Yesterday, distracted by Ford’s trauma and Sassoon’s poems, I didn’t provide an update on the agonies of confusion suffered by the parents of Robert Graves. Perhaps I have grown old in war, and cruel: yesterday was a good day, so why mention it? They received both another letter from Robert assuring them that he was improving, and a notification from the War Office that the “died of wounds” telegram was a mistake.
They had rejoiced, thinking the ordeal over, but today provided one more sharp shock of loss. When the post arrived, Amy Graves, Robert’s mother, found a letter from Robert’s batman (soldier-servant) expressing his sadness over Graves’s death and reporting that he had collected Robert’s kit and was sending it home to them. How could this testimony, from a man by Robert’s side, be in error? For a few moments, the Graveses were certain that they had truly lost their son–until they found another letter further down the stack, from Robert, and compared dates and post-marks. The War Office now knew that Graves was wounded and in hospital, but his battalion still didn’t–the batman was writing from billets on the Somme, not Rouen. Next came a telegram stating “Captain Graves progressing favourably, transferred England shortly.” They were out of the woods at last…
The batman’s letter would have taken a few days in transit; as it happened, the 2nd Royal Welch seem to have learned of Graves’s survival more or less when his parents did. Robert Graves himself, never one to pass up the chance to include an amusing text, will give us a letter from the redoubtable Colonel “Tibs” Crawshay:
Dear von Runicke,
I cannot tell you how pleased I am you are alive. I was told your number was up for certain, and a letter was supposed to have come in from Field Ambulance saying you had gone under.
Well, it’s good work. We had a rotten time, and after succeeding in doing practically the impossible we collected that rotten crowd and put them in their places, but directly dark came they legged it. It was too sad.
We lost heavily. It is not fair putting brave men like ours alongside that crowd. I also wish to thank you for your good work and bravery, and only wish you could have been with them. I have read of bravery but I have never seen such magnificent and wonderful disregard for death as I saw that day. It was almost uncanny — it was so great. I once heard an old officer in the Royal Welch say the men would follow you to Hell; but these chaps would bring you back and put you in a dug-out in Heaven.
Good luck and a quick recovery. I shall drink your health to-night.
We have several other writers to get to, today, but there is a very long poem worth reading, so I will try to keep these notes brief. Let’s see:
John Ronald Tolkien and the 9th Lancashires were relieved after their most recent turn in the trenches, and marched back as far as Mailly-Maillet, where they slept in the wood, in reserve, for the next five nights.
Siegfried Sassoon, meanwhile, is also being moved further from the front. His fever is down, but he is judged to be weak enough to require a long rest. A hospital train will take him from Amiens to Rouen, where the ironies-of-unbeknowing increase: Graves is in the hospital there, and feeling better, but Sassoon, of course, still believes him dead.
And Raymond Asquith wrote to both Katherine and Diana of sweltering weather and the remnants of romance… but I will find another opportunity to quote from those letters.
It seems now as if the Somme, after the deaths of July 1st and the steep toll of Mametz Wood, is temporarily content to merely wound and scarify the writers of England. The Welsh have retired, and now it is the Highlanders’ turn, and Mametz Wood will continue to devastate the poets of Britain.
As we look back, it seems as if one of the nastiest realities of the Somme is the way in which the slow pace of the advance wreaked so much havoc among support troops and reinforcements. All the inevitable areas of concentration were very well known to the German artillery, which could bide its time or lull the British with regular bombardments, then launch barrages when the men might be concentrated in their tents. We have seen this before–in fact we saw it yesterday, when Ford Madox Hueffer was hit–and we will see it tomorrow as well: any bivouac can suddenly become a charnel house.
E.A. Mackintosh and the 5th Seaforth Highlanders have been camped in Mametz Wood for three days. Why they are still there when they took 40 casualties from gas shells on the 27th is difficult to tell. Perhaps, simply, the various Happy Valleys are even worse places to be, and the wood may offer some protection from German observation.
But it didn’t. As the battalion rested during the heat of the afternoon, heavy shells dropped into the wood, killing six men and mortally wounding an officer. But that’s hardly the worst of it: the battalion diary records two officers sent back with “shell shock–” probably meaning psychological breakdown rather than concussion–as well as “43 O.R.s wounded or shell shock.”
