Verey Lights on the Snow, Howitzers on the Ice, and Cold Snow Hours: Winter Wistfulness with Jack Martin, Dorothie Feilding, and Edward Thomas

I’ve dipped into Jack Martin‘s diary rather sparingly since introducing him early this month. It has largely been full of complaints that will be, by now, predictable: the cold, the discomfort, and the attentions of the German artillery. Although Martin does note that the latter has been lavished in “counter-battery” fire on the artillery behind rather than up near the line where his small unit of sappers is stationed–“For this we offer up thanks.”

Today, a century back, he gives us an update from the ranks on the conduct of the war:

31.1.17

Have had a little more snow. The ground is white everywhere and at night time it shows up a remarkable reflection from the Verey lights although they are four or five miles away in a straight line. The signs of the times seem to point towards increased activity on this front in the spring. A great deal of work is being done in this neighborhood in the way of dump-making and laying railway tracks… Of course, nobody knows what it all means–we can only guess.

Have had some lively arguments lately regarding the termination of the war. It is interesting to notice how desires form into opinions. Quite a number of the fellows reckon on March or April seeing the end. I laugh at them and say ‘1929’ but in serious argument I say that the war may last until 1920. So I am looked on as a miserable pessimist but despite all my hopes and desires I cannot imagine the war finishing this year. The people who are running the war are not doing any of the fighting![1]

 

This is both a prime mover of soldier’s gripes and an unavoidable truth. Next up is Dorothie Feilding, with another example of that mixed-message classic, the letter describing a bombardment. On the one hand, it emphasizes to the recipient that she, the writer, is near to deadly danger. On the other hand, this bombardment has, at least, passed by.

31st Jan 17

Well Ma–since you like ’em ‘often’ here’s another! Many thanks for your letters…

The most tremendous heavy firing last night & we were afraid it was the Boche making a stunt across the ice as the inundations are of course frozen. However they keep it broken every day with field guns enough to stop any serious advance over it. The noise turned out to be of the Belgians making however…

We had practically no casualties tho’ the noise was terrific, of course at night things always sound exaggerated & the flash of guns make everything light up. Hope Fritz was bored by the proceeding though I imagine he holds that part of the line as thinly as he possibly can, an old concierge every half mile or so & I bet they are wily old birds to get with an obus.

This, again, is not an original sort of joke, but it is uncommonly well done. One imagines that Lady Feilding would be charmingly condescending (in the Austenian sense) and a little flip upon discovering one of these shell-dodging, trench-holding concierges… but the humor distracts from the frightfulness.

I’ve just been talking to Mairi Chisholm whose farm is close by there & she says the old house was proper on the shake all night from the firing,so was no 14.

It’s awfully odd the way sound carries further inside a house… when there is heavy firing going on a long way away 30 miles or so you hear & feel it awfully plainly in the house. You then go outside to listen & you can hear nothing.

The vibration I suppose up the walls of the foundation in the ground.

Goodbye darling

Yr loving
Diddles[2]

 

Last and not least we have a letter from Edward Thomas to Eleanor Farjeon, his first to her from France. It elaborates on the most interesting aspect of his diary for today, a century back.

Wednesday 31. i. 17

Had to shift our lines in snow. 12 to a tent with 2 blankets each. Ankles bad. Nearly all water frozen in taps and basins. Mess crowded–some standing. Censoring letters about the crossing and the children and ailments etc. at home. Had to make a speech explaining that men need not be shy about writing familiar letters home…[3]

I’ve read a number of comments, from young officers, of the awkwardness of reading one’s men’s letters, but I can’t recall anyone else making a short speech about it in order to allay reservations. I know I make this point quite often, but it’s especially relevant here: Thomas can, perhaps, speak with some authority (or at least empathy) on the matter, since he too must write intimate letters to his family, while so many men in ordinary infantry units are having their letters home read by snobbish subalterns who may be teenagers and half their age.

Or is that worse? Thomas writes the same letters, but as an officer, he is not subject to regular censorship by someone he must see every day, and take orders from. He, who writes endearments to a wife and children, must promise that his reading of other men’s endearments will not be intrusive…

In any event, the letter to Farjeon:

My dear Eleanor I have time to write now, but if I had less time I should have more to write about. There is little to do and still less I can do, because of my ankles. Practically all I do is censoring letters. I try to rest my feet, but the place is extraordinarily uncomfortable and crowded. If I were able to get about I shouldn’t notice it, as there is a big town and harbour close by.

We await orders to go up country. The place is just a clearing house or junction, and all there is to do (besides completing our stores) is to go route marches. If we stay more than a day or 2 I am sure to run into somebody. Yesterday I met one old Artist I had known moderately well.

The worst of this hanging about is that everybody gets on ones nerves, or my nerves. They all worry me and I imagine I worry them, as they spend all the time possible out in the town and leave me to my own mercies.

So far all I have done when I have been alone in this little crowded room, is censoring letters and writing them, and sometimes looking at last month’s Sketch or so. I can’t read, I doubt even if I can write—I am practically certain I can’t, except a brief diary. I was interrupted by a boy going through a list of games and asking if I played any of them, which I didn’t.

I had better not go on with this negative news. Tea in —– cost me 2 frs; for I did take the train in yesterday and did my ankle no good by it.

The crossing was easy, and the departure and arrival beautiful and unforgettable. There were some cold slow hours to be passed and still are. I daresay what makes me not very cheerful is all the things to be seen and noticed and commented on and just undergone. I shall know more what I am seeing and feeling later on.

Confirmation of his hopes and intentions regarding his diary and letters… and a reminder that any really good poet is committed to honesty. Thomas strives, and doubts, and scours his own soul as often as possible.

We may move soon or late. We do not know. And I may not receive any letters till we have moved up into position. There is a notion that that position will be midway between the two I thought of. I can’t say more.

Tears doesn’t rhyme with care, does it? So I shan’t make it—but let me know when the verses begin to arrive.

This, cleverly enough, provides the answer key–by referencing his own verses, which Farjeon is now editing–to the above hinting about his location. It would be hard to miss the word-choice of “Harbour” as a reference to Le Havre–one of the only likely places of disembarkation, anyway. But the “Tears” bit tips off Farjeon that Thomas believes that his battery will be sent to Armentières. Sadly, even a much more obvious censor-evasion (obvious, and dubious, since he is spending hours of the same day censoring the men’s letters) in a letter to his wife Helen went unrecognized:

…he had written to Helen, ‘What do you think of “Armed Men in Tears” as the title of my next book?’ When we compared our letters Helen said, ‘I think it’s a very bad title, don’t you, Eleanor?’

A rare point scored from the ever-abnegating Eleanor on the ever-gentle Helen.

But back to the letter. Poor Eleanor: not only does she love him but come always second to his wife, but she also helps him incessantly and comes always second (of fifth, or tenth) to his greater poetic friend.

…I wonder would you make sure that the dedication

TO ROBERT FROST

doesn’t get left out.

I had your Goodbye just before I left. No more goodbyes now. I shall begin to look ahead perhaps, if I ever do look ahead again. Long it is since I did so. Yours ever

Edward Thomas[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 49-50.
  2. Lady Under Fire, 197-8.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 158.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 246-7.

Olaf Stapledon Frozen Stiff; Siegfried Sassoon All Over the Place; Edward Thomas Lands in France

Olaf Stapledon, king of the dreamers, ambulance driver of the milky way, ardent lover of the half-a-world-distant Agnes… is very cold.

Agnes,

Frost, frost frost! Day after day of it, bright, beautiful and bitter cold. Since I wrote last much has happened. We got a sudden order to trek, accompanied by a document ‘not to be opened until the hour of departure.’ Our journey was not a long one, but we took two days over it…

Olaf and the Friends Ambulance Unit have moved to Châlons-sur-Marne, in support of the French army. For the first time, I think, the conditions of service have brought his high-flying and free-floating writing down to the ground, with a dull thump. There is only one thing he can write about.

The journey was made difficult by the frost. Every possible thing froze up. Hot water froze as soon as it reached the ground. One’s fingers froze to everything… I believe the thermometer was not very far from zero Fahrenheit…

This place is quite a big town, very far from the front, but at the base of the greatest of the French salients. If we are stuck here doing evacuation work forever, we shall be very depressed; but if this is merely a stage on the way to this new and important front, all is well.

Meanwhile oh for an end of the frost! … This is not a letter, because everything is so higgledy piggledy and frozen up that one simply can’t write yet. You know, don’t you dear, that there’s nothing I would rather do than write to you all the day, but it is not possible now… Your mittens have had such hard wear that they are already in holes…[1]

 

Courage, Olaf. And what of Siegfried Sassoon, ever since he wryly described his willing-and-unavoidable submission to the coldly irritable mustache that sent him back to the non-metaphorical freeze of the front? We step back two days, and find ourselves gusted upwards on a wave of angry exaltation.

