Jeux d’Esprit from Olaf Stapledon; Kate Luard: From Heroes to Babies, Generals to Holy Women

Olaf Stapledon wrote to Agnes, his Australian intended, today, a century back.

Friends’ Ambulance Unit
29 February 1916

…Since I wrote last we have shifted. I am now cosily settled in my car for the night. We have all moved down into repos [i.e. rest] with our Division to a place [Rexpoede] some 15 kilos from the former spot, far from war. The guns can hardly be heard…

It’s just a glorious country holiday with just a little work now and then, & much repair work to cars…

Just now I am attired in pyjamas with my sheepskin coat over them & I am sittin’ opposite my stretcher-bunk, reeking of eau de cologne, & writing to you by candle light. The rain patters on my roof, but it is double canvas with an air space between. I would sooner sleep in my car (in any weather) than in most rooms…

There’s our boy-pacifist, back in preternaturally high spirits. He would like to entertain:

Imagine me, with three first aid haversacks over my shoulder and three rugs that kept tripping me up, & in my “strong right hand” a huge long bright curved old French cavalry sabre, chasing my friends among the apple trees because they laughed at my appearance thus accoutred. It was a fearful snicker snee too, four feet long, & sharp as a carving knife. I had the whole convoy & half the French army on the run before me. Glorious moment! Darling, I play the fool & behave like a schoolboy because I love you so & know you love me. The Frenchmen, our Frenchmen, called me “le Benjamin de la convoie” until they found out my age, which was a pretty bad shock to them. My reputation here depicts me as infantile, yet (strangely enough) prodigiously learned.[1]


Will high spirits, good weather, and good fortune prevail up and down the line (or at least the rear areas) today?

Tuesday, February 29th. A nice spring morning to-day at last; it must cheer the people up a bit after the horrors of weather the last ten days…

Sir Anthony Bowlby came to see the Flying boy’s leg again to-day, and was so pleased with it as it is doing that he said, ‘Don’t operate–carry on, and he may yet keep his knee-joint.’

It is a great score, as it was bubbling with the gas bug. The boy is finding it a hard job to stick the treatment, but it has got to be done. Three generals have been to see him to-day.

I don’t think that Kate Luard intended this sequence to be comic, or even bathetic. The Flying Corps is still new, and a heroically wounded pilot naturally attracts generals. Who cannot be worse than the horrifying treatment for a gangrenous amputation.

Luard has another patient, too, and we are tugged along to the next twist of readerly emotion:

While I was finishing Leopold’s dressing to-day, he solemnly whistled ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ and ‘Who’s Your Lady Friend’ all through without a wrong note, to the amazement of everyone! He smiles a divine smile when you ask if he is a petit Anglais.

Finally, another unusual comment from our unusually placed nurse-correspondent. The rather clunky title of Luard’s published letters is Unknown Warriors. Well, Luard wasn’t quite either of those things–she was anonymous but not unknown, and would politely bristle, I think, at the idea that she waged war, rather than that she cared for its victims. So when she tells us of her actual wounded warriors it is not so that we might “know” them better in a strict sense, but rather so that we can understand the war a bit better. Today, however, she gives a glimpse of some truly unknown women, laboring silently on the fringes of the war zone:

The nuns at the Hospice have wards full of doddery smelly old men and women, like a Workhouse and an Idiot Asylum in one. They slave after them from 3.30 in the morning when they get up to faire the cuisine, till nine at night, and laugh and rollick as only Holy Nuns can all the time. They told me four of them are in town to-night–two sitting up with two très malades, and two with two morts, ‘On veille et on prie,’ [“we keep watch and we pray”] they said when I asked what they did. There must be some special Heaven waiting for them one day.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 133.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 44-5.

Raymond Asquith Attempts an Epic; An Update on Kate Luard’s Flyboy; Bim Tennant is Back with the Battalion

Bim Tennant, lately the recipient of a great deal of leave, is back with his battalion, and wishing he had had more leave, and left here a little further, as it were.

28th February, 1916

Darling Moth’,

After my abortive attempt to get home on leave from Calais, I have now rejoined the battalion at a place about 16 miles from the front. It is very cold, very wet, and the ground is covered with snow, but it is better than being in tents. After the battalion went from Calais I had two very comfortable nights, one at the Metropole at Calais, and the next night at the Sauvage at Cassel…  I have not lived so well since being in London, and we ordered nearly all our meals. It is rather dull being back here when I expected to be in England, but I don’t expect that leave will remain much longer. I hope not.

In other words, count Bimbo as one who still would very much like to see some action, not one of those who enthusiasm has dimmed to the point of private hopes–or letter-to-mum-hopes–of possibly doing his duty while missing the carnage of any “Big Show.”

This morning I rather made my name to the Brigadier by doing what he thought quite a good rear-guard action; it is refreshing to have a sham fight after a real one, and kudos is correspondingly cheaper! …Did I tell you that the cigarettes came the other day, 4000 of them? I think I did. They were much appreciated, and like the daughters of the horseleech we cry, Give! give!

Bimbo has been palling around with one of our 1914 informants, and, like other well-bred youth before him, he would like to share his opinion of various aristocratic beauties.

…I had a great success with my old stunts at the Millicent Sutherland hospital—and I went there four times. I like Rosemary Levesen-Gower, and Diana was very sweet to me. She seems very cheerful, but not very well. The young duchess is very handsome. The older one is the most beautiful, I think.

Any wildly inaccurate Verdun rumors to report?

We heard this morning that the French had lost 17,000 prisoners, and many more killed and wounded, but had killed nearly 250,000 Boches; if so, that is splendid. At any rate, they seem quite satisfied with the result so far…

I wish I could think of something to say, but my feet are rather wet and very cold, so I think I’ll go and change.
With litres of love from your devoted


Osbert sends his love.[1]


Two days ago, “the Flying boy,” a young lieutenant whose leg had been mangled by an anti-aircraft shell yet had managed to land his plane, was visited by Sir Charles Monro, the general commanding the First Army. The great man greeted our Kate Luard and talked with the patient, and he then let her know that he had submitted the “boy” for a Victoria Cross. But did not expect him to get it–although landing the plane was a “superhuman feat of endurance” it was not exactly the sort of valorous act under direct fire that usually won the V.C.

Today, a century back, there was an update.

Monday, February 28th. The Flying boy is not enjoying himself, it is a bad bit, and is not over yet: the rest of the leg is to come off on Wednesday, when Capt. R. comes back.

A wire came through to-day to his Corps, from the C. in Chief to say that ‘by authority of his Majesty the King the Distinguished Service Order had been awarded to Lt. H. of the R.F.C…’

The weather is still unmentionable, and the world carpeted with slush.[2]


Here’s something to cheer us up, then, if decorations for the maimed won’t do it. Raymond Asquith is making the most of a very idle day–in verse! He wrote to his wife Katherine today, a century back:

28 February 1916

I am having a very idle day here—no messages coming in–I have read through 2 numbers of the Spectator this afternoon and 2 of the Vie Parisienne and am no nearer the secret of happiness than before…

I’ve got through the cold snap without taking to bottles, though I confess I was reduced to sleeping in the woolley waistcoat you gave me. It is wet and horrible now but with a certain promise of spring…

Oh dear, the days here seem as long, as the nights used to seem in the trenches–more comfortable but if possible more dull. How I loathe the war: I can’t think of anything to do now except write an epic poem bringing in the names of all the railway stations in Belgium . . .[3]

And then, of course, he does. Or not exactly: he writes a wry, witty, extremely capable faux-epic. Instead of mimicking the dactylic hexameter of classical epic–which is wretched in English–he goes for the thumping trochaic tetrameter used in some 19th century epics-with-a-foreign-feel (including Longfellow’s Hiawatha). But he’s in it for the clever and oh-so-masculine end-rhymes, too, so he makes the stunt even harder and chooses a “catalectic” tetrameter: not only must he start on an emphasized syllable–difficult enough in English–he must end on one as well, allowing no easy two-syllable rhymes, and compacting the line to only seven syllables. (Shakespeare’s fairies talked this way, and Auden will address his lover in a perfect little catalectic trochaic tetreameter, but it is very rare.)

The published Life and Letters shies away from this amusing, pointless tour-de-force, but it appears, apparently in full, in one of my indispensable sources, a compendium by the redoubtable Anne Powell.[4]

Some highlights:

Surely conscience bids us use
(Since we’re fighting for the Right)
Every form of Schrecklichkeit.
Then, I ask you, why not try
The magic power of poesy?
After all the thing’s been done;
Goethe was a bloody hun.
Why not in the last resort
Versify the Train Report?
I know it’s going rather far,
But–anything to win the war.
Only insignificant
Traffic passed from Bruges to Ghent;
But the line from Ghent to Bruges
Is quite another pair of shoes.
Masses of marines (with guns)
Suspiciously resembling Huns…

They are moving troops from Ghent
To the Ypres Salient,
And I haven’t any doubt
We shall trace them to Thourout
And (when the returns come in)
Very likely to Menin…

Let me stop and emphasize: there’s more herein than meets the eyes. Asquith’s really very good, sneaking in a certain mood. Is this silly? Yes it is. Light amusement, schoolboy fizz–“What? A dare? To versify Belgium’s atlas? Oh–and try doing it against the grain. Use no iambs! Show no strain! Let us, also, start to sense dullness sap intelligence…”

Well, reader, he does it almost perfectly. It’s more than three times as long as these excerpts and really a wonderful example of being entertaining by being boring. It is very much light verse, but it has a point: the desk work of intelligence is so dull, such an incredible waste of intellectual esprit and linguistic skill, that it leaves time and energy for tricky exercises such as this.

But for the hard rhythm this would be Seussian–as it is, it makes one wish that Asquith had written the Madeline books rather than that he had attempted to preempt a mind as wildly different as Auden’s was from his. And the lightheartedness about the vicissitudes of war would almost make this fit as a lively entry in the canon of peppy pro-war verse… almost, but for the comic re-emphasis of the foolishness of intelligence work. Unlike in the Second World War, there can be no major operations that may be significantly improved by strategic surprise or spy work, so Asquith’s colleagues, amateurs like him for the most part, and safe as châteaux, are working hard to expose tactical spy-work, ferret out German movements that can’t really be countered, and chase down many wild geese.)

