Alf Pollard’s Happy Day; Edward Brittain Learns of Geoffrey Thurlow’s Death

Yesterday, Alf Pollard led an improvised, four-man counter attack that defeated a German assault and saved an entire division’s position. He writes about the morning after in two different places in his memoir. One follows immediately upon descriptions of yesterday, but it begins a new section, entitled “Book Three: Afterwards.” The other is the very beginning of the entire memoir, which begins today and then flashes back to 1914. So it is not a stretch to say that the book is built around yesterday’s heroics and today’s reward.

The morning of the 30th April, 1917, was bright and sunny. I was awakened at ten o’clock from a deep refreshing sleep by “Bun” Morphy, at that time second in command of the battalion, who burst into my tent in a state of the deepest agitation.

“Get up at once, Pollard!” he called in his rich Irish brogue.” The Divisional General wants to have a word with you!”

I rolled over in my flea-bag and smiled up at him. Bun was a favourite with all of us.

“I’m afraid he’ll have to wait,” I rejoined. “I can’t possibly get up at present. I haven’t any pyjamas on.”

It was lamentable, but it was true. We were lying under canvas at St. Nicholas on the outskirts of Arras, having only arrived from the line at three o’clock that morning after sixteen days in action. We were all dead tired. Our spell “up the line” had been particularly strenuous. In addition, I had picked up a slight dose of gas on the way down. Fritz was shelling the Arras-Douai road and I was too overjoyed at our relief to bother to don my gas-mask. The camp was a welcome end to a long march; the Mess tent a pleasing centre. Several whiskies were needed before I fully realised I was back at rest. I was a bit tiddley-boo before I retired in search of my bed.

I found my tent all right. I found my flea-bag, properly laid out for me by my servant. The devil of it was I could not find my pyjamas. Perhaps I ought to confess that my search for them was rather perfunctory. I have often wondered why I bothered to undress. I had not had my clothes off for sixteen days; one more night would have made very little difference. As it was, I stripped naked and crept in between the blankets.

Pollard’s memoir begins as a light comedy, then–and it remains a comedy, in the old technical sense. It is a story in which, though the characters are challenged, all comes right in the end.

Bun was too excited to grasp the situation.

“Never mind your pyjamas,” he declared impatiently. “The General’s waiting for you, I tell you.”

The General would have continued to wait as far as I was concerned. Fortunately he eased the situation by coming to my tent in person accompanied by Colonel Aspinall, his G.S.O.1. How should one salute a general when in the nude? King’s Regulations makes no provision for such a contingency. I merely sat upright and hugged my blankets to my chin. Bun clicked his shining spurred riding boots to attention.

“This is Pollard, sor,” he boomed.

I realised the feelings of a rare specimen at the Zoo being shown off to two interested fellows. Colonel Aspinall fitted his eyeglass to his eye. The General held out his hand.

“I’m proud to meet you, Pollard. I’ve been hearing all about what you and Haine[1] did yesterday and I want to tell you I’m recommending both of you for the Victoria Cross.”

The Victoria Cross!—the highest honour that any citizen of the British Empire can achieve. For a moment the tent whirled round me, the pole and the seams of the canvas hopelessly intermingled with khaki and field boots. In a daze I accepted the General’s hand, forgetting all about my nakedness.

The full title of the book is, naturally, Fire-Eater: The Memoirs of a V.C. 

“I—I’m sure it’s most awfully good of you, sir,” I stammered. All my life I’ve always stammered in moments of great excitement. “It’s most awfully good of you. Er—” I was at a loss for words; then I remembered. “I’m frightfully sorry I can’t stand up, sir. As a matter of fact I couldn’t find my pyjamas last night and—er——”

Major-General Lawrie was a very tactful man. He appreciated my embarrassment.

“I quite understand,” he interposed. “You’ve not had time to dress. Have your bath and we’ll have a chat later.”

He turned to leave the tent. Colonel Aspinall’s eyeglass dropped with a faint click. I felt that he was smiling. A moment later I was alone with my thoughts. The V.C.!

Had anyone told me on August Bank Holiday 1914 that I should ever receive the V.C. or even the D.C.M., or even that I should ever be a soldier, I should have roared with laughter…

But laughter is where it ends up. His subsequent account of today, a century back, notes that there was much laughing among the officers and men of the H.A.C. And why not? They had saved the day, yesterday, and today they were out of the line and safe. And two of their officers had won the Victoria Cross. Why shouldn’t they laugh?

Here is the official citation:

On 29 April 1917 at Gavrelle, France, the troops of various units had become disorganized owing to the heavy casualties from shell fire and a subsequent determined attack with very strong forces caused further confusion and retirement. Second Lieutenant Pollard realized the seriousness of the situation and with only four men he started a counter-attack with bombs, pressing it home until he had broken the enemy attack and regained all that had been lost and much ground in addition. This officer’s splendid example inspired courage into every man who saw him.

Skeptics might point out that when an attack fails (in the neighboring division), awarding rare and famous awards to two men who helped to prevent a disaster (rather than achieve an intended victory) is a good way of deflecting criticism. That’s a likely story, but it is hardly on point–pretty much any decoration may arrive through some combination of ulterior motives, but that does not necessarily detract from the valor it rewards. My complaint is more simple: The H.A.C. is now at the “climax of our fame” and proud of having protected the position without taking heavy casualties…

But Pollard does not describe what casualties they did take. I’m not sure, actually, that he mentions any casualties in his Regiment that day at all (one of the three companions in heroism–each was awarded the DCM–a soldier from the neighboring division, is killed today). There were probably few–the CWGC notes only five men of the H.A.C. killed yesterday near Arras, and perhaps none of these were in his company. But I don’t know. Nor do we hear a thing of the Germans Pollard shot and bombed–did they die immediately? Did they suffer? Were they given aid? Taken prisoner? Deliberately killed as a potential threat to the rear? I don’t know.

My point is, again, that it’s a comedy: Alf Pollard is a callow boy at the start of the war, and a hero at the end. He’s done good, and everyone who matters has a happy war–bravery, success, recognition. The people who die to make this happen do not make an impact on the narrative. Pollard will even go on to marry the girl who has spurned his advances throughout–the V.C. helped with that as well. So not only a comedy, but more, er, “proof” that there is something to the evolutionary argument for reckless aggression.

But I get ahead of myself, and that is against the rules. We will hear from Captain A.O. Pollard, V.C. a few more times, and he will continue to represent a literary style more popular than that of the vast majority of the writers we read here. Pollard, just like Sassoon or Owen, deserves to be read in context, and examined alongside (rather than condemned for) his assumptions: a general will write a forward for his book, pitching it as a how-to guide for boys, all of whom “must long to receive the Victoria Cross.” And perhaps it is. But it’s worth asking how the author of a book so staunchly enthusiastic about war might fare when the chances for such happy heroism vanish and the memories fade. And it’s also fair to ask what the literary and historical qualities might be that recommend further reading of this book for those who aspire to recognition that can be earned in more humane and less dire circumstances than the Victoria Cross.[2]

 

And, of course, even being able to look to the future, as Pollard can, is a gift of Providence–or an omission of Fate. Or happenstance. Edward Brittain writes to his sister Vera today, a century back, with more bad news.

Brocton Camp, Stafford, 30 April 1917

Dearest Vera —

I only heard this morning from Miss Thurlow that Geoffrey was killed in action on April 23rd–a week ago to-day–and  I sent you a cable about noon. No details are known yet as his people only got the War office telegram on Saturday evening; I have been afraid for him for so long and yet now that he has gone it is so very hard—that prince among men with so fine an appreciation of all that was worth appreciating and so ideal a method of expression…

Always a splendid friend with a splendid heart and a man who won’t be forgotten by you or me however long or short a time we may live. Dear child, there is no more to say; we have lost almost all there was to lose and what have we gained? Truly as you say has patriotism worn very very threadbare.

Victor seems to be much better; Mother will be able to tell you more about him than I can as she sees him every day. She says his voice has come back just as it was before and that he speaks quite sensibly though his memory is not yet very good. He has asked for me to come and see him again and I hope to get up next Saturday.

He doesn’t seem to realise that he is blind yet but thinks he has a bandage over his eyes; I am rather afraid of what may happen when he finds out. I will write again in a day or two as soon as I hear any more about Geoffrey. This is an unlucky place–I was here when Roland died of wounds, when Tah was blinded, and when Geoffrey was killed.

Good-night, dear child.

Your affectionate

Edward[3]

The letter will take weeks; a telegram arrive in Malta tomorrow.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Haine's actions preceded Pollard's--he slept late, you may remember--and so we skipped the regiment's initial heroics.
  2. Fire-Eater: The Memoirs of a V.C., 12-21, 227.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 346.

Alf Pollard’s Finest Hour; Max Plowman Meets an Interesting Man; Siegfried Sassoon Between Cussedness and Martyrdom; Beauty and Ugliness From Olaf Stapledon; Edwin Vaughan in Amiens

For two days, now, Alf Pollard and the Honourable Artillery Company have been back in the line near Gavrelle, on the Arras front.

I was in support to the First Battalion Royal Marines and did not anticipate that I should have anything to do at all. Consequently I disposed the whole of my Company in dug-outs and, retiring to my own, relaxed into much needed slumber.

I slept right through the barrage and the initial onslaught…

Of course he did, and with good classical precedent! Alexander the Great and many other heroes demonstrated their perfect confidence by sleeping late on the day of battle. But Pollard is awoken with a message ordering him to form a flank defense:

It was obvious that something had gone wrong. I must act at once.

Pollard emerges into a “curious hush,”  like the calm before the storm. But–he is a natural warrior, you see–his heart is pounding and his instincts tell him that he is in danger. The Marines have advanced up ahead, but Pollard’s is the last company on the Division’s left, and it would seem that the next Division over had failed in its attack and now a German counter-attack is threatening the unnamed unit directly to Pollard’s left.

I was at the limit of my own trench, which was the extreme left of the Divisional front, wondering what I should do next. Suddenly a bombing attack started from the direction of Oppy Wood. Bang! Bang! Zunk! Zunk! I could see the smoke from the explosions nearly a mile away. Fritz was attacking down the trench.

A few minutes later, Pollard sees the British troops resisting the counter-attack suddenly break and run.

Panic! Sheer unaccountable panic! …The sort of thing the greatest psychologist in the world could not explain; a sudden terror which affected the whole force simultaneously. It was a sight I hope I never see again. For a brief moment it had its effect on me.

For “what seemed like some minutes,” Pollard relates, he remained “shaking” and indecisive. But it was really only a few seconds: the Germans could now turn the flank of his own division, and something must be done.

Then the curious feeling came to me… that I was no longer acting under my own volition. Something outside myself, greater than I, seemed to take charge of me. Already under this mysterious influence I ran forward.

Pollard takes control of the strange troops and orders them to spread out and fire their rifles, more to regain their confidence than to hit anything. Then, leaving both these leaderless and recently panicked troops (he is confident that “The British Tommy does not do that sort of thing twice in a morning”) and his own company–his own command–behind, he explores down the trench the Germans had been attacking, followed by his runner and one more man, an ad hoc volunteer. They push up the trench away from his defensive line, and are joined by one more man. Pollard’s orders are simply to hurl their few bombs around the next traverse whenever he fires his pistol. For two hundred yards the trench is empty.

