First, today, the good news, from Vera Brittain‘s diary:
When I went to the letter-rack at lunch-time there was–of all things on earth I least expected & most desired to see–a little pencil-scrawled envelope from Edward. I tore it open–it said “July 1st. I was wounded in the action this morning, in left arm & right thigh not seriously. Hope to come to England. Don’t worry. Edward.” It was written, I learnt later, from the Casualty Clearing Station. Heaven at least has had some measure of mercy on me–for this once.
But mercy is unevenly distributed. It has been fashionable–and it remains good critical practice–to seek to separate the life from the art, the writer from the suspiciously writer-like character. This can be impossible in the case of fictionalized memoirs, inaccurate autobiographies, and highly personal first novels–i.e. the work of Siegfried Sassoon (who we’ll hear from below), Robert Graves, and Frederic Manning–but then again that is part of the challenge, part of the fun.
Highly personal poetry is a different beast. The lyric poet is supposed to speak personally, and yet we somehow feel that even if they address a specific moment they must do so, somehow, out of time; that they should rise above the detail-rich roughage of daily life and speak to eternal things. That should be the right way to read poetry, surely–but why is it, then, that there is such a strong overlap–a codependency, really–between poetry and the lives of poets? More specifically, why do the dramatic, too-often-tragic lives of good-looking young poets come to seem completely consonant with their poetic afterlife?
Are privileged young men with talent–and, often enough, charm and beauty–more likely to be poets, or just the sorts of poets we remember as poets?
Of course–and this is not their fault, but ours. Perhaps we can manage to remember the very greatest writers for the complexity of their achievement (and it helps, of course, if they leave us as little of their lives as their second-best bed), but with most of these guys, well, we’ll only remember them if we can keep the life and the work together, as it were: vatic bards going predictably down in drink or flames, poetic voluptuaries dying scandalous deaths…
And if it boosts one’s posthumous fame to live fast and burn out while still on an upward trajectory, then it helps all the more so if one appears to have written one’s own death. Rupert Brooke wrote a sort of aspirationally heroic repose, and his own bathetic death–not at the hands of the Huns but at the proboscis of a mosquito–tends to be half-forgotten. Instead, The Soldier claims the corner of the foreign field in which we remember him.
Julian Grenfell came closer. He was not charging the German trenches, exactly: he was killed at long range while observing. But he had gone Into Battle, fought bravely and aggressively, and been killed by the enemy, just as he wished, much as he had written.
And then there is Charles Sorley, who went with unfailing courage and unflinching intelligence to an early death. His poetry was sharp and uncompromising, and he died unheralded, with an unpublished sonnet about the fruitlessness of turning to the mouthless dead for wisdom or consolation literally in his pocket. He was the first to choose ghostly silence as a form of refused memorial–but that of course is a necessary irony.
And now Noel Hodgson has joined this company, this representative pantheon of poets whose deaths seem to be found in their late–youthful, yet still late–poetry. Hodgson was something like the ultimate nice English boy. He was studious and kind, quietly religious, loving to his family and loyal to his friends. He didn’t write himself Into Battle–instead he politely begged divine aid Before Action. And if he should be remembered for one more thing–Charlotte Zeepvat’s biography stresses this heavily–it was for the strong spirit of camaraderie among the young officers of his battalion. They were fast friends, and we can imagine, perhaps, that the enlisted men of the battalion were unusually close as well. (I’m straining here, in order to get to the famous end to this chapter of the story.)
Today, a century back, Ernest Crosse, the young chaplain of the 8th and 9th Devonshires and Hodgson’s friend, held a funeral for the men of the regiment killed on July 1st. 163 men were buried in what had been their front-line trench in Mansel Copse. The little cemetery will become famous for an inscription that echoes–appropriately enough, given the schooling and temperament of the Greek-reading Hodgson–a well-known section of Herodotus.
The Devonshires held this trench, the Devonshires hold it still.
The Devonshires, though they were attacking a stronghold rather than defending a narrow place, are figured here as Spartans, resisting the invader to the last. The echo is of the famous elegiac couplet, attributed to Simonides, that was once (and is again) inscribed on the site of the Spartan last stand at Thermopylae.
- Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
- κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.
This, in a familiar English version, runs:
Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
So Noel Hodgson is dead, and whether he received the help he asked for is not a thing we can know. But he is buried in a fashion we might imagine he would approve: faithful and apt, alongside his comrades forevermore.
