A Gathering at Mrs. Colefax’s: Nichols, the Sitwells, Graves, Sassoon, and Sorley; Eliot and Huxley too; and Cynthia Asquith is Very Glad She Went

At precisely 5 o’clock in the afternoon of today, a century back, a reading–to benefit charity, as well as, naturally, the stature of the participants–began in Mrs. Colefax’s drawing room, in Argyll House, King’s Road, Chelsea. The eminent Edmund Gosse presided, insisted on speed, and then immediately launched into a rambling introduction memorable only for the fact that he broke off to scold a late arrival–T.S. Eliot, coming straight from work. Gosse then read a poem or two by the absent Robert Graves, and, after ceding the limelight, kept the attention of the crowd by “snapping” at the other poets throughout the night.[1]

Next came Robert Nichols, opening with a poem of Gosse’s (yes, that sort of thing flattered Gosse) and following with several of his own. Nichols was either a compellingly dramatic reader and performer, or he made an ass of himself by screaming and capering. It depends on whose account you favor–Sassoon’s opinion of his friend seems to state the former sort of opinion, but the language rather implies the latter. Nichols also read two poems by Charles Sorley, who has now been dead for twenty-six months. These didn’t, alas, make much of an impression–When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead was evidently not on the bill.

Other performers included all three Sitwells–Osbert (still an unwounded and inexplicably free-and-easy-in-London subaltern of the Guards), Edith, and Sacheverell–as well as the actress Viola Tree, Irene Rutherford Mcleod, and Aldous Huxley. Irene Macleod impressed several of the onlookers, if more with her performance–“fierce, rapt”–than her work. It’s not clear what she read, but her next volume of poems will be dedicated to Aubrey de Sélincourt, classicist and fighter pilot, now languishing in a German P.O.W. camp.[2] Huxley had been rejected for military service because of his eyesight, spent some time at a desk job in the Air Ministry, and was now a young teacher at Eton and tending toward pacifism. He was probably thrilled to be there, but he did not take kindly to Gosse, whom he described as “the bloodiest little old man I have ever seen.” And while we’re at it we’d better get Huxley’s other much-quoted mot out of the way: it’s a description of Nichols, who, Huxley wrote, “raved and screamed and hooted and moaned… like a Lyceum Villain who hasn’t learnt how to act.” Which sounds like a hatchet job–or just a broad-for-effect version of Sassoon’s opinion. Nichols, however, had been previously put down by Vita Sackville West, and with much deadlier efficiency.

As for the Sitwells, only Sacheverell’s poetry impressed, but Edith’s work with the Wheels anthologies had forged an all-important link between “society” and Modernism. This, “the first recorded sighting of the three Sitwells operating publicly as a team,” was something of a coming out party for the artistically ambitious siblings.[3]

Among the literary lights in the audience was Arnold Bennett, who enjoyed the occasion and found Eliot’s choice of light verse–The Hippopotamus (which is indeed charming and light, for a half-realized and possibly self-deceiving satire on the Church of England)–to be the “best thing” about the evening. And of course it would be, as well, in any account that looked back on the day in the fullness of time and literary-consensual retrospect. T.S. Eliot! Months after “Prufrock!” Reading a satire as second-fiddle to a syphilitic third-rater and some absent “Georgian” war poets! Come on!

But Eliot wasn’t Eliot yet–he was an American of indeterminate talent whom no one, really, had read. His strange ascent had barely begun, while Robert Nichols was selling a ton and had surely achieved peak Robert Nichols. It was his show: he would have seemed the one to bet on. Not schoolboyish Huxley, who would soon give up poetry, and probably not the three slightly freakish Sitwells, at once too outré and suspiciously like aristocratic enthusiasts rather than major talents. And certainly not the amusing American banker, either: despite the English affinity for light satiric verse, it has hardly been a typical route to poetic world-conquest.

Eliot, however, enjoyed himself. After having written a purposefully obscene and nevertheless nasty letter to Ezra Pound about his invitation (“Shitwells,” etc.) he will soon manage a faintly preening letter to his mother.

I assisted in a poetry reading last week at the house of some rich person for the benefit of something. A hundred and fifty people were induced to pay 10/6 each, so it was rather a rich audience… It was rather amusing, as the audience and most of the poets were very solemn, and I read some light satirical stuff, and some of them didn’t know what to make of it…[4]


Which brings us to another attendee, whose judgment in most things I’ve recently come to trust. Cynthia Asquith gives us the most balanced–and most thorough–review of the evening:

Wednesday, 12th December

…Went with Mamma to the Poets’ Reading at Mrs Colefax’s. Somehow it was ever so much better than Elizabeth’s Parnassuses—smaller, more intime, and above all shorter. All the poets were young and most of them had fought in the war. It was very moving. I liked Nichols enormously, with his bright, intensely alive, rather stoat-like face. He read again in the same intensely passionate dramatic way: I like it, but a great many people don’t. As well as his own, he read two—as I thought—very beautiful poems by Sorley who was killed at twenty years of age. Gosse was in the chair and acquitted himself quite well. Three Sitwells, all looking very German—Osbert, Sacheverell, and Edith—all read from their works. The author of ‘Prufrock’ read quite a funny poem comparing the Church to a hippopotamus. There was a young man called Huxley, and a very remarkable, fierce, rapt girl called McLeod who read her own clever poems beautifully. Siegfried Sassoon didn’t appear, but his poems were read by this girl. Mamma was very much moved by the war poems. I was very, very glad I went. Dined with Freyberg at the  Trocadero again and we went on to play poker at Ruby’s—I won £3 2s. Freyberg took me home and found his way into the hall with me.[5]

All very interesting, not least in the sincerity of emotion in Asquith’s reaction to the reading. Jaded as I am by the years on this project, it’s hard not to see a society charity reading as something of a hollow performance (especially when, as we know, but Asquith didn’t, that the young poets present had seen very little of the worst of the war, compared to those who were absent). But Cynthia Asquith, who actually went to this and many other charity-literary events, know of what she writes, and was moved.

So much for the famous evening at Mrs. Colefax’s. And afterwards? It doesn’t seem, judging from Asquith’s diary, that Freyberg attended the reading, although at least one later writer assumes that he did.  It would have been interesting, certainly, to have him and his V.C. lording it over the doubly-absent M.C. of Sassoon. Regardless, Freyberg’s pursuit of the hesitating Asquith will shortly encounter Sassoon as something of an intellectual obstacle. If Freyberg wasn’t there, then Asquith surely discussed the reading with him at dinner, and Freyberg knows the poetry well enough to have at least have an opinion (which is not to say, of course, that he knows it well). Remarkably, even as flirtation (and/or unwanted advances) continues between the two, their disagreement on the whys and wherefores of Sassoon’s position will soon come between them, and his anti-war war-hero literary cachet will turn Sassoon into a shadow rival to Freyberg and his  muscular/dashing appeal.


References and Footnotes

  1. It should be noted here at the outset that this gathering is crying out to be the focal point of a trendy (if minor-key) potted literary history... but as far as I know its only wholly-owned chapter, even, is the one in Ricketts's book. The problem is that for all the writers, celebrities, and diarists present, no one wrote a very full account, or recorded much about what was actually read. No program survives, and so the evening remains only half-imaginable.
  2. Mcleod and de Sélincourt will marry after the war; her poetry seems to stop as his career (Herodotus, Livy, etc.) takes off; they will have two daughters, and become, naturally, the in-laws of Christopher Robin.
  3. Ziegler, Osbert Sitwell, 78.
  4. The Letters of T.S. Eliot, 241.
  5. Diary, 379-80.

A Novel Premonition for Elinor Brooke; Edmund Blunden and Kate Luard Under German Bombs; Vera Brittain is at War at Last; Rudyard Kipling and the Efficacy of the Mob–and Charles Sorley Sees the Blindness

As the day dawns over Sussex today, a century back, Elinor Brooke reaches a crossroads in her war.

I was trudging uphill, feeling spikes of stubble jab my ankles, and then, just as I reached the top, the sun rose–huge, molten-red–and at that moment I knew–not thought, not feared, knew–that Toby wasn’t coming back.[1]

This is Elinor’s diary entry, in Pat Barker’s novel. Elinor is fictional, but her position–from the intuition, to the death of her brother, to the long struggle she will have to learn of its circumstances and make sense of it all–is very familiar.


And it still goes on. Edmund Blunden is fortunate to be in reserve today.

A fairly idle day… read Leigh Hunt… There was a big bombardment again this evening. Some of our party went over I suppose–God help them in the mud. Just as we were settling down for the night, Boche came over. Our knees knocked and teeth chattered, but nothing fell on us…[2]


Kate Luard, meanwhile, is closer to the action–and dodging bombs from the same German raiders. 1917, as Blunden recently observed, is not 1916. In some ways it feels as if in just two short years we have come from a 19th century world beginning to be troubled by machine guns to the cusp of mid-century schrecklichkeit. All we’ll need are stronger engines and bigger bombs.

We are so much in the thick of War up here that no one talks or thinks of anything else…shells screaming and bursting and bombs dropping. The last are much the worst. He dropped five at dinner-time about 70 yards away, and came over with some more about 10.30 to-night and some more later. There’s no sort of cover anywhere and it is purely beastly. Shelling is nothing to it. The Sisters are extraordinarily good in it.[3]


Nor is Vera Brittain far from the bombs–but then again she has felt the bombs land in London, too. She writes to her mother today, a century back, from her new assignment in the great British base complex in the Pas-de-Calais.

24th General Hospital, Étaples,
France, 5 August 1917

. . . I arrived here yesterday afternoon; the hospital is about a mile out of the town, on the side of a hill, in a large clearing surrounded on three sides by woods. It is all huts & tents; I am working in a hut & sleeping under canvas, only not in a tent but in a kind of canvas shanty, with boarded floor & corrugated iron roof.. .The hospital is frantically busy & we were very much welcomed. . .

Now the, er, bombshell drops:

You will be surprised to hear that at present I am nursing German prisoners. My ward is entirely reserved for the most acute German surgical cases… The majority are more or less dying; never, even at the 1st London during the Somme push, have I seen such dreadful wounds. Consequently they are all too ill to be aggressive, & one forgets that they are the enemy and can only remember that they are suffering human beings. My half-forgotten German comes in very useful, & the Sisters were so glad to know I understood it & could speak a little as half the time they don’t know what the poor things want. It gives one a chance to live up to our Motto Inter Arma Caritas, but anyhow one can hardly feel bitter towards dying men. It is incongruous, though, to think of Edward in one part of France trying to kill the same people whom in another part of France I am trying to save…

Well, Malta was an interesting experience of the world, but this is War.[4]

Rarely is the epistolary first draft–especially to Mother, rather than to one of her fellow members of the Lost Generation–better than the coming memoir, but I think that’s the case today. There is a swelling of strings as Vera finally reaches France–the place that killed Roland, Geoffrey, and Victor, and that still has Edward in its clutches–and there is an excellent evocation of the sounds of the bombardment, too, which works nicely amidst the others, here–but the effect of her description of France is less powerful than the simple antithesis she used in the letter:

The noise of the distant guns was a sense rather than a sound; sometimes a quiver shook the earth, a vibration trembled upon the wind, when I could actually hear nothing. But that sense made any feeling of complete peace impossible; in the atmosphere was always the tenseness, the restlessness, the slight rustling, that comes before an earthquake or with imminent thunder. The glamour of the place was even more compelling, though less delirious, than the enchantment of Malta’s beauty; it could not be banished though one feared and resisted it, knowing that it had to be bought at the cost of loss and frustration. France was the scene of titanic, illimitable death, and for this very reason it had become the heart of the fiercest living ever known to any generation. Nothing was permanent; everyone and everything was always on the move; friendships were temporary, appointments were temporary, life itself was the most temporary of all.[5]


Finally, there’s a remarkable letter of today, a century back, from one to another of two titans of the turn of the century: the bard of Imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, and one of its dashing New World practitioners, Theodore Roosevelt. If not for the fact that they are not 19th century men, and that they are discussing sons (the present Kermit Roosevelt and the ever-present-through-his-absence Jack Kipling) and geopolitics… and if I didn’t despise this newly ubiquitous (at least in American pop culture) term, then I would describe this letter as a founding document of “bro” culture. Kipling’s writing has rarely been so off-putting, so ingratiatingly chummy, so eager to be brutal.

I have come a long way–through reading the man’s fiction, history, and private letters–to understanding Kipling much better than as the facile, solemn Imperialist chest-thumper of the familiar caricature… but a few paragraphs of this letter bring that old idea back with a vengeance. Kipling is full of blustery, silly talk as he updates the former president on his son’s adventures in England (Kermit Roosevelt is about to go out to Mesopotamia attached to a British Machine Gun unit); then there is unsolicited “expert” military advice (Kipling worries that the new American generals are too eager, and will fruitlessly spend their first small forces instead of building up for a “big push”), and there are helpful suggestions such as these:

I fancy that before you’ve done, in the U.S.A., you will discover as we have that the really dangerous animal is the Hun in one’s own country no matter what he pretends to be. You hold a good many hostages for his good behaviour and I sometimes wonder whether, if the U.S.A. took toll from her own unnaturalized Germans for every Hun outrage committed on the U.S. and on France, it wouldn’t have a sedative effect…

Don’t worry: Kipling is not suggesting that German Americans be killed in retribution for U-boat sinkings, only that a few officially sponsored riots in German American neighborhoods (I believe one applicable analogy would be to the pogrom) might just do the trick.

…It’s what the Hun comprehends perfectly. We have bled him badly in men, and if we can use up a decent percentage of his 1919 class this winter by exposure in the trenches as well as direct killing, he will feel it more.

