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.