Siegfried Sassoon is Blighty Bound… and Eighteen Other Updates

Although I am almost as tired of writing extremely long posts as you are of reading them, so very many of our writers committed some sort of date-fixable act today, a century back, that I thought I should nod to the fates and survey everyone who showed up.[1]

After we wrap up with Siegfried Sassoon, withdrawn from the Hindenburg trench to the Hindenburg tunnel with a new “patriotic perforation” in his shoulder, and after we read the progress of Edward Hermon‘s widow, I will try to be judiciously brief with the others. Somehow, yesterday, Sassoon was not only seen and treated by the battalion Medical Officer, but was swiftly evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station. Within hours of being held back from an attempted one-man bombing war, he is tucked in and headed for Blighty.

April 17

After a blessed eight hours’ sleep (more than I’d had since last Wednesday) I waited till 5 o’clock reading Far from the Madding Crowd, when we got on board a Red Cross train of serpentine length. Five hundred men and thirty-two officers on board. Warlencourt is eighteen kilometres from Arras—quite near Saulty, where we stayed on April 7. We passed through Doullens about 6 p.m. and Abbeville at 8.30 and reached Camiferes at midnight.

An officer called Kerr is with me—one of the First Cameronians. He was hit in the bombing show about an hour before I got up there on Monday morning, so I’ve got some sidelights on what really happened.

At present I am still feeling warlike, and quite prepared to go back to the line in a few weeks. My wound is fairly comfortable, and will be healed in a fortnight, they say. I know it would be best for me not to go back to England, where I should probably be landed for at least three months, and return to the line in July or August, with all the hell and wrench of coming back and settling down to be gone through again. I think I’ve established a very strong position in the Second Battalion in the five weeks I was with them. My luck never deserts me; it seems inevitable
for me to be cast for the part of ‘leading hero!’

Things to remember

The dull red rainy dawn on Sunday April 15, when we had relieved the 15th Northumberland Fusiliers—our Company of eighty men taking over a frontage of nine hundred yards.

During the relief—stumbling along the trench in the dusk, dead men and living lying against the sides of the trench one never knew which were dead and which living. Dead and living were very nearly one, for death was in all our hearts. Kirkby shaking dead German[2] by the shoulder to ask him the way.

On April 14 the 19th Brigade attacked at 5.30 a.m. I looked across at the hill where a round red sun was coming up. The hill was deeply shadowed and grey-blue, and all the Country was full of shell-flashes and drifting smoke. A battle picture.

Scene in the Hénin Dressing Station. The two bad cases—abdomen (hopeless) and ankle. The pitiful parson. My walk with Mansfield.

Sergeant Baldwin (A. Company) his impassive demeanour—like a well-trained footman. ‘My officer’s been hit.’ He bound up my wound.[3]

As these notes suggest, there will be a good deal more to write about all this.

 

A few days after learning of her husband’s death, Ethel Hermon received the heartfelt letter from his long-time manservant Gordon Buxton.

Dear Buxton,

Your letter came this morning & I can never thank you enough for your loving care of him & your sympathy & prayers. I knew you would be heartbroken & that I should have all your sympathy as you probably knew as well as anyone could know how much we were to each other.

You will by now have had my other letter telling you that I have asked Gen. Trevor… to let you come home if it is possible as I simply long to talk to you… I seem to know all that pen & paper can tell, one just longs to talk to someone who was there…

I should leave it there, as we press on into this massively choral day. To summarize, Ethel also charges Buckin with seeing that her husband’s valuable and useful possessions are distributed to his friends, and that the items that had been personal, close to his body–“the old basin & cover & its contents”–be returned to her. She hopes, too, that he can care for her husband’s grave. Which he will do–and he will come home.

A British tank ditched in the German lines at Arras, IWM

Dear Mrs. Hermon,

I’m sending this note by Buxton who goes on leave today to report to you. He will bring the papers etc. found on your husband…

…a tank was caught up on the German front line… & the Boches were firing at it… there seems little doubt that one these rifle bullets hit your husband just below the heart… The medical officer tells me he thinks a big blood vessel below the heart was severed & that death was almost instantaneous.

Your husband’s horses are being sent to Div. Hd. Qrs with the groom…

I can only repeat how much I feel for you in your irreparable loss.

Yours very sincerely,

H.E. Trevor[4]

 

Kate Luard‘s parade of horrors (we’ve read but a little, lately) has abated, as the Arras push lags. So time for a stroll–and paperwork.

We have had a lull the last two days, and everybody has been off duty long enough to go for a walk in relays and pick Lent lilies, cowslips, and anemones…  I believe another stunt is expected tomorrow…

I got about 60 behind in Break-the-News letters the first few days of last week…[5]

 

Ivor Gurney, realizing perhaps that he is even more lucky to be wounded and out of it than he had thought, managed a post card today to Marion Scott:

Dear Friend: Still at the Base. No certain address. No certain tomorrow. No luck. No money. No damage to my arm, save a hole. Yet, had the boats been running, I might have got to Blighty…[6]

 

Let’s see: what else is happening with the Great War writers?

 

Christopher Wiseman arrived in Harrogate to visit John Ronald Tolkien, and to help him in compiling a memorial volume of their friend G.B. Smith’s work.[7]

 

In fiction, today is the key date in “The Colonel’s Shoes,” a curious supernatural shaggy-dog short story by Ford Madox Hueffer. It’s a tale told in retrospect that hinges on bitter, childish infighting among a few officers and plays out in the orderly room of their overworked battalion. Today, a century back, a vindictive captain writes up a Company-Sergeant-Major for perceived insubordination, and it will take a very, very minor miracle to set things right…[8]

 

And after the excitement of last night’s chaotic patrol, tonight’s action provided tension in a lower key for Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. Ordered to move forward under cover of darkness and entrench within 200 yards of the Germans, Pollard accidentally led his men all the way up to the German wire obstacles. But once again “Fritz was keeping a very bad watch” and Pollard and his men are able to withdraw to the proper distance and begin entrenching before they are discovered. Pollard being Pollard, he ascertains that the battalion on his left is in the wrong position and blusters back under fire to explain his prowess and sure grasp of the situation to the Brigadier, as well as the embarrassed colonel of that neighboring battalion…[9]

 

Rowland Feilding missed the first week of the battle, but it is now the lot of his battalion to hold trenches in the worst possible weather, and fight the same war of patrol and counter-patrol.

April 17, 1917. “‘Turnerstown Left” (Fierstraat Sector).

I think this year must be accursed. Never was a fouler day than to-day. After a wet night it is still raining this morning, and the wind is howling dismally, but overhead. There are points, after all, in being in a trench. The French seem to have made a spectacular re-entry into the arena yesterday, but they must have been greatly handicapped by the weather, like our men at Vimy.

Last night we captured two big Prussian Grenadiers (unwounded) on our wire. They were brought to my dugout at 2 a.m., looking frightened—with their hands still outstretched in the orthodox manner of the surrendered prisoner who desires to show that he is not armed; coated with mud; one bleeding from a tear from the wire; but neither seeming too unhappy. If one only knew German this would be the proper time to extract information. They are too scared to lie much. Later, when they find out how kindly is the British soldier, they become sly and independent.[10]

 

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, whose harrowing summer was followed by a long spell of peaceful staff work, was sent back to his battalion today, a century back, taking over C Company of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers. We hear time and again how officers pine for their comrades and their men when they are sent off to safe billets and cushy staff positions–not so Griffith, who “set off despondently” to return to the hardships of the line.[11]

 

And with another Kitchener battalion of the Royal Welch, David Jones is also heading back toward the front.

On the 17th, in wind and sleet, they left for divisional reserve at Roussel Farm–the cold mud so deep that it took hours to pass through 400 yards of communication trench. They arrived at 3.30 a.m.[12]

 

Henry Williamson “wrote a lot of letters” today, including one to his mother enclosing a piece of army propaganda about German demoralization and one to his father describing the roar of the big naval guns, the sight of a British tanker driven mad by the gunfire concentrated on his tank, and the recent transaction of parcels: cake and bullseyes to Henry in France, and souvenirs–including “2 tin boxes of bombs, etc., and 3 lovely helmets… & a saw bayonet”–sent home.[13]

 

Vera Brittain remains too far from the front, and full of worry. To her brother Edward, today, a century back:

I have to keep on writing letters, because the vague bits of news from France that filter through to us make me so anxious to receive them. From the long list of names that appear in the telegrams there seems to be a vast battle going on along the whole of our front & the French one too, but it is very difficult to make out at all what is happening. Is Geoffrey anywhere in the Bapaume direction? The longer the War goes on, the more one’s concern in the whole immense business seems to centre itself upon the few beings still left that one cares about, & the less upon the general issue of the struggle. One’s personal interest wears one’s patriotism rather threadbare by this time. After all, it is a garment one has had to wear for a very long time, so there’s not much wonder if it is beginning to get a little shabby![14]

Looking back on this night, she will add these thoughts:

Yet another night’s red moon, I thought, looking up after finishing Edward’s letter at the ominous glow in the unquiet sky. Another night, and still no news. Is Victor still alive? Is Geoffrey? Oh, God–it’s intolerable to be out here, knowing nothing till ages afterwards, but just wondering and wondering what has happened![15]

 

Jack Martin, in billets at Dickebusch, took today to write out fairly lengthy pen-portraits of some of his comrades… but I’m only human…[16]

 

Vivian de Sola Pinto, working for weeks now at the Bull Ring near Rouen, records today’s date–I would guess a scrap of his orders was preserved, for there are few dates and few such specifics in his book–as the occasion of a “huge fatigue party” that spent the entire day loading lorries. But it was also a memorable occasion because the station from which he was to supervise the loading contained a sergeant and two classes of furniture: a comfy chair and a biscuit tin.

With wry approval de Sola Pinto notes the sergeant’s insistence–“a fine example of what I would call a manly spirit of volunteer subordination”–that the officer take the better chair, despite the fact that both of them “knew he was an infinitely better soldier than I should ever be.” de Sola Pinto insists on taking turns, but recognizes that the Sergeant’s principled, if nominal, subordination “actually enhanced” his dignity.[17]

 

George Coppard, recovered from the accidental shooting in the foot, arrived today at “Camiers, a reception base for drafts.”[18]

 

C.E. Montague wrote both a letter and a diary entry recording his view of the battle from close behind. Wise though he is, he still feels bereft that his old companions are in battle and he is not. And he shows what a man with the time for literary composition on his hands can do. This is a good mix of eyewitness reportage and refined “battle-piece” history.

April 17, 1917

…Behold me again in the midst of our long-drawn battles—-meet incidents of our long-drawn war.

I saw the beginning of this one, before daylight on the morning of the 9th, from a little height above our front, from which I could see all our guns flash off together at the second of starting, like a beaded line of electric lights all turned on from one switch, and then each of them turned on and off and on again as fast as possible by a switch of its own. At intervals beyond this line of flashes there were the big geysers of flame, and dark objects visible in the middle of it, spouting up from our mines under the German front trench; and then at every two or three hundred yards there went up signal rockets from the German trenches, that seemed like visible shrieks to their artillery and supports to protect them from our infantry, who, they knew, were then on their way across from our trenches. I could see all this going on along several miles of front, and it was strangely dramatic, though all expressed through lights in the darkness alone, until the day broke and we could see our infantry already beyond the second line of enemy trenches and sauntering across quietly to the third, with our barrage of smoke walking steadily in front of them like the pillar of smoke in the desert—only of course it cannot give complete safety; and now and then the line would have a gap made in it by a shell and would join up again across the gap, and go strolling, with the strange look of leisureliness that an infantry charge of the scientific kind has now, until the time comes to rush the last few yards and jump down into the enemy’s trench.

It is grievous to to think that my battalion has twice had this great moment since I left it last midsummer, and that I may never know any more thrilling contact with the enemy than mutual sniping and a little reconnoitring of ground between his trenches and ours. The only compensation, so far as it goes, is that I see much more of the war and of the front as a whole, and the battlefield of the moment in particular, than one sees when engaged in honest regimental labour.

And in his diary:

Miles and miles of our front begin to dance in the dark, with twinkling and shimmering flashes. Suggests a long keyboard on which notes of light are being swiftly played. Then, from points all along German front, signal red and white and green rockets go up. Also ‘golden rains’ of our liquid fire, and one or two mine volcanoes. Dawn breaks on this firework show. Then on to a huge earthwork, an outwork of Arras citadel and lie on safe side and look over with fieldglass. Our infantry visible advancing in successive waves to take the second German trench-line N.E. of
Arras. Disquieted flocks of rooks. Then to Divl. H.Q., to find good news.

 

Charles Carrington‘s writing is honest, balanced, and well-informed. But he generally takes pains to, as they say, accentuate the positive. His morale and that of his unit’s was generally good–they have not despaired, they are more grim and more devoted to each other when they have started, but they would not acknowledge any sea change in their motivations, etc. But some days–and some nights, like last night, a century back, as they pressed up through the wreckage of this second push at Arras–were enough to drive a man to madness, despair, and self-slaughter. Last night he huddled under trench mortars; today was worse.

