Happy Birthday to Edward Brittain; Lady Feilding’s Early Reviews Are In

First, today, a self-celebratory birthday note from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera.[1]

November 30th

Lawks! Fancy being 21. How ridiculously old![2]


And, well, that’s about the most exciting thing that’s going on today, a century back.

We haven’t heard from Alf Pollard, the blunt and blustering hero-memoirist of the HAC, for a very long time, as he has been both away from the front lines and disinclined to kit out his book with specific dates. But today, after many months in England and then at a base camp in France, he was ordered back to his battalion. We can, I believe, expect some action from him come Spring.[3]


And in Belgium, there is… not much more going on. Only Lady Feilding off to see a fellow glamorous hero of the 1914 ambulances about the shockingly shoddy book by Elsie Knocker–or the Baroness T’Serclaes, as she has become.

30th Nov 1916

Mother dear

Jelly is prancing round in circles in the kitchen, finding fault with the porridge, the bacon, me, Charles, Winkie, Helene, the war so I have come in to write to you — so it has done someone a good turn anyway!

How go things with you? I got your copy of the review of Mrs K’s book last night. Reviewers are odd people, it is impossible to know what they will praise or crab. Get the book yourself & read it & tell me how it strikes you as a casual reader? I of course may be prejudiced, but the whole tone of it disgusts me.

I am going up to see Mairi Chisholm today, so will see what she thinks of it…

Yr loving DoDo[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. This is a correction of the original post which, embarrassingly, mistook Edward's letter for Vera's.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 295.
  3. Fire-Eater, 163.
  4. Lady Under Fire, 185.

Pawns on the Move: Edward Thomas on Training (and Reading); Ford Madox Ford to Ship Out, Patrick Shaw-Stewart to Stay Put

Edward Thomas is about to report for the final stage of his training as an artillery officer, and his home leave has taken on a somewhat tense aspect of preparation, of sewing traveling clothes and tying up loose ends. But there is still uncertainty: he was recently commissioned and summoned, by telegram, to yet another grim training camp–but then another letter arrived that may send him to France all the quicker.

A letter of today, a century back, to Robert Frost explains just where he is and what he is about:

High Beech
nr Laughton, Essex
29 xi 16

My dear Robert,

I just arranged this book in the nick of time. For a letter came today warning me to expect a call to my ‘new unit’. Which means probably going straight to a battery & not to any final school. Not that I have learnt everything. I simply can’t master the field artillery telephone. But then I have practically never seen it yet! I have only just seen the gun I am going to. I suppose I ought not to tell you what it is. I understand it will be about 1500 yards behind the front line trenches, so that I shall see a great deal. I was gazetted last Friday. That is to say I am now 2nd. Lieutenant.

So how can I see your play? It did make us all smile to think you thought I might come over for a week. It is one of the impossiblest things. I wish I had not sidestepped it. I remember I did when I was impatient to get on with that novel. You had your revenge, though: you prepared a precipice instead of a step & the wretched thing fell over & there it is at the bottom still. One of the things I have to thank you for. I hope I shall still see the play. A copy typed might be a blessing if this winter over there is at all dull at intervals…

I am not sure what play this is, but Thomas’s book is Poems, his first book thereof–or, rather, “Edward Eastaway”‘s first book. Frost received a duplicate in order to flog it in America…

‘Siege artillery’ is a very special but not descriptive term which you can conclude nothing from.

We are having fine cold days. I have had a chill, spent a wretched day in bed, had got over it in order to go to my tailor’s. I wish you could come shopping with me. I never spent so much in a week. Clothes! And I always preferred clothes old & loose & now they are all new & close fitting. Perhaps Mervyn will photograph me in them, but I really can’t go to the west end & do it. Eleanor Farjeon is here now & she & Helen marking my clothes.

So he is almost gone for a soldier. But with Frost on the other end of the letter, that’s not enough to keep Thomas from meditating on his natural surroundings…

Mervyn goes off at a quarter to seven every morning. He has to cycle 7 miles to his work while the owls & the deer are still about the roads. All day we hear a noise in one of the big munition factories, just like a huge woodpecker tapping in the forest—about 7 or 8 rapid declining taps. Aeroplanes are really the commonest big birds over the forest…

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[1]


Two other writers are on the move today as well, a century back. Ford Madox Hueffer has gotten his marching orders too–and he’s not happy. naturally, he writes to his old friend who’s running government propaganda…

3rd Batt. Welch Regt.
Kinmel Park, near Rhyl

Dear C. F. G.

The Adjutant tells me to-day that the W. O. has sent down imperative orders that I am to be sent to France!!! So I suppose I shall go in a day or two.

All I am really anxious about is that I sh. not go back to the IX Welch. Wd. it be too much to ask you to ask Genl. Braid to suggest to Col. Dickinson at the Base camp at Rouen that this wd. be inconsiderate. I don’t at all want not to be killed—but I don’t want to be strafed unjustly as well…[2]

It’s a threadbare joke, but he has earned the right to make it: he pushed to get himself into an infantry battalion in France, and he suffered the tease (and our doubt) of shelling. He has proved that he has the fundamental courage and curiosity to be willing to be shot at. Or that he had… now a job with fewer shells and physical demands–or more respect–would be just the thing.


And Patrick Shaw-Stewart, recently disappointed in similar hopes of swaying the staff, finds his consolation prize more to his liking. Similarly disappointed, I hasten to add, but in very different hopes: Shaw-Stewart is considered a young up-and-comer too promising to be spared from the staff for a line battalion job, while Ford, a troublesome old subaltern not respected by his former commander and perhaps best gotten out of the way entirely, would love nothing better than to make use of his higher faculties rather farther from a trench. But Shaw-Stewart, though stuck in Macedonia, at least has nice digs…

It is a really magnificent villa, built for Prince Andrew, but now belonging to an enemy Turk, so we have no scruples about violating the furniture. It is quite hideous, with a superstructure like the Taj, but clean (the first time I have seen a clean house in Macedonia) and with doors that shut. The inhabitants at present are the senior chaplain
(I don’t know to what extent he will cramp one’s style: he talks very sportingly about “selling one pups” and things, so perhaps one might try a little anecdote on him to see), a barrister called Cohen, who runs the Claims, Amery, the anti-gas expert, and me; but we shall probably swell, because the house is so attractive. It is, by the way, right in the sea.[3]


And one less pleasant note. The Tea Club and Barrovian Society lost the first of its four core members, Rob Gilson, on the first day of the Somme. Christopher Wiseman is relatively safe in the navy, while John Ronald Tolkien endured several front line tours before succumbing to trench fever and being invalided home. But Geoffrey Bache Smith is still in the front lines. He wrote to Tolkien several times in mid-November to express his pleasure that Tolkien, though ill, is at least out of it for a good long while–Smith offered his mother’s services in bringing Tolkien anything that he might need while he was in hospital.

