Lord Dunsany and the Trumpets of Peace; Noel Hodgson and the Theology of Sacrifice; Gas and Smoke at Ypres; Thomas Hardy and a Coincidental Kiss; Edward Brittain Makes a Pilgrimage

…on Sunday morning I heard a triumphant sound, and looking out of the window I saw a triumphant sight. Poets may picture Victory with her trumpet, walking the field of battle, but who has seen with his eyes anything quite so like her as I saw them? I saw one corporal going alone through Dublin, blowing the Cease Fire every now and then on his bugle.

Both sides seemed to obey him.[1]

And so Lord Dunsany pipes peace back into Dublin. He will not linger for the retribution that Britain will now mete out to the rebels.

 

I have been neglecting Noel Hodgson a bit of late. Back from hospital, he is with his battalion, the 9th Devonshires, in reserve. Sunday and reserve means, of course, Church Parade. The Rev. Ernest Courtenay Crosse gave

one of his inimitable sermons–if you don’t stop a bullet–bon; if you do & get a blighty–très bon; but if you get killed it is more bon still–for though you may not realise it, you give your life for others.

Did this sort of sermon reach many men? It’s difficult to tell. On what, really, could opinions differ more dramatically than religion-combined-with-institutional-lecturing-combined-with the society-of-men-in-combat-combined-with-the-fear-of-death? Many officers seem to be of the opinion that such sermons were good for the men–simple, to the point, something to cover your fears with, something to move forward on, etc…

They themselves might have finer feelings, of course–but the British class system was surely tolerant of the idea of such dual messaging. The chaplain spoke in useful simplicities to the men while befriending the officers. Hodgson’s biographer, Charlotte Zeepvat, notes that the previous chaplain had been “killed on the battlefield while attending to the wounded”–surely the most efficacious message of all. But Crosse was quite young, and soon became intimate with “Smiler” Hodgson and the tight-knit subalterns of the 9th Devonshires.[2]

 

And here’s a curio: Thomas Hardy, the flinty old poet that the young subaltern poets will continue to respect, writing to Hamo Thornycroft, the sculptor and uncle of Siegfried Sassoon. Hardy writes to praise Thornycroft’s bust of himself, but this is close to immodesty, so he must choose another work to praise even higher. He chooses a sculpture called “The Kiss,” which, oddly, bears the same title as Sassoon’s most recent poem.

My dear Thornycroft:

We are much struck with the photographs. That of my head shows what a good & forcible likeness the bronze is. I must try to live up to such a reproduction of life: but I feel a feeble person beside it.

My wife says that your marble “Kiss” is the most beautiful thing in the Exhibition, with all the distinction of Greek art at its best…

Always sincerely

Thomas Hardy.[3]

 

From Wessex, now, to Ypres. We haven’t read the Master of Belhaven much in recent weeks, as his unit, like many artillery units, has settled into a rhythm. A rhythm which was disrupted, today, a century back, by a German gas attack, long suspected to be in the works.

Kemmel, 30th April, 1916

The gas attack came off at last, and was very serious while it lasted… At 1 a.m. I had just lain down int he hope of getting an hour’s sleep, when the gas alarm syren[4] on Kemmel Hill started… terrific rifle and machine-gun fire started from the trenches, followed a few seconds after by all the field-guns on the front. I laced up my boots as quick as possible and lit the lamp. I was only just in time. Suddenly the cattle and dogs set up a piteous noise and we smelt the chlorine gas. Helmets were put on immediately, but not before I could feel the irritation in my throat.

The night was very dark, and it was very difficult to get about with the goggles over one’s eyes… We had never expected to be shelled so far back as this, and consequently has not prepared any dug-outs…

There was a terrible scene with the local inhabitants, who had hysterics, and got in our way. They had not got enough masks to go round, and had refused to send away their children as I had frequently warned them for the last two days. It was not till the gas-cloud was just on us that they could be persuaded to fly to Dranoutre. The gas being very heavy travels along valleys, so I told them to keep to the ridge. Apparently they were not caught, as they had mostly turned up again this morning.

With our helmets on, we could not taste the chlorine, and in the darkness it could not be seen: but we knew it was on us by the way the howls of the dogs and the bellowing of the cattle ceased…

Next, news arrives at Hamilton’s command post that the Germans have seized a small salient of the British line (not the salient, of course, which is miles around, but a small protuberance that had affected fields of fire or the aesthetic appeal of certain trench maps). Hamilton begins interdiction fire, lobbing shells into the open areas that German reinforcements would need to traverse. Soon, news comes that the British positions positions have been retaken. Hamilton begins an immediate analysis.

The way in which the Germans got into our trenches is rather interesting, as it is the first time I have heard of this method being used, except by poachers. The gas-cloud was accompanied by dense volumes of smoke. Under cover of this, the Germans came out of their trenches, crossed No Man’s Land, which at this place is only 30 yards wide, and stood on the top of the parapet. They worked in pairs, one man holding a very powerful electric torch, the other having his rifle ready. As they stood on our parapet, the man with the lamp flashed it on to one of our men in the trench beneath him, so blinding him for a moment. The other man than shot him at point-blank range. This ruse was so successful that all our men in that part of the trench were almost immediately shot down…

This, we should note, is hearsay–Hamilton himself is thousands of yards away. Did it really happen like this? I don’t know, but it sounds rather too fearfully effective for a new and less-than-ubiquitous tactic.

In any case, the grim fights to the death are being conducted at a remove. Hamilton’s account of his own activities today, a century back, is that of a man writing in the aftermath of a rush of excitement, but not terror or mortal combat:

I found Birch in great spirits, having had only three casualties, all gassed. He was really the funniest sight I have ever seen. I am sure he has set up a record for battery commanders. He actually fought a battle in his pyjamas!! His get-up was positively the limit; a cap, a cloak, his pyjamas showing under his cloak, and bedroom slippers!

…Some very gallant things were done to-day. A sentry in the front line, on first smelling the gas, gave the alarm to the other men by striking his gong before putting on his gas-helmet. The restful was that he fell dead…

We have had about 500 casualties, I think, in our division. The gas cases were dreadful to see; most of them will die.[5]

Death, comedy, horror, heroism, all in alternating sentences. It sounds callous or unhinged, but it’s the essence, I think, of the immediacy of daily writing–it’s why the not particularly literary diary of a not particularly noteworthy soldier is worth reading. Steadfast changeability, as it were.

722

 

Finally, today, we have Edward Brittain’s account of a pilgrimage.

France, 30 April 1916

On Sunday April 9th, 3 weeks ago to-day. . . I bicycled from the town, which you must now know, through 4 villages . . . to the place where Roland’s grave is, going in a Northwesterly direction all the way.

Thus the requirements of censorship are complied with. Edward is telling Vera that he bicycled out from Albert–home of the ever-diving Golden Virgin–to Louvencourt.

It was a fine but dull evening . . . and about 6 o’clock I was coming up the hill from the valley south of the village. I came upon the small military cemetery quite suddenly before I was quite in the village as it is at the southern end where 2 roads meet and run together through the village. It is very small and the graves are in neat rows all close together; I should think there are about 50 or 60 buried there; some are French but most are English. . . There were several men about looking at the graves and I asked one when I first came up where the officers’ graves were and he pointed them out to me.

There are more graves, now at Louvencourt Military Cemetery, but not so many that Roland Leighton‘s grave is difficult to find.

I walked up along the path and stood in front of the grave……..  And I took off my cap and prayed to whatever God there may be that I might live to be worthy of the friendship of the man whose grave was before me…….. But I did not stay there long because it was so very clear that He could not come back, and though it may be that He could see me looking at His grave, yet I did not feel that He was there.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Patches of Sunlight, 288.
  2. Zeepvat, Before Action, 174.
  3. Letters, V, 159.
  4. I feel compelled to put the rare [sic] down here.
  5. War Diary, 183.
  6. Letters From a Lost Generation, 252.

Lord Dunsany: Alarums, and Exeunt Rebelles; Aubrey Herbert–and Some Fellow Named Lawrence–at Kut, and the Future of Military Romance; Raymond Asquith on Depressed Glamor Queens and the Pleasures of the Breast

Lord Dunsany is still a prisoner in Jervis Street Hospital; but the cavalry–or, rather, the infantry–have nearly arrived.

