Farewell to Lord Crawford; George Coppard Properly Goaded; Siegfried Sassoon Roams and Remembers

Today is a day of quiet movement, before another storm breaks on the Somme. There was a great deal of action elsewhere, but our attention is fixed on Mametz Wood, where the necessity of resupplying the battered battalions of the 17th and 38th Division–and the replacement of the commanding general of the 17th, scapegoat for the recent failure to take the wood–has caused a full day’s delay in the campaign.

Let’s take the opportunity, then, to check in on three writers who are on the Somme, but not facing the awful wood.

 

George Coppard will be out of it, now, for a while. Out of the fray, that is, but not out of the way of army discipline.

Relief came on 9 July. Once we were clear of Aveluy Wood and down Coniston Steps our spirits rose. Exhausted, filthy and crawling with lice, we tramped through Albert and beyond to a village called Warloy. The order to polish buttons and brass as well as boots set off a spate of the foulest language. We felt tricked over the polishing business, not being the mood for calculated goading of that kind. Jerry had given us all the goading we wanted. Yet, there it was, it had to be done, and the Lord help those who didn’t do it properly.[1]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, too, is living the strange rhythm of action and rest. But he’s an officer, and where Coppard remains a prisoner of “chickenshit,” Sassoon is more or less free to roam. Today, a century back, he visited an old hunting friend, now a well-set-up Staff officer…

July 9

A fine day. Rode over to Corbie in the morning and saw Norman Loder… We sat on the grass in a charming garden behind his office—a walled garden off the place. It was splendid seeing him again.

In the evening we heard that the Seventh Division move up to the line again tomorrow. Mametz Wood not taken yet. Riding home from Corbie, stopped to let the mare graze by still pools with lilies and tangled weeds. Green trees and swathes of new-cut hay, and Sunday afternoon peace and sunshine and midsummer richness of earth and air.[2]

 

And it’s time to bid farewell to Lord Crawford, erstwhile medical orderly. Intelligence, it seems, will not suit.

Sunday , 9 July 1916

Left Amiens by car at midday and drove to Boulogne via Montreuil, where I lunched at the Intelligence Corps mess. There are too many officers knocking about at GMQ; I was to add one more to the roll. Perhaps indeed I may still
do so. Eighty miles drive, lovely day, good crossing.[3]

Instead, Lord Crawford will give up his sui generis military career. Two days from now he will be appointed Minister of
Agriculture, and thus serve out the war overseeing the not inconsiderable problem of Britain’s wheat supply instead of swabbing out operating rooms and intriguing about nurses.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Coppard, With a Machine Gun, 85.
  2. Diaries, 90-1.
  3. Private Lord Crawford, 193.

Siegfried Sassoon Dwells on Yesterday’s “Dead in a Squalid, Miserable Ditch;” Lord Crawford on Sandbagging the Cathedral; A Letter for Stella Hodgson

Yesterday a seminal incident in the oft-told story of Siegfried Sassoon occurred.[1] I included both his diary and his “memoir,” yesterday, and the memoir version closed the day’s adventure in a mildly ironic vein.

Coming back from his one-man jaunt into Mametz Wood he idly expected some sort of praise, but was received angrily by his colonel–a barrage had been delayed for three hours because “British patrols”–i.e. Sassoon, alone–were still within the enemy lines. Chagrined and confused about whether he is a screw-up or a half-mad hero, Sassoon/Sherston goes off with a “sulky grin.”

And then the story shifts. For the first time we might notice that “Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man” implies no other people, really–the rest of the hunt, we might hope, is following several fields behind our galloping young self-discoverer. But “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer” really should include a close concern for infantrymen. And indeed, we now see Sassoon dwelling on the experience of others–others less fortunate. This turn in the story–from unrelentingly inward to tentatively outward–is most easily seen in the sudden change in Sassoon’s verse. But to get there, a bit more prose.

As his battalion is withdrawn into into reserve, today, a century back, Sassoon is thinking of the men left behind. In the memoir, the emphasis is on the manifest unreadiness of the Kitchener’s Army men (by-blows of his very own Regiment, as it happens, but this battalion of newly-arrived, sketchily trained men belong to the unblooded Welsh Division) who took over the positions of the 2/RWF before Mametz Wood late yesterday:

The incoming Battalion numbered more than double our own strength (we were less than 400) and they were unseasoned New Army troops. Our little trench under the trees was inundated by a jostling company of exclamatory Welshmen. Kinjack would have called them a panicky rabble. They were mostly undersized men, and as I watched them arriving at the first stage of their battle experience I had a sense of their victimization. A little platoon officer was settling his men down with a valiant show of self-assurance. For the sake of appearances, orders of some kind had to be given, though in reality there was nothing to do except sit down and hope it wouldn’t rain. He spoke sharply to some of them, and I felt that they were like a lot of children. It was going to be a bad look-out for two such bewildered companies, huddled up in the Quadrangle, which had been over-garrisoned by our own comparatively small contingent. Visualizing that forlorn crowd of khaki figures under the twilight of the trees, I can believe that I saw then, for the first time, how blindly War destroys its victims. The sun had gone down on my own reckless brandishings, and I understood the doomed condition of these half-trained civilians who had been sent up to attack the Wood.[2]

Sassoon/Sherston has been the primary innocent of his own Progress–until now. But he has known loss and gone on patrols and been in no man’s land and sought out combat–and he has done it all with a battalion that still draws on a backbone of Regular Army experience and discipline. He is not only aged by his day of solitary adventuring, but deep-dyed by his months with a Regular battalion and so he realizes, suddenly, from and with experience, that these amateur battalions are neither sturdy soldiers nor foolhardy, death-or-glory unattached young men. They are victims.

But that much is the memoir-as-novel-in-history: we will see what becomes of the Welsh Division in the next two weeks. The second pivot-point of yesterday’s experience was Sassoon’s close encounter with a German corpse. In yesterday’s post we read both “Sherston’s” discovery of the corpse and his realization that his feeble efforts to “protect” the vanished beauty of the dead German had been in vain:

He was down in the mud again, and someone had trodden on his face. It disheartened me to see him, though his body had now lost all touch with life and was part of the wastage of the war.

Today, in the rear, Sassoon turned to verse to try to work out what had happened. First he sets the scene. This is the battalion at rest:

The rank stench of those bodies haunts me still
And I remember things I’d best forget.
For now we’ve marched to a green, trenchless land
Twelve miles from battering guns: along the grass
Brown lines of tents are hives for snoring men;
Wide, radiant water sways the floating sky
Below dark, shivering trees. And living-clean
Comes back with thoughts of home and hours of sleep.

To-night I smell the battle; miles away
Gun-thunder leaps and thuds along the ridge;
The spouting shells dig pits in fields of death,
And wounded men, are moaning in the woods.
If any friend be there whom I have loved,
God speed him safe to England with a gash.

It’s sundown in the camp; some youngster laughs,
Lifting his mug and drinking health to all
Who come unscathed from that unpitying waste:
(Terror and ruin lurk behind his gaze.)
Another sits with tranquil, musing face,
Puffing bis pipe and dreaming of the girl
Whose last scrawled letter lies upon his knee.

The sunlight falls, low-ruddy from the west,
Upon their heads. Last week they might have died
And now they stretch their limbs in tired content.
One says ‘The bloody Bosche has got the knock;
‘And soon they’ll crumple up and chuck their games.
‘We’ve got the beggars on the run at last!’

Peace then, and pleasant thoughts for girls at home and blighty ones. This is the happy-enough warrior after battle. Never mind the failures: now is rest, and carelessness, and the thrumming bare gratefulness for survival, for life. These are the feelings Sassoon would be having if yesterday hadn’t changed him. The “poem,” however, rushes on:

Then I remembered someone that I’d seen
Dead in a squalid, miserable ditch,
Heedless of toiling feet that trod him down.
He was a Prussian with a decent face,
Young, fresh, and pleasant, so I dare to say.
No doubt he loathed the war and longed for peace,
And cursed our souls because we’d killed his friends.

One night he yawned along a half-dug trench
Midnight; and then the British guns began
With heavy shrapnel bursting low, and ‘hows’
Whistling to cut the wire with blinding din.
He didn’t move; the digging still went on;
Men stooped and shovelled; someone gave a grunt,
And moaned and died with agony in the sludge.

Then the long hiss of shells lifted and stopped.
He stared into the gloom; a rocket curved,
And rifles rattled angrily on the left
Down by the wood, and there was noise of bombs.
Then the damned English loomed in scrambling haste
Out of the dark and struggled through the wire,
And there were shouts and curses; someone screamed
And men began to blunder down the trench
Without their rifles. It was time to go:
He grabbed his coat; stood up, gulping some bread;
Then clutched his head and fell.

