A New Year’s Rumpus Near Dranoutre; Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon Golfing and Reading and Clowning, but Never Precisely When They Claim to Have Been; A Poem From Robert Frost for Edward Thomas

It’s New Year’s Eve, so let us celebrate the year of our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Sixteen. We have minor literary dishonesty, fatal bureaucratic logic, and New Year’s Greetings delivered with High Explosive.

Well enough–representative enough. Has it really been a year? Yes, exactly–that’s a big part of the point of the running “imperfect tense” centennial.

But has it felt like a year? Did the four and a half months of the Somme feel like four and a half months? Or is it already the short, intense period of history–a mental month or two–that it had become when first encountered it as a thematically unavoidable “battle” in Britain’s experience of the war? I’m not in a very confident frame of mind about all this. Sometimes this project feels as if it allows a true reliving of the experience of forgetting recent events “in real time,” but not so much of the experience of remembering how things should feel after the “actual” amount of time has transpired from event to event.

This is, in other words, an interesting exercise, but a few minutes a day (or even, on my end, a few hours) isn’t enough to trick the brain into time traveling… it’s an analogy, not a transformation or mental journey. Perhaps something of the method of “The Notion Club Papers” or “Time and Again” might work, trapping intellectual argonauts in period clothes with only letters and newspapers to read, daily slipped under the door… but we are, in the end, reading, and forgetting…

Back to the texts–there are, not surprisingly, some digressive ruminations on the passing of the year. Enough, surely. And since the fortune of the spreadsheet (of my half-thought-through dragnet research, that is) has once again provided a nice array of contemporary writing, I should get to it.

First, unavoidably, the opinion of the Army Commander–higher than division, higher than corps, lower only than Field Marshal Haig–has been added to Edwin Dyett’s conviction and sentence:

I recommend that the sentence be carried out. If a private had behaved as he did in such circumstances, it is highly probable that he would have been shot.

H Gough
General Commanding Fifth Army
31/12/16[1]

This is indeed overwhelmingly likely. Or, rather, it is overwhelmingly likely that if a private had behaved in such a way and a personal enemy among his platoon noncoms had complained, he would have been shot.

But what if a man with known bad nerves–nerves “earned” after long combat, rather than an immediate inability to cope with combat–was sent back out anyway, and broke down, and had friends? Or sympathetic superiors? Well, that’s more of a question. Many ordinary men in the ranks (such as the petty officer whose words doomed Dyett or the men in Manning/Bourne’s company who want to see a frequent deserter shot) would agree. They are sticking it out, after all… but many others have so far preserved enough of what humanity they brought to war to see their way toward mercy…

 

There’s another bitter juxtaposition here between Dyett and Siegfried Sassoon. They are, in a way, opposite officers: a man sentenced to be shot as a coward for avoiding battle, and a man awarded an MC for aggressive heroics and later sent back as a punishment for being too aggressive and advancing beyond his unit to engage the Germans. The one is a man with no friends left in his battalion, the other an attractive poet with friends and admirers everywhere.

And yet Sassoon is beginning to realize that circumstance is all. He doesn’t doubt his own courage–although he is beginning to question its source and its meaning–and he has begun to see that the war grinds down everyone, not just the timorous or wasp-waisted.

And so, when he came to write his (second set of) memoirs, he dwelt on the passing year by mentioning his enthrallment with H.G. Wells’s Mr. Britling Sees it Through.

On New Year’s Eve I was alone in my hut reading Mr. Britling Sees It Through, which was more of a revelation to me that anything I had met with, and seemed to light up the whole background of the War. Someone was speaking his mind fearlessly; and since it happened to be the mind of H. G. Wells I devoured his pages in a rapt surrender of attention. Finally I came to a startling passage that checked my rapid reading. For several minutes I sat staring at the words. Then I copied them carefully into the small notebook in which I recorded my nocturnal rumination. I was in the panoramic and retrospective state of mind induced by New Year’s Eve, and this was what one of England’s most powerful imaginations told me.

‘It is a war now like any other of the mobbing, many-aimed cataclysms that have shattered empires and devastated the world; it is a war without point, a war that has lost its soul; it has become mere incoherent fighting and destruction, a demonstration in vast and tragic forms of the stupidity and ineffectiveness of our species…’

And so Sassoon-the-memoirist chooses his book of the year, and suggests that Mr. Britling’s dawning awareness of the chaotic cruelty of the war has struck him as an important truth.

Which it did–four days ago. Today, a century back, was not a beautiful day. But it was too nice for reading books and dwelling on calendrical milestones…

December 31

Played golf at Formby and got rather wet. Robert (with niblick) played the fool and rather annoyed my serious golfing temperament.[2]

It’s amusing–but not quite funny–that Sassoon is thus caught date-fudging in his memoir. Which is, again, a very minor sin. But this diary entry also proves that Robert Graves was not inventing his tale of annoying Sassoon on the links, but merely misremembering its location in time by a month.

So Graves, who so often alters past events for effect, has done nothing here but mistake his memory to no rhetorical purpose, while Sassoon, the slithy tove, borrowed straight from his diary and purposefully changed the date, in order to turn that day’s reading into Deep Thoughts at the Close of the Year.

It’s been a low dishonest year, no?

And still Edwin Dyett waits to join the rest of the casualties of the Somme.

 

Penultimately, we have a letter from Edward Thomas to Robert Frost. What does that halcyon Christmastime at home look like when a man writes to his most-valued intellectual soulmate?

31 xii 1916. High Beech

My dear Robert,

I had your letter & your poem ‘France, France’ yesterday.

That poem, which will not turn up in Frost’s upcoming books of verse, I found here:

France, France I know not what is in my heart.
But God forbid that I should be more brave
As a watcher for a quiet place apart
Than you are fighting in an open grave.

Not mine to say you shall not think of peace.
Not mine, not mine. I almost know your pain.
But I will not believe that you will cease
I will not bid you cease, from being slain.

Thomas continues:

I like the poem very much, because it betrays exactly what you would say & what you feel about saying that much. It expresses just those hesitations you or I would have at asking others to act as we think it is their cue to act. Well, I am soon going to know more about it…

…at the end of the week or soon after I shall have my last leave. After all we are going to have smaller guns than we thought & we shall be nearer the front lines a good bit & are beginning to make insincere jokes about observing from the front line which of course we shall have to do. I think I told you we were a queer mixed crowd of officers in this battery. As soon as we begin to depend on one another we shall no doubt make the best of one another. I am getting on, I think, better than when I was in my pupilage. The 2 senior officers have been out before. Four of us are new. I am 3 years older than the commanding officer & twice as old as the youngest. I mustn’t say much more.

Notice how undramatic that was. Frost is in New Hampshire, writing of France, and his heart; but Thomas will actually be there, in the flesh, in weeks, and near the front lines. That is the news, and that’s all it is, now–perhaps it can be written about once it is experienced, but it looms so near, now, that speculation about the experience seems almost indecent.

So, then, Christmas?

I was home for Christmas by an unexpected piece of luck. We were very happy with housework & wood gathering in the forest & a few walks. We had snow & sunshine on Christmas day. Mervyn’s holiday coincided with mine. Some of the time I spent at my mother’s house & in London buying the remainder of my things for the front. I am very well provided…

A pleasant visit home–and the special mention of Mervyn is because Frost had taken charge of the boy in America for several months. But we learn now that Thomas was only home three days, and yet he spent one in London getting kitted out? It hardly sounds like Helen Thomas’s recollection at all…

Edward Thomas’s letter now returns to his and Frost’s joint concerns–their newest books (his first book of poetry), walking and reading and writing:

It is nearly all work here now & in the evenings, if I haven’t something to do with my maps for next day, I am either out walking or indoors talking. When I am alone—as I am during the evening just now because the officer who shares my room is away—I hardly know what to do. I can’t write now & still less can I read. I have rhymed but I have burnt my rhymes & feel proud of it…

I tried to begin ‘The Shaving of Shagpat’ just now, but could not get past the 3rd page. I could read Frost, I think. Send me another letter, though I expect it will find me over the sea.

Goodbye all, & my love.

Yours ever
Edward Thomas.[3]

 

It seems most appropriate, though, to close the year with a short, simple letter. This is from Rowland Feilding to his wife, and perhaps it does well to balance the dark thoughts which have overcome our writers of late. And yet even with a confident and high-spirited man like Fielding “joy” can only be ironic and “peace” is fit only for the bitterest of sarcasms… but there must be hope, still:

December 31, 1916 (Midnight).
Derry Huts (near Dranoutre).

It is midnight. As I write all the “heavies” we possess are loosing off their New Year’s “Joy” to the Germans, making my hut vibrate. The men in their huts are cheering and singing “Old Lang Syne.”

The rumpus started at five minutes to twelve. Now, as it strikes the hour, all has stopped, including the singing, as suddenly as it began. The guns awakened the men, who clearly approved. The enemy has not replied with a single shot in this direction.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Death For Desertion, 62.
  2. Diaries, 111.
  3. Elected Friends, 170-1.
  4. War Letters to a Wife, 142.

A Belated Christmas for Rowland Feilding’s Battalion; Siegfried Sassoon on the Hunt; Edmund Blunden in the Line; Edwin Dyett in the Hands of the Bureaucracy

Four updates on four officers today–from the front lines, the reserve line, the manifold offices of the bureaucracy, and the huntin’ home counties.

When we last left Edmund Blunden, he and his battalion were preparing for “An Ypres Christmas.” But now it’s back to work. The move described in this rumination from his memoir can be dated, by his battalion war diaries, to today, a century back. It is shaping up to be the winter of the trench mortar:

And soon afterward we began to discover the war again. We relieved the Welsh on the extreme left of the British Line, where it adjoined the Belgian. The village of Boesinghe which named this part lay on the edge of the Yser Canal, and was no ornament to it; but in the light of earlier troubles and later ones we were not so badly off.

Our way up was through Elverdinghe with its tower mill and its miraculously preserved château, past its little gasworks, and along shallow trenches pontifically screened, hitherto respected. Houses in quite good shape appeased the anxious eye as one advanced, and there was a general simplicity and complaisance in the martial arrangements which pleased one’s civilian self. But there are certain possibilities and indeed occurrences in war which a soldier cannot entirely dismiss, and by the time that one had looked at Boesinghe and its system of defences, one was not amused. The burnt château was only a useless case; the battalion headquarters was an iron vault in an outbuilding, with fragile huts and coop-like sandbag annexes obviously clustered round. Boesinghe village street, though approached over a rustic bridge past an Arcadian lake, was a litter of jutting roof-timbers, roomless doorways, and plaster and brick rubbish. The tawny and white muddle of stones that survived the church was very avoidable. No protection against anything more violent than a tennis-ball was easily discernible along that village street. A feebleness of design and performance was obvious in the communication trenches, Hunter Street and Bridge Street; the support line was scarcely strong enough to keep white mice in, but muddy enough to destroy tempers; the front line was in the massive canal bank, than which a finer parapet could not be imagined, but just behind it ran parallel the awkward stream Yperlee. Our future, in short, depended on the observance of the “Live and Let Live” principle.

Rolling gently in at the end end of another lyrical paragraph by Blunden, the implications of this statement might not hit as hard as they should. We return to this subject–choosing to “live and let live” whenever the higher-ups are not demanding offensive action vs. the theory that confidence and good performance only stem from “holding the upper hand” or “dominating no-man’s-land” and thus that the casualties of strategically pointless battalion-level offensive actions are well worth it–from time to time. In the winter, we will find this choice looming especially large. There is no need for raiding, for surprise barrages, for aggressive vigilance. An offensive is impossible, so why not just hold the line, improve defenses when the weather is decent, and try not to suffer needlessly?

As Blunden reminds us, parts of the low countries are either frozen or waterlogged (or, mysteriously, both) and so offensive actions seem especially ridiculous because the defenses on both sides need so much work. And yet there’s a war on, and some commanders refuse to accept the strangeness-within-strangeness that is a “quiet sector,” in which thousands of “enemies” living cheek by jowl get on with their miserable lives as best as they can without disturbing their neighbors. Live and Let Live? The infantry themselves would in most cases prefer it.