Then suddenly, as I entered one end of a stretch of trench between two traverses, a big Hun entered the other, rifle and bayonet in his hand. I fired; he dropped his rifle and clapped both hands to his stomach. Almost instantaneously with my shot I heard the whizz of Reggie’s bomb as it passed over my head. A second man appeared behind the first. I fired again and he dropped like a stone. Bang! Bang! The two other bombs thrown by my followers exploded one after the other.

The third man saw the fate of his predecessors and turned to go back. Those behind, not knowing what had happened tried to come forward. I fired again. Bang!  Zunk! went the remaining bombs of our small store. That was enough. The next instant the Hun attack was in full retreat.

This is an excellent example of several things. First, of the importance of on-the-spot tactical leadership–even irresponsible, desperately chancy leadership, so long as it seizes the initiative. Second, of the continued importance, albeit in a (literally) narrow category of actions (fighting along a trench, rather than “over the top”) of old-fashioned reckless aggression, a.k.a valor. (The charging maniac routing a timid multitude in a narrow space is a tired trope of action movies, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.)

And if we examine those two points we realize that this action is important because it is exceptional–it’s a brave, reckless gamble, and very successful. But Pollard is not leading a storming party against a key gate or a forlorn hope against a breach; he is not inspiring the rest of the men who can see him as he charges across an open battlefield. He is winning a local action fought below ground level; at most he is stabilizing a front of a few hundred yards in a several-hundred-mile trench system. It’s a reminder that even exceptional valor can’t win wars anymore.

The valor is the same; it just doesn’t apply. Pollard isn’t just exceptionally good at fighting–he is also, necessarily, fortunate. In the good old days, half the potential Achilleses of the army weren’t killed by the artillery before they got into hand-weapon range. But Pollard has to first be lucky not to have been killed by weapons aimed in his general direction by calm men hundreds of yards or even a few miles away; only then can he begin being heroic in a convenient bit of trench.

Finally, this is an excellent example of what John Keegan will call “Zap-Blatt-BanzaiGott im Himmel-Bayonet in the Guts” history. Except Pollard’s Huns don’t even get to say that much.

In other words, this is an exciting tale, but I don’t think we can blithely accept its unspoken premise: that since the terms of the fight–kill or be killed, in essence–are set, we need give no further thought to the consequences of all this shooting and bomb-hurling. And what happens next–the four men press on without any bombs (grenades) but are able to collect enemy and grenades during a fortuitous lull in enemy action, then continue fighting by dodging around corners–is uncannily like a video game. Which is not to condemn video games for being violent: it’s to condemn true stories in which deadly violence goes completely unquestioned.

I’ll paraphrase the rest of the tale. Pollard and his three-man army press on into German territory though he proudly confesses that “discretion had gone to the winds”–a pointed word-choice given discretion’s proverbial counterpart. Why this recklessness?

…my blood was up. I felt a thrill only comparable to running through the opposition at Rugger to score a try.

He leaves one man with a collection of rifles by a barricade–this reminds him of Robinson Crusoe’s fantasy of solo defense–and, with the other two, makes ready to defend their gains with bombs. They do; soon “the air was thick with bombs” and though they throw nearly all they have, Pollard will not retreat. Then, providentially, the German attack breaks off, when one of Pollard’s friends–“Sammy,” a junior officer who seems to have figured out, without orders, that he should go up in support of his vanished company commander–arrives with the company and a large supply of bombs and ammunition. A more determined German attack is driven off, there are short digressions on different sorts of grenades and on Sammy’s coolness under fire (connected, surprisingly, to his descent from “the fighting tribes of Israel”), and then that’s that–Pollard has saved the day. He is eventually ordered to assume command of the position, then relieved after nightfall.

Pollard’s memoir is self-serving and self-aggrandizing–but that’s obvious, and so the notes of humility are, well, worth noting. They are either little nods to convention–“I should take the occasional breath while blowing my own horn,” “I wouldn’t want to court nemesis through hubris”–or, just possibly, symptoms of a much larger madness. We have seen Pollard note that “his blood was up,” admit that to press on was illogical, and mention in passing that he left his own command without clear orders in order to push on alone, to be followed by only three willing men.

That all seems plausible–but it read very differently when Siegfried Sassoon did a very similar thing. Why? Perhaps if Sassoon were to have been given a high military honor (he wasn’t, in part because the Royal Welch tried not to ask for honors for non-professional soldiers, in part because no high-level officers were near the spot, and in part because the position wasn’t held after he left it) he would have written a more heroic account. (Or perhaps not; Sassoon has been disillusioned for some time; Pollard, never.)

But that’s not the real difference. Pollard ends the chapter by noting that he has “often wondered what would have happened had Fritz come over the top instead of sticking to the trench.” It’s obvious: “Fritz” would have killed or captured him, and he would hen have been blamed for abandoning his men to go gallivanting into enemy territory. But though Pollard “wonders,” I don’t think he really believes it might have happened: just as he portrays his courage, modestly, as a force that overtakes him without his volition (after a humanizing, but brief, struggle with fear he becomes a “natural” or “inspired” warrior), he seems to trust completely in Providence. He can humbly acknowledge that he was fortunate to get the opportunity for heroism that he did–because he does not doubt that, on some level, he deserved it.[1]

 

And I too trust in provvy–that lesser Tyche that attends the scriveners of Clio. What I mean is: Pollard is a war hero, and I don’t mean to suggest that there is any point in denying or protesting that. But I don’t like the way he chose to write about the war, the way he elides death and suffering. So I would hope that reading and research would provide some apt rejoinders from today, a century back. And we are indeed fortunate–all two and a half of our regular pacifists have shown up for duty.

 

Max Plowman wrote to his friend Janet Upcott today, a century back, from the Bowhill Auxiliary Hospital for Officers. He is physically sound… but the after-effects of shell-shock may linger. At least, he feels healthy enough, yet he has been in one hospital or another for three months, now.

…Tell me Jane–honest, candid, sober, true… what your idea of this place is–or rather was before you got this? Did you think it was a sort of private lunatic asylum? My only reason for thinking it may be is that from asylums, I believe, the question that recurs to me is heard more often than from anywhere else. “Why do they still keep me?” –As a matter of fact I asked that so long ago that I’ve got tired of asking it, & now I’m beginning to get settled here for the duration I suppose I really shall soon be turfed out. I think the Doctor here has decided that normally I should have the hide of a rhinoceros & the nerves of a hauser, so if I’m really going to wait for that unhappy state to transpire, I’m sure the next time I leave here will be about 1947 in a long black box.

Still of course I don’t complain so far. The Ducal Mansion is perhaps preferable to snow on Vimy Ridge & I have no doubt that I have missed a good deal worth missing when I see that all my old company officers are now back or dead.

The letter continues, rambling and ruminating about the conduct of the war, the cynical way in which the vested interests seem disinterested in peace, and the foolish criticisms of military operations by those who have never fought in the trenches. Like other experienced officers with pacifist or anti-war opinions, Plowman is at once aghast at the waste of the war and the complacency of the high command and yet keenly interested in the new tactics that had showed promise at Arras. And like other experienced officers with pacifist or anti-war opinions, Plowman is working on his first collection of poetry–in that endeavor he’s a bit behind, but in another matter he takes precedence.

I met one rather interesting man up here. a Dr ______ who’s a professor of Psychology at Cambridge. He’s at Craiglockhart Edinburgh from which this place is an offshoot. I was talking to him about Freud’s book on dreams & he lent me Hart’s Psychology of Insanity as an introduction to it…

This would be Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, and thus our second prefiguring of Pat Barker’s Regeneration. Rivers is real, and he’s a remarkable man, combining in his modest person the Victorian adventurism of the heroic age of science, 20th century psychoanalytic healing, and timeless humanity and courage. Those who are interested in learning a bit more about this man–Cambridge professor, Freudian, South Pacific anthropologist, pioneering neurologist, and shell-shock-doctor-to-the-writers–can seek out more information easily enough, or read Barker’s historical fiction trilogy.

Amusingly, even though Plowman is our first writer to meet Rivers and be struck by his unique charisma (after all, he is the only person Plowman wants to discuss), and although he will be far from the best poet to do so, his initial reaction to the good doctor is to take offense at Rivers’s disinterest in poetry:

But I gave him up when he said he could no longer read poetry; not, really, because I wanted to inflict mine on him, but because now & from henceforth & for evermore I will not trust a mind which has become so divorced from nature it cannot appreciate poetry. The more you think either of words or the amoeba–either of material, mind, matter or Mumbo Jumbo the more amazing it becomes to here a confessedly learned man admit & say: “You know I can’t appreciate poetry now–my appreciation of the exact use of words is too great…” The sight of an exact word is the worst nightmare I can think of so far…

Yours ever

Max.[2]

 

Another officer with experience bombing more or less alone up an enemy trench, with pacifist or anti-war opinions (he would he the “half-pacifist,” in my dubious math, above), and with a future in medical care for a condition… let’s say “associated with” shell shock is, of course, Siegfried Sassoon, now recovering in London after being shot through the shoulder.

April 29

A lovely morning after a sleepless night. The trees outside have become misty with green since last night. I am just emerging from the usual beautiful dream about ‘not going back’–‘war over in the autumn’—‘getting a job in England’, etc. These ideas always emanate from one’s friends in:England, and one’s own feeble state of mind when ill, and fed up, arid amazed at being back in comfort and safety.

Things must take their course; and I know I shall be sent out again to go through it all over again with added refinements of torture. I am no good anywhere else: all I can do is to go there and set an example. Thank heaven I’ve got something to live up to. But surely they’ll manage to kill me next time! Something in me keeps driving me on: I must go on till I am killed. Is it cussedness (because so many people want me to survive the war)–or is it the old spirit of martyrdom—’ripe men of martyrdom’, as Crashaw says?[3]

This question–or this tangled skein of questions–will occupy us quite a bit over the coming months…

 

It’s been a long day, but I still feel that reading Olaf Stapledon is well worthwhile. This is a young man who rowed with Julian Grenfell, who could easily have spent much of the last few years enthusiastically killing Germans until they killed him–but he had chosen only to risk the latter, while trying instead to save the wounded victims of the war.

A few ago, a century back, he had appended to a previous letter a description of “a pretty dance with three cars that got stuck in a badly shelled spot.” This may be Olaf’s most explicit description of personal danger in his letters to Agnes, and it underscores how infrequently–though he agonizes about different types of pacifist commitment and often discusses the political and philosophical underpinnings of his actions–he mentions the mortal risks ambulance crews take.

One of them had to repairs done to it before it could be moved. We were four hours at it, alternately working & seeking cover as the bombardment varied in seriousness. All the cars were badly peppered by we got them all away without serious harm to them & no damage to ourselves, though we had some quite narrow escapes. The convoy has been “cited,” which means that we paint the croix de guerre on each car.

Then, today, there is the happier news that the ambulance unit is in rest–or, rather, “repos–” their first full-unit rest in eight months.

