Edward Thomas Wanders Off and Reads Eastaway; Siegfried Sassoon Inspects the Feet; Vera Brittain is Bitter and Rebellious; The Death of Arthur West

Edward Thomas is still confused about the liturgical calendar. He began a letter to Eleanor Farjeon today, a century back, under the impression that Easter had occurred a week earlier than it will have:

April 3

My dear Eleanor I didn’t discover the Egg till Easter Monday, because I was taking apples out one by one from a corner I had nibbled out. So now I must write again to thank you for an Easter Egg. It was such a lovely morning Easter Monday, though I can’t praise it so well today when the ground is snow slush and the wind very cold though not colder than my feet…[1]

And there the letter trails off… has he been called to the guns? To some reminder that Easter is still nearly a week off?

Thomas also wrote to Gordon Bottomley, but the date of Easter does not arise. It’s clear that Thomas’s rush has everything to do with expectation: he knows that the battle will begin soon.

My dear Gordon,

Your letter of the 28th of March has just come…  think I had better write back now as this is the eve, & I can’t help realizing that I may not have another opportunity. It is the end of a beautiful sunny day that began cold with snow. The air has been full of aeroplanes & shells & yet there have been clothes hanging up to dry in the sun outside my window which has glass in it, though whether it will tomorrow not even the Hun knows. The servants are chatting outside in their shirtsleeves & war is not for the moment dirty or ugly—as it was this morning, when I was well in front & the shining sun made ruins & rusty barbed wire & dead horses & deep filthy mud uglier than they are in the stormy weather or in the pale cold dawn…

Between beauty and ugliness, violence and idleness, time to talk poetry. Eight poems by “Edward Eastaway” have just been published.

I have not seen the Annual yet but by the same post as your letter came The Times review which I was quite pleased with. I don’t mind now being called inhuman & being told by a reviewer now that April’s here—in England now—that I am blind to the ‘tremendous life of these 3 years’. It would be the one consolation in finishing up out here to provide such reviewers with a conundrum, except that I know they would invent an answer if they saw that it was a conundrum.

This is a cold, wry assessment. Thomas was a powerful and precise poetry critic long before he was a poet, and these skills have not deserted him just because he is the poet in question. He knows that his poetry is too assured to fit neatly into any prefabricated category, and that, just as new poems by a pseudonymous author are criticized for not being overtly about the war, they would, if he were to be killed, inevitably come to be considered the work of a war poet. And both of these certainties are amusingly short-sighted. Being a powerful poet who chose not to address what he hadn’t yet experienced, he both is and isn’t a “war poet.” He’s a poet, and there’s a war on, and the weight of it sinks into any good poetry the way the stench of decay unavoidably permeates the cloth of uniforms worn in trenches.

And, since few critics are capable of knowing competent poetry from great poetry without external hints (the praise of others; a famous name) few suspect who this new, strangely assured poet “Edward Eastaway” might be. Should they be sniffing harder, to smell the war? Should they slow down and read the poetry and understand what it is, and why it might be published without a recognizable name?

Why do the idiots accuse me of using my eyes? Must I only use them with field-glasses & must I see only Huns in these beautiful hills eastwards & only hostile flashes in the night skies when I am at the Observation Post?

…No don’t tell anybody about Eastaway tho naturally I want people to want to know who he is…

Goodbye. Yours ever & Emily’s

Edward Thomas[2]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, meanwhile, is marching toward the coming battle. But slowly enough for his diary to run the gamut–and include a poem too.

April 3

Left Corbie 9 a.m… Woman in our billet says that troops have been coming through (going toward Doullens and Arras) for fifteen days, never staying more than one night. The movements of our (33rd) Division are nebulous… Our billet is adorned with mouldy stuffed birds, with spread wings; a jay, a small hawk over the fireplace, and a seagull slowly revolving in draughts, hung from a string in the ceiling. Also two squirrels and a stork.

Feeling much better since we started moving, except for usual cold in head and throat. Same old ‘point-to-point’ feeling about going into the show—the ‘happy warrior’ stunt cropping up as usual. Letters from Robert Graves and Julian Dadd yesterday which cheered me no end. R.G. at Harlech—lucky devil…

The Second R.W.F. are gradually taking me to their bosom. It will be best for me to stay here now and try to become a hero…

No sign of my book yet. I do want to see it before I get killed (if death is the dose which April means me to swallow).
First Battalion are up at Croisilles; having a rough passage, I am afraid.

FOOT INSPECTION

The twilight barn was chinked with gleams; I saw
Soldiers with naked feet stretched on the straw.
Stiff-limbed from the long muddy, march we’d done.
And ruddy-faced with April wind and sun.
With pity and stabbing tenderness I see
Those stupid, trustful eyes stare up at me.
Yet, while I stoop to Morgan’s blistered toes
And ask about his boots, he never knows
How glad I’d be to die, if dying could set him free
From battles. Shyly grinning at my joke.
He pulls his grimy socks on; lights a smoke.
And thinks ‘Our officer’s a decent bloke’.

April 3[3]

The diary is the old familiar Siegfried–moody, self-involved and preoccupied with his demise (and, on the way thither, his heroism) in the Brookean fashion, yet also punctuated by striking observations. The squirrel!

But the poetry is another major step in his recent new direction. It’s not so much the “realism”–it’s still too prettily written to succeed in being gritty, too didactic to feel natural–as it is simply the subject matter. The soldiers are being condescended to, it’s true, but at least they (and not “glory” or “England” or “the fray”) are front and center, and they speak, and they begin to be fleshed out. It’s an observational poem: they are marching, after a few easy weeks, and their feet must be attended to. This is practical, but it’s a pointed observation: these are not hearty soldier lads ready for sacrifice, but rather tired men, with sore feet. And if the officer/poet is still operating in a register of theoretical sacrifice, well… perhaps that will be the next change.

 

Briefly, before a difficult last entry, we will hear from Vera Brittain, writing to her brother Edward. This letter reminds us that one of the goals of this project is to measure the passage of “real” time by maintaining the precise historical distance of one hundred years. Vera is reacting today to mail that we read weeks ago, but is just now reaching her.

April 3rd

My mail was depressing to-day; as well as your news about being passed fit there was a letter from Father in the usual strain — German retirement at the wrong time for us and therefore anything but an advantage (of course you say this too & I always suspected it) — Russia internally rotten & likely to sue for a separate peace — conditions dreadful at home — end no nearer in sight etc etc. This sort of letter is so much more depressing out here than at home; for it is long before you get another to remove the impression. Victor too sends me a letter half cynical, half hopelessly resigned; apparently he was on the verge of an attack, for he spoke of perhaps never writing to me again, & says — as you said to him before July 1st — that it is time to say a long long adieu. This too leaves me anxiously & very sadly wondering how long it will be before I hear any more of him & what it will be when I do. I think I would rather have had an attitude of open resentment & rebellion in the face of death than this sort of stifled
bitterness…

Had a delightfully vigorous & colourful letter from Geoffrey–though he longs for leave.[4]

A strange course, that letter takes, to append the news of Geoffrey Thurlow’s letter after she has taken her deepest swing toward disenchantment in some time. But letters to intimates are like that, unloading the mind’s concerns without too much concern for order or priority. I think it’s fair to note that while Vera Brittain takes delight in letters, the central fact of her non-working life is, now, anxiety for the soldiers she loves and cares for. Edward Brittain has been passed fit, at last recovered from his wounds; Geoffrey Thurlow and Victor Richardson are both in France, and liable to join in the coming battle. And she will only learn of whatever happens weeks afterwards–unless the news is so bad that someone takes the time and expense to try and get a telegram through. She is far closer to the war than most provincial young ladies will ever get, and further away from the worst of France.

And what could she mean by “open resentment & rebellion?”

 

Finally, today, a century back, Arthur Graeme West was killed by a German sniper. He was twenty-five. To write about him now, today, is disheartening, for a number of tangled reasons.

First, of course, because another bright young man and talented writer has been killed, pointlessly. But I’m also feeling an obscure sort of guilt because it proved to be impossible to properly include West in this project. On the most superficial level, it was hard to draw on a book entitled Diary of a Dead Officer without infringing upon the rules of being strictly a-century-back from the current date. For another thing, West’s writing–some decent poetry, a diary that veers between confessional and angry, initial enthusiasm curdled by the army’s stupidity and the war’s brutality–compares in many ways to Siegfried Sassoon‘s… but it’s not as good. To quote him often would have been duplication, in a sense, and since the thread of West’s story is much more difficult to follow, it might have confused more than enlightened us.