Unfortunately this was not invariably observed. The Germans possessed a magnificent minenwerfer, well masked under the wreckage of a place known as Steam Mill. With this weapon they demonstrated that enormous explosions could be induced at any moment on Boesinghe Church and the parts adjacent. The crash of their presents was not in keeping with the evergreens that led along to the pretty bridge and winding water. Once or twice their operators amused themselves by lobbing their trench mortar bombs into the area of the Belgians, accurately leaving ours (from the extremest of our posts) unassailed; and the action of our neighbours, who made the best of their way through our lines, was no doubt watched with interest by the German observers.

But it’s worse than this: the giant tench mortar defeats the spirit of “live and let live,” since it is all too easy for one side to terrorize the other. But the strange tactical reality of Ypres, in which tiny canal-carved areas could be snipped off by local attacks (which, again, could hardly lead to any serious strategic advantage, but Blunden takes no notice of that, here) means that whenever the mud becomes hard enough to run over, a local attack must be feared…

The situation was such that at any moment, and especially in the intense frost, we feared that the Germans might cross the Canal and drive in our left flank. Alarmed and even redder in the cheeks than usual, the General urged on our wirers and insisted that they should not do their work under cover, but clamber down the bank and drive in their stakes and crisscross their entanglements there. Barbed wire is noisy gear to handle, and the bobbins on which it is supplied and from which it is uncoiled have tin projections which clank and bang at most unsuitable moments. The German parapet on the other side of the Canal was perhaps fifty yards away. Worley managed to get some wire out without casualties, but he was lucky. I watched him scrambling about the steep bank in some pain, and afterward heard his opinions with equal pleasure.[1]

It’s an ugly part of the war, and it is not about to get any prettier.

 

And as one battalion rotates into the line another, which had held trenches through Christmas, goes into reserve, where Christmas has been kept simmering in the battalion dixies. Rowland Feilding has been highly complimentary of his 6th Connaught Rangers lately–will the battalion cooks be able to do the fighting men justice?

December 30, 1916. Derry Huts (near Dranoutre).

To-day, the battalion being out of the trenches, we celebrated Christmas in a sort of way; that is to say, the men had turkey and plum-pudding, and French beer for dinner, and a holiday from “fatigues.”

I hope they enjoyed it…  But when I went round and saw the dinners I must confess I was disappointed. Our surroundings do not lend themselves to this kind of entertainment; and, as to appliances—tables, plates, cutlery, etc.—well, we have none. The turkeys had to be cut into shreds and dished up in the mess tins. The beer had to be ladled out of buckets (or rather dixies) later, into the same mess-tins; out of which also the plum-pudding was taken, the men sitting herded about on the floors of the dark huts. It was indeed most unlike a Christmas dinner, but it was the best possible under the circumstances, and the men would have missed it if they had not had it; though, as I say, it seemed to me a dismal affair…

They are a curious crowd. They will report sick pretty readily when they are in Divisional Reserve, and there are drills and fatigues to be done; but when in the line I do not think the average is more than one or two per day for the whole battalion. It seems to be a matter of honour with them:—and where Mass is concerned, they are never too tired to attend. Their devotion is quite amazing… [2]

 

On Boxing Day Edwin Dyett was tried and found guilty of desertion in the face of the enemy. The transcript of his Court Martial lacks any direct proof of his guilt, and there are indications that its members considered that his youth and inexperience should justify leniency. (They either meant this sincerely, in which case it would apply to the majority of infantry subalterns, or as a way of expressing that Dyett’s known problems with his “nerves” should mitigate his guilt.)

Now, however, the verdict and the accompanying recommendations must pass up through the hierarchy of the B.E.F.

On the 28th the sentence was forwarded to Dyett’s Divisional general, who also noted that Dyett was “young and inexperienced.” Not being deeply versed in the coded language of this bureaucracy, I’m not sure how to read what follows:

Beyond the above I know of no reason why the extreme penalty should not be exacted.

I recommend mercy.

Is this a careful defense of mercy, or a mixed message? But today, a century back, it was the turn of the Divisional general’s direct superior, the commander of V Corps, to add his opinion. The “recommendation” of his subordinate was ignored and the unreasonable negative argument was carried on:

30 December 1916

Forwarded. I see no reason why the sentence should not be carried out.

C.M. Macomb
Lieut-General
Commanding V Corps.[3]

 

To complete this dimsal tour we go back to England, where Siegfried Sassoon, a brave officer who has gone forward to engage the enemy without orders but never disobeyed orders to go forward, took a day off from his undemanding duties at Litherland Camp to go hunting.

December 30

Cheshire: Tiverton Smithy. A fine, warm sort of day, breezy with clouds about. Found at Huxley and ran nicely for about a mile, then turned left-handed and hunted him very slowly back to Clotton cover and lost him. Took a goodish fall over some post-and-rails with a big ditch on the far side. All grass, but a lot of wire. Very little to  jump—typical Cheshire fences. Drew Stapleton and Waverton blank. Found at Crow’s Nest at 2.30, but he was twice headed on the road and ran a short circle out by the railway and back past the cover, and after that they never had the line. A very disappointing hunt; scent very moderate all day. Went back to Beeston Station and on to Spittal with Brocklebank, and had a cheery evening at his home. Back to the huts at 12.[4]

So, then, live and let live.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Undertones of War, 133-4.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 140-2.
  3. Death For Desertion, 62.
  4. Diaries, 111.

Francis Ledwidge in France, but Preferring Fairyland; Edward Thomas Out in the Dark in the Snow with Myfanwy

Another quiet day, today, a century back–and another brace of poems. First, Francis Ledwidge, who couldn’t write an unpretty thing if he tried, is recently back in France and now looking ahead, rather than back. But, of course, still looking to spring-as-spring. Others might be more inclined, by now, to look at spring as “the season when offensives resume, despite the mud.”

Ceol Sidhe

When May is here, and every morn
Is dappled with pied bells,
And dewdrops glance along the thorn
And wings flash in the dells,
I take my pipe and play a tune
Of dreams, a whispered melody,
For feet that dance beneath the moon
In fairy jollity.

And when the pastoral hills are grey
And the dim stars are spread,
A scamper fills the grass like play
Of feet where fairies tread.
And many a little whispering thing
Is calling to the Shee.
The dewy bells of evening ring,
And all is melody.

France,
December 29th, 1916.

 

This would surely suit Ledwidge’s patron, the fantasist Lord Dunsany.

Edward Thomas, however, is writing to a somewhat different audience. Instead of to a Lord and all Ireland, he wrote today, a century back, and back in the artillery camp at Lydd, to his younger daughter, Myfanwy (a.k.a Baba.) Although Thomas was often a distant father, in both senses, he was a loving father, too, and the family had had three idyllic days of singing and working together, of story-telling, and presents. And so he wrote his daughter a sweet letter (available here, but I can’t seem to get the archival image to paste into wordpress) that paid close attention to her concerns–a tooth due to be extracted, the wonderful time they had at Christmas, etc.

And yet there were some other comments which make for rather odd confidences to a six-year-old:

I do hope peace won’t come just yet. I should not know what to do, especially if it came before I had really been a soldier. I wonder if you want peace, and if you can remember when there was no war.[1]

Apart from this odd note there is no mention (and how could there be, even assuming that the letter was meant to be read by Helen Thomas as well?) of either the joy or the tension of the visit? With a few miles and a few days between Thomas and his family there is much less joy, of course… but there is also a palpable relief, at least from Edward.

And he has written a poem to Myfanwy–indeed, one which seems to see the world through her eyes. He wrote it at home, actually, and sent a copy to Eleabor Farjeon the day he returned to camp, which shows that he regards it as a serious poem to be collected and hopefully published. And it is lovely:

 

Out in the dark over the snow
The fallow fawns invisible go
With the fallow doe;
And the winds blow
Fast as the stars are slow.

Stealthily the dark haunts round
And, when a lamp goes, without sound
At a swifter bound
Than the swiftest hound.
Arrives, and all else is drowned;

And I and star and wind and deer.
Are in the dark together,–near,
Yet far,–and fear
Drums on my ear
In that sage company drear.

How weak and little is the light.
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.

References and Footnotes

  1. See Hollis, Now All Roads, 307-8.

Rowland Feilding on Children’s Toys, Flying Pigs, and Birdies

 

December 27, 1916 Facing Messines— Wytschaete Ridge (Cooker Farm).

…Our people sent over thousands of heavy trench-mortar bombs, and the artillery supported well from behind. It was a pretty sight. The enemy replied with everything he had, including gas shells, the smoke from which since there was no wind—hung long upon the ground, like lakes of fog. I watched it all from the communication trench.

After dark I went round the line and found the men cheery, as usual. One of the recruits—a boy—especially took my fancy. It had been his first experience—his baptism of fire. He had picked up a splinter of shrapnel in his bay, which he was treasuring as a souvenir, and showed me delightedly, like a child would a new toy.

When times are quiet, as at present, things which are comparatively insignificant gather importance. A case of “trench feet,” for example, will provoke far more correspondence and censure than a heavy casualty list, which provokes none at all. Fortunately, we are free from the former, but is not the principle rather that of “straining at a
gnat, while swallowing a camel”?

Yup–which is why we have a day to concentrate on Roland Feilding‘s letters to his wife, today, between the heavy literary barrage of Mr. Britling and the Thomas Family Christmas (which will resume tomorrow). Literary and militarily, then, a little pause, and a sudden calm, and a quiet, welcome accretion to our knowledge of every-day trench warfare.

Feilding is no boy, but it’s striking, given his confession of a perhaps unhealthy respect for German Minenwerfers, how differently he feels about British trench mortars… and yet he gets away with it. Or rather, the British get away with it. Or rather, all but one man get away with it. And there you have a day in the life on the Western Front: remarkably successful, remarkably peaceful–and only one healthy young man was violently killed.

Those thoughts about the British mortar barrage and gnat-straining was yesterday’s letter, a century back. Today, the happy recap:

December 28, 1916. Derry Huts (near Dranoutre).

The enemy’s retaliation of yesterday turns out to have produced—in the 47th (our) Brigade, no casualties; in the 49th Brigade, which was on the left, one man killed! Is not that marvellous? I almost find it difficult to believe myself; though I know it to be true. Let us hope the Division was as favoured in its aggressive tactics as in the defence! We are naturally getting more cunning, but that cannot account for all.

Do you remember the silly letters that used to appear in the newspapers—I think it was last year—about linnets and pheasants in Norfolk having had their ear-drums broken by the percussion caused by mythical distant battles in the North Sea? Yesterday, while the bombardment was at its height, a robin was hopping playfully about, from sandbag to sandbag, within 10 feet of me: a blackbird was doing the same a few feet further away; and a cat was stalking between the two;—all three unconcerned among their infernal surroundings![1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 139-40.

Siegfried Sassoon Sees Mr. Britling Through; The Thomas Family’s Christmas Comes to an End

Two poets, today, one in the intimate struggle of family life; the other alone with his reading.

First, Siegfried Sassoon, still lowering and at Litherland camp.

December 27

Medical Board gave me another month’s home service…

Another sharp frost and thick fog this morning. Reading Curzon’s Monasteries in the Levant which Meiklejohn sent me at Christmas. More amusing than Eothen, but Doughty’s Arabia Deserta spoils one for every other book of that sort.

