Arthur Graeme West on the Futility of Training; Sherlock Holmes Gets a Tour; Olaf Stapledon Addresses a Heroine; Life and Death for Robert Nichols and Noel Hodgson

The 2/RWF are no ordinary battalion, but Dr. Dunn’s chronicle–nicely poised between a battalion history and a collective memoir–often provides excellent bits of day-to-day local color. (Appropriate, really, to get some pseudo-Celtic wit aboard on this 12th Bloomsday.)

In any event, it’s been a while since I’ve found a way to work in a reference to Arthur Conan Doyle:

A procession of “Cook’s tourists” are passing through the town these days: among others, Conan Doyle getting local colour for his new pot-boiler, and a Russian Prince, whose A.D.C., General Itchas, supplied the facetious with a topic…[1]

 

Yes, we seem to have hit an ominous mid-June lull–“these days” are filled with a tense false-calm, an expectancy. We have a few disparate updates.

First, George Coppard, after a pleasant interlude in Divisional training in the rear areas, marched up with his battalion to the rear areas of the Somme. From now on, Amiens is to be the most important railhead for the British army.

The company marched to Lillers and entrained for Amiens. It was strange passing through the city, with big solid buildings on either side of the streets. The shops were open and the market place was packed. One of the officers had returned from leave with four mouth organs, and ‘Tipperary’ was in full swing as we marched pas the great cathedral. Women and children waved flags and cheered as the column moved on….[2]

 

Robert Nichols is out of it, now. He is damaged, but physically intact. He has seen the war, and is setting himself now to write about it. His friends, of course, remain. But now they are one fewer: Harold Gough was killed today, a century back, in the Ypres Salient.[3]

 

Olaf Stapledon, meanwhile, continues his slow-developing intercontinental conversation with his intended, Agnes Miller. His tone, as it always is, is light, loving. Yet this is a question of the utmost seriousness to him: if she will remain conventionally patriotic and pro-war and he, though he is in the thick of it, will remain a committed pacifist, would society ever accept them? It’s a burning question… but, again, slow-burning. He is in Belgium, she is in Australia–duration first, then marriage.

Last night there was no end of a scrap. I was lying in bed in my car when it began. I was facing it and saw all the shrapnel flashes in the sky and the big shells far off landing with a dazzling blaze… All today there has been steady firing from the various batteries, shells going & coming, roaring and singing all over the place–crash–roarrrrrr-ban-bang-whewwww-crash, much tearing of calico & much humming-top song. Yet if one’s ears had been stopped up one would never have known there was war in this continent, save for a few puffs of smoke…

I have just been reading another dear letter that came from you today… Much of your letter was about patriotism and wanting to win. I don’t know, dear, but it all strikes me very differently. I won’t talk about it, for reasons censorial and others. You must judge for yourself, be loyal to your view of the truth; and I will be loyal to mine. Believe me, anyhow, England is no less to me than to you… I am not a crank nor an extremist, nor a little Englander even, but I fear you have gone and got engaged to a fellow whose views are not presentable in polite society, and I am deeply sorry for you… Can you really love with all your heart and soul one who does not even intend to live up to your ideal, but sticks to his own? If so you are a heroine, considering the relation of the two ideals.[4]

 

I introduced Arthur Graeme West two weeks ago as a noted cynic, a man angry at the army before he even got to France. Today he was exposed to one of the famous drill-lectures–not the famous bayonetin’ Scotsman, but a cavalry major–“a small man with an incredibly evil countenance… and… an inability to pronounce his R’s”–who lectures on physical drill more generally. West parodies his idiocy and–less unfairly–his failure to appreciate that discipline in the socially heterogeneous volunteer battalions of Kitchener’s army must be very different than in an old Regular battalion:

Story of officer whom nobody disobeyed twice. Someone disobeyed him once and he went to the hospital! Cheers!

This man babbled on about bayonet fighting and physical drill until 12.45, the C.O. simpering by, keeping a thousand men from their rest and their beer, and teaching them nothing.[5]

 

Grim. But I can close with good news, at least. Today, a century back, Noel Hodgson is an uncle. His sister gave birth, at their parents’ home in Ipswich, to a baby daughter. Mother and daughter are hale and healthy…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 206.
  2. With a Machine Gun, 77.
  3. Charlton, Putting Poetry First, 55.
  4. Talking Across the World, 156-7.
  5. Diary, 79-80.
  6. Zeepvat, Before Action, 185.

Inferno at Hooge: Donald Hankey Takes One for the Honor of the Brigade and Billy Grenfell Leads the Charge; Congreve and Conan Doyle on the Aftermath of the German Assault; Lady Feilding Abandons the Afterlife; Ford Madox Hueffer Is Changing His Tune

Before we get to an overflowing daily cup of horror and death at Hooge, a brief note and a surprising letter.

First, in an echo of Henry James’s recent bureaucratic vote of allegiance, Ford Hermann Hueffer took a patriotic legal action today, a century back. He’s already English, despite the continental affinities and German ancestry and libels to the contrary. But his name sure ain’t. So,today, he changed it by deed poll. And no: not to the name under which he later became known and under which his great war novel is published. That would be too convenient! Unwilling, as of yet, to remove his surname, he instead swapped out his German middle name for that of his eminently English (what could be more eminently English than a pre-Raphaelite?) grandfather Ford Madox Brown. He had been using it for years anyway, but this officious change presages other official action. Almost there![1]

Next, Lady Feilding. Dorothie Feilding is often cast here as the gay socialite, an occasionally charming, occasionally wretched combination of flightiness and fearlessness. (Largely by dint of her own self-presentation, I hope it’s fair to say.) But, as several of her letters to her father have shown, she is far from mindless or shallow. And–as today’s letter to her mother demonstrates–she has not refused the challenge of matching the faith of childhood–Catholicism, in her case–with the present horrors of war.

Friday for sure July 29th I think
(30th really) [30 July]
Mother dear–

I got your long dear letter last night for which many thanks it was a help too because one’s poor mind & judgement is rather inclined to get lost in the dark & inclined to chuck it up at times.

What I mean is, that although the war brings one closer to prayers, doesn’t diminish one’s faith as a Catholic in the smallest degree, it makes one rocky over the root principle of any after life at all, or rather seeing the suddenness & completeness of death so often & so very close to one, somehow does away with the whole theory of a future of any kind. Why should there be one? There isn’t any need for one for us any more than for any other animal. But I do believe the need of religion in a race because it brings out alt the noblest & the best morally & incidentally stands for betterment & continuance of the whole race generally doesn’t it?

This, it seems, is–however friendly and polite–a wholesale apostasy. There is no future, so let us now give religion practical praise for it humanitarian effects.

Therefore I think that even if there is no future existence at all, one has no right to squander one’s life or let things slide, or humanity as a whole would go to pot.

See what I mean? It’s seeing Death in such numbers & such simplicity that makes me think this. Because somehow the fact of Death in the abstract has no ‘fear’ now like it used when one thought about it in the old days. But although still wanting to do the square thing on earth it doesn’t seem to not. It just doesn’t matter anymore somehow. I think people just live & do their best & then die & there’s an end of it–it seems so easy to believe in God but no need for heaven!

This is quite something. To write this to her mother–the mother of a full handful of children serving in danger zones–is to gently propose a complete break. Does Dorothie Feilding have it in her to be a rebel?

Dear me how complicated it’s all getting–I’d better leave it! Because after all I am one in many millions & I don’t really count or matter what I finks.

Have had a quiet day today–haven’t been shot at once & haven’t seen an obus nearer than 500 yds or found more than one ‘malade’ [patient] to conduct..

Much love

DoDo[2]

 

So Lady Feilding has lost her faith–at least the specific Christian faith in a tangible afterlife–because of her long experience with sudden death.

Now, reading is not living, and the traumas it conveys are impersonal (an uncrossable divide) and many orders of magnitude less intense. Reading here on a daily basis (bully for you!) is supposed to deepen your understanding of the past and increase your sensitivity to the literature of this period. Which, in turn, might make one more sensitive to the varieties of human experience.

Does literature humanize? Well, I suppose we’ve turned the flank of the very question I was going to get to (and will now permit to retreat, though Lady Feilding has helped us put it in enfilade): does all this miserable suffering, this pointless killing, challenge one’s faith? In god, in religion, in the afterlife, in political processes, in truth, in humanity?

 

A new devilry today, and a horrifying post-script to the efforts of the 3rd Division at Hooge. More than a week after he was on hand near the crater when a minenwerfer hit the bomb store, Billy Congreve is in reserve when the bad news comes in.

Early this morning the Germans attacked the 14th Division in Hooge, and have apparently captured the whole place. It’s too sickening. I heard the 8th R[ifle] B[rigade] are the people who lost it… We have no news at present of what actually happened, but there is a rumour that the Germans used Flammenwerfer–liquid fire.

This time the rumors were true. Today was the first time flamethrowers–a weapon of which it is especially hard to write–were used on British troops. Death is death, but there is something particularly fearful about men being engulfed in liquid flame. As a technology, flamethrowers are in their infancy, and will, mercifully, never really grow up,  never prove to be a broadly useful means of murder. The ammunition is enormously heavy, the range of the weapon is limited, and it is very dangerous to its users. But it is terrifying, more resistant than other weapons to measured and careful historical prose.

So, despite the reality of the Flammenwerfer‘s deployment today, a century back, and the very real death of scores of men as the German forces stormed the crater’s lip behind the flames, I’m going to turn the describing over to one of our highly colorful “historians,” Arthur Conan Doyle.

It is clear that the Germans mustered great forces, both human and mechanical, before letting go their attack. For ten days before the onset they kept up a continuous fire, which blew down the parapets and caused great losses to the defenders. On July 29 the 7th King’s Royal Rifles and the 8th Rifle Brigade manned the front and supporting trenches, taking the place of their exhausted comrades. They were just in time for the fatal assault. At 3:20 in the morning of July 30 a mine exploded under the British parapet, and a moment afterwards huge jets of flame, sprayed from their diabolical machines, rose suddenly from the line of German trenches and fell in a sheet of fire into the front British position.

congreve july 19 1915crop

Billy Congreve’s sketch showing the British positions (shaded) around Hooge. The German assault today focused on the crater, but then pushed south of the road.

The distance was only twenty yards, and the effect was complete and appalling. Only one man is known to have escaped from this section of trench. The fire was accompanied by a shower of aerial torpedoes from the Minenwerfer, which were in themselves sufficient to destroy the garrison. The Germans instantly assaulted and occupied the defenceless trench, but were held up for a time by the reserve companies in the supporting trenches. Finally these were driven out by the weight of the German attack, and fell back about two hundred yards, throwing themselves down along the edges of Zouave and Sanctuary Woods, in the immediate rear of the old position…

Congreve, Hooge

An earlier sketch, showing the relative position of Hooge, Zouave Wood, and Sanctuary Wood

The position gained by the Germans put them behind the line of trenches held upon the British right by two companies of the 8th Rifle Brigade. These brave men, shot at from all sides and unable to say which was their parapet and which their parados, held on during the whole interminable July day, until after dusk the remains of them drew off into the shelter of the prophetically-named Sanctuary Wood. [bottom right of Congreve’s sketch, at right.]

Another aggressive movement was made by the German stormers down the communication trenches, which enabled them to advance while avoiding direct fire; but this, after hard fighting, was stopped by the bombers of the Riflemen.

Conan Doyle now describes the attempts at a quick local counter-attack, always tactically advantageous due to the difficulty of consolidating new positions under artillery fire.