…In the morning, when we advanced unopposed, I passed the corpse of a British sergeant, not of my regiment. He lay on his back holding a revolver in his hand, shot through the throat at such an angle that I wondered if it had been suicide. If I had been suicidally inclined that night would have driven me to it.[19]

 

Edwin Vaughan and his battalion have been following the attack as well, and he writes voluminously of these days. But given his sensitive nature and penchant for drama, I don’t think he would mind my making this the representative incident:

At the Epéhy crossroads, we found a huge cat squatting on the chest of a dead German, eating his face. It made us sick to see it, and I sent two men to chase it away. As they approached it sprang snarling at them, but they beat it down with their rifles and drove it into the ruined houses. Then we covered the body with a sack, and went on.[20]

 

But we’ll end in Britain, in safety, and in the boudoir, where Duff Cooper has also been engaged in dire combat. Patrick Shaw-Stewart has been called back to war, but Cooper’s worries about other adversaries have pushed him closer to total war. Or, at least, to warfare unbefitting a gentleman. During Diana Manners‘ temporary absence from their long house party in Scotland he had been “obliged”–this is four days ago, a century back–to take a bath in her room. Where he opened and read her locked diary.[21]

It was rather vile of me…

It was, and we’ll skip the justifications. Amazingly, Cooper is both moved by learning “how much she loved Raymond” and urged to take action against his living rivals for her affection, including one Wimborne and a Lt-Col. Wilson who, of course, is known as “Scatters.”

There is no reference to me in the diary that I could quarrel with but I do not think she loves me… I rose from the perusal of this intimate diary which I had no right to read, loving, liking, and admiring her more than before.

And somehow this added up to progress. Cooper confessed his deed and was not banished. In fact, by last night he was reading her pages of his diary, then listening in agony outside her door while she (scandalously) entertained “Scatters” in the wee hours of today, a century back, and then returning in before dawn to wake her up with recrimination.

She cried and reproached me bitterly with not trusting and spying on her. I felt in the wrong and implored forgiveness which only after long pleading she granted. Then we had a night of the most wild and perfect joy. The best perhaps we ever had.[22]

And somewhere, every dawn, some men attack, and many sighs are drained.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This may be--I joke here, almost completely, and with full apology for trespassing on the sanctity of life-or-death experience "from my armchair" (three words which I omitted from the Memoirs yesterday; but the armchair was only one possible destiny, for Sassoon)--the centennial blogger equivalent of Sassoon's mood at the very end of his escapade, yesterday, a century back...
  2. See Sassoon's "The Rear Guard," at the bottom of that post.
  3. Diaries, 156-7.
  4. For Love and Courage, 355, 358.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 114.
  6. War Letters, 155.
  7. Chronicle, 100.
  8. War Prose, 159-69.
  9. Fire-Eater, 209-11.
  10. War Letters to a Wife, 168.
  11. Griffith, Up to Mametz and Beyond, 138.
  12. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 153.
  13. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 119-20.
  14. Letters from a Lost Generation, 334-5.
  15. Testament of Youth, 339.
  16. Sapper Martin, 60-4.
  17. The City that Shone, 190.
  18. With a Machine Gun, 106.
  19. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 145.
  20. Some Desperate Glory, 95-6.
  21. What, I ask you, is the point of all of that fancy classical education if Cooper can pull up and manage some allusion to Actaeon, transformed into a deer and torn apart by his own hounds after seeing Artemis in the bath. Perhaps, as he considers leaving the Foreign Office for the Army, the vengeful hounds of his old hunting partners, become ravening ghosts, perhaps, are a bit too frightening to contemplate.
  22. Duff Cooper Diaries, 50-1.

Siegfried Sassoon Bombs Busily Along; Charles Carrington’s Half-Conscious Nightmare; Alf Pollard Finds the Germans, and Loses Some Men; Vera Brittain’s Immense Fact and General Malaise

We are surrounded by the Battle of Arras. We’ll finish in Malta, where Vera Brittain waits for news, and most of the post will follow Siegfried Sassoon‘s latest turn as “Mad Jack” in the developing battle. But we’ll begin with two other members of the supporting cast, each within a few miles of Sassoon, and each sharing important aspects of his experience.

The Battle of Arras, now in its second week, is neither trench-warfare-as-usual nor a matter of major “over the top” assaults, those strange aberrations in military history in which lines of troops abandon their subterranean life in order to move over open country, their shoulders hunched against the shell fire. Instead we have something rather like the tough, ceaseless, street-by-street urban warfare of later wars, with the trenches and strongpoints standing in for ruined cities. The weather, a cruel abridgement of the recent turn toward spring, only increases the misery.

 

Charles Carrington has been in the battle since near the beginning, but he remembered tonight, a century back, as one of the worst:

After many exacting days and freezing nights we finished with a night attack against two German outposts on 16th April, the date of Nivelle’s offensive that was to have finished the war. Our petty skirmish was for us as deadly as the greatest battle was for him. Again it was dark and wet, with a drizzle that turned to snow until before dawn a blizzard was blowing. Two of our companies blundered into one another and opened fire. The assaulting party ran into uncut wire which they could not see. They dug themselves in and waited for dawn when the Germans cleverly slipped away. That night my horse, impressed for duty as a pack pony to carry ammunition to the front line, died of exposure and so, very nearly, did its master, to whom the whole episode was a half-conscious nightmare of fluttering trench-mortar bombs, the kind we called ‘grey pigeons’, coming down through driving snow…[1]

 

And Alf Pollard, back in the nick of time, is out in front of the battle, and looking for more of a fight. The Honourable Artillery Company are north and east of Arras, where the advance has already taken several lines of German trenches–but not yet the local section of the Hindenburg Line.

On the afternoon of the 16th, a Brigade Major carefully examined this trench system through his binoculars, and, failing to observe any signs of life, came to the conclusion that Fritz must have fallen back even further. He at once issued orders that patrols were to be sent out.

Pollard volunteers, and asks to take only four men, since he has more experience with small patrols and, like Sassoon, likes to gallivant more or less on his own. But he is required to take an unwieldy twelve, as per staff orders. The thirteen men set out after nightfall, in moonless, rainy darkness. Feeling their way slowly between Gavrelle and Oppy Wood, they eventually reached the German line without encountering any signs of life, noisily cut their way through the wire, and reached the parapet of the trench. Almost by chance Pollard discovers that they are at the entrance to an occupied German dugout–the trench system is strongly held, but the sentries are either incompetent or derelict in their duties, sheltering from the cold rain.

The patrol has achieved its object, so Pollard withdraws–only to discover, back in No Man’s Land, that one of his men is missing. Two others have been left holding a hole in another portion of No Man’s Land while the remaining eight are now told to wait for him on a small ridge between the lines. Pollard takes a runner and goes back to the edge of the German trenches to look for the missing man–and this time they are discovered.

Someone challenged me sharply from the trench. I spun round in time to see the flash of his rifle. I fired two shots and heard him yell as I hit him.

The firing gave the alarm. Men were appearing in the trench like magic. Reggie and I were caught like rats in a trap. It would have been impossible to have broken our way out through the wire without offering a sitting target to the enemy.

There was only one thing to do. I seized Reggie by the arm and ran. Down the parapet we fled was fast as our legs would take us. Star-shells were going up in all directions. By their light I could see that the trench was of a pattern known as island traversed. That meant that here were two trenches parallel with one another joined at short intervals by cross-cuts. At intervals along the parapet were squares of concrete which I knew to be machine-gun emplacements. I realised it was a position that would take a lot of capturing.

We must have covered well over a hundred yards before I spotted it. It was a miracle that I saw it at all–just a narrow gap in the wire entanglement left so that the holders of the trench could get out easily if they wished to. I darted into it with Reggie close on my heels. It zig-zagged through both lines of wire. In a moment we were free of our cage…

Pollard and Reggie crawl back toward their lines, now sheltered by the thick belts of wire. But when the firing drops, they know a German patrol is coming after them. Pollard outfoxes the patrol by sheltering under the wire–so close to the German lines that the Germans overlook them. This is one of the places where Pollard’s memoir feels indistinguishable from a boy’s story of play-war–he is thrilled at the success of this simple stratagem, hiding by the seeker’s home base.

Once the patrol returns to its trenches, Pollard and Reggie meet up with the main group of their own patrol on the little ridge. They return to their own lines and all is well–the German line has been located and confirmed as being in an active state of defense, and Pollard, his eyes on bigger prizes, casually notes that they “gave me a bar to my Military Cross for that show.”

But this is sketchy sort of decoration, despite Pollard’s relish in describing his exploit. “He carried out a dangerous reconnaissance of the enemy’s front line,” as the citation will read–apparently all the other patrols sent out failed to find the Germans. But there is no mention in Pollard’s account of the missing man. Worse, he does mention that he simply forgot to pick up the two others who had been left on their own, and these are later learned to have been found by the German patrol that Pollard and the runner eluded. One was killed, another was taken prisoner, and the original man seems to have remained missing–not the most successful of all patrols.[2]

 

The action of today, a century back–a “bombing stunt” along the tunnels and trenches of the Hindenburg Line, fills an entire chapter of Siegfried Sassoon‘s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. So we’ll read it instead in its entirety in its first written form, his diary of tonight, a century back:

April 16

At 3 a.m. the attack began on Fontaine-les-Croisilles. I sat in the First Cameronians H.Q. down in the tunnel until nearly 6, when I was told to despatch twenty-five bombers to help their B. Company in the Hindenburg front line. I took them up myself and got there just as they had been badly driven back after taking several hundred yards of the trench. They seemed to have run out of bombs, failing to block the trench etc, and were in a state of wind-up. However the sun was shining, and the trench was not so difficult to deal with as I had expected.

My party (from A. Company) were in a very jaded condition owing to the perfectly bloody time they’ve been having lately, but they pulled themselves together fine and we soon had the Bosches checked and pushed them back nearly four hundred yards. When we’d been there about twenty-five minutes I got a sniper’s bullet through the shoulder and was no good for about a quarter of an hour. Luckily it didn’t bleed much. Afterwards the rest of our men came up and the Cameronians were recalled, leaving me to deal with the show with about seventy men and a
fair amount of bombs, but no Lewis-guns.

I was just preparing to start bombing up the trench again when a message camp from Colonel Chaplin [of the Cameronians] saying we must not advance any more owing to the people on each side having failed to advance, and ordering me to come away, as he was sending someone up to take over. I left the trench about 9.45. Got wound seen to at our Aid Post in the tunnel, walked to Hénin—and was told to walk on to Boyelles. Got there very beat, having foot-slogged about four kilometres through mud. Was put on a motor-bus and jolted for an hour and a half to Warlencourt (20th Casualty Clearing Station) and told to expect to go to England. Written about 7.30 p.m. with rain pelting on the roof and wind very cold. I hate to think of the poor old Battalion being relieved on such a night after the ghastly discomforts of the last six days. The only blessing is that our losses have been very slight. Only about a dozen of my party to-day—most of them slight. No one killed. My wound is hurting like hell, the tetanus injection has made me very chilly and queer, and I am half-dead for lack of sleep, sitting in a chair in my same old clothes—puttees and all—and not having been offered even a wash. Never mind—‘For I’ve sped through O Life! O Sun!'[3]

And so the diary ends, for today. Sassoon is once again a hero, and he is wounded, and, managing to ride the falling edge of adrenaline and the rising tide of pain and exhaustion, he is writer enough to smoothly end the diary with an appropriate quotation, from Robert Graves‘s “Escape.” But what has this action-packed account omitted, and what has it emphasized?

The main points are confirmed by another writer in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle–as are the two necessary interpretive conclusions:

April 16th–At 3.A.M. the attack of two days ago was repeated… This was another dud show… Sassoon, a very stout man, was wounded in Tunnel Trench: his craving to renew the attack was not allowed.[4]

Sassoon was very brave, once again, and once again unnecessarily aggressive. We’ve seen enough of his moody self-doubt and in the diary to recognize that he is not playing a role, here–or not playing it in any dishonesty to himself, if that makes any sense. If it’s a performance, as all social endeavors to some degree are, then it’s all method…

Whatever Sassoon’s thoughts about the war, whatever his feelings about the wrecked bodies he has passed to get to this point, the battalion commands his loyalty, and his responsibility is to lead. He doesn’t talk about his men often–it seems like a dubious cliché, but I do think this burden of leadership was assumed, in both senses, by men of his social position, right along with the code of behavior that forbade complaining about it–but whenever he does it is clear that he is highly motivated by his determination to do right by them. If physically leading the way and taking the greatest risks is not always quite a satisfactory answer to the entire question, well, neither was it a bad start. Tonight, a century back, Frank Richards spoke to

an old soldier and one of the few survivors of old B Company who had taken part in the bombing raid. He said, ‘God strike me pink, Dick, it would have done your eyes good to have seen young Sassoon in that bombing stunt… It was a bloody treat to see the way he took the lead. He was the best officer I have seen in the line or out since Mr. Fletcher… If he don’t get the Victoria Cross for this stunt I’m a bloody Dutchman…”[5]

A good officer–and a fox hunting man with a Dutchman’s name.