I heartily agree–there will be subsequent editions of Doughty’s bizarre masterpiece carrying an introduction by T.E. Lawrence, so there’s another Great War writing connection for us. But, while it’s extremely appropriate that Sassoon-at-loose-ends is reading heavyweight Victorian travel literature, he is also reading something rather hotter off the presses. But this diary entry will take its sweet time getting there:

…Those four months away from the Army blotted out the slight sense of discipline I had managed to acquire, much against my will. I want to go off and play golf and be independent and alone, all the time! My absurd decoration is the only thing that gives me any sense of responsibility at all. And the thought of death is horrible, where last year it was a noble and inevitable dream. And nothing left but to watch the last flare-up, and try to dodge through to the end, the victory that is more terrible than defeat—exhaustion, and blind men with medals, and everyone trying to clean up their lives, like children whose little make-believes have been smashed  and ruined in the night.

This is as close as Sassoon will get to sounding like mid-60’s Dylan; but he’s under a rather different influence: the book of the year (it’s that time, for critics, isn’t it? Or have I missed it?) is certainly H.G. Wells’ Mr. Britling Sees it Through. Sassoon now copies out a lengthy quotation from the book, which he is in the middle of reading:

Mr Britling says: ‘Everywhere cunning, everywhere small feuds and hatreds, distrusts, dishonesties, timidities, feebleness of purpose, dwarfish imaginations, swarm over the great and simple issues . . . It is a war now like any other of the mobbing, many-aimed cataclysms that have shattered empires and devastated the world; it is a war without point, a war that has lost its soul, it has become mere incoherent fighting and destruction, a demonstration in vast and tragic forms of the stupidity and ineffectiveness of our species.'[1]

Word perfect–Sassoon was copying carefully.

I can’t do H.G. Wells justice in just a few paragraphs here. I hardly know the breadth of his work, and like most Americans I think of him as a founding father of Science Fiction first and foremost… and very little after that. But Mr. Britling was a major book, a real attempt to use the novel to wrestle with, for lack of a better term, current events. And there is a Wells-like figure at the center of the book: Mr. Britling is a man of letters, given to sweeping pronouncements in newspaper articles, late-night fits of writerly inspiration, and serial affairs that seem, implausibly, to hardly intrude upon his home life.

But Mr. Britling is not Mr. Wells (Sassoon does not copy down quotation marks to show that Mr. Britling, rather than a narratorial or authorial voice, is speaking; his editor does add them later). Mr. Britling has something Mr. Wells does not: a seventeen-year-old son.

The course of the book’s events are easily summarized: we get an extremely idyllic Summer of ’14 (seen through the eyes of an American visitor), which includes casual witty brilliance, highly competitive amateur sports, and a benevolent, endearingly self-serious German tutor. This is followed by much time in Mr. Britling’s mind as he adjusts to the realities of the war. His young secretary (i.e. personal assistant) joins up, taking a commission, but his own boy idealistically enlists in Kitchener’s Army, in the ranks. He is underage, so he will be stuck safely in training, unable to serve overseas for more than a year… and Mr. Britling goes on planning (and only rarely completing) self-important think-pieces on the war.

And then things begin to unravel–young Hugh Britling had lied about his age in order to avoid the need for parental consent for combat deployment, and he is sent to France in 1915. The 1914 confidence about Empire and the thrill of rising to the challenge begin to fall flat with the bloody balls-up of the Battle of Loos. And Mr. Britling writes on…

I suppose I will stop there, since my paltry summary has reached the spot, more or less, from which Sassoon quotes. No spoilers, of course… although this book was published months ago, a century back. But you know what must happen.

What’s of more interest to us–or of more direct interest–is how the book affected our writers.

It certainly seems to be something like the consensus best “state of Britain” novel of 1916, and they are all reading it: Wilfred Owen was reading something by Wells in November, likely Mr. Britling, as was Isaac Rosenberg, more recently. Robert Graves will shortly (in terms of the lived chronology of his memoir) discuss the book and its author in his usual fashion–which is to say inaccurately, and with an eye for stirring up trouble. And reader Richard Hawkins reminds me that Gilbert Frankau, an author whom I have more or less abandoned here (not because I don’t like his writing–I don’t, but it’s instructive–but rather because there are just not enough dates), will also remember meeting Wells at about this time. Frankau, too, will take a pot-shot at him, too, in his memoir.

Virtually every novel and memoir by a Great War combatant addresses the question of what I have been calling “the experiential gulf” and “the conflict of the generations.” They must comment–wryly, sadly, in still-hot fury–on the ways in which fatuous old men on the home front fail to understand/stereotype/disrespect the young men in uniform while at the same time being complicit in, and often profiting from, their senseless slaughter. So it’s… perhaps “amusing” is not the best word… that Frankau treats Wells dismissively as a cynical anti-imperialist who welcomes the destruction of the war while Graves mistakes the man for the creation and makes Wells into Mr. Britling and Mr. Britling into a chirping optimist, an embodiment of the smug older generation who are staggered by the war but can’t even bear to face that fact… Wells was nothing so simple, nor was his creation.

I shouldn’t drone on about Wells’s book. The quotation Sassoon uses, above, is fair and representative: it’s about Mr. Britling’s hesitant, increasingly despairing attempts to cope. He’s not smug, after a while; nor does he fail to see how terrible the war has become. Graves didn’t read the book–or didn’t read far enough–and simply used it as something that sounded like it should attract his derision… but it shouldn’t. It’s not a great book, and the ending is not, to my mind, very satisfactory. But that is because it was written during the dark middle of the war–it could hardly end in despair (and still be publishable, or artistically true to its aspirations to speak for some general type of English mind) and it certainly couldn’t end on an uplifting note…

It’s interesting, then, that Sassoon is moved by the lesson this middle-aged intellectual places at the heart of his novel about a middle-aged intellectual, and striking that Sassoon then puts it to his own purposes, namely preparing to go out to France again with a grim heart and clear eyes…

But Sassoon, too, is fibbing, albeit in a much more venial way. When Sassoon comes to memoir-ize his diaries–not in the “George Sherston” trilogy but in the later series of memoirs in propria persona–he rewrites the date of this intense encounter. (Did these silly fellows, who dreamed big and expected to die young, not imagine posthumous publication of their private writings?)

On New Year’s Eve I was alone in my hut reading Mr. Britling Sees It Through, which was more of a revelation to me than anything I had met with, and seemed to light up the whole ground of the War. Someone was speaking his mind fearlessly, and since it happened to be the mind of H.G. Wells I devoured his pages in a rapt surrender of attention. Finally I came to a startling passage that checked my rapid reading. For several minutes I sat staring at the words. Then I copied them carefully into the small note-book in which I recorded my nocturnal ruminations. I was in the panoramic and retrospective state of mind induced by New Year’s Eve, and this was what one of England’s most powerful imaginations told me.

I suppose it’s not impossible that Sassoon was still reading the book four days later, but as he is working directly from his diary, it certainly seems to be the case that he is moving the reading-event in order to make it serve more precisely as his reflection upon the year. (Which is amusing given his actual diary entry on the 31st, which we will see in due time–it mentions nothing more reflective than a grumpy game of golf.) So, a minor point, but… BOO! He was not copying this out on New Year’s Eve, but rather today, a century back…

After the quotation, as above, Sassoon then gathers himself for retrospective reflection. It’s amusing, again, that the older Sassoon condescends to his younger self while fudging the timing of his experiences for a slight dramatic effect:

The words are alone on the flimsy little page. I didn’t venture to add my own commentary on them. But I am moderately sure that I remarked to myself, ‘That’s exactly what I’d been thinking only I didn’t know how to say it!’ Nevertheless I had already written on a previous page, ‘The war is settling down on everyone…'[2]

Compared with most of my cogitations, this was quite explicit…

And so Sassoon at simultaneously gives himself credit for finding the true 1916 mood in himself as well as in Wells’s pages and cuts his young self down:

The diary indeed discloses very little of my actual state of mind about the War. Some of its entries suggest that I was keeping my courage up by resorting to elevated feelings. My mental behavior was still unconnected with any self-knowledge, and it was only when I was writing verse that I tried to concentrate and express my somewhat loose ideas…

So we shouldn’t trust the diaries, but we can trust this one novelist-over-forty (fifty, even!), but we can (implicitly) trust the later memoirs? It’s going to be quite a year…

 

And today, a century back, Edward Thomas left his family at High Beech to return to “Tintown,” Lydd, and his artillery training. Comparing letters to memoirs is especially strange when they are written by two women who loved the same man–or, rather, when he is writing to one woman and being written about by the other.

First, Eleanor Farjeon’s correspondence with Thomas around this Christmastime, which she had done so much to make so miraculous:

I had sent to High Beech my own budget of presents to add to the gaiety, and with Edward’s I enclosed as a Christmas card a new London-Town Nursery Rhyme:

ST MARY AXE

Saint Mary, ax. Saint Mary, ax.
Saint Mary, ax your fill.
Saint Mary, ax whatever you lacks
And you shall have your will.—
O bring me a Rose, a Christmas Rose
To cUmb my window-siU.—
You shall have your Rose when Heaven snows.
Saint Mary, sleep until.

Thomas responded on Christmas Day, from the bosom of his family:

Christmas High Beech

My dear Eleanor, I am bloated with your presents. But that is not their fault. The apples were and are delicious, and the poem is I think one of your very happiest. Why do I like the last line so much? What does the ‘Until’ remind me of? Or is it just that it reminds me of something else that is good?

…The Christmas tree is afoot. It is 5.50, and Baba has no suspicions. Goodbye. I hope we shall meet next Christmas time.

Yours ever
Edward Thomas

Thomas wrote to Farjeon again, yesterday, a century back, but kept the letter as he left High Beech, posting the Christmas one instead. Then, tonight, back at camp, he found a second parcel (or, rather, the first, sent when Farjeon still thought he would be unable to get Christmas leave) and wrote a new note.

R.A. Mess,
Tintown, Lydd
27 xii 16

My dear Eleanor, I only found your cake this morning. It is very good. If you and a cup of tea would appear it would be excellent— only of course I shouldn’t mind whether it was or not. I am going to send you in exchange some verses I made on Sunday. It is really Baba who speaks, not I. Something she felt put me on to it. But I am afraid I am meddling now. A real poem would include and imply all these things I am writing, or so I fancy.

These verses we shall read in two days, when he sends them to “Baba,” his daughter Myfanwy. The next line, well… bear it in mind when we read his wife Helen’s reminiscences:

…It is curious how I feel no anxiety or trouble as soon as I am back here, though I was so very glad to be at home.
I will just copy out the verses and send this off.

Goodbye. Oh, the Christmas tree was a great success. Baba went pale with surprise as she came into the room and found it. Thank you.

Yours ever
Edward Thomas[3]

 

From Helen Thomas’s memoir I will excerpt with a heavy hand, as she writes a great deal over the same few days between the writing and the posting of this letter… but there is no surprise here: a wife surprised by the sudden return of her soldier husband will write  intensely, and intimately… his visit was only three days, but here it seems longer. For Helen the visit is a miraculous in-gathering of the family, but also a chance for their often tense marriage to find a moment of calm before the the war pulls them apart.

…in the evenings, when just outside the door the silence of the forest was like a pall covering too heavily the myriads of birds and little beasts that the frost had killed, we would sit by the fire with the children and read aloud to them, and they would sing songs that they had known since their babyhood, and Edward sang new ones he had learnt in the army–jolly songs with good choruses in which I, too, joined as I busied about getting the supper. Then, when Myfanwy had gone to bed, Bronwen would sit on his lap, content just to be there, while he and Merfyn worked out problems or studied maps. It was lovely to see those two so united over this common interest.

But he and I were separated by our dread, and we could not look each other in the eyes, nor dared we be left alone
together.