The two battalions of the 41st Brigade, which had just been relieved and were already on their way to a place of rest, were halted and brought back. They were the 8th King’s Royal Rifles and the 7th Rifle Brigade. These two battalions had been eight days under incessant fire in the trenches, with insufficient food, water, and sleep. They were now hurried back into a hellish fire, jaded and weary, but full of zeal at the thought that they were taking some of the pressure on their comrades…

 

We have a man in the 7/Rifle Brigade. Donald Hankey had missed the Flammenwerfers by a matter of hours, and he and his battalion had just reached their billets near Vlamertinghe–at around 3:45 AM–when the orders came to return and prepare a counter-attack.[3]

This would be their first attack, and Hankey will soon write about it in a newspaper piece entitled “The Honour of the Brigade.”[4]

The battalion had had a fortnight of it, a fortnight of hard work and short rations, of sleepless vigil and continual danger. They had been holding trenches newly won from the Germans. When they took them over they were utterly unsafe. They had been battered to pieces by artillery; they were choked with burst sandbags and dead men; there was no barbed wire; they faced the wrong way; there were still communication trenches leading straight to the enemy. The battalion had had to remake the trenches under fire. They had had to push out barbed wire and build barriers across the communication trenches. All the time they had had to be on the watch. The Germans were sore at having lost the trenches, and had given them no rest. Their mortars had rained bombs night and day. Parties of bombers had made continual rushes down the old communication trenches, or crept silently up through the long grass, and dropped bombs among the workers. Sleep had been impossible. All night the men had had to stand to their arms ready to repel an attack, or to work at the more dangerous jobs such as the barbed wire, which could only be attempted under cover of darkness. All day they had been dodging bombs, and doing the safer work of making latrines, filling sandbags for the night, thickening the parapet, burying the dead, and building dug-outs…

They had not grumbled. They had realized that it was inevitable, and that the post was a post of honor. They had set their teeth and toiled grimly, doggedly, sucking the pebble which alone can help to keep at bay the demon Thirst. They had done well, and they knew it. The colonel had said as much, and he was not a man to waste words. They had left the trench as safe as it could be made. And now they had been relieved.

Well, I’ve already told you what happens next:

At last they reached the field where they were to bivouac… Away in the distance could be heard the incessant rattle of musketry, mingled with the roar of the big guns. No one heeded it. A motor-cycle appeared at express speed. The colonel was roused, the company commanders sent for. The men were wakened up. Down the lines the message passed: “Stack valises by platoons, and get ready to march off in fighting order; the Germans have broken through.’ The men were too dazed to talk. Mechanically they packed their greatcoats into their valises, and stacked them. The Germans broken through! All their work wasted! It was incredible. Water bottles were filled, extra ammunition served out, in silence. The battalion fell in, and marched off along the same weary road by which they had come. Two hours’ sleep, no breakfast, no wash, no drink.

Here’s where “patriotic propaganda” may intrude on what has been a fairly reserved “spirit of the battalion”/no rest for the weary piece. Or is it wrong to be so skeptical?

A captain said a few words to his men during a halt. Some trenches had been lost. It was their brigade that had lost them. For the honor of the brigade, of the New Army, they must try to retake them. The men listened in silence; but their faces were set. They were content. The honor of the brigade demanded it. The captain had said so, and they trusted him.

They lay down behind a bank in a wood. Before them raged a storm. Bullets fell like hail. Shells shrieked through the air, and burst in all directions. The storm raged without any abatement. The whistle would blow, then the first platoon would advance, in extended order. Half a minute later the second would go forward, followed at the same interval by the third and fourth. A man went into hysterics, a pitiable object. His neighbor regarded him with a sort of uncomprehending wonder. He was perfectly, fatuously cool. Some- thing had stopped inside him. A whistle blew. The first platoon scrambled to their feet and advanced at the double. What happened no one could see. They disappeared. The second line followed, and the third and fourth. Surely no one could live in that hell. No one hesitated. They went forward mechanically, as men in a dream. It was so mad, so unreal. Soon they would awake…

It appeared that there was a trench at the edge of the wood. It had been unoccupied. A couple of hundred yards in front, across the open ground, was the trench which they were/ attacking. Half a dozen men found themselves alone in the open ground before the German wire. They lay down. No one was coming on. Where was everyone? They crawled cautiously back to the trench at the edge of the wood, and climbed in… The storm raged on; but the attack was over. These were what was left of two companies. All stain on the honor of the brigade had been wiped out—in blood.

There were three men in a bay of the trench. One was hit in the leg, and sat on the floor cutting away his trousers so as to apply a field dressing. One knelt down behind the parapet with a look of dumb stupor on his face. The third, a boy of about seventeen from a London slum, peered over the parapet at intervals. Suddenly he disappeared over the top. He had discovered two wounded men in a shell hole just in front, and was hoisting them into the shelter of the trench. By a miracle not one of the three was hit. A message was passed up the trench: “Hold on at all costs till relieved.” A council of war was held. Should they fire or lie low? Better lie low, and only fire in case of attack. They were safe from attack as long as the Bosches kept on firing. Someone produced a tin of meat, some biscuits, and a full water-bottle. The food was divided up, and a shell bursting just in rear covered everything with dirt and made it uneatable. The water was reserved for the wounded. The rest sucked their pebbles in stoical silence.

The survivors of 7/Rifle Brigade held these trenches for the rest of an interminable, hot day. Stretcher bearers appeared

and took away one man, an officer. The rest waited in vain. An hour passed, and no one else came. Two were mortally hit, and began to despair. They would die before help came. For Christ’s sake get some water. There was none to be had.

After night fell, the survivors limped, or crawled back to their own lines, the honor of the brigade–if not quite the line itself–restored

So, now: what is this piece, “The Honour of the Brigade?” Does it belong here, today? Is it fiction? Personal history?

Well, the author has an opinion, which he tells us rather directly:

Note.—The action described in the above article has been identified by correspondents at the front, and so it is necessary to state that although based in the main on an actual experience, features have been freely borrowed from other occasions, and the writer has no authority for placing the construction that he has on the main event.

So we have permission, essentially, to use these descriptions as historical evidence–but only loosely.

This is too modest, however. I think Hankey is refusing to vouch for his stylistic choices more than he is denying his own reliability. It doesn’t read like history, so it can’t possibly be history…  but this idea we can firmly reject, with our very superior post-modern understanding of the genre.

As for the “features,” well, we would err in using specific events in the piece as battalion history. But why would we? And what are these pieces of evidence? Hankey prefers the impressionistic style, and exact events are hard to come by. Which, again, may lead to his demurral but sounds to us, a century on, like a fairly strong recommendation: if you want to know what flank was where on the map, read the battalion history, or Doyle’s quickie, or ask Billy Congreve–but if you want to know what the terror of that confused attack was like. Well.

So it doesn’t feel like a violation of historical principle to announce that the man wounded in the leg “is”–“was,” “represents”–Hankey himself. He has written a scrupulously modest “battle piece” in order both to express “what it was like” and to praise “the spirit of the battalion.” (By all accounts they fought well, despite their failure in an impossible assault.)

Writing in propria persona, after recovering from his wound, Hankey is again unduly modest:

As a matter of fact I wasn’t much good out at the front. I grumbled horribly. I had one good asset, which was that when things became dangerous my nerves (such is my perverse nature) stood quite still. But I had no aggressive valour. The day we charged I had no frantic desire to get at ’em! The whole thing seemed so absurd, and I started off knowing quite well that I should get hit, and not minding very much. The week before we had been under very heavy shell fire and lost a good many men; but that time I knew perfectly well I should not be hit! It was very odd. I felt absolutely certain about it, and wouldn’t have minded going anywhere.

Accounts by other survivors place more emphasis on Hankey’s valor:

Corporal Hankey was splendid. He was badly wounded early in the fight, and was advised to go to a dressing station. He stuck to his post, although the serious wound in the leg must have given him great pain. While he could hold his rifle he remained, and it was only when darkness fell that he would consent to go back. Many others were wounded two or even three times before they would give in.[5]

So Hankey is now a writer who has survived a long day in s scratch trench, bleeding copiously, desperately thirsty, and keeping his head down. This is the stuff of manly virtue and grim pride in the corporate achievements of the company, the battalion, and the brigade. It’s also the stuff of a long war of attrition.

 

Next to the immediacy of this experience, even history of the stirring-strains variety is pale stuff. Back to Conan Doyle:

There had been three-quarters of an hour of intense bombardment before the attack, but it was not successful in breaking down the German resistance. At 2:45 P.M. the infantry advance began from the wood, all four units of the 41st Brigade taking part in it. It is difficult to imagine any greater trial for troops, since half of them had already been grievously reduced and the other half were greatly exhausted, while they were now asked to advance several hundred yards without a shadow of cover, in the face of a fire which was shaving the very grass from the ground. “The men behaved very well,” says an observer, “and the officers with a gallantry no words can adequately describe. As they came out of the woods the German machine-gun fire met them and literally swept them away, line after line. The men struggled forward, only to fall in heaps along the edge of the woods.” The Riflemen did all that men could do, but there comes a time when perseverance means annihilation. The remains of the four battalions were compelled to take shelter once more at the edge of the wood. Fifty officers out of 90 had fallen. By 4 P.M. the counter-attack had definitely failed.[6]

 

We have one more man, however, in the 41st brigade, and he was among those fifty officers. The Hon. Gerald William Grenfell–Julian‘s little brother Billy–led a platoon of the 8th Rifle brigade on that doomed counterattack.

Julian and Billy as pages, 1897

Julian and Billy, dressed as pages for a fancy dress ball, 1897

Billy was killed in a charge to take trenches near the Hooge crater. Leading his platoon, he attempted to cross the 250 yards of open ground under terrific machine-gun fire. He had gone 70 or 80 yards when he pitched forward dead.

So Billy is dead too, now, in his first severe action. I know of only a few of his letters, and he had no defining production like Julian’s Into Battle. It’s almost as if the deaths now are coming too quickly to be properly registered–who is Billy? Who was Billy? He was an athlete and he had been a leading light in his class; he was a handsome, popular young man. Many of their mutual, friends found Billy at once more approachable and more brilliant than Julian (others, naturally, disagreed). But I really have no place to “put” him. He’s Julian’s little brother, dead in his first assault, no more than two months into his war.

So forgive a desperate and rather maudlin connection, a weird attempt to grasp at chords of memory: Billy, like so many boys of his age, had seen and read Peter Pan.

He was a public school boy, a scion of the aristocracy, a confident and cheerful young elite. He promised to be an excellent officer as well. Earlier this month he had written that “Darling Julian is so constantly beside me, and laughs so debonairly at my qualms and hesitations. I pray for one-tenth of his courage.” He seems to have received it, and more.

As his platoon assembled in a sjallow trench, preparing to assault strong, uphill positions over an old battlefield well marked for the artillery and machine guns, he might have had a moment of pause. A moment of fear. It’s one thing to act up to the expectation of fearlessness on the playing fields, and even in the trenches. But to realize that you are about to charge into the open is to be alone. What did he feel?

Back to Peter Pan.

Peter Parker, in The Old Lie, his book on “The Great War and the Public School Ethos,” brings two scenes into play. One puts Billy Grenfell in company with Wendy, mother to the Lost Boys. Both exhort their troops as they stare into the face of death. Grenfell, before today’s charge, is reported to have said “Remember you are Englishmen. Do nothing to dishonour that name.” And Wendy, with the boys about to walk the plank:

These are my last words. Dear boys, I feel that I have a message for you from your real mothers, and it is this, “We hope our sons will die like English gentlemen.”

Close, but then again Admiral Nelson gave similar advice another century back. More striking, perhaps, than the similarity in these (reported) exhortations, are Peter Pan’s thoughts at the moment he has grown up enough to lead by sacrifice. Stranded on a rock, buying time for Wendy’s escape, he experiences his first moment of fear. And masters it, with words that–maudlin, maudlin, but what can I do–will echo through this war:

To die will be an awfully big adventure.[7]

So a children’s play seems awfully prophetic–but the juxtaposition relies heavily on an uncertain foundation. The report of Billy Grenfell’s last words is second or third hand, and I have yet to see it securely sourced. So too the description of his gallant charge, which I have taken from Viola Meynell’s book on Julian Grenfell.[8] I’m not sure that it isn’t more or less imaginary, based, in all likelihood, on the posthumous praise of brother officers, whose letters to next-of-kin tended to portray even hopeless actions as meaningfully infused with valor and dash and certainty. But, then again, there is no reason to suspect that he did not say something quite like Wendy, or think like Peter, or lead from the front and die in the commission of an act of gallantry, like his big brother.

