Noel Hodgson Laid to Epigrammatic Rest; A Merciful Post for Vera Brittain; Siegfried Sassoon Goes Up to the Line; Alan Seeger’s Rendezvous with Death; The First Battlefield Tourists Report

First, today, the good news, from Vera Brittain‘s diary:

July 4th

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.[1]

 

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.[2]

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.

alan_seeger3

Alan Seeger

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.[3]

 

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.[4]

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
calibre.

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.[5]

These sights will become more common.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 326.
  2. Zeepvat, Before Action, 203.
  3. Letters and Diary, 212-16.
  4. Diaries, 87-8.
  5. War Letters to a Wife, 85-6.

The Third Day: More Futile Attacks; Siegfried Sassoon Moves Up, and Marks his Progress with a Poem; Vera Brittain Calls on the Leightons; Ford Madox Ford Playfully Attacks in French (and Latin); Edward Thomas Braves “The Gallows;” Alan Seeger Goes Forward

George Coppard, whose work with the powerful but unwieldy Vickers machine gun keeps him in a defensive posture, has a very good view of the developing battlefield. The great attack, the unprecedented slaughter, is past, now, but the Big Push grinds on in a cascade of local attacks, most of them aimed at the first day’s objectives. Coppard will watch, now, as new troops are thrown against the German lines at the northern edge of the battle.

On July 3rd the Queen’s and the Royal West Kents attacked the German lines in our sector. Crossing the corpse-strewn No Man’s Land towards the black enemy wire, draped with dead Tommies, they met fierce machine-gun fire, and were completely repulsed. Many walking wounded who managed to struggle back filtered down our trench towards Aveluy Wood. I remember one youngster asking me to bandage him up. His right wrist had been lacerated by a large piece of shrapnel and the hand was hanging by a few sinews. The initial shock must have stifled the pain and he was almost cheery. “I’ve got a Blighty at last,” he said…[1]

 

I didn’t mention Roland Leighton on the first day of the Somme, but he was very much on Vera Brittain‘s mind as she realized that her brother was in combat. Would she lose her brother as she had lost his best friend, her fiancé? Roland was on Edward’s mind as well. The two had been close friends, and even the always-awkward overtaking of their friendship by the romance between sister and friend had not altered Edward’s regard for him. But would the diffident, music-loving Edward meet the standard of heroic expectation that Roland set upon himself? Could he succeed in battle when the great Roland, the Lancelot of their little group, was been uselessly shot down on an ordinary night’s trench relief?

But Vera isn’t thinking of heroism, surely, now–only of life and death. When she was called to the phone on Boxing Day she had expected nothing but joyful news. Now she could reasonably expect the very worst.

July 3rd

Had a half-day… & went down to see the Leightons–there had been no news of Edward all through this terrible week-end, and I could endure no longer without having them to talk to.[2]

Is this apotropaic magic? Does Vera hope that if she goes to the center of suffering, no further suffering can reach her there? Well, she will not have long to wait, for news.

 

Alas that I only recently stumbled upon the letters of Ben Keeling, for he writes beautifully. This is from a letter dated tomorrow, a century back, and thus describes tonight:

Last night I saw, I think, the most symbolical scene of warfare which I have ever come across. As I turned a corner of a trench with a young officer we suddenly faced a fair expanse of ground over which the contour lines enabled us to look. The horizon was near only three hundred yards or so away topped by an avenue of trees, bare and shell-stricken on the right, the end nearest the firing-line, and gradually becoming more leafy as we looked to the left. On the extreme right the scene ended in the hummocks, holes, and gradual slope upwards of one of the big mine craters. The dominating colour of the ground was white. Trenches, shell holes, and mine upheavals had torn up the chalk from below the surface soil, but there was a solid mass of scarlet poppies in the middle of the picture, contrasting wonderfully with the white and grey ground and the yellowish background of an early twilight sky. I shall never forget the vision of beauty and desolation which I saw in a flash that moment.[3]

 

Siegfried Sassoon of the First Royal Welch Fusiliers is watching the same sunset, a century back. It’s been a slow day, suitable for such observations. But tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow, the Welch will join the battle.

July 3, 11.15 a.m.

Greaves, self and party left Kingston Road at 6.45 a.m. The battalion assembled at 71 North and we marched across to a point north-west of Camoy where the 22nd Brigade concentrated. The four battalions piled arms and lay down in an open grassy hollow south of the Camoy-Mametz road, with a fine view of the British and (late) Bosche lines where the 91st Brigade attacked on Saturday, about Six hundred yards away. Everyone very cheery–no officer-casualties yet…

5.45 p.m. Everyone has been dozing in the sun all day…  As I dozed I could hear the men all round talking about the things they’d looted from the Bosche trenches.

Evening falls calm and hazy; an orange sunset, blurred at the last. At 8.15 I’m looking down from the hill, a tangle of long grass and thistles and some small white weed like tiny cow parsley. The four battalions are in four groups…

Sassoon’s brigade has earned its lazy day: at 9.15 p.m. they began their march forward, heavily laden with barbed wire and ammunition. But Sassoon had some creative energy to spare, and in that spare hour, a century back, he turned the diary’s poetical field notes into verse:

 

At Carnoy

Down in the hollow there’s the whole Brigade
Camped in four groups: through twilight falling slow
I hear a sound of mouth-organs, ill-played,
And murmur of voices, gruff, confused, and low.
Crouched among thistle-tufts I’ve watched the glow
Of a blurred orange sunset flare and fade;
And I’m content. To-morrow we must go
To take some cursèd Wood… O world God made![4]

 

 

A well-schooled writer would end the post there, I imagine. So this next bit is a terrible indulgence; the focus should be on the battle–but I can’t resist. Edward Thomas and Ford Madox Hueffer–both belated volunteers, both professional writers much older than most of their new comrades, whose work is only beginning to receive the appreciation it deserves–both wrote poems today, from the shattering safety of England.

And beneath these structural similarities the two are, like their poems, utterly unalike. Thomas is the unhappy family man, quiet, depressive, devoted to his friends and his countryside; Ford the larger-than-life literary brawler and loose-liver… both men know misery and irony and do not shrink from it. But could they handle it any differently?

 

The Silver Music

In Chepstow stands a castle—
My love and I went there.
The foxgloves on the wall all heard
Her footsteps on the stair.

The sun was high in heaven,
And the perfume in the air
Came from purple cat’s-valerian…
But her footsteps on the stair
Made a sound like silver music
Through the perfume in the air.

Oh I’m weary for the castle,
And I’m weary for the Wye;
And the flowered walls are purple,
And the purple walls are high,
And above the cat’s-valerian
The foxgloves brush the sky.
But I must plod along the road
That leads to Germany.

And another soldier fellow
Shall come courting of my dear;
And it’s I shall not be with her
With my lips beside her ear.
For it’s he shall walk beside her
In the perfume of the air
To the silver, silver music
Of her footstep on the stair.

Not only did Ford write such tripping love lyrics today, a century back, but he was also playing an elaborate game with a fellow orderly-room officer, H. C. James. Do you doubt the Latin acumen of our classically-schooled Englishmen? Well, you may doubt further, if you wish–stories of games played and attempts made do not always show the failed efforts and tend to make even quick and shoddy attempts seem like sustained efforts… But this is still impressive.

I’ll let Max Saunders, Ford’s biographer, explain, and strive to contextualize:

…the game was constructed as a military joke. Captain James listed the rhyme-words as if they were privates requiring disciplinary action (‘49522 Pte. Eyes 49642 Pte. Skies’, and so on).

Ford wrote the poem to the desired rhymes, and then passed the result to Captain James, who translated it into Latin.

The date is given as 3 July 1916, two days after the bloodiest battle in English military history. If they had any sense then of the scale of the Battle of the Somme, and yet could, divert themselves so light-heartedly, it was perhaps because they knew they would themselves soon be fighting on the Somme. One could read it as a
mad denial of war’s insanity, or as a typically Fordian fascination with how expressive a stiff-upper-lip expressionlessness could be. Readers of Parade’s End will recognize how, after that experience, Ford was to re-imagine the inventing of these ‘rough products’ in the coruscatingly produced, surreally insane scene in No More Parades in which Tietjens tries to distract the enervated Captain McKechnie and himself with bouts rimés just after a bombardment, and McKechnie offers to turn his sonnets into Latin hexameters in three minutes.[5]

Actually, I’ve included that quotation just to admit into this project a writer whose prose sesquipedalianly produces more spell-checkingly flagged adverbial phrases than I do. But this is to be expected from a man making his meals off of the spell-binding and nearly-unreadable writing of Ford. The scene in the novel is set rather later…

 

So, while one writer tosses off collaborative verse in linguistic triplicate, another sits down to wrestle with power and ugliness in the bright summer sunlight.

 

The Gallows

There was a weasel lived in the sun
With all his family,
Till a keeper shot him with his gun
And hung him up on a tree,
Where he swings in the wind and rain,
In the sun and in the snow,
Without pleasure, without pain,
On the dead oak tree bough.

There was a crow who was no sleeper,
But a thief and a murderer
Till a very late hour; and this keeper
Made him one of the things that were,
To hang and flap in rain and wind,
In the sun and in the snow.
There are no more sins to be sinned
On the dead oak tree bough.

There was a magpie, too,
Had a long tongue and a long tail;
He could talk and do–
But what did that avail?
He, too, flaps in the wind and rain
Alongside weasel and crow,
Without pleasure, without pain,
On the dead oak tree bough.

And many other beasts
And birds, skin, bone, and feather,
Have been taken from their feasts
And hung up there together,
To swing and have endless leisure
In the sun and in the snow,
Without pain, without pleasure,
On the dead oak tree bough.

This is a tremendous poem. First, I will slyly keep my contextualizing hands clean once again and let the formidable Edna Longley do the dirty work: “Even if it is probably too soon for him to have grasped the enormity of the Somme… The Gallows turns a familiar rural image into a powerful fable of mass slaughter.”

That “probably” should be a “surely–” or else that “grasped” should be understood as highly intuitive rather than a matter of confessed understanding. The great poets–and if we will allow that quiet poets can be great, then I begin to think that Thomas has a real claim–tend to get credit, even from professed rationalists, for being in mystical communion with the spirit of their times, far ahead of wandering newspapermen and hapless historians. If Vergil can encapsulate Rome’s greatness and rottenness in a mere twelve books and young Auden can call us to order on September 1st, 1939, then it’s no great trick, is it, to anticipate the casualty lists in the Times by a few days?

But that’s not what’s going on here, really. Thomas has had problems with gamekeepers before–he referred to one as “a policeman god,” a keeper of order grotesquely swollen in power–and we needn’t make this one into a crypto-German machine gunner to understand that the man with a gun who makes living creatures into “things that were” is the enemy. Thomas loved the natural countryside, but more Englishmen–or more wealthy Englishmen–loved to hunt over it, and they set their keepers on their competitors, human and otherwise. This is not a compromise that Thomas seems any longer inclined to accept, now that he has decided to fight. Instead, while Ford uses light verse to keep things light, Thomas goes to the heart of the Hardy-predicted predicament: “Thomas uses folksong structures to transmute anger into cosmic irony.”[6]

As to the horrifying image of mangled animals festooned on trees, it may well be a common one (I am far from an English countryman) but it was latterly given pride of place in the most gripping of Great War fictions, Pat Barker’s Regeneration. I don’t know if Barker was prompted by this poem, but her use of this image in the book (which I will try to work in, here, next year) seems to me to speak to Thomas, as if to say “Yes, indeed, this is a war poem, but from a poet who has yet to go to war. Think what might happen when a man who has been there and seen men-made-things hanging on the barbed wire comes home to see the keeper’s gallows?”