The days had passed in restless energy for us both. He had sawn up a big tree that had been blown down at our very door, and chopped the branches into logs, the children all helping. The children loved being with him, for though he was stern in making them build up the logs properly, and use the tools in the right way, they were not resentful of this, but tried to win his rare praise and imitate his skill. Indoors he packed his kit and polished his accoutrements…

And I knew Edward’s agony and he knew mine, and all we could do was to speak sharply to each other. ‘Now do, for goodness’ sake, remember Helen, that these are the important manuscripts, and that I’m putting them here, and this key is for the box that holds all important papers like our marriage certificate and the children’s birth certificates, and my life insurance policy. You may.want them at some time; so don’t go leaving the key about.’ And I, after a while, ‘Can’t you leave all this unnecessary tidying business, and put up that shelf you promised me? I hate this room, but a few books on a shelf might make it look at bit more human.’ ‘Nothing will improve this room, so you had better resign yourself to it. Besides, the wall is too rotten for a shelf’ ‘Oh, but you promised.’ ‘Well, it won’t be the first time I’ve broken a promise to you, will it? Nor the last, perhaps.’

Oh, God! melt the snow and let the sky be blue. The last evening comes. The children have taken down the holly and mistletoe and ivy, and chopped up the little Christmas-tree to burn. And for a treat Bronwen and Myfanwy are to have their bath in front of the blazing fire. The big zinc bath is dragged in, and the children undress in high glee, and skip about naked in the warm room, which is soon filled with the sweet smell of the burning greenery. The berries pop, and the fir-tree makes fairy lace, and the holly crackles and roars. The two children get into the bath together, and Edward scrubs them in turn – they laughing, making the fire hiss with their splashing. The drawn curtains shut out the snow and the starless sky, and the deathly silence out there in the biting cold is forgotten in the noise and warmth of our little room. After the bath Edward reads to them. First of all he reads Shelley’s The Question and Chevy Chase, and then for Myfanwy a favourite Norse tale. They sit in their nightgowns listening gravely, and then, just before they kiss him good night, while I stand by with the candle in my hand, he says: ‘Remember while I am away to be kind. Be kind, first of all, to Mummy, and after that be kind to everyone and everything.’ And they all assent together, and joyfully hug and kiss him, and he carries the two girls up, and drops each into her bed.

And we are left alone, unable to hide our agony, afraid to show it. Over supper, we talk of the probable front he’ll arrive at, of his fellow-officers, and of the unfinished portrait-etching that one of them has done of him and given to me. And we speak of the garden, and where this year he wants the potatoes to be, and he-reminds me to put in the beans directly the snow disappears. ‘If I’m not back in time, you’d better get someone to help you with the digging,’ he says. He reads me some of the poems he has written that I have not heard — the last one of all called Out in the Dark. And I venture to question one line, and he says, ‘Oh, no, it’s right, Helen, I’m sure it’s right. ’

Thomas never does seem interested in Helen’s thoughts about his writing. There are others for that… friends. And she knows this, and–as if to assert her primacy, her one prior and unassailable claim, Helen Thomas’s memoir moves from the intimacies of poetic language to the greater intimacies of marriage, of sexual companionship…

And I nod because I can’t speak, and I try to smile at his assurance. I sit and stare stupidly at his luggage by the wall, and his roll of bedding, kit-bag, and suitcase. He takes out his prismatic compass and explains it to me, but I cannot see, and when a tear drops on to it he just shuts it up and puts it away. Then he says, as he takes a book out of his pocket, ‘You see, your Shakespeare’s Sonnets is already where it will always be. Shall I read you some?’ He reads one or two to me. His face is grey and his mouth trembles, but his voice is quiet and steady. And soon I slip to the floor and sit between his knees, and while he reads his hand falls over my shoulder and I hold it with mine.

‘Shall I undress you by this lovely fire and carry you upstairs in my khaki greatcoat?’ So he undoes my things, and I slip out of them; then he takes the pins out of my hair, and we laugh at ourselves for behaving as we so often do, like young lovers. ‘We have never become a proper Darby and Joan, have we?’ ‘I’ll read to you till the fire burns low, and then we’ll go to bed…’

That would have been last night, a century back.

So we lay, all night, sometimes talking of our love and all that had been, and of the children, and what had been  amiss and what right. We knew the best was that there had never been untruth between us. We knew all of each other, and it was right. So talking and crying and loving in each other’s arms we fell asleep as the cold reflected light of the snow crept through the frost-covered windows.

Edward got up and made the fire and brought me some tea, and then got back into bed, and the children clambered in, too, and sat in a row sipping our tea. I was not afraid of crying any more…

I stood at the gate watching him go; he turned back to wave until the mist and the hill hid him. I heard his old call coming up to me: ‘Coo-ee!’ he called. ‘Coo-ee!’ I answered, keeping my voice strong to call again. Again through the muffled air came his ‘Coo,-ee’. And again went my answer like an echo. ‘Coo-ee’ came fainter next time with the hill between us, but my ‘Coo-ee’ went out of my lungs strong to pierce to him as he strode away from me. ‘Coo-ee!’ So faint now, it might be only my own call flung back from the thick air and muffling snow. I put my hands up to my mouth to make a trumpet, but no sound came. Panic seized me, and I ran through the mist and the snow to the top of the hill, and stood there a moment dumbly, with straining eyes and ears. There was nothing but the mist and the snow and the silence of death. Then with leaden feet which stumbled in a sudden darkness that overwhelmed me I groped my way back to the empty house.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 109-110.
  2. Siegfried's Journey, 40-41.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 236-237.
  4. Under Storm's Wing, 168-73.

The Court-Martial of Edwin Dyett; Francis Ledwidge Leaves Spring Love Behind; Rowland Feilding on Trench Mortars; A Rebuke for Vera Brittain; and A Poem From John Ronald Tolkien

There is no lingering holiday cheer in France, or at least not enough to blunt the edge of military justice–or prosecution: The court martial of Edwin Dyett–the unfortunate officer whose story provided much of the shape of A.P. Herbert’s novel The Secret Battle–met today, a century back. I will leave the transcript until last, today, although the rest of today’s writing is only hardly happy and carefree.

When we last read Francis Ledwidge, he was hearing the song of war loud and clear, just as it first re-sounded. Today, a century back, he is leaning forward once again. He wrote a poem the same day he crossed the channel, en route to his first action in France–and dated it “B.E.F.,” as if he were already there, part of the British Expeditionary Force, with Britain–or, rather, his Ireland–far receded into the mists of memory.[1]

 

Spring Love

I saw her coming through the flowery grass,
Round her swift ankles butterfly and bee
Blent loud and silent wings; I saw her pass
Where foam-bows shivered on the sunny sea.

Then came the swallow crowding up the dawn,
And cuckoo-echoes filled the dewy South.
I left my love upon the hill, alone,
My last kiss burning on her lovely mouth.

B.E.F.—December 26th, 1916.

 

So, yes, back to France. Which will acquaint Ledwidge, a veteran of Gallipoli, with the special providences of the Western Front–including, notably, trench mortars, that uncannily slow weapon which so many of our writers fear, and describe. Today it’s Rowland Feilding:

December 26, 1916.

Facing Messines— Wytschaete Ridge {Cooker Farm).

Every little section of trench here, as elsewhere, is known and labelled by some fancy name, and one of the very worst bits of the fire-trench is called “Happier Moments.” He must have been an optimist who thought of that.

As I came out along the communication trench this evening after dark I was spluttered with mud twice by trench-mortar bombs. These things make a horrible noise and mess when they land, but are so big and come so slowly that if you spot them in the air you can generally dodge them, and for this reason the men affect not to mind them much. I, on the other hand, admit that I do not share this feeling of confidence. Frankly, I respect trench-mortar bombs.[2]

 

John Ronald Tolkien is able to spend Christmas near home–although other than Edith, his wife of less than a year, he has little enough in the way of home–as he continues to recover from the effects of “trench fever.” Today, a century back, as the mother of Geoffrey Bache Smith wrote to thank him for promptly sending along her son’s verses, he was working on a poem “GBS” (still, I believe, unpublished) dedicated to his memory.[3]

 

Robert Graves, too, was home–even if he would remember himself in Litherland. After spending much of Christmas Day in bed–ill, or shirking church–he was well enough today, a century back, to take a walk on Wimbledon Common with his family.[4]

 

And, last-among-our-lighter notes, the positive reassessment of Victor Richardson continues. He may indeed have feelings for Vera Brittain, and he certainly respects her intelligence and her decision to volunteer for overseas nursing–but he’s not about to let her jump the entire experiential gulf just like like that. Yes, yes, the hospital ship she took to the Mediterranean was sunk. Scandalous, what? A major topic of concern, no?

France, 26 December 1916

You asked what we think out here about the sinking of hospital ships in the Mediterranean. In the first place I am afraid we don’t think very much about it at all–it is not brought home to us as it is to you. I think we are all rather apt out here to concentrate our attention on the Western front…[5]

 

 

Edwin Dyett’s trial began at 10 A.M. today, a century back, in Champneuf. It was presided over by an artillery brigadier, with several majors and captains making up the rest of the Court Martial. Dyett was defended by a former solicitor who had been promoted from the ranks. Several officers of his battalion gave evidence for the prosecution.

This evidence largely established two things: that Dyett had gone missing when it had been his responsibility to bring reinforcements up to the line, and that he was, in general, a poor officer. Even the prosecutor seems to have sensed that the latter might in some way contain a mitigating explanation of the former, and it was established that the very reason Dyett was bringing up reinforcements in company with only one other officer was that he had been held back from the attack because of “apprehension” and “misgivings” about his possible performance under fire.

Further testimony established, essentially, that Dyett was forsaken by his erstwhile comrades–but also that none of his brother officers wanted to deliver the killing blow. The brigadier who had ordered him up to the line didn’t remember him specifically, and while no one would testify that Dyett seemed to have “cold feet,” no one volunteered that he had been a brave officer at Gallipoli, or that he was once efficient before his “nerves” deteriorated. Still, the testimony paints a picture almost completely obscured by the fog of war. One officer confirmed chaos and confusion–it becomes clear that the “reinforcements” were themselves men who “should have been” up in the battle rather than behind the lines, so perhaps they too were frightened, or at least confused. It was also established that, on September 15th, “the accused did not seem to grasp the situation,” i.e. that he did not think his failure to reach the line was a serious problem.

Dyett’s account in his recent letter might seem strangely oblivious and hopeful–he has been under arrest for three months–but it seems to accurately reflect his sense that, in the chaos behind the advance, under bombardment, he was justified in taking shelter and never reaching the front line.

Or, at least, that if he was not strictly justified, there might still be exculpatory factors. And there’s the rub. We read his experiences and see Dyett less as a coward than as a man suffering from undiagnosed PTSD. But we don’t need the terminology in order to have the sympathy. When A.P. Herbert writes his tragic novel he will establish this view–that good men get “shell shocked” and should not be blamed for their failures afterwards–in an extremely convincing way.

But Dyett’s fellow officers do not agree. What he describes as his “nerves,” strained to the breaking point, they–they who made it to the line, who attacked, who may have been wounded and seen their men killed–describe as a lack of moral fiber. There but for the grace of God go… but they went. But each carefully avoids a frank accusation of cowardice.

Why? Is their sympathy, even with a man they seem to dislike (and fear, perhaps, lest a failure of nerve prove contagious–as it often does), strong enough that they wish to spare him? Or do they simply not want to attest that they left a known coward to carry out a difficult task? It’s impossible to tell. We have Court Martial records, Dyett’s letter, and little else. There will be sensationalist press coverage, much later, and Herbert’s novel, but this is a stark case of literature filling unfillable gaps.

The case seems to have turned on the evidence of a noncom–an Acting Petty Officer (in the land-lubbing Naval Division)–who overheard the orders to Dyett that he should help lead the party of reinforcements up to the line and confirms that he refused them, insisting on going back to Brigade for confirmation or elaboration. This would seem to establish what we might be tempted to describe as reasonable doubt: given the chaos and the irregularities in the chain of command, couldn’t Dyett’s failure be excused as a poor, even a fearful, decision but not “desertion in the face of the enemy?”

But under cross-examination the Petty Officer added this:

Accused did not look as if he was afraid or in a funk. He looked as if he wanted to get out of it.

