A. A. Milne and the Earnest Young Knight; Robert Graves Arisen; Herbert Read is for a Hardy Pessimism

On his way to France to join the 11th Royal Warwickshires, A. A. Milne had traveled with a very young subaltern–young, and a younger son, and now the only son. His parents had given him

…an under-garment of chain-mail, such as had been worn in the Middle Ages to guard against unfriendly daggers, and was now sold to over-loving mothers as likely to turn a bayonet-thrust or keep off a stray fragment of shell; as, I suppose, it might have done. He was much embarrassed by this parting gift, and though, true to his promise, he was taking it to France with him, he did not know whether he ought to wear it. I suppose that, being fresh from school, he felt it to be ‘unsporting’; something not quite done; perhaps, even, a little cowardly. His young mind was torn between his promise to his mother and his hatred of the unusual. He asked my advice: charmingly, ingenuously, pathetically.

Milne is thirty-four, a married man and a professional writer and editor, far removed from this schoolboy view of army life. And yet the boy is not wrong. Foolish to be so bothered, sure, but how can that be helped? He is right to anticipate shallow judgment by his peers and to imagine a system still shaped by notions of honor and fair play. It’s sad, for us, to see the word “sporting” affecting life and death decisions; and it should be–but how can it be otherwise? There is no handy porter to cart away all our excess cultural baggage when war beckons.

Interestingly, the practical question of whether the weight of this chain-mail corselet is worth the protection it provides (a mithril coat neatly dodges this conundrum) is not raised. This is a question of honor, and sporting behavior–there is a sense that it is wrong not to expose the body to harm when seeking to do harm. Is this entirely bizarre? A little, but there is a faint echo of similar, more familiar ethical questions nonetheless.

Was it sporting for knights in heavy armor to plunge around a battlefield hacking through their unarmored inferiors in order to attempt to brain, capture, and ransom a similarly invulnerable aristocrat? Is it precisely the same when a fighter pilot swoops in between AA fire to fire a rocket as when an operator at a console ten thousand miles away performs the same task?

But this is only a small part of the equation, really: armor was largely abandoned because it was ineffectual, and the notion of “unsporting” followed (after they whittled chivalry down and ran it up and down the playing fields of Eton for a while). Hardly (and not, in fact, entirely) had the last cuirassiers set aside their breastplates when the infantry were once again donning their steel helmets, remarking on their medieval aspect, and complaining about the weight. In fact, just yesterday, in a letter I omitted, Raymond Asquith was mocking an apparent suggestion from Arthur Conan Doyle that the infantry should carry steel shields. And unbeknownst to the men currently fighting, there are plans well advanced to return armor to the battlefield, in the form of the first tanks…

But back to Milne’s story of the boy and his chain-mail. It is, alas, not an idle story, but neither does Milne turn it to comedy or an object lesson. Instead it’s another bittersweet prelude to meaningless disaster. Today, a century back, the 11th Warwickshires were at their ease, camping in an orchard near Bécourt[1]–about two miles west of Mametz Wood–when Milne and the other new subalterns first heard the sound of guns not as distant thunder, but as incoming rounds.

I do not know whether he took my advice… Anyway, it didn’t matter; for on the evening when we first came within reach of the battle-zone, just as he was settling down to his tea, a crump came over and blew him to pieces…

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

But just why it was a pleasant death and a fitting death I still do not understand. Nor, it may be, did his father and mother; even though assured by the Colonel that their son had died as gallantly as he had lived, an English gentleman.[2]

This is a letter written this summer, a century back, but we have already heard this note of bitter irony about how a pointless death in a wood behind the lines can be written up as “gallant” and gentlemanly. And we will see more of that Horatian tag, too. Others will take it on more literally: “to die for (one’s) fatherland/country” would be the literal translation of the end of the line, but it is interesting that Milne seems to make the point that “country” and “class expectations” are inseparable–it is the gentlemanly death alone that the youth imagined to be sweet and fitting.


One gets the sense that Dr. Dunn appreciated and tolerated Robert Graves rather than liking him wholeheartedly. But since the doctor had played some role in the nearly-fatal mistake of treating Graves’s wound as fatal, it would be, well, unsporting not to give Graves a good line upon his resurrection.

July 31st. …When the death of Bowles and of Graves was reported through the Field Ambulance, nine days ago, the customary letters were written to their kin. Now Graves writes to the C.O. that the shock of learning how much he is esteemed has recalled him from the grave, and that he has decided to live for the sake of those whose warm feelings he has misunderstood.[3]


Lastly, we check in with an infrequently-appearing yet very significant writer. Herbert Read is by now a long-serving subaltern–although he has been some months in the trenches, he has missed the Somme after being injured by barbed wire. Unfortunately, little of his early-war writing can be dated, hence his rare appearances here.

Today, however, we have a letter–one of many written to the woman who was at first a “casual” university friend but is now becoming something much more important. As we come to read more of these letters–published subsequently as a sort of substitute diary-in-letters–we may indeed see something of the “process of getting familiar with death and nothingness… in all its unconscious fatality.”

This might read like an introduction to a letter that demonstrates shock at the suddenness of death in battle or bombardment, but it’s not. We’ll get there, but Read is now in Rugeley Camp in Staffordshire (one of the former haunts of John Ronald Tolkien) and far from the noise of war. It’s his reading–he’s a radical, a Nietzsche-enthusiast, and a devout young Modernist–rather than the war itself that provides evidence of personal developmental. And evidence, too, that you can take the bright boy out of timelessly rural England,[4] but you can’t rural England out of the boy…


I think a pessimistic attitude is essential to all clear thinking. By a pessimistic attitude I mean a realization of the imperfections and limitations of Man. The belief in the ‘divinity’ of mankind has resulted in all that false idealism and romanticism which is the curse of literature, philosophy and art…

Read name-checks many of his philosophical and literary enthusiasms, here–Bergson, Croce, Sorel, Henry James, the Imagists–before coming to a writer more dear to the heart of this project.

And now for your attack… on Hardy and Meredith… I refuse to have them condemned on the flimsy grounds of morbidity… Hardy’s Jude the Obscure… [is] an absolutely faultless presentation of the animal in mankind… and also, in the character of Jude, a presentation of the finer aspirations of mankind. And in the heroine you have, it seems to me as a mere man, one of the finest female characters ever conceived.

And besides, in all of Hardy’s novels, there is a fine pagan spirit which you must admire–a revelation of the essential cruelty of nature, and of the damning blight of religious creeds.

Which, after all, is good mental conditioning for the godless intellectual youth bound for the trenches…

Read continues on to defend Meredith and praise James before he breaks off with this:

I don’t know if all this is boring you. I will another time, if you like, pull the Wells-Bennett school to pieces. Also give you my own ideas on the novel. For I am going to attempt one as soon as this beastly war is over.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Perhaps Bécourt Wood itself.
  2. Thwaite, A.A. Milne, 173-4. A cursory search of the CWGC site does not locate a subaltern of the 11th Royal Warwickshires killed today, a century back. It seems much more likely that the records (or recollections) are off by a day than that the incident was concocted...
  3. The War the Infantry Knew, 246.
  4. Read's account of his childhood on a big Yorkshire farm--yes, that's about as far as you can be from Hardy's Wessex poverty and still be "timelessly rural England," but still--is the most beautiful that I have read, and I've read a few.
  5. The Contrary Experience, 73-4.

Relief at Last for Mr. and Mrs. Graves; A Converging of the Twain and a Note from Tibs; Tolkien is Out of the Line; E. A. Mackintosh is “In [Mametz] Wood;” J.R. Ackerley’s “The Everlasting Terror”

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…[1]

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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6]

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,[7] 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.[8]

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

To Bobby
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.


References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 156-7.
  2. Good-Bye to All That, 223-4.
  3. Chronology, 86.
  4. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 276-7.
  5. He may have been gassed as well, which might mean that he was injured on the 27th, rather than today. Furthermore, he suffered from one or the other of what we would now see as the two distinct sorts of "shell shock," i.e. traumatic brain injury as opposed to, or accompanied by, psychological symptoms that do not have a single physical cause. And even if he was indeed violently concussed--as the eye injury suggests--his path from an MC on a raid through the hellish bombardment on the Somme, then evacuation, and on to later nervous symptoms would certainly suggest psychological injury as well. Shell shock indeed--but there are no clear records and, from Mackintosh, no explicit statements, only his fictionalized sketches, on which see below.
  6. Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man With a Cold, 146-577.
  7. The battalion diary would suggest three days, but see the note above for the uncertainty of dating.
  8. As Peter Parker, who is definitely exempt from yesterday's footnoted jibe about literary biographers, reminds us, Masefield was a major influence on Graves and Sorley as well. See Parker, Ackerley, 23-7.

Ford Madox Hueffer Blows Up; Siegfried Sassoon Mourns Robert Graves, and Writes “To His Dead Body” and “Died of Wounds”

Ford Madox Hueffer has had a strange career in several ways. Notable and notorious as a writer and critic, his personal life has earned heaps of scorn even as his writing has been generally underappreciated.[1] As a soldier, he was a late volunteer, yet he seemed to almost enjoy barracks life as an elderly (42!) subaltern of infantry. But like most volunteers–and all ambitious writers–he wanted to see the elephant.

Hueffer finally made it to France this month, only to be told by his new commanding officer (9th Battalion, Welsh Regiment) that he was too old for the front lines. This sort of age discrimination was probably fairly sensible, but Hueffer was also overweight and prone to illness, so there were many reasons to keep him from the exhausting life of front line trench-holding. Instead, he was stationed with the battalion transport section. This is where the younger, athletic Siegfried Sassoon has also been stashed (but in another Regiment, on another part of the line), perhaps because of worries about his psychological fitness for combat.[2] But where Sassoon spent his transport-times in long days of poetic lassitude, Hueffer found near-disaster almost immediately.

