The Needs of the Bureaucracy Will Punish Rowland Feilding’s Compassion and Send Two Poets–Edmund Blunden and Edward Thomas–to Moulder in an Office

If one thread ties together these three reports of today, a century back, it is that the military bureaucracy is a friend to no man. We can circle around the basic question of motivation–this war being so awful, and so unnatural, why and how did all these soldiers stay the course?–throughout years of diligent reading without finding any satisfactory route to an answer. But most approaches will touch on the importance of leadership, of camaraderie, and of the hope that the war’s evident brutality is not the end of the story–that humanity and kindness remain, despite the bayonets, booby-traps, and clouds of poison gas.

It is difficult, then, to be transferred before friendships can take hold, to be separated from a unit and a trusted leader on the inscrutable whims of the bureaucracy, and to be told that accepting a gesture of mercy in order to save your subordinate friends is a punishable act.

First, Rowland Feilding, writing to his wife–and carefully including the relevant documentation.

February 26, 1917 Curragh Camp (Locre),

There is a sequel to the affair of the 19th. It has been suggested that the so-called “armistice” constituted a breach of the order which forbids fraternization. The incident unfortunately occurred right on the top of a memorandum dealing with the subject, and worded as follows:

1. A case has recently occurred in another part of the line in which the enemy are reported to have been allowed to approach our lines and remove the bodies of some of their dead.

Whilst doing this he was probably able to secure useful information as to the state of our wire and the ground in its vicinity, and in any case he was permitted to deprive us of what may have been a valuable identification.

2. The Divisional Commander wishes it to be dearly understood by all ranks that any understanding with the enemy of this or any other description is strictly forbidden.

We have to deal with a treacherous and unscrupulous foe, who, from the commencement of the present war, has repeatedly proved himself unworthy of the slightest confidence. No communication is to be held with him without definite instructions from Divisional Headquarters, and any attempts on his part to fraternize with our own troops is to be instantly repressed.

3. Commanding Officers are to take steps to ensure that all ranks under their command are acquainted with these instructions.

In the event of any infringement of them, disciplinary action is to be taken.

As a matter of fact I had not seen this memorandum, which arrived when I was away from the battalion. God knows whether I should have acted differently had I done so! Anyway, a Court of Enquiry is to be convened, to decide whether we did fraternize or not, and orders still more stringent than that which I have quoted have been issued.

In future, if fifty of our wounded are lying in Noman’s Land, they are (as before) to remain there till dark, when we may get them in if we can; but no assistance, tacit or otherwise, is to be accepted from the enemy. Ruthlessness is to be the order of the day. Frightfulness is to be our watchword. Sportsmanship, chivalry, pity—all the qualities which Englishmen used to pride themselves in possessing—are to be scrapped.

In short, our methods henceforth are to be strictly Prussian; those very methods to abolish which we claim to be fighting this war.

And all because the enemy took toll for his generosity the other day.

It is beautiful and sunny and warm to-day.[1]

It is common for men–even lieutenant-colonels–to rail against a bureaucracy that sends down haughty orders out of sympathy with the realities of the trenches. But it is quite another thing for a man like Feilding to suggest that the root motivations of officers like himself–the essential English honorable self-image, as invoked in calls to go to war in the first place–are being destroyed by its own leadership.

 

In a quieter way, the same senders-of-orders are separating Edmund Blunden from that which he most values. His battalion has just marched to new positions in the Ypres salient, which are bad enough.

A reconnaisance of the trenches which we were to hold came next. They were those on a rising ground in Sanctuary Wood, near Hill 60, and were indifferently known as Torr Tops, Mount Sorrel, and Observatory Ridge. On arriving in the wood, we found it an unprepossessing one — “What about Thiepval?” said Sergeant Ashford to me as we moved taciturnly up the duckboards, not the imagined communication trench. “Looks exactly the same.” The scene was deathly, and if we had known then the German points of vantage we should have disliked it still more.

But now their commander, Col. Harrison, who had stuck his neck out to prevent the implementation of destructive orders, is paying the price for his free-speaking.

