Fear Stalks Beside Frederic Manning; Siegfried Sassoon Pronounces From the Pulpit: ‘The Ways of God Are Strange!’

Doesn’t it feel as if it has been rather a long time since a well-known war poet has produced a verifiable, date-able classic of Great War verse? Well, tonight’s the night.[1] This evening, a century back, Siegfried Sassoon, in one burst of late-night inspiration at Robbie Ross’s London flat, wrote out a nearly complete draft of “They.” Sometimes it all comes together: seminal moment, origin story, pseudo-humble retrospective commentary, and sharp, slashing verse…



The Bishop tells us: ‘When the boys come back
‘They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
‘In a just cause: they lead the last attack
‘On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
‘New right to breed an honourable race,
‘They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.
”We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply.
‘For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
‘Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
‘And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
‘A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.
And the Bishop said: ‘The ways of God are strange!’


Although, of all things, the word “syphilitic” will prove to be a bridge too far and require (temporary) emendation, this poem will shortly be published and mark Sassoon’s arrival as a war poet. He will come to describe the genesis of this poem in his rather strained self-deprecating-gentleman mode:

I merely chanced on the device of composing two or three harsh, peremptory, and colloquial stanzas with a knock-out blow in the last line…

Perhaps, but it’s probably not really that simple. The technique–which others have used, under other guises[2]–is an obviously effective way to approach sonnet-sized verse… if you can land it.

Many critics have noted Sassoon’s debt to Hardy–which Sassoon himself acknowledges at precisely this point in the memoir–but surely the technique must be a bit more deliberate. It’s an old dodge, the creative writer preferring to describe himself as a discoverer rather than a creator… and there are always models.

The other familiar antecedents are, of course, Masefield–who had been the first target of Sassoon’s unlikely success as a parodist-into-satirist-into poet–and Kipling. Kipling’s influence–or rather his presence as the arch-representative of the imperial old guard, poetic and militaristic both–is perhaps more obvious in the “A Ballad,” another recent provider of a knock-out blow.

Never mind that Sassoon is an officer and a gentleman, possessed of both a private income and a strangely Somme-long sick leave:  Kipling is old and something is not right with the war, and that’s what matters now. The adoption of Kiplingesque rhythms in a poem that claims to speak for “Tommy” against the powers that be reads to us, now, as a strangely tone-deaf assumption of privilege–the privilege, in this case, of speaking for the presumably silent soldiers under one’s command, a replacement of one sort of overlord with a more understanding and humble sort of… well, officer in command. It would not have been as consistently read that way, a century back, both because of the broader acceptance of class privilege and because there are many lines and Sassoon is–or has been, and will be–on the right side of the most important one. Generals and Kiplings and other old men are almost all safe, but lieutenants die as often as privates.

Nevertheless, this speaking-for-the-troops is also an aggressive move at literary place-making. This is Sassoon’s effort, as disarming as he will later try to be, to take that poetic hammer to the father-god’s kneecaps, and clear out the older generation. And that, of course, would leave a vacuum…

But we are straying–back to the fortunate moment. Creations make for good stories even if the creator/storyteller wishes to stand aside for the muse with a Bertie Wooster-ish look of polite bemusement:

One evening toward the end of October, when I was staying with Robbie at his rooms in Half Room Street, he had been exercising his wit rather freely at the expense of the Bishop of London, who–for some reason unknown to me at the time–was a frequent target of his. My own acquaintance with the Bishop had been restricted to a single occasion… I had in fact been confirmed by him in St. Paul’s Cathedral..

This was thirteen years before–an amusing coincidence–and Sassoon then has a mild laugh at the subject of this confirmation becoming the first English poet to work “syphilitic” into his verse.

On the evening I am describing Robbie read me an extract from a speech or sermon reported in some newspaper in which the Bishop had expressed his belief that those who were serving on the Front would return with their souls purged and purified by what they had experienced, or words to that effect. This sort of thing was often said at the time, by those beyond the age of active service. As an abstract idea there was nothing against it… But on the whole one was justified in resenting it as inappropriate though well-intentioned bunkum. Anyhow I went upstairs to bed after several hours of lively talk, feeling too tired to be bothered about the Bishop of London or anybody else. But while I lay there with the light out, not quite succeeding in falling asleep, the first few lines of they came into my head as though from nowhere. So I got up to scribble them in my note-book, and the rest of the poem was written then and there…

The peculiar thing about it was that while writing the first draft I was so drowsy that I could scarcely keep my eyes open, and was fast asleep in a few minutes after finishing it. Such was the ‘fine frenzy’ with which I composed what subsequently proved to be the most publicly effective poem I had yet written…[3]


As it happens, we have a letter, today, from one of the very few educated, poetic, future-author-types who is actually serving in the ranks, writing from a miserable dugout several months into his continuous Somme-front service. This is Frederic Manning, mired amidst the events which will form the basis for the climax of his novel. Manning describes working as a messenger, as his fictional alter-ego will in turn.

We are supposed to go in pairs but so far I had always gone alone…  I am not ashamed to say that I have felt fear walking beside me like a live thing: the torn and flooded road, the wreckage, mere bones of what were living houses … absolute peace of the landscape and indifferent stars, then the ear catches the purr of a big shell, it changes from a purr lo a whine and detonates on concussion. Another comes, then a third. After that a short space of quiet. Sometimes, as I have said, I feel fear, but usually with the fear is mingled indifference which is not pious enough to be termed resignation.[4]

Could there be a more effective way of pointing up the insufficiency of Sassoon’s poem? Many men come home outwardly whole, and terribly changed nonetheless. Sassoon, with his initial enthusiasm for the boyish exercise and excitement of war and his scant experience of prolonged line-holding, has decided to hunt the more obvious game first. But he will turn to the inward battle, in time, as all the real poets must.


References and Footnotes

  1. Probably! See Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 302-7.
  2. I hadn't read Siegfried's Journey when I decided to start referring to the "hammer blow," but I probably stole the phrase from somewhere... poetry has rhythm, after all, and we are a violent-metaphor-loving species...
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 29-30.
  4. The Last Exquisite, 125.

Ivor Gurney on the Soundscape of War; Edmund Blunden on Shattered Thiepval and the Horrors of the Schwaben Redoubt

Ivor Gurney is one of a bevy of war poets, here–but he is the only serious musician/composer whom we regularly read. His letter of today, a century back to Herbert Howells foregrounds his sensitivity to sound:

All nonsense about the rhythm of war! Dr Davies has said that the noise of the guns etc etc. But then, it is only what one expects him to say. Some of the guns have a fine noise; but nearly all is of an insensate fury — too savage and assertive to be majestic. The noise of a Minnie hitting the ground is of a most horrid nature. One does not realise how sensitive the earth is. A “dud” shell may be felt easily a half-mile away. And then the outburst of a minnie explosion! The earth spouts up to a great height, and dugouts rock. It is a horrid sensation to hear a shell coming over you. If it is anywhere near, one feels it in the back of the neck, until it bursts, perhaps 25 yards behind, or even 50. Up till now however, we have not experienced the biggest shells; that being a pleasure to come.

A mine explosion is like a minnie-concussion many times magnified. The ground jumps exactly like a nervy person in a fright, the dugouts rock and the candles fall. Our Co. has gained a piece of parchment for steady behaviour in trying circumstances of the sort. (An uncommon honour.)

Well, perhaps everyone–all but the cursed dullards–feel such things intensely; the noise of the guns is beyond mudic. The horrible nakedness of standing under Very lights–pistol-fired parachute flares–is another subject which elicits very similar responses from many different men. The flares cast a wobbling light over no man’s land for a long minute or two, during which any movement may be visible to enemy snipers, spotters, or machine-gunners. One must stay absolutely still:

Very lights are very beautiful affairs, especially the German, which glide up in a perfect arc, and burn perfectly also. It is embarrassing to be in No Man’s Land waiting for one to fall, as it seems, on top of you. To stand up at wiring, like living pictures, is more interesting than amusing, when Very lights begin to fly.[1]


Our second poet, today, is once more in the thick of it. Edmund Blunden‘s battalion of the Royal Sussex is still reeling from their attack on Stuff Trench, but after only a brief rest they must take their turn once again.