January 28

I have lived and dreamed so immune, since August, that without knowing it I had forgotten the significance of going out again, although the thought of it has passed in my head a thousand times but only as a shadow, not the real storming tumult of fiends and angels.

Now the wings of death are over me once more. And while my body cries out that they are a savage threat (cowering as a bird under the hawk’s shadow in the sun) something within me lifts adoring hands, something is filled with noble passion and desire for that benison and promise of freedom. And all the greatness that was mine last year shall be mine again; and what that happiness means, who shall say, or foretell the end and the sequel?

Now that is a mood that defeats history. It cannot represent–cannot belong to–a single day in the history of the war, but only, rather, to a day in the life of one man. Sassoon is not even our most passionate writer–although never our least passionate, and not the most even-keeled. Will the fires of passion soar? Or bank, or stoop upon some nearer target?

January 29

Went to a concert of chamber music in a restaurant… all very well played by Arthur Catterall and his men (the pianist R. J. Forbes)…

Or sputter. Modern war is no faithful friend of emotional fortitude. Who is built for the psychological jibs and jabs of a hurry-up-and-wait bureaucracy? But he did know it would take a few weeks…

And so to today, a century back, some equilibrium, obtained by his usual means–retrospection:

January 30

…Weather still dreary and harsh, looks like snow, very severe frost since January 22. Procter in here very elated as he’d been passed for General Service again. Having been wounded at the first Battle of Ypres in November 1914, at Gallipoli in November 1915, and gassed at Plug Street Wood in October 1916, one would think he’s had enough of General Service!

This time last year we’d just got up to Morlancourt for the first time. And two years ago I left Canterbury with my broken arm and got home for two months of writing nature-poems. And three years ago I was having my hunting stopped by a week’s frost, and wondering if life would ever be anything but utterly futile!

And now I’m sitting by a stove in a stuffy hut and reading a silly book by Arnold Bennett. And it don’t matter to him whether I like his book or not, or whether I’m dead by breakfast-time.[2]

 

And Edward Thomas is in France, at last. It’s been just a year since he wrote the poem that fixed his eyes on this day. “Roads” is now fulfilled, and all roads lead up to the guns. Thomas’s diary entry is spare, and confirms what we must hope: that he is intent on recording the sensory impressions of his experiences, grist for the powerful poetic mill he has built over the last two years.

Arrived Havre 4 a.m. Light of stars and windows of tall pale houses and electric arcs on quay. Marching through bales of cotton in sun to camp. The snow first emptying its castor of finest white. Tents. Mess full of subalterns censoring letters…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 201-2.
  2. Diaries, 127-9.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 158.

Edward Thomas Sails for France; Dorothie Feilding Laid Low by Winter at Last; Edmund Blunden Astonied at Ypres; D.H. Lawrence Repays in Kind; Richard Aldington: Pioneer, Bibliophile, Dreamer

We have the departure of Edward Thomas and updates from a new soldier and an increasingly experienced officer in France, today, a century back, but first, from Belgium, a post-script to Dorothie Feilding‘s winter’s tale of frigid woe. She is a past master of the letter-of-comically-deflated-complaint:

29th Jan 17
Mother dear–

My fingers are frozen absolutely stiff & I cannot write you a sparkling letter in consequence for I am much too cross.

All the canals here are frozen the most amazing thickness & I go sliding in the evenings when we come in, until the ends of my toes are all blistered.

I shall have to give over for a day or two. It annoys me when I slide 10 yds & sit down hard to see a tiny Flam in vast sabots slide some 500 yds all out.

Lots of love
DoDo[1]

 

Edward Thomas acquired his blisters in more conventional fashion, visiting his youngest child one last time, in borrowed shoes. Now his road leads straight to France, via Southampton and the Mona Queen.

Up at 5. Very cold. Off at 6.30, men marching in frosty dark to the station singing ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag’. The rotten song in the still dark brought one tear… Southampton at 9.30 and there had to wait till dusk, walking up and down, watching ice-scattered water, gulls and dark wood beyond, or London Scottish playing improvised Rugger, or men dancing to concertina, in a great shed between railway and water… sailed at 7… I’m in 2nd officer’s cabin with Capt. and Horton, the men outside laughing and joking and saying fucking… Remember the entirely serious and decorous writing in urinal whitewash–name, address, unit, and date of sailing. A tumbling crossing, but rested.[2]

“Remember–” so the diary as well as the letters will serve as an aide-memoire to future writing.

 

Edmund Blunden is an old soldier by now, but almost all of his service has been on the Somme. Today, a century back, was his first acquaintance with Ypres, the great ruined city (large medieval town, that is) of the northern part of the British sector.

The battalion, being relieved from Potijze breastworks, occupied various billets of less or more insecurity in Ypres. Though many cellars existed in the town, most of them were battered in and waterlogged, and the Ramparts were overcrowded. Our principal shelter was the Convent, now the husk of a building, but concealing a many-chambered underground lodging for a considerable number of men, who might parade for working or carrying parties in its courtyard; that cobbled yard will ever be to me the stage on which Maycock stands glaring at the round white moon, and shaking his fist at her, and crying: “It’s that bloody old witch — until she changes we’ll keep being frozen.” At one corner was the entrance to a garden the paths of which had been adorned by some patient enthusiasts of the autumn before with their regimental badges done in coloured glass; and passing that way, as one would do, one had the choice of admiring their workmanship, or the sweet simplicity of the pigeons curving and glinting round the Cathedral’s tattered tower, or the fact that the German gunners were shooting high explosive to burst in the air innocuously round that aiming-mark of theirs.

Over the sepulchral, catacombed city airplanes flew and fought in the cold winter sun. Sentries blew their whistles in warning from broken archways; the brass shell cases used for gas gongs gleamed with a meaning beside them; and all of a sudden flights of shells came sliding into the town. Few people were seen on the streets, and it is difficult to recall in realistic sensation one’s compulsory walks in Ypres. The flimsy red post office, a blue poster for Sunlight Zeep, a similar advertisement for Singer’s Naaimaschinen, the noble fragment of a gateway to St. Martin’s Cathedral, interior walls with paintings of swans on green ponds, the rusty mass of ironware belonging to some small factory with an undestroyed chimney, ancient church music nobly inscribed on noble parchment, wicker chairs in the roadway outside St. Jacques, a scaffolded white building in the Place (the relic of a soon disillusioned optimist), a pinnacle, a railing, a gilded ceiling — those details one received, but without vivacity. One set out to arrive at a destination in Ypres, and even in quiet times one was not quiet. As if by some fantastic dream, the flush and abundance of life and memorial and achievement, such as blend into the great spirit harmony of the cities in that part of Europe, stole suddenly and faintly over the mind; then departed. This city had been like St. Omer, like Amiens. How obvious, and how impossible![3]

 

Before we get to Richard Aldington, we observe an oblique crossing of paths. Not long ago, on the same day an accused coward was shot, an accused pacifist defended himself. Today, a century back, D.H. Lawrence wrote again to Eddie Marsh, central node of all literary favor-asking. And look whose poetry he compliments in the post-script…

Monday 29 Jan. 1917

Thank you very much for your note and the green form. I hope they will let us go away.

Have I showed any public pacifist activity? …At any rate I am not a pacifist.

I have come to the conclusion that mankind is not one web and fabric, with one common being. That veil is rent for me. I know that for those who make war, war is undeniably right, it is even their vindication of their being. I know also, that for me, war, at least this war, is utterly wrong, a ghastly and unthinkable falsity. And there it is. One’s old great belief in the oneness and wholeness of humanity is torn clean across, for ever…

Well, amen to that. But note the rather more limited place to which the broad statement leads:

So how should I be a pacifist? I can only feel that every man must fulfil his own activity, however contrary
and nullifying it may be to mine.

Duckworth refused the novel…

Aha. But Marsh has apparently provided with a form that may enable emigration. What does he get in return?

I am getting ready another book of poems. My last and best. Perhaps I shall never have another book of poems to publish: or at least, for many years. Would you like to see this MS., when I have done it? Then, if there should happen to be anything you would like for Georgian Poetry, ever, you can take it. . . .

If I go to America, and can make any money, I shall give you back what you lent me. I do not forget it.