All of twenty-two, Smith is now battalion adjutant, rotating in and out of the line on the northern end of what had been the Somme front. One letter mentions upcoming leave, and his hopes that he might visit Tolkien then. But today, a century back, Smith’s battalion was caught in a bombardment, and he was hit by shrapnel in the arm and thigh. These would seem to be “blighty ones,” flesh wounds not so severe that he could not walk to the dressing station under his own power. There Smith wrote to his mother that his wounds are not serious, and awaited transport to a casualty clearing center in the rear.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Elected Friends, 164-5.
  2. Letters, 78.
  3. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 182.
  4. Chronology, 95-6.

Vera Brittain and the Ex Post Facto Near Miss

One of the more neglected goals of this project was to test the experience of living history in the imperfect tense. We are reading written snippets, that is, with the same “real time” gap between, say, two letters or diary entries, as there was for the writer. Today’s entry does nothing more (or less) than advance one of those arcs.

Vera Brittain’s brother Edward had alerted her to the fact of major operations on the Somme in the middle of November and the possibility that their two friends were involved in them. Until today, she hadn’t known to worry–or to worry especially much. (How does one do that, exactly? I don’t know–but once one has been informed of the danger one can’t not…) Now, although all has been done and written these ten days gone, she must wait, in suspense, in Malta.

Or that, at least, is how I would write this letter. But that would be hubris and usurpation: Vera is more concerned, at least as far as writing back to her brother, today, with being far from the war news in general, and with the specific shock of the Britannic‘s sinking.

Malta, 28 November 1916

I had no idea until you told me that there had been anything in the nature of a ‘show’ about the middle of November. Our vague little communiques are worded just the same whether they are about a great advance or the haphazard capture of a few prisoners in a small village, and as I think I have told you, we have no newspaper for news. I have asked Mother to send me the daily edition of the Times describing any event of importance like the sinking of the Britannic, the British Advance, or the death of Francis Joseph, as the Weekly Times, which I have  chiefly for the casualty lists, only summarizes…

Isn’t it dreadful the way hospital ships are being torpedoed; I should think even the Germans will find it hard to explain away four in a fortnight. I suppose since they cannot shake our supremacy at sea they are wreaking their vengeance on the only kind of ship which is known not even to attempt to defend itself. We are all very sad at the fate of the poor gorgeous Britannic; it seems impossible to imagine those beautiful saloons & state cabins at the bottom of the sea. We are wondering what is the fate of some of the nice people we met on board but we hear that some of the Sisters are coming here to recover from the shock & partly to wait till the Powers that Be decide what to do with them; so I suppose we shall hear all about it. The Germans, as you probably know, had threatened her, and now that she is sunk I suppose there is no harm in telling you that we had a very narrow escape ourselves; we were chased through the Archipelago by a submarine & for some time were in considerable danger though fortunately for our peace of mind we did not know it at the time. . . We only thought we were going rather fast for a region supposedly difficult to navigate, but as we always went very fast it did not impress us much. Isn’t it extraordinary that both the ships which brought us here should have suffered the same fate![1]


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 294.

Olaf Stapledon Dreams of an Antipodean Christmas; Edward Thomas Wants “to Go Out”

Edward Thomas wrote to Robert Frost three days ago. Today, a century back, with Eleanor Farjeon visiting with his family at High Beech, he writes to Frost’s wife, Elinor. This gives us a different perspective on Thomas, and on his wife, Helen, and their children. Elinor Frost knew the family well when she was in England, but the Frosts have been gone a long year and a half…

27 xi 16
High Beech
Laughton Essex
My dear Elinor,

Thank you for your letter. There are two things I want to do, to go out & to come & see you. I hope I shall do them both. But I confess I think chiefly of the first now, as of the beginning of a day. The other would be like arriving in the evening & I can’t quite think of that…

To “go out–” to France, that is. This is a much gentler rebuke of the absurd idea that he–a soldier, now–might visit them in America–than her husband received.

I am still on leave, waiting for a telegram. It is an interval I am not going to enjoy as much as I fancied. But I have been busy too, correcting the proofs of my poems that are to appear with Robert’s in Trevelyan’s annual, also in arranging the MS. for my book. The duplicate shall be sent to Robert in a day or two…

If he wants to know my publishers they are Selwyn & Blount, but the person to deal with is

Roger Ingpen
28 Queen Anne’s Grove
Bedford Park
London W.

I believe he is both Selwyn & Blount…

I had to work that line in, having already referenced it.

Well: thus far, business. Now Thomas rouses himself both to report–rather more dutifully than passionately–on their new digs, and on the state of his family.

We like our new home. Except Saturdays & Sundays & holidays we see only aeroplanes & deer in the forest. Baba has no companions. She goes about telling herself stories. She is a sensitive selfish little creature. Helen has only her, so I suppose she must be spoilt. The others are really only at home to sleep except at week end. The forest is beautiful, oaks, hornbeams, beeches, bracken, hollies, & some heather. But it is really High Beach not Beech, on account of the pebbly soil. There are 7 or 8 miles of forest, by 1 or 2 miles wide, all on the high ground, with many tiny ponds & long wide glades. We have few neighbors & know none of them yet. But it is easy for people to get here from London. We are half an hour from the station which is half an hour from the city. Helen is going to find it lonely. She does not stand these times very well. If she did, I should have really nothing at all to worry about.

But I have gone & caught a chill, & I don’t feel like talking at all. Goodbye. My love to Robert & the children.

Ever yours
Edward Thomas[1]


A more consistently attentive lover is Olaf Stapledon, as far from his Agnes as Thomas is close to Helen. I have skipped several recent letters from Stapledon, but all is still relatively quiet behind the Belgian front.

