The Day Before: Siegfried Sassoon, Noel Hodgson, J.R. Ackerley, George Coppard and Others Await the Attack; Edmund Blunden on the Battle of the Boar’s Head; Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson Addresses His People Before the Great Offensive

Today, a century back, was the last day before the storm broke. The bombardment that had begun on the 24th continued, and many of the German defenders in their positions on the Somme front had been killed, wounded, or driven mad by the incessant pounding. Many–but not nearly enough: these were well-wired, deep-dug, many-layered positions that generally stood on higher ground than the British lines, commanding No Man’s Land with interlocking fields of fire. Many of the men who sheltered in them were sheltered well: in deep fortified dug-outs they waited for the barrage to lift, for their first chance to fire back.

If the Germans waited, uncertain of the battle’s timing, most of the British officers knew that the next morning would bring the decisive minutes of the campaign–even, perhaps, of the entire war.

And here, tomorrow will bring, well, a lot of stuff. So, faithful readers, be forewarned: I’ve decided to break up tomorrow into four separate (but still lengthy) posts; the first will go up over night, the second at 7:30, etc.

 

The 9th Devons “spent the last day resting in the wood.” They took communion from the battalion chaplain, Ernest Crosse; then the officers sat around a fire singing and swapping stories.

Before they left for the line the men were issued with sandwiches and told to make sure their water bottles were full, but they were strictly forbidden to eat the sandwiches or drink the water on the way to the line. Watering points were provided along the route and the sandwiches would be their breakfast: a long day lay ahead of them, and it was something to do in the final hours.

They left the wood at 10.30pm, 22 officers and 753 men, leaving the rest in reserve. Noel Hodgson was with his bombers. It would be their task to ‘mop up’ after the first lines of the attack, dealing with pockets of resistance and strongpoints, and countering enemy bombers and machine guns. Hodgson, as bombing officer, answered directly to Lieutenant Colonel Storey and had his own copy of battalion orders.

…The front line trench had been badly damaged by enemy shelling in the last few days, forcing a late change of plan. Instead of using it, the 9th Devons and 2nd Borders on their left, further up on the hill, would advance from new forming-up positions in the reserve trenches. This possibility had always been envisaged. It was safer, given the accurate fire the Germans regularly directed into the front line. The disadvantage was that the two battalions now had 250 yards of extra ground to cross.

The change also caused some confusion and delay as the carefully planned timings and routes through the trenches no longer applied, but by 2.35am everyone was in place with a few hours ahead to snatch whatever sleep they could. Gaps had been cut in the wire over the previous three nights, and once the men were in position, bridges and trench ladders were put in place.[1]

 

But we get ahead of ourselves. Back to the morning before–today, a century back, and Siegfried Sassoon, whose battalion is going back instead of forward.

This morning warm and breezy. We go down to Kingston Road. Jordan and self out cutting, wire from 10.30 to 11.30. No one noticed us. Pleasant trenches; mustard, charlock and white weeds growing across the trenches. Another dead man lying on the firing-step. News of M.C. before lunch… Battle begins tomorrow. C. Company dispersed on carrying-parties etc. Gibson’s face in the first grey of dawn when he found me alone at wire-cutting. Brow and eyes good: rest of face weak: Jaunty-fag-smoking demeanour under fire.[2]

“News of M.C.:” Sassoon has been awarded the Military Cross for his courage and initiative in the aftermath of the failed raid of May 25th.

 

rqg1-4Noel Hodgson and his friends had written “last letters” a few days before, when the attack had been planned for the 29th. So too had Rob Gilson, whose 11th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment (The Cambridge Regiment) will go forward in the morning. But Gilson found time, today, to send one of the famous Field Service Post Cards–seen at right[3]–as a last reassurance. Today, a century back, he is “quite well.”

J.R. Ackerley, whose battalion–the 8th East Surreys–was also slated to attack in the first waves, chose not to write home. One of his friends and fellow-subalterns wrote a letter proclaiming himself well, and post-dated it to July 2nd.

This, surely, was to tempt Nemesis, and Ackerley questioned the point of a “last letter:” the gap, the lag, would always be there, and no letter could really prove its writer to be still alive. Why try so sincerely to allay small measures of worry when it would do nothing to change the bare fact of life or death, and when any such efforts would be drowned in the accompanying infinities of grief.

Instead of writing, Ackerley “read Conrad’s Lord Jim for the fifth time.”[4]

 

George Coppard has already assured us that he and his battalion weren’t much for writing. But he remembered the night’s march very well:

On the night of 30 June the 37th Machine Gun Company rested in a field near Albert. A fierce bombardment of the German lines was going on. We were in the area of the big guns… They were underneath camouflage nets and looked huge, bigger than anything we’d seen before…[5]

And Edmund Blunden, to his frustration, has only a back seat to a sideshow. North of the Somme, there was a large diversionary attack on the Boar’s Head salient. Would this serve to confuse the German staff tomorrow, when the movement of reserves and ammunition supplies must be decided upon?

June 30, 1916

At the moment of the attack my platoon was in a familiar strong point on the La Bassee Road, called Port Arthur, two hundred yards in rear of our foremost breastwork. Sergeant Garton and myself obliged the men to withdraw into the cellars, and waited ourselves on the fire step in the failing darkness. Mad ideas of British supremacy flared in me as the quiet sky behind us awoke in a crescent of baying flashes, a half-moon of avenging fires; but those ideas sank instantly, for the sky before us awoke in like fashion, and another equal half-moon of punishing lightnings burst, with the innumerable high voices of machine guns like the spirits of madness in alarm shrilling above the tempest blast of explosion. A minute more, and a torrent of shells was screeching into Port Arthur; we had been in no doubt about this attention, for the place was an obvious “immediate reserve”; we (it was our good fortune) went below. The brickwork of the cellar cracked under one or two direct hits, but stood. Presently the gunners switched away, and we went out again into the summer morning, with an airplane or two arriving on bright wings.

There was not much shelling now, but machine guns continued to fire in a ragged way; no news came. My expectation was that we should be called up to reenforce, but no news came. At last a small straggling group of those unfortunate selected soldiers blundered dazedly round the trench corner into Port Arthur, and lay down in the first shelter available, among them Sergeant Compton, a brave and brilliant young fellow. All too eagerly I asked him, as I brought out to the sweating and twitching wretches whatever refreshment my dugout held, “What things were like”; in a great and angry groan he broke out,”Don’t ask me — it’s terrible, O God ” Then, after a moment, talking loud and fast: “We were in the third line. I came to a traverse, got out of the trench, and peeped; there was a Fritz creeping round the next traverse. I threw a bomb in; it hit the trench side and rolled just under his head; he looked down to see what it was . . .” He presently said that the attack had failed. Of his party, none had returned without bullet holes in their caps, uniforms, or equipment; one Single was already exhibiting his twice-perforated mess tin with his usual dejected wit. In No Man’s Land a deep wide dike had been met with, not previously observed or considered as an obstacle, which had given the German machine guns hideously simple targets; of those who crossed, most died against the uncut wire, including our colonel’s brother. A trench had been dug across No Man’s Land at heavy cost. So the attack on Boar’s Head closed, and so closed the admirable life of many a Sussex worthy.

Even now, we apprehended that a fresh forlorn hope might be demanded of the brigade.

At the risk–nay, the utter certainty–of sidetracking an excellent writer with an unnecessary learned digression, I want to point out how apt this reference is. A “forlorn hope” is not a “foolish expectation” or “sadly mistaken wish” but a corrption of the Dutch for a “lost troop.” As a technical term of Early Modern siege warfare, it refers to a unit–usually volunteers–who lead the attack on a fortress, usually by storming a breach. They are not expected to survive, since they will draw the fire of the prepared defenders. But in doing so, they will open the way for another storming party which may succeed while the defenders reload…

What the brigade felt was summed up by some sentry who, asked by the General next morning what he thought of the attack, answered in the roundest fashion, “Like a butcher’s shop.” Our own trenches had been knocked silly, and all the area of attack had been turned into an Aceldama. Every prominent point behind, Factory Trench, Chocolate Menier Corner, and so on, was now unkindly ploughed up with heavy shells. Roads and tracks were blocked and exposed. The communique that morning, when in the far and as yet strange-seeming south a holocaust was roaring, like our own extended for mile upon mile, referred to the Boar’s Head massacre somehow thus:

“East of Richebourg a strong raiding party penetrated the enemy’s third line.”

Perhaps, too, it claimed prisoners; for we were told that three Germans had found their way “to the Divisional Cage.”

Explanations followed. Our affair had been a cat’s-paw, a “holding attack” to keep German guns and troops from the Somme. This purpose, previously concealed from us with success, was unachieved, for just as our main artillery pulled out southward after the battle, so did the German; and only a battalion or two of reserve infantry was needed by them to secure their harmless little salient. The explanations were almost as infuriating to the troops as the attack itself… and deep down in the survivors there grew a bitterness of waste…

But in the spirit of the thing, we should sweep this direct testimony of the failed “cat’s paw” under the rug. However disillusioning, the Battle of the Boar’s Head can’t escape its destiny: from conception to execution–and even in its literary re-purposing, though to different effect–it was always a diversion, a feint, a flam-tap of history before the great crash of cymbals. “The bitterness of waste” is retrospection, which is out of bounds.[6] Today, a century back, is about tomorrow.

 

So back then to fiction: Phillip Maddison will be in the thick of it tomorrow–being fictional makes it easier to experience (and survive) several of the great British assaults in succession. On battle’s eve, he marches up…

The night of 30 June was fine in the valley of the Ancre, and fairly quiet. Cries of water-fowl came through the darkness as the column halted in the traffic congestion.

The last hues of sunset were congealed upon the north-west rim of the earth above which arose a steely haze of light. Phillip wondered, as he leaned on his rifle, if this was the glow of the midnight sun, the distant rays in space rising millions of miles beyond the horizon of the battlefield. How small it must all seem to the sun, which had looked upon so much life and death on the planet. Everything was vast to one human brain, but to the sun, how small…

Where was God in the actual scheme of things? His Son had failed to alter the scheme… It was all right for Father Aloysius to talk; but it was a fairy story.

He quivered with terror of death, waiting to enter the dead town of Albert…

The platoon marched straight on, passing under the red-brick mass of high walls and shattered roof above which the Golden Virgin leaned down from the campanile, high over the street, gleaming in every gun-flash…

“With so much stuff going over, it will be a cake-walk,” said the Adjutant to Phillip…[7]

 

From skepticism and foreshadowing, then, we will go back to the Traditional Voice, on what in some ways is its last day of unquestioned ascendancy.[8]

Lieutenant Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson, MC does not, in verse at least, entertain any of the same doubts. His 8th West Yorkshires moved up tonight to assault trenches opposite Thiepval, and today, a century back, he wrote this “last letter” in verse:

To My People Before The Great Offensive

Dark with uncertainty of doubtful doom
The future looms across the path we tread;
Yet, undismayed we gaze athwart the gloom,
Prophetically tinged with hectic red.
The mutterings of conflict, sullen, deep,
Surge over homes where hopeless tears are shed,
And ravens their ill-omened vigils keep
O’er legions dead.

