Siegfried Sassoon Arrives in Oxford, A Stretcher Case; Ford Madox Ford Makes a Fib, and We Spot a Shaky Case of Shell Shock

Siegfried Sassoon has returned once more to England’s shores. He has not been blessed, exactly, with a blighty one, but he is home nevertheless. And once the bureaucracy has borne one as far as Blighty, it will let him bide, even if he is swiftly cured from his illness.

August 2

Reached Southampton about noon. Got on train and came to Oxford about 4 p.m.—No 3. General Service Hospital at Somerville College. Paradise.

The identical paradise that Vera Brittain forsook last spring, to find her own way into the military hospital system. But Sassoon has lived a charmed life so far, as he admits: A riding accident spares him 1915’s battles, German companies flee from him while British batteries hold their fire, these heroics get him held back from the slaughter-scapes of High Wood, and now an infection whisks him more or less painlessly from the fringes of the Somme to the groves of Academe.

Strange thing getting landed at Cambridge in August 1915 and Oxford in August 1916.

Indeed. Lest we hypothesize that Sassoon was not yet contemplating a fictionalization/novelization of his war, his diary now slips easily into the 3rd person:

Lying in a hospital train on his way to London he looks out at the hot August landscape of Hampshire, the flat green and dun-coloured fields—the advertisements of Lung-Tonic and Liver Pills—the cows—neat villas, and sluggish waterways all these came on him in an irresistible delight, at the pale gold of the wheat-fields and the faded green of the hazy muffled woods on the low hills.

“He” will make use of these observations very shortly, in a poem entitled “Stretcher Case:”

He woke; the clank and racket of the train
Kept time with angry throbbings in his brain.
Then for a while he lapsed and drowsed again.

At last he lifted his bewildered eyes
And blinked, and rolled them sidelong; hills and skies,
Heavily wooded, hot with August haze,
And, slipping backward, golden for his gaze,
Acres of harvest.

Feebly now he drags
Exhausted ego back from glooms and quags
And blasting tumult, terror, hurtling glare,
To calm and brightness, havens of sweet air.
He sighed, confused; then drew a cautious breath;
This level journeying was no ride through death.
‘If I were dead,’ he mused, ‘there’d be no thinking—
Only some plunging underworld of sinking,
And hueless, shifting welter where I’d drown.’

Then he remembered that his name was Brown.

But was he back in Blighty? Slow he turned,
Till in his heart thanksgiving leapt and burned.
There shone the blue serene, the prosperous land,
Trees, cows and hedges; skipping these, he scanned
Large, friendly names, that change not with the year,
Lung Tonic, Mustard, Liver Pills and Beer

Hm. Are these humdrum advertising signs only welcome signals of normalcy? The English Countryside is still absolutely “good;” poetry has not undergone that much of a revolution (nor will it ever). But the human impositions on that world are no longer mere… impositions. Can we read these not just as soothing tonics to the soldier’s bilious psyche, but as signals of inattention, signposts of the experiential gulf?

Perhaps I am getting us ahead of ourselves, but I do think the ambiguity is there. There is license, and distance: the “Brown” of the poem shares Sassoon’s view, but not necessarily his views. If he–wounded, we would assume, not simply ill–rejoices in thanksgiving at seeing the green and well-advertised land, I think we might still exercise our reader’s distance, and wonder if he will find Blighty truly serene, and truly to his liking. He awakes from a bad dream and black thoughts, and seems to forget them. but do we? We certainly haven’t been brought up to ignore a nightmare of death as drowning…

To bolster my terribly bold reading, here is the rest of the diary entry:

People wave to the Red Cross train–grateful stay-at-homes–even a middle-aged man, cycling along a dusty road in straw hat and blue serge clothes; takes one hand off handlebars to wave feeble and jocular gratitude. And the soul of the officer glows with fiery passion as he thinks ‘All this I’ve been fighting for; and now I’m safe home again I begin to think it was worth while’. And he wondered how he could avoid being sent out again…

Well, that’s one type of ambiguity, for certain.

…No need to think of another winter in the trenches, doomed though I am to endure it. Good enough to enjoy the late summer and autumn. And then, who cares?[1]


Second-and-last, today, an interesting problem has arisen. In my grand old calendar for this project there is a note to discuss Ford Madox Hueffer‘s reading, since he gives today’s date as the day he was reading a particular book. But in comparing a few accounts of these days and weeks in a few different books, I’ve stumbled on several discrepancies. So today, instead of playing double-reader and literary enthusiast, there is some wearisome historical sleuthing to do.