I found him there
In the gray morning when the place was held.
His face was in the mud; one arm flung out
As when he crumpled up; his sturdy legs
Were bent beneath his trunk; heels to the sky.

Sassoon has never written “poetry” like this, and indeed, he will not consider this to be a finished poem.[3] Is it too ugly–or too true? Too personal? Too impersonal?

But of course it’s not a finished poem–it’s the very beginning of an entirely new literary effort.

 

And now, with this belated focus on the dead–the anonymous, rather than the poetry-writing dead–I regret leaving out the long tale of the major raid by the Second Royal Welch yesterday, a century back. In a way it is a perfect counterpoint to the high hopes of the Somme: where the Somme hoped for everything and achieved very little at an enormous cost, this raid seems really to have had no strategic purpose at all, and yet “[t]he expenditure of shells, mortar-bombs, and rifle-grenades ran into the thousands,” and there were nearly 50 casualties, including seven dead. And the raid was accounted a success.

Dr. Dunn’s chronicle makes no reference to any strategic goal: the point of the thing is to punish the Germans opposite, kill some of them, destroy their front line positions, and then return, having seized the upper hand once again on the Givenchy front. The Germans lost a few more men–probably not enough to “make up for” the disaster of Red Dragon Crater, but still–and the more than forty prisoners will add to the battalion’s reputation. Plus the Germans will have some work to do to get their front line in order once again.

But so, of course, will the British, for the German retaliatory fire is fierce and accurate:

Now comes the most awful part of the Show. A man of A Company had a brother in C Company. When he got back after the raid he said, “Pass the word to my brother, ‘I am all right.'” A few minutes later he was sitting with two others in the trench when a German shell landed plumb among them, killing them all. Shortly after daybreak I met his brother coming to see him; he asked me if I knew where his brother was. His body had been taken to Cambrin for burial, but I couldn’t tell him. When he did find out he nearly went out of his mind.[4]

 

So sometimes the gap between worry and reassurance and the worst blow of knowledge–between proof of life and overtaking death–is not channel-wide and a few days long, but a matter of minutes.

But we’ll turn again, from the anonymous soldiers, figured now as victims rather than a price paid for strategy, to the young officers–known to us, and well-loved, and mourned. Noel Hodgson‘s friend Frank Worrall, learning only today of his death, wrote immediately to Noel’s sister Stella:

I’m just fearfully sorry for you, and you all. “Bill” was everything to me and more that a fellow could wish a pal to be. Perhaps you knew, he was so fond of you, what friends we were. I just loved him and I am only a hard case man and am not effusive at any time but he was such a loveable old thing, such a straight liver but up to anything, that a real man would think right. Always keen, but never at the expenses of others, for his men. Always to me my “Smiler.”[5]

 

But life–and the oddly literary war–go on. So here’s what maybe a gently cruel way to bring in the “normalcy” of those not in battle or reeling from new loss. Lord Crawford has recently been prodded to take up once more his ordinary estate: no longer an enlisted medical orderly, he is on his way to become one of those intelligence officers involved in public relations. And, for the time being, he will be another observer of the battle. Today, a century back, he does well: he moved from two symbolic locations–Montreuil, where Haig has his headquarters (in, yes, a chateau) and Amiens, the cathedral city and rail-head for the Somme–and provides both literary and artistic points of reference.

Thursday, 6 July 1916

A beautiful drive from Montreuil to Amiens through magnificently cultivated land. General Charteris wants me to go to Paris forthwith, whereas Colonel Hutton Wilson would like to keep me here to help him and to get an insight into the press censorship. Later, I went to the cathedral. The porch and many internal monuments sandbagged, and they are now, notwithstanding our advance, engaged in sandbagging the choir. It occurs to me that the Hotel de France at Montreuil must be the inn at which the sentimental traveller engaged his French servant; was he called La Flache? I forget. Anyhow, this association endears Montreuil to my heart.[6]

This is Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, and it was not “La Flache” but ‘La Fleur”–who, incidentally, is a sort of marionette-mascot for the region of Picardie.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I realize that this arm's-length, fiction-appropriate diction has become a tic: I could use historical terminology--e.g. "yesterday's events will weigh heavily..."--but even leaving aside fastidiousness about the difference between history and fictionalized autobiography it seems somehow inappropriate. Sassoon is experiencing his life not as a series of events but as an unfolding story. And yesterday the plot took a turn.
  2. Complete Memoirs, 337-8.
  3. Although Sassoon worked these verse over, but he will never seek to have them published.
  4. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 221.
  5. Zeepvat, Before Action, 206.
  6. Private Lord Crawford, 190.

Donald Hankey Under Fire: on Retaliation and Dugouts; Brothers in the Push: Edward Brittain and Noel Hodgson Prepare Their Sisters; Robert Graves in London; Siegfried Sassoon in Morlancourt; Patrick Shaw-Stewart Among the Odomanti; Lord Crawford is Reassigned

The build-up to the Somme continues today, a century back. The battle began early for Donald Hankey, whose platoon is in trenches at Auchonvillers. For two days now the British bombardment has raged–but to what effect? Hankey’s diary entry for today is ample proof that the failures of the bombardment were anticipated by the men on the spot:

The great bombardment has begun, the long-promised strafing of the Boche. According to the gunners they [the Germans] will all be dead, buried or dazed when the time comes for us to go over the top. I doubt it! If they have deep enough dug-outs I don’t fancy that the bombardment will worry them much.

Meanwhile we, who have very few deep dug-outs, are suffering considerably from the Boche retaliation. In volume, it is nothing like what we are giving then; but they are making very good practice on our first and second line.

The rôle of the infantry on these occasions is a very trying one, especially for the men. They are still getting very short rations, hardly any sleep, and the amount of protection available against bombardment is absurdly inadequate. One can hardly imagine a state of affairs less likely to produce them in good fighting trim on the day of the Push.[1]

The role of infantry, to put it more succinctly is to be shelled.[2] If the war is seen from that revolutionary point of view, then the generals’ hopes that the long bombardment will be followed by a swift advance begin to seem even more deluded. There is no field of battle to be won, really, just a killing field that must be passed over to gain more trenches. This task is physically difficult–that is, deadly–given the German wire and defensive fire. But it begins to become psychologically impossible as well. If these men came to war with a book-imagined idea of heroic advance, it has largely been shelled out of them. How do they imagine going forward, when the barrage lifts?

 

Henry Williamson‘s exhaustive retrospection on this period came to fixate, perhaps naturally, on this very problem of the deep dugouts. Hence the patrols and reconnaissances conducted by the ubiquitous Phillip Maddison in these last days before the battle. The fictional Phillip–under the direction of “Spectre” West, the fire-eating, scenery-chewing Cassandra of the Territorials–has repeatedly ascertained that the German dugouts are twenty or more feet deep (as many in fact were). Spectre West, although he is hard-bitten and oft-wounded, otherwise seems to borrow a bit from the real-life Captain Martin of the Devonshires (Noel Hodgson’s Devonshires–but he is up next), a man who sees the looming disaster all too clearly.

Williamson has scores of fish to fry in his many-volumed, heavily overcooked fish-fry of a novel, and the shortsightedness and overconfidence of the generals who believe so very strongly in the the promises of their artillerymen now comes front and center. But the tragedy isn’t so much in the bad generalship as it is in the ponderousness and built-in smugness of a vast army bureaucracy. Will thousands of men die because the wire is uncut and many German machine-gunners will simply wait out the barrage and then trot upstairs to massacre the advancing infantry? Yes. But they will die–in a slightly tighter chain of consequence–because the information coming from the men on the spot (such as Hankey, or the several officers we have seen go on raids and find the German line full of deep dugouts) is ignored by those who receive it.

Williamson, meanwhile, is in England. He has sent his novel-self out to carry water for Cassandra, and to show us just how badly run the thing is. But he was spared this sort of duty–or indeed, the duty of actually assaulting the intact German defenses. Williamson faced a medical board today, which gave him two months convalescent leave–“he [has] lost weight and is anaemic. He requires a complete change”–but this he will spend mostly gallivanting and/or hell-raising…[3]

 

Noel Hodgson, meanwhile, writes home to his sister, with gifts for the new baby. Hodgson had been “taken aback” at his sister’s reference to his niece as his “godchild.”

Dear Star,

A little gift of no intrinsic value for you or your daughter just to show I think of you, and a cigarette-lighter for Toby made by some industrious French ‘poilu’. I could wish to have found better things, but there was no chance of it. Use any of the N. W. money you want for your own purposes won’t you?

