Isaac Rosenberg Deserts his Mother; Vera Brittain is Losing a Brother; Siegfried Sassoon is Unperturbed; Kate Luard Climbs a Hill, and Returns to the Shadow of the Valley of Death; A Longer Recuperation for Henry Williamson

Cowardice and courage are, necessarily, subjects of any prolonged investigation into military experience. But there are, of course, many different kinds of each. The courage to overcome fear fired by imagination and enlist–or, on the other side of the equation, the courage to overcome peer pressure and social momentum and hew to principle–is very different from the bravery required to volunteer for a first raid or patrol… and now there is the new challenge, which may trip up even the most outwardly fearless and aggressive soldiers, of sticking out months of less concentrated danger under the nerve-shattering permanence of the artillery…

And then there’s the courage it takes to tell your mother what you’ve done.

Isaac Rosenberg is the beloved eldest son of a woman who endured much. Hacha Rosenberg was born poor, in Russia, and chose to follow a wastrel husband to England rather than stay in the shtetl. Making a home in the slums of London’s Jewish neighborhoods, with little financial help from her husband’s inconstant work as a peddler, was very difficult. And there were five children, of whom Isaac was the first–or, rather, the second. The talented, independent, eldest was a younger twin, tiny and sickly from the day of his birth, which his elder brother did not survive.

This brief background should go some way to explaining why Rosenberg had delayed telling his mother about joining up. He seems to have reassured her thereafter by promising that he would never be sent to the front, but assigned to serve as a laborer, with a steady wage to send to her. This was untrue. Aalthough Rosenberg was small and physically weak, the British Army was now preparing to send many “bantam” battalions to the front lines. Rosenberg’s battalion will leave any day, but, even though he has been sending jaunty letters to possible patrons, he waited until today, a century back, to send his sister Annie, his close confidante (and amanuensis) a brief card with the news…[1]

 

Vera Brittain is once again frustrated in her hopes. She and her family had been expecting her brother Edward for his first leave home from France, but it was canceled at the last minute. Her letter to him begins with the usual updates on family and friends, especially his school friend Victor Richardson (the “third musketeer) and his training camp friend Geoffrey Thurlow, both of whom Vera now counts among her own close friends. (Yes, in a sense, she is recruiting additional younger brothers, and yes, in another sense, she is seeking intimacy with young officers in an attempt to somehow rework her relationship with Roland.)

But this new closeness has brought with it an aggravating realization: her brother is more open with them than with her. That gap, that gulf, is opening again, and it is between her and her only sibling, the only companion of her childhood and adolescence.

She faces Edward directly, then:

I don’t know what you think about these things but I do know that when you went to the front your opinions were altering rapidly and my own commonsense would tell me that what you have done & seen there must have changed them rapidly still more, even if I had not gathered as much from what Tar [Richardson] & Thurlow say about your letters… Why do you not write to me about these things?  … I am certain that, just for the moment, I could understand your troubles & difficulties better than the temporally orthodox Tar… he hasn’t seen men with mutilations such as I have…

I must admit that when, as I am doing at present, I have to deal with men who have only half a face left & the other side bashed in out of recognition, or part of their skull torn away, or both feet off, or an arm blown off at the shoulder, & all these done only a few days ago, it makes me begin to question the existence of a merciful God just as Tar says you do…

This is an awful plea, if an understandable one. Does the young subaltern in the months before the Big Push need to hear about horrific mutilations? No. But the point is made: she became a nurse in part to get as close as a young woman could to the horrors of war–and while Thurlow was out and was both physically and psychologically wounded, Victor Richardson has yet to go to the front. Does she not have the greater claim to intimacy?

The other point is less successful. Vera has meandered between a youthful intellectual skepticism and a youthful intellectual attraction to (somewhat) progressive Christianity, but in the aftermath of the strange double blow of losing Roland and then realizing that he had become a Catholic without even telling her, his fiancée, her meandering has become a headlong plunge over hill and dale. The attempt to connect to Edward’s doubt is immediately undone by this foray into a hazy and tissue-thin Capital Letter Spiritualism.

…war is an immense Purgation… Of course it is all terrible for individuals, who are sacrificed in apparently disregarded numbers, tortured & made mad… but one can only hope that in some Hereafter these, & those who lost them, will one day realise the Whole and see what it all mean, & understand their own part in it… Perhaps the Great Force we call God means us & our Allies to be the special instruments of its progress & knew we should only be worthy to be this after the tremendous ordeal we are going through now…[2]

 

From the political-spiritual Vera, now, to the pastoral-aesthetic Siegfried:

May 31 10.30 a.m.

Looking north from the hill behind Morlancourt. The cloudless morning sky meets the-naked line of the ridge, green with grass and crops, and powdered with saffron and gold of weeds and buttercups, with three trees standing alone. On the opposite slope one sees the red and grey roofs of the village outskirts, with some bushy trees among the houses. Then, in the low ground, a bare pale-buff camp–horse-lines, some dirty white bell-tents, an iron-roofed shed, and a line of limbers and waggons…

On my way home I went along a solitary part where the thickets swung and rustled and birds were jocund—nightingale, throstle and linnet—and there were a few wild roses–the first I’ve seen here. It was good to sniff them….[3]

Our theme today might be role-playing. There are a number of Sassoons on offer: from the nearly vapid athlete, hunter, and non-poet of the Memoirs to the quiet but socially successful man-among-men who is reflected in the records and memoirs of his battalion, and then to the solitary aesthete saving up his memories for memoir.

Sassoon, like Edward Brittain, no doubt, leans heavily on the push-and-pull of the intense social fabric of a small group of company and battalion officers, where friendship can be a tacit bulwark against fear and the continuous pressure of social expectation a crutch against terror and moral collapse. By himself, he is thoughtful; with other men, tough; with well-bred women, no doubt, polite and stoic.

 

Which brings us to Kate Luard who, like Sassoon and like Petrarch before them, is climbing a hill to see what she can see. And then she returns to the abattoir’s reception room where she must face the sort of emotional appeal that the men who fill the world of the army in France are rarely challenged with: a naked plea for solace and comfort in the face of death.

Wednesday, May 31st. The last two days we have been able to slip away to the nearest Slag Heap, ten minutes off, and sit on the grass and feel the breeze and see the British Front spread out below. The ox-eye daisies are out, very big ones.

Jack is dying to-night, paralysed from a wound in the spine. He doesn’t know what is the matter with him and can’t feel anything, so he goes on smiling and making polite little jokes, and thanking and apologizing till we could all cry. Reggie is worse to-night. He holds out his small hand and says, ‘Will you come and sit by me for a little while and hold my hand–it encourages me.’ A boy who has lost one eye and can’t see out of the other said this evening, ‘I do feel bad, will you come and talk to me?’ and you hardly ever can.

The London School Teacher boy with his arm blown off, and his foot nearly, is an extraordinary example of fortitude with a large F. I should like to meet him again in Peace time, if there ever is such a thing.[4]

 

And finally, today, an update on Henry Williamson. While his alter ego Phillip Maddison continues to hurtle along in a tight, careening orbit of the war’s changing centers of gravity, he himself has entered a slower middle period of his war. Much of 1915 was consumed with officer training and illness, and 1916 has so far followed suit. After initial training as an officer he had had a long Lewis Gun (light machine gun) course, and then he spent several months learning the heavier weapons of a divisional Machine Gun Corps. But Williamson was still in poor health, and willing to be acknowledged as such–he was skinny, anemic, and weak, and today, a century back, he entered Millbank military hospital. Was he shirking, to any degree? We’ll have to ask Phillip Maddison at our next opportunity…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 136.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 258-60.
  3. Diaries, 69-70.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 64-5.
  5. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 72-3.

Siegfried Sassoon Contemplative, and Gathering Primitive Weapons; Raymond Asquith on Boredom, Fear, and the Boring Fear of Growing Old

It’s once again time to check in with Raymond Asquith, and see how the regimental life is suiting him. We’ll go back five days, as far as a letter to Diana Manners

25 May 1916

. . . We came out to this utterly bloody camp where we now are on Sunday night, marching between fields of deep cool green corn in the early morning. It was wonderfully like what coming home from a ball through Covent-Garden ought to be, but, as we know, isn’t–leaving behind one the flash and clatter of machine guns and pressing one’s brow against the dewy peace of the vegetable world…

That, it must be said, is an unexpected metaphor.

