Siegfried Sassoon Endures a Torrent of Drivel; Charles Carrington Chooses a Tank of Filth; Herbert Read Misses Out on Fear

We begin today with a brief update on Siegfried Sassoon–or, really, on his unbelievable Theosophist roommate.

7 October 1917, Craigockhart,

Dearest Robbie,

I am much relieved that the new poems have passed safely  through your judgment…

Rivers is back, and I hope he will get me a room to myself, as I can’t do anything with a prosy Theosophist there all the time–he maddens me with his stilted talk. When I told him our casualties (by official reports) were 102,000 for
September, he remarked ‘Yes, Sassoon, it is the Celestial Surgeon at work on humanity.’ But he may provide material for a poem some-day…[1]

Perhaps–but he will certainly provide material for the coming memoirs and novels…

 

But Ypres looms. Even those, like Herbert Read, who have missed the worst of Passchendaele seem to be able to put their finger on the essence of its late-war-of-attrition misery. This next letter sounds so much like the recent accounts of Carrington and Blunden that it feels almost like plagiarism. It’s not, though: it’s just that everyone is having the same experience. There is a really frightening unity of events here: the battalion successfully advances under a smothering barrage, and even holds its gains against counter-attacks, but it is nearly destroyed in doing so, and those who survive hardly more fit to continue than those who were maimed; the only fit officers are those who were left out of the initial attack and then sent forward to pick up the pieces…

When I arrived behind the line I found that the Battalion were in the thick of the fight. I had to stay behind until they came out, along with two others who had straggled in. All such stragglers for all the Brigade were billeted together–about 15 of us. We have a large mess-hut wherein some passing genius has built a wide open old-English fireplace of bricks. Fuel in plenty appears miraculously, so, as the weather is vile and tempestuous we build the fire high and sit around it in a circle. We were rather quiet, not knowing what has happened to our friends. Vague rumours come down to us every now and then. So-and-so is killed, so-and-so is wounded. The ——- have only two officers left out of the twenty that went into action. I hear that Col is wounded, but still ‘carrying on’. That sounds like him. Later someone comes down with shell-shock. He seems distracted and does not know anything definite. Some he has seen killed, others wounded. A few grim details he can give us. The attack was a great success–all objectives taken and so on. But for all we want to know we shall have to wait until they come out. The latest rumour says that is tomorrow and that we are going back to reorganize. We can only hope so.

Read, whose army career is intermittently difficult to follow, is something of a fire-eater himself (he led a raid this summer, and has been decorated for valor), so this next thought is certainly believable on its face. I think, however, that it touches on something deeper, something that helps explain why the war still goes on and why, a century on, it still fascinates:

I feel a little ashamed of having escaped it all. There is always a regret in not having shared dangers with friends. Perhaps one is jealous of their experiences…[2]

 

Charles Carrington has missed none of his comrades’ dangers, of late. Yesterday, a century back, he spent a long day crouching in the positions gained during the assault on October 4th, and we left him to his own devices. Today his increasingly exhausted and jumpy company are still waiting for their relief.

It seemed so quiet this morning that headquarters sent us orders to do salvage work. The wounded had all been brought in; the stretcher-bearers were collecting and burying the dead; I sent men to help in this and to collect arms and equipment. But during the morning it rained once more, and at times there was some shell-fire, at which the poor wretched men returned to their shell-holes. They got the worst of the weather; but we in our wooden shed right on the skyline soon began to attract the shells. The Colonials on our right were expecting trouble. Suddenly a signal went up, three little lights pale against the rainy sky, red and green and white. It was the SOS. Then both barrages fell and the ‘crumps’ burst all about the valley. Though it turned out to be a false alarm, the artillery never altogether died away, and as the afternoon wore on, the enemy’s guns searched the Stroombeek valley and the ridge whereon we were. Luckily the men in the open lower down the slope were in little danger.

And, as a few days ago, Carrington’s attention becomes fixed on one aspect of his surroundings. It’s not that he doesn’t describe the men and what they are going through, but it’s almost as if he has come to understand that the men hardly matter in such a grim war of attrition–it’s the shells, and what might save a man from their force and fragments. Carrington is a very frank writer, and perhaps this switch from close description to a sort of leisurely descriptive aside is just a lapse of attention to style–“now the pill-box bit, I guess.” But it feels almost as if it substitutes for further description of feeling: the experience is so overwhelming, the exhaustion so complete, that we will now stare at the wall for awhile.