And that tangled thread is the biggest reason that I ended up hardly using his work: it was heavily edited, after his death, to shape it into a particular form. West was certainly disillusioned, even “disenchanted:” he was angry at the war and the army, he was afraid, and he regretted joining. In 1916 he had considered objecting to the war on pacifist principles and even wrote a letter of resignation. But he didn’t send it. Instead he returned to France. In his last few months, back in the line, West wrote very little.

But none of that is disqualifying: the problem is that these aspects of West’s character, his beliefs, are heavily emphasized in the posthumous publication while much else–how much else, and what it was, I don’t know–was cut out. The published Diary is, essentially, a work of anti-war propaganda, carefully constructed by West’s school friend Cyril Joad, who was a committed pacifist. West doesn’t seem to have had the same beliefs, and so he has suffered a particularly ironic sort of violence: his feelings were, after the fact, suppressed and misrepresented, a sort of negative echo of the way in which his decision to join the army (he was no pacifist then; instead he was very typical of our Public School and Oxford boys) controlled his body. There is a lot of interesting material in the Diary, which is why I read it and made some use of it here. But while we can track someone like Sassoon in his changeable moods, our access to West’s mind is not only partially blocked but carefully channeled, and his words stripped of their original context… and that didn’t feel right.

So Arthur Graeme West is dead, and he will have some posthumous recognition as a sort of pacifist martyr–but he wasn’t. He was a young man who came to hate the war and wanted out, but went back anyway, out of duty and out of fear and into fear and terrible danger, and to his death.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 264.
  2. Letters to Edward Thomas From Gordon Bottommley, 281-3.
  3. Diaries, 148-9.
  4. Letters From A Lost Generation, 331-2.

Edward Thomas on Eleanor Farjeon’s Rhymes and Bottomley’s Sheiling; Arthur West Can’t Read

23 xi 16
1916
High Beech
Loughton

My dear Eleanor,

Thank you very much. I am glad you think the change made the difference. I showed it to Bottomley in the new form and he seemed to like it. He enjoyed reading your book. I remember he particularly liked ‘Kings Cross’ and ‘London Wall’ and ‘Cheapside’. And he took to the pictures…

This is Eleanor Farjeon’s just-published Nursery Rhymes of London Town., which Farjeon recently sent to Thomas. I want to thank reader Richard Hawkins for reminding me that this is not merely a collection of traditional songs but rather new rhymes–and original tunes–which Farjeon wrote and composed. The nursery rhymes had initially been published earlier this year in Punch, which has just begun to feature a second series. And in another it’s-a-great-war-after-all coincidence, Leslie MacDonald Gill–the illustrator whom Bottomley praised–will become better known as a cartographer and letter-designer (he has excellent Arts and Crafts credentials). After the war, he will design the lettering for many CWGC monuments, including the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.

While Farjeon appears here as a Friend-of-Thomas and her other work–much of it for children, and not about the war–is ancillary to the main subject of this project, I don’t want to completely follow Thomas in treating her as a selfless adjunct and neglect her work while attending to his… Farjeon will have a day to herself this weekend, as she tells a tale of one woman’s close encounter with a collateral sort of war trauma.

But back to today. Thomas is leaving Bottomley’s house in Lancashire after what seems to have been a very happy visit. He looks forward to having Farjeon to stay with the family in their new house at High Beech, but, as so often with Thomas, he is also looking back, and making of his memories something both beautiful and complex.

Helen suggested Sunday. I would prefer Monday as I might have to go out to meet Wheatley on Sunday or he might come here, whereas I am quite free on Monday and Tuesday. Will you stay at any rate till Wednesday?

…I enjoyed every hour at Silverdale and then went and wrote something about the house there, which I will try to copy tomorrow morning before we go over to see my mother…

Yours ever
Edward Thomas[1]

The poem about Bottomley’s house, both called “The Sheiling,” is structurally unusual but otherwise of a piece with Thomas’s recent work. In it we can see the traces both of their long friendship–in which Thomas wrote detailed, soul-searching letters for Bottomley’s assessment, and of Thomas’s new life, both as a poet himself (with Frost usurping all others in his literary-amicable esteem) and as a soldier. Placing a house up against nature is an old theme, but Thomas is no longer merely tramping about in the elements, enjoying the country for itself. “Outside” is also, now, the war.

 

The Sheiling

It stands alone
Up in a land of stone
All worn like ancient stairs,
A land of rocks and trees
Nourished on wind and stone.

And all within
Long delicate has been;
By arts and kindliness
Coloured, sweetened, and warmed
For many years has been.

Safe resting there
Men hear in the travelling air
But music, pictures see
In the same daily land
Painted by the wild air.

One maker’s mind
Made both, and the house is kind
To the land that gave it peace,
And the stone has taken the house
To its cold heart and is kind.

 

But the land that gave it peace also gave Edward Thomas an officer’s commission, dated today, a century back,[2] as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery. The name of this service arm is somewhat anachronistic–it means only big guns, rather than field guns, and does not imply home duty. France has come another step closer.

 

And one more note today, from the unhappy Arthur Graeme West, an intermittent figure, here. I let many, many fragments and observations go–his writing does not easily make a narrative, and other writers have earned center stage, as it were–but if a man discusses his socks, his reading or his post-war fantasies, it’s in.

Tuesday, Nov. 23rd, 1916.

A grey, warmer day. The sun looked through only for a minute or two in the afternoon. We went in the evening to an estaminet on the left. After that Cl….. and I walked down the road under the moon, and talking to him then I grew more convinced of the brutalising process that was going on: how impossible it was to read even when we had leisure, how supremely one was occupied with food and drink. Cl….. himself said he had found the same on his first campaign; it took him three weeks to get back to a state where he could read, and so it is. All my dreams of the days after the war centre round bright fires, arm-chairs, good beds, and abundant meals.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 223.
  2. Another source has tomorrow; I haven't verified.
  3. West, Diary..., 131.

Olaf Stapledon Writes an Unusual Love Poem; Vera Brittain Manages a Smile; Arthur Graeme West is Left Behind While Leslie Coulson Leads the Charge

We’ll start today, in the spirit of “good news first,” with a letter from Olaf Stapledon to his beloved Agnes, in Australia. This is Stapledon to a T: light-heart, romantic, and fantasist of dependable quirk.

SSA 13
October 1916

Dear Agnes,

I have been reading your last three letters again… when I had done I was filled with a sort of warm glowing joy because of you and because of your dear way of telling me doings and thinkings so frankly and fully and beautifully. To be intimate with a woman is a man’s greatest possible joy I think, but to be intimate with you! There’s no other prize in the world after that, a rhyme for you “inspired” by one of your letters—

Ailsa would have a ruby.
But Agnes has a pearl.
Thus may you know
The heart of each girl.

Ailsa is a glowing coal.
Or a goblet of red wine
Through which deeply blazes
The light divine.

Ailsa is a strong draft
To be quaffed by a king.
But Agnes is the vital air
For a man’s breathing.

Life-long shall he know her.
Her whole of dread and dear.
That are one soft splendour
Like the pearl’s pure sphere.

Who will give a ruby
To Ailsa? I confess
I gave the pearl
And my soul to Agnes.

Apologies to Ailsa! . . .

Well, dear, I must stop, or I shall fall asleep over the paper. When we are married and there is no more need to write letters to you I am sure I shall still by habit take up pen & paper now & then and begin a letter to you before I remember that there is no need. After what you have said about war marriages I am burning to get married. And if you were in England you would probably be induced to substantiate your opinions by the personal act. I’d marry you this very leave, with ten days honeymoon at Festiniog. But you are not in England, so you are safe. But darling I want that wedding day with all my soul. I am tired of barriers of earth and sea and barriers of convention. I want the whole of you. Wife! That’s the magic word. It’s better than sweetheart or betrothed anything else. Goodnight Wife.[1]

Stapledon is in Belgium, now the quiet part of the line… and alas that marriages can be stopped–or postponed–by such things as oceans and wars. But what of the Somme?

 

Arthur Graeme West is there, and his diary for today is uneventful–but there’s a reason for that. As we learned this summer, a small cadre of officers is left out of every attack. Once, this was a common source of crushing disappointment. But we have entered the fourth month of the Somme…

Friday, Oct. 6th, 1916.

Fair! Arrangements made for an attack tomorrow. I was left out. I was very glad to go. Reached the transport lines about 7 p.m. and had a good dinner and sleep.

It’s clear, I think, that West meant he was glad to go down the line, not that he would have been glad to go on the attack. And the attack? Well, it depends on how you look at it.