But louder, deeper, fiercer still shall be
The turmoil and the rush of furious feet,
The roar of war shall roll from sea to sea,
And on the sea, where fleet engages fleet.
The fortunate who can, unharmed, depart
From that last field where Right and Wrong shall meet.
If then, amidst some millions more, this heart
Should cease to beat,—

Mourn not for me too sadly; I have been,
For months of an exalted life, a King;
Peer for these months of those whose graves grow green
Where’er the borders of our empire fling
Their mighty arms. And if the crown is death,
Death while I’m fighting for my home and king,
Thank God the son who drew from you his breath
To death could bring

A not entirely worthless sacrifice,
Because of those brief months when life meant more
Than selfish pleasures. Grudge not then the price,
But say, “Our country in the storm of war
Has found him fit to fight and die for her,”
And lift your heads in pride for evermore.
But when the leaves the evening breezes stir
Close not the door.

For if there’s any consciousness to follow
The deep, deep slumber that we know as Death,
If Death and Life are not all vain and hollow,
If Life is more than so much indrawn breath,
Then in the hush of twilight I shall come—
One with immortal Life, that knows not Death
But ever changes form—I shall come home;
Although, beneath

A wooden cross the clay that once was I
Has ta’en its ancient earthy form anew.
But listen to the wind that hurries by,
To all the Song of Life for tones you knew.
For in the voice of birds, the scent of flowers,
The evening silence and the falling dew,
Through every throbbing pulse of nature’s powers
I’ll speak to you.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Zeepvat, Before Action, 193-4.
  2. Diaries, 82.
  3. From the Trinity College Cambridge Library (spoilers abound).
  4. Parker, Ackerley, 23.
  5. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 79.
  6. I am trying, you see, to work through all my most egregious mixed metaphors, in preparation for the grim task of writing up the Big Push...
  7. The Golden Virgin, 271-3.
  8. But not really. I am compelled to remind everyone that, even as the tide of disillusionment and disenchantment will begin to rise sharply, here, as the Somme attack founders, the public face of "poetry" and "war literature" will remain largely positive, patriotic, and traditional for more than a decade to come.

Siegfried Sassoon Invokes the Spirit of the Years; Edmund Blunden Will Be Left Behind; Noel Hodgson’s “Before Action.”

The Battle of the Somme was scheduled to begin this morning, a century back, but it has been postponed for two days. July 1st–a date to remember, a date to compress history with–will be the day the Big Push begins.

Three poets today, then, in the quiet of what was to have been the storm–two memories in prose and then an archetypal poem.

Siegfried Sassoon, who was to have rotated into support, is still holding trenches with the 1st Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Under fire, he reads–yesterday, it was one of Hardy‘s great tragic novels. Today, he quotes the Spirit of Dramatic History:

June 29

Steady bombardment. Enemy quiet (up to 1.50 p.m.), weather cool and cloudy–no rain.

SPIRIT OF THE EARTH

What of the Immanent Will and Its designs?

SPIRIT OF THE YEARS

It works unconsciously, as heretofore,
Eternal artistries in Circumstance,
Whose patterns, wrought by rapt aesthetic rote,
Seen[1] in themselves Its single listless aim,
And not their consequence.

SPIRIT OF THE YEARS

Yet but one flimsy riband of Its web
Have we here watched in weaving—web Enorm,
Whose furthest hem and selvage may extend
To where the roars and plashings of the flames
Of earth-invisible suns swell noisily,
And onwards into ghastly gulfs of sky,
Where hideous presences churn through the dark—
Monsters of magnitude without a shape,
Hanging amid deep wells of nothingness.

(from Hardy, The Dynasts)[2]

Dodgy stuff, this cherry-picking from a vast reading to suit the circumstances of the day….  But, yes, these lines, written by Hardy to dramatize the Europe-ravaging, world-convulsing wars of just over a century back (i.e. the Napoleonic wars) fit very well for the century-back now. Battle looms, and Siegfried Sassoon is simultaneously grief-stricken, fairly happy, and engaging in battle-and-glory-tinged suicidal ideation.

 

Always unruffled and unassuming, Edmund Blunden is on the verge of what will be his first battle. He is near Richebourg-Saint-Vaast, north of the Somme, where a diversionary attack–which is intended to confuse the Germans and/or draw their reserves–is about to be launched.

Before long “secret” attack orders came, which everyone had to know. The phrase was that “The following officers and men have been carefully selected to participate,” or some such honorific proscription; however, our battalion was supplying only various detached parties, the real offensive falling to the share of the other three in the brigade. My name was not among the selected, and in that moment, so absurdly dominant is the desire to be talked about, disappointment was among my feelings.

Put this beside Sassoon’s voluntary heroics–not to mention Robert Graves‘s bellowing praise of them–and we have a good short-hand for the personalities of these three major war poets. Blunden, brave as the rest and considerably newer, is gentle and quiet. But, it would seem, even if he is too wise (or too retiring) to be “eager to go,” he is not master enough of his independent self-hood to escape disappointment. Ah, but then he recognizes the “absurdity…”

A further irony, of course, is built into the concept of the diversionary attack:

But what was the attack? This: The German line ran out in a small sharp cape here, called The Boar’s Head. This was to be “bitten off,” no doubt to render the maps in the chateaux of the mighty more symmetrical. The other battalions were being hurriedly exercised a mile or two behind through wheatfields, where the Pioneers had run up a canvas model of the enemy lines, and instead of some weeks, some days only were left; the day of decision came swooping upon the brigade. Over the way the Bois du Biez, with many trees still black and scowling amid the greenness of June, and empty houses along its verges, stood in our common gaze, nor was the legend that, when Neuve Chapelle (also close at hand, in sight) was assaulted, battalions went into the wood to be heard of never again, separable from its gaunt omnipresence. I explored some of the derelict trenches built for assembling infantry in the offensive of a year before, and found them terribly punished and shapeless, full of warnings, sown with jagged iron.

 And yet, these strong, cheerful, clean, determined men? these accumulations of trench-mortar bombs, hand grenades, bright blue wire, small-arms ammunition? these cruelly gleaming machine guns in hitherto unrevealed emplacements of our trenches, neat as office safes? On the afternoon before the attack, Penruddock (now away from us on some special duty) came up to give our selected ones the latest instructions, and also lanyards wherewith to bind numbers of prisoners. On that same afternoon our heavy artillery thundered away for hours at the German line; no answer came. How could we lose?

 

This question, of course, needs no answer from me. Nor does the following poem demand commentary. Noel Hodgson is somewhat akin to Blunden–gentle, countryish, classically trained. “Smiler,” though, is outgoing, while “Rabbit” is more of an alert watcher. Both go in for quietly effective poetry, but while Blunden’s will have depths to be explored, Hodgson tends to lay plain his meaning.

And that, in this case at least, is no criticism. Hodgson sat down, recently, to write what was on his mind as he prepared himself for battle–he may have completed “Before Action” as recently as a few days ago, but it was published today, a century back, in The New Witness.

 

Before Action

By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening’s benison,
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received.
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a soldier, Lord.

By all of all man’s hopes and fears,
And all the wonders poets sing.
The laughter of unclouded years.
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his.
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.

I, that on my familiar hill.
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice.
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this;–
By all delights that I shall miss
Help me to die, O Lord.

 

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sassoon's mistake, I think--it should be "Seem."
  2. Diaries, 81.

A Battle Postponed: Last Letters, Larks, Misfires and Misery with Noel Hodgson, Alan Seeger, Siegfried Sassoon, Rowland Feilding, and Donald Hankey; Tolkien Arrives; Thomas Hardy Longs for News; Edward Thomas Walks the Green Roads

We begin with Alan Seeger, our American in the French Foreign Legion. It’s easy to forget, here, with our focus on the British experience, but the Somme battle involved a large number of French troops as well.

We go up to the attack tomorrow. This will probably be the biggest thing yet. We are to have the honor of marching in the first wave. No sacks, but two musettes, toile de tente slung over shoulder, plenty of cartridges, grenades, and baïonnette au canon.

I will write you soon if I get through all right. If not, my only earthly care is for my poems. Add the ode I sent you and the three sonnets to my last volume and you will have opera omnia quo existant.

I am glad to be going in first wave. If you are in this thing at all it is best to be in to the limit. And this is the supreme experience.

This potential “last letter,” sent to a mysterious “friend” rather than to his mother or his Parisian Godmother, is, as so many will be, mistaken. Due to wet weather (and, perhaps, a late lack of confidence in the artillery preparation) the “biggest thing yet” will now be pushed back by two days…

 

The 9th Devons learned this around mid-day. Their excess kit had already been put into storage in preparation for the forward move into the “assembly” trenches, and all was ready for the assault. Instead, they now had at least a day and a half of free time. Noel Hodgson, a scholar at heart till, settled down to read a pocket Odyssey–in Greek, naturally. Later on, youth and restlessness overtook the tightly-knit band of brother officers:

After dinner a spirit of skittishness came over the officers, and we indulged in various rags, the most brilliant being to try running up to the top of a bell tent. When done by several at once from all sides it has a terrifying effect on the inmates of the victimised tent.[1]

Juvenile hijinks do not generally travel well–but doesn’t this one? Imagine being in a bell tent (four-sided, circus-like in profile, but only big enough for a few men to sleep) and all the walls suddenly beaten inward and upward by eight hammering feet…

A minor irony, this, that while the troops slated for the actual attack had time to lark about, those who were to have rotated into reserve remained entrenched in the teeth of the bombardment.

 

Rowland Feilding, out of combat for the time being, at least, went up to watch the show before The Show.

June 28, 1916. Corbie

To-day the Trench Mortar officer of the 30th Division (Captain Edwards) invited me to lunch at his Artillery Battle Headquarters, in front of Bray, to see the bombardment. It was in full swing, as it has been, day and night, since
the 24th. It was an impressive sight. Heavy rain was falling, and the sky was cloudy, and—especially opposite
the French—the ridge, where the German trenches are, was hidden by a wall of smoke from the bursting shells.
The Germans were not replying at all—at any rate on the back areas, though they appeared to be doing so upon our front line.

They (the Germans) must be having a horrible time, I should think. All our valleys are thick with guns and howitzers. In one small valley alone, which I know well, I was told to-day, we have more guns concentrated than
were employed by our army in the whole South African War.