That night I got some sleep, and, when I woke up, the Leinsters had captured the hospital. There was a song that the men of the 5th Battalion used to sing on our marches round about Dublin, which I liked the least of all the songs that they sang. Many of their songs were delightful, but this was a vulgar song, that I always disliked. Now, in the bright morning, there was a soldier singing that song in Jervis Street; and, being rather weak, I was nearly moved to tears by it. And there was no one firing any more in the room above my head; but the roof was still occupied, and empty cartridges came tinkling down past my window.

I’ve been overusing the word “reverie,” usually with reference to Siegfried Sassoon‘s uncanny ability to summon a mood of pastoral beauty-mongering no matter what his actual circumstances. This is another sort of thing entirely: a fierce concentration of the autobiographer’s powers of memory on a period when time stretched endlessly out, when complete, enforced inaction was combined with distant sounds of deadly dramatic action. There is one natural metaphor for such an experience–blindness, stillness, the reliance on hearing–but an even better metaphor didn’t occur to me until I read this next bit.

Dunsany is revered by many as one of the founding English fantasists, the noble father to a proliferating progeny of impoverished genre productions, and his light way with wonder is certainly on display in these descriptions of lying abed during the Rising. But his greatest literary successes in his own time came as a playwright.

Troops came up the passage, and I have reason to believe that others went out by the other end of it, leaving the passage empty only for as long as the stage is sometimes left when an author does not wish two parties to meet, but at the same time must not leave the stage empty… Soon after this an officer of the Sherwood Foresters, Captain Okeover, came in, fit and well and unwounded, and, exercising a conqueror’s right, demanded a bath.[1]

 

July will be the cruelest month, this year. April is the month of that early 20th century British specialty: the imperial side-show that distracts from the main-effort theaters of global conflict. From Ireland, now, to Mesopotamia, where Aubrey Herbert has been summoned to negotiate the surrender of the garrison of Kut to the Turkish general Khalil Pasha.

We three then went out to the trenches with a white flag, and walked a couple of hundred yards or so ahead where we waited, with all the battlefield smells round us. It was all a plain with a river to the north and the place crawling with huge black beetles and stinging flies, that have been feeding on the dead. After a time a couple of Turks came out. I said “We have got a letter to Khalil.” This they wanted to take from us, but we refused to give it up, and they sent an orderly back to ask if we might come into the Turkish lines. Meanwhile we talked amiably. The Turks showed us their medals, and we were rather chagrined at not being able to match them.

Several hours passed. It was very hot. I was hungry…

We were blindfolded and we went in a string of hot hands to the trenches banging against men and corners, and sweating something cruel. Beyond the trenches we went for half an hour, while my handkerchief became a wet string across my eyes. Then we met Bekir Sami Bey. He was a very fine man and very jolly…

After coffee and yogurt, a long ride to Khalil’s camp. Remember, Herbert, you are the living bridge between two British eras, the age of the “Dr. Livingston I presume” imperial adventurers and the Greenmantle-to-Bond secret agents. How to begin?

“Where was it that I met your Excellency last?”

And he said: “At a dance at the British Embassy.”

Well-played!

Khalil throughout the interview was polite. He was quite a young man for his position, I suppose about thirty-five, and a fine man to look at–lion-taming eyes, a square chin and a mouth like a steel trap… We began on minor points…

And thence they proceeded to the matter of the treatment of the Arab population in Kut, which had aided the British; to possible prisoner exchanges, to Khalil threatening to hang any Arab troops who had surrendered, to the destruction of the British big guns, and then to the question of British ransom payments. These will prove controversial…  nothing is definitively decided, but there can be no more pretense that Britain has anything, really, to negotiate with. Khalil is secure, and the fate of Kut is in his hands… and so the British retire to tents to write their reports.

Herbert is pleased with himself. He shouldn’t be: he’s an amateur and flatters himself both that he is a gentleman dealing with gentlemen and that he has handed Khalil well, by extracting a hint of concessions despite the British position of weakness. This is either absent-minded overconfidence or willful blindness. (Apologies for going to this metaphor-to-hand so often, but I remind readers that Herbert is in fact extremely myopic.)

The Arabs of Kut will be badly treated nonetheless. The Turks are a dominant imperial people willing to ignore feeble notions of honor in order to punish a restive subject population–an action which should not stretch the British imagination very far. There will be reprisals, torture, massacres… and Herbert will return to negotiate about wounded prisoners, etc., while the rest of the British command turn to what we nowadays call “spin,” trying to suppress reports of their failure to win real concessions, of Townshend’s breakdown, and of the fact that their offer of payment–to be spurned by Khalil–was essentially a failed bribe offered to escape the consequences of military defeat.[2]

A bad scene. But let’s tart it up in thematic dress: is this the death of amateurism, a grubby end to an imperial misadventure that clears the decks, in a way, for the different sort of full-on industrial disaster which will befall the British armies in July? Is this, then, the very last gasp of Britain’s 1914-and-before?

Or are we merely present at the sundering of romantic adventure from the action of military history?

There will still be armies, going forward. And there will be war literature in great profusion and terrible strength. But it will be much harder, now, to mistake a work of military history for a work of “romance.” It’s not that commando raids and spy escapades and guerrilla successes are not a part of military history; it’s that once they were close to its heart, holding the stage whenever big battles and sieges didn’t, and now they are mere rounding errors in the ledger of war.

What has Aubrey Herbert to do with the Somme? Or any one unusual man (sniper stories aside) with Verdun, or Stalingrad, or Kursk? We love adventure stories, light or dark–but what has Rambo, or Conrad’s Kurtz, to do with the Tet offensive or Operation Rolling Thunder? The size of the forest is imagination-beggaring, now, so we must leave the landscape to the serious historians, who only deign to decorate with individual trees when they sense our attention flagging. Meanwhile we may transplant the little saplings of romance, find some secluded glade, and clone them to our hearts’ desire.

Apologies for the semi-coherent critical cadenza, but I have a rare opportunity: who else is in that tent, scribbling away beside Herbert?

None other than the living embodiment of the escape from our nightmare of modern bureaucratic warfare–T.E. Lawrence! Lawrence of Mesopotamia just now, but not for long.[3]

Lawrence, another talented irregular, was, like Herbert, irregularly attached to the staff. He too described today’s events in a letter home. Lawrence takes more interest in their adversary:

Colonel Beach, one of the Mesopotamian Staff, Aubrey Herbert (who was with us in Cairo) and myself were sent up to see the Turkish Commander in Chief, and arrange the release, if possible, of Townshend’s wounded. From our front trenches we waved a white flag vigorously: then we scrambled out, and walked about half-way across the 500 yards of deep meadow-grass between our lines and the Turkish trenches. Turkish officers came out to meet us, and we explained what we wanted. They were tired of shooting, so kept us sitting there with our flag as a temporary truce, while they told Halil Pasha we were coming–and eventually in the early afternoon we were taken blind-folded through their lines and about ten miles Westward till within four miles of Kut to his Headquarters.

He is a nephew of Enver’s, and suffered violent defeat in the Caucasus so they sent him to Mesopotamia as G.O.C. hoping he would make a reputation. He is about 32 or 33, very keen and energetic but not clever or intelligent I thought. He spoke French to us, and was very polite, but of course the cards were all in his hands, and we could not get much out of him. However he let about 1,000 wounded go without any condition but the release of as many Turks–which was all we could hope for.

We spent the night in his camp, and they gave us a most excellent dinner in Turkish style – which was a novelty to Colonel Beach, but pleased Aubrey and myself.[4]

 

Surely we should down pens after Dublin and Kut, but it feels almost as if a little Raymond Asquith–idle, witty, but persistently human despite it all–would allow us to claim that we have run the gamut of war-letter-writing all in one day… or maybe it’s just that I just can’t resist a few of these bits. No war blog is complete without a reference to the difficulties of breast-feeding! First, snippets from two of yesterday’s letters, to his wife Katherine and to Diana Manners.

Intelligence,
G.H.Q.
B.E.F.
28 April 1916

…I’m delighted to hear that the baby has your eyebrows; as you say, one is grateful enough for their having anyone’s. I hope it may also inherit your eyes (not to mention “little classical”) and my own kind heart and hatred of impurity . . .

 

28 April 1916

Katharine has kept on telling me for weeks now that you have been very sweet to her but very low in your spirits. I do hope that you are not sick of love for one of these terribly young men?

