David Cuthbert Thomas–and Goliath; Prose and Poetry from Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and John Bernard Adams

We will see today’s grim events in the trenches just south of Fricourt from several angles. First up is Robert Graves, whose account of a casual conversation last night, a century back, casts a disturbing fore-shadow.

trafalgar square at 9d

Trafalgar Square, unmarked at center: British trench maps generally do not show their own trenches, lest the map fall into enemy hands. Red lines are German trenches, and each of the small squares is only 500 yards in length.

One evening (near “Trafalgar Square,” should any of my readers remember that trench-junction), Richardson, David Thomas and I met Pritchard and the Adjutant. We stopped to talk. Richardson complained what a devil of a place this was for trench-mortars.

“That’s where I come in,” said Pritchard. As Battalion Trench-Mortar Officer he had just been given two Stokes mortar-guns. “They’re beauties,” Pritchard went on. “I’ve been trying them out, and tomorrow I’m going to get some of my own back. I can put four or five shells in the air at once.”

“About time, too,” the Adjutant said. “We’ve had three hundred casualties in the last month here. It doesn’t seem so many as that because, curiously enough, none of them have been officers. In fact, we’ve had about five hundred casualties in the ranks since Loos, and not a single officer.”

Then he suddenly realised that his words were unlucky.

“Touch wood!” David cried. Everybody jumped to touch wood, but it was a French trench and unriveted. I pulled a pencil out of my pocket; that was wood enough for me.

Richardson said: “I’m not superstitious, anyway.”[1]

Is that how it happened? Is this information that has been selected and presented, yet remains well within the accepted margins of autobiography (i.e. personal history)? Or is there some invention here, in Graves’s famously unreliable memoir?

We’ll have three fusiliers weighing in today, and there is a striking, even eerie similarity of approach in John Bernard Adams’s memoir.[2]

“No officer wounded since we came out in October,” said Edwards: “we’re really awfully lucky, you know.”

“For heaven’s sake, touch wood,” I cried. We laughed, for the whole of our establishment was wood. We were sitting on a wooden seat, leaning our hands against wooden uprights, eating off a wooden table, and resting our feet on a wooden floor. Sometimes, too, we found splinters of wood in the soup…[3]

How strange that each memoirist makes an anecdote of the reflexive superstition of “touch wood,” yet in opposite ways. All plausible, though: the first scene is in a trench and the second in a dug-out. And Adams also confirms the basic accuracy of Graves’s account with his own description of Pritchard’s conduct as trench mortar officer. We’ve heard quite a bit about which battalions generally tried to “live and let live” and which preferred to kill and be killed, using whatever methods were available to them–patrolling, raiding, and, now, firing trench mortars–to assert themselves and dominate no man’s land, never mind the retaliation.

The first Royal Welch have always been one of the latter, and just because these are new officers rather than old regulars doesn’t mean that there is not a strong general expectation of–and even enthusiasm for–maintaining the old standards. In the passage below, which is inserted into the account of tonight’s events in Adams’s memoir, David Pritchard, a good friend of the author, is given the fictional identity of “Davidson.”

There was the trench-mortar officer who was never to be found, but who left a sergeant with instructions not to fire without his orders; there was the trench-mortar officer who “could not fire except by Brigade orders”; there was the trench-mortar officer who was “afraid of giving his position away”; there was the trench-mortar officer who “couldn’t get any ammunition up, you know; they won’t give it me, only too pleased to fire, if only…”; there was the trench-mortar officer who started firing on his own, without consulting the company commander, just when you had a big working-party in the front trenches; and lastly there were trench-mortar officers like Davidson…

There is no major attack planned, but “Davidson”/Pritchard has a new weapon, and he is spoiling for a fight. This is a sentiment of which the officers of the Royal Welch approve–however much they may want to live out the war, if they might. Such aggressiveness is also being encouraged by the battalion’s new commanding officer, Colonel Stockwell,[4] a martinet keen to display his credentials as a fighting soldier.