Siegfried has been absurdly fortunate: not only is he safely wounded, but none of his men are killed or badly hurt. And the chance he wanted so badly fell into his lap, and he took it… it almost seems as if the half-committed pacifist, half-despairing lost boy of the last few months stamped his foot in willful insistence until the war begrudgingly gave him exactly what he wanted…  But the rough narrative of a successful fight won’t remain the full story–it’s only the brassy initial theme, and the undertones and variations won’t stay silent for very long. The war has given him horror, too, and no sure solace: if death-defying aggression can salve his conscience now, the memory of it will not last forever. Does Sassoon recognize this as clearly as he recognizes his good luck in merely not being killed?

I could go on and on, but I shouldn’t. Given the constraints of this project and the length of his memoir, there’s no real way to take it on here, except to point out to readers this excellent opportunity to see what “voice” can do–or, rather, how much an author’s control of irony and tone from his secure position of future knowledge can influence our sense of the meaning of events, even if they are, in terms of factual detail, recounted fairly faithfully. Sassoon will not pretend to understand the mood that produced this bombing stunt, nor will he condemn it. But he does deflate his own heroics with more jabs than are strictly necessary.

Some very brief excerpts, then, beginning when Sassoon goes ahead of his own men and meets up with a corporal of the Cameronians, the unit which he is meant to support:

(Looking back on that emergency… I find some difficulty in believing that I was there at all.) For about ten minutes we dodged and stumbled up a narrow winding trench…

…we went round the next bay. There my adventurous ardour experienced a sobering shock. A fair-haired Scotch private was lying at the side of the trench in a pool of his own blood… I slung a couple of combat at our invisible enemies, receiving in replay an egg-bomb, which exploded harmlessly behind me. After that I went bombing busily along, while the corporal (more artful and efficient than I was) dodged in and out of the saps–a precaution which I should have forgotten… in this manner [we] arrived at our objective without getting more than a few glimpses of retreating field-grey figures. I had no idea where our objective was, but the corporal informed me that we had reached it, and he seemed to know his business. This, curiously enough, was the first time either of us had spoken since we met.

Does the skill of the self-satire make us forget the blood? Is it lurid, absurd? Is it remarkable that the clueless toff is good at bombing Germans out of their trenches, or only that he is such a clueless toff in the first place, and can’t provide a more conventionally meaningful narrative? (Or is that the point, that this sense of boyish silliness can’t coexist in the same rational narrative as the suffering and death from which it is inextricable? Where are the bodies? Who are the men killed or wounded by Sassoon’s bombs? Can they really exist in a story that plays alliteration for laughs and turns men hunting other men into figures of drawing room comedy?)

Ignoring Jeeves, Bertie trips blithely on:

The whole affair had been so easy that I felt like pushing on… I thought what a queer state of things it all was, and then decided to take a peep at the surrounding country. This was a mistake which ought to have put an end to my terrestrial adventures, for no sooner had I popped my silly head out of the sap than I felt a stupendous blow in the back between my shoulders…

Sassoon comes to, and finds his own sergeant binding a neat bullet wound. (And I am reminded that Sassoon himself will note that he felt as if he were being ministered to by a well-trained servant, a characterization which no doubt prompted my Wodehouse reference, above.)

After a short spell of being deflated and sorry for myself, I began to feel rabidly heroical again, but in a slightly different style, since I was now a wounded hero, with my arm in a superfluous sling…

So, overly enthusiastic heroism? Proper, “very stout” aggression?

But what if it tips over into something else? The Sassoon of the diary doesn’t seem to realize that charging on, shot through the shoulder, beyond his objective–the very act that got him in hot water over the summer–is close to crazy. He will, though…

It did not occur to me that anything else was happening on Allenby’s Army Front except my own little show…[6]

 

Far away from all this, Vera Brittain is busy with her duties as a nurse in Malta, but she has also been pining, restive. Malta was a charming and wonderful novelty, her first experience of foreign living. But it’s also a base hospital on a safe island–demanding work, but far from the center of the action. The mails are slow, and her conversations with Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow lag weeks behind their actions. She cannot know whether they have been involved in the spring offensive. She is neither near the front nor near the young men she feels most close to.

When she picked up her diary today, a century back, for the first time in many weeks, it was to report her reawakening wanderlust:

April 16th Malta

Had a short letter from Miss Lorimer to say she is going out as an orderly to one of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals at Salonika. I want to go there more than ever.[7]

And then she wrote to Geoffrey Thurlow, who–though she cannot know this–has missed the initial Arras attack, but is about to be thrown in to the next desperate effort to shove the Germans back just a little bit more.

Malta, 16 April 1917

You are really a good correspondent; Mother says you are ‘most faithful’ to her too. Not like Victor, whose letters are few & far between, & very short when they do come. To me, at any rate, he conveys most by what he leaves unsaid. I have been rather anxious about him this last week, for last time I heard of his whereabouts he was at Arras, & I feel sure he must have been in the great battle–which at present we here only know of as an immense Fact, shorn of all its details. I hope you didn’t get into, even the fringe of it.

That is well put. For us the immense fact remains, outlined or obscured by clouds of innumerable details… but we still have to make a story.

I have been off-duty for a day or two with a bad throat & general malaise, but am back again to-night. I am beginning to be glad that I came out when I did, and not straight into the kind of weather that is just beginning. The nights are still quite cool but the days are getting very hot . . . The sirocco is blowing to-night in a hateful way, rushing down the stone verandah, & making the doors & shutters creak & groan. To me this particular wind always seems fraught with sinister things; it hides the stars, so that the night is as black as ink, & makes the men peevish & sends their temperatures up.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 144-5.
  2. Fire-Eater, 203-9.
  3. Diaries, 155-6.
  4. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 329.
  5. Old Soldiers Never Die, 227.
  6. Complete Memoirs, 440-5.
  7. Chronicle of Youth, 339.
  8. Letters From a Lost Generation, 334-5.

Edward Thomas Can’t Stay to Tea; Kate Luard Plates her Moss; Bob Hermon Admires the New Knights; Covering the Retreat with Rudyard Kipling and Charles Carrington; St. Patrick’s Day in France and Revolution in England

The bad nights are spreading, a century back. From the Somme north to Arras, where Edward Thomas is roiled by nightmares.

A horrible night of bombardment, and the only time I slept I dreamt I was at home and couldn’t stay to tea… Then the most glorious bright high clear morning… A beautiful day, sunny with pale cloudless sky and W. wind, but cold in O.P. Clear nightfall with curled, cinerous cloud and then a cloudless night with pale stains in sky over where Bosh is burning a village or something…[1]

 

No, that’s not right–nightmares aren’t the real story. Most of our hardy souls are doing what they can to treat late winter as if it might be early spring. Kate Luard likes nothing better than wildflowers (especially if she can take a long walk and gather them herself), but an experienced Nursing Sister makes do.

Saturday, March 17th, and no sign of any buds out anywhere in these parts. I’ve got a plate of moss with a celandine plant in the middle, and a few sprouting twigs of honeysuckle that you generally find in January, and also a bluebell bulb in a jam tin…[2]

 

No, no, that’s not quite right either. Actually, many of our writers who are not yet engaged in combat are able to appreciate all that is traditional and right with the war. No need for winter or spring when chivalry abides! Any guesses whom Bob Hermon has just laid eyes on?

There’s been some wonderful air fights here today. There is a Hun who flies a bright scarlet machine & is real hot stuff. He seems to be a sort of star flyer & does most of the fighting. He is a real gallant fellow & we all admire him.[3]

The Red Baron himself.

 

But there is, of course, a ground war on. One of the reasons that Richtofen has been released to roam is that the German aircraft are getting their first crack at what will become a crucial task of tactical air power: covering the movement of infantry. Let’s step back two days (and south to the Somme) to see how the Guards are getting on with following up the German withdrawal:

Captain Alexander took our two forward companies… the German shelling was intense. They used 5.9’s and larger, as they were firing from a long way back. The trouble for the 2nd Irish Guards companies developed almost at once on their left, where their patrol was fired at by machine-guns from a German trench on the edge of the wood. Their own 1st Battalion, trying to push out of Sailly-Saillisel, was hung up, too — they heard and saw it — for the same reason. The Division could have driven through at the cost of fairly heavy casualties, but nothing was to be gained by wasting men in rushes on hidden machine-guns that can lay out thirty good lives in two minutes. The Scots Guards got on into the wood without much trouble at first, till they, too, ran on snipers between tree-stumps and up and down the defaced trenches, or opened some single machine-gun slinking from cover to cover. It was all slow “feeling,” with alternating advances at walking pace, and long checks — “something like drawing a gorse for wolves instead of foxes…”

As they worked their way more into St. Pierre Vaast Wood came the sensation, which there was no mistaking, that they were being played with by the Hun, and losing touch as he intended them to do. Certain vital trenches would be controlled by a few snipers and machine-guns; a sunk road offering shelter would be plastered with heavies, and a full company would be held in it, digging for more cover, by dead accurate long-range fire; while far and far behind the orderly German withdrawal of the main body continued in peace.

On the 17th March, for example, “we were never really in touch with the enemy’s rear-guard during the day except for one or two snipers…”

Which brings this narrative-of-a-period to today. But a little analysis of the general effectiveness of the German withdrawal is worth our while, too:

Here is the comment of the time and the place on our advance: “The German retreat was conducted very skilfully. One cannot say that we caused them to leave one position an hour before they intended. They inflicted upon us a considerable number of casualties (twenty in this battalion, while on our left the 1st Battalion lost considerably more). On the other hand, we saw no evidence that in the actual retirement we had even damaged one German. They left little or nothing behind.”

And the professional judgment is equally fair. “But of course it must be remembered that the task of the (German) regimental officers was an easy one, however difficult it may have been for the Staff. Given time, there is no difficulty in withdrawing battalions from trenches by night, for a few snipers and machine-gunners, knowing the ground, and retreating from trench to trench, can hang up an advance indefinitely unless the troops advancing have strong reserves and are prepared for heavy losses.”

This last was not our situation… things had to be done as cheaply as possible…

We are generally in sure hands when Rudyard Kipling takes up the military narrative–this is a work of memorial devotion, remember, and he suppresses his polemical opinions unless he feels that they are an echo of the those of the officer corps he is writing about. But we are in excellent hands when the worst of the war must be invoked on the scale of the battalion history–neither pointillistically subordinated to a grand narrative nor awash in the subjectivities of the personal.

The advance of the Second Irish Guards

…led them into a stale hell which had once been soil of France but was now beyond grace, hope, or redemption. Most of the larger trees in St. Pierre Vaast were cut down, and the smaller ones split by shell or tooth-brushed by machine-gun fire. The ground was bog, studded with a few island-like formations of fire-trench, unrevetted, unboarded, with little dug-outs ten or twelve feet deep, all wet and filthy. There were no regular latrines. Numberless steel helmets and heaps of stick-bombs lay about under foot. The garrisons must have been deadly uncomfortable, and there was good evidence that the enemy had economised men beyond anything that we dared. The ground had been cut to bits by our fire, and in one place yawned what had been a battery position wiped out, unseeing and unseen, weeks ago, as the dead teams round it testified. Very few booby-traps were left behind. The Battalion lost only five men in all through this cause.[4]

 

After several nights in No Man’s Land as patrols pushed into the old German lines, Charles Carrington too learned, today, how successful the German withdrawal had been:

This time, the morning of the 17th March, they really had gone. My captain went forward for orders and presently sent me back word to bring the company over the top, by daylight… to the German front line.

I cannot explain the consternation caused by this order. For two years no one had raised a hand over the parapet by daylight unless in the stress of battle and covered by an artillery barrage. Tired as we were… we were exhilarated. Open fighting had come…

It had not, of course, but Carrington remembers the high mood of the next few days as they pursued the Germans east toward the new line of defenses–which the British officers all knew of, of course, even if they could not realize its strength. There was the thrill of moving and of seeing cavalry units trotting about over open country. But this was not a victory:

The main German forces had gone when we moved forward, having burnt every house, blown up every church, public building and ancient monument, broken every bridge and culvert, mined every crossroads, polluted every well. They had carried away all the able-bodied men and women into captivity, leaving the old and feeble concentrated in one or two villages; and–which seemed to distress the French most–they had even found time to ring-bark the apple-trees in the cider orchards. The country was dead, laid waste with a destructive fervour worse than anything in the Thirty Years War… When we marched into Peronne… we saw a huge notice erected on the town hall: ‘NICHT ARGERN NUR WUNDERN’, ‘Don’t be angry, only wonder!’ Indeed it puzzled us a good deal. We were not angry but delighted that so large a region of France should be liberated and if we had any astonishment left it was at the ingenuities of German barbarity. What they had not destroyed they had defiled…

The sequel is not prettier, and it is a good deal bloodier than Kipling’s account of the Irish Guards:

On the first day we lost two officers from my mess, one shot by a German sniper when leading the advance guard, the other caught by a booby trap. In a German dugout he had sat down in a chair and had drawn it up to the table, thus igniting the fuse of a concealed bomb…[5]

 

So it goes. In the strangeness of this advance, many things are forgotten. What was missing from Kipling’s account of the Irish Guards today? (Other than deadly booby traps, which surely varied by location).

