Bullets for John Ball and Private Watcyn: One More Day in Mametz Wood with David Jones and Wyn Griffith

In-Parenthesis-frontispiece

The frontispiece: John Ball, crucified in the wood, and wounded in the leg

In the early morning hours today, a century back, in tangled, shell-swept thickets of Mametz Wood, Private David Jones of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers was shot in the lower leg. So too is Private John Ball, the figure at the center of Jones’s In Parenthesis.

And to Private Ball it came as if a rigid beam of great weight
flailed about his calves, caught from behind by ballista-baulk
let fly or aft-beam slewed to clout gunnel-walker
below below below.
When golden vanities make about,
you’ve got no legs to stand on.
He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering
the fragility of us.
The warm fluid percolates between his toes and his left boot
fills, as when you tread in a puddle–he crawled away in the
opposite direction.

 

Alone amidst the chaos, his training reasserts itself, and John Ball worries about abandoning his weapon as he limps toward the rear. But Jones interweaves his thoughts–the dictates and hearty bon mots of the R.S.M.[1] involuntarily replay in his mind–with a wide array of eternal-soldier resonances.

It’s difficult with the weight of the rifle.
Leave it–under the oak.
Leave it for a salvage-bloke
let it lie bruised for a monument
dispense the authenticated fragments to the faithful.
It’s the thunder-besom for us
it’s the bright bough borne
it’s the tensioned yew for a Genoese jammed arbalest and a
scarlet square for a mounted mareschal, it’s that county-mob
back to back. Majuba mountain and Mons Cherubim and
spreaded mats for Sydney Street East, and come to Bisley
for a Silver Dish. It’s R.S.M. O’Grady says, it’s the soldier’s
best friend…

Picture 053

Jones’s Map of Mametz Wood

Coax it man coax it–it’s delicately and ingeniously made
–it’s an instrument of precision–it costs us tax-payers,
money–I want you men to remember that.
Fondle it like a granny–talk to it–consider it as you would
a friend–and when you ground these arms she’s not a rooky’s
gas-pipe for greenhorns to tarnish.
You’ve known her hot and cold.
You would choose her from among many.
You know her by her bias, and by her exact error at 300, and
by the deep scar at the small, by the fair flaw in the grain,
above the lower sling-swivel–
but leave it under the oak.

Slung so, it swings its full weight. With you going blindly on
all paws, it slews its whole length, to hang at your bowed neck
like the Mariner’s white oblation.
You drag past the four bright stones at the turn of Wood
Support.

“Wood Support” is the trench marked in red at the center of the map at right, nearly even with the first (i.e. southern) of the cross rides. Ball/Jones is now halfway back through the wood.

But halfway is another way to say “in the very midst of.” And here we reach the mythical climax of the poem as John Ball comes upon the Queen of the Woods, adorning her new subjects, the freshly dead:

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David Jones

The Queen of the Woods has cut bright boughs of various
flowering.
These knew her influential eyes. Her awarding hands can
pluck for each their fragile prize.
She speaks to them according to precedence. She knows
what’s due to this elect society. She can choose twelve
gentle-men. She knows who is most lord between the high
trees and on the open down.
Some she gives white berries
some she gives brown
Emil has a curious crown it’s
made of gold saxifrage.
Fatty wears sweet-briar,
he will reign with her for a thousand years.
For Balder she reaches to fetch his.
Ulrich smiles for his myrtle wand.
That swine Lillywhite has daisies to his chain–you’d hardly credit it.
She plaits torques of equal splendour for Mr Jenkins and
Billy Crower.
Hansel with Gronwy share dog-violets for a palm, where
they lie in serious embrace beneath the twisted tripod.

Men and myths, Germans and English Welsh, plaited, plighted together in death. But John Ball, and David Jones, are allowed to pass through. He has dragged his rifle–his arbalest, his albatross, his sword, his cross–this far.

At the gate of the wood you try a last adjustment, but slung
so, it’s an impediment, it’s of detriment to your hopes, you
had best be rid of it–the sagging webbing and all and what’s
left of your two fifty–but it were wise to hold on to your
mask.

You’re clumsy in your feebleness, you implicate your tin-hat
rim with the slack sling of it.
Let it lie for the dews to rust it, or ought you to decently
cover the working parts.
Its dark barrel, where you leave it under the oak, reflects
the solemn star that rises urgently from Cliff Trench.
It’s a beautiful doll for us
it’s the Last Reputable Arm.
But leave it–under the oak.
Leave it for a Cook’s tourist to the Devastated Areas and crawl
as far as you can and wait for the bearers.