Some of our shells were bursting prematurely, which is bad. It reminded me of poor D—— once when we were at Cambrin and the same thing was happening. It was at the time when a good many ladies at home were beginning to take up munition work, amongst them, he said, his mother; and he remarked: “I shouldn’t be surprised if those were some of my mother’s shells!”[2]

Another pretty funny bit. Less amusing, of course, to the men who were still in those lines, with mother’s shells falling short and the German retaliation picking up speed.

 

Donald Hankey, is one of these, and his new diary attests to the general unpleasantness of being in the front of a battle zone. Many minds have been fixed upon the task of making this zone as unpleasant as possible–and few of them are worried about how this will affect their own troops. The infantry are… well, yes: they are there to be shot at. And gassed.

The last few days have been awful. Our people must needs try their hand at gas. The first night a burst cylinder gassed half the gas experts, besides a lot of our men. The second night the wind was unfavourable, and they elected to get rid off the stuff over us just a half hour after we had been informed that the stunt was off, and had consequently ceased our precautions against the gas and the inevitable [German] barrage. We were fairly caught–“hoist with our own petard” … The only comfort was that it killed the rats. Poor comfort that!

Poor comfort indeed–but this awkward phrase is a reminder that Hankey must envision this diary as something upon which future publications can be based. He has abandoned the ceaselessly uplifting pose of the “Student in Arms,” but he is trying here to find a middle ground. Might this sort of tone be successful? Perhaps, but it’s a poor compromise between truth and public journal-ism.

Here’s how Hankey described these same days in a letter:

…a week in a rat-infested trench, was bombarded by German shells, gassed by our own gas, got waist-deep in liquid mud without the chance of a change, saw some of my best men blown to bits, etc. etc. Couldn’t do anything in return.[3]

 

Siegfried Sassoon is no stoic, and he too is clear on the fact that to be in a trench on the Somme at this time was certainly “very beastly.” But a man with a good book is never truly miserable…

June 28,

Here I sit in this dog-kennel of a dug-out in 85 Street with the shells hurrying and hurooshing over to Germany; or
thereabouts, and banging away on the slopes on each side of Fricourt and away to Contalmaison. Wet feet–short of sleep–trench-mouth—very beastly it all is—on the surface. But all’s well, really… Reading Hardy’s Tess now.[4]

 

And as the young soldier whose verses he had admired over the winter hunkered down to read his Tess, Thomas Hardy himself was writing his friend Florence Henniker in the hopes of getting more war news. So, yes: even old men abed in England know that something is afoot.

My dear Friend:

…We had a mild excitement last week—the Wessex Scenes from the Dynasts having been performed by the Dorchester players at the Weymouth theatre. The house was crammed—many wounded men & officers being present—& the money raised for the Red Cross & Russian wounded—was a substantial sum. Of course the interest to us lay not in the artistic effect of the play—which was really rather a patchwork affair, for the occasion—but in the humours of the characters whom we knew in private life as matter-of-fact shopkeepers & clerks.

…I daresay you get rumours of war news which don’t reach us here. People seem to think we shall do something decisive soon, but I don’t know…

Always affectly

Th. H.[5]

 

And one poem, before we go. Edward Thomas is writing of a real forest near his camp, and yet he seems to overlay life with a sort of fairy tale gloss–and through that we glimpse an undercoat of uneasiness. I suppose the best fairy tales are threatening, and a bit uncanny, but there is battle at the end of this one, no?

 

The Green Roads

The green roads that end in the forest
Are strewn with white goose feathers this June,

Life marks left behind by someone gone to the forest
To show his track. But he has never come back.

Down each green road a cottage looks at the forest.
Round one the nettle towers; two are bathed in flowers.

An old man along the green road to the forest
Strays from one, from another a child alone.

In the thicket bordering the forest,
All day long a thrush twiddles his song.

It is old, but the trees are young in the forest,
All but one like a castle keep, in the middle deep.

That oak saw the ages pass in the forest:
They were a host, but their memories are lost,

For the tree is dead: all things forget the forest
Excepting perhaps me, when now I see

The old man, the child, the goose feathers at the edge of the forest,
And hear all day long the thrush repeat his song.

 

And speaking of forests and roads and the English landscape and fantasy, there is a short note in the battalion diary of the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers today, a century back. Second Lieutenant J.R.R. Tolkien has joined.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Zeepvat, Before Action, 192-3.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 81.
  3. Davies, A Student in Arms, 170-1.
  4. Diaries, 80.
  5. Collected Letters, V, 165-6.
  6. Chronology, 82.

A Last Letter from Phillip Maddison; Raymond Asquith Repairs a Sparrow; Siegfried Sassoon Contemplates the Flowers; Tolkien, Coppard, Luard, and Graves and the Approach of Battle

Phillip Maddison, the alter-ego of Henry Williamson, has been tasked by his creator with a grim historical-ironist’s chore: for the past few weeks he has been busy going on multiple reconnaissances and raids which his pal and superior officer “Spectre” West hopes will establish that the deep German dugouts will be unaffected by the preparatory bombardment. But the higher-ups are confident, and will not be dissuaded by evidence… Phillip turns, accordingly, from dugout-step-counting to letter-writing. A “last letter” to his mother. Just in case.

Dear Mother,

I am sorry I have not replied to your letters before this, or written to thank you for your two excellent parcels…

We started our march up yesterday morning. The road was much congested, for it is the main route to the Picnic, as we call it…

Next, young Phillip waxes philosophical, describing what at first appears to be a natural dawn…

The eastern sky was a wonder; the winter-god was conquered by Proserpine; a thousand butterflies fluttered there…

But…

…the wondrous light is not of Proserpine; the nether world of Pluto has opened upon the earth, with the fires of hell.

When a man dies, does a wraith issue forth from the poor shell, to find its way across the sea, perhaps as a suspended thought, to visit the world it has abdicated, by right of being of the European generation which has been called to account for itself?

So, yes, this overwrought letter–only Phillip’s mother loves him unreservedly, yet even with her he fumbles any chance at intimacy and ends up preening and posturing–becomes a Last Letter. Proserpine’s picnic beckons:

If it happens that my fate is already resolved, I ask you not to grieve… I have had a happy life, when I have not been selfish and contrary…

The letter drifts to memories of childhood (signal events detailed in earlier volumes of the voluminous novel) and discussions of religion: Phillip has come under the influence of (specifically fictional, but historically recognizable) Oxford Catholics–socially lofty Balliol men–and shares with his mother what he has learned from one Father Aloysius:

…in France the symbol of religion is the mother and child, not the father as in Protestant countries.

Below me, and to the north as I sit here on the hillside, I can see a cathedral half-broken, and the Golden Virgin on the campanile, leaning down–struck by a shell–but still holding the Babe in her arms.

This Golden Virgin lends her title to the volume. She is the already-noted, soon-to-be-famous presiding deity of the disastrous battle that is now only days away. Or months, if we think of its miserable end instead of its terrifying beginning.

In any event, Williamson has gathered together a number of themes into a neat little bundle. Phillip, back in France and ready for the attack, seems to be ready to rise to the occasion. He is grandiloquent but, by his standards, at peace. He’s ready for battle.

But the letter sails on–Christianity will help him if indeed he must face death, best regards to father, and did you know that Henry V campaigned near here?–sails aimlessly on until it founders. Phillip wraps it up, but then realizes that his last letter should not entirely exclude God the Father:

After hesitation he added two words to the beginning; but seeing that the addition was obviously an after-thought he rewrote the first page, beginning My dear Father and Mother. Then doubts of what Father, who scorned the Roman Catholics, might think arose in him. The letter began to look fanciful… He regarded the rapidly-written pages with indecision; then tore the letter up and buried the fragments.[1]

 

After this melodrama, some more ordinary reports from our non-fictional combatants. First, Siegfried Sassoon:

June 27

Rode up to the line after lunch. Things looked much the same as usual, except for the noise of our guns and the quantity of stuff about the lines. The Germans have not retaliated much yet. Fricourt was being shelled as I went along Kingston Road Trench, where the Company goes to-morrow. Poppies growing and leaning across the trenches. Little printed names in violet indelible pencil on a tiny board hung in the trench. Men of Royal Irish Rifles scuffling along 71 North, one with head under another’s arm. Sickly-sweet smell from a gas-shell at Gib[raltar]. I thought it was the yellow weeds.

4 p.m. We’ve just been told that all arrangements for the show are ‘temporarily in abeyance’ and the Battalion is  going up to-night to take over C.1 and C.2 (the Brigade front only), two companies in the front line. What does it mean? No doubt a ruse to deceive the enemy! Rather a pity as everyone was worked up to concert-pitch and the bombardment has been great. C. Company are going to the trenches in front of the cemetery by Fricourt Station.

Marching up by Bois de Taille 5-8.30. Mud. Army Service Corps officer with eyeglass. Dark-blue weed. Relieve Seventh Borders. Quiet night. Mud and water bad.[2]

This news–of the postponement of the imminent attack (scheduled for the 29th), reached Sassoon more quickly than most.

 

Raymond Asquith, in the Salient, is too far to the north to be worried by the approaching Somme. But not too far to complain of the same wet. Any symbolic encounters?

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
27 June 1916

We are moving tomorrow and I may not be able to get off a letter, so I send you a line today just to tell you that we are all merry and bright, because that is really all the news there is except that the rain has begun again and I’m afraid the trenches will be rather sloshy and uncomfortable.

We captured a-sparrow-hawk when we were up at Zillebelle; its leg and wing had been broken, probably by shrapnel. It lives with my company now and feeds on mice and is very tame and handsome.

This letter reads rather like one of Perdita’s stories, but every day now we get threatening messages from G.H.Q. telling us that if we ever say anything interesting again we shall be court-martialled and all correspondence with England will be cut off till the end of the war. All bloody nonsense, but there it is. . .[3]

Who but a hard-bitten lot of Guardsmen will love a little sparrow?

 

But down at the southern end of the British line battle clearly portends.

Kate Luard needs only her ears:

I wonder if the big bombardment is the start of the great advance–we’ve heard the distant thuds hammering the last few days–they never seem to stop.[4]

 

George Coppard, a machine-gunner in a Kitchener’s Army battalion of the East Surreys, began his march toward the battle:

On 27 June the company left Naours and marched to St Gratien, which was on the road to Albert. Steel helmets had been issued, and with the extra weight and bulk we didn’t much care for them. The time came when I couldn’t bear the thought of being without my helmet… So far as I know there were no poets or writers among us. We were merely the raw material to inspire the lofty musings of others…[5]

 

And Ronald Tolkien and his friends are converging on the Somme. Three members of the TCBS are now in France, and on the 22nd, Rob Gilson replied to a letter from Tolkien, no doubt welcoming him to the rigors of the Western Front. On the 25th, Geoffrey Smith wrote as well, wishing his friend luck “in all that may happen to you within the next few months, and may we live beyond them to a better time.” And then today, a century back, Tolkien left the base and traveled up to the front with other replacement officers. First the train to Amiens, then a march to Rubempré–a quiet place, yet well within the sound of the great guns.[6]

 

Finally, Robert Graves, healed and ready for battle, left London for France today, a century back.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Golden Virgin, 256-9.
  2. Diary, 78-9.
  3. Life and Letters, 271.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 201.
  5. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 78.
  6. Chronology, 82.
  7. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic, 149.