SSA 13
27 November 1916


Mud, rain, fog, frost, thaw, and more mud! One day running all over the country, next day a whole day’s cleaning and tuning up. Next day odd jobs and with luck a bit of time off. And so on. But it is so cold now that free time has mostly to be used in walking oneself hot. The pleasantest part of the day is always the night (!) tucked up nicely in rugs. My feet are becoming chilblains, and my fingers too, in spite of your mittens, which are absolutely invaluable. We are now settling down to a more or less quiet winter, with the pretty certain prospect of a busy spring…

The general feeling of weariness of it all is more pronounced in the convoy than it was last winter, partly because we are not as well billeted as we were, and also the food is being considerably “simplified.” The margarine is generally pretty bad. Sugar is generally “run out.” Jam is off; and so on. Yet of course we do very well compared with ordinary French troops. But we miss our own national diet.

It occurs to me I am already too late to wish you a merry Christmas. You will know I am wishing it when the time comes anyhow. I shall be imagining a real old Christmas party with games and stories and plum pudding and mince pies and crackers and paper hats and holly and mistletoe…[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Elected Friends, 162-3.
  2. Talking Across the World, 191-2.

Eleanor Farjeon’s Near Miss, or the Weakness of Poor, Torn-Up Men

Today, a century back,[1] Eleanor Farjeon traveled from London to High Beech to spend part of Edward Thomas‘s leave with him and his family. It’s not officially a “last leave,” but it’s significant nonetheless: his commission has come through and assignment to an active battery will not be far behind.

But Farjeon’s day was marked less by her arrival at her beloved friend’s cottage in the woods than by an ogre she met on the journey. Farjeon is both a very good storyteller (this will shortly be obvious) and a woman of great self-possession. She tells the tale evenly enough, and would have us forgive the wounded their trespasses… but it’s hard not to read this with a shudder, for a horrible thing is narrowly averted. While this sort of trauma might suddenly befall anyone–and Farjeon argues that it is made all the more likely by the pain and disruption of the war–it is also undeniably a threat that only a woman, traveling alone, must face.

I spent the last week-end in November at High Beech. The journey from Liverpool Street was marked by a small adventure. I caught a non-corridor train which stopped once near London, and then ran without another stop to Loughton. There was the usual bustle of soldiers, but the station was not very crowded. I found an empty carriage, put my knapsack on the rack over the far comer seat away from the platform, and settled myself. A pretty young mother and her little girl got in; the child took a window-seat near the platform, and the mother sat beside her. At the last moment a small party of soldiers hustled by, glanced in, and hurried on; but just as the train began to move, one of them rushed back, flung open the door, and fell into the corner opposite the little girl. He grinned affably at his vis-à-vis, then at the pretty mother, and the train pulled out.

It was soon obvious that he wanted conversation. He was a big Australian, who should have been husky, but looked, in fact, gaunt and ill. The mother was pleasant but reserved, and changing his tactics, he began to talk to the child—or rather, through the child to the embarrassed mother. He was oncoming but not in the least offensive. The child answered him bashfully; the mother smiled but said as little as possible; and when the train made its single stop she said, ‘Good day—we get out here’. He helped her with her suitcase, lifted the child down, and the pair disappeared from sight; into, I felt sure, another compartment. The soldier blocked the window until the train drew out. As soon as it was well away, he walked over to my end of the carriage, and said, ‘Gurl! there’s sumpin’
I been wantin’ to do ever since I got in. D’you mind?’

I said I didn’t and hoped I wouldn’t. To my relief he tugged a flask out of his hip pocket and gulped down a big swig of whisky. Then he offered the flask to me. ‘Have one?’

‘No, thank you,’ I said amiably, ‘I don’t drink it.’

He put the flask back, sat down opposite me, leaned forward, and said very earnestly, ‘Gurl!’ (He slapped my knee with the back of his hand.) ‘Gurl—I don’t want you to think us Aussies is all larrikins. You won’t, now, will you, gurl?’

I promised him, as earnestly, that I would not, and asked him what part of Australia he came from. Sydney, he said. What had he done there before the war? He had worked in the sewers. I played my strong card with larrikins from Downunder, and told him that though I had never been to his country my father had emigrated there in the 1850s, following the gold-rush from camp to camp, and having adventures without number. I did not have to invent the adventures, either; my father’s stories were extremely exciting, and enlisted the soldier’s interest. By the time I’d exhausted them a third of the journey was done, and we were practically larrikins together. Every now and then he took another swig. I kept it all very pally. Where was he going? To the station beyond Loughton, to say goodbye to the nuns in a hospital there. He had been sent back to Blighty with his inside torn out. He described his dreadful wound fully, and spoke with tears in his eyes of his nurses. He was returning to Sydney next week, and he couldn’t go without saying goodbye to those good women. He was taking them presents.

His ghastly pallor was explained. I felt great sympathy for him, and rather liked him, but I wished he wouldn’t swig his flask quite so often.

So the man is good, she believes–it’s only the war wound and the whiskey…

I asked about his family—had he any? Yes, a wife and two or three kids. ‘I’ll show you, gurl.’ He pulled out a bursting pocket-book, and littered the seat beside him with snapshots and letters till he found what he wanted. I admired the children and asked their names. He had something else important I must see. He strewed the heterogeneous contents of his kitbag over the carriage: things he was taking home for trophies and souvenirs, loot, documents official and private, pitiful mementoes of an experience that would sear him when they were faded—ah! here at last was the bit of shell they’d dug out of his guts, other bits that he had picked up in the trenches, for his friends—‘would you like a bit, gurl?’ I spun out my questions. He wanted to shift the key, took another swig, was a little baffled, and began to fumble with his bag, looking morosely at his scattered junk. After one or two attempts to stow it back, he gave up.

‘Awl’ He flung the bag into my lap, waving a large hand over the muddle on the seats. ‘Purr ’em away, purr ’em away.’ He emptied his flask.

I made the job last as long as I could. He watched me. There was still one station to go. At last everything was somehow stowed back in the bag. I gave him the pocket-book filled with his poor home life, and knew that the final swig had effected the change, that my larrikin’s confused vision mistook me at last for a woman, no longer for the mate who had dug gold and ranged the Bush with him, and worked in the sewers of Sydney.

‘Gurl! I tell you what.’ He leaned forward from his comer and pinned my knees with his. ‘You goin’ to Loughton, I go
on to the next—tomorrow you walk halfway an’ I walk halfway, an’ we’ll meet.’