But Billy is dead, and with him die the details, as well as the subjectivities of his experience. The writer who survives can write a waist-high pile of memoirs, while the man who is wounded–like Donald Hankey–can tell the story of that day, one way or another (or both). But–and here’s the strange perspective that this project grants–death is not only the extinguishing of a life and the beginning of new misery for those who loved the dead: it’s also an event horizon for war writing.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Saunders, Ford Madox Ford, 486.
  2. Lady Under Fire, 97-8.
  3. Kissane, Without Parade, 150-2.
  4. "The Honour of the Brigade" is available here, in what must be an American edition, its honor bereft of its "u."
  5. See The Letters of Donald Hankey, available here.
  6. Conan Doyle, The British Campaign in France and Flanders, Vol. II; available here.
  7. See Parker, The Old Lie, 91.
  8. Meynell, Julian Grenfell, available here.

Billy Congreve, Alf Pollard, and John Lucy in the Battle of Bellewaarde; A Letter from Gurney and a Book for Brooke

Congreve, Hooge

Billy Congreve’s Sketch of the Southern Flank of the German Mini-Salient Near Hooge, Made in Preparation for Today’s Attack

Some days we make do with a scribble or two. Today, three of our writers are close behind two separate assaults while another charges into the German trenches–and several writers yet far from the guns are inconveniently busy as well.

The major action of today was the assault by elements of V Corps on recently ceded areas of the Ypres salient near Hooge. It’s usually called the Battle of Bellewaarde, and it has its own website, to whose editors I am today very heavily indebted.

Yesterday we read the build-up to the battle in the words of one infantry lance-corporal, and we’ll get back to Alf soon. But first, a primer on the preparations for this battle by our man on the staff, Billy Congreve. A brief reminder: there are several (usually four) battalions to the brigade, and several brigades (usually three) to the division. Congreve is the aide-de-camp to Major General Haldane of the 3rd Division and thus an influential member of the divisional staff, which will oversee the attack plan for several thousand men. But the 3rd Division is one of several divisions subordinate to V Corps–and we shall see what Billy thinks of those guys. Let’s move back six days to take in the planning as seen on the divisional level.

9th June

We have been ordered to do an attack on Bellewaarde Fam. The date of the attack is the 14th. It’s now the 9th and, of course, it is the most desperate business to get everything ready in four days. It is almost ludicrous…

The 9th Brigade… will have had some small chance of training themselves, but the 7th… will have no rest, no chance to organize all the little details… the ammunition supply is very limited… Altogether it is no pleasing job. The general has made up his mind, I think to fail. I think there need be no failure, but it is not a bit satisfactory…

11th June

We may now, I hear, get a day or possibly two days extra…

General A. comes every day and sits talking for ages, and generally finishes by saying how easy the whole thing is…

Who’s this, now? Why its Edmund Allenby! He’s now the commander of V Corps, and already well on his way to earning his reputation as a general who just does not give in, but only gets a devastating proportion of his men killed every time instead. The lion-leading donkey stereotype is not a fair representation of the British general–but the shoes do fit more than a few feet. Allenby is a paragon of the stubborn butcher.

It will take several more battles atop the relative casualty charts before Haig promotes him into a position where his talent for refusing to plan effectively will get fewer people killed. Or not: Allenby will eventually be sent to Jerusalem to work things out the politics there… so at least he’ll have a praiseworthy role in creating conditions of lasting peace somewhere.

Congreve’s description of Allenby is about as harsh as any judgment in his diary: “a bully and not a brilliant soldier.”

Congreve’s diary goes on to describe the problems of acclimating new troops to active warfare. Kitchener’s Army is out, remember, but it has yet to be depended on for a major assault.

We had a pioneer battalion of the 14th Division (K’s army) up to help dig. They were a little shelled and only about a quarter of them turned up for work. This is a beastly place to bring them to learn what war is like. It’s enough to demoralise a brick wall, let alone eight-month old soldiers…

12th June

The arranging is now nearly over… I always hate inspecting troops who are just going into a very gory battle. These next few days are going to be hard for everyone…[1]

Congreve also relates that the same pioneer battalion “ran away” a second time: this explains the scratch trenches Pollard found yesterday.

We have another man crouching close behind the British lines today as well. John Lucy of the 2/Royal Irish Rifles is unusual in being an enlisted man of the pre-war Regular Army with a decent amount of schooling. Not surprisingly, he has been promoted into the non-commissioned ranks and put to literate work.

He fills us in on the mood of a battalion which suffered heavily on the Aisne in the fall–Lucy lost his brother–and is now facing its first intensive combat in many months.

Even the old soldiers began to lose faith. They said a gamble was good enough–a fight with a chance of winning–but useless sacrifice dismayed us all. We got our first touch of this kind of fighting in the following June. Our battalion, supporting an attack on the Ballewarde [Bellewaarde or Bellewaerde] salient near Hooge, went into battle six hundred and fifty strong and lost half that number.

I was busy for days before the attack copying maps of the intricate German trench system for issue to officers commanding companies and platoons. On the morning of the attack, 15th June [i.e. 16th June], our guns bombarded the German front line for an hour and a half…[2]

june 16 1915, congreve

Billy Congreve’s Photograph of German Prisoners Captured June 16th, 1915 Near Bellewaarde

This bombardment, according to Billy Congreve, began at 3:20 and moved on to the second German line at 4:15–this tactic will later be described as “lifting,” and eventually refined into a “walking barrage” in which the artillery slowly increases its range, in theory allowing infantry to advance just behind.

Today, a century back, five battalions attacked in this first wave while the German second line was under fire. And  with great success: the German front line trenches had not been sufficiently deepened or improved, and the artillery had killed and wounded many. The survivors were stunned and dozens of prisoners were taken (see Congreve’s photo, at right).

In yesterday’s post we left Alf Pollard crouched in a shallow assembly trench with the rest of the HAC, ready to act as a reserve to the second wave.

About an hour before zero hour a message came down the line that I was to report to Captain Boyle… Captain Boyle has great news for me. Two men were required to accompany the first wave as a connecting link. I was one of the two chosen; the other was a fellow called Springfield, whose father was the editor of London Opinion.

Springy and I were delighted. I especially so. My ambition was to be realised. I was to take part in a charge. With luck I might bayonet a Hun.

We reported to Captain Spooner of the 1st Lincolns… We had scarcely arrived when the barrage commenced.

congreve, june 16

Congreve’s Sketch Showing the Ground of Today’s Attack

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Swish, swish, swish, swish. Crump! Crump! Crump! Crump! Crump! Deafening Pandemonium! …the continuous noise of guns and shells rendered my sense of hearing completely inoperative. Guns firing and shells bursting were so intermingled, friend and foe, that there was one endless succession shattering detonations.

…My pulse raced; the blood pounded through my veins. I looked at Springy and grinned; Springy grinned back. Only a few more minutes…

Short three-rung ladders were placed against the parapet, a man stood by each one, his foot on the first step, his rifle and bayonet swung over his shoulder…

I fully expected that we should be met by a withering fire as soon as we had emerged into the open. I anticipated the crackle of machine-guns, the rattle of musketry, the sweeping away of our gallant charge, Except that I never once dreamed or considered that I myself should be hit, Even in the this first attack I had the extraordinary feeling of being myself exempt….

Instead of a hail of machine-gun and rifle bullets, there was–nothing! Not a sign of life was to be seen anywhere around the enemy position. Overhead the shells still whined and screeched; behind us and in front great spouts of earth went up in bursts. The noise was deafening, but from the menacing line of earth works opposite, not so much as a puff of smoke.

Just ahead of me Captain Spooner ran in a steady jog-trot across No Man’s Land…

Four hundred yards to go! We ran steadily on. Springy and I had lengthened our stride until we were right at Captain Spooner’s heels. Still not a movement in the trench we were rapidly approaching.

What should we meet when we got there, I wondered?

Perhaps they were reserving their fire until the last moment. Perhaps a hidden machine-gin nest would seep us away like chaff before the wind. Or it might be that the infantry would rise to meet us with a yell in a counter bayonet charge. I clenched my teeth and gripped my rifle tighter.

Ten yards from the trench Springy and I both sprinted. Two minds with but a single thought. We both wanted to be first to engage the enemy. There was no wire to bother us…

What a shock met my eyes as I mounted the German parapet. The trench was full of men; men with sightless eyes and waxen faces… We were attacking a position held by corpses!

…when at length I realised what I was looking at, I felt suddenly sick with horror. This was unvarnished war; war with the gloves off… they aroused a feeling of pity. Death must have come to them so suddenly, without giving them a chance in their own defence.

The Lincolns swept past and on to the second line. Springy and I turned and ran back… our job was to report that the first German line was clear.

Pollard is writing later, and seems heavily influenced by rather old-fashioned styles of military adventure novels. Adrenaline-drenched memory, heavily re-written, will generally sound like fiction. And then the qualities of the experience are somewhat circumscribed by the quality of the writing.

Here’s Billy Congreve, writing just after the attack, on what he saw from his post near the ramparts of Ypres:

At this moment [5 a.m.], it seemed as if the attack had been completely successful.

Yes–and then the two inevitable things happened: the attacking troops ran out of grenades and were forced back down the trenches they had captured, and the German artillery began to respond, tearing into the supporting troops moving up over the open ground of what had recently been No Man’s Land.

The shelling was now very intense, and men began to fall back on Y Wood. This left us in possession of the 1st line German trenches… The casualties were now considerable, and the units much disorganised by the heavy shelling and heavy losses in officers…

Now, as at Neuve Chapelle, there was a long delay while messages went back and forth over the torn, heavily-shelled ground between the advanced units and the brigade and division staffs. Congreve’s notes elide long gaps of squandered opportunity and constant casualties:

12 noon  Orders to 9th Brigade to organise a new attack…

3:30 p.m.  GOC 9th Brigade ordered two battalions of 7th Brigade… to start attack; objective being the edge of the lake and Bellewaarde Farm. The attack was preceded by a twenty-minute bombardment.

In the meantime, Alf Pollard had come back to the jump-off point to fulfill his role as messenger. Then, without orders to do so, he again moved forward to join the Lincolnshires, part of the second phase of the successful initial assault. By mid-morning he was probably on the western edge of Chateau Wood, just in front of the Hooge/Bellewaarde lake, and significantly behind where the German lines had been that morning. There he saw a wounded German–still firing his pistol–bayoneted by a Tommy.

But, other than this close-in view of killing, Pollard has been frustrated in his desire–there is no hand-to-hand fighting to be had.

Instead, he moves about trying to aid the wounded and clear the trenches that now must be immediately made defensible:

At one place a Hun had fallen and jammed the communications trench with his body. I took him by the shoulders and another fellow by the feet with the intention of heaving him out of the way. We lifted him all right, but a shell had taken away the top of his head which fell forward and poured the whole of his brains over my tunic. I was red from chin to ankle. From my appearance I might have been in the bloodiest of bloody encounters. And yet my bayonet was virgin steel; not one round had been fired through my rifle.

Another of the common ironies of the attack. Pollard ends up running messages for the machine-gun section of his battalion, as the British dig in and the German artillery–having waited to determine which trenches had been lost–enters the battle.