It seems to be the case that Ford/Hueffer was tossed about by a shell, concussed, and suffered memory loss soon after his arrival on the Somme. Or so he said, repeatedly: there are a number of references in his writings, and some include reference to “July.” His most prominent biographer, Max Saunders, suggests the date of the 28th/29th, although if he has a specific rationale other than the terminus post quem of a July 28th letter that doesn’t mention the shelling, he is not explicit about it.[2]

But this doesn’t match with a different date mentioned by Ford in a (very interesting) piece which appears in another book edited by Saunders. Ford wrote about what he was reading while on the Somme, specifically The Red Badge of Courage, several of his friend Joseph Conrad’s books, and Henry James’s What Maisie Knew. The piece, “Literary Causeries: IV: Escape…,”[3] emphasizes how strong an effect literature can have over the mind: Ford finds when interrupted in the middle of reading Crane that he had expected the soldiers on the hillside to be wearing blue and grey, not khaki. And yet at the same time Ford asserts that he can tie these moments when the literary world and the real world were both so vivid to specific days, dates Ford claims that he remembers because of details like a battalion move. One of these is August 2nd, 1916, when he writes that his battalion was “in and around the town of Albert.”

There’s a problem with asserting the July 28th/29th date for the epoch-making, fiction-shaping memory loss, and then also including Ford’s claim that he has a very sharp memory of reading a particular book in a particular place four or five days later. Saunders, in the footnotes in the Dual Life, relies on an earlier biographer who viewed these records, and then hazards a guess based on fictional descriptions and other, later writings by Ford.[4] Not having all the books at my disposal, I went to the Battalion War Diary, which Saunders, writing before the internet had yielded up such bounty, did not consult. Alas, the 9th Welch (as they style themselves) did not keep elaborate records: most days are recorded in a line or two, and their diary does not record the names of officers wounded, as others do. Still it offers us essentially incontrovertible place-date connections.[5]

The War Diary does not disprove the idea of Ford being wounded on the 28th or 29th. In fact it gives it some circumstantial support: there was a small-scale attack planned for the 28th, then called off when “great artillery activity commenced.”[6] The diary is somewhat defensive, as it was not much to the credit of the battalion (although, from another point of view, much to the credit of its officers) that they did not leave their trenches to attempt a planned attack. The next day, the 29th, the Germans again shelled the Welch positions during the afternoon, when they were preparing to be relieved by the 10th Royal Warwickshires. It is perfectly possible that Hueffer/Ford, then assigned to the transport, could have been hit, especially on the 29th, when he would have been even more likely to be up close to the line, assisting in the relief. But there is no direct evidence–and, really, a local bombardment on the trenches need not have anything to do with a bombardment by heavier, longer-range guns on the support lines, where Hueffer/Ford was stationed.

So it’s possible. I don’t know if these records influenced the conclusions of Saunders and his predecessor biographers, or what pertinent information I may be missing. What is not possible is that Ford would find himself today, a century back, reading What Maisie Knew near Albert. His battalion had already marched through Albert and Amiens on the 31st, and were in rest billets at Béhencourt, several miles further back. So Ford claims to remember a date, in error, after what Saunders claims is the date that Ford claimed he lost his memory. Got it? Ford, of course, doesn’t ever write of losing his memory while specifying the precise date on which this occurred. Different moods…

On the balance, Saunders may be right and Ford–in his assertion that on August 2nd and 5th he was with his battalion, reading–is probably wrong. (I wonder if we shall find that Ford has mistaken a month, somehow, from his notes). One way to suss this out would be to try to find records of his medical travails. In a letter of September 7th, Ford will describe a bleak comedic interlude of being bounced around between various units which are not able to treat a man suffering from anterograde amnesia and dental pain, and the only hard information that he gives is not quite right.In the letter, he is shuttled between a Field Ambulance and CCS #36. Later, he will write this:

After I was blown up at Bécourt-Bécordel in ’16 and, having lost my memory, lay in the Casualty Clearing Station in Corbie, with the enemy planes dropping bombs all over it and the dead Red Cross nurses being carried past my bed, I used to worry agonisingly about what my name could be…[7]

But CCS #36 isn’t in Corbie–CCS 5 and 21 were; CCS 36 was in Heilly, a few miles to the north, and much closer to the position of his battalion. So perhaps he was indeed blown up on the 29th and then, two days later, when his battalion marched back into reserve, sent to various medical facilities, including CCS #36. Perhaps he was in both places, and confused. Yet it still seems fair to ask if there really dead Red Cross nurses carried past his bed… that detail, I believe, also appears in his fictional version of events. Will fiction-rooted-in-experience leak back into memory?[8]

It’s hard to tell, and not really a question for today (a century back), both because it is beyond our brief and because I have run out of time to research. But if anyone has a quick line to a source with Red Cross casualties–most medical records from the Great War are long gone, but the killing of female nurses by enemy bombs was not a common occurrence–I would appreciate knowing about it.