Donald Hankey Under Fire: on Retaliation and Dugouts; Brothers in the Push: Edward Brittain and Noel Hodgson Prepare Their Sisters; Robert Graves in London; Siegfried Sassoon in Morlancourt; Patrick Shaw-Stewart Among the Odomanti; Lord Crawford is Reassigned

The build-up to the Somme continues today, a century back. The battle began early for Donald Hankey, whose platoon is in trenches at Auchonvillers. For two days now the British bombardment has raged–but to what effect? Hankey’s diary entry for today is ample proof that the failures of the bombardment were anticipated by the men on the spot:

The great bombardment has begun, the long-promised strafing of the Boche. According to the gunners they [the Germans] will all be dead, buried or dazed when the time comes for us to go over the top. I doubt it! If they have deep enough dug-outs I don’t fancy that the bombardment will worry them much.

Meanwhile we, who have very few deep dug-outs, are suffering considerably from the Boche retaliation. In volume, it is nothing like what we are giving then; but they are making very good practice on our first and second line.

The rôle of the infantry on these occasions is a very trying one, especially for the men. They are still getting very short rations, hardly any sleep, and the amount of protection available against bombardment is absurdly inadequate. One can hardly imagine a state of affairs less likely to produce them in good fighting trim on the day of the Push.[1]

The role of infantry, to put it more succinctly is to be shelled.[2] If the war is seen from that revolutionary point of view, then the generals’ hopes that the long bombardment will be followed by a swift advance begin to seem even more deluded. There is no field of battle to be won, really, just a killing field that must be passed over to gain more trenches. This task is physically difficult–that is, deadly–given the German wire and defensive fire. But it begins to become psychologically impossible as well. If these men came to war with a book-imagined idea of heroic advance, it has largely been shelled out of them. How do they imagine going forward, when the barrage lifts?

 

Henry Williamson‘s exhaustive retrospection on this period came to fixate, perhaps naturally, on this very problem of the deep dugouts. Hence the patrols and reconnaissances conducted by the ubiquitous Phillip Maddison in these last days before the battle. The fictional Phillip–under the direction of “Spectre” West, the fire-eating, scenery-chewing Cassandra of the Territorials–has repeatedly ascertained that the German dugouts are twenty or more feet deep (as many in fact were). Spectre West, although he is hard-bitten and oft-wounded, otherwise seems to borrow a bit from the real-life Captain Martin of the Devonshires (Noel Hodgson’s Devonshires–but he is up next), a man who sees the looming disaster all too clearly.

Williamson has scores of fish to fry in his many-volumed, heavily overcooked fish-fry of a novel, and the shortsightedness and overconfidence of the generals who believe so very strongly in the the promises of their artillerymen now comes front and center. But the tragedy isn’t so much in the bad generalship as it is in the ponderousness and built-in smugness of a vast army bureaucracy. Will thousands of men die because the wire is uncut and many German machine-gunners will simply wait out the barrage and then trot upstairs to massacre the advancing infantry? Yes. But they will die–in a slightly tighter chain of consequence–because the information coming from the men on the spot (such as Hankey, or the several officers we have seen go on raids and find the German line full of deep dugouts) is ignored by those who receive it.

Williamson, meanwhile, is in England. He has sent his novel-self out to carry water for Cassandra, and to show us just how badly run the thing is. But he was spared this sort of duty–or indeed, the duty of actually assaulting the intact German defenses. Williamson faced a medical board today, which gave him two months convalescent leave–“he [has] lost weight and is anaemic. He requires a complete change”–but this he will spend mostly gallivanting and/or hell-raising…[3]

 

Noel Hodgson, meanwhile, writes home to his sister, with gifts for the new baby. Hodgson had been “taken aback” at his sister’s reference to his niece as his “godchild.”

Dear Star,

A little gift of no intrinsic value for you or your daughter just to show I think of you, and a cigarette-lighter for Toby made by some industrious French ‘poilu’. I could wish to have found better things, but there was no chance of it. Use any of the N. W. money you want for your own purposes won’t you?

I feel very proud to be an uncle–but you say ‘goddaughter’, surely a lady baby doesn’t have two godsires, and Winnington Ingram was to be the one, wasn’t he.

Haven’t time for more at present.

Bill[4]

This lacks the formality of any sort of “last letter,” but Hodgson’s 9th Devonshires were slated to attack in three days. Rarely is “haven’t time for more” to be taken as anything other than a vague excuse; but here it might have been close to literal truth.

 

We have letters today from another sister-and-brother pair. From Edward Brittain, the same sort of succinct speculative farewell:

France, 26 June 1916

Dearest Vera,

The papers are getting rather more interesting, but I have only time to say adieu.

EHB

 

Two days hence, Vera Brittain will write to him, hardly behindhand in her understanding of the timing of the attack. These two letters will cross each other even as the battle begins.

1st London General, 28 June 1916

I believe I heard the guns here a day or two ago. What a clamour must be going on! One anxiety is more than enough; & sometimes I feel quite glad that Roland is lying where the guns cannot disturb Him however loudly they thunder & He cannot an more hear the noise they make.[5]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, meanwhile, was marching away from the guns.

June 26

Up and away, by 8.15 on a perfect morning with some clouds in the sky. The men were putting their kits together in the green orchard behind C. Company mess, and I walked away to the riverside, where I sit now, with the twenty-foot stream sliding along at my feet, the long green weeds, swaying with the current like nosing fishes slowly curving, their way upstream. The tall trees are full of bird-notes. A long way off seems the fighting line; one can just hear the distant bumping and dull thudding of the bombardment.

…Reached Morlancourt at 2.45… Back in our old billets…. The blackness of the night seen through
my window was lit with continuous glare and flash of guns…[6]

 

And let the following be the last reminder–perhaps for some time, as we zero in on the Somme–that this is a big war. Raymond Asquith is an addressee, today, in this classically referential missive from one learned man, i.e. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, to another:

The only thing I miss is my eggs and bacon; and after all, when one thinks of what the bacon too often is—— For the rest, I have roamed over Crestonasa and Mygdonia, set foot on the Trans-Strymonic territory of (I think) the Odomanti, encamped by the Echedorus, which Xerxes drained, ranged on the hills where lions attacked his camels, and occasionally looked in on the Thessalonians.

June 26, 1916.[7]

 

Penultimately, today was quite a day for Robert Graves. Yesterday he got his marching orders, sending him back to the front. Which, despite his recent convalescent leave, meant more leave–“last leave.”  And so today to London, with his father. Interestingly (or perhaps not!) the Graves moved around London both by hansom cab and by underground–they visited Harold Monro and found that young Graves’s first book, Fairies and Fusiliers, was headed for a second edition. And they “called on Eddie Marsh & [were] introduced to Mrs. Asquith who wished him all luck…”[8]

 

And finally, today, the RAMC won’t have Corporal Lord Crawford to kick around anymore:

Monday, 26 June 1916

Received notice to proceed to GHQ, to interview the Intelligence Corps. I don’t like the name of this department which leads the scoffer to scoff. The colonel strongly urges me to take any post which the authorities may offer. He
says that, apart from gaining experience in the sphere of surgical operations, I can learn no more than I already know of the RAMC and he adds his assurance that I can be of material service elsewhere. I am sorry to go. After
fourteen or fifteen months with the unit such a déracinage cannot fail to make itself felt. Everybody in our station whom I met today spoke despondently of themselves and of the station which I have largely helped to keep together during the last six months of weariness and squalor. The next few weeks may, if all goes well, restore mobiliy, and with it give fresh life and interest to all.[9]

It’s hard to tell with Lord Crawford whether he is a utterly unhinged or merely eccentric. Has he been a good medical orderly? Perhaps. Has he been the glue holding the unit together? Somehow I doubt it. It can’t have been easy having a lord, a rich industrialist, and a former MP in the middle of an ordinary medical unit. But his heart has certainly been in it–a strange choice, but he stuck it out more than a year: the hard work, the long hours, the blood, the persecuting harridans of the nursing corps…

It’s difficult to say, too, to what extent he was lured to a position more suitable for a man of his age and social position, or whether he was delicately pushed. In any event, when we next see Lord Crawford he will be restored to personal freedom and social privilege. As he himself laments, it would seem that even the most brave and selflessly noble orderly has been condemned to work in Intelligence. Puh-leeze.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Davies, A Student in Arms, 170.
  2. I paraphrase, here, someone I've read in Paul Fussell, but the citation eludes me at present.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 73.
  4. Zeepvat, Before Action, 191.
  5. Letters from a Lost Generation, 264.
  6. Diary, 78-9.
  7. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 171.
  8. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic, 148-9.
  9. Private Lord Crawford, 187.

Siegfried Sassoon: Before the Battle; A Letter from Rob Gilson

An invocation, today, from Siegfried Sassoon. This one needs no explanatory dithering:

Before the Battle

Music of whispering trees
Hushed by a broad-winged breeze
Where shaken water gleams;
And evening radiance falling
With reedy bird-notes calling.
O bear me safe through dark, you low-voiced streams.

I have no need to pray
That fear may pass away;
I scorn the growl and rumble of the fight
That summons me from cool
Silence of marsh and pool
And yellow lilies islanded in light.
O river of stars and shadows, lead me through the night.

June 25th[1]

 

From the heart of the matter–Siegfried’s poetry–to one of our friends-of-friends. Robert Quilter Gibson, card-carrying member of the TCBS (i.e. one of Ronald Tolkien‘s tight group of creatively-minded school friends), began a long letter today, a century back, to his sweetheart, Estelle King. Parts of it read almost as if he were looking over Harold Macmillan’s shoulder.

rqg2-3

The first page of Gilson’s letter to King. The letter is found on the Trinity College, Cambridge, Library blog, on which spoilers abound.

I wish you could see a deserted garden that I passed the other day–all overgrown with long grass and weeds. It was a riot of bright colours. Larkspur and Canterbury bells and cornflowers and poppies of every shade and kind growing in a tangled mass. One of the few really lovely things that the devastation of war produces…

There are many grand and awe-inspiring sights. Guns firing at night are beautiful–if they were not so terrible. They have the grandeur of thunderstorms.

This is no mere bombardment, but the opening salvos of the Somme. As Gilson is in billets behind the lines, there is a little in his letter of the Epicurean pleasure of violent observation–the man who enjoys watching a battle from safety.