D. H. Lawrence.

P.S. Don’t you think H.D.—Mrs. Aldington—writes some good poetry? I do—really very good.’[4]

She does. And what about the man who cheated on her not long after a miscarriage, but then generously suggested that his friend might procure for her while he was at the wars? Mr. Aldington writes again to F.S. Flint:

29′” January 1917

My good, (to be as French as we can!),

I have well receive [sic] your letter so fair and blackguardly… It’s no good! I need the fantasies of language of Huysmans & Rabelais to write well in a letter. I can’t handle the epistolary style in English somehow.

…Dear boy, oh for one hour in either of our dens, with books & wine & smokes and the talk half French, half English, rolling from the latest Parisian poetaster to Meleager & from Marinetti to Folgore da San Gemignano!

Apropos, H.D. has sent Bubb my translation of Folgore–the best Italian work I’ve done – as well as the Konallis poems. So with the Imagist anthology & a possible small collection of prose poems, 1917 won’t be altogether a blank for me. Every day in which one begins nothing, every year in which one publishes nothing, is lost! How I yearn for the dear, musty smell of old vellum & the crisp rustle–like unto banknotes, yet how much more precious!–of those unreadable Aldines I collected with such gusto…

When oh when this armed strife is o’er I shall retire to Rome for a season, grow hyacinths in my shrapnel helmet–which I intend to purchase or abduct as a “souveneet” [s/c]–and mess about in the Vatican library. Also wander about that city with H.D. whose gusto for antiquities fits in gloriously with mine. There is a little church on the Aventine, dedicated to Santa Sabina, where I hope to sit one whole morning & listen to the silence. It has some fine Byzantine mosaics if I remember rightly, but hang them! Can you imagine the pleasure of listening to the silence, while the sunlight runs over the worn flag stones? What a place to think in! Perhaps you will abandon respectability & a government job & come with me. There’s nothing like vagabondage, freedom, the arts, starving & feasting together as luck turns. Then life has a tang where it is now insipid. Then one can dream great things besides one’s best friend–you know whom I mean–& be content if the year ends with nothing done…

I don’t like Aldington–I’ve read a good deal of what he writes–and I haven’t hidden that, here. I could ding him, too, for putting on his Old Soldier airs (although, in fairness, he did much more of that in other recent letters; old soldiers don’t wax rhapsodic about old books) without realizing either that a true veteran of the trenches would be ashamed to think of buying a souvenir or that such a figure would never “abduct” but rather “win” it.

But never mind. That above paragraph is the best “après la guerre” daydream I’ve read since Graves hymned Sassoon. And Aldington is including his wife in the reverie–how nice. I wonder if the post script will explain why he talks of her so much more fondly in this letter than in letters previous…

But I should give him some impartial credit for high spirits, in a pioneer battalion, in winter. It’s clearly rooted in self-regard, but hey–morale is morale.

One’s art, looked at selfishly, is less important for what it produces for others, than for what it adds to one’s own life making things poignant & strange & beautiful where otherwise they would be “just ordinary.”

Never feel angry or grieved about me–a prophet is not without honour!–and whatever happens I have something
that cannot be destroyed. I had a talk with a fieldmouse in the trenches the other day–we got on splendidly! And there are hawks & crows & chaffinches & sparrows & owls & starlings & grey crows to look at & understand. They are so delightfully unorganised, such vagabonds! So you see I have found friends.

Au revoir, dear boy; forgive all this babble. But my mind is becoming vegetable through disuse.

Thine
R.

P.S. I’ve forgotten your address so must send this via H.D. Couldn’t send Almanac–against regulations. Send your
poem when finished.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 197.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 157-58.
  3. Undertones of War, 144-5.
  4. A Number of People, 232.
  5. Imagist Dialogues, 173-5.

Dorothie Feilding Dodges Mud, Ice, Bayonets, Creepy Circulars, and Haughty Belgians; Edward Thomas’s Last Pre-Embarkation Walk Becomes a Ride

Another writer neglected during this unseasonal (but welcoming) flowering of so many diaries and memoirs has been Dorothie Feilding. It’s past time to catch up with Lady Feilding, not least because her letters are almost unfailingly entertaining. It’s funny–I often implicitly align us, the readers, with the soldiers/nurses/ambulance personnel who write, as against the old fogies at home who can’t understand what they are going through (never mind that we’re nearly all, I would guess, more of a century-back age with the parents rather than the soldiers). And yet Dorothie Feilding writes, explicitly at times, to cheer up her mother, a woman who has lost a son and whose daughter, husband, and other sons are often in harm’s way. These letters are written, primarily, neither to record the war for history nor to make its experiences real to the reader, but to lighten the load of parental anxiety…

In any event, Lady Feilding was home for a long leave in December, and returned to Belgium on January 6th. By the 8th she was wallowing in mud, and several days later the mud was even worse, “Flanders in top winter form.”  While her friend  “Winkie” went home for her sister’s wedding and the letters from Lady Dorothie’s family were filled with details of hunts and parties she worked double shifts, running a charitable canteen when there was little ambulance-driving to do. But as always, her letters are full of amusing incident.

On the 17th, she ran into a modern-day Knight of the Cart:

Today I was asked to lend a comfy car to take a Belge officer to La Panne. When I suggested the ambulance I was told ‘oh but I don’t like to suggest his going in an ambulance–why, he belongs to the nobility.’

When I said the nobility had to do a lot of comic things these days & the sooner he realised it the better, I fear I was looked upon as unsympathetic!

The honor of the real aristocracy thus defended, the next day brought a chance for Lady Dorothie to exercise her wit in defense of her perhaps-not-outspoken but most-definitely-enacted feminism:

Mother darling–

I have just had a circular from General Booth, Salvation Army (perhaps you have heard of it? Yes? I continue) He is very keen on immigration to Canada as a job for superfluous women in England. He apparently considers I am one & is awfully bucked for me to go to Canada & ginger up the birth rate. Isn’t it sweet of him to take so much trouble over me? Shall I tell him to mind his own blinking business or shall I hustle off & get a ticket? Perhaps the latter cos then I could probably mail you a brace of twins bi-monthly to give you something to do at home, instead of wasting your time at the Denbigh Arms in the scandalous way you do…

The countess is, of course, running a hospital at home, rather than wasting her time.

Well, in for a penny’s worth of entertaining letters, in for a pound:

Yesterday going into N an apparently new sentry dashed out at the car, waved his bayonet excitedly & said to me ‘Êtes vous Mees Dorothie?’ I agreed I was & he then said condescendingly ‘Alors allez’.

He had been warned I gather I wasn’t worth bayoneting which was lucky, as he was full of vim & time seemed no object to him.

The next several letters provide a wobbly sort of case study in the literary depiction of escalating discomfort. (Her fellow ambulancer Olaf Stapledon will try his hand at the same game in two days’ time.) It is cold, and of course the vehicles lack any sort of heating system.

The 19th:

It’s bitterly cold & beastly here now…

The 23rd:

Such hard frost here & we are all having awful trouble to stop cars freezing up. However much you empty the radiator there is always a small deceptive bit of water lurking in some bit of pipe that succeeds in freezing up & doing you in the eye in the morning…

The 25th:

Still the blackest of black frosts & we are all frozen to everything but it’s much better than mud & the tommies prefer it too.

The 26th, apparently without reference to her carbon copies of the letter of the 23rd.

Such a black bitter frost out here, much nicer than mud except that it gives endless bother with the cars… something always manages to freeze up in some strange way. Little bits lurking in queer pipes do you in all the same.

And at last we arrive at today, a century back. Still cold? Why, yes.

Sunday 28 Jan 17 Flanders

Mrs Ma dear–

I am expecting to be assured into heaven at least as a reward for my piety; it was an awful effort getting up to go to mass this morning so cold & all. Such tremendous frost as we are having here, 22 degrees a few nights ago, at least so they told me, the lie is not mine & I know you wouldn’t believe it!

I had all sorts of exciting things to tell you & now they have simply wandered from my brain.

Kaiser’s birthday yesterday & Fritz showed his excitement in many ways, one of them being casting 400 little presents to one of the Bloke’s toys who are rather fed up about these little attentions which get monotonous after a while…

Lots of love
DoDo[1]

 

“The Bloke’s Toys” would be the British big guns. Which Edward Thomas will shortly be manning. Having walked more than a dozen miles on bad ankles yesterday to visit his younger daugther Myfanwy on the second to last day before shipping out, he made his way back to Codford today, as his “War Diary” records.

