Scott Moncrieff Returns to London; Alfred Hale Endures Parental Bluster; Wyn Griffith in Red Tabs with Royalty; Vera Brittain on “The Profound Freemasonry” of Those Dead Beyond the Gulf

Today, a century back, we have rather a potpourri of four updates–and none are from the trenches.

First, we witness Charles Scott Moncrieff, now back in London, returning to a familiar literary orbit.

14th June

. . . Broadway (a brother officer here) is very good and faithful to me. He comes down after breakfast in a dressing gown and again (for messages) before he goes out. He has got me this writing pad. Colin came this afternoon and brought a great armful of roses. . . . My friend Robert Ross was in before Colin—fresh from a week-end with the Asquiths—and gave me a novel and a promise of all the latest poetry and other books. I was glad to see him as I wanted an expert’s eye cast on the portraits in this room. . . . I expect a good many brother officers this week. Broadway finds them. He is more obliging than words can say. This place is doing me a lot of good and I feel better already. Our surgeon is like the young villain in Hardy’s Laodicean—he looks about 14 but is very able…[1]

Reading Hardy, depending on Ross’s taste, Asquiths at arm’s reach… and, though he doesn’t mention it in this letter, he is also being regularly visited by Ronald Knox. It’s a small world… which I believe I’ve noted before.

 

While Moncrieff is returning from the war seriously wounded, Alfred Hale is slowly headed toward France. So slowly that he is still in the adjusting-to-training-camp stage. And it turns out that even our Old Man of the Air Force has parents. Hale may live a solitary life of privilege–before conscription that is–and see camp as an ordeal rather than an adventure, but he’s only 41… and he still has parents who write him their worries, reminding us that the generational gulf is, in terms of years on this earth, relative, and not absolute…

14 June: A letter from my father. A cousin had come to see him on Draft leave. He seemed to be bored with the War, especially with the prospect of death before his time from bullets or exposure… all of which surprised and shocked my father. ‘It didn’t matter how long the War lasted, but we must have a military victory at all costs’. (This last the burden of all letters from home)…

Hale senior also tells his son that at least his work as a batman is “setting free an abler man.” But Hale isn’t so sure. “Was I really doing that? Unfortunately, I much doubted it…” Nor is Hale accepting the idea that his music “must gain” from experience. He is fairly certain, in fact, that innocence of certain things is highly preferable…[2]

 

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith has recovered, to some extent, from the overwhelming disillusionment and horror at the murderousness of war that he felt after the death of his brother. Or perhaps he has just become more practical… and honest in his balance of emotional reaction and natural self-interest. In any event, he was very happy to be reassigned to the divisional staff a few days ago, replacing a wounded officer in an intelligence job running “an advanced information centre.” Griffith puts on his red tabs “with delight… I felt proud and important in red. Besides, I would be drawing pay at the rate of £400 a year, a tremendous jump for me.” And today, a century back, his elevated status put him in the way of royalty:

… the King and the Prince of Wales visited the headquarters on 14 June. The King shook hands with all the senior members of the corps and divisional staffs…[3]

 

A wounded young man of letters returning to the literary world, a middle-aged musician learning further humiliations, and a one-time trench fighter content to be on the staff. The war brings many changes–until the changes stop.

Vera Brittain comes to the end of the road, today, with Victor Richardson.

Five days after [his death] Victor was buried at Hove. No place on earth could have been more ironically inappropriate for a military funeral than that secure, residential town, I reflected, as I listened with rebellious anger to the calm voice of the local clergyman intoning the prayers: “Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thine Eternal Rest to all those who have died for their country…”

Eternal Rest, I reflected, had been the last thing that Victor wanted; he had told me so himself. But if, thus prematurely, he had to take it, how much I wished that fate had allowed him to lie, with other winners of the Military Cross, in one of the simple graveyards of France. I felt relieved, as I listened to the plaintive sobbing of the “Last Post” rising incongruously from amid the conventional civilian tombstones, that Edward had not been able to come to the funeral. The uncomprehending remoteness of England from the tragic, profound freemasonry of those who accepted death together overseas would have intensified beyond endurance the incommunicable grief which had thrust us apart.

But when, back in Kensington, I re-read the letter that he had written in reply to mine telling him of Victor’s death, I knew that he had never really changed towards me, and that each of us represented to the other such consolation as the future still held.

Vera then gives her brother the final words of the present chapter of her memoir, ending Edward’s fervent assurance of true brotherly love

I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all, but yet, now that all are gone, it seems that whatever was of value in life has all tumbled down like a house of cards. Yet in Tah’s case I will not, I cannot say that I wished from the bottom of my heart that he should live…

Yes, I do say ‘Thank God he didn’t have to live it.’ We started alone, dear child, and here we are alone again… But we share a memory which is worth all the rest of the world, and the sun of that memory never sets. And you know that I love you, that I would do anything in the world in my power if you should ask it, and that I am your servant as well as your brother.

Edward[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 135-6.
  2. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 95.
  3. Up to Mametz and Beyond, 153.
  4. Testament of Youth, 359-61.

A Black Day for the Master of Belhaven; Charles Moncrieff is Up on Poetry; Wilfred Owen is Not in Amiens; Ivor Gurney on Russian Lit, and Art, and Life…

The Master of Belhaven‘s suspicion, yesterday, that the German artillery has his battery taped to the yard is confirmed today, a century back.

Zillebeke, 5th June, 1917

A black day. A and B Batteries have been shelled all day, and it is still going on now at 11 p.m. Ellis, my best subaltern, as been mortally wounded in the head by a piece of a 5.9. As for the battery position, it has practically ceased to exist. They have put several hundreds of 5.9’s right into the gun-line and blown up hundreds of rounds of ammunition. At 7 o’clock this evening I went over to the guns to see what the damage was, but the guns are so covered up with earth and bits of wreckage that it is impossible to see if they are damaged… at this rate we shall soon be very short of both horses and men.[1]

There are no surprise attacks on any sort of scale, any more, and the Germans are doing what they can to blunt the force of the coming British assault at Messines. They don’t know exactly when it will take place, but they know where, and that it will be soon…

 

Our other three brief notes today are from men who are well out of it.

First, Wilfred Owen wrote a postcard to his mother, today, a century back, from the 41st Stationary Hospital–and not from Amiens, pictured on the card.

A similar postcard…

3 June 1917

Am not here—no move yet—quite happy—you have some erroneous ideas about my state of health! I have a chum here—glorious in my eyes for having hob-nobbed with Ian Hay…

Things are vastly improving now in the management of this Hydro![2]

Ian Hay, a.k.a. John Hay Beith, author of The First hundred Thousand, would be a very relevant author to mention, since he wrote the mid-war book about Kitchener’s Army. But I’ve made precious little use of it here…

So forgive me if I succumb to a common weakness and add two more brief and undramatic bits which appeal to me because they show–and more to the point than an excerpt from Ian Hay, whose style and approach did not influence the poets–what other writers our writers were reading…

 

Charles Moncrieff, abed since almost losing his life and his leg at Arras, gives us our first clear indication of something that, had I been more timely in adopting his diaries, would have been obvious before: he will be very closely connected to our circle of war poets.

In Hospital,
5th June, 1917.

Thanks for The Times, which tantum vidi, as the wrapper was just off as it reached me…

This is a terrible morning, very hot, and people sweeping the floor all the time which drives me perfectly mad. I heard about Sorley from Robert Graves, himself an admirable young poet. He is the son of old A. P. Graves who was a school inspector and wrote Father O’Flynn[3]

 

And Ivor Gurney too reads on, though in great isolation. F.W. Harvey’s long imprisonment has deprived him of his one literary friend among his fellow-soldiers (yesterday’s portion of this letter to Marion Scott mentioned how much he would like to discuss Harvey’s book, just published though he is in absentia in Germany, with the author) and Gurney plows a lonely furrow through the classics…

Next Day.

They say Fritz has retreated again, and if this is so, more marching, more road making, short rations again. May General Russky be right about victory coming by Autumn.

There is heavy historical irony there, of course, given Russia’s state. But Gurney is off onto Russian literature, and never mind the solidity of the Eastern Front.

“The Cossacks” is a fine book, too small to be a great one — but accurate and life like. One cant help thinking that such a life us going on there, while in the Victorian books one is continually reminded of the fact that “this is not Life but only a description”. And by such gentlemanly people too!

I will take a huge dose of Russian stuff apres le guerre…

How often, I wonder, did Thackeray really look at life? He shows at his best in the “book of Snobs” and “Travels and Sketches” (is it?) — things related more to books and form than actuality. In fact he was an artist at one remove from things; the opposite of W H Davies in “The Autobiography of a Supertramp”, that most fascinating of records…

Brahms music at its not-best shows the same thing also — the mind of a man as satisfied in his study as in the open air. There are not many things that make worthy art. They are: Nature, Homelife (with which is mixed up Firelight in Winter, joy of companionship etc.) The intangible Hope (which means all music only can hope to express). Thoughts on Death and Fate. And there are no more. It is right, as R[obert]L[ouis]S[tevrenson] wrote, for a young man consciously and of purpose to regard his attempts as Art only, but this is a half stage, and should soon end, if the young man has anything to say.

End of the Treatise: Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 301-2.
  2. Collected Letters, 466.
  3. Diaries, 135.
  4. War Letters, 165-6.

Charles Scott Moncrief is Decorated; Henry Williamson is Sacked; Vera Brittain Sees the Sights; Olaf Stapledon is Fed Up

We have three brief updates today–one good, one bad, and one in transit–before a very unusual letter from Olaf Stapledon.

First, Charles Scott Moncrieff, still abed with a badly mangled leg, has good news, which he receives with proper, and perhaps even unfeigned, modesty.

I have been given one of the fourteen Military Crosses allotted to the 29th Division. No one else in the Regiment, I’m sorry to say, for most of them deserve it more than I do…

Perhaps, but Moncrieff is a brave officer, with a record of consistent leadership and courage–if he hadn’t been so often ill, he would surely be dead by now. Nevertheless, he scorned the decoration, and will try to refuse it–his wound, he will point out, was caused by his own barrage, which is not a terribly heroic fact. But his commander will object to this objection, effectively forcing Moncrieff to accept the MC:

Captain C. K. Scott Moncrieff is an officer with a distinct temperament, and of an intelligence far above the average… whatever he says to the contrary, I shall remained convinced that, not only on the date in question, but on one or two previous occasions also, he thoroughly earned the award which His Majesty has been pleased to bestow.[1]

 

Henry Williamson is doing less well. He has been “strafed” several times recently about timeliness and the proper care of his mules, and although he tried to present his assignment to a signals course as some sort of inside-track “staff” appointment wangled on a super-secret journey, it seems likely that he was selected for the course in the hopes that his unit could thus be rid of him. It didn’t take.