Here, then, is a familiar map, with Mametz Wood at the extreme southwest, Ginchy of the Guards a little south and east of the center, and Lesboeufs just south of center and only one square west of the right border. The map is up to date, and the only trenches still in German hands are represented by the spidery veins in the upper right. The push east and north-east (to cut off Thiepval) is proceeding at an accelerated pace. Many of the attacks on the Somme had been complete failures or–worse in some ways–had taken a bite only a few hundreds of yards deep, leaving the troops to hold damaged, partial trench-systems immediately subject to counter-bombardment and counter-attack.

progress-10-7-16

The Somme, Flers sector and environs, as of October 7th, 1916

This, by contrast,  represents several miles’ progress in a few weeks. A few bloody weeks–and progress on the map does not necessarily “scale up” into any sort of strategic benefit…

6th-oxf-and-bucks-10-7-16

The attack on “Rainbow Trench” and other positions near Transloy; detail of the above map (upper right corner).

So it is on the “operational” level, therefore–the level of the progress of the battle, rather than its larger significance (that would be strategy) or its daily waging (tactics)–that things have been going very well indeed. These lives are being spent, at least, for appreciable territorial gain…

The battle will continue to go well, by these lights: the 6th Ox and Bucks successfully followed their barrage, took all three of their objectives, and gunned down or bayoneted the Germans who fled their trenches.

From West’s point of view, the glorious and successful assault is somewhat compromised by the cost: 13 officers and 230 other ranks were casualties, according to the Battalion Diary. This is steep. The battalion probably went into battle with something like 600 men.

West doesn’t know the exact numbers, and, to his credit–he is a budding pacifist, but an intermittent polemicist–he notes too the high spirits of men who are coming back as victors, however few and however bloodied.

Although the published diary omits the names of these men, I think I can identify two of West’s dead comrades (follow the links, below). Together, the date of death, unit, approximate rank, and the initials in the text each seem to point to only one man in the CWGC–they are among the few friends that West claims, the men that he has been singing with at night, and talking dreamily of Oxford.

News came through… of four losses in the attack. Very heavy. B…., L…., and Bl…., all killed; B…., a good blighty; G dangerously wounded. I never felt more utterly sick and miserable than to-day. We moved up at midnight wood to await the Battalion’s return from the trenches. They were very glorious when they came, but arrived at the sand-pits near M….. a very tired crowd…[2]

It’s a gruesome way to foreshadow, but from the fact that most of today’s Ox and Bucks dead ended up commemorated on the Thiepval memorial, counterattacks or bombardments would seem to have prevented the retrieval of their bodies.

 

There were other battalions in this attack, of course, including Leslie Coulson’s. “Dewdrop Trench” was not far at all from “Rainbow–” just a bit to the south (although not named on the map), and Coulson’s battalion of the London Regiment (that unique and heterogeneous urban Territorial unit) led the way to it.

Coulson, a journalist before the war, was “officer material,” in both the human and class society senses–although the latter perhaps only barely, as his father had been poor and he himself had attended an off-beat school. But Coulson enlisted as a private at the outset of the war and used the London Regiment as a fast track out of England and into combat. He was sent overseas in December, 1914 and–after service abroad in Malta, Gallipoli, and Egypt, and transfers among different battalions of the London Regiment–by 1916 he had become a sergeant and a war poet. Coulson is as close to the archetype of the noble volunteer of that first summer as we are likely to see.

Leading his platoon in the assault on Dewdrop Trench, Coulson was shot in the chest–a serious wound. As the day drew to a close, a century back, his men carried him back toward the dressing stations.

 

Vera Brittain‘s long trip to her first overseas posting ended rather ingloriously today, a century back. To get from Lemnos, where the Britannic had dropped anchor, to Malta, she and a hundred other V.A.D.’s were packed onto a small hospital ship that had recently carried sick men. This was a bad idea.

Her account of the journey dwells on how the V.A.D.s–“young women delicately brought up in fastidious homes”–had to learn to sleep in swinging cots, forgo personal ablutions, and visit an unpartitioned five-seat privy. But soon, of course, she was laid low with a high fever (along with at least fifteen of her fellow travelers) and spent the last day of the journey semi-delirious, unwilling party to an experiment in the transmission of infectious disease.

When the Galeka at last docked in the Grand Harbour at Valletta on October 7th, I awoke to find the Principal Matron of Malta standing by my side, looking down at me. A handsome woman of classic proportions, she seemed somehow to restore their lost heroic quality to our vicissitudes, and I grinned apologetically at her from my lowly cot.

This one can smile, at any rate!” I heard her remark in a singularly gracious voice to the Matron of the Galeka.

In the afternoon I was carried off the boat on a stretcher, and pushed into one of the ambulances which were taking the convoy of sick nurses to Imtarfa Hospital…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 177-8.
  2. Diary... 139-40.
  3. Testament of Youth, 300-2.

Arthur Graeme West on War and Fate; C.E. Montague Visits a Busy Hospital; Kipling Fulminates Against the Hun; Edmund Blunden Approaches the Line, and Begs to Differ

Charles Montague‘s full-time tour of the front lines and reserve areas takes him, today, a century back, to a Casualty Clearing Station. I don’t know which one, but there is a decent chance that he crossed paths with Kate Luard–two things we know about her hospital is that it specialized in abdominals and that she herself specializes in nursing men with horrible and near-hopelessly gangrenous wounds.

Oct. 5. Shown round by C.O. and chief surgeon. See roomful of badly wounded having their gashes dressed under anaesthetics.. . . ‘Resurrection room’, where cases, impossible to operate upon when received, are seen to by Sister and others, and wonderfully rendered capable of operation in a few days. H—— has done 19 big abdominal operations in a day at times of pressure. Have had 125 operations done in a day…[1]

It would be very nice if that Sister were Sister Luard, and if she were able to offer him one of yesterday’s beers. But there were a great number of C.C.S.’s, and no shortages of heroic Nursing Sisters and serious abdominal wounds. Given that he is free from association with any ordinary unit, I’m not sure how one would track Montague’s movements…

 

Arthur Graeme West has seen a good deal of war, now. And it is evident that he considers this an important qualification to hold certain opinions. He likes several of his comrades–fellow company officers–well enough, but today he discourses on how the combat officer is beginning to suspect the unreasonableness of his position… and the extent to which these suspicions fall short of his own complete emancipation from early-war assumptions of justice and right.

Thursday, Oct. 5th, 1916

Dull. I observed several more features in the common opinions concerning the war. G said: “Fancy all this trouble being brought on us by the Germans.” Universal assent.

Then B……, the captain, remarked that it was really very silly to throw pieces of lead at one another, and from this
someone developed the idea that our civilisation was only a surface thing, and we were savages beneath the slightest scratch.

What no one seems to see is that our country may be at any rate partially responsible, or that those who, like conscientious objectors, refuse to debase themselves to the level of savages are worthy of any respect, intellectually, if not morally.

Well, I agree! But what would confidential opinion polls restricted to front-line infantry battalions say? I very much doubt that the “England shares responsibility” numbers would be up out of the single digits even now… Propaganda is a powerful thing. Like nationalism, like peer pressure, like lifelong habits of mind.

Silly things, anyway, polls. We should be grateful, then, that when we are trying to puzzle out right and wrong and what must be (must be) and what is so wrong that any decent man must protest–even at a tremendous cost of social capital–that we have literature to rely upon. And one writer in particular keeps popping up…

One observes again the “It had to be!” attitude, which Hardy notes about the D’Urberville family.

So it is. People will not really move a finger to mould even their own lives outside the rules of the majority or public opinion. No one sits down to consider the rightness of his every action, and his judgments on political action he takes from the papers. Independent judgment in private or public affairs is the rarest thing in the world.

We did no thing all day but rest. I read “Tristram Shandy” and wrote letters. S.O.S. signals came through at night, just at dinner, and perturbed us somewhat. They were soon cancelled.[2]

I’m fond of this young fulminator, now. Moody and self-righteous, sure. But any man who cites our great seer’s great 19th century novel of Cruel Fate even as he is reading the great anarchic-but-Anglican comic novel of the prior century has my sympathies.

 

Now about that propaganda. It sometimes seems as if Rudyard Kipling is in need of rehabilitation. Much about his politics is loathsome, but there are depths and layers to his patriotism and his imperialism–and even when he is defending a narrow and debatable place his literary darts are swift and true. Just a few days ago, I read him as putting a brave face on his young nephew’s journey into harm’s way. But… perhaps even his monumental talent, floating top-heavily upon a flawed human being, has been swamped by the seas of war, and capsized.

Today’s letter is in some ways unremarkable–it’s a business letter, advising a friend on his propagandistic duties. They must combat the creeping heresy that peace could bring with it a resumption of normal international and commercial relations. We cannot allow ourselves to be thinking of an easy peace…

But on the other hand, this letter might show Kipling unhinged–a virulent nationalist who sounds like (and here we abuse our historical position) a latter-day fascist. Is Kipling merely writing out, for another writer’s benefit, the somewhat extreme arguments put forth by those who fear that any slackening of anti-German feeling may signal a weakening of morale? Exaggerations, sure, but there’s a war on, so we’ll excuse it…

But it’s not clear that Kipling is playing a part… in which case he is to–borrow the sort of adversarial metaphor he proves himself comfortable with, today–foaming at the mouth.