At some point this week, a century back–there is considerable confusion in the battalion records–Lieutenant Mackintosh was wounded and evacuated. His biographers Colin Campbell and Rosalind Green believe that he was hit today. Mackintosh suffered injuries to a leg and an eye, and was probably concussed. He didn’t write of the injuries at the time or shortly thereafter, and was never explicit about what happened. This may be reticence, but it is probably also exactly the same as Ford Madox Hueffer’s situation, of which I wrote yesterday: there is no certain date because battalions often lose sight of injured officers (as we have seen with Graves) and there is no personal certainty because the subject–the writer, the author, the “I” of of the experience–was traumatized and lost his memory of the event.
But Mackintosh did describe something very similar to what happened to him in Mametz Wood. “In the Wood” is a fictionalized sketch, but it seems awfully relevant. It begins:
The sun struck through the still unriven trees upon earth, baked by a month of drying suns and torn into fantastic heaps and hollows by the hands of men and the burst of shells; for the wood had been the centre of a ten-days’ struggle, and either side had hurled earth-shaking crumps into it, and had dug frantically little slit trenches to hide themselves from the death which was menaced by every whining shell. Now at last it was British, and save for a commodious dug-out here and there, and some torn grey equipment, no trace was left of the German occupation. The tall trees stood up parched and blasted by the hot breath of the explosions or lay where the explosions had struck them down; the fallen leaves were littered in the hollows, whence rose, if you disturbed them, an acrid smell of the gas launched over the wood four days before, and everywhere among the undergrowth and the fallen trees ran a network of narrow trenches and shallow burrows from which rose the sound of talk and the smell of cooking, the resting-place of the supports who were to be ready that night to move up through the valley and sweep past a victorious front-line brigade into an enemy village two miles away.
Mackintosh next describes the detritus of the battle, which I will belatedly tag as the “flotsam and jetsam” piece:
All around the wood lay guns which barked occasionally; in front of it was the shell-torn “valley of death” with its grim windings–“dead man’s corner” and “suicide corner”–up which all troops had to go and on which the German barrage was regularly laid twice or three times a day; not a blade of grass was to be seen in the valley, nothing but huge shell-holes and heaped-up earth, seamed with old and new trenches and littered with all the waste products of a battle, dead men’s equipment and rifles, bombs and shell-cases, huge duds, and here and there the wreck of an ambulance or an ammunition-waggon which had been caught by German shells. Now the valley lay in its hideous squalor basking in the sun, while overhead droned an aeroplane–British it must be, of course.
It’s a short piece, and with this spotter plane as the gun left negligently upon the stage, the first act comes to a close. And this gun is not a Browning, but a Luger.
We skip ahead a bit, and morph from Russian drama to Greek tragedy. The subaltern alter-ego is proud of his resilience:
Another long-drawn whine was followed by a crash so close that the trench seemed to collapse though it was only loose earth falling. The Subaltern saw the mess dixie hurled into a bush, and the terrified man beside him darted his head into a little hole in the side of the trench. Over the Subaltern came the bombardment feeling; a sensation which mingles a curious numbness of all ordinary emotions with an abounding pride and a complete contempt for anybody more frightened than oneself; he turned slowly to the man and told him to take his head out of the hole.
“It’ll come in on you if a crump drops near,” he said, “and then you’ll suffocate. Have a cigarette…”
Soon the chorus will break in:
I don’t know if I have given the impression that the Subaltern was a fearless young gentleman; but if so, it was not my intention. He was very afraid and most unwilling to die, and he showed it, if the men had only noticed, by his nervous movement of relief after each close burst. A somewhat vigorous self-control, combined with a very real pleasure in being so close to death and yet alive, enabled him to delude the privates; but inside he was quaking.