Meeting me outside a high red house in Kruisstraat, Harrison walked along the road to tell me his news, and his face was overcast. He was ordered to return to England, and at once. I had no difficulty in connecting this disaster with the frequent contests of opinion between him and our old master at the brigade office.[2] But more followed. He had arranged that I was to go to Brigade as intelligence officer; the General had previously worried him to let me go, and now he thought it would do me good. These facts caused the Ypres-Comines Canal, over which our short walk led us, to look particularly desolate and gray. That night Harrison went his way, and I reported anxiously at the seat of terror in the Ramparts; the battalion relieved in wild blackness on Observatory Ridge. It had hardly taken over the trenches when a fierce brief bout of shelling fell upon Valley Cottages, the foolish wreckage used as battalion headquarters, and among the victims was our kind, witty, and fearless Sergeant Major Daniels. He was struck in the head, and being carried away to the casualty clearing station in Vlamertinghe white mill, lived a day or two and said good-bye to Harrison, who heard of the bad business in time to see him once more.[3]

This is an ominous coincidence–which is to say it is a sad coincidence which Blunden has given its full effect as an omen of his impending separation. One might point out that his parting from the battalion is both less sudden and less final than violent death, but even to allow events–the “disaster” and the “bad business”–to express the analogy is something of a strong statement from Blunden.

 

And now Blunden–despite and because of his many months of good service with his unit–will be in the same spot that Edward Thomas is: safer and spared the physical rigors of regular work, but cut off from friends and companions, alienated within the too-big-for-comfort world of higher-echelon office work. We will continue to read a lot of Thomas, so his long catching-us-up letter to his old friend Gordon Bottomley may function as a welcome review.

26 February 1917

My dear Gordon,

The gramophone here was playing ‘Anitra’s Dance’ & other things from Grieg yesterday—-& in the evening one Officer (named Berrington) was talking about Georgian Poets. So at last I will write a little. It isn’t all Grieg & Poetry here. The old city I am in was shelled today. The village I went to for some map work was under shell & machine gun fire, & returning I was within 3 yards of being shot by one of our own guns. Worst of all was the din between 8.15 & 9.00 this morning when our Artillery was covering a raid—the prisoners arrived by 10. I can’t pretend to enjoy it, but it does not interfere with the use of fieldglasses & compass though it stops conversation!

It was not our Corps that was doing it so we felt no special interest.

My address is 244 Siege Battery but for the present I am 3 miles away at the headquarters of a Heavy Artillery Group to which I have been lent. Before coming here I did a little firing & more observing & plenty of supervision of digging in & other preparations. Observing is what I like & I am very anxious to get back to a more physically active  life than I lead here as a sort of Adjutant.

We have been out a month but it took us over a week to crawl up to the front on snowy roads & sleeping in trains & tents & other cold places. But I enjoyed most of it. I like the country we are in. It is open hilly chalk country with great ploughed fields & a few copses on the hilltops. The ruined villages of brick & thatch & soft white stone have been beautiful. Of course one does not stroll about here, but the incidental walks to Observation Posts or up to see my battery are often very pleasant, both in the frost & in the sunny weather which has begun at last…

One gets—I mean I get—along moderately well, or even more, with all sorts of uncongenial people, & I have nothing to complain of except lack of letters & parcels. They take a week to come out, & we had none for 3 weeks. So far I have not met anyone I know among all the officers I say good morning to in these streets or out in the country. In a month or so we shall be too busy to think about anything else, but at present we are comparatively quiet just here.Give my love to Emily & to Lascelles when you see him

Yours ever Edward Thomas[4]

Thomas affects a moderated tone out of consideration for his friend. It would be awkward to bring Bottomley through all the ups and downs of his experience when he has heard little or nothing of his friend in weeks. No friend of Thomas, after all, is reading him as steadily as we are–the daily diary and the frequent letters. So Thomas features in this letter the incidents that have shocked him and that will play well at home–being three yards from the muzzle, for instance–but he passes lightly by the real threats to his well-being: no really congenial company, no walking and no exercise. And not to mention the muzzles facing the other way… what is looming depression on when a few weeks will bring battle? An open question…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 157.
  2. Blunden will remove this line.
  3. Undertones of War, 147.
  4. The Letters of Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 277-78.