I should note here that the accuracy of Blunden’s memory (and/or note-taking) is generally borne out by a close comparison of Undertones with the battalion War Diary: a great many of his specific memories can be verified, at the right place and the right time. But there are exceptions, and he has jumbled his chronology a bit just now.

In the memoir, the action at Stuff trench is followed by a period of rear-area rest at Senlis, while a tour of line-holding is described afterwards. The battalion diary, however, shows that the harrowing relief described below took place tonight, a century back, and not after the rest at Senlis. So we will flip back a few pages in the memoir when Blunden gets there in a few days, and today we skip ahead to stay in place, as it were…

Blunden is no romancer; he’s a pastoral poet without any great inclination for the uncanny or the Gothic. But a writer of memoir must write his life, and some material insists on preserving its own lineaments–or “cerements,” would it be?–of genre:

We took over that deathtrap known as the Schwaben Redoubt, the way to which lay through the fallen fortress of Thiepval. One had heard the worst accounts of the place, and they were true. Crossing the Ancre again at Black Horse Bridge, one went up through the scanty skeleton houses of Authuille, and climbing the dirty little road over the steep bank, one immediately entered the land of despair. Bodies, bodies and their useless gear heaped the gross waste ground; the slimy road was soon only a mud track which passed a whitish tumulus of ruin with lurking entrances, some spikes that had been pine trees, a bricked cellar or two, then died out. The village pond, so blue on the map, had completely disappeared. The Ligne de Pommiers had been grubbed up. The shell holes were mostly small lakes of what was no doubt merely rusty water, but had a red and foul semblance of blood. Paths glistened weakly from tenable point to point. Of the dead, one was conspicuous. He was a Scotch soldier, and was kneeling, facing east, so that one could scarcely credit death in him; he was seen at some little distance from the usual tracks, and no one had much time in Thiepval just then for sightseeing or burying. Death could not kneel so, I thought, and approaching I ascertained with a sudden shrivelling of spirit that Death could and did.

Beyond the area called Thiepval on the map a trench called St. Martin’s Lane led forward; unhappy he who got into it! It was blasted out into a shapeless gully by intense bombardment, and pools of mortar-like mud filled most of it. A few duck-boards lay half submerged along the parapet, and these were perforce used by our companies, and ferociously shelled at moments by the enemy. The wooden track ended, and then the men fought their way on through the gluey morass, until not one or two were reduced to tears and impotent wild cries to God. They were not yet at the worst of their duty, for the Schwaben Redoubt was an almost obliterated cocoon of trenches in which mud, and death, and life were much the same thing — and there the deep dugouts, which faced the German guns, were cancerous with torn bodies, and to pass an entrance was to gulp poison; in one place a corpse had apparently been thrust in to stop up a doorway’s dangerous displacement, and an arm swung stupidly. Men of the next battalion were found in mud up to the armpits, and their fate was not spoken of; those who found them could not get them out.

This is a grim foretaste of the horrors of 1917. Although it could hardly get worse than this (hardly, but it will) Blunden avoids the strange juxtapositions no less than the horrors themselves. Now, like some sort of Monty Python apparition of the Upper Classes, a bizarre divisional general stumbles into the bloody carnival. “Harrison” is Blunden’s boss, the battalion’s commanding officer, and thus one of the general’s more significant underlings.

Harrison had his headquarters at the Thiepval end of St. Martin’s Lane, and, while the place was deep down and even decorated with German drawings, its use was suspected by the enemy, whose shells fell nightly with sudden terrifying smash on the roof and in the trench at the exits. He had a lantern put out in the night, to guide those who made the awful journey from the line; it took an experienced messenger four or five hours to come and return. The nights were long, but he could not sleep; ordering me to watch, he might lie down for a time, but, if a messenger came and spoke with me, he was ever ready with the instruction wanted. His face was red and pallid with the strain; he struggled round the line in the early morning, and on return would find the General paying a call, with “Well, Harrison, the air of Thiepval is most bracing.”

In saying this, the General was perfectly serious, and he was not less so in many other remarks of a more military and not less tangential kind, which caused Harrison to carry with him habitually a letter of resignation. One day some unexpected and desperate order led to the delivery of this letter. “No, Harrison,” piped the now amazed General, “no, I shall not look at it. I shall put it in my breeches pocket”; and the event ended in Harrison’s gaining his point and a personal anecdote of the General which never failed to charm. But the background of such things was a filthy, mortifying, and most lonely acre,[2] where a village had been, and where still a shattered foundation of bricks or the stump of an apple tree, or even a leaf or two of ivy might be found — at your own risk.

But this is a walk-on, and soon we are–as we must be–back in the empty battlefield. It’s the scenery that’s the star of the show, now, and the players’ brief hours are once again to be largely subterranean, nocturnal…

Of all the strange artifices of war, Thiepval was then a huge and bewildering repository. The old German front line west of it still retained its outline, after the torrents of explosive which it had swallowed month after month. Steel rails and concrete had there been used with that remorseless logic which might be called large imagination, had been combined and fixed, reduplicated and thickened, until the trench was as solid as a pyramid. In front of it here and there were concealed concrete emplacements, formerly in the weeds and flowers of No Man’s Land; beneath it, where now our reserve company lived, were tremendous dugouts, arranged even in two stories, and in the lower story of one of these was a little door in the wall. Opening, one went steadily descending along dark galleries, soon discovering that the stacks of boxes which seemed to go on forever were boxes of explosive; then one arrived at two deep well shafts, with windlasses and buckets ready, but at that point it seemed as if one’s duty lay rather upstairs. This mine would have in due course hurled the British line over the Ancre. In another great dugout were elaborate surgical appliances and medical supplies; another, again, was a kind of quartermaster’s store, in which, although in one of the crushed staircases were some corpses not to be meddled with, one stood and turned over great heaps of new, smart, but now inapplicable German greatcoats, or tins of preserved meat with Russian labels (I tried it, but made no converts), or heavy packages of ration tobacco which extremest want would not force us to approve — and egg bombs japanned black, and “windy bombs” with their bat handles and porcelain buttons, and maps in violet and green and scarlet, and letters in slant hand with many an exclamation mark, and black and gold helmets with cubist camouflaging, and horsehide packs, and leather-faced respirators, all in one plethora and miscellany, bloodstained here and there. The smell of the German dugouts was peculiar to them, heavy and clothy.

There was, moreover, one vault here which was arrayed with mirrors, no doubt collected from the chateau whose white ruin still revealed the interior of a cellar, and on which an image of the Virgin was standing in the sullen daylight. One could find books in Thiepval; I am guilty of taking my copy of Ferdinand Von Freiligrath’s bombastic poems from that uncatalogued library. But it is time to return from these abysmal peregrinations to the world up aloft, where still in outlying pits a minenwerfer or two (without its team) thrusts up its steel mouth toward the old British line, where the ration party uses the “dry places” in the mud — those bemired carcasses which have not yet ceased to serve “the great adventure” — and the passer-by hates the plosh of the whizzing fuse-top into the much worse than the fierce darts of the shrapnel itself; where men howl out angry imprecation at officers whom they love; where our poor half-wit and battalion joke, whom red tape will not let us send away, is running out above the Schwaben half naked, slobbering, and yet at times aware that he is not in his perfect mind.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 111-13.
  2. Revised to read, in an odd touch of the nearly-romantic, "a most lonely world's end."
  3. Undertones of War, 112-16.

Cushy Trenches and a Sickle Moon: Turning to Frederic Manning’s Middle Parts of Fortune

From time to time I bemoan the difficulty of finding a good day on which to work in the novels of the Great War. Fiction, after all, is generally less concerned with calendar exactitude than military history is. But some books are closely connected to a particular period of the war, and sometimes extraordinary measures must be taken. There is, for instance, Frederic Manning‘s The Middle Parts of Fortune–also published in expurgated form as Her Privates We (both titles being naughty, Hamlet-derived jokes about a personified Fortune)–which is unique among novels of this war in its combination of forthright (and profane) identification with the infantry and real literary skill. The novel takes place entirely in the last weeks of the Somme campaign,which is to say now, a century back.