We’re now back, more or less, to the middle of the afternoon when, after this painful delay, a new attack is finally organized. (The delay is to some extent inevitable: there are no radios, and, even when the trenches will become heavily wired for telephone communication between infantry and artillery, carrying wires forward on an attack through a bombardment will always remain a chancy proposition. Foot speed over broken country will still limit the reactions time of even an efficient commanding officer.) Pollard is somewhere near by, providentially safe from the interdiction bombardment, when the two battalions of the 7th Brigade mentioned by Congreve go forward on the attack.

One of these two battalions was John Lucy‘s 2/Royal Irish Rifles:

Our job was to consolidate the front line of captured trenches, but our men lost their heads, and two high-spirited companies went forward beyond the line… They were recalled with difficulty and set to the less warlike task of improving the captured first line, which they worked at all day under heavy shell-dire, until about half-past three in the afternoon, when the futile order reached them to resume the attack in daylight.

This description is confirmed by the battalion war diary–indeed, Lucy may be drawing on it:

Unfortunately, two companies, “C” and “D,” carried away by their enthusiasm, advanced to the third line, and had to be reorganized and brought back to their proper position. “B” Company never got up. As it moved forward it was very heavily shelled in enfilade, lost forty of its leading ranks, and had to be withdrawn, somewhat shaken.[3]

Back to Lucy’s less restrained account:

The Ballewarde Salient was now an inferno on which every British and German gun in the vicinity concentrated its fire. There was great confusion. The German front line occupied by us was filling with the dead and wounded of about eight regiments, and our men, weakened by casualties and hard manual labor, had to drop picks and shovels and go forward without direct artillery support, over muddy ground spurting shell explosions every few yards and raked by enemy machine-guns from an unprotected left flank. As their waves moved forward patiently and dauntlessly to death and mutilation our officers at battalion headquarters stiffened to pale despair. The companies had just been committed when the signal came through from brigade to postpone the attack. Horror seized every one. The attack petered out, and the survivors fell back to the German front line exhausted and defeated…

Actually, now I would wager that Lucy’s account is indeed drawing on the battalion diary:

While sorting out the various units, he [the brigade commander] received orders to launch a new attack to take the final objective at 3.30 p.m. He pointed out that it was impossible for commanding officers to reach their units, and that owing to the mist no detailed objectives for close support could be given to the artillery.

The orders for attack were repeated, and the assault was allotted to the 3rd Worcestershire and 2nd Royal Irish Rifles. At 3.35 p.m., five minutes after the hour fixed, there came a message postponing it till 3.50. This certainly never reached the troops, who had only the lifting of the bombardment, not easy to distinguish on the instant, to tell them when to advance.

This is where attention to genre is important. A private diary calling the generals murderers or a later memoir calling them knaves and fools is, in a way, less damning than an official regimental publication noting the reluctance of its men to be sentenced to such an attack.

Only those who have experienced it can realize how confusing and demoralizing are last-moment postponements of this nature. Men before an attack are taut-strung–strung to nigh breaking-point–and if the waiting period be unduly prolonged, a slackening is the lesser of two evils. A rupture is the more serious.

Nevertheless this attack was launched with the greatest dash and pressed with the greatest devotion… In this almost hopeless affair the men showed courage equaling their record in any of their actions before or afterwards. Pounded all day by heavy artillery, they had remained cool, steady and unshaken. Now they went forward with unimpaired vigour, after thirty hours without sleep and twelve under fire. But the odds were too great. They might have passed through the frontal fire; that from the flank, from the railway-line, swept away the advance, and the survivors, weary, dazed and angry, fell back to the German front trench.

Take a look at Congreve’s map, again: congreve, june 16The Royal Irish are trying to reach the trenches on the western edge of the lake, almost at the eastern extent of the map (the “B” of Bellewaarde” is just visible within the lake). The railway slants east-north-east away off the map, and from the entire non-shaded length of that line German riflemen and machine-gunners could fire from their slightly elevated positions across the front of the attack.

Lucy, horrified but safe in battalion headquarters, ends his account in the clipped tones of outrage:

Our smashed battalion was relieved. Comment was impossible. Bleary-eyed, loose-lipped, and muddied the battered men went back to rest.[2]

Congreve, two levels further back at division HQ, does not know–or chooses not to report–this dramatic tale of the order twice given and then countermanded too late. But he does not dispute the result:

No sooner had they left Y Wood [in the center of the map above], than they were swept away by shell and rifle fire. All the officers were almost instantly killed or wounded.

Alf Pollard had been ordered to stay in the vicinity of the German first line, which had been taken ages ago in the dawn light. He has nothing to say about the immolation of the Royal Irish in the mid-afternoon, but picks up the story not long after their withdrawal.

We had made a fairly easy capture; we were to be made to pay for our subsequent tenure…

The day slowly passed in a tornado of the worst shelling I was ever in during the whole War. Towards five o’clock Fritz made another counter-attack and we were able to let off some of our feelings towards him in the form of rifle and machine-gun fire. Any pity I had felt for any of them in the earlier part of the day was swallowed up in an intense hatred…[5]

june 16 1915 2, congreve

Congreve’s Photograph of German Shell Fire on the Cloth Hall in Ypres, Afternoon of June 16th, 1915

So passed Pollard’s first day on the attack. He wreaked no violence–unless we count the “we” of the machine guns he helped serve–but he saw much done; he worked from aggression through pity and on into hatred…and  late at night, having been relieved by fresh troops, he rejoined the his battalion as they filed back into Ypres, have bulged out the salient by a few hundred yards…

Billy Congreve will close today’s account of the battle:

The result was that an important part of the Bellewaarde position was left in our hands. Casualties were: officers, 25 killed, 109 wounded and 9 missing; other ranks, 341 killed, 1,907 wounded and 1,169 missing. Total 3,560.. The German losses must have been considerable… We took about 200 prisoners and some hundreds of dead were buried.[6]

These preliminary casualty statistics reflect the inevitable confusion–many of those missing were dead, and many of those wounded died.

 

And here’s how the same battle looks in Conan Doyle‘s romantic/patriotic history:

The advance still continued with great fury. It should have ended on the taking of the second line of trenches, but it was impossible to restrain the men, who yelled, “Remember the Lusitania!” to each other as they surged over the parapets and dashed once more at the enemy with bayonet and bomb. The third trench was carried, and even the fourth. But the assault had gone too far. The farther spray of stormers had got as far as the Bellewaarde Lake. It was impossible to hold these advanced positions. The assailants dropped sullenly back, and finally contented themselves by settling into the first line and consolidating their position there on a front of a thousand yards. The losses had been heavy, especially from the high-explosive shells, which, as usual, blew both trenches and occupants to pieces. Men died happy, however, with the knowledge that the days were past when no artillery answer could be made, and that now at least they had given the enemy the same intolerable experience which they had themselves so often endured.[7]

I doubt that there can be any greater sin, from the particular point of view of this project, than an older, non-combatant writer–someone writing “history,” no less–vouching for the dying emotions of the troops. And it’s such a tortured thought that one assumes he realized what he was doing: they are happy… that their guns have more shells? And that the enemy is suffering? So revenge? And the failed attack? Disgusting. And, if Roland Leighton or Alan Seeger are at all representative (they’re not, but on this count they may be close enough), anyone calling out “remember the Lusitania” was either a humorist or a bitter ironist.

I had what I had intended to use as a tension-breaking humorous last line. But it’s soured, somehow by Conan Doyle’s egregious pablum.

Anyway: so what became of the Bellewarde battlefield?

It’s now a theme park–Flanders’ largest family fun park.

 

Well then. Rowland Feilding was in battle today too, believe it or not–there was a diversionary attack mounted by the 1/Coldstream Guards on the southern end of the British line. But perhaps there has been enough bloodshed for today…

A few notes, instead, from writers still in England, or in dusty corners of forever-England abroad:

Ivor Gurney wrote today to his friend Marion Scott:

16 June 1915

Pte Gurney, B Company, 2nd 5th Glosters,
Chelmsford, Essex.

Dear Miss Scott:

Thank you for your letter, and the kind things; not to say flattery… Tomorrow we march to camp, somewhere near Epping; but your letter would be forwarded at once…

My health is still slowly improving; and as my mind clears, and as the need for self-expression grows less weak; the thought of leaving all I have to say unsaid, makes me cold. Could I only hand on my gift! Anyway, I have been rejected for second-reinforcements, and Territorial 3rd reinforcements will be late in going. The war however seems like lasting a year, and there is none of the exhilaration of battle in hot weather training.

Still, I chose this path, and do not regret it; do not see what else I could have done under the circumstances; and if the Lord God should have the bad taste to delete me:

“Deil anither word tae God from a gentleman like me”.[8]

But Gurney, though hitherto most active as a composer, is clearly thinking of how the poets he admires have answered the call, and reading everything about the war that he can get his hands on:

Masefield is with the Red Cross in France.

John Drinkwater’s new book seems to be good. Have you read any of Neil Munro’s books? …What a fine speech was Churchill’s, at Dundee. The man has pluck enough.

“Land and Water”, Belloc’s affair is optimistic but John Buchan thinks it highly probably that there will be another winter campaign…

One of the best signs of healthy taste at present, is the significant fact that though Rabinadrath Tagore has been knighted, the critics I read did not pretend to be transported by his work — Not so much, indeed, as before the war.

Yours very sincerely

Ivor Gurney.[9]

 

Finally, two brief publication notes for today, a century back:

Punch stalwart A. A. Milne had a piece in today’s number–but it will be his last for some time, as his duties as a New Army subaltern and communications instructor have become more pressing.

And the afterlife of Rupert Brooke was placed between boards, today, as 1914 and Other Poems was published.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Armageddon Road, 145-7.
  2. There's a Devil in the Drum, 332-4.
  3. See here, under "British Regiments" tab.
  4. There's a Devil in the Drum, 332-4.
  5. Fire-Eater, 79-91.
  6. Armageddon Road, 142-9.
  7. Conan Doyle, The British Campaign in France and Flanders, Vol. II, available here.
  8. I'm not sure of the quote, but the effect of "Devil, another word to God" being something like "well, if the good Lord sees fit I won't complain..."
  9. War Letters, 30-1.

Balderdash on Stage; Henry Williamson Sees His First Attack

The bias of this war literature project has swung rather heavily toward poetry, novels, and memoir, as well as the semi-literary genre of diaries and letters. But what about the stage, I ask you?

It was not until December 1914 that anything one could call a serious, original war play appeared, and then only a very small one, produced under less-than-serious circumstances. J.M. Barrie’s “playlet,” Der Tag, opened at the London Coliseum on December 21, on a variety bill that also included a play by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a ballet, three comedy acts, a family of equilibrists, and a company of trained pigs. Theatre publicity announced that “The burning words of a great mind on a great subject should render this little play one of national interest”, but concentration must have been difficult.[1]

Samuel Hynes describes the playlet as a disastrous mashup of Dynasts-style portentousness and the sort of sketchy propaganda-fantasy that Lord Dunsany will eventually turn his hand to, but don’t take his word for it: “Virginia Woolf… thought it ‘sheer balderdash of the thinnest kind.'”

But what, really, could one put on the stage, at this point, that might actually represent the war? The best anyone could do was a mild representation of the clash of ideals, or some such thing… theatergoers will have to wait until ten years after the war’s end–just when the first “disenchanted” English memoirs began to appear–to see a realistic war play.

 

Herbert Read applied for a temporary commission in the Regular Army today, a century back, and solicited a letter of recommendation from Michael Sadler, the vice-chancellor of Leeds University and an important collector of modern art. Sadler was the first major influence on Read’s development as an art critic, but for now his major influence in obtaining a commission for Read takes priority.[2]

 

Lastly and loomingly, Henry Williamson wrote home today, about his first (slight) experience of battle.