Yesterday, a century back, he wrote to Lucy Masterman:

We are right up in the middle of the strafe, but only with the 1st line transport. We get shelled two or three times a day, otherwise it is fairly dull–indeed, being shelled is fairly dull, after the first once or twice. Otherwise it is all very interesting–filling in patches of one’s knowledge… The noise of the bombardment is continuous–so continuous that one gets used to it, as one gets used to the noise in a train and the ear picks out the singing of the innumerable larks…[3]

So Ford has checked in: he has arrived in France, he has come up to “the strafe–” he has seen the Somme, he has described a bombardment and he has heard the larks. It would seem that he is near Bécourt, at the bottom of Sausage Valley. This is not far from Mametz Wood, but it’s actually closer to the July 1st start-line. The forward elements of his battalion were probably supporting the continuing attacks upon the second German defensive system around High Wood.[4]And today,[5] he was hit. A sudden barrage dropped on the transport, and Ford Madox Hueffer was literally blown up–and then, as necessarily happens, he came back down.

A German shell–evidently both high-caliber, to be falling thousands of yards in the rear, and high explosive, to be wounding with its blast without terrible shrapnel injuries–lifted Hueffer up into the air, dropping him heavily on his face. He sustained wounds to his mouth and face, and he was also badly concussed. A man who wrote everything, who used every facet of his own experience in his fiction, wrote nothing today, a century back, and nothing about his own experience later: he will preserve no memory of it.

Nevertheless, the lasting neurological damage–then “shell shock,” and poorly understood, now PTSD, and still poorly treated–wrought by the shell-burst will have a major influence on the great Modernist novel of the war. Ford’s Parade’s End doesn’t merely assign this incident and its after-effects to the protagonist, Christopher Tietjens: the entire presentation of the novel–its fractured time signatures, the dammed and seeping streams of consciousness, the way in which Tietjens’ peripatetic brilliance and his memory losses drive and inhibit the reader’s ability to understand the text–is, in a sense, the perfect marriage of Modernism and what we might call either “shell shock” or, more broadly, modern military experience.

So, you see, Ford was a great writer already. But for that–for this–he had to be there. Not a few feet further out along the blast radius, and certainly not a few feet closer in. Biography and artillery converge, just so, to move literature in a new direction.

It’s difficult to demonstrate Ford’s technique in Parade’s End with a few snippets, but since I’ve dragged the thing into this, I should quote Tietjens’ account of what happened to him. Here he is some time later,  back in England with his awful, awful wife Sylvia:[6]

‘What really happened to you in France? What is really the matter with your memory? Or your brain, is it?’

He said carefully: ‘It’s half of it, an irregular piece of it, dead. Or rather pale. Without a proper blood supply… So a great portion of it, in the shape of memory, has gone.’[7]

She said:

‘But you!… without a brain!…’ As this was not a question, he did not answer.

Sylvia–who moves in an awful, awful circle of cosmopolitan cynics (something like a heightened, curdled parody of Asquith and his coterie), had previously believed her husband to be faking his profound memory loss. Now she realizes that this is not, as she had thought, simply “a wangle known as shell-shock” which her friends faked in order to work some leave. Tietjens is eventually coaxed into explaining the little that he can:

Something burst–or ‘exploded’ is probably the right word–near me, in the dark… I don’t know what happened and I don’t remember what I did. There are three weeks of my life dead.[8]

As for Hueffer and these three weeks–which I will strive to include–he was initially kept with his battalion, probably because his physical injuries were minor,[9] and because they were shortly due to rotate into reserve. Sending him off into the separate bureaucracy of the medical services would have been a bad idea in any case: today, a century back, Ford Madox Hueffer had no idea where he was, nor could he answer to his own name.[10] He will remember bits and pieces of the coming days, and do much with them…


Siegfried Sassoon himself, meanwhile, is in the hospital in Rouen, weakened by fever and diarrhea. But as with so many of our writers, illness means relief from duty, and thus more time to write. Sassoon’s letter of today, a century back–to the musicologist Edward Dent, one of the members of the Cambridge-centered artistic circle into which Sidney Cockerell had introduced Sassoon last summer–dwells on the friends he has lost. It is interesting, after reading of how the fictionalizing Sassoon will describe the fictionalized Robert Graves, to see him writing of Graves–in propriis personis, as it were–with all the affection of a bereaved friend and all the lack of restraint of a writer who believes his subject to be beyond the ability to take offense:

There was something of bitter charm in [Graves], a sort of sallow, victimised, faithful Jester in the storm–quite impossible to describe–queer twisted smile–ungainly lankiness-rather goggling eyes–and all that’s been dumped into a shell-hole and blathered over by a parson (if he was so ‘lucky’ as to get that last piece of patronising attentive impudence thrown at him)…

…His rare gaiety was like a young animal hopping in a daisied field… lying here one sees war in a new light: the callous uselessness of it–and oh the dullness–when I’m there I’m a beast–nothing more–healthy and full-fed on coarse filth–with no desire but to rest and smoke a pipe. Now I get away from it all and my brain begins to work again.[11]

It seems likely that, today, that working brain was revising yesterday‘s poem for Marcus Goodall, which he will re-title “To His Dead Body.”[12]

When roaring gloom surged inward and you cried,
Groping for friendly hands, and clutched, and died,
Like racing smoke, swift from your lolling head
Phantoms of thought and memory thinned and fled.
Yet, though my dreams that throng the darkened stair
Can bring me no report of how you fare,
Safe quit of wars, I speed you on your way
Up lonely, glimmering fields to find new day,
Slow-rising, saintless, confident and kind—
Dear, red-faced father God who lit your mind.

Nor has Sassoon’s slow-burn traumatic experience been eased by his time in the hospital. There was a delirious officer in the next bed who screamed about horrible experiences in a wood. One morning–probably today, although I don’t think there is any way to know–the officer was gone, and Sassoon began another poem, to be (eventually) entitled “Died of Wounds.” The original draft rambled somewhat, but Sassoon will cut the poem down to three stanzas.

The poet, frustrated and feverish, shocked by what he has seen and what he has lost, is nevertheless beginning to show restraint in choosing his images and a remarkable (considering his recent apostrophes and fondness for lyric excursion) tightening of the diction. There are some taut, tough pentameters here:

His wet white face and miserable eyes
Brought nurses to him more than groans and sighs:
But hoarse and low and rapid rose and fell
His troubled voice: he did the business well.

The ward grew dark; but he was still complaining
And calling out for ‘Dickie’. ‘Curse the Wood!
‘It’s time to go. O Christ, and what’s the good?
‘We’ll never take it, and it’s always raining.’

I wondered where he’d been; then heard him shout,
‘They snipe like hell! O Dickie, don’t go out…
I fell asleep … Next morning he was dead;
And some Slight Wound lay smiling on the bed.


The very odd parallel between Sassoon and Ford will continue, tomorrow. They do not cross paths, but they seem to harmonize into a new war literature chord. There is an eerily tight overlapping and interweaving of the experiences of Sassoon, Ford, and Graves as well. Two are blown up, all three go to the hospital, and two (as we shall see) are terrified by the raving occupant of the next bed while one is himself the chatty, officially dead man in the adjacent bed. And nobody’s writing will emerge unscathed…

I’m not sure, by the way, if this coincidence has been noticed before. Graves and Sassoon are very often studied as a pair, of course, and Sassoon’s disillusionment is the standard text, the go-to comparison (he turns up constantly in reviews of more recent war memoirs and war poetry, for instance), so it seems likely that someone has noticed that he was in the hospital at the same time as Ford. But then again there is such little attention to dates, and this one does not appear in the earlier biographies…

I mention this not (merely) to cry up the meager fruits of this project, but to note that, if one were of a mystical (or post-modern; same thing) frame of mind, it would seem clear that Joseph Heller was born not in 1923 in Coney Island, but today, a century back, somewhere in the triangle[13] described by Amiens, Rouen, and Sausage Valley. There is the bureaucracy and the absurdity, the trauma of the terrible wound and adjacent madness and death, the deep dark comedy, and the mysterious man in the next bed. It’s all there, but for the bombers–and for the path-breaking work of the Modernists and the soldier writers, the disillusioned, the disenchanted, and the very angry.


References and Footnotes

  1. His recent novel (The Good Soldier) will be recognized as a landmark of Modernism, but it is receiving little attention so far.
  2. Opposite worries, in a sense: while a new commander might guess--without much justification--that an older, out-of-shape literary type might be "windy" or unreliable in trench-holding, Sassoon has demonstrated that his aggressive streak and his penchant for independent wandering may cause problems during an actual assault, when keeping to the program is deemed so necessary.
  3. Letters, 66-7; War Prose, 3-4.
  4. This information is from Max Saunders, who is the authority on Ford and has written a useful and by all accounts excellent two-volume biography, and it seems to fit. But then Saunders has the 9th Welch--who did suffer heavy casualties on the Somme, but earlier, and further north and west--involved at Mametz Wood (Ford Madox Ford, A Dual Life, II, 2). I don't think this is correct, since we have not seen the 19th Division in that part of the battle--they were certainly further to the left. If Saunders erred here, perhaps by mistaking the Welsh (or Welch) Regiment for the Welsh (or 38th) Division, then he would be guilty either of a ghastly and indefensible howler or a run of the mill error of the sort which literary types frequently make as they begrudgingly follow their authors into the undiscovered country of military history and disdain taking the time to get comfortable there. Depends on how you see it, see. And I, of course, either stand proudly on a lonely ridge, a beacon of possibility, able to see the communications of both camps, or I am down in the nullah, exposed to enfilade fire from both sides, making errors both literary and military and bogging down in a war that can't be won... Anyone who knows if I err by querying Saunders or not should send an email, provided they can also tell me if my ablative plural joke, below, has been correctly carried off.
  5. Or possibly yesterday, but today seems more likely.
  6. Happily, the ethically nasty fictionalization of non-military aspects of authors' lives falls outside my brief, but Ford is very unkind both to his wife and to Violet Hunt, to whom he is married, now, in a not-quite-legal sense.
  7. I just stumbled upon this blog, which has an interesting discussion of brain injury, as well as a good reminder that we must distinguish between the brain injuries of literal shell-shock and the psychological injuries now being lumped under the same term. But since the blog--or tumblr, or what have you--has pictures from the recent TV version, it is officially anathema...
  8. Parade's End, 167-8.
  9. His teeth, however, were seriously damaged, but dental care was not likely to be easily available in the trauma centers near the front lines in any case, nor was relief for those who were "shell-shocked." If they were catatonic or raving they were carried back. But if not...
  10. Any of them, one assumes. I'm sure that someone, somewhere has pointed to this experience and connected it with his further name changes. (And I hope they made a little joke out of it.) He has already inserted a "Madox," and will afterwards drop the Hueffer in favor of the reduplicated forename. Does a man who once lost his memory feel more secure with a repeating name? Too pat...
  11. Quoted in Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 276-7.
  12. In a turn from some sort of black comedy/drawing room comedy, the poem will be dropped, reworked as below, dedicated to Goodall, re-dedicated to Graves and then, when Graves proves to be alive, rededicated to Goodall.
  13. Well, it's so narrow a triangle that it is almost a line, but still.