Bateman’s / Burwash / Sussex/5th October 1916.
Private.
Dear Colvin,

…Here is my suggestion for attack;–

There is no question of “hate” involved now in our relations with the Hun, whatever may have been the case at the opening of the war. One hates people whom it is conceivable that later one may care for–people, at least, of like passions with ourselves. The Hun is outside any humanity we have had any experience of.

I will break in here, just to break in–there is no paragraph in the letter, but these turns of phrase demand emphasis, if not commentary.

Our concern with him is precisely the same as our concern with the germs of any malignant disease. We know by experience of death and physical impairment that where these germs get foothold, they are inimical to human life. That is the law of their being. Therefore, we clean out, sterilize, flush down etc. etc. all places where they can get a foothold. In the case of sleeping sickness we cut down a belt of jungle 200 yards wide round villages and beside roads to prevent the tsetse fly carrying infection. It is monotonous and expensive work, but we have no animus against the germs or the flies. They are merely scientific facts. We only do not desire to die or be crippled. Therefore, we have to take certain precautions which have been proved efficacious. If the Hun trades with the Empire, it means the presence of Huns on some pretext or another within the Empire. A Hun inside the Empire, in any capacity has been proved hurtful to the lives and peace of our Empire’s human beings. Therefore, it is inexpedient to trade with the Huns; not because trade per se is evil, but because trade furnishes the medium for conveying the danger.

So for the metaphors of infection. Now for the military comparisons. Where the Hun enters a land he instinctively goes underground commercially as he does in war. He has then to be bombed at vast expense of energy out of his commercial Thiepvals. We cannot afford to leave a single commercial Hun machine-gun behind us in the advance of our Empire, however skilfully the weapon may be disguised; however deeply it may be buried. You see? We have the complete revelation of Hun character in his military operations…[3]

 

I often write of the “conflict of the generations” or the “experiential gulf,” and if we might imagine these two concepts as sharply-curving Gothic arches, Kipling is at the apex of the vault. Yes, he knows war quite well, for a non-warrior. Yes, he lost his only son. But he is old, and he is safe, and he hasn’t been there.

Edmund Blunden, most gentle of our young soldier-poets, has never yet been in the mood to rail at the old and out-of-it. But what would he say, if he could read Kipling’s opinions of the Germans–the young Germans who held that warren of tunnels at Thiepval, and were just shelled, bombed, and bayoneted out of them? What would he have written in response, if he could read them today, a century back, as his battalion returns to the front, bound for Thiepval itself?

Well, there just a few sentences that are really proper to today, a century back, but these just happen to touch on stale jests and hatred.

We marched to Martinsart Wood, with its huge howitzers, its mud, its confusion of hutments and tents and bivouacs, and yet its sylvan genius lingering in one or two steep thorny thickets… the men spent hours in contemplating those big guns and their shells chalked with monotonous jokes about the Kaiser and Crown Prince.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. C.E. Montague, 145-6.
  2. Diary... 137-8.
  3. Letters, IV, 404-7.
  4. Undertones of War, 100.

George Coppard and a Target of Opportunity; Arthur Graeme West Reads Contentedly While Max Plowman Grapples With the Pacifist’s Dilemma, and Twelve Inches of Steel

George Coppard spent most of last night coming up over the victims–literally over their bodies–of the hard fighting of the last few weeks. Today, a century back, he reached his trench position just in time for stand-to (shortly before dawn). The machine gunners were not, apparently, given explicit firing protocols, and so once Coppard had mounted his Vickers in the designated position—-he and his mate “Snowy” were left to their own devices.

…The enemy shelling suddenly stopped, an ominous warning. Without further ado I opened fire to discourage the development of any attack in front… Snowy on my right quickly followed suit, and together we raked No Man’s Land good and proper, snuffing out any attempt by the enemy to start an attack… At frequent intervals during the night our two guns belted out, and gradually it seemed that we had gained the upper hand…

And so these machine gunners have either invested a good deal of ammunition deterring a contemplated German attack, or wasted it repelling an imaginary one.

With light, though, comes the ability to confirm kills.

Dawn came, and we were able to get our bearings. Behind the enemy front line rose a long low hill; the tallest building in Bapaume showed above the brow… A shout went up, and there, silhouetted in full view, were two German waggons drawn by pairs of horses. They were trying to make a get-away but had left it too late…

I opened fire at a range of 400 yards, and the infantry joined in. Both waggons were quickly brought to a standstill. It was an unexpected bonus, but there was genuine regret about the animals.[1]

Coppard’s war is a collection of episodes, both out of necessity–he writes without reference to any detailed diary–and, it would seem, by choice. It was a long slog, punctuated by horrors and memorable actions. But so was everyone’s war, with that steady but uncertain rhythm of attack and attrition, front-line service, reserve, rest, and retraining.

 

With Arthur Graeme West, by contrast, there has been a conspicuous attempt to steady the course of his written war, to smooth his progress–as recounted in a relatively voluminous diary–into one direct arc from scholarly and questioning boy-officer to ardent pacifist-in-uniform, utterly disillusioned. That may be accurate enough, if oversimplified, but if we zoom in, we find–of course–that duty, safety, weather, and reading material seem to have a greater effect on the local variations of a writer’s mood than any overarching trajectory of experience or personal belief.

Sunday, Oct. 1st, 1916.

A fine morning… We built a kind of shelter during the day, and had a pleasant day altogether; good meals, but never quite enough. Peace came near to-night in several ways and filled us with a happy contentment as we went to bed in our shelter with plenty of candles.

Warmth, and a misty autumn night; fairly quiet, too, for the Front!

But even the weather can’t dim the spirits of the most ardent pessimist–be he gifted with two friends (not too bad–how many good friends do most officers have?), the newest Modernist journal, and the 18th century’s greatest pre-post-modernist novel.

Monday, Oct. 2nd, 1916.

Rain. Read “Tristram Shandy” with much pleasure. New Age came. We sang jollily in our bivouac at night… We slept well.[2]

 

Max Plowman, too, is a serious man who has traveled far from his prewar beliefs. In some ways his arc is the opposite of West’s: Plowman was a principled pacifist before the war, and first volunteered to serve with the ambulances. Then he came to believe that this was a half-measure, that if he was to participate in the war he should not pretend to be independent of its violence. A man who pays his taxes, risks his life, and comes to the aid of his country’s soldiers has not escaped responsibility for its war…

Plowman’s excellent memoir is frustratingly hard to pin down to specific dates, and and so we read little of it here. But he too has seen much of the Somme, and wonders now if he was right, if this is “worth it.” What follows is both an excellent soldierly letter–he praises homemade socks and sketches the dimensions of his experiential growth by claiming that true conscientious objectors and combat soldiers share an understanding that the pro-war, non-combatant majority cannot–and a serious attempt to break free of the tyranny of trench conditions and consider what it might mean to be an Englishman and a pacifist wielding a rifle with bayonet…

On Active Service
Oct. 2nd, 1916

My dear Janet,

You are a dear to have made me the socks. They’re lovely & the one thing you can never have too much of. And there’s no doubt about it, all sentimental considerations apart, hand-made socks are still the best made, they fill the boots out & keep your feet comfortable where even the best machine-made seem to have a way of getting thin on the soles or at the heels & so making one’s feet tire. I’ve had splendid luck since I’ve been in France never once having had sore feet…

Well Janet we’ve been out “on rest” nearly a fortnight & I’ve almost forgotten what the Front Line is like–so quickly does human nature forget what it instinctively dislikes. Not that we are not kept usefully employed. All last week I was on Brigade Physical Training & Bayonet Fighting Course learning how to kill Germans at close quarters. Tis an odd world isn’t it? For I suppose there’s no finer physical [missing word] than imaginatively spearing human bodies with a bayonet. And I’m in splendid fettle… Do you think I should be a very dangerous person to meet with 12″ of “cold steel”? I wonder. –How would you feel about it? Remember you’ve had no end of explosive iron dropping all round you for a long while before you try to get over, disgustingly killing & wounding men you’ve learnt to value & rely on–filling you with resentment & a desire to “do something.” –And then how the big issue–pushing the Germans out of France–clashes with the personal one which loathes the thought of killing anyone, most of all, barbarously. There’s no reconciling these things is there? Hence conscientious objectors. I fancy if I weren’t in the Army I’d have no sympathy with them at all…

This is a crucial point–or, rather, a crucial sensation– which many of our writers will come to agree with (while millions of non-combatants will continue to heap vitriol on pacifists, but never mind that). But Plowman’s next point is essential, and it challenges at once both the Brooke-blossomed pieties about beautiful sacrifice and what Plowman now sees as the pacifist’s half-measure, namely risking life while doing no harm to others.