With this background, we may be able to guess what will happen tonight, a century back.

 

Ah, but this biblical little battalion has two young Davids: Pritchard, who is nineteen, and Thomas, who is twenty. Back, then, to Graves’s memoir.

The following evening I led “A” Company forward as a working-party. “B” and “D” Companies were in the line, and we overtook “C” also going to work. David [Thomas], bringing up the rear of “C,” looked worried about something.

What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Oh, I’m fed up,” he answered, “and I’ve got a cold.”

“C” Company filed along to the right of the Battalion frontage; and we went to the left. It was a weird kind of night, with a bright moon. Germans occupied a sap only forty or fifty yards away. We stood on the parapet piling the sandbags, with the moon at our backs, but the German sentries ignored us–probably because they had work on hand themselves…

Nevertheless, a continuous exchange of grenades and trench-mortars had begun.

Several canisters went over, and the men found it difficult to get out of their way in the dark; but for the first time we were giving the enemy as good as they gave us. Pritchard had been using his Stokes mortars all day, and sent over hundreds of rounds; twice the Germans located his emplacement and forced him to shift hurriedly.

“A” Company worked from seven in the evening until midnight. We must have put three thousand sandbags into position, and fifty yards of front trench were already looking presentable.

John Bernard Adams–“Bill” to his pals–has recently taken command of B Company. Sitting in his dugout, he witnessed A Company going out, led by Captain Mervyn Richardson, whom he calls “Robertson” in the memoir.

The door flew open, and Captain Robertson looked in.

“Hullo, Robertson; you’re early!”

It was not much past half-past seven. “You’ve got those sand-bags up by 78 Street?” he said, sitting down.

”Yes, 250 there, and 250 right up in the Loop. The rest I shall use on the Fort. Oh! by the way, you know we are strafing at 12.05? We just had a message up from Dale. I shall knock off at 11.45 to-night!”

‘I’ll see how we get on. I want to finish that traverse. Righto. I’m just drawing tools and going up now.”

“See you up there in a few minutes.” And the muttering stream of “A” Company filed past the dug-out, going up to the front line. The door swung open suddenly, and each man looked in as he went by.

Adams’s account–available here–goes on. B company also files out to work, and Adams gives us a brief primer on the art of sand-bag construction. He tours his company’s positions, checking on sentries, and noting a bayonet that “glistened in the moonlight.” Adams falls into a reverie, contemplating the beauty of no man’s land:

Craters by moonlight are really beautiful; the white chalk-dust gives them the appearance of snow-mountains.

And–dare I say “of course?”–he finds himself grasping at war’s strangeness as he stands beside a silent sentry:

What was it all about? …”Good God!” I felt inclined to exclaim. “Has there ever been anything more idiotic than this? What in the name of goodness are you and I doing here?”[5]

But Adams, a good officer, says nothing so existentially troubling in front of one of his men.

Graves and Adams differ only slightly about the timing of what happened next.

About ten o’clock I went back to Trafalgar Square. There I heard that Thompson of C Company had been wounded. From what I could gather he had been able to walk down to the dressing-station, so I concluded he was only slightly hit. But it came as rather a shock, and I wondered whether he would go to “Blighty.”[6]

“Thompson” is, of course, David Thomas. To Robert Graves, now, who uses the real names:

About half-past ten, rifle-fire broke out on the right, and the sentries passed along the news: “Officer hit.”

Richardson hurried away to investigate. He came back to say: “It’s young Thomas. A bullet through the neck: but I think he’s all right. It can’t have hit his spine or an artery, because he’s walking to the dressing-station.”

I was delighted: David should now be out of it long enough to escape the coming offensive, and perhaps even the rest of the War.