A lament, then, from the steampunk desk-spy:

By this line they seem to bring
Every kind of bloody thing.
Welkenraedt is just as bad:
Details always drive me mad..

What is this I find at Diest?
Quite an intellectual feast!
Hour after our, day after day,
Train after train runs every way…

The rest of the poem can be viewed here, but see the above footnote about “spoilers” and future history.


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters, 115-7.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 44.
  3. Life and Letters, 244-5.
  4. A Deep Cry, 144-6. The entire book, however, is a "spoiler." Any movement away from the page view in the link below will reveal many destinies.

Three Letters for Vera and Edward Brittain: New Agonies, and a New Purpose

It is a busy epistolary day in Brittain, today. Two soldiers are writing to Vera, while she writes to her brother Edward with the new information just gleaned from the Leightons. First, Edward’s letter to Vera, responding largely to an earlier round of information from the officers of Roland’s battalion:

11th Sherwood Foresters, France, 27 February 1916

As it is usually too cold to write in the trenches to which we return to-night I am writing a short note now. By the way I want to keep the letters you send me and so I shall send them back to you just as Roland did in case I should lose them here…

“Just as Roland did” is not a phrase that can have been written lightly, nor will it be read as simply a handy comparison. As the letter continues, Edward is very pleased to take on the role of soldier-interpreter. He has been in France for a few weeks, almost–he can now explain how it all happened…

I was very interested in all the information which Colonel Harman was able to supply and it all seems very terrible, though a perfectly ordinary occurrence with regard to the way in which it happened. We do very much the same here in relieving trenches as most of the communication trenches are full of water and so we have to use emergency roads across the open when rifle and machine gun fire may open on us at any moment; there are many danger spots but they continually change and so we just take our chance; we shall be doing so to-night. Also when we are in the front line itself there are various danger places where the trench is open to enfilade fire. . . Ordinary risks of stray shots or ricochets off a sandbag or the chance of getting hit when you look over the parapet in the night time–you hardly ever do in the day time but use periscopes–are daily to be encountered.

But far the most dangerous thing is going out on patrol in No Man’s Land. You take bombs in case you should meet a hostile patrol, but you might be surrounded, you might be seen especially if you go very close to their line and anyhow Very lights are always being sent up and they make night into day so you have to keep down and quite still, and you might get almost on top of their listening post if you are not sure where it is. I was out with my Sergt. and 2 men last Monday night about midnight for about 1 1/2 hours.

So Edward now knows, he is experienced. Still, much of what he writes doesn’t fall completely into the category of military-historical, er, mansplaining. Vera tasked him with telling her everything, and he is doing so. He is speaking to fill a silence. And, besides, can a young man from Brittain’s background write plainly of his fears to his male friends? Perhaps, but he is clearly happy to have his sister to confide in. There are challenges, and surprises, and fears:

The trenches surprised me so much because they are not trenches but breastwork made almost entirely of sandbags in millions not dug in at all, and there is consequently no real system of communication trenches and the supports are in billets under shell fire but hardly close enough to prevent the Germans getting the front line any time they attacked… [There] are ruins all about the trenches and many places knocked about for some miles back.

I do not hold life cheap at all and it is hard to be sufficiently brave, yet I have hardly ever felt really afraid. One has to keep up appearances at all costs even if one is.


Also writing to Vera today was Victor Richardson, the third of the three musketeers of Uppingham.

Kent, 27 February 1916

I saw from the casualty lists that the 10th Sherwoods had been having a stiff time. I was very sorry to see that Thurlow had been hit, but still hope that it is nothing serious. I never realised that Edward was so fond of him, as he has never told me much about him. Perhaps you will tell me more about him, and also how he is getting on. Is he older than Edward or the same age? I wish I knew him. I hope he does not get well enough in time to go back for the great offensive…

Well, there’s the first little indication that this boy is interested in all the doings of his friend’s sister (and his dead friend’s fiancé), no? But perhaps that’s reading in.

In any event, it is interesting that a young soldier who has not yet been out to the front wishes the experienced and wounded man (and more on him below) a slow rather than a speedy recovery from his blighty one. There are fewer and fewer writers who do not have a strong wish about their role in the coming offensive–it’s either “Lord let me be there for the great attack” or “Lord let this cup pass from me…”

And speaking of the offensive, here’s a good illustration of the blinkered nature of this project. We are all about the British experience, here. But still: the major German offensive at Verdun began six days ago, and this will be the first mention of it here. Verdun was a major battle from the first moments, and will become, in most tellings, the archetype of First World War battles, an enormous, terrible, exhausting, dispiriting battle of attrition.

As far as one can tell the Verdun offensive is intended to anticipate and overthrow our own, as did the Galician offensive last year. But this year we are ready. Is it too much to hope that our sacrifices will not be made in vain?

Another thing: if you continue nursing till October, you will have served your Country for close on a year and a half; you will have spent a year of that time in a great London hospital. Anyone who knows anything knows what that entails, and a woman who will face that work for a year–the last nine months under the most cruel circumstances possible—deserves everyone’s respect and gratitude.

Richardson seems like a kind young man–he is interested in Vera’s well-being, and he seeks to praise her. But it is hard to imagine such direct, openly cheering admonitions being to her taste.


But there’s another soldier too. As we learn from her letter today to Edward, she has already been to see the wounded Geoffrey Thurlow.

1st London General Hospital, 27 February 1916

I have just been to see Thurlow at Fishmongers’ Hall Hospital, London Bridge. He is only very slightly wounded on the left side of his face; fortunately his eyes, nose & mouth are quite untouched. In fact he says he won’t even have a scar left, and the wound is healing with a depressing rapidity. The dressing was only strapped, not even bandaged, on. But he was in bed, and says he had not even been allowed to walk to the bathroom until to-day, so I think he must be suffering from shock as well, although he says nothing about it. He did not look ill at all, only a little tired.

He was apparently wounded in the bombardment, before all the trench fighting began. He thinks hardly any of his battalion are left now.

I don’t know whether he was at all pleased to see me. We were both very shy—at any rate I know I was, and shyness always makes me speak quite lightly about things of which I think anything but lightly, and I think it makes him too. We might have been less shy had we been alone, but there was another officer there all the time, a school friend of his who had come to see him too, and it is always slightly embarrassing to carry on a conversation in the presence of a silent third person…

I only stayed with him about half-an-hour; he was very interesting to talk to and I like him very much, as you know, but I felt sure he would much rather talk to the school friend than to me…

This is very interesting, from the medical and psychological point of view. Thurlow had been involved in heavy fighting in the reawakening positional battles around Ypres, but I do not think that his battalion suffered as much as this report would indicate. It’s interesting, too, that Vera would front her letter with news about Thurlow, before getting to the new details about Roland.

I have still more to tell you about Roland—and in a way these last details are much more important than any we have heard. At least they are to us, as they tell us about the last moments of the real Roland, before the morphia blotted out more than half his personality. We heard this last because a day or two ago Captain Adam himself came home on leave and telegraphed to Mrs Leighton from Southampton, hoping she might be able to come up to London at once & meet him. Owing to work or something she was not able to go, but Mr Leighton was going up anyhow, and he met him.

It seems that on the fatal night a man rushed up to Captain Adam crying out ‘Mr Leighton’s hit. Sir, and it’s serious.’ Adam at once ran out and found Roland lying on His face on the ground, throwing his arms about violently but incapable of moving his lower body or his legs. Adam knelt beside him (bullets were flying around them all the time) and said ‘It’s alright, dear old fellow; where are you hit?’ Roland said ‘Is that you, Adam? They’ve got me in the stomach, and it’s bad–it’s bad.’Then Adam tried to lift Him & said ‘Can you manage to put your arms round my neck, and help yourself up a little, if you can?’ Roland did put His arms round Adam’s neck, and with the sergeant supporting His legs they got Him down into the trench. Far from being in no pain He was writhing all the time in most intense agony, but He never even groaned. Then they gave Him the morphia–and you know the rest. He never spoke again before getting the morphia except to say once more ‘They got me in the stomach, and it’s bad.’

Is this narrative more reliable than the details we have learned before? No, but it is a more coherent, complete story, complete with dialogue. And for Vera it rings true. There is a difficult revision to be made, therefore.

I don’t know what you will feel about this story–this final story relating to the first part. I knew they must be keeping something back when they said He suffered no pain. It scarcely seemed possible. We know now that in those few minutes of sensible consciousness, he faced the Truth–faced the fact that He was wounded in a vital spot, faced agony, more than probably faced death itself. He got with a grim exactness the answer to the prayer-poem for ‘a strong man’s agony’ And it was as a strong man that He bore it, and we can say of Him after all that ‘the old strong soul gathered itself for the last time; it knew where it stood.’ . . .

Vera needed a different story, I think. Yes, it’s more probable, more convincing to read that Roland, shot through the stomach, suffered terrible agony. And it’s a story that Vera needs now, a gruesome truth to fight forward with.

Well, one of the things this final part of Roland’s story has made me feel is that as long as the War lasts, unless you or anyone else should for some reason or other need me and me only really badly, I cannot lead any but an active life, even though it should last for five years. After all He has been through, after all you may go through, & Victor and others, I cannot, even with the best motives in the world, shut myself up behind scholastic walls & behave as if I were forgetting the War. No, it must be some form of active service, and if it implies discomforts, so much the better.

I am beginning to feel that to leave nursing now would be defeat–and since He was unconquerable, the person He loved ought to be unconquerable too, n’est-ce pas? Nations may fall, & religions may fail, and there may be a Hereafter & there may not–but amid all these things, amid death & grief and disaster & danger, the mind of man is unconquerable, if it choose. So I am beginning to feel–vaguely & unwillingly, it is true–that to leave this hospital, even though I hate it, would be defeat… except of course… if I got the chance of War-work of any kind abroad, preferably France. Otherwise, if I don’t get any chance, I ought to stick to it, let it cost me what it will. That’s one thing that Roland’s agony has made me feel. No one He loved must be unworthy of Him…

The other thing I feel is that if I ever in life have any great physical pain to bear, I shall bear it ten thousand times better for knowing that ‘He was writhing in the most intense agony, but He never even groaned.’[1]


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters from a Lost Generation, 235-9.