Sent back from the Signalling Course. Good. Very rotten report however. Strafed by G.O.C.[2]

 

And Vera Brittain, on her way home from Malta, will visit her second great capital in three days:

May 26th–Were approaching Paris when we woke up; typical French scenery so often described by Roland–thin sentinel trees and straight white roads. Thought very much about Roland and Geoffrey, for this was their country, now…

It is. British cemeteries are already, and will ever after be a major part of the landscape along the Somme and around Ypres. But Paris is still Paris, and many visitors can claim it. Vera, something of a minor sophisticate in this particular context, guided two of her companions for the afternoon.

After lunch … I took them round to look at some of the sights. Took them to Notre-Dame, the Madeleine and along the most important streets… Afterwards did a little shopping…[3]

 

Last night, a century back, Olaf Stapledon began a letter to his beloved, Agnes Miller, on the occasion of her birthday. But he is home on leave and “bed is a luxury not to be missed,” so the letter trailed off. Today he picked it up, and “with uncharacteristic sarcasm” (as the editor of his letters puts it), gave Agnes an account of his doings in the disastrous recent Nivelle Offensive.

It’s fine to see a six horse limber going down a road at breakneck speed with the driver urging and lashing and the other men hanging on by the skin of their teeth, and shells crashing all round, nearer & nearer it seems, till at last one makes a direct hit, kills five horses and two men on the spot, while the other horse goes a bit down the road till it drops and the third man crawls out of the wreckage into the ditch. It’s fine to see four or five cars all charging down the same bit of road until one of them has to jam on all brakes to avoid crashing into the limber the second after it is hit, and then has to creep gingerly round between the dead horses and ditch while a shell bursts alongside it, breaks in its windows and pierces its body work with steel splinters. Once free, and away dashes the old Vulcan like a mad thing down the road with the poor devils inside crying out at the jolts, swinging, bumping, crashing across the railway line, past the sentry box where someone has propped the dead sentry up against his box for some reason unknown. Meanwhile the next car spots the wounded man in the ditch, draws up to take him on board, but the egregious idiot of a lieutenant who happens to be on board forbids the driver to stop under shellfire, so that (think of it!) the car goes on, leaving the man wriggling…

Oh it’s all very fine & we deserve far more of it. But, ye gods what a damned silly thing is war! Fed up, FED UP!

This from a young man who has spent several years at the front with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit and hitherto been unfailing and unflinching in both his disapproval of the war and his dreamy insistence on seeing better things, in the stars, to come.

But whether back in England or among Germans, Stapledon is far from alone in feeling fed up.

…A meeting of British soldiers, being asked to give a message to people at home, cried “We’re fed up with the war,” and again & again they persistently cried it. As for the bosches… we had some Germans helping to load the carts, & they did it well; especially one smiling, kindly chap with whom the French stretcher bearers soon became very friendly. Of course there is really a lot of blind hatred & hostility, but less than of old. It’s the miserable diplomatists that have not the courage to talk about peace…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 131; Chasing Lost Time, 131.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 155.
  3. Testament of Youth, 351-2.
  4. Talking Across the World, 225-6.

Alfred Hale Rides the Rails… and Misses His Tea; Duff Cooper Goes for a Soldier; Charles Scott Moncrieff’s Return

Before leaving Thetford camp this morning, a century back, Alfred Hale was given a medical inspection to assure the army of his physical fitness.

This meant going into the medical tent one by one and saluting the MO seated at a table, who then asked if you were ‘All right’, and on your replying, ‘Yes thank you, Sir,’ marked your paper and off you went.

This hurdle overcome, Hale was issued with various “belts and small equipment.”

This equipment I did not know how to put on, nor how even to get the rest of my kit into marching order, which much exasperated a corporal…

With two fellow conscripts also bound for the RFC, Hale then begins a train journey through “flat, sunlit country,” and with that things suddenly improve.

I had that delightful feeling, I recollect, of being as though on an adventure into the unknown, and on such a glorious summer day, too. For the first time after getting into Khaki I felt really happy.

Yes, but, well… the day dragged on. After the train and a long ride in a van to the camp where one of his fellows was deposited, Hale and another were driven off to an RFC camp still further off–several miles from anywhere, but nearest to St. Neots, Huntingdonshire. After dallying in the van and at a wayside in, it was well past tea-time when they arrived. And, therefore, disappointment:

So whereas if I had been an officer I should have had a proper late dinner, or at least an evening meal of some sort or kind had I been an NCO for instance, being only a private and a batman, the lowest and most despised being in the Royal Flying Corps, as I was soon to find out, I could only get bad coffee and penny bars of chocolate by paying for it out of my own pocket.

But the canteen hut. This was decorated, or had been decorated, apparently for the previous Christmas, with an inscription in large ornamental letters on the walls, which ran as follows: ‘The Compliments of the Season to Major Petrie and all our officers’. Well, I have no doubt Major Petrie deserved the compliments of the season at the Christmas of 1916; I have also less doubt that he ever went without anything to eat from lunch-time till the next morning while stationed at a home camp in England, or had to drink bad coffee and eat bits of stale penny chocolate bars lest he should go to bed in a starving condition…

This canteen reminded me for all the world of the descriptions in boys’ books of life in the backwoods…

And now I realized, if I had not done so before, that it would be my lot to have to shave myself next morning with the army razor issued to me, I having lost the safety razor I had specially provided myself with. The possibility of this happening I had indeed been dreading all that long afternoon since leaving Bedford. For I cannot shave myself at all with an ordinary razor; even a safety razor sometimes gives me trouble, but an ordinary razor, no; especially the sort issued to Army recruits…[1]

 

Duff Cooper is due for a medical himself. It may have just as perfunctory as Hale’s, but I’d wager it was conducted with a bit more formality. Cooper has been several years on the sidelines, but now, only two days after resolving to try for the army in the latest “comb out” of younger and less essential men in government jobs, he is, all of a sudden, in. Not that the he will lavish description on the process…

May 19th, 1917

Was medically examined for the army and passed A.

That takes care of that. Now he’ll just need to get a commission in a reputable regiment. But first things first.

Went down to Sutton with Diana by the 5.15 I had two pretty moments with Diana in the garden. She told me I must not come to her room as it was next to Lady Horner’s…

I woke at four. It was already getting light so in spite of instructions I crept to Diana’s room, a long and creaky journey. It was very beautiful when I arrived and we lay together until it was quite light and all the birds were singing, including a very monotonous and damnable cuckoo.[2]

There simply must be some clever remark to be made here about rare birds of paradise and damnable cuckoos and the pleasures of idleness and the rigors of military life… but it eludes me.

 

Charles Scott Moncrieff narrowly escaped death at Arras. Recently, he has learned that he may yet even keep his leg. Feeling, perhaps, that the hospital has become less an anteroom to hell and more a purgatory that may someday be escaped, he has begun to stave off despair and to write again. Today and tonight, a century back, these verses “came into” his head. They are strange… but seem to represent the wisdom of a soldier who did not survive, passed on now to his little brother in a mystical of visitation from the beyond.

 

The Return

The queerest thing of all now, is the way the sizes shift, Johnny;
Bracken Hill’s no height now, no height at all.
And the little dog Peter, was the weight I just could lift.
He has grown to hide high mountains, but the great dog’s starved and small.

Deep enough’s the pool to swim now, where for rocks we wouldn’t dive, Johnny,
But the river where we wouldn’t leap, ’tis no step over now;
And the wild bull’s field we wouldn’t pass the time I was alive,
I can lean across the hedge of it, and scratch his brow.

Stepmother’s so little and queer I needn’t ever cry, Johnny,
And her cruel way of talking leaves me easy in my rest;
But you I can’t see all at once, you’ve grown so high.
And that’s because the heart’s great that struggles in your breast.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 64-9.
  2. The Duff Cooper Diaries, 53.
  3. Diaries, 129-30.

David Jones: The Fusilier Sentry and the Charming Prince; Edwin Vaughan in No Man’s Land; Kate Luard Among the Ruins; Charles Moncrieff’s Troublesome Leg; Wilfred Owen in Rare Form

We have several reports to get to, and we don’t even have a terribly good fix on the activities of David Jones precisely today, a century back. Nevertheless, I’d like to start with him. With the unhappy experiment of putting his artistic talents to dubious use as a military observer now ended, he is once more in the line with the battalion–an ordinary rifleman, subject to the ordinary chances of the line. His battalion has been spared major fighting, but neither is it on one of the increasingly mythical “quiet sectors.” The last eight days have been particularly bad.

On May 6th, an enemy raiding party entered the lines of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers, killing two men and taking three prisoners. Jones helped to repel the raid, but this would have been a significant “black eye” for the battalion. Then, later the same day, his particular friend Reggie Allen was killed by a trench mortar bomb. This was a blow that Jones took some time to get over–he will dedicate his war epic to many men, but ‘especially’ to ‘PTE. R. A. LEWIS-GUNNER FROM NEWPORT MONMOUTHSHIRE.’

But there was no rest for the weary, or the grieving. The battalion was “heavily shelled” almost daily. Then, today, a century back, the bombardment began again, but did not end as usual. When the artillery did cease, the “unmistakable crackle” of rifle fire meant that an attack was in progress. It was another large-scale raid, which Jones helped fight off, this time without prisoners, although eight men were killed. Our gentle Anglo-Welsh poet will remember the experience as “exhilarating.”

Into this grab-bag of a week must go one other incident. As Jones was shaving in a communication trench not far from the front line,

A pleasant voice from around a revetment said, ‘Good morning’. Turning his head, [Jones] was astonished to see the Prince of Wales, wearing a short ‘British Warm’ and light woollen scarf.

‘Do you happen to know’, Edward asked, ‘which of these trenches leads directly to… the forward trench?’

Embarrassed, with lather on his face and wearing a tattered waistcoat, Jones indicated the trench and advised the Prince to be careful by a certain trench-sign ‘as it’s exposed, sir’.

Edward said, ‘Thanks, can’t have a fag with you–an awful hurry’, and disappeared.

A few minutes later, a red-faced colonel, puffing to catch his breath, stuck his head round the revetment and asked, ‘Have you seen Wales?’ Jones said yes and that he had directed him to the forward trench. ‘Why didn’t you stop him?’ asked the colonel, and, as the colonel ran off, Jones said, ‘How could I, sir?’ (The Prince was not supposed to be alone in areas subject, as this was, to violent bursts of fire.)