Our last day at the front was rather eventful because they bombarded our village with some success and the main street was literally strewn with dead and wounded… One shell accounted for about twenty men… It was an ugly business…

Next day we left with our division for repos, and just after we had cleared out a shell fell in the yard where we kept most of our cars. It would have done much damage had we been there, and probably would have killed a good number of us. So our departure was lucky…

Our present spot is very peaceful and the spring weather has come. Yesterday in memory of ancient days with you I wore a celandine in my buttonhole. That is a little spring rite with me…

There is no sound of war at all, but much singing of birds and bleating of sheep. And yesterday we heard the cuckoo and saw him lazily flap across a little glade. Oh  Agnes, there is such a lovely lovers’ walk down a little narrow valley…

There are cowslips and periwinkles, violets and wood anemones. We revel in all such things after months of winter, and after a surfeit of war…[4]

 

Finally, today, I would be courting Nemesis myself if I omitted a visit to the cathedral. With his battalion still in rest billets, Edwin Vaughan has been taking his ease in Amiens, still close to the front lines on the now quiescent Somme. Yesterday it was a bath at the Hôtel Belfort and lunch at the Hôtel du Rhin; today, breakfast in bed and late mass in the Cathedral… and nothing to say about it. Lunch at ‘L’Universe,’ ices, “luxurious haircuts and shampoos,” dinner at the Hôtel du France, and a late night–not a bad little war, altogether.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Fire-Eater, 217-24.
  2. Bridge into the Future, 63-5.
  3. Diaries, 162. Richard Crashaw is a metaphysical poet of the 17th century.
  4. Talking Across the World, 221-3.
  5. Some Desperate Glory, 105.

Adlestrop Arrives; Kate Luard Quotes a Critique: “It Seems a Pity;” Battle Pieces and Counter-Bombardments: Two Ways to Observe a Battle, with Guy Chapman; Herbert Read Arrives; Duff and Diana Read the Source

None of Edward Thomas‘s poems appeared under his own name while he lived. Today, a century back, The New Statesman published what will become his best known and most widely loved poem, Adlestrop.

He would have been less interested, I think, in such fame than in the praise he has won from friends, above all the words which were just sent by Frost for the comfort of his widow.

But there are other traditional assessments of death and its qualities, hardly less conditional in their predication of judgments to the mind of the deceased: some might say something like “at least we can say that Edward Thomas had a quick and painless death.” I distrust cliches on such unfathomable topics, but perhaps we can inch toward comprehending such a sentiment as we read accounts which describe the sufferings of those who die slowly.)

 

Which brings us to Kate Luard, who continues to take stock of the pain of the Battle of Arras. Her celebration of courage never wavers, but I questioned recently whether that very celebration–absent any sense that the war’s cost might be protested by the men bearing the worst of it–isn’t more problematic than it might seem. Sister Luard is not about to turn protestor, but she seems almost to have heard the question, posed a century on, and opened up her record of the war to one short, stoic query of all this suffering. If she won’t ask the question, she will let one of her patients–to whom she has accidentally been cruelly (by her own lights) honest–speak freely. (And, indeed, what could someone already devoting all her time and energy to nursing the wounded of both sides do, but write?)

There’s a handsome Scot with one leg off who asked me last night to take his socks off. I took one off. ‘Have you taken the other off, too?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I said guiltily; ‘they’re both off now.’ Next day Sister told me he knew his leg was off, but he didn’t. To-night he said, ‘My feet are hot.’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘especially the one you haven’t got, I suppose?’ (It always is the one they feel most.) ‘Have I got but one?’ he said. I was covered with confusion. ‘Ah, well, I can see by what ye say I’ve got but one, but it’s no matter. I feel a pain in them whiles, but I can smile between the pains. I’ve got two daughters and a wee son I’ve never seen. I know what I’ll do when I do see them. Don’t I know!’ (And I’m afraid he’s in for gas gangrene and may not see them.) Then he looked round the ward at all the stumps and splints and heads and said, ‘Seems a pity nearly everyone has to get like this before Peace is declared.'[1]

 

From Sister Luard, then, to the Royal Welch, where the semi-official chronicle of Dr. Dunn also draws a very thin, sharp line between the truth of war and the lies that spring up like mushrooms in the mud.

The account of our recent action which G.H.Q. has received and published makes very interesting reading. “Our troops charged down the ridge,” “driving the enemy down at a canter”: of aught else–nothing. What artistry!

…Rumour is never so busy as during a fight. Following the fight comes the legend, and it grows hourly as individuals, often far away, and units gather to themselves credit and garlands, or have these thrust upon them for the credit of someone else. It’s all so human and amusing.[2]

Amusing, perhaps, but only to those on one side of the experiential gulf. G.H.Q. may be in France, but it is far from the troops, and the truth.

 

Guy Chapman‘s A Passionate Prodigality is one of the best books written about the war, and both its subject and its execution fit this project up and down. Except for the alight problem that Chapman, another literary young officer, never gives dates. But today, shortly after Chapman is sent down from the staff to find his battalion (the 13th Royal Fusiliers), I get a rare chance to match his memoir to a historically recognizable action. We won’t really be able to track his development, so this is s snippet to recommend a worthy book to enterprising readers–and to advance today’s accidental discussion of truth in battlefield historiography.

The attack was to be launched at streak of dawn, 4.25; and at that moment a wild racket was once more loosed into the void. Once more the curtain of darkness was changed to a whirling screen in which flaming clusters, red, orange and gold, dropped and died; and dun smoke, illuminated by explosions, drifted away greyish white. Once more red and green rockets called frantically for aid. Once more eyes stared into the impenetrable cataract, vainly trying to pick out familiar outlines. The enemy’s barrage joined the din. Black columns of smoke stormed up in the foreground. And through it all came wave on wave of the malicious chitter of machine guns.

But Chapman isn’t in the attack; he is watching from a hill–at least at the start. He is no Epicurean, and does not find the spectacle a soothing one. His account of watching the attack from a distance harmonizes marvelously with the Royal Welch complaint about “battle piece” obfuscations.

The story of this attack will no doubt appear in the military history of the war, elucidated by diagrams. To the watchers on the hill-side it was only a confused medley, in which English and Germans appeared most disconcertingly going to and fro, oblivious of each other. Even later it was only possible to glean that one brigade had lost direction, and coming up behind the flank of the other after the position had been taken, had swept on, carrying away with it the better part of two companies of the 13th; that some reached Square Wood, a mile past the objective, and that perhaps a dozen in all returned. This is part of history, but all we were able to see were some of the ingredients.

Chapman is no doubt right about how the battle will look in large-scale histories, but, ironically, his later “gleaning” seems to derive from either the official regimental history or a common source among regimental papers:

On April 28th began that series of attacks which aimed principally, if not wholly, at assisting the French. The 13th Battalion attacked from the trenches about 300 yards east of the Gavrelle-Roeux road. Their objective was the Whip cross-roads, south-east of Gavrelle. The attack began at 4.25 a.m…  At 10.15 a.m… Nos. 3 and 4, held the road, including the cross-roads, for some 250 yards. The success was complete though the Fusiliers had been constantly harassed by fire from snipers and machine guns…

While the Fusiliers were on their objective a body of the 63rd Brigade swept across their front leading towards Square Wood from the south-west. They had lost direction, but they succeeded in carrying a body of Fusiliers with them until they were recalled. The 10th Battalion, in support of the 13th on their right flank, had made persistent attempts to get into touch with this brigade, but without success.[3]

Just one more brief bit of Chapman. He sees the German counter-attack massing and tries to help, rushing to alert the gunner-observers on the hill with him. But they know their business, and Chapman is once more forced to be the more passive sort of observer, and a very different sort of ancient Roman exemplar from the smooth-browed Epicurean philosopher:

I caught in my glass a grey ant crawling over the edge of the railway cutting, followed by another, and then more…

When I looked again, the assembled ants had moved. They came crawling over the top of Greenland Hill in three lines, about six hundred strong. They were just starting down the forward slope when something flashed in front of them. A column of bright terra-cotta smoke was flung upwards so high, that there shot into my memory the pictures of the djinns in an old copy of the Arabian Nights, and I half expected a leering hook-nosed face to look down from its summit…

More Germans join the counter-attack.

All the field guns were firing now. In what seemed a few minutes this formation too was scattered. Small groups tried to escape by flinging away to the flank. ‘One-o degrees more right, up fifty,’ shouted my neighbour.  A little puff of white smoke danced gallantly in the air. A few tiny figures shrank to dots. ‘Got ’em,’ he shouted; ‘Repeat.’ other officers up and down the trench were excitedly calling similar orders. In ten minutes the counter-attack was broken, smashed, and tossed in the air like a handful of dust: and up here everyone was whooping, laughing, and holloing. We were a Roman audience at the Coliseum, bull-fighting fans at a fiesta, good citizens who brown a pack of grouse tearing down the October wind: we were in fact a group of young Englishmen who had just helped to knock out about a thousand Boche, and we were damned glad about it.

His counter-attacks broken, the enemy spent the day shelling what he could get at. One shuddered to think of flesh cringing beneath the huge shells which fell again and again along the battered line. Darkness came gently in. I turned as I crossed the skyline. Solitary shells were singing through the air. Dull crunches announced their arrival in the distance. A dump was burning in Plouvain, and against its lights, black ghosts towered upwards.[4]

 

Another young officer and powerful writer will shortly become a bit easier to keep tabs on. Herbert Read has returned to the fight, and joins our recent company of subalterns quite pleased with their new company.:

28.iv.17

I arrived at my battalion last night, after wandering over the face of France for three days…

I am in the thick of the new fighting. We are not in the trenches, but expect to go up sooner or later. But it is intensely interesting: no fear of getting bored here. The guns are going all day and night. this morning, very early, we were wakened by a furious strafe. You know what ordinary thunder is like: imagine that continuous for a couple of hours and yourself not listening to it, but inside the heart of it: that’s something like it. And then the air is one continuous quiver of gun-flashes…

I like my new battalion very well on first impressions: there are three other officers in my company, and they are all very decent fellows… I expect I shall be quite happy. We are all optimists out here. We’ve got the Boche absolutely cowed, and our men are splendid. There are big events pending–and if they go as we expect the war will be over in no time. With a bit of ordinary luck I’ll see you sometime these summer holidays.[5]

 

And back in London, Duff Cooper continues to pursue Diana Manning, only to be continually driven to distraction by the interference of “Scatters.” Three days ago, Duff “went home in a black rage not only of jealousy and anger but also of sorrow that she should sink to such depths as Scatters.” Two days ago she called to apologize, and he accused her of “deteriorating” and confided in his diary that “I loved her less.”

Today, a century back, Duff and Diana made up–almost successfully. They had dinner and “a great quantity of champagne,” Afterwards, to get her back to his place, Duff

bribed her with the promise that she should read my diary. She came and I read her all the last month. I was drunk and had forgotten, when I started, the incident of reading hers, I had to go through with it. She took it well and assured me that she didn’t mind. I regretted bitterly having done it.[6]

Whether in France or in London we have strange optimism, questionable tactics, nonsensical strategy, and valor in the face of self-inflicted adversity…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 119.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 340-1.
  3. O'Neill, The Royal Fusiliers in the Great War.
  4. A Passionate Prodigality, 163-6.
  5. The Contrary Experience, 90-1.
  6. The Duff Cooper Diaries, 52-3.