This is epic, I suppose (it’s its own thing, really) but it’s also on that sweeping edge of Modernism that toys with something “post:”[2] this is kitchen-sink, practically encyclopedic poetry, and even David Jones can’t resist that characteristic point of view of the soldier of the Great War, namely a quiet, rueful irony. Leave the helmet, leave the rifle–leave them for the tourists soon to come.[3]

Tailispiece-DJb

The last illustration from the book: the biblical scapegoat, caught in the barbed wire of the war-torn wood

And soon he is free of the wood, and we are at epic’s end. The last words of the poem proper reference the Song of Roland, putting us both back in the middle ages and right in the center of the problem of Modern War Literature.

The geste says this and the man who was on the field… and who wrote the book… the man
who does not know this has not understood anything

Has the author any authority? Only if he was there. We must read, but we may not understand.

At the very end of the poem Jones places one of his paintings–an image, that seems to echo Picasso even as it ties the book back into its most ancient ruminations–opposite a last flurry of biblical quotation. This is the scapegoat of the Hebrew Bible, innocent, unknowing, heaped with the sins of the people. And, here, pierced with a spear that recalls Greece, and the Middle Ages, and the wounds of Christ, the goat is caught up in the barbed wire wood. If John Ball–and David Jones–escaped, many remained. And they left something of themselves as well.

 

And David Jones, free of the wood, fell back into the arms of the state, the army, the structure that had almost killed him, and now rescued him. He is found by stretcher-bearers, the bullet still in his leg, and carried back toward Mametz village during the morning.

Where, at some point, he crossed paths with Llewelyn Wyn Griffith. Griffith is now serving as Staff Captain to General Evans of the 115th Brigade which has been ordered up to take over the defense of Mametz Wood. Before dawn, the general and his brigade major headed into the wood, leaving Griffith to coordinate between the brigade and the larger elements (i.e. the 38th Division hierarchy) in the rear. But very soon the Brigade Major is wounded and evacuated, and Griffith is sent for.

As Griffith enters the wood, David Jones is leaving the battlefield. Loaded into a motor ambulance, Jones was driven through Mametz Wood, where he once more saw the roller amidst the ruins. Jones slept most of the day and awoke to “the nicest thing in the world,” the voice of a cultivated Englishwoman, a nurse at the dressing station. Among the many things we have not really had time to discuss is the strange place of the feminine in David Jones’s poetry (but “strange” describes so much of it). This nurse is a real woman, but she cannot but recall to us the mothers’ arms evoked at the very beginning of Part 7, or the many references to the Virgin.

She is, too, the real-world doppelganger of the fevered fantasy of the Queen of the Woods, who did not claim him. Jones has emerged from the woods at this early crucible of his life. He has escaped death–and he has a blighty one.[4]

 

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Llewelyn Wyn Griffith

Wyn Griffith, meanwhile, now must make the harrowing journey up into the wood, to assume a position of fairly great responsibility.

A month ago, my military horizon was bounded by the limits of a company of infantry; now I was to be both Brigade Major and Staff Captain to a Brigadier-General in the middle of a battle…

Griffith’s journey across the open ground between the trenches and the wood is harrowing–but at least the German machine guns have been eliminated since yesterday. The artillery, however, is located behind the German Second Line and is still firing accurately.

I passed through two barrages before I reached the Wood, one aimed at the body, and the other at the mind. The enemy was shelling the approach from the South with some determination, but I was fortunate enough to escape injury and to pass on to an ordeal ever greater. Men of my old battalion were lying dead on the ground in great profusion. They wore a yellow badge on their sleeves, and without this distinguishing mark, it would have been impossible to recognize the remains of many of them. I felt that I had run away.

Griffith’s old battalion is David Jones’s, the 15th Royal Welch Fusililers. These, then, are the fallen comrades of John Ball: Aneirin Lewis, Mr. Jenkins, and the rest.

I borrowed from Griffith’s description of the wood yesterday, although it is proper to today, a century back.

My first acquaintance with the stubborn nature of the undergrowth came when I attempted to leave the main ride to escape a heavy shelling. I could not push through it, and had to return to the ride. Years of neglect had turned the wood into a formidable barrier, a mile deep. Heavy shelling of the southern end had beaten down some of the young growth, but it had also thrown trees and large branches into a barricade. Equipment, ammunition, rolls of barbed wire, tins of food, gas-helmets and rifles were lying about everywhere. There were more corpses than men, but there were worse sights than corpses.