Jones’s biographer goes on to remind us that–despite both men’s tenuous connections to the actual country of Wales–Jones was impressed with the young prince. He was very pleased to have seen him so close to the line, evidently giving his minders the slip. This was precisely the sort of informal and (mildly) dangerous royal behavior that gave heart to ordinary troops. (As the phrase goes; David Jones was an unremarkable soldier but surely a very remarkable man, more so than the polite, electively–and thus selectively–brave young aristocrat in a soldier’s coat.)

Edward’s courtesy and courage stirred in Jones the affection that most infantrymen felt for him. In some respects this was an encounter of the sort that might have occurred in one of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, of which Jones was sometimes reminded while on sentry duty, scanning the local wonderland through a periscope’s looking-glass.

Young Wales will even make it into In Parenthesis, in a isolated, humorous cameo:

‘A young man in a British warm… enquired if anyone had seen the Liaison Officer from Corps, as one who asks of the Tube-lift man at Westminster the whereabouts of the Third Sea Lord’.[1]

 

Last night, a century back, Edwin Vaughan‘s company relieved another unit in the front line. In the early morning hours, his platoon now in position, Vaughan and his company commander, Radcliffe, explored the wide expanse of No Man’s Land in front of their new position.

I felt awfully frightened and my heart beat very high as for the first time I passed through the wire into the silence and mystery of the unknown ground. The moon was giving a faint light through the clouds, which enabled us to see dimly for about 50 yards.

For about a hundred yards we walked slowly forward, seeing nothing but grass and occasionally a shell-hole. Then suddenly Radcliffe grasped my arm and pulled me quietly but quickly down into the long grass. Holding my breath I heard a faint but distinct rustle of knees ploughing through clover and then dimly in front I saw a small party of men approaching us. They halted 40 yards away and I lay frozen with fear and excitement. But Radcliffe was gurgling with laughter. I punched him in the ribs but he breathed gurglingly, ‘They didn’t reckon on my trench club!’ and he shoved forward the thin swishy cane he had brought with him.

What part of this is pure courage and what part nervous hilarity is difficult to say–but now, at least, we know the precise difference between a “fighting patrol” and an “officer’s patrol.”

The two officers crawl back and don’t fire–the German patrol is passing, and they are only two men. And yet it is interesting to note that they are perfectly happy to let the Australians on their left deal with the migrating German patrol, rather than send their own men after it. Whatever their sense of the need for supremacy in No Man’s Land, it does not include a doctrinaire insistence on all possible violence.

And this sort of exploit does settle the nerves wonderfully:

I was so pleased at having broken the ice that I felt quite anxious to get out again with a fighting patrol behind me.[2]

 

Kate Luard, meanwhile, used a lull in the carnage to make an informative visit to another hospital. It seems a safe guess that she is equally pleased to be gaining useful medical knowledge, to have a day out amongst the greenery (such as it is), and to manage to get herself even closer to the front lines.

…Sister G. and I set off in a Motor Ambulance to visit the Abdominal Centre higher up. The driver had not the dimmest notion of the name of the place or how to get there, but I headed him off from various attempts at all other points of the compass with the help of my map, and eventually we got there.

It was Gommécourt over again but in newly sprung green this time. I think it made the little hilly, curly orchards and wooded villages look sadder than ever to see the blossom among the ruins, and the mangled woods struggling to put their green clothes on to their distorted spikes. And in that country every tree along each side of every road was neatly cut through about three feet from the ground, and lying by its stump. It was a weird sight…[3]

 

And while Sister Luard handles the theme of Spring amidst the ruins, Charles Scott Moncrieff will speak for the wounded left behind. He is still recovering at a base hospital from the severe wound he suffered at Arras.

14th May.

Yesterday’s bulletin was that I may perhaps keep my leg, and shall be here a month longer. . . . There is a little crane at the foot with a sandbag hanging from it into which so many people bumped that I got into a state of chronic terror when anyone passed up or down the ward—which happens perhaps a thousand times a day. Finally, last night a fat old parson who crusades round these wards, ran full tilt into it. “Look out,” I said. He turned to see what he had done and said blandly, “Aha, you stick out too much.” After this I could stand no more, and got my bed shifted across the ward.[4]

 

And finally, today, a very long and very strange letter from Wilfred Owen to his younger brother Colin. Owen, though still in a forward hospital with “nerve” issues, is once more in a buoyant mood.

14 May 1917 [13th Casualty Clearing Station]
Dearest Colin,

Here is some Loot, from a Pocket-which I rifled on the Field. I was thinking of you when I was unbuckling the Bugle from the equipment, and being then in a particularly noble frame of mind, meant to present it to you some day. But now I have got too fond of the thing to part with it!

After this opening, the letter moves to Owen’s most elaborate description of his one “attack” so far. As he will explain, the attack (a local action) ended up being successful without being bloody–the Germans had withdrawn. So it is not necessary to wonder why his description of the exhilaration (our word of the day, evidently) doesn’t tip over into horror. Interestingly, however, Pat Barker will draw upon this letter for exactly that purpose, giving some of these words to Billy Prior, to describe an attack that did become intensely traumatic.

The sensations of going over the top are about as exhilarating as those dreams of falling over a precipice, when you see the rocks at the bottom surging up to you. I woke up without being squashed. Some didn’t. There was an extraordinary exultation in the act of slowly walking forward, showing ourselves openly.

There was no bugle and no drum for which I was very sorry. I kept up a kind of chanting sing-song:

Keep the Line straight!
Not so fast on the left!
Steady on the Left!
Not so fast!

Then we were caught in a Tornado of Shells. The various ‘waves’ were all broken up and we carried on like a crowd moving off a cricket-field. When I looked back and saw the ground all crawling and wormy with wounded bodies, I felt no horror at all but only an immense exultation at having got through the Barrage.[5] We were more than an hour moving over the open and by the time we came to the German Trench every Bosche had fled. But a party of them had remained lying low in a wood close behind us, and they gave us a very bad time for the next four hours.

More insight, too, into the tenuousness of any moral state among men in such a tense and unusual situation:

When we were marching along a sunken road, we got the wind up once. We knew we must have passed the German outposts somewhere on our left rear. All at once the cry rang down ‘Line the Bank’. There was a tremendous scurry of fixing bayonets, tugging off breach-covers & opening pouches, but when we peeped over, behold one solitary German, haring along towards us, with his head down and his arms stretched in front of him, as if he were going to take a high dive through the earth (which I have no doubt he would like to have done). Nobody
offered to shoot him, he looked too funny; that was our only prisoner that day!

The letter now turns to less intense experiences, and Wilfred begins to quiz Colin about his work on a farm. Once he is started on the idea of agriculture as a post war calling, the letter then turns into a sort of Georgic reverie and biblical pastiche:

…he departed unto Some Area, and seeing a tree, he also pruned it that it might bring forth more fruit.

After that the tree died also, and he lay down, and slept under the shadow thereof forty days and forty nights; and gathered in his ears in due season, the mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds, yet brought forth ten fold, fifty fold, and an hundred fold.

And with the price thereof he bought a field, which is called the Potter’s Field, because he pottered there day and night and wrought nothing.

But dined sumptuously every day of locusts and wild asses’ milk.

And it came to pass that a woman besought him saying ‘Give me, I pray thee, a little water to drink.’ Instead of water he gave her the milk. And the same woman was bent double for eighteen years. And went out sorrowful, and wept by the river of Babylon. And all fish that were in the river died…

It goes on like this for several pages. I’m not sure what to make of it, but presumably this is not an Important Milestone in his Poetic Development, but, rather, evidence that Owen is desperate to distract himself from daily life during a long stay at the 13th CCS.

…And he shook the dust off his feet, and they were all smitten with blindness, because of the things that fell upon the earth.

And he went on his way, rejoicing, and grinning like a dog that licketh the crumbs that the swine would fain have eaten.

And the ass leaped like the hills, even the hill of Basan, which is an high hill. Selah.

CUM PRIVILEGIO.

You can send this to Harold: to be returned to me! I have let my imagination run riot. You must not show these sheets at home. But I hope you will get an innocent laugh out of ’em. I have. It has passed an afternoon very well.

Best love, dear boy. W.E.O. x[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 155-6; In Parenthesis, 97.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 115-7.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 124-5.
  4. Diaries, 129.
  5. This sight will be addressed in verse.
  6. Collected Letters, 457-60.

Vera Brittain’s Next Worst Day, or the Afterlife of Rupert Brooke, XVIII: Geoffrey Thurlow and Safety, Vera Brittain and The Dead, and the Maimed; Alfred Hale Appeals to the Recruiter; Isaac Rosenberg’s Dead Man’s Dump; Scott Moncrieff Adrift; Home Service for Tolkien

We’ll begin with a few May Day updates on our writers–none of them, today, in the bloom of health or fitness. Last will come Vera Brittain, who absorbs yet another blow. And with her writing we will move from the day to the month, and compare two very different poems about the new dead of this third wartime spring.

 

Alfred Hale has some tenuous connections to our regulars. He was an Oxford friend of Ralph Vaughan Williams (the idol of Ivor Gurney) and a very minor composer and arranger in the same style, and he attended Uppingham school, albeit years before Roland Leighton, Edward Brittain, and Victor Richardson. Now forty-one, his life of single, artistic, privileged pottering about is not unlike what some of our young men might have aged into, but for the war… and there’s the rub. Hale is most conspicuously different from our other informants in that he was immediately and completely horrified by the idea of going to war, and has done his best to avoid it. He was glad to have failed an early physical with the Navy, and he dodged the first draft by stalling and then ageing out–but the new rules are sweeping up even disinclined forty-something non-sporting country gentlemen. Today, a century back, he does his best not to impress.

‘As to my being over age, that had been settled against me by the recent Act… the rejection… was another matter. If I could bet a rejection certificate… from the Naval authorities, well and good…. But I was advised to act quickly.’ Thus the very courteous Recruiting Officer… A very nice old recruiting sergeant was also sympathetic. I was never likely to be much good as a soldier, that he saw with half his professional eye, and he hinted as much if he did not say so.

But Hale is caught in a predictable trap: the Navy has only to remark, with raised institutional eyebrow, that his failure to measure up to its high standards is no guarantee that the Army will likewise reject him. Hale leaves the matter in the hands of his solicitor, but little hope remains.[1]

 

Charles Scott Moncrieff, wounded at Arras, is still in hospital in France–and he is not well. His leg is mangled and, to judge from today’s letter, his spirit has been damaged as well.

No. 20 General Hospital, Camiers,
1st May, 1917.