 

But I should bring us back to France. To the French Foreign Legion, in fact, which is moving forward to attack on the southern front of the Somme battle. Alan Seeger‘s regiment “moved toward Assevillers” this afternoon, a century back, and took over front-line positions “at nightfall.” Tomorrow, for this experienced and hard-bitten unit, death or glory.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 82-4.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 326.
  3. Keeling Letters and Recollections, 299-300.
  4. Diaries, 85-7.
  5. Saunders, Ford Madox Ford, A Dual Life, 492.
  6. Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 307-8.
  7. Letters and Diary, 212-213.

The End of the First Day

[This is the fourth and final post for today, a century back–if you have not yet read the first three, you may wish to scroll down…]

We have yet to hear from George Coppard, whose machine gun team was with the 37th Division (part of the diversionary thrust to the north of the main effort, see map below), scheduled to go forward and defend any gains against any German counterattacks. I have no more symbolic larks to reference, today, but Coppard begins in a place we have been before: beneath the Golden Virgin, that precipitous and harrowing symbol of mercy askew.

the virginOn the afternoon of 1 July… we passed through Albert on our way to the front. We knew that the great assault had started early that morning. The red-brick cathedral looked in a sorry state. Adding to its wrecked appearance was the massive golden figure of the Virgin on the tall tower, leaning over at an angle of about 95 degrees…

There was a terrific crowd of troops and vehicles at Crucifix Corner.  The road forked there and in the angle, commanding the approach, stood a huge crucifix. The sorrowful face of Christ gazed down at the turmoil below. I remember looking at His face–a glance only–there was no time for more… The left fork led to Thiepval, la Boiselle, and Ovillers. The right to Fricourt and Contalmaison. We took the left…

A little later on, then,

…we entered Aveluy Wood… lachrymatory or tear shells literally drenched the wood. They caught us unawares, stinging the eyes painfully… it was too late to put on gas masks… A winding track led through the wood, and many wounded and dying lay on either side of it, but we could not stay to help them…

This is one of the disturbing new experiences of today, a century back. Raids and patrols and bombardments were over quickly, and then valor and care could be directed toward the wounded. But now discipline demands that they be left to misery and death.

Later in the afternoon Coppard takes stock of the grim situation:

Clear of the wood at last, we climbed into a trench, and before nightfall mounted the Vickers… As far as we could gather, the attack that morning had started at 7.30 am from the trench in which we stood. Darkness fell before we could sum up the situation in No Man’s Land, but the number of our dead in front of the gun position was an ominous clue.

Our primary job was defence, but we put up long bursts of indirect fire throughout the night, harassing the support areas immediately behind the enemy trenches…[1]

 

somme positions 3

Once more this map…

Donald Hankey was a few miles to the south. Left behind to supervise the resupply of hand grenades when his battalion went up, he now came forward while his battalion was held back, their attack canceled at least for the day.

After a day of idleness and depression I had to detail a party to carry bombs at top speed to some relics of the leading battalions, who were still clinging on to the extremest comer of the enemy’s front line some distance to our left. Being fed up with inaction, I took the party myself. It was a long way. The trenches were choked with wounded and stragglers and troops who had never been ordered to advance. In others they were waist-deep in water. By dint of much shouting I managed to get through with about ten of my men, but had to leave the others to follow with a sergeant. At last we sighted our objective, a cluster of chalk mounds surrounded with broken wire, shell craters, corpses, wreathed in smoke, dotted with men. I think we all ran across the ground between our front line and our objective, though it must have been more or less dead ground. Anyhow, only one man was hit.

Hankey’s biographer questions the one important difference between this account, in his diary, and the letter to his sister:

Which account is nearer the truth, which ‘fact’ might Hankey have ‘slightly altered’? Was he ordered into No Man’s Land with the bombs (‘had to carry’), or did he ‘have to’ in the sense of being impelled to follow his own impulsive nature (‘I took the party myself’) and either volunteered to lead, or quit his post to lead the carrying party? We cannot now know, although there is at least one ‘fact’ in Hankey’s letter to Hilda that is highly questionable, his assurance ‘PS I was never in any real danger.’ If there was a ‘cushy’ job amid the machine-gun and artillery fire in No Man’s Land in the Serre–Beaumont Hamel sector on 1 July, it perhaps was not lugging canvas buckets of grenades into the German lines.

Hankey, who had become a popular commentator on the war as “A Student in Arms”–before breaking with his editor over his desire to write less-than-perfectly upbeat, pro-war pieces–intends to join the Anglican priesthood after the war. This is, of course, no bar to holding slaughterous opinions: the clergy of all nations in this war were, generally, blind to the irony of claiming God’s blessing for the killing of their coreligionists. But Hankey has begun to have doubts, and he is willing to think carefully in order to express something of the strange tension that exists here. He wants to experience battle and to acquit himself well–to help his country win, which will involve killing many Germans–but he can no longer ignore, after today, just how terrible the war is. He will write this in the next few days:

I have never realized before what an awful thing war is… It may be good for a man & a nation; but it is nonetheless wholly evil in itself.[2]

 

Several miles to the south, it would seem that Siegfried Sassoon lacks either motive or opportunity to go forward himself. Opportunity, really: whatever he is feeling as he continues to write up his eyewitness account in his diary, he was surely required to remain with his unit. The attacks in the center have not been so much of an unmitigated disaster that the follow-up attacks have been canceled. His grenades and other supplies may yet be needed.

1.30. Manchesters attack at 2.30. Mametz and Montauban reported taken. Mametz consolidated.

2.30. Manchesters left New Trench and apparently took Sunken Road Trench, bearing rather to the right. Could see about 400. Many walked casually across with sloped arms. There were about forty[3] casualties on the left (from machine-gun in Fricourt). Through my glasses I could see one man moving his left arm up and down as he lay on his side; his face was a crimson patch. Others lay still in the sunlight while the swarm of figures disappeared over the hill. Fricourt was a cloud of pinkish smoke. Lively machine-gun fire on the far side of the hill. At 2.50 no one to be seen in no-man’s-land except the casualties (about half-way across). Our dug-out shelled again since 2.30.

5.0. I saw about thirty of our A Company crawl across to Sunken Road from New Trench. Germans put a few big shells on the Cemetery and traversed Kingston Road with machine-gun. Manchester wounded still out there. Remainder of A Company went across—about 100 altogether. Manchesters reported held up in Bois Français Support. Their Colonel went across and was killed.[4]

8.0. Staff Captain of our Brigade has been along. Told Barton that Seventh Division has reached its objectives with some difficulty, except on this Brigade front. Manchesters are in trouble, and Fricourt attack has failed. Several hundred prisoners brought in on our sector.

9.30. Our A Company holds Rectangle and Sunken Road. Jenkins gone off in charge of a carrying-party. Seemed all right again. C Company now reduced to six runners, two stretcher-bearers, Company Sergeant-Major, signallers, and Barton’s servant. Flook away on carrying-party. Sky cloudy westward. Red sunset. Heavy gun-fire on the left.[5]

And so we’ve come from bright dawn to red sunset. This means that the wounded, many of whom have been lying in the sun for fourteen hours, can begin to hope that help will come soon.

 

But before we trace the fate of our wounded young officers in the center of the assault, to England. In London, special editions were hitting the newsstands throughout the afternoon. There was no “news” in them except the bare fact of the battle’s beginning, and wildly inaccurate and overly optimistic reports predominated–and will predominate, until they give way to distressingly repetitive claims of the capture of the same cluster o villages that had been targeted for weeks, “victories” weighed down by the lengthening casualty lists.

But for now everyone in England dwells entirely in the experiential gulf. Whatever the papers claim, the millions of people with a loved one at the front in France now know both that there is a greatly increased chance that he is dead or wounded and that they can not possibly know anything definite for some days. Evil ironies abound now, for those families whose soldiers chose to send last letters or postcards assuring their family that they are well. They may not be, and yet the calming and confident letters will continue to arrive.

July 1st

Stella & I came out of Southwark Cathedral, where we had been listening to Brahms’ Requiem (such a theme for such a day!), to learn from newspapers & porters that a tremendous battle has opened on the Somme–very successfully they say–& that very fierce fighting is going on in the villages in front of Albert. And Edward–“De profundis Domine. . .[6]

But as you wait, you have to write to someone. So Vera Brittain wrote a quick note this evening, a century back, to her mother:

1st London General, 1 July 1916

The news in the paper–which was got at 4.0 this afternoon–is quite self-evident, so I needn’t say more about it. London was wildly excited & the papers selling madly. Of course you remember that Edward is at Albert & it is all around there that the papers say the fighting is fiercest–Montaubon–Fricourt–Mametz–I have been expecting this for days as when he was here he told me that the Great Offensive was to begin there & of the part his own regiment had to play in the attack… Naturally I am very anxious indeed…

Edward, we know, was shot during the morning, then wounded again by shrapnel.

But where many died, he lived, crawling back toward the British lines until he was rescued by stretcher bearers. It says something powerful about the relationship between brother and sister that Edward made sure to scrawl the following note from his stretcher:

France, 1 July 1916

Dear Vera,

I was wounded in the action this morning in left arm and right thigh not seriously. Hope to come to England. Don’t worry.[7]

 

For the fictional Phillip Maddison, the day followed a similar course. Late in the afternoon, wounded in the thigh and foot, scorched and tortured with thirst, he dragged himself within sight of the ironic/iconic vision of salvation of which his chaplain had reminded him.

Phillip, between periods of semi-consciousness following bouts of pain from the burns of phosphorous, and a greater drag of thirst, managed to crawl back… obsessed by one idea: he must get back for the sake of his mother… he seemed to be hearing the bell-like colours of the wildflowers with startling clearness… and about these flowers were wild bees and grasshoppers, scarlet soldier flies, and bronze beetles… They glowed and shimmered with varying sounds and colours. This period of hopeful beauty did not last long…

When the top of the leaning gilt figure on the church in the valley came into view, another feeling, of shame for his abject condition, came upon him as he saw hundreds of curious faces of soldiers waiting on their way up the line. Why did they have to stare like that… had they no manners?

Soon after, Phillip reaches medical orderlies who give him first aid, and after another delay he is taken on a stretcher toward Albert, past the astonishing figure of a painter, in uniform, busily sketching the battle.[8] After one more encounter with Father Aloysius, Phillip begins to move toward the rear, and blighty.[9]

 

So these men survived. Many others are dead, but, traditionally, the story doesn’t end there. There are nearly twenty thousand fruitless Hectors out there, and nearly every one had a family waiting for confirmation that his body has been put to rest.

Ernest Crosse, chaplain for the 8th and 9th Devonshires, has spent the day doing what he could for both the wounded and the dead.

After the first rush of injured men able to crawl or drag themselves off the battlefield ended, he had fretted for a chance to go out and look for men to help, but Lieutenant Colonel Storey wanted him to stay in safety. As soon as he could, Crosse made his way down the nearest communication trench to the front line, found four wounded men in a dugout, and helped bring them back. Around 3.30pm, he and the Medical Officer set off down the little track road to the back of Mansel Copse. As they neared the bottom of the hill, the tragedy of the first few minutes was laid out before them. ‘The road was strewn with dead. Almost the first I looked at being Martin.’