He continues:

Limbs and mutilated trunks and here and there a detached head, forming splashes of red against the green leaves, and, as in advertisement of the horror of our way of life and death, and of our crucifixion of youth, one tree held in its branches a leg, with its torn flesh hanging down over a spray of leaf…

It would seem that David Jones’s poem, whatever its interpenetretations of myth and chronicle, had no need of conventional poetical “license” to depict the horror of this battle. Griffith, too, in his memoir, is of mindful of the lines connecting simple battlefield slaughter to the rest of human existence–and of the mind’s inability to assimilate what the senses witness:

A message was now on its way to some quiet village in Wales, to a grey farmhouse on the slope of a hill running down to Cardigan Bay, or to a miner’s cottage in a South Wales valley, a word of death…

That the sun could shine on this mad cruelty and on the quiet peace of an upland tarn near Snowdon, at what we call the same instant of Time, threw a doubt upon all meaning in words. Death was warped from a thing of sadness into a screaming horror, not content with stealing life from its shell, but trampling in lunatic fury upon the rifled cabinet we call a corpse.

Brigadier General Evans, commanding the 115th Brigade and responsible for the Wood, has made a personal reconnaissance. He found the line not so far advanced as he had been led to believe: the enemy was still holding the northern section of the wood, and his men were exhausted. To put it in the mild words of the Regimental History, “the moral of some of the units was shaken.”

But first, the personal journey of Wyn Griffith, now in the greatest danger of his life:

There are times when fear drops below the threshold of the mind; never beyond recall, but far enough from the instant to become a background. Moments of great exaltation, of tremendous physical exertion, when activity can dominate over all rivals in the mind, the times of exhaustion that follow these great moments; these are, as I knew from the teachings of the months gone by, occasions of release from the governance of fear…

It was life rather than death that faded away into the distance as I grew into a state of not-thinking, not-feeling, not-seeing. I moved past trees, past other things… it seemed a little matter whether I were destined to go forward to death or to come back to life…

I reached a cross-ride in the wood where four lanes broadened into a confused patch of destruction. Fallen trees, shell holes, a hurriedly dug trench beginning and ending in an uncertain manner, abandoned rifles, broken branches with their sagging leaves, an unopened box of ammunition, sandbags half-filled with bombs, a derelict machine gun propping up the head of an immobile figure in uniform, with a belt of ammunition drooping from the breech into a pile of red-stained earth–this is the livery of war. Shells were falling, over and short, near and wide, to show that somewhere over the hill a gunner was playing the part of blind fate for all who walked past this well-marked spot. Here, in the struggle between bursting iron and growing timber, iron had triumphed and trampled over an uneven circle some forty yards in diameter. Against the surrounding wall of thick greenery the earth showed red and fresh, lit by the clean sunlight, and the splintered tree trunks shone with a damp whiteness, but the green curtains beyond could reveal nothing of greater horror than the disorder revealed in this clearing.
 
 …Near the edge of this ring I saw a group of officers. The Brigadier was talking to one of his battalion commanders, and Taylor, the Signals officer, was arguing with the Intelligence officer about the position on the map of two German machine-guns.Mametz Wood from RWF history The map itself was a sign of the shrinking of our world into a small compass: a sheet of foolscap paper bearing nothing but a large scale plan of Mametz Wood, with capital letters to identify its many corners, was chart enough for our adventure that day…

The map at right, from the Regimental history of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, is either this same specially-prepared battle map or a very similar one.

Griffith asks his brigadier what they intend to do.

‘Get your notebook and take down the position of affairs at the moment. We have been sent here to take over the line and to make secure against counter-attacks….’

‘Are we supposed to attack and clear the Wood?’

‘No…. I’ve told the battalion commanders to reconnoitre and to push out where they can…

‘If we have to attack later on, how do you propose to do it?’

‘By surprise,’ answered the General. ‘With the bayonet only. That’s the only way to get through the Wood. If the artillery will keep quiet, we can do it.’

Griffith writes a report of their intentions for the Divisional Staff and finds his friend Taylor, the brigade signals officer.

‘How can I get this to Division?’

‘Give it to me: that’s my job. I’ve got a telephone down at Queen’s Nullah, and if a runner can get out of the Wood and through the barrage, the message gets through.’

‘Are the runners getting through?’

‘Some don’t… Don’t give me any messages that are not absolutely essential and urgent. I’m getting short of men…’

It is at this moment that a runner reaches them with a message from Division, telling them that “it is quite impossible” that the enemy is holding the Wood, and that they should take the rest of it without delay. The general–yes, astute readers, Major General Blackader–is confident that he understands the situation better than the men on the ground, and there is no avoiding the order.

Next, a young staff officer–perhaps one of the “tunicled” men who legged it, yesterday, in the poem, but possibly a man from on-even-higher, an officer from Corps or Army–arrives with his own orders to attack.

The Brigadier listened to him with the patience of an older man coldly assessing the enthusiasm of youth. When the Staff Officer finished, the General spoke.

‘I’ve just had orders from the Division to attack and clear the rest of the Wood, and to do it at once. The defence is incomplete, the units are disorganized, and I did not propose to attack until we were in a better position. My patrols report that the Northern edge is strongly held. I haven’t a fresh battalion, and no one can say what is the strength of any unit.’