I do realise that dying for one’s country is cheap & easy compared with killing for one’s country & it’s a pity the boot is not more often put on the right leg–something to be done when the war is over. I’m certain if one lives in a community one has a communal responsibility… I cannot see how one can escape National responsibility & rely solely on personal, quite suddenly, & for the first time, when the system of things one has prospered under has led inevitably to war. It would be tyranny to conscript “the wild man of the woods” but who else can reasonably escape national responsibility?

…the average conscientious objector does not actively contend with the system until he feels its effect in his own body & then he feels outraged because the world does not welcome his enunciation of the creed “I believe in Peace Almighty”–as if that could wipe out his personal responsibility for the money he pays every day of his life towards the building & upkeep of super-dreadnoughts…[3]

Plowman is aiming jabs at nearby targets. But these blows still land, I think, a century on…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun, 97-98.
  2. Diary... 72.
  3. Bridge into the Future, 51-2.

Arthur Graeme West on Oxford and Atheism; Ford Madox Hueffer on Paris in September

Arthur Graeme West and the 6th Ox and Bucks are on the extreme right of the British line, exchanging shifts in the trenches with the French. Two days ago they were in reserve, and West “read ‘Scholar Gipsy’ and ‘Thrysis’ and talked about Oxford” with two other officers, “the only valuable men” of his comrades. Since both of these poems, by Matthew Arnold, are set in the Oxford countryside, it seems that West and his friends were going in for hard-core pastoral/intellectual nostalgia, a common enough pastime among our set on the Western Front…

Yesterday, “rainy and depressing,” West was less inclined to moon over Oxford as his battalion took over trenches in Trones Wood, losing seven men when a shell dropped directly into a trench. Today, a century back, he managed to walk and think:

Saturday, Sept. 30th, 1916.

Walked through D[elville] Wood with B[ernafay?] Wood in an unspeakable mess…We moved back a few hundred yards to B… Wood and slept in a rough bivouac. I was very warm and comfortable. It is notable that to-night we discussed ever so slightly the problems of atheism. I had pronounced a few days ago that I was an atheist, and after a few of the usual jabs at Balliol the thing passed off. To-night I said something about my being a respectable
atheist, to which it was promptly answered that there could be no such thing: and people said “You aren’t really an
atheist, are you?” Thus we see how men cannot get out of their minds “the horrid atheist” idea—the idea that intellectual convictions of this sort must of necessity imply some fearful moral laxity.

The most religious men are really the extreme Christians or mystics, and the atheists—no body can understand this. These two classes have really occupied their minds with religion.[1]

 

This is a sentiment with which Ford Madox Hueffer would almost certainly disagree–but only, perhaps, to be disagreeable. But why be disagreeable? Hueffer has had some leave, of late, and he has visited Paris. (“Paris leave” was a new phenomenon, intended to ease the Somme-burdened westward lines of transportation.)

In this piece–published today, a century back, in the Nation, Ford plays up the Englishman Abroad, just as in England he makes himself suspiciously continental. Astute readers–which is to say very recent or prodigiously mnemonically gifted readers–of his fiction will recognize, too, the fictional use he will make of these experiences.

 

“Trois Jours de Permission”

“Une petite minute! . . . a little minute”; the words, uttered by a functionary in evening dress with the features, and far more than the gravity of, a British statesman, consecrate one to a long period of waiting in the reverential and silent atmosphere of a palace of high rooms and tapestried panels. A long period of waiting. . . . Well, the longest period of waiting that I have known in a life that nowadays is characterized by more waiting than I have ever known. Waiting for the transport; waiting for the bombs to come up; waiting for one’s unit to move; waiting for one’s orders; waiting for the shelling to stop; and, above all, waiting for the shell—the solitary whining shell, the last of three that is due from the methodical German battery miles away on the plain—waiting for that to manifest itself in a black cloud, up there; in an unechoing crash, and in a patter, as of raindrops. . . . Yes, one learns to wait. The most impatient temperament, somewhere in France, will be strait-waistcoated into inaction, into introspection.

Nevertheless, that quarter of an hour in the high ante-room, giving on to vistas of other ante-rooms, so that all the noise of the streets, of the city, of the world, and of the war!—no longer exist —that period seemed a lifetime. I don’t know why. In the great anteroom sat three officers in festive blue, a widow in a cloud of black; an attractive young woman of twenty-five or so, in a large hat decorated with cherries—all absolutely motionless, drooping, with eyes on the bright and priceless carpet. The walls showed, in panels, the terraces of Fontainebleau, in purples, in bright yellows, in scarlets. . . . But the atmosphere was that of the eighteenth, the seventeenth, the sixteenth century. One might have been waiting for a scarlet-robed figure to appear between the great folding doors. One might have been waiting for Richelieu or Mazarin. . . .

Yet: “trois jours de permission à Paris”—week-end leave in Paris should not be a matter of serenities or the seventeenth century. And indeed it wasn’t. One dined at Foyot’s, at Prunier’s, at the Café de la Paix: one went to hear Lakmé, and the melodies seemed to turn one’s heart round: one leaned over the balcony of the Opéra Comique looking at the dark streets which after nightfall always seem medieval. And one talked gravely and slowly to a French captain, who talked gravely and slowly—about “là bas,” about the different sectors of the Somme that one had seen—and the marmites and the rum jars and the statue shells. One went to mass at the Madeleine; one promenaded in the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne; one talked literature, philosophy, and the economics of after the war, in the Brasserie Universelle. One even found time to play hide-and-seek with the children in the hotel hall, making a prodigious noise on the marble tiles, and smiled at by adult guests who knew that one had “trois jours de permission”—the rather strained, precocious, bi-lingual children, with black bows and dead fathers. . . .

And Paris, you know, appeared to be exactly the same as Paris always was in September. Not the same as Paris in May, of course; but then it was September. The leaves were beginning to drift down in the Tuileries Gardens, one saw the Champs Elysées in torrents of rain; the Boulevard Saint-Germain was “up” in a complicated manner, of which only Paris has the secret. And, except that people who otherwise would not have hurried themselves for one, smiled and did hurry themselves when one said that one had only “trois jours de permission,” and so was a fit subject for a little spoiling one might very well have been in one’s mufti of three years ago. And indeed I saw fewer uniforms in Paris than I have seen anywhere else since August, 1914. London, when I last saw it, was all khaki; the shires all khaki; Wales all khaki; little Belgium all khaki, and the Somme and Rouen. And you cannot be in any country field of our “somewhere in France” without there being in one corner of it at least half-a-dozen battered men in khaki trousers, performing obscure tasks with shovels under the hedges. Between the immense avenues of poplars go the endless columns of transport wagons, along the uplands the moving notes of platoons, companies, battalions, all dust-colored. And all France of the line south of us is mist-blue.

But Paris seems more unconcerned than any city I have yet seen; engrossed in its daily work beneath the September sun or sitting at the little tables at night, under the plane trees on the boulevards, it goes on, quietly running things. And indeed it is the same everywhere. The French officers are serious, taciturn men, who seldom speak, and when they do speak, speak very slowly. And, “out here,” what there is of the French left is always quiet and solemn, the immense long avenues, the heavy trees, the plough moving slowly, the solitary women sitting in empty houses, the churches into which the shells fall. Except in the short space of no man’s land, and except for spaces on the Somme where there is no blade of grass, but only shell-holes for field on field, France continues engrossed in her daily tasks—right up to the trenches. And even beyond! For, a few yards—yes, a few yards!—behind the German trenches, here one can see men in blue blouses and women in black—getting in the harvest. They are forced to labor by their conquerors. . . .

And at the heart of it are those silent palaces with the seventeenth-century atmosphere, the functionaries looking like British statesmen in evening dress, who are nevertheless only door-openers, and the great functionaries who ask “in what they can be useful to you”—the time-honored formulary which is supposed to lead one to fortune. It did not lead me to fortune, since I only asked the Minister if he could procure us some ferrets—our regimental ferrets having all died. But there are no ferrets in France, not in the Ministries, not in the Jardins des Plantes et d’Acclimatation. That is perhaps a defect of France, but I have perceived no other.

It is, in short, we who play cricket with pick-handles under shell-fire, and with uproarious noises stand round rat holes waiting for the ferrets to drive out our prey. And France regards us with solemn eyes. No doubt comprehension will grow out of it.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diary, 133-4.

