Three poets are disparately active, today, a century back: we have a review, a journey, and a raid.
Private Isaac Rosenberg has been home, on “last leave,” and seeing to the quick publication of his verse drama Moses. At some point before today, a century back, he returned to barracks–just in time for the arrival of the king. His majesty formally inspected the 40th Division, about to embark for France. This is notable in part because the 40th Division represents a new sort of formation–it was largely made up of “bantam” units, composed of smaller men, like Rosenberg, who would not have physically qualified for the pre-war army–or, indeed, for Kitchener’s Army. Given the then-strong correlation between physical size and social class (the bantams were disproportionately from the urban lower classes and mining areas, which is to say they were men stunted or poisoned by socioeconomic inequity) there is a certain significance to the king appearing before such a unit, so far from the strapping Guards or the Public Schools-officered New Army battalions.
Writing to Eddie Marsh, Rosenberg cast the royal review in collective self-deprecation:
The King inspected us Thursday. I believe it’s the first Bantam Brigade been inspected. He must have waited for us to stand up a good while. At a distance we look like soldiers sitting down, you know, legs so short.
Ivor Gurney, meanwhile, was a few steps ahead: his 2/5th Gloucesters left England today, a century back, arriving safely at Le Havre.
And Siegfried Sassoon is a few steps further still. In the front line–and then in front of it.
The main event today is a raid by the 1st Royal Welch on the German trenches opposite their position, near Fricourt on the Somme. The plan is very similar to the raid of the 5th Seaforths, of which we have read in depth. Sassoon, who may have been sent to Fourth Army School in the hopes that his violent, semi-suicidal moods would abate, begged his commanding officer to be allowed to go on the raid. To no avail. He was allowed, however, to come up to the trench and assist. The overnight raid began last night, a century back, but, as we will see, Sassoon’s impromptu participation occurred in the wee hours of this morning…
Twenty-seven men with faces blackened and shiny—Christy minstrels—with hatchets in their belts, bombs in pockets, knobkerries—waiting in a dug-out in the reserve line. At 10.30 they trudge up to Battalion H.Q. splashing through mire and water in the chalk trench, while the rain comes steadily down. The party is twenty-two men, five N.C.O.s and one officer (Stansfield). From H.Q. we start off again, led by Compton-Smith: across the open to the end of 77 Street. A red flashlight winks a few times to guide us thither. Then up to the front line—the men’s feet making a most unholy tramp and din; squeeze along to the starting-point, where Stansfield and his two confederates (Sergeant Lyle and Corporal O’Brien) loom over the parapet from above, having successfully laid the line of lime across the craters to the Bosche wire.
In a few minutes the five parties have gone over—and disappear into the rain and darkness—the last four men carry ten-foot light ladders. It is 12 midnight. I am sitting on the parapet listening for something to happen—five, ten, nearly fifteen minutes—not a sound—nor a shot fired—and only the usual flare-lights, none very near our party. Then through the hazy dripping skies the 5.9 shells begin to drone across in their leisurely way, a few at first, and then quite a flock of them. I am out with the rear party by now—about twenty yards in front of our trench (the wire has been cut of course), the men (evacuating party) are lying half-down a crater on the left, quite cheery. In the white glare of a flarelight I can see the rest of the column lying straight down across the ridge between the craters. Then a few whizz-bangs fizz over to our front trench and just behind the raiders. After twenty minutes there is still absolute silence in the Bosche trench; the raid is obviously held up by their wire, which we thought was so easy to get through. One of the bayonet-men comes crawling back; I follow him to our trench and he tells me that they can’t get through: O’Brien says it’s a failure; they’re all going to throw a bomb and retire.