Wrote to Bronwen, Helen, Ivy, Eleanor… Slept late. Rested my feet, talking to the children or Ivy cooing with Kitty Gurd. Hired a bicycle to save walking. Such a beautiful ride… hedgeless roads over long sloping downs with woods and sprinkled thorns, carved with old tracks which junipers line–an owl and many rabbits–a clear pale sky and but a faint sunset–a long twilight lasting till 6. We are to move at 6.30 a.m. tomorrow…[2]

Here, by the way, is that letter to Eleanor Farjeon, written in the morning:

Postmark 29 i 17
Manor Farm
Hatch
Near Tisbury
Wiltshire

My dear Eleanor, I did write to you the night before last but had the sense to destroy it because it was doleful. The dirty east wind, I being and unable to get about, had brought me down rather. But yesterday I walked over here to see Baba and the Downs in the cold sun were so beautiful that I didn’t worry till I got here about the blisters that somebody else’s shoes gave me. Now I have got somehow to get back. Probably I shall hire a bicycle. We start tomorrow morning. It seems certain we are for the Somme, but how directly we don’t know yet of course. I have my hands full as I not only have to manage the mess and the cook but have to keep the accounts and pay the bills. How much better to be digging at High Beech or Billingshurst than paying 2d a lb for potatoes…

It is nice here and a fine day but I am chiefly occupied (though quite unconsciously I assure you) in being quite patient and not really thinking of tomorrow though it will just flit through my head.

Are you well? God bless you and your Mother.

Yours ever
Edward Thomas

Mrs. Ransome admires your London Rhymes extremely, I mean very much indeed.[3]

It’s only a post-script, but it’s nice, in this month of poets leaving their book projects in the hands of friends (and Thomas has left his first book of poems in Farjeon’s care–she will read the proofs) that his last word to his most devoted friend is praise of her own underappreciated work.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 188-97.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 157.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 244-5.

Some Fraternal Advice from Max Plowman; Siegfried Sassoon Cleared for Combat at Last; Missteps on the Brink of Departure for Edward Thomas

We have three writers writing today, and, as so often, they seem to harmonize. One has come back in one piece and is eager to keep his family out of harm’s way; another is dealing with the difficulties of going out for the first time, and leaving his family behind; the third, putting the occasional thought of his suffering mother from his mind, is bitterly conflicted, yet determined to return…

 

Max Plowman has survived the Somme–barely. He is now home in blighty, recovering in a London hospital from the concussion caused by a near-miss from an artillery shell. Writing to his younger brother, he has some rather pointed suggestions:

Dear J.

…I shall certainly hope to see you before you do anything. Meantime two words of advice.

  1. Don’t go into the ranks of anything.
  2. Go into anything but Infantry.

… I hope to get to Brondesbury by Monday to wait for a Medical Board… I’m nearly fit again & only hope I can squeeze a month’s leave out of them.

I most sincerely hope the damned fools don’t want you to join the Army, but I can see what is happening quite clearly. They’ve gone mad on getting everybody into Khaki & as soon as they’ve done it they’ll find they can’t afford it & tons of men will have to be fished out to keep things going… I wish to God they’d shove Northcliffe & all his rag writers & merchants into my platoon…[1]

I’ve generally gone light on politics, here–H.H. Asquith figured more as Raymond‘s father than as the prime minister or even as the symbol of the failure of an old-fashioned liberal coalition, and we only noted the downfall of his government in passing. But the new mood under Lloyd George has led several of our writers to assume either a grim redoubling of efforts or a clenched acceptance of the realities of what will soon be called (still inaccurately, at this stage, which is a mercy) “total war.”

As winter grips the war, this month, more and more of our writers assume that total conscription will eventually direct every British adult’s activities toward the war effort. Such predictions will prove to be only partly correct, and Plowman is both too sanguine and not cynical enough to think that those who are economically essential (or privileged) will be mistakenly sent into khaki… His sentiments toward the press, however, would be very widely shared among infantrymen in France…

 

Edward Thomas has had too much walking. Not only route marches with his men and additional walks to test equipment, but long cross-country tramps to get away… and all in new boots. Two days ago, he was “resting my sore ankles” and testing gun sights. Then orders came: the guns would ship out today, a century back–the men will follow two days later–and so yesterday was a miserable slog of packing, loading, and “standing out in dusty icy East wind doing nothing but getting cold and dirty.” Other complaints–yesterday was Thomas’s longest “War Diary” entry so far–included an annoying fellow officer, the sore ankles, a cold, the cold, and poor sleep. But in the end, the job was done.

Today, a century back, the guns seem to have embarked early for France without trouble, and so Thomas was at liberty. But he was not gone yet, and his home life suddenly intruded.

It would seem that Helen Thomas is struggling in her husband’s absence. He has been absent often before–and she has struggled before, relying on family and friends for financial support and childcare–but although things have been much better of late, his going with the army to France is a different sort of separation, and she is surely anxious and bereft. She may also be finding the burdens of everyday life too much to bear.

Edward Thomas received a telegram this morning, a century back, from his friends the Arthur and Ivy Ransome letting him know that Helen has sent their youngest child, Myfanwy (‘Baba’), to stay with them.[2]

27. A clear windy frost dawn, the sun like a bright coin between the knuckles of opposite hills seen from sidelong. A fox. A little office work. Telegram to say Baba was at Ransome’s so I walked over Downs by Chicklade Bottom and the Fonthills to Hatch, and blistered both feet badly. House full of ice and big fires. Sat up with Ivy till 12…[3]

Before leaving, Thomas wrote briefly to Helen, an ordinary letter in their copious correspondence–quotidian details, discussion of supplies and packing, best wishes–except for the line explaining that “I am now [unclear] to see Baba at Hatch.” (The bracketed bit might be an abbreviation of “on the way to.”)[4]

Off he went. But that hasty letter had one more passing line that shows–more clearly even than this painful tramp to see his youngest child one last time–that his mind is on the fact of departure. Will he remember? Will he write, afterwards? He asks Helen, in a non-sequitur near the end of the letter, to “Please keep these letters in my drawer.” He is leaving, yes, but he has also determined both to keep writing across the gulf that will now open and to store up written experience so that he can take up his poet’s pen when he returns.

 

We’ll finish, today, with a grim little anticlimax of a red-letter day in the military career of Siegfried Sassoon. Taken seriously ill during the summer, it would seem that his return to duty has certainly not been unduly hastened by the several medical boards that have met and kept him on leave or home service, despite his being well enough to golf and hunt all fall and winter. But Sassoon is unquestionably healthy, now, and he feels differently, too. He will go to war, on his own terms… but, inevitably, also on theirs.

As so often with Sassoon, there are two accounts of today, a century back. The diary and the memoir harmonize so closely that we might see simply unison… unless those tiny intervals between signal a dissonance more complex than any simple harmony…

First, the diary:

January 27

There were two silver-haired men in khaki uniforms sitting at a table; they peered at blue and white sheets of paper, the one with waxed moustaches half-turned as the door opened for the twentieth time that morning, and a young man came into the dreary office. ‘Feel fit to go out?’ ‘Yes, quite well, thank you.’ The pen began to move on a blue sheet: ‘Has been passed fit for General Ser… Don’t shake the table!’ (The young officer was tapping his fingers nervously.) The other colonel looked mildly up over his pince-nez. All the shaking in the world wouldn’t stop that War. Waxed-moustache had signed another death-warrant. Mine. As I went out into the grey street and the bitter east wind I felt as if a load had been lifted from my sullen heart. I’d got another chance given me to die a decent death. And a damned uncomfortable one, probably. But I can’t leave at once; it will be three or four weeks before I go away.

So the outdoor Sassoon will be out there once more. And what of his indoor pursuits? Here’s a bit of serendipitous timing:

Got the first lot of proof-sheets of my book this morning. ‘The Old Huntsman’ looks first-class in print.

Fierce and fatalistic, and then pleased as punch. And then Sassoon closes the diary not with new verse of his own but with quotation:

EPITAPH

If I should ever be in England’s thought
After I die.
Say, ‘There were many things he might have bought.
And did not buy.
Unhonoured by his fellows, he grew old.
And trod the path to hell.
But there were many things he might have sold.
And did not sell.’