But of course I’m being squeamish: anti-German-American riots were quite within the realm of possibility. And I just passed Kipling’s casual assertion of the righteousness of retributive atrocity without comment. Why? Because that describes the activities of uniformed soldiers? Because that’s different than casually advocating violent demagoguery and mob violence as strategic tools to an ally which is, ostensibly, a multi-ethnic democracy? Because my century-late outrage would be better served by letting Kipling’s endorsement of such things stand on its own rather than surrounding it with fussy complaint? “Bettered the instruction” indeed.

Worst of all, Kipling’s strategic guesstimates are accurate:

What he seems to funk more than most things is the stringency of the new blockade now that the U.S.A. is imposing it and neutrals can’t feed him as much as they used to. We’ve got another twelvemonth of trouble ahead of us I expect but it won’t be all on one side.[6]

This is the sort of letter, from one figurehead of imperial warfare to another–and from one older man willing to sacrifice his son to another–that might have re-affirmed Siegfried Sassoon‘s faith in the righteousness of his protest…


But back to this treatment of “Huns:” not Germans who are armed and dangerous in the trenches opposite, but German emigrants, civilians living in America, posing no threat and powerless to defend themselves. The analogy to wounded prisoners is not precise, yet it seems a coincidence worth exploring that Vera Brittain’s first encounter with helpless Germans also began today, a century back.

…when I told the Matron of my work in Malta, she remarked with an amused, friendly smile that I was “quite an old
soldier…” but… I was hardly prepared for the shock of being posted… to the acute and alarming German

Although we still, I believe, congratulate ourselves on our impartial care of our prisoners, the marquees were often
damp, and the ward was under-staffed whenever there happened to be a push — which seemed to be always — and the number of badly wounded and captured Germans became in consequence excessive. One of the things I like best to remember about the War is the nonchalance with which the Sisters and V.A.D.s in the German ward took for granted that it was they who must be overworked, rather than the prisoners neglected. At the time that I went there the ward staff had passed a self-denying ordinance with regard to half days, and only took an hour or two off when the work temporarily slackened.

From the moral high ground Vera Brittain now wields a satirist’s sword with great skill:

Before the War I had never been in Germany and had hardly met any Germans apart from the succession of German mistresses at St. Monica’s, every one of whom I had hated with a provincial schoolgirl’s pitiless distaste for foreigners. So it was somewhat disconcerting to be pitch-forked, all alone — since V.A.D.S went on duty half an hour before Sisters — into the midst of thirty representatives of the nation which, as I had repeatedly been told, had crucified Canadians, cut off the hands of babies, and subjected pure and stainless females to unmentionable “atrocities.” I didn’t think I had really believed all those stories, but I wasn’t quite sure.[7] I half expected that one or two of the patients would get out of bed and try to rape me, but I soon discovered that none of them were in a position to rape anybody, or indeed to do anything but cling with stupendous exertion to a life in which the scales were already weighted heavily against them.

At least a third of the men were dying; their daily dressings were not a mere matter of changing huge wads of stained gauze and wool, but of stopping haemorrhages, replacing intestines and draining and re-inserting innumerable rubber tubes. Attached to the ward was a small theatre, in which acute operations were performed all day by a medical officer with a swarthy skin and a rolling brown eye; he could speak German, and before the War had been in charge, I was told, of a German hospital in some tropical region of South America. During the first two weeks, he and I and the easy-going Charge-Sister worked together pleasantly enough. I often wonder how we were able to drink tea and eat cake in the theatre — as we did all clay at frequent intervals — in that foetid stench, with the thermometer about 90 degrees in the shade, and the saturated dressings and yet more gruesome human remnants heaped on the floor. After the “light medicals” that I had nursed in Malta, the German ward might justly have been described as a regular baptism of blood and pus.

This is inhuman and horrible, but the point–Brittain’s point, and now mine–is that it is also deeply humane.

One tall, bearded captain would invariably stand to attention when I had re-bandaged his arm, click his spurred heels together, and bow with ceremonious gravity. Another badly wounded boy — a Prussian lieutenant who was being transferred to England — held out an emaciated hand to me as he lay on the stretcher waiting to go, and murmured: “I tank you, Sister.” After barely a second’s hesitation I took the pale fingers in mine, thinking how ridiculous it was that I should be holding this man’s hand in friendship when perhaps, only a week or two earlier, Edward up at Ypres had been doing his best to kill him. The world was mad and we were all victims — that was the only way to look at it. These shattered, dying boys and I were paying alike for a situation that none of us had desired or done anything to bring about.

And Kipling, to some degree, had. But we’ll leave today with another voice, one which has greater personal authority than anyone who has spoken yet. The wounded Germans may be dying in English hands, but Charles Sorley had studied in Germany, and fought Germans, and been killed by Germans. In the memoir, Vera Brittain enlists the young dead poet against the cruel masters of war:

Somewhere, I remembered, I had seen a poem called “To Germany,” which put into words this struggling new
idea; it was written, I discovered afterwards, by Charles Hamilton Sorley, who was killed in action in 1915 :

You only saw your future bigly planned,

And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,

And in each other’s dearest ways we stand,

And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.[8]


References and Footnotes

  1. Barker, Toby's Room, 85.
  2. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 78.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 137.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 268-9.
  5. Testament of Youth, 372-3.
  6. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 467-8.
  7. Which is about right. The British press ran with a great many entirely invented atrocity stories, and propaganda and myth made an ugly marriage of convenience with stories like the ones Brittain mentions. And yet there was a tendency after the war--an inevitable after-effect of government lies--to disbelieve all stories of German atrocity and assume a rough moral equivalence. There wasn't--which was at least in part due to the fact that Germany occupied enemy territory, and believed itself to be under existential threat; neither of these things were true in the same way of Britain. But German atrocities, especially during the invasion of Belgium, were very real. They should not bear on the claim to humane treatment of wounded soldiers, but even if pacifists between the wars emphasized the horror of war in general rather than of particular forms of armed aggression, it is bad history to discount the deliberate violence meted out by the German army to French and Belgian civilians.
  8. Testament of Youth, 372-77.

Robert Graves Informs Robert Nichols; Siegfried Sassoon Closes Another Loop; Ford Madox Hueffer Hymns the High-Life; Olaf Stapledon and Agnes Miller on a Live Wire and Mr. Britling; Richard Aldington Tells Off and Tells a Joke

February, it seems, will rival January as a cold and miserable month that nonetheless provides a great deal of interesting war writing. Poets writing to other poets! Poets reading original acenturyback sources! Tall tales of the troops that are actually funny! More Mr. Britling! Scabrous poets lashing out at all the other poets they can name!

The first piece of… several… today, comes from Robert Graves to his new friend Robert Nichols. Nichols is out of the war, we may recall, and has flatteringly asked Graves–with tongue-in-cheek preciousness–to inspire his poetry by “feeding my faun with cherries.”

2 February 1917

My dear Robert,

What a ripping letter! I wrote you one a day or two ago and though it’s a bad habit I must write another. You’re lucky, to be able to be so happy in England: I couldn’t while the war lasts…

A friendly letter, or a critical one? Mostly the former. With Graves it’s always possible that what might seem like a sharp reference to the experiential gulf–“you’re a civilian now, friend, oh-so-happy in England, while I’m a soldier”–is merely careless, and it certainly seems as if he is otherwise enthusiastic about this new relationship.

Next, Graves ups the ante by writing Nichols not prosy notes to inspire his poetry but rather a poem of his own. This is the revised version of the draft poem “To Robert Nichols” that made up much of today’s letter:

Here by a snowbound river
In scrapen holes we shiver,
And like old bitterns we
Boom to you plaintively:
Robert how can I rhyme
Verses for your desire—
Sleek fauns and cherry-time,
Vague music and green trees,
Hot sun and gentle breeze,
England in June attire,
And life born young again,
For your gay goatish brute
Drunk with warm melody
Singing on beds of thyme
With red and rolling eye,
All the Devonian plain,
Lips dark with juicy stain,
Ears hung with bobbing fruit?
Why should I keep him time?
Why in this cold and rime,
Where even to dream is pain?
No, Robert, there’s no reason:
Cherries are out of season,
Ice grips at branch and root,
And singing birds are mute.

Next, Graves presumes to preach to Nichols, affecting a frank, hale-fellow voice to knock (fairly, however) Nichols’s rather old-fashioned approach. We are Sorley‘s children, now, Robert!

Look here, Robert; I’ll risk your being annoyed, if you are you’d be no friend of mine, but nowadays one doesn’t ‘view the constellations quietly, quietly burning’, at least not after one’s left school. ‘Moral austerity’? Sorley talks of the spiky stars that shine: less luxuriant, sharper, more effective.

Call me a grandmother: I like being ragged. But oh, Robert, you’ve got all the qualities of a poet if you want, and it seems such a rotten stunt for you to sit in a kimono to view constellations quietly, quietly burning, and read Bridges. You want to get away from all that into a new method…

I don’t apologize for this. I mean it and I feel Somme trenches give me the right even to blasphemy of the Holy Spirit if I feel so inclined.

Yours affectionately


Well, there you have it, quite openly in that last paragraph. There are many bases for asserting authority in poetry. But in war poetry, there is one only–experience. Having fought in “the Somme trenches,” Graves can criticize without restraint all poetry up to and including that which is divinely inspired… and his humorous hyperbole only half-covers the fact that he is less-than-half joking.


Siegfried Sassoon, left behind in Litherland Camp and not party to this new poetic friendship, is moping about and reading. ah, but who? One young but old-fashioned poet, and one fallen soldier–each of them one of our sources. Or, rather, one of them a source I came to late in his lie=fe and should have used more, and the other more of a source-to-come.

February 2

And now reading Charles Lister‘s letters in the hut and feeling deadly tired and depressed. I suppose I’ll worry along somehow in France. How, I don’t quite know.

Wilfrid Gibson’s new poems arrived today. He seems to be laying himself out to be a sort of Crabbe (modernised on Masefield Lines). Some of it is very good, but diffuse…

Charles Lister, another of the well-born young men who swarmed into the Royal Naval Division at the start of the war, was a friend of Patrick Shaw-Stewart and Rupert Brooke, and the third of the “Argonauts” to die. Lister’s father published his son’s letters, and while these will not have anything like the influence of Charles Sorley on the younger poets, it is another early case of a feedback loop.

Sassoon is reading one of the books we might read (and have read a bit of) in order to understand the experience of the war. His writing of his own life, therefore–not just in the memoir but in the near-“real-time” of his diary–is now influenced by Great War life-writing.

To reverse chronological course and restore our sense of future-mastery, I’ll note that it’s also interesting that he’s reading Wilfrid Gibson, who is most definitely a Georgian poet, but not–not yet–a war poet. But he will be. Although this project has seen numerous young men accepted despite severe vision problems, Gibson, already in his late thirties when the war broke out, was several times refused when he attempted to volunteer. But 1917 will bring increasing demands for men, and, accordingly, a loosening of such restrictions… so even as Sassoon reads the words of an Edwardian young man now long dead, he is reading the diffuse Georgian poetry of a poet who will soon know war.


Some weeks ago we dispatched the ailing Ford Madox Hueffer to the south of France. Another one of those hospital nightmares? Oh no, my friends!

…we had lived like gentlemen. A peeress of untellable wealth and inexhaustible benevolence had taken, for us alone, all the Hôtel Cap Martin [in Menton, on the French Riviera]–staff, kitchens, chef, wine-cellars. We sat at little tables in fantastically palmed and flowering rooms and looked, from the shadows of marble walls, over a Mediterranean that blazed in the winter sunlight. We ate Tournedos Meyerbeer and drank Château Pavie, 1906. We slept in royal suites… You looked round and remembered for a second that we were all being fattened for slaughter… But we had endless automobiles at our disposal and Monte Carlo was round the corner.

Yes, fattened for the slaughter–perhaps. But having pushed hard to see actual service in France, Ford is now hoping to escape the trenches, and one imagines that others who have gotten as far as the Riviera will as well. But surely not all.

There is so much to comment on, here–and letters to go before we sleep–but let’s try to register three critical touches.

First, it’s safe to say that Ford’s gambling in Monte Carlo–he won steadily using a mathematical system devised by a brilliant friend, then got bored and gambled it away again–alongside various eccentric aristocrats puts Sassoon’s fox hunting and golf to shame as an activity unbecoming an officer who is supposed to be disabled…

Second, a comparison to George Coppard‘s birthday memory is illuminating. For an enlisted man to land at an English aristocrat’s hospital where he will be pampered for a few weeks and given free cigarettes is “dead lucky;” but for an officer and high-liver like Hueffer/Ford to be moved to a similar admission–“untellable… inexhaustible… fantastically”–it takes Monte Carlo, succulent meats, fine Bordeaux, and endless automobiles…

Third, Ford is a bit of a genius. He will write the one and only High Modernist masterpiece dealing with the war, but that, in many ways, sprung fully-formed out of his possibly exaggerated shell shock and (other) modernist commitments. As this scrap of memoir makes clear, he might have been considered instead the forerunner of the realist-absurd World War Two style, or even of Post-Modernism in its beautiful chaos phase. By which I mean Heller, and then Pynchon–who else? If some of Ford’s descriptions recall the earnest efforts of Milo Minderbinder, this transition from French beachfront merriment to hard-edged despair is something that Tyrone Slothrop might have experienced (Ford would have added a trained octopus and mysterious femme fatale if he had known he could get away with it):

…On the 2nd of February, 1917 I had stood on that platform. There had been an icy wind and snow falling. I was going up the line again. If you have asked me then whether I felt despair I should have denied it–mildly. I had been conscious of being dull and numbed in a dull, numb station. All France up to Hazebrouck in Flanders was deep in snow. I was going to Hazebrouck in Flanders.[2]


But back to earth, now, with an unlikely pair: young lovers whose warrior half is not a warrior but a pacifist medic, firmly rooted in his dreams of the stars. Half a world away, today, a century back, Olaf Stapledon and Agnes Miller wrote to each other. I don’t often include much from Agnes’s letters–they tell of civilian life in Australia, and often engage Olaf in philosophical discussion–but today her question (ought America to join the war?) brings in the text-of-the-moment:

…there was a little paragraph in Wells’ book “Mr. Britling Sees It Through” which made me want America not to fight. It was where the young American explained that his country will betray her trust if she allowed herself to be drawn into war. He said America was the field for humanity to make a fresh start in, to turn over a new leaf, & it would be wrong got her to go back to the old lines. Do you think that?