Under these words in the transcript a red line was drawn. If an officer seems, to a subordinate, not as if he is panicked or close to a break down, but simply as if he wants to avoid a dangerous assignment, well, then…

The prosecutor closed by denying that the problems with issuing the orders excused Dyett’s absence. His place was with his battalion, his duty to bring men up.

The defence counsel discussed Dyett’s “highly neurotic temperament” and cited his numerous requests to be transferred away from an infantry battalion. He goes on to paint Dyett as something like a simpleton–seizing on all of the “not grasping the situation” language and emphasizing that there were no clear orders and–more to the point–no direct evidence of Dyett actually “deserting.”

Nevertheless, because he was absent from his unit for two days in the midst of a battle, the court-martial found him guilty. The penalty for desertion on active service is death, and this was the sentence.

However, the court, which seems to have recognized that there was no evidence of any intent to desert, “recommended mercy on the following grounds:

  1. He is very young [21] and has no experience of active operations of this nature.
  2. The circumstances–growing darkness, heavy shelling and the fact that men were retiring in considerable numbers–were likely to affect seriously a youth, unless he had a strong character.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 168.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 139.
  3. Chronology, 97.
  4. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 167.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 307.
  6. Death for Desertion, 31-49.

Christmas in Belgium with Rowland Feilding and Edmund Blunden; in France with Phillip Maddison and Richard Aldington and Kipling’s Irish Guards; Frederic Manning Returns; David Jones Reflects on the Year; Christmas Day with Edward Thomas and Family

Christmas is a busy day, here: not only is it a major holiday whose traditionally-associated sentiments take on heavy overtones in wartime, but the shadow of the first year’s Christmas truce will continue to cast a shadow either hopeful, dismal, or bitterly ironic over any thoughts of peace or Christian fellowship. Also, it’s a major holiday with a fixed date, so everyone remembers where they were, and my cup runneth over. We’ll work our way back from the front, more or less, beginning in the front-line trenches of the Salient and ending with the Thomas family, in Essex.

 

First, then, is Rowland Feilding: whose activities today–as a commanding officer, a host, a listener at a thunderous Christmas concert, an officer in a devoutly Catholic regiment, and an English gentleman with time and a gun on his hands–pretty much run the gamut:

Christmas Day, 1916.

Facing Messines— Wytschaete Ridge (Cooker Farm).

…Though this is Christmas Day, things have not been as quiet as they might have been, and though we have not suffered, I fancy the battalion on our right has done so to some extent. In fact, as I passed along their fire-trench, I saw them at work, digging out some poor fellows who had been buried by a trench-mortar bomb.

This evening since dark, for a couple of hours, the Germans have been bombarding some place behind us with
heavy shells. The battery from which the fire is coming is so far away that I cannot even faintly hear the report of the guns while I am in the open trench, though, from the dug-out from which I now write, I can just distinguish it,
transmitted through the medium of the ground. I hear the shells at a great altitude overhead rushing through the air. The sound of each continues for nearly a minute, the noise increasing to its maximum, then dying away, till I hear the dull muffled thud of the burst some miles behind our line. The shells are passing over at the rate of more
than one a minute.

This morning I was first visited by the Brigadier, who went on to wish the men in the fire-trench “as happy a
Christmas as possible under the circumstances.” Then the Divisional Commander came, accompanied by his A.D.C., who was carrying round the General’s visiting book for signature. This contained many interesting names. I
also had several other visitors.

When I had finished with my callers I went out with my little 45 gun to see if I could kill a pheasant. I got one, which we had for lunch. My servant Glover acts keeper on these occasions. I need scarcely say that I cannot spare time for shooting pheasants, and to-day was my first attempt, but the other officers go out, especially one—a stout Dublin lawyer in private life—who is a very good shot. He went out yesterday, and before starting consulted Glover, who at once brightened up, and said: “If you want a couple of birds for your Christmas dinner, sir, I can put you on to a certainty, if you don’t get shot yourself.” He took him and they got two. To-day, Glover took me to the same place:—but it turned out to be no spot to linger in:—a medley of unhealthily new shell-holes, under full view of the Germans. Certainly a good place for pheasants: but imagine what correspondence and courts-martial there would be if a casualty took place under such circumstances, and it became known!

I have now put that locality out of bounds, pheasants or no pheasants.

The Chaplain came up and said Mass for the men this morning. I was prevented from going at the last moment by the Divisional Commander’s visit, but it must have been an impressive sight. . The men manning the fire-trench of course could not attend, but it was not a case of driving the rest;—rather indeed of keeping them away. The intensity of their religion is something quite remarkable, and I had under-estimated it.

The service was held in the open—not more than 500 yards from the German line, in a depression in the ground
below the skeleton buildings known as Shamus Farm. Though the place is concealed from the enemy by an intervening ridge, promiscuous bits do come over, and I debated within my mind for some time whether to allow it. In the end, expecting perhaps a hundred men, I consented. But though, like most soldiers, and many others, they will shirk fatigues if they get the chance, these men will not shirk what they consider to be their religious duties, and about 300 turned up.

However, with the exception of a German shrapnel which burst harmlessly about a hundred yards away during the service, all went well…

In the evening I went round and wished the men—scarcely a Merry Christmas, but good luck in the New Year, and may they never have to spend another Christmas in the front line! This meant much repetition on my part, passing from one fire-bay to another, but I was amply rewarded. It is a treat to hear these men open out, and their manners are always perfect…

They are all going to have their Christmas dinner on the 30th, after we get out.[1]

 

From Edmund Blunden, whose battalion is in reserve rather than the front line, we get two accounts of the day’s festivities. The first, from a letter to his mother, radiates bluff good cheer:

We had Church on Christmas morning and dealt with the usual hymns in the best style. The Swains’ Vigil, or While Shepherds Watched, was favourably received–especially at the back part of the room. After prayers we had supper for the rest of the day–truly Gargantuan scenes were witnessed.[2]

And the second, worked over for memoir, well… it has basically the same facts and much the same spirit:

To our pleasure, we were back in a camp in the woods by Elverdinghe to celebrate Christmas. The snow was crystal-clean, the trees filigreed and golden. It was a place that retained its boorish loneliness though hundreds were there: it had the suggestion of Teniers. Harrison’s Christmas was appreciated by his followers perhaps more than by himself. He held a Church Parade and, while officiating, reading a Lesson or so, was interrupted by the band, which somehow mistook its cue. The Colonel is thought to have said: “Hold your b——- noise ” on this contretemps, which did not damp the ardour of the congregation, especially the back part of the room, as they thundered out “While Shepherds Watched.” After prayers we had supper for the rest of the day, and the Colonel visited all the men at their Christmas dinner. At each hut he was required by tradition to perfect the joy of his stalwarts by drinking some specially and cunningly provided liquid, varying with each company, and “in a mug.” He got round, but it was almost as much as intrepidity could accomplish.[3]

 

Neither of these witnesses has much to say about the food, good or bad. But in fiction, as in our recent reports from the home front, it remains a prominent theme.

In Richard Aldington‘s absolutely-no-spoilers-in-the-title novel, the protagonist, Winterbourne, has just reached France–in lockstep with his creator, as often happens in these first-war-novels. It will be hard to track Winterbourne’s progress once he (and Aldington) begin the enlisted man’s slog in and out of the line, in which days and dates are rarely remembered. But today, well…

They passed Christmas Day at the Base. The English newspapers, which they easily obtained a day or two late, were filled with glowing accounts of the efforts and expense made to give the troops a real hearty Christmas dinner. The men had looked forward to this. They ate their meals in huts which were decorated with holly for the occasion. The Christmas dinner turned out to be stewed bully beef and about two square inches of cold Christmas pudding per man. The other men in Winterbourne’s tent were furious. Their perpetual grumbling annoyed him and he attacked them:

‘Why fuss so much over a little charity? Why let them salve their consciences so easily? In any case, they probably meant well. Can’t you see that drafts at the Base are nobody’s children? The stuff’s gone to the men in the line, who deserve it far more than we do. We haven’t done anything yet. Or it’s been embezzled. Anyway, what does it matter? You didn’t join the Army for a bit of pudding and a Christmas cracker, did you?’

They were silent, unable to understand his contempt. Of course, he was unjust. They were simply grown children, angry at being defrauded of a promised treat. They could not understand his deeper rage. Any more than they could have understood his emotion each night when ‘Last Post’ was blown. The bugler was an artist and produced the most wonderful effect of melancholy as he blew the call–which in the Army serves for sleep and death–over the immense silent camp. Forty thousand men lying down to sleep–and in six months how many would be alive? The bugler seemed to know it, and prolonged the shrill, melancholy notes–‘last post! last post!’–with an extraordinary effect of pathos. ‘Last post! Last post!’ Winterbourne listened for it each night. Sometimes the melancholy was almost soothing, sometimes it was intolerable…[4]

 

Speaking of fictional protagonists, Phillip Maddison is back in France. While his alter ego, Henry Williamson, remains in England, Phillip’s training as a transport officer with a Machine Gun Company (supplying this quintessentially 20th-century weapon with ammunition requires a great deal of timeless expertise with mules) has been completed, and he was in the line on the Ancre by mid-December. Williamson then writes up this fete:

The company came out of the line on Christmas Eve, reaching Colincamps in the small hours of Christmas Day. There had been talk of an extra special Christmas dinner for the men; really good rations were to be issued this year, said the A.S.C., with a surprise for each man. The good ration turned out to be frozen pork and dried vegetables. These, boiled up together, were followed by a small slice of gritty Christmas pudding, and then the surprise–a ration cracker bonbon for each man, containing a paper cap.

Thus 1916 closes, at least in this novel–cold, gritty, and mean. (Aldington would do the same, but his story is too close to the beginning. There is innocence yet, with Winterbourne utterly acquainted with the line and therefore still amenable to romantic notions such as melancholy, or the indulgent belief that his “deeper” rage is really any different from that of his less sensitive comrades…)

But Williamson rarely misses a chance for symbolic site-citing, so Phillip Maddison takes one more ride on the Somme front.

In the afternoon Phillip rode down to Albert. The leaning Virgin upon the Campanile of the ruined red-brick basilica brought many memories… and helped him to see life clearly against a background of death. But O, how lonely was life after all…

It goes downhill from here. (Metaphorically. If the ground sloped down east of Albert things would have gone differently.) Phillip rides out to the Old Front Line of July 1st (when he was wounded–in reality, Williamson missed the battle of the Somme) and then heads up Mash Valley, amongst the relics.

A brass buckle; fragment of leather; skull with curls matted upon it… everywhere the dead merged with the ground… he was lost, helplessly, in chalky waste… Was this litter of burst and broken sandbags, collapsed and spilled, the trench where he had clambered out on that summer morning? This the wicker pigeon cage carried by Pimm, lying near a scatter of ribs, and, immediately by the handle, a cluster of tiny white finger and knuckle bones? … Was that his pelvis bone, in which three small coins, a franc and two 10-centime pieces, had been embedded by the shell explosion?. He felt the scar in his buttock tingling as he stood beside what was left of Pimm; and closing his eyes, gave the emptiness of himself to prayer…

Anguish rose in him… His mother’s face came to him, while he thought that the spirit of a million unhappy homes and found its final devastation in this land of the loveless. He went back the way he had come…[5]

 

Rarely does Henry Williamson fall into line with Rudyard Kipling. And yet today they are almost of a mood. Kipling, in his role as Official Chronicler of the Second Battalion Irish Guards, reports on the Christmas festivities with the grim frankness of an old soldier rather than the lofty perspective of a Bard of Empire.

Whether this was the vilest of all their War Christmases for the Battalion is an open question. There was nothing to do except put out chilly wire and carry stuff. A couple of men were killed that day and one wounded by shells, and another laying sand-bags round the shaft of a dug-out tripped on a telephone wire, fell down the shaft and broke his neck. Accidents in the front line always carry more weight than any three legitimate casualties, for the absurd, but quite comprehensible, reason that they might have happened in civilian life — are outrages, as it were, by the Domestic Fates instead of by the God of War.

