Vera Brittain Laid Low, Dorothie Feilding Disappoints a Wonderfully Brave Man; Isaac Rosenberg Strives to Stay in with Marsh; Ivor Gurney on Everything and Cake Too

A number of writers are busy today, a century back. There is going, coming, preening, editing, boasting, chatting, wagering, wondering…


In the “record time of five days” aboard the speedy Britannic, Vivian de Sola Pinto, drained and ill after months of fever, has reached England:

On 10th October 1916 we were steaming into Southampton Water on a chilly, wet, misty English autumn afternoon. It was thirteen months since I left England, but mentally I seemed at least half a century older than the callow youth who stood on the top deck of the Northdown on that fine September evening in 1915 and dreamed of a triumphal entry into Constantinople.[1]


Vera Brittain, who had been outward bound on the very same ship, perseveres in finding a note of romance and adventure in her first overseas service–despite being very ill, she seems rather pleased with the hubbub in this letter to her brother Edward. Solar topees! Empire and travel!

Imtarfa Hospital, Malta, 10 October 1916

The day before we landed at Malta, 16 of us, self included, were quite suddenly seized with some variety or other of fever, but whether dysentery, malaria, enteritis or some other species no one seems to know . . . I am very much better now and my temperature is down to normal again . . . Everyone here is very busy trying to trace the origin of our disease so as to find out exactly what is the matter with us . . . We have had quite 12 doctors in here, sometimes, five at once. Three of them are lady doctors, all very charming too, in khaki tussore coats & skirts, dark blue ties & solar topees. I am quite tired of giving my name (& wish it was Jones so that I didn’t have to spell it every time), my age, my detachment number, particulars of what I had to eat lately, etc etc. They have taken blood tests of various kinds . . .[2]


Nor can I pass up this episode in the strange life of Lady Dorothie Feilding. Romance! Adventure!

10th Oct

Mother mine–

Life is really very odd isn’t it? I told you Hughie’s friend of the Cornwall, Mr Vaughan RN,[3] you saw in London, turned up here! He got permission through D.I.D. who knows him, to spend 3 days leave out here as he wanted to see me again. He turned up here with the mail on the lorry one day & we put him up at our barracks & Jelly & I took him about in the car with us to show him things & fed him at no 14. He is a very nice soul, I like him very much, but was so sorry because before he left he asked if there would be any chance for me to marry him & I had to say I couldn’t. Poor soul, he’s always had a very lonely time of it through life & was very devoted to his gunner brother who was killed not long ago at Ypres. You remember his writing to me about it when I was home don’t you?

I think men are wonderfully brave sometimes at making up their minds don’t you? Everything really is very odd these days. The days when things weren’t odd seem so far away, almost like a dream.

This sudden proposal of marriage–from a friend of her dead brother who has lost his own brother–puts Lady Dorothie into a reflective mood. Even more unusually, it seems to plunge her into a mode of plainspoken self-expression.

A lot of blessés [wounded] the other night. Poor poor devils. But the more one can help them right out here at the pulse of things the more this actual work means to one. I can’t describe it, but it’s very real, & it means more to me everyday some how.

God bless you dear & goodnightD[4]


Isaac Rosenberg writes from the other end of the social scale. Laboring with a salvage unit on the Somme, he does his best to keep up the tenuous but crucial connections he has to London’s literary world. In this letter to Marsh he is careful–I think that’s the word–to praise the divine Rupert as well as their mutual friend Lascelles Abercrombie (whose interest in Rosenberg is due to Marsh’s recommendation). Does Rosenberg lay it on a bit thick?

[Postmarked October 10, 1916]
22311 A Coy 3 platoon
11th K.O.R.L. B.E.F

My Dear Marsh,

You complain in your letter that there is little to write about; my complaint is rather the other way, I have too much to write about, but for obvious reasons my much must be reduced to less than your little. My exaggerated way of feeling things when I begin to write about them might not have quite healthy consequences…

My Lilith has eloped with that devil procrastination, or rather, labours of a most colosal and uncongenial shape have
usurped her place and driven her blonde and growing beauty away. I have written something that still wants knocking into shape I feel too tired to copy it out, but later on I will, if you care to see it I came across that poem on clouds by poor Rupert Brooke. It is magnificent indeed, and as near to sublimity as any modem poem.

The poem I like best of modem times in Abercrombies Hymn to Love, It is more weighty in thought, alive in passion and of a more intense imagination than any I know….

Do write when you can.