Miserable Uncertainty for the Graveses; Another Loss, and a Poem, from Siegfried Sassoon; Edward Thomas Goes for a Gunner, But Won’t Tell Robert Frost Why; A.A. Milne is Down to Platoon Level

Robert Graves is in a hospital in Rouen, badly wounded but out of danger, yet his parents’ agony continues. His letters proclaiming himself safe have been overtaken by various notices stating his danger and death. Today his father Alfred called once again at No. 10 Downing Street to try to clarify the conflicting reports. There he discovered Eddie Marsh with a letter from Siegfried Sassoon lamenting Robert’s death–another bad sign, but hardly definitive. Returning to Wimbledon, Alfred found a telegram that confirmed his son’s death from wounds. So tonight, a century back, he and Amy Graves rushed back into the center of London, arriving at the Officers’ Casualty Office close to midnight. There–somewhat remarkably–they were able to learn that this telegram had been generated by the War Office bureaucracy, rather than the hospital they know him to have reached. A good sign, then, but hardly definitive–the awful back-and-forth will continue.[1]


And as for Sassoon, he is in the hospital himself, with a fever and symptoms of dysentery. News will soon filter back to the 2nd Royal Welch that Graves survived his trip to the hospital, but there are no channels of communication between a hospital in Amiens and another in Rouen, and no reason for the 1st Battalion to hear the news and pass it on. It will be some time before Sassoon learns of the mistake. Believing Graves dead, he next learned, today, of the death of another friend, Marcus Goodall.

This apparent second disaster spurred a poem, headed “Elegy for Marcus Goodall.” Which, alas, is damning evidence that a poet steeping in lyric solipsism makes for a lousy elegist. At least for others: the first stanza manages to put Goodall’s death in the background, foregrounding instead the poet’s longing for the English countryside and then cramming the likelihood of his own imminent demise in front of that. This is consistency to fault, surely…

But the second stanza does show something notably new, namely strong traces of Sassoon’s recent combat experience. This is a poem by a man who has experience not just of the company-scale suffering of raid and attrition but of a major battle. It’s hard to imagine him having written this before he moved up to the outskirts of Mametz Wood (or, perhaps, before he heard his battalion-mates’ stories of High Wood) and saw mutilated bodies left untended in the open:

Sad victim, could you see your body thrown
Into a shallow pit along that wood
Thronged by the dead? O; there you lie not lone,
Under the splinter’d trees; for the brotherhood
Of discontented slain, with eyes that scowl,
And bristly cheeks and chins all bloody-smears,
Will hug their rank red wounds and limp and prowl,
Squatting around your grave with moans and tears.

This is something different–he has come around, now, to Graves’s “shocking” realism. Moreover, he has integrated it with his own persistent pastoral impulses. His writing was going to change–he just had to see it for himself. Of course, the diction is going to have to change, too, and this poem marks, if anything, some slippage back toward unnecessary apostrophe.Of both sorts: the “splinter’d trees” and the weird address–“O”–to the tumbled corpse.

From this relatively restrained realistic/romantic imaginary, the poem then precipitously overheats–Sassoon is literally feverish, after all–and flies off toward odd visions of a sort of general apocalypse…

But soon, I hope a monster shell will burst,
And all such filth be blotted and dispersed:
You’ll no more need to cling to the dead clay,
Dancing through fields of heaven to meet the day.
Slow-rising; saintless, confident and kind.
Dear, red-faced father God who lit your mind.[2]

Strange sentiments, but swifter rhythms. Sassoon will soon be recovered, and abandon this product of his weakened state. But the combination of horror and elegy will return–and he will repurpose those last two lines for another poem dedicated to a (presumed) dead friend…


We have a letter as well from an older and wiser poetic friendship. Which is to say quieter in its despair–although there is a good deal less, just now, to despair about. Anyway: Edward Thomas resumed, today, a century back, his correspondence with Robert Frost This provides us with a convenient update on his state of mind, but Thomas is not as forthcoming, here, as usual:

Friday July 28

My dear Robert,

A new step I have taken makes a good moment for writing. I offered myself for Artillery & today I was accepted, which means I shall go very soon to an Artillery school & be out in France or who knows where in a few months.

After months of panic & uncertainty I feel much happier again except that I don’t take easily to the trigonometry needed for artillery calculations.

This is hardly surprising, as the 38-year-old Thomas is hardly at the age when picking up disused or unfamiliar mental habits is natural–and our only previous poet to take an artillery commission was a math prodigy…

Thomas tries, now, to explain his decision:

I have done very nearly all that I could do here in the way of teaching, lecturing, & taking charge of men in & out of doors. My old acquaintances were mostly moving out. The speeding up of things left no chance of enjoying the walks we used to have. So I had to go. Now with luck I may find myself at a School in London before firing my course, & in London I can see a few people.

Friendship is a natural thing, with Thomas, and this is very plausible–deprived of his newer friends in the Artists Rifles,[3] he will set out for London. But he has also chosen a quicker path to France, and deadly danger. Will he discuss this with Frost?

There are to be other changes. Mervyn goes to Walthamstow (near Epping Forest & our old camp, & 10 miles or so N.E. of London) in early September—as an apprentice in the big Electric train, tube & bus works there; & Helen wants him to live at home. So we shall probably move. When we know where we shall be I will tell you. Meantime Steep will always be a safe address.

Things are going right now. We have endured long waiting. I think we can stand anything now, even success.
Of course I can’t write any more verses just now & have not done for a month or so…

No news. My mother has lately been operated on for cataract & is in a nursing home waiting to see again. She is not happy over my new chance of going out as an officer—I ought to be an officer in less than a few months. Nor is Helen. She is not often happy now. She is tired & anxious…

Will you write again about everything & anything? I shall so soon perhaps be out of reach of many letters. Goodbye.

Give my love to Elinor & all of them.

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[4]

No, he cannot–or will not–explain himself now. It is a feeble thing to present only the very natural objections of wife and mother to his decision to move toward the sound of the guns, in lieu of proper explanation. We sense that, since in this poet-to-poet exchange he won’t resort to platitude of cliche in order to cover inchoate thoughts, he will just say nothing, as yet. Surely his motivation is not something so simple as the desire to be tested? To find honor and meaning in war, when it has so long felt so elusive in peace? Does he wait for Frost to call him out? But Frost is a man–a neutral national, but always the more forward and “manly” of the two. Frost is the keeper-fighter; will he really call out Thomas on the decision to go to battle?


Finally, today, there’s another new subaltern on the Western Front. A. A. Milne, successful comic writer and former Punch contributor, has spent most of his war either training as a signaller or training other signallers. But now he has at last been shipped to France, where officers of infantry are suddenly in short supply. Bureaucracy being what it is, he is assigned to a combat battalion–the 11th Royal Warwickshires–with an incumbent signaller.

This battalion was in the thick of it, and is now resting (which means that you do about twice as much as you did at home) but we are going up again in a few days. There is a signalling officer here, curse him, and my Brigade job hangs fire. Result that I am a dashed platoon commander…

Milne also used this first “from the trenches” letter to inveigh against the purveyors of propaganda who write things like “However long this war lasts we must clench our teeth and hold on until we gain a complete victory.'” As Milne, a veteran now of a few days in France, feels able to remark, “[i]t’s easy work clenching teeth in London.”[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 156.
  2. Diaries, 99.
  3. Thomas will write to Gordon Bottomley in a few days, and include the news that Paul Nash, too, has chosen to go for a cadet...
  4. Elected Friends, 139-40.
  5. Thwaite, A.A. Milne, 173.

E. A. Mackintosh and the Highlanders are Next Up for the Maelstrom; Ivor Gurney on Music and Reading and Poetry so Saturated with the Very Spirit of England

We have not yet seen the end of High Wood. Two weeks ago the Welch Division pushed through Mametz Wood, where David Jones was wounded and Wyn Griffith lost his brother. This bloody victory eventually opened the way forward to Bazentin Ridge, High Wood, and the second German defensive system. Sassoon’s battalion of the Royal Welch–along with the rest of the 7th Division, but without Sassoon himself–had an early crack at this second line, and came out much reduced. Then it was the turn of the 33rd Division, including the other Regular battalion of the Royal Welch and Robert Graves, who, after passing through “Happy Valley,” was badly wounded near Bazentin.

Now it is the turn of the Highland Division. The 5th Seaforths, with Lieutenant E.A. Mackintosh, MC, have just arrived in Mametz Wood. They are in reserve, while other Scottish battalions attack High Wood, but tor reach the reserve positions they must pass through another “Happy Valley”[1] and live, however temporarily, amidst the wreckage of the recent battle. Mametz Wood, “a reserve position… more hated than the front line in High Wood” was still well within the range of the German guns. Today, a century back, the German artillery dropped gas shells amongst the Seaforths, killing six men and wounding over thirty others.[2]


So the clouds gather again, but we’ll spend the rest of today catching up with Ivor Gurney, the fragile Gloucestershire poet and composer. Gurney has been in France for seven weeks now, but his unit has yet to be thrown into the battle. He writes to Marion Scott, his friend and patron, with music on his mind and poetry from his pen. As we will see from his opening, he is determined to make this a letter about higher things, accomplishments, and beautiful things–he does not wish to become a carping Tommy.