A minute or two later a rifle-shot rings out and almost simultaneously several bombs are thrown by both sides: a bomb explodes right in the water at the bottom of left crater close to our men, and showers a pale spume of water; there are blinding flashes and explosions, rifle-shots, the scurry of feet, curses and groans, and stumbling figures loom up from below and scramble awkwardly over the parapet—some wounded–black faces and whites of eyes and lips show in the dusk; when I’ve counted sixteen in, I go forward to see how things are going, and find Stansfield wounded, and leave him there with two men who soon get him in: other wounded men crawl in; I find one hit in the leg; he says ‘O’Brien is somewhere down the crater badly wounded’, They are still throwing bombs and firing at us: the sinister sound of clicking bolts seems to be very near; perhaps they have crawled out of their trench and are firing from behind their advanced wire. Bullets hit the water in the craters, and little showers of earth patter down on the crater. Five or six of them are firing into the crater at a few yards’ range.The bloody sods are firing down at me at point-blank range. (I really wondered whether my number was up.) From, our trenches and in front of them I can hear the mumble of voices–most of them must be in by now. After minutes like hours, with great difficulty I get round the bottom of the crater and back toward out trench; at last I find O’Brien down a very deep (about twenty-five feet) and precipitous crater on my left (our right as they went out). He is moaning and his right arm is either broken or almost shot off: he’s also hit in the right leg (body and head also, but I couldn’t see that then). Another man (72 Thomas) is with him; he is hit in the right arm. I leave them there and get back to our trench for help. shortly afterwards Lance-Corporal Stubbs is brought in (he has had his foot blown off). Two or three other wounded men are being helped down the trench; no one seems to know what to do; those that are there are very excited and uncertain: no sign of any officers…
I get a rope and two more men and we go back to O’Brien, who is unconscious now. With great difficulty we get him half-way up the face of the crater; it is now after one o’clock and the sky beginning to get lighter. I make one more journey to our trench for another strong man and to see to a stretcher being ready. We get him in, and it is found that he has died, as I had feared. Corporal Mick O’Brien (who often went patrolling with me) was a very fine man and had been with, the Battalion since November 1914. He was at Neuve Chapelle, Festubert and Loos.
l go back to a support-line dug-out and find the unwounded men of the raiding-party refreshing themselves: everyone is accounted for now; eleven, wounded (one died of wounds) and one killed, out of twenty-eight. I see Stansfield, who is going on all right, but has several bomb-wounds. On the way down I see the colonel, sitting on his bed in a woollen cap, with a tuft on top, and, very much upset at the non-success of the show and the mine disaster; but very pleased with the way our men tried to get through the wire. I get down to 71 North about 2.15, with larks beginning to sing in the drizzling pallor of the sky. (Covered with mud and blood, and no tunic on!) I think it was lucky the Colonel refused to allow me to go out with the raiding party, as I meant to get through that wire somehow, and it seems to have been almost impossible (we had bad wire-cutters) and the Bosches were undoubtedly ready for us, and no one could have got into their trench and got out alive, as there were several of them. They certainly showed great ability and cunning, but I suppose they generally do…
Sassoon’s diary is very different from what we have seen: no rumination, no prose poetry, no self-conscious speculation–all present-tense recollection.
It reads, in fact, almost like notes for a future description, to be written up with more framing and analysis. And, of course, this is what it becomes in his memoir, where it is given pride of place: Part Two of the second volume, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, is entitled, simply, “The Raid.”
It begins with Sassoon’s–apologies, I mean “George Sherston’s”–return to his battalion:
I came back from the Army School at the end of a hot Saturday afternoon. The bus turned off the bumpy main road from Corbie and began to crawl down a steep winding lane. I looked, and there was Morlancourt in the hollow. On the whole I considered myself lucky to be returning to a place where I knew my way about… the end-of-the-world along the horizon had some obscure hold over my mind which drew my eyes to it almost eagerly, for I could still think of trench warfare as an adventure. The horizon was quiet just now, as if the dragons which lived there were dozing.
The Battalion was out of the line, and I felt almost glad to be back as I walked up to our old Company Mess…
Soon, over a companionable meal, the beans are spilled to our returned fire-eater. Mansfield, naturally, is Stansfield; Ormand is Orme, and the widely disliked Barton is a less casually obscured Greaves. Enlisted men–or is it dead men?–like Corporal O’Brien get to keep their names.
“The Raid!” I exclaimed, suddenly excited, “I haven’t heard a word about it.”
“Well, you’re the only human being in this Brigade who hasn’t heard about it.” (Mansfield’s remarks were emphasized by the usual epithets.)
“But what about it? Was it a success?”
“Holy Christ! Was it a success? The Kangaroo wants to know if it was a success!”
He puffed out his plump cheeks and gazed at the others. “This god-damned Raid’s been a funny story for the last fortnight, and we’ve done everything except send word over to the Fritzes to say what time we’re coming; and now it’s fixed up for next Thursday, and Barton’s hoping to get a D.S.O. out of it for his executive ability. I wish he’d arrange to go and fetch his (something) D.S.O. for himself!”