‘What do you propose to do?’ asked the Staff Officer.

This, at least, is a concession. We know nothing of the staff officer’s mind. Has he come to sight-see, or to help? But he is no help, because his knowledge is out-of-date by the term of his journey forward: he knows nothing about the artillery program. The staff-wallah is content, then, to be sent back with the information that Brigadier-General Evans plans to attack–with the bayonet, and no artillery–at 3:00.

This would be foolhardy, if there were open ground (as there usually is, as there had been, at the eaves of the wood). But in this wood, with the flanking machine guns eliminated, the only danger–until his men are at close quarters with the German defenders at the wood’s northern edge–is German artillery. Which will only fire if forewarned of the attack.

So it is a good plan, perhaps.

At a quarter to three, with Evans’s orders irrevocably given to the battalions ahead in the wood, the British artillery–far behind and linked by no wires to the wood–starts up.

‘Good God,’ said the General. ‘That’s our artillery putting a barrage right on top of our battalion! How can we stop this? Send a runner down at once… send two or three by different routes… write the message down.’

Griffith springs into action and passes three messages to the Signals Officers. Three runners are sent, by different ways, while the German Artillery, alerted by the barrage, comes to life.

The Brigadier sat on a tree-trunk, head on hand, to all appearances neither seeing nor hearing the shells.

‘This is the end of everything… sheer stupidity…’

That this was both a tactical blunder and a deadly friendly-fire incident is confirmed by the Regimental History. If it were anything else than a debacle visited upon several battalions of the Royal Welch by Regimental outsiders among the higher-ups, there would be reticence. There is not, only the irony of cold understatement:

Orders were given to the infantry to advance as soon as the unwelcome barrage ceased–which was about 3.30 p.m. It was then found that although the artillery had effectively stopped our advance, it had failed to drive the enemy out of the wood.[5]

There is some panic, now, among the attacking troops, and more confusion. Most of the Wood is taken–but not all.

The entire 38th Division will be relieved tonight. It has accomplished much and suffered something like 25% casualties, but the emphasis in contemporary reports will be on how poorly it performed, rather than on its achievement in the face of unrealistic expectations.

 

For Wyn Griffith, too, this dire battle was the most terrible cautery of his war. It will become the focus and goal of his remembering, and of his memoir.

I can only call it a kind of emotional explosion inside me, and under its impetus I wrote on and on until I came towards a kind of climax, the Battle of Mametz  Wood… There I stopped, because I was afraid of my own memories and dreaded their coming to life… I found that there was no peace within me until I had faced and recorded this high point of the war where for me and so many other Welshmen the tragedy reached its culmination. The words had to be torn out of me, hurt as it must.[6]

There is one more reason–one more worst thing–that made this so.

Eerily, there is a Private Watcyn lost in the midst of the Wood in In Parenthesis. And in the real wood as well there was Private Watcyn Griffith, a runner for the 115th Brigade Signals Officer, Captain Taylor.

It was nearing dusk when Taylor came up to me.

‘I want to have a word with you,’ he said, drawing me away. I’ve got bad news for you…’

‘What’s happened to my young brother… is he hit?’

‘You know the last message you sent out to try and stop the barrage… well, he was one of the runners that took it. He hasn’t come back… He got his message through all right, and on his way back through the barrage he was hit… he’s gone.’

Griffith did his duty in passing the message, Taylor in sending runners, young Griffith in carrying it and in trying to return to his post. But it can never feel so simple.

So I had sent him to his death, bearing a message from my own hand, in an endeavour to save other men’s brothers; three thoughts that followed one another in unending sequence, a wheel revolving within my brain, expanding until it touched the boundaries of knowing and feeling. They did not gain in truth from repetition, nor did they reach the understanding. The swirl of mist refused to move.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Regimental Sergeant Major, in this circumstance the exact analogue of the stereotypical American Army/Marine drill sergeant.
  2. "Pre," really; Jones looks backwards and spreads to the eternal, rather than looking ahead and fragmenting for effect, like a true post-Modernist
  3. Jones provides many notes to the poem, and there is one here which defends this thought as contemporary. We might think, Jones says, that this is anachronism, that this is a thought from the latter days of disillusionment, but no--he remembers joking with a friend even in the midst of the carnage that soon, soon, the battlefield tourists will come. As indeed they have, in great droves. But many are better read than he might have thought...
  4. See especially, Dilworth, Reading David Jones, 107-118.
  5. Ward, Regimental Records, 209.
  6. From "The Pattern of One Man's Remembering," quoted in Gliddon, Battlefield Companion, 319.
  7. Up to Mametz, 208-223.