As Crosse’s diary is written, it appears that he went immediately from here to explore no man’s land, but at this time of the afternoon the slope side of the copse was still a death trap. It seems more likely that he and the Medical Officer did what they had gone to do and searched the bodies on and around the road first to make sure they were all dead, so that some time would have elapsed before Crosse moved forward. By 5pm Mansel Copse was safe, and he continues from a vantage point overlooking no man’s land:

‘In every shell hole all across the valley and up to the German saps were badly wounded who feebly raised a hand or cried out lest they should not be seen. I bandaged up a few as best I could and then went with Gertie [the Medical Officer] to collect the S.B.s [stretcher bearers].'[10]

And then he began the work of collecting the dead. The assault here had been relatively successful, if at a great cost, and the supporting battalions will soon move up and across no man’s land. Because the line has moved forward, and because so many of the Devonshires had been killed in Mansel Copse, both between the first and second British lines and in the first few yards of no man’s land–many of them cut down by the soon-to-be-famous machine gun at the Shrine–the front line fire trench suggested itself for another purpose. But it will be several days before all the bodies are in.

 

This is an almost completely British-focused project, and, given the paramount importance of Verdun to French history, the Somme is largely ceded to British memory anyway. Yet it was a joint effort, with the French contribution–to the south and across the River Somme, tens of thousands of French soldiers are now attacking–being nearly as large and significantly more successful than the British. We have one writer to represent the French half of the battle: Alan Seeger, the American poet in the French Foreign Legion. He too was in reserve, and spent the morning unloading heavy shells for the French artillery. But his regiment was warned that they will soon be sent forward, and in the afternoon they began their march.[11]

 

Just two more to go now. First, Charles Carrington once again, observing from the far left. Carrington is no shirker from responsibility, not least the officer’s responsibility to give a balanced account of an ongoing action:

At 7.30 the Londoners sent word that they were all back in their own trenches, all–that is–that could run. A wounded Scotsman crawled across our front and lay there writhing. One of our officers was just about to bring him in when I heard of it and gave him a positive order not to risk his own life until dusk, which made him very angry. There were plenty more lying about, a few hundred yards away. That evening a German medical officer with a white flag arranged a truce for half an hour to collect the wounded on the front of the Londoners…

How meagre had been our experience, yet our small contribution had been successful. We had formed the curtain of smoke just were it was required, we had drawn fire which might have been aimed at the attacking battalions, and had isolated the Gommecourt operation from the main battle…[12]

 

And finally, I want to include a long letter from Rowland Feilding to his wife. Feilding has had a unique vantage point, and if anything will restore us to the normal course of this project–a century back, on the human scale, yet striving to take in whatever is happening, whether a quiet day or the worst day in British history–it is this letter. It is also an excellent “opportunity for review,” as teachers say, and a reminder of just what was known and unknown, divined and (incorrectly) assumed, even by well-informed observers on the spot.

July 1, 1916 (Saturday). Corbie.

This has been a great day, as you will have learnt from the newspapers. The battle, for which we have for some months been preparing, has begun, and, thanks to a newly-made friend, Thornhill, and his car, I have been
able to see a lot of it.

The culmination of our bombardment—that is the infantry attack—took place this morning. It was originally planned for Thursday, but was postponed for forty-eight hours owing to the bad weather, which makes most of the roads, which in this part of France are not cobbled, impassable for heavy transport. When the weather is good the roads are good, and the reverse when it rains. The same rule no doubt applies to the roads on the German side.

The weather, yesterday, had become fine. To-day it was perfect. Between 6.30 and 7.30 a.m. our bombardment was intensified. To give you an idea of what it then became I quote Major Watkins, a Coldstream officer attached to the Staff of the XIII Corps, which is in front of us here. He told me that, on his Corps frontage alone (about 3,000 yards), 42,000 shells were sent over by our artillery in sixty-five minutes, or nearly 650 shells per minute. I hear we have 360 guns on this sector, including 8-inch, 12-inch, and 15-inch howitzers. At 7.30 the infantry went over.

Thornhill called for me between 9 and 9.30. We motored to Bronfay Farm, which is just behind Maricourt, opposite Mametz and Montauban. The battle was then in full swing, and the sight was inspiring and magnificent. From right to left, but particularly opposite the French, where the more rugged character of the country is especially adapted to spectacular effects, the whole horizon seemed to be on fire, the bursting shells blending with the smoke from the burning villages. As I have said before, this is essentially a district of long views. Never was there a field better suited for watching military operations, or for conducting them.

As we looked on, the shells from our heavier guns were screaming over our heads, but still, strange to say, the enemy was not replying behind our front line of the morning. The wounded—those who could walk—were streaming back, some supported by others; crowds of them. Parties of German prisoners too—I counted over seventy in one group—were being marched under escort to the rear.

They were pitiful objects to look upon; some with beards; all unshaven and dirty; some big, some small with spectacles; most with bare heads; a few wounded; all unkempt, dejected, abject, and dazed. Some looked up as they saw us. Most hung their heads and gazed at the ground. As Thornhill said: “Though our ambition is to kill as many of these people as we possibly can, when you see them beaten, like that, with that look in their eyes, you can hardly restrain a feeling of pity. I suppose it is the English sporting instinct asserting itself.”

We stayed half an hour or so at Bronfay; then, Thornhill remembering that we were what is here called “joy-riding,” and becoming a little anxious about his car, we motored to other parts of the line, passing through Meaulte and Albert, where the statue on the Cathedral is beginning to look very shaky. Here we saw many more wounded, and more German prisoners. I stopped and spoke to some of the former, most of whom looked tired but cheerful. All
were smoking the inevitable “fag.” Then we came home, stopping at various points along the way to watch the progress of the battle. Our artillery was still busy, and I counted twenty English and French observation balloons up together. Not a single German balloon was to be seen. All had been driven from the sky, for the time being, by
our wonderful airmen.

In the evening, once more, Thornhill came with his car, and we went towards the line. The scene had changed. In the morning the weather had been fine and clear. It was still fine, but, owing to the smoke and dust of the battle, there was now a thick haze. The cannonade had, for the time being, died away. With the exception of a little shelling far away to the right, all had become silent as the grave. One could only imagine our men hard at work in the trenches they had captured, converting them to their own use.

The German artillery scarcely replied to our bombardment of the past week, which must have been very exasperating to their infantry. They shelled our front-line trenches and did some damage, but, so far as this part of the line is concerned, they made no effort to silence the artillery or to block the roads. Even when the infantry attack commenced they failed to put up the usual “barrage.”

Probably, for the first time in the war, our supporting troops, helped by the undulations in the ground, were able to reach their positions without much difficulty. It is said that the Germans were unprepared for an offensive in this locality; that the last place they expected to be attacked was opposite the point of contact between the French and British armies;—that, in consequence, they had no great concentration of artillery to meet our troops.

If so, they must be blind. Our preparations have been so immense that any photograph from the air must have
revealed them. We have made new railways and new roads. The whole landscape has been altered, to say nothing of the fact that, for weeks past, every valley has been filled with troops, horses, guns, and transport.

We have been continually surprised at the way in which the enemy has allowed our transport to crowd over roads which are within easy reach of his artillery, and under direct observation from his balloons and even the ground observation posts.

I hope and believe our people have got the best of them this time, but do not expect to get much definite news for a few days yet. The wounded I have seen have mostly been hit by machine-guns. Judging from the numerous loaded ambulances I have passed, there must, I fear, be many casualties.

It has been a wonderful day, and my first experience of a battle as a sightseer. I feel rather a beast for having done it in this way, but shall continue to see all I can of it, nevertheless, for the sake of the experience, which may be useful later.[13]

 

If anyone has waded through these four posts, I am grateful. As I think I wrote at the beginning, this is an odd day for this project, and writing a great deal, yet neither taking in the whole battle nor wringing meaning from any one experience, was perhaps an unwieldy compromise. Will Streets, Rob Gilson, and Noel Hodgson are dead, along with nearly 20,000 other British soldiers, and I’m glad to have read them and written about them. Gilson will be remembered primarily for his association with his friend Tolkien, Streets as an exemplar of working-class fortitude, and of poetry as aspiration. And Hodgson, largely on the quiet strength of the eerily prophetic Before Action, will be much anthologized, a well-known if minor member of the growing company of dead “war poets.” I will return to Gilson, through Tolkien, and follow the news of Hodgson’s death and some of his after-life as a poet, but for the most part this project will move quickly on, leaving the dead where they lie.

I’m uncertain how to write the next few weeks: it will be difficult to return to the previous scale and yet still carry on some sense of the overall progress of the immense battle. I think I will have to opt for the former rather than the latter: instead of persistent maps and narrative connections, we will go back to seeing writers drop in and drop out when something particularly good has been written or something particularly momentous has taken place. For those of you who want a geographic or strategic sense of what will happen as the new battalions are thrown into the battle and the British Army struggles to push the line forward a few miles over the next several months, I would advise acquiring one of the several good narrative histories of the Somme as a handbook.

So tomorrow will see the battle continue, and in the coming days and weeks more of our central writers will come through the most harrowing passages of their war, or to their end. It will be a bloody summer and fall, but I hope to find a way back to balancing a reasonable amount of daily reading (and writing!) with the complexity of wartime experiences. Put another way, shorter posts and the omission of the writing of those writers who are not taking part in this battle will help me to find a compromise between the limits of human patience (“how many more banal letters home?”) and the limits of human memory (“wait, was this the guy who was just in that awful fight in the wood?”).

Never such innocence again, and never such experience.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun, 79-81.
  2. Davies, A Student in Arms, 170-5.
  3. Bizarrely, when Sassoon comes to write the memoir he sees fit to correct his estimate in the moment, revising it upward from 25 to 40.
  4. The diary contains further details of the attempt to clear Fricourt using reinforcements from 50th Brigade.
  5. Diaries, 85ff; Complete Memoirs, 331-4.
  6. Chronicle of Youth, 326.
  7. Letters from a Lost Generation, 264.
  8. Based, apparently, on Augustus John. Williamson is throwing a lot of detail-for-incongruity's sake in, here.
  9. The Golden Virgin, 292-7.
  10. Zeepvat, Before Action, 194-201.
  11. Letters and Diary, 212.
  12. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 115-16. Spoiler alert: Carrington's heavily retrospective comment on the slice of battle he had seen, based on post-war research to establish the enemy's point of view, leads him to "award the 55th Regiment [of the 2nd Guards Reserve Division] my certificate for the best demonstration of minor tactics I ever encountered in either world war."
  13. War Letters to a Wife, 81-4.

A Battle Postponed: Last Letters, Larks, Misfires and Misery with Noel Hodgson, Alan Seeger, Siegfried Sassoon, Rowland Feilding, and Donald Hankey; Tolkien Arrives; Thomas Hardy Longs for News; Edward Thomas Walks the Green Roads

We begin with Alan Seeger, our American in the French Foreign Legion. It’s easy to forget, here, with our focus on the British experience, but the Somme battle involved a large number of French troops as well.

We go up to the attack tomorrow. This will probably be the biggest thing yet. We are to have the honor of marching in the first wave. No sacks, but two musettes, toile de tente slung over shoulder, plenty of cartridges, grenades, and baïonnette au canon.