But he will not be safe for long: his battalion is slated to move forward in a few days, under cover of this same ongoing bombardment, and then advance into the German lines. His letter to Estelle shows that he is hardly free of the mental torment of the trenches:

It is so hateful being cooped up in the trenches – caught in a trap, as it sometimes seems.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diary, 78.

Edward Thomas Improves a Song; Harold Macmillan on the Big Bombardment; Herbert Read is Back and E.A. Mackintosh is Decorated; Alan Seeger Prepares for Battle: “In Moments Like These, Words are Futile.”

First, today, Edward Thomas reports in to Eleanor Farjeon, the woman most responsible for keeping him an honest poet.

Postmark 24 June 1916
Saturday Hut 14

My dear Eleanor

Look what I have done. I have been 5 days sick and confined to the camp, practically to the hut and this is the result. I have altered Rio because I feel you are right. I have cut out the 3rd and 4th verses and the only refrain is

‘I’m bound away for ever
Away somewhere, away for ever’

Does that do it any good?

It does–but then again the version of the song to which I have linked, above, already had Farjeon’s suggested amendments. Farjeon–the female friend, the unrequited lover, the unpaid amanuensis, the uncredited editor–is a very good writer in her own write, as it were (some children I know vastly prefer her stories to Thomas’s work), and letters like these make clear that she was his first and best reader as his poetry matured and turned toward the war. While support from his several friends who were established English writers wavered or lapsed (Frost, across the sea, offered all-important confirming belief, but he couldn’t read over Thomas’s shoulder at a few days notice) Farjeon was always ready not simply with praise but with formative critical readings.

And in Thomas’s daily life, more changes beckon:

I am better now and just going out for the first time and hope I can get a walk tomorrow and be fit on Monday.

There are more changes ahead and in case I should be robbed of it I am trying to arrange my leave to begin next Saturday. I have got to move my books from the study. Mrs. Lupton has turned me out. After that Helen and I are going to the Guthries, the Ellis’s, and finishing up in London. If you were at Greatham we could call there. I suppose there is a place to put up at. Otherwise we should see you in town.

It is most satisfactory that Duckworth has altered his terms in the right direction…

Goodbye. Yours ever
Edward Thomas

All in all this qualifies as a very strange letter from Edward Thomas” he has accepted criticism, he is moving forward, and, as the last line suggests, he may even make some money from book-selling. Farjeon explains that “Edward’s ‘Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds’ and my ‘Nursery Rhymes of London Town’ [both soothing English anthologies] were both being published by Duckworth in the autumn. His book was dedicated to me and Clifford Bax.”[1]

But lost in there is the slightly distressing news that his family’s landlord has reclaimed the room he uses as a study. A slight dislocation, since he is now with his family only while on leave, but then again this is Thomas we’re talking about–Thomas of the English villages, Thomas of the black moods–and what writer, having just decided to uproot and accept a new life (as an artillery officer) likes to have his books uprooted as well? Many will have to be sold for whatever they might bring.

 

And a few odds and ends:

 

Richard Aldington, not quite kicking and screaming, left today, a century back, for the camp of the 11th Devonshires near Wareham in Dorset.[2]

 

And E. A. Mackintosh, hero of a recent raid, had his MC gazetted today. This is a considerable honor, if not an overwhelming one–for dramatic self-sacrifice or aggressive heroism in victorious encounters, higher honors were possible. But more than one of our writers will win the Military Cross for demonstrating courage and self-command during the deadly confusion of a night raid, and account his courage well-requited, the passage of the main test confirmed. Mackintosh’s citation read:

For conspicuous gallantry. He organised and led a successful raid on the enemy’s trenches with great skill and courage. Several of the enemy were disposed of and a strong point destroyed. He also brought back to wounded men under fire.[3]

It’s that “also” that tells the tale. The raid was tactically successful–even if strategically pointless–but the decoration is given for the officer’s initiative during the developing situation. In an action such as this, the only way to demonstrate courage and initiative is, generally, to go and try to save the wounded. Which is to say that the plan does not make provision for the predictable eventuality of men being wounded in or near in the enemy lines… this is not one of those “never leave a man behind” outfits, this British army, but it is still happy to celebrate those who refuse to.

 

Today also brings the return of one of our most inconstant writers. Herbert Read‘s diary will be published in very selective fashion, and today’s entry comes after a fifteen month gap, during which he served at the front, was badly lacerated by barbed wire, and was sent home to recover. Well, what’s up with Hebert?

24.vi.16 Rugeley Camp, Staffordshire[4]

I came to this dreadful place a week ago. The Medical Board gave me ‘light duty’–but they don’t understand the term here. We get up at 5.30 a.m. and are at it till tea time and sometimes later. And all the time the same monotonous work–shouting oneself hoarse trying to initiate remarkably dense recruits into the mysteries of ‘forming fours’, etc.I think I shall flee to the front for a little peace at the earliest opportunity…

This is an opinion we’ve heard before, and will hear again. It’s neither sardonic nor fatuous–soldiers who have seen action are having trouble adjusting to the lugubrious routine of training units.

Where does a veteran belong?[5]

 

We will let Harold Macmillan bring us the major news of the day:

There is a tremendous artillery duel in progress at the moment. The guns are roaring and you can follow the progress of the shell by the noise, from its original roar as it leaves the mouth of our gun, all along its hissing and screaming journey, till the final consummation of its successful explosion in the enemy’s lines…

As I sit in my dug out, writing, I lookout on a little ruined farm… the garden still struggles to keep a civilised look amid ruin and desolation. A few flowers are springing up, between the shell-holes. The birds (who seem quite unmoved by any bombardment) are singing merrily, for all the world as if they were in some peaceful countryside, stranger to High Explosive. The cuckoo can be heard between the firing of the shells. Nature does her best for us even here.

Save only in her vermin-life. Rats are surely among the less successful or meritorious of Nature’s efforts. They infest the trenches–great big fat rats, as large as puppies. I fear them more than the Huns…[6]

With “The Big Push” planned for June 29th, this is the beginning of the preparatory bombardment. It will, of course, give the Germans very ample notice as to where exactly the attack will begin. But the theory is that it will completely destroy the German barbed wire obstacles and front-line firing positions.

 

And finally, a reminder that just because the Battle of the Somme is England’s greatest effort to date does not mean it will be a solely English battle. The French will attack as well, to the right of the British–and with them, a handful of Americans, including Alan Seeger of the Foreign Legion.

June 24, 1916. . . . We had a hard journey coming here. After an early morning’s march of about ten kilometers, we took the train and made a trip of four or five hours. Then we started off in the heat of the day on what was without exception the hardest march I have ever made. There were 20 kilometers to do through the blazing sun and in a cloud of dust. Something around 30 kilos on the back. About 50 per cent dropped by the way. By making a supreme effort I managed to get in at the finish with the fifteen men that were all that was left of the section. The men were out of training after so long in the trenches without practise. The battle field has no terrors after trials like these that demand just as much grit and often more suffering.

I shall probably write nothing but post-cards henceforth. In moments like these, words are futile. Think of me when you read the first big communiqué, which we shall have had a brilliant share in making.[7]

Just to sum things up: training camp is worse than the trenches, the rats are worse than the Huns, and battle is not nearly as scary as a long hot march… rhetoric!

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 200.
  2. Whelpton, Richard Aldington, 126.
  3. Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man, 129.
  4. We have been here before!
  5. The Contrary Experience, 71-2. The rest of the letter discusses Read's reading: serious, leftist material, including Shaw, Sorel, and the New Age.
  6. Webb, From Downing Street, 191.
  7. Letters and Diary, 209-210.

J.R. Ackerley and Billie Nevill Go Out; Three Poems from Edward Thomas, Turning and Turning War-Ward; Robert Graves in a Coy Competition with Siegfried Sassoon; Kate Luard and Another Bombing Victim; Raymond Asquith in the Salient’s Filth

A bit of a long post, today, but it’s another gamut-runner, and brief enough for that. We go from poetry of quiet beauty all the way to “sheer abomination undiluted by a single touch of beauty, grandeur or sentiment.”

Two days ago, Edward Thomas went sick once again. But with “sick call” comes a relief from duties, and so he took up his pen. First came “It was upon,” a sneaky sonnet that looks back, and forward. It’s no poetic innovation to go to the natural world in contemplation of the future–nor, indeed, to thresh the old store of bucolic/agricultural imagery to come up with some symbol of change. But Thomas goes deep into the subject, rifling the old English farmer’s word hoard to come up with the evocative “lattermath,” which refers to the second or third mowing of grass, for hay.

It was upon a July evening.
At a stile I stood, looking along a path
Over the country by a second Spring
Drenched perfect green again. ‘The lattermath
Will be a fine one.’ So the stranger said,
A wandering man. Albeit I stood at rest,
Flushed with desire I was. The earth outspread,
Like meadows of the future, I possessed.

And as an unaccomplished prophecy
The stranger’s words, after the interval
Of a score years, when those fields are by me
Never to be recrossed, now I recall,
This July eve, and question, wondering,
What of the lattermath to this hoar Spring?

Then, yesterday, a century back, Thomas wrote “Women he liked,” a.k.a. “Bob’s Lane.” Here once again an ominous mistrust in futurity creeps in around the edges of the landscape.
Women he liked, did shovel-bearded Bob,
Old Farmer Hayward of the Heath, but he
Loved horses. He himself was like a cob,
And leather-coloured. Also he loved a tree.
For the life in them he loved most living things,
But a tree chiefly. All along the lane
He planted elms where now the stormcock sings
That travellers hear from the slow-climbing train.
Till then the track had never had a name
For all its thicket and the nightingales
That should have earned it. No one was to blame.
To name a thing beloved man sometimes fails.
Many years since, Bob Hayward died, and now
None passes there because the mist and the rain
Out of the elms have turned the lane to slough
And gloom, the name alone survives, Bob’s Lane.

This one is a good one, a who-but-Thomas one. He has yet to see France, but he knows, of course, that those well-drained lands will be pounded to mud by infernal machines and so draw forth from good English Protestants, well-versed in their Bunyan, the inevitable reference to the “Slough of Despond” in The Pilgrim’s Progress.

But it’s not just such felicitous word choice: this is Thomas’s whole poetic persona being dragged toward war. It’s not quite a mind of metal and wheels pondering gunpowder under the eaves of ancient Fangorn, but it’s close.