So let’s read closely, and, like proper votaries of sublunary Fortune, keep an eye on her changes. We know that Manning was on the Somme at this point, and he avers, right up front in a “prefatory note” to his novel, that “the events described in it actually happened.” These events are difficult to track through the early autumn, but the final November battles on the Ancre nearly destroyed his battalion and inlcude the “events” which must be associated with the attacks and patrols toward the end of the book. So there is a certain point in the novel where it is clear that it is very late October… and we can trust Manning not to make up a moon, can’t we? Fiction may embroider, but he is a poet, too, and this is an avowedly true story. Crescents cannot wax full or fade to black when it is not their time…

So, if my calculations–by which I mean the calculations of an internet astronomy site–are correct, then it would have to be within a day or so of tonight, a century back that Manning/Bourne saw the moon described below. Tonight probably fits best: a slim waxing crescent still a few hours from setting as they begin their night’s work of bringing supplies up the line.

Two excerpts, then, from The Middle Parts of Fortune. One short and ironically scene-setting, the next long and a very good example of the strengths of this book. It is, though I blush to deploy this word, unique in being a successful “modern” novel written by a man with experience in the ranks. It’s not really all that much of a “Modern” novel–it’s Ford who will tackle the shambling monster of a novel with narrative innovations and full-Modernist trappings–but modern in the sense that it feels as if it comes from the drained and hollow-eyed middle of the century, rather than from some time when the last perfumes of the Edwardian world still lingered on the breeze. It is, to break out another brilliantly incisive critical term, ahead of its time…

This is most obvious when we find the expletives, the frank discussion of sex, and the lack of interest in “history.” This is a book about one man–Bourne, the author’s stand-in, the character to whom the narrative voice is close and faithfully intimate–and what he discovers about himself and a few of his comrades. There are a few officers–like Manning, Bourne is educated and from a much different place than the majority of the rural laboring men in his battalion, and each is being considered for a commission–but the crucial secondary characters are Bourne’s two mates, his inseparable “buddies” Shem and Martlow, as well as a handful of other privates, corporals, and sergeants.

The short excerpt, first, to get our ironic artillery registered. This battalion took heavy casualties in July, but have been serving in quiet sectors since.

‘What is it?’

‘Tanks! Tanks!’

They rushed our of their tent, and joined apparently with the whole camp, in a wild stampede through the trees to the road below. None of them, as yet had seen a tank. It was only a caterpillar tractor, which had come up to move a big gun to or from its lair. Officers hurried out to see what was the matter, and then returned disgusted to their tents. Sergeants and corporals cursed the men back to their own lines. As Bourne turned back with the others, he looked up to a clear patch of sky, and saw the sharp crescent of the moon, floating there like a boat. A bough threw a mesh of fine twigs over its silver, and at that loveliness he caught his breath, almost in a sob.


It’s a brilliant book and in it, as its title makes clear, fortune looms large. Of course it does–what book about soldiers wondering whether they will live or die cannot be almost overwhelmed by considerations of fate and fortune? But Manning was surely aware of the many ways in which such ideas were, in the pre-modern world, associated with the domination of the moon–and despite the light it throws on their dangerous nocturnal doings, Manning does not seem to hate the moon. Onward, now, for a better taste of the book

There was starlight and a young moon, sharp as a sickle; and into the clear night great concrete standards… rose at regular intervals. On the reverse slope they were intact, broad at the base, pierced, so as not to offer too much resistance to the wind, and tapering as they rose, almost as obelisks; but the first to lift its peak above the crest of the hill had been damaged, and beyond that they had been all shattered by shell-fire, only the truncated bases remaining.

The men now learn that they are to carry up ammunition to the front lines. They are near Hébuterne: the true events of this night took place on the ground shown in the map below. Prepared in August after the initial failures, it names a few arteries of the British trench system when they run along pre-existing tracks, but for security reasons the entire British system is not shown. Note, however, Sackville Street, in squares 28 and 34.


When the boxes were checked and each man loaded, they crossed the road, and Bourne, who had been over the same ground the night before, noticed a new feature a few yards away from the beginning of the communication-trench called Southern Avenue: a large shell-crater, the size of a good pond, but empty of water, except for a little seepage, which showed that it had only just been made.

The sound of the big shells and the sight of the crater quickened their apprehension of danger, without raising it to the point of fear. One’s sensibility seemed to grow finer, more acute, while at the same time it became somewhat distorted. In the distance a star-shell would rise, and as its light dilated, wavered and failed, one saw against it the shattered trunks and boughs of trees, lunatic arms uplifted in imprecation, and as though petrified in a moment of shrieking agony. The communication-trench was deep, and one looked up out of it to a now tranquil sky, against which the same stark boughs were partly visible. Then on the right appeared the ruins of a shattered farm, an empty corpse of a building. There was for Bourne an inexplicable fascination in that melancholy landscape: it was so still, so peaceful, and so extraordinarily tense. One heard a shell travel overhead, or the distant rattle of a machine-gun, but these were merely interruptions of a silence which seemed to touch the heart with a finger of ice. It was only really broken when a man, stumbling on a defective or slippery duck-board, uttered under his breath a monosyllabic curse…

“Fuck…” That reminder of man’s proximity broke for a moment the dream; but, otherwise, one seemed to be travelling through some sterile landscape in the moon, or some soulless region on the shadowy confines of hell. Coming out of the communication-trench, they turned to the right up Sackville Street, a breast-work only, giving one a sudden feeling of space and insecurity; and, continuing, they came on a more intricate system: Flag Alley, Flag Switch, Legend, and Blenau. In Legend there was a company in support, and they passed a sentry over a dugout and one or two men. Then again was a long lifeless stretch. Just before they reached the fire-trenches they stood aside to allow a stretcher party carrying down a man to pass. As he passed them they whispered encouragement.

“Good luck, chum. Don’t you worry. You’ll be back in Blighty soon.”

He may not have heard them, he lay very still; but Bourne, whose ironical spirit was sometimes sardonic, felt with an irresistible conviction that their words were a ritual formula, devised to avert, somehow, a like fate from themselves. Even so, it showed how closely men were bound together, by some impalpable tie. They passed men on the fire-step, men as fixed as statues when that ghastly light fell tremblingly on them from the sky; and one or two sprawled on the step, their backs propped against the side of the bay, snatching a little fitful sleep, their tin hats tilted over their faces, and boots, puttees and trousers plastered thick with mud that caked like mortar. Sometimes their eyes met a face, blank from the weariness that is indifference; and perhaps, because at this point they only moved forward a few yards at a time, they would exchange a few whispers.

“What’s it like?”

“Oh, ‘e strafed a bit this afternoon, but it’s cushy enough.”

Bourne had never heard any other reply to that question, in all the hundreds of times he had heard it asked. A face of expressionless immobility, with hard inscrutable eyes, and that even monotonous whisper.

“Oh, it’s cushy enough.”

Presently Corporal Hamley motioned him forward into the next fire-bay. Shem followed him, and the others, for the moment, were barred. He saw Mr Marsden talking to an officer, and then he found that each man had to get out of the trench, and dump his stuff where a depression made an area of dead ground. He climbed out, and saw for a moment the rather loosely hung strands of wire, between the pickets, against the sky; there was a fairish depth of it. Almost as soon as he stood upright, a bullet sang by his head; it was as though something spat at him out of the darkness. In the deeper part of the hollow, an officer checked the boxes as they were dumped. As he returned to the trench, Shem got out with his box. Mr Marsden was still talking, in a low voice, to the other officer. There were only three or four more men behind, and then they would go back.

Bourne passed out of the fire-trench by a slit, running slantwise, to a trench in the rear, where the other men waited. Shem joined him, and another man. Then there was a loud elastic twang, as a shell exploded fairly close to them; and they heard stuff flying overhead; and another shell came; and another. One no sooner heard the hiss of the approaching shell than it exploded. The two last men, a little shaken, joined them. Shells continued to come over, bursting with that curious twang, and occasionally a blast of air fanned their faces. Weeper, who was standing by Shem and Martlow, leaned on the muzzle of his rifle. His face had an expression of enigmatic resignation. Mr Marsden did not come. The shelling was not very severe, but it seemed to increase slightly, and they wondered whether Jerry was going to start a real strafe. The range improved, too, and presently the word was passed along for stretcher-bearers. Their own stretcher-bearers, with Corporal Mellin, moved along to go to the fire-trench, but they were not wanted. Mr Marsden arrived and stopped them.