It says something about the English perspective of the officers that St. Patrick’s Day went unmentioned in the history of an Irish unit. Not so with the First Inniskillings, out of the line resting near Corbie after several days of following the German withdrawal, and counting among their number the poet Francis Ledwidge:

In the morning there was an issue of shamrock to all the Irishmen. The Australians, who happened to be going into action that day, also asked for shamrock and wore it in their caps. Most of the forenoon was taken-up with a church
parade…  In the afternoon, the Inniskilling fife and drum band played in the village to the great delight of the French children, who crowded around them. The men got up a concert for themselves in the afternoon. The officers went into Corbie, that night for dinner. The rations were greatly stepped up in honour of the feast and there was a good dinner too, in the mess, after which most of the men also went into town to sample the estaminets. These kept
open very late, as they did on Christmas Day. Despite the army concessions, however, commemorating their patron saint in such a setting inevitably made the Irishmen melancholy.[6]

 

And here’s a good example of why I hardly mention (or don’t cover at all, really) grand strategy and international affairs, despite their enormous influence on the war: their immediate effects are almost never felt by fighting soldiers. But here’s a strange example, in a tale told by the officer currently narrating in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle of the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers. He began a long-awaited leave today, a century back, taking a train to the coast and then a boat for England:

We had a fine crossing–to what? On debarking we were ordered to report at once to our local police, and be in readiness for any emergency.

Uniquely, the officers on leave found themselves marshaled to deal with expected unrest, as the government feared a rising in sympathy with the early stages of the Russian Revolution. There is sympathy, at first, in the officer’s voice–“the political air was sharpened” by privation and the wealth of war profiteers, by “the slaughter of the Somme.” And then much less sympathy: the conclusion, looking back from a later point in time, is that a wicked alliance of convenience has formed between armchair theorist liberals and trade unionists that will pressure the government into foolish concessions “to the serious hurt of the Army.”[7]

 

That is surely enough for today–unless you would prefer to close the day with Edward Thomas, in a quiet mood, writing a long letter to his wife Helen, and reflecting in relative tranquility on last night’s anxieties.

17 March 1917 Arras

Dearest

This has been quite a good day at the O.P. [Observation Post] and after a bad night of heavy shelling. The morning was bright and clear and all day long the sun shone and the sky has been pale and without a cloud. I have been drawing little panoramas.

Those I had done last time are more interesting now because the Old Hun has been destroying many of the buildings on the skyline. Tonight he is burning something away in that direction. The sky is lit up with two big glows beyond the crest. It hasn’t been tedious at all, and now we are installed in our dug out which hardly anything could penetrate. It is so small that if one moves the other five have to.

I am wondering if a letter has come for me at last. I think in any case I will keep this till I do hear, though Bronwen’s letter implied that there was nothing abnormal.

To cram this little room still more the men insisted on dragging in one of the box spring mattresses from the other place. They had to cut it to fit it in at all, and now three of us are sitting on it; we have a door up, a fire going, one candle alight and can only hear the rustle of a Daily Mail.

Now it is 11 p.m. I have to be awake till 12. Then I sleep until 6 unless I am wanted which I shall be unless the night is quite quiet. So far there has only been a distant roll now and then as I sat reading ‘Julius Ceasar’, warm in front because of the fire, cold behind because of a door leading up into the street.

I dreamt (almost for the first time since I left home) last night — a very feeble dream, that I was at home but did not stay to tea.

I don’t know who was there. I was a sort of visitor and I could not stay to tea. I think Baba asked if I wouldn’t stay to tea.

Every hour the telephonist tests the line to see if it is O.K. He has just done it and there is another hour to go before I begin to lie on those very bouncy springs…[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 170.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 101.
  3. For Love and Courage, 338.
  4. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 120-1.
  5. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 138-42. Carrington, writing later, is careful--I think that's an appropriate qualification--to represent the innocence/confidence that still obtained, in his experience, in 1917, and only a few paragraphs after the booby traps he is making claims once again for the effectiveness (and gloriousness) of cavalry...
  6. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 173-4.
  7. The War the Infantry Knew, 304-5.
  8. Letters to Helen, 84-7.

Charles Carrington on Patrol; Edward Hermon’s Mud Piece

Charles Carrington ended his description of yesterday, a century back, with the wry observation that the only way to test the true extent of the German withdrawal was “to send an officer to look. If they shot him dead we should know they were still there.”

Early in the morning of 15th March I crept in from my patrol at Biaches with the information that I had not heard a sound; I thought they had gone. Not I, but the next subaltern for duty, took a fighting patrol and entered the German trench. He could find no one, but as he withdrew to report he was fired upon and lost a man. Evidently there were some scattered rearguards left behind and who could say in what strength…

It would be suicide for us to advance without preparation, if even a few machine-guns had been left to hold us off.[1]

They had been, and the Warwickshires–along with the 2/Irish Guards and a number of other units on the southern Somme frontage–will creep forward over the next few days, forced to choose between speed and safety as the main German force completed its withdrawal to the Siegfried Stellung, a.k.a. the Hindenburg Line. The rearguards–snipers and machine-gunners, supported by artillery which could fire very accurately on what had been their own trenches–were able to exact a higher toll than they suffered. Unless a very high value is put on the slice of territory regained, this is necessarily a losing proposition for the allies, in the terms of a war of attrition. Not only will they suffer as they chase the German withdrawal, but their new lines must be built under German observation from their own completed and carefully sited positions.

 

Edward Hermon–Bob to all and sundry–is sill holding the line in Arras, which is at the northern end of the withdrawal, where the new lines are not very far back from the current positions. He takes it in turn, today, to weigh in on the environmental matter of the moment. After a frigid February, a decisive thaw has created some of the war’s worst mud, which will make pursuing the Germans even more challenging.

If Hermon can be a somewhat too earnest writer–plodding, one might say, and literal–when it comes to describing emotional extremes, he is in his element today:[2]

Out again once more after a very bad tour so far as weather conditions were concerned. We went in, in a hard frost & the trenches were like a pavement. Then we had snow & rain with the result that the last four days of our tour were really terrible. The mud was in evidence to a degree that I have never seen before, men literally up to their knees in it. One morning I got absolutely stuck going round the line & looked round to see my runner stuck too about 10 yards behind, There we were, quite immovable. After a most frantic struggle I managed to get on the parapet & get to my runner & took his rifle, then got him out.

This will give you some idea of what one means by mud in the trenches. However, we got out alright & I was well cheered up on getting in by finding three lovely letters from you…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 138.
  2. I apologize; that is too many bad puns at once. It's muddy!
  3. For Love and Courage, 336-7.

Edwin Vaughan Completes a Horrible Task; Probing the German Withdrawal with Henry Williamson, Charles Carrington, and Kipling’s Irish; Kate Luard’s Combat Boots

As last night turned to today, a century back, Edwin Vaughan and his men worked to exhume the bodies of the four men entombed in their dugout, including Sergeant Bennett, brother of the Corporal Bennett who had been killed the day before. It was a gruesome task, and slow, and under intermittent German trench mortar fire.

…it was early morning when we got them all out… we buried them in shell-holes and walled in the dugouts with earth and sandbags,…

As we left the cellar and climbed out on to the top I was forced to pause and moralize, gazing over the vaguely visible line of trench: to think of the mad fate which dragged simple, kind-hearted men into these nights of terror and destruction. Mostly my mind was occupied with the third Bennett who was by now waiting at our transport lines. I pictured him returning with messages from home fro his two brothers… From where I stood I could faintly see the roughness of the ground which marked where they were lying a hundred yards apart.

But life goes on. The battalion is relieved today–in both the military and the psychological senses–and by the time dawn broke, they “were safe.”

We were out of the mud and muck, away from the bombs and shells, the rain and darkness, the blood and smells. Out in the free air where we could walk erect and talk aloud. The wonderful freedom drove away our weariness and our hunger; with our heavy packs we ran and jumped over shell-holes, laughed and sang and drawing our revolvers potted at birds which shrugged their shoulders and flew off. When a GS waggon met us and the driver said that he had been sent to carry us back, we laughed merrily, telling him to go on and pick up our troops and we would be at Eclusier two hours before him.[1]

 

Charles Carrington‘s memoirs are excellent–a prominent member of the second team of Great War all-stars–but very short on dates. This winter his 1/5th Warwickshires have been holding trenches near the southern end of the British line, on the River Somme itself, and Carrington provides undated descriptions of cold in the trenches and tense patrols over the ice of No Man’s Land. His battalion has lately been in reserve, but today, a century back, they are going up to attend to a new task: probing the recent German withdrawal. Carrington is notably level-headed, which makes him a good source to prove a point that comes up several times this week, namely the relative importance, to our writers, of grand strategic/political events on the one hand and local affairs on the other:

On 14th March, when we paraded to move up from Eclusier to the front line of Biaches, a communiqué from G.H.Q. was read out on parade. There had been a Revolution in Russia and the Liberals had seized power. The news was applauded, since we supposed that Russia would now have a constitution like our own with the consequence that their war effort would be better managed. World politics faded out of our consciousness as we applied ourselves to the questions whether, and how the Boches would retire. The only way to find out was to send an officer to look. If they shot him dead we should know they were still there.[2]

We’ll pick that up tomorrow–the method of probing forward, that is, rather than the political news–but the signs are good: just a few miles to the north, the Guards Division had sent out just such an officer’s patrol, and it was reported that the German front line was abandoned. At dusk the 2nd Irish Guards were taking over the German trenches they had lately been facing…[3]

 

Henry Williamson is a few miles to the north, working to supply his Machine Gun Company as they push forward in support of infantry units like Carrington’s.

Dear Mother

I am pipped a bit in left arm otherwise OK, am not going to hospital, all right in a week. Sures we’ve had an awful time. We have pushed the Ger back some…

What happened to the wise boy of a few weeks ago, who warned his mother against believing that the withdrawal constituted a victory? For that matter, why is there no mention of this tiny wound in his diary?

Williamson’s only constant is a nervous toggling between various incompatible states of mind. This letter, for instance, goes on to exaggerate the German bombardment and then to chide his mother for her epistolary shortcomings: “All your letters are the same try & vary them old thing.”

But I will give young Henry credit for a positive change: his last letter featured some really terrible pseudo-Romantic verse. This one included a sheet of pleasantly peppy doggerel:

Mid the thunder of the cannon, as the dusk of evening falls,
And the star shells hang and glitter thro’ the broken shell-scarred walls.
In the corner by the brazier, on an empty biscuit case
Sits a lonely English soldier with the firelight on his face…

There are eight more verses describing the beloved face that the soldier imagines in the fire… which are made awkward by the romantic style of address and the fact that an accompanying sketch seems to indicate that they are directed at his mother…[4]

 

It’s a little prim, I suppose, to follow Williamson with a more trustworthy local source… I didn’t really intend it that way! Luck of the daily draw, etc.. Nevertheless, Kate Luard–who would be tenderly amused by a vulnerable young officer like Williamson, but not so far as to stand for his self-serving disingenuousness–can at least confirm the mud:

Wednesday, March 14th. Pouring cats and dogs all night and most of the day; quagmires everywhere. I have got officer’s gumboots now from Ordnance, big enough for me to wear two pairs of men’s socks over my stockings, and therefore possible to wear all day without getting trench feet…

The other five sisters arrived to-day… They are good children and are only amused at the mud, and the ration butter, and lamps instead of fires, and no baths…[5]

 

And finally, today, a meta-war note: we’re not quite at the thousandth day of the war, but, due to the handful of run-up posts in the spring and early summer of 2014 this is, according to the little tally on my “dashboard” screen, the 1,000th post on A Century Back… and I am free to imagine that somewhere some brave soul is up on a ladder putting the cross-stroke into their two-hundredth cluster of tally marks…

I really should have provided, at the very least, some sort of merit badge template to be downloaded, printed, and colored in by any readers who have read all thousand… apologies. But then again not preparing for what lurks in the future is an important principle, here. Nevertheless, whenever you began reading, thank you for doing so, and I do hope you’ll stay on for the duration…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 48-50.
  2. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 137-8.
  3. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 119.
  4. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 95-6.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 100-1.

Rogerson, Blunden, and Carrington on the Edge of the Beaumont Hamel Battle; The Tragedy of Edwin Dyett Begins; Saki Sick in the Line; Frederic Manning, and Bourne’s Band of Brothers, Under Fire

Today, a century back, is a day of battle. In keeping with the usual procedure, here, I will not attempt any broad description of the action–it is “in the histories,” as one of our writers will note. It’s the last convulsion of the Somme, the last, exhausted shove forward into the battered German positions that if been in the British sights since July. It’s an especially notable day, here, because several of our most evocative memoir-writers were under fire–and because its events loomed large in two of the war’s most vividly rendered fictional lives, Frederic Manning‘s Bourne and A.P. Herbert’s Penrose.

We will begin with two writers on the outskirts of the battle, and work our way in from there. First, Sidney Rogerson, awaiting the return of his marauding Corporal Robinson.

About midnight Robinson reappeared, looking like some vendor of cheap jewellery at a fair. He was garlanded with watch-chains, and his pockets and haversack bulged with the haul of his gruesome search. He reported his return  to me and added “You know that shell-hole with the two dead Jerries in it where I had to shelter last night, sir? Well, there aren’t two. It’s the same Jerry, sir, only his head has been blown across the other side of the hole!”