Up until a few weeks ago. Oh, apologies–she was asking Olaf.

It would seem that although Olaf and Agnes are half a world away, they are on the same side of that generational gap, the biggest stumbling block on the approach to the experiential gulf. Never has Agnes Miller sounded so much like Vera Brittain (the Vera Brittain of 1914 and 1915).

Have you read “Mr. Britling” yet? I want to read it again to myself. We are going to discuss it at one of the Seekers meetings this year. Hugh’s letters made me cry. Dad said after reading one very harrowing one, “Well, it’s quite understandable that the men themselves wouldn’t see beyond their own trenches. They wouldn’t take a broad view.”–& I wanted to burst out indignantly, “No & why should they? Poor men! Why should anyone see beyond all the filth of it. They were not meant to, war is not the right way. It’s all a hideous madness.”–but I couldn’t have said anything without bursting into tears, so I said naught.

And Olaf, who will receive this letter in a month or two, is writing to Agnes about a book he is reading,

about feminism and marriage and love and the evolution of a nobler kind of society. The point of it all is really very simple, namely that women… must become free & independent economically and spiritually.

The world could do with more such. But he’s not here because he’s a good lad and a conscientious liberal–he’s here because he’s a good writer. Here’s a lovely metaphor:

Dear, you know how an electric wire conveys a current, and how if the current is too strong for it the wire fuses–goes white hot and breaks. Well, all this poor letter writing business is our electric wire, and it is too thin a wire for the current of understanding and sympathy and love that has to pass along it, that must pass along… When we meet, girl, there will be such a lot to learn of one another… The best thing I have learnt in these years of war is the sense of the supreme worth of sincerity in human thoughts and feelings…[3]


It’s been a long day and this is perhaps too much, but in guilt–or righteous concession–over the extent to which my dislike for Richard Aldington‘s personality and fiction informs my reading of his letters, I must include this one (to F.S. Flint, as usual). Aldington is certainly warming to the task:

My brave,

I fear my letter worried & annoyed you–but you must permit me a “grouch” occasionally. “The flesh is sad, alas”–& I have no books to read. Sometimes I wish you were here. One can “wag the beard” quite freely while working & we could discuss cadence & quantity & rhythm to the sound of pick and shovel…

So the weather is cold with you? Imagine! Here it is subtropical. We live on iced champagne & salads. The R.F.A. wear nothing but their trousers & socks. It is reported that the R.S.F. have abandoned all clothing except Japanese
umbrellas & fans.

The amazing thing is that in spite of the heat my shaving and tooth brushes are stiff with ice each morning. I have to thaw my towel before it will bend, the jam in tins is covered with a “crust” of ice &…but why continue? You think I
exaggerate? Come & see!

A yarn. Quidam barbarus–a certain Hun, taken prisoner at X on the 11th of Z was asked by a Tommy how long the
war would last. “Two years more,” quoth Fritz, “then we beat you with the bayonet. You’ll only need one ship to take your lot back then.” “Ho,” said our compatriot in wrath “and your blankety blank lot’ll go ’ome in a copulating perambulator.”

This was told me by one who vowed he’d seen it. No doubt the yarn appeared last June in the Journal & last
Saturday in The Evening Standard, but it’s new to me & maybe to you. I hope you’re edified.

See, that’s funny. And the joke requires three participants: the German stooge; the earthy lower-class Briton, profane but, on his best behavior, searching for euphemism; and the well-bred ear, there to appreciate the word-substitution (which was not a new necessity among those who frequently salted their speech with the earthy latrinogrammatic first-resorts represented by “copulating,” but seems to still give a frisson to the middle classes) as well as the metrical superabundance that makes “copulating perambulator” such a joy to find in a sentence that could have been, in a less eloquent age, “screw you, buddy.”

Finally, Aldington, for all that he is an enlisted laborer, now, is a very productive writer, and not only of letters. I’ve already excised about ten literary name-drops from this one, but it now becomes clear what Aldington is up to:

I wrote an article in malicious mood on modern English poetry in which I abused decisively & praised ironically some score of our villainous pundits of the pen. Still it was a poor affair–I lack verve & venom…

What do you think? A new Dunciad in prose with Abercrombie & Kipling & all that lousy crew round Monro elegantly dished and derided.

Perhaps this is what Aldington currently believes that his lowly stance in a copulating navvying unit might help him achieve: it’s a good crouch from which to chuck heavy objects at the marble busts atop the world of poetry. Kipling, popular master of the waning empire; Abercrombie, the reigning Georgian; and Harold Monro as the portfolio-holder for the rising-unmoderns.

Or he just wants to heap invective on a major modernist who has criticized–and critically!–Aldington’s recent translations from the Greek:

…a propos, that fatted imbecile of destruction, Eliot… Slay me this imbecile with a note to ’Arriet. “The Greeks put intelligence on their tombstones” quotha. Many, and the Yanks cannot even get it into the periodicals of their intellectual élite. Consult H.D. and use information and indignation here supplied to expose this festering lunatic, this bunion on the souls of Pound, this comPound [sic], this insult to God!

If you need it borrow some money from H.D. She usually gets a “check” about the 10th” of the month. Call

Cheer up! Why I may be blown to bits to-morrow. Then you can write my biography.


Well, he sounds like he’s having a good time…


References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 65-66.
  2. War Prose, 65-7.
  3. Talking Across the World, 203-4.
  4. Imagist Dialogues, 180-2.

Robert Graves, Meet Robert Nichols; Francis Ledwidge’s Rude Awakening; Wilfred Owen Within Sound of the Guns; Ford Madox Hueffer’s “One Day’s List”

The strange/glorious/dismal January efflorescence of war poetry continues, today, a century back: we have a long and soon-to-be-much-quoted war poem from Ford Madox Hueffer, another poem from Francis Ledwidge, and a letter recording Wilfred Owen‘s next step toward the line.

Today is also the day that two other war poets, having independently discovered each other, made contact. So I will put my faith in your patience (and your hunger for poetry) and first discuss the odd, chatty, many-connection-making letter in which Robert Graves replies to a letter of introduction from Robert Nichols.

Nichols, an early volunteer officer who was shell-shocked at Loos (also Graves’s first battle) has long been at home, and now discharged from the army–and he has attained a notable level of poetic success. His Invocation is, although both too early and too hopeful to fit with the verse now being written under the influence of Charles Sorley, far more widely read than the initial efforts of Sassoon or Graves. In fact, with Grenfell and Brooke dead, Nichols is, a century back, perhaps the most celebrated of the “soldier poets.” Yet Nichols has evidently read Graves’s Over the Brazier and found much there that is worthwhile: he wrote to Graves asking for permission to dedicate his next book of poems, in part, to him. Graves greets this rather grand gesture with both genuine enthusiasm and awkwardly emphatic reciprocal fealty.

S’addresser à
Captain Robert Graves
3rd R W Fus.
The Huts

7 January 1917

Dear Robert Nichols,

…Of course you may: I’d simply love it. It’s hard to say how cheered I am: Orderly Room and battalion drill and company ledgers and the town of Liverpool and the enforced society of young gentlemen whose sole amusements are liqueur shifting and promiscuous fornication, had almost convinced me that there was no God in Heaven nor any bay trees on Parnassus. I feel tremendously honored.

Funny how things happen. As you may suspect, I’m a very very ardent Sorleian and when I saw your letter in the Westminster Gazette about him… I asked S. Sassoon (a poet of some note who funnily enough has strayed into this battalion and shares a hut with me) who you were because I felt sure you were a fellow of the right stuff. He reminded me of that Oxford Poetry book and I remembered that your things were far and away the best in the collection and that Eddie Marsh was very keen on them.

Eddie Marsh–of course. Despite his desirable status as a poet with a growing public (not to mention as a soldier whose “neurasthenia” has resulted in a not-dishonourable discharge from the army) Nichols has happened upon the Marsh zone rather late, but most profitably. After sending Invocation to Marsh, “almost instantly he had entered the small circle of Marsh’s closest friends.” With Brooke dead and Churchill out of power, this is not what it once was, perhaps–but Marsh is still very much the central node of the network of Georgian poets and their nascent band of assertive little brothers, the War Poets.

Somewhat awkwardly, of course, this younger generation is not looking up to Rupert Brooke at all–they have found another idol, the dead poet of 1915 whose legacy will be the poetry of 1917 and 1918, while 1914 (“and other poems”), while remaining broadly popular, will fall from poetic regard.

I’ve got a very bad memory, worse since I met an old shell last July, and I somehow didn’t connect the two. Did you know Sorley before his death? I met him at Oxford in 1913 when we were both up there for scholarships, but didn’t realize who he was–wasted opportunities, horrid to lack back on…

Graves has invented this memory of meeting Sorley–honestly, wishfully, invented, I believe, rather than duplicitously–and of course he forgets that “who he was” would have been a very clever, unusually mature and reserved potential scholar, not yet the author of Marlborough and Other Poems nor noticeably set in that direction. And now, with Sorley in mind, Graves presumes–these fits of grandiosity do not serve him well–to critique his older friend to his new one.

This fellow Sassoon, not exactly a prepossessing name for a poet, perhaps, was out in France with me in 1915 and is a most extraordinary good man… and says what he means very courageously. No Union Jack flapping or sword waving, but just a picture of France from the front trench, and our ‘brutal and licentious soldiery’. He’s not musical, always, but it’s good stuff; original too and not redolent of Masefield as is so common these days and contains no ode either to Kitchener or Rupert Brooke. Look out for his The Old Foxhunter and Other Poems[1] about February or March, with William Heinemann. I was to have brought out a second volume at the same time, but hitches occurred…

A bit of hemming and hawing follows, and then some preemptive self-criticism about his own published work–Graves evidently wants Nichols to approve of him as a fellow war poet.

Well, cheeroh, and best of luck and don’t recover from your shell-shock too soon. I’m rather stupidly going back to France this week with only one lung–having deceived the medical board. Chiefly because I want to hurry into hospital again and do a bit of writing for which soldiering provides no leisure.


Robert Graves

I hope to see you sometime when I come on leave, in London, say, or aprés-la-guerre[2] at any rate…[3]

Francis Ledwidge, is fired up, these days–and homesick and fairy-struck. He goes back to yesterday‘s theme–those fairies who lurk just at the edge of the fields we know, just at the edge of our dreams. But there is something of a shock at the end of this one.


The Dead Kings

All the dead kings came to me
At Rosnaree, where I was dreaming.
A few stars glimmered through the morn,
And down the thorn the dews were streaming.

And every dead king had a story
Of ancient glory, sweetly told.
It was too early for the lark,
But the starry dark had tints of gold.

I listened to the sorrows three
Of that Eire passed into song.
A cock crowed near a hazel croft,
And up aloft dim larks winged strong.

And I, too, told the kings a story
Of later glory, her fourth sorrow:
There was a sound like moving shields
In high green fields and the lowland furrow.

And one said: “We who yet are kings
Have heard these things lamenting inly.”
Sweet music flowed from many a bill
And on the hill the morn stood queenly.

And one said: “Over is the singing,
And bell bough ringing, whence we come;
With heavy hearts we’ll tread the shadows,
In honey meadows birds are dumb.”

And one said: “Since the poets perished
And all they cherished in the way.
Their thoughts unsung, like petal showers
Inflame the hours of blue and gray.”

And one said: “A loud tramp of men
We’ll hear again at Rosnaree.”
A bomb burst near me where I lay.
I woke, ’twas day in Picardy.

January 7th, 1917

A deft reawakening to the reality of war.


Wilfred Owen, too will find his reality defined by the sound of explosions today, a century back. I promise to find time in the next few days to really dig into what Owen is experiencing, but suffice it to say that if his letters have suddenly sobered up, it’s because his initiation into combat has not been easy. The weather is terrible, and they are headed for a nasty section of the front.

Sunday, 7 January 1917

My dear dear Mother,

It is afternoon. We had an Inspection to make from 9 to 12 this morning. I have wandered into a village cafe where they gave me writing paper. We made a redoubtable March yesterday from the last Camp to this. The awful state of the roads and the enormous weight carried, was top much for scores of men. Officers also carried full packs, but I
had a horse part of the way.

It was beginning to freeze through the rain when we arrived at our tents. We were at the mercy of the cold, and, being in health, I never suffered so terribly as yesterday afternoon. I am really quite well, but have sensations kindred to being seriously ill.

As I was making my damp bed, I heard the Guns for the first time. It was a sound not without a certain sublimity. They woke me again at 4 o’clock…

But Owen withholds further comment there, which I am once again tempted to interpret as wisdom: there will be more of this, so let us wait until our experience is deeper…

The letter goes on in Owen’s new manner–one sentence paragraphs likes faits divers, which veer from matter-of-fact to comic to foreboding. He still wants to be deep, to write heavily… but now, at least, he doesn’t trust himself to. Owen is treading lightly into this new unknown, feinting toward serious statements and then pulling back…

I have had to censor letters by the hundred lately. They don’t make inspiring reading.