. . . And yet there is a bitter pleasure in your being subject to chance and change like the rest of us . . . Much as one likes you, one would like you less if you were not (occasionally) depressed. Do you think yourself that you would love anyone who was so free from human vicissitude as to be always on the top of the wave? Perhaps you do think so. But if you do it is only because you regard people as if they were things. The Matterhorn would certainly lose its somewhat dreary point if once a week it looked like a molehill, and Venice similarly if it had moods of Manchester…

 

Finally, today, a century back, once again to Katherine Asquith, who, one presumes, has learned to deal with receiving sympathy in the form of self-centered humor:

Intelligence,
G.H.Q.
B.E.F.
29 April 1916

I have a beautiful long letter from you with a few complaints which I take to be a healthy sign. I always understood that the first clutch of infant lips on the breast was the most thrilling and exquisite moment in a woman’s life. Don’t tell me that I have been misinformed. Really I think you must be mistaken in supposing the sensation to be unpleasant.

…I am glad to hear that the child has a curly mouth as well as curly eyebrows, but a little surprised that it has not yet given proof of the exceptional cleverness which your children have always been used to display during the first few days of their lives at any rate . . .[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Patches of Sunlight, 287.
  2. Fitzherbert, The Man Who Was Greenmantle, 178-82.
  3. It behooves me to note here that I am aware of one of the most memorable and wicked little digs-at-the-reader in Robert Graves's Good-Bye to All That. Graves confessed, afterwards, that he was eager to make money with his book, and so, following the suggestion of a craven publisher, he put a little Lawrence into a draft that had nothing to do with Lawrence, or Arabia. But if that's what people wanted to read...
  4. Letter of May 18th, available here.
  5. Life and Letters, 260-1.

The Peacocks Scream in Dunsany; Rowland Feilding on the Quiet of the Somme; Bim Tennant Struts Gaily Upon the Stage; We Meet Ben Keeling

Lord Dunsany, still abed in Dublin in the rebel-held Jervis Street Hospital, began his day at 3 A.M., when Sister Basil woke him up in order to assure him that there was absolutely no danger at all.

It transpired that parts of Dublin, now under assault by troops loyal to the crown, was burning.

I learned then that if you have one thing to worry about, it is quite enough, and more do not matter. For instance the doctor did not know where my bullet had gone… And then there was the possibility of septic trouble; and there were the shells, though only one came our way, and that one had burst before it entered the hospital… And then there was a question as to what the Sinn Feiners, who had spared me while holding their ground, would do when they came back that way in defeat… There were the bullets too, and very low window-sills, so the prospect of being burned did not have my undivided attention; but Sister Basil was troubled about her patients. These flames were seen at my home, and they and the guns set the peacocks screaming all night, and rumour reported me dead.[1]

 

Rowland Feilding has been away from France for rather a while. In his letter to his wife, today, he describes a recent dinner–of whitebait–with a nearby general. The dinner is provided courtesy of “a very persevering mess cook, who sits on the bank of the Somme, with a gauze net at the end of a pole…it takes several hours to get a plateful.” A shameful waste of military manpower?

But they are very good, and I shall adopt the idea.

Yes, do that. More usefully, Feilding now describes the Somme area, which is new to him:

From a spectacular point of view this is probably the most interesting section of the British Front. A succession of rolling hills and ridges—in striking contrast to the flat low-lying lands further north—here permits of close and distant observation, with exceptional facility, and one lives with field-glasses “at the ready.”

…The sun was shining brightly, and the nightingales were singing for all they were worth, and all seemed very restful as we visited the outposts. One of those silent lulls was on, when both sides seem to have gone to sleep.[2]

 

Feilding’s even-more-well-born fellow-guardsman Bimbo Tennant is having an even less strenuous time of it. Extrapolating from small sample sizes is bad history, but it’s also what we’re doing here, day in and day out (although the sample size is steadily rising), but it’s hard not to notice that the Guards really do seem to function like an old noble and elite unit. They seem to have the easiest time of it out of the line, flush with perquisites and staff jobs and follies and plovers’ eggs. But when it comes to the cruxof a long-planned battle, they are expected to lead the way.

I suppose I have foreshadowed, but broadly enough. The battles will come again: right now it is meat and drink, wine and song…

. . . I rode with the General to inspect various battalions, transport-horses this morning. Then we came back, got into a motor and went about 2 miles in it to meet Sir Douglas Haig. I have just bought some things for my god-son, Wilfrid Gough’s boy, who has been christened George Wyndham Gough. I shall have his name put on them. I still perform gaily every night; it is meat and drink to me, and I shall be sorry when we close to-morrow night. You need not worry about me, if I should return to the battalion towards the middle of next month, nothing will happen for a fortnight after that as we are coming out for a rest. I hope everything is going well with you, I pray there may be no trouble. Of course I will not agitate to go back to the battalion until you are perfectly well.[3]

So Bimbo still treads the boards, and feels no guilt at being out of harm’s way, his reasoning being that to be in the trenches would cause his mother–who is pregnant–undue worry. No word yet on whether non-aristocratic (Bimbo’s father is Lord Glenconner, his aunt is married to the Prime Minister, etc.) enlisted men are afforded such considerations… but then again Bimbo is not taking action, but rather refraining from taking action, and in the grips of military bureaucracy this is always a more acceptable course…

 

Well, readers, I have found another interesting letter-writer. Where have you been Ben Keeling? How can I only now have set myself to scanning the letters of a man described–by his friend H.G. Wells–as “copious, egotistical, rebellious, disorderly, generous, and sympathetic?” A shocking lapse. Since I’m not sure we can really bear another such character–Winchester, Trinity College (Cambridge), restless (or feckless) intellectual striving, enlisted in August 1914 alongside Rupert Brooke, etc.–and since I haven’t read through the earlier letters, we’ll keep him as a “tag” rather than a “category” for now.

But this is an interesting debut, no?

…I am thankful that there has been no good war poetry, or very little. There is not much that is poetic about this war. It is bad enough to have to listen to those people who justify war because it gives them a quasi-sensual satisfaction to see humanity crucified after the manner of the founder of Christianity. It would be almost worse to find our intellectual reactionaries ineligible for the trenches deriving satisfaction from war as a stimulant of great literature. I am more interested in life than in poetry, and I should regard it as a disaster to humanity if really great war poems began to appear. It would imply that war did really express something essential and inevitable in the human soul…

Keeling’s assumptions here are interesting: first, that the war poetry would come from men “ineligible for the trenches” and not from writerly young officers; and second, that “great war poems” must necessarily be pro-war poems.

The second assumption is certainly a fair one, given literary history. And yet, although we might react with our superior knowledge of the future–or even our century-back-current awareness of the direction taken by Charles Sorley, and the signs Graves and Sassoon have given of following that lead–Keeling’s question holds up on a more fundamental level. Poetry will soon show the horror and the misery, the antipathy of warfare to the essentials of the human soul… yet we are reading it, and we remain fascinated with war.

Back to Keeling, as we complete our “registration” of his manner, tone, and point of view.

I have seen too much, and my heart is too much set on a new life, to leave me much emotion to spare for the ruined stones of Ypres. When I was there I acquired a sort of affection for the place from our Army’s association with it. But debris are debris, and the Cloth Hall is rather reminiscent of the dead beauty of Venice, which simply gets on my nerves…

The Boches have been sending pretty heavy stuff just over my head this morning. Am sorely tempted to come on leave next Wednesday. Only three of my men who have never missed trenches remain to go. Well, I must be off to have a look at my scavenging party. I hope to specialize on dead rats, which I think are rather pernicious.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Patches of Sunlight, 285-6.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 73-5.
  3. Memoir, 190-1.
  4. Keeling Letters, 279-80.