Alan Seeger’s Self-Portrait of the Artist as a Young Legionnaire

Alan Seeger, our ex-Harvard Francophile bohemian, has some advice today for a female friend back in the States. The poet is wise beyond his years. Or believes himself to be. But as is often the case, the advice that would be given sheds a great deal of light on the giver.

February 26, 1916.

Your letter finds me here in the hospital, where I have been for a month now for a “bronchite” or “congestion pulmonaire” or whatever they call it… rejoining the regiment I shall be just in time for the big offensive, which is the only thing that really matters.

Your letters always have a double interest for me, not only, relatively, as coming from yourself, but also, absolutely, as emanating from a very unusual personality. Old man Yeats (whom, by the way, you ought to know if he is still at the old stand, quatre cent et quelque West 29th St., chez Miles. Petitpas) used to define Culture as the understanding and the employ of intellect as an instrument of pleasure. You seem to have this understanding to a remarkable degree. Re markable particularly because among women, who are ipso facto denied the numerous occupations that men have to choose from to make life seem worth while, it is pre-eminently sensibility that is developed far beyond and to the expense of all the other faculties, like the rose that gardeners make exquisite by cutting off all the other buds on the stalk. And remarkable again be cause the emotional life is not closed to you, as it is to the vast majority of “intellectual” women, whose intellectuality is only a recourse to cover a bald spot, but yours when you choose to yield yourself to it.

Of all the formulas that claimed my early youth, one to which I can still adhere is that of the three categories, the lust for power, the lust for feeling and the lust for knowledge, to one or the other of which I can assign all those who, in their passion to live fully, are the supermen, the élite of humanity. Take as respective types Napoleon, Byron, Pico della Mirandola. All superior minds attach themselves more or less remotely to one of these three ideals. I make no distinction between them; those who attain eminence through either one may, in their way, be equally admirable. It is through knowledge that you seek revelation; I seek it through feeling. But I understand the paths that you have chosen, because, as a matter of fact, I started out on them myself…

The sexism is egregious, although hardly uncommon, a century back. But condescending silliness is eternal. Seeger is young and over-confident, and filled with half-digested philosophy. Those übermenschen sound so cool! Seeger was a rock, an island, his books his bulwark, his poetry…

Ah, but he did not remain a striver after knowledge. Let him take up the tale:

I need not describe to you my apostasy from learning, because you can find it described per fectly by Balzac. Take the case of Eugene de Rastignac in Pere Goriot or more particularly of Raphael de Valentin in the Peau de Chagrin. Young men, absorbed, like myself, in their studies, accepting cheerfully solitude and poverty in the pursuit of their one interest, they were suddenly éblouis by the vision of the world and the more glittering forms of pleasure to be had through the instrument of Sense. Straightway the charm was broken…

And so down from “the quiet groves of the Academy” and into the city, where the truth lies. And love. But love is not enough!

The dedication to Love alone, as Ovid prettily confesses his own in more than one elegy, is good as far as it goes, but it only goes half way, and my aspiration was to go all the gamut, to “drink life to the lees.” My interest in life was passion, my object to experience it in all rare and refined, in all intense and violent forms. The war having broken out, then, it was natural that I should have staked my life on learning what it alone could teach me. How could I have let millions of other men know an emotion that I remained ignorant of? Could not the least of them, then, talk about the thing that interested me most with more authority than I? You see, the course I have taken was inevitable. It is the less reason to lament if it leads me to destruction. The things one poignantly regrets are those which seem to us unnecessary, which, we think, might have been different. This is not my case. My being here is not an accident. It is the inevitable consequence, as you see, of a direction deliberately chosen…[1]

And that’s where mockery of Seeger’s posing falls flat. He has chosen the rigors of the French Foreign Legion and withstood them, now, for well over a year. And–so far as we can trust his self-presentation in letters such as these–his sense of purpose has hardly wavered. However hollow the philosophical stance seems, Seeger continues to follow the direction he chose–he had had opportunities to leave the legion–and without grumbling. Is he foolish to see war as a font of learning, as an experience that can’t be missed? Perhaps, but that’s not really the right question. Foolish, maybe. But consistent, committed.


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters and Diary, 182-7.

A Plan for Vera Brittain; Wilfred Owen Goes Barefoot at the Movies

Vera Brittain has been in better spirits of late. It would be facile–and fairly plausible–to connect this fact either to the end of her frantic efforts to discover the details of Roland Leighton‘s last hours or a gradual realization that facts are a poor levee against loss. But it is more likely some combination of a deeper movement away from grief and toward healing and an unpredictable swerve of emotion. The days grow longer, her sense of purpose returns…

Nevertheless, there is still more to be learned.

I had another letter from Mrs. Leighton continuing what Captain Adam told her about Roland’s twenty minutes of agony. And Mr Leighton has drawn up,a plan/or me, which she has enclosed, showing accurately exactly how Roland was hit, and what followed, & the lie of the land in general–drawn up from Captain Adam’s statement. It is very valuable for me–and gives things very accurately. She is going to meet Captain Adam for lunch on Wednesday. She tells me she has been very busy writing her book on Roland–even though it may not be published.[1]

Yes, the book on Roland. I think I mentioned this, long ago. My excuse for not drawing upon it–a solid one, friends–was that it was almost impossible to quote without making it clear that the mother’s boy in the book was dead. This would ruin the “real time” conceit of this project, so no Boy of My Heart for us.

Also, it is a cloying, almost loathsome book, its weird indiscretions and extravagant praise going far beyond the pale of any ordinary maternal possessiveness and pride. One must work to remember that it is driven by grief, but reading it nevertheless feels like a frog-march through the mind of an almost dementedly overweening maternal figure. She calls him “Little Yeogh Wough” and constantly asserts his overwhelming devotion to his mother. So it’s hard to read, and hard to fit that figure onto the Roland of Vera’s letters and diaries. But perhaps someday I will find the opportunity to try…

There is certainly something to be written about the books of bereaved mothers, and even though there are huge differences of class and taste between Marie Leighton and Lady Desborough (the sentimentalist late-Victorian “authoress” vs. the tiny dynamo of aristocratic play) there is something very similar in the way they enshrine their dead sons.

roland's graveThe other letter that Vera received, then, would be this one, plan included–it’s one of the few communications from Robert Leighton, Roland’s rather put-upon father.

At the funeral [on December 26th], the chief mourners were Col. Harman, Col. Baring, Captain Sheridan and Captain Adam . . . Men could not be spared from the trenches to form a firing party, but in other respects it was a military field funeral, very solemn, very simple,very beautiful. The mourners were all impressed by the sudden breaking forth of the sun as they followed the coffin out of the church and along the road to the cemetery. The acolyte who carried the censer was a picturesque figure. Incense was wafted into the grave. Holy water was sprinkled . . .[2]


I can’t possibly think of how to segue smoothly from the grave of a beloved son and fiancé to an odd and unreliable tale of socks and foibles, so I’ll just press onward.

Wilfred Owen is spending a week in London, his cadet unit ordered in for some lectures. He has taken a room at the Poetry Bookshop, and hopes to catch the eye of Harold Monro, having imposed some sonnets upon the poet, publisher, and bookseller–but he’s a busy man, no doubt. Then, last night–I think[3]–he was joined instead by a different Harold, namely his younger brother, a teenage merchant seaman. Harold Owen later wrote about his night out with his brother, and it’s a strange tale. Caveat lector: Harold’s relationship with Wilfred, the favorite eldest son, was fraught, and he will certainly be guilty of multiple counts of falsifying the past, as well as a more general habit of twisting or altering it. But can I refuse a vignette involving families and socks?

According to Harold, he and Wilfred went out intending to go to the theater, but it was a rainy night and, soaked, they decided that the nearest movie was the next best thing. Once ensconced in the cinema, the elder brother–whom Harold portrays, interestingly enough, as fastidious and socially awkward almost to the point of suggesting, to the contemporary mind, some sort of psychological or spectrum disorder–became obsessed with his wet feet.

It really is an odd tale, and would make sense in fiction as an illustration of a deranged combat veteran’s fixation on keeping his feet dry. But Wilfred has not yet been anywhere near a real trench. In any event, the younger brother sits there, mortified, while the elder makes a great show of yanking off each of his boots, oblivious to the attention this is attracting from the other moviegoers.

A pause followed this triumph and I was just beginning to think Wilfred was going to settle down and keep still, when stooping down once more he started the fumbling about again. In a second or two I saw gleaming up from the darkness of the floor a bare foot and as another wet sock was dragged off another white foot came to light to join its mate. Straightening himself up once more he proceeded with enormous care to wring out the socks; having done this he put one in each of his tunic pockets. Lifting up one foot and placing the heel of it on the edge of his seat, he pulled out a large khaki handkerchief and with this commenced to dry his ankle, foot, and toes, meticulously adding a little massage from time to time; this process was repeated with the other foot. By now the film had lost its appeal for our immediate neighbours; they like me could only look on with unconcealed astonishment and irresistible attraction.[4]


Finally, a reminder that John Bernard Adams was hard at work today, a century back, recording in his diary his impressions of the German raid of the 22nd inst.


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 316-7.
  2. Letters from a Lost Generation, 202-3.
  3. There is a postcard labeled "Saturday" but postmarked Monday, in which Wilfred notes that he spent last night with Harold--see Collected Letters, 382. This would point to tonight, a century back.
  4. Harold Owen, Journey From Obscurity, 133.

Siegfried Sassoon on Leave; Edward Thomas Between a Love Lyric and a Hard Place; The Afterlife of Charles Sorley II: Unquiet Graves; Kate Luard is Losing One Patient, While Another Struggles On

A strange day, today, of poetic discoveries, lengthy disquisitions, and exquisite avoidances.