In the evening I heard a great swell of hundreds of men’s voices singing some of the popular Catholic hymns—“Jesu my Lord, my God, my all”—and some others. Presently my priest came in, the one who wrote to you; he tells me they have Benediction every day of the week in one of the huts, but yesterday for a weekday must have been enormously attended. He agreed to bring me Holy Communion this morning, which I was very grateful for. At night I had not such a bad time, thinking rather than sleeping, but still feeling this awful inability to control or co-ordinate my thoughts, which is, I suppose, a result of the shell shock. I find it so hard to grasp that this great nocturnal space bounded by the four corners of my bed—and with so much always new and unknown in it—has just the one inhabitant. . . .[2]

 

Also today, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien went once more before a medical board. The verdict: “He is improving but requires hardening.” This will mean, in practice, an extended period of home service, in Yorkshire, with time to write and his wife nearby.[3]

 

Kate Luard‘s diary has shown hints of strain, of late–not surprising, given that she has helped to lead a hospital through several weeks of intense and emotionally draining work as the casualties of Arras passed through. But now that the most terribly wounded have died and most of the others have been moved to larger hospitals further in the rear, there is time for relaxation–and for psychological letdown.

May Day and a dazzling day and very little doing in this Hospital. G. and I celebrated the occasion by going to the woods in the morning, starry with anemones and never a leaf to be seen, but blue sky and fresh breezes and clear sunshine. It is all a tremendous help, physically and psychically…

Some of us and Capt. B. have been having a bad fit of pessimism over them all lately, wondering what is the good of operations, nursing, rescues, or anything, when so many have died in the end. But even a few miraculous recoveries buck one up to begin again.

A Suffolk farmer boy is dying to-night…

I had a letter from a brave Glasgow mother, full of gratitude and incoherence, ending up, ‘And don’t forget to let us know how you are keeping.”[4]

This string of ups and downs–one day’s record–is not very representative of her writing style (the daily diary entries are often composed as topical letters). But it is, I think, emotionally accurate. Sister Luard is–she must be–enormously mentally tough, but the enormous suffering and the constant loss takes its toll nonetheless. It’s striking that there is no answer suggested here–no invocation of religion or patriotism. Just the increasingly common question, but especially vivid coming from a nurse so close to the front lines: what is this all for? What is the good of continuing in a policy which reduces so many men to such a state?

A fair question. But there’s nothing for it but to go on–and take whatever solace one can from the lives that can be saved.

 

And so to Vera Brittain.

May 1st

Had two cables–one to say that Victor’s eyesight was hopelessly gone, the other–an hour later–that Geoffrey was killed in action on April 23rd…

Sat out on the rocks’ edge in front of Night Quarters & suddenly something seemed to tell me to go home. Nothing much doing in Malta–& chances of Salonika seemed further off than ever; decided to go home for Edward’s sake & Victor’s, & if he wishes it, to devote my life to the service of Victor, the only one (apart from Edward, who is different) left of the three men I loved. For I loved Geoffrey… I spent the rest of that day on the rocks, feeling all the time that I was not alone but that Geoffrey was there & if I looked up I should see him standing beside me. . . .

A letter from Geoffrey arrived the same day–“By one of those curious chances which occurred during the war with such poignant frequency,” as she will later write. Once could also see it as one more example of the war’s uncanny literariness–but perhaps we remember the cruelest ironies best.

His last letter to me–dated April 20th–arrived that evening. He told me they were going up “for a stunt” in two or three days, & said his only fear was that he should fail at the critical moment, & that he would like to do well for the School’s sake. Often, he said, he had watched the splendour of the sunset from the school-field. And then, perhaps seeing the end in sight, he turned as usual to his beloved Rupert Brooke for comfort & finished with

‘War knows no power safe shall be my going
Safe tho’ all safety’s lost, safe where men fall
And if these poor limbs die, safest of all’

My dear dear Geoffrey!

Vera is ready with an apt–and devastatingly sad–counter-quotation. Geoffrey, before battle, quoted “Safety;” she, drawing from the same sonnet sequence that has framed these middle years of the war, quotes “The Dead:”

He leaves a white
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.[5]

Looking back, Brittain will remember the hours of “suspended physical animation” on the rocks as a time of almost numinous intensity, but Geoffrey’s ghostly presence will prompt a memory that makes much more concrete how she now might “serve” her surviving friend:

And all at once, as I gazed out to sea the words of the “Agony Column” advertisement, that I had cut out and sent to Roland nearly two years before, struggled back into my mind.

“Lady, fiancé killed, will gladly marry officer totally blinded or otherwise incapacitated by the war.”

I even remembered vaguely the letter in which I had commented on this notice at the time.

Yes: a great deal has changed since she wrote that letter, to Roland, which scoffed at the quaintly Victorian self-sacrifice of certain old maids.

There is one small, terrible change in her quotation of her own letter in the later memoir.[6] In the letter, she writes of “a business arrangement, with an element of self-sacrifice which redeems it from utter sordidness. Quite an idea, isn’t it!”

In retrospect, the final exclamation point becomes a question mark.

“Quite an idea, isn’t it?” Was it, Geoffrey? wasn’t it? There was nothing left in life now but Edward and the wreckage of Victor–Victor who had stood by me so often in my blackest hours. If he wanted me, surely I could stand by him in his.

She decides to try to come home.

That night–quiet as all nights were now that so few sick and wounded were coming from Salonika–I tried to keep my mind from thoughts and my eyes from tears by assiduously pasting photographs of Malta into a cardboard album. The scent of a vase of sweet-peas on the ward table reminded me of Roland’s study on Speech Day, centuries ago.

And, a century on, I suppose we must be grateful, in some aesthetically presumptive and heartless way, for the terrible things that happened to good writers.

Surely, surely there must be somewhere in which the sweet intimacies begun here may be continued and the hearts broken by this War may be healed![7]

Vera Brittain will soon begin the poem that will serve us for a first “month poem” today:

 

In Memoriam G.R.Y.T.

(Killed in Action, April 23rd, 1917)

I spoke with you but seldom, yet there lay
Some nameless glamour in your written word,
And thoughts of you rose often—longings stirred
By dear remembrance of the sad blue-grey
That dwelt within your eyes, the even sway
Of your young god-like gait, the rarely heard
But frank bright laughter, hallowed by a Day
That made of Youth Right’s offering to the sword.
So now I ponder, since your day is done,
Ere dawn was past, on all you meant to me,
And all the more you might have come to be,
And wonder if some state, beyond the sun
And shadows here, may yet completion see
Of intimacy sweet though scarce begun.

Malta, May 1917.

 

This is a good poem; also, a traditional one. A poem about an individual, a dead man remembered not for his death or its horror or pain or futility but for his life. Which is right, and good, and we should all have friends like Vera Brittain to remember us, and to draw on hopeful traditions that see a possibility of love and friendship after death.

 

But there are other ways to see the dead, and to write them. Another poem written this month, a century back, is Isaac Rosenberg‘s Dead Man’s Dump. It’s neither a short poem nor a very long one, but it’s almost too harrowing to read in its entirety. It draws on Rosenberg’s experience working in a labor battalion in the aftermath of battle. A few stanzas, then:

The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
To stay the flood of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.
The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan.
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.
The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire,
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
Those dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called ‘An end!’
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.
Maniac Earth! howling and flying, your bowel
Seared by the jagged fire, the iron love,
The impetuous storm of savage love.
Dark Earth! dark Heavens! swinging in chemic smoke,
What dead are born when you kiss each soundless soul
With lightning and thunder from your mined heart,
Which man’s self dug, and his blind fingers loosed?
A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.
They left this dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred M. Hale, 37.
  2. Diary, 128-9.
  3. Chronology, 100.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 120-1.
  5. Chronicle of Youth, 340.
  6. I am relying, of course, on two different transcriptions of a hand-written letter I haven't seen...
  7. Testament of Youth, 342-46.

The Battle of Arras Resumes: Charles Scott Moncrieff, A.P. Herbert, Geoffrey Thurlow, Alf Pollard, Frank Richards, and Kate Luard; Vera Brittain Ponders Sacrifice and Glory; Siegfried Sassoon Addresses the Warmongers

Today is St. George’s Day, Shakespeare’s birthday, the second anniversary of the death of Rupert Brooke, and the day that Billy Prior, shell-shocked and mute, came to in a Casualty Clearing Station. But that is all more than a century back, or fiction.

Today is also the beginning of the second phase of the Battle of Arras. In what will become known as the Second Battle of the Scarpe, elements of eleven divisions attacked on a nine mile front just east of Arras, from Gavrelle in the north to Croisilles in the south.

Charles Scott Moncrieff was in the first wave, leading a company of the 1st Battalion, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who went over the top at 4:45, attacking toward Monchy-le-Preux. Scott Moncrieff was hit very shortly thereafter, and spent a harrowing day on the field and being carried back. But by this evening he will be able to write:

23rd April.

I was wounded about five o’clock this morning when leading my battalion in the attack. My left leg is broken in two places. I am now in a clearing station where I shall stay a few days. I shall be at the Base shortly and then home—and expect the leg will heal very quickly. The attack seems to have gone very well, as far as I could see and control it from the ground.[1]

What the letter does not make clear is that Moncrieff was not only leading the attack but leading it as close as possible to the “walking” barrage–and that a short-fall from this barrage–a British shell–was what nearly killed him. He is in grave danger of losing his leg.

Scott Moncrieff experienced his wound as something of a “transcendental” experience, and it will shortly push him further toward a vocation that combines his linguistic and literary talents. Drawing on Paul Claudel’s ‘Hymne à SS Agnès,’ he wrote a poem about his rescue that comes close to the once-popular angelic-intervention tales, albeit in an exalted religious-literary manner, rather than in close imitation of the popular ghost story style of Arthur Machen and others.

I, like a pailful of water thrown from a high window, fell. . . . Alone.