Two nights earlier he and the rest of the London Rifles had been under fire in close support of an assault in front of Ploegsteert wood but–strangely–you would hardly know it from his letter. Perhaps, given his tendency to rapid distraction from one subject to another, the two days’ gap between the fight and the letter have left him disinterested in dramatizing the action. It seems certain that he was not in the two half-companies that, according to a battalion historian, actually went forward. Anyway, Henry today is in a jolly mood, and waxes brash:

Dear Mother, how are you all at home? I expect that by the time you get this you will have had Xmas…

I shall have some tales to tell you when I get home–tales that you never read in the papers or soldiers letters. Tales of [the London Rifle Brigade] and how good luck has always been its lot when the odds seem overwhelming. The other night… we heard suddenly the ploc ploc of rifle fire, and it gradually swelled in sound till it became a roar, mingled with the pop, pop, pop of maxim guns. Blinding white rockets lit up the sky, and field guns suddenly flashed and boom! and shriek a shell speed on its errand of death. The boom, boom, boom, continual & awful sounds our cannon spoke in the night. We then knew that our men were attacking. In the morning we heard that several German trenches has been taken…[3]

Vivid, but slight (and there is a good deal of [sic]ness in the above, never fear).

Here’s how Williamson later reworked the battle, blending the experience of Phillip’s “London Highlanders”–previously step-for-step with the London Scottish–into his first-hand experiences with the London Rifles:

…with a jump of concealed fear, orders were read out for an attack, on the 19th, two days after the new moon. The company lay out at the edge of the wood, shivering and beating aching hands and feet, in support to a regular battalion’s assault on a cottage in No Man’s Land called Sniper’s House and a section of German trench that enfiladed the dreaded and dangerous Diehard T-trench. The assault of muttering and tense-faced bearded men took place under a serried bank of bursting red stars of shrapnel, and supporting maxim-gun fire: figures floundering across the root-field, with its sad decaying lumps that were dead cows and men. Hoarse yells of fear become rage arose; while short of, into, and beyond the British front line dropped shell after shell to burst with acrid yellow fumes of lyddite…

The survivors, coming back through the wood, wet through and covered with mud, their uniforms ripped by barbed-wire, were singing as they passed the London Highlanders… They were wonderful, remarked Sergeant Douglas…

Yes, because they were going out, thought Phillip; they were marching away from death, to warmth and sleep. The local attack had failed before the uncut German wire; but Sniper’s House was taken.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Hynes, A War Imagined, 40.
  2. King, The Last Modern, 25-6, 38.
  3. A. Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 45-7.
  4. A Fox Under My Coat, 25-6.

Sir Edward Hulse on Activity in the Trenches; Vera Brittain on Inactivity and Contemplation

My Dearest Mother,

…I have got all your letters and parcels now. They came in a rush, and everything is coming regularly now. I have got O.’s socks, your Balaclava helmet, three lots of chocolate, a plum-pudding, Lady Hall’s things, etc…

I regret more than I can say not being able to talk German, as time and again I have heard conversations in their trenches which I should like to have been able to report, and every word of which I could hear, but could not understand.

Ottley (one of our five months’ Sandhurst lot)[1] is a cousin of Bruce. He talks German well, and crawled out the night before last with two scouts. He heard two officers talking about their dug-out, and saying that our machine gun had killed three of their men the night before while they were digging the dug-out for these two officers. We dig our own! He also found out that they have got good discipline in front of us, as just as he got near to their trenches, there were several Germans talking aloud in the trenches, and an officer told them to shut up, and they boxed up complete ! (That’s more than some of our bright little lot do; some of these old hairies who served in South Africa are the devil to deal with.)

Amusingly, Edward Hulse will now, within the space of a paragraph, reverse course, and put some of those “old hairies” to work:

Every night pouring rain, and more and more of the trenches fell in, landslides everywhere, and as fast as one dug, one fell, and had revetted it, or shored it up properly, another bit of trench would come down with a run. My Company Sergeant Major went on leave with Pip, so that I had only an acting C.S.M., totally incompetent, and Swinton the only other officer. You will readily understand that that meant very little sleep night or day! I found the accommodation in the trenches very bad and anything but rain-proof. Having no time to dig myself, I got two defaulters on to a new Ritz-Carlton, and the servants on to a kitchen and bug-hutch for themselves, the whole connected by a neat little trench, and after two days’ hard work the new Coy. Head-quarters were completed;

So there are perquisites for one of His Majesty’s officers, after all. But I am giving Hulse, a hard-working officer and last month’s hard-fought hero, a hard time. He continues:

and having a little more time to myself, Swinton and I did the skilled labour, namely fitting up the inside and roofing—the latter we did quite extraordinarily well, and in the most scientific manner. It is quite rain-proof and proof from shrapnel, and luxurious beyond words. Little recesses, cut in the walls, hold a young library, food, plum puddings, and all the more valuable comestibles and drinks, which we do not trust in the servants’ cook-house dug-out. The inside, well lined with straw, is warm and well lit by a small oil lamp, supplemented by candles, for which we have cut little recesses. In short, the interior looks exactly like a shrine in a crypt!

A rosy picture, fired by enthusiasm, and just slightly macabre to boot. But then the down-side:

All this is all very well, but the trenches are inches deep in mud and water, and far worse than the ones we occupied before. The men’s bug-hutches are far worse than before…

So much for comfort. In what really is a perfect example of the trench-circumstances sub-genre of letters home, Hulse now fills his mother in on the wages of attrition:

We are now varying between 350 yards-500 yards from the enemy; I mean the trenches we have just left are. You will remember that our old trenches were only 100 yards from the enemy in places; but they make pretty good practice at us, and I had one man killed the first day in our new trenches, and two wounded. They had all three shown themselves, contrary to my orders, thinking that, as they were further off, they could put not only their heads but most of themselves outside the cover of the trenches.

I have accounted for two Germans myself, one on the night of the raid, whom I share with the scout who was next me. We both fired at once. The other I bagged two days ago, a fair shot at 400 yards; he was carrying wood along his parapet, and he threw up both arms and went by the board properly.

Again; the tone. The jocularity of murder. This is trench warfare, and this is a letter to a mother, who is certainly worried and very likely wishes to be made proud. But “sharing” a claim to a kill as if it were an act akin to sacking a quarterback, or, for that matter, shooting a bird. And “bagging…”

Well. Back to the subject of that raid:[2]

Am delighted that you got the various messages about the raiding party, though it seems to have attained larger proportions than it deserves.

Indeed. With late November’s lack of narratively-enticing battles the historians were thrown back on representative incident. Conan Doyle mentions Hulse by name in his general history of the war amidst a paragraph devoted to

those smaller exploits which seem so slight in any chronicle, and yet collectively do so much to sustain the spirit of the Army. Now this dashing officer, now that, attempted some deed upon the German line, and never failed to find men to follow him to death…  in each case trenches were temporarily won, the enemy was damaged, and a spirit of adventure encouraged in the trenches.[3]

This, it seems unnecessary to point out, hardly solves the problem of weighing strategically useless suffering–even Doyle throws “temporarily won” and “death” together–against the dubious morale benefit of staying active and hurting the enemy.

Back to Hulse and his worsening case of they-seem-more-offensive-now-plus-it’s-war-dammit-war hunting metaphors:

What annoyed me most was that owing to the enemy having been reinforced, we could not bag a prisoner, or even bring in ” fresh meat,” or a cap or badge, which was what the General really wanted. If it had come off two nights earlier, I believe we might have done a big thing…

I love Gramps’ remark on my exploit! It rather tallies with a letter which I have just got from Charlie Stanford, but puts it in a much more terse and business-like way! Charlie spends a whole page on congratulations, and another whole page on advice not to do it again! Priceless!

…Yes, please continue chocolate, plum puddings, etc., but send no clothing of any sort until I ask for it, as I have some over still.

Very best love to you and O., and another letter at first opportunity.

Ever your loving
Ted[4]

 

Vera Brittain, home now for the Christmas holiday wrote to Roland Leighton today, a century back:

Buxton, 11 December 1914

I cannot tell you how delighted I was to hear of you and Edward getting together after all. It was one of the things I always wished might have happened but thought too satisfactory to be probable.

That may be the single greatest English Restraint sentence ever written. Is that a past perfect continuous contrafactual construction? And why speak of love and friendship when we can reflect upon the probability of things possibly being excessively satisfactory?

All Edward’s military experiences seemed at the beginning to be going so badly–first his difficulty in getting father’s consent, & then the long wait for a commission… But it really does seem to have happened for the best…

So far so polite and formal. But now, in response to Roland’s somewhat pompous letter of three days ago, a ladylike gauntlet is thrown down:

You must be glad to get out of the Territorial Force into the Regulars–they seem to touch the war so much closer. I can quite understand your feeling very far removed from such a life as University life and that the contemplative part is a waste of time compared with the active part you are playing at present. But of course it is not a waste of time really, and perhaps after all you will come again to see that it is not.[5]

References and Footnotes

  1. A young regular officer, that is, sent to the front after a condensed course at Sandhurst, which is inevitably described for Americans as "the British West Point."
  2. I will be using "patrol" and "raid" interchangeably for at least the next few months. Once trench warfare, now in its infancy, stumbles into toddlerhood, there will be a fairly clear distinction between patrols (in no man's land) and raids (across it and into the enemy trenches), but for now the language of the sources is indiscriminate, and it makes no sense to impose the later meanings.
  3. Doyle, A History of the Great War, I, 327.
  4. Hulse, Letters Written From the English Front in France, 47-50.
  5. Letters From a Last Generation, 39.

Rupert Brooke Rails and Thieves; Edward Thomas is at Last a Poet; The Guards Meet Their Sovereign While a Lady Looks On

For Edward Thomas, the pieces have been coming together. We have seen him hesitantly voicing the stirrings of poetic intention, working observations over into stories, and being shaken to the core by a dramatic demonstration of his diffidence and uncertainty.up in the wind

Today, a century back, he began producing poetry.

First came “Up in the Wind,” which was a transformation of the prose sketch written in the White Horse Inn just a month earlier. It began as an observed scene, not unlike many another notebook jotting; then the speaker’s character developed until it was a sort of dramatic monolgue; and now the prose became blank verse. Today Thomas typed the first complete draft, the first page of which can be seen at right. Four more poems–“November,” “March,” “Old Man,” and “The Sign-post”–will follow in the next four days.

Matthew Hollis, in Now All Roads Lead to France, has a very engaging and perhaps slightly too clever chapter in which Thomas, over the course of this week, goes from versifying neophyte to mature master poet with the speed and smoothness of a classic mid-movie montage (or, higher-browedly, he develops at Oxen of the Sun speed). But it certainly was fast, and keen-eared, and sure-footed. Instead of building his poetry steadily up to speed, Thomas is already running at full tilt, and now, as he swerves onto the poetic path, he controls the initial skid very well. There are heavy echoes of Robert Frost in these first few poems, and what Hollis aptly calls “a prosaic bagginess.” But it’s poetry, and it will very soon sound very much like Edward Thomas has always sounded. Only in verse.[1]

So that takes care of that: Thomas has had the courage to become a poet, to stop waffling in the woods, face down the keeper’s shotgun, and take the path he has longed–and feared–to take. There’s just that other matter on his conscience now, that whole problem of physical courage, and England, and duty.

 

Meanwhile, his Majesty King George V is still meandering along the British line: yesterday Hazebrouck and Armentières, today near Bailleul. Lining the last stretch of the road from Meteren to Bailleul were the Guards Brigade, including the First Battalion of the Irish Guards. Their historian uses the occasion to eulogize the sacrifices of First Ypres.

The battalion has been practically wiped out and reconstructed in a month. They had cramped in wet mud till they had almost forgotten the use of their legs: their rifles, clothing, equipment, everything except their morale and the undefeated humour with which they had borne their burden, needed renewal or repair.

