Siegfried Sassoon in No Man’s Land; John Ronald Tolkien Faces Rejection

Another fascinating–and rather more ominous–diary entry today from Siegfried Sassoon.

March 31

They put up three mines this evening between 4 and 5 but did no damage at all. Last night, warmer and lovely with stars, found me creeping about in front of our wire with Corporal O’Brien.

I’ve harped on Sassoon’s recent embrace of the pathetic fallacy–the bullets and shells are alive, they are malicious, etc. Today, it seems, shows the other side of the same coin: when he chooses to seek unnecessary combat he describes the action, wryly, in the passive voice. He did not choose to go hunting Germans–rather, the night “found” him lying in ambush…

Got quite near the German wire but couldn’t find the sap which had been mentioned. Out about an hour and a half; great fun. To-night I’m going to try and spot one of their working-parties and chuck some bombs at them. Better to get a sling at them in the open—even if on one’s belly—than to sit here and have a great thing drop on one’s head. I found it most exhilarating—just like starting for a race. Great thing is to get as many sensations as possible. No good being out here unless one takes the full amount of risks, and I want to get a good name in the Battalion, for the sake of poetry and poets, whom I represent.

The aggression, the desire for vengeance, and the hint of valor-motivated-by-fear (better to hunt than to sit and be bombarded) are all important aspects of Sassoon’s new attitude. But the paragraph above is also a perfect example of the “experience argument:” Sassoon leaves aside all questions of morality or efficiency in order to argue, simply, that the war is an experience that should be lived to the fullest, and an opportunity to prove one’s self. The juxtaposition of “for the regiment” and “for poetry” seems very strange (and perhaps it is) but it was hardly uncommon. Robert Graves was disliked by most of his regimental comrades and loathed the snobbish and  unliterary (or practically illiterate, as he would have it) sportsmen who had made up the pre-War officers’ mess in the Royal Welch–but he too took pride in the Regiment’s antiquity and respectability, and saw himself as representing both the corps and other young men of his own poetic/intellectual bent.

But back to Sassoon, and his new experiences:

No-man’s-land fascinates me, with its jumble of wire-tangles and snaky seams in the earth winding along the landscape. The mine-craters are rather fearsome, with snipers hidden away on the lips, and pools of dead-looking water. One mine that went up to-day was in an old crater; I think it missed fire, as the earth seethed and spumed, but did not hurl debris skyward in smoke as they usually do. But the earth shook all right.

I am not going out for nothing to-night. I know I ought to be careful of myself, but something drives me on to look for trouble. Greaves tried to stop me going out last night; but that was child’s play, only two or three sniper’s shots at us, and the white rocket-lights going up while we lay flat and listened to our bumping hearts, and laughed with sheer delight when the danger was over…[1]


Three quick updates to round off the day, today.

First, Francis Ledwidge wrote a short note to Lord Dunsany from his hospital bed in Egypt:

I have just a few minutes to get a letter written and away. I enclose some little poems recently written. One poem is distinctively Irish. I am getting on well now.[2]

Alas: I have no idea which poems were included.


And speaking of poems, bad news in today’s post for the newlywed John Ronald Tolkien: Sidgwick & Jackson has rejected his proposed volume of fairy poems.[3]


Finally, today, a century back, Noel Hodgson began ten days of home leave, reaching London the same day on which he departed the trenches.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 50-51.
  2. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 147.
  3. Chronology, 79.
  4. Zeepvat, Before Action, 163.

Siegfried Sassoon on the Sights and Sound and Men of War, and a Working-Party’s Cost; Raymond Asquith Moves Headquarters, and Contemplates Leave; Edward Hermon Confronts the Flames; Vera Brittain Has an Outing

Poetry and prose today from Siegfried Sassoon, who has turned in his Transport Officer badge (but not his poet’s license) to go to the front line, and take up arms.

March 30th

7 o’clock on a frosty white morning with a lark shaking his little wings above the trenches and an airplane droning high up in the soft early sunlight. At 5 it was quite light, with a sickle moon low in the west and the dawn a delicate flush of faint pink and submerged radiance. Above a mist-swathed country, peeping out from tree or roof, all white, misty-white and frosty-white; men stamp their feet and rats are about on the crannied-rime-frosted parapets. Folds of mist, drifting in a dense blur; above them the white shoals and chasms of the sky.

Larks and warplanes, rats at the feet and shoals of clouds above… these juxtapositions were less familiar then than they are now. They are coming thick and fast for Sassoon, now, these load visions. But he soon fixes his gaze between earth and sky, and begins to study his fellow men.

Here life is audacious and invincible–until it is whirled away in enigmatic helplessness and ruin; and then it is only the bodies that are smashed and riddled; for the profound and purposeful spirit of renascence moves in and rests on all things–imperceptible between the scarred and swarming earth and noble solitudes of sky—the spirit that triumphs over visible destruction, as leaping water laughs at winds and rocks and shipwrecked hulks.

Their temper is proven, the fibre of their worth is revealed; these men from Welsh farms and Midland cities, from factory and shop and mine, who can ever give them their meed of praise for the patience and tender jollity which seldom forsake them?

The cheerless monotony of their hourly insecurity, a monotony broken only by the ever-present imminence of death and wounds—the cruelty and malice of these things that fall from the skies searching for men, that they may batter and pierce the bodies and blot the slender human existence.

As I sit in the sun in a nook among the sandbags and chalky debris, with shells flying overhead in the blue air, a lark sings high up, and a little weasel comes and runs past me within a foot of my outstretched feet, looking at me with tiny bright eyes.

Bullets sing and whistle and hum, so do bits of shell; rifles crack; some small guns and trench mortars pop and thud; big shells burst with a massive explosion, and the voluminous echoes roll along the valleys, to fade nobly and without haste or consternation…

I will play the weasel (better than the rat!) or the popping annoyance of a far-off mortar, and break into the rolling reverie. Sassoon continues at some length, watching and lying, word-drunk in ambush, to try and catch all of the sights and sounds of war. But then he works himself up to a poem, today, and that must take pride of place.

Just one more prefacing comment, then: there is a distinct arc to Sassoon’s thoughts of the past few days, and I don’t mean just the rising theme of the simple virtues of the soldiers (who will people the coming poem). There’s something darker underneath. Sassoon continues to practice the poetic observation of nature (or nature and nature’s threatening doppelgangers, humming and whistling all about him) but he is no longer a passive observer, content to let “meaning” wait. With “Tommy” dead, he has hurled himself into the waiting embrace of the pathetic fallacy. The shells no longer await a man’s reckoning with himself–hero or coward? survivor or sacrifice?–but seek him out, vengefully, maliciously.

I don’t think it’s going overboard to suggest that Sassoon has, for the moment, lost control of his poetic voice. The war might have been beautiful or ugly before, but its meaning was something that the poet, implicitly, might be able to speak about. Now he assumes a single meaning so overwhelming that he exists within it, and he cannot comment upon it any more convincingly than he would reject the sky, or thunder. Instead, from within this sinister new war, this cruel killer of his best-beloved, he writes on in anger, half-aware of the ways in which everything has changed.