In the sketch, at least, the subaltern–MacTaggart–passes the test. He helps bring a wounded officer to the aid post, and is returning to the trenches with operational orders. They are to leave the vicinity of Mametz Wood and move up to assault High Wood at night:
As MacTaggart crossed the open he was gripped with a sudden fear. The whining and the crash of the shells was coming nearer again, and he had two Companies to see before he could get back to his own burrow. He ran hastily over to the first Coy. H.Q., and then paused there, bracing himself for his next rush, for the barrage was on their lines again, although not so heavily. Out he ran and along to the next H.Q., fixing his mind on the job, and. not allowing himself to think of shells, when a low shrapnel, beautifully timed, burst close beside him, knocking him over; picking himself up he staggered to the trench and handed over the message, only conscious of a sudden quiet, for that shrapnel had been the last shell of the barrage. Then he found his mouth full of blood and his limbs weak and tottering. He was not wounded he knew; he supposed it must be shell-shock.
At Headquarters he reported the messages delivered, and got some opium from the doctor; in a dream he got rum, then his own men, and found new vigour in his limbs and ferocity in his mind. “Go down? I’m damned if I will,” he muttered, and walked along the trench. The British barrage was on now, and the troops were all ready to move up.
It is here that fiction departs decorously from reality–if, that is, we are correct in supposing that the subaltern knocked down by a shell, wounded somehow in the head, and believing himself to be “shell-shocked” is based on Mackintosh. “In the Wood” ends in the conventional manner–the manner, that is, of a less subtle and Pre-Somme Donald Hankey: the subaltern staggers to his post, the men sing psalms, and the officers are left praising the gloriously undiminished spirit of the battalion as it moves forward to the attack.
In reality, Mackintosh, sometime around now, was evacuated with both physical and psychological injuries, while the 5th Seaforths went forward without him. So this is remarkably like Ford’s experience yesterday, and yet not: Ford will write a great fiction embracing, in a sense, the wages of shell shock; Mackintosh in this short piece acknowledges it, then puts it behind him and soldiers on in the old ways.
From yet another wounded and disoriented writer/subaltern, we come now to one who has begun to consider the emotional, philosophical, and literary challenges of war’s devastation.
J. R. Ackerley had a narrow escape on the first day on the Somme, with two wounds and five bullet holes in his clothes. Despite considering himself a physical coward, he had acquitted himself well. But now he had a survivor’s tasks: to write to–and, on convalescent leave in England, to meet with–the families of his brother officers; and to work out his own new approach to writing about the war. I haven’t included any of his earlier “Poems from the Trenches,” which were, apparently, not very good at all. But now his style has begun to change, and John Masefield–who perhaps has not yet gotten enough credit, here–is once again a formative influence. Masefield does not seem “modern” to us, but he was certainly much more useful to the war-scarred poets than the 19th-century Romantics. Before the war, he had been Siegfried Sassoon’s accidental path out of fin de siècle preciousness when he parodied “The Everlasting Mercy” in “The Daffodil Murderer,” and he will continue to turn up in the kit bags of our poetic subalterns.
Today, a century back, Ackerley wrote “The Everlasting Terror,” a strong-minded condemnation of battle–and popular Christian solace–that he he dedicated to Bobby Soames, who was killed on July 1st. “Hell” has popped up already today, but Ackerley is not inclined to let the concept become a loose-limbed metaphor quite yet.
The Everlasting Terror
By J. R. Ackerley
For fourteen years since I began
I learnt to be a gentleman,
I learnt that two and two made four
And all the other college lore,
That all that’s good and right and fit
Was copied in the Holy Writ,
That rape was wrong and murder worse
Than stealing money from a purse,
That if your neighbour caused you pain
You turned the other cheek again,
And vaguely did I learn the rhyme
“Oh give us peace. Lord, in our time,
And grant us Peace in Heaven as well.
And save our souls from fire in Hell”;
So since the day that I began
I learnt to be a gentleman.
But when I’d turned nineteen and more
I took my righteousness to War.
The one thing that I can’t recall
Is why I went to war at all;
I wasn’t brave, nor coward quite,
But still I went, and I was right.
But now I’m nearly twenty-two
And hale as any one of you;
I’ve killed more men than I can tell
And been through many forms of Hell,
And now I come to think of it
They tell you in the Holy Writ
That Hell’s a place of misery
Where Laughter stands in pillory
And Vice and Hunger walk abroad
And breed contagion ‘gainst the Lord.
Well, p’r’aps it is, but all the same,
It heals the halt, the blind, the lame,
It takes and tramples down your pride
And sin and vainness fall beside,
It turns you out a better fool
Than you were taught to be at school,
And, what the Bible does not tell.