Katherine writes that you have been an angel to her which I like to hear, and also that you are utterly stagestruck which I like less. Tell me when you next write, about the stage and why you like it. It makes me think that you might like Ypres…

A brutal orderly has come for the post while I still had much more to say. Write as much as you can without putting a burden on yourself.

And to Katherine, his wife:

25 May 1916
. . . I spent yesterday from 8.30 a.m.-4.30 p.m. in a wood near here with Ham. We took 100 men to put up wooden huts there and spent quite a pleasant and restful day lying on our backs on the moss drinking whisky, listening to the song of the nightingales and reading aloud to one another a book by Ouida called Chandos which we both thought very funny.

Never mind the decadent drinking and reading while the enlisted men labor: is Asquith surrendering, at long last, to the lazy siren song of the pastoral?

It was a fine warm day and the only trouble was that we were harassed incessantly by midges and mosquitoes . . .

Nope. Two days back, now, a more serious letter.

3rd Grenadier Guards,
B.E.F.
28 May 1916

I notice a distinct change in the morale of this battalion since I was last with them–the officers I mean. They are more tired of the war, more frightened of shells and talk more constantly about the prospects of peace. I think it is almost entirely boredom which produces this effect, because it is absurd to pretend, as some people do, that there is anything in the nature of continuous nervous strain in this war. Shelling certainly has a cumulative effect, but even in the Salient there is hardly more than 1 day a month when it is bad enough to cause real distress.

This is an odd conclusion, but one we might have expected: boredom is Asquith’s bête noire and he has a rather expansive sense of it. So we might try to bend his words to fit the idea that prolonged inaction under intermittent shellfire… but no, he goes right out and says that he does not believe that ordinary service in the trenches should cause “cumulative strain.”

There are many opinions about this, and Asquith is surely entitled to his, but then again he hasn’t been in a major bombardment, he has just had a nice long break at G.H.Q., and he is likely to be seeing the reflection of his own experience and mistaking it for others’. He loathes boredom and it saps his morale, so others… but still, it’s odd that he will acknowledge the “cumulative” nature of nervous strain but deny that it may be happening to others. Asquith is, needless to say, on the wrong side of history (or, rather, military historiography) on this one.

Finally, a letter of today, a century back, in which Asquith recovers his equilibrium with a virtuoso performance of the finding of lemons and the making of delightfully tarter lemons.

3rd Grenadier Guards,
B.E.F.
30 May 1916

Last night we had an open air concert in the dusk, a long succession of super-sentimental songs, about people being married for 40 years and still playing the same old tune on the piano and so on. I wondered what we should be like in 40 years; and came to the conclusion that you would still be very sweet indeed, though poor Trim [their infant son] would be just developing the “middle-aged spread”. What a terrible place the world is. Even in war time one can’t help having more apprehensions about living to be old than about being cut off in the flower of one’s youth–if indeed one can still call it that…[1]

 

More youthful by some eight years, and recently very much both in flower and in peril, Siegfried Sassoon is still coming back to the good green French earth after the excitement of the failed raid.

May 30, 6.30 p.m.

Sitting on a milestone which says ‘Amiens 29.7k.’ Pérorine 22.9k’. A cloudless white evening—the tall green wheat shaking in a light southerly breeze. A steam-roller puffing and crunching a couple of hundred yards down the road toward Corbie (12.3k. Bray-sur-Somme 4.4k).

Well, that’s a nice one for the next project: traveling around France and Flanders affixing hand-hewn stone plaques to the precise locations of Great War literature.

Some guns thudding a few miles away; and the long dark green line of the Bois de Taille (full of Devons and Border Regiment) with telegraph-poles standing in the foreground. Rode over to Corbie this morning and saw Stansfield at the clearing hospital there. He is out of danger. A nice ride–with our cheery Medical Officer—in cool grey weather after a rainy night.

This is good news, since Stansfield’s injuries were thought to be severe. And so have we finished with the Great Raid of the Royal Welch? No–the hero is lingering upon the field.

Had a narrow squeak on Friday night when I went out to try and collect the debris of the raid: a bomb (from a catapult) fell about a yard from me, but I was lying flat, so everything passed over me, and I was only half-deafened by the noise. Got three axes and a knobkerrie, but I don’t think if was worthwhile. Still, my luck seems to hold. Name been sent in for M.C. (so rumour says). Lord, how pleased everyone will be if I get it.

Worthwhile? No, risking one’s life to pick up simple tools is generally not. Note too what Sassoon does not mention: the dead. Not Corporal O’Brien, killed in the raid; and not David Thomas. Has action changed him?

Walking home, there was an acre of thick wet clover, deep-red and tipped with paler pink, and in those lush tangles were a few small scarlet poppies. And the sun was low above delicate, watery-green landscapes tufted with trees; and Morlancourt in the basin with smoke going up looked very peaceful: and brown bees were in the clover-patch, and the sun went down like a poppy.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Life and Letters, 263-5.
  2. Diaries, 65-7.

David Jones Writ Minor; Rowland Feilding in Amiens

We have very few diaries from enlisted men. This has much to do with social class and literary training, but more to do with the double standards of the military hierarchy. There were writers in the ranks, and men who wanted to keep a daily record of their war, the problem was that all diary-keeping was technically against the rules, on the theory that captured diaries might provide valuable information to the enemy. Officers, who were on their honor–and not subject to kit inspection–could afford such indiscretions while enlisted men would have to worry about confiscation or punishment.

Happily, the brilliantly imaginative David Jones was one of the enlisted men who did risk keeping a diary. Unhappily, it was almost completely destroyed. Yet perhaps not too much was lost: from what we do have, it would seem that the diary was a fairly austere record rather than a Sassoonish proto-memoir. Here’s is today’s entry, for example:

Blankets taken in–rotten to find none when we came back from the trenches.[1]

 

Rowland Feilding, an officer and a Guardsman who has lived a life of considerably more privilege, is nonetheless a fellow sufferer at the bureaucratic whims of the army and the chances of war. He has returned from injury only to be sent to an Entrenching Battalion which worked behind the lines–this will mean serving with strangers instead of comrades, and also safety–and thus a slight whiff of ignominy. He updates his wife on his doings today, a century back:

amiens

Notre-Dame d’Amiens, 1916

May 29, 1916
Grand Hotel du Rhin, Amiens.

My little scheme to get back to the 1st Battalion has failed so far, and I return to the Entrenching Battalion tomorrow somehow, either by motor-car or train. I have been in the train all day. Last night I slept at Hazebrouck, in an extremely comfortable bed, between sheets—the first time that I have done so since I left Heathfield on April 7.

I visited the Cathedral, here, this evening. The approaches are barricaded with sandbags, to save them from the fate of Rheims. It is beautiful—particularly the stained-glass windows, but I still think our English Cathedrals can hold their own against the Continental; and, if the war lasts much longer, they will be the only ones left.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Dilworth, David Jones and the Great War, 97.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 78.

Rowland Feilding Between a Safe Job and a Hard Place; Rudyard Kipling Runs Afoul of Inland Censorship; Edward Thomas’s Last Chance for Security

It is Rowland Feilding’s turn to re-approach the line after leave, but there is a wrinkle: he is being treated as a Guardsman-in-general, rather than a member of a particular battalion. Feilding is taken aback at the suggestion that he should serve with whatever battalion needs an officer, yet this is the new bureaucratic reality. Officers (and men) returning from ordinary leave go back to their units, but those who have been wounded and evacuated (or otherwise removed from the war zone and their divisional aegis) are at the mercy of the army.

In Feilding’s case, the bureaucracy may have dishonored him, as he sees it, but it has also been merciful: he has been sent to oversee an “entrenching battalion,” which would presumably keep much safer than he would be back in a line battalion of the Coldstream Guards in the weeks before a major offensive.