27 July 1916

My Dear Miss Scott:

Two days ago I wrote you a letter full of grumbles about different things, but was ashamed on re-reading it,
and this is the outcome…

Thank you very much for all the trouble you are taking and have taken about my songs…

I am glad you like those verses.

The songs were the first of Gurney’s wartime songs to be performed, at a small concert organized by Scott. As for the verses, these were a disparate group of short poems included in a letter of early July. The most striking lines memorialized two friends of Gurney’s killed in late June. I left them out, here, figuring that to introduce them amidst the busy carnage of the early Somme might have been rather too much–ah, regret!

But here are some of those verses now. I’m omitting other curiosities from that letter–such as a few lines on the sounds of different artillery pieces–in favor of a cohesive piece which Gurney originally titled “For the Fallen.” Given that there was already a well-known poem of this n ame, the lines will appear later on under the title “To Certain Comrades.”

Living we loved you, yet witheld our praises
Before your faces.
And though our spirits had in high in honour.
After the English manner.

We said no word. Yet as such comrades would
You understood.

Such friendship is not touched by deaths disaster.
But stands the faster

Nor all the shocks and trials of time cannot
Shake it one jot.
Besidies the fire at night some grey December
We shall remember.
And tell men unbegotten as yet, the story
of your sad glory

Of your plain strength, your truth of heart, your splendid
Coolness–all ended.

How ended! And the aching hearts of lovers
Joy over covers.

Glad in their sorrow, hoping that if they must
Come to the dust.

That such an ending as yours may be their portion
And great good fortune.

That if we may not live to serve in peace
England–watching increase–

Then death with you, honoured and swift and high
And so–Not Die.

Back, now, to the letter of today, a century back.

Here is another set. It is simply too much trouble to ponder and reconsider. These things have to be written rapidly out here. This life takes away one’s virtue altogether, or seems to. A Wet Rag is solidity itself compared to my
moral and physical feelings. (Crrunch! Jack Johnson on the right.)

We moved very soon after I got your last letter, and it has got lost somehow, somewhere. But the other letter got here all right. Or is it the first I have lost?

…Your offer of parcels is most grateful to me. And books. There is Nelson’s 6d Classics, Cassells 6d National
Library and 8d Classics. And Everyman. Also Steads Penny Poets–a most useful edition–in which I would like Keats, Shelley and Tennyson, also Browning and Walt Whitman if you can; but these are out of print I think. Also I want a Supplement to the Golden Treasury in a small edition. There is one in Everyman, but a smaller would be preferred. You see the reason of my liking for the Penny Poets? There is no verse pleases me better than the best of present day stuff though. We may have no great poets, but poetry so saturated with the very spirit of England has not been written before…

But poetry alone cannot keep a man alive, nor fill a parcel to be shared out with his chums.

You must not think we never get bread. It is very seldom that we get less than a quarter loaf and sometimes it is a third. We are not quite so badly off as you seem to think. There is meat in great quantities, but one gets very tired of meat. O for a salad, green white and red, with real dressing, and proper bread and butter! It is a great thing to have few desires, and those easily satisfied, but when the best of my desires are in their very nature impossible to do anything with, the ground seems to fall away beneath one and leave one dangling in mid air above the pit. My moral and mental fibre is that of the old grandmother, without the advantage of quiet and an old age pension. Could I but think that either were to be obtained!

(Here I must work in a page of my discarded letter somehow.) The machine gunners manage to make their job interesting by “playing tunes” on their guns. As thus. After the ordinary casual shots and steady pour, one hears…

Here, alas, musical notation, which is beyond my ability to transcribe here and now. It’s a little bit of syncopation with a rest before the final beat–something, perhaps, like the end of a comic song.

…which always sounds comic, and must, I imagine require some skill. Here comes the other sheet…

Gurney, it need hardly be stated, is a trained musician and a promising composer and not likely to be too thrilled by the popular stuff.

The infantry have to make all their fun, but, bless their hearts, there is a considerable amount when one adds it up, but their musical taste is simply execrable, and they are given to singing the most doleful-sentimental of songs. One of the worst of which is a lamentable perpetration called “For he’s a ragtime soldier”, which they love to sing on the march after being relieved. We are all fed up. How fed up you must gather from the fact that anyone who
mentions home is howled down at once…

Gurney then asks Scott for news of the overall success of the offensive–that she will know the big picture better than he (filtered through propaganda) is an ironic likelihood already shopworn–and insists that she criticize his next poem with stringency:

Be candid, I do implore you. It is my one intellectual pastime barring only this same of letter writing, and I am too fed up with other things to be annoyed at a slating…

Goodbye with best wishes

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney

Will you please send me a copy of Masefields By A Bierside. I want to set it. And M.S.

Strange Service

The manuscript of “Strange Service,” from The First World War Poetry Digital Archive.


The poem that Gurney appends here at the letter’s conclusion he will call “Strange Service.” In its pastoral and dreamily traditional tone it is typical of Gurney’s work at this time. We can see a good deal more of the 19th century poets on his wish list, above, than we do of the very modern voices, or even the more direct of the Georgians. But it is a step forward for him nonetheless, “the first effort at rhymeless verse that my humble muse has managed.”

There are thoughts of England, here, and talk of “sacrifice,” but “Strange Service”–even if only because of the inclusion of that too-gentle “strangeness”–seems to keep the war more firmly in view than similar poems that dwell on the poet’s memories even as they face forward into battle.


Little did I dream, England, that you bore me
Under the Cotswold Hills besides the water meadows.
To do you dreadful service, here, beyond your borders
And your enfolding seas

I was a dreamer ever, and bound to your dear service
Meditating deep, I thought on your secret beauty
As through a child’s face one may see the clear spirit
Miraculously shining.

Your hills not only hills, but friends of mine and kindly.
Your tiny orchard-knolls hidden beside the river
Muddy and strongly flowing, with shy and tiny streamlets
Safe in its bosom.

Now these are memories only, and your skies and rushy sky-pools
Fragile mirrors easily broken by moving airs
But deep in my heart for ever goes on your daily being
And uses consecrate.

Think on me too, O Mother, who wrest my soul to serve you
In strange ways and fearful beyond your encircling waters
None but you can know my heart, its tears and sacrifice
None, but you, repay.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. I'm fairly sure that this unofficial name has been applied to multiple valleys around Mametz Wood, both the approaches to Mametz Wood from the south, as here, and the area to its northwest, as in Graves.
  2. Can't Shoot a Man With a Cold, 146-7.
  3. War Letters, 83-8.

Conflicting Reports on Robert Graves; Rowland Feilding on Servants and Bombardments; Edward Thomas Learns to Teach

While Robert Graves lies in a hospital in Rouen, beginning to recover from his near-fatal chest wound, his parents are in a state of terrible confusion and anxiety. First there was a letter declaring him wounded; then, yesterday, the dreaded telegram from the War Office, which reported him in hospital “with gunshot wound penetrating chest seriously ill.” Today, a century back, three letters arrived all at once:

Crawshay’s letter reporting that Robert had died of wounds, a letter from the Matron of the Rouen hospital saying that Robert’s condition was serious… and a letter from Robert himself saying that his temperature was normal, that he was losing very little blood, that he was recovering his appetite, that he was sleeping better, and that he was being well looked after.

It seemed impossible to make sense of these contradictory reports…

Alfred Graves, Robert’s Father, rushed into London and did what he could to discover the truth. He went to 10 Downing Street and found Eddie Marsh, but Marsh could not sort out the truth. On the whole it seemed hopeful that he was wounded and not dead, but everyone was, to understate the obvious, “dreadfully concerned.”[1]


As the Somme battle appears to pause (it doesn’t, really, only we have no writers with the units presently at the cutting edge), we will continue to imitate a well-functioning machine and re-supply ourselves with those previously neglected troops not in combat. Today it is the turn, first, of Rowland Feilding.

I have belatedly noticed that this chapter of Feilding’s published letters is entitled “Flotsam and Jetsam–” although technically a naval phrase, this is precisely the evocative chapter title that another veteran of the Somme will use to encompass a time of meeting, touring, viewing, and scrounging upon a water-logged field of battle. Feilding is an officer of the Guards, and not given to scrounging. But he is also detached from his battalion–his over-enthusiasm for seeking combat during quiet periods had, apparently, got him shifted to a non-combat job–and his work with a rear echelon unit[2] leaves him plenty of time to tour the battlefield and write, to his wife, about everything that he sees.

Yesterday, Feilding’s wandering got him into rather a tight spot.

I walked with two other C.G. Officers to a point opposite Contalmaison and Pozieres, and watched a
terrific bombardment of the latter place by the enemy’s artillery…

Then, my companions being bent on sightseeing turned off to the left, while I struck out alone, in the opposite direction, across country, towards Carnoy, where I had some men at work.

I chose the safest route—as I thought! I worked my way to Mametz Wood; then past Bazentin Wood to Flatiron Copse, and on through Caterpillar Wood.

Then, suddenly, the enemy opened one of those promiscuous hurricane bombardments, and I found myself in the middle of the picture! I was out in the open when it started, but continued in the direction I was going, trying to look dignified, though in reality feeling rather foolish as I walked among the flying pieces towards some heads which I saw silhouetted against the skyline, some 400 yards away.

These I found belonged to two Gunner Officers and about five men who were sheltering in a trench…

Now where, amidst these familiar place-names, would be the safest place to wait out a barrage?

They invited me into an old German observation post which they were using as a telephone dug-out, and which, being covered with a layer of rails and sandbags, was at least splinter-proof.