But Sassoon is not ready, yet, to put “Tommy” into verse. Instead he will face the war’s costs from a much less passionate place. He will write with restraint (one imagines Sassoon telling himself this) about one of the war’s nearly anonymous victims. (But that’s the point–the soldier here is no fighter, only a victim.) Instead of David Thomas, we have a composite Tommy of a very different sort–one of the working men, not an officer; a family man, not a young gentleman a few years out of school; a dull sort, not a poet’s inspiration–or so one would have thought.


A Working-Party

Three hours ago he blundered up the trench,
Sliding and poising, groping with his boots;
Sometimes he tripped and lurched against the walls
With hands that pawed the sodden bags of chalk.
He could not see the man who went before him;
Only he heard the drum and rattle of feet
Stepping along the greasy plank, or sploshing
Wretchedly where the sludge was ankle-deep.

Voices would grunt ‘Keep to the right–make way!’
When squeezing past men from the front-line:
White faces peered, puffing an ember of red;
Candles and braziers glinted through the chinks
And curtain-flaps of dug-outs; then the gloom
Swallowed his sense of sight; he stooped and swore
Because a sagging wire had caught his neck.

A flare went up; and shining whiteness spread
And flickered upwards; showing nimble rats
And mounds of sand-bags, weatherworn and bleached,
Then the slow silver moment died in dark.
The wind came posting by with chilly gusts
And buffeting at corners, piping thin.
And dreary through the crannies; rifle-shots
Would split and crack and sing along the night,
And shells came curving through the cloven air
Bursting with hollow and voluminous bang.

Three hours ago, he stumbled up the trench;
But he will never walk that road again:
He will be carried back; not carefully now,
Because he lies beyond the need of care;
And has no wound to hurt him, being dead.

He was a young man with a meagre wife
And two pale children in a Midland town;
His mates considered him a useful chap,
Who did his work and hadn’t much to say,
And always laughed at other people’s jokes
Patient and dull, but kindly and reserved.[1]

That night when he was busy at his job
Of piling sandbags on the parapet,
He thought how slow time went, stamping his feet
And blowing on his fingers, pinched with cold.
He thought of getting back by half-past twelve,
And a tot of rum to send him warm to sleep
In draughty dug-out stuffy with the fumes
Of coke, and full of snoring weary men.

He pushed another bag along the top,
Craning his body outward; then a flare
Gave one white glimpse of earth, and what he knew;
And as he dropped his head, the instant split
His startled life with lead, and all went out.[2]

That’s how a lad goes west when at the front—
Snapped in a moment’s merciful escape.
While the dun year goes lagging on its course
With widows grieving down the streets in black.
And faded mothers dreaming of bright sons
That grew to men, and listed for the war.
And left a photograph to keep their place.

March 30th


And a few shorter notes today, a century back, beginning with Raymond Asquith’s letter to his wife Katherine. Moves and leaves and Zeppelins, oh my:

30 March 1916

Writing has been impossible in the nightmare of confusion which has reigned during the last 2 days–no ink, no paper, no light, no chairs and tables, no post–Probably it is not much use writing now. I don’t know when the letter will go or how–One might as well put it into a bottle and throw it into the sea.

They began dismantling St Omer yesterday morning, but are still far from having made Montreuil habitable. We drove here ‘this morning’ in a motor – about 40 miles through rather pretty hilly country, followed by a vast stream of lorries and motor buses with servants, baggage and furniture. Montreuil is what is called a beauty spot… It is certainly a picturesque old town cocked up at the top of a hill and guarded by ramparts 30 or 40 feet high of Elizabethan brick-work, with yellow wall-flowers in the cracks…

One can see why the choice of Montreuil for the British headquarters will come to be seen as a symbolic apogee of “chateau generalship.” Asquith, however, protests:

The inhabitants are very hostile to us, partly because they hate all the English, and partly because they think we shall attract Zepps–as to which they are probably right. The place is made by nature for a target, conspicuous for miles round and easily accessible–whether by land or by sea. So you see I shall really safer in the trenches.

As to the leave question, I expect I should be able to put it off to perhaps the1st May, when I suppose people will be coming back from their holidays, but it is usually bad policy not to take leave when you can get it, as you never know when it may be stopped and the sooner you take it the nearer you are to your next turn.

Asquith hopes to arrange leave to coincide with the birth–or earliest infancy–of his third child. And to not coincide with another looming family duty. The son of a beleaguered prime minister may be summoned into the family business:

The Derby news leaves me quite cold. I really don’t care whether I get in or not, as you know. My only views on the subject are: (a) that it would be better to postpone the contest at any rate till I have left G.H.Q. which is not a very dashing address for a War appeal to the electors, whereas the Ypres salient leaves nothing to be desired in this respect: and (b) that the thing must on no account be allowed to happen while I am in England. Nothing would induce me to spend my leave in making political speeches . . .[3]


Edward Hermon has been biding his time, of late. But with little chance of seeing real action (he is with a second-line cavalry unit, and only small detachments ever make it to the trenches) and his best friend recently wounded, he is looking for a new job, if one can be found–Hermon would not sniff at a shot at the staff. But today, in any event, he represented his battalion at a familiar demonstration: the captured flammenwerfer is evidently making the rounds.

I can now quite understand fellows quitting when they first saw them. It really is a most terrifying thing… I expected a long thing jet of flame… but actually it was a huge barrel of flame, probably 2 yards in diameter and 20 long.[4]


And, finally, today, we look in on Vera Brittain, who has not, of late, been keeping up either her correspondence or her diary with her usual energy. She wrote today to her brother Edward, in France, to describe her budding friendship with Geoffrey Thurlow, his good friend from training days:

1st London General Hospital, 30 March 1916

I went with Thurlow to a most delightful concert at Queen’s Hall last Saturday. I enclose the programme in case you would like to see it; just throw it away if it makes you too homesick for the bygone days.There are times, I know, when in order to fight or work in this War, one must forget all the previous things apart from it that have been and may be again. But I think when one is strong enough to endure the memory it is better to remember for one’s own sake. I liked especially the Tschaikovsky symphony. Thurlow was very amusing—he made nothing but a few jerky remarks till we had tea at Fullers, and then gradually thawed until he began really to talk; we had tea from 5.0 to 6.30, so you can tell our conversation must have been quite interesting. He is very nice when he talks about Roland; he seems to have a natural tact and sensitiveness which prevents him from ever making a jarring remark, though I am sure he would not think he was tactful if you asked him if he was. He looks much better, but seems very depressed with himself as an officer; his complaint is the very opposite to mine–he has more responsibility than he cares about & says he never knows what to do. But I do like him; he is interesting, and has that quality of straightness & honourableness and reliableness which characterises all your friends.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. This line will be changed to the much better "Because he hadn't any of his own."
  2. Diaries, 47-50, the version of The Working Party published in The Old Huntsman has, until this point, only gentle revisions of a word or two, generally improving the rhythm or tightening the sense. But the draft eschews this sharp conclusion,, continuing on for another paragraph.
  3. Life and Letters, 253.
  4. For Love and Courage, 191-2.
  5. Letters from a Lost Generation, 245-6.