May 28, 1916
Station Hotel, Hazebrouck

I left camp yesterday at noon with a mixed draft of Grenadier, Coldstream, and Irish Guards, and marched to
the railway…

The fields were green with young corn, or yellow with mustard, or crimson with clover. Woods and plantations, the existence of which before I had not noticed, sprung out in all directions, in masses of luxuriant colour. On the hills and in the valleys villages now peeped out, which before I could not see because of the rain; and the big winding Somme graced all. In fact, I discovered that the country I had been living in for six weeks is really very beautiful in spring…

None of the Division are in the immediate locality, and the battalions are very scattered. Consequently, I have
seen nobody I know except Guy Darell, who now wears red tabs, and who came buzzing along in a big staff car, but pulled up when he saw me.

The last time I had seen him was at the moment he was bowled over by a shell, just as we were about to start off for our attack on the Chalk Pit Wood on September 27.

He advised me to ring up Divisional Headquarters, which I did, and was answered by his brother—Billy Darell, who is A.A. and Q.M.G., and who arranges the posting of officers. He recommended me to write to Guy Baring [the commander of the First Coldstreams] and to ask him to apply for me. Apparently, they make a point that there should always be a Captain of each regiment with the Entrenching Battalion. Consequently, they may not release me till they get some one else.

Anyhow, I wrote to Guy Baring. I have considered the matter as much as I can. I have sometimes felt that I
should not add to your anxieties at this time by pressing to be returned to my battalion, but, on the other hand, I have thought that if every married man in my position were content to remain in a safe place, it would be a poor look out for the Army. Finally, if I inspire any confidence in the men, it is certainly right that I should be with them, and I am sure you will agree with me in this.

This is a compelling piece to add to the puzzle of family responsibility and danger that we have been assembling of late. Married men have until recently been omitted from conscription, and we have seen those who do volunteer shunted away from the most dangerous assignments. Then there is Bim Tennant, gilded youth of Feilding’s regiment, who seemed to be sucked into a Staff Job against his will. Or perhaps we should say against his mild preference, which may have been expressed only in a most languid fashion. Bimbo justified his temporary escape from danger with reference to his mother’s considerable burdens.

It’s all an unstable matrix of privilege and connections, rank and loyalty, submission to authority and assertion of personal responsibility. And a lot to leave in a single person’s hands–so Rowland Feilding asks his wife for guidance:

Do write me your views. God knows how I felt for you in the anxiety you must have endured last autumn, and I dread to repeat that…[1]

 

Here’s an unusual thing. Apparently Lady Cecil, who, as the wife of a distinguished older colonial soldier was an eyewitness to the cruelties of the Boer War (a pioneering campaign for concentration camps), has recently written to Mrs. Kipling to express her objections to Britain’s current treatment of its German prisoners. She objects, that is, to Britain’s relatively scrupulous humaneness.

Today, a century back, Rudyard Kipling has written Lady Cecil a strange little fantasy–alas, the elaborate fake documentation which seems to have accompanied the joke letter has not survived.

Bateman’s / Burwash / Sussex / May 28, 1916
Dear Lady Edward,

I am afraid there has been a little trouble over your last letter to Mrs Kipling.

I did not know there was any inland censorship on letters but it seems that there is and that a Major E. M. Whistler-Titherington R.E. is Deputy Censor for East Sussex. He takes exception (the Defence of the Realm Act apparently permits this) to some of your remarks and he writes me that your references to the treatment of German prisoners would prejudice the Allies and German’s relations on the conclusion of peace, and would give neutrals a wrong idea of our methods in dealing with prisoners. Apparently by a new ruling, if one has in one’s house any printed or written matter that cannot be published, it is an offence under the Act. He has made me responsible for the letter though, as you will see, I have explained I have no control over my wife’s correspondence and that you and she have long written to each other quite freely. I quite agree, privately, with your use of the term “Bloody Hun” as a justifiable epithet but–you know how very sensitive our Government are. Perhaps it would have been as well not to have actually written it down. But, as I gather from Major T., the real trouble is your reference to their being made to travel in “dark bags” and, if you will allow me to say so, your even more unfortunate remark which Major T. seems to think is a direct incitement to murder, that they should be “very speedy in their journeys.”

There is no getting over the fact that the phrase is a trifle suggestive, though I don’t in the least follow Major Titherington when he calls it “almost Turkish in its savagery,” but I am sure that in your tactful hands it may be made to bear an explanation somewhat less sinister than that which he insists on attaching to it. I have done the best I could in the matter: but it appears that he referred the whole letter direct to the cabinet without giving you an opportunity to be heard in your own defence. I have of course disclaimed any responsibility, which I find I can do under the married women’s property act:[2] and it is, as I have told the Major, utterly impossible for me to produce previous correspondence between yourself and Mrs Kipling, which is what he wants me to do.

I enclose you copies of Major Titherington’s letters etc. to me as well as the Cabinet’s comments on the passage in your letter which seems to have landed us all in this rather unfortunate imbroglio.

As far as I read the situation they evidently don’t wish to drag you directly into the matter; and Curzon’s action in proposing a commission (which cannot be expected to arrive at a finding much before 1918) strikes me as singularly subtle and farsighted.

Very sincerely

Rudyard Kipling[3]

 

Finally, Edward Thomas wrote to Eleanor Farjeon today, a century back. This letter reminds us of the practical considerations which are always present, however poetical his grappling with his military fate can be.

In short, he is less reticent, now, about his money problems: he has been in a sort of limbo, crawling up as far as corporal (with small increases in pay). But if the crown cannot give him a pension for his writing, he may need to seek officer’s pay, and thus two moves at once: from the ranks to a commission, and from garrison instruction duty to France.

Sunday

Hut 14

My dear Eleanor, We are only free in the evenings nowadays. They won’t let us alone. We have to do all the usual duties. Every N.C.O. is to be made universally competent. No doubt it is very good for us as well as for the country and I really am determined not to mind much…

I wish I could make something out of my work. It is more and more necessary with my money dwindling and—I fear—the pension so improbable. Thank you for securing Mrs Meynell. She might just do the trick…

Can you enjoy the fine weather?

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 76-77.
  2. Which refers to the ancient days, 35 years previously, when an Englishwoman and her property were entirely subordinate to her husband's guardianship,
  3. Letters IV, 368-9.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 197-8.

Two Poems: Siegfried Sassoon’s “Letter Home” to Robert Graves, a Radiant Folly to Dodge the War; and Edward Thomas Turns, with the Team’s Head Brass, Toward the War that Will Leave Nothing Untouched

Two very important poems today, a century back–very different ones, and important for different reasons. The poem received shows the spark of one of our central friendships catching, roaring into longer life. The poem written is the finest testament-in-verse of a poet’s turning toward war that this war will produce.

First, Robert Graves is back on duty, temporarily assigned to the 3rd Battalion (a training/depot formation, not a combat battalion) at one of the Royal Welch base camps in England. He has recently received a verse letter from Siegfried Sassoon.

3rd RWF
The Huts
Litherland
Liverpool

27 May 1916

My dear Sassons,

Nous Voici at Litherland again (not that I’ve ever been here before but I’ve heard such a lot about it) and bored with it already. Of course everyone was very affable and I’ve met a lot of old comrades-in-arms… but the subalterns are all at present terrified of my three stars and are ridiculously respectful, and I’m tired of playing at being a senior officer.

Graves, we should remember, not only found a sort of side-door into the wartime army through the Special Reserve but found himself in an odd bureaucratic fast lane where he was swiftly promoted Captain without any real experience. Tall, battered, odd, still only twenty years old and with tall tales to tell of Loos and months of trench fighting, he must have been intimidating indeed to New Army subalterns still waiting to come out. And I doubt he was really very tired of it.

However, I managed to get my Medical Board to give me ‘General Service’ and don’t expect to wait long before getting out again.

More banter about young officers on the town follows, before Graves gets around to his real news.