I went in, expecting to remain perhaps a quarter of an hour. I stayed, marooned, for 3 1/2 hours! Shells of every calibre—thousands of them, often many in the air together, high explosive and shrapnel—burst on the ground and in the air. They plunged all around our little shelter. One burst on the parapet, 3 feet from the door; another (a dud) landed a foot or two short of the dug-out, penetrated deep into the ground, and made the place shiver. Over and over again, bits of steel and a deluge of soil from a bursting shell rattled into the trench outside. I cannot tell you how annoyed I felt with myself for having got caught in so awkward a situation. What folly to get killed sightseeing, and what a fool to have risked it just as I was going home on leave!

Feilding, needless to say, escapes this bombardment and takes up his pen. But I believe he feels that he owes the bombardment something, that some tribute must be paid to the Gods of Chance in token of their mercy.

Shall I analyse my sensations during a long and heavy bombardment? If I tried to do so I think I should say that
for the first hour the feeling is one of apprehension: for the second, of indifference; and, for the third and after, of
sleepiness. The soporific effect of a bombardment is very strange.

So that was yesterday. Today, a century back, Feilding very politely turns from one of our core experiential interests (what was being under a bombardment really like?) to one of many lingering social interests, namely the special relationship between well-born officer and working-class “other rank” detailed to serve him. Feilding does not use the term “batman,” so I would guess that either the Grenadiers have a different term or that it is generally considered slightly declassé.

July 26, 1916. Near Fricourt

My servant is always asking me to take him with me, “in case,” as he puts it, “anything should happen to me.” So to-day I took him to Carnoy. He is like a wild man, and is always thirsting to “pop over the sandbags.” He assured me this morning that if ever I have to do so (which it begins to seem doubtful if I ever shall) he would like to be by my side; and this, I think, is not mere talk.

He is a very gallant fellow, and last year I believe was recommended for a decoration, though it was refused (he says) because of his previous character. He has not always been a paragon of virtue. But what a reason, if true, to refuse a man recognition of his bravery! He has been out ever since August, 1914, and was at Landrecies in the 3rd Battalion. He has never been more than a private, though he has soldiered all his life, having enlisted at sixteen under a fictitious age. His father claimed him back on that occasion. He is now twenty-six. He told me to-day that he would never be a corporal. Knowing that many men refuse the stripes for various reasons, I asked him—what was his? He answered, characteristically,—that it was because he would never then be able to ask even his best friend, if the latter were a private, to go into a pub with him and have a drink!

He describes to me his “crimes,” which, according to him, were mere peccadilloes, such as “Looking contemptuously at the sergeant-major!” But I have little doubt that he has given much trouble on occasion.

His conversation is sometimes, but not always, entertaining…

This morning I took him along the old German front line, past the craters, where the whole surface has been so violently distorted by the mining operations and the shellfire of nearly two years, and where the trenches are   battered almost flat.

“They seem to have caught it badly here,” I said.

“Yes, sir,” he replied. “They’ve certainly had something to go on with.”

We passed a tunnelling company encamped. He said that some of our transferred men were there, so I told him to go and find out if there were any of my old Company of the 1st Battalion among them.

He immediately beckoned to a man with bright red hair, calling out, “Hey, Ginger.” This man, by luck, turned out to be an old No. 4 Company man, who had been transferred from us on the road to Loos. As we walked away, since he appeared to be on such intimate terms with this man, I asked him his name, which I had forgotten.

He said, “he did not know,” never having met him before. “ I had to call him something, sir,” he said, “so I called him Ginger.”

What reward for such loyalty and entertainment value?

We passed a group of four French skeletons—or rather what had been skeletons till the receding tide of war left them exposed to the traffic in the “fairway.” Till July they had lain undisturbed in Noman’s Land, in their old uniforms of two years ago. To-day, after the passage of many troops, their bones are scattered, though identifiable by the scarlet rags which still adhere. To-morrow I shall send my servant to bury them, as well as any others he can find. I know of many.[3]


And finally, today, we stray a bit further from the line to catch up with Edward Thomas. Thomas, after much lamenting of his own poor presence in the class room, is finally progressing as an instructor. But no sooner had he decided to throw up the safe life of non-commissioned instructing and try for an artillery commission than he had been assigned to lecture regularly on map-reading. This respectable assignment weakened his recently-flexed resolve, as he wrote last week:

I can’t make up my mind whether to go at once. But if they do make me an instructor I shall feel thoroughly justified
in staying.

Despite more uncertainty–or because it is out of his hands–Thomas’s recent letters to Eleanor Farjeon have lately been far from abject. There was a brief leave, and thus time to see his family, and her, and the Russian ballet. Even the stress of moving house, which has put Helen Thomas into emotional difficulty, Thomas seems to be taking in better stride. He continues to write poems here and there, and to send them to Farjeon for criticism and typing. He jokes about his contentment, now, but it is surely due to the thought that neither teaching as a sergeant nor a commission will be disastrous for either himself or (financially, at least) for his family.

Thursday, July 26 Hut 15

My dear Eleanor,

I suppose it is the fact of measles getting into the camp, coupled with a strong cool wind, that makes me more cheerful. Two out of the 4 Companies are already isolated, or several of their huts are. We are still clear but are working with a platoon that is half infected already. If I get away this Saturday I shall be lucky, and it may be my last for some time. Well, we are working anyhow and this morning I actually lectured for nearly an hour on scales. Think of it. I shall have to do it again and again till I am not afraid, and then try something more interesting. But Lord how I did dislike it, looking from face to face to see if anyone was inclined to grin, and fixing a stern gaze on the face most inclined.

However it is over now, and somehow or another I have been clearer with my section this week. Gradually we do learn a little of how to teach. You were quite right, I did see things from a bit of an attitude when I saw them so black. Now I see them really grey…

Goodnight. I have some exam, papers to look over now. This is a recent addition to our work. We really earn our 1/5 a day now.

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 155-6.
  2. He seems to have moved from a tunneling company to a labor battalion.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 95-98.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 206-7.

George Coppard Tours the Dugouts; Tolkien Back in Trenches; Bimbo Tennant Dodges Minnies; Flowers in This Noisy Desert from Raymond Asquith

George Coppard, machine-gunner, had witnessed the aftermath of the July 1st attack on one of the least successful sectors. By now the attack had pushed on enough for the German front lines to be used as support lines for the British. Which brings one more ratification of one of the great problems with that assault: that German preparation went much deeper, as it were, than the reach of British artillery, or imaginations of the General Staff.

On 25 July we took over trenches near Ovillers, which had just been captured by the Australians. We mounted the Vickers in the old German front line of 1 July, the exact sector that we had faced from our position in front of Aveluy Wood. Our dead were still hanging on the wire, but were shortly removed and buried.

It was staggering to see the high standard of the trenches that the Jerry front-line troops had used… Some of the dugouts were thirty feet deep, with as many as sixteen bunk-beds, as well as door bells, water tanks with taps, and cupboards and mirrors. Apart from the personal comfort enjoyed by the Germans in them, the deep dugouts had withstood everything that our heavy artillery had flung at them. When our hearts had leapt at the seemingly devastating bombardment of those trenches, and had imagined that Jerries were being smashed to bits, the enemy were in all probability playing cards or carousing… it seemed as if we were a load of amateurs when compared with the professional thoroughness of the Germans.[1]


Also moving up to trenches today, a century back, were the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers. John Ronald Tolkien, formerly the deputy to the Signals Officer, has recently been given the head job, and is thus responsible for keeping his battalion in touch with their brigade and higher formations. The Lancashires are in the front line near Beaumont-Hamel, a quiet sector now but still well within the reach of the German artillery. Taking several casualties, they began extensive work on improving the defenses in the sector: deepening dugouts, extending wire barriers, etc. Tolkien would have been involved in the laying of new, thicker cables from battalion headquarters to the rear. And just as he begins this cutting-edge practical work, G.B. Smith is writing him a letter from not far away, praising Tolkien’s poetic praise of a land that is now, to them, both Blighty and Faerie.[2]


So a quiet day for us, all in all, and thus another opportunity to check in on those left out of the battle. The Guards Division, battered during Loos and yet still a corps d’elite–especially in the social sense–is still manning the line in Belgium. In the 4th Battalion, Grenadier Guards, Bimbo Tennant has been writing home regularly, hoping to cheer his mother after the recent loss of her newborn daughter–the words “happy,” “jolly,” and “fun” seem to appear almost as regularly as he professes his love for her.

And, indeed, he has had little to complain about: he reads, climbs, goes fishing, and hardly seems to be within the sound of the guns. His chief excitement is their joint project: Lady Glenconner is seeing a small edition of her son’s poems into print.

But the war will not stay far away for long. Yesterday, Bimbo wrote that he had taken communion and was marching up to the trenches. It’s not the Somme, but neither is the Salient a picnic this July, and Bimbo promptly reminds us why his letters are so interesting. The almost insanely chipper tone–“jolly” is downgraded merely to “pleasant” when he enters the trenches–does not preclude military forthrightness. Does he wish to be honest, or does it not occur to him that a woman who has lost her baby might not care to read about the new perils faced by her eldest? But perhaps she does…

July 25th

We came into these trenches again last night at 11.15 P.M. and Constable and I walked about and directed work till daylight. At about 6 (after breakfast) I had a very pleasant ‘sneeping-party’ till about 10.45, when the C.O. came round. He was extremely pleasant. After he had been gone under an hour they shelled us a bit and treated us to an unpleasant device known as a ‘minnewerfer,’ and called a Minny for short. These are enormous trench mortars which shoot a missile about twice the size of a magnum of champagne, and make a fearful row when they land. Their only good point is that you can see them coming all the way (with luck), and so it is becoming quite a game. They don’t shoot well with them, and we always turn on our heavy guns when they start, so they don’t send over many. But it is an exciting moment when this clumsy thing soars into the air, seeming to halt at its zenith, before it comes down. It does not require much judgment to avoid them. I’ve just had a pleasant wash and shave in the trench, while Lomas kept a good look out for Minnies, and I feel very much refreshed. The post has not come in yet. I hope there will be a letter from you. We had a corporal wounded by a rifle grenade this morning; that is a bomb fired out of the muzzle of a rifle, which makes it go further. He was hit in the ankle and fore-arm, and was simply jubilant. The other chaps envied him a good deal, and so did I. He will probably go straight for England. There is no news except that I am well and happy and longing to see you.