First, Edward Thomas. I haven’t been certain how to handle the odd overlaps–and silent interstices–of his many writings, and now things get complicated. There are letters a-plenty, but he has also been writing poems–including, for the first time, love poems. And he has been, for three months now, carrying on something very close to a love affair with Edna Clarke Hall.

The two had met sixteen years before, when both were already married, and already unhappy. There had been an attraction–a fairly intense attraction–some get-togethers, with others present, and, then, nothing more for fiftreen years. Edna now lived, now, a century back, and as hap happened to hap, within walking distance of Hare Hall Camp. She had two children, but she was lonely–her husband spent the week in London, working as a barrister and directing charities that cared for the children of prostitutes. Thomas turned up one day in November, and the friendship was rekindled. They began meeting for walks and wide-ranging talks–Clarke Hall was a successful painter and an amateur poet–and for… well, who knows what else.

There has been no scandal, but Thomas does not discuss the relationship in his letters. Were the meetings “innocent?” Or were the two already emotionally or sexually intertwined? We don’t know, and we won’t know–it’s not even clear whether they met only a few times or regularly, for months. If it really was an “affair” (although, again, there is a region of connection–and infidelity–that swells for miles on either side of the thin line of sexual betrayal) then it is hardly likely that Thomas would write to his circle of friends about it. They were all men who knew his family, who had heard him lament not only his incompatibility with his wife but his poor treatment of her. All except for Eleanor Farjeon, who loved him but had nevertheless been accepted by Helen Thomas as a family friend and fellow unrequited lover. Another strange complication. But anyway: no letters about Clarke Hall, yet.

And by the same token, as this relationship suddenly, er, blossoms anew, Thomas could hardly not have written poetry about it. He had written very little that could be described as love poetry, until, suddenly, last week, “Those Things That Poets Said,” which despairs of love’s future, and “No One So Much As You,” which certainly does not. There was even a playful poem on Valentine’s Day which certainly sounds like the sort of thing a courting, flirtatious poet would write.

She is most fair,
And when they see her pass
The poets’ ladies
Look no more in the glass
But after her.

On a bleak moor
Running under the moon
She lures a poet,
Once proud or happy, soon
Far from his door…

There’s the straight goods. But Thomas is wily, slippery. Here’s the last stanza:

She is to be kissed
Only perhaps by me;
She may be seeking
Me and no other; she
May not exist.

A coy glance to the lover, and a rude gesture to the biographical critic…  But back to the second poem. It begins:

No one so much as you
Loves this my clay,
Or would lament as you
Its dying day.

You know me through and through
Though I have not told,
And though with what you know
You are not bold.

None ever was so fair
As I thought you:
Not a word can I bear
Spoken against you.

Who was this to? What was it about? Today’s letter to his wife may be a gentle laugh and shake of the head. But we are suspicious folk, and it smacks rather of painful reading…

Thursday 24 February 1916 Hare Hall, Gidea Park, Romford


Fancy you thinking those verses had anything to do with you. Fancy your thinking, too, that I should let you see them if they were. They are not to a woman at all. You know precisely all that I know of any woman I have cared a little for.

This is probably quite true–or can be meant as completely true, in the moment. Thomas was neither a fink nor a coward, and he had made a point of discussing the original relationship with Clarke Hall with his wife Helen. He even openly discussed a more distressing infatuation with a schoolgirl. So they do discuss their problems, and his attractions to other women. But has he mentioned, yet, the return of Edna?

And however truthful he may have been so far, the letter continues with a curveball. (A googly? Apologies for national idiomatic lapses.)

They are as a matter of fact to father. So now, unless you choose to think I am deceiving you (which I don’t think I ever did), you can be at ease again. Silly old thing to jump so to conclusions. You might as well have concluded the verses to Mother were for you. As to the other verses about love you know my usual belief is that I don’t and can’t love and haven’t done for something near 20 years. You know too that you don’t think my nature really compatible with love, being so clear and critical. You know how unlike I am to you, and you know that you love, so how can I? That is if you count love as any one feeling and not something varying infinitely with the variety of people.

I’m just going to leave that last paragraph alone. There’s a whole marriage there, decades of misery, probable blind-spots and half-truths, and either a tongue-in-cheek avoidance of the issue or an unbearable condescension and shutting-down of the woman who has stood quite a lot from him over the years. Either way, it’s too much for this blog… So let’s sweep this all under the rug for now, o.k. Edward?

Thank Bronwen for her letter and give her a large kiss.

We are all fairly deep in snow today. I got one snowball in the ear but luckily only on the flesh of the ear…

I am all yours Edwy[1]


Two short notes to cleanse the palate:

T. E. Hulme is going after Bertrand Russell again in The New Age today (available here), but I am happy enough to admit a lapse of interest in this almost-completed political-philosophical run.

And our Siegfried is on leave, due to have arrived in London this morning at Waterloo at 10 a.m. He will spend the night tonight, a century back, with his Uncle Hamo Thorneycroft, the sculptor and friend of Thomas Hardy. Thence he will go to the family home, Weirleigh, where he must see his mother–for the first time since the death of Uncle Hamo’s namesake, Siegfried’s brother, Hamo Sassoon.


And now, ladies and gentleman, Robert Graves, in the grip of a new and most significant enthusiasm.

24 February 1916

My dear Eddie

I am sorry to hear that you never got my long letter written in January all about how much I loved Georgian Poetry, and kindred subjects. An eight sheet letter gone west! And I’ll never be able to recapture my first fine, careless rapture after the first reading of the splendid book which is perhaps the most treasured possession I have out here…

If you think this is laying it on thick, well: it gets thicker. Graves is awfully young, sometimes. He may believe that he is being reasonably complimentary instead of obsequious, and even if this is a miscalculation, the fawning is interspersed with Graves’s gawkily appealing (sometimes in the “can’t… look… away…” sense) overconfidence. He writes that he loves “nearly every piece in it… and most of all Rupert‘s ‘Heaven’ and ‘The Great Lover’ and ‘The Soldier’ and all the rest.” And yet he intersperses criticisms of Masefield and Bottomley.

Here’s the thing, though: this letter comes not so much to praise Eddie Marsh as to sound the gong of his impending burial. Well, that’s over-dramatic. But still, Graves isn’t writing to thank a mentor for guidance but rather to pass on a recommendation of his own:

I’ve just discovered a brilliant young poet called Sorley whose poems have just appeared in the Cambridge Press (Marlborough and Other Poems, 3s. 6d.) and who was killed near Loos on October 13th as a temporary captain in the 7th Suffolk Regiment. It seems ridiculous to fall in love with a dead man as I have found myself doing but he seems to have been one so entirely after my own heart in his loves and hates, besides having been just my own age and having spent just the same years at Marlboro’ as I spent at Ch’house. He got a classical scholarship at University College, Oxford, the same year as I was up and I half-remember meeting him there.

“Half-remember?” This seems more of a wishful crossing of paths than even half a memory of one. Would it be possible to run down the lists of who sat for which scholarship exam on which day? Perhaps… but 1913 was so long ago.

In any event, Graves is very serious in his enthusiasm for Sorley’s new book, writing “Don’t you like this:” and then copying out for Marsh almost the entirety of All the Hills and Vales Along. He follows this up with opportunistic literary criticism:

He seems to have been under Rupert’s influence rather in his method. Listen:

Victor and vanquished are a-one in death:
Coward and brave: friend, foe. Ghosts do not say,
“Come, what was your record when you drew breath?”
But a big blot has hid each yesterday
So poor, so manifestly incomplete.
And your bright promise, withered long and sped,
Is touched, stirs, rises, opens and grows sweet
And blossoms and is you, when you are dead.

Well, perhaps, perhaps not. Sorley loathed Brooke, and this, the second of his “Two Sonnets,” is unusual, not a typical example of Sorley’s tragically early “late” style. Graves, however, is smitten with the story of Sorley as much as the poetry. Or at least its stark outline.

He wrote that out here in June: he came out, like me, in May.

What waste!

Graves’s next subject is of course his own work. He brags a bit about having become a competent lecturer, repeating the familiar line about “how to keep happy, though in the trenches.” But what he really want to talk about is poetry. He is confident that he will soon have a book of verse in print, and he proposes–or tells Marsh that he has proposed to Monro–the new catch phrase ‘C’est la guerre‘ as a title. The phrase has

been consecrated by countless instance of French and Belgian fortitude in trouble and is perhaps the best-known expression in all the allied armies. It has a laugh and an apology in it and expresses just what I want, an explanation–an excuse almost–for the tremendous change in tone and method and standpoint which you must have noticed between the first and last parts of the verse-cycle, a hardening and coarsening and loss of music.[2]

It does seem like a good title–but it does not seem as if publishers are as sanguine as Graves. Still, things are moving: only yesterday, Robert’s father, Alfred Perceval Graves, who has been handling his son’s poetic affairs, noted that Marsh had arranged to see some of Robert’s poems printed in the Westminster Gazette–and claimed credit for revising them.[3]

So enthusiasm, and even a bit of rivalry, with Charles Sorley, now three months dead. Graves’s more or less flatly incorrect idea that Sorley was influenced by Brooke is nonetheless revealing: Graves is not the only person to read Sorley’s poems in the modest volume prepared by his parents, but he will be both an important advocate for Sorley’s work and something of a disciple. Brooke is dead, and he has a death-grip on the popular image of war poetry. But Sorley has sketched out the path away from such gauzy, inspirational, empty-calorie war poems, and Graves is eager, now, to help make that path a well-traveled highway.


Before we get to today’s piece of not-that-short short fiction, an update from the recent tribulations in Kate Luard’s hospital. Sister Luard had taken a moment early this morning to write an exultant note about the nearly miraculous improvement shown by one of her patients–the long-hopelessly ill but tenacious “Medical boy”–after steady doses of Atropin. Later in the day, she wrote again.

Thursday, February 24th

The world is still fast bound in frost and snow and we have some very sick men in. The poor boy in the Medical succeeded in dying this afternoon after a hideous illness of a fortnight.