Robert Frost on Edward Thomas: It Was Beautiful as He Did It; Vera Brittain Recommits; Kate Luard on Kindness and Courage

Vera Brittain‘s recent thoughts about her future–and about Victor Richardson–are not yet settled. It occurred to her almost immediately that she might come home in order to turn her service into a more personal form of sacrifice–but she is not yet ready to give up her service with the V.A.D. In a letter of today, a century back, to her brother Edward she reacts to new details of Victor’s wounding, but we also learn that she has recommitted to her nursing job.

Malta, 27 April 1917

…I am so longing to hear more details about Victor, whether he is soon likely to be out of danger & whether his eyesight can be saved. Some member of the family sent me a cable after yours to say ‘Head wound improving. Recommended Military Cross.’ It would be so splendid if he could get the latter — some small compensation for all that he has lost. He will indeed have bridged that gulf between you which made him so miserable; do you remember that evening when we all dined at the Coventry Restaurant & he would hardly speak because he felt the difference between you so acutely. I always thought he would rise to the occasion in the end; when nervous & sensitive people can once make up their minds to a thing they usually do it supremely well; the fear is only beforehand. I feel a little  sad, perhaps, to think that Roland, the bravest of the brave, alone of you three has no decoration, & lies beneath His Cross instead of wearing it. But He would have been the last to grudge them to you, & after all His courage
needed no guarantees.

… None of you have mentioned at all anything about [Victor’s] reason being affected, so I am hoping it is not, though unfortunately it is a characteristic of so many head wounds, though sometimes only temporally…

I do wish I could see & talk to him, but am afraid it is not likely yet (though in this world of vicissitudes anything may happen) as I have just signed on again to-day. Now that I have served so long I feel very unwilling to break my service even for a little time, as continuous service in these days, when so many people who started nursing got bored & left it off, is an honourable & in many ways an advantageous thing, & of course even the least little interval breaks it, spoiling one’s record & cancelling the past. This doesn’t necessarily mean that one can’t come to England for a little time without breaking it. There may be ways & means in the future of managing that…[1]

To these reasons–honor, service, and the possibility of losing her accumulated seniority–she will add that she suspects that exciting things will be happening in the Mediterranean…

 

I did promise that I would return to Kate Luard‘s diary in part to let her respond, as it were, to my complaints that unstinting praise of stoic suffering is in some way loosely aligned with the censorship of wartime dissent.

This is a little oblique, but more or less on point: suffering can also stimulate a humanity that ignores the very lines that define the war.

…In one ward there’s hardly a man with two legs; and when one Boche made a noise when he was being dressed, there was a chorus of encouragement from the British beds: ‘Hold on, Fritz, soon be done–be all right in a minute,’ regardless of any difficulty in language!

Or perhaps this scene is more fraught than it seems: would these men have no qualms about going out and doing to each other what they have already done, the same violence that landed them together in this hospital?

Next, Luard writes about the particularly “glorious boy” who is paralyzed. There seems to be some confusion or uncertainty about what X-rays might accomplish. It is painful to think that after being kept in the dark about his condition (as Victor Richardson has been), however briefly,  the paralyzed young officer is being offered false hope of recovery:

…The 6 ft. boy wounded in the spine with total paralysis below the chest was safely taken to the train this evening. When I told him he was going down to be X-rayed, he said, ‘That’ll be better than lying on my back all my life,’ and his eyes filled with tears. All these days he has never said one word of complaint or self-pity, though he knew his probable fate from the second day.

And finally, a pen portrait we might wish a little longer:

An Orderly who has been running the Marquee of 50 stretcher-cases without a Sister, has gone sick with trench fever. He leads one of the most Christlike lives I’ve ever seen; there is no other word for his selfless devotion, though he is comic beyond words in speech and appearance![2]

 

Finally, today, a few excerpts from Robert Frost’s letter to Helen Thomas.

Amherst Mass
April 27 1917

Dear Helen:

…People have been praised for self-possession in danger. I have heard Edward doubt if he was as brave as the bravest. But who was ever so completely himself right up to the verge of destruction, so sure of his thought, so sure of his word? He was the bravest and best and dearest man you and I have ever known…

I want to see him to tell him something. I want to tell him, what I think he liked to hear from me, that he was a poet…

It was beautiful as he did it, And I don’t suppose there is anything for us to do to show our admiration but to love him forever.

Robert[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 343-5.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 118-9.
  3. Elected Friends, 189-90.

Lady Feilding and the Gas Attack; Hope for Kate Luard’s Glorious Boy; Visitors for Siegfried Sassoon; Henry Williamson: Wasting Mules, Skyhigh Verbiage, and Safe Souvenirs

As we catch up with several writers who have not been on the front lines at Arras, we have a few shorter updates, today, as well as an overdue missive from Lady Feilding.

In something like a literary crossing of paths, Thomas Hardy wrote to Edmund Gosse, today, praising his new book. Gosse, meanwhile, was visiting with a young family connection also known to Hardy through the younger man’s uncle, Hamo Thornycroft. Siegfried Sassoon is evidently pleased to be so distracted:

April 26

My sixth day in this hospital. Roderick came this afternoon. And afterwards Robbie and Edmund Gosse, who was in delightful good humour.[1]

 

Sassoon’s battalion, meanwhile, is out of the line, though far smaller than it was when he left it. In reserve, but knowing that they will soon march again, the 2nd/Royal Welch engage in one of the milder ironies of industrial warfare’s waste.

…moved to Blairville. Socks, dozens of pairs, are being thrown out all over the camp, the result of a consignment from the Welfare Association having been delivered. Those in the packs of the dead were just thrown out, and shirts too, all good, to rot or be burned.

Our casualties for the tour are 13 officers, 4 of them killed, and about 120 other ranks out of a trench strength of 350.[2]

 

Two days ago, a century back, Henry Williamson was once again in trouble. After a visit from a military vet, who found some of the mules under his care “apparently neglected, and wasting away,” he was “straffed like hell” by his superiors.

There is no mention of this latest bump in the road in a letter he then wrote to his mother. Instead he produced a long, strenuously literary, sentimental letter, full of swooping birds (at least six different species are mentioned) and melodramatic and ominous sights. A brief sampling:

In the vast blue above the newly arrived swallows wheel and call and from yonder grim and black wood the cuckoo sings. Spring is here with its promise of life and hope–and Death.

…I ‘spose the blue-tits will soon vibrate with the thunder of the guns–tons of earth will be blown skyhigh in huge black fountains–the shrapnel will burst in white soft clouds above the wire–Hell itself will be let loose, and soon the beauty of the spring will disappear, and shattered trees and torn earth alone be left–and among it, pathetic little bundles of wasting flesh will strew the ground… and the sky will still be blue, and at night the stars will shine out…

All that, perhaps, in lieu of “I got yelled at at work again today, mum.”

But by today, a century back, the elevated mood has come back toward earth, while a more familiar epistolary persona is in evidence:

The souvenirs Williamson sent home… but where are the German hand grenades?

Dearest,

Just got your letter saying you got helmets–good…Thanks for toffee & Cycling. Aren’t those helmets good souvenirs? the spikes screw on top. The flat fellow is Bavarian. Write soon send Kentish Mercury.

Love Harry. PS Guns going like hell.[3]

What became of the pickelhaubes, I do not know…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And Dorothie Feilding is in Flanders, as ever, and not on the Arras front, where things are most active. But just as “minor surgery” is surgery on someone else, there is no point objecting that someone under attack is not actually part of the day’s major offensive.

Perhaps as a response to the allied push, the Germans in Belgium launched a gas attack, not, apparently, to screen or support any major operations, but simply to damage and disconcert their enemy and perhaps take any trenches that might be abandoned or lightly held. It began three days ago, with clouds of gas–probably primarily phosgene–rolling over the lines and into the rear areas where the Munro Ambulance Corps was stationed. The scale of the attack prompted a brief telegram to her mother at home on the 24th, stating, concisely, “All well Dorothie.” Today, a century back, she elaborated in a letter to her father.

Lady Feilding generally shrugs off being almost killed by shellfire, preferring a blithe and rather daffily dismissive style. But either because of that frighteningly brief telegram or because this new experience was far more frightful than the familiar ambulance-driving under shrapnel fire, she narrates the hours after the attack in detail.

My dear Colonel

Things have been moving here just lately but I haven’t had time to write you much about them, also I was waiting till the events had been duly recited in the communique before writing about them, as it is always wisest.

This having been done I will now tell you more about it, also the rubber bath has come before I forget to thank you for it. It is a dashed fine one & I am very grateful to Mr Da.

On the 23rd about four am, Fritz suddenly started launching gas at us from the local metropolis up at N. The wind wasn’t very good for him, too much to the N with the result the gas came diagonally back from the lines & we here at no 14 got a very bad go of it. Jelly smelt it & woke up which was most intelligent of him; we all got up & threw on a few garments & of course hadn’t a gas mask in the house as ours were in the car, which that night happened to be in the other garage down in the town. There was the limousine here however & Jelly started that & then he went off with the ambulance up to the lines & the gas being very bad by then here I evacuated Winkie & Helene & the girl next door up to a hospital a few miles up the road. There I borrowed some gas masks & a spare driver as I was feeling rather faint & thought it best to have two drivers in the car. I left Winks & CO there & tore back to no 14 to find the gas had cleared away very quickly from there, as a matter of fact it had been following the road we took to the left & we were in it for 3 or 4 miles & so by bad luck got much more than the people who stayed here. By this time I was quite sure the Boche had overrun the sector as I couldn’t imagine our having it so bad & the lines being still tenable. As a matter of fact, the waves were very local & came in gusts. For instance, the main part of the town here got none. It just travelled down in long columns. I rushed up to our barracks & was awfully relieved to find them all ok. They had had very good masks & the main gas column had passed to the right of them & on our way.

Then we just worked like navvies all day till dark. Simply never an engine stopped all day & we were all pretty beat at the end of it. At the beginning, Boche had rushed our lines but we drove them out again as the commimique said & things are exactly as they were before now which is very satisfactory. The sector was very lucky to get off with the line in the old place.

It’s a dirty business gas & rather frightening; comes in great foggy waves & makes you cough your head off. Those poor, poor devils of men. I can’t tell you what it’s like to see them all lying about unconscious & in the most awful states. Much worse than blesses in a way because there is so desperately little you can do for them. In many cases they are alright for 12 to 24 hrs & then go down like logs. The Boche had a lot of casualties from our fire & we got some prisoners too.

I felt quite (fairly) alright the day itself after the 1st hour. Just rather cut. It didn’t work on me till 24hrs after when, at about 5am, I couldn’t breathe except like a scared rabbit & went down to get a drink & then felt awfully faint. This kept coming on at intervals all that day, so I went to bed in the afternoon & have been there ever since. I am quite all right again now & am getting up again now as I haven’t had a proper go of it since yesterday. It’s a beastly feeling–you can’t get a proper deep breath…

This is a long scrawl isn’t it?[4]

 

Finally, today, from behind the lines at Arras, Kate Luard reports on the status of a particularly affecting patient.

Thursday, April 26th, 10.30 p.m.

…The officer boy with the fractured spine isn’t going to die yet… I got the colonel to put him on the Evacuation list tonight to give him a chance to get X-rayed at the Base and perhaps recover…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 162.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 340.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 131-4.
  4. Lady Under Fire, 205-7.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 115.