I will write you soon if I get through all right. If not, my only earthly care is for my poems. Add the ode I sent you and the three sonnets to my last volume and you will have opera omnia quo existant.

I am glad to be going in first wave. If you are in this thing at all it is best to be in to the limit. And this is the supreme experience.

This potential “last letter,” sent to a mysterious “friend” rather than to his mother or his Parisian Godmother, is, as so many will be, mistaken. Due to wet weather (and, perhaps, a late lack of confidence in the artillery preparation) the “biggest thing yet” will now be pushed back by two days…

 

The 9th Devons learned this around mid-day. Their excess kit had already been put into storage in preparation for the forward move into the “assembly” trenches, and all was ready for the assault. Instead, they now had at least a day and a half of free time. Noel Hodgson, a scholar at heart till, settled down to read a pocket Odyssey–in Greek, naturally. Later on, youth and restlessness overtook the tightly-knit band of brother officers:

After dinner a spirit of skittishness came over the officers, and we indulged in various rags, the most brilliant being to try running up to the top of a bell tent. When done by several at once from all sides it has a terrifying effect on the inmates of the victimised tent.[1]

Juvenile hijinks do not generally travel well–but doesn’t this one? Imagine being in a bell tent (four-sided, circus-like in profile, but only big enough for a few men to sleep) and all the walls suddenly beaten inward and upward by eight hammering feet…

A minor irony, this, that while the troops slated for the actual attack had time to lark about, those who were to have rotated into reserve remained entrenched in the teeth of the bombardment.

 

Rowland Feilding, out of combat for the time being, at least, went up to watch the show before The Show.

June 28, 1916. Corbie

To-day the Trench Mortar officer of the 30th Division (Captain Edwards) invited me to lunch at his Artillery Battle Headquarters, in front of Bray, to see the bombardment. It was in full swing, as it has been, day and night, since
the 24th. It was an impressive sight. Heavy rain was falling, and the sky was cloudy, and—especially opposite
the French—the ridge, where the German trenches are, was hidden by a wall of smoke from the bursting shells.
The Germans were not replying at all—at any rate on the back areas, though they appeared to be doing so upon our front line.

They (the Germans) must be having a horrible time, I should think. All our valleys are thick with guns and howitzers. In one small valley alone, which I know well, I was told to-day, we have more guns concentrated than
were employed by our army in the whole South African War.

Some of our shells were bursting prematurely, which is bad. It reminded me of poor D—— once when we were at Cambrin and the same thing was happening. It was at the time when a good many ladies at home were beginning to take up munition work, amongst them, he said, his mother; and he remarked: “I shouldn’t be surprised if those were some of my mother’s shells!”[2]

Another pretty funny bit. Less amusing, of course, to the men who were still in those lines, with mother’s shells falling short and the German retaliation picking up speed.

 

Donald Hankey, is one of these, and his new diary attests to the general unpleasantness of being in the front of a battle zone. Many minds have been fixed upon the task of making this zone as unpleasant as possible–and few of them are worried about how this will affect their own troops. The infantry are… well, yes: they are there to be shot at. And gassed.

The last few days have been awful. Our people must needs try their hand at gas. The first night a burst cylinder gassed half the gas experts, besides a lot of our men. The second night the wind was unfavourable, and they elected to get rid off the stuff over us just a half hour after we had been informed that the stunt was off, and had consequently ceased our precautions against the gas and the inevitable [German] barrage. We were fairly caught–“hoist with our own petard” … The only comfort was that it killed the rats. Poor comfort that!

Poor comfort indeed–but this awkward phrase is a reminder that Hankey must envision this diary as something upon which future publications can be based. He has abandoned the ceaselessly uplifting pose of the “Student in Arms,” but he is trying here to find a middle ground. Might this sort of tone be successful? Perhaps, but it’s a poor compromise between truth and public journal-ism.

Here’s how Hankey described these same days in a letter:

…a week in a rat-infested trench, was bombarded by German shells, gassed by our own gas, got waist-deep in liquid mud without the chance of a change, saw some of my best men blown to bits, etc. etc. Couldn’t do anything in return.[3]

 

Siegfried Sassoon is no stoic, and he too is clear on the fact that to be in a trench on the Somme at this time was certainly “very beastly.” But a man with a good book is never truly miserable…

June 28,

Here I sit in this dog-kennel of a dug-out in 85 Street with the shells hurrying and hurooshing over to Germany; or
thereabouts, and banging away on the slopes on each side of Fricourt and away to Contalmaison. Wet feet–short of sleep–trench-mouth—very beastly it all is—on the surface. But all’s well, really… Reading Hardy’s Tess now.[4]

 

And as the young soldier whose verses he had admired over the winter hunkered down to read his Tess, Thomas Hardy himself was writing his friend Florence Henniker in the hopes of getting more war news. So, yes: even old men abed in England know that something is afoot.

My dear Friend:

…We had a mild excitement last week—the Wessex Scenes from the Dynasts having been performed by the Dorchester players at the Weymouth theatre. The house was crammed—many wounded men & officers being present—& the money raised for the Red Cross & Russian wounded—was a substantial sum. Of course the interest to us lay not in the artistic effect of the play—which was really rather a patchwork affair, for the occasion—but in the humours of the characters whom we knew in private life as matter-of-fact shopkeepers & clerks.

…I daresay you get rumours of war news which don’t reach us here. People seem to think we shall do something decisive soon, but I don’t know…

Always affectly

Th. H.[5]

 

And one poem, before we go. Edward Thomas is writing of a real forest near his camp, and yet he seems to overlay life with a sort of fairy tale gloss–and through that we glimpse an undercoat of uneasiness. I suppose the best fairy tales are threatening, and a bit uncanny, but there is battle at the end of this one, no?

 

The Green Roads

The green roads that end in the forest
Are strewn with white goose feathers this June,

Life marks left behind by someone gone to the forest
To show his track. But he has never come back.

Down each green road a cottage looks at the forest.
Round one the nettle towers; two are bathed in flowers.

An old man along the green road to the forest
Strays from one, from another a child alone.

In the thicket bordering the forest,
All day long a thrush twiddles his song.

It is old, but the trees are young in the forest,
All but one like a castle keep, in the middle deep.

That oak saw the ages pass in the forest:
They were a host, but their memories are lost,

For the tree is dead: all things forget the forest
Excepting perhaps me, when now I see

The old man, the child, the goose feathers at the edge of the forest,
And hear all day long the thrush repeat his song.

 

And speaking of forests and roads and the English landscape and fantasy, there is a short note in the battalion diary of the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers today, a century back. Second Lieutenant J.R.R. Tolkien has joined.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Zeepvat, Before Action, 192-3.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 81.
  3. Davies, A Student in Arms, 170-1.
  4. Diaries, 80.
  5. Collected Letters, V, 165-6.
  6. Chronology, 82.

Edward Thomas Improves a Song; Harold Macmillan on the Big Bombardment; Herbert Read is Back and E.A. Mackintosh is Decorated; Alan Seeger Prepares for Battle: “In Moments Like These, Words are Futile.”

First, today, Edward Thomas reports in to Eleanor Farjeon, the woman most responsible for keeping him an honest poet.

Postmark 24 June 1916
Saturday Hut 14

My dear Eleanor

Look what I have done. I have been 5 days sick and confined to the camp, practically to the hut and this is the result. I have altered Rio because I feel you are right. I have cut out the 3rd and 4th verses and the only refrain is

‘I’m bound away for ever
Away somewhere, away for ever’

Does that do it any good?

It does–but then again the version of the song to which I have linked, above, already had Farjeon’s suggested amendments. Farjeon–the female friend, the unrequited lover, the unpaid amanuensis, the uncredited editor–is a very good writer in her own write, as it were (some children I know vastly prefer her stories to Thomas’s work), and letters like these make clear that she was his first and best reader as his poetry matured and turned toward the war. While support from his several friends who were established English writers wavered or lapsed (Frost, across the sea, offered all-important confirming belief, but he couldn’t read over Thomas’s shoulder at a few days notice) Farjeon was always ready not simply with praise but with formative critical readings.

And in Thomas’s daily life, more changes beckon:

I am better now and just going out for the first time and hope I can get a walk tomorrow and be fit on Monday.

There are more changes ahead and in case I should be robbed of it I am trying to arrange my leave to begin next Saturday. I have got to move my books from the study. Mrs. Lupton has turned me out. After that Helen and I are going to the Guthries, the Ellis’s, and finishing up in London. If you were at Greatham we could call there. I suppose there is a place to put up at. Otherwise we should see you in town.

It is most satisfactory that Duckworth has altered his terms in the right direction…

Goodbye. Yours ever
Edward Thomas

All in all this qualifies as a very strange letter from Edward Thomas” he has accepted criticism, he is moving forward, and, as the last line suggests, he may even make some money from book-selling. Farjeon explains that “Edward’s ‘Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds’ and my ‘Nursery Rhymes of London Town’ [both soothing English anthologies] were both being published by Duckworth in the autumn. His book was dedicated to me and Clifford Bax.”[1]

But lost in there is the slightly distressing news that his family’s landlord has reclaimed the room he uses as a study. A slight dislocation, since he is now with his family only while on leave, but then again this is Thomas we’re talking about–Thomas of the English villages, Thomas of the black moods–and what writer, having just decided to uproot and accept a new life (as an artillery officer) likes to have his books uprooted as well? Many will have to be sold for whatever they might bring.

 

And a few odds and ends:

 

Richard Aldington, not quite kicking and screaming, left today, a century back, for the camp of the 11th Devonshires near Wareham in Dorset.[2]

 

And E. A. Mackintosh, hero of a recent raid, had his MC gazetted today. This is a considerable honor, if not an overwhelming one–for dramatic self-sacrifice or aggressive heroism in victorious encounters, higher honors were possible. But more than one of our writers will win the Military Cross for demonstrating courage and self-command during the deadly confusion of a night raid, and account his courage well-requited, the passage of the main test confirmed. Mackintosh’s citation read:

For conspicuous gallantry. He organised and led a successful raid on the enemy’s trenches with great skill and courage. Several of the enemy were disposed of and a strong point destroyed. He also brought back to wounded men under fire.[3]

It’s that “also” that tells the tale. The raid was tactically successful–even if strategically pointless–but the decoration is given for the officer’s initiative during the developing situation. In an action such as this, the only way to demonstrate courage and initiative is, generally, to go and try to save the wounded. Which is to say that the plan does not make provision for the predictable eventuality of men being wounded in or near in the enemy lines… this is not one of those “never leave a man behind” outfits, this British army, but it is still happy to celebrate those who refuse to.

 

Today also brings the return of one of our most inconstant writers. Herbert Read‘s diary will be published in very selective fashion, and today’s entry comes after a fifteen month gap, during which he served at the front, was badly lacerated by barbed wire, and was sent home to recover. Well, what’s up with Hebert?

24.vi.16 Rugeley Camp, Staffordshire[4]

I came to this dreadful place a week ago. The Medical Board gave me ‘light duty’–but they don’t understand the term here. We get up at 5.30 a.m. and are at it till tea time and sometimes later. And all the time the same monotonous work–shouting oneself hoarse trying to initiate remarkably dense recruits into the mysteries of ‘forming fours’, etc.I think I shall flee to the front for a little peace at the earliest opportunity…

This is an opinion we’ve heard before, and will hear again. It’s neither sardonic nor fatuous–soldiers who have seen action are having trouble adjusting to the lugubrious routine of training units.