A great, hardly bearable disaster has overtaken R.G. His Peter has been taken from him by the terrible old mother who has been nosing around and reading all his letters. So terribly has she been shocked at finding quotations from Samuel Butler… and at such signatures as ‘ever yours affectionally, Robert’ and ‘best love, R’ that she has extracted a promise from the poor lad that he will have nothing to do with me till he leaves Ch’house… so I am now widowed, laid waste and desolate…

There are several ironies here. Graves confessed himself… “enamored” may be the best word, of young Peter, still a schoolboy, who had been several years behind Graves at Charterhouse. Graves courted scandal by speaking out about such infatuations–the “romantic friendships” that arose in the intense, all-male atmosphere of a boarding school–but always claimed that he was prudish and almost entirely pre-sexual at school and that he no sexual interest in Peter. On this there is no real reason to doubt him, unreliable though he often is. Yet Graves has previously received information–given in a spirit of homophobic nastiness, but seemingly true–that Peter was in fact gay, and sexually active.

So the “terrible old mother”–perhaps suspecting something she dislikes in her own son, perhaps not–has moved to block his relationship with the awkward young captain, the fellow who consorts with the likes of Eddie Marsh and who writes flowery poetry and is overly affectionate…

Graves, bereft of his first passion, melodramatically “widowed,” will turn now to other friendships to sustain him. Sassoon, too, has recently lost his own chaste love and his lonely among his unpoetic peers. (To muddy the waters further, Sassoon’s sexual chastity is complicated by homosexual inclinations, though never toward Graves.) But despite his losses, his social reservations and a budding poetic rivalry, Sassoon values his odd young friend Graves. The two step forward now, after the stormy short coracle-jaunt of their initial front-line friendship, into the sturdier and more seaworthy craft of a long-term epistolary-and-visiting relationship, based on mutual interests and aiming, in hope, at things-after-the-war.

Sassoon values Graves enough, apparently, to devote some of the halycon leisure of his days at the Fourth Army School to writing a long letter, a testament to friendship in verse. And never mind what Sassoon is actually up to right now–the ironies of postal delays apply to comrades at home as much as to loved ones left behind.

But back to Graves’s letter for a moment:

Your jingle letter was quite one of the nicest I’ve ever had: you are a dear. One of these days I’ll try a reply…

I gave your love to Eddie: he’s in good form these days…

‘I want to go home’–to France.[1]

 

The jingle letter, then:

A Letter Home

(To Robert Graves)

I

Here I’m sitting in the gloom
Of my quiet attic room.
France goes rolling all around,
Fledged with forest May has crowned.
And I puff my pipe, calm-hearted,
Thinking how the fighting started,
Wondering when we’ll ever end it,
Back to hell with Kaiser sent it,
Gag the noise, pack up and go,
Clockwork soldiers in a row.
I’ve got better things to do
Than to waste my time on you.

II

Robert, when I drowse to-night,
Skirting lawns of sleep to chase
Shifting dreams in mazy light,
Somewhere then I’ll see your face
Turning back to bid me follow
Where I wag my arms and hollo,
Over hedges hasting after
Crooked smile and baffling laughter,
Running tireless, floating, leaping,
Down your web-hung woods and valleys,
Where the glowworm stars are peeping,
Till I find you, quiet as stone
On a hill-top all alone,
Staring outward, gravely pondering
Jumbled leagues of hillock-wandering.

III

You and I have walked together
In the starving winter weather.
We’ve been glad because we knew
Time’s too short and friends are few.
We’ve been sad because we missed
One whose yellow head was kissed
By the gods, who thought about him
Till they couldn’t do without him.
Now he’s here again; I’ve been
Soldier David dressed in green,
Standing in a wood that swings
To the madrigal he sings.
He’s come back, all mirth and glory,
Like the prince in a fairy story.
Winter called him far away;
Blossoms bring him home with May.

IV

Well, I know you’ll swear it’s true
That you found him decked in blue
Striding up through morning-land
With a cloud on either hand.
Out in Wales, you’ll say, he marches
Arm-in-arm with oaks and larches;
Hides all night in hilly nooks,
Laughs at dawn in tumbling brooks.
Yet, it’s certain, here he teaches
Outpost-schemes to groups of beeches.
And I’m sure, as here I stand,
That he shines through every land,
That he sings in every place
Where we’re thinking of his face.[2]

V

Robert, there’s a war in France;
Everywhere men bang and blunder,
Sweat and swear and worship Chance,
Creep and blink through cannon thunder.
Rifles crack and bullets flick,
Sing and hum like hornet-swarms.
Bones are smashed and buried quick.
Yet, through stunning battle storms,
All the while I watch the spark
Lit to guide me; for I know
Dreams will triumph, though the dark
Scowls above me where I go.
You can hear me; you can mingle
Radiant folly with my jingle.
War’s a joke for me and you
While we know such dreams are true!

 

Excellent stuff–a stroke at the heart of this project: two young poets and soldiers, fast in friendship, writing of war and each other, of loss and hope… It’s a mood, only a mood. Yet it’s one in which we can take heart: with friends like these, and with so much poetry to write, dreams will triumph…

 

Well, it’s one of the hearts of this project. Will friendship save men from war? Of course not. It does a great deal: more, generally, than the love of women, who are sequestered across the experiential gulf; more, certainly, in almost every case, then the comforts of philosophy, religion, nationalism, or even literature.

But in the end these men are alone when they make their decisions about the war. The big decisions, and the ones that follow: more restricted, but sharper–and ever closer to the feared end.

 

It may seem odd, then, that Edward Thomas wrote one of his sharp little provocations over the last few days. Perhaps this little bit of Brooke-mocking helped to clear the decks for today’s effort:

“No one cares less than I,
Nobody knows but God,
Whether I am destined to lie
Under a foreign clod,”
Were the words I made to the bugle call in the morning.
But laughing, storming, scorning,
Only the bugles know
What the bugles say in the morning,
And they do not care, when they blow
The call that I heard and made words to early this morning.

In this “dissident, dissonant” poem, there is a blanket denial of “war poetry” in favor of an implicit opposition of war vs. poetry.[3]

But then, today, Edward Thomas wrote the following, the poem that stands as something like the programmatic poem of his own changing approach to the war:

 

As the Team’s Head Brass

As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed an angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.
                       The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. “When will they take it away?”
“When the war’s over.” So the talk began—
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
“Have you been out?” “No.” “And don’t want to, perhaps?”
“If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm. I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more. . . . Have many gone
From here?” “Yes.” “Many lost?” “Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.”
“And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.” “Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.” Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

 

The clods are not friable symbols anymore, to be tossed in the general direction of Rupert Brooke‘s slick pieties. These are real clods, clumps of today’s earth, not some idealized future resting placing.

Thomas will shortly declare his literal allegiance to such things, to the English earth he has walked and loved and written about all his life. They refuse, now, to be overlooked. We’ve seen this sort of figure before in Thomas’s writing–Lob, for instance, just one of many grounded Bombadils that cluster like so many horn-handed angels and devils, disputant upon Thomas’s shoulder, and trudge, too, through so much of his poetry. English earth and an honest old Englishman, and his conversation skillfully rendered in Frost’s mode: real, everyday, forceful as prose, unforced as poetry.

And no need, today, for much authorial screening. The ploughman’s interlocutor is a soldier, but one who has not been “out” yet, and is not sure he wants to–this is Thomas’s precise position. If other poets pictured themselves having a fairly superficial conversation with a less educated natural figure (hardly a pure figure of nature, though, in as much as he is breaking the earth for agricultural purposes–but rustic enough) we might roll our eyes. And lesser poets would drive the point home: what good pondering contingency and the enormous and irrevocable changes wrought by war?

Thomas lets the moment speak for itself. The plow moves on, and the English earth is changed, forever. But of course it is: all change is irrevocable, and (as some good English Georgian/Georgic follower of Heraclitus must certainly have noted, sometime, somewhere) you can’t plow the same furrow twice. There’s no good dwelling on what one cannot know, no deals to be done with the maw of war before you enter it.

More, still: if the speaker is Thomas, on a particular tree, gazing upon particular clods, then this is no poetic moment out-of-time, but a real instant.

And then there is the fact that Thomas must also be alluding to the clods which open Thomas Hardy‘s In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’ and daring, then, to correct the old master. Hardy’s clods are eternal clods–pieces of the eternal and ancient rural world feared and loved by Hardy–to be set against the particular follies that man wreaks upon his paltry, passing history.