This morning I have been reading Trench Standing Orders to my Platoon. (Verb. Sap.)

Needless to say I show a cheerier face to them than I wear in writing this letter; but I must not disguise from you the fact that we are at one of the worst parts of the Line.

I have lost no possessions so far; but have acquired a pair of boots and a map case (presents). And of course my valise is heavier by much dirt…

I can’t tell you any more Facts. I have no Fancies and no Feelings.

Positively they went numb with my feet.

Love is not quenched, except the unenduring flickerings thereof. By your love, O Mother, O Home, I am protected from Fatigue of life and the keen spiritual Cold.

Your own W.E.O.[4]


And our last poem today is quite amazing. Just yesterday Ford Madox Hueffer, was writing a letter that was at once self-serving (the subtext being “I am a good writer, and would like a cushy job from you) and feeling towards both an honest appraisal of shell shock and a literary approach to writing seriously about fragmented experience. And he was complaining of his own stupidity, poor memory, and shaky sanity. Yet today he wrote a poem, fluidly an quickly, in a very different vein, which will not only turn up in many anthologies–which is to say that it is neither difficult nor offensive nor heavily “disillusioned” nor, as so many of Ford’s writings, unnecessarily provocative–but is also quite good. He has not made close friends in the 8th Welch, but he has made friends, and lost them.

I think it’s fair to say that “One Day’s List” is unique in his oeuvre; I’m certainly not sure how to comment on it. Modern? Yes. Traditional? In a way. A lament, a threnody, a war poem? Sure. Honest, true, and a new take on the ever-growing subject of loss, and coping with loss? I think so. Yesterday Sassoon imagined the German dead and the English dead in some underworld; today it’s the Germans and the Welsh in heaven…


One Day’s List

(Killed. — Second Lieutenants unless otherwise stated.
Arnott, E. E. — Welch Regt.
Jones, E. B. D. — Welch Regt.
Morris, J. H. — Welch Regt.[5]
And 270 other ranks, Welch Regt.

Died of Wounds.
Knapp, 0. R. — 2nd Lieut. Welch Regt.)

My dears . . .
The rain drips down on Rouen Town
The leaves drip down
And so the mud
Turns orange brown. . . .
A Zeppelin, we read, has been brought down.
And the obscure brown
Populace of London town
Make a shout of it,
Clamouring for blood
And reductions in the price of food . . .
But you — at least — are out of it. . . .

Poor little Arnott — poor little lad . . .
And poor old Knapp,
Of whom once I borrowed a map — and never returned it.
And Morris and Jones . . . and all the rest of  the Welch,
So many gone in the twenty-four hours of a day . . .
One wonders how one can stay . . .
One wonders. . . .
For the papers are full of Kelch,
Finding rubbishy news to make a shout of it,
But you at least are out of it.

One wonders how you died . . .
The mine thunders
Still where you stuck by Welch Alley and turned it. . . .
The mine thunders
Upwards — and branches of trees, mud, and stone,
Skulls, limbs, rats, thistles, the clips
Of cartridges, beef tins and wire
To the heavens in fire
From the lips
Of the craters where doubtless you died,
With the Cheshires and Wiltshires and Welch
Side by side.
One wonders why you died,
Why were we in it ? . . .
At home we were late on parades.
Seldom there to the minute,
When “B.” were out on Cathays
We didn’t get much of the lectures into the brain. . . .
We talked a good deal about girls.
We could all tell a story
At something past something, Ack Emma !

But why? why? Why were we there from the Aisne to Mametz,
Well — there’s a dilemma. . . .
For we never talked of glory,
We each thought a lot of one girl,
And waited most days for hours in the rain
Till she came:
But we never talked of Fame. . . .

It is very difficult to believe
You need never again
Put in for week-end leave,
Or get vouchers for the 1.10 train
From Cardiff to London. . . .
But so much has the Hun done
In the way of achievements.

And when I think of all the bereavements
Of your mothers and fathers and sweethearts and wives and homes in the West,
And the paths between the willows waiting for your tread,
And the white pillows
Waiting each for a head,
Well …. they may go to rest!

And, God help me, if you meet a Hun
In Heaven, I bet you will say, “Well done,
You fought like mad lions in nets
Down by Mametz.”

But we who remain shall grow old,
We shall know the cold
Of cheerless
Winter and the rain of Autumn and the sting
Of poverty, of love despised and of disgraces,
And mirrors showing stained and ageing faces,
And the long ranges of comfortless years
And the long gamut of human fears. . . .
But, for you, it shall be forever spring,
And only you shall be forever fearless,
And only you have white, straight, tireless limbs,
And only you, where the water-lily swims
Shall walk along the pathways, thro’ the willows
Of your west.
You who went West,
And only you on silvery twilight pillows
Shall take your rest
In the soft sweet glooms
Of twilight rooms. . . .

No. 2 Red Cross Hospital,
Rouen, 7/1/17

References and Footnotes

  1. Graves has got the title of the forthcoming The Old Huntsman wrong; the sort of hunting solecism which would drive Sassoon to distraction.
  2. Sic! There, I said it! Wrong accent...
  3. In Broken Images, 61-3. The end of the post-script mentions--disapprovingly, of course--Wheels, the modernist journal/anthology edited by Edith Sitwell. Its first issue, published in 1916 (and regrettably left all but unmentioned here) positioned it as an alternative to Marsh's anthologies and featured work by Edith's brother Osbert (and their younger brother Sacheverell) and his friend Bimbo Tennant. These, for now, are the rival cliques of poets...
  4. Collected Letters, 423-4.
  5. Morris and Arnott are listed in the C.W.G.C. records as being killed two days apart, on the 21st and 23rd September, 1916. Jones I have not found. Nevertheless, they may all well have appeared in the same newspaper casualty list.

Christmas Eve: Miraculous Assemblies for Edward Thomas and C. K. Scott Moncrieff; Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, the Profiteers and the Poet(s); Julian Barnes for Evermore; Edwin Dyett’s Self-Justification

This was a difficult post to write–and in the end it remains a hodge-podge. There’s incipient brutality, here, and kindness; lightly-penned nastiness and Dickens-worthy tear-jerking; the worst of bureaucratic logic distorted under the pressure of warfare, and much casual use of the M-word. It may be a difficult read, but it’s a fortuitous reminder of the great breadth and depth of Great War writing.


In this next year I’ll be taking up–whenever I can–Pat Barker’s Regeneration. This book (which became the first novel in the “Regeneration trilogy”) is the most germane–and the most moving–of all “historical” fiction about the war. There are other good novels set during the war but written long after–“good” in terms of both their literary merits and their close attention to the textures of this oh-so-well-written war. But there are none that address its poets’ experiences so directly, and then, as a “composite” (i.e. fictional) character comes to the fore, none that more powerfully evoke the psychological damage of service in the trenches…

But of the short stories of the Great War I can’t pretend to know much. I’ve only read a few, and the most affecting by far is Julian Barnes’s “Evermore.”[1] “Evermore” is a survivor’s story, set after the war amidst the familiar battlefields that will become familiar again to hundreds of thousands of Britons as places of pilgrimage. It’s a terribly sad story. And it begins with a triple talisman–three Field Postcards, those flimsy icons of the limitations of communication in wartime, of the bureaucratic impediments lining the edge of the Experiential Gulf–sent from a brother to a sister. She’s the protagonist of the story, and he is the absence at its center. Today, a century back, he sent the first of what will be his last three postcards.


Robert Graves can’t help but put Christmas Eve to use in one of the disillusioned infantryman’s favorite pastimes, namely pointing out the way in which knowledge of the trenches throws some of the ironies of private life into high relief. Food shortages have begun to hit Britain as many ships have been sunk by U-boats, and rationing is in effect. Several of our writers, eating lousy food at the front, have inquired if it is true that their loved ones are eating badly at home (I may have omitted all of these inquiries, but trust me!). And they probably are feeling the pinch–but, unless they were already poor or hard-pressed, then only to a very limited extent. This is the beginning of rationing, and Total War has yet to make a real dent in the Class System. Shortages have begun–at the bottom.

But the war had not reached the links. The leading Liverpool businessman were members of the club, [the Formby Golf Club] and did not mean to go short while there was any food at all coming in at the docks. Siegfried and I went to the club-house for lunch on the day before Christmas, and found a cold buffet in the club dining-room, offering hams, barons of beef, jellied tongues, cold roast turkey and chicken. A large, meaty-faced waiter presided. Siegfried asked him sarcastically: ‘Is this all? There doesn’t seem to be quite such a good spread as in previous years.’ The waiter blushed…[2]

Which is a great anecdote, but, as so often with Graves, more than a little off. As Siegfried Sassoon told us–and as Graves’s family records corroborate–Graves was already on leave, and will spend today and the next few days at home in Wimbledon. This anecdote, either moved intentionally for greater ironic effect (where’s the Liverpudlian Tiny Tim at the windows, Robbie?) or dragged Christmas-ward by the mnemonic centripetence of major fixed-date holidays, surely belongs a little earlier in the month, at one of Sassoon’s “several expensive gorges at the Adelphi.”

Sassoon, writing a contemporaneous diary rather than an aimed-for-controversy memoir, can be better trusted to reflect the actual feelings (and events) of these days–and when he writes up those “gorges” it is with little self-loathing and less concern for the potential suffering caused among British families by actual food shortages. For Sassoon the spread at the Adelphi–despite his ability, as a convalescent officer, on garrison duty, with a private income, to indulge in it–is a symbol of the affront that businessmen who are profiting from the war present to the pure brotherhood of combat soldiers.

And when Sassoon does write “his” memoirs, he will skip Christmas entirely–diary and memoir alike will be largely given over to the report from one of his wounded friends of the near-destruction of his old battalion in the September fighting. Which prompt these reflections.

Christmas Eve

I have been wondering whether I shall be any better off through going to the War again next year. Of course I’ve got to go—I never doubted that; but if I’m there another eight months, and come back safely wounded (!) shall I have anything more to say about it all, or shall I be more bitter, and unbalanced and callous? Not much use enquiring. It will be good fun in its way; and reading Sorley‘s letters has given me a cheer-up. He was so ready for all emergencies, so ready to accept the ‘damnable circumstance of death,’—or life. Out at Formby today[3] there was sunlight on the sandhills and low fir-trees, and the glory of clean air…

Things fall into place. A year and a day after the death of Roland Leighton, we have occasion to remember Charles Sorley, another of 1915’s most grievous literary losses. But Sorley was not one for bloody thoughts, or golf, and his remarkable calm in the face of foolishness and misplaced hatred–even when they demanded his likely death–is nothing like the “Mad Jack” mood that seems to be waxing in Sassoon again, but coldly, this winter. I’m not sure that Sassoon has yet got a good handle on Sorley’s influence, but it is there…

…and then the immediacy of the diary takes over once again. Here’s a strange encounter (to which we should attach no undue importance):

A sensible sort of man came into the huts after dinner, Owen of the one leg, a Ceylon planter who got hit before he’d seen the Dardanelles two days. He asked me why there are no women in my verse. I told him they are outside my philosophy…[4]


Yes, it’s Christmas Eve. Did that contribute to Edwin Dyett’s hopeful, “ill-judged belief” that he might be spared a court martial? He wrote to a friend today, a century back, with his own version of the events of November 13th and 14th:

I was surplus, and sent off at five minutes’ notice… after a lot of trouble… we proceeded toward Boche overland. There was considerable hostile artillery, gas shells and tear shells falling all round us, and snipers were all over the place; we had very narrow shaves more than once. We could not find our units and rambled about.

When it was dark… there was much confusion and disorder going on, and my nerves became strung up to the highest extreme. I found that my companion had gone off somewhere with some men. The officer who was leading the party we met was my ‘one and only enemy’, so were were not polite to each other… I got lost for the second time. I found an NCO of the old A Company–we rambled about until he fell down for want of sleep, but I managed to get him along. Later my voice was recognized by some more men of the A Company who were lost… My nerves were completely gone and my head was singing.

Dyett spends the night in a “funk hole” allegedly caring for the exhausted NCO–but his “enemy” sends a message reporting him as failing to report. Neither he nor these men of A Company turned up in the front line, and Dyett missed the battle entirely, with nearly two days unaccounted for. That he twice writes that he “rambled” while he was supposed to be carrying out an independent assignment, during a battle, is not precisely damning, but it’s not good, either. And his fellow officers were not inclined to see his “nerves” as an excuse. Dyett was arrested shortly after returning to his unit; his trial is scheduled for Boxing Day.[5]


In happier circumstances, Charles Scott Moncrieff, once again fit for service, had been assigned to a camp on the outskirts of Edinburgh, quite near his family. After meeting them “at his mother’s club” he decided to make provision for the Roman Catholics in the camp–there seems to have only been an Episcopal chaplain, and if Britain, at the beginning of the war was still a place of 19th-century prejudice, that would have included, especially in Scotland, an intolerance of Catholicism. So it was that at midnight, tonight, Scott Moncrieff found himself leading a procession of some 200 Catholic soldiers to midnight mass. He would write that “it was wonderful, so many turning up… it seemed almost a miracle.”[6]


Speaking of, er, Christmas miracles (an idea less hackneyed, perhaps, a century back, then today, and surely even more necessary) we have a fragment of memoir from Edward Thomas‘s wife, Helen. At last report, Edward definitely wasn’t coming home. And money is tight, and there are three kids to be satisfied, in a cold and inconvenient and inaccessible house.