Where does a veteran belong?[5]

 

We will let Harold Macmillan bring us the major news of the day:

There is a tremendous artillery duel in progress at the moment. The guns are roaring and you can follow the progress of the shell by the noise, from its original roar as it leaves the mouth of our gun, all along its hissing and screaming journey, till the final consummation of its successful explosion in the enemy’s lines…

As I sit in my dug out, writing, I lookout on a little ruined farm… the garden still struggles to keep a civilised look amid ruin and desolation. A few flowers are springing up, between the shell-holes. The birds (who seem quite unmoved by any bombardment) are singing merrily, for all the world as if they were in some peaceful countryside, stranger to High Explosive. The cuckoo can be heard between the firing of the shells. Nature does her best for us even here.

Save only in her vermin-life. Rats are surely among the less successful or meritorious of Nature’s efforts. They infest the trenches–great big fat rats, as large as puppies. I fear them more than the Huns…[6]

With “The Big Push” planned for June 29th, this is the beginning of the preparatory bombardment. It will, of course, give the Germans very ample notice as to where exactly the attack will begin. But the theory is that it will completely destroy the German barbed wire obstacles and front-line firing positions.

 

And finally, a reminder that just because the Battle of the Somme is England’s greatest effort to date does not mean it will be a solely English battle. The French will attack as well, to the right of the British–and with them, a handful of Americans, including Alan Seeger of the Foreign Legion.

June 24, 1916. . . . We had a hard journey coming here. After an early morning’s march of about ten kilometers, we took the train and made a trip of four or five hours. Then we started off in the heat of the day on what was without exception the hardest march I have ever made. There were 20 kilometers to do through the blazing sun and in a cloud of dust. Something around 30 kilos on the back. About 50 per cent dropped by the way. By making a supreme effort I managed to get in at the finish with the fifteen men that were all that was left of the section. The men were out of training after so long in the trenches without practise. The battle field has no terrors after trials like these that demand just as much grit and often more suffering.

I shall probably write nothing but post-cards henceforth. In moments like these, words are futile. Think of me when you read the first big communiqué, which we shall have had a brilliant share in making.[7]

Just to sum things up: training camp is worse than the trenches, the rats are worse than the Huns, and battle is not nearly as scary as a long hot march… rhetoric!

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 200.
  2. Whelpton, Richard Aldington, 126.
  3. Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man, 129.
  4. We have been here before!
  5. The Contrary Experience, 71-2. The rest of the letter discusses Read's reading: serious, leftist material, including Shaw, Sorel, and the New Age.
  6. Webb, From Downing Street, 191.
  7. Letters and Diary, 209-210.

Frank Richards on a Glorious but Too-Quiet Night; Francis Ledwidge Meets an Afflicter of Poets; Alan Seeger Anticipates New Masterpieces of More Rare Romance; Is Noel Hodgson a Model Poet?

Today the 2nd Royal Welch–currently poetless, but with Frank Richards among the signallers–moved up to the line. Dr. Dunn’s collective chronicle is now turned over to a lengthy narrative from Captain Blair of B Company:

Late in the evening we moved off ti take over Givenchy Left… That march in the waning of the long twilight will linger in memory: we seemed to linger in step, so soothing was the beauty and tranquility of the midsummer night. The sky was flawless but for deep flounce of fleecy, dove-coloured cloud… The whole front was unwontedly restful, not even a distant gun broke the stillness.[1]

If that foreshadowing isn’t blinding enough, here’s Richards:

Late in June we relieved a battalion of the Hertfordshire Regiment in the Givenchy trenches. One of their signallers informed me that they had a very quiet time and that during the last four fays there hadn’t been a dozen casualties in the whole of their battalion. I thought it very strange…

About 11 p.m. I strolled along our front line and arrived at B Company trenches. All company signallers with the exception of B had dug-outs and I found the three signallers of B sitting on the fire-step with their D3 telephone, doing a good old soldiers’ grouse…  I made them grouse a bit more when I told them what a grand dug-out we had… It was a glorious summer’s night, but much too quiet for my liking.[2]

We’re only a few hours away from sudden violence, but we will wait until the calendar page turns…

 

Francis Ledwidge has long been a man in the middle–socially, psychologically, and politically. It is frustrating, to say the least, to be an Irish patriot in a British regiment during the rising, but his only gesture had been to bridle at an obnoxious English officer and overstay his leave. Since the leave had been delayed by travel restrictions in the aftermath of the rising, this was an an act of symbolic defiance. Or so he viewed it.

Ledwidge’s patron, the Anglo-Irish Lord Dunsany, remembered the incident differently, however:

Ledwidge was not in my Company, and I was glad of that, for his movements had a little of the unpredictable nature of will-o-the wisps roaming bogs of the land that he loved; as you might expect of a poet in a lance-corporal’s uniform. One day he had a bit of a night out, and I was too much annoyed to feel very sympathetic about the trouble in which it landed him, for it looked as if he was almost deliberately harming his own prospects. Being a lance-corporal, and not a private soldier, it landed him in a court-martial; and I said to Major Willock, who was president of the court-martial, “You will go down to posterity as an afflicter of poets.” Major Willock was quite distressed but found no way of avoiding sentencing Ledwidge to lose his lance-corporal’s stripe.[3]

Is Dunsany mildly embarrassed that he can’t help his protegé, or does he suppress the nationalist angle? “Afflicter of Poets” is a good line, anyway…

Here, in any event is a rather relevant poem by Ledwidge, describing the court martial:

After Court Martial

My mind is not my mind, therefore
I take no heed of what men say.
I lived ten thousand years before
God cursed the town of Nineveh.

The Present is a dream I see
Of horror and loud sufferings,
At dawn a bird will waken me
Unto my place among the kings.

Dramatic–but the loss of his rank was a relatively minor punishment. Given the circumstances, this relatively common indiscretion might have been punished more harshly.

In any event, Private Ledwidge does not seem terribly perturbed, writing today, a century back, to his friend Bob Christie.

21st June 1916

My dear Bob,

Very many thanks for your letter and copies of poems. The poem ‘Where be to be ups and downs, etc.’ is charming. I wish I could tell you how much it delights me…

…I am busy enough writing away, as ideas will keep coming on…[4]

 

Another poet who came to the war before most of his countrymen is Alan Seeger, our American in the Foreign Legion. Today, a century back, he is once more on the move.

June 21, 1916. Left our quiet sector in the centre this morning, relieved by a territorial regiment. Have marched here to a little village in the rear. Tomorrow take the train for an unknown destination. Fine hot summer weather. The big attacks will come soon now. Wish us good success. It is very exciting to be on the move at last, and I am happy and contented. I return you the Tennyson, to lighten my sack. … I am twenty-eight years old tomorrow.

Off to battle, Seeger encloses his most recent poem. The birthday boy and occasional hard-case seems as far from disillusionment as the most bloody-minded general could hope. Seeger doubles down on his youthful enthusiasm–his sack may be lighter, but Tennyson is still with him:

Clouds rosy-tinted in the setting sun,
Depths of the azure eastern sky between,
Plains where the poplar-bordered highways run.
Patched with a hundred tints of brown and green,
Beauty of Earth, when in thy harmonies
The cannon’s note has ceased to be a part,
I shall return once more and bring to these
The worship of an undivided heart.
Of those sweet potentialities that wait
For my heart’s deep desire to fecundate
I shall resume the search, if Fortune grants;
And the great cities of the world shall yet
Be golden frames for me in which to set
New masterpieces of more rare romance.[5]

 

Now here’s an interesting “what if:” Charlotte Zeepvat, biographer of Noel Hodgson, notes that Hodgson’s battalion crossed paths today, a century back, with a soon-to-be-famous footnote of the Somme battle.

Yesterday the 8th Devonshires had marched back from the line to billets in Meaulte, where their brigade had its headquarters. There Hodgson’s mail caught up with him and he learned that he had become an uncle. Today, a century back, he wrote happily home to the new mother, his sister Stella:

Dear Star,–

The great news has just arrived. Splendid, old lady, I am tremendously bucked; heartiest of all welcomes to the wee maid, and I hope I may not be long before I see her myself. Her beauty won‘t be apparent yet, but of course she will be beautiful, and she cannot help being good.

What is her ladyship to be called? I suggest Audrena, as one of her names, and Baldwin has its merits. Thomasina I cannot recommend honestly, nor Tookey, but you may be of a different opinion.

She isn’t as big as mother yet, I suppose, nor as intelligent of course. Dad asserts her to be dark haired but I accept it with reserve.

Anyway, best of luck to you and her from affect. brother and Uncle

Bill.

The same day that Hodgson wrote this giddy note, he may have seen “a contoured model in plasticene…made by Captain Martin, 9th Devonshire Regt. showing the whole area to be attacked by the 20th Infantry Brigade.” Many of the brigade officers were shown the model, and the brigade major invited all companies to arrange tours beginning tomorrow. If not today, then, we can probably assume that Hodgson will view the model anon, although he does not mention it directly.

“Uncle” Hodgson–a new nickname to add to “Smiler”–shall have seen, then, an accurate representation of Fricourt Wood, Fricourt Farm, Railway Alley, Fritz Trench, Bright Alley. The model will become a “part of the folklore of the Somme.”

Martin, it is said, went home on leave worried about the danger his men would face. He studied the map, becoming convinced that a machine gun sited at a shrine in the village cemetery would cut down his battalion as they advanced through Mansel Copse.

So he made a relief model of the battlefield to demonstrate the danger, took it back to France and showed it to his fellow officers. But when he attempted to tell his superiors they dismissed the idea, secure in their belief that the British bombardment would obliterate everything in its path.[6]

Or so the story goes. As Zeepvat notes, there is an accretion of legend here, since the records show that the brigade, at least, saw the model as a useful tool. But we get ahead of ourselves–battle stories do not go back to before their beginnings until long after they have begun…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 209.
  2. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 166-7.
  3. Patches of Sunlight, 195.
  4. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 161-3.
  5. Letters and Diary, 208-9.
  6. Zeepvat, Before Action, 185-7.

Alan Seeger Faces the Coming Battle, and Preaches Patience

A quiet day today, but, to coin a phrase, a storm is brewing. Alan Seeger of the French Foreign Legion is having a nice rest away from the line… in order that his regiment may learn its new parts for this summer’s production. He wrote to his mother today, a century back.

June 15, 1916

I have been back in a little village in the rear for ten days, part of a detachment sent to learn the working of a new arm, which will be used for the first time in the coming attacks. These have been ten days of comparative comfort and pleasure, for one can sleep peacefully at night, take shoes off for a change, and in the days after soup there are little inns where one can sit before a table once more and enjoy coffee and bread and jam and wine, between 5 and 8 in the evenings. The new arm, which I am not at liberty to describe, is an excellent weapon and ought to give good results. I am glad to have charge of one, for it is a more or less responsible position, and one where there is a chance for personal initiative.

This sounds to me like a light machine gun–one of the few types of armament in which the British, with their Lewis gun, were at this stage ahead of the French.