Thomas’s clods are turned and fall upon a patch of English earth, in the spring of 1916. It’s plowing time, and time to recognize that the war goes on, without pause, without giving any hints as to its intentions, sinister or benign.

This, then, is a big moment, the realization that war waits on no man. It cannot be a coincidence that Thomas will soon shift from letting the whims of the military bureaucracy take him where it will to actively seeking… well, active service.  The decision to fight rather than lecture and train, to seek a combat commission rather than remaining a rear-echelon NCO, may be understated patriotism, but it is patriotism nonetheless, or at least a new willingness to let the facts of the war contain him, instead of insisting on arriving at some purely individual stance.

Matthew Hollis takes the assumption just a step further. In the poem’s ellipsis, he believes, Thomas “had understood something invaluable, and realised what was wrong with the scene in which he sat: that the world he enjoyed was contingent upon those who where willing to fight for it.”[4] If there is no dodging the war–the very fallen elm on which he sits, the very clods have already been affected–then he might as well seek it out.

There is no distinction to be made, anymore, between the poet’s beloved rural England, and those other furrows men are plowing through the steel-torn fields of France.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 50-1. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 148.
  2. I want to just let this poem roll on--it's a letter in verse, after all, not self-serious "poetry," and shows Sassoon's skills as a versifier, akin to his pre-war effort in which a satire of Masefield galloped off into skillful homage...  but anyway: these Celtic tree spirits really do seem to prefigure some rather dotty later work by Graves...
  3. Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 299.
  4. Hollis, Now All Roads, 285-8. See also Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 300-2.

Siegfried Sassoon: The Raider Confronts the Day After; Richard Aldington Will Be Had for a Soldier, and a Rotter; Kate Luard Closes a Short, Sharp Battle

In the early hours of yesterday morning, a century back, Siegfried Sassoon helped save the honor of his regiment and possibly the lives of several of its most eager men, the wounded remnant of a raiding party that he had been forbidden to join. He has won the respect of his colonel and is on the way to winning a decoration that will, as he told us yesterday of his memoir-self, shore up the sliding trench-walls of his self respect. And the night after the day after?

May 26 8.15 p.m.

Looking west from the support line; the brown, shell-pitted ground gloomy in the twilight—beyond, the receding country, dim-blue and solemn, a distant group of thick-topped trees on a ridge dark against the low colour of fading sunset, deep-glowing-ruddy-amber, fading higher to pale orange, and yellow; above that a long dove-coloured bar of cloud faintly fringed with crimson. And over all the proper star of dusk.

The guns rumble miles and miles away, carts can be heard on the roads behind Fricourt. Everything is very still, until a canister comes over and bursts, throwing up a cloud of purple-black smoke that drifts across the half-lit sky, and ‘the blue vaporous end of day’. A rat comes out and nips across among the tin cans and burst sandbags and rubbish. And I turn away and I go down the fifteen steps to a dark candle-yellow-dugout to fetch my bally revolver.[1]

What to make of this? Pastoral readjustment? The sour taste of stale adrenaline, the rubbish-grubbing rat at the sunset of a heroic day? And the quotation? An allegiance he needs no more: it is–it was–Rupert Brooke.

 

Richard Aldington, as a married man–to the poet H D–was not liable for the new conscription laws. Until yesterday, when the Military Services Act was extended. Ironically, perhaps, just as he “decides” to become a soldier, we learn of a serious new marital infidelity, with Flo Fallas, their mutual friend. Aldington wrote to his friend and fellow Modernist F.S. Flint today, a century back:

Woodland Cottage,
Martinhoe,
Parracombe

26/5/16
Dear old Franky,

You must forgive me for not having written you. I have been in a queer, not altogether unhappy state of mind, which the enclosed “poheme” will perhaps show. Destroy it or keep it close as you like. I am keeping no copy.

The poem in question would be either “Images” or “Inarticulate Grief,” I think. Anyway, HD should perhaps not be pitied pro forma–she seems to have known at least of a flirtation between Fallas and her husband, and affected not to care–but it has not been that long since she suffered a miscarriage and it is a recent certainty that she will lose her husband to the army… it’s hard not to think of Aldington as a scandalous sort of rotter.

I ought to have foreseen it, but now I’m in. I’m in! Don’t tell me I’m a scandalous rotter, or I shall weep. You can trust me not to make anyone else unhappy. I am a damned sentimentalist. If you hit me with commonsense maxims I shall go and drown myself! But O Franky boy, what a red-hot lance of pleasure-pain and wild content a woman’s lips thrust into one. For God’s sake don’t think I’m mad. I’m quite calm & cheerful, no one sees anything.

Don’t pity H D–one learns to appreciate as [sic] least I do–by compassion. And for heaven’s sake utter silence about this… be the patient keeper of my confessions! You shall know it all some time.

Yrs.
R.
So many thanks for books. I’ve read ’em but can’t remember a word. How much do I owe you?[2]

Or perhaps I’m just too irritated to read the love poems of a man who promises a literary book and fails to deliver…

 

Finally, today, Kate Luard, closes the book on the recent German attack at Vimy Ridge:

Friday, May 26th. No regular Convoy to-day–only the bad cases dribbling in–so there’s been a little more time to attend to our four wards of poor bad ones. They still go on dying but some of the abdominals are pulling round by inches…

Tuesday’s Times gives the German [emphasis in original] Official Report of the taking of our trenches at Vimy Ridge and it is word for word true. They call it ‘quite extraordinary sanguinary losses’ (on our side) and that is what the survivors here say…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 67-8.
  2. Imagist Dialogues, 119-20.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 63.

Siegfried Sassoon is a Hero at Last: A Raid Goes Wrong, and Sassoon (and Sherston) are There; Isaac Rosenberg is Royally Foreshortened; Kate Luard’s Most Upsetting Thing Of All

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.[1]

 

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…

May 25

Twenty-seven men with faces blackened and shiny—Christy minstrels—with hatchets in their belts, bombs in pockets, knobkerries[2]—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…[3]

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
known…

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.

77 street, bois francais

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.[4]

 

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.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 135; Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 307.
  2. Weighted clubs, for silently knocking out enemies.
  3. Diaries, 65-7.
  4. Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, 21-40.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 63.

Kate Luard: “The Same Story of Wasted Self-Sacrifice,” and New Horrors Still; Sorrow Strikes the Tennants; Three Writers Prepare to Depart for France

Three days ago the German army attacked along Vimy Ridge, pressing forward (and downhill) into the positions which the British had recently taken over from the French. Yesterday the British had counter-attacked, hoping to regain the lost trenches, many of which were essential to mining operations in the sector. But the Germans had superior observation and artillery concentration, and the attacks floundered.

Two days ago–a “black day”–Kate Luard‘s CCS was swamped with casualties. Yesterday and today were no brighter.

May 22nd

…We’ve had three officers in–one nearly died when he was having his foot taken off. One who had his arm blown off was laid in a dugout and then that was blown in on him and it took two hours to dig him out–he was the most cheery of all… A boy who was trephined on Saturday night here, and has one eye destroyed and the other covered up, never speaks, but kicks every stitch of clothing off and breaks out into ‘Lead Kindly Light’ and ‘God Save the King…’

May 23rd

The boy is now singing his hymns in Heaven. Captain R. was … operating continuously a day and a night… and he had to be ordered off duty for 12 hours after that…

The big ward with beds all round and two lines down the middle is a very sad place–quite full of wrecks… The next acute hut… is also very busy with compound fractures, heads and amputations… but the worst chests, and the abdominals and the bombed people with several serious wounds, are in the big ward. Then there’s an overflow hut with stretchers…

We are rather short of men in the detachment, and when eight have to be taken off to dig graves it doesn’t add to the simplicity of the work…

Sister Luard is an assiduous diarist. She writes on an almost nightly basis, a sort of diary/circular letter that is intended both to record her thoughts and doings and to keep her large family abreast of her experiences. Generally, her great contribution to this project is to record and reflect, in that immediate daily retrospection which historians generally treat as “present” testimony. But tonight, even during this terribly difficult time–or perhaps precisely because of it, and a greater need to mentally separate from the desperate work and tremendous suffering–she takes a step back and ponders the future of her Casualty Clearing Station:

So far it is running pretty well, but at a great pressure, and I don’t know how long the Orderlies and Sisters will last out. The Colonel says he thinks we shall always have this rush because we are so near the Line, but of course since Sunday’s attack it has been so much worse than usual, and violent and desperate fighting is still going on. I’ll be able to tell you more about it later on when it is history…

We went a few minutes up the road to Hersin after dinner at 9:30 tonight to get a breather, and to see the flashes and hear the lions roaring. It’s an incredibly murderous noise.