Birds Singing, Rats Gnawing: Two Scenes from Fusiliers in France; Lord Dunsany and the Good Lord’s Permission in Dublin; Vera Brittain Laid Low

April 27

Another glorious day. Starlight on the mill-water and the unrythmed music of the weir. And birds singing all day as if they were trying to draw the heart out of me with dreams of English woodlands and orchards.[1]

So Army School continues to go well. Siegfried Sassoon, back in bliss and several days from his last mention of David Thomas, will now neglect his diary for a few weeks…

 

But it still goes on. On the Somme, near Annequin, the Germans have been using gas as a nuisance weapon when the wind is right. According to the chronicle of the 2/Royal Welch, there is a distinct upside to this–and for us it makes an impossibly apt counterpoint to the wayward Sassoon’s rural reverie:

There was more gas at night. It should thin out the rats, filthy pests. Two of them once woke Ormond, mating on his bed; his vigorous kick threw them on to Robertson, who mumbled, “Yes, what is it?”–thinking that Brigade Orderly’s familiar midnight hand had been laid on him. Other rats gnawed away Ormond’s Flash[2] to swaddle their young.[3]

The rats, feeding and breeding where men are dying, now have the temerity to attack badges of regimental pride. Logically, this should make them liable to German gas attacks…

 

And it still goes on in Dublin, where Lord Dunsany lies wounded, a nominal prisoner of the Rising. But not for long, now:

All Thursday the guns went on and the rifle-fire; and the bombers came nearer. I had not so many nurses in my room now; but, however heavy the firing in the street, however bright my window-sill with splinters of nickel, Sister Basil never failed to look in, to see how I was getting on. Sometimes she looked at he street a little wonderingly. “I suppose it is by God’s permission,” she said.[4]

 

And in London, where Vera Brittain now suffers one of the consequences of her decision to continue on as a nurse. She handles it in the usual way, namely a mixture of plucky candor and grim brooding:

South Western Hospital, Stockwell, 27 April 1916

I have been unintelligent enough to get an attack of German measles.. .This is one of the numerous London fever hospitals; I was brought here in a motor ambulance . . . It is quite an interesting experience to be a patient in a hospital though I have not been put into a general ward & treated like a pauper, as I expected to be…

The worst of this kind of situation is that one has such a long time to think; I can’t read for long as it hurts my eyes, and I haven’t sufficient energy to write very much, so I lie here and think about Roland and picture to myself the details of His death over & over again.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 61.
  2. This, amusingly, is the bundle of black ribbons that the Royal Welch are sort-of allowed to wear, in obscure continuity with an era in their regimental history as the Twenty-Third Foot.
  3. The War the Infantry Knew, 198.
  4. Patches of Sunlight, 285.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 251.

Lord Dunsany and the Rising’s Fall; Siegfried Sassoon is a Happy, Thrusting Schoolboy Once Again; Aubrey Herbert at the Surrender of Kut

We begin by picking up Siegfried Sassoon‘s Tale of the Bloody Good Bayonet:

Whatever my private feelings may have been after the Major’s lecture, the next morning saw me practising bayonet-fighting. It was all in the day’s work; short points, long points, parries, jabs, plus the always-to-be-remembered importance of “a quick withdrawal”. Capering over the obstacles of the assault course and prodding sacks of straw was healthy exercise; the admirable sergeant-instructor was polite and unformidable, and as I didn’t want him to think me a dud officer, I did my best to become proficient. Obviously it would have been both futile and inexpedient to moralize about bayonet-fighting at an Army School.

Futile and inexpedient, sure. But these are an officer’s equivocations, not a poet’s protest… but the problem, really, is not so much the snigger-behind-the-hand immorality of such bloodthirstiness, but rather the fact that the poet is having a good time. Which Sassoon is honest enough to cop to:

There is a sense of recovered happiness in the glimpse I catch of myself coming out of my cottage door with a rifle slung on my shoulder. There was nothing wrong with life on those fine mornings when the air smelt so fresh and my body was young and vigorous, and I hurried down the white road, along the empty street, and up the hill to our training ground. I was like a boy going to early school, except that no bell was ringing, and instead of Thucydides or Virgil, I carried a gun. Forgetting, for the moment, that I was at the Front to be shot at, I could almost congratulate myself on having a holiday in France without paying for it.[1]

 

Lord Dunsany began this morning, a century back, as a prisoner in a rebel-controlled hospital in Jervis Street. He spent much of it chatting with the four nurses who, lacking other patients, were all attending to his wound, a dramatic but not particularly serious facial wound. It seems somehow appropriate to the heroic, idealistic, bumbling, and doomed Rising that our one intimately involved writer is a Celtophilic lord and a fantasist, and that he receives a bloody, insignificant wound from a bullet that missed badly, and bounced back into his face…

On the way across Dublin yesterday Lord Dunsany had seen the British response building: artillery was coming into the city. His careful testimony of today’s events–quietly ironized, just-slightly-aestheticized–deftly handles the problem of harmonizing the tone of the surrounding memoir with the shocking specificity of the historical events he witnessed. This is not war on the Western Front, it is a shocking intrusion of violence into the heart of a city that had been at peace… and yet the notes of innocence and bewilderment are familiar

It was not till 8 a.m. that they opened fire, and a new voice echoed through Dublin. I was in no pain…

My room was on the first floor, and during all the time I was there I was never molested by any Sinn Feiner, but I began to notice from sounds overhead that fighting was taking place on the second storey. The mighty voice of the guns on Wednesday morning altered the situation: some of the Sinn Feiners had showed the nurses their rifles, and told them how they worked, and they had evidently thought they were winning; but with the arrival of our artillery the question arose as to whether this was quite fair. After a certain amount of shelling, bombing began, and one heard it coming methodically nearer, as house after house was bombed; one crash, and then a tinkling rain from every window in the house. And so on from house to house…

By nightfall the Leinsters and Sherwood Foresters, who were coming our way, had got very close, and there was heavy firing. For quite a minute nobody was hit, and then a voice cried out calling on saints, and was silent. What struck me most about that clear cry in the night was that there was surprise in it, as though the man had not thought that he would be hit, though the firing was heavy and close.

For the rest of that night I heard men dying, and when the cries seemed to have reached an apex beyond which one had not thought that horror could go, one voice was lifted up more horrible than anything else in that night, and this came from a wounded dog. A man was carried down the street to the hospital, calling on God with every breath that he took, for he only got each breath with great difficulty. He was put in the next room to me. And many more were brought in. I used to enquire how these men were doing, when I could no longer hear them, and I always got he same answer, hearing a word that is rarely heard by patients in hospitals: “Ah, he’s dead long ago.”[2]

It takes a botched rebellion, a short, sharp, shock of “asymmetrical” civil war, to strip the comfort of cant from the process of getting shot and dying.

Or it’s just an unusual situation: the nobleman who conjured up the Gods of Pegana from nearly nothing will give us a straight description of the sounds–and silences–of men dying. But he does so because he is a prisoner, a prisoner of no one in particular, or, rather, no organization that will still function tomorrow. This is a time-out from the “real” war, a moment where lords and officers are all ears abed, and where rebel nurses will speak the truth uncosseted.

 

In an odd coincidence, as Lord Dunsany lies in a Dublin hospital with a new hole in his nose, Robert Graves was released from a London hospital today, a century back, after his elective (and mildly botched) nasal operation.[3]

 

And in Ottoman Iraq, Aubrey Herbert began serving as the translator for surrender negotiations between the Turkish besiegers and the British garrison of Kut. A last effort to bring food to the beleaguered garrison had failed, and they were starving. Surrender was inevitable. After months of being cut off and abandoned, the British commander, General Townshend, was beginning to crack. Herbert, who often seems to be the only employee of the British empire able to speak decent Turkish, now had to carry messages between the paranoid general, who had been authorized to try to buy or bribe his force’s freedom, and the Turkish besiegers. Herbert possessed more than a little too much confidence and a genuine flair for absurdly courageous and ill-considered actions. The Turks, on the other hand, held all the cards.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Complete Memoirs, 290-1.
  2. Patches of Sunlight, 283-4.
  3. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 146.
  4. Fitzherbert, The Man Who Was Greenmantle, 177-8.

Lord Dunsany is Shot; Siegfried Sassoon Savors the Bayonet’s Kiss; Olaf Stapledon Contemplates Prison

This weekend, a century back, Lord Dunsany enjoyed a short leave at his eponymous castle, hosting both a brother officer and his agent,[1] who was now a brigadier. The plan was to return to duty today in Londonderry. But upon appearing at breakfast, Dunsany found that the brigadier had been summoned to Dublin early in the morning–there were rumors of a large-scale revolt. What to do?

To stride into G.H.Q., and offer my services, and then to find that there had only been a scrimmage between a policeman and a couple of boys, would be extremely ridiculous. We had no certain news, but the rumours were growing worse…

So off went Lord Dunsany and his fellow-officer, Lindsay, fearing the loss of an opportunity to be of assistance slightly more than the embarrassment of over-reacting. Reaching British Army headquarters, they discovered that a serious revolt was indeed in progress, with many hundreds of Republican militiamen manning barricades. The two officers were sent, in Dunsany’s chauffeured car, to a British unit stationed in Amiens Street–a coincidental intrusion of the Somme on this day of Irish bloodshed.

I had not been told which way to go, and I did not know that, if I went by the shortest route, there was an army in the way. So we took the shortest route.