This news he gave me with the cheerful air of one correcting a piece of false information, with no hint of either horror or disgust.

Forthwith he proceeded to spread out his trophies on the fire-step as if arranging a shop-counter… There were six or seven German watches complete with chains, two gold rings, an automatic pistol, several pocket-books…

As per his unofficial orders, he has also collected twenty pay books, which will serve as proof of decease for the British dead. I’ll pass over more discussion of parcels, trench cooking, and a rare admission that some of the infantry’s complaints about their own artillery may have been ill-founded, in order to get us to today’s main event. An officer named Hawley is just receiving a cup of hot café au lait brewed from a casualty’s parcel,

…when suddenly the flashing of a distant line of light lit up the night sky above the trench. Silence. A great cool rush of steel overhead. Then the roar of a thousand guns rushed upon us and over us, submerging us in a sea of sound. Hawley jumped, spilt scalding liquid down his chin, swore vigorously…

But the barrage–a feint, on their section of the front–is over quickly. Not so elsewhere.

And that is how we were unwittingly stallholders for one of the biggest shows of the Year of Grace, 1916. A few miles north of us the 5th Army had attacked on a wide front. It is known to history as the Battle of Beaumont Hamel. But this we only learnt afterwards. At the time of the assault we drank, smoked, and sang with never a thought for the thousands of lives being choked out by bullet, bayonet, or bomb within a few miles of us. We were content to know someone else was “for it.”

…simultaneously with the 5th Army’s offensive far away to the left, the French had attacked on a smaller scale some few hundred yards to our right, and the front line troops had found themselves in the orchestra stalls for a battle-piece. According to Mac the spectacle was so fantastic as to be scarcely credible. Pressing the metaphor of the theatre, the stage, seen through the curtain of the early morning misty, was lit by the dancing flames of the barrage, the din of which, drowning all else, gave the muted movement of a silent film…

This second-hand description of the French attack continues for a long paragraph–it’s very good, especially with our Fussellian interest in the “theater of war.” But as some of those lives being choked out on the left concern us, we will tread, fearfully, northward.[1]

 

Next comes Edmund Blunden‘s appreciation of Beaumont Hamel, viewed from near the Schwaben Redoubt.

Our own part was subsidiary, and the main blow was to be struck northward toward Grandcourt and Beaumont Hamel. Struck it was in the shabby clammy morning of November 13th.

That was a feat of arms vying with any recorded. The enemy was surprised and beaten. From Thiepval Wood battalions of our own division sprang out, passed mud and wire and took the tiny village of St. Pierre Divion with its enormous labyrinth, and almost two thousand Germans in the galleries there. Beyond the curving Ancre, the Highlanders and the Royal Naval Division overran Beaucourt and Beaumont, strongholds of the finest; and as this news came in fragments and rumours to us in Thiepval, we felt as if we were being left behind. Toward four o’clock orders came that we were to supply three hundred men that night, to carry up wiring materials to positions in advance of those newly captured, those positions to be reconnoitred immediately. This meant me.

A runner called Johnson, a red-cheeked, silent youth, was the only man available, and we set off at once, seeing that there was a heavy barrage eastward, but knowing that it was best not to think about it. What light the grudging day had permitted was now almost extinct, and the mist had changed into a drizzle; we passed the site of Thiepval Crucifix, and the junction of Fiennes Trench and St. Martin’s Lane (a wide pond of grayness), then the Schwaben — few people about, white lights whirling up north of the Ancre, and the shouldering hills north and east gathering inimical mass in their wan illusion. Crossing scarcely discernible scrawls of redoubts and communications, I saw an officer peeping from a little length of trench, and went to him. “Is this our front line?” “Dunno: you get down off there; you’ll be hit.” He shivered in his mackintosh sheet. His chin quivered; this blackness was coming down cruelly fast. “Get down.” He spoke with a sort of anger. By some curious inward concentration on the matter of finding the way, I had not much noticed the frantic dance of high explosive now almost around us. At this minute, a man, or a ghost, went by, and I tried to follow his course down the next slope and along a desperate valley; then I said to Johnson: “The front line must be ahead here still; come on.” We were now in the dark, and before we realized it, inside a barrage; never had shells seemed so torrentially swift, so murderous; they seemed to swoop over one’s shoulder. We ran, we tore ourselves out of the clay to run, and lived. The shells at last skidded and spattered behind us, and now where were we? We went on.

Monstrously black a hill rose up before us; we crossed; then I thought I knew where we were. These heavy timber shelters with the great openings were evidently howitzer positions, and they had not been long evacuated, I thought, stooping hurriedly over those dead men in field-gray overcoats at the entrances, and others in “foxholes” near by. The lights flying up northward, where the most deafening noise was roaring along the river valley, showed these things in their unnatural glimmer; and the men’s coats were yet comparatively clean, and their attitudes most lifelike. Again we went on, and climbed the false immensity of another ridge, when several rifles and a maxim opened upon us, and very close they were. We retreated aslant down the slope, and as we did so I saw the wide lagoons of the Ancre silvering in the Beaucourt lights, and decided our course. Now running, crouching, we worked along the valley, then sharply turning, through huge holes and over great hunks of earth, came along high ground above what had been St. Pierre Divion, expecting to be caught at every second; then we plunged through that waterfall of shells, the British and German barrages alike now slackening; and were challenged at last, in English. We had come back from an accidental tour into enemy country, and blessed with silent gladness the shell hole in which, blowing their own trumpets in the spirit of their morning’s success, were members of four or five different units of our division. We lay down in the mud a moment or two, and recovered our senses.

The way to Thiepval was simpler. At the edge of the wood a couple of great shells burst almost on top of us; thence we had no opposition, and, finding a duckboard track, returned to the battalion headquarters. Johnson slipped down the greasy stairway, and turned very white down below. We were received as Lazarus was. The shelling of the Schwaben had been “a blaze of light,” and our deaths had been taken for granted. Harrison was speaking over the telephone to Hornby, and I just had vitality enough to hear him say: “They have come back, and report an extraordinary barrage; say, it would be disaster to attempt to send up that party. Certain disaster. Yes, they say so, and from their appearance one can see that they have been through terrific shelling. . . . Yes, I’ll bring him along.” “That’s all right,” he turned to his second in command. “No wiring party. Seven o’clock — take it easy; Rabbit, we’ll go and see the General when you feel a bit better.”[2]

 

Charles Carrington, too, had a small part to play in the day’s battle. First the theater, then a brief brush with the war:

On 13th November 1916 there took place the last active operation of the Somme Battle, when the Durham Light Infantry of the 50th Division attacked the Butte of Warlencourt. We had moved to Prue Trench, a reserve position far down the forward slope, and enjoyed a view from the stalls, just as on 1st July we had watched the assault on Gommecourt from Hebuterne trenches…

I’ve had a tough time finding good maps for today’s action–our viewers are widespread, and the attacks happen to spread out over several sheets, few of which (available in the unparalleled McMaster University online archive) show anything like the current extent of the trenches. Here, then, is a large-scale map of the battlefield without any trenches at all, which will at least show the relative position of the many towns and villages mentioned.

beaumont-hamel

Serre is in the extreme northwest; Beaumont Hamel in the north center, Thiepval east and south of center…

 

Carrington at least got to fire a shot in the battle, if only from the periphery. He fired point-blank, from a Lewis Gun mounted on his corporal’s soldier, at a German airman, “a florid young man with a little dark moustache,” as he swooped down, strafing their trench. “We both missed.”[3]

 

So Charles Carrington and “Rabbit” Blunden have survived their day on the periphery of the battle. Others are headed for its center. The 22nd Royal Fusiliers were in reserve, but still directly behind the main line of the attack and sure to get into action eventually. They formed by 3 a.m., and in their ranks was Hector Munro–Saki–just back from the hospital so as not to miss the show. “He looked a very sick man and should have been in bed, but I knew his thoughts and the reason for his being fit.”

The 22nd moved up behind the troops attacking Beaumont Hamel, taking over the old British assault positions later in the morning. By mid-afternoon they had taken up a flanking position in no man’s land, protecting the new advance from possible counter-attack.[4]

 

Leading the assault, in the center of today’s action, was the Royal Naval Division. This unusual division–formed of two battalions of marines and six battalions, named after famous admirals, of volunteers and surplus sailors–did not perhaps have the trust of the army command, especially after the failures of Gallipoli (which were hardly the fault of the infantry, naval or otherwise). But today, despite heavy casualties, they were successful, taking several lines of German defense and the town of Beaumont Hamel. The hero of the battle will be the New Zealand athlete and Friend of Rupert Bernard Freyberg, commanding the Hood Battalion.

The Nelson battalion will take terrible casualties, losing almost all of its officers before Freyberg rallied its remnants to cover a floating left flank. Two officers of the Nelson who survived the day were A.P. Herbert and Edwin Dyett. Herbert will avoid describing the day in any detail, but neither is it absent from his later novel:

 I shall not tell you about it (it is in the histories); but it was a black day for the battalion. We lost 400 men and 20 officers, more than twice the total British casualties at Omdurman… Harry and myself survived.

Ah, but now I have crossed into fiction. Harry, in whose mind is waged The Secret Battle, is an officer whose struggle with his failing nerve is based–to a certain extent, at least–on Edwin Dyett. But while “Harry Penrose” will struggle on into 1917, today was the day that Dyett failed.

Dyett was considered unreliable. He was “windy”–which might mean either that he was anxious and jumpy or that he was considered to be cowardly, but which is a pretty good colloquial place holder for what we should think of as “exhibiting symptoms of PTSD.” He had also applied for transfer four times, letting his commanders know that his “nerves” were not bearing up under the strain. Dyett, accordingly, was left with the small cadre of reserves, back with the Divisional headquarters, out of the battle.

But not all the way out of it–just in reserve, cut off from his men and his fellow-officers, whether scornful or understanding. Late in the day, Dyett was ordered up, along with another officer, to take charge of reinforcements at Brigade headquarters and lead them into the line. The other officer found his men and, after showing Dyett a map of their destination, marched off. But Dyett disappeared somewhere between Brigade and the front, and no one will lay eyes between the middle of the afternoon and the end of the battle.[5]

 

So much for the men who were there (more or less). But the most affecting piece of writing that I can associate with today, a century back, is Frederic Manning‘s The Middle Parts of Fortune. The entire novel is devoted to the mental life of Bourne as he endures the long Somme campaign, and to his observation of the men of his company. It’s a very, very good book, and the chapter that takes place today is in most ways the climax. It is based, surely, on today’s attack on Serre (on the left of the line, to the north of the R.N.D.’s attack on Beaumont Hamel), in which Manning’s 7th Shropshire Light Infantry took part, suffering heavy casualties before returning to their trenches.

I can’t post an entire chapter, but I will post most of it… and I have more justification, perhaps, than usual. I haven’t read deeply in the literature on Manning, but I have several times come across statements to the effect that he named his fictional alter ego after the town of Bourne, where he had lived. But in my sketchy research aimed at ascertaining that today was indeed the day on which his fictional battalion attacked–i.e. on which his real battalion suffered heavy casualties–I came across an entry in the CWGC database that I have not seen referenced in the Manning scholarship. I’ll save that (possible) revelation, though, for after this lengthy excerpt…

If you have been reading along then you have been working up to this attack for several days. If not, the following details will suffice: Bourne, an educated man in the ranks, has had to slowly win the trust of the laborers and countrymen in his battalion. But he has done so: he is accepted as a good soldier, despite the fact that he was recently given a stripe (i.e. promotion to Lance-Corporal) in earnest of his officers’ intention to send him, against his wishes, to be trained as an officer. Bourne doesn’t want to go–he feels that he belongs with his battalion, and he has flatly refused to be sent away before the attack. So, today, he marches into it, together with his two particular mates, Shem and young Martlow.

 

Chapter XVI

We see yonder the beginning of day, but I think we shall never see the end of it…
I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle.

SHAKESPEARE

The drumming of the guns continued, with bursts of great intensity. It was as though a gale streamed overhead, piling up great waves of sound, and hurrying them onward to crash in surf on the enemy entrenchments. The windless air about them, by its very stillness, made that unearthly music more terrible to hear. They cowered under it, as men seeking shelter from a storm. Something rushed downward on them with a scream of exultation, increasing to a roar before it blasted the air asunder and sent splinters of steel shrieking over their heads, an eruption of mud spattering down on the trench, and splashing in brimming shellholes. The pressure among the men increased. Someone shouldering a way through caused them to surge together, cursing, as they were thrown off their balance to stumble against their neighbours.

“For Christ’s sake walk on your own fuckin’ feet an’ not on mine!” came from some angry man, and a ripple of idiot mirth spread outwards from the centre of the disturbance. Bourne got a drink of tea, and though it was no more than warm, it did him good; at least, it washed away the gummy dryness of his mouth. He was shivering, and told himself it was the cold. Through the darkness the dripping mist moved slowly, touching them with spectral fingers as it passed. Everything was clammy with it. It condensed on their tin hats, clung to their rough serge, their eyelashes, the down on their cheekbones. Even though it blinded everything beyond the distance of a couple of yards, it seemed to be faintly luminous itself. Its damp coldness enhanced the sense of smell. There was a reek of mouldering rottenness in the air, and through it came the sour, stale odour from the foul clothes of the men. Shells streamed overhead, sighing, whining and whimpering for blood; the upper air fluttered with them; but Fritz was not going to take it all quietly, and with its increasing roar another shell leaped towards them, and they cowered under the wrath. There was the enormous grunt of its eruption, the sweeping of harp-strings, and part of the trench wall collapsed inwards, burying some men in the landslide. It was difficult to get them out, in the crowded conditions of the trench.

