…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.
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.
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…
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 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.
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.
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.
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.