“It’s all right. Their own bearers are there. We may want you ourselves later,” he said, encouragingly.

They moved off; but even before they moved the shelling slackened, and then ceased. Bourne had noticed that one or two of the new men had seemed a bit windy, that is, restless and impatient, not really in a funk. Weeper’s passive acquiescence in whatever Fate might have in store impressed him more. He was a little surprised at himself. The zip of the bullet by his head had disconcerted him a little, and yet probably it was only a stray, and perhaps not so close as he imagined.

They had a rum issue with their tea when they got back, and then a final cigarette before turning to sleep.[1]


To bolster our moon-driven case for turning to Manning now, I can also adduce this poem, written at some point during the surrounding weeks. It describes the same sort of job, but writ larger: the battalion transport, with animals and wagons, would resupply at night into the reserve and support lines, while carrying supplies into the actual fighting trenches, as above, was a matter of heavily-laden men and muddy trenches.



The moon swims in milkiness.
The road glimmers curving down into the wooded valley
And with a clashing and creaking of tackle and axles
The train of limbers passes me, and the mules
Splash me with mud, thrusting me from the road into puddles.
Straining at the tackle with a bitter patience,
Passing me…
And into a patch of moonlight,
With beautiful curved necks and manes.
Heads reined back, and nostrils dilated.
Impatient of restraint.
Pass two gray stallions.
Such as Oenetia bred;
Beautiful as the horses of Hippolytus
Carven on some antique frieze.
And my heart rejoices seeing their strength in play,
The mere animal life of them.
As a thing passionate and proud.
Then again the limbers and grotesque mules.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. The Middle Parts of Fortune, 157-162.
  2. Marwil, Frederic Manning, 166-7.

John Ronald Tolkien to the Hospital; Siegfried Sassoon to Cambridge–and Sorley, and Satire.

The Somme has claimed another victim, although this time it’s not shot or shell but rather the mud, filth, and close conditions. John Ronald Tolkien has been feeling ill and feverish over the last few days, but today, a century back, he was sent down from the line to hospital. While enlisted men must depend upon a fair-minded or sympathetic battalion doctor to have their illnesses taken seriously, officers tend to be allowed to operate on their honor, at least to some degree–and Tolkien’s 103 degrees were more than enough to make it clear that he was quite ill. He stuck it out for a few days, but he is now bound for rest and recuperation and, possibly, a trip to Blighty. Diagnosed with “Trench Fever,”–i.e. some sort of infection, probably parasite-borne, that includes fever and other flu-like symptoms–he will be out of combat for at least a little while.[1]


While an ordinary fever may not get an officer all the way to Blighty, complications generally do. Witness Siegfried Sassoon, sick at the beginning of August with worrisome lung symptoms, well enough by the end of the month to do some serious hiking and play a lot of golf, and yet somehow given additional months of leave by successive Medical Boards even as his battalion is being torn to shreds.

Lately, Sassoon has been hunting, too, but he has not entirely neglected his literary life, or his connections in that world. At some point during the past few weeks he completed several poems, including the Hardy-esque “The Tombstone-Maker”–very much a “Satire of Circumstance,”–and the sharp, sour, rather vicious “A Ballad.”

The jaunty anapests of this one–in manuscript, below–belie the anger here. It’s an adolescent anger, unfocused and strangely self-centered (even as it speaks on behalf of others, i.e. in the voice of the “other ranks”), but it’s not without its power. We can see, too, why George Coppard was under such suspicion after being shot in the foot.


The manuscript of this poem is held at Cambridge, where Sassoon arrived today, a century back, to stay with Edward Dent. But although Sassoon, who is not keeping up his diary, will tend to describe his mood during this period as unfocused and almost aimless, he did pay another call while he was in Cambridge that shows him mindful of both the past and of poetry.

Either today or tomorrow, a century back, Sassoon paid a call on Professor W. R. Sorley, father of Charles Hamilton Sorley. Sassoon and Charles Sorley had never met, although they had attended the same school (Marlborough, but Sorley was nine years younger) and Sassoon had attended Cambridge for several years while the Sorleys lived there.

But ever since the enthusiastic Robert Graves had introduced Sassoon to Sorley’s poetry, mere months after Sorley’s death in action in the fall of 1915, Sassoon has accepted Sorley as a kindred spirit and a necessary predecessor, the precocious poetic younger brother he never knew he’d had.

The two were not really all that much alike–Sorley was terribly sharp, wise and certain beyond his years, while Sassoon often seems pleasantly vague and younger than his, wandering idly through life without realizing his gifts. But Sorley’s uncompromising last poems are the right way forward, and Sassoon–a year behind in both war experience and war verse development–knows this now. And he’s lived a year longer, too…

The meeting between the officer-poet on extended sick leave and the father of the dead officer-poet seems to have gone well. Sassoon left with a gift, the volume of Letters From Germany and the Army which Professor Sorley had recently prepared as a memorial to his son, and which this project drew on extensively in 1914 and 1915.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 94. The fever will recur--so today's hospitalization marks, more or less, the victory of the Parasite That--Perhaps--Saved Middle Earth.
  2. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 305-6.

Mawiage. Mawiage is What Separates Ford Madox Ford’s Liabilities from Olaf Stapledon’s Prospects; John Ronald Tolkien Falls Ill

Two days and a century back, John Ronald Tolkien began feeling ill. But there was a battalion inspection by the commander of 5th Army, General Sir Hubert Gough, so he stuck it out. The next day, another inspection, by General Haig himself. By today, Tolkien was too ill to ignore his condition, and he “went sick,” logging a temperature of 103 degrees. Perhaps hoping to recover quickly–or perhaps because his battalion medical officer does not want to send a debatably disabled officer down the line–Tolkien returns to his billet for the night, remaining with the battalion.[1]


Ford Madox Hueffer is many things. He is a very good writer who has begun to work on what will become the most monumental English novel of the war, and the only real claimant, here, to the title of “Modernist Masterpiece.” He is a prodigiously talented journalist, critic, and polemicist; he is a probable victim of shell-shock and a probable perpetrator of exaggerations and obfuscations about his shell-shocking; he is prone to spectacularly imploding romantic relationships and the persistent accumulation of debts; and he’s an older, fatter sort of chap who could have well and honorably avoided actual trench service but chose, instead, to go.

But it didn’t go very well. And now Ford is back at the depot, having lost–at the very least–the confidence of his battalion C.O. in his ability to succeed as a company officer.

So Ford/Hueffer went to war when he could have avoided it–in the realm of volunteering/generational conflict/the experiential gulf, then, he is firmly on one side and not the other. Nothing can take that away. But when we move from kind to degree it’s a little amusing to be reminded that one thing Ford definitely is not is stoic–or patient, or easily satisfied. He’s gone to France, he’s seen the trenches, he’s endured bombardments and worked for a while as a transport officer–but now he would like, well, a real job.

In letters of two days ago and today, a century back, Hueffer works first his friend C. F. G. Masterman–the director of the British propaganda effort and a man of many connections–and then Masterman’s wife, Lucy.

3rd Batt, The Welch Rcgt.
Denbighshire, N. Wales

Dear C. F. G.

No: I have not heard anything at this end &, knowing the W. O. as I do, I don’t suppose I shall. I wish you cd. have done something—but never really expectcd that you cd. My luck is too much out.

As things are I see nothing for it but to relinquish my comm[ission]—wh. I shall do on 1.11.16—& to disappear into a decent obscurity.

I am doing no good here, either to myself or to anyone else—& the training we give the men here seems ridiculously ineffective—so I can’t even console myself with the idea that I am doing useful work.

No: I am not doing any writing; to write one must have some purpose in life—& I simply haven’t any. You see one has phases of misfortune that get too heavy for one as one gradually loses resiliency & I am too bored now to keep [illegible]…

Yes, fitting that–I, too, sometimes feel too bored to put up with such scrawls!