(T. W. H. Crosland)

It was a dark freezing day, and all the officers in the waiting-room looked as if they wanted to feel their worst for the occasion…[5]

A strange reversal, or perhaps a gentle irony: reworking today’s scene for his novelized memoirs, Sassoon adapts his diary nearly word for word, but translates the third person voice (seldom used in his diary) into first person in order to refer to “George Sherston’s” experience… but that hair stays silver, and those mustaches most definitely stay waxed. Never mind that he misses war and wants to go back–these old men are going to send him…

There were two silver-haired Army doctors sitting at a table, poring over blue and white documents. One, with a waxed moustache, eyed me wearily when I came into the office. With a jerk of the head he indicated a chair by the table. “Feel fit to go out again?” “Yes; quite well, thank you.” His pen began to move across the blue paper. “Has been passed fit for General Ser…” He looked up irritably. “Don’t shake the table!” (I was tapping it with my fingers.) The other Colonel gazed mildly at me over his pince-nez. Waxed moustache grunted and went on writing. Shaking the table wouldn’t stop that pen of his![6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge into the Future, 62.
  2. The fact of the telegram, rather than a letter, indicates that this is a surprise to Edward, and surely prompted his decision to visit. It's difficult to figure out exactly what is going on, but I'm following Hollis (p314) in assuming that sending Myfanwy away at such time is a signal that Helen is under distress. Arthur Ransome, a good friend of Edward Thomas, will go on to write the Swallows and Amazons series.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 157.
  4. Hollis, Now All Roads, 314, errs in asserting about the visit to Myfanwy that "he mentioned nothing of it to Helen in his letters."
  5. Diaries, 127.
  6. Complete Memoirs, 395.

Robert Graves Rejoins the Second Royal Welch; George Coppard is Dead Lucky; Francis Ledwidge on the Somme

Last night, a century back, was one of ill-omen for our most literary battalion. “Tibs” Crawshay, highly-respected C.O. of the 2nd Royal Welch, was shot and wounded while out in no man’s land diligently inspecting the barbed wire. In one account it is a German patrol that took the “unlucky” shot, but rumor has it that he was fired on by nervous sentries of a neighboring battalion.[1]

And who is more likely to spread piping-hot rumors than Robert Graves, just now arrived with the battalion and tacking on a post-script to yesterday’s letter to Siegfried Sassoon:

PS. I have just arrived at the Second Battalion. James Cuthbert is commanding Tibs was shot last night through the arm and thigh by a bloody fool of a 20th Royal Fusilier: I don’t think he’s bad… We are at ‘freeze’ in both senses. Young Jagger has flu. Everyone else I know is on leave…[2]

This experience is common even to men like Max Plowman, still on his first tour but briefly absent at an Army School. For Graves, gone since July, the situation is even more stark–his best friend left behind, and none are here to smooth his path.

Actually, Graves does have friends. He is infuriating, but he has proven himself brave and generally competent, and that means a lot. And the battalion itself has changed, with fewer of the horsey, anti-intellectual career officers that had railed at his unconventionality but accepted a quiet sportsman like Sassoon. The most important friend he will have, however, is one of our most important informants: today is not so much a crossing of paths as a conjoining of two–Graves is now back within the purview of Dr. Dunn’s battalion chronicle.

I found the Second Battalion near Bouchavesnes on the Somme, but a very different Second Battalion. No riding-school, no Battalion Mess, no Quetta manners, no regular officers, except a couple of newly arrived Sandhurst boys. I was more warmly welcomed this time; my supposed spying activities had been forgotten…

Dr. Dunn asked me, with kindly disapproval, what I meant by returning so soon. I said I couldn’t stand England any longer.

Melodramatic, but perhaps not untrue. Graves is known to be brave, in trenches, and it is certainly another point in his favor that he has returned to the battalion in the miserable depths of winter rather than milk his injury for more time at the depot. He is, as it were, now proven to be operationally as well as tactically courageous. And his worst tormentors are gone–it’s safe, then, for him to be made safe, and Dr. Dunn steps in.

He told the acting C.O. that I was, in his opinion, unfit for trench service, so I took command of the Headquarter Company and went to live with the transport, back at Frises, where the Somme made a bend…

We lived in dug-outs, close to the river, which was frozen over completely but for a narrow stretch of fast-running water in the middle. I have never been so cold in my life. I used to go up to the trenches every night with the rations, Yates being sick; it was about a twelve-mile walk there and back.

Graves’s other memories of this period include focus on the cold, including inter-Company football played on the frozen river and piping hot dinners eaten in billets so cold that “ice had formed on the edge of out plates before we finished eating.”[3]

 

And two more brief updates for today, a century back.

George Coppard‘s engaging tale of life as a teenage machine gunner is of limited usefulness, here, because he did not keep a detailed diary and can apply few specific dates to his memoir. But everybody remembers his or her birthday! Coppard, shot in the foot by a pal, was cleared of wrongdoing and has been recovering at Lady Butler’s private hospital in Hereford.

I was dead lucky to have struck that hospital. I’ll never forget the food and perquisites we Tommies had there. Her Ladyship personally issued the daily ration of twenty cigarettes or an ounce of pipe tobacco per man. On my nineteenth birthday, I had a surprise birthday cake.[4]

 

Francis Ledwidge’s burgeoning prominence as a poet has not kept him from shipping out once again. It’s his first tour in France after a long odyssey in Gallipoli, Serbia, Macedonia, and Egypt. After a week of drill and instruction his battalion of the Royal Inniskillings had moved to a camp near Trônes Wood, on the Somme, for further combat training. This afternoon, a century back, they began their march to the front line. For men who had not seen France before this would have been a sobering–not to say awful–march: over a rutted road and then over miles of the old Somme battlefield, muddy and cold, safely traversed only by slick and icy duckboards. Men slipped into the mud whenever the duckboards tilted, and even tying sandbags over boots for better traction was of little avail. “After a horribly wearisome journey, they reached their line, consisting of a series of shell-holes connected by a shallow trench.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 293; Good-Bye to All That, 238.
  2. In Broken Images, 64.
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 238-9.
  4. With a Machine Gun, 105.
  5. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 171.

Vera Brittain on Memorial Notices and the Consolations of Distance; Robert Graves is Back in France; Edmund Blunden’s Sussex Are Raided

It has been some time since we have heard from Vera Brittain–an oversight on my part, since her letter to her brother Edward on January 12th speaks to a central concern of hers, and ours. With the slow pace of epistolary conversations carried on between England, France, and Malta, she is still reacting to aspects of the anniversary of Roland‘s death.

Mother sent me out the ‘Times’ with Roland’s ‘In Memoriam’ notice in it; the Leightons sent it too. Though I would never say so to them, I am afraid I don’t like it very much, for I don’t think He would have liked it; I can’t exactly say why, unless I can express what I mean by saying He wouldn’t have cared for anything so adjectival. I always remember the night He spent with me in Buxton 2 years ago next March just before He first went to the front, & how He said to me ‘I do hope if I am killed no one will put that I was the “dearly beloved” son of anyone in the paper.’ If
I am alive next December it will be my turn & I will put one in myself ‘in proud & undying memory’ certainly, but more of the quieter kind I think He would have appreciated. What do you think yourself?

Given the intensity of Vera’s love for Roland and the very different but surely no less intense mother’s love of Marie Leighton,the surprising thing is that there has been no open break, yet, over the mourning of Roland. And hard as it is to question bereaved parents (and easy as it is to point to the generational gap and leave it at that) surely Vera is right: Roland would have squirmed to know that he has been subjected to such a public adjective-ing. But the dead don’t know their own publicity.

That was nearly two weeks ago, and by today, a century back, the concerns of the grieving near-widow have faded, and we hear the voice both of the old campaigner and of a woman grown circumspect about the rush of wartime emotions. Roland has been the love of her life, but there is at least one other soldier she loves.

Malta, 25 January 1917

You ask me how long I mean to stay in Malta; well, as you know, we sign on for 6 months at a time, & I think it more than likely that when Stella & I have done our first 6 months, which is in two months time, we shall sign on again for another 6. They are making it more & more difficult & disadvantageous for us to resign now, & one can only leave by resigning & joining up again, to be sent goodness knows where. I can’t possibly do anything else but nurse till the war is over; even if I meant to do nothing (which I certainly do not) I think it very unlikely under the present more energetic system of government that either I or anyone else would be able to do nothing for long. Since I am in for nursing I may as well do it not only in its highest form (which Foreign service is) but in a place where I am happy… I think if one has to be in hospital it is better to be far away from home; it is very unsettling to be able to go home or  to friends’ houses & then have to go back on duty just as you are getting into the home atmosphere; it makes you hate hospital so much more, & then you never get interested in the hospital because you have so many interests outside.

…in the end I realise that the only person’! really mind about not seeing for a long time is yourself, & I am afraid that by coming back to England in April I shouldn’t be much nearer seeing you than I am here…

I feel sometimes that I don’t want to see you again until I know that you are safe & I can go on seeing you for a long time, comprenez-vous this feeling?[1]

I imagine that Edward does, and will. But true though these sentiments no doubt are–or were, in the moment of writing–this gives rather short shrift to two other officers already in France, and likely to be there in April. What of “Tah” Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow?