‘I’m sorry, I can’t. I ’m staying outside Loughton, with a friend who’s soon going to France. I’m sure you’ll see that I
can’t take time off on a short visit.’

He wanted to get angry, but didn’t know how to yet. ‘Well then, gurl, give me a kiss before we part.’

‘No,’ I smiled. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘What, not one kiss from them ruby lips?’

‘Not one.’

Now he did begin to get ugly. ‘GrrrI’ he growled, ‘I could get better kisses than yours from the gurls in France.’

‘I’m sure you could,’ I agreed. ‘Do you want to go back?’

He growled again. The time for words was over. He had my hands firmly, and the rest of me hemmed in the comer. I knew I mustn’t make any movement of escape, but I wasn’t frightened, and that baffled him too.

The train slowed up. Porters’ voices called Loughton.

‘My station!’ I glanced out of the window. ‘There’s my friend. Would you help me down with my knapsack?’ Drunk as he was, old custom was too strong for him. A train on the run was one thing, but no larrikin could keep a gurl pinned in her seat with the train at rest. He stood up and heaved down my knapsack sulkily. I shook his hand, and said ‘Good luck!’ Then I jumped down from the carriage and ran to meet Edward, who really was coming along the platform in his officer’s tunic. I suppose I was panting a little, for he glanced inquiringly as he took my knapsack from me.

Farjeon’s writing is frank and pleasant–always ready with a smile, whether it is children whose worried minds she is putting at ease, or otherwise.

But she’s always very canny, as good children’s authors must be. Is this just a story, an event of general interest? No such thing. So is it a frightening near-trauma which our heroine avoids through her steely resolve and clever handling of a drunk potential aggressor? Yes, but retrospective dwelling on her own skill and courage is only an entertainment–a side-note that Farjeon tosses off with careless brio.

Which is, I think, also a wink, a challenge to us to recognize that there is more than one way to lapse into wartime solipsism and utterly fail to respect the woman who is right in front of you–whether you have stopped mistaking her for a fellow-digging mate or not.

Edward Thomas is a poet–very nearly a great poet–and that means that he notices things on a level of intensity unavailable to most of us. Things in his own mind, the landscape, mostly–but even here, absorbed, he notices that something has happened to his friend. His glance poses a question, which Eleanor Farjeon answers:

‘Nothing much, it’s all right.’ My larrikin had disappeared from the window. Poor man with his guts torn out because of this war. Who could blame anyone for anything? I didn’t want to talk about him, and Edward asked no questions.

Friendship restrained by delicacy? Perhaps, but really I think this is the wry smile that comes with the wink. Of course she didn’t want to talk about having narrowly avoided sexual assault on a train, but a sensitive friend might push, might pry, might find out, might offer support… This is, I think, a parable on the limitations of friendship. Or the limitations of men, especially when their mind has been absorbed–or their guts torn up–by war.

We talked of other things on the long walk to the new home, a very dull walk through Loughton to begin with, but the last half was good, uphill through the spreading trees, now almost bare. Yes, the Forest was good, but the house itself was bad; it was dismal and poorly-planned…

Edward was restless, his centre had shifted, his military quarters had more meaning for him than this unfamiliar rather ramshackle dwelling. The move had left all sorts of jobs to be attended to; he was busy with them as he would have been at Steep, with his thoughts on the little study up the hill. But now, while he chopped a woodstack for his family against the winter, we all knew that he would not burn it with them, and while he busied himself his mind was on France.

Returning then, as we must, to the subject of Edward Thomas, I’m sure we’re not surprised by any of this. He has generally been the sort of man who is happier with friends–or alone–than with his family. And this is a troubled time. But his demons go deeper than mere war-tinged grumpiness.

His mood was a little perverse… Somehow or other Tristram Shandy came into it. Edward praised it as one of the greatest books in the language, but Helen was prejudiced against it, and exclaimed vehemently, ‘I can’t bear it!’

Edward said shortly, ‘No woman is able to understand Tristram Shandy.’

I protested, ‘But I read it again and again.’

‘No woman ought to be able to understand Tristram Shandy,’ he said, still more shortly.[2]

Where are we left with this anecdote, then? There’s another little grace note of triumph for Farjeon, of course. She loves Thomas–chastely, unrequitedly. But then again Helen Thomas loves him unrequitedly too. I hardly know Helen Thomas, but I could hazard a shaky guess as to why she would not like a manic, madcap novel that embraces both absurdity and self-obsession. And it’s clear why Eleanor Farjeon loves it–it’s fantastic, animated by a powerful sense of humor that is anarchic but not unkind. (That is, it’s a great book, and she has sure taste.) So Eleanor Farjeon, who Thomas values as a friend (that always-hurtful three-word phrase!) but not as a romantic alternative to Helen, rates at least this very grudging inverted compliment. She is not a woman to him, then, and still a “mate,” a fellow traveler, a fellow-miner in literature’s quarry. but at least she can read.

And Edward Thomas? Is he grumpy, beleaguered, and trapped in an ill-suiting house with two women desperate to do what can’t be done–namely, cheer him up–or is he admitting to a foolish and ill-founded sexism?

Well, yes.

But how different this project would be–how different war would be (here comes an original thought!)–if women were there in the trenches (or even there, in greater numbers, in the immediate war zone), writing male intransigence, stupidity, and nearsightedness. Writing war. Farjeon is writing retrospectively of this day, so her commentary is not really that of late 1916; nevertheless, she has arrived at a judgment that will serve for many of the more sensitive writers caught up in the monster-war, the ones who neither suffered overwhelming trauma nor looked away from the narrowness of their mistake: “Who could blame anyone for anything?”


References and Footnotes

  1. Judging from Farjeon's statement, below, and from the days mentioned in Thomas's letters.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 226-31.

The Afterlife of Donald Hankey: Forever the Student in Arms

Donald Hankey was killed on October 12th of this year. His family learned the news a few days later, and before the end of the month The Spectator had begun republishing articles by “A Student in Arms.” Hankey’s relationship with his editor, John St. Loe Strachey, had become strained during the early phases of the Somme battle when Hankey–though no radical, and certainly no disillusionist–decided that he needed to write more directly about war’s horrors. They patched things up, but it is probably correct to say that when he died, Donald Hankey had yet to resolve how a writer with his priorities–theological seriousness, a pastoral as well as patriotic sense of duty, a devotion to the downtrodden, be they the poor in their slums or the infantry in their trenches–could tell the truth and find a way to support the war effort. He was uncomfortable being the quietly inspirational “Student in Arms,” and he needed a new way forward.