The hour of our being relieved here seems more and more near now. We shall probably go back for a short repos before the big attacks which should not be far off now. I am not going to write you any more at length before these big events come off. Words are perfectly futile at such a time and serve no earthly purpose. I have already said all I have to say, how I am glad to be here, have no regrets, and would wish to be nowhere else in the world than where I am. We both have to be brave, and you, even, one thing more, patient. When we go into action, you will know it, for the French communiqué will be brilliant that day for the first time since we helped make it so last Fall in Champagne. As I say, we shall probably not leave the trenches in the first wave, but will be troupes de poursuite. If we do as well as the Russians are doing in Galicia, we ought to have some wonderful moments. If wounded, will telegraph immediately. . . . [1]

What a difficult letter for a mother to receive: I am quite safe, in a rear area… and will soon be in mortal danger. But don’t worry, we’ll win. And I’ll call if I’m hurt…

 

And Ivor Gurney is now in the line–today, a century back, marked his battalion’s “first independent experience of front line fighting.”[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters and Diary, 206-7.
  2. Hurd, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, 65.

Guy Chapman on Raiding and Loss; Alan Seeger on Absent Leaves and Leafy Bowers; Isaac Rosenberg Limps into France; Olaf Stapledon Challenges the Censor; Vera Brittain Gains and Loses Time with her Brother; Edith and John Ronald Tolkien Part

So I’ve been neglecting another excellent memoir. The major problems with reading Guy Chapman‘s A Passionate Prodigality are two: dates are few and far between, and it is very much in the style of Edmund Blunden‘s Undertones of War. Given that we have barely begun getting to know Blunden and his most beautiful of the war memoirs, it will be difficult for Chapman to find his own voice at the same time, as it were.

But minor Blunden though it may be, Chapman’s is still a very good book indeed, one of the best of the second rank of war memoirs. Chapman, a Kitchener’s Army subaltern in the Royal Fusiliers, has been out since July 1915 and has a good deal to tell us. He establishes several things very quickly: that he was very afraid to go to France and never entertained any “romantic illusions;” nor was he “resigned to self-sacrifice” or drunk on the wine of patriotism. Yet he went willingly enough because–and this is a major theme of the book–by the time the dust of enlistment-fervor settled, Chapman considered himself already welded into the framework of his battalion. And such is the utility of esprit de corps: form a disparate group into a military “unit,” and the bonds of fellowship and corporate pride (and social pressure, and the fear of being outcast) will ensure that the hesitating members of that group will be pulled along by the general obedience.

But Chapman uses a very different metaphor: he feels that he was “born into” the 13th Royal Fusiliers, and he would not be parted from his family.

It’s not unfitting, then–since Chapman first hoped to write a battalion history before settling on a memoir–that our first foray into the book is marked by the date of a death in that family. Chapman is not disenchanted so much as disgusted, in many ways, with the foolishness of the war. Early in his narrative–it is 1915, as his battalion is learning the ropes–he flashes forward to the spring of 1916, when “the costly and depressing fashion of raiding the other side” had been set by “the Canadians.”

I have read elsewhere of this idea that Canadian raids inspired a costly fit of large-scale raiding along the British front, but I don’t think I included it here–in any even,t other officers held the same belief as Chapman. Is this a sort of British Army scuttlebutt, in which rumors of new tactics by those naive roughneck Canadians are to blame for the end of any “live and let live” status quo? It would seem so, since the “fashion” must have been set among various divisional (and higher) staffs, but perhaps there really was some singular inspiration for the raids that are weakening and even demoralizing various units all along the front.

Such raids–especially when conceived as mini-attacks with bombardments that do more to warn the enemy than damage him–do seem pointless, unless it be a matter of relative morale and the “upper hand.” But that’s just the point: it seems even more lunatic to get men killed without even any hope of dislodging the enemy than it does to get (many more) men killed in an effort to win a few miles of trenches, and yet, as we have seen, there were numerous volunteers among the 15th Royal Welch, while officers of the Regular battalions clearly believed both that losses were worth the “moral” advantage of terrorizing the Germans opposite and that raiding provided individuals opportunity to prove their valor (and be rewarded for it). Nothing more primitive, nothing more probable.

In any event, Chapman has recently been on leave, and when he returned, the battalion Transport Officer was departing for his own leave and Chapman was detailed to step in as his replacement. So he took up an easy job–like a wise young subaltern, he let the experienced sergeant do all the work with the carts and beasts–and he missed the raid:

In spite of the Loos fiasco, we of course believed that the big push would succeed. After ten months in France, we were still in our state of primal innocence. But even in those early days the surprised mind woke momentarily to the thought, ‘but–it’s a life sentence.’

A night or so later, our raiding party crept out from the right company’s line and lay waiting for the 60 lb. T[rench]. M[ortar],’s to finish the breaking of the wire. A wind had risen during the afternoon and was now blowing across the front. The twenty-four men lay in the rank grass with Batty, Gwinnell and Perkins in front, waiting for the toffee-apples to lift and waver into the wire in front. The trench mortar fired; but the registrations had not been carried out when there was no wind. The breeze caught the bomb…

‘I say, guv’nor,’ said Private Billett to Gwinnell: ‘I’m ‘it in the bleedin’ arm.’

‘Shut up,’ growled Gwinnell. ‘So am I.’

‘Are yer, guv’nor!’ returned Billett. ‘I’m sorry to ‘ear about that.’

Light comedy, friendly fire. Bitter ironies:

Gwinnell staggered up, with three wounds in the leg, Perkins hit in both arms; but Batty lay still. A splinter had gone straight through his brain. Eight other men were hit, and there was no more to be done about the raid. Gwinnell, bleeding from his wounds, shepherded the men back and brought in Batty’s body.

This would be lieutenant Francis Clive Batty-Smith, killed in action on June 4th, 1916, at age twenty-two.

The catastrophe wrenched many of us as no previous death had been able to do. Those we had seen before had possessed an inevitable quality, had been taken as an unavoidable manifestation of war, as in nature we take the ills of the body. But this death, at the hands of our own people, through a vagary of the wind, appeared some sinister and malignant stroke, an outrage involving not only the torn body of the dead boy but the whole battalion.

Yet though we all loved Batty-Smith, our mourning was short.[1]

 

Everyone is chatty today, so I will skip through the long, lovingly-argued (in both senses–Olaf Stapledon can’t write without remembering his regard for his beloved, nor without revealing his deep care for ethical nicety) discussion of the rightnesses and wrongnesses of the war. But this bit, weary though we may be, should be part of the story:

In your last letter you stated as cogently as it can be stated the official position with regard to the war…

You ask if I am sure my cause is right. No, not since conscription. But I know that if I join the army it will be to escape from an uncomfortable position, to shirk responsibility, and not to help the Allies. I won’t join the army (yet I am practically already in the English & the French armies. The difference is a shade only, but a vital shade), because the whole war (especially if we win) is the

[CENSORED]

by

[CENSORED]

and as I love England (more than many a soldier) I will not

[CENSORED]

even if to refuse means to be damned body & soul. Even if it were to mean shaming the girl I love, even if it were to mean slipping away from her altogether. It may be priggish and snobbish and unsociable and pigheaded and pharisaical and hypocritical and hyperidealistical not to fight. The kindly human thing just now may be to fight. But if I fight it will be be through weakness & selfishness and a wretched desire for applause, and because I shall have shut my heart to the great Spirit that is trying to realise itself in every mind and every nation and in all liberties and human institutions. The Spirit is a live thing & a lovable. To obey it is not selfish salvation-seeking. I wonder how much of that will get through.

Not a whole lot! We see now the plight of suspiciously non-conforming ambulancers, who are not trusted to write “on their honor” as officers generally are. Alas. Olaf?

It is scrappy stuff anyhow…

Well, friend, I guess we have found a pretty deep difference between us, through I hope we are so close as to be able to kiss and be friends over the chasm![2]

 

Isaac Rosenberg is starting to fly high as a poet, but today, his first day on the march in France, he came down to earth. Rosenberg holds enormous power in his mind, but he’s also a classic shlimazl. He wrote two poems on the troopship, but he also lost his socks…

So I’ve been in trouble, particularly with bad heels… you can’t have the slightest conception of what such an apparently trivial thing means.

He had never told his mother that he was leaving for France–only his sister, and at the last minute. Now, the thing done, he re-establishes contact, and asks her to send him some socks…[3]

 

And hence to a very different poet–and yet one in a very similar position. The Boston Brahmin, Harvard-educated Alan Seeger also serves in the ranks, and, although he has seen combat and long service in the Foreign Legion, he too knows that summer is likely to foreshorten his mortal span. And he, too, is driven to get his verse at last into print. He wrote to his “marraine” (godmother) in Paris, three days and a century ago:

June 1, 1916

What a bitter disappointment! After having worked feverishly on my poem and finished it, in spite of work and other duty, in the space of two days, behold the 29th comes and the 30th, and no permission [i.e.”leave”] arrives. It would have been such an honor and pleasure to have read my verses there in Paris; I counted on seeing you and getting a moment’s respite from the hard life here. To have raised my hopes and then left me in the lurch like that was certainly cruel…

Disappointed in leave and in poetry, Seeger nevertheless makes the best of his situation.

Meanwhile we have come back to première ligne [front line] and are again in the little camp where Colette was killed. Strange how quickly one forgets here on the front. For a few days after that disaster the men kept to the abris [shelters], but now we are again careless as before and are living outside in the fine weather, though the same thing may happen again at any moment. I have a charming little house, made by bending down saplings and tying them overhead into a leafy roof. In this I have made a bed out of four logs, fastened into a rectangle about three feet by seven, between which chicken wire is strung, and then spread with new straw; voilà a most clean and comfortable couch. All around are sylvan scents and sounds and the morning sun shine slanting through the heavy foliage.

Seeger’s letters home to America are generally very different from our usual France-to-England missives–he discusses poetry, or long-term plans, and naturally enough, given the weeks such letters would take to go and come. This letter, to Paris, shows him in a much more familiar light: first, leave disappointments; then, trench-description. Now for the parcels:

What have I to thank you for since my last letter? The briquet, I think, and the aluminum flask, both of which were exactly the right thing. You cannot imagine what pleasure it is to receive these parcels. You see now we are living entirely in the woods, and never go back to the village cantonments, so that it is extremely difficult to get little luxuries of any kind… the pleasure of receiving them comparable to nothing except that of a child opening his Christmas stocking. Is it not pathetic to be in a state where a man’s utmost possibilities of volupté [sensual pleasure] are confined to the vulgar sense of taste, the lowest of all?

Even a letter to America–to his mother–of today, a century back, has a peculiarly British tone:

This sector has one exciting feature which I have not found in others: the deep woods allow patrols to circulate between the lines in day light. There are frequent encounters and ambuscades. This is very good sport… The enemy are so pushing the game along all the fronts that our reserves will soon have to be thrown in. There is this comfort, that when we go, it will not be to sit in a ditch, wait, and be deluged with shells, but we will go directly into action, magnificently, unexpectedly, and probably victoriously, in some dashing charge, even if it be only of local importance.

Never mind: we are back from “sport” now to the Nietzsche-inflected battler-madness that runs like a counter-theme through certain literary young men of several nations:

In that moment, trust, as I do, in the great god, Chance, that brings us in life, not only our misfortunes, but our greatest bits of happiness, too. Think of so many who are ingloriously stricken by accident in time of peace. War is another kind of life insurance; whereas the ordinary kind assures a man that his death will mean money to someone, this assures him that it will mean honor to himself, which from a certain point of view is much more satisfactory.