One patient sinks, and another rises.

The Flying boy is better, thank Heaven. The drip treatment is doing wonders with his leg, and he is getting over the shock…

Don’t look up “The Drip Treatment” if you don’t really want to know.

But I think it’s worth breaking in again to note just how unique Luard’s position is, here. She is betwixt and between: behind the front lines, yet far from safe; not a civilian but not a soldier either; not quite as old as young soldiers’ mothers, but too old to be a sister or a sweetheart. And it’s that last one that’s really new–who do we have that can sympathize with both the clueless mothers and their sweet, suffering children?

When I showed him the bit in the C. in Chief’s communiqué about him in The Times to-day he said: ‘If mother sees that I expect she’ll feel bucked.’ Poor Mother–she writes such jolly letters to him, which he insists on my reading to him–anxious one day because he hasn’t written, and relieved the next because he has. Evidently she thinks each day he may have to be looked for or not have come home…[4]


And since it’s been a nice short post, let’s include an entire story–or “sketch, rather”–written by Noel Hodgson today, a century back. No need to read it, of course, but it’s a pretty good piece. It’s in the “trench veteran explains the life to the folks at home” vein, and it anatomizes one of the everyday stressors of trench duty, the dangerous drudgery of the working party. This is the sort of work that got Roland Leighton killed.

There is mud, and muddled communications, a heavy front-load of bureaucracy for a young subaltern and dangerous physical loads for his men. This is a relatively cheerful piece, balancing realism with the implicit requirement to show high morale in adversity among the common British soldiers… but it makes clear the misery of these fatigues.

The sketch is notable, too, for certain claims that will become typical of Great War first-person writing, whether explicitly autobiographical or fictional. One of these is the simple, yet gratingly paradoxical “you–you to whom I am writing–cannot know what it’s like.” Well, Hodgson puts it better: “Now begins one of those lamentable progresses of which no conception can be gained by anyone who has not made them.” And yet you are writing, and we are reading, and we are not doing so to be at one with out hopeless ignorance across an experiential gulf of time and space… Also, Hodgson will not be the last writer to reach for Bunyan, and describe no man’s land as a “slough of despond.”

The Working Party

The Brigade begins it, always. To us—“resting” in close billets comes a message, over the wire to our Orderly Room. It is a humble edifice of sandbag and brick, our Orderly Room, built with an eye to efficiency rather than to beauty, and measuring twelve feet by sixteen. Inside it this afternoon are a red-hot brazier, the regimental sergeant-major, the Orderly Room sergeant and his clerk, a dog, the telephonist on duty, with his relief asleep on the floor, and seated on a ration box that cheerful tyrant, the adjutant. All of them, except the sleeper and the dog, are smoking, the brazier in particular, and the atmosphere has attained a richness not known in civilian society. The telephonist has been conducting one of the unintelligible discussions pertaining to his kind for some minutes. This results in a pink paper being laid before the adjutant. Which reads;—

“O.C. 9th Devonshires,—You will find the following fatigues, 100 men and 2 officers to report to Lieut. Exe; R.E., at Hubert cross-roads at 6 p.m., 50 men and one officer to report to O.C. 2nd Aberdeen Highlanders at 6.30 p.m.

Y. Zedd, Capt., —th Inf. Bde.”

The adjutant presses down the tobacco in his pipe, “Parade states, Richards.” The sergeant hands him a bunch of papers, after a brief study of which he begins to write swiftly on a message pad.

Ten minutes later a second pink form is borne into the Headquarters of D Company; a batman hurries from
Headquarters and rouses a sleepy company-sergeant-major from his bunk, who crosses to Headquarters, and re-issuing shortly afterwards, lays hold on his orderly sergeant, with the result that Privates Jones, Smith, Robinson, and their fellows are warned by their respective section-commanders to “parade at 5.45 in fighting order and capes for working-party.” In the Army the “little fleas have lesser fleas” is reduced to a science, and is known as de-centralisation of command. Note that we say working-party—we are not conscripts, and “ fatigues ” are for prisoners, not for decent soldiers.

It is ten minutes to six, and fifty men, shrouded in the long capes which are the best gift the Government has ever made to their soldiers, are drawn up on the road, while a small rain filters down upon them. Presently in the growing dusk appears a subaltern, armed with an electric torch and a broom handle. The voice of the sergeant-major rings out, “Parade, ’tchun,” and the fifty men click into immobility. Turning sharply on his heels the sergeant-major salutes, “Working party present, sir; fifty men under Sergeant Grant.” “Thank you, sergeant-major,” says the subaltern, returning the salute, “we shall be back about midnight; warn the cooks.”

He turns to the line of cloaked figures . . . with a rattle of equipment and splash of boots in mud, the party moves off. On either side of the road are innumerable shell holes, most of which are relics of a notable offensive, during which this suffering country underwent twenty hours of the most appalling shell-fire in the history of the war. All along two miles of road are shattered houses, broken carts, ruined barns, and the countless potholes half filled with water, where the German shells burst on that fierce day. But at present all is peace, and the men step out cheerily with a cheerful noise of converse, in spite of mud and rain, till they arrive at a crossroads in the centre of a ruined village, where the completest chaos since the Fire of London appears to be in progress. The ration-parties of four regiments, four hundred men on working-party, two dozen limbered wagons, half a Field Company of R.E. are seething here, and two indefatigable R.E. officers and a M.P. Sergeant work like heroes to forestall confusion—and succeed. By eight o’clock all will be clear and orderly again.

“I think,” says our subaltern, “a short cut is indicated; advance in single file—left wheel,” and he leads the way among the heaps of blasted masonry, through the rent graveyard where a gaunt crucifix stands unshaken and protestant among the desolation, out on to a rough and broken road. The rain has ceased, and a strong breeze is driving ragged cloud-drifts over the fitful moon; one of the periods of quiet that often occur at night has settled upon the line, and even the whicker of spent bullets is not heard. Pipes and cigarettes are put out for safety’s sake, as we know how accurately the enemy has this road marked down, and at any moment a whirlwind of shells may punish a careless act. But to-night we are in luck and peace lasts till the party arrives in the reserve trenches, where two companies of the Aberdeens are stationed. Here the party is halted under cover of a bank, while the subaltern goes off to report. Soon he returns with adjutant of the Aberdeens, who shows him his task, the transportation of a vast pile of “doorsteps” to the front line. “Doorsteps” are contraptions of corrugated wood, seven or eight feet long and twenty inches wide, used for flooring muddy trenches.

These would more generally be referred to as “duckboards.”

The subaltern measures the heap with his eye; “two men to each doorstep,” he orders, and theleading couple lay hold on their burden. “One man can carry a doorstep,” suggests the adjutant. “Yes, but he can’t swim with it,” is the prompt reply, as the second pair lift their timber from the pile. The adjutant agrees, laughing, “Well, it’s your funeral, any way.”

Now begins one of those lamentable progresses of which no conception can be gained by anyone who has not made them. The trenches being water-logged the advance is over the open; the open ground happens to be a marsh, in which at every step the water flows in over the boot-tops; intersecting it are numerous ditches, some bridged by a narrow plank, some not at all, in which lurk some four or five feet of mud and water. Across this slough of despond staggers the long file of carriers, expanding and contracting like a concertina. The leading man falls down, dropping his end of the doorstep with a jerk that nearly dislocates his companion’s neck; into them bump the next pair and halt abruptly, with the result that doorstep No. 3 hits the rear member of the couple a severe blow on the back of the head. This happens all down the line, and a crackling fire of profanity accompanies it. Performing miracles of agility with his broom handle the subaltern gets the procession on the move once more. Naturally, each pair wait till their “next-ahead” has moved, with the result that they lose half-a-dozen yards, and by the time all are under way the line extends for two hundred yards. Then doorstep No. 7 falls, and when it is retrieved. No. 6 is already disappearing in the darkness. Immediately arises a plaintive wail of “Steady in front; not so fast, which ultimately reaches the subaltern’s ears. He halts the head of the column and ploughs back in the slough till he finds No. 7, to whom he addresses an admirably terse invective, and then joins up the broken centipede. Up-to-date they have advanced a bare four hundred yards and have been eighty minutes on the job. The first ditch how bars their progress, an affair of eight foot width, of which the banks are more treacherous than sloping ice, spanned by a single ten-inch plank, itself covered in mud. Privates Burns and Clatworthy, bearing the first doorstep, decide unanimously that any attempt to cross in couples will be disastrous. In the absence of the officer who is blasphemously regulating traffic in rear, they think it will be a sound plan to throw the doorstep over first and then cross singly. “One, two, three—’eave,” and a soggy splash announces the arrival of the doorstep on the further bank, Messrs. Burns and Clatworthy cross in high content, and discover to their dismay that the doorstep is not to be found.

“What’s up?” comes the hoarse query of Private Wood, with No. 2 doorstep. “ T’ blanky thing’s lost i’ the muck,” is the wrathful reply. “Damn fool,” says Wood dispassionately, and puts down his doorstep and sits on it. The subaltern now arrives fuming, and the errant timber is dug up, coated in slime, to the intense disgust of Burns and Clatworthy, and the grim satisfaction of Private Wood. Now is apparent the use of the long broom-handle, which is held by Sergeant Grant and the officer banister-wise beside the plank, to prevent the men falling off. One man does contrive to fall off, but only goes in waist deep. “Who’s yon?” asks Sergeant Grant fiercely, as the lamentable figure is hauled out like a cork from a bottle. “When Ah’ve gotten this—mud off me Ah’ll be Deakin,” is the gloomy response. “You’ll be deekin’ (looking) to find yer ain feet, laddie,” a Hibernian voice in rear proclaims, and a subdued laugh rumbles out of the darkness.

A cheerful bit–and notice how non-violent this piece has been. Is this the “live and let live” we have heard about, or does the working party not present a decent enough target to German machine-gunners in the front and reserve lines? Well, it doesn’t matter, for–in another very typical invocation of the strangely oblique relationship between the laboring infantryman and the dogs of war–it’s the artillery, pursuing its inscrutable motives, that decides whether danger and death will interrupt this slog.