Ever devoted Son.[3]



Hugo “Ego” Charteris, Lord Elcho

And nearby, in the 3rd Battalion of the same regiment (and, more to the point, in a neighboring brigade of the same division) is Raymond Asquith. I have neglected him for quite some time amidst all the action of the Somme, and missed significant–and very bad–news. Hugo (“Ego”) Charteris–brother-in-law of both Diana Manners (he married her sister Letty) and of Asquith himself (Cynthia Charteris, Ego’s sister had married Herbert Asquith, Raymond’s younger brother)–has been killed in Egypt.[4] His letter of July 10th to Diana begins as an elegy in his inimitable style, but moves swiftly to a sweeping statement of angry despair.

…How I wish that I could comfort you but I can’t. Ego is irreplaceable–you will never find another man who can even pretend (as he used to) not to want to kiss you. And he had other strange and fascinating qualities which we shall not see the like of again. A blind God butts about the world with a pair of delicately malignant antennae to detect whatever is fit to live and an iron hoof to-stamp it into the dust when found. It seems amazing that the bony fingers of fate and spite should push into what seemed the safest field of all the War and nip the finest flower in it. One’s instinct that the world (as we know it) is governed by chance is almost shaken by the accumulating evidence that it is “the best which is always picked out for destruction. But one ought not to jump to conclusions. Out here I believe one feels these disasters less than one would at home. If one thinks at all (which rarely happens) one feels that we are all living so entirely on the edge of doom, so liable at any moment to fall in with the main procession, that the order of going seems less-important, the only text that comes into my mind at these times is “Let determined things to destiny take unbewailed their way”–I think from Antony and Cleopatra, isn’t it?

I believe I have struck, at times, a somewhat prudish posture with regard to Asquith’s society habits–namely his constant praise of the beauty of a woman-friend who is, of course, not his wife. But this is writing! Which means it’s literature, which means it is supposed to lift us up, to sustain us, in some mysterious way. And is not beauty the best ammunition with which to blaze away against the steady bite-and-hold attacks of time’s relentless attacking waves?

It would be both hard-hearted and foolish to query the consolations of beauty–and of writing about it–from a man in the filth and misery of the Salient.

diana manners cooper 1914

Diana Manners

How right you are to go on claiming and expecting new love and new life, until physical decay throws us all back upon memories and ghosts and fables and films of the past. It seems hard to believe that time and chance which happens to all men can happen to you.

“For thy eternal beauty shall not fade
“Nor lose possession of that fair”

–and yet I suppose it will happen; but it has given me the worst twinge I have had in the War to think of the children not turning round to look at you any more.

Oh dear, this is a maudlin graveyard kind of letter, not at all what I meant to write. But after living in the same clothes for a fortnight one has no self respect left, either physical or intellectual.

. . . Your letters are flowers in this noisy desert.


There is much more from Asquith, but in order to bring us relatively swiftly to date, I shall have to excerpt from even the gripping parts.

On the same day, too, he wrote to his wife Katherine. Here he keeps leaves aside the lamenting cadenza to return to the tonic, the drone, the steady bass-note of war: senselessness, misery, and socks.

raymond asquith, 1915

Raymond Asquith

. . . I agree with you about the utter senselessness of war, but I do not think about it even so often as one day in seven; one of its chief effects being to make one more callous shortsighted and unimaginative than one is by nature. It extends the circle of one’s acquaintance, but beyond that I cannot see that it has a single redeeming feature. The suggestion that it elevates the character is hideous. Burglary, assassination; and picking oakum would do as much for anyone.

I also got last night a parcel of socks from Frances with your note inside and the frozen eau de cologne, which is very refreshing…

Yesterday I saw a very handsome fly with a bottle green bodice and magenta skirt. This is the nearest I can get to a pretty woman . . .

There are several more letters sharing anecdotes–near misses from aerial bombs, “rather boring cricket,” profitable games of “trench baccarat,” dinner with the Prince of Wales, –and sending thanks for elaborate parcels.

On the 23rd, Asquith brought himself to go swimming in a lake, a pastime he usually avoided. And then he went flower-gathering, which doesn’t seem quite like him either. But he manages nevertheless to preserve his favorite note of comic-gruesome realism.

by Cavendish Morton, platinum print, 1907

Katherine Asquith (National Portrait Gallery)

I went for a walk with another fellow to a place called Elverdinghe Chateau… There is a good big lake in the grounds and I was actually persuaded to bathe in it and found it quite enjoyable. Every now and then one ran into a large carp floating o a the surface killed by shell shock. On the way home I practised my botany which I found rather rusty. There are plenty of flowers about here and rather nice trees. I got chicory and corn flowers and poppies and michaelmas daisies and St John’s wort, and goldenrod and corn cockles, and many kinds of vetches and clovers and some caryophyllaceae which I did not know or could not remember . . .

Flowers and shell-shocked carp. And today, a century back, Asquith rises to an occasion:

3rd Grenadier Guards,
25 July 1916

. . . Do you know that today’s the anniversary of our wedding? Nine years it is, as nearly as I can reckon. They seem very short and wonderfully pleasant as one looks back on them. You are sweeter and more lovely even than you were then, my Fawn, and I adore you a million times more and I am not sorry, not a bit.

Give my love to Trim[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 86.
  2. Chronology, 85.
  3. Memoir, 207-210.
  4. His brother Yvo, a friend of Osbert Sitwell, had died in 1915. This continues the decimation of the sons of the Souls that had begun with the deaths of the Grenfell brothers.
  5. Life and Letters, 273-8. Trim would be the baby, youngest of three...

Coming Down from High Wood: Robert Graves is for Rouen; The Travails and Wails (and Marital Fails) of Richard Aldington (and H.D.)

The Battle of the Somme rumbles on–there have been more bloody, failed attacks at in High Wood and along the Bazentin Ridge–but today we are focused, first, on the after-effects of the recent attacks. Those of the 2nd Royal Welch who made it through physically unscathed still have their psychological injuries to deal with.

Time heals all wounds. If, that is, one takes “heal” to mean “somewhat ameliorate, often by burying below the surface, thus permitting the outward appearance of progress” and not “restore to a previous state of health.”

July 24th. …Our camp is a pleasant, restful place by a musical stream with the tones of a rocky bottom, and birches overhanging its steep verdure-clad banks. The excitable have ceased to call out in their sleep.[1]


For Robert Gravesblown up, with a large piece of shrapnel through his chest and lung, left for dead and then half-abandoned in a sweltering tent–healing will take considerably more time.

The nights of the 22nd and 23rd were very bad. Early on the morning of the 24th, when the doctor came to see how I was, I said: “You must send me away from here. The heat will kill me.” It was beating through the canvas on my head. He said: “Stick it out. It’s your best chance to lie here and not to be moved. You’d not reach the base alive.” I said: “I’d like to risk the move. I’ll be all right, you’ll see.” Half an hour later he came back. “Well, you’re having it your way. I’ve just got orders to evacuate every case in the hospital. Apparently the Guards have been in it up at Delville Wood and we’ll have them all coming in tonight.” I had no fears now about dying. I was content to be wounded and on the way home.

I had been given news of the battalion from a brigade-major, wounded in the leg, who was in the next bed to me. He looked at my label and said: “I see you’re in the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers. Well, I saw your High Wood show through field-glasses. The way your battalion shook out into artillery formation, company by company — with each section of four or five men in file at fifty yards interval and distance — going down into the hollow and up the slope through the barrage, was the most beautiful bit of parade-ground drill I’ve ever seen. Your company officers must have been superb.” I happened to know that one company at least had started without a single officer. I asked him whether they had held the wood. He said: “They hung on at the near end. I believe what happened was that the Public Schools Battalion came away as soon as it got dark; and so did the Scotsmen. Your chaps were left there alone for some time. They steadied themselves by singing. Later, the chaplain — R.C. of course — Father McCabe, brought the Scotsmen back. They were Glasgow Catholics and would follow a priest where they wouldn’t follow an officer. The middle of the wood was impossible for either the Germans or your fellows to hold. There was a terrific concentration of artillery on it. The trees were splintered to matchwood. Late that night the survivors were relieved by a brigade of the Seventh Division; your First Battalion was in it.”

This, I hasten to add, is from the earliest version of Graves’s memoir. I had better hasten, because even the gleefully loose-with-the-truth Graves bestirred himself to correct this passage. A later edition adds a paragraph beginning “This was not altogether accurate.” It turns out that some of the Public Schools Battalion held on and fought tenaciously. But he does stick to the report of the Glaswegians legging it until a priest brings them back–Graves’s only correction there is to his name: it was Father McShane.[2]

That evening I was put in the hospital train. They could not lift me from the stretcher to put me on a bunk, for fear of starting hemorrhage in the lung; so they laid the stretcher on top of it, with the handles resting on the head-rail and foot-rail. I had been on the same stretcher since I was wounded. I remember the journey only as a nightmare.

My back was sagging, and I could not raise my knees to relieve the cramp because the bunk above me was only a few inches away. A German officer on the other side of the carriage groaned and wept unceasingly. He had been in an aeroplane crash and had a compound fracture of the leg. The other wounded men were cursing him and telling him to stow it and be a man, but he went on, keeping every one awake. He was not delirious, only frightened and in great pain. An orderly gave me a pencil and paper and I wrote home to say that I was wounded but all right. This was July 24th, my twenty-first birthday, and it was on this day, when I arrived at Rouen, that my death officially occurred.[3]

Unfortunately, Graves, having lost a day in delirium, dated that letter July 23rd,[4] which made it appear to have been written before his official demise…

And then, today, a century back, the first news of Graves’s wounding reached his parents, in Wimbledon. A letter, written a few days earlier, seems to have reported Graves as being badly wounded, perhaps killed, in action. Robert’s father Alfred Perceval Graves “at once went into town” and started working both the bureaucracy and his connections in various ministries, trying to learn more of his son’s fate.[5]

There is a painful parallel, here, between the limbo and physical pain of the badly wounded man and the jumble of misinformation, that no-man’s-land between grief and anxiety into which his parents are now plunged. And of course it can stand for the cruelty of impersonal bureaucracy amidst war’s chaos, but this is not quite fair: the battle itself was badly planned and poorly carried out, but the postal service and the system of dual notification (usually a War Office Telegram followed by more detailed letters from surviving officers) generally function well, considering the enormous size and confusion of the Somme. Still, it will be an awful few days between life and death…


I have been awaiting something of an opportunity to catch up on Richard Aldington‘s experiences in training. This is not much of one, but I’ll take it, not least because his carping shows up so poorly against the actual sufferings of an early war volunteer who has lived the trenches and faced the guns.