But on to today’s letter:


Dear Lucy,

All right, my dear, call it a wash out…

As for my position here—it is very simple. I can’t meet my liabilities any more–& it is better to apply to relinquish ones comm. than to be forced to for that sort of reason, even if one sets aside the question of honesty. One can’t, with my age & disposition, run up bills at shops without any possibility of meeting them & so on. I cd. get along personally on my pay—but I have outside liabilities too, you see.

These would include his responsibilities to his wife, his daughters, and his not-quite-second-wife of long standing, Violet Hunt, with whom he is now falling out, viz:

And V’s campaign of vilification makes people very shy of publishing my work, even if I cd. write, so I shd. really be much better off if I relinquished my comm & enlisted. It isn’t depression, or pique, but just common sense.

Yrs. always.[2]

It doesn’t seem to be any of those things, actually.


Finally, today, Olaf Stapledon is in a serious mood. It would be hard to find two writers of more different personalities and literary predilections than he and Ford–and, wouldn’t you know it, they seem to approach the question of marital finances from a somewhat different point of view as well. But then of course they are on different sides of the issue–one before the glorious summit and the other over the hill, as it were.

But let’s focus on Olaf. If you’re going to woo a girl on the other side of the world for many years, you might as well pay some attention to the practical side of the proposition. There is rueful good humor here, and an unusually frank and self-aware acknowledgment of what was then taken for granted and we are now being slowly schooled to recognize and acknowledge as enormous privilege. Still, Stapledon proposes (again) to both draw upon the largesse of his father’s success in business and to put that cash cushion to a good use–not only by marrying Agnes but to continue to work in a low-paying but socially valuable job. After the ambulances, with luck, it will be back to his old gig teaching the under-served members of Britain’s working classes.

…Financial statement concerning Olaf Stapledon M.A. Not a very cheerful one:—Cash in the bank £ 235.16.0. Present income from interest on shares etc. about £ 80 per annum (not less). Face value of shares etc. £ 2673. About £ 280 of this is safe in Bank deposits and Savings Bank. The rest is in such things as garden cities & suburbs and reformed public houses! Father gave me all this at odd times, all thoroughly good things to support, especially the new pubs. Personally I am surprised they all pay up so well. . . . Present expenditure just under £ 30 per annum, probably considerably less in future. Prospects after the war a practically certain, regular salary of £ 240 per annum from W[orkers’]E[ducational]A[ssociation]. No prospects of advancing beyond £400 in that line, and even that advance problematical. Possibility of considerably higher salary later on from an inspectorship, but this is just an idea of mine, not very far-fetched however. Vague possibility of additions from literary work, e.g. Text Book of Literary History, for which there is I believe a real market, also possible journalism. Well, if you can disentangle this rigmarole you will see that the situation is not very encouraging. . . .[3]

No, but nor is it hopeless. And perhaps Agnes believes that there is more than Quaker modesty, here, more than a good boy’s practical disclaimers. Might not some of that literary work, someday, pay?


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 94.
  2. Letters, 77.-8.
  3. Talking Across the World, 181.

The Royal Welch in the Somme Mud; Rowland Feilding Takes to the Irish

Today, a century back, the 2nd Royal Welch were holding a debatable bit of line near Combles, albeit one with distractingly winsome toponyms: “Hazy Trench,” “Misty Trench,” and others “were figments of the Staff imagination, but the names had a colloquial use in pointing out the whereabouts of the groups of shell-holes that served the Germans well for concealment and defence.”[1] Frank Richards, still a signaler with the battalion, is full of anecdotes about this period, including tales of how he founnd a body in a tree, was impressed with the cool courage of the hated bully of an officer he calls “The Peer,” and heard a story about a group of enlisted men driving a coward–but one of their own–out into shell-fire… but I since I can’t really affix any of these to a particular date, I will refer the interested reader to pages 206 and following of Old Soldiers Never Die.

With not much going on elsewhere, we can catch up with Rowland Feilding, today. We’ll go back more than a week, and get in step with his own game of epistolary catch-up. Feilding remains a faithful correspondent, but since taking over command of a battalion–the 6th Connaught Rangers–he has had less time for long descriptive letters to his wife. We don’t, perhaps, know Feilding all that intimately, but I hope readers will have a sense of his careful probity, his concern for unbiased observation–of himself as well as others–and what probably seemed to his fellow officers to be a slight stiffness or formality of manner.

October 17, 1916. In Front of Wytschaete.

I feel, though I have written many letters, that I have told you really very little about the battalion I am commanding.
But now that I have got to know it, and to be proud of it, I think I must try and give you some idea of the people I am with, and the atmosphere I live in.

First of all, then, I find both officers and men magnificent—plucky and patient, keen and cheerful. Since I came here I have introduced gradually many innovations—notions I learnt from the Guards. I have tightened up the discipline a lot. Inferior men might have resented it; yet I have not once encountered from any rank anything but the most loyal and whole-hearted co-operation.

These Irishmen have, in fact, shown themselves the easiest of men to lead; though I have an idea, as I said once before, that they would be difficult to drive. I have heard it said, and have always believed, that there is no such thing as a “bounder” in Scotland, and I think I have learnt here that the same may with truth be said of Ireland. The result is that the officers’ messes of the Division, though they include many diamonds in the rough, are pleasant places to live in—full of good will and good cheer. Among my lot I have a successful trainer of race-horses, an M.F.H., an actor, a barrister, a squireen or two, a ranker from the Grenadiers, a banker, a quartermaster from the 9th Lancers, a doctor from Newfoundland;—members, in short, of many professions; a lot of boys too young to have professions:—and a Nationalist M.P. is coming!

I feel particularly pleased with them all to-day. The fact is that the very right and proper policy of the Brigadier, and of the whole Brigade, of tormenting the enemy, is beginning to take effect, with the result that the latter, yesterday, broke away from his previously peaceful habits, and retaliated. Indeed, he seemed considerably annoyed, and pounded our front line severely with heavy trench mortars, etc., and the area, generally, with artillery. He blew in a considerable length of our breastworks, and altogether, for some hours, was very nasty.

But the officers and platoon sergeants handled the men cleverly, with the almost miraculous result that the casualties were so trifling as not to count. As soon as it was dark all set to work to repair the damage, and, though the Germans used their machine-guns freely, the men laughed, and went on filling sandbags. One or two wags amused themselves by signalling the “misses” with their shovels—as they do on the range; and by daylight the trenches were again presentable.

This morning all was quiet once more, and the sun was shining. The men were in the best of spirits, with grins
on the faces of most of them. They knew they had done well; and in spite of a large number of direct hits on the fire-trench, and many more close shaves, the casualty list had totalled only four wounded, three of them slightly. Such is the glorious uncertainty of shell and trench-mortar fire! This morning one of my corporals killed a German and wounded another in Noman’s Land. The latter crawled back towards his line, and, as he neared it, three of his friends came out after him. My men then acted in a manner which would perhaps nowadays be regarded as quixotic, so relaxed—thanks to our opponents—have the rules of this game of war become.

They did not shoot.

It’s always interesting to get a report from the front lines on the state of attritional warfare–and very intersting that the Brigade-level “hate” brought retaliation in kind, but not a total abandonment of humane (and, strictly speaking, un-[total]-warlike) behavior between infantrymen.

Do I have only a thin excuse to work in this nine-day-old letter on a slow day? Sure; but Feilding wrote another one, and now we find out a little more about what it’s like for an English officer to command an Irish Nationalist politician in an Irish battalion in an English brigade of the British Army during a European war:

October 26, 1916. Butterfly Farm (in Brigade Reserve).

Stephen Gwynn arrived to-day. He has just been in to lunch. He is the very antithesis of the Irish politician as popularly represented by the Tory School. He is old for a Company Commander—fifty-two. All the more sporting therefore to have come out in that capacity, especially since he seems to have had a hard tussle with the War Office Authorities before they would consent to send him.

A promising beginning? We’ll hear more from Feilding about Gwynn soon, but it’s worth noting the rarity of this situation: only five Nationalist M.P.s (apparently) served during the war. A small world indeed, so it’s not surprising to learn that Gwynn had collaborated with his late friend and colleague Tom Kettle on both a book of ballads and a recruiting drive.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 268.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 127-9.