Alf Pollard’s Enthusiasm for the Game; Isaac Rosenberg’s Aching Feet; Patrick Shaw Stewart is Summoned; Wilfred Own Describes His Longest Tour

We have four letters today, in more or less a representative distribution: two to mother, one to a patron, and one to a comrade.

But the first letter-to-mum is an unusual one, from an unusual (here, at least) writer. Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. have a lull in the action today, and he is able to fill mater in on his latest doings.

Dearest Ladybird,

Here we are again, out once more. I have had some most interesting and exciting times since last writing, including going over the top again. I am once more in charge of the Company as the man senior to me got laid out with a bullet. I shall probably be a Captain again in a day or two but one never knows as somebody else senior may be sent along. You see, the present arrangement of the government is that all promotions are by seniority irrespective of fighting qualities. So really one has no chance of being more than a Second Lieutenant whatever one does. However I don’t care a bit what rank I am.

I had a most exciting adventure in a Hun trench the other day. I cut through their wire and got into their trench thinking it was unoccupied, but soon discovered it was full of Huns and consequently had to beat a hasty retreat. I got out all right fortunately. I heard a rumour that the Brigadier has recommended me for a bar to my M.C. in consequence of this little business so if you keep your eyes glued on the paper you may shortly see my name in it. Don’t think I have been taking any unnecessary risks because I have not. I have merely done what I have been asked to do.

Well, dear old lady…

Best of spirits and having a good time. By the way, I gave killed another Hun. Hurrah!

Well, cheerioh!

This letter is one of the few Pollard takes the trouble to preserve, and he does so with an explanatory comment, namely

…because it throws such a clear light on my attitude towards war… I thoroughly enjoyed going into action… People tell me I must have a kink in my nature; that my zest to be in the forefront of the battle was unnatural. I do not agree with them…[1]

No, he assures us, he is merely very highly motivated to win the war, and believes that the British Army can, and soon. If this is a gambit to convince those horrified by enthusiasm for killing into accepting what we might term the “realism” of his statements, it’s not a very good one.

Yes, it’s a war, and it is much more deeply illogical to believe that your side is in the right and yet still hope to bring about a satisfying conclusion without violence. But this is a pacifist’s dilemma, and it doesn’t explain the enthusiasm for personal violence. Invoking the common terminology of war and sport–“keen to win”–does nothing to show that there is some moral through-line from the young officer excited to get his name in the paper for killing people and the responsible adult who seeks to defeat German militarism and liberate France and Belgium, accepting that there will be a price to pay for this, in blood.

Then there is the question of the “kink.” I don’t think a discursus into human evolutionary biology and the sociology of violence is necessary here, but it’s tempting… Briefly (and sloppily), this is indeed a “kink…” and yet it is quite natural. Most of us are by nature (as well as nurture) horrified by direct physical violence unless driven to it by some extreme emotion–terror, jealousy, even rage have some clear evolutionary benefits. But we don’t generally kill without passion–we could hardly have evolved in small, cooperative groups otherwise. And yet, some people lack this inhibition… some of them may become violent sociopaths or psychopaths, others may lead normal lives unless they are at some point given a handful of weapons and asked to go and hunt down other people, for God and for Country. Presumably their sang froid during hunting for food over the thousands of generations of Prehistory preserved their genes despite their danger to the group–after all, they win decorations and bounties get their names preserved among the valorous…

Apologies for the fast-and-loose “science” without careful hypothesis or actual evidence, which is , of course, not science at all. But I do think a glance at the animal and the “early man” beneath the recently-civilized human being yields plausible explanations… What put me in mind of this, actually, was Pollard’s choice of the phrase “forefront of the battle.” This was probably borrowed, perhaps at some remove, from translations of ancient epic: nothing could be more Homeric than the idea that the best men–those who are the leaders of contingents, those who earn fame and glory and prizes–fight literally before (i.e. “in front of”) the rest of the men in the battle, those lesser men who prefer less direct, less deadly, missile-weapon-oriented conflict.

Pollard is not insane, nor is his happy warrior pose “unnatural,” but he is very unusual: he has the mentality of a Homeric hero, someone who values glory–“winning”–so highly that the taking of lives doesn’t really enter into the moral calculus, even though they recognize that in other contexts killing is wrong. Although Pollard is capable of recognizing the brutality and sadness of war, he is also more than capable of forgetting it. He does not see the unavailing suffering of other men as detracting from the meaningfulness of glory or the positive valence of skillful, violent action–and this, now, is beginning to put him at odds with several writers more prominent in this project.[2]

But we can continue to explore this attitude in subsequent posts. Pollard’s letter is also included in the memoir at this point because he wishes to connect his realistic “attitude towards war” with his exceptional talent for it. He can’t really claim to be modest, but he can argue that what he does next is all in the service of winning (which he could have phrased as “ending”) the war…

 

We followed several units-with-writers during the attack of the 23rd, and of course failed to discuss many others. One of these was the Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division, badly mauled during the advance. Two of the remaining “Argonauts” of the Gallipoli expedition are still with the Division–Bernard Freyberg now commands a brigade, while Arthur “Oc” Asquith, Raymond‘s younger brother, commanded the Hood battalion in the assault, leading it close behind the British barrage in the assault on Gavrelle. The attack was successful, but at the cost of nearly 200 casualties, including seven officers killed outright. Today, a century back, Asquith wrote to his old comrade Patrick Shaw Stewart. Shaw Stewart had schemed successfully to leave his cushy post in the East to return to the battalion, and danger. But there has been rather a long interlude, spent largely in futile pursuit of the divine Diana, followed by a stint on a refresher course at Le Touquet. Now he is summoned directly.

My dear Patsy,

Come as soon as you can. I lost 3 Company C.O.s the day before yesterday.

Love, yrs Oc.[3]

 

Also today, a century back, Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother. It was his first letter in a long while, and in it he describes the longest, hardest time of his service in France (we have drawn on this letter already). The 2nd Manchesters, down on the southern part of the British line, made an assault more than two weeks ago, before Owen had rejoined from hospital. Since then they have not been in an attack, but–no doubt due to the concentration of force for the Battle of Arras–they have remained an awfully long time in front-line trenches.

25 April 1917  A. Coy., My Cellar

My own dearest Mother,

Immediately after I sent my last letter, more than a fortnight ago, we were rushed up into the Line. Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our objectives. Our A Company led the Attack, and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells & bullets. Fortunately there was no bayonet work, since the Hun ran before we got up to his trench…

The reward we got for all this was to remain in the Line 12 days. For twelve days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep. For twelve days we lay in holes, where at any moment a shell might put us out. I think the worst incident was one wet night when we lay up against a railway embankment. A big shell lit on the top of the bank, just 2 yards from my head. Before I awoke, I was blown in the air right away from the bank! I passed most of the following days in a railway cutting, in a hole just big enough to lie in, and covered with corrugated iron. My brother officer of B Coy, 2/lt Gaukroger lay opposite in a similar hole…

This we have already read–but it is worth re-reading, as Owen will be dealing with the after-effects for a long time to come.[4]

 

And finally, today, and we get a rare update from Isaac Rosenberg, writing to Eddie Marsh:

My Dear Marsh,

My sister wrote me you have been getting more of my ‘Moses’. It is hardy of you, indeed, to spread it about; and I certainly would be distressed if I were the cause of a war in England; seeing what warfare means here. But it greatly pleases me, none the less, that this child of my brain, should be seen and perhaps his beauties be discovered. His creator is in sadder plight; the harsh and unlovely times have made his mistress, the flighty Muse, abscond and elope with luckier rivals, but surely I shall hunt her and chase her somewhere into the summer and sweeter times. Anyway this is a strong hope; Lately I have not been very happy, being in torture with my feet again. The coldness of the weather and the weight of my boots have put my feet in a rotten state. My address is different now

Pte I R 22311
7 Platoon
120th Brigade Works Coy
B.E.F.

There is more excitement now, but though I enjoy this, my feet cause me great suffering and my strength is hardly equal to what is required.

I hear pretty often from G Bottomley and his letters are like a handshake: and passages are splendid pieces of  writing. Have you seen Trevellyans ‘Annual’ which G.B. writes me of.

Rosenberg is a strange bird, and this is a strange letter. He writes to thank Marsh for any efforts he might be making on behalf of his poetry–“Moses” is conceived of as a major work. But the affectation of ease and middle class bonhomie and faux-classicism sits oddly alongside of the infantryman’s complaints about his feet… although surely Rosenberg knows this. So what is he up to?

Perhaps not much, other than making clear a fairly obvious fact: privates in labor battalions can’t do much to improve their large-scale literary undertakings, but hope to keep up their tenuous connections to the world of literary patronage nonetheless. Alas, too, that his connection to Gordon Bottomley came so recently–the “Annual” which Rosenberg is rather obviously hoping to have sent to him is the same publication for which Eleanor Farjeon edited eighteen poems by “Edward Eastaway.”

Do write me when you can.

Yours sincerely

Isaac Rosenberg[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Fire-Eater, 199-200.
  2. Which is not to say that Pollard wouldn't have held the more popular belief in 1917--he would have, by far. War heroes are popular; they always have been, and even if 1916 and 1917 and the Western Front were, to mangle some metaphors, the cradle of the grave of that illusion--even if skepticism about the virtues of violence will grow in the aftermath of this war, and remain higher than before it--the idea that talented warriors should be praised was many times more popular than the idea that they should protest the pointless murder they were involved in both perpetuating and risking. (And then, of course, there is Siegfried Sassoon, who wants to win a medal for just the sort of stunt Pollard describes, and also thinks that the war is pointless murder...
  3. Jebb, Edwardian Meteor, 226.
  4. Collected Letters, 452-3.
  5. Collected Works, 315-6.

Alf Pollard and Frank Richards Hold On at Arras; Patrick Shaw Stewart Idle in France; Kate Luard and the Glorious Maimed

After a day of stiffly resisted attacks along the Hindenburg Tunnel, the Royal Welch are left holding an improvised line, in the face of likely counter-attacks. Frank Richards reminds us of every soldier’s plight on the day after an advance, when lines of supply have been disrupted.

The following day we were without food and water and during the night some of us were out searching the dead to see if they had been carrying any with them. I was lucky enough to discover a half-loaf of bread, some biscuits and two bottles of water, which I would not have sold for a thousand pounds.[1]

But Richards also reports an incident confirmed by Dunn: while bringing in the wounded in the early morning, they are hailed by a wounded man of another regiment who had been lying close to the German line and had seen them pulling back during the night. This intelligence was quickly confirmed, and the 2nd Royal Welch moved up and dug in around the abandoned positions, which included concrete strong-points built for machine guns–early examples of a new era in tactical defense. These “pill-boxes” are immune to all but the heaviest caliber artillery, but vulnerable to being rushed by small numbers of men using careful “stalking” tactics.