Lark Song and Gruesome Black Humor Among the Royal Welch; Charles Scott Moncrieff is Once Again Ill

It would be hard to improve upon this anecdote from Dr. Dunn of the 2/Royal Welch:

March 29th.–Back in Cambrin Left… Larks sing in bright sunshine, and buds are opening. In the parapet of Old Boots Trench a German has been buried, it must have been in the autumn of 1914. The weather has exposed a pulpy arm; there was a wrist-watch on it. Some whimsical passer wound the watch, it went, it was a repeater; passers-by would give the winding a turn, but soon some souvenir-hunter took the watch.[1]


And our sole correspondent today, a century back, is Charles Scott Moncrieff, writing to a friend with, it must be said, little in the way of news. Moncrieff is not a professional soldier, but he had been a reservist before the war, and saw significant action in 1914 and 1915 before being several times rather seriously ill (and before, alas, I began tracking him). Today, once again hospitalized with a fever, he seems to reserve judgment on a good many aspects of life behind the lines:

In Hospital, 29th March

I haven’t written for a week, I got a touch of fever on Saturday and was moved down to the Hospital where I write, in a sunny little town, with an old chateau and belfry built across the street, through which we passed a month ago. It is a rough and tumble sort of Hospital, and my servant seems to do most of the work. The other occupants of the officers’ ward are mostly “Kitcheners”; I have never come into close contact with so many before. The nurses are Scottish Territorials, with gentle voices, and a habit of lingering for an indefinite while by one’s bedside, making a very little conversation.

There is a great stir to-day as the Commander-in-Chief is to pass through the town before lunch. As they are still scrubbing the floor (11.15) I rather hope he won’t come. Our 1st Battalion have now landed in France, so I daresay we shall see and hear something of them at last. . . . I hope to get back to the regiment this week. A great deal of band playing in the town; it appears that Haig and Kitchener have driven through. I hope they’ll find time to see the regiment.[2]

An odd letter–does he scorn the attention of these lofty personages, or does he want them to show due respect to his regiment, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers? I suppose the answer is languor: honor the regiment, but leave the convalescent alone!


References and Footnotes

  1. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 187-88.
  2. Memories & Letters,119.

Kate Luard Tends to Horrors, and Sees a Fine Sight; A Minnie for George Coppard; Siegfried Sassoon Sees Death and Anger in a Pall of Smoke

Kate Luard is a woman of good sense, and a nurse of long experience. Yet she has lately been tempted toward some dramatic statements–grenades are diabolical, the war is a horror. And one can see why. Yesterday, there was this:

Monday, March 27th. We had a very young boy in the Medical the other day, cowering and shivering and collapsed from shell-shock. ‘Where’s my brother?’ was the first thing he said, when he could speak. The shell that had knocked him out had blown his brother to bits.

And then this, a confirmation of her special condemnation of grenades:

I’ve got an officer badly wounded by a rifle grenade; the poor child might have sat down in the fire by mistake, by the state his back is in…

But here’s the thing. Luard’s level-headedness and wisdom, her sympathy for all victims of the war–Brit, Hun, and child–and her intimate experience with the worst wounds do not exempt her from what pretty much every writer also feels–at least so far, at least occasionally. But if war consists of these poor boys tossing diabolical machines at each other until they are burnt, maimed, and quivering, what could possibly be attractive about it?

Ah, but she is an Englishwoman still. And today, a century back, Luard shows a soft spot for the pageantry of war.

Tuesday, March 28th: To-day in the Grand Place… we saw a fine sight…

What she saw was an entire brigade drawn up for the presentation of a medal to a gallant officer. There is not a hint of cynicism–which is in itself bewildering considering her lamentations over the broken minds and bodies of the wounded:

…the bands blared and the whole mass became statues… [an elderly general] bellowed out a very fine and stirring sermon about being a brave man and a Scotsman… how they would never fail, and… were all going to be as gallant, self-sacrificing and devoted as the men just decorated.

A soft spot, then, for the stirring nonsense of hortatory speeches–she is but anti-war north by northwest. And, to be fair, this is less a matter of carefully considered political opinion than of the serial reactions, day by day, of a deeply empathetic person. At the same time as she takes in the sight of the four battalions, all scrubbed and statuesque and gleaming, without complaining of the wages of these words of “self-sacrifice,” her sympathy extends even to the utterer of these pretty, violent words. Some of our poets will wish comeuppance, even violence, on the safe old general who urges others on to pointless destruction, but Luard notes that he “looked old, and walked lame” and tired himself with his little speech…[1]


Irony is not our nurse’s style. But how about Dr. Dunn, of the 2/Royal Welch?

March 28th.–Officers attended a demonstration of a captured flame-thrower. Its premature operation scorched some of the Staff, to the unconcealed delight of the infantry. After that the demonstration was a dull affair…[2]


And what about the 1/Royal Welch? Siegfried Sassoon was writing once again today–about almost ordinary things. Or, rather, about the usual subjects, in an almost ordinary way: he observes, as a poet should, from just behind the lines.

March 28

Wet and windy up in the line last night. This morning an R.E. officer called Sisson came in and talked about Hamo whom he knew so well up at Clare, and spoke so nicely of H’s intensely humorous way of looking at things.

The sky was pitch-black with pale blots: he could not see the man in front of him: when the flares went up beyond the hill the sky was inky at the edge and the dark line of the ground showed clear-edged and gloomy and forbidding.

On the bags above the deep trench a white sheen would settle and diminish upwards, a silver glimpse of mounded sandbags bleached and weather-worn.

In the morning of sun and cloudlands he would get glimpses of charming delicate landscapes, village, wood and hill, and trees along the crest; in no-man’s-land nothing moves.

Prospects and aspects: A shell, whizzing over to the enemy lines, bursts with a hollow crash. Against  the clear evening sky a cloudy column of dark smoke rises to drift away, driven by the faint breeze. Slowly it takes shape, curling in wisps, it is a gigantic form, hooded, with clumsy, expostulating arms, a figure draped in dingy whirling smoke. Then with a gradual gesture of acquiescence, it lolls sideways, falling over to the attitude of a swimmer on his side, and so dissolves into nothingness. Perhaps the shell had killed a soldier, for this was like the phantom of his departing and reluctant life; he was dead but he went in defeated anger, brandishing his ineffectual arms as he passed away to the inaccessible caverns of death.[3]

The quiet mood of the pastoral poet seems to return here for a near-normal notebook session, unfolding, by means of that beautiful and terrible simile of the column of smoke like a fading swimmer, from peace into war. And yet it’s safe to say, isn’t it, that Sassoon is not really a fresh-eyed observer here, but a mourner still overwhelmed by the swift death of David Thomas.