But he is dead, and as that became known to his readership his minor fame grew–with inspirational writers as well as poets, sacrifice moves volumes. A book edition of his musings for The Spectator will go swiftly through several printings, and throughout the fall he has been given prominent placement in the paper. Few writers can escape their first book, their initial public persona, and none, of course, of those who not only die prematurely but cannot escape the manner of their death from becoming am inescapable interpretive coda to their work.

Today, a century back, a collection of Hankey’s–or “A Student’s”–aphorisms appeared. They are largely of the sort of religion-lite genre that has come to overspread our remaining bookstores like a cloyingly pungent, voracious fungus. Which is not to say that Hankey’s insights are mistaken, or that these observations of a serious student of theology have much in common with modern vapidities. But he was a serious man, and his resistance to doing what almost everyone else does here–foreground their own experience in their writing about the war–was breaking down. These not the last words he should have had…


It is no good trying to fathom “things” to the bottom; they have not got one.

Knowledge is always descriptive, and never fundamental. We can describe the appearance and conditions of a process; but not the way of it.

Agnosticism is a fundamental fact. It is the starting point of the wise man who has discovered that it needs eternity to study infinity.

Agnosticism, however, is no excuse for indolence. Because we cannot know all, we need not therefore be totally ignorant.

The true wisdom is that in which all knowledge is subordinate to practical aims, and blended into a working philosophy of life.

The true wisdom is that it is not what a man does, or has, or says that matters; but what he is.

This must be the aim of practical philosophy—to make a man be somewhat.

The world judges a man by his station, inherited or acquired. God judges by his character. To be our best we must share God’s viewpoint.

To the world death is always a tragedy; to the Christian it is never a tragedy unless a man has been a contemptible character.

Religion is the widening of a man’s horizon so as to include God. It is in the nature of a speculation, but its returns are immediate. True religion means betting one’s life that there is a God.

Its immediate fruits are courage, stability, calm, unselfishness, friendship, generosity, humility, and hope.

Religion is the only possible basis of optimism.

Optimism is the essential condition of progress.

One is what one believes oneself to be. If one believes oneself to be an animal one becomes bestial ; if one believes oneself spiritual one becomes Divine.

Faith is an effective force whose measure has never yet been taken.

Man is the creature of heredity and environment. He can only rise superior to circumstances by bringing God into environment of which he is conscious.

The recognition of God’s presence upsets the balance of a man’s environment, and means a new birth into a new life.

The faculties which perceive God increase with use like any other perceptive faculties. Belief in God may be an illusion; but it is an illusion that pays.

If belief in God is illusion, happy is he who is deluded! He gains this world and thinks he will gain the next.

The disbeliever loses this world, and risks losing the next.

To be the centre of one’s universe is misery. To have one’s universe centred in God is the peace that passeth understanding.

Greatness is founded on inward peace.

Energy is only effective when it springs from deep calm.

The pleasure of life lies in contrasts; the fear of contrasts is a chain that binds most men.

In the hour of danger a man is proven. The boaster hides, and the egotist trembles. He whose care is for others forgets to be afraid.

Men live for eating and drinking, passion and wealth. They die for honour.

Blessed is he of whom it has been said that he so loved giving that he even gave his own life.

No: these not the last words he should have had. The aphorisms, as edited, seem to wind up with a definitive emphasis on honor and sacrifice. This is not fair. Hankey died bravely, by all accounts, a good man and a good officer. But he did not die entirely committed to the 1914 ideal of meaningful sacrifice. If there is one point to be made about the transformation of military morale in the 20th century it is that the old ideals–God and country, above all–did not suffice, for such wars. Men tended to stick it out because they could not bear to fail their comrades.

This was Hankey’s ideal, above all others–excepting, perhaps, the ideal of not failing a truly worthy leader–and I won’t commit the blunder (“sin,” I almost wrote) of rejecting one editorial interpretation only to provide my own. But if there are sins against literature then putting definitive ideas in the head of a dead man is a mortal one.

Carefully, then: if there is meaning in the death of a man who wanted to be a minister after the war, who tried to serve in the ranks and even when his class forced him to take a commission made nothing of the family connections that could have won him a safer job, then this meaning cannot take the form of some generalized sense of “honour” or an apolitical, uncomplaining “giving.” The Somme was changing A Student in Arms, and the war had made him a platoon commander, a leader who could not simply be a humble shepherd.

Who is to say he gave his life willingly? But he was there and he let the war come and take it, and if he was partly motivated by honor, charity, and careful ethical deliberation–not to mention the expectations imposed upon his gender, class, rank, etc.–he was driven, above all, by love and consideration for his men.

Edward Thomas Hopes to Be Useful; Edward Hermon has a Battalion, and Plenty of Socks

We stay with Edward Thomas today, as he returns home–to, that is, his family’s new home, at which he has spent only a few days–to spend the rest of the leave with his wife and children. And Eleanor Farjeon, who will arrive tomorrow. But today was not entirely given over to the bosom of his family–there was a letter waiting from Robert Frost, who retains a certain priority in Thomas’s mind.

High Beech

My dear Robert,

As soon as I got back from Bottomley’s, where I spent two whole days & 3 nights, I found your letter & Elinor’s. We could not help smiling that you should think it possible I could come over to America. In any case I might very well be in France before Christmas. I hope so. At least I should prefer not to have a Christmas in England just before going out. I want to go soon, to get over the first & worst step (of parting). Even the leave I have got now is not quite satisfactory. I can’t think of enjoying it quite. Yet I did enjoy being up at Bottomley’s. We often talked of you. I inquired for the poems you are giving to the Annual, but they were not there. When we got on to ‘Poetry’ he suggested my sending there the things which are to appear in the ‘Annual’. Here they are. I thought you would
not mind sending them on as from Edward Eastaway—they said something agreeable about ‘Lob’ in their notes some months ago.