‘Christmas must be prepared for, however,’ I thought, and I became busy with cakes and puddings and what I could afford of Christmas fare, which was little enough. The children with me planned the box I should pack for Edward, with something of everything, including crackers and sweets, and they began to make their presents for him. Into these preparations which before had always gone with such happy zest the same feeling of unreality entered and my eagerness was assumed for the sake of the children. But they too found it difficult to anticipate with joy a Christmas so strange, and the activities fell flat. Outside circumstances mattered as never before–our poverty, the severity of the weather, the dreariness of the house–and over us all an, indefinable shadow fell.

But a miracle happened. Suddenly this Christmas of all Christmasses became the most joyous; the snow-bound forest sparkled like Aladdin’s Cave; the house was transformed into a festive bower of holly and ivy and fir boughs, and our listlessness was changed into animated happiness and excitement. Edward after all was coming home for Christmas!

The letter telling me this arrived by the first post along with one in a strange hand which I opened first, little suspecting what news Edward’s’ contained. Inside this letter was a cheque for £20 made out to me and signed by the name of a writer of distinction whom I did not know.[7] I stared and stared, and fumbling in the envelope for some explanation found a note from Eleanor telling me that she had been asked to forward this to me as a gift from a private fund. What could I not do with £20! I had never had so much in my life. But oh, if only Edward had been coming home!

Seeing his letter, which in my bewilderment I had forgotten, I read only the first words: ‘My dearest, my draft leave will include Christmas after all!’ I raced upstairs to the sleeping children. ‘Wake up, wake up! Daddy is coming home for Christmas. He’s corning home. He’ll be here tomorrow, and I’ve got £20 to spend, and we’ll all have the most wonderful presents; and oh, he’s coming home.’ Half-crying and half-laughing I lifted the children out of bed, and we danced in a ring and sang ‘He’s coming home for Christmas’ to the tune of ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’.

How we worked that day to get all ready! I snatched a couple of hours to go to London and do the shopping. I bought for Edward the best Jaeger sleeping-bag and thick gauntlet gloves and a volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and for the children a real magic lantern with moving slides, and a special present for each one. I brought fruit and sweets and luxuries we had never tasted before, and wine as well. A frock of Edward’s favourite red was my present to myself, and secretly for Myfanwy the children and I dug a little Christmas tree out of the garden and loaded it with toys and trinkets, and candles ready to light…

‘Hark, what’s that! Let’s go to the door and listen.’

But no sound came from the windless snow-laden forest. ‘I wonder if I ever shall see a real Christmas-tree like the
one Bronwen told me about that she had at school with toys and candles, ’ said Myfanwy with a sigh, reminded of the subject by rows of fir trees still growing in the nursery garden.

‘Oh my darling, you shall have everything you ever dreamt of this Christmas.’ And I catch her up in my arms, and she throws her arms round my neck. .While I stand thus the air is cut with Edward’s clear voice calling the old familiar coo-ee; then the sound of voices; then of heavy snow-clogged footsteps; then Edward at the door. He is here. He is home.[8]


References and Footnotes

  1. Available in the Penguin Book of First World War Stories.
  2. Good-Bye to All That, 234.
  3. Yes, but Graves has already gone on leave...
  4. Diaries, 104-5.
  5. Death for Desertion, 52-53.
  6. Findlay, Chasing Lost Time, 123-4.
  7. Eleanor Farjeon (Edward Thomas... 235) explains her good offices: "Then the small miracle happened...  Within a few days of the 25th I saw Viola Meynell, between whom and myself nothing remained unspoken. Before I left her Wilfrid Meynell came to me, and said in his kindest voice, ‘A friend who prefers to remain anonymous allows me at this time of year to administer a little fund for writers to whom it may be useful. I believe Mrs. Thomas has special expenses just now, and I would like you to undertake to send her this, if you think she will not mind.’ ‘This’ was a cheque for twenty pounds. I sent it joyfully, with Wilfrid’s message..."
  8. Under Storm's Wing, 164-66.

John Ronald Tolkien to the Hospital; Siegfried Sassoon to Cambridge–and Sorley, and Satire.

The Somme has claimed another victim, although this time it’s not shot or shell but rather the mud, filth, and close conditions. John Ronald Tolkien has been feeling ill and feverish over the last few days, but today, a century back, he was sent down from the line to hospital. While enlisted men must depend upon a fair-minded or sympathetic battalion doctor to have their illnesses taken seriously, officers tend to be allowed to operate on their honor, at least to some degree–and Tolkien’s 103 degrees were more than enough to make it clear that he was quite ill. He stuck it out for a few days, but he is now bound for rest and recuperation and, possibly, a trip to Blighty. Diagnosed with “Trench Fever,”–i.e. some sort of infection, probably parasite-borne, that includes fever and other flu-like symptoms–he will be out of combat for at least a little while.[1]


While an ordinary fever may not get an officer all the way to Blighty, complications generally do. Witness Siegfried Sassoon, sick at the beginning of August with worrisome lung symptoms, well enough by the end of the month to do some serious hiking and play a lot of golf, and yet somehow given additional months of leave by successive Medical Boards even as his battalion is being torn to shreds.

Lately, Sassoon has been hunting, too, but he has not entirely neglected his literary life, or his connections in that world. At some point during the past few weeks he completed several poems, including the Hardy-esque “The Tombstone-Maker”–very much a “Satire of Circumstance,”–and the sharp, sour, rather vicious “A Ballad.”

The jaunty anapests of this one–in manuscript, below–belie the anger here. It’s an adolescent anger, unfocused and strangely self-centered (even as it speaks on behalf of others, i.e. in the voice of the “other ranks”), but it’s not without its power. We can see, too, why George Coppard was under such suspicion after being shot in the foot.


The manuscript of this poem is held at Cambridge, where Sassoon arrived today, a century back, to stay with Edward Dent. But although Sassoon, who is not keeping up his diary, will tend to describe his mood during this period as unfocused and almost aimless, he did pay another call while he was in Cambridge that shows him mindful of both the past and of poetry.

Either today or tomorrow, a century back, Sassoon paid a call on Professor W. R. Sorley, father of Charles Hamilton Sorley. Sassoon and Charles Sorley had never met, although they had attended the same school (Marlborough, but Sorley was nine years younger) and Sassoon had attended Cambridge for several years while the Sorleys lived there.

But ever since the enthusiastic Robert Graves had introduced Sassoon to Sorley’s poetry, mere months after Sorley’s death in action in the fall of 1915, Sassoon has accepted Sorley as a kindred spirit and a necessary predecessor, the precocious poetic younger brother he never knew he’d had.

The two were not really all that much alike–Sorley was terribly sharp, wise and certain beyond his years, while Sassoon often seems pleasantly vague and younger than his, wandering idly through life without realizing his gifts. But Sorley’s uncompromising last poems are the right way forward, and Sassoon–a year behind in both war experience and war verse development–knows this now. And he’s lived a year longer, too…

The meeting between the officer-poet on extended sick leave and the father of the dead officer-poet seems to have gone well. Sassoon left with a gift, the volume of Letters From Germany and the Army which Professor Sorley had recently prepared as a memorial to his son, and which this project drew on extensively in 1914 and 1915.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 94. The fever will recur--so today's hospitalization marks, more or less, the victory of the Parasite That--Perhaps--Saved Middle Earth.
  2. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 305-6.

Siegfried Sassoon on Leave; Edward Thomas Between a Love Lyric and a Hard Place; The Afterlife of Charles Sorley II: Unquiet Graves; Kate Luard is Losing One Patient, While Another Struggles On

A strange day, today, of poetic discoveries, lengthy disquisitions, and exquisite avoidances.

First, Edward Thomas. I haven’t been certain how to handle the odd overlaps–and silent interstices–of his many writings, and now things get complicated. There are letters a-plenty, but he has also been writing poems–including, for the first time, love poems. And he has been, for three months now, carrying on something very close to a love affair with Edna Clarke Hall.

The two had met sixteen years before, when both were already married, and already unhappy. There had been an attraction–a fairly intense attraction–some get-togethers, with others present, and, then, nothing more for fiftreen years. Edna now lived, now, a century back, and as hap happened to hap, within walking distance of Hare Hall Camp. She had two children, but she was lonely–her husband spent the week in London, working as a barrister and directing charities that cared for the children of prostitutes. Thomas turned up one day in November, and the friendship was rekindled. They began meeting for walks and wide-ranging talks–Clarke Hall was a successful painter and an amateur poet–and for… well, who knows what else.

There has been no scandal, but Thomas does not discuss the relationship in his letters. Were the meetings “innocent?” Or were the two already emotionally or sexually intertwined? We don’t know, and we won’t know–it’s not even clear whether they met only a few times or regularly, for months. If it really was an “affair” (although, again, there is a region of connection–and infidelity–that swells for miles on either side of the thin line of sexual betrayal) then it is hardly likely that Thomas would write to his circle of friends about it. They were all men who knew his family, who had heard him lament not only his incompatibility with his wife but his poor treatment of her. All except for Eleanor Farjeon, who loved him but had nevertheless been accepted by Helen Thomas as a family friend and fellow unrequited lover. Another strange complication. But anyway: no letters about Clarke Hall, yet.

And by the same token, as this relationship suddenly, er, blossoms anew, Thomas could hardly not have written poetry about it. He had written very little that could be described as love poetry, until, suddenly, last week, “Those Things That Poets Said,” which despairs of love’s future, and “No One So Much As You,” which certainly does not. There was even a playful poem on Valentine’s Day which certainly sounds like the sort of thing a courting, flirtatious poet would write.

She is most fair,
And when they see her pass
The poets’ ladies
Look no more in the glass
But after her.

On a bleak moor
Running under the moon
She lures a poet,
Once proud or happy, soon
Far from his door…

There’s the straight goods. But Thomas is wily, slippery. Here’s the last stanza:

She is to be kissed
Only perhaps by me;
She may be seeking
Me and no other; she
May not exist.

A coy glance to the lover, and a rude gesture to the biographical critic…  But back to the second poem. It begins:

No one so much as you
Loves this my clay,
Or would lament as you
Its dying day.

You know me through and through
Though I have not told,
And though with what you know
You are not bold.

None ever was so fair
As I thought you:
Not a word can I bear
Spoken against you.

Who was this to? What was it about? Today’s letter to his wife may be a gentle laugh and shake of the head. But we are suspicious folk, and it smacks rather of painful reading…

Thursday 24 February 1916 Hare Hall, Gidea Park, Romford


Fancy you thinking those verses had anything to do with you. Fancy your thinking, too, that I should let you see them if they were. They are not to a woman at all. You know precisely all that I know of any woman I have cared a little for.

This is probably quite true–or can be meant as completely true, in the moment. Thomas was neither a fink nor a coward, and he had made a point of discussing the original relationship with Clarke Hall with his wife Helen. He even openly discussed a more distressing infatuation with a schoolgirl. So they do discuss their problems, and his attractions to other women. But has he mentioned, yet, the return of Edna?

And however truthful he may have been so far, the letter continues with a curveball. (A googly? Apologies for national idiomatic lapses.)

They are as a matter of fact to father. So now, unless you choose to think I am deceiving you (which I don’t think I ever did), you can be at ease again. Silly old thing to jump so to conclusions. You might as well have concluded the verses to Mother were for you. As to the other verses about love you know my usual belief is that I don’t and can’t love and haven’t done for something near 20 years. You know too that you don’t think my nature really compatible with love, being so clear and critical. You know how unlike I am to you, and you know that you love, so how can I? That is if you count love as any one feeling and not something varying infinitely with the variety of people.

I’m just going to leave that last paragraph alone. There’s a whole marriage there, decades of misery, probable blind-spots and half-truths, and either a tongue-in-cheek avoidance of the issue or an unbearable condescension and shutting-down of the woman who has stood quite a lot from him over the years. Either way, it’s too much for this blog… So let’s sweep this all under the rug for now, o.k. Edward?

Thank Bronwen for her letter and give her a large kiss.

We are all fairly deep in snow today. I got one snowball in the ear but luckily only on the flesh of the ear…

I am all yours Edwy[1]


Two short notes to cleanse the palate:

T. E. Hulme is going after Bertrand Russell again in The New Age today (available here), but I am happy enough to admit a lapse of interest in this almost-completed political-philosophical run.

And our Siegfried is on leave, due to have arrived in London this morning at Waterloo at 10 a.m. He will spend the night tonight, a century back, with his Uncle Hamo Thorneycroft, the sculptor and friend of Thomas Hardy. Thence he will go to the family home, Weirleigh, where he must see his mother–for the first time since the death of Uncle Hamo’s namesake, Siegfried’s brother, Hamo Sassoon.


And now, ladies and gentleman, Robert Graves, in the grip of a new and most significant enthusiasm.

24 February 1916

My dear Eddie

I am sorry to hear that you never got my long letter written in January all about how much I loved Georgian Poetry, and kindred subjects. An eight sheet letter gone west! And I’ll never be able to recapture my first fine, careless rapture after the first reading of the splendid book which is perhaps the most treasured possession I have out here…

If you think this is laying it on thick, well: it gets thicker. Graves is awfully young, sometimes. He may believe that he is being reasonably complimentary instead of obsequious, and even if this is a miscalculation, the fawning is interspersed with Graves’s gawkily appealing (sometimes in the “can’t… look… away…” sense) overconfidence. He writes that he loves “nearly every piece in it… and most of all Rupert‘s ‘Heaven’ and ‘The Great Lover’ and ‘The Soldier’ and all the rest.” And yet he intersperses criticisms of Masefield and Bottomley.