I feel very proud to be an uncle–but you say ‘goddaughter’, surely a lady baby doesn’t have two godsires, and Winnington Ingram was to be the one, wasn’t he.

Haven’t time for more at present.

Bill[4]

This lacks the formality of any sort of “last letter,” but Hodgson’s 9th Devonshires were slated to attack in three days. Rarely is “haven’t time for more” to be taken as anything other than a vague excuse; but here it might have been close to literal truth.

 

We have letters today from another sister-and-brother pair. From Edward Brittain, the same sort of succinct speculative farewell:

France, 26 June 1916

Dearest Vera,

The papers are getting rather more interesting, but I have only time to say adieu.

EHB

 

Two days hence, Vera Brittain will write to him, hardly behindhand in her understanding of the timing of the attack. These two letters will cross each other even as the battle begins.

1st London General, 28 June 1916

I believe I heard the guns here a day or two ago. What a clamour must be going on! One anxiety is more than enough; & sometimes I feel quite glad that Roland is lying where the guns cannot disturb Him however loudly they thunder & He cannot an more hear the noise they make.[5]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, meanwhile, was marching away from the guns.

June 26

Up and away, by 8.15 on a perfect morning with some clouds in the sky. The men were putting their kits together in the green orchard behind C. Company mess, and I walked away to the riverside, where I sit now, with the twenty-foot stream sliding along at my feet, the long green weeds, swaying with the current like nosing fishes slowly curving, their way upstream. The tall trees are full of bird-notes. A long way off seems the fighting line; one can just hear the distant bumping and dull thudding of the bombardment.

…Reached Morlancourt at 2.45… Back in our old billets…. The blackness of the night seen through
my window was lit with continuous glare and flash of guns…[6]

 

And let the following be the last reminder–perhaps for some time, as we zero in on the Somme–that this is a big war. Raymond Asquith is an addressee, today, in this classically referential missive from one learned man, i.e. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, to another:

The only thing I miss is my eggs and bacon; and after all, when one thinks of what the bacon too often is—— For the rest, I have roamed over Crestonasa and Mygdonia, set foot on the Trans-Strymonic territory of (I think) the Odomanti, encamped by the Echedorus, which Xerxes drained, ranged on the hills where lions attacked his camels, and occasionally looked in on the Thessalonians.

June 26, 1916.[7]

 

Penultimately, today was quite a day for Robert Graves. Yesterday he got his marching orders, sending him back to the front. Which, despite his recent convalescent leave, meant more leave–“last leave.”  And so today to London, with his father. Interestingly (or perhaps not!) the Graves moved around London both by hansom cab and by underground–they visited Harold Monro and found that young Graves’s first book, Fairies and Fusiliers, was headed for a second edition. And they “called on Eddie Marsh & [were] introduced to Mrs. Asquith who wished him all luck…”[8]

 

And finally, today, the RAMC won’t have Corporal Lord Crawford to kick around anymore:

Monday, 26 June 1916

Received notice to proceed to GHQ, to interview the Intelligence Corps. I don’t like the name of this department which leads the scoffer to scoff. The colonel strongly urges me to take any post which the authorities may offer. He
says that, apart from gaining experience in the sphere of surgical operations, I can learn no more than I already know of the RAMC and he adds his assurance that I can be of material service elsewhere. I am sorry to go. After
fourteen or fifteen months with the unit such a déracinage cannot fail to make itself felt. Everybody in our station whom I met today spoke despondently of themselves and of the station which I have largely helped to keep together during the last six months of weariness and squalor. The next few weeks may, if all goes well, restore mobiliy, and with it give fresh life and interest to all.[9]

It’s hard to tell with Lord Crawford whether he is a utterly unhinged or merely eccentric. Has he been a good medical orderly? Perhaps. Has he been the glue holding the unit together? Somehow I doubt it. It can’t have been easy having a lord, a rich industrialist, and a former MP in the middle of an ordinary medical unit. But his heart has certainly been in it–a strange choice, but he stuck it out more than a year: the hard work, the long hours, the blood, the persecuting harridans of the nursing corps…

It’s difficult to say, too, to what extent he was lured to a position more suitable for a man of his age and social position, or whether he was delicately pushed. In any event, when we next see Lord Crawford he will be restored to personal freedom and social privilege. As he himself laments, it would seem that even the most brave and selflessly noble orderly has been condemned to work in Intelligence. Puh-leeze.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Davies, A Student in Arms, 170.
  2. I paraphrase, here, someone I've read in Paul Fussell, but the citation eludes me at present.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 73.
  4. Zeepvat, Before Action, 191.
  5. Letters from a Lost Generation, 264.
  6. Diary, 78-9.
  7. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 171.
  8. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic, 148-9.
  9. Private Lord Crawford, 187.

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

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

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

 

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

The Troop Ship

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Private Lord Crawford‘s reaction is somewhat different:

Saturday, 3 June 1916

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

3rd Batt. Grenadier Guards
3.6.16

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

June 3

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

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

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

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

Wait for it, wait for it…

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Siegfried Sassoon on Nature, from Larks to Slugs; Contemplated Bravado and a Pair of Sonnets from Alan Seeger; Raymond Asquith is Back with the Battalion, and Finds Nothing Whatever to Complain About; Private Lord Crawford on the Entente Between the Sexes

Siegfried Sassoon, back in the support lines, measures quiet and contentment. Will the larks never cease? It seems sometimes as if the sounds of the Western Front are 80% ordinance, 6% overhead Cockney cheerfulness, 3% shouted German taunts, and 11% lark song. But this is a quiet sector:

May 23 6.15 p.m.

On Crawley Ridge. A very still evening. Sun rather hazy but sky mostly clear. Looking across to Fricourt: trench-mortars bursting in the cemetery: clouds of dull white vapour slowly float away over grey-green grass with yellow buttercup-smears, and saffron of weeds. Fricourt, a huddle of reddish roofs, skeleton village—church-tower white—almost demolished, a patch of white against the sombre green of the Fricourt wood (full of German batteries). Away up the hill the white seams and heapings of trenches dug in the chalk. The sky full of lark-songs. Sometimes you can count thirty slowly and hear no sound of a shot: then the muffled pop of a rifle-shot a long way off, or a banging 5.9, or our eighteen-pounder—then a burst of machinegun westward, the yellow sky with a web of whitish filmy cloud half across the sun; and the ridges rather blurred with outlines of trees; an airplane droning overhead. A thistle sprouting through the chalk on the parapet; a cockchafer sailing through the air a little way in front.

Down the hill, and on to the old Bray-Fricourt road, along by the railway; the road white and hard; a partridge flies away calling; lush grass everywhere, and crops of nettles; a large black slug out for his evening walk (doing nearly a mile a month, I should think)…[1]

An interesting interloper, that slug: is our poet merely noting his observations, or is there a special providence in this slow and steady–and notably loathsome–earth-dweller?

 

Alan Seeger is writing steadily and readily again. First, today, to his mother, reflecting on the pleasure and vicissitudes of service in a rather more active sector. Well, actually a fairly quiet one as well–but not if Seeger can help it.

May 23, 1916

We are just back after six days in first line. We are lodged in a big quarry in the woods. It is rather cold and damp inside, but extremely picturesque immense subterranean galleries, foursquare, cut in the solid rock, pitch black inside with here and there little points of light where the men stick their candles.

The week in first line was very pleasant. The weather was superb and I was never bored an instant, neither in the beautiful days when the unclouded sunlight came filtering through the branches of the forest, nor in the starry nights that at this time of year fade even before two o’clock into the wonder of the spring dawn. Nothing more adorable in Nature than this daybreak in the northeast in May and June. One hears the cockcrows in the villages of that mysterious land behind the German lines. Then the cuckoos begin to call in the green valleys and all at once, almost simultaneously, all the birds of the forest begin to sing. The cannon may roar, and the rifles crackle, but Nature’s program goes on just the same.

Remarkably like Sassoon, so far, today. Spring! Poets! Soldiers in the line!

There’s one major difference, though, which is that the French army, in which Seeger serves, has been desperately engaged at Verdun for many weeks, and is beginning to be exhausted (although that, of course, will get much worse). The English have yet to make a major attack, and anticipate doing so soon, not least to support their exhausted allies.

The likelihood of a big action in the near future is vanishing more and more. The general opinion is that Verdun has not only mangé beaucoup de monde [eaten up everyone] but what is more important, beaucoup de munitions. As the French seem in counterattacks to be making serious efforts and even on a large scale to regain some of the lost ground, I do not expect anything on other parts of the front for some time to come, unless it be the English. If it turn out that we have actually retaken Douaumont, it will be a magnificent achievement. I shall ask permission to go out and leave the newspapers on the German barbed wire. I have already made several patrols here and know the ground.