Thiepval Falls: Tolkien, Graeme West, Blunden, and a Bunch of Dummies are On Hand; C.E. Montague Leads the Feckless, Kate Luard Takes a Long Walk

aerial_photograph_of_thiepval_bombardment_25-09-1916_iwm_q_63740

Aerial photograph of Thiepval under bombardment, 1916 (Imperial War Museum) The squiggles are German trenches, the pockmarks large-caliber shell holes

Yet another phase of the Somme began today, a century back, with the first assault of the British Reserve Army, a relatively new formation made up of several whole and rested divisions, including the First Canadian Division. Guns on Thiepval Ridge had killed hundreds on July 1st, and progress in that central section of the front had been measured in yards.

But today, in one long afternoon’s struggle, Mouquet Farm and the village of Thiepval finally fell. A few tanks aided the attack, but it was British artillery superiority and a more skillful use of the “walking barrage” and other hard-won infantry/artillery tactics that made the most difference. German resistance was fierce, but even the best-defended fortress can be taken if the artillery remains on it until the infantry arrive–and if there is insufficient footing for a quick counter-attack. British and French progress to the east and south had narrowed Thiepval to something like a salient and–not least because there were other less ruinous lines of defense long prepared and only a few miles to the east–the German commanders soon decided to cede the area and withdraw.

This vanished village, shelled for three months before it was finally taken (see the reconnaissance photo at right), will become the site, after the war, of Edwin Luytens’ Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, one of the great masterpieces of memorial architecture (see below).

None of our writers were in this assault, but several were in direct support. John Ronald Tolkien‘s 11th Lancashire Fusiliers marched from rest billets yesterday as far as Forceville, and today, a century back, they reached Hedauville, a town with a melancholy association for us. Tolkien spent the night sharing a tent with another officer, with camp to be struck in the morning.[1]

 

thiepval_memorial_to_the_missing

The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme

Also marching up into support–and much closer to the action–was Arthur Graeme West of the 6th Ox and Bucks.

Tuesday, Sept. 26th, 1916

Moved at 8.30 towards the Front. Everybody rather fed up and tired. Reached a shell-torn ridge just near G….. about noon… then moved up to occupy trenches near M….. A quiet enough night, but not much sleep.[2]

These would be–I think–either Guillemont or Gunchy and Morval, the desolate places taken between the beginning of the month and yesterday (largely by the battered Guards Division) that lie south of Thiepval and east of the horror-woods of July and August.

In the quieter section of the line north of the Thiepval ridge, Edmund Blunden and the 11th Royal Sussex had a curious part to play in the assault.

Their battalion diary preserves–as an appendix to the month’s doings–several details of the carefully-typed battalion orders. “Appendix B” details the activities of our sweet young poetical subaltern–harmless enough, today, for a man on the edge of Thiepval’s hell. (If only there were a more literary word we might use as a variation for this tired metaphor!)

  1. No smoke will be discharged unless the wind is between South and West. 2/Lt Blunden will be held responsible for this.
  2. 2/Lt. Blunden and 2 N.C.O.’s will assist the Brigade Bombing Officer who will be in charge of the smoke arrangements.

And assist them he did. It is characteristic of his memoir that Blunden modestly fulfills a strange martial task while another man–more rural, more practically skilled–does something altogether more interesting. Smoke screens… and straw-men.

Also, yes, Blunden will deliver that more resonant word for hell…

Recollection paints these autumn weeks in the Beaumont Hamel sector as a tranquil time. Naturally, there on the edge of the Thiepval inferno, there were ungentle interludes….

Other lacerations fell on the battalion in connection with the attacks on Thiepval south of the river. This name Thiepval began to have as familiar and ugly a ring as any place ever mentioned by man; and as yet we knew it by report only. Our present business was to divert some of the enemy’s heavy artillery from it when another forlorn hope was clutching the air before it: we made ostentatious “smoke attacks,” which gave me a change of employment. These attacks deluded some German machine gunners, and drew some shellfire, perhaps intended rather as a snub to impudence than as a genuine display of anxiety. The regimental sergeant-major, talented and gentlemanly Daniels, was ordered, about four one afternoon, to provide several hundred men of straw, which were to be raised above the parapet amid a heavy smoke cloud next morning. There was no straw. But with sandbags and grass and whatever trench theatricalities we could gather, with the aid of the regimental police, the ingenious man produced some dummies before midnight. And, I think, scarcely a dummy was lifted up next morning without becoming a casualty to the machine-guns. A good joke: but with this subaudible meaning, that the operators might have been playing the part of these marionettes, and no doubt would be yet.[3]

The Battalion Diary reports that this subterfuge “had the desired effect of distracting the Enemy & he shrapnelled our Front line & Supports, he also put a shrapnel barage across NO-MANS-LAND. No Casualties resulted.

 

Two brief bits, now, to close a curiously lighthearted day of dancing around the main violence. C. E. Montague is still playing pedagogue (if we might revert to the older sense of the word, in which a man of lower status and greater knowledge leads children to their lessons). He describes his day for his wife, and at least gives us what may be a tongue-in-cheek Rodin reference to sooth our hell-tired eyes:

I picked up my two charges and motored them over to an approach to an interesting part of the front… there was just enough shelling to give our guests thrills and finally decide them to come back, without really endangering them. They got another little thrill afterwards, as the Boche, in his wayward way, suddenly took to shelling the road about half a mile in front of the car–not thickly, but just here and there… you should have seen the way the excitable American chauffeur took the car over the mauvais pas, talking loudly all the time, and sending us flying up from the seats wherever the bumpy road was particularly bumpy. Nothing fell near us, but the guileless civilians imagined they had been in a real hot place, and were talking about having been in the gates of hell, etc., for a long time after… One feels ashamed to be going about with visitors who excite themselves if for two minutes in one day of their lives they run the quite small risk which every man in the trenches is running–and thinking nothing of–all the time. It is as if you and I were to escort the high-heeled tourist across the Mer de Glace.[4]

 

Finally, Kate Luard, whose “diary” for today reminds us that it is, in fact, a series of letters for her family members back in England. Although she has many times deplored the awfulness of violence and always treated German wounded with the utmost compassion, she is still cheered by a familiar English victory:

Great news of two Zepps brought down in Essex… I wonder did you see any of it? Proud moment for the Special Constable who took the 22 Germans prisoner in the middle of the night!

Also, after a harrowing summer, she has found an unexpected pause today in the constant duties of a head nurse. Having packed off three survivors of gangrene who “did their best to die” under her care, Kate Luard and a friend took a long walk–a favorite pastime long months in abeyance–and returned to have their rest immediately disturbed by a gas alarm: siren, then church bell, then village dogs.

It was a false alarm, and so back to bed, “after tea with the Night Sisters.”[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 91.
  2. Diary..., 132.
  3. Undertones of War, 96-7.
  4. C.E. Montague, 144-5.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 90-1.

Phillip Maddison Follows a Coffin; Vera Brittain’s Adventure Abroad Begins; Bimbo Tennant’s Grave; Arthur Graeme West Against the War

London was waking up this morning to the aftermath one of the worst zeppelin raids of the war. Henry Williamson, omnivorous novelist of the war’s notable actions, made use of this event to secure an awkward rapprochement between Phillip Maddison and his father–and to kill off Lily Cornford, the girl who was not good enough for him (socially) and too good for him (morally).

This morning, a century back, Phillip saw the twenty-two coffins of the German air crew, accompanied by an RFC honor guard, and fell in behind, reflecting on what has become a touchstone text of the novel.

Last of all walked Phillip, feeling lost, wondering if the spirits of the dead men were lingering in the autumn air, looking down, faintly curious, at the poor little bodies below. Was Lily there, too? He felt that the dead would not be angry, nor would they know any more fear. If only he could write poetry in which his feelings, and the scenes he had known, would live forever, like Julian Grenfell’s poem.[1]

But he can’t, and, inasmuch as Williamson’s hard-driven and haphazardly-elaborated themes can be summarized, the death of Lily and Phillip’s segue away from a period of Grenfell-idealizing (in which, not coincidentally, he performs bravely under fire on the Somme after several early instances of experiencing panic under fire) into a more introspective mode. We’ll pick up Phillip’s story in the next volume, when he is in France once more.

 

In a truer but somewhat attenuated incidence of historical irony, the raid qualified as something like a near miss for Vera Brittain. Yesterday she had bid farewell to her mother and brother in Camberwell before setting off for her eponymous liner. As her brother Edward will write, bombs fell on the site of their goodbyes not twenty-four hours after she had left to brave the threat of German submarines for hazardous service abroad: “The windows of the White Horse were smashed–just where Mother and I passed that morning after saying good-bye to you.”