I have been neglecting George Coppard, whose memoir gives us the neglected view of the war from the ranks of a New Army battalion. But Coppard has rather cleverly fit himself to a recent subject, here, but taking on the job of batman, or officer’s servant. We’ve heard from probably twenty officers about their servants, so now, you know, the score is 20-1.

Today, a century back, Coppard describes a close call and with typical frankness relates one of the most common prescriptions for temporary relief of the early symptoms of shell-shock.

Came 28 March, we were back in that hell hole, the Hohenzollern redoubt. Mr. Wilkie found another German dugout in a support trench called ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. We made little progress I’m afraid, although it was mighty lucky for us that the dugout had two entrances. Within half an hour of our taking over, a minnie smacked down, destroying one of the entrances and nearly wrecking the twenty-foot chamber. Mr Wilkie was wounded in the mouth, though not seriously enough to cause him to leave the trenches. Both of us were badly shaken, and it was some while before we got over the dread feeling of what might have happened. The officer produced some rum, and a hefty swig each worked wonders. In fact I think we were just a little bit tight after it.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 48-9.
  2. The War the Infantry Knew, 187.
  3. Diaries, 46-7.
  4. Coppard, With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 71.

Robert Graves on Leave, Siegfried Sassoon Shivers in the Gloom… “and Tommy’s Dead.”

David Cuthbert Thomas isn’t really one of our subjects, here. If he wrote letters that were preserved–or poetry, or a memoir–I do not know of them. But he has nonetheless become a different sort of subject–a part of the story.

Thomas was the first real friend of Robert Graves to be killed, and as “Thompson” he plays an important role in John Bernard Adams‘s fall from innocent confidence into shocked recognition of war’s destructiveness. And Siegfried Sassoon loved him, and was very much altered by his death. Surely Sassoon’s own transition from mild-mannered expectation into grieving wrath began with the death of his brother Hamo, but that occurred at a remove of many miles and many days. Thomas was here one day, gone the next, and Sassoon was there to see his body committed to the earth. Whatever shuffling off of the harmless Kentish country boy might have already begun, it now concluded  very swiftly. Within days, Sassoon had turned from a fox-hunter into a man-killer–and, we might add, from a part-time pastoral poet into a war writer.

Readers of the Memoirs of George Sherston know that Thomas–“Dick Tiltwood”–is a crucial figure, at once a character and a symbol. When he dies it is not just a close fictional account of suffering and disbelief and grief and loss, but a story of the destruction of beauty, of the end of youth and an unexamined trust in life’s essential benignity, and the beginning of war as a personal matter. While it’s difficult to move through the somewhat fictionalized and rarely precisely dated world of the Memoirs, we will track Sassoon’s reaction in his diary. So:

March 27th

Last night it was cold starlight up in the front line from 8 to 12 while the men were piling sandbags on the parapet. This morning it was all blowing sun and showers and wind and lark-songs on the slope behind our dug-outs, and the skeleton village of Fricourt a mile away on the far hill beyond our trench-lines. Guns banging and puffs of smoke and columns of vapour and earth blown upward when they burst on the hill.

And this afternoon, sitting in the gloom of the steel dug-out, like being inside a boiler, reading a novel by candlelight with Greaves and Stockwell snoring on their beds and the servants singing and joking next door, the patter of rain began on the roof, and I shivered and turned chilly, and thought of safety and home and years that might be. And Tommy’s dead.[1]


Tommy’s dead, and Siegfried is left to contend with this fact alone. Robert Graves arrived home today on leave–a lengthy leave, arranged before the death of Thomas by the battalion doctor so that Graves could have surgery to open his nasal passages: an old boxing injury obstructed his breathing, making him unable to wear the primitive gas masks then in use without risk of suffocation.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 46.
  2. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 146.

Football Shenanigans and a Loquacious Master of Belhaven; More Batmen as Supermen

We deserve a break, don’t we? In any case, despite all my over-zealous researches, one was nearly forced upon us. There is a good bit under this date from Dr. Dunn which describes the halcyon Béthune days of the 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers, but neither the hijinks of certain officers during battalion entertainments nor the poor sportsmanship of the Royal Fusiliers battalion in their brigade (which held the members of its battalion football team out of the trenches to keep them in training, and were thus “unbeatable” in brigade tourneys) can be dated precisely to today, a century back.[1]

So it is Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, who comes to our aid. His diary has been a bit of a bore of late, as no sooner was his battery withdrawn from Ypres into reserve than he took ill with a fever. Today, a century back, he is charmingly concise, and I give the whole of the diary entry:

Eecke, 26th March, 1916

Sunday. A beastly day, cold and wet.[2]

That said, I will plump out today’s post with a suggestion for further reading. Since Noel Hodgson‘s recent bit about his enterprising servant has met with much approval, why not try John Bernard Adams? Adams’ story has recently been wracked by death and disbelief, but he chose to follow that chapter–which began with an urge to throw the memoir into the fire, encompassed the death of his best friend in the battalion, and ended “Oh! Damn! damn! Damn!”–with a decidedly less intense one entitled “Officers’ Servants.” It’s available here, beginning on page 207.

Want a hare for the pot? A partridge? Just ask Davies. And what will you heat that pot with, the coal having gone missing? Davies again…

It’s basically the same anecdote as Hodgson’s, except that the coal is scrounged from British sources, rather than French, and the business of vague orders and transparent excuses is a bit more… transparent. A good batman can find anything, and if some lackluster item of trench furniture can be improved upon–an old teapot, say–then it will be eaten by rats or carried off by German raiders, and a new one conjured in its place…

Adams enjoys relating the caper, but despite the similarities of content there is an interesting difference of genre: this is not a sketch, a mere entertainment. It’s part of a memoir, an episode that covers a zone of return and recovery, written to create an undated interval of “ordinary” trench life between sudden loss and looming battle.

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 187.
  2. War Diaries, 165.

Aubrey Herbert Compliments a Prince; Raymond Asquith Stagnates Vociferously; Donald Hankey on the Infantilization of Heroes

Aubrey Herbert, one of the leading lights of that 1914 spirit of slightly unhinged amateur enthusiasm, was fortunate to survive long enough to transition into jobs well enough adapted to his skill-set: courage, wanderlust, myopia, meddlesomeness, and linguistic brilliance. Already a veteran of Egypt and Gallipoli, Herbert is now bound for Mesopotamia. On his train to the docks at Ismailia today, a century back, were a number of dignitaries, including the Prince of Wales. Herbert, meeting for the first time, had this to say: “a good boy, with much more imagination than one would have suspected, I mean expected.”[1]


Romance! Royalty! Raymond Asquith, meanwhile, grows shrill in his frustration at the life of the intelligent officer-drone.