The particular part of the army that we met was drawn up across the road behind a row of barrels, about a hundred yards on our side of the Four Courts. They stood up from behind the barrels with their rifles already at their shoulders, with the bayonets fixed and the scabbards still on the bayonets, and as soon as they were standing they began to fire. We had stopped the car and were forty yards away, and they were standing shoulder to shoulder all the way across the broad street. Though Dublin must have been echoing to those volleys, to us they were firing in complete silence, for the crash of bullets going through the air drowns all other sounds when they are close enough.  We saw the men’s shoulders jerked back by the recoil of their rifles, but heard no sound from them except the tinkling of their empty cartridges as they fell in the road. I go out and lay down in the road, and many bullets went by me before I was hit. My chauffeur, Frederick Cudlipp, was shot at he wheel, but not fatally.

When the volleys went on I saw that there was no use in staying there lying down in front of them at forty yards, so I went across the road to a doorway where I thought I could get cover. There was no cover when I got there, but it was lucky I moved, for they all concentrated on me, presumably neglecting to aim in front, and it gave Lindsay an opportunity to dodge round to the other side of the car.

So our aristocrat, fantasist, and patron-of-Ledwidge is suddenly wounded in combat, in Dublin, a few miles from his ancestral home. What follows, despite–and because of–the unique situation, is an excellent account of how just how subjective a wounded man’s impressions may be:

I looked for that doorway afterwards, a black door at the top of a flight of steps, but could not find it. The reason that those steps, so clear in my memory, had disappeared from the street was that only one doorstep and the kerb existed, and I must have been rather weak from loss of blood, so that the kerb and the doorstep seemed steeper than they were.

Lord Dunsany is in a bit of a tight spot.

If I got cover there from their right-hand man I certainly had none from the rest of the line, but at that moment one of them came forward and took me prisoner. Patches of Sunlight I recollect I have named this book. Well, one patch was their neglect to aim three inches in front of my neck as I went across the street, and then so many bullets would not have gone, where I heard them, just behind it. The Irish are a sporting people, and so I will state here that I should consider it an unsporting act to make use of this tip against me, if any of them should try it again.

The jocularity continues, but this is not really a funny bit. It’s dead-serious, a fantasist’s dry report on the bizarre emotional swings of real, sudden combat.

The man that took me prisoner, looking at the hole in my face made by one of the bullets, a ricochet, made a remark that people often consider funny, but it was quite simply said and sincerely meant: he said, “I am sorry.”

He led me back to the rest, and one of them came for me with his bayonet, now cleared of its scabbard; but the bullet having made my wits rather alert than otherwise I saw from his heroic attitude that here was no malice about him, but he merely thought that to bayonet me might be a fine thing to do. When the other man suggested, with little more than a shake of his head, that it was not, he gave up the idea altogether. “Where’s a doctor? Where’s a doctor?” they shouted. “Here’s a man bleeding to death.”

As he drily points out, Dunsany was not bleeding to death. The bullet, much of its force spent from the ricochet, has lodged in his sinus, causing a bloody and fearsome–but not life-threatening–wound. Which now, perhaps, saves the life of Dunsany himself, his friend Lindsay, and his chauffeur, Cudlipp. The chauffeur was released to a hospital in the still English-controlled section of the city while Lindsay was held by the rebels. As for Lord Dunsany, he was sent to a hospital in Jervis street, where he was well-looked-after, although he remained a prisoner of the rebels.

This was on a Tuesday, and there followed an interesting week…[2]

 

On the very day that Lord Dunsany was facing an unsheathed bayonet Siegfried Sassoon was, believe it or not, hymning another. Today’s diary entry will be expanded in the Memoirs into a rather pointed (sorry) bit about a most memorable instructor.

April 25

There was a great brawny Highland Major here to-day, talking of the Bayonet. For close on an hour he talked, and all who listened caught fire from his enthusiasm: for he was prophesying; he had his message to deliver. When he had finished, I went up the hill to my green wood where the half-built mansion stands.

So Sassoon resists, at first the lure of lecture-hall violence.

And there it was quite still except for a few birds; robins, and thrushes, and lesser notes. The church-bells were ringing in the town, deep and mellow. A pigeon cooed. Phrases from the bayonet lecture came back to me. Some midges hummed around my head. The air was still warm with the sun that had quite disappeared behind the hills. A rook cawed in the trees. A woodpecker laughed, harsh and derisive. ‘The bullet and the bayonet are brother and sister.’ ‘If you don’t kill him, he’ll kill you!’ ‘Stick him between the eyes, in the throat, in the chest, or round the thighs.’ ‘If he’s on the run, there’s only one place; get your bayonet into his kidneys; it’ll go in as easy as butter.’ ‘Kill them, kill them: there’s only one good Bosche and that’s a dead ‘un!’ ‘Quickness, anger, strength, good fury, accuracy of aim. Don’t waste good steel. Six inches are enough—what’s the use of a foot of steel sticking out at the back of a man’s neck? Three inches will do him, and when he coughs, go and find another.’ And so on.

It would be wonderful to learn that this passage had some influence on the climax of T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, in which a chorus of friendly animals arrive to cheer young “Wart” in his own task of blade-extrication, but it’s merely a strange coincidence. And chivalry-addled, nature-steeped English writers are not all that rare a breed.

The bloody lecture stuck in Sassoon’s mind for a long time, and it became a famous episode in his memoir (I see that the “massive sandy-haired Highland Major” has even made it into anthologies of military anecdote). Rather than simply juxtapose his experience of rural tranquility with the fuming violence of the bayonet lecture, Sassoon enters the ironic mode:

…the star turn in the schoolroom was a massive sandy-haired Highland Major whose subject was “The Spirit of the Bayonet.” Though at that time undecorated, he was afterwards awarded the D.S.O. for lecturing. He took as his text a few leading points from the Manual of Bayonet Training.

To attack with the bayonet effectively requires Good Direction, Strength and Quickness, during a state of wild excitement and probably physical exhaustion. The bayonet is essentially an offensive weapon. In a bayonet assault all ranks go forward to kill or be killed, and only those who have developed skill and strength by constant training will be able to kill. The spirit of the bayonet must be inculcated into all ranks, so that they go forward with that aggressive determination and confidence of superiority born of continual practice, without which a bayonet assault will not be effective.

To hear the Major talk, one might have thought that he did it himself every day before breakfast…[3]

The memoirs go on to describe the antics of the soldier who accompanies the lecture with vivid pantomime: it sounds (although Sassoon is no humorist, and plays it dry) a little like a cross between a Monty Python sketch about Scottish Martial Arts and a bizarre, militaristic take on a flight attendant’s rote safety presentation.

But today, a century back, Sassoon once again chooses to refuse the lure of the comic–or hateful–military lecture and to do so simply by letting it be overwhelmed by his immediate experience of nature.

I told the trees what I had been hearing; but they hate steel, because axes and bayonets are the same to them. They are dressed in their fresh green, every branch showing through the mist of leaves, and the straight stems most lovely against the white and orange sky beyond.

Perhaps the only thing less a propos to Sassoon than a Monty Python comparison is a Tolkien allusion. But this bit reminds me of a moment in the Silmarillion when two of Tolkien’s “powers” (gods, mythologically speaking) disagree. Yavanna is a goddess of growth and loves the trees best, and so calls forth beings to protect the trees from the axes of Middle Earth’s peoples. But Aule, the maker, the craftsman, and the father of the tool- and weapon-making dwarves, insists that his children will nevertheless have need of wood…

Which is neither here or there, but it prompted a second thought. The serious, studious, careful, loyal Tolkien and the dreamy, landed, sometimes snobbish Sassoon have little in common, in their writing or otherwise. But here they almost share a mood… Tolkien’s mythology is unusual in that it does not permit a true war god–or, rather, because his pagan-seeming pantheon is backed by a Christian mythology of fall and repair. Only the evil, fallen powers are lovers of war. Tolkien’s fighter-god (Tulkas) is mighty and terrible in his rage, but he is also slow to wrath and notable for his gentle nature-spirit wife and his habit of uproarious laughing. Mars would enjoy bayonet drill, but not Tulkas…

Back now, and none too soon, to Sassoon:

And a blackbird’s song cries aloud that April cannot understand what war means.

So what comes of this odd mixture of aggressive exhortation and pastoral serenity? A poem. A poem that you must, must not read straight.

The Kiss

To these I turn, in these I trust—
Brother Lead and Sister Steel.
To this blind power I make appeal,
I guard her beauty clean from rust.