We have come as far as air raids and U-boats: Julian Grenfell and the heroic tradition be damned, there is no need to go “Into Battle–” modern war will come to you.

And yet, if War brings movement and new opportunity–combined with manageable levels of danger and deprivation–it is not going to shake entirely free of its long conceptual partnership with Romance. Today is also the beginning of an adventure for a young woman who, for all the misery of hospital service and the death of her beloved, has been sheltered from both the terrors and the freedoms that 20th century war can bring… Malta is very far from Buxton.

Sunday September 24th Britannic

First thing in the morning Gower & I wandered over the ship, exploring the lower wards. A hospital ship is a very wonderful thing, but when I saw the swinging iron cots & realised the stuffiness of the lower decks even when empty, I was thankful that fate had not ordered me to serve on a hospital ship. We heard during the morning that our voyage was going to be much longer than we had hitherto supposed, for the Britannic, being too large to put in at Malta, would go straight to Mudros…

I felt no especial pang when I saw England disappear; it was all part of the hard path which I have assigned to myself to tread. So that my chief sentiments were much those of Roland’s verse written from my point of view (how truly prophetic He did not know) & which came into my mind as I stood on the boat deck–

I walk alone, although the way is long,
And with gaunt briars & nettles overgrown;
Though little feet are frail, in purpose strong
I walk alone.

And again I had that very strong feeling that in spite of the long distance that there was to be between me & all the people I loved, I was not really going very far away, and that no separation, so long as those who were separated were still on earth, could be so very great.[2]

Ah, but she is being brave. Looking back, Brittain will admit to terror.

Now that the perils of the sea were really at hand, the terror that had hung over me since I volunteered for foreign service and for one grim second had gripped me by the throat when Betty told me that we were going to Malta, somehow seemed less imminent. The expensive equipment of our cabins was illogically reassuring; those polished tables and bevelled mirrors looked so inappropriate for the bottom of the sea… it was difficult on so warm and calm an evening to convince one’s self that at any moment might come a loud explosion, followed by a cold, choky death in the smooth black water…[3]

 

This is a young imagination, only–although the threat of submarines is all too real. But young Bim Tennant, as polished and bevelled a young man as any mother could wish for, is really dead.

Today, a century back, his hasty grave was consolidated by the survivors of his battalion. His commanding officer’s letter to the family is the first of many letters of condolence which Lady Glenconner will receive and later excerpt in her memoir:

… We all loved him, and his loss is terrible. Please accept my deepest sympathy. His Company was holding a sap occupied by Germans and ourselves, a block separated the two. Bim was sniping when he was killed absolutely instantaneously by a German sniper. His body is buried in a cemetery near Guillemont. The grave is close to that of Raymond Asquith, and we are placing a Cross upon it and railing it round to-day. Forgive this scribble, we are still in action, and attack again to-morrow morning. Bim was such a gallant boy.

Yours very sincerely,

Henry Seymour,

Lt.-Col., 4th Batt. Grenadier Guards.[4]

 

Perhaps, with Bimbo Tennant dead and buried and the Somme not yet behind us, this is a good time to turn to an officer-writer I’ve been neglecting. Arthur Graeme West is as near to the temperamental opposite of Bim as we are likely to find. A gentle, quiet, middle-class Public Schoolboy, West had gone to Balliol and taken an interest in modern philosophy and radical politics. After some soul-searching he had tried for a commission in 1914, but was turned down, like so many others, due to poor eyesight. But the Public Schools Battalion accepted him, and he saw the trenches in 1915, including hard fighting over the winter of 1915-16. Not much of his writing from this period, however, is available, and so we met him only briefly in the spring.

It was then that West was commissioned and trained as an officer, despite his increasingly strong feeling that the war was inexcusable murder. And so, ironically, he missed the slaughter of his old unit on the Somme. He arrived in France earlier this month, an unwilling subaltern of the 6th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and we will now begin to have somewhat regular reports on his feelings and doings.

West is hard to get a handle on–in part because of the vexed nature of the publication of his writing–but by now he is certainly firm in his central conviction: that war is wrong, its evils mitigated neither by heroism nor by the stoic virtues of sacrifice and endurance.

How can a man with such views lead other men? It’s hard to tell; for the time being he works through his problem as if it were his problem alone.

Sunday, Sept. 24th 1916. A Tent.

I am very unhappy. I wish to make clear to myself why, and to thrash out what my desires really tend to.

I am unhappier than I ever was last year, and this not only because I have been separated from my friends or because I am simply more tired of the war.

It is because my whole outlook towards the thing has altered. I endured what I did endure last year patiently, believing I was doing a right and reasonable thing. I had not thought out the position of the pacifist and the conscientious objector, I was always sympathetic to these people, but never considered whether my place ought not been rather among them than where I actually was. Then I came back to England feeling rather like the noble crusader or explorer who has given up much for his friend but who is not going to be sentimental or overbearing about it, though he regards himself as somehow different from and above those who have not endured as he has done…

“This war is trivial, for all its vastness,” says B. Russell, and so I feel. I am being pained, bored, and maddened—and to what end? It is the uselessness of it that annoys me. I had once regarded it as inevitable; now I don’t believe it was, and had I been in full possession of my reasoning powers when the war began, I would never have joined the Army. To have taken a stand against the whole thing, against the very conception of force, even when employed against force, would have really been my happier and truer course.

The war so filled up my perspective at first that I could not see anything close because of it: most people are still like that…

Most men fight, if not happily, at any rate patiently, sure of the necessity and usefulness of their work. So did I
once! Now it all looks to me so absurd and brutal that I can only force myself to continue in a kind of dream-state;
I hypnotise myself to undergo it…

Even granting it was necessary to resist Germany by arms at the beginning—and this I have yet most carefully to examine—why go on?

Can no peace be concluded?

Is it not known to both armies that each is utterly weary and heartsick?

Of course it is. Then why, in God’s name, go on?

…The argument drawn from the sufferings of the men in the trenches, from the almost universal sacrifices to duty, are not valid against this. Endurance is hard, but not meritorious simply because it is endurance. We are confronted with two sets of martyrs here–those of the trenches, and those of the tribunal and the civil prison, and not by any means are the former necessarily in the right.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Golden Virgin, 446.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 328-9.
  3. Testament of Youth, 295-6.
  4. Memoir, 238.
  5. Diary..., 109-11.

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.

Two Powerful Poems from Isaac Rosenberg, in France; Siegfried Sassoon on the Ghosts of a Century Hence; Edward Thomas and the Little Lines of Lust; Lord Crawford, Raymond Asquith, and Vera Brittain Learn of Jutland

Isaac Rosenberg arrived in Le Havre today, a century back, aboard the SS Clementine. During the crossing he wrote a poem and a fragment. If, dear reader, you have perused any of Rosenberg’s Moses (and perhaps been baffled), you might find that this little bit is already a fierce leap forward. The same gnomic, growling force is there, the same willingness to go to the old books and tug their thick fibers into some semblance of a modern poem. But it works better, I think, in one focused fragment: Rosenberg hasn’t seen the trenches yet, but he knows already to go to a blind, loathsome, earth-dweller to strike at the foul core of the current war.

A worm fed on the heart of Corinth,
Babylon and Rome.
Not Paris raped tall Helen,
But this incestuous worm,
Who lured her vivid beauty
To his amorphous sleep.
England! famous as Helen
Is thy bethothal sung.
To him the shadowless,
More amorous than Solomon.
And yet it is still opaque… and fragmentary.

 

Not so this one, which even the anti-biographical skeptic must concede has grown from the daily experience of the author:

The Troop Ship

Grotesque and queerly huddled
Contortionists to twist
The sleepy soul to a sleep,
We lie all sorts of ways
And cannot sleep.
The wet wind is so cold,
And the lurching men so careless,
That, should you drop to a doze,
Wind’s fumble or men’s feet
Is on your face.

It’s hard not to see Rosenberg–his background so different to that of most of our poets–as, in some sense, on a much more artistically promising trajectory. He has been kept down, by circumstance, and he has held himself back. He is small and weak, but wiry and coiled, and he is angry and raw and breaking new ground even as he first touches French soil…[1]

 

Usually, here, irony is thrust upon us, but we can also scratch up our own. Of all the poets it is Rosenberg, right now, who burns most intensely with a focused ambition, and who–a child of the slums, a bantam private–most naturally understands his poetry as a burgeoning force in danger of being smothered in its infancy by the overwhelming weight of the war. Edward Thomas has striven mightily–but, you know, in an understated, hesitating, Thomist sort of way–to keep the war and his poetry separate. But just last week he acknowledged the impossibility of keeping that up with a stately, long-lined masterpiece and began to reorient his military career toward France.