So the pilgrimage continues, with infinite labour and little incident except on one occasion when a Boche gunner, finding time heavy on his hands, fires two shells on, to the Hubert cross-roads. Some signaller in the vicinity rouses a neighbouring battery, and a sudden bark from behind our trenches is followed by four wicked red snaps of shrapnel over some German billet far away. This is the policy of retaliation, which is an excellent policy for all except the person retaliated on, who is invariably entirely innocent of the original aggression. As a rule it is a case of “visiting the sins of the gunners upon the infantry.” On this particular occasion there must have been some Boches within the scope of our response who were hurt by our promptness, for no less than three salvoes burst soon after in the region of the reserve trenches of the Aberdeens. The British gunners, possessing ammunition and feeling piqued, promptly laid a barrage on to the German support line and caught a large wiring party on the hip. Our subaltern, taught by experience, passed back an order for all his men to drop their doorsteps and lie on them. Events fully justified his caution, for brother Boche began to traverse the Aberdeens’ front trench with machine-guns, and to plop a large number of trench-mortar canisters into the space between the front and the support lines. At length the hostility died down, and both sides turned to the laborious task of conveying their wounded back to the dressing stations.

Again: cheerful, with no narrator’s voice to lament or complain or point out foolishness. This is a grunt’s-eye-view setch, and if the grunt’s complaining is only of the cheerful British working man’s sort, well, then all is well with His Majesty’s Armies.

And yet it is very clear here that these men have been sent out to a job without the higher-ups taking any interest in their welfare. If their subaltern was new, or a fool, or too interested in courage and face, they would have taken heavy casualties. There is no heroism here but finishing the task, and the only answer to enemy fire is to lie down in the mud and hope for survival. “Passive suffering,” which will one day be a phrase invoked in the debate about Great War poetry, is clearly already a proper theme for even implicitly pro-war-effort fiction. How could it not be?

The carrying party rises stiffly and prepared to take up their burdens.

* * * *

At half-past twelve there may be descried on the road that runs between the crump-holes, a party of fifty men and an officer tramping homeward to the strains of “Turn the dark cloud inside out, till the boys come home.” Cheery little cigarette-ends gleam in the darkness, and the subaltern is smoking what was once a fine specimen of Fribourg and Treyer’s art in pipes. They are soaked to the waist, but the night is over and the day is approaching when no man can work—because the Boche sees him—so why be gloomy? Moreover, soup is in sight, and rum.

Into the ruined farm they swing, and halt smartly. “Left turn—by the right—there will be soup and rum issue at once—dismiss.” The men turn to the right, salute, and fall out in a babel of sound. From the cookhouse appear two men haling a steaming dixie, and the subaltern fetches from Headquarters a large stone jar. In the centre of the billet is a glowing brazier; steam of soup mingles with steam of drying trousers; blankets are unrolled and boots removed. In the doorway the subaltern measures out the 1-64 of a gallon of rum, to which each man is entitled, into a tiny mug, and each in turn tosses it off with “good health, sir.” The youngest soldiers cough and splutter at the raw spirit to the infinite diversion of the old hands, who ask them, “What’s your number?” well knowing what will be the result of an attempt to reply. Last of all the subaltern drinks his tot. “Good-night, boys, you worked very well,” and off he stumps to Headquarters, where his servant is ready for him with hot tea and dry breeches. The mail is in with several letters, which he reads while drinking his tea before the dying fire. Then a couple of blankets, bundle of straw, and Lethe, dreamless and deep.

In the Orderly Room the adjutant, sticky-eyed and blinking, is writing: “Work report. A party under Sec.-Lieut. Smith carried from Old Line to Orkney Terrace.”

It is over—till to-morrow night.

February 24th, 1916.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters to Helen, 81.
  2. In Broken Images, 39-40.
  3. Richard Perceval Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 143.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 43-44.
  5. Verse and Prose in Peace and War, 51-9.

Wilfred Owen Hies Himself to the Bookshop; Snowy Observations from Raymond Asquith and Noel Hodgson; Grim Scenarios for Kate Luard and Siegfried Sassoon

A few brief updates as several of our writers are moving about, hither and yon.

Today, a century back, the November 1915 enlistees of the Artists’ Rifles were sent to London for a course of lectures, and instructed to find their own lodgings. Wilfred Owen, of course, chose Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop, which had subsidized bedrooms upstairs. It would seem that he tried to hang about and catch the attention of the poetical impresario, possibly providing him with a sheaf of sonnets. But Monro was out at night, and Owen at his lectures during the day, and no great impression was made…[1]

It is amusing–tantalizing, from our point of view–that Owen and Edward Thomas were so close together–cadets of the same regiment, in the same camp–and both thinking about Monro. Only a few days ago, probably within some few yards of Owen’s hut, Thomas was cattily writing to Robert Frost–one secretly powerful poet to another whose power is just being recognized–about this very minor poet and poetical tradesman who imagined himself to be “doing a useful or necessary thing (words to that effect) in continuing the Poetry Bookshop.”

There could hardly be a better example of one man looking up and another man looking down, at the exact same thing. Or person, rather: Thomas looks down upon Monro and resents him as a popularizer, while Owen would love to appoint himself tribune of that very populace…

But despite this narrow, shared angle of view, it’s a big, bustling camp, and Owen and Thomas don’t seem to have known each other. If they had, they would have talked poetry. Or, rather, Owen would have talked poetry and Thomas would have recoiled from the younger, brash, earnest, unproven man and tiptoed off to write a worried letter. In any case, they would have swiftly discovered mutual interests and an uncomfortable, unbridgeable difference–in age, in temperament, in intellectual maturity–that would have, in all likelihood, prevented their discovering that each was on his way to being an important, beloved poet.


And Raymond Asquith is in rare form. Or rare for him: he admits to a certain comfort, and he is not only willing to wax lyrical, for the benefit of his wife Katherine, but also to mar the mood only with over-the-top pedantry, rather than the usual cynical undercutting of sentiment.


23 February 1916

It’s been snowing here the last 2 days with fine frosty nights. It must be ghastly in the trenches, and an officer in the Welsh Guards who has tried life in tents, if you please, at Calais, tells me that that is infinitely worse than the trenches, and from what one knows of the seaside, I can well believe it. In spite of the dullness of things here I am driven to congratulate myself on missing this bit of the war. The snow is rather beautiful in the streets and squares when the stars come out and reminds one of one’s sweet innocent childhood, Santa Claus, St Agnes’ Eve, Virgil’s description of life in Lapland (see the pocket book one of the Georgics)…[2]


Noel Hodgson, only a day after taking casualties and narrowly missing a fire-fight, devotes himself to a rather more conventionally lyrical description of the snowy trenches.

…it was extraordinarily picturesque up in trenches. Great wastes of snow & the black lines of the trenches lying across them, occasionally illuminated by a brilliant flare, & a serene moon over all. But it was a wee bit cold; everything was frozen stiff as a doornail. Men were sleeping on the firesteps with snow all over them, but they seemed to sleep all right; they snored anyway, you could hear them all down the line on the frosty silence.[3]


Kate Luard, too, writes often of beauty. But she is our tough, representative nurse: practical first, sentimental after, and even then generally tending to an appreciation of moral strength rather than material beauty. Snow, for her, means frostbite cases. And shells mean something worse. Today there is only ugliness and suffering:

…The Flying boy is very ill; gas gangrene has set in and he is not in a condition to survive another amputation higher up–so all we can do is to try and arrest the gangrene by the saline drip open method treatment. He cannot be left, so there has been a lot to do–with ten other officers upstairs and the bombed baby Leopold from the Hospice; he is pretty bad too–bless him.[4]


Is this resolution after discord? No, just cacophony in symphony. Siegfried Sassoon is going home on leave, and for him the weather means neither beauty, just now, nor suffering–only disappointment.

February 23

Off to England; leave Mericourt 9.30 by a leisurely train to Amiens and Havre and get to town about 10 a.m. next day. Weather bitterly cold and hard frost. Very poor prospect for getting a hunt.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 179.
  2. Life and Letters, 243.
  3. Zeepvat, Before Action, 157-9.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 43.
  5. Diaries, 40.

Siegfried Sassoon, John Adams, and Noel Hodgson on the Outskirts of a Raid; Kate Luard on the Heroism of Babes; A General Ordeal for Ivor Gurney; Happy Birthday to the Master of Belhaven

On Salisbury Plain, a century back, it was snowing, and Ivor Gurney was caught out in it.

At 1.20 we marched out of huts and were drawn up on the hill side; snow was falling and a perishing gale blew: we stood for nearly two hours frozen to the marrow. Sir John French came around at 3.20 pm and had a look at us. He was a small man with a white moustache and a red face: he wore a big fur coat which hid most of him.[1]


A light beginning to a day of heavy action. It’s February, and the weather will make major offensive operations impractical for many weeks yet–but that doesn’t rule out minor offensive operations, and you know the old saw: minor operations are operations that are happening to someone else.

Noel Hodgson‘s 9th Devonshires were in reserve near Meaulte today when a sudden barrage raised the specter of a German raid. The British were mining in this sector, and the Germans knew it–but they would know the British intentions better if they could interrogate some prisoners. Hence the motivation for a quick hit-and-run attack–a raid, a smash and grab, rather than a proper attack, which would aim to take and hold an enemy trench.

The modus operandi of such a raid would be “to isolate the sector to be raided by an intense bombardment on that sector, and on the sectors on each side; to ‘lift’ the barrage, or curtain of fire, at a given moment off the front line of the sector raided “what time” (as the old phrase goes) they come over, enter the trench if they can, make a few prisoners, and get back quickly. All the while the sectors to right and left are being bombarded heavily.”

After just such a short sharp barrage on the positions held by the Border Regiment and one company of the Devonshires, the artillery lifted to the communications trenches and spread to the battalions on either side, and German troops stormed the front line. At 5.50 pm, Hodgson, who commanded commanded the Devonshires’ bombers, was sent forward into a work called the Queen’s Redoubt, his men taking nine casualties from the interdiction fire as they did so.

