Vera Brittain and the Troop Train, then London and the War Unreal; A Disastrous Day for the Second Royal Welch

Vera Brittain‘s homeward journey has been, for the last few days, something like a maniacally condensed version of the Grand Tour. But she left Paris late last night; and today, a century back, she is back in the war.

May 27th

Woke up at 5.0 when train stopped at Amiens. Seething crowd of British and French officers and soldiers, most of them in a trench-state. Thought of Roland, Edward and Geoffrey as having been here; don’t think Victor ever was. Felt very near the war…

Brittain and the young nurses in the Red Cross train are cheered by young British troops, headed for the front–an experience which will shortly give rise to a poem:

The Troop Train

(France, 1917)

As we came down from Amiens,
And they went up the line,
They waved their careless hands to us,
And cheered the Red Cross sign.

And often I have wondered since,
Repicturing that train,
How many of those laughing souls
Came down the line again.

 

A predictable–which is to say irresistible–spark for the Romantic imagination. Or the realist, really–what else is there to think of, knowing what she knows and having seen what she has seen of soldiers’ bodies, as she passes so briefly through the central rail junction of the British Western Front?

A few hours later, after detraining and embarking in Boulogne, she is disorientingly far from the war once again:

…The white cliffs seemed to appear very quickly; it seemed like a dream to be seeing them again, or else a dream that I had ever left them…

One more quick train and she was in her parents’ new London flat by supper-time.

…pausing only to learn that Victor was still alive and still progressing, I threw off my dilapidated garments and jumped into a hot bath…

After supper I settled down luxuriously to smoke–a new habit originally acquired as a means of defence against the insect life in Malta–and to talk to my father about the hazards and adventures of my journey home. My parents took a gratifying pleasure in my assumption of worldly wisdom and the sophistication of the lighted cigarette…

Sitting before the open French windows of the big drawing-room, I looked out upon the peaceful, darkening square with a sense of unbelievable repose. Between the flats and the turmoil of London lay a long unspoilt area of wooded parkland; the great trees stretched eastward as far as I could see. Hidden by the cool green of their new spring foliage, innumerable birds twittered softly on the topmost branches. The War with its guns and submarines, its death and grief and cruel mutilations, might have been as innocuous and unreal as time and the smooth, patriotic selections of school history-books had made the Napoleonic campaigns of a century ago.[1]

A challenge to literature, then… and to the history-book-compilers of the future.

And naturally I can’t resist picking up on the “century ago.” So, a century from Waterloo to the Western Front–how much progress have we made? Since this whole project is, in a sense, an attempt to address the broader question of writing about war, it doesn’t make much sense to attempt an answer here. And on the narrower question of history textbooks I have little to add. The average American school child learns precious little about World War One, given the shorter participation of the United States and the war’s location in between the Civil War (about which the American schoolchild may still learn lies and obfuscations, especially about the racial terror of its aftermath) and the ever-fascinating and morally unambiguous Second World War.

Still, it is surely correct to say that the history books are aware that making war “innocuous” is a disservice to, among other capitalizable abstractions, History, Humanity, and Truth, and that, compared to the books of a century back, there is less knee-jerk glorification of all things warlike and far more attention to the human costs of war. And it is also correct to say that this has something to do with the efforts of Vera Brittain, Siegfried Sassoon and the rest…

But are we doing well enough? Will any aged eminences send satisfactory praise for our rendering of all that is cruel and despicable about what we have done in the past?

Well, well. But Vera Brittain didn’t come home to muse on the ironic dislocations of physical and temporal proximity–she came home to help her family, and to be with Victor. Visiting hours begin tomorrow.

 

That troop train was too far from the front–by a day’s military logistics or so–for the Tommies waving to the Red Cross nurses to be thrown into the meat grinder today. So it’s a poetic near-miss, as it were, for a crossing of the paths of Vera Brittain and the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers, who were already at the front and bound for the offensive, today, on a stubborn sector of the Hindenburg Line.

Siegfried Sassoon‘s day, though he can’t know it, is nevertheless wracked by a particularly vicious irony of proximity. He is in green and pleasant environs, not only unspoilt by the war but far from any direct reminders of it. And not so very far away, many of his comrades are being shot down in another futile attack.

It was on 1.55 on what was a beautiful, sunny Whitsun in Picardie, with “the fallow” of No Man’s Land “gay with yellow and gold,” that the barrage opened up. The assault was impossibly well-named for a descent from pastoral sweetness into military disaster: A and C companies of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers attacked from “Plum Lane” toward a section of “Tunnel Trench.”

C Company’s commander, T.R. Conning, led the assault. He “chaffed the stiff-limbed and the laggards, and gave some of them a hand to climb out.” But the wire was thicker than expected and barrage lifted too quickly–and without doing significant damage to the Germans in Tunnel Trench or the machine guns supporting them. Within minutes, 165 men of the 2nd Royal Welch were hit. About half of these were killed, and ten of the 11 officers who had gone over the top were casualties. The dead included both Conning and E.L. Orme (“Dunning” and “Ormand” in the memoir), both particular friends of Siegfried Sassoon.[2]

Sassoon is in Sussex, lolling uneasily about Chapelwood Manor, and thus in ignorance of the planned attack.

There were times when I felt perversely indignant at the “cushiness” of my convalescent existence. These reactions were mostly caused by the few letters which came to me from the front. One of Joe Dottrell’s hastily pencilled notes could make me unreasonably hostile… and inarticulately unfriendly.

Dottrell/Cottrell, the quartermaster, had written to Sassoon recently about the death of “Young Brock,” i.e. Lt. Brocklebank, his hunting friend, and he will shortly write again about today’s slaughter, spurring a deeper bitterness with his details of this “hopeless failure” and its cost.[3]

For Frank Richards–who adds the detail, unreported in Dunn’s chronicle, that Dr. Dunn himself spent the afternoon “wandering about No Man’s Land” under fire,aiding the wounded–this “disastrous day for all concerned” provided a retrospective irony rather than a simultaneous one. Captain Radford, the only officer in the attack still alive and unwounded, saw Richards that evening and remarked “Well, Richards, only you, Sergeant Owens and I are left out of that tug-of-war team of the day before yesterday.”[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 353-4.
  2. Dunn, The War the infantry Knew, 349-54.
  3. Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, 468.
  4. It was actually three days earlier, an error of Richards' memory. Old Soldiers Never Die, 238.