Goodbye; bon courage.

There’s a nice short paragraph to stand for the Poetic Attitude and how, even in 1916, it can somehow still contain the bare facts of 20th century attrition–Verdun is indeed consuming the materiel and men of France at an unprecedented rate–and a resolve toward foolish heroics that seems to belong to a 19th century boy’s tale (or, it must be said, some truthy tale of pre-rifle heroics).

Remarkably, a second letter of today, to his godmother (!) is much more frank about his derring-will-do. Seeger out-Sassoons Sassoon today:

May 23, 1916

Exasperated by the inactivity of the sector here and tempted by danger, I stole off twice after guard and made a patrol all by myself through the wood paths and trails between the lines. In the first of these, at a crossing of paths not far from one of our posts, I found a burnt rocket-stick planted in the ground and a scrap of paper stuck in the top, placed there by the Boches to guide their little mischief-making parties when they come to visit us in the night. The scrap of paper was nothing else than a bit of the Berliner Tageblatt. This seemed so interesting to me that I reported it to the captain, though my going out alone this way is a thing strictly forbidden. He was very decent about it though, and seemed really interested in the information. Yesterday afternoon I repeated this exploit, following another trail, and I went so far that I came clear up to the German barbed wire, where I left a card with my name. It was very thrilling work, “courting destruction with taunts, with invitations,” as Whitman would say. I have never been in a sector like this, where patrols could be made in daylight. Here the deep forest permits it. It also greatly facilitates ambushes, for one must keep to the paths, owing to the underbrush. I and a few others are going to try to get permission to go out on patrouilles d’embuscade and bring in some live prisoners. It would be quite an extraordinary feat if we could pull it off. In our present existence it is the only way I can think of to get the Croix de Guerre. And to be worthy of my marraine [godmother, to whom he is writing] I think that I ought to have the Croix de Guerre.

Here are two sonnets I composed to while away the long hours of guard. . . .

The sonnets are below. This is quite something, really, in terms of “real time” history. It’s spring, and the poetic heroes are getting frisky: Julian Grenfell may be decorated and dead, but E. A. Mackintosh, recently, and now Seeger, and soon enough Sassoon himself all setting out to win fame and capture prisoners. May 1916 is the month of the raid…

Now for the poetry!

I will send you back again the Tennyson after having refreshed myself with it, for one must lighten the sack as much as possible. Found all the old beauties and discovered new ones. Read the last paragraphs of Maud and see if you do not think they have a striking bearing on the present situation.

BELLINGLISE
I
Deep in the sloping forest that surrounds
The head of a green valley that I know,
Spread the fair gardens and ancestral grounds
Of Bellinglise, the beautiful château.
Through shady groves and fields of unmown grass,
It was my joy to come at dusk and see,
Filling a little pond’s untroubled glass,
Its antique towers and mouldering masonry.
Oh, should I fall to-morrow, lay me here,
That o’er my tomb, with each reviving year,
Wood-flowers may blossom and the wood-doves croon;
And lovers by that unrecorded place,
Passing, may pause, and cling a little space,
Close-bosomed, at the rising of the moon.
II
Here, where in happier times the huntsman’s horn
Echoing from far made sweet midsummer eves,
Now serried cannon thunder night and morn,
Tearing with iron the greenwood’s tender leaves.
Yet has sweet Spring no particle withdrawn
Of her old bounty; still the song-birds hail,
Even through our fusillade, delightful Dawn;
Even in our wire bloom lilies of the vale.
You who love flowers, take these; their fragile bells
Have trembled with the shock of volleyed shells,
And in black nights when stealthy foes advance
They have been lit by the pale rockets’ glow
That o’er scarred fields and ancient towns laid low
Trace in white fire the brave frontiers of France.[2]

 

What could be more appropriate to the American Europhile than this combination of the hunter’s horn and a near-citation of the Star-Spangled Banner? So yes, this is more Sassoon than Sassoon, but it’s also something Sassoon rarely is, in his poetry: both traditional and ungentle. Seeger goes for effect here, and forces his words into a halthing rhythm. These sonnets start from firm footing amidst the poetic tradition and launch with a clear purpose–but they stumble a bit before they arrive at their triumphantly hammering conclusions, listing oddly rather than soaring.

And these stumbles mean something, personally, militarily, and poetically: are we really getting there? Are the old habits and convictions enough to carry the day, or is the wire before the objective festooned with old paper, and as yet uncut?

 

Finally today–it’s been such an unexpectedly active few weeks!–we must catch up with Raymond Asquith. After an agonizing shift in the stultifying boredom, semi-honorable idiocy, and complete physical safety of General Headquarters, he is at last back with his battalion. Hurrah! He’s going to love it there, right?

Let’s go back a few days and see:

3rd Grenadier Guards,
B.E.F.
20 May 1916

… In this part of the line we are surrounded and overlooked by the Germans on almost every side and they have a great number of guns in good positions which they loose off pretty continuously. We were fairly heavily shelled on Thursday and had some casualties, but nothing really to matter. The weather being so fine puts a picnic complexion on the whole affair and obscures the less agreeable aspects.

All officers have to be up all night but the nights are so short that this is not a very severe tax and at 3.30 a.m. we have a cup of coffee and turn in, if there is anywhere to turn in; if not, sleep in the open, as I did last night with great comfort and enjoyment. One advantage of the weakness of our position is that it is impossible to work or even move during the day, so one simply lies about dozing in the sun till about 8.30 p.m. We have given up luncheon and have bacon and eggs at 11 a.m., tea at 4 and dinner–a substantial meal-at 7. We are in for 5 days on end this time–the longest I have ever done at a stretch but the conditions are so favourable that I don’t think it takes it out of one so much as 2 days in the winter trenches . . .

 

3rd Grenadier Guards,
B.E.F.
22 May 1916

. . . After 10 days here we are going 10 miles or so further back to live in billets for 3 weeks. I am rather depressed at the prospect. The perfect way to do this war would be G.H.Q. for these waste spaces and regimental life for the spells of trench work…

 

3rd Grenadier Guards,
B.E.F.
23 May 1916

. . . As for me I am already more bored with this tiresome camp than ever I was with G.H.Q. We were allowed an easy time today but for the next week wd live a terribly strenuous and wearisome life–a certain amount of drill and a great many “fatigues”–i.e . digging trenches, laying cables, fetching and carrying, hewing wood and drawing water for other people. Personally I prefer anything to drill…

I knew I should begin grousing as soon as I got away from G.H.Q. but I suppose I should have groused more if I had stayed there.

One’s heart goes out to Katherine Asquith, home with a newborn, knowing now that each letter confirms that her husband is alive, or was, a few days past, and opening it to read such reassurances and tender thoughts…

There is no avoiding the boredom of this War, turn which way you may. There is more novelty and excitement about the trenches themselves than any other part of the show, but I should still be discontented if I were made to stay in them for a month on end instead of coming out and doing these bloody fatigues and things… One fearful addition to the honours of War since I have been away is the steel helmet which we all have to wear now, when in the shell area. They are monstrously tiresome and heavy and I suppose if idiots like Pemberton Rifling had not asked questions in Parliament about them we should have been allowed to go on with our comfortable caps. We make the bloody things better than anyone else does of course by sewing the blue and red brigade ribbon with a gold grenade on it, on to the khaki cover, but even so they are insufferable. . .[3]

 

Insufferable!

Finally, I simply must cram this in: an update on Lord Crawford’s battle of the sexes–unreliably reported, as always.

Monday, 22 May 1916

The last three or four weeks have marked a great reaction in the attitude of the nurses towards us. After months of scolding and vituperation they have become amiable and at times friendly. The transformation has been caused by the matron MacCrae who has bullied and harassed the wretched women to such an extent that they feel the need of support, and have entered into a tacit alliance with us! The burden and weariness of our lives is greatly reduced. Let us hope there will be no counter reaction–anyhow, for a fortnight we have lived in peace. The matron is, of course, more insistent than ever finding the hands of all turned against her, especially since this unholy entente between the sexes! Today she gave orders that in future, when going up and down stairs, orderlies are not to put their hands on the banisters–which strikes me as really droll. Had she not treated us with contumely and the nurses with brutality, one would be charitable enough to assume the woman was going potty.[4]

Matron MacCrae will be officially commended for her services…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 64.
  2. Letters and Diary, 198-202. The poem is dated yesterday a century back, but goes nicely with these letters...
  3. Life and Letters, 262-3.
  4. Private Lord Crawford, 170.