Bourne’s fit of shakiness increased, until he set his teeth to prevent them chattering in his head; and after a deep, gasping breath, almost like a sob, he seemed to recover to some extent. Fear poisoned the very blood; but, when one recognised the symptoms, it became objective, and one seemed to escape partly from it that way. He heard men breathing irregularly beside him, as he breathed himself; he heard them licking their lips, trying to moisten their mouths; he heard them swallow, as though overcoming a difficulty in swallowing; and the sense that others suffered equally or more than himself, quietened him. Some men moaned, or even sobbed a little, but unconsciously, and as though they struggled to throw off an intolerable burden of oppression. His eyes met Shem’s, and they both turned away at once from the dread and question which confronted them. More furtively he glanced in Martlow’s direction; and saw him standing with bent head. Some instinctive wave of pity and affection swelled in him, until it broke into another shuddering sigh, and the boy looked up, showing the whites of his eyes under the brim of his helmet. They were perplexed, and his underlip shook a little. Behind him Bourne heard a voice almost pleading: “Stick it out, chum.”

“A don’t care a fuck,” came the reply, with a bitter harshness rejecting sympathy.

“Are you all right, kid?” Bourne managed to ask in a fairly steady voice; and Martlow only gave a brief affirmative nod. Bourne shifted his weight onto his other foot, and felt the relaxed knee trembling. It was the cold. If only they had something to do, it might be better. It had been a help simply to place a ladder in position. Suspense seemed to turn one’s mind to ice, and bind even time in its frozen stillness; but at an order it broke. It broke, and one became alert, relieved. They breathed heavily in one another’s faces. They looked at each other more quietly, forcing themselves to face the question. “We’ve stuck it before,” said Shem. They could help each other, at least up to that point where the irresistible thing swept aside their feeble efforts, and smashed them beyond recovery…

“It’ll soon be over, now,” whispered Martlow.

Perhaps it was lighter, but the stagnant fog veiled everything. Only there was a sound of movement, a sudden alertness thrilled through them all with an anguish inextricably mingled with relief. They shook hands, the three among themselves and then with others near them.

Good luck, chum. Good luck. Good luck.

He felt his heart thumping at first. And then, almost surprised at the lack of effort which it needed, he moved towards the ladder.

Martlow, because he was nearest, went first. Shem followed behind Bourne, who climbed out a little clumsily. Almost as soon as he was out he slipped sideways and nearly fell. The slope downward, where others, before he did, had slipped, might have been greased with vaseline; and immediately beyond it, one’s boots sank up to the ankle in mud which sucked at one’s feet as they were withdrawn from it, clogging them, as in a nightmare. It would be worse when they reached the lower levels of this ill-drained marsh. The fear in him now was hard and icy, and yet apart from that momentary fumbling on the ladder, and the involuntary slide, he felt himself moving more freely, as though he had full control of himself…

Then suddenly that hurricane of shelling increased terrifically, and in the thunder of its surf, as it broke over the German lines, all separate sounds were engulfed: it was one continuous fury, only varying as it seemed to come from one direction now, and now from another. And they moved. He didn’t know whether they had heard any orders or not: he only knew they moved. It was treacherous walking over that greasy mud. They crossed Monk Trench, and a couple of other trenches, crowding together, and becoming confused. After Monk was behind them, the state of the ground became more and more difficult: one could not put a foot to the ground without skating and sliding. He saw Mr Finch at one crossing, looking anxious and determined, and Sergeant Tozer; but it was no more than a glimpse in the mist. A kind of maniacal rage filled him. Why were they so slow? And then it seemed that he himself was one of the slowest, and he pressed on. Suddenly the Hun barrage fell: the air was split and seared with shells. Fritz had been ready for them all right, and had only waited until their intentions had been made quite clear. As they hurried, head downward, over their own front line, they met men, some broken and bleeding, but others whole and sound, breaking back in disorder. They jeered at them, and the others raved inarticulately, and disappeared into the fog again. Jakes and Sergeant Tozer held their own lot together, and carried them through this moment of demoralisation: Jakes roared and bellowed at them, and they only turned bewildered faces to him as they pressed forward, struggling through the mud like flies through treacle. What was all the bloody fuss about? they asked themselves, turning their faces, wide-eyed, in all directions to search the baffling fog. It shook, and twitched, and whirled about them: there seemed to be a dancing flicker before their eyes as shell after shell exploded, clanging, and the flying fragments hissed and shrieked through the air. Bourne thought that every bloody gun in the German army was pointed at him. He avoided some shattered bodies of men too obviously dead for help. A man stumbled past him with an agonised and bleeding face. Then more men broke back in disorder, throwing them into some confusion, and they seemed to waver for a moment. One of the fugitives charged down on Jakes and that short but stocky fighter smashed the butt of his rifle to the man’s jaw, and sent him sprawling. Bourne had a vision of Sergeant-Major Glasspool.

“You take your fuckin’ orders from Fritz!” he shouted as a triumphant frenzy thrust him forward.

For a moment they might have broken and run themselves, and for a moment they might have fought men of their own blood, but they struggled on as Sergeant Tozer yelled at them to leave that bloody tripe alone and get on with it. Bourne, floundering in the viscous mud, was at once the most abject and the most exalted of God’s creatures. The effort and rage in him, the sense that others had left them to it, made him pant and sob, but there was some strange intoxication of joy in it, and again all his mind seemed focused into one hard bright point of action. The extremities of pain and pleasure had met and coincided too.

He knew, they all did, that the barrage had moved too quickly for them, but they knew nothing of what was happening about them. In any attack, even under favourable conditions, the attackers are soon blinded; but here they had lost touch almost from the start. They paused for a brief moment, and Bourne saw that Mr Finch was with them, and Shem was not. Minton told him Shem had been hit in the foot. Bourne moved closer to Martlow. Their casualties, as far as he could judge, had not been heavy. They got going again, and, almost before they saw it, were on the wire. The stakes had been uprooted, and it was smashed and tangled, but had not been well cut. Jakes ran along it a little way, there was some firing, and bombs were hurled at them from the almost obliterated trench, and they answered by lobbing a few bombs over, and then plunging desperately among the steel briars, which tore at their puttees and trousers. The last strand of it was cut or beaten down, some more bombs came at them, and in the last infuriated rush Bourne was knocked off his feet and went practically headlong into the trench; getting up, another man jumped on his shoulders, and they both fell together, yelling with rage at each other. They heard a few squeals of agony, and he saw a dead German, still kicking his heels on the broken boards of the trench at his feet. He yelled for the man who had knocked him down to come on, and followed the others. The trench was almost obliterated: it was nothing but a wreckage of boards and posts, piled confusedly in what had become a broad channel for the oozing mud. They heard some more bombing a few bays further on, and then were turned back. They met two prisoners, their hands up, and almost unable to stand from fear, while two of the men threatened them with a deliberate, slow cruelty.

“Give ’em a chance! Send ’em through their own bloody barrage!” Bourne shouted, and they were practically driven out of the trench and sent across no-man’s-land.

On the other flank they found nothing; except for the handful of men they had encountered at first, the trench was empty. Where they had entered the trench, the three first lines converged rather closely, and they thought they were too far right. In spite of the party of Germans they had met, they assumed that the other waves of the assaulting troops were ahead of them, and decided to push on immediately, but with some misgivings. They were now about twenty-four men. In the light, the fog was coppery and charged with fumes. They heard in front of them the terrific battering of their own barrage and the drumming of the German guns. They had only moved a couple of yards from the trench when there was a crackle of musketry. Martlow was perhaps a couple of yards in front of Bourne, when he swayed a little, his knees collapsed under him, and he pitched forward on to his face, his feet kicking and his whole body convulsive for a moment. Bourne flung himself down beside him, and, putting his arms round his body, lifted him, calling him.

“Kid! You’re all right, kid?” he cried eagerly.

He was all right. As Bourne lifted the limp body, the boy’s hat came off, showing half the back of his skull shattered where the bullet had come through it; and a little blood welled out onto Bourne’s sleeve and the knee of his trousers. He was all right; and Bourne let him settle to earth again, lifting himself up almost indifferently, unable to realise what had happened, filled with a kind of tenderness that ached in him, and yet extraordinarily still, extraordinarily cold. He had to hurry, or he would be alone in the fog…

Bourne leaves Martlow and catches up with the main attacking wave.

And Bourne struggled forward again, panting, and muttering in a suffocated voice.

“Kill the buggers! Kill the bloody fucking swine! Kill them!”

All the filth and ordure he had ever heard came from his clenched teeth; but his speech was thick and difficult. In a scuffle immediately afterwards a Hun went for Minton, and Bourne got him with the bayonet, under the ribs near the liver, and then unable to wrench the bayonet out again, pulled the trigger, and it came away easily enough.

“Kill the buggers!” he muttered thickly.

He ran against Sergeant Tozer in the trench.

“Steady, of son! Steady. ‘Ave you been ‘it? You’re all over blood.”

“They killed the kid,” said Bourne, speaking with sudden clearness, though his chest heaved enormously. “They killed him. I’ll kill every bugger I see.”

“Steady. You stay by me…”

 

They were now convinced they could not go on by themselves. They decided to try and get into touch with any parties on the left. It was useless to go on, as apparently none of the other companies were ahead of them, and heavy machine-gun fire was coming from Serre. They worked up the trench to the left, and after some time, heard footsteps. The leading man held up a hand, and they were ready to bomb or bayonet, when a brave voice challenged them.

“Who are ye?”

“Westshires!” they shouted, and moved on, to meet a corporal and three men of the Gordons. They knew nothing of the rest of their battalion…

Some Huns were searching the trench. Sergeant Tozer, with the same party, went forward immediately. As soon as some egg-bombs had burst in the next bay, they rushed it, and flung into the next. They found and bayoneted a Hun, and pursued the others some little distance, before they doubled back on their tracks again. Then Mr Finch took them back to the German front line, intending to stay there until he could link up with other parties. The fog was only a little less thick than the mud; but if it had been one of the principal causes of their failure, it helped them now. The Hun could not guess at their numbers; and there must have been several isolated parties playing the same game of hide-and-seek. The question for Mr Finch to decide was whether they should remain there. They searched the front line to the left, and found nothing but some dead, Huns and Gordons.

Bourne was with the Gordons who had joined them, and one of them, looking at the blood on his sleeve and hands, touched him on the shoulder.

“Mon, are ye hurt?” he whispered gently.

“No. I’m not hurt, chum,” said Bourne, shaking his head slowly; and then he shuddered and was silent. His face became empty and expressionless. Their own barrage had moved forward again; but they could not get into touch with any of their own parties…

 

By now it is clear that the attack has failed (despite the success to the east, of which they could know nothing).

To remain where they were was useless, and to go forward was to invite destruction or capture.

“Sergeant,” said Mr Finch, with a bitter resolution, “we shall go back.”

Sergeant Tozer looked at him quietly.

“You’re wounded, sir,” he said, kindly. “If you go back with Minton, I could hang on a bit longer, and then take the men back on my own responsibility.”

“I’ll be buggered if I go back with only a scratch, and leave you to stick it. You’re a bloody sportsman, sergeant. You’re the best bloody lot o’ men…”

His words trailed off shakily into nothing for a moment.

“That’s all right, sir,” said Sergeant Tozer, quietly; and then he added with an angry laugh: “We’ve done all we could: I don’t care a fuck what the other bugger says.”

“Get the men together, sergeant,” said Mr Finch, huskily.

The sergeant went off and spoke to Jakes, and to the corporal of the Gordons. As he passed Bourne, who’d just put a dressing on Minton’s wound, he paused.

“What ‘appened to Shem?” he asked.

“Went back. Wounded in the foot.”

“E were wounded early on, when Jerry dropped the barrage on us,” explained Minton, stolidly precise as to facts.

“That bugger gets off everything with ‘is feet,” said Sergeant Tozer.

“E were gettin’ off with ‘is ‘ands an’ knees when I seed ‘im,” said Minton, phlegmatically.