He spins and burns and loves the air.
And splits a skull to win my praise;
But up the nobly marching days
She glitters naked, cold and fair.

Sweet Sister, grant your soldier this;
That in good fury he may feel
The body where he sets his heel
Quail from your downward darting kiss.[4]

This poem is not as simple as it sounds, but neither is it firmly tongue in cheek. If it is supposed to be so ridiculous–and ridiculous it surely is–then why is it so sensual?

 

Lastly today, a letter from Olaf Stapledon, which gives us rather a wider spread than usual on the political questions of the day: from rebellion to ironical bloodlust to principled pacifism. The letter, to his fiancée, Agnes Miller, is so heavily censored that it is difficult to make out what is going on, at first. It’s something about politics: he is relating the discussions in his unit–the Friends’ Ambulance Corps, a Quaker unit–about the rumor that English tribunals may begin challenging the word of would-be conscientious objectors by sending them to the ambulance corps under the threat of jail or the draft. This would present another dilemma.

We who joined long before there was any question of conscription do not want our unit made into an underhand weapon again complete objectors…

We out here have had to decide on our attitude… They read us letters from Friends now in prison who feel that the FAU is cutting the ground from under them in their fight for free conscience. The letters were quiet, Quakerish and very forcible. We have had to think very seriously, whether or not in this crisis we should go home to fight for freedom of conscience or whether we should continue here at our small but real work.

Their unit, in other words, will now be tarnished by the suggestion that it is where men more afraid of prison than of German shells–but still too afraid of German bayonets, why don’t we say, o actually fight for their country–are sent…

Must a committed pacifist then make a more definite stand?

I know you would be very grieved if I were to go. I know you look at the FAU as just one form of the great war service, while I look at it in a quite other light. I know it would mean no end of horridness for many people if I were to go. I can’t explain the ins & outs of it all to you, but realise that in England a considerable number of admirable people are suffering severe imprisonment rather than join the FAU. Realise that what you see in the papers (most papers) is an altogether distorted account of these things. Realise that we here are mostly very convinced and ardent antimilitarists and upholders of freedom. Try to realise… that it is at least possible that these “martyred” people may after all be doing more good than we…

The middle ground is slipping away, it would seem. We have seen (if briefly) how Max Plowman chose the ambulances from a desire to avoid either shedding blood or dishonor. But Max Plowman changed his mind, and is bound for the Somme.

Olaf won’t do that. He will stay, or he will refuse to be used as a half-measure, and demand that his principles be recognized. At what cost?

If I were to go back now you would be engaged to an ostracized person, & that could not be. In fact it would be altogether inextricable & horrible, and the mere giving you back your promise would be very far from squaring things. But I am not going back, not yet anyhow. The great majority of us are signing a strong protest against the various evils, but are saying that we will not resign simply because we don’t feel it right to give up this work to support the people who cannot conscientiously do this work. My dear, this is a fearfully muddled explanation…

Yes, but it’s unique here, and far, far better than silence from the pacifists. Here’s my question for Olaf, however: these diaries and letters are supposed to be immediate and memorable, segments of daily history not analytical documents that step back and consider the questions of the “day”–can you remind us of the pressing reality of this dilemma?

It is muddled because there’s the deuce of a noise going on from certain too near artillery, also there are things happening in the air. Bang! I am sitting outside. The earth seemed to shake with that bang & the air to split. It’s getting rapidly impossible to write at all…

Interestingly, Stapledon now interposes a paragraph break, and lets today’s installment of the letter mosey off into simple description of what he hears and sees. It’s war, a terrible thing, even at a distance…

From various directions comes the sound of rifles & sometimes of singing bullets. Occasionally the rat-at-at of the mitrailleuse [machine gun] is heard, Trench flares go up and brightly light the place. One passes by a spot where a shell scored a direct hit on the trench, the sides being blown out, & in course of repair. Rats crawl about & squeak. Talking is reduced to an undertone. Away to one side is the sound of some construction work under way, & the clanking of heavy iron. Far away on the horizon are occasional brilliant pinprick flashes in the sky–shrapnel bursting somewhere down the line…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A land or estate, rather than a literary, agent. I think.
  2. Patches of Sunlight, 277-83.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 288-90.
  4. Diaries, 59-60.
  5. Talking Across the World, 143-4.

The Easter Rising Begins; A Rest to Soothe Siegfried Sassoon

Today, a century back, in Dublin, the Easter Rising began. Of all the bits of history I might rush through, here, in order to make a quick connection to the Great War experience, the long sad story of Anglo-Irish enmity is not be the least complex. I think it’s fair to say both that tensions had been steadily rising for some time (recall that the question of Home Rule for Ireland was the simmering cauldron that threatened British security in the summer of 1914, not that obscure trouble with Serbia) and that the Great War was seen by many Irish nationalists as an irresistible opportunity. Sir Roger Casement, who as a British diplomat had done more than anyone to expose the most disgusting abuses of European colonialism,[1] now turned rebel, negotiating with Germany for military aid to clandestine Republican militias. His arrest, shortly after landing in Ireland on April 21st, was one of the sparks for the revolt, which was doomed to failure when The Royal Navy, on the very same day, intercepted a large shipment of arms from Germany.

The rebels were numerous enough to cause a great deal of trouble–especially given that the Rising put the loyalty of majority-Catholic Irish units in the British army in some doubt–but they were poorly organized, with no unified strategy for actually succeeding in throwing off the British yoke.

As events played out in Dublin, the seizure of the General Post Office became a focal point of the rebellion–it was there, this afternoon, that Patrick Pearse, on behalf of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, proclaimed the Irish Republic.

And as it happens, we will have a writer on the scene tomorrow…

 

In France, however, Siegfried Sassoon continues to enjoy his reprieve from the trenches. His description of Flixécourt, whither he has been sent to the Fourth Army School for advanced military instruction, should probably increase our suspicion that he may have been selected for this less than onersou duty in order to give him a rest, a psychological break from the trenches.

April 24 (Flixécourt)

Waking up was heavenly. My clean little room with shuttered windows looks on to the angled street that climbs past the Mairie. I knew that the morning was fine: voices came from outside: sparrows chirped and starlings whistled. The bell in the church-tower tolled, and the clock struck the quarters.

Waking up in a strange place, on a summer day or any fine morning, when you know you are in for a good time, and everything seems fresh and spotless. I had forgotten what it was to feel like that. Then after breakfast, walking up the hill with my pipe, I sat under a quickset hedge, all young leaves, and heard a nightingale singing in the garden-copse over the hedge. Really, this place seems to be laying itself out to flatter and soothe me for the half-wretched days I’ve had of late. Chestnut-trees are in their wonderful new liveries of bright green: an apple-tree looks over an old lichened garden-wall, with blossom showing and pink buds. Many of the houses have red tiled roofs, and clean whitewashed walls. And the inhabitants are friendly and delightful. The officers here (about a hundred) seem very pleasant.

There are several large chateaux on the hills looking over the basin where the town lies. A farm-yard over the way has a large pointed tiled dovecot, like a mediaeval tower.[2]

Sassoon will add, when he transmutes these memories into memoir, that he also “decided to do plenty of heavy reading at the Army School,” including Hardy‘s Far From the Madding Crowd, Lamb’s essays, and Mr. Sponge’s Sporting Tour–“Books about England were all that I wanted.”[3]

 

And up in the line things had been just as quiet for Noel Hodgson‘s 9th Devonshires–but far less peaceful. In the early morning hours stealthy German raiders had slipped into a trench and captured a sentry, bringing him back to their lines. This, needless to say, is the sort of the thing that not only terrifies infantryman but can bring down the wrath of the brass, intent as always in locking empty stable doors and directing various Peters to rob assorted Pauls. in less-than-helpful ways. Tonight, a century back, much of the battalion was ordered into No Man’s Land to repair the barbed wire barriers and drive off any further German attempts. But of course the Germans, having roused the Devonshires, attempted nothing, instead raking No Man’s Land with bullets, killing one and wounding seven.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Just in case we were forgetting what it meant to be a good imperialist, our Raymond Asquith will give his opinion, tomorrow, of the man who publicized Belgian atrocities: "I am delighted that they have caught that swollen-headed, maggot-ridden idealist Casement, and heartily hope they will hang him. We owe it not only to ourselves but to Belgium for the fuss he made about the Congo" (Life and Letters, 260).
  2. Diaries, 59.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 287.
  4. Zeepvat, Before Action, 172.