An hour or two I lay and dozed…

. . . . Ah, whose mind prayed
Through mine then? Whose quiet singing heard I from my stretcher, swinging
Sorry, weary, sick, Strongly, clearly, belated back to Arras? Who dictated
Strongly, clearly, till I sung these French words with my English tongue?[2]

In a neighboring division, also largely Scottish, Captain John Eugene Crombie of the Gordon Highlanders, who had so recently written  “Easter Day 1917, The Eve of Battle,” was wounded near Roeux. Less fortunate than Scott Moncrieff, he will die of his wounds by the end of the day.[3]

On the left of the attack, the 63rd Division–The Royal Naval Division–led the attack on the village of Gavrelle. Rupert Brooke‘s old comrades in the Hood Battalion came up too quickly from reserve, through a heavy German barrage, and then pushed on into house-by-house fighting. In the neighboring brigade was the Drake battalion, pressing through the same barrage. A.P. Herbert, whose meditations on courage, cowardice, and institutional brutality will be set in the recent past but informed by this experience of battle, led his platoon while equipped with certain supererogatory liquid courage. He was soon hit:

Sub-Lieutenant Rackham saw him fling up his arms and fall. ‘He seemed to me to be in a bad way–dangerously
wounded, I thought at first.’ At a field-dressing station, jagged bits of shrapnel and hip-flask were found to be embedded deep in his left buttock; ignominious wound, honourably sustained. It was serious enough for him to be sent home again. He believed that the brandy from his flask was an effective sterilizing agent…[4]

Kate Luard received many such wounded men, and some who had fared much worse:

Monday, April 23rd, 10 p.m. Just come up to lie down for an hour before the next take-in. We have filled up twice, and they are hard at it again over the road; we come next… the earth-shaking noise this morning did its work; the wounded Germans tell me here are a great many dead. We have a splendid six-foot officer boy lying silently on his face with a broken back, high up. I hope he won’t live long…[5]

 

Alf Pollard and the Honourable Artillery Company–who are, naturally, really, a London-based militia regiment of infantry serving in a “Naval” infantry division–were in reserve on the central section of the assault.[6]

The barrage was terrific and it seemed impossible that anything could stand up against it. Nevertheless, the wire was very tenacious and… They put up an obstinate resistance.

It was not very long before we were required. A Company went first, but a few minutes later a call came for us and I moved forward. As we approached the position I could see the long lines of uncut wire with dead fusiliers hanging across it like pearls in a necklace where the Hun machine-guns had caught them. All the same some of them had penetrated through the gaps and the trench was captured. I had my usual luck and got my Company through the enemy’s counter-barrage without any casualties. My men were full of fight… There was no resistance; the few Huns we encountered surrendered instantly. At once I set about preparing the trench for the counter-attack which I knew would follow. The whole place was a shambles…

The town of Gavrelle was a few hundred yards on our right. The attacking troops had gone right through and our right consequently projected slightly beyond our left. We were the extreme left of the Divisional front. The Division on our left whose main attack was directed against Oppy Wood had failed with the result that the position was held in echelon…

The counter-attack was not launched until the following morning…[7]

A bit further south, the 10th Sherwood Foresters, part of the 17th Division, were in support of the assault just south of Monchy-le-Preux, near the town of Guémappe. Among the objectives on this front was the concentration of German artillery on the high ground in their rear. Perhaps, by the day’s end, the positions of the batteries that dueled with Edward Thomas‘s will be taken.

But not immediately; the leading battalions were held up and the 10th Sherwood Foresters were called forward, and took the first German trench. Geoffrey Thurlow, the last of Edward and Vera Brittain‘s close friends to remain unscathed, was there, and he had neither succumbed to the shell-shock that had afflicted him in 1916, nor to the fear of it. Safe in a German trench after the successful assault, he was asked once more to show his courage, and once again he didn’t let the school down. His commander will describe his actions in a letter he will write to Edward Brittain:

I sent a message to Geoffrey to push along the trench and find out if possible what was happening on the right. The trench was in a bad condition and rather congested, so he got out on the top. Unfortunately the Boche snipers were very active and he was soon hit through the lungs. Everything was done to make him as comfortable as possible, but he died lying on a stretcher about fifteen minutes later.[8]

So Geoffrey Thurlow, too, is dead.

Far away in Malta, Vera Brittain was just beginning to cope with the previous disaster to hit her tight-knit circle. In a letter which draws heavily on her diary of yesterday, she wrote to her brother:

Malta, 23 April 1917

My own dearest Edward

Your letter of the 8th has just arrived but contains no reference to the terrible news of the last day or two; it seems to be the only one that has come, so I suppose all my letters have missed the mail just when I wanted them most. It is dreadful to have to wait a week for details. That is the hardship of foreign service — not climate or distance so much as the separation by time & distance from anything that matters…

I am broken-hearted indeed about Victor. It is better to be anything than blind; I am not sure that it is not better to be dead.

This is not an idle question. Cruel as this is, it’s important to recognize that there is still no fundamental questioning of the meaning and the worth of all this suffering. She is not sure if Victor should wish to be dead, but she is confident that he will feel a sense of achievement at having matched his decorated school friends in military valor:

I suppose he is disfigured very much. His lovely eyes — I can’t bear to think they will never any more look ‘right into one’s soul’ as Mrs Leighton said they did. It is a terrible way to have bridged the gulf that lay between him & you — & Roland. I wish Roland were here to be with him & give him the strength he will so much need if he lives…

it is very hard to feel I can do nothing for him in return at the time of his greatest need. . . Anyhow. I know that you will make him understand, better than any letter could, my indescribable sorrow & regret–one can’t call it pity, as pity is not a sufficiently reverent feeling for one of those who ‘so marvellously overcame’. If there is anything I can do for him–anything at all–you will tell me, won’t you? It places all of us who cannot fight under a burden of debt almost more than we can bear–to feel that we owe our safety to the fives & sight & strength of such as you & Roland & him. I feel I could never repay it enough, even if trying to meant giving up practically all I ever meant to be or do. I feel as if Roland’s sad eyes were looking at me out of Eternity, imploring me to try to give Victor some of the comfort He would have given him if He had been here.[9]

 

We’re almost done, today, but here we have a different sort of irony of separation, of “sacrifice” and suffering and far-off emotion. Siegfried Sassoon is safely back, unaware that today is another spasm of intense violence, and that his battalion is caught up in it. It’s a particularly nasty irony that his reports from today are thus overshadowed by exactly what he now feels increasingly empowered too protest.

He has been working on another new poem, “To the Warmongers,” which begins:

I’m back again from hell
With loathsome thoughts to sell;
Secrets of death to tell;
And horrors from the abyss…

But the abyss is still there–and not yet taken. Two companies of the 2nd Royal Welch, in support of the 4th Suffolks, will once again move up from the Hindenburg Tunnel to attack along the Hindenburg Trench. A trench mortar barrage dropped neatly into the trench, clearing the German barricade and allowing the charging Suffolks to push back the defenders. The two companies of the 2/RWF came up and were at once employed in bringing up German prisoners from the deep dugouts. There is a long, detailed narrative of the intimate trench fighting in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle, growing grim as the two companies are held up and then located by the German trench mortar and rifle-grenade parties.

Sassoon’s friends “Binge” Owen and the pianist Ralph Greaves–both survivors of a late night in Amiens only three weeks ago–were now directing the fighting. One bomb hit a barricade and exploded next to Greaves’ right arm, mangling it. Owen was killed a few minutes later. Further attacks failed, although Captain N. H. Radford will remember hearing a Staff Captain give a fanciful heroic account of the “forcing of the barricade” only two weeks later, and remark that “that kind of myth outlives denial; it has appeared in print as fact.”[10]

The other two companies of the 2nd Royal Welch attacked later in the day, repeating a failed attack by another battalion, and with poorly coordinated artillery support. And in the open. They fared even worse. Frank Richards, a company signaler with B company, was in the assembly trench, and had a clear view of the attack:

From our parapet across to the objective our dead were laying thick, and for the first fifty yards it would have been impossible for a man to have walked three paces unless he stepped on a dead man. In the afternoon we attacked but were held up by machine-gun and rifle-fire the same as the previous battalions: not a man got further than halfway. The fortunate ones got back to their own trench, but the majority were laying where they fell… We brought our wounded in during the night, the enemy not firing a shot.[11]

 

We’ll end the day with Sassoon, in London, and trying somehow to move from personal experience to some reasonable appreciation of the “big picture:”

April 23 (In the Ward) —

Morning sunshine slants through tho many tall windows of the ward with its grey-green walls and forty white beds. Daffodils and primroses, red lilies and tulips make spots of colour…  Officers lie humped in beds smoking and reading morning papers; others drift about in dressing-gowns and slippers, going to and from the washing-room where they scrape the bristles from their contented faces. The raucous gramophone keeps grinding out popular airs…

Everyone is rather quiet. No one has the energy or the desire to begin talking war-shop till noon. Then one catches scraps of talk from round the fire-places.

‘barrage lifted at the first objective’
‘shelled us with heavy stuff’
‘couldn’t raise enough decent N.C.O.s’
‘our first wave got held up by machine-guns’
‘bombed them out of a sap’—etc etc.

There are no serious cases in this ward; only flesh-wounds and sick. No tragedies of gapped bodies and heavily bandaged faces; no groans at night, and nurses catching their breath while the surgeon deals with some ghastly gaping hole. These are the lucky ones, whom a few days of peace have washed clean of the squalor and misery and strain of ten days ago. They are lifting their faces to the sunlight: the nightmares have slunk away to haunt the sombre hearts of the maimed and shattered.[12]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 128.
  2. I've taken some supplementary information from Findlay, Chasing Lost Time, 127-130, but there are some military historical errors in her account, so it's possible that some of what I have quoted is off-base; if so, sincere apologies!
  3. Powell, A Deep Cry, 241.
  4. Pound, A. P. Herbert, 153.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 115.
  6. I have not unraveled the exact relative positions of these different units; despite the lack of major salients it is a difficult attack to visualize... and for most of our writers, it seems, Arras was a terribly quick battle. Although Alf Pollard, as it happens, will persist and more than persist.... in any event, apologies for the less-than-thorough military history here.
  7. Fire-Eater, 212-14.
  8. Letters From a Lost Generation; see also here.
  9. Letters From a Lost Generation, 341-2.
  10. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 330-38.
  11. Old Soldiers Never Die, 229-30. There is likely hyperbole here in terms of the number and the concentration of men killed.
  12. Diaries 159-60.

Vera Brittain Learns the Truth of Victor Richardson’s Blindness; Robert Graves Revises for Siegfried Sassoon; Kate Luard Prepares Amidst the Thunder; Charles Scott Moncrieff and the Pipers on the Edge of a Dawn Attack

We’ll start today with Robert Graves, in pursuit of the wounded Siegfried Sassoon:

Poor Old Sassons!

Blessé pour la patrie; and according to Robbie rather too slightly to serve any useful purpose. I wrote to you in France yesterday; how stupid because it was a decent sort of letter![1]

Graves appends some quick criticisms of Sassoon’s poems, which he has acquired in proofs just before their publication. But we’ll skip those because, in several senses, Graves is just too late. Although some of the poems in the forthcoming The Old Huntsman are indeed scandalous–pushing the envelope of publishing propriety as it currently stands–the next batch are going to go much further.