There was some delay as they prepared for their withdrawal. Bourne thought of poor old Shem, always plucky, and friendly, without sentiment, and quiet. Quite suddenly, as it were spontaneously, they climbed out of the trench and over the wire. The clangour of the shelling increased behind them. Fritz was completing the destruction of his own front line before launching a counterattack against empty air. They moved back very slowly and painfully, suffering a few casualties on the way, and they were already encumbered with wounded. One of the Gordons was hit, and his thigh broken. They carried him tenderly, soothing him with the gentleness of women. All the fire died out of them as they dragged themselves laboriously through the clinging mud. Presently they came to where the dead lay more thickly; they found some helplessly wounded, and helped them. As they were approaching their own front line, a big shell, burying itself in the mud, exploded so close to Bourne that it blew him completely off his feet, and yet he was unhurt. He picked himself up, raving a little. The whole of their front and support trenches were being heavily shelled. Mr Finch was hit again in his already wounded arm. They broke up a bit, and those who were free ran for it to the trench. Men carrying or helping the wounded continued steadily enough. Bourne walked by Corporal Jakes, who had taken his place in carrying the wounded Gordon: he could not have hurried anyway; and once, unconsciously, he turned and looked back over his shoulder. Then they all slid into the wrecked trench…

Bourne has survived. Of his two great friends, the canny Shem has been lucky, and gotten a blighty one in the foot. But Martlow, the kid, is dead, and Bourne is in shock.

…He sat with his head flung back against the earth, his eyes closed, his arms relaxed, and hands idle in his lap, and he felt as though he were lifting a body in his arms, and looking at a small impish face, the brows puckered with a shadow of perplexity, bloody from a wound in the temple, the back of the head almost blown away; and yet the face was quiet, and unmoved by any trouble. He sat there for hours, immobile and indifferent, unaware that Sergeant Tozer glanced at him occasionally. The shelling gradually died away, and he did not know it. Then Sergeant Tozer got up angrily.

“Ere, Bourne. Want you for sentry. Time that other man were relieved.”

He took up his rifle and climbed up, following the sergeant into the frosty night. Then he was alone, and the fog frothed and curdled about him. He became alert, intent again; his consciousness hardening in him. After about half an hour, he heard men coming along the trench; they came closer; they were by the corner.

“Stand!” he cried in a long, low note of warning.

“Westshire. Officer and rations.”

He saw Mr White, to whom Captain Marsden came up and spoke. Some men passed him, details and oddments, carrying bags of rations. Suddenly he found in front of him the face of Snobby Hines, grinning excitedly.

“What was it like, Bourne?” he asked, in passing.

“Hell,” said Bourne briefly.

Snobby moved on, and Bourne ignored the others completely. Bloody silly question, to ask a man what it was like. He looked up to the sky, and through the travelling mist saw the half-moon with a great halo round it. An extraordinary peace brooded over everything. It seemed only the more intense because an occasional shell sang through it.[6]

 

bourne-perhapsThere is no dating fiction, really, but it would be strange to deny that Manning’s depiction of the attack on Serre in his novel is not based on the day his battalion attacked Serre, losing many men.

And it is very strange indeed to learn–this is the aforementioned fact that I stumbled upon on the CWGC website–that one of the men who of the battalion who was killed today, a century back, was a lance-corporal named John Bourne.

Is this a mere coincidence? Simply a name from the battalion that Manning bore with him, that linked a place and a feeling and a man in his mind? Or did this man, the real-life Bourne, mean something more to Manning?

If it’s entirely a coincidence, it’s uncanny. John Bourne’s body moulders in no known grave–he is listed, with the other missing of the Somme, on an Addenda Panel of the Thiepval Memorial. And then there’s the odd fact that his name is hand-written belatedly into the register–a correction or an afterthought (see at right). Unlike most of his fellow casualties, there is no information about his family.

I don’t know anything about the provenance of the CWGC’s documents… is it possible that this entry is “reality” influenced by fiction, that someone has written Bourne into the record after reading the novel? That would be strange indeed… it seems more likely that there was a John Bourne in the Shropshires, known to Manning.And so in some sense–weighty and interesting? trivial?–this man may have been the model for Manning’s Bourne, one of Great War Literature’s most important characters..

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Twelve Days on the Somme, 75-85.
  2. Undertones of War, 119-21.
  3. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 129-130.
  4. Munro, "Biography," 101; Langguth, Saki, 276-7.
  5. Herbert, The Secret Battle, 131-6; Seelers, Death for Desertion, 44.
  6. The Middle Parts of Fortune, 211-21.

Last Words for Leslie Coulson

A bad day today. The writers who keep our spirits up are more or less silent, and two young men of our slight acquaintance will die. They are peripheral figures, here–but they were no less living men, a century and a day ago.

One is Charles Carrington‘s older brother Christopher–all of twenty-two. Christr=opher Carrington was a captain with the New Zealand Field Artillery and a veteran of Gallipoli, and he died in action today, (presumably) as a result of german counter-battery fire.

The other is Leslie Coulson, an occasional poet, here, who was wounded in the chest yesterday, east of Lesboeufs. He died today, a century back, and was buried in Meaulte. Coulson, a journalist before the war, has become a writer of sturdy war verses–not revolutionary, but then again not entirely mired in the heroic banalities of the traditional kind–an achievement which will be commemorated in a small collection of his verses. I’ll quote a bit from the introduction, and then from a few of the most… a propros poems.

In September, 1914, he enlisted as a private in the 2/2nd London Regiment, Royal Fusiliers. He was counselled to enter an Officers’ Training Corps and obtain a commission. “No,” he said, “I will do the thing fairly. I will take my place in the ranks.” High-minded, conscientious, self-critical, it seemed to him that this was his plain path of duty — to serve as a simple private soldier. He left England with his Battalion in December, 1914. And none of those to whom he was dear ever saw him again.

After much service in the Mediterranean, Coulson was in France by April, 1916–all, apparently, without ever going home on leave.

There the old regiment was disbanded, and he with some of his comrades in arms who had sailed out together on Christmas Eve, 1914, was attached to the 12th London Regiment — the Rangers. He was now Sergeant, and was recommended for a commission. With his new Regiment, he took part in the Somme advance on July 1st. And from that time he was almost continuously in the trenches till October 7th, when, in the fore front of a charge against a German position near Lesboeufs, he was shot in the chest, and died a few hours later; as he would have wished to die — with his breast to the foe. His age was 27.

 

Two of Coulson’s late poems were “Premonition” and “When I Come Home,” and it is impossible not to see them, even amidst a very slight oeuvre, as two outposts of the possible: the poet considers the two most distant, most essential fates, one of which must await each combat soldier.

His editors close the little book, then, with this stanza:

When I come home, from dark to light,
And tread the roadways long and white.
And tramp the lanes I tramped of yore,
And see the village greens once more,
The tranquil farms, the meadows free,
The friendly trees that nod to me,
And hear the lark beneath the sun,
‘Twill be good pay for what I’ve done,
When I come home!

But his “Premonition,” a love song that anticipates a ghost story, was correct:

A shadow came between us–
The end of all.

 

Just one more, then, on the centennial of Coulson’s death. Two stanzas (the first and third) of “But a Short Time to Live.” It’s not a great poem, but it is a true one, finding as it does a sort of middle ground between the romantic extremes in the two I quoted above.

It is very much more representative, too, of the state of 1916 poetic feeling among English soldiers than much else that we have read. There are flowers here, and the traditional trappings of glory–and regret. These lilies and poppies are gilded with pretty poetry, but they are not counterfeited in the manner of the “joy of battle” or “glorious sacrifice” genres. I don’t think I need to point out that the phrase “armoured crime” would not have appeared in a poem of 1914 or 1915…

“–But a Short Time to Live”

Our little hour — how swift it flies
When poppies flare and lilies smile;
How soon the fleeting minute dies,
Leaving us but a little while
To dream our dream, to sing our song,
To pick the fruit, to pluck the flower;
The Gods — They do not give us long —
One little hour…

Our little hour—how short a time,
To wage our wars, to fan our hates,
To take our fill of armoured crime.
To troop our banners, storm the gates.
Blood on the sword, our eyes blood-red.
Blind in our puny reign of power.
Do we forget how soon is sped
Our little hour?

 

The Last Day of the Old Guard and the First of the Tanks: Raymond Asquith Goes Forward; Harold Macmillan Reads Aeschylus, Downed; The Master of Belhaven on the Most Alarming Thing Imaginable

Today, a century back, a major attack was launched on the center of the Somme front. It will be a considerable success–except where two brigades of the Guards Division attacked from the outskirts of Ginchy towards Lesboeufs.

Through some accident, Zero had been a little mistimed, and the troops left their lairs, not under the roar and swish of their own barrage, but in a silence which lasted perhaps less than a minute, but which seemed endless… till, with a wrench that jerked the ground, our barrage opened, the enemy’s counter-barrage replied.[1]

Thus a great stylist. A blunter romancer condemns the tactics as succinctly as possible: “Their front of attack was too narrow, their objectives too far distant, and from the start their flanks were enfiladed.”[2]

For any and all of these reasons, the 3rd Grenadier Guards met heavy, direct fire as soon as they left their trenches–there were machine-guns on three sides, and unexpected rifle fire just in front.

Harold Macmillan, leading his platoon, was hit in the knee, and stumbled on.

raymond asquith, 1915

Raymond Asquith

Raymond Asquith, leading No. 4 Company, was hit in the chest, and couldn’t.

Attempting nonchalance–perhaps to calm his men–Asquith lit a cigarette. He was quickly found by stretcher bearers and given morphia.

But he died on the stretcher on the way to the aid post. His soldier-servant, Needham, accompanied the body to burial.[3]

 

What else can we add? Not much. Asquith’s contribution here has been wit, and a special sort of provocation–to take him lightly, to miss the context of his letters just because he dares us to. He’s been whistling into the hurricane, fiddling all the harder because his naughty, beloved, decadent Rome is being fired on from all sides. It looks like cynicism, and it tastes, sometimes, almost like nihilism–but it was, really, a tough, contrary, formidable love of life and love and beauty.

Now he’s gone, and his legacy–for his friends, but especially for his wife and three young children–is loss.

 

Is it too sentimental to claim that, although much wonderful writing is to come (we are not yet halfway through this ordeal) we will not see his like again? I hope not, because, really, we won’t. It’s September, and this death, surely, is the last fallen leaf of the Last Summer.

 

Onward, anyway. What happened? How did he die? There is not much more to know, since he was shot down so early on this chaotic day. There’s not much of a story, in the end. And the rest of the day is terrible chaos.

For form’s sake I will link my battle-piece-agnosticism to a narrator of unquestioned bravado:

ginchy-flers-road

German dead along the Ginchy-Flers sunken road

There naturally cannot be any definite or accurate record of the day’s work. Even had maps been issued to the officers a week, instead of a day or so, before the attack; even had those maps marked all known danger-points — such as the Ginchy-Flers sunk road; even had the kaleidoscopic instructions about the Brown and Yellow lines been more intelligible, or had the village of Ginchy been distinguishable from a map of the pitted moon — once the affair was launched there was little chance of seeing far or living long.[4]

 

If there cannot be a definite or accurate record–if there cannot be pre-historical chronicle, let alone “history”–there can still be impressions. C.E. Montague, who, now that he is an intelligence officer, has begun to keep a brief diary of his movements, was a witness in the rear, where all great hopes reside.

Sept. 15.–To point between Maricourt and Hardécourt (close by Nameless Copse) to see battle begin. Start 5 A.M., moonlight. Cavalry on silent road by Querriers. Lances bristling against dawn–twilight sky in fields beside road.[5]

The cavalry will not advance. But other beasts will. Were it not for the loss of one of our very finest, here, this day’s story of battle would have to begin with the great surprise weapon. Of our writers, Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, may have had the best view–even if, at day’s end, he did not have the most accurate perspective.

Guillemont, 15th September, 1916

To-day there has been another great battle, which seems to have been nothing less than a victory for us.

mark_i_series_tank_in_action

Mark I tank

I cannot talk about the “tanks,” as our new armoured caterpillars are called. These astounding machines… are huge armoured forts, weighting over thirty tons… they can go over any ground, however broken up… they are the most alarming things imaginable and are so heavily armoured that they are impervious to rifle or machine-gun fire; nothing but a direct hit from a gun can stop them…

Would that that were so. Kipling, laying about him with characteristic precision but unusual mercilessness, dwells not on the promise of the tanks but on the uselessness in such a deep attack over such ground of a mere handful of fragile new machines:

There had been instructions in Brigade Orders, as to the co-operation of nine tanks that were to assist the Guards Division that day and would, probably, “start from each successive line well in advance of the attacking troops.” Infantry were warned, however, that their work “would be carried out whether the Tanks are held up or not.” It was. The Tanks were not much more in evidence on that sector than the Cavalry which, cantering gaily across the shell-holes, should have captured Bapaume…[6]

But that is bitter hindsight. Today, a century back, the cavalry were an old familiar hope and the tanks were an impressive novelty.

Charles Carrington, who often styles himself a retrospective voice of reason, notes, for his part, that he “flatly refused to believe” that “we possessed armoured cards that could cross trenches and wire… The secret was wonderfully well kept… And the lesson to be learned from the battle of 15th September was that the Mark I tank has almost no value except for the lift given to our morale and the shock to the German morale by the rumours about our secret weapon… Haig… believed, and for what it is worth I and my friends believed, that there was still a chance of fighting the decisive battle before the autumn and for such a prize everything must be stake…[7]

Back now to the Master of Belhaven, writing this evening, a century back, and sanguine:

As it became lighter we could see four of the new monsters on the Guinchy ridge just in front of us…. They were rolling and pitching on the rough ground like ships at sea, but kept steadily on at about a mile an hour, till they reached the German parapet, hoisted themselves over and were lost to sight on the other side. Accounts vary very much so far, as to how they did…

We could see our infantry attacking, line after line, especially the Guards on our left. They went forward in perfect order at a walk, breaking into a run when they go near the German position…[8]

But as Kipling will write, “no man saw anything coherently.” Belhaven was wrong. Quick progress was made on the flanks, but the Guards walked into machine-gun fire, and were mauled from the beginning. Soon they discovered that a scratch trench–or series of shell holes–that had not even been accounted for in their extremely ambitious orders was still being held by Germans.[9] This was the source of the accurate rifle fire that was added to the traversing machine guns. And the artillery did not lag far behind.

