Arthur Graeme West and the 6th Ox and Bucks are on the extreme right of the British line, exchanging shifts in the trenches with the French. Two days ago they were in reserve, and West “read ‘Scholar Gipsy’ and ‘Thrysis’ and talked about Oxford” with two other officers, “the only valuable men” of his comrades. Since both of these poems, by Matthew Arnold, are set in the Oxford countryside, it seems that West and his friends were going in for hard-core pastoral/intellectual nostalgia, a common enough pastime among our set on the Western Front…
Yesterday, “rainy and depressing,” West was less inclined to moon over Oxford as his battalion took over trenches in Trones Wood, losing seven men when a shell dropped directly into a trench. Today, a century back, he managed to walk and think:
Saturday, Sept. 30th, 1916.
Walked through D[elville] Wood with B[ernafay?] Wood in an unspeakable mess…We moved back a few hundred yards to B… Wood and slept in a rough bivouac. I was very warm and comfortable. It is notable that to-night we discussed ever so slightly the problems of atheism. I had pronounced a few days ago that I was an atheist, and after a few of the usual jabs at Balliol the thing passed off. To-night I said something about my being a respectable
atheist, to which it was promptly answered that there could be no such thing: and people said “You aren’t really an
atheist, are you?” Thus we see how men cannot get out of their minds “the horrid atheist” idea—the idea that intellectual convictions of this sort must of necessity imply some fearful moral laxity.
The most religious men are really the extreme Christians or mystics, and the atheists—no body can understand this. These two classes have really occupied their minds with religion.
This is a sentiment with which Ford Madox Hueffer would almost certainly disagree–but only, perhaps, to be disagreeable. But why be disagreeable? Hueffer has had some leave, of late, and he has visited Paris. (“Paris leave” was a new phenomenon, intended to ease the Somme-burdened westward lines of transportation.)
In this piece–published today, a century back, in the Nation, Ford plays up the Englishman Abroad, just as in England he makes himself suspiciously continental. Astute readers–which is to say very recent or prodigiously mnemonically gifted readers–of his fiction will recognize, too, the fictional use he will make of these experiences.
“Trois Jours de Permission”
“Une petite minute! . . . a little minute”; the words, uttered by a functionary in evening dress with the features, and far more than the gravity of, a British statesman, consecrate one to a long period of waiting in the reverential and silent atmosphere of a palace of high rooms and tapestried panels. A long period of waiting. . . . Well, the longest period of waiting that I have known in a life that nowadays is characterized by more waiting than I have ever known. Waiting for the transport; waiting for the bombs to come up; waiting for one’s unit to move; waiting for one’s orders; waiting for the shelling to stop; and, above all, waiting for the shell—the solitary whining shell, the last of three that is due from the methodical German battery miles away on the plain—waiting for that to manifest itself in a black cloud, up there; in an unechoing crash, and in a patter, as of raindrops. . . . Yes, one learns to wait. The most impatient temperament, somewhere in France, will be strait-waistcoated into inaction, into introspection.
Nevertheless, that quarter of an hour in the high ante-room, giving on to vistas of other ante-rooms, so that all the noise of the streets, of the city, of the world, and of the war!—no longer exist —that period seemed a lifetime. I don’t know why. In the great anteroom sat three officers in festive blue, a widow in a cloud of black; an attractive young woman of twenty-five or so, in a large hat decorated with cherries—all absolutely motionless, drooping, with eyes on the bright and priceless carpet. The walls showed, in panels, the terraces of Fontainebleau, in purples, in bright yellows, in scarlets. . . . But the atmosphere was that of the eighteenth, the seventeenth, the sixteenth century. One might have been waiting for a scarlet-robed figure to appear between the great folding doors. One might have been waiting for Richelieu or Mazarin. . . .
Yet: “trois jours de permission à Paris”—week-end leave in Paris should not be a matter of serenities or the seventeenth century. And indeed it wasn’t. One dined at Foyot’s, at Prunier’s, at the Café de la Paix: one went to hear Lakmé, and the melodies seemed to turn one’s heart round: one leaned over the balcony of the Opéra Comique looking at the dark streets which after nightfall always seem medieval. And one talked gravely and slowly to a French captain, who talked gravely and slowly—about “là bas,” about the different sectors of the Somme that one had seen—and the marmites and the rum jars and the statue shells. One went to mass at the Madeleine; one promenaded in the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne; one talked literature, philosophy, and the economics of after the war, in the Brasserie Universelle. One even found time to play hide-and-seek with the children in the hotel hall, making a prodigious noise on the marble tiles, and smiled at by adult guests who knew that one had “trois jours de permission”—the rather strained, precocious, bi-lingual children, with black bows and dead fathers. . . .
And Paris, you know, appeared to be exactly the same as Paris always was in September. Not the same as Paris in May, of course; but then it was September. The leaves were beginning to drift down in the Tuileries Gardens, one saw the Champs Elysées in torrents of rain; the Boulevard Saint-Germain was “up” in a complicated manner, of which only Paris has the secret. And, except that people who otherwise would not have hurried themselves for one, smiled and did hurry themselves when one said that one had only “trois jours de permission,” and so was a fit subject for a little spoiling one might very well have been in one’s mufti of three years ago. And indeed I saw fewer uniforms in Paris than I have seen anywhere else since August, 1914. London, when I last saw it, was all khaki; the shires all khaki; Wales all khaki; little Belgium all khaki, and the Somme and Rouen. And you cannot be in any country field of our “somewhere in France” without there being in one corner of it at least half-a-dozen battered men in khaki trousers, performing obscure tasks with shovels under the hedges. Between the immense avenues of poplars go the endless columns of transport wagons, along the uplands the moving notes of platoons, companies, battalions, all dust-colored. And all France of the line south of us is mist-blue.
But Paris seems more unconcerned than any city I have yet seen; engrossed in its daily work beneath the September sun or sitting at the little tables at night, under the plane trees on the boulevards, it goes on, quietly running things. And indeed it is the same everywhere. The French officers are serious, taciturn men, who seldom speak, and when they do speak, speak very slowly. And, “out here,” what there is of the French left is always quiet and solemn, the immense long avenues, the heavy trees, the plough moving slowly, the solitary women sitting in empty houses, the churches into which the shells fall. Except in the short space of no man’s land, and except for spaces on the Somme where there is no blade of grass, but only shell-holes for field on field, France continues engrossed in her daily tasks—right up to the trenches. And even beyond! For, a few yards—yes, a few yards!—behind the German trenches, here one can see men in blue blouses and women in black—getting in the harvest. They are forced to labor by their conquerors. . . .
And at the heart of it are those silent palaces with the seventeenth-century atmosphere, the functionaries looking like British statesmen in evening dress, who are nevertheless only door-openers, and the great functionaries who ask “in what they can be useful to you”—the time-honored formulary which is supposed to lead one to fortune. It did not lead me to fortune, since I only asked the Minister if he could procure us some ferrets—our regimental ferrets having all died. But there are no ferrets in France, not in the Ministries, not in the Jardins des Plantes et d’Acclimatation. That is perhaps a defect of France, but I have perceived no other.
It is, in short, we who play cricket with pick-handles under shell-fire, and with uproarious noises stand round rat holes waiting for the ferrets to drive out our prey. And France regards us with solemn eyes. No doubt comprehension will grow out of it.
References and Footnotes
- Diary, 133-4. ↩