25 March 1916

. . . Nothing of any kind happens here… I… sit in an office moaning and writing out unimportant things with a bad nib… I can get none here with which it is possible to make shapely or even legible characters. And few things so much destroy one’s self-respect as writing-badly.

. . . The extent to which reason takes a back seat during war is truly amazing. Nothing seems to be of any account except shouting and shoving anything and anywhither. The trouble is that however and whenever the War ends, there can never be a great assize in which all these rampant fools can receive appropriate sentences for their follies. When I think of the silly people who are going about thinking and saying that they were right all the time after all, it fills me with nausea. If they were, then the Huns were much worse right…[2]


And Donald Hankey published one of his most important articles today, a century back, in The Spectator. The piece is quite different from our recent sketches by Noel Hodgson: it’s a portrait of a typical “tommy” and it praises him, but the balance is very much more in favor of sincere political/philosophical argument rather than jaunty support-the-troops entertainment. That much is characteristic of Hankey–but it’s the turn that his argument takes which is rather a departure from his previous work. Hankey is too squeaky-clean, too earnest, too “religious” to have deserved the name of “propagandist.” But he wasn’t not writing propaganda, either–he made his name (or his pseudonym, “A Student in Arms”) writing about Beloved Captains and Spirited Brigades. Today, however, there is a sharp new edge to his criticism:


Heroes and Heroics

Facile descensus Averni,” and the Avernus of the journalist in war time is a fatal facility for writing heroics. Everyone who has handled the pen of a scribe knows how the descent comes about. A man sees or experiences something which cries out for expression. He puts pen to paper, and the result is acclaimed as a little masterpiece. “Write more,” say his friends, and he casts about for another theme which will bear the same heroic treatment. He tries to reproduce the dramatic staccato which came so naturally before; but this time the inspiration is lacking, the heroics are spurious, and the result is “journalese.” His heroics don’t ring true. What cant is to religion, they are to heroism. They take what is fine and rare and make it cheap.

Hankey is writing of his own success with The Honour of the Brigade–and the difficulty in remaining true to the spirit of the piece. He now works through the various ways in which a writer can stay true to himself, and to the men he is writing about.

The typical Englishman hates heroics. He regards them as un-English. If he has done a fine action the last thing that he wants is for the fact to be exploited, advertised. It is not exactly modesty that prompts his instinct for reticence; it is something nearer akin to reverence. He does not want his pearls cast before swine. He knows that the beauty of a fine action is like the bloom of the wild flower, elusive, mystical. It will not survive the touch of the hot, greasy hands that would pluck the flower from its root and hawk it in the street. So when the “serious” journalist takes to heroics the typical Englishman takes refuge in satire, on exactly the same principle as when false sentiment invades the drama he abandons it for musical comedy.

The satirist always claims to be a realist, though not everyone will admit his title. He mocks at the heroic, and says that he will show you the real thing. In war time no one can afford to be a satirist who has not done his bit, a fact which gives him an additional weight. Men like Captain Bairnsfather of the Bystander and “Henry” of Punch have earned the right to mock, and in their mockery they often get closer to the portrayal of authentic heroism than do their more idealistic brethren.

bairnsfatherTake Bairnsfather’s picture of two Tommies sitting in a dug-out, while their parapet is being blown to smithereens about a yard away. It bears the legend, “There goes our blinkin’ parapet again!” The ‘eroes in the dug-out are about as unheroic in appearance as it is possible to imagine. They are simply a pair of stolid, unimaginative, intensely prosaic Tommies of the British workman type. They have low foreheads and bulgy eyes, ” tooth-brush” mustaches and double chins; their hair is untidy, and one of them is smoking a clay pipe. It is obvious that they are blasphemously fed-up. Of course they are not really typical at all. They are much too prosaic and unimaginative. But the picture does bring home to you that the fellows in the trenches are very ordinary people after all, which is a fact that folk at home are very apt to overlook. And at the same time, though the realism is too sordid to be quite true to life, it cannot hide the fact that the stoicism of the two heroes is rather heroic, in spite of their obvious lack of any sense of the dramatic.

Bairnsfather’s sketches represent the extreme reaction from the heroic. His trench heroes are so animal in type and expression as to be positively repulsive. As the editor says in his introduction, “the book will be a standing reminder of the ingloriousness of war, its preposterous absurdity, and of its futility as a means of settling the affairs of nations.” Yet for that very reason it is an incomplete picture of war. It is perfectly true, and it is a good thing that we should realize it, that the majority of men go through the most terrific experiences without ever becoming articulate. For every Englishman who philosophizes there are a hundred who don’t. For every soldier who prays there are a thousand who don’t. But there is hardly a man who will not return from the war bigger than when he left home. His language may have deteriorated. His “views” on religion and morals may have remained unchanged. He may be rougher in manner. But it will not be for nothing that he has learned to endure hardship without making a song about it, that he has risked his life for righteousness’ sake, that he has bound up the wounds of his mates, and shared with them his meagre rations. We who have served in the ranks of “the first hundred thousand” will want to remember something more than the ingloriousness of war. We shall want to remember how adversity made men unselfish, and pain found them tender, and danger found them brave, and loyalty made them heroic. The fighting man is a very ordinary person, that’s granted; but he has shown that the ordinary person can rise to unexpected heights of generosity and self-sacrifice.

The fact is that neither heroics nor satire are a completely satisfactory record of what we shall want to remember of this war. Least of all does the third type of war journalism satisfy—that of the lady who writes in the society paper of her “sweet ickle tempies with the curly eyebrows,” and her “darling soldier-lad with the brave, merry smile.”

By now Hankey’s perspective is clear. He may be an officer and a writer, but he is writing–as he has throughout the last nineteen months–with a different a career in mind. He intends to become a pastor, and has viewed his service in the army as a way to prepare for his true calling. This intention doesn’t wash away the awkwardness of having yet another well-educated officer speak up for the “inarticulate” troops, but it helps explain why this essay is about something more than a writer’s conscience.

Whether the Press forms or reflects public opinion is a moot point; but there is certainly an intimate correspondence between the two, as the soldier who is sent to “Blighty” finds to his cost. The society journalist pets him, the “serious”‘ journalist writes heroics about him, and the satirist makes fun of the heroics. He looks in vain for a sane recognition that he has earned the right to be taken seriously as a man. So, too, the society lady of a certain sort pets him, has him to tea at the “Cri,” or invites him to Berkeley Square. The larger public lionizes him, gives him concerts and lusty cheers, takes his photo at every possible opportunity, and provides him with unlimited tobacco and gramophones. While the authorities satirize the lionizers by treating him exactly as if he really was the creature in Bairnsfather’s sketches—a gross, brainless, animal fool, who cannot be trusted. This is all very well. I suppose that most men like to be petted by a pretty woman, specially if she has a handle to her name, though the charm soon wears off. Being lionized is boring, but has solid advantages. Satire is amusing on paper, though infuriating when translated into action. Very soon, however, the wounded soldier begins to long to be less petted, less lionized, and instead to be treated as a rational being who is entitled to a certain elementary respect.