It gives you gentleness as well.
Oh, God! I’ve heard the screams of men
In suffering beyond our ken.
And shuddered at the thought that I
Might scream as well if I should die.
I’ve seen them crushed or torn to bits,–
Oh, iron tears you where it hits!
And when the flag of Dawn unfurls
They cry–not God’s name, but their girls’.
Whose shades, perhaps, like Night’s cool breath,
Are present on that field of death.
And sit and weep and tend them there,
God’s halo blazing round their hair.
“Thou shalt not kill.” But in the grime
Of smoke and blood and smell of lime
Which creeping men have scattered round
A blood-disfigured piece of ground.
When Time weighs on you like a ton,
And Terror makes your water run,
And earth and sky are red with flame,
And Death is standing there to claim
His toll among you, when the hour
Arrives when you must show your power
And take your little fighting chance.
Get up and out and so advance,
When crimson swims before your eyes
And in your mouth strange oaths arise,
Then something in you seems to break
And thoughts you never dreamt of wake
Upon your brain and drive you on.
So that you stab till life is gone,
So that you throttle, shoot or stick,
A shrinking man and don’t feel sick
Nor feel one little jot of shame;
My God, but it’s a bloody game!
Oh yes, I’ve seen it all and more.
And felt the knocker on Death’s door;
I’ve been wherever Satan takes you,
And Hell is good, because it makes you.
As long as you’re a man, I say,
The “gentle” part will find its way
And catch you up like all the rest–
For love I give the Tommy best!
No need to learn of Christ’s Temptation
There’s gentleness in all creation.
It’s born in you like seeds in pears.
It ups and takes you unawares.
It’s Christ again, the real Lover
And not the corpse we languish over.
It makes us see, our vision clearer;
When Christ is in us He is dearer,
We love Him when we understand
That each of us may hold His hand.
May walk with Him by day or night
In meditation towards the light;
It’s better far than paying shillings
For paper books with rusty fillings
Which say eternal punishment
Is due to those poor men who’ve spent
Their lives in gambling, drinking, whoring,
As though there were some angel scoring
Black marks against you for your sins
And he who gets the least marks wins.
This was a word Christ never sent,
This talk of awful punishment;
You’re born into a world of sin
Which Jesus’ touch will guide you in,
And when you die your soul returns
To Christ again, with all its burns,
In all its little nakedness,
In tears, in sorrow, to confess
That it has failed as those before
To walk quite straight from door to door:
And Christ will sigh instead of kiss,
And Hell and punishment are this.
And so through all my life and days,
In all my walks, through all my ways.
The lasting terror of the war
Will live with me for evermore.
Of all the pals whom I have missed
There’s one, I know, whom Christ has kissed,
And in his memory I’ll find
The sweetness of the bitter rind–
Of lonely life in front of me
And terror’s sleepless memory.
June 30th, 1916
The piece will be published in November in The English Review–whose founding editor today does not even know his own name–and also performed at a battalion concert by Ackerley’s younger brother Peter. The challenge to conventional religion–or, at least, religion in the service of war aims–is very much front and center, but this amounts, I think, to a half-measure that fits very well with this period of the war. And “terror’s sleepless memory–” a powerful note to end on–is not the sort of line that ended prominently published poems in 1914 and 1915.
The cost of the Somme is pushing its way into literature, slowly but surely. But we are still far from the hopeless muck of Passchendaele. As that name uncannily implies, there will be a different, a further identification–further, both in the sense of “more complete” and “farther away from what it had been”–between Christ and soldier, and an opening interrogation of the meaning of their latter-day excruciation.
Ackerley is far–or seems far–from rejecting the central Christian message. He just finds ordinary moral doctrine unhelpful to the task of navigating the terrors of his “living hell” (that inevitable cliché). And yes, Ackerley is gay, but the finding of solace–of “sweetness”–only in the companionship of one’s fellows (or its memory) will become an increasingly common response to the war. “They–“a term which encompasses purveyors of slogan and doctrine, old jingoistic men, women, civilians in general, the Staff, and the chateau generals–talk rot about sin and salvation. Only the infantry live through the lasting terror of the war, and need to locate something more, something more than mere words.