Here’s the thing, though: this letter comes not so much to praise Eddie Marsh as to sound the gong of his impending burial. Well, that’s over-dramatic. But still, Graves isn’t writing to thank a mentor for guidance but rather to pass on a recommendation of his own:

I’ve just discovered a brilliant young poet called Sorley whose poems have just appeared in the Cambridge Press (Marlborough and Other Poems, 3s. 6d.) and who was killed near Loos on October 13th as a temporary captain in the 7th Suffolk Regiment. It seems ridiculous to fall in love with a dead man as I have found myself doing but he seems to have been one so entirely after my own heart in his loves and hates, besides having been just my own age and having spent just the same years at Marlboro’ as I spent at Ch’house. He got a classical scholarship at University College, Oxford, the same year as I was up and I half-remember meeting him there.

“Half-remember?” This seems more of a wishful crossing of paths than even half a memory of one. Would it be possible to run down the lists of who sat for which scholarship exam on which day? Perhaps… but 1913 was so long ago.

In any event, Graves is very serious in his enthusiasm for Sorley’s new book, writing “Don’t you like this:” and then copying out for Marsh almost the entirety of All the Hills and Vales Along. He follows this up with opportunistic literary criticism:

He seems to have been under Rupert’s influence rather in his method. Listen:

Victor and vanquished are a-one in death:
Coward and brave: friend, foe. Ghosts do not say,
“Come, what was your record when you drew breath?”
But a big blot has hid each yesterday
So poor, so manifestly incomplete.
And your bright promise, withered long and sped,
Is touched, stirs, rises, opens and grows sweet
And blossoms and is you, when you are dead.

Well, perhaps, perhaps not. Sorley loathed Brooke, and this, the second of his “Two Sonnets,” is unusual, not a typical example of Sorley’s tragically early “late” style. Graves, however, is smitten with the story of Sorley as much as the poetry. Or at least its stark outline.

He wrote that out here in June: he came out, like me, in May.

What waste!

Graves’s next subject is of course his own work. He brags a bit about having become a competent lecturer, repeating the familiar line about “how to keep happy, though in the trenches.” But what he really want to talk about is poetry. He is confident that he will soon have a book of verse in print, and he proposes–or tells Marsh that he has proposed to Monro–the new catch phrase ‘C’est la guerre‘ as a title. The phrase has

been consecrated by countless instance of French and Belgian fortitude in trouble and is perhaps the best-known expression in all the allied armies. It has a laugh and an apology in it and expresses just what I want, an explanation–an excuse almost–for the tremendous change in tone and method and standpoint which you must have noticed between the first and last parts of the verse-cycle, a hardening and coarsening and loss of music.[2]

It does seem like a good title–but it does not seem as if publishers are as sanguine as Graves. Still, things are moving: only yesterday, Robert’s father, Alfred Perceval Graves, who has been handling his son’s poetic affairs, noted that Marsh had arranged to see some of Robert’s poems printed in the Westminster Gazette–and claimed credit for revising them.[3]

So enthusiasm, and even a bit of rivalry, with Charles Sorley, now three months dead. Graves’s more or less flatly incorrect idea that Sorley was influenced by Brooke is nonetheless revealing: Graves is not the only person to read Sorley’s poems in the modest volume prepared by his parents, but he will be both an important advocate for Sorley’s work and something of a disciple. Brooke is dead, and he has a death-grip on the popular image of war poetry. But Sorley has sketched out the path away from such gauzy, inspirational, empty-calorie war poems, and Graves is eager, now, to help make that path a well-traveled highway.


Before we get to today’s piece of not-that-short short fiction, an update from the recent tribulations in Kate Luard’s hospital. Sister Luard had taken a moment early this morning to write an exultant note about the nearly miraculous improvement shown by one of her patients–the long-hopelessly ill but tenacious “Medical boy”–after steady doses of Atropin. Later in the day, she wrote again.

Thursday, February 24th

The world is still fast bound in frost and snow and we have some very sick men in. The poor boy in the Medical succeeded in dying this afternoon after a hideous illness of a fortnight.

One patient sinks, and another rises.

The Flying boy is better, thank Heaven. The drip treatment is doing wonders with his leg, and he is getting over the shock…

Don’t look up “The Drip Treatment” if you don’t really want to know.

But I think it’s worth breaking in again to note just how unique Luard’s position is, here. She is betwixt and between: behind the front lines, yet far from safe; not a civilian but not a soldier either; not quite as old as young soldiers’ mothers, but too old to be a sister or a sweetheart. And it’s that last one that’s really new–who do we have that can sympathize with both the clueless mothers and their sweet, suffering children?

When I showed him the bit in the C. in Chief’s communiqué about him in The Times to-day he said: ‘If mother sees that I expect she’ll feel bucked.’ Poor Mother–she writes such jolly letters to him, which he insists on my reading to him–anxious one day because he hasn’t written, and relieved the next because he has. Evidently she thinks each day he may have to be looked for or not have come home…[4]


And since it’s been a nice short post, let’s include an entire story–or “sketch, rather”–written by Noel Hodgson today, a century back. No need to read it, of course, but it’s a pretty good piece. It’s in the “trench veteran explains the life to the folks at home” vein, and it anatomizes one of the everyday stressors of trench duty, the dangerous drudgery of the working party. This is the sort of work that got Roland Leighton killed.

There is mud, and muddled communications, a heavy front-load of bureaucracy for a young subaltern and dangerous physical loads for his men. This is a relatively cheerful piece, balancing realism with the implicit requirement to show high morale in adversity among the common British soldiers… but it makes clear the misery of these fatigues.

The sketch is notable, too, for certain claims that will become typical of Great War first-person writing, whether explicitly autobiographical or fictional. One of these is the simple, yet gratingly paradoxical “you–you to whom I am writing–cannot know what it’s like.” Well, Hodgson puts it better: “Now begins one of those lamentable progresses of which no conception can be gained by anyone who has not made them.” And yet you are writing, and we are reading, and we are not doing so to be at one with out hopeless ignorance across an experiential gulf of time and space… Also, Hodgson will not be the last writer to reach for Bunyan, and describe no man’s land as a “slough of despond.”

The Working Party

The Brigade begins it, always. To us—“resting” in close billets comes a message, over the wire to our Orderly Room. It is a humble edifice of sandbag and brick, our Orderly Room, built with an eye to efficiency rather than to beauty, and measuring twelve feet by sixteen. Inside it this afternoon are a red-hot brazier, the regimental sergeant-major, the Orderly Room sergeant and his clerk, a dog, the telephonist on duty, with his relief asleep on the floor, and seated on a ration box that cheerful tyrant, the adjutant. All of them, except the sleeper and the dog, are smoking, the brazier in particular, and the atmosphere has attained a richness not known in civilian society. The telephonist has been conducting one of the unintelligible discussions pertaining to his kind for some minutes. This results in a pink paper being laid before the adjutant. Which reads;—

“O.C. 9th Devonshires,—You will find the following fatigues, 100 men and 2 officers to report to Lieut. Exe; R.E., at Hubert cross-roads at 6 p.m., 50 men and one officer to report to O.C. 2nd Aberdeen Highlanders at 6.30 p.m.

Y. Zedd, Capt., —th Inf. Bde.”

The adjutant presses down the tobacco in his pipe, “Parade states, Richards.” The sergeant hands him a bunch of papers, after a brief study of which he begins to write swiftly on a message pad.

Ten minutes later a second pink form is borne into the Headquarters of D Company; a batman hurries from
Headquarters and rouses a sleepy company-sergeant-major from his bunk, who crosses to Headquarters, and re-issuing shortly afterwards, lays hold on his orderly sergeant, with the result that Privates Jones, Smith, Robinson, and their fellows are warned by their respective section-commanders to “parade at 5.45 in fighting order and capes for working-party.” In the Army the “little fleas have lesser fleas” is reduced to a science, and is known as de-centralisation of command. Note that we say working-party—we are not conscripts, and “ fatigues ” are for prisoners, not for decent soldiers.

It is ten minutes to six, and fifty men, shrouded in the long capes which are the best gift the Government has ever made to their soldiers, are drawn up on the road, while a small rain filters down upon them. Presently in the growing dusk appears a subaltern, armed with an electric torch and a broom handle. The voice of the sergeant-major rings out, “Parade, ’tchun,” and the fifty men click into immobility. Turning sharply on his heels the sergeant-major salutes, “Working party present, sir; fifty men under Sergeant Grant.” “Thank you, sergeant-major,” says the subaltern, returning the salute, “we shall be back about midnight; warn the cooks.”

He turns to the line of cloaked figures . . . with a rattle of equipment and splash of boots in mud, the party moves off. On either side of the road are innumerable shell holes, most of which are relics of a notable offensive, during which this suffering country underwent twenty hours of the most appalling shell-fire in the history of the war. All along two miles of road are shattered houses, broken carts, ruined barns, and the countless potholes half filled with water, where the German shells burst on that fierce day. But at present all is peace, and the men step out cheerily with a cheerful noise of converse, in spite of mud and rain, till they arrive at a crossroads in the centre of a ruined village, where the completest chaos since the Fire of London appears to be in progress. The ration-parties of four regiments, four hundred men on working-party, two dozen limbered wagons, half a Field Company of R.E. are seething here, and two indefatigable R.E. officers and a M.P. Sergeant work like heroes to forestall confusion—and succeed. By eight o’clock all will be clear and orderly again.

“I think,” says our subaltern, “a short cut is indicated; advance in single file—left wheel,” and he leads the way among the heaps of blasted masonry, through the rent graveyard where a gaunt crucifix stands unshaken and protestant among the desolation, out on to a rough and broken road. The rain has ceased, and a strong breeze is driving ragged cloud-drifts over the fitful moon; one of the periods of quiet that often occur at night has settled upon the line, and even the whicker of spent bullets is not heard. Pipes and cigarettes are put out for safety’s sake, as we know how accurately the enemy has this road marked down, and at any moment a whirlwind of shells may punish a careless act. But to-night we are in luck and peace lasts till the party arrives in the reserve trenches, where two companies of the Aberdeens are stationed. Here the party is halted under cover of a bank, while the subaltern goes off to report. Soon he returns with adjutant of the Aberdeens, who shows him his task, the transportation of a vast pile of “doorsteps” to the front line. “Doorsteps” are contraptions of corrugated wood, seven or eight feet long and twenty inches wide, used for flooring muddy trenches.

These would more generally be referred to as “duckboards.”

The subaltern measures the heap with his eye; “two men to each doorstep,” he orders, and theleading couple lay hold on their burden. “One man can carry a doorstep,” suggests the adjutant. “Yes, but he can’t swim with it,” is the prompt reply, as the second pair lift their timber from the pile. The adjutant agrees, laughing, “Well, it’s your funeral, any way.”

Now begins one of those lamentable progresses of which no conception can be gained by anyone who has not made them. The trenches being water-logged the advance is over the open; the open ground happens to be a marsh, in which at every step the water flows in over the boot-tops; intersecting it are numerous ditches, some bridged by a narrow plank, some not at all, in which lurk some four or five feet of mud and water. Across this slough of despond staggers the long file of carriers, expanding and contracting like a concertina. The leading man falls down, dropping his end of the doorstep with a jerk that nearly dislocates his companion’s neck; into them bump the next pair and halt abruptly, with the result that doorstep No. 3 hits the rear member of the couple a severe blow on the back of the head. This happens all down the line, and a crackling fire of profanity accompanies it. Performing miracles of agility with his broom handle the subaltern gets the procession on the move once more. Naturally, each pair wait till their “next-ahead” has moved, with the result that they lose half-a-dozen yards, and by the time all are under way the line extends for two hundred yards. Then doorstep No. 7 falls, and when it is retrieved. No. 6 is already disappearing in the darkness. Immediately arises a plaintive wail of “Steady in front; not so fast, which ultimately reaches the subaltern’s ears. He halts the head of the column and ploughs back in the slough till he finds No. 7, to whom he addresses an admirably terse invective, and then joins up the broken centipede. Up-to-date they have advanced a bare four hundred yards and have been eighty minutes on the job. The first ditch how bars their progress, an affair of eight foot width, of which the banks are more treacherous than sloping ice, spanned by a single ten-inch plank, itself covered in mud. Privates Burns and Clatworthy, bearing the first doorstep, decide unanimously that any attempt to cross in couples will be disastrous. In the absence of the officer who is blasphemously regulating traffic in rear, they think it will be a sound plan to throw the doorstep over first and then cross singly. “One, two, three—’eave,” and a soggy splash announces the arrival of the doorstep on the further bank, Messrs. Burns and Clatworthy cross in high content, and discover to their dismay that the doorstep is not to be found.

“What’s up?” comes the hoarse query of Private Wood, with No. 2 doorstep. “ T’ blanky thing’s lost i’ the muck,” is the wrathful reply. “Damn fool,” says Wood dispassionately, and puts down his doorstep and sits on it. The subaltern now arrives fuming, and the errant timber is dug up, coated in slime, to the intense disgust of Burns and Clatworthy, and the grim satisfaction of Private Wood. Now is apparent the use of the long broom-handle, which is held by Sergeant Grant and the officer banister-wise beside the plank, to prevent the men falling off. One man does contrive to fall off, but only goes in waist deep. “Who’s yon?” asks Sergeant Grant fiercely, as the lamentable figure is hauled out like a cork from a bottle. “When Ah’ve gotten this—mud off me Ah’ll be Deakin,” is the gloomy response. “You’ll be deekin’ (looking) to find yer ain feet, laddie,” a Hibernian voice in rear proclaims, and a subdued laugh rumbles out of the darkness.

A cheerful bit–and notice how non-violent this piece has been. Is this the “live and let live” we have heard about, or does the working party not present a decent enough target to German machine-gunners in the front and reserve lines? Well, it doesn’t matter, for–in another very typical invocation of the strangely oblique relationship between the laboring infantryman and the dogs of war–it’s the artillery, pursuing its inscrutable motives, that decides whether danger and death will interrupt this slog.