“When it is history.” She means, of course, that she cannot discuss details during an ongoing military operation. But I’ll take it as a weighty statement nonetheless, and point out that, well, it is history, now, and it’s still hard to tell…

The mood of carnage-induced pondering–the deep breath, the step back–continues today, a century back. But Luard’s usual principled optimism is undermined now by the weight of her experience.

Wednesday, May 24th. It has been a bad day and a bad night. I wonder if next May will be the same. And the whole thing seems the same utter waste of life and suffering as it was last May–and the same story of wasted self-sacrifice.

That would be the place to put a full stop, and spare us this:

I have been mostly in a ghastly hut full of head cases (falling off their stretchers), compound fractures, chests, two amputations and five compound fractured femurs. It is only equipped for walking cases…

Some of the wounds this time are, for some reason, crawling with a seething, wriggling mass of live maggots. I’ve never seen this before. Many of the men are stuck fast to their stretchers–blood is like glue if you leave it long enough.[1]

 

There are no winners in a contest of comparative misery, suffering, and loss, and I don’t mean to imply such a comparison with this transition. Rather, simply, that there is misery, suffering, and loss in the world both with and without bombardments that cause horrific wounds. There are medical limitations everywhere, too, both familiar and unfamiliar.

In any event, we have read that Bim Tennant decided to allow himself to be lured from the honorable rigors of a line battalion to the follies of the staff in order not to cause his mother, who was pregnant–in her mid-forties–any additional worry.

Today, a century back, Bim’s sister Hester was born, and died.

Bim adored his mother, and wrote many letters to her in the coming days. This one she valued above all the others:

…I cannot tell you what I feel about this great sorrow that has come to you, and to all of us. After all your happy preparations, how cruel it seems. We will be doubly loving and unselfish to you, and yet I know nothing can make up for this blow. I know how much this meant to you. I am longing to see you and comfort you in this sorrow. I am glad you have Stephen with you. I feel sure he will be a son of comfort, a son of consolation. You know I have never been able to bear to think of your being miserable, so do not be too unhappy for my sake, and get strong again. . . . This is just a love-line to tell how much I am thinking of you. If only I could see you myself. I think of you night and day. Ever your devoted son.[2]

 

 

Finally, today, three quick updates on two poets and one fire-eater, bound and rebound:

Ivor Gurney wrote to Herbert Howells to announce his imminent departure for the front:

24 May 1916

Dear Howler: Finis est, or rather, Inceptus est (?) We go tomorrow. Little Howler, continue in thy path of life, blessing others and being blest, creating music and joy, never ceasing from the attempt to make English music what it should be, and calmly scornful — heedless of the critics.

Go on and prosper:

and Au revoir.

IBG[3]

 

Robert Graves, after weeks in Wales and London following a nasal operation intended calculated to improve his chances of surviving a gas attack, was pronounced fit for duty by an official medical board today. Will the wheels of military bureaucracy turn quickly enough to return him to France in time for the Big Push?[4]

 

And finally, after a long spell in England after gaining his commission, Alfred Pollard left to join the 1st batallion of the Honourable Artillery Company.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 60-2.
  2. Memoir, 193-4.
  3. War Letters, 63.
  4. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 148.
  5. Fire-Eater, 136.

Siegfried Sassoon on Nature, from Larks to Slugs; Contemplated Bravado and a Pair of Sonnets from Alan Seeger; Raymond Asquith is Back with the Battalion, and Finds Nothing Whatever to Complain About; Private Lord Crawford on the Entente Between the Sexes

Siegfried Sassoon, back in the support lines, measures quiet and contentment. Will the larks never cease? It seems sometimes as if the sounds of the Western Front are 80% ordinance, 6% overhead Cockney cheerfulness, 3% shouted German taunts, and 11% lark song. But this is a quiet sector:

May 23 6.15 p.m.

On Crawley Ridge. A very still evening. Sun rather hazy but sky mostly clear. Looking across to Fricourt: trench-mortars bursting in the cemetery: clouds of dull white vapour slowly float away over grey-green grass with yellow buttercup-smears, and saffron of weeds. Fricourt, a huddle of reddish roofs, skeleton village—church-tower white—almost demolished, a patch of white against the sombre green of the Fricourt wood (full of German batteries). Away up the hill the white seams and heapings of trenches dug in the chalk. The sky full of lark-songs. Sometimes you can count thirty slowly and hear no sound of a shot: then the muffled pop of a rifle-shot a long way off, or a banging 5.9, or our eighteen-pounder—then a burst of machinegun westward, the yellow sky with a web of whitish filmy cloud half across the sun; and the ridges rather blurred with outlines of trees; an airplane droning overhead. A thistle sprouting through the chalk on the parapet; a cockchafer sailing through the air a little way in front.

Down the hill, and on to the old Bray-Fricourt road, along by the railway; the road white and hard; a partridge flies away calling; lush grass everywhere, and crops of nettles; a large black slug out for his evening walk (doing nearly a mile a month, I should think)…[1]

An interesting interloper, that slug: is our poet merely noting his observations, or is there a special providence in this slow and steady–and notably loathsome–earth-dweller?

 

Alan Seeger is writing steadily and readily again. First, today, to his mother, reflecting on the pleasure and vicissitudes of service in a rather more active sector. Well, actually a fairly quiet one as well–but not if Seeger can help it.

May 23, 1916

We are just back after six days in first line. We are lodged in a big quarry in the woods. It is rather cold and damp inside, but extremely picturesque immense subterranean galleries, foursquare, cut in the solid rock, pitch black inside with here and there little points of light where the men stick their candles.

The week in first line was very pleasant. The weather was superb and I was never bored an instant, neither in the beautiful days when the unclouded sunlight came filtering through the branches of the forest, nor in the starry nights that at this time of year fade even before two o’clock into the wonder of the spring dawn. Nothing more adorable in Nature than this daybreak in the northeast in May and June. One hears the cockcrows in the villages of that mysterious land behind the German lines. Then the cuckoos begin to call in the green valleys and all at once, almost simultaneously, all the birds of the forest begin to sing. The cannon may roar, and the rifles crackle, but Nature’s program goes on just the same.

Remarkably like Sassoon, so far, today. Spring! Poets! Soldiers in the line!

There’s one major difference, though, which is that the French army, in which Seeger serves, has been desperately engaged at Verdun for many weeks, and is beginning to be exhausted (although that, of course, will get much worse). The English have yet to make a major attack, and anticipate doing so soon, not least to support their exhausted allies.

The likelihood of a big action in the near future is vanishing more and more. The general opinion is that Verdun has not only mangé beaucoup de monde [eaten up everyone] but what is more important, beaucoup de munitions. As the French seem in counterattacks to be making serious efforts and even on a large scale to regain some of the lost ground, I do not expect anything on other parts of the front for some time to come, unless it be the English. If it turn out that we have actually retaken Douaumont, it will be a magnificent achievement. I shall ask permission to go out and leave the newspapers on the German barbed wire. I have already made several patrols here and know the ground.

Goodbye; bon courage.

There’s a nice short paragraph to stand for the Poetic Attitude and how, even in 1916, it can somehow still contain the bare facts of 20th century attrition–Verdun is indeed consuming the materiel and men of France at an unprecedented rate–and a resolve toward foolish heroics that seems to belong to a 19th century boy’s tale (or, it must be said, some truthy tale of pre-rifle heroics).