It seems pretty clear is that Ford’s recollection of reading James today, a century back, is incorrect, and thus this probably shouldn’t have been left un-footnoted in Saunders’ edition of War Prose. Ford is something of a knowing charlatan, but I haven’t read much that calls into question the “essential truth” (if we may) of his fictions about the Great War. Of course you can’t take your complaints about dating and CCS-numbering to the reading of a great Modernist novel starring a man named Tietjens, not Hueffer or Ford, but this does cast somewhat grave–and Graves-like–doubts on Ford’s veracity about his war experience, on which some of the positive reception of his novel rests.

And then there is Saunders. I was inclined to let him off easy on his assertion of July 28th-29th. I was pleased, after all, to find the date and to get a chance to write a little about Parade’s End, which is a fantastic book and–if I am to get it in here–needs dates to be connected to its scenes.

But I just ran down one more book, and now I fear that I have been had. The letter of July 28th which Saunders uses is to Lucy Masterman, but there are two more letters to her dated–by Richard Ludwig, editor of the published Letters–as “[August?]” and placed before another one dated the 23rd. One of these makes light of a near-miss, but neither make mention of being tossed about by a shell, or traumatized or concussed in any way. Time passes in these letters–they certainly do not read as if they were both written in close succession in the third week in August. By the 23rd Ford and his battalion have moved from France to Flanders and he is dating very cogent letters… so where is our “three weeks” of lying about in hospitals and struggling with memory problems?

Saunders makes no reference to these two letters, and then he dwells on the alleged “three weeks simply erased from his life” after July 29th, and suggests that this period was central to Ford’s identity and his development of new literary techniques.[9] I, too, want to verify (more or less) and date (I like dates!) this important Great War Literature Experience–and I appreciate the instinct to make literary hay with it–but there are a number of reasons, now, to doubt the specifics that Ford provided, after the fact, about these weeks on the Somme. Saunders is either sloppy or disingenuous, which is a little too much like Ford’s sloppy disingenuousness.

To be sure, it’s not that I think Ford is a despicable liar, nor that I’m sure that he is unduly dramatizing his war, as many of his detractors have been. He was over forty, and he went into the infantry, and to France. The trauma, I think, is real. Mostly real. Anyone with weeks near the lines might be shell-shocked. But it’s not, er, good to go about asserting dates and numbers that are in fact incorrect, and these alleged three weeks are going to be hard to find in the near future, I suspect…

So today, a century back, I’m not sure if Ford was lying abed with symptoms of psychological trauma. He may have been, but it seems very unlikely. And he certainly wasn’t reading Henry James on a hill near Albert…

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 100-101.
  2. See Saunders, ed., War Prose, 3-4, and Ford Madox Ford, A Dual Life, II, 2.
  3. Spoiler alert: Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine (Paris) (9 March 19--), pp 3, 11; collected in War Prose, 231-2.
  4. Some method! Since I don't have all the books before me either, I can't exactly cast stones, although I can certainly cast bloggy aspersions on authors of actual books, who should be held to higher standards. Having just discovered the discrepancy while preparing this post, I don't have the time to get all the books and figure it out, and time will move on. But all praise to the National Archives for peddling well-digitized war records at reasonably prices...
  5. Incontrovertible in that it is a contemporary record, and also "official" and in the keeping of several people who share responsibilities--it is counter-signed, etc. But I would trust most dated, contemporary records, even without the stamp of official stamps: Harold Macmillan, for instance, noted today, a century back, that he was reading A Winter's Tale today, a century back. (Webb, From Downing Street, 220.)
  6. Page 67 of the Battalion War Diary, as available on line from the National Archives.
  7. Saunders, A Dual Life, II, 2,3. See also War Prose, 4-5.
  8. There are other details of post shell-shock hospital trauma that appear in the novel and which Saunders would trace to Ford's "Corbie-phobia" and his late July/early August experiences, including another Helleresque raving patient-in-the-next bed (see Sassoon's experience). But these should probably be "rejected" as fictional, now. Rather, they should be recognized for what they always have been: not disguised autobiography but fiction that draws heavily on war experience...
  9. Dual Life, II, 2.