Pill-boxes had begun by being concreted cellars in farm houses; they grew gradually into keeps of reinforced concrete in the midst of the wreckage of ruined houses; in the third stage the ruins were scattered by shell-fire and the square boxes of concrete were left standing alone. We had found in the vestibule of this mansion a little kennel door leading to a tiny cellar perhaps six feet in each dimension, half its depth being below ground-level. This closet was concreted over, and being watertight, had naturally filled up to ground-level with rain-water. At some time or other it had been used as a latrine, and the smell from it was prodigious.

When a second time the S O S was sent up (as far as we could-see, without reason) and again our barrage fell and the German retaliation came crashing round us, I began to look for cover. A near whizzbang decided me. Smell or no smell, I would explore the funkhole. I crawled in and found a ledge round the kennel and a few boards just above water-level stretched across the corners. It was safe from anything less than a direct hit from a 5’9. But if I let my hand drop carelessly or hung my foot over the edge of the board it fell into two feet of stagnant green water, fetid and slimy sewage. The smell of it was midway between a septic tank and a tidal river in an industrial town, and it had a staleness all its own.

Thorburn almost jeered when I crept into this tank, but when later in the evening a third SOS went up from the Colonials, and the shells fell closer than ever, Serjeant Walker and I went to earth together, and before long Thorburn swallowed his pride and joined us.

This is just one more incident, one more indignity, one more disgusting detail, but it really can stand as metonymy for Passchendaele–a place so awful that a septic tank is a welcome shelter. Even the men of 1916–men who put up humorous signboards and collected flowers to decorate the trenches–would be aghast.

To-night the battalion was to be relieved. We were already far enough back not to be continually on the alert. We sat and waited from seven o’clock till midnight crouched on boards, this dank pool three inches from the seats of our trousers and the roof three inches above our heads. Since an excursion or two showed that the men were not under fire, there was nothing to do beyond exchanging a few routine messages with headquarters about the relief. We sat and talked, sticking a candle-end on a ledge to light up the slime on the damp walls and our own unshaven faces.

One caller came to us, ‘Davy’ Jones, a little racecourse tout, a man of unlimited impudence, a singer of scurrilous songs, owner of the company Crown and Anchor board, always in trouble, but always well forward in action.
For once he was beat. He had been to headquarters on some errand or other (we had made him an acting section leader) and was standing in the little trench outside when two 5‘9’s came over together and burst on the parapet. With that curious uncertainty of shell-fire, they had almost blown the ground from under his feet without hurting him. But he was badly shaken and had lost his impudence. We brought him into our funkhole and made a fuss of him until the shelling was over.

And at the close of the day, exactly like Edmund Blunden, yesterday, Carrington and his comrades find themselves drawn to wistful reminiscences of better times. But not the endless summer of 1914, or cricket on the lawn, or school games, or English meadows… who can remember that anymore?

We soon fell into a sentimental conversation,

‘Of old unhappy far-off things
And battles long ago.’

Jones and I talked of our old fights, of Ovillers and Gommecourt, and the good times in summer out at rest, and of the friends who had ‘drawn their full issue’ long before…

At last our relief came. Section by section the relieving regiment arrived and replaced each of my groups with a platoon. Thorburn saw to the section reliefs; it was my place to ‘hand over’ company headquarters and explain the tactical situation…

I was full of anxiety to cross the Steenbeek and get away, being terribly frightened of being hit now at the last minute. We passed the Winnipeg road and the old Langemarck trench line, left on our right Janet Farm, where the doctor plied his trade, then crossed the little bridge over the Steenbeek among the rusting remains of twenty-two tanks lying dead in the bottom of the valley, and reached the road, where at last there was a firm foothold to find unless you trod in a shell-hole…

Terrified, Carrington jumps on a truck when shelling begins, and is separated from his sergeant and his men. Eventually he finds his way, alone, to the bivouac. “Edmonds'” account ends with an irony less bitter than most:

Serjeant Walker and all my stragglers came in. Cold, damp and utterly despondent I crept into my valise and slept.

It seemed to me that I had been feeble, inactive, and unnerved, but for my part in this battle I was given the Military Cross and a captaincy. I had expected a court-martial.

Casualties to the Battalion:

Killed        4 officers, 81 other ranks.
Wounded 6 officers, 171 other ranks.
10             252

The total, 262, being about half of those who took part in the battle. At this stage of the war, in order to avoid the disproportionate death-rate among officers, only sixteen per battalion went into action. This time ten were hit. My company set out with three officers, seventeen N.C.O.’s and ninety-two men. One officer, two N.C.O.’s and forty-four men survived the attack unhurt.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 189-90.
  2. The Contrary Experience, 109-110.
  3. A Subaltern's War, 170-85.