Still, this letter is a precise evocation of the feeling I’ve been calling the “irony of proximity.” Vera Brittain has never served in France, but her brother, her lover, and her friends have, and she has worked in wartime London, and she knows now that one benefit of great distance is that it avoids the psychological wear of constant, incomplete dislocation. The stress and strain of war are difficult, but they are not eased by a false hope–or a hope that can never be fully realized–of relief, rest, and the soothing pleasures of ordinary life.

 

Vera Brittain at twenty-three can now claim the status of overseas veteran, while Robert Graves, all of twenty-one, is a true old soldier. In France now on his fourth tour of duty, he writes immediately to Siegfried Sassoon, left behind in Litherland Camp.

No. 5 IBD
Rouen
BEF

25 January 1917

My dear old Sassons,

I have been posted to the 2nd Battalion and go up tomorrow: all the other fellows are going to various RWF Battalions–chiefly 38th Divisional…[2] It’s most damnably cold here, especially in tents…

On the 48 hours leave I saw Peter and had a long talk with him: he was extraordinarily intelligent and seems now to have read about four times as much poetry as myself–makes me rather afraid of him.

Also I met Robert Nichols

I spent today going round the Rouen churches and the Cathedral–by God, they are wonderful, almost persuade one to be a Christian.

With emphasis on the “almost,” one imagines. Graves goes on to advise Sassoon on what maneuvers to attempt in order to be sent back to the 1st Battalion, where he had been so happy in July. He then remarks that the first book he saw upon arriving in the base Orderly Room was his own first collection of poetry, Over the Brazier. Can that be true?

In any case, it signals a transition, in this brief letter, to matters poetical. But only Sassoon is expecting full publication of a new collection, and Graves must acknowledge this.

I’m looking forward like anything to the Old Huntsman: it’s going to be a hell of a book…[3]

The letter closes with what seems like a superstitiously oblique reference to his own next book, which is being printed in a sort of vanity edition; Sassoon is in charge of overseeing the printing, and Graves asks him to send on the bill–an awkward inequality…

The post-script to the letter, I believe, is proper to tomorrow…

 

So Graves has reached the base camps,[4] which means that the line awaits. It will not be pleasant.

 

Edmund Blunden, his battalion holding a frozen bit of the line in the Ypres Salient, is learning hard lessons about the brutality of winter warfare. He has been ordered, with a select group from his battalion, to plan and rehearse a raid of the German trenches opposite, a directive which “sent more than that winter’s ugly cold down our spines.” But the raid was canceled, and shortly thereafter–early this morning, a century back–his battalion was raided by the Germans instead. Blunden is currently stationed in the support lines, with the small headquarters unit that assists his C.O., Colonel Harrison.

I had had a heavy day, and the patrol was dreary and laborious; so that afterward I went down to the battalion headquarters and there, in my small sandbag house (not then to be exchanged with any other), “got down to it.” Two or three hours afterward the most brutal bombardment began on the right of our line, and, as I hurried out and watched, it seemed to be falling on the battalion there neighbouring us — but this was wrong. Harrison, who had been in the middle of his nightly tour, came panting down the road and along the duckboards to his headquarters; the cruel and shattering concentration went on, and no news came through from the right company, though the telephones were busy. Presently the bombardment ended, and it was the general conviction that it had fallen on the flanking battalion’s line in Railway Wood.

I went back to my blanket, and at nine or so was out ready for the day; meeting Harrison, I was surprised at his looks of reproach and disappointment. “A nasty bit of bombardment on the 12th, sir.” “Not on the 12th, on us. We have lost ten men killed and prisoners. Clark took his company over the top to reinforce. You’d better go up and see what you can see.” This bad news surprised me, and I knew that I ought to have gone up at the time of the bombardment; but I had given in to the customary feeling, “business as usual,” and the usual illusion that we were the lucky ones. It was a sparkling, frost-clad morning, and the guns were still. As I went along that lonely little trench by Gully Farm I found that there were many new details of landscape, great holes and hunks and jags of timber; one had to hurry over mounds that had been excavations; the raided bombing post soon after appeared, trampled, pulverized, blood-stained, its edges slurred into the level of the general wilderness. An unexploded shell lay in it, and many scraps of iron. Like fragments of dismantled masonry here and there, ponderous frozen clods had been hurled out by the minenwerfers, which had blown enormous pits in the stony ground. Our own dead had been carried away, but just ahead were stretched two or three of the raiders. One was an officer of forty, sullen-faced, pig-nosed, scarred, and still seeming hostile. In his coat pocket were thirty or forty whistles which evidently he had meant to issue to his party before the raid. Another corpse was of a youth, perhaps eighteen years old, fair-haired, rough-chinned. He was lying in the snow on his back, staring at the blue day with eyes as blue and icy; his feet were toward the German lines, and his right hand clutched the wooden handle of a bomb.

The raiders had approached the British line on the blind side of the railway embankment which marked our battalion boundary; then they had turned in at a little culvert, and waited for their guns and mortars to hurl over the barrage which had so completely shut in our unfortunate bombing post. That culvert, hitherto unnoticed, although only twenty yards ahead of our trench, now appeared painfully obvious. Some few details of the fighting came to light: one of the Lewis gunners had carried his gun forward and fired it, it seemed, from the shoulder at the coming raiders. He was found dead among the hummocks with his hand to his gun.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 311-5.
  2. This, we may recall, is the "Welsh Division," composed largely of "Welsh" regiments that actually did draw many of their men from Wales. The Division had been terribly battered in the early weeks of the Somme, and for David Jones and Wyn Griffith, both Royal Welch Fusiliers of Kitchener battalions, Mametz Wood was the center of their harrowing Somme experience. Graves, because of his early volunteering via the side-door of the Special Reserve, is assigned to the Second (Regular) Battalion once again rather than to one of the war-raised battalions in the 38th Division.
  3. In Broken Images, 63-4.
  4. He tells stories of the "Bull-Ring" at this point in Good-Bye to All That; but, as R.P. Graves points out, he was at Rouen, not Harfleur, and is either fudging his location since the "Bull Ring" there was better known or accidentally transposing elements from a previous trip up the line.
  5. Undertones of War, 140-2.

Edwin Vaughan is One Step Closer, in Mind, Body, and Scrounge

We’ll spend today, a century back, with Edwin Vaughan. After the bathos and disappointment of finding his battalion in rest billets, he will finally be continuing his journey up the line. It has only been a week since his arrival at Arraines-sur-Somme, but, as so often in the swiftly-condensed experience of the Great War, it has begun to feel rather home-like. Going from rest to reserve is a step forward on the great journey, of course, but it is also another step down the slippery dugout stairs of reduced expectation…

January 24

Said a tearful goodbye to the kiddies at an early hour and went down to the billet to get the troops ready and billets cleaned up. Marched down to the siding (just out of the village) and entrained at about 1 p.m. There was no excitement or interest in our destination–it was just a ‘move.’

As soon as we got into the train, we opened the mess boxes and had lunch, then alternately we ragged each other and played cards…

After a time I noticed that the train was rolling through a broad band of barbed wire entanglements, and on enquiry learnt that they were part of the outer defences of Amiens. All this time I had been singing gaily, despite the remonstrances of the bridge party, and now one of them–Johnny Teague, a jolly cherub-faced youngster and Captain commanding B’ Company–as he scanned his hand with slightly squinting eyes, said casually, ‘You know Hatwell, Vaughan’s much too full of beans. Send him out on patrol for a few nights—that’ll quieten him down.’

That was all he said, but the realization that we were on the point of reaching the line rushed upon me, and at once my imagination began to run riot. I stopped singing and yielded myself up to the influences of the approaching darkness and dead quiet outside, the dim guttering candles, the broken windows and the general air of disorder.

And out of the tangle and confusion of my thoughts and apprehensions, the fact gradually came uppermost in my mind that all the empty-headed fellows who had been laughing, joking and drinking ever since I had known them, were real soldiers, who after many months in the line were now returning without the slightest sign of perturbation or nervousness. And I began to look around me with a greater interest and more tolerant criticism.

It now became quite dark and in a few hours we pulled up at a black deserted station and tumbled out onto the siding of Méricourt…

Everything was quite black around us, and I was furious when an army lorry dashed past without any lights, sending us hurtling to the side. I said something to Watkins about his being reported for not having lights. He said consolingly, ‘Never mind, I expect a Bobby will get him,’ and there was something pitying about his tone which made me suspect he was pulling my leg…

As we left the tiny village, the moon shone out, and I gazed curiously at the last house, which presented a very shattered appearance. About a mile further on we turned off the road on to a muddy track which brought us to a small group of hutments.