The dead of five battalions… lay in front of the abandoned German machine-gun position… and exposed the tragic ineptitude of just going on throwing men against it after such a futile artillery bombardment… Ours was the third bull-at-a-gate attack… one of the occasions innumerable when a company or a battalion was squandered on an attack seemingly planned by someone who, lacking either first or second hand knowledge of the ground, just relied on our maps of moderate scale… we were relieved at the end of the day.[2]

It’s the “or second hand” which is really the most damning thing. It’s a huge war, and even the best-intentioned Corps Commander can hardly tour the front lines–it would be impossible, even, for a divisional general to acquire first-hand knowledge of all the ground on their front. By they have staffs, and they could summon the battalion C.O.s only two levels below them in the chain of command. They could find out… but instead they read their maps, and make their orders.

 

Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. faced a long day’s counter-attack between Oppy Wood and the Chemical Works at Monchy.

Time after time long lines of men in field grey appeared over the crest of the ridge only to be swept away before they had descended half way down the slope… Never once did they get within a hundred yards…

We went back to the Black line on the evening of the 24th. What was to happen next? That was the question that filled our minds. We were so near to breaking through that we were all keyed up for the next move. It was impossible that the authorities would let things rest where they were.[3]

They will spend a few days in reserve, in a part of the line that is in danger of becoming a salient. But after that rest, the H.A.C. will most emphatically return to the front lines…

 

Patrick Shaw Stewart has been able to shake free of further duty in the Eastern Mediterranean. He hopes to get back to his battalion in France–but that, of course, is not how things work. If he had had his way, perhaps, he would have already been in the battalion, and seen far too much of the Battle of Arras. But he has been fortunate in this frustration, and finds himself on the coast, some 60 miles due west of the fighting:

I’m well embarked on the Course at the Depot here. I can’t honestly say I think it’s teaching me very much I haven’t known by heart these three years back, except, perhaps, a little about gas and bomb-throwing: but there is a terrible lot of indifferent lecturing out of books and old-fashioned sloping of arms, which I really thought I had undergone once for all at the Crystal Palace. No doubt it is extremely good for the soul of a veteran like me to be marched about in fours and told to be in by 9 p.m., but occasionally one is tempted to forget how comic it all is, and also how tolerable. For it really is exceedingly tolerable, if measured by the discomforts that are always possible; I have my bed, I have a tent to myself, a very respectable mess, and a great stand-by in the shape of the Sutherland
Hospital, which is at a reasonable distance. I have dined there twice, and do it again to-night.

This would be the hospital founded by Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland, and desirable perhaps more for the society of its staff than its patients.

The only drawback is that after being marched about and bored to death from 8.20 to 4.15, one is rather
inclined to sink into a chair and drop into a hoggish sleep, more than to brush one’s hair nicely and walk another mile to a tram—or, indeed, to write letters or any other elegant occupation.

Le Touquet, April 24, 1917.[4]

 

In another hospital considerably closer to the front, Kate Luard, continues to praise the stoic and uncomplaining heroism of the maimed and dying.

Tuesday Morning.  …A Captain of the Yorks had his leg off yesterday and makes less of it than some people with a toe-nail off. The glorious boy with the broken back is lying on his back now; he doesn’t know about it and says he’s all right, only his back is a little stiff an aching.

In general I find Sister Luard’s emotional instincts to be eminently reasonable, and her writing precise. But that’s the problem: since she is precise and thoughtful, it’s fair to focus on that one word “glorious,” and to question what exactly it means. To be stoic is perhaps a virtue, and the remarkable lack of complaint from these terribly wounded men is… remarkable. It is testimony to almost unbearable reserves of human moral strength…

And yet it’s not that simple. It never is. Can we praise the sufferers without examining what their suffering is for, without asking why it has come about? This is similar, in a way, to praising the brilliant elan of a small-unit leader in an assault without noting that the skill he is exhibiting is, essentially, excellence in leadership in state-sanctioned killing. And in each case the men killing and being maimed are sent to do and to suffer by other men, men who aren’t dirtying their hands or risking life and limb. What these soldiers have suffered is something more, and more complex, than mere accident or disaster. They are volunteers, most of them, and yet they are also victims not of mischance or acts of God but of organized human activity.

And so then there is society. Luard is well aware that, since female nurses almost never serve any closer to the line than a Casualty Clearing Station, her presence is in itself remarkable. The glorious boys who come into her care haven’t seen a woman in days or weeks or months–and they haven’t seen a respectable Englishwoman, properly addressed with a title borrowed from religious and family life, in longer still.

Isn’t her presence a strong inducement to act the part, to play the game? Isn’t she–more, in some ways, than superior officers, backed by the threat of court-martial and punishment–an enforcer of the social order that has made it so difficult for so many increasingly skeptical men to question the conduct of the war? Would a bitter, angry man, convinced he has been victimized by an unfeeling state and a burgeoning military-industrial complex, spit in the face of a nurse whose approval of stoicism must be obvious? It would be a difficult thing… and so here, too, in the terrible pain and amazing kindness of a field hospital, there is a sort of censorship in place.

Courage when in great pain is an estimable thing–and an inestimable thing. So is consideration for those around you, even when selfishness and self pity–not to mention stark terror or an urge to self-destruction–would be more than understandable.

But… “glorious?” The young officer will never walk again, but they haven’t told him. He must die soon, and they haven’t told him. His strength is remarkable–wonderful, valuable. But a desire to bear pain and loss uncomplainingly, a living-up to the expectation of good manners even in the worst of situations, is not a thing that we should praise without any reference to the context.

If he wanted to scream, and make everyone around him know that he was terrified to be destroyed, to die–that he was sure, now, that all this isn’t worth it–would she hear him?

This is too much to lay at the feet of Sister Luard, of course, in the middle of the post-assault rush of horror. And she is the farthest thing from a prim manipulator. She will record her own struggles with disillusionment, soon, and even today, a century back, she obliquely addresses the meaning of the war through her praise of another praiseworthy human behavior.

Some of the men say they were picked up and looked after by Germans, so we are being extra kind to the Germans this time. There is in Hospitals an understood arrangement that all Germans (except when their lives depend on immediate attention) should wait till the last British has been attended to… It is only kept up in a very half-hearted way and is generally broken by the M.O.’s, who are most emphatic about it in theory!

And later?

Tuesday, 10.30 p.m. It has been a pretty sad day, 12 funerals… The spine boy has found out what is the matter with him and is quite cheery about it…[5]

There’s a lot going on, but it will be interesting to keep looking in on Sister Luard to see how her credo of infinite empathy and praise for the selflessness of the wounded holds up as the battle drags on.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Old Soldiers Never Die, 230.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 338-9.
  3. Fire-Eater, 214.
  4. Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 194-5.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 116-7.

The Battle of Arras Resumes: Charles Scott Moncrieff, A.P. Herbert, Geoffrey Thurlow, Alf Pollard, Frank Richards, and Kate Luard; Vera Brittain Ponders Sacrifice and Glory; Siegfried Sassoon Addresses the Warmongers

Today is St. George’s Day, Shakespeare’s birthday, the second anniversary of the death of Rupert Brooke, and the day that Billy Prior, shell-shocked and mute, came to in a Casualty Clearing Station. But that is all more than a century back, or fiction.

Today is also the beginning of the second phase of the Battle of Arras. In what will become known as the Second Battle of the Scarpe, elements of eleven divisions attacked on a nine mile front just east of Arras, from Gavrelle in the north to Croisilles in the south.

Charles Scott Moncrieff was in the first wave, leading a company of the 1st Battalion, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who went over the top at 4:45, attacking toward Monchy-le-Preux. Scott Moncrieff was hit very shortly thereafter, and spent a harrowing day on the field and being carried back. But by this evening he will be able to write:

23rd April.

I was wounded about five o’clock this morning when leading my battalion in the attack. My left leg is broken in two places. I am now in a clearing station where I shall stay a few days. I shall be at the Base shortly and then home—and expect the leg will heal very quickly. The attack seems to have gone very well, as far as I could see and control it from the ground.[1]

What the letter does not make clear is that Moncrieff was not only leading the attack but leading it as close as possible to the “walking” barrage–and that a short-fall from this barrage–a British shell–was what nearly killed him. He is in grave danger of losing his leg.

Scott Moncrieff experienced his wound as something of a “transcendental” experience, and it will shortly push him further toward a vocation that combines his linguistic and literary talents. Drawing on Paul Claudel’s ‘Hymne à SS Agnès,’ he wrote a poem about his rescue that comes close to the once-popular angelic-intervention tales, albeit in an exalted religious-literary manner, rather than in close imitation of the popular ghost story style of Arthur Machen and others.

I, like a pailful of water thrown from a high window, fell. . . . Alone.

An hour or two I lay and dozed…

. . . . Ah, whose mind prayed
Through mine then? Whose quiet singing heard I from my stretcher, swinging
Sorry, weary, sick, Strongly, clearly, belated back to Arras? Who dictated
Strongly, clearly, till I sung these French words with my English tongue?[2]

In a neighboring division, also largely Scottish, Captain John Eugene Crombie of the Gordon Highlanders, who had so recently written  “Easter Day 1917, The Eve of Battle,” was wounded near Roeux. Less fortunate than Scott Moncrieff, he will die of his wounds by the end of the day.[3]

On the left of the attack, the 63rd Division–The Royal Naval Division–led the attack on the village of Gavrelle. Rupert Brooke‘s old comrades in the Hood Battalion came up too quickly from reserve, through a heavy German barrage, and then pushed on into house-by-house fighting. In the neighboring brigade was the Drake battalion, pressing through the same barrage. A.P. Herbert, whose meditations on courage, cowardice, and institutional brutality will be set in the recent past but informed by this experience of battle, led his platoon while equipped with certain supererogatory liquid courage. He was soon hit:

Sub-Lieutenant Rackham saw him fling up his arms and fall. ‘He seemed to me to be in a bad way–dangerously
wounded, I thought at first.’ At a field-dressing station, jagged bits of shrapnel and hip-flask were found to be embedded deep in his left buttock; ignominious wound, honourably sustained. It was serious enough for him to be sent home again. He believed that the brandy from his flask was an effective sterilizing agent…[4]

Kate Luard received many such wounded men, and some who had fared much worse:

Monday, April 23rd, 10 p.m. Just come up to lie down for an hour before the next take-in. We have filled up twice, and they are hard at it again over the road; we come next… the earth-shaking noise this morning did its work; the wounded Germans tell me here are a great many dead. We have a splendid six-foot officer boy lying silently on his face with a broken back, high up. I hope he won’t live long…[5]

 

Alf Pollard and the Honourable Artillery Company–who are, naturally, really, a London-based militia regiment of infantry serving in a “Naval” infantry division–were in reserve on the central section of the assault.[6]

The barrage was terrific and it seemed impossible that anything could stand up against it. Nevertheless, the wire was very tenacious and… They put up an obstinate resistance.

It was not very long before we were required. A Company went first, but a few minutes later a call came for us and I moved forward. As we approached the position I could see the long lines of uncut wire with dead fusiliers hanging across it like pearls in a necklace where the Hun machine-guns had caught them. All the same some of them had penetrated through the gaps and the trench was captured. I had my usual luck and got my Company through the enemy’s counter-barrage without any casualties. My men were full of fight… There was no resistance; the few Huns we encountered surrendered instantly. At once I set about preparing the trench for the counter-attack which I knew would follow. The whole place was a shambles…

The town of Gavrelle was a few hundred yards on our right. The attacking troops had gone right through and our right consequently projected slightly beyond our left. We were the extreme left of the Divisional front. The Division on our left whose main attack was directed against Oppy Wood had failed with the result that the position was held in echelon…

The counter-attack was not launched until the following morning…[7]

A bit further south, the 10th Sherwood Foresters, part of the 17th Division, were in support of the assault just south of Monchy-le-Preux, near the town of Guémappe. Among the objectives on this front was the concentration of German artillery on the high ground in their rear. Perhaps, by the day’s end, the positions of the batteries that dueled with Edward Thomas‘s will be taken.