A warrior-poet archetype of a very different sort went into action today as well. Alan Seeger of the French Foreign Legion has styled himself as a seize-the-day poet of action, a fiery spirit bent on experience. For us he is the American edition of the 19th century French early-modern: dramatically hard-living (but still privileged, with a safety net back home), and vociferously self-creating–the intellectual bad boy whose confusion of life and art may not be quite as intentional as he perceives it to be.
But I’m muddying the waters, which are foul enough. Today is another death-day. Seeger was eager to see battle, and sought it out years before his nation. He chose the hard life of the Foreign Legion and didn’t complain and–in his published writings at least–his interest in experiencing the glory and thrill of destructive warfare never waned, not even after he had accrued many months of experience in the trenches. He has been very confident, lately, that his part in the Battle of the Somme will be glorious, that the battle will be a great thing, and that victory will follow. And he has warned against trying to capture the greatness of battle in mere words.
And, he has written this:
I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear…
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
Nor did he. Today, a century back, he was killed during the attack on Belloy-en-Santerre. In the conclusion to the volume of Diary and Letters soon to be published by his family, an account of his final days is given by one of his comrades.
After passing the night at Fontaine-les-Cappy we moved in the morning toward what had been the German first lines. I passed almost all the day with Alan. He was perfectly happy. “My dream is coming true,” he said to me…
The field of battle was relatively calm, a few shells fell, fired by the enemy in retreat, and our troops were advancing on all sides. The Colonials had taken Assevillers and the next day we were to take their place in first line. On July 3rd about noon we moved toward Assevillers to relieve the Colonials at nightfall. Alan and I visited Assevillers, the next morning, picking up souvenirs, postcards, letters, soldiers’ notebooks, and chatting all the time, when suddenly a voice called out: “The company will fall in to go to the first line.”
About 4 o’clock the order came to get ready for the attack. None could help thinking of what the next few hours would bring. One minute’s anguish and then, once in the ranks, faces became calm and serene, a kind of gravity falling upon them, while on each could be read the determination and expectation of victory. Two battalions were to attack Belloy-en-Santerre, our company being the reserve of battalion. The companies forming the first wave were deployed on the plain. Bayonets glittered in the air above the corn, already quite tall.
The first section (Alan’s section) formed the right and vanguard of the company and mine formed the left wing. After the first bound forward, we lay flat on the ground, and I saw the first section advancing beyond us and making toward the extreme right of the village of Belloy-en-Santerre. I caught sight of Seeger and called to him, making a sign with my hand.
He answered with a smile. How pale he was! His tall silhouette stood out on the green of the cornfield. He was the tallest man in his section. His head erect, and pride in his eye, I saw him running forward, with bayonet fixed. Soon he disappeared and that was the last time I saw my friend…
The account continues, based, apparently, on other sources:
One of the first to fall was Alan Seeger. Mortally wounded, it was his fate to see his comrades pass him in their splendid charge and to forego the supreme moment of victory to which he had looked forward through so many months of bitterest hardship and trial. Together with those other generous wounded of the Legion fallen, he cheered on the fresh files as they came up to the attack and listened anxiously for the cries of triumph which should tell of their success.
It was no moment for rescue. In that zone of deadly cross-fire there could be but one thought,—to get beyond it alive, if possible. So it was not until the next day that his body was found and buried, with scores of his comrades, on the battle-field of Belloy-en-Santerre.
It’s not inappropriate, I think, to follow Seeger’s death with the slow build-up to Siegfried Sassoon‘s first battle. There is something of Hodgson’s charming politeness in Sassoon, and something of Seeger’s willfully dashing adventurism. Sassoon’s diary, more than any other source just now, combines our two central interests: how soldiers write their experiences of the war, and how writers record what they see.
July 4, 4.50 a.m.
The Battalion started at 9.15 p.m. yesterday and after messing about for over four hours, got going with tools, wire,
etc and went through Mametz, up a long communication trench with three very badly mangled corpses lying in it: a man, short, plump, with turned-up moustaches, lying face downward and half sideways with one arm flung up as if defending his head, and bullet through his forehead. A doll-like figure. Another hunched and mangled, twisted and scorched with many days’ dark growth on his face, teeth clenched and grinning lips.
Came down across the open hillside looking across to Mametz Wood, and out at the end of Bright Alley. Found that the Royal Irish were being bombed and machine-gunned by Bosches in the wood and had fifteen wounded. A still grey morning; red east; everyone very tired.
