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:
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!
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.
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…
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