We have already seen the finished version of this poem, based in part on a comrade’s experience, but Sassoon, despite the wounded shoulder, began drafting this, today, his first in London:

Groping along the tunnel in the gloom
He winked his tiny torch with whitening glare,
And bumped his helmet, sniffing the hateful air.
Tins, boxes, bottles, shapes too vague to know.
And once, the foul, hunched mattress from a bed;
And he exploring, fifty feet below
The rosy dusk of battle overhead.
He tripped and clutched the walls; saw someone lie
Humped and asleep, half-covered with a rug;
He stooped and gave the sleeper’s arm a tug.
‘I’m looking for Headquarters’. No reply.
‘Wake up, you sod!’ (For days he’d had no sleep.)
‘I want a guide along this cursed place.’
He aimed a kick at the unanswering heap;
And flashed a beam across that livid face
Horribly glaring up, whose eyes still wore
The agony that died ten days before.
Whose bloody fingers clutched a hideous wound.
Gasping, he staggered onward till he found
Dawn’s ghost that filtered down a shafted stair,
To clammy creatures groping underground,
Hearing the boom of shells with muffled sound.
Then with the sweat of horror in his hair,
He climbed with darkness to the twilight air.

April 22[2]

 

But Sassoon is safe in Blighty. In Malta, where Vera Brittain has suffered two agonizing days of suspense over the nature of Victor Richardson’s wounds, an answer arrived.

April 22nd

On Thursday I sent a cable home asking for further news of Victor. This morning the answer came from Edward “Eyesight probably gone, may live.”

So–if he lives–he will be blind–the dear splendid cynical boy, with the beautiful eyes, which make him look, as Mrs Leighton said, as if he sought the Holy Grail. It is better to be anything than blind; I am not sure it is not even better to be dead. And no one would ever suffer so much when helpless & dependent as he. The Three Musketeers have had more than their share of suffering. For us who cannot fight, it is a burden of debt almost more than we can bear, to feel that we owe our safety to the lives & sight & strength of such as Roland, Victor & Edward.

I am anxiously awaiting further news to know if Victor is conscious & what his future–if there is to be one–is likely to be. I feel that I would do anything–that I would give up all things I ever meant to do & be if I could but repay him a little for what he has sacrificed. I feel as if Roland’s sad eyes were entreating me out of Eternity to give to Victor
some of the strength & comfort He would have given him if only He had been there. Poor motherless Tah! When I remember how good he was to me after Roland s death, and how he comforted me that opening week-end of the Somme Battle, when I was so dreadfully anxious about Edward, It seems terribly hard that I should be so far away from him in the hour of his greatest need. I know how glad Roland would be if I could but be of service to his “Father Confessor”.

I had a letter from Edward to-night, written before Victor was wounded, to say that he has gone to Stafford on another course & cannot now go to the front before June 15th. So he at least will be with Victor in his darkest hours; I am very glad of this, for since Roland is dead no one could be the help & comfort to him that Edward can.[3]

So as Vera struggles with the news, she still draws strength from the old habit of interpreting every disaster in terms of their private mythology of Roland’s greatness. (It’s hard, sometimes, not to think of these five as a careful pre-Raphaelite composition, with four bright, beautiful, clear-eyed, symbolically-accoutered saints grouped below a lost savior, rising toward the top of the frame.)

After sending the telegram, Edward writes to her with further details. He does not make his father’s mistake, and spares his elder sister, now an experienced nurse, nothing:

London, 22 April 1917

It is not known yet whether Victor will die or not, but his left eye was removed in France and the specialist who saw him thinks it is almost certain that the sight of his right eye has gone too. He was brought into the 2nd London General, Chelsea–only about 2 miles from here–on Thursday afternoon, 19th. We don’t know exactly when he was hit but I should think it must have been close to our parapet when attacking on April 9th. The bullet — probably Machine gun — went in just behind the left eye and went very slightly upwards but not I’m afraid enough to clear the right eye; the bullet is not yet out though very close to the right edge of the temple; it is expected that it will work through of its own accord. I came up from Stafford on Friday night and saw Victor twice yesterday; he has never really recovered consciousness at all yet but I think he was just sensible that I was there and was just able to say ‘yes’ when ‘the sister asked him if he knew who it was. The eye that has been removed and all the upper part of the face is covered with bandages and is much swollen though the swelling was rather less when I saw him again in the evening.

He was asleep then and a good deal of blood had just come down the nose which was probably a good thing; the breathing was quite regular. The right eye was closed but when the sister lifted the eyelid it seemed to me that the eye had no sight at all.

We are told that he may remain in his present condition for a week. I don’t think he will die suddenly but of course the brain must be injured and it depends upon how bad the injury is.

All relevant information conveyed, Edward moves on without a pause to the next task–beginning to weigh the future, to try to make room in his mental world for this new extreme of suffering:

I am inclined to think it would be better that he should die; I would far rather die myself than lose all that we have most dearly loved, but I think we hardly bargained for this. Sight is really a more precious gift than life. If he should live I know that you and I and Mrs Leighton can help enormously and there is music, but as you know his people are quite inadequate for him under such circumstances. A permanent injury to the brain must of course also be considered…

I am just going to meet Mr Richardson at Victoria and we shall see Tah again this afternoon. I have to go back to Stafford to-night.

Later

There is much better news. . . . the Matron of the 2nd London telephoned to say that Victor was conscious and so Mother and I went down at once. He was much better and recognised my voice; I asked him how he was and he said ‘Right as rain’ and he caught hold of my hand and said ‘You haven’t been long’. (The sister had asked him before if he would like to see me.) Then I said ‘Your Father is coming to see you in an hour or two’. Then he made the most hopeful remark of all saying ‘What’s the betting he’s late’. Of course you know that Mr Richardson is invariably late and so that shows how much better Tah is…

Mr Richardson told me that he had just had a letter from Tah’s Colonel whose name is Porter, in which he said the battalion was attacking a redoubt called ‘the Harp’ just East of Arras; they took the first line and then came under heavy Machine Gun fire. Victor who was leading his platoon was hit in the arm but took his coat off had the wound bandaged and went on; it was at the 2nd German line that he got the bullet through his head and the Colonel himself gave him morphia because he was in pain.The Colonel in his letter after saying that he hopes he will not lose his sight ‘because sight is so much more valuable than life’ also says ‘You have good reason to be proud of him . . . he did his best and it was a good best too. I have sent his name in for the Military Cross and have no doubt that he will get it.’

The Military Cross is the same decoration that Edward Brittain himself had won, under similar circumstances. (Brittain’s was for steadfast leadership despite a wound during the attack of July 1st–a much lesser wound, but a much bigger military disaster.) While not as much of a mark of exceptional military skill (or exceptional favor with those with decorations in their gift) as the higher decorations, an MC is seen as a validation of valor. Those who win it can be confident that they have successfully met the challenge posed by mortal fear.

…Unless he has a bad relapse I think he will live. . . I don’t think Tah realises yet that he is blind. As he lies on his bed with bandages round his left eye and head and the right eyelid closed, he looks just like a picture of the Christ–the familiar expression generally shown on the Cross.

If only that right eye might have its sight!

Ever yours

Edward

We haven’t had any more news from Geoffrey since my last letter.[4]

 

And it still goes on–not only that, it is getting ready to flare into open battle once again. Kate Luard is only a few miles behind the lines on the Arras front.

Sunday, April 22nd. This continued bombardment is shaking the earth to-night; it is on the same scale as on the day before Easter Monday.

Only in wartime–when even at a distance of two weeks the dates of big attacks loom large in the calendars of history and memory–would “the day before Easter Monday” be a reasonable way to refer to Easter. But it is: that Monday was the beginning of the battle, just as today is not a day in the second week of the aftermath of Arras–it’s the day before the “second phase” of the battle begins with another major assault.

Warlencourt British Cemetery

The hospital is almost empty, ready…

I took some Lent lilies to the Cemetery this evening; it is rapidly spreading over a high open field; there must be nearly 2,000 graves there now, since it began last June…

No one knows when we shall fill up again but it can’t be far off, with this din. If you could hear it for five minutes, you would never forget it.[5]

 

One of our writers who knows he will be in it is Charles Scott Moncrieff, back with his battalion and ready to go forward.

22nd April, 1917.

A great hum of life going on all around me—several regiments and long rows of motor lorries. I am lunching
at midday with my Reverend friend Milliquand. I called yesterday on M. Lequête and his daughter, very happy
and vivacious, but deploring the pillage and havoc wrought by the British troops recently massed on this front. I answered with platitudes and that Napoleon’s armies did the same, but felt awkward and ashamed. . . . To-morrow is St. George’s Day—best of all for the Armies of England. . . . I must stop now for a conference.

But Scott Moncrieff is a Scot, and among Scotsmen. In Arras itself, now, there is a festive atmosphere:

…The whole town full of life and rejoicing. Scottish troops everywhere, all the 15th Division, the Highland Territorial Division and ourselves, with the 2nd Royal Scots, 2nd Gordons, and R.S. Fusiliers, from the Line Divisions. . . . Pipe bands playing in all the squares, it was very wonderful, with notices still fresh on the walls cautioning people against walking in the streets by daylight, etc.[6]

By tonight, a century back, Scott Moncrieff and his Kings Own Scottish Borderers were marching up the hill toward Monchy-le-Preux.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 69-70.
  2. Diaries, 158.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 339-40.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 338-41.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 115.
  6. Diaries, 126-7.

Henry Williamson Unwrites His Lone Patrol; Edward Thomas Opens Himself Up to Frost; Charles Scott Moncrieff Amidst the Peasantry; Ivor Gurney’s Gloucesters Come Upon an Old Friend; Siegfried Sassoon Swears a New Fealty

Today is thick with poets; but today’s post is also a reminder of the entanglement of different forms and genres. Before the three poets, two litterateurs of different accomplishments–and, along the way, two comminglings of history and fiction…

Charles Scott Moncrieff is back in Doullens, a century back, and delights in describing the local grotesques:

2nd April, 1917

I write this by the stove in the bedroom of an aged woman. We have just arrived in the village where I was in hospital a twelvemonth ago. We halted yesterday near the main town of these parts, into which I walked in the afternoon. . . .

We dined at the Hotel des Quatre Fils Aymon, where the host—a very large man like Bigoudin in Locke’s book—stands by the sideboard and ladles out soup to a frantic waiter who resembles Professor Harvey Littlejohn…

My hostess is very old and sunken and is crouching over the other side of the stove telling her beads and looking up dully over my shoulder at the snow. She is a pleasant spectacle after a terrible old woman with a mad daughter, on whom one of my platoons was billeted last night. She refused to sign the statutory declaration to claim no damages on the grounds that she had not had time to see whether there had been any. I stood there while she peeled potatoes angrily over a pail of water, slicing them again and again to get to the  end of black eyes and worm holes—the daughter sat with twitching hands and feet on the stove, interjecting very savage observations—at last the old one said, “I never do sign and I never will.”[1]

 

Henry Williamson, meanwhile, reports to his mother on his position–the dotted letter code indicates Croiselles–and on his observation of a local attack.