 

Siegfried Sassoon was even closer to David Thomas than Graves was. They had been fast friends for months of training, and in Sassoon’s diaries and fictionalized memoir it seems fairly clear that Thomas is beloved of him–that he is an object of Sassoon;s devotion and desire. Chaste desire only, perhaps, yet something much more than was due a friend or comrade.

When Sassoon looked back on this day he had to write it from a different point of view. Graves produced an “auto-biography” that tells tall tales and plays fast and loose with the facts; Sassoon wrote a “memoir” that reads, variously, like a novel, bildungsroman and roman à clef. He changes his own name and he changes important details of his pre-war life. Yet once Sassoon begins describing actual combat, his fictionalization is generally much closer to historical reality than Graves’s. Sassoon’s memoirs “of George Sherston” are much closer to the conventional memoir of John Bernard Adams: all the details are there, and only the names are changed.

When David Cuthbert Thomas was shot, Sassoon wasn’t there, nor was he in an adjacent line company, like Graves in A or Adams in B. He was the battalion transport officer, stationed a few miles behind the trenches, and generally visiting the front lines only once a day. But in looking back, and writing, Sassoon, no less than the wood-touching company officers, can’t resist foreshadowing. His foreboding is set weeks before, when he was given the transport job. In Sassoon’s Memoirs, David Thomas is “Dick Tiltwood.”

There was one thing which worried me; I disliked the idea of Dick going into the front line while I stayed behind. I said so, and he told me not to be an old chump.
SJP_MAI_160514ABER6915_01JPJPG

Siegfried Sassoon and David Thomas

Sassoon also lingers over seeing Thomas the night before he was shot. There seems to be some significant compression of time here, since the memoir pinches together last night and the night that Sassoon returned from leave, with a gift–smoked salmon–for his comrades.

Pushing past the gas-blanket, I blundered down the stairs to the company headquarters’ dug-out. There were twenty steps to that earthy smelling den, with its thick wooden props down the middle and its precarious yellow candlelight casting wobbling shadows. Barton was sitting on a box at the rough table, with a tin mug and a half-empty whisky bottle. His shoulders were hunched and the collar of his trench-coat was turned up to his ears. Dick was in deep shadow, lying on a bunk (made of wire-netting with empty sandbags on it). It was a morose cramped little scene, loathsome to live in as it is hateful to remember. The air was dank and musty; lumps of chalk fell from the ‘ceiling’ at intervals. There was a bad smell of burnt grease, and the frizzle of something frying in the adjoining kennel that was called the kitchen was the only evidence of ordinary civilization—that and Barton’s shining pince-nez, and the maps and notebooks which were on the table. . . .

Smoked salmon from Piccadilly Circus was something after all. It cheered Barton immensely. He unpacked it; he sniffed it; and no doubt it brought the lights of London into his mind. “Gosh, if only this war would stop!” he exclaimed… “I’d be off to Scott’s oyster-bar like a streak of light and you’d never get me away from it again!”

He held the smoked salmon under Dick’s nose and told him what a lucky young devil he was to be going on leave in two or three days’ time. Dick wasn’t as bright as usual; he’d got a rotten headache, he said. Barton told him he’d better let Ormand go out with the wiring-party instead of him. But he said no, he’d be all right by then, and Ormand had been out last night…

Dick was still lying in his dark corner when I said good-night and groped my way up the steps, leaving them to make the most of the smoked salmon. Going down Canterbury Avenue it was so pitch black that I couldn’t see my own hand; once or twice a flare went up in the spectral region on the shoulder of the hill behind me; lit by that unearthly glare the darkness became desolation.

This darkness–on a night which was otherwise remembered as very bright–could have had something to do with the time of night or cloud cover, but it does seem to push this scene further back in time–or further into the grey area of memoir-telescoped memory. It is a dark night of the semi-fictionalized soul…

 

Back now to Robert Graves, happily working away with the rest of A Company, in the firm hope that his friend Thomas has a blighty one.