So the pilgrimage continues, with infinite labour and little incident except on one occasion when a Boche gunner, finding time heavy on his hands, fires two shells on, to the Hubert cross-roads. Some signaller in the vicinity rouses a neighbouring battery, and a sudden bark from behind our trenches is followed by four wicked red snaps of shrapnel over some German billet far away. This is the policy of retaliation, which is an excellent policy for all except the person retaliated on, who is invariably entirely innocent of the original aggression. As a rule it is a case of “visiting the sins of the gunners upon the infantry.” On this particular occasion there must have been some Boches within the scope of our response who were hurt by our promptness, for no less than three salvoes burst soon after in the region of the reserve trenches of the Aberdeens. The British gunners, possessing ammunition and feeling piqued, promptly laid a barrage on to the German support line and caught a large wiring party on the hip. Our subaltern, taught by experience, passed back an order for all his men to drop their doorsteps and lie on them. Events fully justified his caution, for brother Boche began to traverse the Aberdeens’ front trench with machine-guns, and to plop a large number of trench-mortar canisters into the space between the front and the support lines. At length the hostility died down, and both sides turned to the laborious task of conveying their wounded back to the dressing stations.

Again: cheerful, with no narrator’s voice to lament or complain or point out foolishness. This is a grunt’s-eye-view setch, and if the grunt’s complaining is only of the cheerful British working man’s sort, well, then all is well with His Majesty’s Armies.

And yet it is very clear here that these men have been sent out to a job without the higher-ups taking any interest in their welfare. If their subaltern was new, or a fool, or too interested in courage and face, they would have taken heavy casualties. There is no heroism here but finishing the task, and the only answer to enemy fire is to lie down in the mud and hope for survival. “Passive suffering,” which will one day be a phrase invoked in the debate about Great War poetry, is clearly already a proper theme for even implicitly pro-war-effort fiction. How could it not be?

The carrying party rises stiffly and prepared to take up their burdens.

* * * *

At half-past twelve there may be descried on the road that runs between the crump-holes, a party of fifty men and an officer tramping homeward to the strains of “Turn the dark cloud inside out, till the boys come home.” Cheery little cigarette-ends gleam in the darkness, and the subaltern is smoking what was once a fine specimen of Fribourg and Treyer’s art in pipes. They are soaked to the waist, but the night is over and the day is approaching when no man can work—because the Boche sees him—so why be gloomy? Moreover, soup is in sight, and rum.

Into the ruined farm they swing, and halt smartly. “Left turn—by the right—there will be soup and rum issue at once—dismiss.” The men turn to the right, salute, and fall out in a babel of sound. From the cookhouse appear two men haling a steaming dixie, and the subaltern fetches from Headquarters a large stone jar. In the centre of the billet is a glowing brazier; steam of soup mingles with steam of drying trousers; blankets are unrolled and boots removed. In the doorway the subaltern measures out the 1-64 of a gallon of rum, to which each man is entitled, into a tiny mug, and each in turn tosses it off with “good health, sir.” The youngest soldiers cough and splutter at the raw spirit to the infinite diversion of the old hands, who ask them, “What’s your number?” well knowing what will be the result of an attempt to reply. Last of all the subaltern drinks his tot. “Good-night, boys, you worked very well,” and off he stumps to Headquarters, where his servant is ready for him with hot tea and dry breeches. The mail is in with several letters, which he reads while drinking his tea before the dying fire. Then a couple of blankets, bundle of straw, and Lethe, dreamless and deep.

In the Orderly Room the adjutant, sticky-eyed and blinking, is writing: “Work report. A party under Sec.-Lieut. Smith carried from Old Line to Orkney Terrace.”

It is over—till to-morrow night.

February 24th, 1916.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters to Helen, 81.
  2. In Broken Images, 39-40.
  3. Richard Perceval Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 143.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 43-44.
  5. Verse and Prose in Peace and War, 51-9.

The Afterlife of Charles Sorley I: He is Dead, But His Writing Will Yet Live; A Decoration for Julian Grenfell; Rudyard Kipling’s Agony Continues; Patrick Shaw-Stewart Reads On

I didn’t have the heart to write, yesterday, of anything other than Charles Sorley‘s death. Nor did I have the foresight to dig into the sketchy biographical material to learn more of its circumstances. Sorley, more than most of our writers who have been killed–or who will be killed–was simply here, enduring the war, writing letters, writing poetry–and then gone.

He was not part of a famous unit, just an ordinary New Army battalion of the Suffolks; he was killed in an afterthought attack, a line-straightening exercise, a final ripple in the wake of Loos; he was killed instantly,[1] without the terrible uncertainty that followed John Kipling’s mortal wounding or the lingering death of Julian Grenfell.

Strangely enough, our lockstep with the calendar links Sorley to these better known casualties. Yesterday, a century back, was a significant day in the afterlife of Grenfell: October 13th, 1915, is the date of his posthumous Distinguished Service Order, a decoration which indicated, in this case, very valorous service over some period of time, and was second in prestige only to the Victoria Cross. Grenfell was a brave and aggressive officer, but since he was killed during a defeat and without achieving any particularly spectacular feat it is fair–if churlish–to note that his social prominence and his parents’ many highly-placed friends might have something to do with the award.

And today, a century back, Rudyard Kipling continued to reach out in the hopes that his son might still live. He wrote to the American ambassador to the Netherlands, a tenuous social connection who, as a neutral ambassador in a neutral country, is a potential go-between. It’s always the little details that are the most touching:

My dear Van Dyke
… We are still hoping that our boy, who was wounded and missing on the evening of Sep. 27th… if he were slightly wounded may, by now, be better and in some prisoner camp. Might I ask you of your kindness to see if you can find any trace of him…

He wore a small gold signet-ring with monogram J.K. and though he would have been wearing spectacles in action the mark of pince-nez which he usually wears is very distinct on both sides of his nose. He has a small scar on his forehead. For the rest he was 5 foot 7 or thereabouts, with slight dark moustache, dark brown hair and very strongly marked black eyebrows over brown eyes…

But he’s dead, of course, and hastily buried somewhere–those distinguishing marks are already gone. John Kipling, more than posthumously published Grenfell and Sorley, is now one of the millions of mouthless dead.

I’m still not really ready to write about Sorley’s death–or, that is, I don’t know what to say.

John Kipling we barely heard from, and his loss gets too easily swamped by the figure of his father. The myopic, courageous son of the imperial prophet becomes a sort of Abrahamic sacrifice stumbling forward into the descending blade,[2] Or, perhaps, his vanished body is stuff of the lesson learned–or not learned–by the powers that be, that the true cost of war is not measurable.

Grenfell’s death can almost be read as a sort of apotheosis, in part because of what he wrote, and in part because of the way in which his inimitable, sadness-denying mother, Lady Desborough, queen of the Souls, controlled the “message” of his death more firmly even than she had directed his life.

Grenfell loved war and he loved killing, and he claimed in his poetry that death in battle could be beautiful. This would seem to absolve those of us influenced, a century on, by the long literature of the pity of war, from mourning him quite as much as we mourn those who were reasonable and perceptive enough to hate war from the very beginning, like Charles Sorley; those who were brave enough to hate it without hating the German soldiers in the trenches opposite or even the old men (of whatever nation) who made it, like Charles Sorley; those who were wise enough to hate it more fiercely when they came to know it intimately, like Charles Sorley; and those who were unflinching in playing the role they had chosen, even when they came to realize that even a good officer could hardly save his men, and that continuing to serve likely meant only misery and violence, then death. Like Charles Sorley.

How to mourn a man dead a hundred years, and a day?

I don’t know, really, other than to read him. So we will keep on doing that, and we will see that his literary afterlife may be more fruitful (I wanted to write “happier,” but that seems even more directly in contradiction to the warning of Sorley’s last poem) than those of Grenfell and Brooke. Sorley, as a reader and a critic, was a prodigy. As a poet he was very good, but not fully developed. (Naturally; he was twenty.) He did not have an easy, musical ear, like Brooke at his best, but then again he had made the opposite choice in his last months: he eschewed bullshit and easy thoughts, and wrote straight to the real war, and from his place in it. This will gain appreciation.

All three poets–Grenfell, Brooke, Sorley–wrote (or can easily be read as writing) of their own deaths. For Brooke, a beautiful, soft-focus sacrifice for an air-brushed England. (Never mind the mosquito bite, and the disaster of the Dardanelles.) For Grenfell, a Homeric aristeia and a seat at the table, bullying lesser heroes in some Eton-ish Valhalla. (Never mind stalking men like stags, and the slow misery of a lingering head wound.)

Charles Sorley’s “last words” are enormously authoritative. Nor must we dabble in post-modern mysticism (or deny it?) to feel the terrible weight of context: these are words about the meaning of the dead physically salvaged from the body of their author. The poem is a warning: against easy sentiment, and against bad poetry. Sorley had read Brooke’s last sonnets, and demolished them.

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.”

If tears could do no good, a century back, then how much less use are they now? Nor are other emotional gestures–praise, honor. We nod our heads in agreement–prescience!

But what about what we are then bidden to say?

“They are dead.”

This sounds like an anticipation of what would become the dominant note of public memory after the war–formulated, of course, in part by Kipling, and given shape by Edwin Lutyens, an architect tormented, incidentally, by Osbert Sitwell‘s father–the simple, concrete statements of loss. The names on the blank and wounded walls. “A soldier of the Great War, known unto God.”

But this isn’t what Sorely is saying. The next image draws on the Classics, specifically the scenes in the Aeneid and the Odyssey in which the shades of the dead can communicate brief messages but cannot linger, or make real contact, or convey any certainties:

Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

Awkward prosody, but a powerful statement, and not one that had yet become commonplace. Death not only renders honor and glory meaningless–it destroys individuality.

This doesn’t finish the conversation. As I hinted yesterday, Robert Graves will be one of the first poets to pick up Sorley’s verses and carry them forward, to think “yes, this is how a serving officer and poet can write truthfully about the war.” So there will be more to talk about.

But Graves was only able to pick up Sorley’s verses–and we are only able to discuss his life and writing–because of the way his parents decided to remember him. (This is another thing that should be explicitly discussed here, at some point, as the number of dead grow, and fewer deaths will be “spoiled” by a discussion of what exactly we are reading and how it made its way into print/onto the internet.)

Compared to some of the war poets, several of whom wrote themselves memoirs and then later “received” (Sorley would smirk at this cliché) intensive biographical treatment, Sorley is not well-known. There are few stories, no flashy poems, no famous friends, only one rather awkward photograph. He would be–he could have been–almost completely forgotten were it not for his parents’ effort to see his work into print. First, Marlborough and Other Poems, which will come out early next year. Then a volume of his letters, which has been almost the sole source for his presence here.

So the Sorleys decided–despite their son’s wry commitment to a modesty that is very rare in brilliant young men, despite the warning in his last poem that memory is too weak, that no praise can reach the dead, and that the living should not imagine any success in their efforts to connect over this last divide–to make a memorial of his own words.

So the face is gone;  the boy, the young man, is irretrievably lost. For a century now, and a day. So I’ll write it as bidden: “He is dead.”

But then, stubbornly, inevitably, I’ll drone on. But his words, you see, his words linger… and if history and literature are not quite memory–and are certainly not some mystical preservation of vanished life–well, neither are they oblivion, quite. We can keep reading.


In the spirit of this “reading and writing go on” idea, then, I will gird up my loins and continue with one typical century-back fragment. This from our man in Gallipoli–and, of course, the fast friend of Julian Grenfell and his mother–Patrick Shaw-Stewart. He writes today to his childhood nurse and constant confidante, about food and books.

See? Food and books. Life goes on.

Own Dear, you are a perfect sweet to have sent those lovely cakes, the one that was like a Scotch bun was a great success with the French Staff, who had never tasted anything like it.

I think I am going to end my days on this old Peninsula, not necessarily prematurely, but just because I don’t see how I am to get off… However, I have very little to complain of. The senior liaison officer has gone away for the time being, and I am the Great Panjandrum myself, and have seven signallers and a Viscount under me!

…Did you ever tell me what a good book Redgauntlet is? I read it the other day and loved it on the strength of it. I’ve sent for Guy Mannering and The Heart of Midlothian, and am going to become a Sir Walterite in my old age. The one advantage of war is that one has time to read.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Or so all the secondary accounts I have read state. But whether they are based on more (believable sources) than the usual letters from officers to next of kin--which nearly always describe a swift and painless death--I do not know.
  2. Wilfred Owen will, of course, seize on the binding of Isaac story in one of his most explicit poems of protest.
  3. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 149-50.

Charles Sorley: Death and Memory

Today, a century back, Robert Graves and several companions were sitting in Béthune, drinking cocktails, when they were hastily summoned back to their battalions.

“Oh, God,” said Robertson, “that means another show!”

…We packed up hastily, and in a few minutes the whole Battalion was out in the road in fighting order. Our destination was the Hohenzollern Redoubt… the men seemed in high spirits… But once, when a ‘mad-minute’ of artillery noise began, they stopped and looked at each other.

“That’s the charge,” Sergeant Townsend said sententiously. “Many good fellows going west at this moment; maybe chums of ours.”

Gradually the noise died down… it had been another dud show.”

And, for readers, a terrible one.

Today, a century back, Charles Hamilton Sorley was shot in the head and killed while leading his men in an assault near the Hohenzollern Redoubt.[1]

This sonnet, his last poem, was found on his body:

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“Yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

References and Footnotes

  1. Graves calls the attack "notorious" because of Sorley's death--though of course it could not be, yet, as Sorley's poetry is unknown to all but a few. He surely "remembers" the date, then, not  because of the Béthune anecdote, but for who has "gone west." Not a chum, but a writer he will soon discover. Graves calls Sorley, retrospectively, "one of the three poets of importance killed during the War." And the first of the three to die. Good-Bye to All That, 168-9.