 

Which brings us back to Harold Macmillan, who lived to tell this tale. Those of his platoon of the 3rd Grenadier Guards who made it through the first wave of machine-gun fire discovered that the tanks had failed–Macmillan saw one of “these strange objects” stranded in a shell-hole–and the barrage had moved on with its brisk, foreordained optimism. They had to scrape together some sort of improvisational attack, or die where they lay. Macmillan will write that

the German artillery barrage was very heavy,  but we got through the worst of it after the first half-hour. I was wounded slightly in the right knee. I bound up the wound at the first halt, and was able to go on. . . . About 8.20 we halted again. We found that we were being held up on the left by Germans in about 500 yards of uncleared trench. We attempted to bomb and rush down the trench. I was taking a party across to the left with a Lewis gun, to try and get in to the trench, when I was wounded by a bullet in the left thigh [apparently at close range]. It was a severe wound, and I was quite helpless. I dropped into a shell-hole, shouted to Sgt. Robinson to take command of my party and go on with the attack. Sgt. Sambil helped me tie up the wound. I had no water, as the bullet had previously gone thro’ my water bottle. . .

I don’t believe that Macmillan and Asquith knew each other well, but they were both Balliol men, and readers, and Asquith, minutes or hours dead, would have approved of how Macmillan spent his morning:

He lay in the shell-hole all morning, while the tide of battle flowed back and forth around him–lying ‘doggo’ and pretending to be dead when any Germans came near, lest they be tempted to ‘despatch’ him. Though realising that he had been seriously wounded, he was surprised to discover that–unlike the far less dangerous wound through his hand at Loos–‘which was excruciatingly painful, this body blow knocked me out but did not hurt’. Remembering that he had in his pocket a copy of Aeschylus’s Prometheus (in Greek), which Nellie had sent him, he fell to reading it intermittently; ‘It was a play I knew well, and seemed not inappropriate to my position.’

The great classical wit is dead, but long live classical wit. Prometheus Bound (no longer unanimously attributed to Aeschylus, but we live in a fallen world) features a number of long speeches made to and by the titan Prometheus, as he is chained in place and tortured. “Violence” and “Authority” appear as characters, and there is a matter of giving fire to mankind…

After a morphia-aided nap, Macmillan was found:

Company Sergeant-Major Norton, a splendid man, I can see him now . . . bottom of shell-hole, sloped rifle: “Thank you, sir, for leave to carry you away,” as if he’d been on a parade ground!

But Macmillan’s grim adventure was not over. After dark he and another wounded officer were carried to Ginchy, where confusion reigned and ambulances could not be found. They sent their bearers back to the battalion, then tried to limp back on their own. They became separated, and Macmillan, wounded and alone, felt fear catch up with him at last. He will look back on today, and comment that

bravery is not really vanity, but a kind of concealed pride, because everybody is watching you. Then I was safe, but alone, and absolutely terrified because there was no need to show off any more, no need to pretend . . . there was nobody for whom you were responsible, not even the stretcher bearers. Then I was very frightened. . . . I do remember the sudden feeling–you went through a whole battle for two days . . . suddenly there was nobody there   . . . you could cry if you wanted to. . .[10]

After passing out in a ditch, Macmillan was found by a passing officer and taken at last to an ambulance.

 

There are tales of heroism that go with this attack, of course. Macmillan’s friend Oliver Lyttleton, who as adjutant did not go forward with the attacking companies, went forward later to gather in the remnants of several battalions and defend the few trenches they had taken. He was driven out by German counterattacks, throwing his empty revolver at the Germans like a grenade as a last ruse to cover the last retreat.

But for the most part it is only death. So we’ll close with two concise tales of death, framed as tragedies. A few days ago, Rowland Feilding had marched back with his new, shattered, battalion past his former battalion of the Coldstream Guards. He will remember this chance meeting when he next writes to his wife:

I stopped for lunch. The young officers crowded round me afterwards to hear my news, joking and laughing about it all, and asking what it was like “up there.” Poor little Dilberoglue, who commanded one of the Companies, clung to the boy next to him, and pretended to shiver with fear at the prospect of what was before him. And the Fates have taken his joke seriously, for to-day he is dead. He was a very competent young officer.[11]

 

Finally, I want to end with a new turn, a twist away from the death of Raymond Asquith that nonetheless shows how the war’s thread runs through so many lives, linking even where it does not entangle. Carroll Carstairs, a writer we have heard nothing from yet, is an American volunteer. By now he has taken a commission and made his way into the Grenadier Guards, completing training at one of their depot camps. He has only been awaiting a gap to fill–so he will be moving up to the line shortly, now. He remembers another American Guardsman, and the dreams and strange paths of eager young volunteers.

While on short leave in Amiens I heard about Dill Star. He wanted to go into the Flying Corps, but thought it would take too long to get to the front. Walter Oakman, who had joined the Coldstream, persuaded him to transfer into that Regiment.

Dill went to France about September 1st, and was killed on the 15th of that month.

“You knew him?” asked the young officer in the Coldstream with whom I was having a drink.

“Yes.”

“He went over in fine style . . .”

And then I thought of the story told me once about Dill. Whenever he had had a bit too much drink in his club at Harvard he could be found sitting in front of a certain picture. It was an old coloured print and represented a charge by a regiment in the Brigade of Guards.[12]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I, 158-9.
  2. Buchan, Pilgrim's Way, 58-60.
  3. Life and Letters, 296.
  4. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I, 159.
  5. Elton, C.E. Montague, 143.
  6. Kipling, The Irish Guards, II, 94.
  7. Carrington, Soldier From the Wars Returning, 123-4.
  8. War Diary, 251-3.
  9. This may refer to the sunken road, pictured above.
  10. Horne, Macmillan, 44-6.
  11. Feilding, War Letters to a Wife, 119.
  12. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 66-7.

Charles Carrington Begs to Differ; The Master of Belhaven Looks Back, Blunden’s Sussex Prepares.

Charles Carrington has been on the Somme since the beginning of the battle, and he had seen quite a bit. Yet he stands staunchly against the idea that two months of slogging attrition and tends of thousands of casualties were enough to lead to general disillusionment. He points out, fairly enough, that the operations around Ovillers and Thiepval have pushed the Germans at last from the ridge-line positions that had wreaked so much havoc in the early days of the battle. The German Chief of Staff, Falkenhayn, was recently sacked, too, and British morale–at least in his division–was high.

The 48th, a well-commanded division but of no outstanding fame, had captured strong positions from first-class troops, inflicting at least as many casualties as it suffered, had taken several hundred prisoners, and was conscious of its superiority. We were not intimated by the war of attrition and… never, I think, in better heart. On 31st August I wrote home: ‘They are beaten. The only question is whether they can hang on till winter…”[1]

 

Another officer looking back today, a century back, is Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven. He has not had an easy week: three days ago his battery was hit and he himself had a very near miss–shrapnel on the helmet, a tumble down the stairs, concussion, and a not inconsiderable dose of gas. Several of his men were wounded and six were buried alive before being rescued–remarkably, no one was killed. So today he reflects on an anniversary:

It is exactly a year since the division sailed from Southampton. What a lot we have seen and done since then! Neuve Chapelle–Loos–Voormezeele–Ypres–Kemmel, and now the Somme. I have been going through my roll to see what the casualties in my battery have been; I find that it amounts to fifty-six in all. This number cannot be considered excessive under the circumstances. The infantry must have lost at least 100 per cent., some battalions far more… At Dranoutre I fired 10,000 shells in three months; and if we stay here a little longer I shall equal that…

The Hun has been very active to-day, both in the air and with his artillery… Personally I don’t think either side could attack in the present state of the ground. All the trenches are full of water, and the rest of the ground, which consists of millions of shell-holes, large and small, has now become a complete series of little lakes.[2]

 

Despite this logical link between current rain and future mud, Edmund Blunden‘s battalion will nonetheless soon be for it. Yesterday, a century back, the battalion diary of the 11th Royal Sussex read

Showery weather. Programme for attack postponed for 24 hours. Shelled again.

And today,

Showery weather. Programme for attack postponed for 24 hours and again.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 123.
  2. War Diary, 238-41.

Charles Carrington and John Ronald Tolkien Return from Ovillers, to Contentment and Catastrophe; Robert Graves: a Hardened Sinner Outdone

In the early morning hours of today, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien fell asleep in the reserve lines after an exhausting day. This was a well-earned rest: his battalion had played an important part in the operation that reconnected with advanced elements of the attack of July 15th and forced the surrender of the fortress-village of Ovillers yesterday evening. In the afternoon, the 11th Lancashires marched back to their rest billets where, among other things, their mail was waiting.

Also marching back to the rear were Charles Carrington and his company of the 1/5th Warwickshires, who had played an even more important role in the capture of Ovillers. They had been in front of the front line for two days, fighting desperately against German counter-attacks, until the thrust of which Tolkien was a part reached them. For Carrington, then, today is the end of a major chapter in his story: it was a grim battle, but his mettle has been well-tested. He and his men are veterans, now, and will go through the rest of their lives–however long, however short–knowing that when challenged by terror, they had responded, and played their part well.

As I’ve mentioned here before, Carrington’s long account of the battle is difficult to excerpt–this is an “interested readers should track him down!” moment. But here is one anecdote to stand for the rest. When he is leading his men back from the battle and they are already well behind British lines, a group of water-carriers coming toward them mistake far-off shells for a German attack and panic. The tyros drop their burdens and run, while Carrington tries to stem a general stampede for the rear. Then he remembers his own men:

When I looked back I saw to my joy, absurd though it was, my six men, who following me in single file had been clear of the crowd, lying up on the parapet loading their rifles and looking for an aim at imaginary foes.

They are young, and Kitchener’s Army men–but they are soldiers now. When they rejoin their battalion Carrington wins the reward of repute:

They met me as one returned from the dead… I was the hero of the moment; but my glory faded when Bickersteth asked after the Lewis-gun and I told him it had been abandoned in a shell-hole that I could not locate on the map. But on the whole we were well received… We slept that night in a closed-in gun-emplacement of earth and hurdles, happily except that Richardson found a snake in his bed.

Carrington closes the long chapter on this battle in a conventional-tactical way, noting his battalion’s casualties (“One hundred and twenty-nine: that is about a quarter of those who took part in the battle, a small proportion considering the rashness of the enterprise”) and by quoting the stolid prose of the official communiqué, which notes a rare victory: they have captured nearly as many prisoners (126) as the Warwickshires lost. But then again several other battalions were involved in the battle…[1]

 

For Tolkien, today marked the end of a chapter as well. It had also been his trial by fire, if a less dire one, but it was news from nearby that brought an end to a different story, and one he never chose to tell. Today–probably–he received a recent note from Geoffrey Bache Smith, one of his three closest friends from the T.C.B.S., their schoolboy club of literary dreamers. Smith was also on the Somme, and so had Rob Gilson been:

I saw in the paper this morning that that Rob has been killed. I am safe but what does that matter. Do please stick to me, you and Christopher. I am very tired and most frightfully depressed at this worst of news. Now one realizes in despair what the TCBS really was. Oh my dear John Ronald what ever are going to do?[2]

 

Meanwhile, the sojourn of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers in “Happy Valley” was coming to an end. For two days they had camped here, within sight of the many dead from the assault on Mametz Wood. What had been a long, clear no man’s land was now dense with British artillery batteries, firing over the Wood and into the next, Bazentin Wood, and beyond. The Royal Welch took several casualties from German counter-battery fire, near-misses that hit nonetheless. They were warned to be ready to go forward into the battle, which was not progressing as well here as at Ovillers. and how did the officers of the Royal Welch know this?

In the afternoon G.1 came among us, charged with another official platitude, “The morale of the Division is unimpaired”: a sure index of failure and loss.

Next, in something of a coup, Dr. Dunn’s chronicle out-Graves (outgrabes?) Robert Graves. Where Graves tells the story of D Company’s march to the trenches rather matter-of-factly–“Our Irish guide was hysterical and had forgotten the way; we put him under arrest and found it ourselves.”–the chronicle gets a good laugh out of an old soldier’s contribution:

“The blighter lost his way,” says the C[ompany].S[ergeant].M[ajor]., “and my language quite shocked such a hardened sinner as von R. Graves.”[3]

 

Also today, a century back, Ford Madox Hueffer and his battalion of the Welsh Regiment left Waterloo Station, en route to France.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A Subaltern's War, 32-113.
  2. Carpenter, Biography, 84; Chronology, 84; Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 168.
  3. The War the Infantry Knew, 228.
  4. Saunders, Ford Madox Ford, I, 494.