Aldington was a married man, and, though only just twenty-four, no youthful Public Schools military enthusiast. He was committed to Modernism, to publishing, to literature, to making something of himself as a writer. So he was very not-eager-to-go, and in fact he waited for conscription.[6] This puts him in with a different sort of mob, so to speak. His letters to F. S. Flint have been full of lamentation.

In late June, writing in French (he and Flint are both native-English-speakers, but perhaps French offers privacy) Aldington, quite new to training camp life, sidled up to the fainting couch. Which is always a good position from which to enfilade with some cutting observations:

Here I am in a “gun-fodder” regiment! We will be at the front in two weeks…  Don’t be ashamed–I am delighted to learn you will be exempted–your physique won’t be able to elude this vile trade. My dear friend, I have been very sad, and the sight of your handwriting brought a lump to my throat. There’s nothing to be done. I’m in it; let’s hope for a not too serious wound, but enough of that!

Already longing for a blighty one. By the 10th of July, when other British men were suffering too, new horrors have been visited upon his own wretched frame. Also, hilarious comeuppance for the affectation of corresponding in French:

Dear boy,

If I haven’t written to you it is only due to inoculation, vaccination and general exploitation. I am on the go from
5.30 a.m. to 7 p.m. and have only time for one note as a rule & that goes to H.D.[7] I want to hear from you though & will do all I can to write. I’ll send you some yarns which will show you the bloodiness of this business.

When you write, don’t send postcards in French–if it hadn’t been for a Q.M.S. here, who is a schoolmaster, I
should have been in the guard-room under suspicion of being a Hun, just through your innocent p.c.!

O God, O Montreal!’[8]

Thine R.

The next letter finds Aldington very low indeed. I will mention with restrained schadenfreude that this is in part revealed, as his editor notes, by how terrible his French gets… but Aldington has been granted the mercy of re-translation into decent English:

My dear fellow,

Would you be so good as to send me the following two books: “Infantry Training…” and “Musketry Regulations…”

Be quick, my only chance is to earn a lance corporal’s stripe! Then I can work things so as to stay here, but you
have to know everything thoroughly. Yes, I know you will help me in this effort… It’s damned tough, this soldiering life, I can assure you. It exceeds my worst fears and I’m only just starting. It gets harder from week to week. But I try to keep my spirits up, but I have a terrible lump in my throat when I think of my poor wife. I can’t hide everything from her, but I try not to tell her my troubles and my despair.

You see, my ears have been crushed by my straw-filled pillowcase, so much so that the tops of my ears are covered with little wounds–I fear their shape will be ruined. My feet are blackened and swollen by the heavy boots you have to wear. My hands are quite bruised and dirtied by the filthy tasks that have to be done. For example, for a fatigue I had to…clean the stone floor in the kitchen of the Officers’ Mess. It was so filthy that it made me retch. It was disgusting. But that’s enough of that! Another good sign. Yesterday I had to do an hour of punishment drill, because two other men in my squad didn’t know their duties, having been ill for a week!

That may seem something quite trivial. But think. Our day runs from 5.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m almost without a moment’s rest. Now one hour of work from 5.30 to 6.30 is exhausting, without saying that that leaves no time for writing a letter, having a bath, or otherwise refreshing the mind. Perhaps I seem to be whining…


…but it is made up of tiny things, things important enough to ruin your whole life. The men’s language is obscene and offensive; the N.C.O.s are vile types who take it out on the recruits for the insults received from their superiors, and so on. The English army consists wholly of […]!

One point–harsh though it is, I think some of his comrades would elbow-in here to make it–is that he’s not exactly a recruit: he’s a conscript.

I’m writing you this mixture of bad French in the din of the barrack-room. There are some men arguing, others filling their suitcases, others laughing with a stupid laugh, a hellish laugh, others cleaning their clothes, and two or three like me trying to write.

My friend, write, write poems. “Let us not allow the tradition of free spirits to die”. For the time being I am finished. Now  it’s up to you to carry on. Send me everything you write. I want to remember that I dreamed of being a poet.
Your R.

Another letter repeated the request for musketry (i.e. rifle-shooting) books, as Aldington tries to make the best of his situation. But a relief from misery came from another quarter.

Yesterday, a century back, Aldington’s wife, the poet Hilda Doolittle (i.e. “H.D.”) moved to be near his camp at Wareham. Their relationship has been under terrible stress already and Aldington has wandered, so this constitutes something of a gamble, a doubling-down on an evil-looking hand.

But in the short term, at least, it brings relief. First, H.D. to F.S. Flint:

Monday [24th July 1916]

Dear Frankie–I saw R. yesterday afternoon. He spoke of you so tenderly–of the letters & books you sent & that you offered to lend him money. R. has changed superficially in to the “nice, clean young Englishman” type–he looks so much of a “gentleman” in his Tommy clothes that his chief joy at present is strolling calmly along with me and watching his brother Tommies as they draw near, prepare for the salute! Consternation and surprise! Another joy is the ironical one of seeing the real officers sneak out of the mess or talk in an unconcerned (pseudo) manner about Rupert Brook [sic]while he, (R.A.) enters with a bucket & scrub-brush to clean the 30 window-panes!

Well, seeing how his wife belittles him to his friend, I do now feel a bit bad. But perhaps this is comedy intended to lighten a dark mood? The letter continues:

Frankie–this is the outside–the other is hard to face–the tragic eyes of Richard–the absolute foredoomed look. I am desperate–but I say to myself “be strong for the sake of the others–for Richard’s sake.” I want to go on with my work, with Richard’s work!

Do what you can to help him now:–Write, if only a P.C., say every other day. Do not tax yourself–but R.’s days are weeks to him & it seems a long time between posts. Just write silly, cheerful superficial anythings–he finds comfort  in the fact that you care for him. I feel so weak in the face of all this startling & horrible Hell! But don’t think I give way when R. is with me!–Only Frankie, I want to feel your courage to buck up mine…

And this is Aldington to Flint, also today, a century back. His French has improved:

My dear fellow,

You are the most generous of friends. This is so delightful. The little book arrived safely and I have drawn some
important information from it. It’s just what I needed. Once again, my thanks.

I saw my wife yesterday–we were deeply affected, both sad and happy at the same time. It’s fiendishly difficult to leave her at eight o’clock to come back to this dirty hut full of fellows swearing and speaking in the most idiotic and obscene manner.

Very temporary relief, then:

This army life is stupid, boring and demoralising. The young ones learn to drink, and fornicate with disgusting whores–the old ones quickly become animals with an obscene tongue. It’s the idiotic obscenity of these poor blighters–many of whom will be dead within a few months–that sickens me most. In all truth humanity is something disgusting. When I think about it I want to die. We are, we live in a low and banal epoch. War is a bloody farce. Down with–for ever and ever–this greedy, stupid and malicious society. We literary hacks, we are lost in the mud. By the way – send me, if you can, the cuttings of the American press that speak of us. I received a small cutting
from L’Intransigeant which speaks of my mobilisation!

Well, dear friend. I’m going to clean this never-ending succession of brass buttons and stupid things. This is how one’s leisure time has to be spent.

My grateful thanks! Write to me, when you can…[9]

Why this lengthy journey through the mind of a somewhat delicate literary type, wallowing in the misery of barracks life? Well, it does give another angle on Great War experience and show us, if through the eyes of a bitter man, how conscript life in 1916 differs from the often-upbeat camp life of Kitchener’s Army in 1915. But it also will inform his book. Of the hero of Death of a Hero, Aldington will write that

It was not the physical fatigue Winterbourne minded… He suffered mentally; suffered from the shock of the abrupt change from surroundings where the things of the mind chiefly were valued, to surroundings where they were ignorantly despised.[10]


References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 243.
  2. This is far from the only report of Roman Catholic chaplains going forward to restore the morale of broken troops.
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 220-3.
  4. This originally read "August 23rd," my error.
  5. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 155-7. Irritatingly, R.P. Graves (nephew of Robert, and biographer) conceals a problem with the dating here. Alfred's diary records receiving a letter today, but it's not clear, in R.P. Graves's quotation, from whom. R.P. Graves makes it seem as if this is Robert's letter penciled with the orderly's help, but that can hardly be the case. Even if Robert is mistaken about the dates, and sent a letter a day or two ago, it would not have reached Wimbledon so quickly. (Two days is just possible, I suppose).  But R.P. Graves elides the date given in Good-Bye to All That, implying that it is the same letter without explaining where the confusion could be.
  6. Yes, perhaps my disdain for Aldington has been influenced by the sufferings of the eager volunteers, especially those who, like Charles Sorley, were undeluded about what they had chosen. I don't mean to behave out of some osmotic snobbery--it is Aldington's non-stop complaining to which I want to attribute my dislike of him. That and his writing...
  7. His wife, the Modernist artist formerly known as Hilda Doolittle.
  8. A reference to a rather amusing--and appropriately, knowingly fainting-snobbish--comic verse by Samuel Butler.
  9. Imagist Dialogues, 127-36.
  10. Whelpton, Richard Aldington, Poet, Soldier and Lover, 127-8.