Easter in the Trenches, and Elsewhere: A Poem from Will Streets, Tea with Bimbo Tennant, Siegfried Sassoon in Paradise, Raymond Asquith Head Over Heels, George Coppard in a Mined Redoubt; New Correspondents from Aberdeen to Alexandria

Will Streets did not lead a well-documented life. This is a shame, and one which I have not done much here to rectify. It’s  hard to follow a story if the dated fragments are spread too far apart. But I do want include a poem he wrote today, a century back, and so I should remind us a little of just who he is. John William Streets was an eldest son, and bright, and, as he wrote in a letter earlier this year, he had both drive and promise:

I had dreams, I had ambitions, because I strove even in boyhood after learning, after expression. But because I had love (I am proud to say this) I drowned all my ambitions of a brilliant career.

The love he writes of is love for his family. Streets was not the son of a school master, a professor, a writer and school administrator, a landed scion of a wealthy mercantile family, or a peer.[1] He was the son of a coal miner, and the eldest of twelve children. So in his mid-teens he went to work down the Derbyshire coal mines: twelve hour shifts in the pits, six days a week, for fourteen years, until the war came. The wonder, then, is not that his verse is less polished than most of what we read, but rather that he wrote so well despite his truncated formal education. Streets read whenever he could–and sketched, and painted–and, a committed Methodist, he dreamed at one time of becoming a clergyman. Instead he became instead a private of the Sheffield City Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment, one of the early “pals” battalions of Kitchener’s army. In 1915 they were briefly in Egypt; in March of this year they arrived on the Somme.

Many of our British writers, raised in a culture long steeped in Christianity yet–for most–without either much emotional intensity or the direct sensual appeal of Catholicism, were struck by the ubiquity of Christian imagery in rural France. The most irresistibly symbolic sight was the crossroads shrine with a crucifix, damaged by shellfire, looming over the men marching toward fear, pain, and death. Streets, the North Country Methodist, deserves to get a word in today, Easter Sunday:

Small chance of a service. How the mind flies back to past times when we used to sing ‘Christ is risen!’ Out here it is hard to believe that. We pass wayside crosses on which hangs an effigy of Christ, and we feel that Christ is crucified. We feel that the keynote of this world is sacrifice, that men are marching to Calvary.[2]

Sensible prose. And here’s the poetry:

O sweet blue eve that seems so loath to die,
Trailing the sunset glory into night,
Within the soft, cool strangeness of thy light,
My heart doth seem to find its sanctuary.

The day doth verge with all its secret care,
The thrush is lilting vespers on the thorn;
In Nature’s inner heart seems to be born
A sweet serenity; and over there

Within the shadows of the stealing Night,
Beneath the benison of all her stars
Men, stirr’d to passion by relentless Mars,
Laughing at Death, wage an unceasing fight.

The thunder of the guns, the scream of shells
Now seem to rend the placid evening air:
Yet as the night is lit by many a flare
The thrush his love in one wild lyric tells.

O sweet blue eve! Lingering awhile with thee,
Before the earth with thy sweet dews are wet,
My heart all but thy beauty shall forget
And find itself in thy serenity.

 

And how was Easter at the other end of the social scale, in the rear, among the staff? The Honorable Bimbo Tennant confides:

This is only just a love-line to tell you how I loved getting the little Andalusian charm, and what a happy Easter I spent. It was a beautiful day, and I went to the Holy Communion in the morning. Then I went to enquire after General Ponsonby who has not been well the last day or two. After tea I rode leisurely about 2 1/2 miles to the 55th Co. R.E., with whom I spent a most delightful evening. They had a good pianist so we had ‘moosit’ and great fun.[3]

 

Siegfried Sassoon is rather less social in his habits, less convivial in his moods. He continues to write in a mode of alternating melodramatic passivity: a hunched and forward rush toward action (and fierce writing) when in trenches, then a subsidence into a sort of lazy, aesthetic, pastoral back-float when in reserve. Today, sent away from his battalion for a month of “school,” (one wonders: is this due to long-gestating bureaucratic processes, or have his recent escapades been worrying his superiors?) the country boy took in the landscape once more–even the cityscape.

April 23 (Easter Sunday)

Out of trenches yesterday; the last two days have been wet and horrid…

Easter and church. Started 8.45. Amiens 11.15—miller’s waggon and four horses—Corbie church with two towers, and the chimney-stacks.

After this last period—since Tommy got shot—though spring was on the way, and trees putting on a vesture of faint green, though the sun shone on many days—yet most seem to have been dark and unhappy—since March 26 I have done eighteen days in the trenches, and those days and nights are a mechanical and strained effort.

Coming away from it all—to find the world outside really acknowledging the arrival of spring—oh it was a blessed thing—the journey on a sunny morning, pleasantly blown by a north-west wind, about twenty-five miles in a sort of motor-bus—the landscape looking its best—all the clean colour of late April—the renewal of green grass and young leaves—and fruit-trees in blossom—and to see a civilian population well away from the danger-zone going to church on Easter morning—soldiers contented and at rest—it was like coming back to life, warm and secure—it was to feel how much there is to regain. Children in the streets of towns and villages—I saw a tiny one fall, to be gathered up and dusted, soothed, comforted—one forgets ‘little things’ like those up in the places where men are killing one another with the best weapons that skill can handle.

And water—rivers flowing, taking the sky with them—and lakes coloured like bright steel blades, their smooth surfaces ruffled by ripples of wind—and a small round pool in a garden, quite still and glassy, with vivid green blades of iris growing along the edge. The great city of Amiens, Sunday-quiet, with the cathedral lording it beyond the gleaming roofs, sombre and unshining-grey, ancient, like a huge fretted rock or cliff, a train moving out of a station when we halted at the crossing-gates with rumble and clank of wheels on the rails. I had not thought of a train or seen one since I came from England seven weeks ago (it was at this very moment, on a Sunday, that I left Waterloo, and saw the faces of my people left behind as the carriage slid along the platform, all the world before me once more, and the unfinished adventure waiting to be resumed).

I may often write as if Sassoon is unaware of the extent to which his moods and writing change as his military position changes, but he is clearly conscious of some of the oscillation. And yet he gets carried away: he mentions men dying, and weapons–but are they really here today? Are these things palpable, horrible? Not when he refers to the “adventure.” Or fortune:

And now fortune has given me another space to take breath and look back on the grim days. Four blessed weeks in a clean town with fresh companions and healthy routine of discipline and instruction, and all this in the good time when spring’s at the full. At the end of May I shall return to the Battalion, eager and refreshed, and glad to be with my fellow-officers again (but one wants a rest from their constant presence to really appreciate them). O yes, I am a lucky dog.

And at 7 o’clock I climbed the hill and gazed across the town—the red wrinkled roofs of the great jute-factory below and the huddle of grey roofs with their peaceful smoke going up in the quiet air. I turned along a grassy, tree-guarded track that led to where a half-finished house stood, red and white, overlooking the town, with a lovely wood behind it. Sunset was fading, with a long purple-grey cloud above the west: and oh the wood was still, with slender stems of trees, all in their vesture of young green—and bluebells were on the ground, and young fresh grass, and blackbirds and thrushes scolding and singing in the quiet, and the smell of wet mould, wet earth, wet leaves, and voices of children coming up from a cottage below the hill. It was a virgin sanctuary of trees, and blessed peace for my soul and heaven for my eyes and music for my ears; it was Paradise, and God, and the promise of life.[4]

 

This is not Sassoon meant by “the promise of life,” but it will do: yesterday, a century back, Katherine Asquith was safely delivered of a boy. A telegram, it would seem, reached the happy father today:

Intelligence,
G.H.Q.
B.E.F.

23 April 1916

My Angel

You really, are a wonder. It seemed hardly possible that you would get the sex right as well as the date. The whole thing is a triumph of organisation which the Government would do well to imitate. What with the Resurrection, Shakespeare’s death and now Trimalchio’s birth, I hardy know whether I am standing on my head or my heels today. Shall we send him into the Cabinet or into the Grenadiers? Have you arranged a marriage for him yet? or will he have to attest? If so I shall raise the cry of “weaned men first”. Above all, does he give away any of your guilty secrets or might he so far be mistaken for my own?

High spirits well-earned. Even Raymond Asquith can’t be a cynic on the day he learns of the birth of his son and and heir–but he can manage conscription/breast-feeding jokes and note the religious and literary observances of the day… They will name the lad not Trimalchio (the reference is to Petronius, and it’s a pretty funny in-utero nickname) but Julian.