This would be a decidedly unmiraculous Christmas, then. But the peripatetic following paragraph goes a long way toward recovering the diversity of experience of even one day on one sector of the front.

The growing quiet on the sector for days past had led people to expect attempts at fraternization on Christmas. Two “short but very severe bombardments ” by our Artillery on Christmas morning cauterized that idea; but a Hun officer, with the methodical stupidity of his breed, needs must choose the top of his own front-line parapet on Christmas Day whence to sketch our trench, thus combining religious principles with reconnaissance, and — a single stiff figure exposed from head to foot — was shot. So passed Christmas of ’16 for the 2nd Battalion of the Irish Guards. It had opened with Captain Young of No. 1 Company finding, when he woke in his dug-out, “a stocking stuffed with sweets and the like, a present from the N.C.O.’s and the men of his Company.”[6]

 

Back in London, another novelist of combat, Frederic Manning, is going in the opposite direction as Aldington. Like his protagonist, Bourne, he is a lance-corporal who has been recommended for a commission. Unlike Bourne, he is alive; he is also concealing a checkered past, including a blown first chance at a commission.

On Christmas day 1916 Manning, now a lance corporal, arrived in London on leave. He had applied for a commission in November and was awaiting orders to go to an Officers Cadet Battalion. It was in this application that he had altered his age and his religion. He also stated that he had “now outgrown the asthma” which had afflicted him as a youth. This too was untrue…  Included in Manning’s application was an affidavit from his mother agreeing to the false birth date and stating (wrongly) that “although my son was born in Australia he has been living in England for the past 18 years’’…

But he’s an educated man, who finished a long stint as a private and corporal without dishonor. An officer he will be…[7]

 

Penultimately, we have a letter from David Jones, who will become the author of the formidable In Parenthesis but has not yet found anything like that complex, intense, bewildering voice. Looking back on 1916, he is at once a veteran infantryman, with a wound and Mametz Wood behind him, and a very young man writing a self-consciously old-soldiery letter (to his vicar, although it will later be edited by his father and published).

This Christmas 1916 completed my first year of ‘life in Flanders’. A year ago I was just beginning to enter into the full realization of what war means to the ‘foot-slogger’–the common-place private of the infantry of the Line. The beginning of 1916 was, I think, a time of hope and looking forward to all of us, military and civil–both in Flanders and Britain. We all talked with great confidence and enthusiasm of the ‘Great Push’. We thought, at least most of us, that most likely 1916 would see the triumph of the Entente over the war lords of Odin. I remember quite well sitting in a very wet and particularly bad trench in the noted Richebourg sector with a chum. We were both very cold and very wet; our rations, such as they were, had unfortunately been dropped into the mud in the communication trench, so that, on the whole, the situation was far from what the official report would call ‘satisfactory’. After reviewing the situation with as much philosophy and as little pessimism as was possible, we both decided that the war could not possibly last another winter…

Ah, but are we downhearted?

Nearly a year has rolled by… although the Bosch [sic] is very far from being completely smashed, we have shown him in every way that he is, as a Tommy would say, ‘up against it’…

Jones then wanders into descriptions of behind-the-lines life, going for the comfortable genre-painting picture (see Blunden’s reference to Teniers, above) of British bonhomie in snug billets… it is almost as if he has forgotten the worst. But he hasn’t… he’s just not that writer yet…

Well of course one could go on writing for ever about life out here, but I think I must really finish here for the present. Give my kindest regards to everybody whom I know. Like yourselves at home, we have to live in hope that 1917 may see the end of the struggle–but of course to discuss the ‘duration of the war’ is worse than futile. So au revoir.

Yours very sincerely,

David Jones[8]

 

Rarely is there a good opportunity to get a child’s perspective on the war. But today we have the memories of Myfanwy Thomas–“Baba,” to friends and family–written down long after. Baba is six, this Christmas, the morning after her father, Edward Thomas, unexpectedly came home.

An almost unbearable suspense and excitement–should I ever get to sleep that Christmas Eve? Because if Father Christmas found me awake, there would be an empty stocking. Sleep must have come, for I awoke in the white darkness of the early morning and crept from the cosy warmth to the foot of the bed to feel the glorious bulging stocking hanging there, with a trumpet lolling over the top. Daddy was already downstairs, greatcoat over pyjamas, brewing tea; and when he carried up the tray of steaming cups, Bronwen, Merfyn and I all squeezed into their big bed to open our treasures. Stockings never had the proper presents in them, but exciting little oddments, all done up in crisp tissue paper, a painting book, crayons, bags of sweets, white sugar mice with pink eyes and string tails, a Russian lady of bright painted wood, containing a smaller and she a smaller still until there were five Russian ladies and one tiny Russian baby at the end…  Merfyn’s stocking had… a mouth organ. Besides the mouth organ was an assortment of BDV cigarettes with their beautiful silk ‘cards’, shaving soap, a comb for his springy-curls, which I so much envied and loved to brush, and to see the curls spring back again. Bronwen’s stocking had delicious grownup things like tiny bottles of scent, emery boards for her nails, sketch pad and Venus pencils, hair ribbons and lacey hankie. This year Merfyn immediately played ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ and ‘When Irish eyes are smiling’. I still had a doll’s tiny feeding bottle to unwrap, and a grey clockwork mouse which Daddy wound up. Mother, and we girls obligingly screamed as it scurried over the floor. Second cups of tea were brought and then we dressed hurriedly and ate a quick breakfast, for there on chairs and stools were our five piles of ‘proper’ presents in their brown paper or Christmas wrappings. Mother had dressed me a doll and had made several outfits, including a schoolgirl’s with gym tunic, white blouse and tie. I hastily admired the tiny trousseau, undid the buttons and fastenings, and dressed the doll in an old baby dress of mine. Wrapping her up in a grubby shawl, I tucked her up in the doll’s bed which I found inside another parcel.

In a huge parcel of presents beautifully wrapped in pretty paper and with tinselled ribbon, Eleanor Farjeon had sent Edward a large box of crystallized fruits, for he had an insatiable sweet tooth; but alas, they all–pears, apricots, greengages and cherries–tasted strongly of varnish…  Bronwen crouched over the fire, crunching nuts and reading Girl of the Limberlost. While I was helping Mother to lay the tea in the kitchen, with crackers by each plate, there was a sudden quiet in the little parlour and when it was time to call the others to tea, there was a Christmas tree, its coloured candles lit, and decorated with the most wonderful things I had ever seen: tinsel and spun glass ornaments glittering in the candle-light, and at the top a beautiful fairy, sparkling and smiling and waving her wand. What a Christmas! Never before had I seen a Christmas tree. Merfyn had dug it up from the forest some days before, and it had been carefully hidden in the wood-shed.

After I had been allowed to blow out the red, green and white stubs of the candles, and the lamp was lit in the sitting room, the fire made up with wood collected from the forest, the family contentedly reading, crunching nuts or peeling oranges…  Mother read me several poems from The Golden Staircase, the fat anthology given to me by my father; and then I sat on his knee while he sang my favourite Welsh song, ‘Gweneth gwyn’, and romping ones he had sung in camp and which were easy to learn. Now I stood on a chair by the window, the curtains not yet drawn, feeling the magic of Christmas, my father’s large, strong hand on my shoulder, looking out into the white, still forest, straining with my short-sighted eyes behind the small spectacles, hoping to see perhaps the deer with antlered heads and pricked ears, and whispering ‘Shall we see any? Are they out there? Are they cold and frightened? I wish I could see some,’ or even just one. ’ The cosy lamplight, the rising flames of the fire, my father’s hand: safe, warm and content…[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 136-9.
  2. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 69.
  3. Undertones of War, 132.
  4. Death of a Hero, 236-7.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 103-4.
  6. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 108-9.
  7. Marwil, Frederic Manning, 177; see also Coleman, The Last Exquisite, 126.
  8. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 141-4.
  9. Under Storm's Wing, 292-5.

Christmas Eve: Miraculous Assemblies for Edward Thomas and C. K. Scott Moncrieff; Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, the Profiteers and the Poet(s); Julian Barnes for Evermore; Edwin Dyett’s Self-Justification

This was a difficult post to write–and in the end it remains a hodge-podge. There’s incipient brutality, here, and kindness; lightly-penned nastiness and Dickens-worthy tear-jerking; the worst of bureaucratic logic distorted under the pressure of warfare, and much casual use of the M-word. It may be a difficult read, but it’s a fortuitous reminder of the great breadth and depth of Great War writing.

 

In this next year I’ll be taking up–whenever I can–Pat Barker’s Regeneration. This book (which became the first novel in the “Regeneration trilogy”) is the most germane–and the most moving–of all “historical” fiction about the war. There are other good novels set during the war but written long after–“good” in terms of both their literary merits and their close attention to the textures of this oh-so-well-written war. But there are none that address its poets’ experiences so directly, and then, as a “composite” (i.e. fictional) character comes to the fore, none that more powerfully evoke the psychological damage of service in the trenches…

But of the short stories of the Great War I can’t pretend to know much. I’ve only read a few, and the most affecting by far is Julian Barnes’s “Evermore.”[1] “Evermore” is a survivor’s story, set after the war amidst the familiar battlefields that will become familiar again to hundreds of thousands of Britons as places of pilgrimage. It’s a terribly sad story. And it begins with a triple talisman–three Field Postcards, those flimsy icons of the limitations of communication in wartime, of the bureaucratic impediments lining the edge of the Experiential Gulf–sent from a brother to a sister. She’s the protagonist of the story, and he is the absence at its center. Today, a century back, he sent the first of what will be his last three postcards.

 

Robert Graves can’t help but put Christmas Eve to use in one of the disillusioned infantryman’s favorite pastimes, namely pointing out the way in which knowledge of the trenches throws some of the ironies of private life into high relief. Food shortages have begun to hit Britain as many ships have been sunk by U-boats, and rationing is in effect. Several of our writers, eating lousy food at the front, have inquired if it is true that their loved ones are eating badly at home (I may have omitted all of these inquiries, but trust me!). And they probably are feeling the pinch–but, unless they were already poor or hard-pressed, then only to a very limited extent. This is the beginning of rationing, and Total War has yet to make a real dent in the Class System. Shortages have begun–at the bottom.

But the war had not reached the links. The leading Liverpool businessman were members of the club, [the Formby Golf Club] and did not mean to go short while there was any food at all coming in at the docks. Siegfried and I went to the club-house for lunch on the day before Christmas, and found a cold buffet in the club dining-room, offering hams, barons of beef, jellied tongues, cold roast turkey and chicken. A large, meaty-faced waiter presided. Siegfried asked him sarcastically: ‘Is this all? There doesn’t seem to be quite such a good spread as in previous years.’ The waiter blushed…[2]

Which is a great anecdote, but, as so often with Graves, more than a little off. As Siegfried Sassoon told us–and as Graves’s family records corroborate–Graves was already on leave, and will spend today and the next few days at home in Wimbledon. This anecdote, either moved intentionally for greater ironic effect (where’s the Liverpudlian Tiny Tim at the windows, Robbie?) or dragged Christmas-ward by the mnemonic centripetence of major fixed-date holidays, surely belongs a little earlier in the month, at one of Sassoon’s “several expensive gorges at the Adelphi.”

Sassoon, writing a contemporaneous diary rather than an aimed-for-controversy memoir, can be better trusted to reflect the actual feelings (and events) of these days–and when he writes up those “gorges” it is with little self-loathing and less concern for the potential suffering caused among British families by actual food shortages. For Sassoon the spread at the Adelphi–despite his ability, as a convalescent officer, on garrison duty, with a private income, to indulge in it–is a symbol of the affront that businessmen who are profiting from the war present to the pure brotherhood of combat soldiers.

And when Sassoon does write “his” memoirs, he will skip Christmas entirely–diary and memoir alike will be largely given over to the report from one of his wounded friends of the near-destruction of his old battalion in the September fighting. Which prompt these reflections.