Remarkably, a second letter of today, to his godmother (!) is much more frank about his derring-will-do. Seeger out-Sassoons Sassoon today:

May 23, 1916

Exasperated by the inactivity of the sector here and tempted by danger, I stole off twice after guard and made a patrol all by myself through the wood paths and trails between the lines. In the first of these, at a crossing of paths not far from one of our posts, I found a burnt rocket-stick planted in the ground and a scrap of paper stuck in the top, placed there by the Boches to guide their little mischief-making parties when they come to visit us in the night. The scrap of paper was nothing else than a bit of the Berliner Tageblatt. This seemed so interesting to me that I reported it to the captain, though my going out alone this way is a thing strictly forbidden. He was very decent about it though, and seemed really interested in the information. Yesterday afternoon I repeated this exploit, following another trail, and I went so far that I came clear up to the German barbed wire, where I left a card with my name. It was very thrilling work, “courting destruction with taunts, with invitations,” as Whitman would say. I have never been in a sector like this, where patrols could be made in daylight. Here the deep forest permits it. It also greatly facilitates ambushes, for one must keep to the paths, owing to the underbrush. I and a few others are going to try to get permission to go out on patrouilles d’embuscade and bring in some live prisoners. It would be quite an extraordinary feat if we could pull it off. In our present existence it is the only way I can think of to get the Croix de Guerre. And to be worthy of my marraine [godmother, to whom he is writing] I think that I ought to have the Croix de Guerre.

Here are two sonnets I composed to while away the long hours of guard. . . .

The sonnets are below. This is quite something, really, in terms of “real time” history. It’s spring, and the poetic heroes are getting frisky: Julian Grenfell may be decorated and dead, but E. A. Mackintosh, recently, and now Seeger, and soon enough Sassoon himself all setting out to win fame and capture prisoners. May 1916 is the month of the raid…

Now for the poetry!

I will send you back again the Tennyson after having refreshed myself with it, for one must lighten the sack as much as possible. Found all the old beauties and discovered new ones. Read the last paragraphs of Maud and see if you do not think they have a striking bearing on the present situation.

BELLINGLISE
I
Deep in the sloping forest that surrounds
The head of a green valley that I know,
Spread the fair gardens and ancestral grounds
Of Bellinglise, the beautiful château.
Through shady groves and fields of unmown grass,
It was my joy to come at dusk and see,
Filling a little pond’s untroubled glass,
Its antique towers and mouldering masonry.
Oh, should I fall to-morrow, lay me here,
That o’er my tomb, with each reviving year,
Wood-flowers may blossom and the wood-doves croon;
And lovers by that unrecorded place,
Passing, may pause, and cling a little space,
Close-bosomed, at the rising of the moon.
II
Here, where in happier times the huntsman’s horn
Echoing from far made sweet midsummer eves,
Now serried cannon thunder night and morn,
Tearing with iron the greenwood’s tender leaves.
Yet has sweet Spring no particle withdrawn
Of her old bounty; still the song-birds hail,
Even through our fusillade, delightful Dawn;
Even in our wire bloom lilies of the vale.
You who love flowers, take these; their fragile bells
Have trembled with the shock of volleyed shells,
And in black nights when stealthy foes advance
They have been lit by the pale rockets’ glow
That o’er scarred fields and ancient towns laid low
Trace in white fire the brave frontiers of France.[2]

 

What could be more appropriate to the American Europhile than this combination of the hunter’s horn and a near-citation of the Star-Spangled Banner? So yes, this is more Sassoon than Sassoon, but it’s also something Sassoon rarely is, in his poetry: both traditional and ungentle. Seeger goes for effect here, and forces his words into a halthing rhythm. These sonnets start from firm footing amidst the poetic tradition and launch with a clear purpose–but they stumble a bit before they arrive at their triumphantly hammering conclusions, listing oddly rather than soaring.

And these stumbles mean something, personally, militarily, and poetically: are we really getting there? Are the old habits and convictions enough to carry the day, or is the wire before the objective festooned with old paper, and as yet uncut?

 

Finally today–it’s been such an unexpectedly active few weeks!–we must catch up with Raymond Asquith. After an agonizing shift in the stultifying boredom, semi-honorable idiocy, and complete physical safety of General Headquarters, he is at last back with his battalion. Hurrah! He’s going to love it there, right?

Let’s go back a few days and see:

3rd Grenadier Guards,
B.E.F.
20 May 1916

… In this part of the line we are surrounded and overlooked by the Germans on almost every side and they have a great number of guns in good positions which they loose off pretty continuously. We were fairly heavily shelled on Thursday and had some casualties, but nothing really to matter. The weather being so fine puts a picnic complexion on the whole affair and obscures the less agreeable aspects.

All officers have to be up all night but the nights are so short that this is not a very severe tax and at 3.30 a.m. we have a cup of coffee and turn in, if there is anywhere to turn in; if not, sleep in the open, as I did last night with great comfort and enjoyment. One advantage of the weakness of our position is that it is impossible to work or even move during the day, so one simply lies about dozing in the sun till about 8.30 p.m. We have given up luncheon and have bacon and eggs at 11 a.m., tea at 4 and dinner–a substantial meal-at 7. We are in for 5 days on end this time–the longest I have ever done at a stretch but the conditions are so favourable that I don’t think it takes it out of one so much as 2 days in the winter trenches . . .

 

3rd Grenadier Guards,
B.E.F.
22 May 1916

. . . After 10 days here we are going 10 miles or so further back to live in billets for 3 weeks. I am rather depressed at the prospect. The perfect way to do this war would be G.H.Q. for these waste spaces and regimental life for the spells of trench work…

 

3rd Grenadier Guards,
B.E.F.
23 May 1916

. . . As for me I am already more bored with this tiresome camp than ever I was with G.H.Q. We were allowed an easy time today but for the next week wd live a terribly strenuous and wearisome life–a certain amount of drill and a great many “fatigues”–i.e . digging trenches, laying cables, fetching and carrying, hewing wood and drawing water for other people. Personally I prefer anything to drill…

I knew I should begin grousing as soon as I got away from G.H.Q. but I suppose I should have groused more if I had stayed there.

One’s heart goes out to Katherine Asquith, home with a newborn, knowing now that each letter confirms that her husband is alive, or was, a few days past, and opening it to read such reassurances and tender thoughts…

There is no avoiding the boredom of this War, turn which way you may. There is more novelty and excitement about the trenches themselves than any other part of the show, but I should still be discontented if I were made to stay in them for a month on end instead of coming out and doing these bloody fatigues and things… One fearful addition to the honours of War since I have been away is the steel helmet which we all have to wear now, when in the shell area. They are monstrously tiresome and heavy and I suppose if idiots like Pemberton Rifling had not asked questions in Parliament about them we should have been allowed to go on with our comfortable caps. We make the bloody things better than anyone else does of course by sewing the blue and red brigade ribbon with a gold grenade on it, on to the khaki cover, but even so they are insufferable. . .[3]

 

Insufferable!

Finally, I simply must cram this in: an update on Lord Crawford’s battle of the sexes–unreliably reported, as always.

Monday, 22 May 1916

The last three or four weeks have marked a great reaction in the attitude of the nurses towards us. After months of scolding and vituperation they have become amiable and at times friendly. The transformation has been caused by the matron MacCrae who has bullied and harassed the wretched women to such an extent that they feel the need of support, and have entered into a tacit alliance with us! The burden and weariness of our lives is greatly reduced. Let us hope there will be no counter reaction–anyhow, for a fortnight we have lived in peace. The matron is, of course, more insistent than ever finding the hands of all turned against her, especially since this unholy entente between the sexes! Today she gave orders that in future, when going up and down stairs, orderlies are not to put their hands on the banisters–which strikes me as really droll. Had she not treated us with contumely and the nurses with brutality, one would be charitable enough to assume the woman was going potty.[4]

Matron MacCrae will be officially commended for her services…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 64.
  2. Letters and Diary, 198-202. The poem is dated yesterday a century back, but goes nicely with these letters...
  3. Life and Letters, 262-3.
  4. Private Lord Crawford, 170.