A Rest Cure for Blunden’s Sussex; Ivor Gurney on Agamemnon and Army Pudding; Dorothie Feilding and the Convicts; Vera Brittain Gets to Work at Last

We have four snippets of everyday life in wartime today, a century back.

Edmund Blunden‘s battalion, the 11th Royal Sussex, have recently experienced the thrill of victory–and the agony of victory’s cost, in this case more than 275 casualties. And now, returning to the ordinary life of trench-holding, they have a new perspective on attrition’s quotidian suffering. Blunden underlines this by hitting the “eternal soldier” note rather hard, taking his chapter title straight from the Gallic Wars.

Caesar Went Into Winter Quarters

Then we went into the trenches round about Thiepval Wood, which not long before had been so horrible and mad; but now they had assumed a tenderer aspect, “a rest-cure sector,” and we were envied for them. The land in front was full of the dead of July 1st, and other days of machine-driven destruction, but our own casualties were happily few, and there was cover for all. Occasionally heavy shells blocked up parts of Inniskilling Avenue, or the water- side path to Mill Post (opposite our old mill at Hamel) which Lapworth, the mild-looking boy who had so stalwartly endured the pandemonium of Stuff Trench, now commanded. At battalion headquarters it was like old times, everyone having time and means to appear with shining face and even shining buttons, and arguments about ghosts, the German Emperor, and the French artillery rising into sonorous eloquence until some near explosion put out the acetylene lamp, or “paper warfare” warmed up with the receipt of large envelopes from Brigade. Those not in the front trench were sheltered in mediaeval-looking passages hewn through the chalk and the roots of the trees; the forward posts were chiefly manned from tunnels called Koyli West and East; and in truth everyone seemed disposed to be satisfied. In Paisley Valley, alongside the wood, some tanks were lying veiled with brown nets, and one might have translated the fact; but a week or so passed, and nothing had happened. Had it not? With the aid of the sergeant cook I had built four ovens in the wood, which Wren himself would have eaten his dinner out of — or gone without.[1]


Ivor Gurney would, I think, be glad of an oven-building officer. But he is in reserve, and so has enough of comfort and leisure today, a century back, to keep up his correspondence with Marion Scott. It’s a letter in his habitual manner, which is to say distractedetceterative, but full of interesting observation.

25 October 1916

My Dear Miss Scott: I am very glad you both go on so well; please continue, and continue to please. (I had written “breathe”, because they are talking about gas-drill behind me). We are in reserve now, living in huts, and harried by inspections and the awful crescendo of brightness in buttons and buckles. This last is most dreadful to me…

“Wild Wales” has come, (yours is a good joke) and has already given me great pleasure…

Before I start my usual discussion, let me ask you not to stop writing, if you do not hear from me, as there may be little time for writing for a bit.

With this grim warning out of the way, Gurney now produces an archetypal paragraph: a wry list/picture of the life of a soldier as an endless trudge of labor, little rest, and much unnecessary busy-work (what a later generation of American soldiers will call “chickenshit”), followed by a short, sharp comment.

I promised to tell you something of the life in trenches. Our last orders were as follows. — from Stand to 5.30. Stand Down, clean rifles 6.0. Breakfast 7.30. Work 8.30-12.30. Dinner 1. Tea 4.30. Stand to 5-5.30. Stand Down. Then Ration fatigue. Listening Post. Sentry. Wiring-Party. Some of these last all night. One is allowed to sleep off duty — but not in dugouts. And the average, now the cold weather has come, and rain, is about 3 hours sleep. Out of trenches, there are parades, inspections, chiefly for shortages; and fatigues. RE, Pioneer, and Ration fatigues for battallions in the line. The life is as grey as it sounds, but one manages to hang on to life by watching the absolute unquenchability of the cheerier spirits — wonderful people some of them. After all, it is a better thing to be depressed with reason than without.

Gurney will not be the last man to find that the corporate and highly regimented misery of army life is, if not exactly a recipe for contentment, nevertheless a check against headlong despair.

When confronted with a difficult proposition the British soldier emits (rather like the cuttle-fish) a black appalling cloud of profanity; and then does the job.

A pal of mine just returned from England — Cheltenham in fact — tells me that the people there are quite resigned to the war lasting another year and a half; and also quite resigned to any sacrifices we may be called upon to make. Tres bien! It is the war spirit, also Zeit-geist.

The weather here is melancholy, except for an occasional nippy morning of bright sunshine…

It is courteous of Gurney–or careless–to share this anecdote, and imply that Scott is one of the good ‘uns, rather than a fatuous warmonger safe at home volunteering on behalf of the poor bloody infantry. But of course this is one of the things that makes friendships between serving soldiers and women easier than with non-combatant men–women are not offered the same choice between service, silence, and hypocrisy.

Having previously covered corrections to his poems, Gurney now goes into his compositions (which Scott is editing for him) and I will once again skip over their rather technical discussion. Then it’s back to the war, by way (ever wandering Ivor) of thanking Scott once again for her parcels–specifically, for the books.

They have loaded us up with all sorts of extra clothing for winter — leather jerkin, vest, body-belt. Lord knows what all. I am afraid books will be too much of a responsibility and encumbrance. Anyhow “Wild Wales” will last me for months and months. And there are the Greek plays. “Agamemnon” is very fine, and the man does know how to translate. I suppose that Blackie is that Greek professor whom Stevenson sat under, and who professed years after never to have seen the young man’s face. I wonder how RLS would have come off in the Army, had he lived now and been fit. Very queerly as a whole, I fear.

Robert Louis Stevenson? This is an odd idle thought indeed. Last but not least, a good line on army pudding:

…Yesterday we had pudding: clammy lumps of cold damp flour congealing and hanging together strongly by the
force of malice. Goodbye best wishes:

Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[2]


As for Lady Feilding, her letter to her mother of today, a century back, begins in the hope that her father may still come to visit, hopping a destroyer to save the roundabout route of the ordinary transports. But let’s skip straight to the madcap anecdotes and black humor!

…Yesterday the Zouaves very bucked over the Verdun successes & hung up all sorts of flags out of the trenches with insulting messages to Fritz. Result today the latter has been on the strafe with his ‘minnies’ & our people have been busy. A rather expensive joke I’m afraid.

This ranks as a serious observation, one that approaches the madness of attrition from another angle, looks hard… and then saunters away. Instead, a dark tale played for comic effect (and surely exaggerated).

There is an extraordinary regiment here now, composed entirely of French convicts brought back from the colonies & made to fight. They have livened up the district considerably!! When fighting they can’t be beaten & have made a great name for themselves & are always given the dirty jobs. But in billets they are the devil. They have slain 6 Belge gendarmes, 2 old ladies & stolen innumerable hens this last week; diverse of them are shot at dawn at intervals but none of the others seem the least depressed thereby.

One of their officers told me in N the other day that even in the trenches, no sooner is a man knocked out, than all the others are down on him like harpies to bag his watch & rifle his pockets generally.

I think I must send you a few of their blessés to Newnham, just to buck up matron & give her some exercise.

To be clear, Lady Feilding is joking about sending some of the wounded of this French Dirty Dozen back home to the comfortable English country hospital her mother is involved in…  Shall we end with another strange emotional zig-zag, then?

Goodnight dear–I am sleepy tired & wish I was dead ever so much.

Yr loving DoDo[3]


Finally, today, Vera Brittain has recovered from her illness and is finally working. If this first picture of life as a nurse abroad seems rather breezy well, it will be her last diary entry for nearly a month. Presumably, the pace of things will be picking up.

