Another Last Hurrah for Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and Ten Pounds of Distance; Ivor Gurney is to Convalesce; Edward Brittain is Bound for Italy

Today, a century back, was a day of departures.

In Edinburgh, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen spent a last evening together at the Conservative Club before Owen left to begin his leave and eventual return to duty. Sassoon will remember a hilarious evening of bad poetry–but that was last week. What Owen will remember is an inspirationally amicable meeting with an awkward post-script. Sassoon left him at the club–curfew at the hospital, after all, while Owen was going directly to a night train en route to Shrewsbury–with a sealed envelope, to be opened only after they parted.

Owen, naturally, waited no more than a minute or two. He hoped, perhaps, to be in possession of some grave confidence or juicy secret. Instead, he was in possession of a ten pound note and a suggestion that he use it to enjoy his leave.

I sat on the stairs and groaned a little, and then went up and loosed off a gourd, a Gothic vacuum of a letter, which I ‘put by.’[1]

The groan is generally interpreted as being directed at the money, or the assumptions that preceded such a gift. It is a strange situation, surely: Sassoon is wealthy and his wartime activities were never curtailed for want of funds; Owen is not, and could indeed use the sum to enjoy his leave, but while friends might ask each other for loans–even “loans” that will not be repaid–this unsolicited parting gift would have felt more like a tip than a favor. Owen is not in immediate need, and so a gift of money implies an assumption of social inequity. At least I think that’s how the class system worked in such a case.

But the groan could just as well be for the general inadequacy of the letter, its mere friendliness when Owen might have hoped for something more passionate. But he is not offended, really, it’s the groan of a joke gone wrong, not of agony and betrayal. The best evidence for this will be Owen’s very passionate reply–but, as he writes above, his first draft (the “gourd, a Gothic vacuum” is a reference to the bad poetry they have been mocking together) was not fit for sending…[2]

It’s an amusing coincidence, then, that the Cambridge Magazine of today, a century back, carried “The Wooden Cross,” one of Sassoon’s less satisfactory attempts at a memorial poem, written for his old hunting friend Gordon Harbord. Harbord, neither intellectual nor literary, had old claims on Sassoon’s affections–and that was a friendship that would never have included an unsolicited bank note in a sealed envelope…

 

Ivor Gurney, also near Edinburgh, is also leaving–or, at least, it was today, a century back, that he got the news:

3 November 1917

My Dear Friend: Well, to business, (probable.) Chuck out — Tuesday. London 7.30. High Wycombe, Friday Morning. Gloucester Sat: night (as late as can be.)

There’s a bit of luck; owing to slight indigestion (presumably due to gas; wink, wink!) I am to go to Command Depot for two months — a sort of Con: Camp in Khaki. I hope they will keep me for two months, and then of course, if the indigestion isn’t cured……….

This can be read as a Conspiracy to Malinger, but it needn’t be. Gurney is an old soldier, now, and certainly in no hurry to rush back for a winter at the front, what with his weak stomach (never mind his troubled “nerves”) and his ability to serve the army elsewhere, in his capacity as Convalescent Accompanist.

And, perhaps, get a little time to compose…

No, the song is not done, when I’m with you perhaps. Two months Con Camp! O Composition…

with best wishes: Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

 

Finally, today, a date of which I’m not terribly sure–Vera Brittain remembers it, however, and probably with good reason, and apparently because it was the date she received a letter from her brother, not far away in the Salient:

But on November 3rd, when the Flanders offensive was subsiding dismally into the mud and Edward was daily expected home on leave, a brief, mysterious note came from him, written in the vaguely remembered Latin of the Sixth Form at Uppingham:

Hanc epistolam in lingua Latina male conscripta…

It is with a frustrated humility that I insert that ellipsis: Vera Brittain copied out the whole Latin letter. I can’t unpack it all, anyway, but the beginning reads: “This letter, written in bad Latin…”

It’s a creative attempt to foil the censors, but rather a silly one. If the idea is to keep classified information from the Germans, doubting their ability as Classicists hardly seems the wisest choice. Edward does, however, use further circumlocution (so to speak) to hint at the crucial news, and Vera is able to figure it out. But before she fully absorbs the significance of the letter, she turns it into the means of settling a score:

Calling desperately upon the elusive shades of Pass Mods, I managed to gather from this letter that Edward’s battalion had been ordered to join the British and French Divisions being sent from France under Lord Plumer and General Fayolle to reinforce the Italian Army. When I had recovered a little from the shock, I took his note to the C. of E. padre, a burly, rubicund individual whose manner to V.A.D.S was that of the family butler engaging the youngest between-maid, and with innocent eyes asked him to translate. As I had suspected, he had not the remotest idea where to begin, and after much protest about the thinness of the notepaper, and the illegibility of Edward’s clear handwriting, he was obliged, to my secret triumph, to confess his ignorance…

After putting one over on the hapless clergyman, she reflects on what the transfer might mean.

Well, it does make it necessary to mention, very much in passing, another of 1917’s major strategic developments.[4] The Italians have lately come close to collapsing under a strong Austro-German offensive, which is now threatening the Veneto. But, as always, “close” means little: winter is coming, and the Germans, perturbed by the tactical success around Ypres and the arrival of the Americans, are withdrawing their troops from the Italian front to send them to France. Italy will not collapse entirely under merely Austrian pressure, but the allies must go and show the flag, regardless.

For Vera Brittain, however, the calculus was more simple: Edward will be safer–probably–but farther away.

Although I was glad that Edward had left the Salient, I couldn’t help being disappointed that he was going so far away after I had manoeuvred myself, as I had hoped, permanently near him for the duration of our wartime lives.

“Half the point of being in France seems to be gone,” I told my family, “ and I didn’t realise until I heard he was
going how much I had . . . looked forward to seeing him walk up this road one day to see me. But I want you to try
and not worry about him more because he is there . . . no one who has not been out here has any idea how fed-up everyone is with France and with the same few miles of ground that have been solidly fought over for three years. There is a more sporting chance anywhere than here. Of course there has been great talk about the migration . . . and all the men whose units are going are very pleased.”[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 504-5.
  2. See Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 279-80.
  3. War Letters, 230.
  4. It seems that I may have succeeded in entirely avoiding mention of the Russian Revolution--it does crop up in the seventh paragraph or so of Gurney's letters, from time to time, but I often trim those. This is not simple negligence but rather a decision born out of a combination of despair at giving a decent big picture view along with all these closeups and a commitment to the principle that, in this sort of project, things should only matter to readers if and when they matter to the writers.
  5. Testament of Youth, 390-1.