You must not take it at all badly if de la Mare does not come. Probably he would if you asked him. But he does not often go anywhere when he is not actually asked. He will be anxious & uneasy in America. He did not want to go & people will be crowding round him. If he found himself in your house I imagine he would be as glad as you. I hope he will come. I hear he may stay till February, tho he did speak of coming back for Christmas.

My book will soon be decided on & then I shall send you duplicates. These things I send now are all exclusive to the Annual.

So much for the business of poets. Now, I think, we have a chance to see Thomas in one of his finer lights. Can he, writing to a friend–but also a powerful poet, a man and writer he admires–strike a balance between self-deprecation and bluster? Can he see his own future clearly? I think so–or, at least, this is recognizably Thomas’s personality, throwing itself forward into the conditional future.

Please thank Elinor & tell her not to think of me as in poor health. I have never found what I have had to do too much for me. In the future the worst I shall have to suffer (apart from injury) will be cold & excitement, & I shall be better able to support things when I have no excuse for considering myself or my feelings. I think I can be a much more useful person than you would imagine from seeing me amidst ease & comfort. I shall write wherever I go. Probably I shall write before I go out, as that can hardly be for another 3 or 4 weeks.

Goodbye. My love to Elinor & the children.

Yours ever
Edward Thomas[1]


It has been far too long since I checked in on another Edward (though he goes by Robert), Edward Hermon, our horsey and dependably uxorious yeoman farmer, and father to “the chugs.” Hermon is no great stylist (which is no great fault, here) but given his lack of penetrating insights and his sheer productivity (he writes to his wife almost every day) I haven’t really found a place for him. It seemed inappropriate to include humdrum snippets from the rear areas throughout the cauldron of the Somme, yet now he has been out of our sights for far longer than it takes to forget a more memorable man and all his historical experience.

Last month, however, after a long war in the background (he has trained remounts, scoured the Loos battlefield for salvage, temporarily commanded second-line cavalry units, and generally been passed over) Hermon got his battalion, the 24th Northumberland Fusiliers, a.k.a the Tyneside Irish. This Kitchener formation had been suffering from low morale after several failed raids, and Hermon’s first intention as commanding officer was to build esprit de corps through these sorts of trench warfare escapades.

From a strategic point of view, these raids seem slightly worse than useless, since their drain on manpower can hardly be equaled by the intelligence value of an occasional demoralized prisoner. Nor is there much evidence that raiding the enemy front line and smashing up a few of his emplacements confers any tactical advantage, and it often wastes shells and gets men killed. But morale is a different beast.

If–if–there are no significant (ah, but that’s a terrible modifier, already) casualties, then perhaps even tactically pointless raids are well worth the trouble. Doing something, being something–together–is crucial if a group of men are going to make it through battle–and winter–without becoming discouraged. So: perhaps Bob Hermon will be of good use to us as winter descends, keeping the war going for its own sake, when not even the meanest trench will change hands for the shortest interval.

My little show last night was a great success in that my folk entered the Boche line, stayed there for an hour & 50 minutes & when they left destroyed a dugout with gun cotton. They never saw a Hun at all & I think there is so much water in his line at this point that he doesn’t occupy it. Anyhow it has done the men a most awful lot of good, bucked them up like anything, & the Battalion in general benefits no end by a successful show of this sort.

…Send the socks to the Central Depot as there are most probably hundreds who are more in need than we are. We have got a very good system running here. Each man possesses 3 pairs of socks & has one on, a dry pair in his pocket and one pair at the Div. Laundry.[2]

Yes, the socks. Winter is coming…


References and Footnotes

  1. Elected Friends, 160-1.
  2. For Love and Courage, 310.

Edward Thomas on Eleanor Farjeon’s Rhymes and Bottomley’s Sheiling; Arthur West Can’t Read

23 xi 16
High Beech

My dear Eleanor,

Thank you very much. I am glad you think the change made the difference. I showed it to Bottomley in the new form and he seemed to like it. He enjoyed reading your book. I remember he particularly liked ‘Kings Cross’ and ‘London Wall’ and ‘Cheapside’. And he took to the pictures…

This is Eleanor Farjeon’s just-published Nursery Rhymes of London Town., which Farjeon recently sent to Thomas. I want to thank reader Richard Hawkins for reminding me that this is not merely a collection of traditional songs but rather new rhymes–and original tunes–which Farjeon wrote and composed. The nursery rhymes had initially been published earlier this year in Punch, which has just begun to feature a second series. And in another it’s-a-great-war-after-all coincidence, Leslie MacDonald Gill–the illustrator whom Bottomley praised–will become better known as a cartographer and letter-designer (he has excellent Arts and Crafts credentials). After the war, he will design the lettering for many CWGC monuments, including the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.

While Farjeon appears here as a Friend-of-Thomas and her other work–much of it for children, and not about the war–is ancillary to the main subject of this project, I don’t want to completely follow Thomas in treating her as a selfless adjunct and neglect her work while attending to his… Farjeon will have a day to herself this weekend, as she tells a tale of one woman’s close encounter with a collateral sort of war trauma.

But back to today. Thomas is leaving Bottomley’s house in Lancashire after what seems to have been a very happy visit. He looks forward to having Farjeon to stay with the family in their new house at High Beech, but, as so often with Thomas, he is also looking back, and making of his memories something both beautiful and complex.

Helen suggested Sunday. I would prefer Monday as I might have to go out to meet Wheatley on Sunday or he might come here, whereas I am quite free on Monday and Tuesday. Will you stay at any rate till Wednesday?

…I enjoyed every hour at Silverdale and then went and wrote something about the house there, which I will try to copy tomorrow morning before we go over to see my mother…

Yours ever
Edward Thomas[1]

The poem about Bottomley’s house, both called “The Sheiling,” is structurally unusual but otherwise of a piece with Thomas’s recent work. In it we can see the traces both of their long friendship–in which Thomas wrote detailed, soul-searching letters for Bottomley’s assessment, and of Thomas’s new life, both as a poet himself (with Frost usurping all others in his literary-amicable esteem) and as a soldier. Placing a house up against nature is an old theme, but Thomas is no longer merely tramping about in the elements, enjoying the country for itself. “Outside” is also, now, the war.


The Sheiling

It stands alone
Up in a land of stone
All worn like ancient stairs,
A land of rocks and trees
Nourished on wind and stone.

And all within
Long delicate has been;
By arts and kindliness
Coloured, sweetened, and warmed
For many years has been.

