The Eve of Battle, and Other Matters: Alfred Hale Abandoned to His Fate; Siegfried Sassoon Has His Day in the House; Wilfred Owen Regales His Mother; Isaac Rosenberg a Georgian at Last; Edmund Blunden and Kate Luard in the Salient at the Stroke of Midnight

It’s the eve of battle–the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, first phase of Third Ypres, to be precise–and we are all over the place.

First, and least relevant to the coming battle, Alfred Hale received a remarkable letter from his father today, a century back:

I saw Colonel Crommelin this morning, and he told me that he had written to your CO and that the answer was “not very satisfactory… It will depend very much upon yourself, i.e., “whether you show alertness and keeness in your work” which might be a reason for giving you a step upwards. Colonel Crommelin added… that commissions are reserved for those who have done something to earn them, such as having been out at the front, and who show capability. I spoke to him about the cook and his ways, and he said that this kind of thing is always the case, and that the only thing to do is to use considerable tact with people of that sort. This is just what an educated man can do.

Incredibly, Hale’s father (his son, Alfred, is, again, forty-one years old) has been to a recruiting colonel and both asked for a commission for his son and complained that Alfred was being bullied by a cook…  And the italicized emphasis is mine– Hale, because I read him in Fussell, first, usually looms large as a sort of comic anti-hero, an oblivious Tramp or an Edwardian Gentleman Good Soldier Švejk. But at times like this it is perhaps well to be reminded how monumentally clueless and self-centered he is: his father, after failing to belatedly use influence to advance his career, must remind him that experience and competence are also frequently considered in matters concerning sudden change of status that skip a man ahead of a few million of his countrymen.

The letter goes on to state that even though Hale, the younger, is no good as a batman, he should probably stick to the work, as the only alternative is indoor clerical work “and I doubt if that would suit you.” Even more incredibly, Hale takes this letter promptly to his own officer, whose exasperation was no doubt heavily ameliorated with an admixture of baffled bemusement…[1]

 

And while father has paid a call on behalf of Alfred, Mother has at last been to visit Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart War Hospital. And he is doing very well: not only is he making progress on his classical allegory Antaeus, but today he gave a lecture to the Field Club–entitled “Do Plants Think?” (which sounds remarkably modern but was in fact–or was also–eminently Victorian)–and he has now taken up the editorship of the next issue of The Hydra, the hospital’s well-funded literary magazine.

Monday, 30 July 1917, 11 p.m.

My own dear Mother,

The Lecture was a huge success, & went on till 10.20!! At least I was answering cross-questions until that time…

I have only once since getting through the Barrage at Feyet felt such exultation as when winding up to my peroration tonight…

The ‘only once’ was when I saw you gliding up to me, veiled in azure, at the Caledonian. I thought you looked very very beautiful and well, through the veil, and especially on the night of the concert. But without the veil I saw better the supremer beauty of the ashes of all your Sacrifices: for Father, for me, and for all of us…

This is the point where a commentator feels some pressure to acknowledge the unusual fulsomeness of the prose here, and the peculiar intensity of Owen’s regard for his mother. A traditional–and surely misguided and oversimplified–response is to place the relationship in the context of Owen’s homosexuality (which is not openly revealed in his surviving letters, but is nonetheless a secure part of his historical identity, as such things go). It is undeniable that he was a much-loved, much doted-on, and promising eldest son who grew to repress his sexual feelings… but that is not a very nuanced description and doesn’t quite explain why the two would write and (presumably) enjoy reading such perfervid prose. It’s about style, in other words, and anything sexual is smothered well beneath, as under the overstuffed cushions of a horse-hair sofa…

The other thought that occurs to me is that this is like reading the letter that Marie Leighton would have loved to receive from her understandably standoffish son, but never will.

Which leads to an even more speculative thought: Owen, a station master’s son who never made it to University, is socially fortunate to ascend to the editorship of a journal that will be contributed to by men better-born and University-educated. Yes, it’s at a shell shock hospital, but it’s still a press and a budget and a readership. And isn’t this just where Roland might be, now, if he had lived?

This is a letter of parentheses. It is itself a parenthesis between my work. I must have the Magazine ready
by tomorrow morning.

Your own W.E.O.[2]

 

And speaking of well-connected men of private means who are writing letters from Craiglockhart War Hospital, here is Siegfried Sassoon, writing to Lady Ottoline Morrell. Is Sassoon being less than honest about how far his last two weeks have taken him from the pacifist resolution toward which she had encouraged him? And does he aim to please with a display of snobbery? Yes, yes he is, and yes he does.

My dear Ottoline,

I am quite all right and having a very decent time. Letters aren’t interfered with. It’s simply an opportunity for marking time and reading steadily…

There is just time (it’s a short letter) for some nasty remarks about other patients before he introduces the mentor who will come to supplant all previous ones:

My fellow-patients are 160 more or less dotty officers. A great many of them are degenerate-looking. A few genuine cases of shell-shock etc…

My doctor is a sensible man who doesn’t say anything silly. His name is Rivers; a notable Cambridge psychologist. But his arguments don’t make any impression on me. He doesn’t pretend that my nerves are wrong, but regards my attitude as abnormal. I don’t know how long he will go on trying to persuade me to modify views.