At twelve o’clock we finished for the night. Richardson said: “Von Ranke,” (only he pronounced it “Von Runicke”–which was my Regimental nickname) “take the Company down for their rum and tea, will you? They’ve certainly earned it tonight. I’ll be back in a few minutes. I’m going out with Corporal Chamberlen to see what the wiring-party’s been at.”

As I took the men back, I heard a couple of shells fall somewhere behind us. I noticed them, because they were the only shells fired that night: five-nines, by the noise. We had hardly reached the support line on the reverse side of the hill, when we heard the cry: “Stretcher-bearers!” and presently a man ran up to say: “Captain Graves is hit!”

That raised a general laugh, and we walked on: but all the same I sent a stretcher-party to investigate. It was Richardson: the shells had caught him and Corporal Chamberlen among the wire. Chamberlen lost his leg and died of wounds a day or two later. Richardson, blown into a shell hole full of water, lay there stunned for some minutes before the sentries heard the corporal’s cries and realized what had happened. The stretcher-bearers brought him down semi-conscious; he recognized us, said he wouldn’t be long away from the Company, and gave me instructions about it. The doctor found no wound in any vital spot, though the skin of his left side had been riddled, as we saw, with the chalky soil blown against it. We felt the same relief in his case as in David’s: that he would be out of it for a while.

It’s the push and pull of the storytelling urge and the senseless cruelty of war (or fate) that animates these tales of death in such an interesting way. A second officer falls–but he is fine. And have we forgotten about the first?

No.

Then news came that David was dead. The Regimental doctor, a throat specialist in civil life, had told him at the dressing-station: “You’ll be all right, only don’t raise your head for a bit.” David then took a letter from his pocket, gave it to an orderly, and said: “Post this!” It had been written to a girl in Glamorgan, for delivery if he got killed. The doctor saw that he was choking and tried tracheotomy; but too late.

It gets worse.

Edmund and I were talking together in “A” Company Headquarters at about one o’clock when the Adjutant entered. He looked ghastly. Richardson was dead: the explosion and the cold water had overstrained his heart, weakened by rowing in the Eight at Radley. The Adjutant said nervously: “You know, somehow I feel–I feel responsible in a way for this: what I said yesterday at Trafalgar Square. Of course, really, I don’t believe in superstition, but . . .”

Just at that moment three or four whizz-bang shells burst about twenty yards off. A cry of alarm went up, followed by: “Stretcher-bearers!”

The Adjutant turned white, and we did not have to be told what had happened. Pritchard, having fought his duel all night, and finally silenced the enemy, was coming off duty. A whizz-bang had caught him at the point where the communication trench reached Maple Redoubt–a direct hit. The total casualties were three officers and one corporal.

Three officers, then, are dead: Richardson, Pritchard, and Thomas.

It seemed ridiculous, when we returned without Richardson to “A” Company billets at Morlancourt to find the old lady still alive and to hear her once more quaver: “Triste, la guerre!” when her daughter explained that le jeune capitaine had been killed. The old woman had taken a fancy to le jeune capitaine; we used to chaff him about it.[7]

So Graves skips ahead to the death of Pritchard before further considering the effect of David Thomas’s death on his friends. He will recognize (as we will see) that it hit Sassoon harder.

Here is how “George Sherston” learns of the death of “David Thomas:”

Coming up from the transport lines at twelve o’clock next morning I found Joe Dottrell[8] standing outside the Quartermaster’s stores. His face warned me to expect bad news. No news could have been worse. Dick had been killed. He had been hit in the throat by a rifle bullet while out with the wiring-party, and had died at the dressing-station a few hours afterwards. The battalion doctor had been a throat specialist before the War, but this had not been enough.[9]

For Adams, the news of Thomas’s death came early, with the rest of the bad night still to unfold. Patrolling the front line, directing suppressing fire on suspected German rifle grenade positions, Adams runs into his neighboring company commander, Richardson/”Robertson:”

We talked. A tremendous lot of work had been done, and the big traverse was practically finished. “I’m knocking off now,” said I. It was a quarter to twelve, and I went along with the “Cease work” message.