A Coy Verse from Wilfred Owen; Olaf Stapledon on Leave: Sleepy Ducks and Fiery Stars; Aubrey Herbert Down the Tigris in a Huff; Private Lord Crawford: Something is Brewing on the Somme

Wilfred Owen surprises today, a century back. His jaunty, disconnected letters and cards to his mother are keeping him in the game here while he awaits officerhood and poetic progress. He hasn’t been writing much else, seemingly–there are drafts, longer projects, older work polished up and given to Monro, but few finished poems from this period. Today, though, there is a suggestive one. Childhood memories, perhaps stimulated by a recent day at the baths? A scene with some of his young friends from the Romford area? Who knows. But verse, anyway:

To–

Three rompers run together hand in hand.
The middle boy stops short, the others hurtle:
What bumps, what shrieks, what laughter turning turtle.
Love, racing between us two, has planned
A sudden mischief: shortly he will stand
And we shall shock. We cannot help but fall;
What matter? Why, it will not hurt at all,
Our youth is supple, and the world is sand.
Better our lips should bruise our eyes, than He,
Rude Love, outrun our breath; you pant, and I,
I cannot run much farther; mind that we
Both laugh with love; and having tumbled, try
To go forever children, hand in hand.
The sea is rising… and the world is sand.
Wilfred Owen
May 10, 1916
It’s easy to look for Eros here, the capitalized Love. Perhaps; but there are several kinds of love, and this seems to be primarily a poem of youth. The love, that is, is some sort of love of some sort of boy–brotherly, or perhaps proto-erotic. But it is subordinated to–or perhaps “ruled by” is better–a general love of youth, of youth-as-joy, planted infirmly in a nice enough half-metaphor: soon Owen will be commissioned, and off to places where the falls are more painful. The world is sand, yes, but it soon it will be mud.

 

Coming second in a rather disparate foursome is Lord Crawford. Remember him? Everyone’s favorite caustic, nurse-phobic diarist, medical orderly, and former member of the House of Lords is back!

He has been up to his usual tricks over the past few weeks. Lord Crawford was forced to express his regrets to those who believe that he should return to politics–for though he may be called to a higher service, his task here is as yet unfinished. Then he spilled a good deal of ink explaining that a matron whom others praise as “most capable” is “intolerable,” and then recording his dismay at the events in Dublin and Kut, while confidently praising the “splendid” French success at Verdun. He’s an observant orderly, but one with unusual privileges that rather increase his value as a diarist. Today’s speculation–much more on target, as it were, then his assessment of Verdun–is based on a casual friendship not often obtained by other enlisted men…

Wednesday, 10 May 1916

The colonel tells me that tomorrow he is going on a tour to distribute the new stretcher which has at last attained perfection. He wants to visit Amiens among other places, but today was shown a new order forbidding all access to the town to officers below the rank of major general, unless furnished with special permission. A brigadier general must have a pass! I wonder what can be in the wind. The general view seems to be that our front bristles with so much artillery that we can scarcely find emplacement for another battery and that there is an inconceivable reserve of ammunition…[1]

 

And Aubrey Herbert–steeply overshadowed, for once, by an even more sui generis English gentleman–started down the Tigris today, from the ruined army at Kut to Basra, determined “to do something for the forgotten army of Mesopotamia.” He had been part of a wrong-headed and ill-considered negotiation effort, but he had also now heard many tales of the incompetence and foolishness that had led to the disaster. The empire was rotten, and Herbert, a man with connections and no real subordination to any chain of command, could speak out. There is some irony in the fact that his wife, Mary, wrote to him today of her horror and disgust at the brutality and short-sightedness of the British crackdown on the Irish rebels…[2]

 

Olaf Stapledon, writing a serial letter to Agnes Miller from his family home near Liverpool–and within sight of Wales–sometimes seems to be the only writer we have who can cover the better part of the war’s emotional ground without seeming to careen between different versions of himself. He breathes deeply and sees the moon… and pain, and principle, and knavery, and foolishness…

Outside the moon is shining through mottled cloud and clear sky. The tide is up, and the Mostyn furnace is a big fiery star, reflected in the still water… Our little winding pathway down to the gate is dim and mysterious, a path in fairy land.

He does my intro one better: he sees with his own sort of binary vision. The split is not between acting self and observing self or between recorder and memoir-writer/analyzer, but rather between two visions of the world, the willed world of fantasy/romance/fiction, and the debased but resonant present. Or perhaps Stapledon–for those of you who know his fiction, this will make some sense–stands like a god both within and without time.

In any case, the “furnace” is a steel works across the river in North Wales, working overtime for the war effort.

A pee-wit is crying, and sometimes a sleepy duck… A train is heard as a peaceful murmur far away. There’s not a sound of war! No guns, however far and faint…

Somewhere in Flanders a French driver is at this moment taking his car along the aid post road, blessing the moon. There are guns, near or far, and perhaps they are unpleasantly near. There are wounded men waiting for him in a dugout, waiting perhaps since this morning. They are in pain, great or small…

There is a difference between this world and that, But things are very far from right even here. . . .

Dear, this country is in a bad way, and grows worse. They have lost all common sense and prudence over Dublin. They are shooting far too many rebels, and some cases are grossly unfairly tried…

And alas for freedom! Habeas Corpus too. . . . At the front one is so cut off from home things that one does not realise how bad the present state (even) really is. It has been rather a shock to find out. But one has to cling to the hope of a general spiritual purification as the only way out of it all. It will come, surely, surely, but only if we all make it. Anyhow, in this war-stage pessimism is wicked. We cannot afford to grieve; or, having begun, where should we end? We must deny ourselves the luxury of mourning and of despair and of fear until a better world has been made. No black clothes now; no sad minor music, for it loosens the courage.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Private Lord Crawford, 167.
  2. The Man Who Was Greenmantle, 183-4.
  3. Talking Across the World, 148-9.

Wilfred Owen Gets Leave at Last; Lord Crawford on Manifold Parcels: Christmas Abundance and the Poverty of Prisoners

A quiet day today, it would seem, for most of our writers. At Romford Camp, Wilfred Owen, though still missing his Christmas gifts from mother, has arranged to come home for New Year’s. He wrote out a quick post card last night, a century back, and mailed it today:

I have just been told that I take my Leave on Wednesday next. But a man in B11 whose Leave dates from Thurs. wants to change with me. This will rather advantage than hinder my arrangements… I have still not had your Parcel. Don’t be stunned if I arrive at an unholy hour; or if I happen upon you before or after my time: and don’t make up a bed—or a feast! For we are fairly sated today!

Your W.E.O.[1]

 

We haven’t heard from Lord Crawford, Guardian of the Morals of No. 12 CCS, in a while, but we can check in today for some post-Christmas parceled-out ironies. The postal system, excellent though it is, has succumbed to the immensity of Christmas spirit. Yesterday, Crawford’s subject was abundance:

Monday, 27 December 1915

Tons of parcels have reached us and tons more, posted too late at home, will doubtless pour in for the next fortnight. One looks with dismay upon the broken and shapeless lumps which arrive. The SM of the post office tells me that here are now 5,000 bags of parcels lying at Folkestone awaiting transport and escort which the Admiralty cannot supply! The Post Office accommodation is limited, labour is scarce, tonnage is needed for more important goods, and generally speaking the authorities are not over anxious to encourage great generosity at home…

The amateur-technocratic[2] economist in Lindsay is offended by this wastage. Why send a plum pudding when the postage exceeds the cost of the article!

And the amount of time and energy wasted owing to defective packing and addresses! Good people at home wrap up parcels as though they needed transit to the next street…  In fact, there ought to be demonstrations (with exhibits) of how to pack parcels for the front…

But amidst all the well-meaning British wastage, there is want:

Every day at the railway station I see huge barrows loaded with parcels for French prisoners in Germany. All of them are carefully sewn up in canvas or cotton coverings, neatly packed and clearly addressed. The German regulations are very stringent on the subject and, if not followed, the consignment is pinched. A special sort of bread is baked to send to Germany, rolls which appear to pass twice through the oven, hard enough to last for a month and scarcely susceptible to damp. The prisoners soak them in coffee or soup or whatever they have to drink. Fancy having to send bread to Germany! We may be sure the Germans don’t have to send any to their compatriots locked up in Britain.