Here the men were put into long wooden huts, quite empty and holding no furniture or fitments of any kind…

We were shown into our quarters–consisting of a hut of the same kind but boarded off into cubicles. They were just as cold and cheerless as the men’s, and I was at an absolute loss as to what to do to make things more comfy when Hatwell, who had just whisked in and out, reappeared with three servants. These latter just glanced around and were gone–and so was Hatwell. Watkins and Thomas now drew on their gloves, saying ‘Come on! Let’s go and scrounge…’

Vaughan’s diary is an affair of delicate balance, it would seem: the disinterest of the troops and his own expectant high spirits are synthesized by a comrade’s rather harsh (if perhaps necessary) comment into a tensed and watchful reassessment. Then the poor treatment of the troops–the nasty train and billets, the broken windows in winter–is promptly re-balanced by the frankly practical scrounging (all against regulations, of course), and, in consequence, a reasonable standard of living is attained. Vaughan seems determined to find irony in his constant disappointment, and yet there is a third step, a sort of dialectical resolution that he experiences as… well, enhanced experience. He is learning how to be a soldier, bit by bit.

‘Scrounging,’ by the way, may be the favorite wartime coinage of our writers. The single idea might stand metonymically for all of the practical adjustments middle class officers and well-brought-up young men made when learning their way about the rear areas of the war of attrition: in place of order forms, business letters, tradesmen’s builds, and orderly queues, there is the petty thievery of the bureaucratic minion and the eternal scrounge. This is yet another arena where the “enemy”–the antagonist, really–is not the Germans but the higher-ups and non-combatant service troops of their own Army.

And how went the scrounge?

We… returned to the cubicle bearing one old steel helmet, one empty oil drum, one brick, one large bully-beef tin and a quantity of small sticks and twigs.

The servants had already been back and there was quite a dump of wood (wet of course) and one dry ration box resting beside our mess boxes. Hatwell appeared, too, bearing an enormous lump of coal, and with the aid of a bayonet he converted our oil drum into a most respectable brazier. Soon there was a cheerful blaze, the mess boxes were open and we sat round our valises drinking whisky. It was early morning when, the servants having scrounged more fuel and laid out our blankets, we turned in, pleased with the comfort of our new quarters.[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 12-15.

The Legend of C.E. Montague; Siegfried Sassoon on Elgar, Poetry, Spiritualism, Loss, and the Turning of the Plow; Edward Thomas Reads Frost; Tolkien is Boarded

Is the little anti-Semitic outburst of yesterday still hanging on the mind of Siegfried Sassoon? Probably not. It’s probably a coincidence, probably just the music, and not any lingering need to assert his English identity by addressing the Christian story…

Elgar’s Violin Concerto… made me glorious with dreams to-night. Elgar always moves me deeply, because his is the melody of an average Englishman (and I suppose I am more or less the same)…

 

The Elgar Violin Concerto

I have seen Christ, when music wove
Exulting vision; storms of prayer
Deep-voiced within me marched and strove.
The sorrows of the world were there.
A God for beauty shamed and wronged?
A sign where faith and ruin meet.
In glooms of vanquished glory thronged
By spirits blinded with defeat?
His head forever bowed with pain.
In all my dreams he looms above
The violin that speaks in vain—
The crowned humility of love.
O music undeterred by death.
And darkness closing on your flame,
Christ whispers in your dying breath,
And haunts you with his tragic name.

This poem of religious intensity is awkwardly followed, in the diary, by a note on a recent and unusually divisive publication.

A bitter attack on Oliver Lodge’s spook book in the Daily Mail. Stuff like Raymond repels me utterly. Having discovered the fatuity of it in my own case, and watched that pathetic, foolish clinging to the dead which goes on among so many women who (like my own mother) have nothing else to distract their minds from war and wretchedness. It is the worst confession of weakness—a ridiculous hiding of one’s head in a stuffy cupboard, when there is the whole visible earth outside the windows.

If I am killed, no doubt my [Page torn out].

Well that tears it–these must be surgical strikes. Let it not be said that Sassoon was either a negligent or a subtle self-editor. The most offensive pages have gone…

When the diary resumes, Sassoon is more angered by spiritualism than he is inspired by music. So he then tries to walk it off.

Shrivelled by icy blasts, I went an hour’s footpath-walk among starved, colourless fields and cowering, straggly thorn-hedges; skirting chimney-pots and the factories whose thin smokestreamers flew with the sunless, bitter north wind. Once I watched a scattering of gulls that followed the newly-turned furrows; their harsh wrangle mingling with the faint creak and rattle of the plough, as they swung and settled like enormous grey snow-flakes. While the team halted at the hedge, and the man was turning, with a grumble at the wretchedness of the afternoon, they all sat still like some cloaked, attentive congregation, yet their bills were busy at the soil: then the big steady horses moved forward again, with a confusion of dull-silvery wings flickering in the wake of the toilers, as the queer procession
began another journey across the stubble…

There is a striking similarity, here, to one of Edward Thomas’s most important poems. It’s an accident, I suppose: it’s still an old agricultural world, for the most part, and the plowing is there to be observed by any poetical passer-by. And who could fail to be moved by the sight of the team turning at the end of the furrow… there is labor, cyclic imagery, ancient line and habits, and raucous nature attendant on man. Good stuff!

The rain has ceased. Broken clouds drift slowly from the west, glorious with fringes of evening colour. On a hillside I am alone with my happiness, hearing everywhere the faint drip and rustle of summer green: there is a stirring in the grass; each flower has a message to give me. All sounds are small and distinct, as though they expressed the liquid clarity of the air. The country is now properly arrayed in a sort of rich calm, shining and yet subdued and gracious.

I was about to impose an ellipsis… but no. Pure observation yields, now, to introspection. Sassoon has walked out his anger and into his memory. The subject of his brother Hamo does not often come up in his writing:

The roofs and stacks of the farm among its trees below the hill, the farm-house chimney with its wisp of smoke, a bird winging out across the valley-orchards, and the sound of a train going steadily on, miles away—all are as I would have them, as I would keep them remembered. I am back in childhood; home with my kind dreams; soon I shall hear my brother’s voice along the garden, where moths will be fluttering like flowers that are free from their hot parades in sunshine, free to go where they will among the dimness of quiet alleys. O brother, tell me what you have seen to-day, what have you done?

He will not answer, for he is dead. And I am far from the garden, far from the summer that is past. I am alone in this bitter winter of unending war.

It is curious, always, to watch the mind zig and zag, dart and dive–can we, like Holmes watching Watson’s eyes, anticipate the next direction his thoughts will take? No? Poetry.

I don’t think purely descriptive verse should be rhymed, but should sometimes give a feeling of rhyme-endings (a sort of ‘singing-touch’ effect).

But that’s it for technical discussion–and it will be some time before he realizes this idea, and passes it on to another poet who will do even greater things with it. The rest of the diary entry grumpily complains of how difficult it is to write poetry when one is constantly interrupted by friendly fellow-officer roommates…[1]

 

The legend of C.E. Montague is a legend forestalled. He dyed his hair, he joined the ranks, and he did the trenches as a sergeant… and then he fell ill, and fell from the grace of dangerous service–and the rarefied sense of companionship that brings–into a commission and an Intelligence job. Now he spends his days touring dignitaries behind the lines and his evenings sitting among staff officers and journalists and other anteroom-of-hell-as-far-as-the-infantry-are-concerned types in the Château de Rollencourt.

But friends of his among the writers who assembled there to be led on safe tours of the rear and spoon-fed optimistic reports remembered what Montague was like at this time. Despite the bitter cold and the bitterer knowledge that “mediocrities promoted to importance by the war” could order him about–a fifty-year-old writer of wide sympathies and great skill–he did his duty with brisk, reserved professionalism. H.M. Tomlinson, a prominent journalist, understood this reserve to be an expression of his continuing solidarity with those he had briefly been among: “If he could not have the trenches, then at least he would sit in an uncomfortable chair.” Montague made certain to be a good officer, a loyal cog in the claptrap propaganda machine, yet he was becoming thoroughly disenchanted, and one evening he unbent so far as to admit that “he wanted to do one good book before he died.”

He will. But despite being sent down from the trenches (the irony that men who had served longer than he could only long for such a reprieve would not have escaped him) Montague is no idle writer yet. Today, a century back, he was sent with a dispatch to General Haig himself:

I find the C.-in-C. knows about my various conducting expeditions, and is very friendly. Says, ‘I hear you’re a terrible fellow at going along the trenches’.