My sweet, I do hope it was less long and tiresome for you than the other two and that you are already beginning to feel well again. But the last I suppose is too much to hope. Still a boy must be much less of a shock than a girl and will beckon you on up the hill of convalescence . . . Darling angel, I adore you.[5]

 

An Eastertide birth, and a happy cynic–but there was killing too, and there were more lucky escapes.

George Coppard, one of our few other voices from the ranks, spent Easter in the line. And, no, this holiday merited no truce:

On the morning of Easter Sunday the Germans blew up two mines in the redoubt. The blast from one of them knocked Mr Wilkie off his feet. We saw the bulging piecrust slowly rise before the centre burst, hurling the vast mass upwards. In a few moments the descent began and the ground shook with the buffeting. We squirmed to the side of the trench like frightened rabbits. One piece of earth, no more than two ounces in weight, struck the nape of my neck. I had a black-out for a short while, but apart from a stiff neck for a week, I was none the worse for the tap. The Queen’s lost men that Easter morning from the two explosions, which destroyed the front line where they were standing. Jerry made no attempt to capture the craters.[6]

No attempt: this was punishment only, then, the ordinary violence of attrition: what the soldiers liked to refer to as a “hate.”

 

I want to close today’s overstuffed holiday dinner with that most unpalatable of addenda: seed corn. Easter is a memorable day, plus there the date’s significance for English letters, and so two writers who will arrive on the scene here rather late (once the Somme has opened up gaps for filling, as it were) are worth visiting with today, if only to provide some linkages later, when they become prominent contributors here and diligent readers wonder about their origins.

Vivian de Sola Pinto wore glasses, and so he went up to Oxford in 1914. By 1915, however, he was in, commissioned from the OTC into a Territorial battalion–of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, naturally. By late 1915, Gallipoli; then illness and exhaustion, and Alexandria. After shuttling around several Egyptian hospitals, de Sola Pinto was back in Alexandria and on the mend. Nothing like a day out, sacred and profane, Western and Eastern, ancient and modern…

On Easter Sunday, 1916, Anson and I had tea at the fine Greek patisserie of Athenaios, one of our favourite resorts, and then went to hear a service at a Greek Orthodox church with its gaudy silver lamps and ikons and congregation squatting on the floor. From there we went on to a Roman Catholic church w(h)ere we heard a powerful sermon preached by a French monk. We ended the day with dinner at Bonnard’s excellent French restaurant and a visit to an open-air cinema where we saw a Charlie Chaplin film with dubbings in French, Greek, and Arabic…[7]

 

Eric Linklater is a schoolboy still, reading Classics and English in Aberdeen. But not for want of trying. Linklater had enlisted in a Territorial battalion in August of 1914, until the two most common–and generally, if not universally, disqualifying–handicaps for a boy of his station were discovered: he too was very short-sighted, and he was also fifteen. So back to school it was. Linklater will not find a way into the army until next year.

Today, a century back, he was celebrating an auspicious day, (and enlarging, for us, upon Asquith’s reference to this anniversary, above):

I remember too–but now with shame–another occasion that provoked laughter almost as boisterous, and with far less cause. Its date is firmly fixed in history–it was 23 April 1916–and the newly appointed Professor to the Chair of English Literature and Language at the University had been persuaded to deliver, to the boys of the Grammar School, an address in celebration of the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death… Professor Jack–Alfred Adolphus Jack… was still a stranger in Aberdeen, and both his appearance and his voice emphasised a strangeness that I and my rascally companions found risible beyond restraint. He was a highly coloured man with a thick growth of hair, the hue of oranges, a bright pink face, and brilliantly protruding blue eyes. He had, moreover, been trained to outmoded rhetorical style–reminiscent of Victorian drama–and he was in love with his subject.

To express that love he advanced slowly to the rostrum that had been set up for him–he leaned forward across the lectern–and in a voice whose high-pitched peculiarity was aggravated by his inability to pronounce the letter r, he slowly declaimed, with a measured pause between his words, ‘Fwee — hundwed — years — ago today — Shakespeare died!'[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. That would be Brooke, Sorley, Graves, Sassoon, and Grenfell, all but Graves born within a year or two of Streets.
  2. Piuk, A Dream Within the Dark, 60-1.
  3. Memoir, 190. This letter is dated "20th" in the Memoir, but this must, due to the Easter reference be a mistake.
  4. Diaries, 57-59.
  5. Life and Letters, 259-60.
  6. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 73.
  7. The City that Shone, 175.
  8. Fanfare for a Tin Hat, 49.

Siegfried Sassoon Stands-To, and Issues a Certain Challenge; Lord Dunsany Will Go Home for a Bit of Rest

Easter Saturday, and still not much doing–except that we learn, now, that Siegfried Sassoon was up to a bit more, yesterday, than he let on. Or was he?

At some point, a century back–today, or shortly thereafter–Sassoon completed a poem entitled “Stand-to: Good Friday Morning.” A nominal Anglican with C of E and (assimilated) Jewish forebears, Sassoon had seen a beloved friend buried a few weeks ago, and had decided to seek a violent death for himself. Now, however, he knows that his life will be spared[1] for at least a month.

Sassoon will not let the symbolic opportunity go by–but does he write a day late, or does he move his experience one day earlier as he poeticizes it? The latter, it would seem. A note appended to today’s diary entry explains that it was “versified… at the time.”

April 22

I was on duty from 2 to 4; it rained and the trenches were knee-deep, and falling in badly—at early dawn the sky was misty, grey, clouded, ashen, but the larks were singing, singing, discordant sharps and quavers—dauntless as our spirit should be. I stood in 75 Street listening to them; then sploshed through the dismal water and down to the dug-out den to call the others for stand-to. To-morrow I’m off for a month at the Army School: heavenly to get a change and away from this—and these.

And here is the versification:

I’d been on duty from two till four.
I went and stared at the dug-out door.
Down in the frowst I heard them snore.
‘Stand to!’ Somebody grunted and swore.
Dawn was misty; the skies were still;
Larks were singing, discordant, shrill;
They seemed happy; but I felt ill.
Deep in water I splashed my way
Up the trench to our bogged front line.
Rain had fallen the whole damned night.
O Jesus, send me a wound to-day.
And I’ll believe in Your bread and wine.
And get my bloody old sins washed white![2]

Straight to the point, here–and a poem hostile to analysis, it seems to me. Only: is it easier to attack Christian piety than either patriotism or the social pressure exerted upon a young man to compel him toward violent glory? Yes, it is.

Reader, do not despair: Siegfried will go unwounded, and tomorrow a happy schoolboy once more shall be.

 

And Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, Lord Dunsany, currently commanding a company of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers at their depot in Londonderry, wangled a leave today, a century back. The ordinary 48-hour officer’s weekend leave might be stretched now to spend Easter weekend at Castle Dunsany, his ancestral home some twenty miles from Dublin.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Barring the 40% chance of a fatal grenade accident during "school," that is.
  2. Diaries, 56-7.
  3. Patches of Sunlight, 279.

Moon Gazing with Siegfried Sassoon; Harold Macmillan Reads the Gospel

Irony is pervasive, but then again while military history built on a few score personal accounts provides a certain sort of experiential l truth, it can’t lay a strong claim to a complete picture of any given day. Still, on the day of the passion of Christ–that apogee of suffering which will work its way into so many accounts of the war–it seems that all was relatively quiet. Siegfried Sassoon has only this:

April 21 (Good Friday morning)

A lovely clear dawn, delicate and still, with the belated moon hanging white in the west—the moon that rose so wonderfully, like a large golden balloon with stripes of black cloud across its middle.[1]

 

We haven’t heard from Harold Macmillan in quite a while, but Good Friday found him in trenches in the salient, writing to his mother:

We have been very lucky since we came in… Today has been very quiet, considering the position. We have been troubled by a few rifle grenades, etc…

The two lines are about 70 to 100 yards apart where I am. But the Germans have got a sap out to within about 20 or 30 yards of us. Here they have a sniper who bothers us a little. But a few gas bombs etc. have made him less forward.

I am, I confess, not sorry to think that my time is nearly over now. It is a little trying to be so cut off from every one, as we are here. But of course, it has the corresponding advantage of preventing C.O.’s, Generals etc. from coming along to bother and fuss.

Such as been Good Friday of 1916! I have got my little New Testament with me, and I have read the story of the Passion in St. Luke…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 26.
  2. Webb, From Downing Street to the Trenches, 168-9.