Yes, well, but Britain’s off-shore-blockade-by-assumption-of-grand-fleet-superiority is starting to have an effect while the German submarine blockade has hardly begun. In any event, Crawford leaves thoughts of Christmas behind as he contemplates the sad duties of hungry Frenchwomen sending parcels to their hungrier prisoner-relatives through the Red Cross:

Tuesday, 28 December 1915

At the station today notices are posted up recommending those who send parcels to Germany to employ wax instead of lead for the seals. The reason is not far to seek. Ten pounds is the limit of weight. The brother of the woman who now supplies me with a bath… is a prisoner in Germany; he was in the customs and was captured early in the war. She tells me that he acknowledges every parcel she has sent–but that every halfpenny she has sent by mandat postale has gone astray. Her weekly parcel consists of four pounds of bread, butter in a sealed tin, jam, preserved fruit, an article or two of clothing and a Paris d’epice…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 371.
  2. Sure, an oxymoron, but we are talking about a Conservative former member of the House of Lords serving as an orderly, here. It's the Edwardian way...
  3. Private Lord Crawford, 100-1.

Ford Madox Ford on All the Fun in Heaven; Siegfried Sassoon Reaches His Battalion; Lord Crawford on General Faces

Ford Madox Hueffer is now in uniform, a humble lieutenant drilling with a New Army battalion of the Welsh Regiment. But his writing continues to march to the presses. It’s been an odd pile of war writing so far–two books of (essentially) propaganda, a lightheartedly scathing story mocking a lordly neighbor that doubled as invasion-scare propaganda, a novel that will come to be regarded as a Modernist masterpiece which, despite its title–The Good Soldier–has nothing to do with the war, a grandstandingly pro-enlistment Boccacian conversation piece, and now, today, a short story that thumps squarely into the popular press breadbasket of religious/sentimental uplift.

“Fun! It’s Heaven,” which appeared in The Bystander of today, a century back (at right), is not only “more overtly propagandistic” but downright silly. It’s maudlin, following in the footsteps of Arthur Machen and many others, and might seem like a put-on. But no: it’s coming from crazy old Ford Hueffer–and it’s sincere.

The story opens promisingly, with a doctor and a lay sister sitting in a stark room like the set for a Dickensian production of an O’Neill play:

The room was lit by a skylight from above, so that it resembled a tank in which dim fishes swim listlessly. The walls were of a varnished grey point; an immense and lamenting Christ hung upon a cross above the empty grate; a mildewed portrait of the last Pope but one made a grim spot of white near the varnished door.

In the room a doctor and a lay sister discuss a distraught young woman who has decided to take the veil. Her sweetheart has been killed, and she is convinced that he must be in heaven, having the fun that he had always loved to have.

She is also, by the by, having visions of him, returned from beyond the grave to revel in popular music and pastries at a tea shop. This tea shop is then–not only in her eyes but in those of the doctor/narrator as well–overtaken by a mystical vision of British regimental continuity, all the khaki-clad Tommies turning briefly into the cockade-sporting Redcoats of Marlborough‘s time. And the young woman–the teenage pseudo-widow about to take the veil–is worried that her young soldier had too much fun in this brief phase of his life, partying on even as he was training to take lives.

It’s this fixation on fun that saves the otherwise bizarre combination of treacle and sour, dour realism. The question is carried from the young woman’s report of her beau’s brief life into the doctor’s experience by bands playing the upbeat songs that the dead soldier had loved. By the end of the story the doctor and the nurse/nun are humming the lively tunes themselves, and averring that heaven must be real:

And he began to hum the jerky melody whilst the old Religious nodded her head. In a room above the young girl was trying to persuade the Mother Superior that she had he vocation for that cloistral life. Her sweetheart lay dead in Flanders.

Assuredly if there were no Heaven we whom Flanders has not yet claimed must will one into existence with all the volition of united humanity.[1]

It’s a little wild, very much unexpected. Why is our modern master behaving a little like a demotic American miracle enthusiast? Because of where he’s going, of course. The author has multiple presences in the story: he is the old doctor, ruminating on the harmless fun of the doomed youths, yet he also looks on like the mildewed pope, a troubled but firm Catholic. And he has decided to march off to Flanders himself

 

Siegfried Sassoon, sprung yesterday from bureaucratic limbo, made his way today from Étaples to Béthune.

November 24

Paraded with kit at 2.30 a.m. and went to station. Train started 5.30. Arrived Béthune 10.15 and found Battalion in billets there. After lunch went out to C. Company billets at Le Hamel.[2]

The diary expands and softens in his Memoirs, which remind us that “Dick,” his friend and chaste love-object, is with him:

Everything was behind us, and the First Battalion was in front of us.

And, of course, the sound of the guns.

On our roundabout journey we stopped at St. Pol and overheard a few distant bangs–like the slamming of a heavy door they sounded.

“Dick” and “George Sherston” are new to this, but one of their companions, Joe Barless–“a gimlet-moustached ex-sergeant-major who was submitting philosophically to his elevation to officerdom”–has been out before. Sassoon had just mentioned Barless’s habit of spitting on the floor in order to mark the class distinction. Now it signifies something else:

Barless had been out before; had been hit at the first battle of Ypres; had left a wife and family behind him; knocked his pipe out and expectorated, with a grim little jerk of his bullet head, when he heard guns. We others looked at him for guidance now, and he was giving us all we needed, in his taciturn, matter-of-fact way, until he got us safely reported with the first battalion.

Sassoon, perhaps a bit self-consciously–this is Sherston, his “outdoor self,” who is doing the thinking, after all–that the “sober-coloured country all the way from Etaples had looked lifeless and unattractive… A hopeless hunting country, it looked.” But the binary vision soon pulls back and apart, and we find the mind of “Sherston” questioning his manner of first recording this introduction to the war–questioning, but approving.

And at this crisis in my career I should surely be ready with something spectacular and exciting. Nevertheless, I must admit that I have no such episode to exhibit.

An apt verb there, no?

The events in my experience must take their natural course.

Aha–so a claim at least for chronicle at the root of memoir. Sassoon writes a fictionalized version of his life–just a page before he was bidding farewell to the entirely invented Aunt Evelyn, and he even, oddly, changed today’s train arrival time by fifteen minutes–but he is at pains to let us know, in Sherston’s narrative voice, that he will not fudge “events.” A few pages later he even mentions his diary to back up his claim to precision in the manner of the time of his train’s arrival… the time which he has changed… but only by fifteen minutes.

Got it?

So we have binary vision blurring around the issue of historical verisimilitude: let this (fictional) novel promise to be up front about its (invented) departures from the truth… No: let this memoir coyly change the truth, but assure you that there will not be inventions from whole cloth. It’s a whole-cloth fictionalization most rigorous in its sourcing, and a true history only mildly altered to create a (mostly fictional) fictional guise…

Nor was the “hunting country” reference wasted. “Colonel Winchell” proves to be a hunting man, already told by a friend back home of Sherston’s achievements (shared by Sassoon) as a fox hunter and victorious rider in local cross-country races. So this diffident young man with a meager military background is at once accepted into the social world of the Regular Army. Being able to talk hunting “gave one an almost unfair advantage in some ways.”[3]

 

Lastly, today, an amusing bit from Lord Crawford. This is in the way of an acorn buried against the coming winter. The unassuming general he describes will one day bid fair to be the only general whose care and intelligence will be approved by writerly posterity.

Wednesday, 24 November 1915

Another visit from General Plumer. He has a pleasant plum coloured face modelled on the structure of a parroquet. What we want are generals with the faces of tigers or vultures or alligators—something that can fight…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Saunders, ed. War Prose, 140, 149-54.
  2. Diaries, 20.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 244-8.
  4. Private Lord Crawford, 83.

Belhaven’s Battery Destroyed; Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas Ride the Rails Together; Lord Crawford on Lice; Raymond Asquith in the Trenches at Last; Lady Feilding’s Matrimonial News

Yesterday the Master of Belhaven, commander of an artillery battery, chose to sow the wind. Today, a century back,

…the 15th November… is a date I shall not forget. For the second time in two months my poor battery has been put out of action! We had just finished breakfast and I had gone down to the guns when the first shell arrived. With a terrific howl through the air, it burst like a clap of thunder on the canal bank a hundred yards on our left and a hundred yards in the rear. We waited anxiously to see whether it was Bedford House or us that they were after. The next shell would decide the matter. In two or three minutes it came, still a hundred yards behind, but in direct line with us and not fifty yards from the farm.

I waited for no more, but at once ordered all the men out of the gun-pits…

We had hardly got clear of the battery when a third shell burst just behind A gun and hurried us up a bit…

We were bombarded for days at Le Rutoire with 6-in. shells, but these were much bigger, and I put then down as being 8-in.

Huge columns of black earth were sent up higher than the tops of the tall poplars. There were also volumes of black smoke, and a terrific report.

They quickly got the exact range, and then shell after shell fell just among the guns.. The men were wonderfully cheerful, and had bets as to which gun was hit. This went on for an hour…

After waiting a quarter of an hour to see if it was all over, I cautiously went back to the guns.