Wilfred Owen Prepares for Departure; Donald Hankey Will Give Voice to the Intrinsic Evil and Not the Sacrifice; Isaac Rosenberg Will Write the Understandable and Still Ungraspable

Today, a century back, finds both our two poetical fusiliers prostrate and unremarked upon. Robert Graves is lying in a stifling tent with a terrible chest wound, while his family remain, as yet, unaware of the fact that us believed to have died of wounds. Siegfried Sassoon, meanwhile, took his own temperature with a horse thermometer and then passed out. Sent to the hospital in Amiens with possible dysentery and a fever of 105 degrees, his symptoms were consistent with the generalized “trench fever” diagnosis that is becoming more common. He blamed the illness, with halfhearted apologies, on the Australian troops who had left their billets in a filthy condition.


This pause in their interlocked story, however, allows us to look in on three other important writers.

First, Wilfred Owen has returned to Milford Camp from his musketry course. He had been both favorably impressed with the Regular Army ambiance of Aldershot, the great training center, and rather dismissive of its accommodations, writing that “[r]esidentially, Aldershot is a hateful little place. As a soldier I am glad to be here.”

His temporary unit was another matter. Although a newly-minted officer with a background of gentility more lapsed and willed than confidently assumed, Owen was also displeased to have been attached to the 25th Manchesters. This unusual unit was a “pals” battalion of working men raised–and commanded by–John Ward. Now a lieutenant-colonel, Ward had been a laborer, enlisted soldier (during the Sudan campaign), trade unionist (and founder of the Navvies Union) and MP.[1] Owen is not inclined to look favorably upon this irruption of the working classes into the Army, describing “the Navvys’ Battalion” as “a most unsatisfactory, meagre mess.”

Today, a century back,[2] he is back with the scruffy-respectable 5th Manchesters, and finds that several of his friends no longer are. He must prepare his mother:

My dearest Mother,

…I had a shock on arriving. Three of ‘the Artists’ are now in France!!! But Briggs is left in Aldershot, and my happening to be there was the reason, I suppose, that I was not sent. I think it is necessary to tell you this, in
case you should be too surprised if I went next week. Mind, I haven’t the slightest intimation, but this disappearance of Foster, Jubb and Crampton is a warning…[3]


Donald Hankey, too, has the working man in mind. But he was born to the officer class, he had charted a careful course of (temporary) social abasement as a laborer and pseudo-tramp, he has found himself called to the ministry, and, most important of all, of course (or so say I), he has been in the trenches, and in battle. It is the working man as suffering soldier that drives both Hankey’s writing and his religious thought, now.

In a letter of today, a century back, to the Reverend Richard Brook, chaplain to the 1st Warwickshires, Hankey asserted the propriety of future ministers serving in the ranks, as he had:

I am certain that many an ordinand in the ranks will go out after the war with a knowledge of human nature, a personal humility, and a conviction on such subjects as eternal life, that will make him a very different sort of pastor of souls to the average curate with the Oxford plus Cuddesdon manner.

And as for writing, he has just received a letter from his sister Hilda, who is acting as his literary agent. J. St. Loe Strachey, who had made Hankey’s name (or at least his pen-name, as “A Student in Arms”)–has rejected his most recent writing. Interestingly enough, it is Hankey’s decision to voice the sufferings of the ordinary soldier that has caused his fall from journalistic grace.

Dear Hilda,

Thanks for Strachey’s letter, and also yours following. The diary was not my diary, though it was so very nearly what mine might have been that it is difficult to say exactly what is fiction and what is actuality in it. With regard to the conversation during the bombardment, it represents in its totality what I believe the ordinary soldier feels. He loathes the war, and the grandiloquent speeches of politicians, etc., irritate him intensely by their failure to realize he has got to go through with it and only longs for the chance to hurry matters up…

I am not surprised at Strachey refusing both; but if I get a chance of publishing another book I shall include them (if you wouldn’t mind keeping them for me) though perhaps in a modified form.[4]

One of the fictionalized pieces that Hankey has recently completed–he writes in the voice of an enlisted man–sounds uncannily like a recent passage of Frank Richards‘s memoir:

Put all the bleedin’ politicians on both sides in the trenches. Give ‘em a week’s bombardment, an’ send ‘em away for a week to make peace, with a promise of a fortnight’s intense [shelling] at the end of it if they’ve failed. They’d find a way, sure enough.

Hankey will write to Strachey and explain that

In the ‘bombardment’ conversation as in the diary I deliberately tried to bring out the intrinsic evil of war because I think in speeches and writing this is too much shoved out (I include my own efforts). The man in the trenches is as
determined as anyone to win the war at all costs. He does not grudge the cost. He likes a push & hates trench warfare because he feels that during a push things are moving to their appointed end, & that at other times they are not. But at the same time he is apt to be irritated by the too facile talk of “sacrifice” that sometimes adorns the speeches + writings of public men at home.[5]


Finally, today, Isaac Rosenberg, the newly-arrived bantam, is fortunate to be in the background of the Somme. After an introduction to the trenches, he has been assigned to salvage duty, working among the enormous material wreckage of the Somme battle. He is happy enough to labor in safety, and has been working hard on a draft of a poem about the trenches. Today he received letters from Gordon Bottomley and R.C. Trevelyan, the former prescribing a direct approach to poetry and the latter “urging more restraint in his composition.” Rosenberg immediately responded with something of a brief, epistolary ars poetica. “Simple poetry” is

…where an interesting complexity of thought is kept in tone and right value to the dominating idea so that it is understandable and still ungraspable. I know it is beyond my reach just now, except, perhaps, in bits.[6]

If it is, it’s not too far. I had assumed that Rosenberg, like so many others, would find his poetry dramatically changed by the shock of combat and loss. But he has seen little shooting in anger and nevertheless shot forward in poetic accomplishment. He has left the romantics behind, is now reading Donne, and is somewhere close to finished with the poem that will become “Break of Day in the Trenches.” I’ll find a good place to work it in: it is simple and restrained, and realistic, and metaphysical–and tremendous.


References and Footnotes

  1. A figure very like him appears--portrayed even less favorably--in Henry Williamson's novels, when Phillip Maddison sojourns with a spectacularly corrupt Labor Battalion.
  2. This is the date suggested by the editor of the Collected Letters, yet there is a reference to "Monday," which would seem to make tomorrow more likely...
  3. Collected Letters, 398-401.
  4. Letters of Donald Hankey, 340-2.
  5. Davies, 'A Student in Arms,' 178-9; Letters, 340-2.
  6. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 153.

Greengages for the Resurrected Graves; Siegfried Sassoon Blanks his Mind on the March

Colonel Crawshay of the Second Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, has a difficult task, today. Among many letters he will write is this one:


Dear Mrs. Graves,

I very much regret to have to write and tell you your son has died of wounds. He was very gallant, and was doing so well and is a great loss.

He was hit by a shell and very badly wounded, and died on the way down to the base I believe. He was not in bad pain, and our doctor managed to get across and attend him at once.

We have had a very hard time, and our casualties have been large. Believe me you have all our sympathy in your loss, and we have lost a very gallant soldier.

Please write to me if I can tell you or do anything.

This letter, then, is on its way to Wimbledon, where Robert Graves‘s family resides. Graves, although salvaged from the human scrap heap at the dressing station yesterday, is in no condition to protest the exaggeration of his death.

Heilly was on the railway; close to the station was the hospital–marquee tents with the red cross painted prominently on the roofs to discourage air-bombing. It was fine July weather and the tents were insufferably hot. I was semi-conscious now, and realized my lung-wound by the shortness of breath. I was amused to watch the little bubbles of blood, like red soap-bubbles, that my breath made when it escaped through the hole of the wound. The doctor came over to me. I felt sorry for him; he looked as though he had not had any sleep for days.[1]

I asked him: ‘Can I have a drink?’

‘Would you like some tea?’

I whispered: ‘Not with condensed milk in it.’

He said, most apologetically: ‘I’m afraid there’s no fresh milk.’

Tears of disappointment came to my eyes; I expected better of a hospital behind the lines.

‘Will you have some water?’

‘Not if it’s boiled.’

‘It is boiled. And I’m afraid I can’t give you anything alcoholic in your present condition.’

‘Some fruit then.’

‘I have seen no fruit for days.'[2]

Yet a few minutes later he came back with two rather unripe greengages. In whispers I promised him a whole orchard when I recovered.[3]


As “George Sherston” and the Flintshire Fusiliers–a.k.a. Siegfried Sassoon and the 1st Royal Welch (coming out now after a less destructive turn in the line on the Bazentin ridge)–marched down to rest billets, Sherston struggles with the newest bad news: “David Cromlech” has been reported dead. It was a long day’s march, and Sassoon’s actual diary entry is very short; but here retrospection and fictionalization provide an explanation.

So it will go on, I thought; in and out, in and out, till something happens to me… Yesterday afternoon I’d heard that Cromlech had been killed up at High Wood. This piece of news had stupefied me, but the pain hadn’t begun to make itself felt yet, and there was no spare time for personal grief when the Battalion was getting ready to move back to Divisional Rest. To have thought about Cromlech would have been calamitous.

“Rotten business about poor old ‘Longneck’,”‘ was the only comment that Durley, Dottrell and the others allowed themselves. And after all he wasn’t the only one who’d gone west lately. It was queer how the men seemed to take their victimization for granted. In and out; in and out; singing and whistling, the column swayed in front of me… But it was a case of every man for himself, and the corporate effect was optimistic and untroubled. A London editor driving along the road in a Staff car would have remarked that the spirit of the troops was amazing. And so it was. But somehow the newspaper men always kept the horrifying realities of the War out of their articles, for it was unpatriotic to be bitter, and the dead were assumed to be gloriously happy. However, it was no use worrying about all that; I was part of the Battalion, and now I’d got to see about getting the men settled into billets.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. I'll switch, now, from the first edition of the memoir, much of which is available elsewhere on the internet, to the substantively similar but more consciously theatrical and thus easier-to-read revised edition.
  2. This, it seems to me, is an anticipation of Frodo's "No taste of food... [is] left to me."
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 219-20.
  4. Complete Memoirs, 363-4.