Dorothie Feilding Returns, After a Loss, and Ready for Leave; Edward Thomas’s “How at Once”

Edward Thomas is sick again today, the after-effects of another inoculation. Which means, of course, a poem. But first, a long-overdue update. We haven’t seen Lady Dorothie Feilding for many months, and much has happened.

Her letters home from Belgium ceased suddenly in June, a bad sign that I ignored, busy with the Somme. But it was an earlier debacle that slashed into her family: her brother, Hugh R.C. Feilding, an officer aboard the HMS Defence, had died at the Battle of Jutland. His obsolete cruiser had been ripped to shreds by a German battleship on the evening of May 31st, and sunk within a few minutes of the beginning of the engagement.

Dorothie went home immediately, and stayed for almost a month. Then she was back in Belgium, then back to Britain on an errand (it seems she went to escort over a friend named “Winkie”) and once more back to her position as a driver and orderly with a volunteer ambulance unit. It’s a long pause, and it’s jarring to introduce her brother, and his death, into a void of many weeks, and then hop right back into the saddle, reading cheerful and silly letters home that seem hardly any different than those of the spring.

But life goes on, and many thousands more have died in the interim.

And now that I have skimmed through a number of them, I realize that I have missed Lady Dorothie’s daffy letters… if anyone ever takes up the project of rewriting Wodehouse for an all-female cast, I hope they borrow liberally from Diddles’ lingo.

Back on July 24th, she gives us an update on two other heroines of 1914.

Mairi came into brekker today–looking a great duck. She’s a dear child, took years off Jelly’s life by telling him that Baronne 3rd class or Mrs Knocker is coming to take a house in our town near no 14! Sensation–as I foresee her living on our doorstep with a train of lousy Belgians avec.

I can’t get enough of this stuff. She has been decorated for courage under fire and is one of the few British noblewomen who, a century back, can fix a broken ambulance and drive the wounded back under fire, in the dark, without lights. And she sounds like a demented version of Eloise, with all the Western Front for her Plaza. A few more excerpts:

30 July 1916
Mother dearest–

Jelly [the doctor and unit commander] has been in the sulks all day because Winkie hardboiled his egg for breakfast. He really is an awful fool & very unbearable to associate with when he has these ‘gorry’ fits…

The beloved old Admiral Ronarc’h came in to see me this morning, as nice as ever. He really is a dear old boy & Winkie has fallen in love withhim too! It is becoming quite a habit with her I am afraid. Today I took Winkie up to see the Belgian field hospital & we took all the blesses sweeties so they were delighted to see us, as we left them hiding half melted bullseyes under their pillows we are bound to be popular with the nurses….

1st Aug 1916
Mother dearest–

I have just eaten a vast egg & some chocolate creams for brekker & somehow the two don’t mix & I am feeling ghastly sick. I feel nothing but a bomb would bring me back to my normal state. My tummy feels under my armpits & I wouldn’t be surprised if Winkie had to operate – God help me!

I must go & do the cars’ guts now p’raps that will help me to forget my own so no time for a real letter…

2 August
Mother dearest–

Do you love me? Enough to give me anything I mean? Because while I was away the few remaining face towels fell to bits in my absence & were annexed by Jelly & Helene as dishcloths & motor rags…

So piping hot these last days that last night we couldn’t bear it any more & took our supper down to the beach for a picnic. The most lovely sunset & lights & hot sand & Winkie & I paddled & got just soaked up to our fat necks then coming home it was very funny for everyone except Winkie. She was sitting with Charles who seemed as good as gold & just before we got to 14 she diskivered he had been quietly but firmly chewing her tweed skirt to blazes.

“Charles,” alas, is not the aforementioned Belgian admiral, but the dog.

There was nodink from the hem of it to about a foot from her waist & he was just beginning on her jersey! Luckily dusk was falling & we got her out of the car & sideways into the house on all fours without outraging the decent feelings of the gendarme on sentry opposite.

We then went to bed & Winkie cut the remains of her skirt with nail scissors into 2 intensely dinky bath mats for her & me to stand on after our tubs. RIP skirt.

By the time we get to August 4th, Winkie, Dot and Charles are being inspected, and their friends decorated, by “George & P of Wales.”

It was a very fine affair & all the men mustered in a little review looked very well & were very pleased with themselves…  I was the only non-official onlooker. George came & spoke to me very nicely & said some kind things about my work & my being a good girl & about Da too…

Altogether a great show & Fritz never threw anything at anyone which was rather disappointing. It would have caused a great sensation to have had a proj in the middle of the tea party wouldn’t it?

And Lady Feilding can catch us up on one thing. None of the writers I skimmed through to write the post for August 4th mentioned the second anniversary of the declaration of war, and so I forgot to mention it myself. But thanks for reminding us, Lady D.

4 Aug

Da dear – just think – it’s the 3rd year of the war today & the end seems as far away as ever…

And by yesterday, a century back, the Feildings’ recent loss re-intrudes, quielty:

9th Aug 16

Mother dearest–

When you send me the [memorial] cards of Hughie’s would you please send me half a dozen, as I should like some to give to people like the Gen & those of the sailors here that knew him well.

Finally, we are up to date, today:

10 Aug
Mother darling–

Jelly is going on leave sometime between 23rd Aug & end of the month for 10 days so when he does I will come along too. I am afraid I don’t feel I can take longer than that as since the end of March I have been away far more than I have been here, & there are 2 members waiting to take leave until Jelly & I return but even that little bit will please you I hope & you can save up gadgets for me & make me work as hard as ever you like. Tell Peter to come down when I am there if he can. When I know the date for sure I will let you know. I feel rather guilty at going on leave so soon, but it’s better to go when Jelly does as regards the work.

Awful haste–dam it–God bless you.

Yr loving Diddles[1]


Lastly today, Edward Thomas has written another short poem. It’s a seasonal poem, a poem of parting, a natural poem for a naturalist, be his course ever so firmly plotted toward further training courses, and neither combat nor travel looming any time soon. But then again those swifts depart from England for many months; and next May is a long time to ponder. The arc of seasons, and campaigns, is long.

How at Once

How at once should I know,
When stretched in the harvest blue
I saw the swift’s black bow,
That I would not have that view
Another day
Until next May
Again it is due?

The same year after year–
But with the swift alone.
With other things I but fear
That they will be over and done
And I only see
Them to know them gone.

References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 142-57.