One can only speak from personal observation. One place differs from another. But from what the writer has seen and experienced he judges that the one thing which a wounded soldier cannot expect is to be treated as a man. He is sent to “Blighty.” He arrives at a hospital. His chief pleasure, oddly enough, lies in the prospect of seeing something of his relations and friends. He is surprised and indignant when he finds that he is only allowed to see visitors of his own choice two at a time, for two hours, twice a week. On the other five days he has to put up with the licensed visitors of the hospital. They may be very elevating and amiable people; but he feels no conceivable interest in them. He is still further dismayed when he discovers that under no circumstances may he visit his home while he is a patient. He may go to tea with Lady Snooks, or the Duchess of Downshire; but not with his wife or his mother. The writer’s neighbor in the hospital ward was a case in point. He was a man of about thirty who, at the outbreak of war, was holding a responsible position in Sydney. He had all the self-respect which is typical of the colonial of even a few years’ standing. He was receiving ten minutes’ electrical treatment per diem, with a view to restoring sensation to one of his hands. Otherwise he was able-bodied. His father lived within twenty minutes’ walk of the hospital; but not only was he not allowed to live at home and attend as an out-patient, he was not even allowed to visit his home. He was told that the treatment would have to be continued for some six months, and meanwhile he must be a prisoner in the hospital. At the V.A.D. convalescent home to which the writer was subsequently transferred, and which was regulated from the hospital, there were several married men whose homes were within reach. They were absolutely forbidden to visit them. One man, who had been in hospital for nine months without ever going home, was so disgusted that he eventually took French leave for a couple of days. On his return he was put in the punishment ward of the main hospital, where he was deprived of tobacco and visitors, and was informed that when he was discharged he would be sent to his battalion for punishment! His comment was, “You’ll see; when this war is over it will be just as it was after South Africa. We shall be so much dirt.” When we did leave the grounds it had to be in the conspicuous garb, of a military convalescent, that all men might stare, and under the escort of a nurse. Many a quiet, sensible fellow preferred not to go out at all.

Another example of the humiliation to which wounded soldiers are subject refers to their difficulty in obtaining their arrears of pay. One man, who had got the eight days’ furlough to which a soldier is entitled on leaving hospital, could only obtain twenty-four shillings “advance of pay,” though entitled to many pounds. It barely covered his train fare, and left him nothing for paying his living expenses (and his relations were very poor) or for pocket money. The Army is the only profession which I know in which a man receives, not the money to which he is entitled, but such proportion of it as the authorities like to disburse.

This is how the authorities satirize the lionizers, and not all the petting and the lionizing in the world will compensate for the denial of the elementary rights of a man., the right to choose his own visitors, to visit his own home, and to receive the money which he has earned.

A man soon tires of being petted and lionized, and craves in vain for the sane respect which is a man’s due.

I am aware that there are many hospitals where soldiers are treated much more rationally, and I have never heard that they have abused their reasonable liberty. Nevertheless I feel that it is worth while to utter a protest against the state of affairs described above because it is, after all, so typical of the general failure of the Press, the public, and the powers that be to recognize that the soldier who has fought for his country has earned the right to be regarded as a man. He doesn’t want to be petted. Heroics nauseate him. He is not a child or a hero. He is just a man who has done his duty, and he wants a man’s due.

It is desirable that soldiers should receive their due now; but it is much more vitally important that when the war is over, and the craze for petting and lionizing has died down, it should be recognized that the soldier who has fought for his country is something more than a pet that has lost his popularity, and a lion that has ceased to roar. There is grave danger that all that will survive of the present mixed attitude towards the soldier will be the attitude of authority, which regards him as an irresponsible animal. For after all, this attitude is just that which before the war poisoned the whole administration of charity, and the whole direction of philanthropy. Before the war a cry was heard, “We don’t want charity, we want the right to live a wholesome life.” Too often the reply of the “upper classes” was to denounce the “ingratitude” of the poor. The cry that we hear now—“We are not pets or lions, but men”—is the same cry in a new guise. It is the cry of the working classes for a sane respect. Be sure that when the war is over that cry will be heard no less strongly, for the working classes have proved their manhood on the field of honor. In this time of trouble and good-will we have the chance to redeem the error of the past, and to lay the foundation of a nobler policy by adopting a saner, a wider, a more generous outlook; but we seem to be in a fair way to intensifying our error, and laying up endless difficulties in the days that are to come.[3]

Donald Hankey supports the troops–far more than the typical propagandists and know-nothing editorializers he has now called out. How will this sit with the editors of a mainstream publication, one wonders? Smells a bit socialistic, what?


References and Footnotes

  1. Fitzherbert, The Man Who Was Greenmantle, 174.
  2. Life and Letters, 252.
  3. This text is available here, with spoilers.

Siegfried Sassoon on the Eve of the Hunt; Kate Luard and Olaf Stapledon on the Evil One’s Inventions and the Highest of Causes; Patrick Shaw-Stewart Throws Down the Reading-List Gauntlet

Siegfried Sassoon sat down to the ordinary discipline of diary writing today, a century back, for the first time since the burial of David Thomas. He has news for his beloved friend’s unavenged spirit…

March 25th

Snow yesterday, and the country all in white. Today it has melted and the wind is south-west. I walked across to the hill looking over the Somme by Sailly-Laurette. A grassy juniper-dotted platform two hundred feet above the river, a steep bluff dropping down to it. A chain of steel-grey lakes by the river, and narrow pale-brown or buff levels of marshland. The hills rise gently beyond the river with its lines of trees and huddle of trees and huddle of slated and tiled roofs, church-tower, etc. Up here I find some purple flowers with yellow centres, scabious. About an inch long-shaped like gentians.

Tomorrow I am off to do six days in the trenches with C Company.[1]

This, as both he and Robert Graves have made clear, is a volunteer assignment. The new colonel–Stockwell/Kinjack, is keen to put Sassoon’s grief to tactical use.


From a dreamy poet about to turn independent aggressor we segue–not without a certain logic–to Olaf Stapledon, dreamiest of all the staunchly committed pacifists. He writes not to any mere “cousin,” but to his intended, Agnes:

Friends’ Ambulance Unit
24 March 1916

…Look you, cousin, it is no use you talking about this work as being part of the one great cause. “The one great cause” is really getting humanity across this age of war with as little damage as possible. The other, the Allied cause, is a great cause, & to be left out is lonely. But the other is the higher…

This seems like ironclad logic. Stapledon has thrown in his lot with the Quakers, but he declares himself a free-thinker, a humanist and pacifist in a specific, dedicated sense. He will risk himself, but not to kill.