But not immediately; the leading battalions were held up and the 10th Sherwood Foresters were called forward, and took the first German trench. Geoffrey Thurlow, the last of Edward and Vera Brittain‘s close friends to remain unscathed, was there, and he had neither succumbed to the shell-shock that had afflicted him in 1916, nor to the fear of it. Safe in a German trench after the successful assault, he was asked once more to show his courage, and once again he didn’t let the school down. His commander will describe his actions in a letter he will write to Edward Brittain:

I sent a message to Geoffrey to push along the trench and find out if possible what was happening on the right. The trench was in a bad condition and rather congested, so he got out on the top. Unfortunately the Boche snipers were very active and he was soon hit through the lungs. Everything was done to make him as comfortable as possible, but he died lying on a stretcher about fifteen minutes later.[8]

So Geoffrey Thurlow, too, is dead.

Far away in Malta, Vera Brittain was just beginning to cope with the previous disaster to hit her tight-knit circle. In a letter which draws heavily on her diary of yesterday, she wrote to her brother:

Malta, 23 April 1917

My own dearest Edward

Your letter of the 8th has just arrived but contains no reference to the terrible news of the last day or two; it seems to be the only one that has come, so I suppose all my letters have missed the mail just when I wanted them most. It is dreadful to have to wait a week for details. That is the hardship of foreign service — not climate or distance so much as the separation by time & distance from anything that matters…

I am broken-hearted indeed about Victor. It is better to be anything than blind; I am not sure that it is not better to be dead.

This is not an idle question. Cruel as this is, it’s important to recognize that there is still no fundamental questioning of the meaning and the worth of all this suffering. She is not sure if Victor should wish to be dead, but she is confident that he will feel a sense of achievement at having matched his decorated school friends in military valor:

I suppose he is disfigured very much. His lovely eyes — I can’t bear to think they will never any more look ‘right into one’s soul’ as Mrs Leighton said they did. It is a terrible way to have bridged the gulf that lay between him & you — & Roland. I wish Roland were here to be with him & give him the strength he will so much need if he lives…

it is very hard to feel I can do nothing for him in return at the time of his greatest need. . . Anyhow. I know that you will make him understand, better than any letter could, my indescribable sorrow & regret–one can’t call it pity, as pity is not a sufficiently reverent feeling for one of those who ‘so marvellously overcame’. If there is anything I can do for him–anything at all–you will tell me, won’t you? It places all of us who cannot fight under a burden of debt almost more than we can bear–to feel that we owe our safety to the fives & sight & strength of such as you & Roland & him. I feel I could never repay it enough, even if trying to meant giving up practically all I ever meant to be or do. I feel as if Roland’s sad eyes were looking at me out of Eternity, imploring me to try to give Victor some of the comfort He would have given him if He had been here.[9]

 

We’re almost done, today, but here we have a different sort of irony of separation, of “sacrifice” and suffering and far-off emotion. Siegfried Sassoon is safely back, unaware that today is another spasm of intense violence, and that his battalion is caught up in it. It’s a particularly nasty irony that his reports from today are thus overshadowed by exactly what he now feels increasingly empowered too protest.

He has been working on another new poem, “To the Warmongers,” which begins:

I’m back again from hell
With loathsome thoughts to sell;
Secrets of death to tell;
And horrors from the abyss…

But the abyss is still there–and not yet taken. Two companies of the 2nd Royal Welch, in support of the 4th Suffolks, will once again move up from the Hindenburg Tunnel to attack along the Hindenburg Trench. A trench mortar barrage dropped neatly into the trench, clearing the German barricade and allowing the charging Suffolks to push back the defenders. The two companies of the 2/RWF came up and were at once employed in bringing up German prisoners from the deep dugouts. There is a long, detailed narrative of the intimate trench fighting in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle, growing grim as the two companies are held up and then located by the German trench mortar and rifle-grenade parties.

Sassoon’s friends “Binge” Owen and the pianist Ralph Greaves–both survivors of a late night in Amiens only three weeks ago–were now directing the fighting. One bomb hit a barricade and exploded next to Greaves’ right arm, mangling it. Owen was killed a few minutes later. Further attacks failed, although Captain N. H. Radford will remember hearing a Staff Captain give a fanciful heroic account of the “forcing of the barricade” only two weeks later, and remark that “that kind of myth outlives denial; it has appeared in print as fact.”[10]

The other two companies of the 2nd Royal Welch attacked later in the day, repeating a failed attack by another battalion, and with poorly coordinated artillery support. And in the open. They fared even worse. Frank Richards, a company signaler with B company, was in the assembly trench, and had a clear view of the attack:

From our parapet across to the objective our dead were laying thick, and for the first fifty yards it would have been impossible for a man to have walked three paces unless he stepped on a dead man. In the afternoon we attacked but were held up by machine-gun and rifle-fire the same as the previous battalions: not a man got further than halfway. The fortunate ones got back to their own trench, but the majority were laying where they fell… We brought our wounded in during the night, the enemy not firing a shot.[11]

 

We’ll end the day with Sassoon, in London, and trying somehow to move from personal experience to some reasonable appreciation of the “big picture:”

April 23 (In the Ward) —

Morning sunshine slants through tho many tall windows of the ward with its grey-green walls and forty white beds. Daffodils and primroses, red lilies and tulips make spots of colour…  Officers lie humped in beds smoking and reading morning papers; others drift about in dressing-gowns and slippers, going to and from the washing-room where they scrape the bristles from their contented faces. The raucous gramophone keeps grinding out popular airs…

Everyone is rather quiet. No one has the energy or the desire to begin talking war-shop till noon. Then one catches scraps of talk from round the fire-places.

‘barrage lifted at the first objective’
‘shelled us with heavy stuff’
‘couldn’t raise enough decent N.C.O.s’
‘our first wave got held up by machine-guns’
‘bombed them out of a sap’—etc etc.

There are no serious cases in this ward; only flesh-wounds and sick. No tragedies of gapped bodies and heavily bandaged faces; no groans at night, and nurses catching their breath while the surgeon deals with some ghastly gaping hole. These are the lucky ones, whom a few days of peace have washed clean of the squalor and misery and strain of ten days ago. They are lifting their faces to the sunlight: the nightmares have slunk away to haunt the sombre hearts of the maimed and shattered.[12]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 128.
  2. I've taken some supplementary information from Findlay, Chasing Lost Time, 127-130, but there are some military historical errors in her account, so it's possible that some of what I have quoted is off-base; if so, sincere apologies!
  3. Powell, A Deep Cry, 241.
  4. Pound, A. P. Herbert, 153.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 115.
  6. I have not unraveled the exact relative positions of these different units; despite the lack of major salients it is a difficult attack to visualize... and for most of our writers, it seems, Arras was a terribly quick battle. Although Alf Pollard, as it happens, will persist and more than persist.... in any event, apologies for the less-than-thorough military history here.
  7. Fire-Eater, 212-14.
  8. Letters From a Lost Generation; see also here.
  9. Letters From a Lost Generation, 341-2.
  10. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 330-38.
  11. Old Soldiers Never Die, 229-30. There is likely hyperbole here in terms of the number and the concentration of men killed.
  12. Diaries 159-60.

Vera Brittain Learns the Truth of Victor Richardson’s Blindness; Robert Graves Revises for Siegfried Sassoon; Kate Luard Prepares Amidst the Thunder; Charles Scott Moncrieff and the Pipers on the Edge of a Dawn Attack

We’ll start today with Robert Graves, in pursuit of the wounded Siegfried Sassoon:

Poor Old Sassons!

Blessé pour la patrie; and according to Robbie rather too slightly to serve any useful purpose. I wrote to you in France yesterday; how stupid because it was a decent sort of letter![1]

Graves appends some quick criticisms of Sassoon’s poems, which he has acquired in proofs just before their publication. But we’ll skip those because, in several senses, Graves is just too late. Although some of the poems in the forthcoming The Old Huntsman are indeed scandalous–pushing the envelope of publishing propriety as it currently stands–the next batch are going to go much further.

We have already seen the finished version of this poem, based in part on a comrade’s experience, but Sassoon, despite the wounded shoulder, began drafting this, today, his first in London:

Groping along the tunnel in the gloom
He winked his tiny torch with whitening glare,
And bumped his helmet, sniffing the hateful air.
Tins, boxes, bottles, shapes too vague to know.
And once, the foul, hunched mattress from a bed;
And he exploring, fifty feet below
The rosy dusk of battle overhead.
He tripped and clutched the walls; saw someone lie
Humped and asleep, half-covered with a rug;
He stooped and gave the sleeper’s arm a tug.
‘I’m looking for Headquarters’. No reply.
‘Wake up, you sod!’ (For days he’d had no sleep.)
‘I want a guide along this cursed place.’
He aimed a kick at the unanswering heap;
And flashed a beam across that livid face
Horribly glaring up, whose eyes still wore
The agony that died ten days before.
Whose bloody fingers clutched a hideous wound.
Gasping, he staggered onward till he found
Dawn’s ghost that filtered down a shafted stair,
To clammy creatures groping underground,
Hearing the boom of shells with muffled sound.
Then with the sweat of horror in his hair,
He climbed with darkness to the twilight air.

April 22[2]

 

But Sassoon is safe in Blighty. In Malta, where Vera Brittain has suffered two agonizing days of suspense over the nature of Victor Richardson’s wounds, an answer arrived.

April 22nd

On Thursday I sent a cable home asking for further news of Victor. This morning the answer came from Edward “Eyesight probably gone, may live.”

So–if he lives–he will be blind–the dear splendid cynical boy, with the beautiful eyes, which make him look, as Mrs Leighton said, as if he sought the Holy Grail. It is better to be anything than blind; I am not sure it is not even better to be dead. And no one would ever suffer so much when helpless & dependent as he. The Three Musketeers have had more than their share of suffering. For us who cannot fight, it is a burden of debt almost more than we can bear, to feel that we owe our safety to the lives & sight & strength of such as Roland, Victor & Edward.

I am anxiously awaiting further news to know if Victor is conscious & what his future–if there is to be one–is likely to be. I feel that I would do anything–that I would give up all things I ever meant to do & be if I could but repay him a little for what he has sacrificed. I feel as if Roland’s sad eyes were entreating me out of Eternity to give to Victor
some of the strength & comfort He would have given him if only He had been there. Poor motherless Tah! When I remember how good he was to me after Roland s death, and how he comforted me that opening week-end of the Somme Battle, when I was so dreadfully anxious about Edward, It seems terribly hard that I should be so far away from him in the hour of his greatest need. I know how glad Roland would be if I could but be of service to his “Father Confessor”.

