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]

 

HugoCharteris

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,
B.E.F.
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...