invisible
Are my favorite gods.

So the gods are here, not merely the landscape–we’re up Pook’s Hill now. And, we soon realize, the landscape isn’t really here on its own terms (whatever they may be) but rather to provide a stomping ground for England’s feet. This is no romantic ode to nature–these are roads. Things made by men for their own use.

The hill road wet with rain
In the sun would not gleam
Like a winding stream
If we trod it not again.


They are lonely
While we sleep, lonelier
For lack of the traveller
Who is now a dream only.


From dawn’s twilight
And all the clouds like sheep
On the mountains of sleep
They wind into the night.

I’m not sure if the debatably silent falling trees in the forest were already creatures of cliche a century back, but this is the same idea. This is a road poem because it contemplates movement. It’s not a picture of nature, not a meditation on time and place (like Hardy‘s Roman Road, for instance), but a preparation for traveling. No–that’s the wrong word. Roaming, wandering, journeying. This is a great theme of Thomas’s, and he has turned to face it square at last.

At about the same moment, it should be clear that the lilting rhythm is not hackery at all, but tuneful skill–this is not a poem for a languorous stroll or a military march, it’s a poem for walking a winding road with. (Of course!) It’s quick and easy, yet never too certain. We twist and turn and hesitate a bit as stanza gives way to stanza because we are following a road where it leads. A hill road, a British road, not some arrow-straight Roman causeway built by soldiers, and for war.

The poem continues, it seems to me now, very beautifully. And we meet our goddess at last:

The next turn may reveal
Heaven: upon the crest
The close pine clump, at rest
And black, may Hell conceal.


Often footsore, never
Yet of the road I weary,
Though long and steep and dreary,
As it winds on for ever.


Helen of the roads,
The mountain ways of Wales
And the Mabinogion tales,
Is one of the true gods,


Abiding in the trees,
The threes and fours so wise,
The larger companies,
That by the roadside be,


And beneath the rafter
Else uninhabited
Excepting by the dead;
And it is her laughter


At morn and night I hear
When the thrush cock sings
Bright irrelevant things,
And when the chanticleer


Calls back to their own night
Troops that make loneliness
With their light footsteps’ press,
As Helen’s own are light.

So we have the birds now, of course, and soldiers–but this can no longer be mistaken for an open-ended traveling song. Even if we are not jolted into realizing the import of the verse through the pleasant irregularity of its music, we must recognize the completeness of the catalog. This isn’t simply a traipse down a scenic route: “the road” has been linked to “earth-history, to the road-network, to his criss-crossings of England and Wales.”[2] This road goes on–but not ever on. It’s going somewhere, and… well, we know, now, where it’s going. This isn’t fantasy, this isn’t a Road Ouroboros, this is a human voyage. A one-way trip.

But what about this Helen? Thomas will soon explain himself, to Eleanor Farjeon:

Helen is the lady in the Mabinogion, the Welsh lady who married Maxen the Emperor and gave her name to the great old mountain roads—Sarn Helen they are all marked on the maps. Do you remember the ‘Dream of Maxen’? She is known to mythologists, as one of the travelling goddesses of the dusk.[3]

But perhaps I don’t convey much in my 16 verses.[4]

As always, the poet protests. The last three stanzas cut to the core:


Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance:


Whatever the road bring
To me or take from me,
They keep me company
With their pattering,


Crowding the solitude
Of the loops over the downs,
Hushing the roar of towns
and their brief multitude.


I hate coming in after such a chilling poetic effect to busily sweep up whatever crumbs of meaning may have been dropped, thus souring the sweeter morsels we are still savoring. But a critic leaning, winded, on his birch broom is a sad sight too.

So: what strikes me as most wonderful about how this light, lovely poem of wandering modulates gradually into a terribly powerful war poem is the way in which it doesn’t even require a second reading to figure it out. Thomas is so assured here that we realize in the last stanzas that the sudden mention of France–and the imposition of ghosts–is not sudden at all, nor an imposition. They have been there all along. The war is here, always here, and everywhere.

The quiet music, the terrible agonies neither trumpeted nor dodged, is quintessentially Thomas–but these last three verses speak for everyone. Even the happy-hearted killers and the jaded, honor-driven aristocrats, but especially the brief multitude of poets.

Young Charles Sorley was closest, perhaps, to being a kindred spirit to Thomas–they both loved walking long loops over the downs, and they both loved good English earth, and Richard Jeffries, and wisdom, and peace. But neither had read the other, and the echo here of Sorley’s mouthless dead is coincidence. That one, too, is a younger man’s poem, too–the work of an angrier man, who had suffered less in his life before the war, and then began to suffer indeed in France.

Thomas has known despair, and walked many roads, at times with a heavy tread, with terrible anxiety at partings of the ways. But this poem takes the long view, and whatever choices we may seem to have as the roads begin to branch, we can see now that they are all going the same way. Now the ghosts mass. Now all roads lead to France.


References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 125-6.
  2. I am indebted here, as so often, to Edna Longley, Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, 269-72. The brief quote--she continues with "sinuous syntax"--seems to show Thomas's inescapable generosity, provoking poetry even in disciplined critics. Those hyphens! That rhythm!
  3. If there had not already been enough Tolkien references, yes, enthusiasts, it's true: Tolkien loved Welsh, and borrowed its phonology for his Sindarin language--Sarn will mean "stone," rather than road, but it still rings a bell. As does the "Red Book" in which the old Welsh myths and tales were recorded and left almost unread for centuries, until translated and published by Lady Charlotte Guest. And one more irony, of which Thomas may be aware: those ancient roads between Welsh fortresses? Built by the Romans, for very practical purposes.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 182.