Dear Mother,

Just a short epistle to let you know I received your letter dated 28 March. Yes you are quite right about my destination but you may get a letter with this one that will show you the change.

I watched an attack at 5 oclock this morning. The warfare has changed a lot–of course we are only scrapping their rearguards & their artillery is only a few guns here & there. Well we got past all the defensive ridges, like the downs, now, & on this hill I stood on I could see for scores of miles: it was like standing on the Salt Box Hill & seeing the green country for miles away–it is quite possible to side right up to the Bosche outposts here without knowing where they are.

Well I watched our men going forward at dawn–I was only an interested spectator you see, as I had news of an attack & went up to watch it. The guns gave the village below us hell for a time & then the men went forward, & there was little fire & an hour afterwards I saw two prisoners wounded & looking very white coming in, & then ten others. So I tied my horse up & stealthily crept up to the village & couldn’t see a dam thing. So I went on for a mile or so and to my great surprise & fear I saw a lot of Bosche with machine guns about 150 yds away!!!

And I gave myself up for lost but went on a bit further and found myself in a big trench system with noone about–suddenly it struck me I was in the ‘Hindenburg Line‘![2] And I was!!! I can tell you I felt rather windy & started to go back–on the way back I got two Bosche bombs ready to throw as I was unarmed but I didn’t see a dam thing. I got back to the village after 8 hours away and found my horse frantic with hunger.

I reported my observations to the [——-] and one might hear further you never know. And the best part is that if I had known that the Bosche was there I wouldn’t have gone for £10000 but I believed all the time that he was miles away!!![3]

Only with Henry Williamson would we look to an absence in fiction to query a presence in a “historical document” such as this letter, and yet even though his long novel features a number of escapades which he didn’t make–indeed, several solo rambles into danger just like the one he describes here–there is nothing in the early April scenes of Love and the Loveless that fits the bill. Otherwise, we find what we might expect in a more sober romancer: the booby-trapped piano appears, for instance, but as a “story” that was then current not something the author vouches for. (And it’s better told: of course it must be a specific note that is wired… although a specific chord would be better–perhaps the 7th chord towards the end of “victor-i-ous” in “God Save the King?”)

It seems safe to conclude that, while Williamson may well have witnessed an advance in these confused post-withdrawal pre-Arras weeks, he didn’t really stumble into the German lines and make a narrow escape, borrowed bombs clutched in sweating palms… German grenades appear in the novel, too, but only as potential souvenirs that Phillip Maddison discovers and covets. It is good to be remembered that when a young soldier brags, truth can be less truthy than fiction.

 

Another writer who will straddle the divide between memoir and fiction (or, rather, who putters happily down both carriageways) is Siegfried Sassoon. Today, at least, his various accounts of himself march neatly in step: the “good old 2nd Battalion” reached Corbie, today, on their march to the front, and everything is looking up…

After they had arrived and settled their men–it was an easy march–Ralph Greaves (“Wilmot” in “Sherston’s” memoirs) played a piano he found in their billets while the others drank bad champagne. But this “convivial evening” was over all too quickly–in the morning they will march on north.[4] Nevertheless, tonight, a century back becomes the scene of a set-piece in Sassoon/Sherston’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, as Sassoon introduces the major “characters” of the 2nd Battalion. These include not only “Munro”–the very Dr. Dunn who will compile The War the Infantry Knew–but also “Leake,” the company commander who is no sooner introduced as a hostile Regular Army snob than he and “Sherston” stumble away from the sing-along “sholemnly” swearing eternal friendship. So Siegfried Sassoon is among friends once more…[5]

 

And now to the pure poets. First, Ivor Gurney, who writes (to Marion Scott, as always) of beauty and music and, for once, of a decent burial.

My Dear Friend:

Tin whistles and mouth organs still going hard, and we waiting for dinner and moving afterwards, for a company of ours took two more villages last night, and we shift also of course. We have been hard worked, but still and all the same, this open country work is far preferable to trench life. This place is quite pretty, very pretty; and this morning I saw, at first dawn, one mystical star hanging over a line of black wood on the sky-line; surely one of the most beautiful things on earth.

I hope by the time this letter gets to you you will be trotting about in real Spring sunlight; it is cold here as yet, but no man may foretell of April’s whims.

I told you of the death, a little time back of one of our most looked to corporals. Well, that was before the advance. About a fortnight after the movement started, we heard his grave had been discovered; and after tea one evening the whole company (that was fit) went down for a service there. Quite a fine little wooden cross had been erected there: the Germans had done well: it was better than we ourselves would have given him; and on the cross was
“Hier ruht ein tapferer Englander, Richard Rhodes”, and the date.

Strange to find chivalry in sight of the destruction we had left behind us; but so it was. They must have loved his beauty, or he must have lived a little for such a tribute. But he was brave, and his air always gallant and gay for all his few inches. Always I admired him and his indestructibility of energy and wonderful eyes.[6]

 

Finally, another beautiful, introspective letter from Edward Thomas. Still possessed of both some free time and the near-certain knowledge that things will shortly be much busier, he writes to Robert Frost–and he strives to make the most of it. This is an “update” letter, yes, but it is also what all good personal writing should be–rigorously true to the present moment. And it is fascinating–to me, at least!–to re-read events–or, rather, to read re-written events–from Thomas’s life. Some of these things he has described to his diary, his mother, his wife, Eleanor Farjeon, and his son Merfyn. Will they look different with a few more days’ hindsight, and written as they are to his poetic heart’s companion, his bluff, keeper-challenging American friend?

Beaurains

2 April 1917

My dear Robert,

I heard that the mails have been lost several times lately at sea. I thought I had better make another shot at you. This is another penultimate letter. Things are closely impending now and will have happened before you get this and you will know all about it then, so I will not try to tell you what they are, especially as I could not get them past the censor.

I have seen some new things since I wrote last and had much and worse things to endure which do not become less terrible in anticipation but are less terrible once I am in the midst of them. Jagged gables at dawn when you are cold and tired out look a thousand times worse from their connection with a certain kind of enemy shell that has made them look like that, so that every time I see them I half think I hear the moan of the approaching and hovering shell and the black grisly flap that it seems to make as it bursts. I see and hear more than I did because changed conditions compel us to go up to the very front among the infantry to do our observation and we spend nights without shelter in the mud chiefly in waiting for morning and the arrival of the relief. It is a 24 hours job and takes more to recover from. But it is far as yet from being unendurable. The unendurable thing was having to climb up the inside of a chimney that was being shelled. I gave up. It was impossible and I knew it. Yet I went up to the beastly place and had 4 shell bursts very close. I decided that I would go back. As a matter of fact I had no light and no information about the method of getting up so that all the screwing up I had given myself would in any case have been futile. It was just another experience like the gamekeeper,—but it was far less on my mind, because the practical result of my failure was nil and I now see far more from the ground level than I could have seen then from 200 feet up the factory chimney.

Well, that answers the questions. Although he is less schooled in latter-day Thomas-lore than I am, Edward Thomas is still Edward Thomas, and remembers his own memories well–including the stand-off with the keeper. The time he, Thomas, shrank from conflict despite being in the right, when the belligerent Frost stood firm and was ready to risk violence in a quiet English wood…

Otherwise I have done all the things so far asked of me without making any mess and I have mingled satisfaction with dissatisfaction in about the usual proportion, comfort and discomfort. There are so many things to enjoy and if I remember rightly not more to regret than say a year or ten years ago. I think I get surer of some primitive things that one has got to get sure of, about oneself and other people, and I think this is not due simply to being older. In short, I am glad I came out and I think less about return than I thought I should—partly no doubt I inhibit the idea of return. I only think by flashes of the things at home that I used to enjoy and should again. I enjoy many of them out here when the sun shines and at early morning and late afternoon. I doubt if anybody here thinks less of home than I do and yet I doubt if anybody loves it more.

But why should I be explaining myself at such length and not leave you to do the explaining?

We have shifted lately from the edge of a small city out to a still more ruinous village. The planks and beams of the ruins keep us warm in a house that has not had an actual hit except by fragments. We live in comparative comfort, eat luxuriously from parcels sent from London or brought up from places well behind the lines, and sleep dry and warm as a rule. We expect soon to have to live in damp clay pits for safety. There are some random shots but as a rule you know when to expect trouble, and you can feel quite safe close to a place that is clearly dangerous. We work or make others work practically all day with no rests or holidays, but often we have a quiet evening and can talk or write letters or listen to the gramophone playing ‘John Peel’ and worse things far. People are mostly friendly and warm, however uncongenial. I am more than .ten years older than 4 of the other 5 officers. They are 19, 20, 25, 26 and 33 years old. Those of 25 and up regard me as very old. I don’t know if the two boys do—I get on better with them: in a sort of way we are fond of one another—I like to see them come in of a night back from some job and I believe they like to see me. What more should anyone want?

I revert for 10 minutes every night by reading Shakespeare’s Tragedies in bed with a pipe before I blow the candle out. Otherwise I do nothing that I used to do except eat and sleep: I mean when I am not alone. Funny world. What a thing it is. And I hear nothing of you. Yet you are no more like an American in a book than you were 25 years ago. You are doing the unchanged things that I cannot or dare not think of except in flashes. I don’t have memories except such as are involved in the impressions as I see or hear things about me. But if I went on writing like this I should make you think I was as damnably introspective as ever and practised the art too. Goodnight to you and Elinor and all.

Remember I am in 244 Siege Battery, B.E.F., France and am and shall remain 2nd Lieut. Edward Thomas

Yours ever[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 126.
  2. This is the extent of Williamson's belated self-censorship, which surely wouldn't fly if his letters were being read by other censors.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 107-9.
  4. The War the Infantry Knew, 308.
  5. Diaries, 148; Complete Memoirs, 412-17.
  6. War Letters, 152. I was not able to trace this corporal, although I gave the effort only a few moments, alas...
  7. Selected Letters, 160-2.

Siegfried Sassoon Goes to Town, and Writes of Base Details and Lofty Imaginings; Also: Tolkien Encouraged; Henry Williamson on the Somme; Moncrieff in the Cathedral; Thomas Hardy on Prisoners; Edward Thomas Queries the Incoming

On the most martial day in the calendar–“March Forth!”–Siegfried Sassoon, a century back, did. In verse. In body he was lolling about, still stuck in Rouen’s massive base, released from hospital but moldering, deedless, without any responsibilities, awaiting assignment to a line battalion. So he did what any angry young man might do, and got the best luncheon he could, at the Hôtel de la Poste, and thought nasty thoughts about the other diners.