The cob-like, tree-loving farmer here is another Lob, and his environs could almost be Adlestrop–and off-stage, as it were, the steam train lurks. It’s hard not to see in the slow-climbing train a portent of technological-aided disaster…

Finally, today, “There was a time.”
There was a time when this poor frame was whole
And I had youth and never another care,
Or none that should have troubled a strong soul.
Yet, except sometimes in a frosty air
When my heels hammered out a melody
From pavements of a city left behind,
I never would acknowledge my own glee
Because it was less mighty than my mind
Had dreamed of. Since I could not boast of strength
Great as I wished, weakness was all my boast.
I sought yet hated pity till at length
I earned it. Oh, too heavy was the cost.
But now that there is something I could use
My youth and strength for, I deny the age,
The care and weakness that I know—refuse
To admit I am unworthy of the wage
Paid to a man who gives up eyes and breath
For what would neither ask nor heed his death

It’s hard, of course, not to read this as coming straight from Thomas, rather than allowing for the assumption of a poetic mask. The speaker feels his age, but not in the flexingly heroic Tennysonian sense. He is still frustrated, still pitiable, but perhaps approaching a certain sort of peace. Or perhaps not. But in any case, as Edna Longley points out, the introvert has metamorphosed, however grudgingly, into a soldier. His choice of “wage” makes us think of Brooke, and realize (not for the first time) that this is not a metaphor that should be taken lightly.

There is no assumption of heroic or sacrificial “meaning” here, no perching of a dubious poem atop a hollow cairn of patriotic assumptions and religious implications: “[h]ere he acknowledges war as a paradoxical saviour, a perversely accepted test.” “Perverse” is exactly right. It doesn’t feel right because it can’t be right, but it’s acceptable all the same. The thinking man, the skeptic, the non-joiner has joined, and will fight–and possibly give up eyes and breath–for… well, he’s not sure for what. Thomas has fallen into step, and with a grimace he picks up something of the traditional language of the happy volunteer. But this language he takes “a little more seriously while still contesting it.” [1]

 

It’s a poetical sort of day: Robert Graves wrote to Siegfried Sassoon as well, a century back, and we get a bit of insight into the balance of power, as it were, in their friendship. Graves, recovered from his operation and stuck in camp, pines for camaraderie, but it would seem that Sassoon’s close-to-the-vest maneuvers on his own recent leave have left Our Robbie feeling a bit miffed:

23 June 1916

Bloody Litherland

Dear Sassons,

It is with bitter disappointment that I hear that you’ve been in Blighty on lave and dined with Eddie and never let me know. God! man, I’d have come down from John o’ Groats if you’d told me.

This is indeed an awful place. I’m so restless and enthusiastic and want-to-get-back-to-the-boys-ish that I have succeeded at one time or another in offending most of the more considerable people here…

Ah, so perhaps the young poet begins to recognize some of the foolishness of the war?

Roll on the trenches! I head you’ve been risking your precious life again among them craters: I am pleased, damn pleased, you’re doing so well; wish to hell I was with you–go on risking, and good luck. It’s a man’s game.

A bit forced? No: very, very forced, and nothing like the wiser-than-he-once-was ironist of Goodbye To All That. I’m tempted to instruct you, dear readers, to see the forgoing as a bit of a put-on, a jest made “in character.” But I don’t think so. Graves likes Sassoon and he really (probably) does hate camp enough to want to be back at war, but the competitive edge of their friendship–the desire to be close but also to surpass–is very keen. In fact there’s more edge than blade… some of the forced jollity here must be because Graves is leading up to a bit of a gloat: next, he shares some of the reviews–positive, if not unreservedly so–of his first book, Fairies and Fusiliers. Take that, self-published Siegfried!

…I have been frantically busy lately… sweating about the country all abouts, so of course when the match is burning my fingernails my bloody verses insist on forcing themselves to be written by me: they flock on me in shoals and I can’t refuse them: I can’t give them a hurried birth and then strangle ’em straight away. They want washing and clothing and suckling ans what not in my precious time, and then what happened to my Regimental duties? …I hope you are still writing with the same sudden genius of your last trench-letter. How strange that you have all at once struck what you have been searching for for so long; but I suppose now you want another little cushy Flixécourt tour to give you the time and leisure and quiet.

Best of luck when the Delayed Offensive actually comes, and may I be there with you old man!

…I’m getting my latest things typed to send you. The rules of the ‘mutual admiration society’ demand a similar step on your part. Or write, at any rate.

Sorley is still selling, and The Times has labelled him ‘Enrolled among the English Poets’ for which God bless that usually bloody paper…

Ever your affectionately

Robert

Isn’t it splendid that the RWF have now twice been singled out for special mention in a daily communiqué?[2]

That post-script does help to ground us: even in the memoir Graves owned up to an enduring regimental pride. Love the war or hate the war, he wanted to be identified with an honorable and glorious regiment:”May I be there with you” and “pleased, damn pleased” may ring false because they are strained, but they are not supercilious or sarcastic.

 

Two brief bits, now, before our last letter of the day. First, a look ahead:

The 8th East Surreys, a battalion of Kitchener’s Army with a year in France but little in the way of sharp combat experience, went into the line today, a century back, opposite Montauban, a few miles east of Albert, on the Somme. Among their officers were J.R. Ackerley, an innocent, awkward, gay, poetry-writing, Public School lieutenant, and his friend Wilfred “Billie” Nevill, a bluff, confident, outgoing Public School athlete. Captain Nevill brought along a couple of footballs…[3]

 

And, with Kate Luard, a look back at one of the most common and–in its commonness, at least–confounding themes of our reading of the war’s “long second year.”

Captain—– of the Suffolks, who died here two days ago from a bombing accident, picked up a live bomb which had fallen short to throw it again, but he was just too late and it got him; he was buried yesterday; the Suffolks lined the road with their band, and followed 4 deep finishing up with 30 officers marching behind. They were awfully cut up about it.[4]

 

Finally, today, we catch up with Raymond Asquith. Yesterday, a century back, he wrote to his wife Katherine. He fills us in on a brief bit of savagery that we, with our focus on the subalterns of the Regular and Kitchener battalions, have missed. There has been bloody fighting in the familiar wasteland around Hooge, in  the Ypres Salient, and the tough Canadian troops so admired by their imperial forebears have suffered greatly. All chaff to whet the wit of Raymond–and yet he spares his wife (or seems to spare her) nothing of the beastliness, which is a significant choice.

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

. . . We came out of the trenches last night and marched into camp about 3 this morning. Now we are out, I suppose there is no harm in saying what I daresay you have already guessed–that we were pushed in to relieve the Canadians opposite Hooge. The Canadians had almost all been killed in the recent fighting there (which was unlucky for them) and hardly any of them had been buried (which was unlucky for us). The confusion and mess were indescribable and the stinks hardly to be borne. No one quite knew where the line was…

It was impossible to show ourselves for a moment without being shelled and there were no adequate arrangements for hiding. Sloper Mackenzie, Eddy Ward and another officer were shut up for 48 hours in a dug-out meant for 2 at the best of times and when half flooded as it was with blood and water and filth of every kind quite unfit for habitation. We did our best to clean out some of the muck but the process was so disturbing that poor Sloper was physically sick in the middle of it. I couldn’t endure sleeping there so got hold of an old stretcher and lay on it in a shell-hole outside, which I think saved my life, though it might easily have ended it.

One would have given anything for a bottle of verbena or a yard of ruban de Bruges… I never saw anything like the foulness and desolation of this bit of the Salient.

This reminds me very strongly of Vera Brittain‘s revelation as she picked through Roland Leighton’s kit–that, for him, always a fastidious boy, the filth of trench warfare must have been a torment. For Asquith, too, there is surely much truth–and perhaps still a little self-pleasing bravado–in his preference for danger over horrible discomfort and sensory misery.

There were 2 woods near to us on which we roamed about picking up gruesome relics in the dusk–Maple Copse and Sanctuary Wood–not a leaf or a blade of grass in either of them, nothing but twisted and blackened stumps and a mesh of shell holes, dimpling into one another, full of mud and blood, and dead men and over-fed rats which blundered into one in the twilight like fat moths.

To my mind it was a far more impressive sight than the ruins of Ypres, because it was sheer abomination undiluted by a single touch of beauty, grandeur or sentiment…

Goodbye, my blessed angel. This morning I took my boots off and washed for the first time these 8 days. It was delicious.

Asquith has already written about a bombardment with… delicious… Epicurean aesthetic detachment. Today, a century back, he catches up with Diana Manners and takes the story from there through the recent nastiness. Thus in one swift missive he gives her both the (safe) beauty of war observed, and its worst pits of filth.

23 June 1916

. . . But, 2 nights out of a dreary 7 did make me think of you perhaps harder than usual–one for beauty and one for ugliness. The first was on the shore of a biggish lake with poplars and a honey-coloured moon, and one of the most
crashing bombardments of the War going on all round, shells bursting in front and behind to right and to left, but not just where I was, so that I felt as safe as if it had been the Charge of the Light Brigade and could enjoy the spectacle as such, and fancy almost that the lake was “Sutton Waters” and wished that you were there to enjoy it too as you would have done intensely–at any rate for a little. After an hour or two the noise gets on one’s nerves like music. There was a gas attack too in the middle which was boring, and for 40 minutes we had to stumble about slobbering into rubber snouts like animals in a pantomime.

Another, night I was in a much worse place than this–the most accursed unholy and abominable place I have ever seen, the ugliest filthiest most putrid and most desolate–a wood where all the trees had been cut off by the shells the week before, and nothing remained but black stumps of really the most obscene heights and thickness, craters swimming in blood and dirt, rotting and smelling bodies and rats like shadows, fattened for the market moving cunningly and liquorishly among them, limbs and bowels nestling in the hedges, and over, all the most supernaturally shocking scent of death and corruption that ever breathed o’er Eden. The place simply stank of sin and all Floris could not have made it sweet. . . The only dug-out turned out to be a ‘dirt trap’ if not a death trap, awash with sewage, stale eyeballs, and other debris, so I spent 2 days on a stretcher in a shell hole in the gutter certainly, but-looking all the while at the stars with which you have so richly studded my memory.

As a “filth and abomination” piece (a new tag!) this could hardly be bettered. The witty tone, the framing with beauty makes it all the more upsetting, and marks it as Asquith’s own. One imagines what Tolkien would have done with this–or what he will do, in a sense. But where Asquith writes to the great beauty and talks of the stars she has given him–and writes after the fact, having endured–Frodo will call on the star-hanging goddess and unleash her light in the face of the filth personified.

So Asquith makes it witty/horrible and frames the filth with Diana Manners herself–and I avoid its details by making a Tolkien reference of dubious relevance.

Asquith has also given us, I believe, our first disembodied eye: it’s an image he spares his wife but deploys to shock the unshockable Diana Manners. And does seem to be specially shocking: we will see more of such eyes, in literature and in lived experience.

