We have several letters today, all with bits-worth-reading. First, Charles Scott-Moncrieff, with his own take on a very popular subject of late: the naturalistic/fanciful description of a trench mortar duel.
22 March, 1916
We came out of trenches last night, and are lodged (as a support battalion) on the outskirts of the large town we are defending…
The chief amusement of our particular enemy there was, daily at teatime, to launch aerial torpedoes on to my Company headquarters. They are things like turnips with their leaves clipped into wings, which are fired out of some kind of trap, like clay pigeons. You hear the click as they start, and then gaze out over the fields to see where exactly it came from, and then yell downstairs to someone at the telephone to get the guns going, and then one’s voice is drowned by the torpedo arriving somewhere near the lobe of one’s right ear, and so on until the box of torpedoes is emptied, and we and the Germans both stop for tea, and in the middle a British shell comes sauntering overhead, hotly followed by a polite R.A. subaltern who asks (down the companionway) “Was that all right, sir?”
The worst of these trenches is that their French constructors having been badly shelled, gave up trying to improve them and took refuge in deep and dark caverns, which we inherit. They are clumsy and inconvenient, as one has to burn candles all day, and even then one cannot see much.
For two more letters and a celebration we go, now, to England, and to two officers and one man who volunteered less than promptly and are thus among the latter waves of Kitchener’s army, and still in training camp.
Could we skip an update from Ford Madox Hueffer? We could, but this is interesting–strained nonchalance over looming scandal. Ford is writing to H. G. Wells, a friend perhaps already personally embroiled in the letter’s main topic, namely Ford’s marital problems with the woman–Violet Hunt, his co-author on the recent Zeppelin Nights–who is not technically his (Ford’s) wife…
3rd Batt., The Welch Regt.
My dear H. G.,
I am much touched by your letter—tho’ I do not really know what to make of it. I hadn’t the least idea that there was any difference between Violet & myself—or at least anything to make her face the necessity of talking about it. I, at any rate, haven’t any grievance against her & want nothing better than to live with her the life of a peaceable regimental officer with a peaceable wife.
Of course that is not very exciting for her & her enjoyment of life depends so much on excitement. But one’s preoccupations can’t, now, be what they were in the 90’s—or even three or two years ago.
That, I suppose, is the tragedy–but it is the tragedy–isn’t it?–of the whole of Europe…
This was rather a quick resort to context, no? What I mean to say is that Ford/Hueffer is not necessarily wrong–the pressure to join the army might very well strain a relationship to the breaking point, especially when there is no corresponding pressure–or desire–for a woman to give up literary life in London to become a camp-wife in the shires. But to play down a “wife’s” unhappiness with “one can’t party so hearty in wartime” and “ah, the tragedy of Europe” is either an attempt to avoid the issue or a fairly nasty underhanded swipe…
At any rate, it you see V., do impress her with the fact that, short of absence without leave or cutting parades, I shall always be & am [illegible] at her disposal. I have the greatest possible affection & esteem for her, there isn’t anyone else (but I don’t know what she has got into her always romantic head) and I am frightfully sorry that these bad years are such bad years for her. Anyhow there I am, expressed to the absolute mot juste.
“All is well, but please tell my wife that, due to the current phase of European history, I can’t quite deal with our problems.” This doesn’t sit right, does it?
I am not well-versed in Ford’s intimate history and lack the time this week to read up on it, but there must be several obfuscations here, and there are probably outright untruths. But anyway, how’s camp, Ford?
We are frightfully busy here… standing at attention in front of a battalion is, I mean, for a full twenty minutes, the devil of an affair. You try doing it in your study & see. But it melts away as an experience in a few minutes–& it is useful enough for the men & one’s poor soul too.
Well, God bless you and give my love to Jane. Yrs.
From Glamorgan to Wiltshire, from officer to private, and from very… famous-writerly sorts of concerns to the ingenuous notes on camp life of a young musician and poet. Ivor Gurney writes today, a century back, to Marion Scott, his benefactor, friend and, increasingly, his patroness. It’s not that she is sending him large sums of money, but rather that she has been attentive and helpful in many small ways, and is plainly committed to keeping his nascent career from shriveling away under the steady oppression of army discipline.
22 March 1916
Pte Gurney, D.Co 215 Glosters, Park House Camp, Salisbury.
Dear Miss Scott: The beginning of this letter is to commemorate Tim Godding–one of the most original people in all this regiment, a big word.