Yours ever,    S.S.

I have got lots of books, and go in to Edinburgh whenever I like.[3]

 

At around 7:00 the same evening that Sassoon was denying his savior in this letter to one of his sponsoring semi-disciples, the Labour M.P. Hastings Lees-Smith rose to read out Sassoon’s “Statement” to the House of Commons. He was answered by government ministers who made pointed references to the author’s current whereabouts…

As Sherston, Sassoon brushes off this episode with brittle attempts at humor, emphasizing the irrelevance of the proceedings without making it clear that his decision to accept his second medical board rendered his protest irrelevant. Graves had bluffed him by declaring that he might be involuntarily committed but never court martialed, and Sassoon had folded, handing the army a perfect defense against the charges in his statement: he was now a brave officer suffering from shell shock who had fallen into the clutches of unscrupulous operators on the left…[4]

 

Briefly, we also have Isaac Rosenberg, resuming his acquaintance with Eddie Marsh, his patron/friend and Sassoon’s friend/patron. Marsh may have had a hand in rescuing Sassoon, and now he will take a hand in elevating Rosenberg into one of the most important wartime poetic anthologies. I have just been discussing class and schooling… so it seems pointlessly cruel to abide by my usual practice of letting the editors’ decisions on correcting mistakes of punctuation and spelling stand. But consistency is its own reward…

My Dear Marsh

Im glad youve got your old job again and are Winston Churchills private sec. once more, though it will be a pity if it will interfere with your literary prjects. I thought that would happen when I heard hed become Minister of Munitions. I can immagine how busy you will be kept and if you still mean to go on with your memoir and G.P., you perhaps can immagine me, though of course ray work pretty much leaves my brain alone especially as I have a decent job now and am not so rushed and worked as I was in the trenches. I will be glad to be included in the Georgian Book, and hope your other work wont interfere with it.[5]

 

Another aspiring Georgian–more self-assured but less far along in personal poetic development–is Edmund Blunden, now just behind the front lines in the Salient, where he has received a package from home which included a novel and book of poems by Leigh Hunt. Late tonight he will take out his diary to record his thoughts, and give us century-back life writing to the very moment:

Heavy rain again for part of the day. . . . Since we have been in, we have been quite unlucky and have had between forty and fifty casualties. The weather looks none too promising–but perhaps ‘everything will come out in the wash’. . . . So far all quiet. But how these tunnels reek! I finish the page on the stroke of twelve, which brings on tomorrow.[6]

Thus Blunden in the moment. Like the War Diary of the 15th Royal Welsh, he matter-of-factly plays down a high toll in the skirmishing and bombardments that have preceded the assault. When he comes to write the memoir, however, there is much more attention to the collateral psychological damage, as well as to another cruel fact of the coming assault. Although it had been postponed for several days on the advice of a meteorologist, it will soon begin to rain steadily.

Nature tried her hand at a thunderstorm; then the last colourless afternoon arrived. Before that a number of our men had been killed, and all drenched and shaken. That afternoon I saw the miserable state of a little group of houses called La Brique, now the object of a dozen German guns, and, escaping death, I well understood the number of bodies lying there. Presently I stood with my friend Tice looking over the front parapet at the German line. Tice, though blue-chinned and heavy-eyed, showed his usual extreme attention to detail, identifying whatever points he could, and growing quite excited and joyful at the recognition of Kitchener’s Wood in the background. To-morrow morning———. The afternoon grew pale with cloud. Tice went along one trench and I along another, with some such absurd old familiarity as “See you in the morning, old boy.”[7]

 

Finally, and only a few miles away–for the nurses have won their way back to the forward abdominal hospital–Kate Luard is writing at precisely the same moment:

Monday, July 30th, midnight. Brandhoek. Cars came for us at 5 p.m. and here we are. By the time you get this it will be history for better or for worse… everything is organized and ready up to the brim… We have 33 Sisters altogether, and they are all tucked into their bell-tents with hankies tied on to the ropes of the first ones to be called…

The din is marvellous. Some Grandmothers (15-inch guns) on each side of us are splitting the air and rocking the huts… The illumination is brighter than any lightning: dazzling and beautiful. Their new blinding gas is known as mustard-oil gas; it burns your eyes–sounds jolly, doesn’t it?–and comes over in shells. I wonder how many hundreds or thousands have got only four more hours to live, and know it?[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 97-8.
  2. Collected Letters, 478-9.
  3. Diaries, 185.
  4. Complete Memoirs, 519.
  5. Collected Works, 318-9.
  6. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 76.
  7. Undertones of War, 169-170.
  8. Unknown Warriors, 132-3.