I was a bit tentative when I first discussed Sassoon’s prose sketches at Rouen–and a good thing, too. I’m not sure how to read Jean Moorcroft-Wilson’s suggested dating of lunch, prose description, and poem[1]–but I don’t think we can know for certain since Sassoon evidently flipped around in his pocket notebook (beautifully scanned by the University of Cambridge), using different sections for notes, sketches, poem drafts, and the chronological diary. But I would hazard a guess that he did not write “Lunch on Sunday in Rouen” until today, a century back. The published diary prints the sketches immediately after the February 27th entry, but it makes more sense to assume that the luncheon took place today, when the dated diary entry confirms that Sassoon left the camp for a day in Rouen proper. Even if the lunch was earlier, today’s trip to Rouen certainly gave rise to at least one poem (about church-going–see below), and it seems likely that Sassoon lunched, saw the church, went for a walk, returned to camp, wrote the sketches, and then, afterward, the two poems. Sassoon, at least, dates both poems “March 4th,” then again this might be a smoking gun of autobiographical fallicizing: he could be dating the poetry not by its writing but by its conception in his life experience…

In any case, we have two experiences which give rise to much writing and which are linked by the figure of a “stout Staff Major.” The protagonist of “In the Cathedral” is reflecting on the inspirational beauty of the church of Saint-Ouen (not, in fact, the famous Rouen cathedral but rather a smaller church similarly equipped with magnificent Gothic windows) but when he comes away he runs into the major, who seems to personify the loss of his elevated mood. Our tentatively religious but gallopingly aesthetic officer concludes that nothing really matters and that “the War went on, pitiless, threatening to continue for ever.” But the fat major really belongs, thematically, to the next piece, “Lunch on Sunday in Rouen,” in which the now-cynical poet’s-view officer inwardly curses the contented staff officers he finds gorging themselves over luncheon.

But Sassoon had a considerable poetic gift for compressed, nasty fits of pique. Some stories are worth telling at great length, in prose, twice, but others work best in verse. Other than borrowing a favorite phrase–“scarlet majors”–from Robbie Ross, “Base Details” draws directly on the language of the prose piece, and to great effect.

 

Base Details

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. ‘Poor young chap,’
I’d say—‘I used to know his father well.
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war was done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die — in bed.

 

This is a great leap forward in invective, and it begins with the “scarlet majors,” a damning term freighted with allusion. First, the rank of major has become an important symbol of military bureaucracy: it’s the lowest rank that is not usually in command of an actual unit of men (captains get companies, lieutenant-colonels get battalions), and for that reason it is most likely to contain indifferent career soldiers and middle-aged New Army nonentities,men who can order about even the most heroic small-unit leader. Heller’s Major Major Major is not far off. Second, “scarlet” does yoeman’s work, two-syllable proof of all that poetic compression can accomplish. It’s a flowery adjective, a romantic word, and yet it connotes sin and hints at various other emotional states: are these majors sinful? are they prone to livid screaming? flushed with drink? Finally, it points to the red badges worn on cap and uniform tabs by members of the staff–scarlet, the color of the old British Army, and laughably ill-suited to being anywhere within actual sight of the enemy. They are safe, they are well-fed, they are inconsequential (turning on the generals and the politicians would require taking a different tack), and their jobs are, indeed, to speed young heroes up the line, to whatever awaits them there.

Then there’s all that good work with onomatopoeia as the contented staff officers tear at their rich food, the excellent mimicry of a certain sort of self-satisfied utterance… there’s the irresistible “up the line to death,” which will make this poem not only an anthology stalwart but an anthology title… and there’s the hammer-blow of the last couplet (“toddle” was a late improvement on “waddle”). This isn’t a protest against the war, exactly, but it is a heavy blow against its conduct, almost unforgettable in its slamming conclusion. It will do more than any other poem to draw the conceptual line between aggrieved, disillusioned young combatants and the older/safer/staffier cohort who are no longer worthy of their respect–or, the poem argues, ours.

So, has Siegfried Sassoon made a full conversion to rage? Not exactly.

 

March 4

One of the medieval Rosaces of Saint-Ouen; the lancet window Sassoon describes I have not yet found

Half-an-hour in the glorious Eglise de St. Ouen, with soft notes of the organ and chanting voices, and burning blossoms of colour in the high windows; one was a narrow arch of green and silver with touches of topaz and pale orange—most delicate and saintly. Below was the huddle of black-cloaked and bonneted women and grey-headed men, with a few soldiers, French and English, and children.

Then a train hurried me up the hill to Bois Guillaume… woods with a chilly wind soughing in the branches of beech and oak, and a grey sky overhead, and a carpet, of dry beech-leaves underfoot. And one thrush singing a long way off, singing as if he did not yet quite believe in the end of winter.

The other surviving medieval rosace at Saint-Ouen

The delicate, aspiring, grey pillars of St.Ouen are noble, and the rich colours there do not change, except when darkness falls outside. There will be such beauty in these woods at the end of April as no Mediaeval builder could imitate. But they had the idea in their heads, when they lifted up that miracle of stone and crystal, and crowned it with deep-toned bells, calling down the peace of God to comfort the good citizens of Rouen.

 

In the Church of St. Ouen

Time makes me a soldier; but I know
That had I lived six hundred years ago,
I might have tried to build within my heart
A church like this; where I could dwell apart,
With chanting peace; my spirit longs for prayer,
And, lost to God, I seek him everywhere.
Here, while the windows, burn and bloom like flowers,
And sunlight falls and fades with tranquil hours,
I could be half a saint, for like a rose
In heart-shaped stone the glory of Heaven glows.
But where I stand, desiring yet to stay,
Hearing rich music at the close of day
The Spring Offensive (Easter is its date)
Calls me. And that’s the music I await.

March 4

An entirely different poem–one so lush (“purple”) that Sassoon, faintly embarrassed, will not offer it for publication. Entirely different–a religious sonnet, a sincere paean to beauty, a dream without cynicism, a thing belonging to a world of quiet contemplation…  until the last couplet, when the war returns with a thump. See here, and throughout the diary for more of Sassoon’s notes on St. Ouen, including several sketches…

I’m displeased that he doesn’t see the date-pun (or perhaps he does, and lets it lie very quietly here, to march 4th to the Spring Offensive) but clearly Sassoon is of two minds–one furious, the other exalted/tragic. I also need not point out, surely, that dating the coming offensive to Easter is less a subaltern divulging crucial strategic details to his poetry notebook than a non-religious poet, standing in the glory of a rosace, and diffidently taking up the fabulously rich cultural tradition that delivers to him in the appointed hour a narrative of suffering, violent death at the hands of imperial soldiers, and–if I remember correctly–redemption.

Complexity? Negative capability? The containing of multitudes? Near madness? Sassoon, in the next but in his diary, opts for the last:

This will never do…  Now to be a saint one must suffer. And I am more qualified for the job after six months in the front line than after sixty years in a cathedral cloister. Religious feeling is a snare set by one’s emotional weakness. Religion is a very stern master, who promises nothing and demands all.

The distant rumble of guns can be heard from the line… There is a sort of unreasoning, inhuman gaiety in the air which is beyond description… I sometimes feel that everyone (even the Base-Colonels) will suddenly go stark mad arid begin shooting one another instead of the Germans. The whole business is so monstrously implacable to all human tenderness. We creep about like swarms of insects. And all the while there is the spectacle of Youth being murdered.[2]

 

Phew. Well, Sassoon’s stagnation has produced some strong writing; will the trenches be as kind to his seething muse?

The rest of our business today can be quickly accomplished:

First, a near-miss. Charles Scott Moncrieff, too, is church-going in Rouen. He and Sassoon might have passed on the street, although they attended different churches. This letter of tomorrow describes today, a century back:

5th March, 1917.

Left hospital yesterday—Sunday, as I had done a fortnight earlier. Went down to the Cathedral, and was surprised and rather pleased to find a very splendid young Cardinal—I think the new Archbishop of Rouen—who made a fine figure in the usually empty throne. I was outside the grille of the choir just opposite him. When he stood up to give the Benediction his voice at once filled the huge, hollow, cold and empty building. . . .[3]

 

And Henry Williamson began a new diary today, a century back–and visited the Somme battlefield.

Weather clearing. Went to Beaumont Hamel. Saw Y Ravine. Terrible place. Deep dugouts. Artillery moving forward. Strafe tonight. Coy. goes in line Tuesday.[4]

The visit may have been part pilgrimage, to look for the grave of his cousin Charlie Boon. But Williamson is an inveterate wanderer, and he will make use of this mid-war bit of battlefield tourism when he comes to place his alter ego in the thick of the Somme battle. The deep dugouts, in fact, become a major fixation of his fictional account of June, 1916.

 

Back in Dorset, a letter from Thomas Hardy–the least scarlet of all old men–shows his persistently humane and tragic view of the war, even in a time of calls for national service.

Max Gate, Dorchester, March 4: 1917

We are living uneventful lives here (if the news of war events are not reckoned) feeling no enterprize for going about & seeing people while the issue of the great conflict is in the balance—& I fear that by the time the issue is  reached I shall be too far on to old age to care to do so. The actual reminder in this house that the struggle is going on is that I have some German prisoners at work in the garden, cutting down some trees, & clearing the ground for more potato-room. They are amiable young fellows, & it does fill one with indignation that thousands of such are led to slaughter by the ambitions of Courts & Dynasties. If only there were no monarchies in the world, what a chance for its amelioration![5]

 

Christopher Wiseman sent a letter today, a century back to the only fellow survivor of the four core members of the T.C.B.S. The letter is both elegiac and hortatory: Tolkien must carry on, both with publishing G.B. Smith’s poems and with developing his own work:

The reason why I want you to write the epic is because I want you to connect all these [poems and tales] up properly, & make their meaning & context tolerably clear. [6]

 

Finally, Edward Thomas. Yesterday was a less than ideal birthday. Today his presents arrived, but his mind is elsewhere–and not in a good place.

Shelling at 5.30. I don’t like it. I wonder where I shall be hit as in bed I wonder if it is better to be on the window or outer side of room or on the chimney on inner side, whether better to be upstairs where you may fall or on the ground floor where you may be worse crushed. Birthday parcels from home.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See Moorcroft-Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 325-6.
  2. Diaries, 139-42.
  3. Diaries, 125-6.
  4. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 91.
  5. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 204.
  6. Chronology, 99.
  7. War Diary (Childhood), 167.