And then there is this, one more letter of today, a century back, and once more to his Marraine:

June 4, 1916.

… I hardly think we shall be here much longer. I have a presentiment that we are soon going into action. The last rumor is that we are soon to go to Verdun to relieve the 2nd Moroccan division. That would be magnificent, wouldn’t it ? the long journey drawing nearer and nearer to that furnace, the distant cannonade, the approach through the congested rear of the battle-line full of dramatic scenes, the salutations of troops that have already fought, “Bon courage, les gars!” [approx. “go get ’em, boys”] and then our own debut in some dashing affair. Verdun nous manque. [We miss/long for Verdun] I should really like to go there, for after the war I imagine Frenchmen will be divided into those who were at Verdun and those who were not. . . .[4]

 

So Seeger expected leave and didn’t get it. When we last heard from Vera Brittain, her brother Edward’s leave (his first since going out to France) had just been canceled. But–there’s always a bureaucratic twist–it was reinstated at the last minute, and so Edward has given his family one of the war’s few types of truly happy surprises… and even those are bittersweet in retrospect.

June 4th-10th

Edward came back on leave for 5 days–so bitter-sweet & all too brief. Got leave from hospital for two days & stayed at the Grafton Hotel with him & Mother. He spoke in veiled but significant language of a great battle–another Big Push–soon to take place, & knew that he was to be in it. He said it would be somewhere in the region of Albert, where he is now. In spite of spending a lot of time with him I hardly had a chance of speaking to him at all, for there were always so many people about.[5]

 

As Vera Brittain releases her only brother to the wars, her thoughts must have lingered on the lover she lost. She might have thought, as she often writes that she did, of the future they might have had together. So only one year–and a marriage, and his death–separates her experience from that of Edith and John Ronald Tolkien. Last night, the still-nearly-newlyweds spent the night at the Plough and Harrow Hotel in Edgbaston. This afternoon, a century back, they said farewell, and Tolkien set first feet on the road to adventure. Or, rather war, and by rail–to London, first, and thence France.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chapman, A Passionate Prodigality, 13, 41, 82-4.
  2. Talking Across the World, 153-4.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 313.
  4. Letters and Diary, 201-6.
  5. Chronicle of Youth, 325-6.
  6. Chronology, 80.

Siegfried Sassoon on Nature, from Larks to Slugs; Contemplated Bravado and a Pair of Sonnets from Alan Seeger; Raymond Asquith is Back with the Battalion, and Finds Nothing Whatever to Complain About; Private Lord Crawford on the Entente Between the Sexes

Siegfried Sassoon, back in the support lines, measures quiet and contentment. Will the larks never cease? It seems sometimes as if the sounds of the Western Front are 80% ordinance, 6% overhead Cockney cheerfulness, 3% shouted German taunts, and 11% lark song. But this is a quiet sector:

May 23 6.15 p.m.

On Crawley Ridge. A very still evening. Sun rather hazy but sky mostly clear. Looking across to Fricourt: trench-mortars bursting in the cemetery: clouds of dull white vapour slowly float away over grey-green grass with yellow buttercup-smears, and saffron of weeds. Fricourt, a huddle of reddish roofs, skeleton village—church-tower white—almost demolished, a patch of white against the sombre green of the Fricourt wood (full of German batteries). Away up the hill the white seams and heapings of trenches dug in the chalk. The sky full of lark-songs. Sometimes you can count thirty slowly and hear no sound of a shot: then the muffled pop of a rifle-shot a long way off, or a banging 5.9, or our eighteen-pounder—then a burst of machinegun westward, the yellow sky with a web of whitish filmy cloud half across the sun; and the ridges rather blurred with outlines of trees; an airplane droning overhead. A thistle sprouting through the chalk on the parapet; a cockchafer sailing through the air a little way in front.

Down the hill, and on to the old Bray-Fricourt road, along by the railway; the road white and hard; a partridge flies away calling; lush grass everywhere, and crops of nettles; a large black slug out for his evening walk (doing nearly a mile a month, I should think)…[1]

An interesting interloper, that slug: is our poet merely noting his observations, or is there a special providence in this slow and steady–and notably loathsome–earth-dweller?

 

Alan Seeger is writing steadily and readily again. First, today, to his mother, reflecting on the pleasure and vicissitudes of service in a rather more active sector. Well, actually a fairly quiet one as well–but not if Seeger can help it.

May 23, 1916

We are just back after six days in first line. We are lodged in a big quarry in the woods. It is rather cold and damp inside, but extremely picturesque immense subterranean galleries, foursquare, cut in the solid rock, pitch black inside with here and there little points of light where the men stick their candles.

The week in first line was very pleasant. The weather was superb and I was never bored an instant, neither in the beautiful days when the unclouded sunlight came filtering through the branches of the forest, nor in the starry nights that at this time of year fade even before two o’clock into the wonder of the spring dawn. Nothing more adorable in Nature than this daybreak in the northeast in May and June. One hears the cockcrows in the villages of that mysterious land behind the German lines. Then the cuckoos begin to call in the green valleys and all at once, almost simultaneously, all the birds of the forest begin to sing. The cannon may roar, and the rifles crackle, but Nature’s program goes on just the same.

Remarkably like Sassoon, so far, today. Spring! Poets! Soldiers in the line!

There’s one major difference, though, which is that the French army, in which Seeger serves, has been desperately engaged at Verdun for many weeks, and is beginning to be exhausted (although that, of course, will get much worse). The English have yet to make a major attack, and anticipate doing so soon, not least to support their exhausted allies.

The likelihood of a big action in the near future is vanishing more and more. The general opinion is that Verdun has not only mangé beaucoup de monde [eaten up everyone] but what is more important, beaucoup de munitions. As the French seem in counterattacks to be making serious efforts and even on a large scale to regain some of the lost ground, I do not expect anything on other parts of the front for some time to come, unless it be the English. If it turn out that we have actually retaken Douaumont, it will be a magnificent achievement. I shall ask permission to go out and leave the newspapers on the German barbed wire. I have already made several patrols here and know the ground.

Goodbye; bon courage.

There’s a nice short paragraph to stand for the Poetic Attitude and how, even in 1916, it can somehow still contain the bare facts of 20th century attrition–Verdun is indeed consuming the materiel and men of France at an unprecedented rate–and a resolve toward foolish heroics that seems to belong to a 19th century boy’s tale (or, it must be said, some truthy tale of pre-rifle heroics).

Remarkably, a second letter of today, to his godmother (!) is much more frank about his derring-will-do. Seeger out-Sassoons Sassoon today:

May 23, 1916

Exasperated by the inactivity of the sector here and tempted by danger, I stole off twice after guard and made a patrol all by myself through the wood paths and trails between the lines. In the first of these, at a crossing of paths not far from one of our posts, I found a burnt rocket-stick planted in the ground and a scrap of paper stuck in the top, placed there by the Boches to guide their little mischief-making parties when they come to visit us in the night. The scrap of paper was nothing else than a bit of the Berliner Tageblatt. This seemed so interesting to me that I reported it to the captain, though my going out alone this way is a thing strictly forbidden. He was very decent about it though, and seemed really interested in the information. Yesterday afternoon I repeated this exploit, following another trail, and I went so far that I came clear up to the German barbed wire, where I left a card with my name. It was very thrilling work, “courting destruction with taunts, with invitations,” as Whitman would say. I have never been in a sector like this, where patrols could be made in daylight. Here the deep forest permits it. It also greatly facilitates ambushes, for one must keep to the paths, owing to the underbrush. I and a few others are going to try to get permission to go out on patrouilles d’embuscade and bring in some live prisoners. It would be quite an extraordinary feat if we could pull it off. In our present existence it is the only way I can think of to get the Croix de Guerre. And to be worthy of my marraine [godmother, to whom he is writing] I think that I ought to have the Croix de Guerre.

Here are two sonnets I composed to while away the long hours of guard. . . .

The sonnets are below. This is quite something, really, in terms of “real time” history. It’s spring, and the poetic heroes are getting frisky: Julian Grenfell may be decorated and dead, but E. A. Mackintosh, recently, and now Seeger, and soon enough Sassoon himself all setting out to win fame and capture prisoners. May 1916 is the month of the raid…

Now for the poetry!

I will send you back again the Tennyson after having refreshed myself with it, for one must lighten the sack as much as possible. Found all the old beauties and discovered new ones. Read the last paragraphs of Maud and see if you do not think they have a striking bearing on the present situation.

BELLINGLISE
I
Deep in the sloping forest that surrounds
The head of a green valley that I know,
Spread the fair gardens and ancestral grounds
Of Bellinglise, the beautiful château.
Through shady groves and fields of unmown grass,
It was my joy to come at dusk and see,
Filling a little pond’s untroubled glass,
Its antique towers and mouldering masonry.
Oh, should I fall to-morrow, lay me here,
That o’er my tomb, with each reviving year,
Wood-flowers may blossom and the wood-doves croon;
And lovers by that unrecorded place,
Passing, may pause, and cling a little space,
Close-bosomed, at the rising of the moon.
II
Here, where in happier times the huntsman’s horn
Echoing from far made sweet midsummer eves,
Now serried cannon thunder night and morn,
Tearing with iron the greenwood’s tender leaves.
Yet has sweet Spring no particle withdrawn
Of her old bounty; still the song-birds hail,
Even through our fusillade, delightful Dawn;
Even in our wire bloom lilies of the vale.
You who love flowers, take these; their fragile bells
Have trembled with the shock of volleyed shells,
And in black nights when stealthy foes advance
They have been lit by the pale rockets’ glow
That o’er scarred fields and ancient towns laid low
Trace in white fire the brave frontiers of France.[2]

 

What could be more appropriate to the American Europhile than this combination of the hunter’s horn and a near-citation of the Star-Spangled Banner? So yes, this is more Sassoon than Sassoon, but it’s also something Sassoon rarely is, in his poetry: both traditional and ungentle. Seeger goes for effect here, and forces his words into a halthing rhythm. These sonnets start from firm footing amidst the poetic tradition and launch with a clear purpose–but they stumble a bit before they arrive at their triumphantly hammering conclusions, listing oddly rather than soaring.

And these stumbles mean something, personally, militarily, and poetically: are we really getting there? Are the old habits and convictions enough to carry the day, or is the wire before the objective festooned with old paper, and as yet uncut?

 

Finally today–it’s been such an unexpectedly active few weeks!–we must catch up with Raymond Asquith. After an agonizing shift in the stultifying boredom, semi-honorable idiocy, and complete physical safety of General Headquarters, he is at last back with his battalion. Hurrah! He’s going to love it there, right?

Let’s go back a few days and see:

3rd Grenadier Guards,
B.E.F.
20 May 1916

… In this part of the line we are surrounded and overlooked by the Germans on almost every side and they have a great number of guns in good positions which they loose off pretty continuously. We were fairly heavily shelled on Thursday and had some casualties, but nothing really to matter. The weather being so fine puts a picnic complexion on the whole affair and obscures the less agreeable aspects.

All officers have to be up all night but the nights are so short that this is not a very severe tax and at 3.30 a.m. we have a cup of coffee and turn in, if there is anywhere to turn in; if not, sleep in the open, as I did last night with great comfort and enjoyment. One advantage of the weakness of our position is that it is impossible to work or even move during the day, so one simply lies about dozing in the sun till about 8.30 p.m. We have given up luncheon and have bacon and eggs at 11 a.m., tea at 4 and dinner–a substantial meal-at 7. We are in for 5 days on end this time–the longest I have ever done at a stretch but the conditions are so favourable that I don’t think it takes it out of one so much as 2 days in the winter trenches . . .