Christmas Eve

I have been wondering whether I shall be any better off through going to the War again next year. Of course I’ve got to go—I never doubted that; but if I’m there another eight months, and come back safely wounded (!) shall I have anything more to say about it all, or shall I be more bitter, and unbalanced and callous? Not much use enquiring. It will be good fun in its way; and reading Sorley‘s letters has given me a cheer-up. He was so ready for all emergencies, so ready to accept the ‘damnable circumstance of death,’—or life. Out at Formby today[3] there was sunlight on the sandhills and low fir-trees, and the glory of clean air…

Things fall into place. A year and a day after the death of Roland Leighton, we have occasion to remember Charles Sorley, another of 1915’s most grievous literary losses. But Sorley was not one for bloody thoughts, or golf, and his remarkable calm in the face of foolishness and misplaced hatred–even when they demanded his likely death–is nothing like the “Mad Jack” mood that seems to be waxing in Sassoon again, but coldly, this winter. I’m not sure that Sassoon has yet got a good handle on Sorley’s influence, but it is there…

…and then the immediacy of the diary takes over once again. Here’s a strange encounter (to which we should attach no undue importance):

A sensible sort of man came into the huts after dinner, Owen of the one leg, a Ceylon planter who got hit before he’d seen the Dardanelles two days. He asked me why there are no women in my verse. I told him they are outside my philosophy…[4]

 

Yes, it’s Christmas Eve. Did that contribute to Edwin Dyett’s hopeful, “ill-judged belief” that he might be spared a court martial? He wrote to a friend today, a century back, with his own version of the events of November 13th and 14th:

I was surplus, and sent off at five minutes’ notice… after a lot of trouble… we proceeded toward Boche overland. There was considerable hostile artillery, gas shells and tear shells falling all round us, and snipers were all over the place; we had very narrow shaves more than once. We could not find our units and rambled about.

When it was dark… there was much confusion and disorder going on, and my nerves became strung up to the highest extreme. I found that my companion had gone off somewhere with some men. The officer who was leading the party we met was my ‘one and only enemy’, so were were not polite to each other… I got lost for the second time. I found an NCO of the old A Company–we rambled about until he fell down for want of sleep, but I managed to get him along. Later my voice was recognized by some more men of the A Company who were lost… My nerves were completely gone and my head was singing.

Dyett spends the night in a “funk hole” allegedly caring for the exhausted NCO–but his “enemy” sends a message reporting him as failing to report. Neither he nor these men of A Company turned up in the front line, and Dyett missed the battle entirely, with nearly two days unaccounted for. That he twice writes that he “rambled” while he was supposed to be carrying out an independent assignment, during a battle, is not precisely damning, but it’s not good, either. And his fellow officers were not inclined to see his “nerves” as an excuse. Dyett was arrested shortly after returning to his unit; his trial is scheduled for Boxing Day.[5]

 

In happier circumstances, Charles Scott Moncrieff, once again fit for service, had been assigned to a camp on the outskirts of Edinburgh, quite near his family. After meeting them “at his mother’s club” he decided to make provision for the Roman Catholics in the camp–there seems to have only been an Episcopal chaplain, and if Britain, at the beginning of the war was still a place of 19th-century prejudice, that would have included, especially in Scotland, an intolerance of Catholicism. So it was that at midnight, tonight, Scott Moncrieff found himself leading a procession of some 200 Catholic soldiers to midnight mass. He would write that “it was wonderful, so many turning up… it seemed almost a miracle.”[6]

 

Speaking of, er, Christmas miracles (an idea less hackneyed, perhaps, a century back, then today, and surely even more necessary) we have a fragment of memoir from Edward Thomas‘s wife, Helen. At last report, Edward definitely wasn’t coming home. And money is tight, and there are three kids to be satisfied, in a cold and inconvenient and inaccessible house.

‘Christmas must be prepared for, however,’ I thought, and I became busy with cakes and puddings and what I could afford of Christmas fare, which was little enough. The children with me planned the box I should pack for Edward, with something of everything, including crackers and sweets, and they began to make their presents for him. Into these preparations which before had always gone with such happy zest the same feeling of unreality entered and my eagerness was assumed for the sake of the children. But they too found it difficult to anticipate with joy a Christmas so strange, and the activities fell flat. Outside circumstances mattered as never before–our poverty, the severity of the weather, the dreariness of the house–and over us all an, indefinable shadow fell.

But a miracle happened. Suddenly this Christmas of all Christmasses became the most joyous; the snow-bound forest sparkled like Aladdin’s Cave; the house was transformed into a festive bower of holly and ivy and fir boughs, and our listlessness was changed into animated happiness and excitement. Edward after all was coming home for Christmas!

The letter telling me this arrived by the first post along with one in a strange hand which I opened first, little suspecting what news Edward’s’ contained. Inside this letter was a cheque for £20 made out to me and signed by the name of a writer of distinction whom I did not know.[7] I stared and stared, and fumbling in the envelope for some explanation found a note from Eleanor telling me that she had been asked to forward this to me as a gift from a private fund. What could I not do with £20! I had never had so much in my life. But oh, if only Edward had been coming home!

Seeing his letter, which in my bewilderment I had forgotten, I read only the first words: ‘My dearest, my draft leave will include Christmas after all!’ I raced upstairs to the sleeping children. ‘Wake up, wake up! Daddy is coming home for Christmas. He’s corning home. He’ll be here tomorrow, and I’ve got £20 to spend, and we’ll all have the most wonderful presents; and oh, he’s coming home.’ Half-crying and half-laughing I lifted the children out of bed, and we danced in a ring and sang ‘He’s coming home for Christmas’ to the tune of ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’.

How we worked that day to get all ready! I snatched a couple of hours to go to London and do the shopping. I bought for Edward the best Jaeger sleeping-bag and thick gauntlet gloves and a volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and for the children a real magic lantern with moving slides, and a special present for each one. I brought fruit and sweets and luxuries we had never tasted before, and wine as well. A frock of Edward’s favourite red was my present to myself, and secretly for Myfanwy the children and I dug a little Christmas tree out of the garden and loaded it with toys and trinkets, and candles ready to light…

‘Hark, what’s that! Let’s go to the door and listen.’

But no sound came from the windless snow-laden forest. ‘I wonder if I ever shall see a real Christmas-tree like the
one Bronwen told me about that she had at school with toys and candles, ’ said Myfanwy with a sigh, reminded of the subject by rows of fir trees still growing in the nursery garden.

‘Oh my darling, you shall have everything you ever dreamt of this Christmas.’ And I catch her up in my arms, and she throws her arms round my neck. .While I stand thus the air is cut with Edward’s clear voice calling the old familiar coo-ee; then the sound of voices; then of heavy snow-clogged footsteps; then Edward at the door. He is here. He is home.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Available in the Penguin Book of First World War Stories.
  2. Good-Bye to All That, 234.
  3. Yes, but Graves has already gone on leave...
  4. Diaries, 104-5.
  5. Death for Desertion, 52-53.
  6. Findlay, Chasing Lost Time, 123-4.
  7. Eleanor Farjeon (Edward Thomas... 235) explains her good offices: "Then the small miracle happened...  Within a few days of the 25th I saw Viola Meynell, between whom and myself nothing remained unspoken. Before I left her Wilfrid Meynell came to me, and said in his kindest voice, ‘A friend who prefers to remain anonymous allows me at this time of year to administer a little fund for writers to whom it may be useful. I believe Mrs. Thomas has special expenses just now, and I would like you to undertake to send her this, if you think she will not mind.’ ‘This’ was a cheque for twenty pounds. I sent it joyfully, with Wilfrid’s message..."
  8. Under Storm's Wing, 164-66.

Vera Brittain and the Two Musketeers: Stars for Roland Leighton; A Fable and an Argument from Olaf Stapledon

This is one of those days on which the literary coincidences are somewhat uncanny. Our most ardent lover, these days, is Olaf Stapledon, the dreamy pacifist ambulance driver whose pen can turn anything–even found fairy tales–into love letters, full of the promise that as soon as this little annoyance of the war is out of the way, he and Agnes will begin a long and wonderful life together. So first, today, Olaf’s letter to his love-across-the-world; then Vera’s anniversary of crushing loss.

SSA 13
23 December 1916

Agnes,

There is an old, old, very old woman who lives near us and goes out into the forest to gather sticks. Sometimes she goes by herself, sometimes a little girl goes with her. Many times a day the old woman passes the place where we keep our cars, and each time that she is coming back with her load she is bent so low that her face is on a level with her hips and it is only with difficulty that she can raise her eyes to see before her. Her steps are very slow and unsteady, and her burden is always so unwieldy that the mere swinging of it nearly upsets her. She carries it in a curious way over one hip, so that her whole body is twisted like the face of a flat-fish. As she is passing one sees her ancient face, withered and very placid. Because of her very great stoop no one ever sees her face full, but only in profile. She never looks at anyone, but goes plodding on with her eyes to the ground. When she has passed one looks after her and sees her as a great moving bush of twigs and branches, with one mighty gnarled hand spread queerly over the waist of her bundle, holding it to her back. The girl also carries a bundle, but her going is in swift staggering stages, each followed by a long rest while the old woman comes up and passes her with never a pause. The girl is fresh to look at–fair-haired, blue-eyed. The labour is irksome to her. She looks round for things of interest, jerks her bundle into a more comfortable position and at last drops it with a sigh, her whole body stretching with the relief of the sudden freedom. But the old woman creeps on as steadily as the hand of a clock, and almost as imperceptibly. She wears a funny old dirty white sunbonnet, and on her feet wooden shoes that look loose. One expects them to clatter on her bony ankles. There is something weird about her. She is like a witch, but too serene.  She is like some ancient woman in an ancient myth. There is something classic about her, something inevitable, and a divine calm. She has none of the childlike joy of the old woman in the picture “Words of Comfort.’’ She is too wise to accept comfort. She has found out the world and she has no more dreams about it, nor about any other world. Yet she is not sad, still less bitter. She has seen the vanity of life; but she seems strangely content, as if all the while she held some great and solemn secret that was deeper than the vain world of pain-dreaders and joy-desirers, of little self-seekers and inflated idealists. I thought at first that she was like old, bent France, carrying load after load of sticks to the fire of war. But now I think she is the Wise Woman who takes whatever she chooses from the forest that is mankind to keep alight her magic hearth fire. And what purpose she has, and what good or evil potions she brews in her cauldron, no man knows, but only she. . . .

Last night as I was going to bed (first time), there was a great discussion. Picture: a dark but starry night, a line of cars in a forest glade, one car a tourer with hood up, and in it arranging his rugs and strapping himself in by the light of a little petrol lamp, Olaf; outside, prowling round the car. Big Smell [Routh Smeal], sometimes poking his head in, the better to talk, sometimes listening and watching the stars. The discussion was the usual that takes place between us. The gist of it was, on Smeal’s part, “Nothing is any good really. There’s no point about living. What is the object of it all? Goodness? Beauty? What are they for? What are they?” And on my part, “Why, Good Heavens, man alive, you seem to forget that you can’t get right to the bottom by pure reason, simply because
reason is only a guide, and must begin on some initial feeling. You can’t explain the feeling. The world is very beautiful. Why? Good God, man, I don’t know why; but it just is. What more do you want? If you care for a person you don’t dissect the feeling & explain it all away and then say, ‘What’s the use of it?’ You just love, & act accordingly… after much talk and much fumbling with rugs on my part, and prowling about on his, he said slowly in his deep voice, “I think I see what you mean.” Then there was a long silence a stillness. Then he said, “Well, I’ll be going to bed.” Smeal is a seeker after reality. No fairy tales for him, no comfortable self deceptions. And what he thinks, he lives. He thinks cynically, so he talks & acts cynically. But he wants to grasp some more worthy truth…

Bed time now. Perhaps there will be a letter from you tomorrow. Christmas Eve, or on the day itself. It won’t be Christmas without a letter from you. One more Christmas with the globe between us, but this will be the last, I do hope.[1]

 

A year ago–and a century back–Roland Leighton, after being shot while leading a patrol, died.