“All right,” said Robertson, “I’m just going to have another look at my wirers. I’ll look in as I go down.”

Adams sees his men back to their positions, where soup has been brought up from the rear.

I stopped and had a taste. It was good stuff. As I turned off down the trench, I heard the Germans start shelling again on our left, but they stopped almost directly. I thought nothing of it at the time.

It was just midnight when I reached Trafalgar Square and bumped into Davidson coming round the comer.

“Davidson” is David Pritchard.

“I was looking for you,” said he. “You’ve heard about Tommy?”

“Yes,” I answered. “But he’s not badly hit, is he?”

“Oh, you haven’t heard. He died at eleven o’clock.”

Died! My God I this was something new. Briefly, tersely, Davidson told me the details. He had been hit in the mouth while working on the parapet, and had died down at the dressing station. I looked hard at Davidson, as we stood together in the moonlight by the big island traverse at Trafalgar Square. Somehow I felt my body tense; my teeth were pressed together; my eyes did not want to blink. Here was something new. I had seen death often: it was nothing new. But it was the first time it had taken one of us. I wondered what Davidson felt; he knew Thompson much better than I. Yet I knew him well enough—only a day or so ago he had come to our billet in the butcher’s shop, and we had talked of him afterwards—and now—dead–

All this flashed through my brain in a second. Meanwhile Davidson was saying,

“Well, I’m just going off for this strafe,” when I heard men running down a trench.

“Quick! stretcher-bearers. The Captain’s hit,” came from someone in a low voice.

It is eerie, even after pursuing this project for over a year and a half, to get this stereo effect, to hear the same voices calling down through the pages of two memoirs, from the same trench, only a few yards away from each other.

The captain who has been hit is “Robertson”/Richardson. Adams and “Davidson”/Pritchard are now pushed beyond numbness and toward a killing rage. They decide to change Richardson’s plans for a post-midnight “strafe” and instead coordinate a heavier retaliatory bombardment of the German front lines.

We know what will happen, already, from the way in which Adams has described his last several meetings with Pritchard. For Graves and Sassoon it is David Thomas who is the crushing loss, and Pritchard the lesser tragedy (Richardson, it seems, was liked and respected, but not loved). For Adams, the death of David Thomas pushes him from reverie to rage, but it is Pritchard’s now literarily-inevitable death that will strike at his heart.

It was at this point, in reading up on this deadly day, that I realized there has been more “compression” of events. Sassoon made it seem as if Thomas was killed only one night after he returned from leave, eliding several days for dramatic purposes. But Graves has compressed in a different direction, as it were, pulling tomorrow’s tragedy into today, apparently in order to stress the intensity of this sudden spate of officers’ deaths in this long-safe battalion. Graves makes it seem as if Pritchard was killed the same night as Richardson and Thomas–but he wasn’t. Adams’s much more carefully dated memoir and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission must be counted on to outweigh the solitary Graves–and they are clear that he lived until tomorrow.

Did Graves forget? Did his memories of this harrowing two days shrink them to one? Or did he move a fact that is usually as stark and historically sacrosanct as possible–a man’s death, a date carved in stone–in order to wring more drama out of the death of his friend and the collective loss of innocence in his battalion? I’m not sure.

Back now to Adams’s narrative. It is, of course, after midnight–so really tomorrow, a century back. But this retaliation is the proper end of today’s story. Graves misremembered–or cheated–by folding all three deaths into one day, but it’s a five-act drama. First the foreboding, the long safety, the touching of wood; then disaster, with Thomas and Robertson cut down. Now, Act III, vengeance:

I stood alone at Trafalgar Square. There was a great calm sky, and the moon looked down at me. Then with a “thud” the first football went up. Then the Stokes answered.

“Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!” Up they sailed into the air all together, and exploded with a deafening din.

“Thud— thud!”

“Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!”

Then the Boche woke up. Two canisters rose, streamed, and fell, dropping slightly to my right. But still our trench mortars went on. Two more canisters tried for Davidson’s gun.

I was elated. “This for Thompson and Robertson,” I said, as our footballs went on methodically.

Then the whizz-bangs began on Trafalgar Square.

I went to the telephone.

“Artillery,” I said briefly. “Retaliate C I Sector.”

And then our guns began.

“Scream, scream, scream” they went over.

“Swish–swish” answered the Boche whizz-bangs.

“Phew,” said Sergeant Tallis, the bombing-sergeant, as he looked out of his dug-out.

“More retaliation,” I said to the signaller, and stepped out again.

A grim exaltation filled me. We were getting our own back. I did not care a straw for their canisters or whizz-bangs. It pleased me to hear Sergeant Tallis say “Phew.” My blood was up, and I did not feel like saying “Phew.”

“The officer wants to know if that is enough,” said the telephone orderly, who had come out to find me.

“No,” I answered; “I want more.” The Boche was sending “heavies” over on to Maple Redoubt. I would go on until he stopped. My will should be master. Again our shells screamed over. There was no reply.

Gradually quiet came back. Then I heard footsteps, and there was Davidson. His face was glowing too.

“How was that?” he asked.

How was that? He had fired magnificently, though the Boche had sent stuff all round him. How was that?

“Magnificent! We’ve shut them up.”

“I’ve got six shells left. Shall I blaze them off?”

“Oh, no!” said I; “I think we’ve avenged Tommy.”

His face hardened.

“Good night, Bill!”

But I did not feel like sleep. I still stood at the corner, waiting for I knew not what.

“Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!” went the Stokes gun. There was a pause, and “bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!” came the sound of them bursting. There was a longer pause.

“Bang!” I watched the spark floating through the sky.

“Bang!” came the sound back from the German trench.

I waited. There was no answer. And for the first time that night I fancied the moon smiled.

Interestingly, Adams undercuts his own dramatic scene by juxtaposing it with his official report. There is quiet irony in this sort of procedure, of course–here is the terror and elation of combat, and the dry diction of communication with the uncomprehending higher-ups. But Adams chose to leave us with those last six shots. They fell, but clearly they are not finished: they were the superabundance of rage, a thing which neither the heroes of epic nor the fates of tragedy will neglect.

[Copy]

Daily Summary. C 1. (Left Company)

6 P.M. 18.3.16—3.30 P.M. 19.3.16

(a) Operations.

11 P.M. Enemy fired six rifle-grenades from F10/5. The approximate position of the battery was visible from the Fort, and Lewis gun fire was brought to bear on it, which immediately silenced it.

11.30 P.M. Enemy fired several trench-mortar shells and H.E. shells…

12.45 P.M. Our T.M. Battery fired 12 footballs, and our Stokes gun 32 shells at enemy’s front line trench in F10/5. The enemy sent a few canisters over, but then resorted to H.E.’s. Our artillery retalliated. Our Stokes gun continued to fire until enemy was silent, no reply being sent to our last 6 shells.

7.45 A.M. Enemy fired several rifle-grenades and bombs. Our R.G.’s retaliated with 24 R.G.’s…

J. B. P. Abams, Lt., O.C. “B” Coy.[10]

 

So David Pritchard/”Davidson” lives yet. And Siegfried Sassoon remains in ignorance of David Thomas’s death.

We’ll close today’s tangled and deadly post with Graves, looking back on what Thomas’s death meant to him–and there’s a glimpse too, of what Sassoon’s future reaction will be:

I felt David’s death worse than any other since I had been in France, but it did not anger me as it did Siegfried. He was Acting Transport Officer and every evening now, when he came up with the rations, went out on patrol looking for Germans to kill. I just felt empty and lost.