We Meet John Bernard Adams; Three Letters from Charles Sorley; Vera Brittain Dreams and Designs

Today we make the acquaintance–and in very good time–of John Bernard Pye Adams. Adams’ Nothing of Importance is an excellent example of the sub-genre of what we might call the “tour of duty” memoir. The phrase is wrong–an anachronism–but I can’t think of a better term just now. This sort of book records a relatively short period of time at the front: usually not a great assault but a few months, a few weeks, or even a few days of “ordinary” trench combat, often written up shortly after the experience from a framework of letters or illicit diary entries. Most of the famous memoirs–Graves‘s, Sassoon‘s–either gesture toward autobiography (throwing in a few desultory pre-war chapters) or try to put the entire war in the context of one man’s growth and development. This sort of one-stretch-in-the-trenches memoirs–Max Plowman will write another searing one–have a different goal, something much closer to the ideal of eyewitness testimony that pure historians hope to find in contemporary writings: a few days in the life. Which is not to say that these books leave the experience of the war unanalyzed or fail to transmute observation to literature.

Adams addresses his motives in a preface, which works up a conversation between two officers at a later stage of the war:

“There was one phrase,” I resumed, “in the daily communiques that used to strike us rather out there; it was, ‘Nothing of importance to record on the rest of the front.’ I believe that a hundred years hence this phrase will be repeated in the history books.

Adams is exactly right (although he has failed miserably in foreshadowing the century-on history blogs), but his formulation will be superseded by the English translator of Erich Maria Remarque, who tarts up the German “nichts Neues” as the Romantic “all quiet.”

Ah, but what will they say in the history books?

There will be a passage like this: ‘Save for the gigantic effort of Germany to break through the French lines at Verdun, nothing of importance occurred on the western front between September, 1915, and the opening of the Somme offensive on the 1st of July, 1916.’ And this will be believed, unless men have learnt to read history aright by then.

This is why Adams is so timely. The Battle of Loos is generally reckoned to continue for a week or three into October, but these are the subsiding spasms, the resumption of the awful war of attrition. No great British assault will be launched until July 1st.

Adams, then, is giving me as good a blurb for this blog as I could hope for: if you want broad-brush military history, well, then–see you in July. But if you want to understand the history of the war as it was lived by the men who fought it, then attend:

For the river of history is full of waterfalls that attract the day excursionist—such as battles, and laws, and the deaths of kings; whereas the spirit of the river is not in the waterfalls. There are men who were wounded in the Somme battle, who had only seen a few weeks of war. I have yet to see a waterfall; but I have learned something of the spirit of the deep river in eight months of ‘nothing of importance.’

This, then, is the book that I have written.

Good stuff. The man who wrote it will not be unfamiliar in outline: Malvern College, then St. John’s, Cambridge, as a classical scholar (of course). A first, a first job working for the India Office in London, and then the war, and a commission. In which regiment? Why, the Royal Welch Fusiliers (of course). But, alas, he will not be assigned to the “right” battalion. We followed Robert Graves, Frank Richards, Dr. Dunn, and the rest of the Second Battalion during the battle of Loos, but the First Royal Welch had suffered even more serious losses, and so today, a century back, it was for this battalion that our newest subaltern departs:


“Good-bye. Don’t forget to send me that Hun helmet!”

“All right! Good-bye!” The train had long ago recovered from the shock of its initial jerk; a long steady grinding noise came up from the carriage wheels, as though they had recovered breath and were getting into their stride for Folkestone…

“Don’t believe it’s a good thing having one’s people to see you off,” said Terry, whose people had accompanied him in large numbers to Charing Cross.

“They will come, though,” remarked Crowley very wisely.

“I tried to persuade my people not to come,” said I; ”but they think you like it, I suppose. I would certainly rather say good-bye at home, and have no one come to the station.”

And so I started off my experience of ”the great adventure” with a “lie direct”: but it does not weigh very heavily upon my conscience.

No–Adams is scrupulously truthful–or appears to be–as this gentle irony illustrates: he begins with a lie, corrected. The memoir is worked up like a novel, and surely we should not trust the exact details of the dialogue, but I am inclined to accept Adams’ affirmations of his care in sticking to “history.” The names–including some which we would recognize–of his fellow officers are changed.

Six of us sat in a first-class carriage on the morning of the 5th of October, 1915: for months we had been together in a reserve battalion waiting to go out to the front, and now at last we had received marching orders, and were bound for Folkestone, and thence for France. For which battalion of our regiment any or all of us twelve officers were destined, we had no knowledge whatever; but even the most uncongenial pair of us would, I am sure, have preferred each other’s company to that of complete strangers. I, at any rate, have never in my life felt more shy and self-conscious and full of stupid qualms: unless, indeed, it was on the occasion, ten months before, when I stood shaking in front of a platoon of twenty men!

The last few days I had gone about feeling as though the news that I was going to the front were printed in large letters round my cap. I felt that people in the railway carriages, and in the streets, were looking at me with an electric interest; and the necessary (and unnecessary!) purchases, as well as the good-byes, were of the kind to make one feel placed upon a pedestal of importance! Now, in company with five other officers in like predicament, I felt already that I had climbed down a step from that pedestal; in fact, the whole experience of the first few days was one of a steady reduction from all importance to complete insignificance!

Aha. So we have said farewell, and begun our approach to the line in a carefully ironic manner, gently sliding down from the pedestal as the train clatters on. Adams shows the nervous young men comparing their “various properties and accoutrements… flash lamps and torches, compasses, map-cases, pocket medicine-cases… with an easy confidence of manner that screened a sinking dread of disapprobation.” They are gentleman schoolboys off on a spree, and, of course, blissfully innocent:

Some of us who in the depths of our martial wisdom were half expecting that the Battle of Loos was the prelude of an autumn campaign of open-country warfare. There was only one man whose word we took for law in anything, and that was Barrett. He had spent five days in the trenches last December; he had then received his commission in our battalion. He was the “man from the front.” And I noticed with secret misgivings that he had not removed the badges of rank from his arm, or sewed his two stars upon his shoulder-straps; he had not removed his bright buttons and substituted for them leather ones such as are worn on golfing-jackets; and in his valise, he told us, he had his Sam Browne belt.

“But you never wear Sam Brownes out there,” I said: “all officers now dress as much as possible like the men.” That was so, we were informed; but officers used to wear them in billets, when they were out of the firing-line.

“Well,” said Crowley, “we could get them sent out, I expect.”

“Yes,” said I; “I expect they would arrive safely.”

But this infantile conversation is not worthy of record! Suffice to say we knew nothing about war, and were just beginning to learn that fact! The first check to our enthusiasm was at Folkestone. We reported to the railway transport officer, whom we then regarded as a little demi-god; he told us to report in time for the boat at a certain hour. This we did, signed our names with a feeling of doing some awful and irrevocable deed, and then were told to wait another three hours: there was no room for us on this boat…[1]

I wonder if this is the same officer who wished blessings upon Ralph Mottram. France will grow crowded, soon enough, with writers, but we are fortunate to have Adams to carry us through another winter.


We have three letters today from Charles Sorley, who is evidently catching up on his correspondence.  He too, has missed the Battle of Loos–so far. But it is the battalions that didn’t attack who are now being brought up to take the place of the exhausted and the depleted.

In a letter to the Master of Marlborough he develops his chess analogy:

5 October 1915

I have just time (or rather paper, for that is at present more valuable than time) enough to send a reply to your welcome letter which arrived with the bacon. The chess players are no longer waiting so infernal long between their moves. And the patient pawns are all in movement, hourly expecting further advances–whether to be taken or reach the back lines and be queened. ‘Tis sweet, this pawn-being: there are no cares, no doubts: wherefore no regrets. The burden which I am sure is the parent of ill-temper, drunkenness and premature old age–to wit, the making up of one’s own mind–is lifted from our shoulders.

This is Sorley at his best: witty almost–but not quite–to the point of precious precocity, appearing only to entertain, but making a good point. Many of our writers will chafe under discipline, but most of the more self-knowing will realize that although there is terrible hardship and danger in the army, there is also a refuge from the nagging self. Sorley develops this theme, but then turns into a sharp critique of Germany, through which he was traveling less than a year and a half ago.

I can now understand the value of dogma, which is the General Commander-in-Chief of the mind. I am now beginning to think that free thinkers should give their minds into subjection, for we who have given our actions and volitions into subjection gain such marvellous rest thereby. Only of course it is the subjection of their powers of will and deed to a wrong master on the part of a great nation that has led Europe into war. Perhaps afterwards, I and my likes will again become indiscriminate rebels. For the present we find high relief in making ourselves soldiers…

We no longer know what tomorrow may bring. As I indicated, we no longer worry. Only certain it is that the Bosch has started his long way homeward.

Perhaps, there, a little slip, a little concession to the high hopes of September, for the sake of an old teacher. Sorley then discusses several old friends (and thus former students of, er, the Master), calling one of them

the best type of Englishman: whose gold lies hid and is never marketed: like one of the heroes of Hardy’s earlier novels, the Trumpet Major, or Giles Winterborne in The Woodlanders

My love to Marlborough.

Sorley’s second letter, today, is to his friend Arthur Watts. Watts must have asked a particular question or mused on meals, for some reason, for we find Sorley thinking both about the coming combat and the best meals of his young life.

Just a line–albeit on military ruled paper. It is the eve of our crowning hour.

I am bleached with chalk and grown hairy. And I think exultantly and sweetly of the one or two or three outstandingly admirable meals of my life. One in Yorkshire, in an inn upon the moors, with a fire of logs and ale and tea and every sort of Yorkshire bakery, especially bears me company. And yet another in Mecklenburg-Schwerin (where they are very English) in a farm-house utterly at peace in broad fields sloping to the sea. I remember a tureen of champagne in the middle of the table, to which we helped ourselves with ladles! I remember my hunger after three hours’ ride over the country: and the fishing-town of Wismar lying like an English town on the sea. In that great old farm-house where I dined at 3 p.m. as the May day began to cool, fruit of sea and of land joined hands together, fish fresh caught and ducks fresh killed: it was a wedding of the elements. It was perhaps the greatest meal I have had ever, for everything we ate had been alive that morning–the champagne was alive yet. We feasted like kings till the sun sank, for it was impossible to overeat. ‘Twas Homeric and its memory fills many hungry hours…

Now Sorley–for all that he has proven himself cool under fire–turns his mind to the test of battle. He worries, like all sensitive men, that he might lose control of his nerves. And he knows the odds.

To be able to prove oneself no coward to oneself, will be great, if it comes off: but suppose one finds oneself fail in the test? I dread my own censorious self in the coming conflict–I also have great physical dread of pain. Still, a good edge is given to the sword here. And one learns to be a servant. The soul is disciplined. So much for me…

Adieu! or (chances three to one in favour of the pleasanter alternative) auf wiedersehen! Pray that I ride my frisky nerves with a cool and steady hand when the time arrives. And you don’t know how much I long for our next meeting–more even than for the aforementioned meal!

Finally, to his father.

Many thanks for the letters which arrived with the rations this morning. We are now embarked on a very different kind of life; whether one considers it preferable or otherwise to the previous, depending on one’s mood. It is going to be a very slow business, but I hope a steady one. There is absolutely no doubt that the Bosch is now on his way home, though it is a long way and he will have many halts by the wayside. That “the war may end any year now” is the latest joke, which sums up the situation…

For the present, rain and dirt and damp cold. O for a bath!

Much love to all.[2]


Vera Brittain, for weeks now stuck at home, waiting for any scrap of news about Roland Leighton‘s current state of health and safety, waiting to hear when she may go to London to being nursing, can hardly contain her nervous energy. Yesterday she reported a “strange dream” in which “I had been married to him for a year & a day” and was busily telling all her college friends

that I had been married for a year–& that I had a son. Then the scene suddenly changed & I was standing (of all the absurdities) beside a large bed in which Roland’s son lay sleeping tucked up in the clothes. I was showing him to somebody, & telling them that the baby was only a fortnight old, & pointing out its remarkable resemblance to Roland. Later on in the dream the baby–which was fair with blue eyes–acted as if it were much older than I said & curled its fingers into mine.

So that would be desire and concern sublimated and escaping into the unconscious (these are Freud’s glory days, after all). The intensity of her experience is also giving birth (so to speak) to more conscious creative plans.

Tuesday October 5th

…I had an idea for a play to-day. There is to be a girl in it more or less like me, a young soldier very like Roland, & a doctor. The setting is to be topical but the keynote of the plot is to be the psychology of the mind of the girl, who is thrown into trouble & confusion when two alternatives, both of them pleasant, are open to her, & who, only when the opportunity for choosing seems to be over, deliberately makes her choice–makes it with a sudden revelation of how she ought to have chosen all along.[3]


Then there are those, like the Kiplings, who have already received the crushing telegram, and begun to piece their lives back together.

On the fifth Rudyard was well enough to work at his correspondence while Carrie and Elsie went to London to seek for news at the Guards depot. They got very little beyond a word form the Colonel to say that John had been wounded while leading a small party of his men against the Germans. Only one of the party had returned…[4].

This will keep alive for some time the cruel hope that Jack Kipling had survived Loos.


References and Footnotes

  1. Nothing of Importance, v-5. Available here, but 'ware spoilers.
  2. Letters of Charles Sorley, 310-13.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 284-5.
  4. Carrington, Rudyard Kipling, 508