12.30 p.m. These dead are terrible and undignified carcases, stiff and contorted. There were thirty of our own laid in two ranks by the Mametz-Carnoy road, some side by side on their backs with bloody-clotted fingers mingled as if they were hand-shaking in the companionship of death. And the stench undefinable. And rags and shreds of blood-stained cloth, bloody boots riddled and torn. This morning the facts were: R.W.F. and Royal Irish were sent up to consolidate trenches close to the south-east end of Mametz Wood and to clear the wood outskirts… Our A Company… were sniped on the road, and got into a quarry where they lost four wounded and one killed. The
Irish meanwhile had tried to bomb the Bosches in the wood, failed entirely, and suffered sixty casualties (one officer killed and one wounded). Our guns then chucked a lot of heavy shrapnel over the wood and the Irish got away. The whole thing seems to have been caused by bad staff-work (of the Division). We were out eleven hours and got back to our field about 8.30 a.m… Great fun these last two days.
9.15 p.m. The Battalion just moving off for the attack on Quadrangle Trench, by Mametz Wood, The XV Corps attack at 12.30 a.m. It rained in sheets from 1 to 4.30, but everyone has recovered, though all got soaked. The attack-scheme was sprung on us very much at the last moment.
C. Company can muster only twenty-six men, so we are carrying R[oyal].E[ngineers]. stuff. B. and D, attack. A. are-in reserve. We attack from Bottom Wood on a six-hundred-yard front.
One more day’s postponement, then.
So… perhaps we should stop there. Perhaps we should have stopped with Seeger’s death. And yet it’s only been three days since the disastrous First of July. So, spared by the delay in the attack of the Royal Welch of any new tale of courage and carnage on the British section of the front, we can look back. Here is something ancient, and persistent: battlefield tourism.
Rowland Feilding is a serving officer, of course, but he has been free to roam of late, and to see what he can see. His letter is both a testament to what did go right for the British–he is on the southern flank of the assault, where the artillery did a better job and the objective were captured–and what didn’t. Those deep German dugouts…
His letter to his wife is a bridge to us, from the battle through the contemporary “tourist” and across the experiential gulf…
July 4, 1916.
…In the afternoon, with three of my officers, I visited the battlefield of three days ago. We lorry-jumped to Bray.
From there we struck off on foot along the road towards Mametz, one of the villages captured by our troops. The
fighting was still continuing in front, but in the ruined village itself all was quiet. Our heavy guns were firing over
our heads as we walked, but beyond an occasional shrapnel burst in the distance, the German artillery was quiescent, and we were able to explore the surface in safety. After proceeding 3 1/2 miles we reached what last Saturday was the British front line. It was very battered, and scarcely recognizable as a fire-trench. Then we crossed Noman’s Land, where we found infantry at work, salving equipment, and collecting the dead. Of the latter I
counted a hundred in one group—a pitiful sight! Then we came to what had been the German wire entanglements. Here our guns had certainly done their work well. The wire was completely demolished. Not one square yard had escaped the shells. Then we came to the German fire-trench. It is difficult to understand how any living creature could have survived such bombardment.
The trench was entirely wrecked, and so flattened that it could have given little if any cover at the end. Leigh
Bennett, who was with me and who has been fighting in Gallipoli, when he saw this—his first view of a French
battlefield—said: “I see now that what we thought was real shelling in Gallipoli was mere child’s play.”
Fifty yards beyond the German fire-trench was their support trench, and about the same distance further on, their
Reserve trench. Both had suffered severely. The ground is strewn with unexploded shells of ours, mostly of heavy
I went into some of the dug-outs, but, as I had neither electric torch nor matches, it was not possible to see much.
They are of varying depths, some being quite 20 feet below the surface, and are well made, the sides and roofs being strongly supported by timber. I saw only one that had more than one entrance, and it was on fire. After exploring these remains of the German trenches we went on into Mametz village where living man was represented by the Salvage folk and a few infantry making their way up to the new front line. Scarcely a wall stands, and of the trees nothing remains but mangled twisted stumps. The ruins present an appalling and most gruesome picture of the havoc of war, seen fresh, which no pen or picture can describe. You must see it, and smell it, and hear the sounds, to understand. It brings a sort of sickening feeling to me even now, though I consider myself hardened to such sights. To give an idea of the long period of time through which the line at this point has remained stationary, I may say that in Noman’s Land I saw two skeletons, one in German uniform, and the other in the long since discarded red infantry breeches of the French.
These sights will become more common.