Safe resting there
Men hear in the travelling air
But music, pictures see
In the same daily land
Painted by the wild air.

One maker’s mind
Made both, and the house is kind
To the land that gave it peace,
And the stone has taken the house
To its cold heart and is kind.


But the land that gave it peace also gave Edward Thomas an officer’s commission, dated today, a century back,[2] as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery. The name of this service arm is somewhat anachronistic–it means only big guns, rather than field guns, and does not imply home duty. France has come another step closer.


And one more note today, from the unhappy Arthur Graeme West, an intermittent figure, here. I let many, many fragments and observations go–his writing does not easily make a narrative, and other writers have earned center stage, as it were–but if a man discusses his socks, his reading or his post-war fantasies, it’s in.

Tuesday, Nov. 23rd, 1916.

A grey, warmer day. The sun looked through only for a minute or two in the afternoon. We went in the evening to an estaminet on the left. After that Cl….. and I walked down the road under the moon, and talking to him then I grew more convinced of the brutalising process that was going on: how impossible it was to read even when we had leisure, how supremely one was occupied with food and drink. Cl….. himself said he had found the same on his first campaign; it took him three weeks to get back to a state where he could read, and so it is. All my dreams of the days after the war centre round bright fires, arm-chairs, good beds, and abundant meals.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 223.
  2. Another source has tomorrow; I haven't verified.
  3. West, Diary..., 131.

Vera Brittain on the Passing of an Emperor; Richard Aldington on the Coming Darkness

Since recovering from a fever and getting to work as a nurse in Malta’s sprawling hospital complex, Vera Brittain has been neglecting her diary. The hours are long, the attractions of the island many–and her letters have become her most important form of self-expression. Today is the only diaryentry for weeks, but it does connect us to some of her other recent writing.

November 22nd

A padre from Spinola came in to see the men in C Block-to-night & told us that the Emperor of Austria is dead. I wonder if this can make any possible difference to the duration of the War. Poor old man, he has been a long time in dying.[1]

Within minutes of writing this, it would seem, she learned about the sinking of the Britannic, which she will reflect upon in her memoir. This she learns quickly, because it is a Mediterranean event. But she has, as yet, no idea that her friends have lately been in action on the Somme, or that the weather there has more or less obviated any chance of major operations for months…

And what is there, really, to say about Franz Joseph I, who died yesterday, a century back? This was a man born in 1830–before the voyage of the Beagle, before Dickens had published, before Queen Victoria had ascended the throne–and who outlived the battle of the Somme. A man who essentially succeeded Metternich–Napoleon’s nemesis–and then tried throughout the nearly 68 years of his rule to resist the inroads of 19th-century modernity on his sprawling medieval empire, only to walk with it almost to the edge of the precipice of 20th century war and nationalism from which it will shortly be hurled…  Such drama. But it’s one more way in which the Great War’s seems to sprawl on either side of a deep a crease in history…[2]


And those a-training in England may be no better informed about the Somme. Richard Aldington, poetic voice of the generation of gloomy conscripts, wrote to F. S. Flint once again today, a century back.

20455. L/Cpl R.A.
“D.” Company
44 T.R.B.
Verne Citadel
[22 November 1916] Portland, Dorset.

Dear Franky,

It is quite possible that I may “go across” in a week or so. I don’t know anything definite of course, but I believe an Army Order is coming out soon for all trained N.C.O.’s & officers to proceed to France. Anyhow there is another “push” coming off soon on the Somme. I believe the bombardment has already started…

Once again–and I know it feels as if I am being unusually hard on Aldington, a stance I can’t fully explain–his worry for his wife’s worries about him seems less like love and more like reflected self-concern. She is a U.S. citizen, a Neutral, which–gender and Aldington’s pessimistic predictions aside–puts her in a very different position. And in these dark times, fearful men sometimes grasp always at the worst of rumor…

Don’t tell H.D. this, because It may be a myth, & I don’t want to worry her uselessly. But you might see her & try to find out if she has made any preparations for such an eventuality. Personally I still favour the U.S. trip—I don’t mind betting that all women under, 30 without children are industrially conscripted within 6 months. You are all a lot of kids—you don’t realize what’s impending: frightful battles, huge casualty lists, diminishing trade & production, famine prices, forced labour—each follows from the other…

I know you think I’m mad on this—but contrast the state of affairs now with Nov 1915. What do you think things will be like in Nov. 1917 & Nov. 1918?[3] Remember things will get worse more rapidly. If H.D. is industrially conscripted I shall never forgive you people who have persuaded her to stay. You and Alec, don’t forget, were among the omniscient gentry who knew we should never have forced Military Service.

I don’t want to be unkind, but we mustn’t shirk facing things as they are & they’re damned bad. Think it over, talk it over once more with Alec &, H.D., & let me know if you still think it wise for her, to stay.

All affectionate greetings, dear boy, & cordiale poignee de mains.[4]



References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 336.
  2. And yes, I Englished most of his comparisons for our benefit; I doubt that Franz Joseph was much concerned about the Somme...
  3. Resist the smugness of our historical-ironical position!
  4. A warm handshake.
  5. Autobiography in Letters, 22.

Lady Dorothie Feilding, Baby-snatcher; The Loss of the Britannic

We will spend most of today catching up with the irrepressible Dorothie Feilding, but first, a quick note of a not-so-near miss that affected two of our writers.

Vera Brittain had sailed out, Malta-bound, aboard her enormous namesake, the HMHS Britannic, a sister ship of the famed Titanic since converted for use as a hospital ship. And after Vera left the Britannic at Mudros in Greece, Vivian de Sola Pinto, very ill after service in Egypt, was brought aboard and sailed home to England. The Britannic returned to the Mediterranean, and today, a century back, it hit a mine near the Greek island of Kea and sunk in a little less than an hour. All but thirty of the more than 1,000 aboard were saved.