So Montague is not immune to a well-placed compliment (and highly-placed complimentor). But around this time he also showed a less sanguine mood:

If we were a band of brothers for one month, I believe we should have won the war. If we could all forget decorations and promotions for six months, it would be over too. If we, outside the trenches, bore what men in the trenches do, it would be over too. If all these miracles happened together, it would be over at once.

Ferreting about for themselves in this soft cheeselike world of fecklessness and self-seeking and public spiritlessness are the sturdy maggots like ————, intimidating all the little timid professional soldiers and corrupting the discipline of the army. Can we win still, in spite of it all, or is it to be the end of freedom and joy
for us all?

But back to that “terrible fellow” business. One of the luminaries he shepherded about within the sound of the guns was George Bernard Shaw:

At the chateau where the Army entertained the rather mixed lot who, being nondescript, were classified as Distinguished Visitors, I met Montague. Finding him just the sort of man I like and get on with, I was glad to learn that he was to be my bear-leader on my excursions…

The standing joke about Montague was his craze for being under fire, and his tendency to lead the distinguished
visitors, who did not necessarily share this taste (rare at the front), into warm corners. Like most standing jokes it was inaccurate, but had something in it. War is fascinating even to those who, like Montague, have no illusions about it, and are not imposed on by its boasting, its bugaboo, its desperate attempts to make up for the shortage of capable officers by sticking tabs and brass hats on duffers, its holocausts of common men for nothing, its pretences of strategy and tactics where there is only bewilderment and blundering, its vermin and dirt and butchery and terror and foul-mouthed boredom. None of these things were lost on a man so critical as Montague any more than they were lost on me. But neither of us ever asked the other ‘And what the devil are you doing in this galley?’ Both of
us felt that, being there, we were wasting our time when we were not within range of the guns. We had come to the theatre to see the play, not to enjoy the intervals between the acts like fashionable people at the opera.

We had, nevertheless, no great excitements…

Shaw can write. But Montague’s book will be a slim milestone, a durable landmark in the interpretation and expression of the war.

Montague was a typical daredevil; that is, a quiet, modest-looking, rather shy elderly man with nothing of the soldier about him except his uniform. He would have been a hopeless failure on the stage as Captain Matamore. He had something of the Tolstoyan bitterness and disillusion that war produces at close quarters, less by its horrors, perhaps, than by its wastes and futilities. But to this he gave no intentional expression: his conversation and manner were entirely kindly. He said nothing of the exploits for which he was mentioned in despatches. . .[2]

 

And two brief notes to close. Yesterday, a century back, Edward Thomas went to “Gloster” (i.e. Gloucester, I assume) to see his friend Jack Haines, and sat up past midnight “gossiping about Frost, de la Mare, and the army, marching songs etc.” Haines had a present for him: Frost’s new book, Mountain Interval.

Today Thomas spent the morning with the Haines family, then read most of Mountain Interval on the train back to camp. There is less than a week to go, now, before embarkation, but the strange mix of business and idleness, of focused expectation and open-ended waiting, seems not to trouble Thomas unduly. Not so all of his comrades: one of the officers Thomas shared quarters with had “a screaming nightmare” last night.[3]

 

Finally, today, John Ronald Tolkien went before a medical board at 1st Southern General Hospital in Birmingham. As we have seen in the past, although the army is loath to send soldiers home from France unless they are really quite ill, it also seems to be generous with convalescent leave, allowing officers to recuperate their strength before returning to duty. Tolkien is no longer ill, but he is “still pale and weak” and liable to recurrences of fever and other symptoms. Accordingly, the medical board granted him a further month of leave, with at least one more month of home service after that.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 124-6.
  2. Elton, C.E. Montague, 152-64.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 156.
  4. Chronology, 99.

Robert Graves Triumphantly Off to War… with Mum Coming Up Behind; Siegfried Sassoon Shares with the Class; Richard Aldington Instructs the Bored Wives and Idle Poets of England

Despite the mutually supporting accounts of Graves and Sassoon eliding London from the equation, it would seem that Robert Graves left today, a century back, from Waterloo station, to which he was accompanied not by ten lecherous and naive officers but rather by his parents and an uncle. He may have been traveling light by design–an old soldier, now–but, it would seem, he traveled too light: discovering that he had left his money and papers at home in another tunic pocket, Graves sent his mother back to retrieve them, and she ended up following him to Southampton on the next train…[1]

 

And as for Siegfried Sassoon… no, actually, we’ll skip his diary for today, a century back. Explaining the knee-jerk anti-Semitism of the English Squirearchy–e.g. “Lieutenant X is a nasty, cheap thing. A cheap-gilt Jew. Why are such Jews born, when the soul of Jesus was so beautiful?”–is tiresome enough, and it’s heavier going when the anti-Semite in question is the scion of a famous Jewish family, the Anglican son of a father, born Jewish, who left the family. Not that he should get a pass, just that it’s a bit too complex to discuss without biographical spade work…[2]

 

Our other matter today is catching up with Richard Aldington, who has been writing amusing letters to F.S. Flint ever since he (Aldington) left for France at the end of December.

A letter of January 3rd begins, in typical jaunty-Francophile fashion,

Sale type,

J ’attends toujours un lettre de toi, mais cela n’arrive jamais

The letter rattles on into a surprisingly non-downhearted (for Aldington) report on his doings in the reserve areas of France. He even breaks into English–his native tongue and Flint’s–to relay the current marching songs:

Marching, marching, marching.
Always bloody well marching
From Reveille to Tat[t]oo;
When the war is over
We shall be marching still.

Aldington shares, too, the popular call and response–“Are we down-hearted?” ‘No!” “Shall we win?” “Yes!” “Shall we have a good dinner?” “No!–before admitting that they are actually eating fairly well.

The next letter, of the 13th, thanks Flint for writing to him and shares two most shocking bits of intelligence. First, Aldington has been transferred to a pioneer battalion, which one might expect to be bad news for a poet with no particular interest in manual labor. And yet:

I am really getting on quite well–am in a good battalion, get plenty of grub, not too much work, and fairly good billets. So, as the saying is. I’ve “clicked”!

And the second development?

…It is rather annoying but it appears to be an order that one must not use French in letters. That robs me of half my rhetoric & all my pornography, so you’ll only get dull letters from me. But write in French yourself…

The letter goes on to take a shot at Aldington’s poetic fellow-traveler Ezra Pound–well-deserved of course, as all shots at Pound are. But we must hasten on to today, a century back.

22nd January 1917
Dear Franky,

…By the way, you remember some time ago the Times issued a series of pamphlets for soldiers, extracts from English classics? I wish you’d get hold of some for me–I’d like something to read & chuck away.

To speak the honest truth: I worry very little about all these literary squabbles–how can one trouble in the face
of so much human misery?

Here is a real Bairnsfather incident that happened the other night. We were going through a village wh. has been absolutely battered out of existence by bombardment. We were passing what had once been a row of shops.  Everyone was tired & trudging along in silence; even the guns were silent; then a broad midland voice remarked: “Bill, business don’t see[m] to be very brisk in these parts.” Perhaps it doesn’t sound so very funny, but it seemed so to us…

Aldington’s high spirits lead him to take up the role of jocularly supportive friend. Never mind all the miserable letters he has sent Flint, wallowing in his plight as a despised conscript–he is an overseas soldier, now, and enjoying himself. He can condescend to mere civilians…

Are you writing anything? Your literary idleness is really a disgrace… For Heaven’s sake do something! Are we all to be “wash-outs”? You are too comfortable. Try sleeping on the floor with two blankets & an overcoat, or spend a frosty night in a hole in the back garden with your wife letting off Roman candles & lanthe throwing bricks at you! You might hire de Bosschere to knock a hammer rapidly on a table (like Marinetti) for a machine-gun, & if you make the hole over a drain you can wear an anti-gas helmet! That would stir you up a bit…

Oh but softly, friend Richard. You have been in France for three weeks, and never yet in the line.

In an allied but rather rarer mood of high self-confidence, the letter continues into an unlikely–or perhaps I should say Modern–passage on marriage and separation. H.D. is Aldington’s wife, the poet Hilda Doolittle:

You dear people seem tremendously far away, like demi-gods in a smoky Elysium. For the Lord’s sake don’t interrupt H.D. if she is having a good time with any one–when I said “look after H.D.” I meant help her to have a good time & not bother about me. I didn’t want to make you a kind of Argus! Take H.D. out, if you can, to theatres, & get her to meet new & amusing people. And if you can devise any sort of an “affairepour passer le temps, so much the better. She’ll be a grass widow a while longer yet..

Thine
R.[3]

What could go wrong?

 

References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 168.
  2. Diaries, 122-3.
  3. Imagist Dialogues, 162-173.