But by the time they had reached the front line, the German raid had been repelled–Hodgson so no direct action. The raid had been a qualified success: twelve men of the Border regiment were missing, either buried, blown apart, or–most likely–taken prisoner. Thirty-four others were killed or wounded. Hodgson and his bombers went forward to help with clean-up and trench repair.[2]


The 1/Royal Welch Fusiliers, it turns out, were just to the right of the position occupied by the Devonshires. It is this same raid, then, which John Bernard Adams describe three days later in his diary. (The explanation of raiding tactics quoted above is his as well.)

Let me try and record the raid on our left on the 22nd, before I forget it. The Manchesters were in the front line and Maple Redoubt. During the afternoon the Boche started putting heavies on to Maple Redoubt, and the comer of Canterbury Avenue. ‘Bad luck on the Manchesters again,’ we all agreed—and turned in for tea. There was a wonderful good fire going.

‘By Jove, they are going it,’ I said, as we sat down and Gray brought in the teapot. Thud! Thud! Thud—thud! We simply had to go out and watch. Regular coal-boxes, sending up great columns of mud, and splinters humming and splashing right over us, a good hundred yards or more. ‘Better keep inside,’ from Dixon.

We had tea, and things seemed to quiet down.

Then about six o’clock the bombardment got louder, and our guns woke up like fun. ‘Vee-bm . . . vee-bm’ from our whizz-bangs going over, and then the machine-guns began on our left. Simultaneously, in came Richards (Dixon’s servant) with an excited air. ‘Gas,’ he exclaimed. Instinctively I felt for my gas helmet. Meanwhile Dixon had gone outside. ‘Absurd,’ he said in a quiet voice. ‘The wind’s wrong. Who brought that message?’

Then up came a telephone orderly. I heard him running on the hard road. ‘Stand to,’ he said breathlessly, and Dixon went off to the ‘phone with him. Nicolson appeared in a gas helmet. I was looking for my pipe, but could not find it. Then at last I went out without it.

Outside it was getting dark. It was a fairly nippy air. The bombardment was going strong. All the sky was flickering, and our guns were screaming over. ‘Crump, crump,’ the Boche shells were bursting up by Maple Redoubt. ‘Scream, scream,’ went our guns back; and right overhead our big guns went griding.

All this I noticed gradually. My first impression was the strong smell of gas helmets in the cold air. The gas alarm had spread, and some of the men had their helmets on. I felt undecided. I simply did not know, whether the men should wear them or not. What was happening? I wished Dixon would come back. Ah! there he was. What news?

‘I can’t get through,’ he said, ‘but we shall get a message all right if necessary.’

‘What’s happening?’ I asked. ‘Do you think they are coming over.’

‘No. It won’t last long, I expect. Still, just let’s see if the men have got their emergency rations with them.’

A few had not, and were sent into the dug-outs for them. Gas helmets were ordered back into their satchels.

‘No possibility of gas,’ said Dixon; ‘wind’s dead south.’ I was immensely bucked now. There was a feeling of tenseness and bracing-up. I felt the importance of essentials—rifles and bayonets in good order—the men fit, and able to run. This was the real thing, somehow.

I made Lewis go in and get my pipe. I found I had no pouch, and stuffed loose baccy in my pocket.

I realised I had not thought out what I would do in case of attack. I did not know what was happening. I was glad Dixon was there . . .

It was great, though, to hear the continuous roar of the cannonade, and the machine-guns rapping, not for five minutes, but all the time. That I think was the most novel sound of all. No news. That was a new feature. A Manchester officer came up and said all their communications were cut with the left.

That little tidbit of information is bad news for the men of the Border Regiment, who are now cut off and being raided. But this is war, and one man’s terror is another man’s elation–and they may be separated not by barbed wire and national animus, but only a few hundred lateral yards…

I was immensely bucked, especially with my pipe. Our servants were good friends to have behind us, and Dixon was a man in his element. The men were all cool. ‘Germans have broken through,’ I heard one man say. ‘ Where?’ said someone rather excitedly. ‘In the North Sea,’ was the stolid reply.

At last the cannonade developed into a roar on our left, and we realized that any show was there, and not on our sector. Then up came the quartermaster with some boots for Dixon and me, and we all went into the dug-out, where was a splendid fire. And we stayed there, and certain humorous remarks from the quartermaster suddenly turned my feelings, and I felt that the tension was gone, the thing was over; and that outside the bombardment was slackening. In half an hour it was ‘stand down’ at 7.40.

The excitement took more than three days to fade, evidently, for Adams will now repeat himself for the third time–but with a crucial gloss. This has been his baptism of fire, and it has brought him the knowledge that every new soldier craves: that he is not damned to irredeemable cowardice.

I was immensely bucked. I knew I should be all right now in an attack. And the cannonade at night was a magnificent sight. Of course we had not been shelled, though some whizz-bangs had been fired fifty yards behind us just above ‘Redoubt A,’ trying for the battery just over the hill.

My chief impression was, ‘This is the real thing.’ You must know your men. They await clear orders, that is all. It was dark. I remember thinking of Brigade and Division behind, invisible, seeing nothing, yet alone knowing what was happening. No news, that was interesting…

For Adams, a test withstood, and an immensely bucking experience. For the Germans? For that unknown or unnamed regiment on the left?

The Germans came over from just north of Fricourt, but only a very few reached our trenches, and of them about a dozen were made prisoners, and the rest killed. It was a ”bad show” from the enemy point of view.[3]


Adams is not our only writer in this battalion. Siegfried Sassoon, currently serving as battalion transport officer and therefore stationed further back, with the horses, missed the show. And so we get a very different diary account–what a difference a mile and a sensibility may make:

February 22

Battalion went to front line again on February 18. Weather wet last week; very cold now but no snow. Major Stockwell arrived yesterday to take command. He is aggressive efficiency, very blatant, but knows the job. On going up with the rations tonight I found a great noise of gunfire; coming over the hill from Bray to Citadel the darkness toward Albert and Fricourt was lit with flashes and glare of shells bursting and guns firing, and, over all Blake’s evening star, ‘Thou fair-haired angel of the evening . . . washed the dusk with silver’, while men at war painted it with flame and destruction. The Battalion were standing to, and rather expecting a German attack, but nothing came of it and little damage done. And so home to bed, to be awakened at midnight by Cotterill and told to go on leave to-morrow.[4]


Far to the north, in Ypres, the German guns were active as well. For a bluff soul like the Master of Belhaven, modest hopes might almost be cries of woe:

Ypres, 22nd February, 1916

What a birthday!–my second on active service. If I am still alive next year, I hope the war will be over. We have had a terrific bombardment to-day…[5]

And finally, today, Kate Luard, has a slew of worries–and heroes. There are inches of snow, and every indication of a rush of frost bite cases. There have been shells and rifle grenades in the nearby trenches, and a badly wounded British soldier has turned out to be only sixteen years old. The hospital has also just received a pilot whose lower leg was blown off by an anti-aircraft shell yesterday. Today he is charming the nurses with a joke about the bad luck of having just bought new boots. And then there are the casualties from a recent aerial bomb in town:

The bombed baby of the other night is a hero. He sits on the operating table with a long forceps through his shoulder, blowing his tin trumpet and squeaking his woolly lamb in between all sorts of frightfulness of having bits of bomb picked out of his small person. He is about four.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, 61-2.
  2. Zeepvalt, Before Action, 156-7.
  3. Nothing of Importance, 132-8; 16-30.
  4. Diaries, 39.
  5. War Diary, 153-4.
  6. Unknown Warriors, 41-3.

Olaf Stapledon and the Rewards of Conscience; A Sweet Gesture and a Savory Horror from Noel Hodgson; Irons in the Fire for a Pettish Edward Thomas

21 2 16
Hare Hall Camp

My dear Robert,

What have I done that you shouldn’t write to me for a month or more? You treat me worse than the sergeant-major does or did when he refused to have me made a full corporal. For what does a stripe more or less, sewn on your sleeve, matter?

I am fond of Edward Thomas. I am increasingly convinced that he is more of a quiet major poet than a pleasant minor poet. I find his struggles to be… historically interesting. Yet here we are, weeks after his friendly indiscretion meant that he was passed over for a non-commissioned promotion–which he probably doesn’t even want, and which won’t matter at all if he is eventually commissioned, as most members of his unit intend to be–and he is still lamely bringing it into an unrelated letter in a weak stab at faux-petulance… ugh.

If the loss of a stripe is the calamity he must mention in every letter, the news that “Edward Eastaway” will be included in a forthcoming anthology is the happy counterpart.

At any rate I hear we are to meet in spirit. Bottomley said I was to contribute to a poetic annual planned by Trevelyan, Abercrombie & others; & he said he believed you would too. But it isn’t enough that Robert Frost should be printed somewhere near Edward Eastaway of the other Hampshire. So please write & say either that I am forgiven or that 3 or 4 letters have been lost in the post…

And now for the other regularly-scheduled section of a letter to Frost: inter-poetic cattiness. The subject today is Harold Monro, the mover-and-shaker and bookshop-proprietor.

I wish it was Monro was in Boston & you in Devonshire Street, tho you might not like the bombs they get thereabouts. Do you know he told Mr Ellis that he felt he was doing a useful or necessary thing (words to that effect) in continuing the Poetry Bookshop. He really did. I mean I believe he did. It is what Belloc calls extremely rum…

Nasty! Thomas, who often complains about the official government largess that has come the way of Walter de la Mare, is now begrudging Monro’s self-importance about chivvying on the cause of poetry down at street level. Monro may not be a poet or a literary taste-maker, but he has chosen to play a significant role in helping along many young poets and would-be poets. He has opened a poetry bookshop (The Poetry Bookshop) which sells poetry, for goodness’ sake. Monro may not be to Thomas’s taste, but by snarking about Monro’s work Thomas is refusing his cake and not ordering it either, as it were. Kindness, Edward, kindness!

Monro, as it happens, will shortly have an opportunity to do a good turn for Thomas’s fellow Artists’ Rifleman and Romford denizen Wilfred Owen.