I had a letter from Edward to-night, written before Victor was wounded, to say that he has gone to Stafford on another course & cannot now go to the front before June 15th. So he at least will be with Victor in his darkest hours; I am very glad of this, for since Roland is dead no one could be the help & comfort to him that Edward can.[3]

So as Vera struggles with the news, she still draws strength from the old habit of interpreting every disaster in terms of their private mythology of Roland’s greatness. (It’s hard, sometimes, not to think of these five as a careful pre-Raphaelite composition, with four bright, beautiful, clear-eyed, symbolically-accoutered saints grouped below a lost savior, rising toward the top of the frame.)

After sending the telegram, Edward writes to her with further details. He does not make his father’s mistake, and spares his elder sister, now an experienced nurse, nothing:

London, 22 April 1917

It is not known yet whether Victor will die or not, but his left eye was removed in France and the specialist who saw him thinks it is almost certain that the sight of his right eye has gone too. He was brought into the 2nd London General, Chelsea–only about 2 miles from here–on Thursday afternoon, 19th. We don’t know exactly when he was hit but I should think it must have been close to our parapet when attacking on April 9th. The bullet — probably Machine gun — went in just behind the left eye and went very slightly upwards but not I’m afraid enough to clear the right eye; the bullet is not yet out though very close to the right edge of the temple; it is expected that it will work through of its own accord. I came up from Stafford on Friday night and saw Victor twice yesterday; he has never really recovered consciousness at all yet but I think he was just sensible that I was there and was just able to say ‘yes’ when ‘the sister asked him if he knew who it was. The eye that has been removed and all the upper part of the face is covered with bandages and is much swollen though the swelling was rather less when I saw him again in the evening.

He was asleep then and a good deal of blood had just come down the nose which was probably a good thing; the breathing was quite regular. The right eye was closed but when the sister lifted the eyelid it seemed to me that the eye had no sight at all.

We are told that he may remain in his present condition for a week. I don’t think he will die suddenly but of course the brain must be injured and it depends upon how bad the injury is.

All relevant information conveyed, Edward moves on without a pause to the next task–beginning to weigh the future, to try to make room in his mental world for this new extreme of suffering:

I am inclined to think it would be better that he should die; I would far rather die myself than lose all that we have most dearly loved, but I think we hardly bargained for this. Sight is really a more precious gift than life. If he should live I know that you and I and Mrs Leighton can help enormously and there is music, but as you know his people are quite inadequate for him under such circumstances. A permanent injury to the brain must of course also be considered…

I am just going to meet Mr Richardson at Victoria and we shall see Tah again this afternoon. I have to go back to Stafford to-night.

Later

There is much better news. . . . the Matron of the 2nd London telephoned to say that Victor was conscious and so Mother and I went down at once. He was much better and recognised my voice; I asked him how he was and he said ‘Right as rain’ and he caught hold of my hand and said ‘You haven’t been long’. (The sister had asked him before if he would like to see me.) Then I said ‘Your Father is coming to see you in an hour or two’. Then he made the most hopeful remark of all saying ‘What’s the betting he’s late’. Of course you know that Mr Richardson is invariably late and so that shows how much better Tah is…

Mr Richardson told me that he had just had a letter from Tah’s Colonel whose name is Porter, in which he said the battalion was attacking a redoubt called ‘the Harp’ just East of Arras; they took the first line and then came under heavy Machine Gun fire. Victor who was leading his platoon was hit in the arm but took his coat off had the wound bandaged and went on; it was at the 2nd German line that he got the bullet through his head and the Colonel himself gave him morphia because he was in pain.The Colonel in his letter after saying that he hopes he will not lose his sight ‘because sight is so much more valuable than life’ also says ‘You have good reason to be proud of him . . . he did his best and it was a good best too. I have sent his name in for the Military Cross and have no doubt that he will get it.’

The Military Cross is the same decoration that Edward Brittain himself had won, under similar circumstances. (Brittain’s was for steadfast leadership despite a wound during the attack of July 1st–a much lesser wound, but a much bigger military disaster.) While not as much of a mark of exceptional military skill (or exceptional favor with those with decorations in their gift) as the higher decorations, an MC is seen as a validation of valor. Those who win it can be confident that they have successfully met the challenge posed by mortal fear.

…Unless he has a bad relapse I think he will live. . . I don’t think Tah realises yet that he is blind. As he lies on his bed with bandages round his left eye and head and the right eyelid closed, he looks just like a picture of the Christ–the familiar expression generally shown on the Cross.

If only that right eye might have its sight!

Ever yours

Edward

We haven’t had any more news from Geoffrey since my last letter.[4]

 

And it still goes on–not only that, it is getting ready to flare into open battle once again. Kate Luard is only a few miles behind the lines on the Arras front.

Sunday, April 22nd. This continued bombardment is shaking the earth to-night; it is on the same scale as on the day before Easter Monday.

Only in wartime–when even at a distance of two weeks the dates of big attacks loom large in the calendars of history and memory–would “the day before Easter Monday” be a reasonable way to refer to Easter. But it is: that Monday was the beginning of the battle, just as today is not a day in the second week of the aftermath of Arras–it’s the day before the “second phase” of the battle begins with another major assault.

Warlencourt British Cemetery

The hospital is almost empty, ready…

I took some Lent lilies to the Cemetery this evening; it is rapidly spreading over a high open field; there must be nearly 2,000 graves there now, since it began last June…

No one knows when we shall fill up again but it can’t be far off, with this din. If you could hear it for five minutes, you would never forget it.[5]

 

One of our writers who knows he will be in it is Charles Scott Moncrieff, back with his battalion and ready to go forward.

22nd April, 1917.

A great hum of life going on all around me—several regiments and long rows of motor lorries. I am lunching
at midday with my Reverend friend Milliquand. I called yesterday on M. Lequête and his daughter, very happy
and vivacious, but deploring the pillage and havoc wrought by the British troops recently massed on this front. I answered with platitudes and that Napoleon’s armies did the same, but felt awkward and ashamed. . . . To-morrow is St. George’s Day—best of all for the Armies of England. . . . I must stop now for a conference.

But Scott Moncrieff is a Scot, and among Scotsmen. In Arras itself, now, there is a festive atmosphere:

…The whole town full of life and rejoicing. Scottish troops everywhere, all the 15th Division, the Highland Territorial Division and ourselves, with the 2nd Royal Scots, 2nd Gordons, and R.S. Fusiliers, from the Line Divisions. . . . Pipe bands playing in all the squares, it was very wonderful, with notices still fresh on the walls cautioning people against walking in the streets by daylight, etc.[6]

By tonight, a century back, Scott Moncrieff and his Kings Own Scottish Borderers were marching up the hill toward Monchy-le-Preux.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 69-70.
  2. Diaries, 158.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 339-40.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 338-41.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 115.
  6. Diaries, 126-7.

Wilfred Owen’s Relief; Robert Graves Hymns the Joys of Oxford to Siegfried Sassoon; Letter Bombs from Henry Williamson

Robert Graves, with impeccable timing, sat down to write a long overdue letter his erstwhile comrade Siegfried Sassoon. Those who have attained an excellent posting at Oxford ought not forget their less fortunate comrades in the trenches…

‘D’ Company
No. 4 Officer Cadet Battn
Wadham College
Oxford

21 April 1917

My dear Sassons

At last I am comfortably settled down here, and by Heaven, it’s a good game now that I’m cured of the desire to go back to France (I know I’m more use here and would only crock up if I tried a fourth time) and if it wasn’t for you being out there again I’d feel this was too good to be true. Get a cushy quick, old thing and I’ll work this sort of a job for you here. Anyhow, get sent to Somerville if you get over to Blighty at all: in time to read your reviews with me.

Events, of course, have out-paced Graves’s wishes. But Graves, who can often be rather unreasonable, has a very reasonable reason to be pleased with his new job–with bad lungs deriving in part from a serious battle wound, he has unquestionably earned the right to be safe at home. Sassoon, indeed on his way back with a blighty one, may yet heal completely–at least in body.

The letter continues with happy literary gossip–Sassoon’s book is delayed by the paper shortage, but Graves is busily setting up reviews and garnering introductions to various poets. Sassoon’s family friend Edmund Gosse has connected Graves to Masefield, and Graves’s friendship with Robert Nichols is blooming, while he continues to take advantage of Sassoon’s introduction to the pacifist hotbed of Garsington, where “Lady Utterly Immoral is such a ripper.” In his usual ingenuous/oblivious fashion Graves lists exactly what he was paid for a poem in the Nation as well as which poets (Gordon Bottomley among them) have praised his work. But he is not entirely given over to the social side of the literary world: he has also discovered the Tudor poet John Skelton and plans “a book of studies chiefly about Poetry and Children and France and things.”[1]

We’ll hear more from Graves tomorrow.

 

Is Henry Williamson doubting the wisdom of any of his recent postal actions? No!

Dear Mother,

Today, Saturday 21st, I sent off a parcel containing my boots and an orange in each–again the latter is quite empty.

Quite empty?

PS. If by any chance you find a greyish powder in any of those eggs, merely empty it in the garden NOT in the fire. There is always a millionth of a chance of a full one going in by mistake…

One hopes that no one is reading Williamson’s mail. Officers are generally immune from censorship, but then again Williamson may be under close watch as an inefficient and untrustworthy sort… this letter not only mentions sending probably non-explosive grenades but also reveals his position (Bullecourt) by means of a reference to a “Bully lad” who “courts.” Good lord…[2]

 

So much for the lighter portions of today’s work. There is one very important event I should mention that I don’t think can be fixed to one particular date. However, today, a century back, provides a terminus ante quem: Wilfred Owen‘s 2nd Manchesters had been in the line for twelve straight days, but they were relieved today. He will shortly write to his mother, describing this tour of duty:

For twelve days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep. For twelve days we lay in holes, where at any moment a shell might put us out. I think the worst incident was one wet night when we lay up against a railway embankment. A big shell lit on the top of the bank, just 2 yards from my head. Before I awoke, I was blown in the air right away from the bank!

This concussion will have repercussions. As will the horrors that follow.

I passed most of the following days in a railway cutting, in a hole just big enough to lie in, and covered with corrugated iron. My brother officer of B Coy, 2/Lt Gaukroger lay opposite in a similar hole. But he was covered with earth, and no relief will ever relieve him, nor will his Rest will be a 9 days-Rest.

Lt. Gaukroger is listed as being killed on April 2nd, so Owen must have spent time near his temporary battlefield grave.

It can be difficult to isolate the neurological and psychological components of “shell shock,” but the experience of being blown through the air by a heavy shell and then living in close proximity to the body of a comrade can stand as a good example of the way the two come together. Owen’s “nerves” have been affected, as has his attitude toward the war: his first complaint after this experience is directed back across the gulf that separates the combat soldier from those at home:

I think that the terribly long time we stayed unrelieved was unavoidable; yet it makes us feel bitterly towards those in England who might relieve us, and will not.

We are now doing what is called a Rest, but we rise at 6.15 and work without break until about 10 p.m. for there is always a Pow-Wow for officers after dinner. And if I have not written yesterday, it is because I must have kept hundreds of Letters uncensored, and enquiries about Missing Men unanswered…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 68-9.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the Great War, 129.
  3. Collected Letters, 452-3.