I was relieved to find that, although there were huge craters all round, and in between the guns, A, B, and C were not touched. When I got to D., however, I gasped. The first thing I saw was half a wheel sticking out through the doorway. At the same time I had a presentiment that there was more to come. I turned and started to go back. when I suddenly heard the ominous little bang, so faint that it is very hard to hear at all. Three seconds later I heard the shell coming–just a low murmur at first, gradually rising to a loud scream, just like an express train passing through a station without stopping. I flung myself down at the foot of the A sub-section’s pit and at the back of it. With a roar, it passed a few feet above my head and burst thirty yards away. The noise was horrible, and the ground shook like a person kicking a table. Huge pieces of turf fell in showers all round. As soon as the bits of the shell and turf had stopped falling, I got up and ran for my life back to the stream where the others were.

After a half hour of silence, Hamilton (i.e. Belhaven) goes to look for the missing support personnel–servants and cooks–from the battery. Reaching the gates of the farm where they are stationed, the Master has his closest brush yet:

I shouted to them to come out with me, when at that moment I heard the first note of a shell that was coming. I gave myself up for lost, as I was at the exact spot where the last half-dozen shells had fallen. I was certain that it was coming straight for us. I shouted to Carter, who was alongside of me, to lie down, and flattened myself against the ground. There was no cover of any sort near–right out in the open. I suppose that the shell took four or five second to arrive, but it seemed hours. At the end, I realised distinctly that it was nearer than any shell I had ever heard before.

It is at this sort of point that we might remember the rules of the game: Hamilton is describing this experience himself. The next day. First-person history, remember, lacks the suspense of true in-the-moment narration. Back to the end of those four or five seconds:

The end of the world seemed to come. A roar–or, rather, crash–such as no words can describe, and to which nothing can be likened that in any way compares with the noise. The air seemed to hit me on the head like blow with a sandbag, and there was immediately after the sound of a thousand lashes being swished through the air… Then a pause, and the deluge of débris began–bricks, tiles, stones, bits of trees and large clods of earth and turf. These continued to fall for a long time, some having been blown into the air higher than others. Over all, an inky darkness that stank horribly of some bitter fumes.

When I got up I found I was standing on the brink of a crater, 10 feet deep and 20 feet wide. Had it struck 5 yards farther, there would have been nothing left of us all. Probably not even a boot or a bit the size of a cricket-ball.[1]

Well, reader, he survives to write this account. But the German counter-battery fire has left 120 craters, most of them 20 feet across, and two of his guns are smashed. Casualties? Miraculously few, it would seem.

 

owen november 1915--cropped

Cadets of the Artists’ Rifles, Hare Hall Camp, November 1915. Wilfred Owen is in the back row, left, in the doorway.

And today, a century back, two poets crossed paths… or, rather, briefly took precisely parallel tracks… Yes, Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen–members of the Artists Rifles’ of a few months’ and a few days’ standing, respectively–took the train together. It was from Liverpool Station toward training camp at Hare Hall, near Romford–essentially a converted mansion grounds in a new London suburb.

Alas, Owen does not seem to have been aware of Thomas–his reading has not been much in contemporary criticism, where Thomas dominates–and Thomas makes no mention of a young poetry enthusiast among the crowd of less-than-artistic fellow cadets who have so far disappointed him. It is likely, however, that Thomas will soon be instructing Owen in map-reading…

 

A busy, peripatetic day for us nonetheless. Back to France, now, where a Lance-Corporal Lord Crawford holds forth on the humble louse.

Monday, 15 November 1915

All our blankets went to No. 1 to be disinfected; high time too, for we were getting over verminous. The louse is a curious animal which deserves study. It is believed that he can burrow through a serge jacket, otherwise it is difficult to explain how a chance louse, picked up while carrying a patient or in an ambulance car, can get around–of necessity via neck or wrist, without being detected en route. Anyhow he gets in and propagates his species with enthusiasm. Perhaps the best way to slay the pest is to expose the infected article of clothing to frost–in this cold weather such a course is easy–a night out of doors will free any shirt of the infliction.

Confident in that, are you, milord? There is so much misery and disaster in this war that Crawford’s bizarre combination of hauteur and niggling, his willingness to put his mind and pen (and, indeed, his time, his energy, his body) to any tiny, unrewarding tasks, is somehow charming and life-affirming. This is a man who would publish a three volume report on the methods of arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, and then attempt to use ten of them to build a raft, and decline a seat in the life-boat.

Where the louse thrives the flea is absent, and vice versa. The louse has no guile, no power of evasion, deception or initiative like the bug, and so far as I can see he has no natural enemy. Mankind persecutes him, but only in self-defence and his power of resistance, owing to the fertility of the tribe, is great. Moreover, no ordinary squeeze of the fingers will slay him—he requires a serious pressure and then explodes with a little pop. He is sluggish in movement, immobile when detecting danger. He looks like an aeroplane resting on the ground and also bears a curious resemblance to the thresh engine where the high pressure temperature works such havoc among his race…[2]

 

Will Raymond Asquith‘s approach to the trenches ever bridge the final increment, and rush the final communications trench of Zeno’s paradox? Yes–yes it will. Two days ago he was once more writing to his wife to Katherine announcing the imminence of his first tour in the trenches. But, anticlimax: they will only be in the support line.

. . . We march off tomorrow afternoon at 4. I don’t suppose we shall be in much danger from bullets but my Captain who went to see our trenches today reports them disgustingly wet and muddy and rather ruinous, so I look forward to being extremely uncomfortable and also having a lot of digging to do and very little sleep…

And today, a century back, he can head his letter as follows:

 (In the Trenches)

Just a line to tell you that I am up to the neck in a rich glutinous blue clay, otherwise well and happy; Every kind of gun shoots in a pointless sort of way from every quarter of the compass all day and all night but so far without causing either pain or panic.

It is pretty cold at night (and also by day) but very fine and though one gets literally no sleep for some strange reason one does not get very tired. No time for more now, but I will write again tomorrow night or the day after when we go 2 miles back for 48 hours rest.

So Asquith has arrived, and at a time that is as unpropitious–for comfort–as it could possibly be. The dashing wit has taken many worries with him to the trenches–his fussing over the physical misery he must endure must in some sense be a substitution for a deeper fear of proving a coward.

But another fear is somewhat more to the heart of our matter: he has been worried that he will fail the test of cleverness, that the war will make him just one more writer of myopic, pedantic, solipsistic, lugubrious, adjectivally agglutinated letters from the front.

Never fear. That first short note–written, surely, to catch the quickest post and reassure Katherine–fends off the challenge, but as soon as he decently can Asquith bravely takes it head on. The letter, completed tomorrow, that describes this day in the trenches is a minor masterpiece of a new sub-genre which we might as well call the “mud piece.” Because “piece of (on) mud” is too cute, and because I can’t find a shorthand way of titling after what I take to be its poetic derivation (namely as the inverse of “trench pastoral,” an ironic-in-place-of-despairing paean to the worst of the man-marred natural world).

I’ve been stubborn, I must confess, about the “tags” on this blog, figuring that if something pops up too often there’s no point in giving it a tag, since keyword searches are always possible… and then refusing to revisit such decisions. “Fate” would come up too much, and “fear.” And “mud.”

Lately I’ve regretted not being able to mark the best bits of mud, but this seems like a sensible compromise: if mud is mentioned in passing, well, that will happen most days, for the duration; but if the writer really addresses the challenge of describing spectacular mud, well, then we have a “mud piece.”

And so back to Asquith. Who also has writing on his mind, as it happens. For some time now he has been elaborately concerned that the boredom of war–or the as-yet-unexperienced stress of the trenches–will soften his writing mind and blunt the edge of his pen.

There is nothing much doing this morning except what they call an artillery duel, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t write to you, though I am too sleepy to be very fluent or amusing.

Which is, by the way, darkly amusing. There is almost no talk of how military efficiency is affected by the constant sleeplessness and terror-tinged boredom, and if one is not at one’s best as a writer, perhaps other careful, selective activities are suffering as well? Indeed. But then again the staff is rotating them every 48 hours; what else can be done? The troops will lose their edge. But Asquith–for the time being at least–is careful to take strop to blade, and write good descriptive prose, at least.

And, by the way, he’s about seventeen miles south of the Master of Belhaven, and writing tomorrow, so it’s not precisely the same artillery duel…

We marched into the trenches on Sunday evening by a rather circuitous route–about 7 miles I should think, and it took us over 4 hours as the last part was very slow going. About 6 p.m. we reached a ruined village on the road where we halted and put on our trench boots–long rubber things which go almost up to one’s waist, but none too long. It was a fine frosty night with a moon and stars. There we picked up our guides and made our way by platoons across open country to our various positions. The point where we left the road was about 1 1/2 miles from the trenches and the communication trenches by which we were supposed to go up were so full of water and mud that we had to go across the top of the open country instead–a wide flat expanse of dead grass elaborately intersected by the flooded communication trenches.