I should end with Asquith. He is no Tolkien, but in his own naughty way he does not shirk theodicy, here:

There is a great deal after all to be said for the existence of evil; it might almost be held to prove the existence of God. Who else could have thought of it?[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 304-6.
  2. In Broken Images, 51-3.
  3. Parker, Ackerley, 22.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 71.
  5. Life and Letters, 269-70.

The Earth Opens Under the Royal Welch; Noel Hodgson Rides Toward the Hidden Places; We Get to Know Ivor Gurney–Under Fire, Fed Up, and Exalted

We begin in the early morning hours on the Givenchy front, with Captain Blair of the Royal Welch.

…it was about twenty minutes to two… There was stillness everywhere. I had just stepped off the fire-step into the sap–Pattison was about 5 yards from me–when I felt my feet lifted up beneath me and the trench walls seemed to move upwards. There was a terrific blast of air which blew my steel helmet Heaven knows where. I think that something must have struck me then on the head… I remember nothing more until I woke to find myself buried up to the neck and quite unable to move hand or foot…

I awoke to an appalling shindy going on, and gradually realized that heavy rifle and machine-gun fire was taking place and that bullets were whistling all round. Several men passed within a few feet of me… I remember hoping they would not trip over my head. The men were shouting to each other, but I was too dazed to appreciate that the language was German. When I heard a hunting-horn I was certain I was having the nightmare of my life–pegged down and unable to move, with a hailstorm of bullets all round, and men rushing about perilously near kicking my head. The firing died down, and I realized it was no nightmare but that I was very much awake.

By dawn C Company of the Welch and the Cameronians on their right had driven out the Germans who had occupied the huge crater–30 feet deep, and approximately the size of a football field (or pitch!)–in the minutes after the explosion. “Red Dragon Crater” will be a famous feature of the Givenchy front from now on.[1]

Frank Richards, fortunately, was a bit further from the blast:

I arrived back in my dug-out and about 1.30 a.m. was woken up by a terrific explosion on our right front. The ground shook and rocked as if an earthquake had taken place… the enemy had exploded a mine on our extreme right… all communication with the exception of D on our right had broken down. A little later the enemy shells began falling all along the Battalion’s front and the lines went between us and D and also we lost touch with Battalion Headquarters in the rear…

…with the exception of eight men the whole of B had been blown up by the mine and… the enemy had made a rush to occupy the crater, but had been repulsed by C Company and the eight survivors of B.

Dawn was now breaking and I made my way to C. Passing along the trench I came across the headless body of Sergeant Bale[2]… a piece of shell had took his head clean off and deposited it on the back parapet in such a way that it now seemed to be looking down at the body.

Richards goes on to praise Captain Stanway, who led the counter-attack and won a DSO, and Captain Blair himself, “a man with many lives.” He also wryly notes that another officer, who panicked and had his orders countermanded by an NCO, was given a minor decoration. For Richards, this horror is a personal story–the tale of a major near miss:

If the signallers of B had had a dug-out I might have stayed with them a couple of hours swopping yarns and brewing tea and would have gone West with them…[3]

Meanwhile, Captain Blair and the more severely wounded Sergeant Morris soon free their arms and begin to dig, throwing up a tiny parapet between themselves and the Germans. They spend all the long June day there, wedged against the body of one of their men, shelled and shot at whenever rescuers try to reach them.

After several hours I freed my right leg, but my left leg was fixed down firmly under me and felt quite dead. The sun was very hot… my eyes were very much worse, they were full of grit and dirt; they were running in streams and were excessively painful. Morris was in great pain and becoming light-headed.

When Morris becomes delirious and suicidal, and Blair punches him to quiet him. Morris recovers, but begs for water. It was not completely dark until 10:30, and then an agonizing hour of quiet waiting began.

We were parched with thirst and had visions of lying out another twenty-four hours without water. We were getting depressed and loosing hope when–it must have been nearly 11.30–I heard footsteps and a muttered whisper: English, thank Heaven.

Among the rescuers was Dr. Dunn himself:

To get to Morris, Blair, who was nearer the surface, had to be got away. With him joining in the work like a terrier, it took the better part of an hour to free his imprisoned leg from the grip of the damp, compressed earth and trench debris. The freeing of Morris from that tangle of barbed wire, torn sand-bags, pickets, angle irons, and one of Bayliss’s legs… was a long and difficult business…[4]

 

Today, a century back, Noel Hodgson was looking both forward and back as he completed the short prose sketch titled–and set on–Ascension Morning. We took a look at this piece back on June 1st: in it a young subaltern dwells on his memories of good times past and meditates on how such memories sustain the soul twice–in the moment, and in recollection. He recalls an earlier Ascension Morning, when he and a friend snuck out of school early to go bird-nesting spree… and then he talks with an Irish officer who is brooding on the friends he has lost:

“One died at Suvla Bay—they never found his body; and now the other is ‘ Dead,’ not even ‘killed in action,’
but dead in a hospital among strangers like any pauper in a workhouse ward. And this is Ascension Day.”

And I, knowing that it is given to man to be full of sorrows and that no sorrow is so heavy as to lose one’s
friend, could say nothing to him; and he walked on, fighting his battle.

Now we had come in our march to the crest of a hill, and before us lay a wide valley full of the morning sun,
where men were ploughing and women in blue hoods went up and down the fields. A rumble of carts and
the noise of horses was in the air, and the blue woodsmoke rose steeply from cottage chimneys.

And as I looked upon this ordered beauty and sufficiency, which seemed so right and of a part with Nature, and saw Irishman gazing at it with puzzled eyes, another recollection came to me–of a morning when I smoked my pipe under the hedge of a French farm-garden and watched the folk going about the day’s work, while inside the house they tried a man for his life. The Irishman looked up at me expectantly as if I should make it clear to him. But certain as I was of the truth of those things which I had thought earlier in the day, no words came to me; and, setting spur to Majoribanks, I rode forward down the white road which crossed the valley and ran over the further ridge into the hidden places of the downs.

June 22nd, 1916.[5]

Hodgson is too wise, here, to even hint at knowledge, at mastery. And the consoling voice of religion is quiet.

One wonders–did he view the model of the beckoning battlefield before or after he wrote this musing on cross-country vision and dawning uncertainty?[6]

 

Ivor Gurney, who has just completed a final course of training “embedded,” as we would say, with a more experienced (and blissfully Welsh) group of signallers, has nonetheless had time to write several looooong letters to Herbert Howells. These were posted together (envelopes being scarce) today, a century back. Some excerpts:

My Dear Howells:

How are you all this long time? Be good, and write me a long letter full of meaty things about College; a real gossipy letter full of all the little things I want to know…

Well, here we are in France, and almost at once shoved up into 1st line trenches, but where I write is reserve, in billetts, and surrounded by some of the attributes of civilisation, but not many…

The Chinese knew a little of torture, and had an inspiration named “Death by the thousand Cuts,” but amateurs they were besides the Grand High Inquisitors who run the British Army; which, while “resting” , has the natural aversion to wounds and death to a fear lest it should, by the anger of God, be left alive and physically fit to endure more of the same kind of “rest” — how it hurts a man with a sense of word-values so to misuse words! It is almost as bad as 3rd grade neurasthenia.

This is not an idle comment. Gurney’s mental health has been problematic, and if honesty about his worries about the war’s effect on his sanity is unusual, it is in part because he has more reason than most to fear mental breakdown.

But supposing I come at last through all this complete in mind and body, there will be some memories will remain. Our first night in trenches was one of the most surprising things that can ever happen to me. We set out I suppose about the beginning of the afterglow, and went eastward with the usual thoughts in our mind—at least I suppose so. In the communication trenches, which were very long, we had lots of opportunity to look at the West, and remember what lay under Venus; as Wordsworth did in a Sonnet written on Calais sands, beginning “Fair Star of evening” ; up we went, with now and again a bullet whizzing above us or a startling clatter of machineguns in the distance; and then at last the trenches — 2nd and then 1st. We made enquiries, and then C and I crawled into a signallers dugout, and so made the acquaintance of 4 of the nicest people that ever you could meet — and educated. They were absolutely first rate chaps. Unlike some men out here, they didn’t try to frighten us with horrible details, but gave us as much help as possible in getting hold of ordinary routine, and in making us feel as much at home as possible. I had no sleep for 36 hours. We talked of books and music. And they sang — Glory be — “David of the White Rock” and the Slumber Song that Somervell has arranged. What an experience! I have also got hold of an address of a man who is rather noted for his knowledge of these things. If there is anything left of either of us after the war I shall attend to it myself— if not, you will write to him and find out…

This, needless to say, is both an unexpected and an unusually beautiful culmination to the “approaching the trenches” narrative. Gurney, the sensitive soul, poet and composer, goes to receive his initiation into fear and horror, and finds music instead. “Experience” will come in many forms…

After much talk of music, Gurney’s mind returns to the war.

Ah, Howler, there will not be much the matter with me a year after the Army sees my back. —-

‘And joy shall overtake us like a flood
When everything that is sincerely good
And perfectly divine
with truth and PEACE and Love” shall shine once more on this poor distracted Europe of ours. And the swiftness of the Russian victories have given me much hope. In this connection, please O please try and get last Sundays Observer (June 12th or thereabouts). The leading article is a perfect exhibition of pusillanimous twaddling and a kind of sneaking shamefaced hope that the war will not last 4 years after all, as it might be — worked out on the blackboard by fainthearted blitherers. I believe it will be all over by September — even if I am over too. And that will annoy me; partly because I feel that when I have renewed and trained my spirit there is work for me to do, and partly…

If you would hear anything of life at the front, I am afraid that at present I have seen too little to qualify my description of it as a damn dull life. It is for me — “an expense of spirit in a waste of shame” save only for the glorifying touch of danger. One marches heavily burdened, cursing ones Fate, from the rear circuitously to the front, reaches ones post, and hopes for fine weather. I am a signaller, holding on to that name by my eyelids and teeth, and that is an infinitely softer job than the ranks, which nearly drive me mad for its monotony, lack of elementary commonsense living, and for what men like you and I must feel as insults repeated continually. But it is much better out here than in England — save only for the “Rests”…

The trenches are better than camp life in England–danger is not yet terrifying, and the discomfort and onerousness, well–they, too, will only grow more wearisome. But Gurney seems to have hated above all what American soldiers of the next war will call “chickenshit,” the petty indignities and willful inefficiencies of garrison and training-camp life.

So the front is a nice change, and–so far, so far–it has him positively reoriented toward the future:

It is sweet to think what a revenge of Joy I will have on Life for all this. For all this grey petty monotony, I will gather all the overstrength of spirit, so hardly earned and force it, coax it, lead it to the service of Joy for ever. And as Masefield points out in his wonderful little book on Shakespeare, no mind but a supremely happy is able adequately to brood with Pity and Anger on Tragedy…

Less an ars poetica than an ars vivendi, Gurney’s mood of near-elation is… both a very good sign and a very worrisome one. His moods have been uneven before–is he holding up well as he first experiences life in the line, or is he dangerously sanguine? His letter of today, a century back, to Marion Scott seems, however, to argue for good health, and a reasonable balance of exaltation and griping–he describes as well his first bombardment, which seems to have taken place overnight, a century back.