From this I deduced that poor Birdie was to be in charge of the Raiding Party, and I soon knew all there was to be
All this is eerily similar to the recent experiences of Wyn Griffith in the 15th battalion, down to the certainty that the Germans know the raid is coming.
But the difference now begins. Griffith, fresh from his wife’s embraces, hates the war. Sassoon/Sherston, enamored of the idea of winning military fame, still half-hoping to exact personal revenge for the death of David Thomas, wants very much to be in the thick of it.
I was now full of information about the Raid, and I could think of nothing else. My month at Flixécourt was already obliterated. While I was away I had almost forgotten about the Raid; but it seemed now that I’d always regarded it as my private property, for when it had begun to be a probability in April, Barton had said that I should be sure to take charge of it. My feeling was much the same as it would have been if I had owned a horse and then been told that someone else was to ride it in a race.
The voice of retrospection now gives us the honest mental background that the diary only intermittently reveals.
Six years before I had been ambitious of winning races because that had seemed a significant way of demonstrating my equality with my contemporaries. And now I wanted to make the World War serve a similar purpose, for if only I could get a Military Cross l should feel comparatively safe and confident… Trench warfare was mostly monotonous drudgery, and I preferred the exciting idea of crossing the mine-craters and getting into the German front line. In my simple-minded way I had identified myself with that strip of No Man’s Land opposite Bois Français; and the mine-craters had always fascinated me, though I’d often feared that they’d be the death of me.
The strip of no man’s land opposite the Bois Francais trenches is center-right. 77 street–omitted, like all British trenches save the front line–would be a communications trench roughly parallel with the two roads.
Mansfield had gloomily remarked that he’d something well go on the razzle if he got through Thursday night with his procreative powers unimpaired. Wondering why he had been selected for the job, I wished I could take his place. I knew that he had more commonsense ability than I had, but he was podgily built and had never been an expert at crawling among shell-holes in the dark. He and Ormand and Corporal O’Brien had done two patrols last week, but the bright moonlight had prevented them from properly inspecting the German wire…
The scene continues to be painstakingly set–Sherston falls asleep alternately dreaming of glory and fretting over mutilation, and the next morning he seeks out the local wise old sage, the quartermaster Cotterill/Dottrell.
When I asked his opinion about the Raid he looked serious, for he liked Mansfield and knew his value as
an officer. “From all I hear, Kangar,” he said, “it’s a baddish place for a show of that kind, but you know the ground better than I do. My own opinion is that the Boches would have come across themselves before now if they’d thought it worth trying. But Brigade have got the idea of a raid hot and strong, and they’ve nothing to lose by it one way or the other, except a few of our men.”
I asked if these raids weren’t a more or less new notion, and he told me that our Battalion had done several small ones up in Flanders during the first winter; Winchell, our late Colonel, had led one when he was still a company commander. The idea had been revived early this year, when some Canadian toughs had pulled off a fine effort, and since then such entertainments had become popular with the Staff…
He sighed and lit a cigarette. “It’s always the good lads who volunteer for these shows. One of the Transport men wanted to send his name in for this one; but I told him to think of his poor unfortunate wife, and we’re pushing him off on a transport-course to learn cold-shoeing.”
Something like this conversation surely took place, and here it is both helpful scene-setting and rather heavy thematic emphasis: the foolish young Sassoon has just been sent cold-shoeing, after all, but he (the comparison to Griffith, again) has no wife to not come home to.
The memoir then builds up to the raid by lifting the last two diary entries almost word for word–Sassoon, once again, is Sherston. The memoir than arrives at last night, a century back:
At ten o’clock on Thursday night I was alone with Durley in the sack-cloth smelling dug-out at 71 North. Rain was falling steadily. Everything felt fateful and final. A solitary candle stood on the table in its own grease, and by its golden glimmer I had just written a farewell letter to Aunt Evelyn.
Never mind: Sassoon is not Sherston. There is no brother, killed in the autumn, no mother waiting at home–only the invented Aunt Evelyn. And with that reminder we cross sharply into the domain of true memoir, and don the bifocals of retrospection:
I did not read it through, and I am glad I cannot do so now, for it was in the ‘happy warrior’ style and my own
fine feelings took precedence of hers. It was not humanly possible for me to wonder what Aunt Evelyn was doing while I wrote; to have done so would have cramped my style… Poor Aunt Evelyn was still comfortingly
convinced that I was transport officer, though I had given up that job nearly three months ago. Having licked and fastened the flimsy envelope I handed it to Durley, with a premonition that it would be posted. Durley received it with appropriate gravity.