So, then, his next poem will be a big war poem, right?

After you speak
And what you meant
Is plain,
My eyes
Meet yours that mean,
With your cheeks and hair,
Something more wise,
More dark,
And far different.
Even so the lark
Loves dust
And nestles in it
The minute
Before he must
Soar in lone flight
So far,
Like a black star
He seems–
A mote
Of singing dust
Afloat
Above,
The dreams
And sheds no light.
I know your lust
Is love.

 

Nope. Instead it’s Thomas’s most frankly sexual poem. A farewell to Edna? An erotic jeux d’esprit? Who knows, but it’s certainly a rare new shaft in our quiver of lark poems…

 

So, poetry. But in our daily march we must react along with our writers–generally two or three days afterwards–to the headline news. Today, then, the disaster–and qualified victory–of Jutland is on many minds.

Vera Brittain has been home recuperating from a fever. But today, a century back,[2] she prepared to take up her nursing work once again.

I returned to a London seething with bewildered excitement over the battle of Jutland. Were we celebrating a glorious naval victory or lamenting an ignominious defeat? We hardly knew; and each fresh edition of the newspapers obscured rather than illuminated this really quite important distinction. The one indisputable fact was that hundreds of young men, many of then midshipmen only just in their teens, had gone down without hope of rescue or understanding of the issue to a cold, anonymous grave.[3]

 

Private Lord Crawford‘s reaction is somewhat different:

Saturday, 3 June 1916

When hard at work clearing up in the theatre, a staff man came in telling us of the disastrous news from the fleet. I nearly fainted… In comes a subaltern called Hopcroft, was told the naval news, and the only comment he offered was, ‘oh, how very annoying’. I could have knocked the man down. At night, there are rumours that we did better than the official despatch indicates. But our actual losses are almost stupefying.[4]

The Navy has let down the side–or, rather, the shipbuilders and the naval decision-makers have, with their failure to anticipate German plunging fire.

 

I’m fairly sure that it is unwise to continue to introduce new writers, here. Too many subalterns! Arthur Graeme West is a tricky one, too–angry, bitter, and the keeper of a frank but irregular diary. He may end up being a significant contributor here, but perhaps not. Regardless, I can’t resist juxtaposing his diary entry of today with old Lord Crawford.

The serious defeat of the Fleet in the North Sea–as we believe it to be–has produced little effect in most men who talked loudly of national honour and prestige. They rushed to buy papers this morning in haste to find out what had happened, laughed scornfully at the Navy’s anti-climax, remarked that it was on the Army, and Kitchener’s Army at that, on which he had to depend: and then they seemed to forget all about it…

It is in face of such a calamity, so stunning in its sudden impact, and forming such an ironic background to the dance of mankind, that I am rejoiced at my sense of nothingness and utter lack of importance.[5]

 

So the news is all bad lately–but this does mean that  Raymond Asquith is in his element, writing today, a century back, to Sybil Hart-Davis

3rd Batt. Grenadier Guards
3.6.16

After 5 very enjoyable days in the salient (which smells strongly at this season of dead Scotchmen) I marched through the deep green com field of Belgium in the cool of the summer morning to a wayside camp, as one might walk home through Covent Garden from the din and clatter of a ball, and was much pleased to find your letter awaiting me.

Now that the Huns have conquered Italy and Greece and sunk all our ships and killed all our Canadians and all but taken Verdun I suppose it will be the turn of the British Army next. Well, well, there is much to be said for being quietly under the sod.

He is just so good at being… himself. Asquith, King of the Coterie, old-fashioned rapier wit driven home with the almost-up-to-date kick of a Vickers. So witty! And yet, in his own way, he is still writing–posing, performing–a serious subject. He stares his own death in the face, and, with a deft turn, he rejects his own de rigueur rejection of all seriousness:

And yet I feel that I have a kick or two–not more–in me yet…

We have been marching like hell for the last two days along hot and dusty roads and have now got so far away from the enemy that we are allowed not to wear gas helmets or shrapnel helmets or anti-lachrymatory goggles or revolvers or field glasses or periscopes or breastplates or field dressings or any of the other knickknacks that make us so terrible in battle.

But at any moment we may be whipped back into the soup. Still, it is so long now since I have been allowed to stay in bed after 5 a.m. that a battle would do me a fair treat.[6]

 

So, battle and possible death await. But are we downhearted? No!

Au contraire: we are ready for a long musing bit from Siegfried Sassoon, on our future–our very day, indeed. And ghosts, and literature:

June 3

Lorries a mile away, creeping along the green and yellow ridges of the June landscape like large insects. A partridge runs out of the rustling blades of corn, and hurries back again. The afternoon sky is full of large clouds, and broad beams of light lead the eyes up to a half-hidden sun. A fresh breeze comes from the north-west. Miles of green country as far as I can see, and trees dark green against the sky’s white edge. A lark goes up, and takes my heart with him. Several soldiers straggle across the view…

Ah, just in time–very well done. Sassoon has the poet’s vision which, in this benighted age, begs for cinematic (or video, I suppose) metaphor: he holds the frame full of this natural vision, and then, at the last moment the landscape is penetrated by these small, ominous, straggling, struggling human figures.

But Sassoon’s thoughts stray, now, from men who are barely there to those who aren’t there at all. Unless they are:

I was thinking this evening (as I sat out in the garden with the sun low behind the roofs and a chilly wind shaking the big aspens) that if there really are such things as ghosts, and I’m not prepared to gainsay the fact–or illusion–if there are ghosts, then they will be all over this battle-front forever. I think the ghosts at Troy are all too tired to show themselves–and Odysseus has sailed into the sunset never to return. The grim old campaigns of bowmen and knights and pikemen may have their spectral anniversaries–one never hears of them. But the old Flanders wars have been wiped out by these new slaughterings and the din of our big guns that shatter and obliterate towns and villages, and dig pits in every field, and lay waste pleasant green woods–scared the old phantoms far away. Or do they still watch the struggle?

Wait for it, wait for it…

I can imagine that, in a hundred or two hundred or two thousand years, when wars are waged in the air and under the ground, these French roads will be haunted by a silent traffic of sliding lorries and jolting waggons and tilting limbers, all going silently about their business. Some staring peasant or stranger will see them siIhouetted against the pale edge of a night sky… a battalion transport–with the sergeant riding in front, and brake-men hanging on behind the limbers, taking rations to .the trenches that were filled in hundreds of years ago. And there will be ghostly working-parties coming home to billets long after midnight, filing along deserted tracks among the cornlands, men with round basin-helmets, and rifles slung on their shoulders, puffing at ambrosial Woodbines—and sometimes the horizon will wink with the flash of a gun, and insubstantial shells will hurry across the upper air and melt innocuous in nothingness.

And the trenches—where the trenches used to be–there will be grim old bomb-fights in the craters and wounded men cursing; and patrols will catch their breath, and crawl out from tangles of wire, and sentries will peer over the parapets, fingering the trigger—doubtful whether to shoot or send for the sergeant. And I shall be there—looking for Germans with my revolver and my knobkerrie and two Mills-bombs in each pocket, having hair-breadth escapes–crawling in the long grass–wallowing in the mud–crouching in shell-holes–hearing the Hun sentries cough and shift their feet, and click their bolts; I shall be there–slipping back into our trench, and laughing with my men at the fun I’ve had out in no-man’s-land. And I’ll be watching a frosty dawn come up beyond the misty hills and naked trees–with never a touch of cold in my feet or fingers, and perhaps taking a nip of rum from a never-emptying flask. And all the horrors will be there and agonies be endured again; but over all will be the same peaceful starlight—the same eternal cloudlands—and in those dusty hearts an undying sense of valour and sacrifice. And though our ghosts be as dreams; those good things will be as they are now, a light in the thick darkness and a crown.[7]

As Asquith the society wit juxtaposes clever mockery with mortal fear and a quiet hope for some form of understated heroism, Sassoon the rural poet expands his vision into the undiscovered country and the unlived century–and finds peace and happiness. We will have miserable, terrifying ghosts; lachrymose ghosts and traumatizing ghosts; clutching ghosts and vengeful ghosts, before out poets’ words are spent (and we have already had mouthless ghosts). But for Sassoon, now, we have comradely ghosts, a vision that validates the present day, at least as it applies to the fighting units themselves.  These are army ghosts, apolitical and stoic ghosts, plying the hunting grounds–not happy, exactly, yet marked by laughter and friendly tippling instead of terror–terror of no man’s land.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 308-10.
  2. Or possibly yesterday.
  3. Testament of Youth, 271.
  4. Private Lord Crawford, 176.
  5. West, Diary, 78.
  6. Life and Letters, 266.
  7. Diaries, 71-2.