December 23rd

The anniversary of Roland’s death—and for me farewell to the best thing in my life. I am glad I am far from Keymer–far from London; I could not have borne the associations of either. And now I am in Malta, working hard to try & make other people happy for their Christmas in exile, & in so doing, happier than I have been for months. Yes, even on this foreign service I dreaded so much, on which I told Him I would go if He died. I wonder where He is–and if He is at all; I wonder if He sees me writing this now. It is absurd to say time makes one forget; I miss Him
as much now as ever I did. One recovers from the shock, just as one gradually would get used to managing with one’s left hand if one has lost one’s right, but one never gets over the loss, for one is never the same after it. I have got used to facing the long empty years ahead of me if I survive the war, but I have always before me the realisation of how empty they are and will be, since He will never be there again. One can only live through them as fully and as nobly as one can, and pray from the depths of one’s lonely heart that

Hand in hand, just as we used to do,
We two shall live our passionate poem through
On God’s serene to-morrow.[2]

It is not surprising that Vera Brittain would solemnly mark this anniversary. Nor that she would open her diary for the first time in a month and once again confront unresolved religious questions–and reaffirm that certain questions of eternal love and devotion very much resolved, not least by quoting a fragment of verse by Roland that had served as a sort of shorthand representation of their love. But how–other than fulfilling her promise to see dangerous and difficult service of her own–she will fulfill the vow to live “as fully and as nobly as one can” is something of an open question.

And if anyone would question whether we can really take the measure of a man from his fiancée’s profession of loss, there are also resounding ratifications from his friends. Both of the surviving “Three Musketeers” of Uppingham, though weighted with their own cares as young infantry officers, remembered the date and wrote to Vera about it–and one even addressed the same question with the very same quotation.

Edward Brittain Vera’s brother, will write:

Dearest, I know it is just a year, and you are thinking of Him and His terrible death, and of what might have been, even as I am too. This year has, I think, made him seem very far off but yet all the more unforgettable. His life was like a guiding star which left this firmament when he died and went to some other one where it still shines as brightly, but so far away. I know you will in a way live through last year’s tragedy again but may it bring still greater
hopes for ‘the last and brightest Easter day’ which you and I can barely conceive let alone understand, when

‘We too shall live our passionate poem through
On God’s serene to-morrow’.

How happy I would be to see you meet again!

 

And Victor Richardson will write to Vera a few days hence. The capitalization of Roland’s pronoun is common to all of their letters.

We came out of trenches on the anniversary of the day on which He was mortally wounded. That afternoon was the most glorious sunset I have seen out here. Only a coincidence of course, but it appealed to me. I have felt His loss more in the last three months than ever before. I feel that He would have been able to banish all my doubts and fears for the future.[3]

I don’t have Vera’s reply to Victor, but although she sometimes condescends when writing about him, I would imagine that she would approve of these sentiments. Roland is an inspiration, still, and despite Victor’s formal profession of skepticism–i.e. the notable sunset as “coincidence”–he joins fully in the ratification of Roland’s special status as their dearly departed but eternal leader.

Vera will receive her brother’s letter next week, and in writing back to him she will tell him about tonight. From France to Malta the sky tonight is numinous and significant, and Vera’s adherence to reason and skepticism–again, “just coincidence of course”–feels more tenuous even than Victor’s.

It seems rather curious that on the night of Dec. 23rd I was kneeling by my bed in the dark thinking about Him & that night last year when suddenly just before 11.0 at the very hour of His death the whole sky was suddenly lighted up & everything outside became queerly & startlingly visible. At first I thought it was just lightning, which is very frequent at night here, but when the light remained & did not flash away again I felt quite uncanny & afraid & hid my face in my hands for two or three minutes. When I looked up again the light had gone; I went to the window but could see nothing at all to account for the sudden brilliant glow.

A day or two after I heard that there had been a most extraordinary shooting-star which had lit up the whole sky for two or three minutes before it had fallen to earth. Shooting stars also are common here, or rather, there is so much less atmosphere between us & the stars than there is in England that we can see them much more clearly; but this was quite an extraordinary star; of course they never light up the sky like that one did. (Someone suggested it was the Star of Bethlehem fallen to earth because it could no longer shine in the dark horror of War.) Just coincidence of course, but strange from my point of view that it should have happened at that hour. I remember one day last winter how Clare pointed out to me a star, which shone very brightly among the others & said ‘Wouldn’t it be strange if that star were Roland’…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 193-6.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 336.
  3. Letter From a Lost Generation, 307.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 307-11.

Siegfried Sassoon and a Year Dying of Atrophy; Hermon’s Chugs and the Prayer for the Sentry; Tolkien Makes a Commitment; Edward Thomas Can’t Get Home for Christmas

We have four writers writing today, a century back. First–and at long last–Siegfried Sassoon has picked up his pen once more. His diary, dormant since August, now abruptly resumes:

December 22

Been at Litherland since December 4. Robert Graves went on leave to-day, and will be going to France quite soon. Haven’t been able to get a hunt with the Cheshire since December 9 owing to hard weather. An occasional round by myself at Formby and several expensive gorges at the Adelphi have been my only pleasures…

The only merit of this hut-life is that there are no women about. Plenty of fifth-rate officers—’Capel Sion Light Infantry’.

This is less a nasty complaint than a slur–Sassoon is referring to a couple of “savage” novels about Welsh peasants which had recently caused an outcry in Wales. Apparently the newer officers of the Royal Welch are not much to our Siegfried’s taste–but he has always been a snob. Also curious is the fact that Robert Graves does not appear on the links or at the Adelphi, but only on his way out once more…

I shall not go out till February unless I can’t help it. The long nights and cold weather are more than I can tackle. Last Christmas was at Montagne. Richardson, Edmund Dadd, Davies, Jackson, Pritchard, Thomas, Baynes, have been killed since then… I am more than twelve month’s older since then. 1916 has been a lucky year for me. This is a dreary drab flat place–smog and bleary sunsets and smoky munition-works at night with dotted lights and flares, and bugles blowing in the camp, and sirens hooting out on the Mersey mouth, and the intolerable boredom of Mess and not enough work to do, and people waiting their turn to go out again. No one is at his best here.

Did Siegfried sense a reader, just then, and muster a gesture at apology for his nastiness? Perhaps not, but he does now move toward a broader explanation of his mood:

And the men are mostly a poor lot—ill-trained truss-wearers, and wounded ones. The year is dying of atrophy as far as I am concerned, bed-fast in its December fogs. And the War is settling down on everyone—a hopeless, never-shifting burden. While newspapers and politicians yell and Brandish their arms, and the dead rot in their French graves, and the maimed hobble about the streets. And the Kaiser talks about Peace because he thinks he’s won.

I seem to be acquiring the reputation of a bon viveur—the result of melting fivers at the Adelphi. Some man said in Mess to-night: ‘These new regulations for food will tax your ingenuity in ordering a dinner!’ And the result is a disordered liver, and cynical poetry. I wrote a beastly thing about a butcher’s shop to-day. I don’t suppose it’s any good either. I wonder whether my boat will ever touch the shores of beauty again. Those garden-dawns seem a very long way off now. And nothing before me but red dawns flaring over Ypres and Bapaume. And people still say the War is splendid, damn their eyes. And the Army in France can contemplate a patched-up peace because it is so weary of the Ways of death.[1]

 

The December doldrums spread from the outskirts of Liverpool to Sassoon’s home territory of Kent. At “Tintown,” in Lydd, a new camp order of today, a century back, confirmed what Edward Thomas had feared–or, at least, expected. There would be no Christmas leave. In his letter informing his wife Helen he included a depressingly practical list of possible Christmas presents: an overcoat, “arctic socks,” a periscope, and a pocket sextant… At home in High Beech, Helen Thomas had been preparing for a Christmas without her husband for some weeks. At a party with her daughter, she only heard the words of his letter:

The sentence ‘And Helen, I can’t get home for Christmas’ thumped out a sort of tune in my head, and though with my ears I heard ‘How lovely Myfanwy looks,’ ‘How cleverly you have made the frock,’ I listened with all my being to ‘And Helen, I can’t get home for Christmas’.

Today’s news seemed to remove all hope that she would see her husband before he was sent to France.[2]

 

Edward “Robert” Hermon, more than two years into his war, also wrote to his wife today, a century back.

22nd December 1916–No 48 answering 55–Rue Marle

I went to bed last night feeling an awful worm & not at all pleased with the idea of having to take my Battalion some miles today to be reviewed by my late brother officer, in the most beastly cold wind. I liked it even less when the day was simply pouring with rain & I got all my knees wet en route.

However, the rain stopped soon after we got to the place of parade & it cheered up & the sun shone & was quite nice. D.H. recognized me alright and I rode along with him while he passed my Battalion & he was most complimentary & very pleased with their turnout.

So the former brother officer is none other than Haig himself, the commander of the B.E.F. But this positive review is the good news. Our bluff former regular and confident Battalion Commanding Officer is a far cry from Edward Thomas–but he too will be away from home for Christmas.

Dearie mine I very much doubt if I get home for some time now. Today they have put all C.O.s & staff officers on the ordinary leave roster, & not supernumerary to it as they used to be. The consequence is that I come a long way down the list now…

This bureaucratic change is actually quite significant. Either the army can no longer tolerate so many leaves for its staff officers and battalion commanders, or there is a growing awareness that when enlisted men get only a few days of leave in a year and subalterns perhaps two or three slightly longer leaves, the higher-ups can’t be jaunting home whenever convenient. It’s almost as if the army is adjusting to the realities of a long war of attrition in which maintaining the goodwill of a conscript army will be as much of a challenge as driving the Germans from France and Belgium…

Darling mine there’s a prayer in the little book I should like you to teach the kids. It’s one that starts about ‘the sentry on watch this night, those who command that they etc. There are a couple of lines in the middle that you might eliminate.

This would be the prayer in question:

O GOD, who never sleepest, and art never weary, have mercy upon those who watch to-night: on the sentry, that he may be alert; on those who command, that they may be strengthened with counsel; on the sick, that they may obtain sleep; on the wounded, that they may find ease; on the faint-hearted, that they may hope again; on the light-hearted, lest they forget Thee; on the dying, that they may find peace; on the sinful, that they may turn again. And save us, good Lord. Amen.

It would be the part about death, then, that Hermon would eliminate. I leave it to the reader, I suppose, to guess to what extent this request is a gesture of connection–a wishful thought from a father who is prevented by circumstance from, among many other things, seeing to his children’s religious education–and to what extent it is a hope for intercessory prayer.

I would love to think that the kids were saying it, or had said it when I go round the front lines at midnight & it appeals to me awfully as I see so much of the sentry & know what he has to go through… He wants all the help one can give him. Well my love, good night.[3]

But why parse such a letter? It is, even for the skeptical reader a century hence, a war-of-attrition-style Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude.

 

And yet all is fair in love and loss in war–especially in strictly calendrical projects arising therefrom. I would prefer to end on that sweet and uplifting note, but there’s one more letter to cover today, and not a hopeful one. Geoffrey Bache Smith‘s mother wrote to his close friend John Ronald Tolkien today, in response to his letter and “with details of her son’s last days.” And yet, if it ended there, we’d have less to read. Mrs. Smith also asked Tolkien for his help in seeing her son’s verses published, and “upon receipt of her letter, Tolkien replies at once.” And he will see the project through.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 104-5. I have not been able to figure out the "beastly thing about a butcher's shop--" perhaps he abandoned it.
  2. Hollis, Now All Roads, 307, which seems to place Helen's letter today; but the context of World Without End, 163 (whence the quote) puts it a few weeks ago, when Thomas was first at Lydd.
  3. For Love and Courage, 316-8.
  4. Chronology, 97.