The “entertainment” metaphor is picked up here by Sassoon’s reaction–recorded in the diary–to the raiders putting on blackface. The diary mentions “minstrels,” but the memoir stoops to a racial epithet, common then and less poisonous from a British than an American pen, but bad enough. The “entertainment,” the “show,” says Sassoon, seemed like it would be a “roaring success.”
But there were no looking-glasses or banjos, and they were brandishing knobkerries, stuffing Mills bombs into their pockets and hatchets into their belts, and “Who’s for a Blighty one tonight?” was the stock joke (if such a well worn wish could be called a joke).
If war is theater its actors usually prefer to think of it as Grand Opera or heroic drama; but this, clearly, was a side-show:
…None of us could know how insignificant we were in the so-called ‘Great Adventure’ which was sending up its uneasy flares along the Western Front. No doubt we thought ourselves something very special. But what we thought never mattered; nor does it matter what sort of an inflated fool I was when I blundered into Kinjack’s Headquarters at Maple Redoubt to report the presence of the raiders and ask whether I might go across with them. “Certainly not,” said the Colonel, “your job is to stop in our trench and count the men as they come back.” He spoke with emphasis and he was not a man who expected to have to say a thing twice. We stared at one another for a moment; some freak of my brain made me remember that in peace time he had been an enthusiastic rose grower—had won prizes with his roses, in fact; for he was a married man and had lived in a little house near the barracks.
My thought was nipped in the bud by his peremptory voice telling Major Robson, his second-in-command,
to push off with the party.
Out goes the party and Sassoon/Sherston waits, staring at his watch. The word comes in that they can’t get through the German wire. The long-planned raid, the manly derring do, will now end up being a boyish deadly lark–they plan to have every man “throw a bomb and retire.” But this we know.
I’ll skip us ahead, instead, to the memoir’s descriptions of our protagonist’s adventures in No Man’s Land.
Dodging to and fro, I counted fourteen men in; they all blundered away down the trench. I went out, found Mansfield badly hit, and left him with two others who soon got him in. Other wounded men were crawling back. Among them was a grey-haired lance-corporal, who had one of his feet almost blown off; I half carried him in and when he was sitting on the fire-step he said, “Thank God Almighty for this; I’ve been waiting eighteen months for it and now I can go home.” I told him we’d get him away on a stretcher soon, and then he muttered “Mick O Brien’s somewhere down in the craters.”
All this had been quick work and not at all what I’d expected. Things were slowing down now. The excitement was finished, and O’Brien was somewhere down in the craters. The bombing and rifle fire had slackened when I started out to look for him. I went mechanically, as though I were drowning myself in the darkness. This is no fun at all, was my only thought as I groped my way down the soft clogging side of the left-hand crater; no fun at all, for they were still chucking an occasional bomb and firing circumspectly. I could hear the reloading click of rifle bolts on the lip of the crater above me as I crawled along with mud clogged fingers, or crouched and held my breath painfully. Bullets hit the water and little showers of earth pattered down from the banks. I knew that nothing in my previous experience of patroling had ever been so grim as this, and I lay quite still for a bit, miserably wondering whether my number was up; then I remembered that I was wearing my pre-war raincoat; I could feel the pipe and tobacco-pouch in my pocket and somehow this made me less forlorn, though life seemed much further away than the low mumble of voices in our trench. A flare would have helped my searchings, but they had stopped sending them up; pawing the loose earth and dragging my legs after me, I worked my way round the crater. O’Brien wasn’t there, so I got across into the other one, which was even more precipitous and squashy. Down there I discovered him. Another man was crouching beside him, wounded in one arm and patiently waiting for help. . O’Brien moaned when I touched him; he seemed to have been hit in several places. His companion whispered huskily, “Get a rope.” As I clambered heavily up the bank I noticed that it had stopped raining. Robson was peering out of the trench; he sent someone for a rope, urging him to be quick for already there was a faint beginning of daylight. With the rope, and a man to help, I got back to O’Brien, and we lifted him up the side of the crater.