Wednesday October 25th

We live in the “married quarters” (this used to be a barracks); for active service we are really very comfortable, & lucky not to be under canvas… just outside two of our windows (we have 3 big ones & the room is quite large) is a stone balcony, from which you get a most beautiful view right out to sea; we can see all the ships that pass, & the searchlights & signals at night. Two other rooms occupied by Sisters lead out of ours; everyone walks through everyone else’s room without knocking, whatever they are doing; one gets quite used to it. There is no bathroom but just a hip-bath which everyone uses; there is no hot water of course laid on anywhere, but twice a week there is hot water in the boilers behind the dining-room (which is a large tent); you can then have a hot bath if you like to carry the water for it up to your room in cans. There is generally rather a rush for it. The meals here seem good, but will probably need a little supplementing with biscuits. We all wear white shoes & stockings, low soft collars & Panama hats; no one seems very particular about uniform, unless you are unlucky enough to meet the Principal Matron. The difference between the stiffness & starchiness of the Nursing Profession in England & the freedom here is quite remarkable… The Sisters treat you as friends & equals instead of as incompetent but necessary evils whose presence they resent; in fact yesterday two Sisters helped me chase a locust out of my room with a mat & a tennis racquet…[4]

So out in Malta the V.A.D.s are needed, and are accorded more respect–after all, in London they might have been moonlighting dilettantes, but this is a more dedicated crew. And yet… someone has brought a tennis racket…


References and Footnotes

  1. Undertones of War, 112.
  2. War Letters, 110-11.
  3. Lady Under Fire, 175-6.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 335-6.

Lady Feilding on Kipling and Raising Up Abject Men; David Jones is Back Home

First, today, a letter from Dorothie Feilding to her mother. The subject of their discussion would seem to be the recent barrage of marriage proposals to which Lady Feilding has been subjected–and how to arrive at a philosophical view thereof.

24 Oct 16

Mother mine–I got such a nice letter from you yesterday for which very many thanks.

I think your view of Lady Hamilton was quite right. I think women if they wish can help men very very often by using their influence in the right way. At least I know in several cases I have been able to help men over stiles in their lives, whereas if they hadn’t been fond of me they would have taken the wrong road. I remember many years ago your telling me ‘It can never hurt a man to care for a good woman.’ & I have often thought of it since & it has helped me to do the right thing by people. I know if a man looks up to you, he will unconsciously almost do the best that is in him, just because he knows it pleases you to feel he is doing so. Since the war I think women can help men these ways & influence them more than they have ever done before.

Winkie had a birthday party day afore yesterday, & we only remembered it half thro’ the day, so hurriedly had a small select supper party to drink her health which was quite fun.

Awfully wet & foggy today. I expect Somme operations held up thereby. Everything here quite quiet today.

Got a letter from Gen HO this morning who says nearly a month ago he was told I was engaged to Pierre de B & he wants to know if it’s true. I wrote & said not, it’s extraordinary how these yarns get about. I am sorry because it must be beastly for the boy if people go & ask him about it. Foreigners are such awful busybodies. Am just reading Kipling’s articles on the Jutland battle destroyers. I suppose you have seen them. They have the bigness of all his things.

I think you are wonderful keeping the hospital on.

All my love darling



And just one more bit: young David Jones, recuperated from the wound sustained in Mametz Wood, returned to his unit today, a century back. His battalion has been moved from the Somme to Ypres, a place–for the moment, at least–of relative calm and solidity.

On 24 October 1916, as a member of the 14th Platoon of D Company, Jones went into reserve dugouts in the Boesinghe sector, east of the village of Brielen, a mile-and-a-half north of Ypres. These dugouts were strong, with sandbagged walls backing like caves into the south-western bank of the Yser Canal so that the surface of the water in the canal was at a level with the heads of men standing. The dugouts opened onto a little stream called the Yser Lea, across which lay plank bridges with, here and there, rustic hand-rails that he thought surprisingly humane and lovely in this ‘most uninviting of areas’. Beyond the stream was the Lizerne-Ypres road, its flanking trees shattered. Exposed to enemy fire, the bridges across the canal were shielded by camouflage hung on uprights like washing on lines…

This reconstruction of Jones’s surroundings is the work of his biographer Thomas Dilworth, who has Jones’s future work in mind. Dilworth reminds us, therefore, how a Jones more deeply steeped in English literature will look back on this discombobulate scene:

…he would recognise this place of dugouts in Chaucer’s description of the temple of Mars in ‘The Knight’s Tale’: a grisly place of mischance set in a dead forest of sharp and hideous stubs, a place of harsh wind, cold, dim light, sharp burning, black smoke, and frightening, grating noises. For much of the coming year, this would be home.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 174-5.
  2. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 134-5.

Everyone Wounded and Ill: George Coppard’s Sandwich-Bearing Angels; Henry Williamson’s Year of Anemia, and the Likely Fates of Vera Brittain’s Three Boys

First today, we follow the elated George Coppard–cleared of wrongdoing in the matter of his “blighty one”–from the war zone to Blighty itself.

On 23 October I was aboard the hospital ship Western Australia. The wooded banks of the Seine were in a blaze of autumn colour as we set out on the eight-hour journey down to Le Havre. Everything was so peaceful and quiet that it seemed to belong to another world. It was a happy trip, with sing-songs and good eating…

At Southampton, a crowd of uniformed angels hovered around with lashings of sandwiches, drinks, and cigarettes It is not easy to find the right words to describe my feelings then. I leave it to the reader to imagine.[1]


With Vera Brittain in Malta, where the mails take weeks, her correspondence with three young officers has taken on an even greater importance in her life. And with winter coming and the Somme entering its final throes, I will try to keep closer tabs on their doings. Geoffrey Thurlow, for instance, wrote to Edward Britain three days ago to let him know where his battalion was headed. The next day, Edward forwarded the news–or, more likely, similar news from a slightly older letter–without knowing himself that Thurlow evidently had just missed the nasty fighting between Thiepval and Courcelette–the attach that had killed several subalterns of Blunden‘s and Tolkien‘s acquaintance.

London, 21 October 1916

The arm is doing v. well though it is not quite right but I am quite fit for light duty. I applied for a board 10 days ago but as usual have heard nothing so far and the present leave is supposed to be up on Monday next… Geoffrey still seems to be existing but every time he writes he seems to expect the attack soon but if that goes on much longer the weather will soon make attacks impossible…

So Edward is nearly recovered from his wounds, but will be safe from actual combat duty for some time to come, while Thurlow’s fate is still day-to-day. And Victor Richardson?

Tah is in great form judging by a letter from him last Sunday; he thinks the 9th K.R.R., his brigade, and his division are the best of their kind that God ever made. Discipline and general management seem to please him greatly and, as he is apparently in a fairly quiet part ‘some miles North of where Roland was’–probably near Arras, he is doing well at present…

And Geoffrey, for his part, is working on a long letter to Vera:

France, 22—25 October 1916

Edward seems to ‘find life hard’ with most of the people out here he knows; I know the feeling well but I do hope he remains in England for a very long time tho’ the war doesn’t seem to be in its final stage yet by a long way, despite the opinions of some armchaired people at home.

Sensible, so far. But Vera loves Geoffrey in part because of his delicate nature, his sensibility. He, too, has been writing up the sunsets:

Our stunt was suddenly washed out at the 11th hour[2] and we are now settling a little farther South. Our present billet is in some charming scenery; a village in a valley surrounded by wooded hills with the many varied autumn tints on the trees and as the Sun has been brilliant yesterday & today the whole place is beautiful… But our time here is limited alas and we shall go on in motor buses, so soon we shall be in War again and shall be able to look back on our brief stay here with pleasure.

Yes, but where in the war? Vera will want to know, and yet the censors must be evaded. I think we can figure this one out:

And I think we may see again the town with the hanging figure from the Church which Edward knows so well.

So Thurlow expects to see the Somme again, and soon. And of what value is it to have a trusted friend, someone who know something of the pressures that young soldiers and young officers must bear, who can be a confidante outside the little circle of masculine reserve, the straight-jacket that pains them even as it helps them to bear up–for a little while longer–under the stress of battle.

All I hope is that I don’t fail — for I must confess I’m a bit of a coward to use a strong word; not so much for myself but for the men under me am I afraid. Still let’s hope for the best!

(Lunch is ready so must stop. Once again am I Mess President & can’t enthuse over it much!)

This is a startling letter, I think, coming from a straight-laced[3] young man. It speaks both to his need to confess his fears and to the depth of the intimacy that grew up between Vera and Geoffrey in a few short months last winter and spring.