Eight officers and 390 men–the more or less undamaged core of the battalion that had numbered more than twenty officers and 900 men in August–had been joined by reinforcements at the end of November, until they were 700 strong. They were issued new equipment, from groundsheets to “mufflers and mittens sent by H.I.H. the Grand Duke Michael of Russia,” “cardigan waistcoats,” a new American-style boot (a mistrusted innovation), and even hairy-side-outward goatskin coats, which would become a memorable image of the makeshift supply situation of the war’s first winter–the “strange Robinson Crusoe goatskins from the trenches, which brought home to the least imaginative the nature and the nearness of the struggle.”[2]

And now that undamaged morale was attended to, as the King paused in his progress to praise the Guards and to award high decorations that had been earned over the past few months, including seven to the Irish: two D.S.O.s to officers, and Five D.S.M.s to other ranks. But only one man ,Sergeant M’Goldrick, was alive, unwounded, and present to receive the medal from his sovereign.[3]

 

Another member of the Guards Brigade was honored with a DSO today,[4] namely Tubby/Rollo/Viscount Rudolph Feilding, of the Coldstream Guards. His sister Lady Dorothie “hid in a doorway… and watched it all,” as she will report in a few days’ time.[5]

 

Rupert Brooke is ahead of his time again. I’ve mentioned today’s letter, to Jacques Raverat, before. In it, Brooke tells a story of Julian Grenfell‘s.  The vignette originates, as far as we know, in a letter from Grenfell to his mother; Brooke had it, surely, through Eddie Marsh. It’s a good bit, the one about “the British private”–Grenfell’s corporal, in the original–whose view of the continent is summed up as follows: “What I don’t like about this ‘ere Bloody Europe is all these Bloody pictures of Jesus Christ an’ ‘is Relatives, be’ind Bloody bits of glawss.”

Brooke, of course, runs with this, riffing on the pilfered mot: “It seems to me to express perfectly that insularity and cheerful atheism which are the chief characteristics of my race.”

He then turns with characteristic swiftness from the large subject of the English “race” to the more specific question of its handsomest young man.

All the same, though myself cheerful, insular, and an atheist, I’m largely dissatisfied with the English, just now. The good ones are all right. And it’s curiously far away from us (if we haven’t the Belgians in memory, as I have).

Yes, Rupert. We all remember that you spent a few days in Belgium during the failed intervention of the Naval Division, and saw sad things.

The repetition of this “I was there” credibility claim is tiresome, but then again he is writing to different correspondents and not (at least primarily) to the skimming eyes of posterity. And the claim does certify the larger point: soldiers have seen things that are hard to forget. Civilians, who generally haven’t seen pillage and violent death and columns of shocked refugees, may struggle a bitmore to keep up to the proper level of clear-eyed patriotic anger.

But there’s a ghastly sort of apathy over half the country. And I really think large numbers of male people don’t want to die; which is odd.

Is he playing around here? He turns the jest toward the dark side, but that only makes it more effective. If a pretty girl with a feather can shame a man into uniform, why not a poet insinuating that his mortal fears rule him?

Jibes and jests. But they don’t come close to covering the anger. Here’s the last line of the letter:[6]

I’ve been praying for a German raid.

So, yes: Brooke is an angry young man, and precocious. More than one poet still months or even years from his first sight of combat and its miseries will come to indulge the same fantasy of violence coming home, and teaching the feckless civilians what war is really about.

And bad timing, because a German raid is indeed in the offing.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Hollis, 183-94. The typescript for this and many other poems--beware spoilers--can be found in the Oxford archive, here.
  2. Conan Doyle, The British Campaign in France and Flanders 1914, 323.
  3. Kipling, The Irish Guards in the Great War, 66-7.
  4. Or so it would seem, location-wise-the awarded was gazetted the day before yesterday, a century back.
  5. Lady Under Fire, 35.
  6. At least as it appears in the Collected Letters, 637.

Ghastly Days in Antwerp for Sarah Macnaughtan; Rupert Brooke Arrives

Julian Grenfell and the rest of the Royal Dragoons at last embarked today, a century back. They loaded their horses aboard ship during the wee hours, enjoying a “lovely night with blazing moon, which was very lucky.”[1] And Gilbert Frankau received a commission in the East Surrey Regiment–presumably with the help of his Public School bona fides–and began, perforce, gathering material to be loosely fictionalized (largely under the theme of  “officers, corrupt and incompetent”) in his next novel.

 

In Antwerp, Sarah Macnaughtan, serving as an orderly with Mrs. Stobart’s Hospital Unit, was very much in the thick of it. The unit had set up a temporary hospital in a philharmonic hall, which was already filled to capacity.

6 October
I think the last two days have been the most ghastly I ever remember. Every day seems to bring news of defeat. It is awful, and the Germans are quite close now. As I write the house shakes with the firing. Our troops are falling back, and the forts have fallen. Last night we took provisions and water to the cellars, and made plans to get the wounded taken there.

All these last two days bleeding men have been brought in.Today three of them died, and I suppose none of them was more than 23.

The guns boom by day as well as by night, and as each one is heard one thinks of more bleeding, shattered men. It is calm, nice autumn weather; the trees are yellow in the garden and the sky is blue, yet all the time one Iistens to the cries of men in pain. Tonight I meant to go out for a little, but a nurse stopped me and asked me to sit by a dying man. Poor fellow, he was twenty-one, and looked like some brigand chief, and he smiled as he was dying.[2]

 

Let’s again go to Conan Doyle as our semi-official (meaning “rousing, uncritical, and journalistic to a fault”) historian. He reminds us that while the Royal Marines, i.e. the trained professionals of the Naval Division, had now spent two days in the trenches around Antwerp, our first Kitchener-ish units have now arrived (these are not technically New Army formations, but they are similar ad hoc formations of barely trained volunteers–in effect Churchill’s New Land Navy).

On the night of the 5th the two other brigades of the division, numbering some 5000 amateur sailors, arrived in Antwerp, and the whole force assembled on the new line of defence. Mr. Winston Churchill showed his gallantry as a man, and his indiscretion as a high official, whose life was of great value to his country by accompanying the force from England. The bombardment was now very heavy, and the town was on fire in several places. The equipment of the British left much to be desired, and their trenches were as indifferent as their training. None the less they played the man and lived up to the traditions of that great service upon whose threshold they stood. For three days these men, who a few weeks before had been anything from schoolmasters to tram-conductors, held their perilous post. They were very raw, but they possessed a great asset in their officers, who were usually men of long service. But neither the lads of the naval brigades nor the war-worn and much-enduring Belgians could stop the mouths of those inexorable guns…[3]

Oh Good, stereotypical stuff: “play the man,” brave “lads,” the leap from good will and the presence of proud “traditions” to a reasonable hope of military efficiency. Well. It’s difficult to rate the effectiveness of a formation when it has been sent, too little and too late, into the face of the “inexorable” German siege artillery, so perhaps the substitution of general praise for their conduct is less egregious than usual.

Here’s how Rupert Brooke described his day:

So we got out at Antwerp, and marched through the streets, and everyone cheered and flung themselves on us and gave us apples and chocolate and flags and kisses, and cried Vivent les Anglais and ‘Heep! Heep! Heep!’

…Every mile the noises got louder, immense explosions and detonations. We stopped in the town square in Vieux Dieu; five or six thousand British troops, a lot of Belgians, guns going through, transport waggons, motor-cyclists, orderlies on horses, staff-officers, and the rest. An extraordinary and thrilling confusion. As it grew dark the thunders increased, and the sky was lit by extraordinary glares. We were all given entrenching tools. Everyone looked worried. Suddenly our battalion was marched round the corner out of the din through an old gate in the immense, wild, garden of a recently-deserted château. There we had to sleep. The rather dirty and wild-looking sailors trudged over lawns, through orchards and across pleasaunces. Little pools glimmered through the trees, and deserted fountains: and round corners one saw, faintly, occasional Cupids and Venuses–a scattered company of rather bad statues–gleaming quietly. The sailors dug their latrines in the various rose-gardens and lay down to sleep–but it was bitter cold–under the shrubs. It seemed infinitely peaceful and remote. I was officer on guard till the middle of the night…[4]

I have my issues with Rupert Brooke and his fraught and often petulantly hostile way of representing himself and his experiences, but he’s a good writer. So is Conan Doyle, obviously, but in a different way.

Doyle’s great work is invention–and heavily rational invention at that–wherein wit and reason must flash and fire and reality fall back and dig in. Brooke, whatever else he is doing (this is from the same long and intermittently flirtatious letter to Eileen Wellesley that I quoted from yesterday), is describing real experience, and he has the skills for this. As a poet his better poems, like this letter, describe the world justly, yet suggestively. (His more famous, weaker work, is prone to pseudo-philosophical declamation. Oh yes, the sonnets are a-comin’.)

Sure, Doyle, posing as a historian, has a battle to describe, while Brooke can share with us the sights and sounds of subjective experience and the ironic strangeness of entrenching in a garden of love. All I’m saying is that this juxtaposition is why I prefer–why this project dotes upon–literature-describing-personal-experience-of-the-war, and not history per se.

References and Footnotes

  1. Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, #222.
  2. From Women in the War Zone, 45.
  3. Conan Doyle, The British Campaign in France and Flanders (A History of the Great War, Volume One), 198.
  4. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 623.

Rupert Brooke Chatters Away in Camp… But a New Front is About to Open

Rupert Brooke is finally a full-time soldier. Writing to Lady Eileen Wellesley, he shows the usual mix of self-centered silliness (evolving from poet to platoon leader in only a few weeks leaves very little time for letter writing and fine dining!) and bantering awareness of his self-centered silliness.

Anson Battalion, 2nd R[oyal]. N[aval]. Brigade

Batteshanger Camp, Eastry, Kent

Saturday, 3 October

Eileen,

…Oh my dear, I’ve had such a busy week! I’ve been learning everything all at once, fighting all night, marching all day, drilling & God knows what. I’ve not had a minute to myself. This afternoon is my first free space. I’m going to creep out of camp with one of the Asquiths,[1] who also turned up as a sub-lieutenant, for dinner.

…Child, I feel a strong silent sub-lieutenant. My mouth is like this, [here he apparently drew a proto-emoticon frowny-face]. My eyes are clear with perpetually gazing though spume & fog for rocks ahead. My skin is brown & hard. I think of nothing at all, hour after hour. Occasionally I’m faintly shaken by a suspicion that I might find an incredible beauty in the washing place, with rows of naked, superb, men, bathing in a September sun or in the Camp at night under a full moon, faint lights burning through the ghostly tents, & a distant bugler blowing Lights Out–if only I were sensitive. But I’m not. I’m a warrior. So I think of nothing, & go to bed.

When I do think of anything, I think how lovely it was with you, & wonder how you are…

Rupert[2]

He jokes, he jokes. But who is he fooling, really? Our camp letters have mostly been from the far less sophisticated Henry Williamson, but even Henry makes the same jokes, bragging that “my face is dark mahogany” and joking that he is “what is known as a hard-bitten, silent, cursing tommy!” (The bravado hides/fails to hide a different sort of sensitivity–not Brooke’s aesthetic/poetic [not to mention homoerotic] perceptiveness, but rather Williamson’s social awkwardness and general anxiety. The letters are to his parents, too, not to a young woman friend, as in Brooke’s case). This is all to say that we’ll see more of this sort of thing, and that no one is fooling anyone with their clever ironic self-awareness. They all pose jokingly with bicep curled, yet they are all looking sidewise in the mirror, hoping to see for themselves the soft civilian boy hardening into the soldier tough enough for what’s coming.

 

For Brooke, it will be coming quite soon. We’ve reached the beginning of a pause in the fighting. The opposing forces on the Aisne (and elsewhere) are exhausted, and low on supplies–shells for the guns, in particular, are in short supply. There was no thought of a truce, but, as an accident of strategy and logistics (and a consequence of physical and psychological exhaustion) the first of the war’s “quiet” periods was beginning to settle over much of the front. At the same time, however, the stymied German and French armies began to look for new openings, probing westward for weak spots where the deadlock could be broken.