Edward Thomas’s “The Sun Used to Shine:” a Friendship, a Summer, and a World in Memoriam; Edmund Blunden on Kapp’s Flowery Report; Siegfried Sassoon Reabsorbs the Atmosphere of the Front; Robert Graves is Ready for the Next Chapter; Kate Luard: a Black Day at Vimy Ridge

A busy day, today, a century back. First, on patrol with a character of the 11th Royal Sussex:

Artillery quiet during day. Work was continued on SHETLAND RD. Patrol out under 2nd. Lieut. KAPP thoroughly reconnoitred “NO MAN’S LAND”.[1]

That would be Edmond Xavier Kapp, always “ready with drawings and Joe Miller jokes not unworthy of his reputation as a satirical artist.”

Let us then allow Kapp’s new comrade, Edmund Blunden, to describe the morning’s doings:

One night, Kapp went out to study a suspected sniper’s post in a ruin. He stayed out too long, and when at last he swarmed in the hurrying light of day to the Island where I awaited him, one of his men had been badly wounded. Poor Corporal Mills was carried down, and died later. But (at this cost) Kapp’s patrol had been remarkable, and he sent back a long precise report, full of suggestive information. The Olympian comment was “Too flowery for a military report.” Our chieftain suspected anything that bore the semblance of the training of a world before the war. That temperaments vary was a conception which he doggedly cancelled. But I shall have much more to say of this singular man.[2]

This chieftain was the local brigadier–no personage higher. Nevertheless, just as Blunden shall have more to say about him (and most of it to the good), we shall have more to say about the use made by higher-ups of information gleaned–by quondam satirists, schoolboys, and idle poets–on patrol.

 

Let’s see, who else… ah, Donald Hankey is back in the line today,[3] for the first time since being (re-)commissioned, and we will hear from him as soon as he writes about it…

 

And Siegfried Sassoon, so recently returned, is up to his old tricks: pastoral scenes and social snobberies.

May 22

Got to Morlancourt about 7 yesterday. As we came down the hill off Corbie road there was the sun low in a hot blue sky, hurling his evening rays across the bare slopes and distant haze-hung valley. The glaring beams striking the ground made a fiery mist; I thought of a flock of sheep moving along a dusty road—’their fleeces charged with gold’.

The quotation as it happens, is from Walter de la Mare, our friend and Edward Thomas‘s.

…This morning there’s warm green and light in the tangled garden behind our billet, chirping of birds among the fruit-trees, sunshine on the vine-covered plaster walls of the house; a few pink roses, and some red peonies: the horse-chestnut in flower in front of the house.

becordel crossroads

Becordel Crossroads, 1916–the German trenches are at right, in red

8.30 p.m. At Bécordel crossroads; a small bushy tree against a pale yellow sky, dark-leaved and still; a slate roof gleaming in the half-light, two hundred yards to the left down the road in the village. A noise of carts on the evening air; occasional bang of our guns, close to the village. The church-tower gloomy, only the front remains; more than half of the tower is shot away, and three-quarters of the church. A light sparks and glows somewhere among the roofs: in foreground two ruined sheds with skeleton roofs. A quiet cool evening after a shower. Stars coming out. The Royal Engineers stores are dumped around a French soldier-cemetery. At the crossroads here the communication trench (South Avenue) begins. Voices of men in the dusk. Dull rattle of machine-guns on the left. A low grey blur of moving rain-cloud now (north above the village). I talk with a Northumberland Fusilier officer, who drops aitches. Too dark to write.[4]

 

And “Sasson”‘s old pal Robert Graves was back in London today, a century back, after a weekend at the old stomping grounds (i.e. Charterhouse, which Graves professed to have hated). No h-droppers for the rising poet, today: he visited the hospital for a check-up on his repaired nose, lunched with Eddie Marsh, and met with Harold Monro, who told him that he had ordered 150 copies of Graves’s forthcoming book, which will be entitled Over the Brazier.[5]

 

So one young officer-poet is reporting, another is musing, and still another is lunching with the well-connected. But Corporal Thomas is writing. Yesterday, he was warmed and buoyed by a letter from Robert Frost. Today, he wrote a poem of their friendship, which began in the all-unbeknownst shadow of the war that would all too soon put an ocean between them. It’s no stretch, therefore, to write an “England’s Last Summer” verse as a remembrance of a sundered friendship.

 

The Sun Used to Shine

The sun used to shine while we two walked
Slowly together, paused and started
Again, and sometimes mused, sometimes talked
As either pleased, and cheerfully parted

Each night. We never disagreed
Which gate to rest on. The to be
And the late past we gave small heed.
We turned from men or poetry

To rumours of the war remote
Only till both stood disinclined
For aught but the yellow flavorous coat
Of an apple wasps had undermined;

Or a sentry of dark betonies.
The stateliest of small flowers on earth.
At the forest verge; or crocuses
Pale purple as if they had their birth

In sunless Hades fields. The war
Came back to mind with the moonrise
Which soldiers in the east afar
Beheld then. Nevertheless, our eyes

Could as well imagine the Crusades
Or Caesar’s battles. Everything
To faintness like those rumours fades—
Like the brook’s water glittering

Under the moonlight—like those walks
Now—like us two that took them, and
The fallen apples, all the talks
And silences—like memory’s sand

When the tide covers it late or soon.
And other men through other flowers
In those fields under the same moon
Go talking and have easy hours.

 

It is far too glib to claim that the tortures of self-doubt and depression from which Edward Thomas has so long suffered enable (ennoble?) him to write so well, so calmly, and so beautifully, about loss and passing and death. Suffering is suffering, and wisdom wisdom, and the path between is crooked and plagued with noisome sinkholes.

Better to say, I think, that all that walking and all that talking helped awaken the ability to write like this, to seize the sword of mortality and draw it smoothly from the stone; to contemplate it, and to slide it home.

It’s funny–while writing the above I had forgotten that, a few days ago, I had read up on the Tennysonian echoes of Thomas’s poem. He borrows the shape of his line, some cadences, even some rhymes from In Memoriam. Which makes perfect sense, given that the speaker’s retrospection of his friendship is inextricably mixed with his contemplation of death. But although Thomas is far from being one of our post-Morris, smitten-with-the pseudo-medieval throwbacks, the feel of the poem–quietly, again, quietly–has something of both that enervating Arthurian elegy and a pseudo-classical faith in forward-thrusting comradeship and strong-willed, unyielding venturesomeness.

More prosaically, Thomas really is writing a “Last Summer” poem. Edna Longley points out that there are notebook notes from August 25th-26th, 1914 which provide the natural details: the scene, the premise is not romantic or general or fantastical–this is true personal history, as best as we (or Thomas himself) can figure it. “The poem implies that his creative matrix–Frost, English landscape, ‘poetry’, war–cohered in August 1914.”[6]

 

I should leave it there. But this project is conceived as a struggle between the sculptural urge toward narrative shapeliness (and completion) and the relentless, unavailing contingency of history. There is much peacefulness above, and beautiful writing, but that’s not all that was happening today, a century back. Along Vimy ridge, a major German assault was underway.

During the winter, Britain had taken over many miles of “The Line” from the French, including a sector along Vimy ridge that had been fairly quiet. The French, in miserable trenches overlooked by the German lines higher on the ridge, had lain low. But the British, flexing their New Army muscles, had seen the hill halfway down as a glass half full: if the high ground gave the Germans advantages in regular warfare, it aided the British in mining. After several successful local operations involving the explosion of mines under German trenches, the Germans retaliated. Yesterday, a century back, an assault backed by a fearsome concentration of artillery captured multiple British trenches on the face of the ridge.

None of our writers were on the spot. But Kate Luard is only a few miles back.

Monday 22nd, and a Black Day. This German intense bombardment and occupation of our front trenches here at Vimy Ridge, and our desperate attempts to get them back have filled all the C.C.S. and all the worst cases have been scurried up to us as the nearest C.C.S. and the Special Hospital for Abdominals and Chests…  six have died and more will die, and they are still being them in…[7]

It will get worse.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. [sic]: spelling, caps, and quotes all. 11th Royal Sussex War Diary, May 1916, Appendix, 3.
  2. Undertones of War, "Trench Education."
  3. Davies, A Student in Arms, 167.
  4. Diaries, 63-4.
  5. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 147-8.
  6. Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 296-9.
  7. Unknown Warriors, 60.