What excuse have I to be here save that I must not fight for that cause? I ought to be ashamed to be here if I felt it right to help that cause. At the front I daresay we have more work than the men in the trenches, but less suffering and danger, far less. I have been in no real danger since–ages ago. I think we disagree about the war… Remember that you hear one side. Think what the Germans are hearing. Don’t trust newspapers much…

Agnes, if after all we disagree about the war,–I believe we partly do–and if secretly you would be prouder of me fighting although you are half a pacifist, why then we have found our first real difference perhaps. Well, it can’t be helped, but I would gladly be your soldier if I honourably could…[2]

One might point out that driving ambulances to the aid of allied troops (and, it’s true, to any captured or overrun Germans) may be a form of pacifism, but it is not neutrality. Ironclad logic is not necessarily correct logic. This, again, is a well-brought-up young lad who rowed in an eight with Julian Grenfell at Oxford: he might have leapt at the chance to hunt people instead of beasts; he might be spitting gore and German feathers from a blood-stained mouth. So to speak.

Instead, he is living under canvas in winter and driving into barrages to retrieve the war’s victims, and gently pointing out to his beloved that you can’t believe everything you read in the papers… Would he be better off back home in England, preparing himself to face jail and derision for a firmer refusal to see the war through?


Kate Luard is another figure of the medical middle grounds. Although she is an eminently practical woman and a professional while Stapledon is a boyish fantasist, they nevertheless share certain fundaments of outlook. She too will accept risk–bombs regularly fall on Lillers–and discomfort in order to care for the wounded; she too expresses sympathy for all the war’s victims, allied or German, and knows very well that propaganda is not to be believed–and she too has no doubts about the greater rightness of the allied cause and her place in abetting it.

Yesterday, a century back–and today–it was the evils of war rather than the staunch heroism of the British soldier that were uppermost in her thoughts.

Thursday, March 23rd. There are two very ill and interesting men in the Surgical… one a chest… one has a broken arm in a bath, and a broken knee under continuous drip: bomb wounds. Grenades are truly an invention of the Evil One[3]

Friday, March 24th. Snowing hard this morning and to-night, and men are lying out in the cold slush the better to kill each other. Isn’t it insane and immoral beyond description?[4]


Yes, yes it is. But this project, like any non-clinical, non-technical piece of writing, must flirt with entertainment at the expense of total moral commitment (not that there were any dangers on that score). They went, they wrote–and we want to know what it was like. So let’s do something lighter.

Yesterday we read Raymond Asquith‘s barely concealed blustering non-concealment of his worries that Patrick Shaw-Stewart has stolen away the attentions of Diana Manners. But letters lag, and Patsy was already a week gone, reassigned to Salonika. Today, a century back, Shaw-Stewart wrote to his sister of his very Asquith-like reading:

I have read quite a lot: Homer and History by Walter Leaf, The Geographical Aspect of Balkan Problems by some female don (very dry), Macaulay’s History (progress made), finished Flaubert’s Education Sentimentale (a triumph), Thais again, La-bas by Huysmans (mostly about devil-worship), A. E. W. Mason’s Mystery of the Villa Rose in Spanish, Edgar Vincent’s Modern Greeks, Henry James’s Washington Square, some Lucretius, and a lot of Eddie’s new Georgian Poets, which I think are better than the old. We had a submarine scare, but the sea looked so warm and inviting, and my Gieve waistcoat so saucy when inflated, that I was quite disappointed it didn’t develop.[5]

Just a little light reading…


References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 46.
  2. Talking Across the World, 134-5.
  3. Perhaps. But the devil has been credited with many such inventions--I doubt that Luard here is intending an allusion to Ariosto, the 16th century epic poet who attributed the knighthood- and romance-destroying invention of firearms to Satan. Rather, she is bemoaning particularly complex wounds. But the return of the grenade has been occasioned by the dominance of artillery on the battlefield, and shrapnel wounds are hardly prettier. Or is it the devil's work, perhaps, that has brought so many accidents from so many ill-made grenades? There is a great deal of room, these days, for diabolical inspiration.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 47-8.
  5. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 163-4.

Vera Brittain Struggles to a Quarter-Year’s Prayer; Raymond Asquith is Bemused, Bothered, and Besieged; Noel Hodgson on a Superior Soldier-Servant

Vera Brittain is in bad shape, tonight, a century back. It’s been a long century–and a long three months.

Thursday March 23rd Camberwell

…Just three months ago to-day, & a Thursday too… I had bitterness enough in my nature before. I didn’t need suffering to soften me. I needed joy. I never loved my fellow-men–or fellow-women, rather, for I like most men–in large quantities. And now I like them even less, & let them see it, which is injudicious, but I have somehow ceased to care. Nothing matters–I can’t make it matter.

…Inside I know I am not a horrid person. But I wonder if that is any good when one seems horrid on the outside. I wonder what He would have thought of me. At any rate He would have understood. Perhaps He does see the metamorphosis by His death of the sweet self developed by contact with His life–and, seeing, understand.

I was off this afternoon, & came up here & wrote, & cried bitterly because I reread all of His letters that I have here. So characteristic with their beautiful handwriting of all He was–so pitiful in their joyful & tender anticipations of a week’s leave.

Then I went back to the Hospital–back to one or two dressings that make even me almost sick–that of the man with the hand blown off & the stump untrimmed up, & the other man with the arm off, & a great hole in his back one could get one’s hand into, & other wounds on his leg & sides & head. Poor, poor souls!

Vera’s thoughts move from the physical devastation the war has wrought on these men to her own spiritual desolation. She is far from over “Him,” yet–Roland has become, it seems, a sort of tutelary deity:

I leaned out of the window to-night & prayed to Him–at 11.o o’clock. I always believe that there is something beforehand about the hour at which one is going to die which marks it out from all the rest…

…perhaps He heard–even though I am a sceptic still. I looked out at the dark trees & houses & the distant lights & the black cypress tree in the garden & felt perhaps he was there in the midst of them all. And I asked Him to look after me–for I don’t seem able to look after myself after all.[1]

Vera is neither the first nor the last of the war’s bereaved to throw off reason and religion alike and embrace an ad hoc spiritualism. It suits her romantic, somewhat impulsive nature… and little of the rest of her personality. He did not really go in for this sort of thing, and neither did she, when they were together…


Raymond Asquith‘s letter to his wife Katherine could be skipped, today, were it not for the news of his young daughter’s literary production:

What a strange child Helen must be to versify the siege of Londonderry. I don’t think I had ever heard of it till the last Home Rule Bill came along, though I knew all about the siege of Troy at her age.

Nifty. While we’re here, however, I’ll keep on going for the less outstanding–but still interesting–bit that comes next. Parcels, of course–but also Asquith’s undisguised worries at losing his glamorous friend to the younger model of his own mold:

…you might send me 2 more tins of honey and 2 blue silk vests which you will find among my things at Berkeley St… The two which I have carried so far through the campaign are beginning to look like the flags of the Peninsular War which you see hung up in Cathedrals: If you see Dottie, beg her to write to me, I have not had a letter from her for a month and fear that she must be engrossed in Patsy to the exclusion of all else. This will never do.