Billy Congreve, our man on the staff–and therefore in a very good position to notice the coming strategic shift–explained things to his diary, a century back:

Saturday, October 3rd

It’s been made clear that the Germans have comparatively little opposite to us here, as large bodies of troops have been moving to the north-west where the French are really beginning to go ahead–so it has been decided to hold our present line across the river weakly and concentrate a reserve behind…[3]

This north-western movement is the beginning of a new phase of the war, usually called “the race to the sea,” and described overly-neatly as a series of failed outflanking maneuvers that ended only when the two armies ran out of territory, having in the process extended the battle lines from Switzerland to the North Sea.

We will get to all this soon, but right now, as far as British military history goes, we have a pause. In England, too, in a way, as the first wave of enlistment tapers off and those of our writers who have decided to put off volunteering instead go back to school.

But while the BEF refits and the French and German armies race north and west, there is a sudden crisis in Belgium. Antwerp, an elaborately fortified port city, had been avoided by the Germans as their armies poured south through eastern Belgium. But the unbroken Belgian armies within the fortress had twice raided the German flank, and with a quick end to the war no longer in sight it was deemed prudent to eliminate them, and to gain–and deny to the allies–a continental port so close to Britain. The massive siege guns had already been turned on the outer fortifications, and now te assault on the strategically important city began.

Let’s pick up the story with one of those writerly gentlemen turned semi-official propagandists. (If a man can create Sherlock Holmes, surely he can write logically impeccable military history!)

No troops were available for a rescue, for the French and British old formations were already engaged, while the new ones were not yet ready for action. In these circumstances, a resolution was come to by the British leaders which was bold to the verge of rashness and so chivalrous as to be almost quixotic. It was determined to send out at the shortest notice a naval division, one brigade of which consisted of marines, troops who are second to none in the country’s service, while the other two brigades were young amateur sailor volunteers, most of whom had only been under arms for a few weeks. It was an extraordinary experiment, as testing how far the average sport-loving, healthy-minded young Briton needs only his equipment to turn him into a soldier who, in spite of all rawness and inefficiency, can still affect the course of a campaign. This strange force, one third veterans and two-thirds practically civilians, was hurried across to do what it could for the failing town, and to demonstrate to Belgium how real was the sympathy which prompted us to send all that we had.[4]

So Rupert and friends are for it, as Brooke seems to have known. Here Churchill is in part absolved by the action of the cabinet–a communiqué had been received–last night, a century back–indicating that the Belgian government foresaw the necessity of abandoning Antwerp. This was seen as tantamount to surrender, a thing Britain must prevent, or, perhaps, a thing Britain must be seen gesturing magnificently against.

Something had to be done, to defy the Germans and to keep Belgium in the war, and there was an impetuous and ambitious politician to hand, one who not only fancied himself a soldier but was nominally overseeing a branch of the armed services which included the only large unit of uncommitted reserves ready to hand. Is it wise to throw a division of mostly untrained men into a battle already considered, by the allies on the spot, to be hopeless? Is it glorious? And what price glory?

I would like to hold this sort of aggressive glory very cheap indeed, but there’s more than one way to reckon the strategic accounting. It’s surely more just to ask “what price–in the lives of ‘sport-loving, healthy-minded’ and militarily incompetent young Britons–a glory that can be effectively transmuted into “last stand” propaganda, future good will with allies, and other strategically advantageous coin?”

References and Footnotes

  1. This would be Arthur Asquith, another son of the prime minister and the younger brother of Raymond and Herbert.
  2. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 621.
  3. Armageddon Road, 40-1.
  4. Conan Doyle, The British Campaign in France and Flanders (A History of the Great War, Volume One), 197-8.

Alf Pollard Blusters Off to War; Donald Hankey Makes For An Unusual Sergeant; Vera Brittain Waxes Elitist

Before we get to the daily activities of several of our familiar writers, a brief note about a Big Writing Thing of today, a century back. Masterman’s big propaganda meeting has borne fruit, in the form of a letter, printed in the Times of both New York and London, signed by all the writers who had been present at that initial discussion, as well as twenty-five more. (I suppose the meeting was “secret” in a rather limited and amateurish sense–but then again pretty much everyone’s assumption was that it was only the coordination of their efforts that was to be secret. They were all presumed to be willing to devote their pens to the cause.)

The statement is short, bitter, and not particularly illuminating: Britain was forced into war; Germany is insane and the treatment of Belgium barbaric; honor demands taking up arms against Germany, etc. Still, it was no small thing to see Britain’s leading literary lights–with the very notable exception of the free thinking and anti-war George Bernard Shaw–urging action together on a single page. Here is the text of the statement, and here a facsimile of the signatures–Hardy, Conan Doyle, Kipling, J.M. Barrie and the rest–and a good discussion of the document and what it meant.

 

At dawn on the 18th September we fell in and marched to the train which was to take us to Southampton. Eight hundred of us, every man a Public School boy. Our average height was five feet ten. Without a doubt we were the finest battalion that ever crossed the water. Every man a potential officer. Later when the country needed officers of the right type, the War Office realised the error of using such material as that which composed the first battalion of the Honourable Artillery Company as ordinary soldiers. Hundreds were killed as privates who could have commanded companies from the first day they joined.

This enthusiastic paragraph of Alf Pollard’s is not really designed to stand up to a fact-checking inspection. I’m not sure where he gets his statistics, I’m not sure whether his school–Merchant Taylor’s–is technically a public school, and I’m not sure that even Pollard believed entirely that height, breeding, and general apparent magnificence obviated the need for basic military knowledge. I’m not even sure if there is supposed to be an ironic tinge to his reference to the death of men as “using” “material” or whether he is uncritically adopting bloodless Staff/history jargon (but I suspect the latter).

This is not history, it’s rhetoric; it’s not the inspection-of-troops but the exhortation that follows, on the eve of battle…

I had not seen my people since we left London. There was no time to say good-bye. I scribbled a note in the train and threw it out as we passed through a station, addressed to my mother. It reached its destination.

Neither had I seen the lady of my dreams. She… had no idea of the sentiment with which I surrounded her. I was a knight going on a crusade. She was my ever gentle lady. I carried her favour in the form of a lace handkerchief of hers

(Wait for it…)

which I had stolen.

At Southampton we embarked on the S. S. Westmeath, an old tramp steamer that had been employed in bringing live cattle from Australia. We slept between decks in the cattle stalls. The odour was powerful. What did I care. She might have been a first-class liner. She was carrying me nearer to my ambition. I was en route for France.[1]

Pollard presents a rather tempting target–the ship taking him to his “crusade” literally stank of bullshit!–but it would be well to hold fire, at least for a little while. History-wise, Pollard is useful. At least as far as we can trust his bare facts we can deploy his interpretation of them as a check against the prevailing note of “disenchantment” in the better-known memoirs.

Here is a soldier eager for war and undaunted by its unpleasantness. Given the style of his prose and his frequent flash-forwards, there is no way to “spoil” the fact that he would see a lot of fighting, and love it. And yet, the mere fact that I’m giving up on my usual coyness-about-the-future here indicates that there is a lack of careful retrospect in his memoir. The absence of “binocular vision” is so complete that one wonders how much the telescope ignores: is this really the boy he was, or is the voice we hear throughout that of the experienced, heroic, proven soldier? Perhaps the telescope is even placed over a blind eye.

And as for literature, well: Pollard is a very bad writer and an unreconstructed mid-Victorian pseudo-medieval romantic. No point in beating around the bush. The fact that he foregrounds his Victorian, er, allegiance, shouldn’t necessarily lead us to look past it: if you go to war very much expecting a romantic adventure and/or crusade then you will either experience crushing disillusionment or feel a powerful pressure to conform reality to your (threatened) expectations.

 

Donald Hankey, the “Student in Arms” now serving as a sergeant, wrote to his sister today.

Sergeants Mess, 7th Battalion, Rifle Brigade, Malplaquet Barracks, Aldershot.

Sept. 18, 1914.

Dear Hilda,

I find that a certain number of people are getting Sunday passes, and so I should very much like to come up for Saturday night and Sunday sometime when you are back in London that is, if you don’t mind my being in uniform! At present, however, I think it is rather fashionable than otherwise to be uniformed even if one is only an N.C O. ! I had a very jolly letter from Maurice last week, in which he asked me to make an effort to attend the christening of Michael in uniform ! But I could never get a pass in the middle of the week, as we are short-handed. I have been told that I shall never make a good N.C.O., but should be an excellent officer! Well, I could never be the ordinary sealed pattern N.C.O. but I think I have my uses. I get on well with the junior N.C.O.’s, and I don’t think that my squad is the worst on the parade ground. After all, this is not quite the ordinary sealed pattern army. Of course my worst point is that I have so little first-hand knowledge of musketry and infantry work. This will probably become more and more painfully evident as time goes on, and we get more advanced. On the other hand I am far smarter than I ever was as an officer ! Quite simply, I do find that it is praying that makes the difference. The possibility of overcoming one’s particular disabilities by the partial realization of an outside Power ready to alter the balance has been real to me. My book is not altogether abstract theory; but a good deal founded on experience. Must stop now.

Yours frat[ernally],

Donald Hankey[2]

 

 

Friday September 18th

I went to tea with Miss Fry. We talked a good deal about college, & Somerville in particular. She told me about the Fabian Society of Socialists, to which both men & women belong. I found myself telling Miss Fry about Roland Leighton, though I spoke rather of him than of any connection with him, & did not make myself appear as interested in him as I really am.

I heard a rumour two or three days ago that the violinist Kreisler, who was an officer in the Austrian army, has been killed, but have not heard this rumour confirmed. Whether he be an enemy or no, I pray that after all no harm may have come to that brilliant young man. I do not think genii should be allowed in the Army. For one thing there are so few of the really great that their number could make no difference when battles are fought between millions, whereas in their own walks of life they make all the difference in the world. We do not put our kings into the field, but these, the real kings of humanity, are exposed to the multitude of dangers which come with battle. Proud though a nation may be of the genius it has produced, that genius is not a national but a universal possession & should not be made to risk itself in a national quarrel. To me the thought of Kreisler lying dead on an Austrian battlefield, perhaps with those wonderful fingers of his clasped cold & stiff round the hilt of a broken sword, is more terrible than that of five hundred slain men none of whom would have risen above mediocrity.[3]

Well. It’s interesting, given what we know of Vera–she loves music and she loves Roland (even if the relationship has not quite flowered into an official courtship)–to see her turning to the death of Fritz Kreisler (the rumor is true) after dropping Roland’s name. We have heard her express the opinion–rather awfully undemocratic/frankly elitist–before that the especially talented should be spared military service, but then she was thinking of Roland. Vera would have us believe that she is a thoroughly modern young woman. And perhaps she is–it’s more the manner of stating these ideas then the ideas themselves that are outlandish. After all, we are in a period of only a few months, a century back, when the upper classes and the university-educated flocked to the infantry. Later on, and in most subsequent wars fought by big democracies, the educated classes are underrepresented among combat infantry.

Still, it’s pretty bad–a romantic notion of genius and a Victorian notion of Other Ranks doing the suffering and the dying on your behalf. Sharp as she is, this is exactly the sort of innocent and silly notion that will be mowed down by the realities of the war. The pianist’s fingers on the hilt of a sword are a nice romantic image, but Vera Brittain will come to know, before too long, how unrealistic is the image of a broken sword and cold but–surely, imaginatively–whole body.

References and Footnotes

  1. Fire-Eater, 28-9.
  2. Letters of Donald Hankey, 250-1.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 110.

Battle: John Lucy is in the Thick of It, the Grenfell Twins are Confused, and Conan Doyle Overdoes It; The Duchess of Sutherland Endures a Heavier Bombardment

Today, a century back, being the British Army’s first day of real combat,[1] we should have a brief word about military history, specifically that breed of military history known as the “Battle Piece.”