Dear Miss Scott: Still another interesting letter! Please dont expect such a one from me as the weather is very dull and sultry, and this is a small room with 8 signallers lying low from fatigue. However, interesting things have happened. We have come into reserve now, having gone through a strafe which a machine-gunner who had been through Loos said was worse than Loos while it lasted — which was for 1 1/4 hours. And it left me exalted and exulting only longing for a nice blighty that would have taken me away from all this and left me free to play the G minor Prelude from the Second Book of Bach. O for a good piano! I am tired of this war, it bores me; but I would not willingly give up such a memory of such a time. Everything went wrong, and there was a tiny panic at first — but everybody, save the officers, were doing what they ought to do, and settled down later to the proper job, but if Fritz expected us as much as we expected them, he must have been in a funk. But they behaved very well our men, and one bay filled with signallers and stretcher bearers sang lustily awhile a song called “I want to go home” very popular out here, but not at all military in feeling. The machine guns are the most terrifying of sound, like an awful pack of hell hounds at ones back. I was out mending wires part of the time, but they were not so bad then…Their explosives are not nearly so terrible as ours. You can see dugouts and duck boards sailing in the air during even in a trench mortar strafe (Toc Emma Esses — signallers talk). Theirs of course do damage enough, but nothing comparable. They began it, and were reduced to showing white lights, which we shot away, and sending up a white rocket. Floreat Gloucestriensis! It was a great time; full of fear of course, but not so bad as neurasthenia. I could have written letters through the whole of it. But O to be back out of it all!

The account of this bombardment is gripping, but not terribly clear. But now the reason (if reason it be) for Gurney’s exaltation becomes more clear: by staying out and mending the wires, he has proven himself brave. If Gurney hasn’t written much about this, never mind–it is as close as we can get to a truism of this project that all soldiers worry about whether, once under fire, they will not prove to be cowards. Gurney has passed this stiff first test:

My dear lady, I am pleased with myself. They tell me I was nearly recommended for a DCM or something or other that was done chiefly by other men. But all through I had time to wish I had chocolate, and wonder whether so much baccy was good for me. I may be chronically introspective (and this is a shocking life for that) but as little fearful as a stolid cow. It has given me still further confidence that once I get back to work my mind will take proper paths and let me be happy. You see I dont expect to get knocked about much, and dont intend to go on bombing stunts if I can help. I have forgotten what my other letters contained…

Lastly, a distracted hint of grandiosity:

…I tell you what, mamselle; when I return to England I am going to lie in wait for all men who have been officers, and very craftily question them on several subjects, and if the answers to my questions do not satisfy me, they may look out for squalls. This is deadly serious. Talk of the need of “dithipline” wont suit me.

Yours very sincerely

Ivor Gurney[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 209-10.
  2. Presumably no relation to Gareth Bale, current standout for the Welsh internationals...
  3. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 167-9.
  4. The War the Infantry Knew, 210-17.
  5. Verse and Prose in Peace and War, 84-5.
  6. See also Zeepvat, Before Action, 185-7.
  7. War Letters, 70-6.

Frank Richards on a Glorious but Too-Quiet Night; Francis Ledwidge Meets an Afflicter of Poets; Alan Seeger Anticipates New Masterpieces of More Rare Romance; Is Noel Hodgson a Model Poet?

Today the 2nd Royal Welch–currently poetless, but with Frank Richards among the signallers–moved up to the line. Dr. Dunn’s collective chronicle is now turned over to a lengthy narrative from Captain Blair of B Company:

Late in the evening we moved off ti take over Givenchy Left… That march in the waning of the long twilight will linger in memory: we seemed to linger in step, so soothing was the beauty and tranquility of the midsummer night. The sky was flawless but for deep flounce of fleecy, dove-coloured cloud… The whole front was unwontedly restful, not even a distant gun broke the stillness.[1]

If that foreshadowing isn’t blinding enough, here’s Richards:

Late in June we relieved a battalion of the Hertfordshire Regiment in the Givenchy trenches. One of their signallers informed me that they had a very quiet time and that during the last four fays there hadn’t been a dozen casualties in the whole of their battalion. I thought it very strange…

About 11 p.m. I strolled along our front line and arrived at B Company trenches. All company signallers with the exception of B had dug-outs and I found the three signallers of B sitting on the fire-step with their D3 telephone, doing a good old soldiers’ grouse…  I made them grouse a bit more when I told them what a grand dug-out we had… It was a glorious summer’s night, but much too quiet for my liking.[2]

We’re only a few hours away from sudden violence, but we will wait until the calendar page turns…

 

Francis Ledwidge has long been a man in the middle–socially, psychologically, and politically. It is frustrating, to say the least, to be an Irish patriot in a British regiment during the rising, but his only gesture had been to bridle at an obnoxious English officer and overstay his leave. Since the leave had been delayed by travel restrictions in the aftermath of the rising, this was an an act of symbolic defiance. Or so he viewed it.

Ledwidge’s patron, the Anglo-Irish Lord Dunsany, remembered the incident differently, however:

Ledwidge was not in my Company, and I was glad of that, for his movements had a little of the unpredictable nature of will-o-the wisps roaming bogs of the land that he loved; as you might expect of a poet in a lance-corporal’s uniform. One day he had a bit of a night out, and I was too much annoyed to feel very sympathetic about the trouble in which it landed him, for it looked as if he was almost deliberately harming his own prospects. Being a lance-corporal, and not a private soldier, it landed him in a court-martial; and I said to Major Willock, who was president of the court-martial, “You will go down to posterity as an afflicter of poets.” Major Willock was quite distressed but found no way of avoiding sentencing Ledwidge to lose his lance-corporal’s stripe.[3]

Is Dunsany mildly embarrassed that he can’t help his protegé, or does he suppress the nationalist angle? “Afflicter of Poets” is a good line, anyway…

Here, in any event is a rather relevant poem by Ledwidge, describing the court martial:

After Court Martial

My mind is not my mind, therefore
I take no heed of what men say.
I lived ten thousand years before
God cursed the town of Nineveh.

The Present is a dream I see
Of horror and loud sufferings,
At dawn a bird will waken me
Unto my place among the kings.

Dramatic–but the loss of his rank was a relatively minor punishment. Given the circumstances, this relatively common indiscretion might have been punished more harshly.

In any event, Private Ledwidge does not seem terribly perturbed, writing today, a century back, to his friend Bob Christie.

21st June 1916

My dear Bob,

Very many thanks for your letter and copies of poems. The poem ‘Where be to be ups and downs, etc.’ is charming. I wish I could tell you how much it delights me…

…I am busy enough writing away, as ideas will keep coming on…[4]

 

Another poet who came to the war before most of his countrymen is Alan Seeger, our American in the Foreign Legion. Today, a century back, he is once more on the move.

June 21, 1916. Left our quiet sector in the centre this morning, relieved by a territorial regiment. Have marched here to a little village in the rear. Tomorrow take the train for an unknown destination. Fine hot summer weather. The big attacks will come soon now. Wish us good success. It is very exciting to be on the move at last, and I am happy and contented. I return you the Tennyson, to lighten my sack. … I am twenty-eight years old tomorrow.

Off to battle, Seeger encloses his most recent poem. The birthday boy and occasional hard-case seems as far from disillusionment as the most bloody-minded general could hope. Seeger doubles down on his youthful enthusiasm–his sack may be lighter, but Tennyson is still with him:

Clouds rosy-tinted in the setting sun,
Depths of the azure eastern sky between,
Plains where the poplar-bordered highways run.
Patched with a hundred tints of brown and green,
Beauty of Earth, when in thy harmonies
The cannon’s note has ceased to be a part,
I shall return once more and bring to these
The worship of an undivided heart.
Of those sweet potentialities that wait
For my heart’s deep desire to fecundate
I shall resume the search, if Fortune grants;
And the great cities of the world shall yet
Be golden frames for me in which to set
New masterpieces of more rare romance.[5]

 

Now here’s an interesting “what if:” Charlotte Zeepvat, biographer of Noel Hodgson, notes that Hodgson’s battalion crossed paths today, a century back, with a soon-to-be-famous footnote of the Somme battle.

Yesterday the 8th Devonshires had marched back from the line to billets in Meaulte, where their brigade had its headquarters. There Hodgson’s mail caught up with him and he learned that he had become an uncle. Today, a century back, he wrote happily home to the new mother, his sister Stella:

Dear Star,–

The great news has just arrived. Splendid, old lady, I am tremendously bucked; heartiest of all welcomes to the wee maid, and I hope I may not be long before I see her myself. Her beauty won‘t be apparent yet, but of course she will be beautiful, and she cannot help being good.

What is her ladyship to be called? I suggest Audrena, as one of her names, and Baldwin has its merits. Thomasina I cannot recommend honestly, nor Tookey, but you may be of a different opinion.

She isn’t as big as mother yet, I suppose, nor as intelligent of course. Dad asserts her to be dark haired but I accept it with reserve.

Anyway, best of luck to you and her from affect. brother and Uncle

Bill.

The same day that Hodgson wrote this giddy note, he may have seen “a contoured model in plasticene…made by Captain Martin, 9th Devonshire Regt. showing the whole area to be attacked by the 20th Infantry Brigade.” Many of the brigade officers were shown the model, and the brigade major invited all companies to arrange tours beginning tomorrow. If not today, then, we can probably assume that Hodgson will view the model anon, although he does not mention it directly.

“Uncle” Hodgson–a new nickname to add to “Smiler”–shall have seen, then, an accurate representation of Fricourt Wood, Fricourt Farm, Railway Alley, Fritz Trench, Bright Alley. The model will become a “part of the folklore of the Somme.”

Martin, it is said, went home on leave worried about the danger his men would face. He studied the map, becoming convinced that a machine gun sited at a shrine in the village cemetery would cut down his battalion as they advanced through Mansel Copse.

So he made a relief model of the battlefield to demonstrate the danger, took it back to France and showed it to his fellow officers. But when he attempted to tell his superiors they dismissed the idea, secure in their belief that the British bombardment would obliterate everything in its path.[6]

Or so the story goes. As Zeepvat notes, there is an accretion of legend here, since the records show that the brigade, at least, saw the model as a useful tool. But we get ahead of ourselves–battle stories do not go back to before their beginnings until long after they have begun…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 209.
  2. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 166-7.
  3. Patches of Sunlight, 195.
  4. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 161-3.
  5. Letters and Diary, 208-9.
  6. Zeepvat, Before Action, 185-7.