Here am I, sitting on my bed, against my kit bag, half-reading Carlyle, little soaking through to my dull mind, when I become aware that a boxing match is being arranged. Tim Godding will be obviously somewhere near the top of this. And presently. “No, mate, I cant say as I can box, but I’ve had——— good hidings from one bloke and another………. ’
Is this a good “how about these tommies?” anecdote? Sure, but on a busy day this Tim Godding–apparently an old soldier, non-reader, and salt-of-the-earth sort of fellow–makes the cut on a lark:
Today also, when we were lying on our bellies, trying to load and reload and rereload with the quickness of those who get extra pay for it—though not likely to get the pay for those who have extra quickness—A skylark arose. Now Tim Godding has little bits of jargon, some of which I strongly suspect to be Hindustani. One of these is “Ipshi pris” , a sign of high spirits, of salutation to a passing battallion, or the crown of a joke; anything joyful. So Tim Godding half turned over, looked up to the first blue of spring—“Ipshi pris, skylark; ipshi pris”!
In deference to exhausted readers I will skip several more Tim Godding anecdotes and get to Gurney’s own feelings.
…Army life is for me full of long blanks of tedium. Would that I were sound in mind and body, and able to take all in that is to be taken! Hard for an artist to go self-condemned to partial blindness and deafness through that which might be so fruitful to him! But on the whole I take it as a price to be paid for my education, and dodder on as contented as maybe. But it is hard to long for beauty, and beauty obtained to remain unsatisfied—chronically discontent. But given time I think that my revenge on myself and my circumstances shall be long and sweet.
Last Sunday Crudlan and I lay out on a down so like our own; but the first violet had not yet arrived, whereas the woods must be happy-eyed with them at home—in Glostershire where Spring sends greetings before other less happy counties have forgotten Winter and the snow. Where the talk is men’s talk, and eyes of folk are as kind as the soft airs. The best roads in England, the finest cider, the richest blossom in the most magical orchards, beauty content in security, strength quiet in confidence controlled, blood mixed of plain and hill, Welsh and English; are not these only of my county, my home? And yet were I there the canker in my soul would taint all these. But at least I have reached the position of longing for work, and of blaming myself for part of my misfortunes at any rate.
This is a poet held fast in the ranks, a skylark in the case, alas. But even gentle Gurney is not above showing a soft-spot–ironic, sure, but present–for regimental tradition:
Now we are allowed to wear our honour, the back-badge: and great is the joy thereat. Today is the anniversary of that great day in Egypt when the rear rank of the double line faced about and the Old Braggs—28th Foot—repelled two attacks in blood and glory.
A few notes on his compositions follow, then this:
You ask me whether I will look at certain poems with a view to setting—after the war. The reason I do not write now, is not because there is a war on, but because I do not feel bound to write; when my mind compels me, then I will write; then and not before.
And then an out-of-context remark, evidently in response to Scott’s letter, which eerily foreshadows the coming debate about Great War poetry:
I am not altogether in agreement with the Russian attitude to Suffering. It is too passive.
In a review of Rupert Brooke’s “Letters from America”, I found that Henry James had written to this effect, in the preface…
With best wishes
Yours very sincerely Ivor Gurney.
And finally, today, an unambiguously happy occasion. Today, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien and Edith Bratt were married after early Mass in the Church of St. Mary Immaculate in Warwick. In the train, heading for Somerset and their honeymoon, the two took turns writing different versions of Edith’s new name on the back of a telegram.
This was the end of a long struggle as well as the beginning of a new life together: John Ronald and Edith had been in love for six years, and waited upon–and out-waited–the disapproval of Tolkien’s guardian, Father Francis Morgan.
Tolkien had moved cautiously, but, in the end, decisively. He did not tell his friends about the impending marriage until the date was agreed on–a mixed gesture seeking both a sort of permission and support–and although he had recently gotten his financial affairs in order with Father Morgan he had not managed to mention the marriage until it was two weeks away.
The three other boys of the TCBS each wrote from camp and trench to assure their friend that his marriage would not break up their fellowship. This was kind, but, in truth, how could they worry about such a thing, when it was so clear that what threatened all four–and had surely precipitated the wedding–was the likelihood that they would be involved in this summer’s offensive? Father Morgan wrote too, with approval and an offer to officiate at a wedding in Birmingham, Tolkien’s pre-Oxford home. But the plans had been laid.
Well then. The two young lovers have stood the test of disapproving elders and now must brave “the tragedy of Europe.” They will have one week of honeymoon–their first unchaperoned time together–before Tolkien returns to camp and Edith must uproot herself and follow her husband’s military movements.