Actually, a very brief word: I am not going to try to write the battles from a strategic or grand tactical perspective, or to give the generals’ point of view and assess their actions in detail. There is plenty of that, by good writers and careful writers and traditionalists and revisionists… and in such a big battle nothing on that scale is terribly relevant to the experience of the men on the ground.

The Battle of Mons was not atypical, either, in that the British, French, and German commanders were all gravely mistaken about the numbers and intent of their enemy, that each was pursuing strategies ranging from poor to suicidally disastrous, and that the side that made the worst decisions (the Allies) probably came out of it best. So please do read up elsewhere on the Schlieffen Plan and Von Kluck’s mistake and Lanrezac’s run for the rear and the impeccable incompetence of Sir John French (commander, confusingly, of the British Expeditionary Force–but don’t worry, the Germans also had a General von François).

Here we need only the broadest picture: some twenty miles of East-West frontage for the BEF, along the Mons-Condé canal, with an unlovely view into the industrial towns and mining district away north, where German armies were massing, their spotter planes droning overhead.[2]

Now, how to describe an aircraft overhead, in the first fledgling weeks of motorized military air-power? J.F. Lucy, in yesterday’s post, was matter-of-fact–a tiny bit poetical, but, really, a plane was little more than a novelty. Aircraft, in this war, rarely posed a significant threat to men on the ground. Primitive bombers and effective strafing lay in the future.

A lone Taube was a scout, a spotter, a lone horseman who might summon the enemy hosts or, worse, call down the long-range guns–or trundle slowly on, its purposes inscrutable. So, hey–a plane!

Here’s another way to do it:

High in the van a Taube aeroplane, like an embodiment of that black eagle which is the fitting emblem of a warlike and rapacious race, pointed the path for the German hordes.

Or:

But now an ill-omened bird flew over the British lines. Far aloft across the deep blue sky skimmed the dark Taube, curved, turned, and sail northwards again. It had marked the shells bursting beyond the trenches. In an instant, by some devilish cantrip of signal or wireless, it had set the range right. A rain of shells roared and crashed along the lines of the shallow trenches. The injuries were not yet numerous, but they were inexpressibly ghastly…[3]

These small purple apocalypses have spilled from the pen of Arthur Conan Doyle, once a writer of admirable precision. He spent much of the war working on installments of an easy-bake history, based on many conversations with participants and wide reading of the utterly unreliable newspaper reports and produced rather too quickly. Ah, there’s was a writer’s market in those days, there was!

I thought I would drop Conan Doyle in here not just to give a vivid example of the “older guy who hasn’t seen battle renders it more dramatically than no-nonsense serving soldier” truism but also to sound an early warning on the genesis of the most dramatic/least accurate of “battle pieces.” They come from this sort of writing, where stray facts–especially highly visible ones–take on massive payloads of strategic and symbolic meaning before they are located in any tactical matrix or pinpointed in any chain of causation.

And also because I can’t help but have some sympathy with the quick-response popular writer willing to triple-load his metaphorical riffs. Is the plane a bird of ill-omened Prussian expansionism, or a reminder of the evil magic (“devilish cantrip”) that seems, to soldiers, to work the Death Unseen that so often strikes them down. Or is it a spotter plane that makes effective use of nascent technology to direct artillery fire supporting the German advance? Sure!

 

But back to business. J.F. Lucy was in one of those shallow trenches. He had had a long night, awakened at midnight to escort an ammunition resupply. He and his men remained on their feet through the morning, when they moved forward into a village that had just been raided by German cavalry. By the early afternoon they had moved forward another mile and dug a shallow “kneeling trench” as a temporary firing position, the idea being to attack once the enemy was located. Now they awaited contact.

Lucy was unaware that his battalion was now holding part of a suspected “weak point,” just behind where the canal’s course changed as it reached Mons. Tacticians always like to go after angles. He and the rest of the 2/Royal Irish realized that they were involved in a real battle only when the German shells began to fall.

Lucy’s account, written years later by a man who experienced much of the worst of trench warfare, notices several age-old elements of the experience of battle that will soon become obsolete and strange. They realize that the German infantry are attacking when they hear the “conch-like sounds” of their bugles, and they meet the densely-packed advancing troops with rifle volleys directed by officers’ whistles. Massed advances met by drill-quickened rifle fire resulted in terrible casualties.

Our rapid fire was appalling even to us, and the worst marksman could not miss, as he had only to fire into the ‘brown’ of the masses of the unfortunate enemy, who on the fronts of two of our companies were continually and uselessly reinforced at the short range of three hundred yards. Such tactics amazed us…[4]

 

Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, were, with the rest of the 9th Lancers, behind the center of the British line, near the village of Thulin. Alas, the prospect of battle in one of Northern Europe’s most industrial districts was a bit of a disappointment:

Francis and Rivy were much perplexed by this strange kind of battlefield. As cavalrymen they had hoped for the wide rolling downs which had been predicted as the terrain of any continental war. Instead they found themselves in a land full of little smoky villages, coal mines, railway embankments, endless wire, and a population that seemed as dense as that of a London suburb. They were puzzled to know how cavalry could operate, and they were still more puzzled to understand what was the plan of campaign an uncertainty they shared with a million or so other soldiers. On that hot Sunday morning firing began early to the north-east and grew heavier as the day advanced. In the afternoon the Colonel sent for the squadron leaders and told them that six German cavalry and three infantry divisions were advancing, and that their business was to retire slowly, fighting a rearguard action. The rest of the day was spent in deep mystification, with no knowledge of the fall of Namur, or of Lanrezac’s defeat at Charleroi, or the other calamities which were to compel Sir John French to retreat. But at 11.30 came definite orders. They were instructed to entrench at the railway station south of Thulin for an attack at dawn. Spades were procured with difficulty, and they were about to begin when another order came not to entrench but to barricade, and to hold Thulin station and the road to the south of it. This was done, and the position was occupied during the darkness, while the wretched inhabitants straggled down the south road, and the guns in the north grew steadily nearer.[5]

So no death or glory charges today, although, with more than a few rolling downs and wide-open fields behind them, there would be a chance, upon retirement. John Buchan, author of the above paragraph, is surely trying to give us a strong sense of just how confusing it is to be behind a battle which even its participants and presiding officers have failed to understand.

And yet: there are more than a few ways, amidst all of the very bright young things and precocious writers we will be studying, to indicate that these particular brave boys are dim bulbs. “Perplexed… puzzled… still more puzzled… deep mystification:” all fair in war, but there does seem to be a literary running of the colors here, between the fog of war and the unrealistic expectations and stolidity of two young officers.

In any event, confusion. And withdrawal. This was a good-sized battle, and although the excellent musketry of the British regulars (and their excellent rifles) caused thousands of German casualties, several British battalions were hard hit as well. It is notoriously difficult to withdraw in the face of an undefeated enemy, and, as this is is next on the menu for the BEF, the Grenfells will soon see more action.

 

The Duchess of Sutherland, however, was fifty miles further east in besieged and overrun Namur:

Sunday 23 August.

There is a dreadful bombardment going on. Some of our wounded who can walk wrap themselves in blankets and go to the cellars. Luckily we are in a new fire-proof building, and I must stay with my sick men who cannot move.The shells sing over the convent from the deep booming German guns–a long singing scream and then an explosion which seems only a stone’s throw away. The man who received extreme unction the night before is mad with terror. I do not believe that he is after all so badly wounded. He has a bullet in his shoulder, and it is not serious. He has lost all power of speech, but I believe that he is an example of what I have read of and what I had never seen–a man dying of sheer fright.

Two things, here. Yes, this sounds like our first case of shell-shock, brutal neanderthal ancestor of modern PTSD. It would be recognized later in the war and, famously, treated with widely varying understanding, and with methods both brutal and humane.

Second, there is another looming rabbit hole for any comparative study of war prose, namely the danger of trying to re-translate language into some sort of objective measure of suffering (or other emotional response).

Descriptions of enduring bombardment are a primary example of this. Many soldiers (and nurses) will write of how terrible a first bombardment seemed, and how laughable that terror seemed in retrospect, once they had acclimated to the constant presence of artillery and learned what the big guns did.

The big point here is that we have to read each experience for what it tells us of the author’s state of mind, not to ascertain the “actual” (i.e. historical) weight and effectiveness of that bombardment. That said, the guns at the Battle of Mons were probably all field guns or medium howitzers; Namur was being shelled by some of the largest guns ever built, crane-loaded monstrosities whose thousand-pound shells brought down entire buildings at a time, and pounded the new forts into rubble. The cellar would not have been much safer, if these guns reached their part of the town.

The nurses and one or two of the nuns are most courageous and refuse to take shelter in the cellars, which are full of novices and schoolchildren. The electric and gas supplies have been cut off. The only lights we have to use are a few hand lanterns and night-lights…

There is some rapid fusilading through the streets and two frightened old Belgian officers ran into the Convent to ask for Red Cross bands, throwing down their arms and maps. In a few minutes, however, they regained self control and went out in the streets without the Red Cross bands.

Now the German troops are fairly marching in. I hear them singing as they march. It seems almost cowardly to write this, but for a few minutes there was relief to see them coming and to feel that this awful firing would soon cease. On they march! Fine well-set-up men with grey uniforms.They have stopped shooting now… I see them streaming into the market-place. A lot of stampeding artillery horses gallop by with Belgian guns. On one of the limbers still lay all that was left of a man. It is too terrible.

What can these brave little people do against this mighty force? Some of the Germans have fallen out and are talking to the people in the streets. These are so utterly relieved at the cessation of the bombardment that in their fear they are actually welcoming the Germans. I saw some women press forward and wave their handkerchiefs.

Suddenly upon this scene the most fearful shelling begins again…We rush back into the convent, and there are fifteen minutes of intense and fearful excitement while the shells are crashing into the market-place. We see German soldiers running for dear life … Women half fainting, and wounded, old men and boys are struggling in.Their screams are dreadful. They had all gone into the Grande Place to watch the German soldiers marching, and were caught in this sudden firing. A civilian wounded by a shell in the stomach was brought into the Ambulance. He died in 20 minutes. We can only gather incoherent accounts from these people as to what had happened.The Germans sounded the retreat and the shelling seemed to stop. At last it leaks out that the German troops on the other side of the town did not know that their own troops had crossed the Meuse on the opposite side…  It seems a horrible story, but absolutely true.

Now it is quiet again, save for the sighs of the suffering. All night long we hear the tramp, cramp, tramp of German infantry in the streets, their words of command, their perpetual deep-throated songs.They are full of swagger, and they are very anxious to make an impression upon the Belgians…

Where are the English and the big French troops? That is what I am wondering.[6]

 

This has been a long post, and so I will postpone an uncertainty: One Sunday in late August–either today, a century back, or a week hence, The Dymock poets, and Edward Thomas and Eleanor Farjeon, dined together in the farmhouse of a rustic, nineteenth century couple. It was a merry, literary occasion, with little or no mention of the war–could it possibly have been the same day as Mons? I don’t know, and two letters that might mention it and fix it on the 23rd I can’t get my hands on just now–so let’s say it was on the 30th, and wait a week for the end of August 1914, and a final bit of Last Summer literary pastoralism…

References and Footnotes

  1. There were two skirmishes between cavalry patrols the day before, and scout aircraft had been in action.
  2. Douglas Haig, then commanding I Corps, was on the right, in and beyond Mons, and thus more aware of the crucial strategic problem: that the French armies on the British right, east of Mons, were withdrawing, so that further heroic holding actions would only result in the British being cut off and destroyed,
  3. Conan Doyle, A History of the Great War, Vol. I, 65-66.
  4. Lucy, There's a Devil in the Drum, 103-115.
  5. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 191-2.
  6. From Women in the War Zone, 38-39.