Yours sincerely

Isaac Rosenberg[5]


A more comfortable poet-patron relationship is that between Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott. Miss Scott has helped Gurney immensely, and it is due to her that his poems are beginning to be read and his compositions have been several times performed. But she is a local sort of patroness, content to hover in that gray area between benefactress and amanuensis. Gurney seems eager to please, but he does not fawn–and the very prolixity and disorganization of his letters may be a sign of trust…

He has recently received both a number of parcels and a set of comments and corrections of his work–body and soul together. Two days ago he wrote in thanks:

8 October 1916

My Dear Miss Scott: We are in rest, and at present I myself am in quiet, with a sore foot that has compelled a little respect, so here’s a letter. I do not know whether the packet sunk the other day had any of my letters on board, but hope not. There will be bloody fighting if the Germans sink our parcels; if you have sent one I have not received it yet, let us hope frightfulness has not been carried to so extreme a limit. All the things you send arrive in good condition…

A long ramble about her corrections to his work, his hope for poems and music to come, and somewhat sanguine celebration of recent victories…

The Verdun victory is a very great one, do you not think? The Marne; the Thiepval — Contalmaison — La Boisselle… Verdun. Belles victoires!

…The truth is, as Hardy says, that the English fall back on stoical fatalism; and whatever it is they believe, it is not Christianity. They go to Church, and desire something spiritual, but it is nothing the Churches give them. They are fine, but self-reliant not relying on God…

Sore foot indeed. The chatty letter goes on at some length, and includes a rough poem draft (“Robecq”). Only two days later–today, a century back, Gurney is writing to Scott once again, full of literary exuberance.

He segues from praise of otheres’ books and their praiser’s–“Did you read G K Cs[6] review of Masefields “Gallipoli” in the Observer? O, it is a noble piece of praise”–to gentle mockery of his own work. He quotes his own recent “Serenity,” then mocks its incompleteness, as if to say “this is poetry, fine, but poetry is lacking…”

Nor steel nor flame has any power on me.
Save that its malice work the Almighty Will;
Nor steel nor flame has any power on me;
Through tempests of hell fire I must go free.
And unafraid; so I remember still
Nor steel nor flame has any power on me
Save that its malice work the Almighty Will.

Which is all very well; but what about Mud and Monotony? And Minnies and Majors?

A just question! Gurney sounds more like St. Francis than a poet of modern war. But he is all over the place, of late–this is another letter that shows either the effects of a tired and harassed infantry private writing fluidly about whatever is on his mind at the moment or evidence of a manic phase of mental illness–or both.

Gurney has high hopes for victory:

If I had £20 — a large supposition — I would bet the end comes . . .  by the end of November 5£. By Christmas £10. By End of Feb £15 and by August £20. You will not convince me that such already panicky losers will hold out long…

And then, weirdly, the supposed retreat of the German defenders turns from a note of triumph to a strangely pathetic scene, before veering into black comedy: “Stand-to” is the dawn ceremony at which the front line infantry all come on duty (during the night they work, or rest while taking turns as sentries) together to repel any possible dawn attack. As a display of readiness (and also as a way of enforcing that readiness among themselves) they all fire a few rounds.

No Man’s Land is in the last degree desolate, and nothing could seem sadder than the old willow tree I shoot at during Stand to. There are no Germans and one must shoot at something at Stand to. It was partridges that a
corporal discovered two days ago. He shot 3, but as he had to wait till evening again, the rats got one more than he did. No bon.

Without segue, Gurney now produces a “trench dialogue.” It seems that I have worked too hard today to present a bouquet of different century-back words and experiences… Gurney himself provides multitudes…

Trench dialogue

Cook drops bacon in the mud.
(Cook). — !———–!!! — !
(Passer by, sympathetically) No bon, eh?
(Cook). Compree me explique no bon?
(Passer by.) Na pooh fini, eh?
Cook Wee, no — bon at all.

Such accomplished linguists our gallant soldiers have already become.

Or. Trench Dialogue no 2

Entitled Rations

Prometheus Unbound (off duty.) General expletives.
Chorus (Sympathetic silence)
Prometheus No Bon! No Bon!!
Chorus Dont compree.
Prometheus Compree no grub?
Chorus Whatt!!
Prometheus. Compree no——– grub?
Chorus (dejectedly) Me compree. Wee, Wee. (Goes off to spread the news.)
Prometheus HE comprees! And me.

These are the real Trench dialogues. The Spurious may be told by their unlikeness to these models, so Greek in their perfection of form…

What is going on on with Gurney and these strange almost proto-Beckett playlets? An excess of good humor? Simple capering for Miss. Scott’s benefit?

In the end, Gurney returns to the private soldier’s postal necessity–the chance of caloric subsidy via parcel:

May I request that your next parcel be more substantial with a cake and some sort of paste. Anchovy lasts a deuce of a time…

Will you send me, sometime, the 6d Edition (Nelsons) of Wild Wales? Or that which once was 6d? It is a wonderfully companionable book, and long, beautifully trench-fittingly long; although one skips so much in Borrow.

Body and soul together…

Best wishes to you, and for the quick return to health of all the invalids:

Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[7]


References and Footnotes

  1. The City That Shone, 182.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 278-9.
  3. Royal Navy, rather than registered nurse...
  4. Lady Under Fire, 168-9.
  5. Collected Works, 312-3.
  6. Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
  7. War Letters, 105-9.