When news of the sinking reached Vera Brittain on Malta, it “galvanised the island like an electric shock.” A week later, survivors will reach the island’s hospital complex, and Vera went to visit “a young, cheerful Sister who had made friends with Betty and myself on the voyage to Mudros… and found her completely changed–nervous, distressed and all the time on the verge of crying. From her they heard the tale of the sinking, including the exemplary stoicism of the head Matron and the sudden loss of two boats and several medical officers in the last moments of the evacuation, when the ship rolled and sank. For all that the Titanic had gone down in similar fashion, four years before, and in peacetime, the loss of such a huge ship–and a hospital ship, carrying sick and wounded (including, Vera tells us, both an officer ordered on “a sea voyage for the benefit of his health” and “a stewardess who had been on the Titanic”)–still stands out against the ordinary carnage of the war, a shockingly destructive disaster. (Wikipedia is of the opinion that the Britannic is “currently the largest passenger ship on the sea floor.”)[1]


Let’s jump back nine days, now, so that we can see the short arc of the Saga of Mr. Kemp play out in Lady Feilding’s letters home to her mother.

Mother dear–

…A new man for us arrived yesterday, one Kemp, to replace Newall who had to return. He seems nice, but we are sorry to lose Newall who was a very dependable chap & hard worker. He was to take his ambulance with him, but the other day presented it to me, for the corps, as a souvenir of the Mil medal which was nice of him as it saves us getting another car, & it is quite a new one…

Two days later, we have an update:

Mother dear–

…Taking Da round seems to have given him palpitations somewhat, but he must have been thrilled to the core at seeing a real live tank. It is more than I have, which is a pity as they would roll along beautifully in this country.

Jelly made me laugh this afternoon as he took the new member out for a run in the car & made him drive a sort of exam. The poor new man is not a very good motorist yet, very new to it all & easily put in a fuss. So Jelly not finding the high road interesting enough as a test, at once takes him up into N & up byroads where he got proper shelled & the fear of God put in him. All this as Jelly explained carefully was ‘just to give him confidence’.

Personally I think he will have many nightmares tonight instead & will probably die of fright or the palsy before

Again the chatty tone belies a shrewdness about how people work. Dr. Jellett’s subscription to one theory of courage/confidence seems to blind him to this particular man’s psychological state. Dorothie Feilding is not one for systematic applications, but she clearly sees that throwing this particular nervous man into the thick of it may not be the best idea…

The next two letters discuss other happenings–a sudden return of the German heavy artillery to their parts of Belgium; sanguine–in both senses–reports from “The Bloke”[2] on the last fighting on the Somme; and, of course, pet-related faits divers. But I will include this bit of aristocratic Christmas planning:

I have been spending all the morning making up parcels for soldiers of clothes. It’s too appallingly cold for words this week, so it has fallen just the right time. No time for a real letter.

Yes, I will come home about 10th or 12th of Dec & stay over Xmas. I would rather be at home & help all you people, so don’t change any plans on my account. The only orgy I ache for is an odd hunt or two. P’raps with suction & the grace of God I may be able to do so. I only had a half-day all last season.

A bit ’ard.

Goodbye dears all

Yr loving DoDo

No further news of Mr. Kemp. But yesterday, another bomb dropped–or, rather, a book–pushing all such quotidian thoughts aside. We haven’t heard from Elsie Knocker in quite a long time… in part because, though a century aloof from such rivalries and striving for the critical historian’s carefully balanced critical perspective, I agree with Lady Feilding on the merits of Mrs. Knocker’s production, however much I am unable to endorse the past subjunctive remedy she will now suggest…

20th Nov
Mother dear–

Mrs Knocker has published a damnable book called ‘The Cellar house of Pervyse’. Thank God she has left me out of it practically, but a lot of ‘Munco’ about it & people will undoubtedly associate one with that type of woman. Get it, read it, see if you don’t think it the worst taste you ever saw. It makes one sick of being a woman & I am so sorry she has made little Mairi Chisholm look a fool too.

She should have been held under water for 48hrs when young…

And so I suppose it is a bit of an anti-climax to reach today, a century back, and the denouement of their “new man”‘s brief stay with their ambulance unit. Taken all together, however, this run of letters can be read as an off-balance but telling stroke for women and feminism…

21st Nov 1916

Col Da dear–

I have just received a most compromising wire, which will show the sort of reputation I now have.

‘Lady D F etc.–Beseech you return my son immediately – Kemp’

I think it is quite priceless & so does everyone else & I am being called a babysnatcher!! Must have caused quite a flutter in the telegraph offices en route. The reason of it all is a youth called Kemp who came to replace Newall & is somewhat a rabbit. He came in for a good few obus at once & Jelly took him up to teach him how to reverse a car under heavy fire at N as he explained ‘just to give the lad confidence’. This put the lid on it & the lad wrote home to Papa his nerves & health wouldn’t stand it hence frenzied wires from his parent birds — about 3 a day! We explained he was under a military contract for 6 months & must stick it. He is already improved & I think a little hard work & being shot at as often as possible will soon buck him up. Will report progress anyway! Of course, he may pass away under the experiment, but as in this case ‘it wouldn’t really matter’ that great Flanders maxim holds good…

Again, here we have silliness and a sense of madcap haphazard, but that’s her style–the substance is serious business. She thought that throwing Kemp into the deep end was a bad idea, but now, after a week under the steadying influence of less acute danger, he is improving. And behind the light humor and the sense of a (highly) irregular ambulance unit comes the bureaucratic reality of the war and the black humor: this is a letter to mother that makes it quite clear that telegrams from daddy won’t alter reality–there’s a war on, and a contract, and the inscrutable providence of the German obus

We’ll end the run of letters with the same note on which it began. Lady Feilding laughs it off as often as she can, but she’s a celebrity, the first woman to win the military medal:

Funny old bird with whiskers all over his face, even round his eyes, pranced in here today, & wanted to do a painting of me for the official trench ‘Album de Guerre’, as he is told off for the purpose, being a distinguished artist. In addition to being in the album I was to have the great privilege to be then sold for 1d on a coloured p[ost]card.

You will be surprised to hear I wasn’t taking any, only it took me from 9am to 10.30 to convince Whiskers that I really meant it. He thought it most odd & we eventually parted with many deep bows, & expressions of untold
mutual admiration! I quite expect him to be in again tomorrow & go thro’ it all over again…

…am coming home mid Dec for over Xmas. Will you please send this on to Mother as I haven’t time to write to both.

Ever so much love Da dear

Yr ever after if somewhat eccentric darter



References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 312-3.
  2. A character I have mostly clipped out of Dorothie's letters--we can't read everything!--with increasing regret.
  3. Lady Under Fire, 179-182.