One of the anthems that we used to sing in the Mess was: “He that shall endure to the end, shall be saved.” The words repeated themselves in my head, like a charm, whenever things went wrong. “Though thousands languish and fall beside thee, And tens of thousands around thee perish. Yet still it shall not come nigh thee.” And there was another bit: “To an inheritance incorruptible . . . Through faith unto salvation, Ready to be revealed at the last trump.” For “trump” we always used to sing “crump.” A crump was German five-point-nine shell, and “the last crump” would be the end of the War. Should we ever live to hear it burst safely behind us? I wondered whether I could endure to the end with faith unto salvation . . . My breaking point was near now, unless something happened to stave it off. Not that I felt frightened. I had never yet lost my head and turned tail through fright, and knew that I never would. Nor would the break-down come as insanity; I did not have it in me. It would be a general nervous collapse, with tears and twitchings and dirtied trousers; I had seen cases like that.[11]

 

Finally, one of several poems which will leave a long literary memory of David Cuthbert Thomas. This, again, is Graves, and Graves at something like his best. He may be a scholar distinguished more by the breadth of his visions than their solidity, but he knows how to take an obvious theme and make of it something that is both poetically efficient and emotionally effective.

Goliath and David

Yet once an earlier David took
Smooth pebbles from the brook:
Out between the lines he went
To that one-sided tournament,
A shepherd boy who stood out fine
And young to fight a Philistine
Clad all in brazen mail. He swears
That he’s killed lions, he’s killed bears,
And those that scorn the God of Zion
Shall perish so like bear or lion.
But … the historian of that fight
Had not the heart to tell it right.

Striding within javelin range,
Goliath marvels at this strange
Goodly-faced boy so proud of strength.
David’s clear eye measures the length;
With hand thrust back, he cramps one knee,
Poises a moment thoughtfully,
And hurls with a long vengeful swing.
The pebble, humming from the sling
Like a wild bee, flies a sure line
For the forehead of the Philistine;
Then … but there comes a brazen clink,
And quicker than a man can think
Goliath’s shield parries each cast.
Clang! clang! and clang! was David’s last.
Scorn blazes in the Giant’s eye,
Towering unhurt six cubits high.
Says foolish David, “Damn your shield!
And damn my sling! but I’ll not yield.”
He takes his staff of Mamre oak,
A knotted shepherd-staff that’s broke
The skull of many a wolf and fox
Come filching lambs from Jesse’s flocks.
Loud laughs Goliath, and that laugh
Can scatter chariots like blown chaff
To rout; but David, calm and brave,
Holds his ground, for God will save.
Steel crosses wood, a flash, and oh!
Shame for beauty’s overthrow!
(God’s eyes are dim, His ears are shut.)
One cruel backhand sabre-cut—
“I’m hit! I’m killed! ” young David cries,
Throws blindly forward, chokes … and dies.
And look, spike-helmeted, grey, grim,
Goliath straddles over him.

References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 193-4.
  2. I do not mean to imply that one influenced another--I think it's a striking coincidence, and an unparalleled example of what we might call the necessity of emplotment, especially as regards sudden death from long range. These are not stories that can really be "chronicled" or shaped into a meaningful historical narrative, complete with causation, responsibility, lessons, etc. These are calamities, catastrophes--literal down-strokes of ill-fortune. They must be told as though they were somehow fated, lest meaninglessness come to seem like madness... all that said, it is possible that Sassoon read Adams before he wrote.
  3. Nothing of Importance, 163/172.
  4. Perhaps well-known to many readers as the "Kinjack" of Sassoon's memoirs.
  5. Nothing of Importance, 164-70/173-81.
  6. Good-Bye to All That, 194.
  7. Good-Bye to All That, 194-7.
  8. Joe Cottrell, the battalion quarter-master.
  9. Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, 272.
  10. Nothing of Importance,177-80/187-91.
  11. Good-Bye to All That, 197-198.