And of course, as a letter from a serving soldier, it is fragmentary and odd, too. Thurlow returns to share this scene:


We had a cold interesting ride here… we set off and passed thro’ the most charming country I’ve seen here yet. It grew colder as the sun went in and during the halts at odd intervals the A.S.C. man told me all his life history which was both amusing and interesting — he came out in Aug 1914 & had some exciting times in a usually monotonous existence. As we were leaving a main road — it was dark — the road turned to the right at right angles and we saw red and other lights which looked like a hospital train but in “reality it was the front part of the Convoy & I looked back & saw more lights twinkling away to the rear for miles. It was a fairy like sight.[4]


And finally today, a century back, Henry Williamson, after fourth months’ convalescence from a bout with dysentery, faced a medical board, and was passed fit for… home service. He will rejoin a unit of the Machine Gun Corps and, incongruously–to us, that is–continue learning about the proper care of horses, donkeys, and mules.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 103-4.
  2. And carried out by, among others, the 11th Royal Sussex and the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers...
  3. Yes, I'm growing aware of the persistence with which I come back to these metaphors; and I don't mean to be dropping heavy hints about the strong possibility that there is a repression of sexuality at play here as well... that is part of the story, perhaps. But it seems sometimes as if the proper, middle-class kids who should be in college now come from an older, stricter world than the likes of Asquith, Shaw-Stewart, et. al. Even though it's the same world, just with less London sophistication, I suppose...
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 280-2.
  5. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 80.

Tolkien and Blunden in the Front Line, and Relieved–A Brother Buried and a Lost Dog Lost; George Coppard is Spared; Patrick Shaw-Stewart Gets a Partridge

For Edmund Blunden‘s 11th Royal Sussex and Ronald Tolkien‘s 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, today, a century back, was the day after.

The Lancashires sat tight in Regina Trench most of the day, doing what they could to shore up the defenses of their new positions. Tolkien must have spent the day trying to establish, protect, and repair lines from the new positions to the rear. In the late afternoon they were at last relieved and began the long march back, in time for soup at Ovillers once more, and then a last stage to a rest camp near Albert, well in the rear.[1]

Blunden, still some hundreds of yards behind the new front line in yesterday’s headquarters post, picks up the tale of the Royal Sussex. I broke in yesterday to give the cold facts of their losses, but Blunden writes with restraint. He has signaled who among his friends will die, but we aren’t supposed to come out of it so lightly scathed, so eased by literature. We must come along with him and see the wreckage, learning its cost as he did:

Another day arrived, and the men in Stuff Trench had to eat their “iron rations,” for we could not supply them. We had also lost touch with our battalion doctor, who was somewhere toward Thiepval, that slight protuberance on rising ground westward; and the bearers of the wounded had to find another way out; yet, we were in possession of Stuff Trench, and the Australians southward held its continuation, Regina. That evening, gloomy and vast, lit up with savage glares all around, a relieving battalion arrived, one disposed to quarrel with us as readily as with the Germans. “Take the companies over to Stuff Trench,” said Harrison to me, “and see them settled in there.” Cassels came with me. We were lucky, the night being black, to find our way through that unholy Schwaben Redoubt, but by this stage our polarity-sense was awakened and we knew how little to expect of local identifications. At last, after many doubts, we had passed (in the darkness) a fragment of road metalling which assured me that all was right; the grumbling relief followed our slow steps, which we could not hasten even though one of many shells crashing into our neighbourhood caught a section of the incomers and the moaning cries might have distracted more seasoned tacticians.

At last Blunden has reached the real front, the zone of the worst suffering. Which is not his:

It was Geoffrey Salter speaking out firmly in the darkness. Stuff Trench—this was Stuff Trench; three feet deep, corpses under foot, corpses on the parapet. He told us, while still shell after shell slipped in crescendo wailing into the vibrating ground, that his brother had been killed, and he had buried him; Doogan had been wounded, gone downstairs into one of the dugout shafts after hours of sweat, and a shell had come downstairs to finish him; “and,” says he, “you can get a marvellous view of Grandcourt from this trench. We’ve been looking at it all day. Where’s these men? Let me put ’em into the posts. No, I’ll see to it. That the sergeant major?”

Moving along as he spoke with quick emotion and a new power (for hitherto his force of character had not appeared in the less exacting sort of war), he began to order the newcomers into sentry groups…

I always say that Blunden is gentle, and he is. But just because he doesn’t rage doesn’t mean he isn’t tough. He doesn’t look away from Salter and his terrible loss.

And yet life and fate and this awful war seem always to take a fond pity on Blunden, our harmless hobbit-shepherd, amazed and sometimes downhearted, but never despairing, always stoutly safe in mind and body, even amidst the ruins. We might be left to face Salter, to see what will happen when the stress of battle relents and allows him to feel what has happened–but no. For Blunden, as for many youths in fairy tales, there is a dumb beast to care for.

…stooping down to find what it was snuffing at my boots I found it was a dog. He was seemingly trying to keep me from treading on a body. I caught sight of him by someone’s torch or a flare; he was black and white; and I spoke to him, and at the end of a few moments he allowed me to carry him off. Cassells and myself had finished, and returned by ourselves by the shortest way; now the strain told, our feet weighed like lead, and our hope was out of action. I put down the dog, who came limpingly round the shadowy shell holes, stopped, whined, came on again; what was the use? he perhaps thought: that way, too, there is this maniacal sport of high explosive, and the mud is evidently the same all over the world; I shall stay here. Much I wished to adopt this dog, but now I could scarcely stoop, and I reflected that the mud and shell zone extended a long way on; so there he stayed; feebly I passed along.

Ah, but care for him he cannot. The war supervenes. But still–the dog turned his face away from horror, for a few moments.

If I was weary, what of Salter and his men? Still I hear their slouching feet on the footbridge over the Ancre by Aveluy, where a sad guard of trees dripping with the dankness of autumn had nothing to say but sempiternal syllables, of which we had our own interpretation. The shadows on the water were so profound and unnavigable that one felt them as the environment of a grief of gods, silent and bowed, unvisitable by breeze or star; and then we were past, and soon asleep in the lee of Aveluy Wood.

The account should end there; but since Blunden steels himself to the responsibilities of writing a dutiful sort of war-book and musters a closing paragraph for the chapter, I’ll let it stand:

The action at Stuff Trench on October 21st and 22d had been the first in which our battalion had seized and held any of the German area, and the cost had been enormous; not intemperate pride glowed among the survivors, but that natural vanity was held in check by the fact that we were not yet off the battlefield. The evenings were shutting in early, the roads were greasy and clogging, and along the wooded river valley the leaves had turned red and now had a frost-bitten chillier tinge; the ridges looked lonelier under the sallow clouds; but in mud and gloom the guns went on, and by our camp of tents at evening we saw the tanks crawl round and round in preparation for something new, and not even rumours of our being sent to Lens or Egypt were heard. Winter clothing was served out, shirts, vests, white leather gloves with fleece lining and a tape to keep them together.[2]


With the chapter thus ended, I think we can turn briefly for updates on two other writers. First, and most pressingly, George Coppard. After three days held in the special ward for suspected SIWs (self-inflected wounds), Coppard was cleared of wrongdoing today, a century back, and sent to Rouen, a familiar hospital way-station for Blighty. He had been accidentally shot by his “best pal” in the presence of other witnesses, so he was unlikely to be blamed, but the very fact that he was investigated shows that more and more men were going to extreme lengths to escape the miseries of the Somme.[3]


And speaking of non-combat shooting, why not a bizarre letter from Patrick Shaw-Stewart, long-moldering liaison officer on the Salonika front:

Hirsova, October 22 , 1916

The weather has been delicious here lately. I have had several afternoons among the partridges. I had two days in Salonica last week, and extravagantly invested in a 200-drachma gun: but I am worse off than before, for a lying thief of a Greek sold me a hundred cartridges loaded with buckshot…

Meanwhile, I have shot a quail (my first) with one of the buckshot cartridges, probably a record, I should say. On the face of it, I look like being here till all’s blue: but something tells me that I might conceivably find myself in England (at any rate for a few days) before the Winter’s out. One never knows, you know.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 94.
  2. Undertones of War, 109-11.
  3. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 103.
  4. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 178.