Then, without so much as a line-break, back to their progeny:

You tell me not to take my leave until the baby is born. But when will that be? …I thought of making an application towards the middle of April and trying to put it in between my departure from here and my reunion with Napoleon. Is that too early?

Let me know when you go to Newmarket. I’m glad your poor papa is better. Mine seems to be still laid aside.[2]

So his little daughter is siege-smitten, his wife won’t tell him exactly when she plans to produce a possible son and heir, his underclothes are a mess, “Intelligence” is stupid, his dad is about to lose his job, the weather is terrible, he’s out of honey, and Patrick Shaw-Stewart has stolen the attentions of his most glamorous coterie-mate.

Things could be worse. As it happens, we’ll be hearing from “Patsy” tomorrow…


Noel Hodgson has another sketch from the trenches for us today, and once again it seems cast as a gently “realistic” primer on one of the basic common experiences of the war–the forerunner, really, of the short instructional video. Today the subject is the officer’s servant, or “batman.” I must say that Pearson anticipates both Wodehouse (who seems to keep coming up these days) and Monty Python. Although, fair warning, this is a sketch of the polite-smile sort, not the guffaw or uncontrollable giggle…



He is my servant, and if he were Commander-in-Chief the war would be over in a week. But I should get no
baths, so I’m glad he isn’t. And I doubt whether he would care to be, himself; at present he is supreme in his own sphere, and knows it and knows that the other servants know it. The only thing he does not know is his own limitations—nobody else does either—they have never been reached.

For example. We had taken over some new trenches, which were in a very filthy condition, and one day I discovered, to my dismay, that I was becoming as Samson—a host in myself.

Pearson was summoned. “Pearson,” said I, “I’m lousy.”

Pearson looked serious, but not at all surprised. “You must have a bath, sir, and a change of clothes.” I smiled gently, and said that if he called a taxi I could go to the Jermyn Street Baths and call at my tailors on
the way.

Pearson gave an accommodating laugh, and promised to see to it; and I returned to my work, trying to forget.

To my amazement, when I again entered my dug-out there was a little pile of underclothing on my table.

“Where did those come from?” I inquired.

“Medical officer, sir. I knew as he always carried a lot of stuff on his cart, so I seen his servant about it. But you mustn’t put it on yet”; and with that the clean change was swept away from my ken. I acquiesced, as I have learnt always to acquiesce in all that Pearson does: and during the night I thought of Job and envied him his potsherd. Next morning while doing my irritable duties about the trench, enter Pearson, who remarks without a blush: “Your bath is ready in your dug-out, sir.” Speechless with amaze, I hurried away to verify, and found an iron boiler half-full of boiling water, reposing on a bed of bricks. On the table were my clean clothes—or rather the Doctor’s—a towel, soap, sponge, etc.

As I wallowed, Pearson told me all about it. It appeared that by bribery or force one of the cooks had been persuaded to throw in his lot with Pearson. Together, under cover.of darkness, they had quitted the trenches and gone to an old factory behind our line. No trenches ran near the factory and no one habited there, for the sufficient reason that by day the Boche placed fat shells there, and by night he larded it with machine-gun fire. There the two knaves found the boiler, and haled it back in safety to the company cook-house, where it was filled with water—and I suspect the water came from the next door company’s supply store—I was careful not to ask. The theft of firewood is child’s play to Pearson, but the compulsion of the cooks to boil the huge tub must have needed his supremest skill. Anyway, the whole great epic was accomplished and I had my bath.

Pearson subsequently hid the tub in an old cemetery, where he could find it again in case of need. He is of a
thrifty temperament.

A good soldier servant is one of the greatest marvels of our modern civilisation. To possess one is better and cheaper than living next door to Harrods. Do you want a chair for the Mess? You have only to mention it to Pearson. Are you starving in a deserted village ? Pearson will find you wine, bread and eggs. Are you sick of a fever ? Pearson will heal you. From saving your life to sewing on your buttons he is infallible.

Perhaps Pearson was at his best in the Affair of the Mess Carpet. It came about in this way. When the regiment was in a village, not-to-be-named, behind the line. Headquarter Mess was in an empty house, the main room of which made a very creditable Mess Room, except for the extreme coldness of the stone floor, which was in no way counteracted by the warmth of the pictures left on the walls by the outgoing Mess. The Doctor, who does Mess President, was commenting on this to me one evening as we sat making toast over a brazier. “Look here, Adjer,” said he, “if we want to be comfortable in here we must have a carpet.”

“Well, tell Pearson to get one,” was my off-handed reply.

“Rot, the boy isn’t a conjurer.”

“Bet you five francs he gets one.”

“Done—by when?”

“This time to-morrow.”

“Right—done with you—and if I win it’ll be a bargain at five francs.”

Thus the Doctor secure in the anticipation of five francs or a carpet for his Mess ; for me I was not so content. Great as was my belief in Pearson’s genius, I hardly saw how he was to obtain a carpet at twenty-four hours’ notice. However, I called him; “Pearson,” I said, “we want a carpet for the Mess by tea-time tomorrow.”

“Very good, sir.”

“There’s a bet on it, Pearson.”

“I’ll see to it, sir,” and off he went.

Next morning, as I was returning from the Orderly Room, Pearson met me.

“Please, sir, will you give me a pass to EXYZED?”

Now EXYZED is the remains of a town that became uninhabited very suddenly, and is still attended to daily by the German gunners. It is out of bounds for troops.

“Sorry, Pearson, I can’t.”

Pearson looked disappointed. “The carpet, sir——” he ventured.

“Have to give it a miss,” said I.

Pearson shook his head and moved sorrowfully away.

Shortly before tea, the door of the Mess Room was violently agitated, and Pearson entered in a stream of
perspiration, bearing on his shoulders a carpet and two rolls of linoleum.

“Good Lord,” said the Doctor, “where did those come from?”

“EXYZED, sir;”” then, turning to me, “you didn’t tell me not to go, sir.”

“Pearson,” I said, “you’re a bally marvel.”

He gave an apologetic smile. “I could not let you lose a bet, sir, for the sake of a little trouble.”

There are many like him, I am sure, though I prefer to think of him as supreme. But when next a soldier friend boasts of his servant—as they always do—sooner or later, remember that he, is not always such a liar as he

March 23rd, 1916.[3]



References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 324-5.
  2. Life and Letters, 250-1.
  3. Verse and Prose in Peace and War, 60-64.

Charles Scott-Moncrieff on Sinister Turnips; Ford Madox Ford and H.G. Wells and a Violet Problem; Ivor Gurney on an Old Soldier’s Larks and the Quiescent Muse; Wedding Bells for J.R.R. Tolkien and Edith Bratt

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.[1]


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.
Cardiff Castle,

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.[2]


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.[3]


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.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Memories & Letters,118.
  2. Letters, 63-5.
  3. War Letters, 57-9.
  4. Chronology 79, Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien, 86-7.