In addition to the strange bifurcation of reading this elaborated account alongside the quick notes of the diary, we might also read Sassoon’s description of bringing wounded men in form No Man’s Land alongside those of E. A. Mackintosh.
It was heavy work, for he was tall and powerfully built, and the soft earth gave way under our feet as we lugged and hoisted the limp shattered body. The Germans must have seen us in the half light, but they had stopped firing; perhaps they felt sorry for us.
At last we lowered him over the parapet. A stretcher-bearer bent over him and then straightened himself, taking off his helmet with a gesture that vaguely surprised me by its reverent simplicity. O’Brien had been one of the best men in our Company. I looked down at him and then turned away; the face was grotesquely terrible, smeared with last night’s burnt cork, the forehead matted with a tangle of dark hair.
I had now accounted for everyone. Two killed and ten wounded was the only result of the raid. In the other Company sector the Germans had blown in one of our mine-galleries, and about thirty of the tunnelling company had been gassed or buried. Robson had been called there with the stretcher-bearers just as the raid began.
Nothing now remained for me to do except to see Kinjack on my way back. Entering his dug-out I looked at him with less diffidence than I’d ever done before. He was sitting on his plank bed, wearing a brown woollen cap with a tuft on the top. His blonde face was haggard; the last few hours had been no fun for him either. This was a Kinjack I’d never met before, and it was the first time I had ever shared any human equality with him. He spoke kindly to me in his rough way, and in doing so made me very thankful that I had done what I could to tidy up the mess in No Man’s Land.
Kinjack–the redoubtable Colonel Stockwell–evidently warmed to Sassoon, now. The young fire-eater had followed orders, fulfilled his responsibilities, and then gone above and beyond to rescue the wounded. Although only one Military Cross had been earned by the battalion–and some (i.e. Robert Graves) believed that all medals in Regular battalions would be reserved for professional soldiers–Stockwell will recommend Sassoon for the award.
Well now, with what benison should we end this long and bloody night?
Larks were shrilling in the drizzling sky as I went down to 71 North. I felt a wild exultation. Behind me were the horror and the darkness. Kinjack had thanked me. It was splendid to be still alive, I thought, as I strode down the hill, skirting shell-holes and jumping over communication trenches, for I wasn’t in a mood to bother about going along wet ditches. The landscape loomed around me, and the landscape was life, stretching away and away into freedom. Even the dreary little warren at 71 North seemed to await me with a welcome, and Flook was ready with some hot tea. Soon I was jabbering excitedly to Durley and old man Barton, who told me that the Doctor said Mansfield was a touch and go case, but already rejoicing at the prospect of getting across to Blighty, and cursing the bad wire-cutters which had been served out for the raid. I prided myself on having pulled off something rather heroic; but when all was said and done it was only the sort of thing which people often did during a fire or a railway accident.
The happy warrior, viewed from a distance. But Sassoon allows this chapter an ironic conclusion:
Nothing important had happened on the British Front that night, so we were rewarded by a mention in the G.H.Q, communique. “At Mametz we raided hostile trenches. Our party entered without difficulty and maintained a spirited bombing fight, and finally withdrew at the end of twenty-five minutes.” This was their way of telling England. Aunt Evelyn probably read it automatically in her Morning Post, unaware that this minor event had almost caused her to receive a farewell letter from me.
Kate Luard has a knack for sensing that I will be writing long, soldier-writer-centered posts, and then reminding us of the grim fates meted out to those who did not live to write about this day’s thrilling fight. She is still cleaning up the wreckage of the German assault on Vimy Ridge.
I must tell you about a boy who died to-day, aged 17, ‘I fought I was too big to be walkin’ about the streets wivout joinin’,’ he explained. He was fatally wounded in the chest… This morning when I was washing him he could barely speak plainly, and only in gasps, but he said (after asking for more soap on his face): ‘I fought a lot of fings–when that–shell hit me. I fought about–goin’ over the water again–and I fought about seein’ mother–and I fought about dyin’. Will they let her come and see me quick when I get to a Hospital in London?–I fink I’ll write to her this afternoon.’
Later on, with great difficulty, he gave me her address, so I wrote to-night. He died at 5 o’clock. His gasping recital of his ‘foughts’ was the most upsetting thing that has happened of all the upsetting thing that has happened of all the upsetting things.