 

3rd Grenadier Guards,
B.E.F.
22 May 1916

. . . After 10 days here we are going 10 miles or so further back to live in billets for 3 weeks. I am rather depressed at the prospect. The perfect way to do this war would be G.H.Q. for these waste spaces and regimental life for the spells of trench work…

 

3rd Grenadier Guards,
B.E.F.
23 May 1916

. . . As for me I am already more bored with this tiresome camp than ever I was with G.H.Q. We were allowed an easy time today but for the next week wd live a terribly strenuous and wearisome life–a certain amount of drill and a great many “fatigues”–i.e . digging trenches, laying cables, fetching and carrying, hewing wood and drawing water for other people. Personally I prefer anything to drill…

I knew I should begin grousing as soon as I got away from G.H.Q. but I suppose I should have groused more if I had stayed there.

One’s heart goes out to Katherine Asquith, home with a newborn, knowing now that each letter confirms that her husband is alive, or was, a few days past, and opening it to read such reassurances and tender thoughts…

There is no avoiding the boredom of this War, turn which way you may. There is more novelty and excitement about the trenches themselves than any other part of the show, but I should still be discontented if I were made to stay in them for a month on end instead of coming out and doing these bloody fatigues and things… One fearful addition to the honours of War since I have been away is the steel helmet which we all have to wear now, when in the shell area. They are monstrously tiresome and heavy and I suppose if idiots like Pemberton Rifling had not asked questions in Parliament about them we should have been allowed to go on with our comfortable caps. We make the bloody things better than anyone else does of course by sewing the blue and red brigade ribbon with a gold grenade on it, on to the khaki cover, but even so they are insufferable. . .[3]

 

Insufferable!

Finally, I simply must cram this in: an update on Lord Crawford’s battle of the sexes–unreliably reported, as always.

Monday, 22 May 1916

The last three or four weeks have marked a great reaction in the attitude of the nurses towards us. After months of scolding and vituperation they have become amiable and at times friendly. The transformation has been caused by the matron MacCrae who has bullied and harassed the wretched women to such an extent that they feel the need of support, and have entered into a tacit alliance with us! The burden and weariness of our lives is greatly reduced. Let us hope there will be no counter reaction–anyhow, for a fortnight we have lived in peace. The matron is, of course, more insistent than ever finding the hands of all turned against her, especially since this unholy entente between the sexes! Today she gave orders that in future, when going up and down stairs, orderlies are not to put their hands on the banisters–which strikes me as really droll. Had she not treated us with contumely and the nurses with brutality, one would be charitable enough to assume the woman was going potty.[4]

Matron MacCrae will be officially commended for her services…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 64.
  2. Letters and Diary, 198-202. The poem is dated yesterday a century back, but goes nicely with these letters...
  3. Life and Letters, 262-3.
  4. Private Lord Crawford, 170.

Isaac Rosenberg Seeks the Promised Land with Moses; Wilfred Owen Goes for an Officer; A Sudden Blow for Alan Seeger’s Legion; Vera Brittain Reads a Rival

Isaac Rosenberg‘s battalion is preparing for embarkation, and “on or about 19 May” he went home on leave. Rosenberg returned to his mother’s house in London, bent on finishing the great work-in-progress of the last few months. This drive is something more than Richard Aldington‘s race to finish a critical book. Aldington is an established writer hoping to round off a project, while Rosenberg is an artist-turned-poet, a young man and obscure–he needed to make his mark, to leave poetry that would survive even if he did not. He had six days, working with his friend Reuben “Crazy” Cohen–and assisted, as were so many of our writers, by his sister–to print a pamphlet of the verse drama Moses.

Moses is hard to summarize. Is it “bold,” or “sonorous?” Is it “formal,” or “stilted?” It’s certainly powerful in some places, awkward in others. It reads more like the production of a mid-career eccentric than a young poet only just coming into his own. The blank verse, grand and occasionally thunderous, can’t help but remind one of Milton (and suffer thus by comparison), especially as it elaborates on a biblical story.

The plot, unfortunately, is a bit poky, and while there are meaty matters at hand–Moses in Egypt, war and slavery, royal power and divine wrath–the speeches do not really generate the intended drama. There are rough edges and chunks of rather opaque verse, and these will not find favor when this frail new basket finds its way downstream toward the (Eddie) Marsh and other smoothness-approving arbiters.

But Moses is unquestionably a step forward for Rosenberg, both in terms of craft and bravado: he has made a stab at the impossible task of writing a verse-epic for this war, before he’s even seen it. Were it shorter and less difficult I would attempt some analysis, but perhaps that is best left for a little while…

 

We hear from Vera Brittain today for the first time in a while about another recently completed book–and this one is about as far from Moses as a book that also concerns an English soldier of the Great War can be. Marie Leighton, Roland‘s mother, has completed her strange, cloying memoir of her son–or, rather, of her relationship with her son–entitled Boy of My Heart.

Vera, writing to her mother, seems to have a positive first impression. The book is

…really fine… I had no idea she could do anything so good… Of course I come in a good deal; I wonder what you will think of me. She hasn’t given me a sense of humour–though perhaps under the circumstances that is hardly necessary… Edward comes in a lot… she has made him, contrary to my expectation, a most charming & attractive figure; & she has portrayed quite accurately his formality & slight stiffness without being in the least unkind to him…[1]

Whether this accurately represents Vera’s first reading of Boy of My Heart or whether it is calculated to instruct her own mother how to read the thing, I don’t know. I may have promised, last year, to deal with this book eventually–I couldn’t discuss it much because there is hardly a sentence that does not look forward to Roland’s early demise. But I will now more or less renege on that promise…  (Do I simply lack the will, today, to function as a careful critic… or are these books both, though so disparate, indeed so very difficult?)

Boy of My Heart is hard to read, not least because it asserts from before the first page that it must be read as “history:”

The Publishers wish to state that this is a book of absolute fact — not a work of fiction. From cover to cover it is the truth, and the truth only — a record exact and faithful, both in large things and in small, of the short years of a boy who willingly and even joyously gave up his life and all its brilliant promise for the sake of his country.

Even the tragic coincidence of the news of his death reaching his home in the very hour in which he himself was expected there on leave, is what actually occurred.

The second paragraph is understandable–such devastating irony is stranger than fiction. But the blanket claim of absolute truth is troubling: prior to the above “Foreward” is the dedication, to “LITTLE YEOGH WOUGH.”

It’s not a book about Roland–it’s a book about his mother’s loss of her son. So it’s rough going–do we want to work back over Roland’s life, and see the “absolute fact” of his relationship with “Vera Brennan,” as she is (“in fact”) called in the book, a love affair as seen from the point of view of a classic overbearing mother? Do we want to pick apart the facts and likely fantasies and overwrought prose of a mother who lost her favorite child?

Probably not. It’s as awkward as listening to a eulogy which slowly becomes entirely about the speaker, rather than the deceased. And, for what it’s worth, the book surely would have mortified Roland–and we haven’t even discussed Mrs. Leighton’s creepy refusal to acknowledge that her teenage son might have a need for physical privacy.[2]

Boy of My Heart can be read here, but I’m not sure I’ll be referring to it again.

 

Speaking of cloying mothers and best-loved sons, Wilfred Owen has news today, delivered, oddly enough, on the back of a postcard of Venice:

Had 2 extractions without Gas at Dental Hospital: painful, but the worst trouble has supervened yesterday night & today. Was Grub Orderly yesterday, & have been toiling in Trenches through the heat of today.

Well, that’s not the big news. It’s this:

There is likelihood of L.P.G. (Leave pending Gazette) beginning as from Tomorrow!!!

Amusingly, a second postcard confirmed the good news–not only the leave, but the pending “Gazette:” to be “gazetted” is to have one’s commission (or promotion, or decoration) officially announced in the London Gazette. Wilfred will get to come home to celebrate the attainment of his goal: gentlemanly officerhood. But first:

I have a dental appointment on Monday mng. & in any case can’t leave town till you send Rly. Fare. Can you advance 15s?

We shall he allowed 3s. per day. Isn’t the thing delicious! I had better bring my trunk. I expect to arrive on Monday Evening…

Your own W.E.O.[3]

 

Finally today, an update from Alan Seeger. A serpent lies concealed in the lush grass of spring:

May 19, 1916

After a delightful month in Biarritz and an other in Paris, I came back here the first of the month. I had really had such a good time, as I say, that I returned quite light-hearted. . .

The sector was the quietest I had seen and one of great beauty, in the depths of the spring forest. Life here, in spite of the hard work, seemed no more than camping out and war only another way of spending the summer agreeably. These bright impressions, however, received a terrible shock yesterday and as I am still under the emotion of it, I will describe it to you.

With the warm weather we had left the under ground bomb proofs and pitched little shelter tents under the trees, where we slept or rested between the hours of guard. The dugouts were too hot and dirty and the sector seemed so calm that there was no danger. There were daily artillery duels, but battery sought battery and we were never troubled. Yesterday morning, how ever, a German aeroplane came over our lines. The cannonade was violent all day, but no one pays any attention to that and most of us were lying down under our toiles de tente, when suddenly “whizz-bang!” “whizz-bang!” “whizz-bang!” a terrific rafale of shrapnel began bursting right in our midst. Rush for the abris [shelter]. But that there were victims was inevitable. Moans from outside. Cries to lend a hand. A sergeant and seven men had been touched. The most serious case was Corporal Colette, a splendid fellow whom everyone liked. They took him away on a litter, but he died before reaching the ambulance. Havoc in our little camp that had been so peaceful. Air full of dust and smell of powder, ground littered with leaves and branches, tents, clothes, equipment, riddled with holes, ground splashed and trailed with blood. Naturally since then we have had to come back into the bombproofs, where deep underground, we live in holes like those that I remember pictured in our old natural histories, that show a gopher, an owl and a snake all living happily together in the same burrow. Here it is men, rats, and vermin.

Describe it he has, and in very uncharacteristic prose–clipped, unbeautiful, straight, present. He is writing to “a friend” and not to his mother, as usual, which may be part of it, but surely there is also an intentional effect here, a striving for pointlessness and suddenness which are not among his usual (i.e. poetic, Nietzschean/melodramatic, hifaltutin’) literary goals. Seeger has been given a bit of a shock, and so he essays the impressionistic episode:

This is a typical episode in our life here on the front. It happens quickly and is quickly forgotten. Life is so cheap here. The soldier’s life has its hard moments, but the bright side is not lacking either good health and good comrade ship, the allurement of danger, joys of the open air, the march, and the celebrations when we go back to the rear.

I am writing you this from the first line trenches. A French aeroplane is circling overhead and being bombarded by the Boches. It is the close of a beautiful spring day. With night fall we will go to the outposts to resume the guard. We do not take this sector very seriously, for we all know that big things are in preparation, wherein our division expects to win new laurels. This is simply an interim. . . .[4]

An episode and an interim… but what comes next?

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 258.
  2. There is a very good discussion of the book on the testamentofyouth blog, available here.
  3. Collected Letters, 393-4.
  4. Letters and Diary, 195-7.