It was very slow work getting the men across these obstacles in their full kit and there were constant checks. Fortunately we were not shelled at all, but there was a certain amount of harmless and unskilful sniping. The Boches kept sending up rockets which seemed to illuminate the whole country and towards the end of our journey where we were only a few hundred yards from their lines it seemed impossible that they should not see us, but whether they did or not they never hit any of us.

The sniping is very puzzling at first because it seems to come from every direction at once and you hear the crack of rifles which seem to be no further off than the next gun is to one in a partridge drive. Yet nothing happens. There was only one place where the bullets seemed to be coming rather too near and I had to make the men lie down for 5 minutes. I had the rear platoon of the whole Brigade, but my guide was a skilful one, and we got into our trench before any of the others. It was a support trench about 200 yards behind our firing line, and as filthy and dilapidated as it could be—a very poor parapet, flooded dug-outs and a quagmire of mud and water at the bottom in many places 3 ft. deep. But for my long boots I should certainly have died of cold and dirt.

I got in about 8 p.m., but it was nearly 10 before the whole company was in. We set to work digging and draining at once and worked all night. I constantly got lost in the labyrinth both below ground and above. I had a tot of hot rum about 3 a.m. which made the whole difference. We worked away all yesterday and are at it again; tonight the trench will be a very tolerable one. I have a small but dry dug-out in which I got 3 hours sleep last night. It freezes hard in the night and early morning but luckily we have had no rain, and every now and then at irregular intervals Needham brings me a bowl of turtle soup which he seems to think a diet appropriate to the situation in which we find ourselves.

The support trenches are usually more shelled than the fire trenches because there is less risk of the gunners hitting their own men, but we have fared very well in this respect, as the Boches are directing most of their fire at roads in our rear. One shell lighted a short way behind us and spattered me with mud but as I was already thickly coated with it I bore no malice. Shelling, rifle and machine gun fire go on spasmodically all day and all night, but we have had only 2 men killed and about a dozen wounded in the whole battalion: these were shot by snipers while digging in front of the line at night.

This morning I had a man down with frost bite in my platoon and I am surprised there are not more, as there were not enough boots to go all round.

Tonight at 6.30 we are relieved by the Scots Guards and go back a mile or two to get clean and dry for 48 hours–back into the trenches again–the front line this time–on Thursday for another 2 days, then 2 days in the rest billets, and after that I think we get 4 days real rest in the comfortable quarters from which we came on Sunday. I am looking forward to scraping some of the mud and hair off my face and getting some continuous sleep; washing and shaving being out of the question here and sleep almost so.

I’m afraid this is a regular “letter from the front” saying all the boring things you have read 100 times in the Daily Anything but the truth is I am too sleepy to be ingenious or inventive . . .[3]

Well, actually, yes–I was hoping for something better after the “rich, glutinous” mud. Let us hope that the aim of being ingenious and inventive shall not die, trodden into the hymned-to-death Flanders mud.

 

Finally, Lady Feilding has news–and news–today:

15 Nov 15
In bed/Gott strafe Tonks.

“Tonks” is, would you believe it, the family nickname for pain. Something is wrong with Lady Dorothie, something perhaps a little more specific than the “exhaustion” that sent her home for several months. And she doesn’t seem to be eating.

By the way please pay no attention to Jelly & my old appetite, he has it on the brain! I never do eat much out here… Out here I need half the food & sleep I do at home always.

Then, in a second letter today–again, there is probably a dating mistake which explains the duplication–more details and more news.

I am in bed with a stomach ache, Charles [her terrier], a Jim [hot water bottle] & lots of books, not bad on the whole as it means an idle & a peaceful day. I was to do my usual Mon supper at chez the Gen but have had him come here…

Grand événement [great event], Mrs Knocker & Mairi came in & sat on my bed bursting with excitement & Mrs K proceeded to apologise for all the diverse unpleasant remarks she ever made to me & to swear she never meant them, wouldn’t do so again. Much surprised I marvelled exceedingly & then the reason: she is engaged to a Belgian ‘Lieut Baron Harold de T’Serclaes de Rattendael’ & it is now announced & she is in devil of a flutter. It appears he is young & an Apollo & of a most noble family & quite ready to become a Protestant to please me my dear–isn’t it sweet of him? But I think it might make unpleasantness out here if he did–so I shall become a Catholic instead & I want you to tell me howto do it etc etc!!!!

Can’t you see me, missionising Mrs K!

I at once assured her she had far better leave everybody’s concerned religion as it was for the moment & think it over a little more! Anyhow she intends to get married some time before the spring & will probably live at La Panne & Mairi & Helen Gleason (who will return from America shortly) run the Poste at Pervyse together…

so much love dear

from DoDo[4]

So Mrs. Knocker–the dashing motorcycling widow, boon companion of Mair Chisholm, and occasional rival of Lady Feilding–is about to get married. The reported monologue leading to the religion bit is quite well done–I’m amused, that is, along with Lady Dorothie, who tends to show basic good sense under her flighty exterior. Making up in order to gain help for a conversion of convenience, indeed! It’s like a neat little bridge from Austen to Waugh.

In any event, although Chisholm and Knocker are not good writers (and were subsequently “written up” in a breathless and silly book) and will not feature much here, I thought it would be a good idea to include this change-of-status notification: all those who seek for more on Elsie Knocker are hereby advised to search for “the Baroness T’Serclaes.”

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 107-113.
  2. Private Lord Crawford, 79-80.
  3. Life and Letters, 213-5.
  4. Lady Under Fire, 114-16.

A Tip for Lord Crawford; Alan Seeger, Unimportant Individual, Holds to his Course

Two brief updates today. First, Lance-Corporal Lord Crawford‘s second-most-pronounced (and least offensive) personality quirk: having decided to spend the war in drag as a common man (yet as a volunteer medical orderly–so it is a committed, difficult performance to be sure) he loves it when ordinary officers–several steps below him on the usual social scale–mistake him for, well, a man of the serving classes.

Tuesday, 9 November 1915

I received a tip of fifty centimes for holding an officer’s horse in the street–one of these men who come into Hazebrouck shopping…

But what’s a fellow to spend such a sum on? Not liquor, surely?

New regulation by the town major that all must be in barrack or billet by 8.30pm, instead of 9pm. Tiresome, for it upsets our evening routine in a very awkward fashion and doesn’t seem to effect any useful purpose, unless indeed it proves true that fresh and onerous restrictions on the sale of liquor are to be imposed. As it is we live under pretty stringent regulations. Hours are already much limited, beer is very thin, spirits are forbidden–but as every house and cottage is a potential estaminet there is little obstacle to those who mean to get the stuff. I question whether these drastic byelaws are really effective, except as regards the shy man (and we are few) who doesn’t like to ask for a rum.[1]

 

And Alan Seeger is still untangling the untimely rumors of his demise in the September offensive. By now his mother will have learned that he is alive and well, but the awful misunderstanding cannot help but make him acknowledge his small role in a vast and unheroic enterprise.

November 9, 1915

I should have arranged to cable after the attack had I known that any such absurd rumors had been started. Here one has a wholesome notion of the unimportance of the individual. It needs an effort of imagination to conceive of its making any particular difference to anyone or anything if one goes under. So many better men have gone and yet the world rolls on just the same. . . .[2]

Seeger can sometimes seem a canny–even a hard-hearted–semi-Bohemian. But in war he has fallen back on a violent (and perhaps Nietzsche-inflected) Romanticism, and now it has been tested–by delay, brutal discipline, routine, and now battle. To his credit, Seeger is examining his life and his commitments–his “natural sentiments,” he will call them. And holding firm.

Your letter naturally made me unhappy, for it is only in thinking of you that any possible doubts can rise in my mind about having done well in coming here. Philosophy, I know, cannot modify the natural sentiments of the heart, so I will refrain from commenting on your letter. I can only say that I am perfectly content here and happier than I possibly could be anywhere else. I was a spectator, now I am an actor. I was in a shallow, now I am moving in the full current. It is better in every respect, and since it was inevitable, there is no use lamenting. . . .

So the motivations here–in Seeger, in, at least, this letter to his mother–have weathered the reality. He wanted action and he’s got it, and yes, there is no use lamenting. He will dance on with the lady he chose…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Private Lord Crawford, 78.
  2. Sorley's last sentiments exactly.