But back to Thomas’s humble hut in Romford:

Now the hut has filled up & some are playing cards & some talking about the rate of pay being in inverse ratio to the amount of risk run, & so on. I can’t write any more yet. Now they have got onto the measles. There is an epidemic in camp, & we all dread it getting to our hut, which would mean we should be isolated & confined to this camp & unable to go home till 18 days after the last case.

Owen, we might remember, has been in one of the huts so quarantined–and thus do the vagaries of infectious disease keep our literary paths from crossing more spectacularly.

Having covered the bad news, Thomas gets around to mentioning more promising writing work in the offing. It does seem as if fortune has been somewhat cruel, providing enough work only after his lack of profitable writing assignments had driven him toward the decision to enlist…

I had an offer the other day to write the history of a regiment. Of course I cannot take it till the war is over, & then I expect it might be wise not to hang on here picking up odd jobs. If I can & if nothing unexpected turns up, I shall come straight out to you.

Goodbye. My love to you & Elinor & the children.
Yours ever


Noel Hodgson wrote to his sister Stella today, including in his letter the rather touching instruction that all money earned from his newfound writing career should be deposited into an account for his expected nephew (or niece–but he expects a nephew). He has also a recipe for us–and our first mention of socks-to-the-front in ever so long.

We are still in the same place, and very comfortable; we have got a stove and plenty of fuel, and we can make ourselves rum punch in the evenings. The C.O. has received a consignment of all manner of potted delights from home, and we have devised a most excellent dish. Take one round of the loaf, toast it, butter it and anoint with anchovy paste. Lay on it two poached eggs and the chopped portions of a sheep’s kidney. Place in the oven for one minute and eat immediately. Most succulent I assure you, we eat it whenever the kidneys can be obtained. The bag of kippers and the socks have both arrived. You spoil me, you know, but it is very pleasant to be spoilt. ’”[2]


And finally, a relief for Olaf Stapledon, the rare C.O. who is absolutely more conscientious than he is objecting. As he explains to his fiancée, Agnes Miller, a compromise has been hammered out to keep confirmed pacifists out of the draft.

Friends’ Ambulance Unit
21 February 1916

…Today we hear that all members of the Unit who conscientiously object to enlist in any service are to be given total exemption. It is wonderful that our supporters at home (chiefly Sir George Newman) have succeeded in getting so complete a concession. The result is that a very few people will have to go home to enlist, while the great majority, being conscientious objectors, are absolutely free indefinitely. I can’t think how it was done! Some of us also signed a strong additional protest or declaration. I am exceedingly glad to feel that I can go on here and yet be an out & out pacifist. At the moment there is a biggish bombardment going on, and shrapnel can be see bursting over W[oesten]. It is queer to be in the midst of all this & all these “warring hosts” and yet feel absolutely free and not bound to any military allegiance. Heaven, I am sure now about it all, and glad I joined the FAU & not the army, as I might once have done.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. Elected Friends, 121-122.
  2. Zeepvalt, Before Action, 156.
  3. Talking Across the World, 132.

Charles Scott Moncrieff is Back in France

Charles Scott Moncrieff is a highly experienced subaltern. A young ex-cadet reservist at the opening of the war, he was in combat in the brutal waning days of 1914 with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. By all accounts a brave and conscientious officer, he had, like Roland Leighton, converted to Catholicism while in France during the summer of 1915. And by now, a century back, he has spent enough time in the trenches to have come down with both trench foot and trench fever. After hospital time for the latter in December and January he was home in Scotland on leave, then to London. And then back to France.

We don’t know much about Moncrieff, here, yet, but he seems possessed of a certain sort of literary serendipity which bodes well–note, for instance, the name of the ship which bears him from England to France. We’ll begin aboard ship, a week ago:

R.M.S.S. Vera,
2 a.m. 13th Feb. 1916

I have had two pleasant days. On Friday I lunched at Fettes with the Pyatts and went down again to dinner there, where I met two of their old boys, brothers, one wounded in Gallipoli and the other in France. We all went in to Prayers and received a deafening applause from the House—of which I felt most undeserving and not a little embarrassed.

This would be Fettes College, an Edinburgh variation on the English Public school. Thence to London, where his “pleasant day” included visiting a friend recovering from being shot in the mouth and attending a play with his school friend and fellow Scot Charles Law. Law’s father, Andrew Bonar Law (always referred to as “Bonar Law”), is now a prominent minister in the coalition government. The play? Patriotic fare:

The Man who Stayed at Home—Jean Cadell is back there and played her Clarendon Crescent part very well. Afterwards I dined very peacefully at the Colonial Secretary’s house in Edwardes Square. Miss Law keeps house—the eldest son, who is flying, sat at the foot of the table. The Minister was on my right Charlie Law facing us. The three had been playing tennis all afternoon with Steel Maitland and were healthily tired. They were all very simple and pleasant. I was rather frightened of him before dinner in his sanctum, with his scarlet despatch box at his feet and a lot of papers—and Charlie saying silly things from the arm of a chair…

I think they show great promise of our future Government after the stale lees of this Asquith régime are poured down the sink of Time… I got down about midnight to this very unpleasant boat, where I have a berth in the dining saloon. We are now ordered to bed, and steam out in the morning.

The remarkable thing, I should make clear, is the meaning of “simple” in “simple and pleasant.” The traditionally forename-less Miss Law keeps house for her father and brothers, Mrs. Law having died several years ago. It would seem that she does so with a minimum of fuss and unusually little help from servants.[1]

Moncrieff then had an uneventful return to his battalion, which he seems to have timed nicely. They have been resting, and are due to spend the next six weeks much as the 1/Royal Welch Fusiliers spent their mid-winter.

2nd Bn. K.O.S.B.
17th February, 1916

I turned up here at mid-day, at the very back of beyond, after an eight mile walk from the station. They have been here about a week, and expect to remain till the end of March, partly for rest and relaxation, and partly to train two raw battalions in the Brigade.

I am awfully happy to be here, and away from Rouen, it is so homelike! Even with a new Colonel, and ever so
many new officers, and no Herries.

And then, yesterday, a century back, Moncrieff wrote to the Pyatts, with whom he had stayed in Edinburgh. The casual mention of his conversion is interesting.

2nd K.O.S.B.,
19th February, 1916

I was very glad to get your letter, except that it reminded me that I hadn’t written to you as I meant to. I only stayed three days in Rouen, and got back to the regiment on Thursday after three and a half months’

Our division is out resting since the new year, and after months of trenches and fatigues the men are wonderfully braced up by this quiet life and a little more or less systematic training. How long and what next we don’t know, but hope for whatever best each of us fancies. I cannot say on this flat sheet how much I enjoyed the day with you. Next day I was in London and dined at the Bonar Laws’, and embarked at midnight very much fortified by the spectacle of their decent and simple family life: so healthily different from some others’ among our rulers. I think he is the man we must look to to straighten things up after the war…

I don’t think I made it plain to you that I became a Papist some months ago. It has made me very contented. I am billeted from .to-day on the curé of this very quiet village which lies in an undrained valley some miles from anywhere. I haven’t had much speech with him yet as I only moved in to-day in place of another officer who has gone on a course.

A strange way to work this fact in–awkwardly over-casual? The next abrupt segue is amusing, too: Moncrieff is a literary type, highly cultured and a dab hand at European languages. So what just-published poetry is he reading?

By the way, have you seen The Spoon River Anthology? I just looked at it in London, in the house of a reasonably distinguished critic who raved over it. It is certainly interesting. I have brought Walpole’s new book out with me, a good enough war story from the Russian side…

There is an irony of sorts to be uncovered here. Moncrieff is presenting himself as a goodish sort of chappie–diffident but confident, with some hidden depths perhaps in all this bookishness and Catholicism and cutting-edge appreciation of proto-Roots-music versified Americana. But there is a smoke-screen here, concealing other depths. Moncrieff is gay, and the “prominent critic” is Robbie Ross, a crucial gate-keeper to the semi-secret gay literary life of London. Amusingly–or poignantly, given all that Moncrieff must manage–there is a letter from about this time in which Ross professes irritation with Moncrieff’s bright-boy posturing in their shared milieu. You can’t win…

But back to reading-at-the-front, a favorite subject here. The list continues:

…also Dante, a little Italian copy from Nice, where I stuck rather after resolving to read a canto daily before breakfast, and a marvellous eighteen-penny Cary (Clarendon Press) from Edinburgh, also Browning—in the same series—and a fragmentary novel of my own, but one hasn’t the ease here (at least I haven’t) to focus one’s mind either for reading or for writing in a Christian manner. That is why I write such stupid letters.

Aha! And not only a novel, but poetry, published in the school magazine:

The verses you asked for were in a Wykhamist (June or July). They looked very crude in print, and the point was buried rather, as my points usually are, because I always think on the other side of the words somehow. I think I was meant to speak, not to write and, indeed, if the war doesn’t leave me too old, I expect I shall become a priest. I send you another verse which you probably won’t like a bit.

Smokescreens, or a driven leaf?

Finally, to bring us up to date, here is today’s letter to his mother:

20th February, 1916

I moved yesterday to the parsonage, a pleasant little house, though squalid compared to an English parsonage. My other billet was very damp with frothy-looking fungus on the wall, and a grim-looking woman in charge.

. . . After lunch we rode over to a lecture on the battle of Loos, in a town about 6 miles off. I have got a new horse of great stature, which I find some difficulty in mounting, but he goes much better than either of my previous ones. We had a church parade yesterday, filling up more than half the little place, otherwise a very sparse congregation. . . . Things go on very quietly.  We are getting trenches ready rather fast for some kind of practice at the end of the week, the next-door regiment is to attack us, and vice versa.[2]

Moncrieff’s letter-writing is spotty, but I hope that this post can serve as an introduction, and that his war experience will enrich the writing of the Great War as we go forward…


References and Footnotes

  1. If there is other evidence for Jean Findlay's assumption, in Chasing Lost Time, that this phrase indicates a total lack of servants, then I've missed it.
  2. Memories and Letters, 110-113.