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.