The Afterlife of Donald Hankey: Forever the Student in Arms

Donald Hankey was killed on October 12th of this year. His family learned the news a few days later, and before the end of the month The Spectator had begun republishing articles by “A Student in Arms.” Hankey’s relationship with his editor, John St. Loe Strachey, had become strained during the early phases of the Somme battle when Hankey–though no radical, and certainly no disillusionist–decided that he needed to write more directly about war’s horrors. They patched things up, but it is probably correct to say that when he died, Donald Hankey had yet to resolve how a writer with his priorities–theological seriousness, a pastoral as well as patriotic sense of duty, a devotion to the downtrodden, be they the poor in their slums or the infantry in their trenches–could tell the truth and find a way to support the war effort. He was uncomfortable being the quietly inspirational “Student in Arms,” and he needed a new way forward.

But he is dead, and as that became known to his readership his minor fame grew–with inspirational writers as well as poets, sacrifice moves volumes. A book edition of his musings for The Spectator will go swiftly through several printings, and throughout the fall he has been given prominent placement in the paper. Few writers can escape their first book, their initial public persona, and none, of course, of those who not only die prematurely but cannot escape the manner of their death from becoming am inescapable interpretive coda to their work.

Today, a century back, a collection of Hankey’s–or “A Student’s”–aphorisms appeared. They are largely of the sort of religion-lite genre that has come to overspread our remaining bookstores like a cloyingly pungent, voracious fungus. Which is not to say that Hankey’s insights are mistaken, or that these observations of a serious student of theology have much in common with modern vapidities. But he was a serious man, and his resistance to doing what almost everyone else does here–foreground their own experience in their writing about the war–was breaking down. These not the last words he should have had…


It is no good trying to fathom “things” to the bottom; they have not got one.

Knowledge is always descriptive, and never fundamental. We can describe the appearance and conditions of a process; but not the way of it.

Agnosticism is a fundamental fact. It is the starting point of the wise man who has discovered that it needs eternity to study infinity.

Agnosticism, however, is no excuse for indolence. Because we cannot know all, we need not therefore be totally ignorant.

The true wisdom is that in which all knowledge is subordinate to practical aims, and blended into a working philosophy of life.

The true wisdom is that it is not what a man does, or has, or says that matters; but what he is.

This must be the aim of practical philosophy—to make a man be somewhat.

The world judges a man by his station, inherited or acquired. God judges by his character. To be our best we must share God’s viewpoint.

To the world death is always a tragedy; to the Christian it is never a tragedy unless a man has been a contemptible character.

Religion is the widening of a man’s horizon so as to include God. It is in the nature of a speculation, but its returns are immediate. True religion means betting one’s life that there is a God.

Its immediate fruits are courage, stability, calm, unselfishness, friendship, generosity, humility, and hope.

Religion is the only possible basis of optimism.

Optimism is the essential condition of progress.

One is what one believes oneself to be. If one believes oneself to be an animal one becomes bestial ; if one believes oneself spiritual one becomes Divine.

Faith is an effective force whose measure has never yet been taken.

Man is the creature of heredity and environment. He can only rise superior to circumstances by bringing God into environment of which he is conscious.

The recognition of God’s presence upsets the balance of a man’s environment, and means a new birth into a new life.

The faculties which perceive God increase with use like any other perceptive faculties. Belief in God may be an illusion; but it is an illusion that pays.

If belief in God is illusion, happy is he who is deluded! He gains this world and thinks he will gain the next.

The disbeliever loses this world, and risks losing the next.

To be the centre of one’s universe is misery. To have one’s universe centred in God is the peace that passeth understanding.

Greatness is founded on inward peace.

Energy is only effective when it springs from deep calm.

The pleasure of life lies in contrasts; the fear of contrasts is a chain that binds most men.

In the hour of danger a man is proven. The boaster hides, and the egotist trembles. He whose care is for others forgets to be afraid.

Men live for eating and drinking, passion and wealth. They die for honour.

Blessed is he of whom it has been said that he so loved giving that he even gave his own life.

No: these not the last words he should have had. The aphorisms, as edited, seem to wind up with a definitive emphasis on honor and sacrifice. This is not fair. Hankey died bravely, by all accounts, a good man and a good officer. But he did not die entirely committed to the 1914 ideal of meaningful sacrifice. If there is one point to be made about the transformation of military morale in the 20th century it is that the old ideals–God and country, above all–did not suffice, for such wars. Men tended to stick it out because they could not bear to fail their comrades.

This was Hankey’s ideal, above all others–excepting, perhaps, the ideal of not failing a truly worthy leader–and I won’t commit the blunder (“sin,” I almost wrote) of rejecting one editorial interpretation only to provide my own. But if there are sins against literature then putting definitive ideas in the head of a dead man is a mortal one.

Carefully, then: if there is meaning in the death of a man who wanted to be a minister after the war, who tried to serve in the ranks and even when his class forced him to take a commission made nothing of the family connections that could have won him a safer job, then this meaning cannot take the form of some generalized sense of “honour” or an apolitical, uncomplaining “giving.” The Somme was changing A Student in Arms, and the war had made him a platoon commander, a leader who could not simply be a humble shepherd.

Who is to say he gave his life willingly? But he was there and he let the war come and take it, and if he was partly motivated by honor, charity, and careful ethical deliberation–not to mention the expectations imposed upon his gender, class, rank, etc.–he was driven, above all, by love and consideration for his men.

A Phone Rings in Whitehall; Max Plowman on Sonnets, Duration, and Women’s Wartime Work; Tolkien in Zollern Redoubt

Max Plowman had time today, a century back, for a leisurely letter to his younger sister Gladys.

My Dear Gladys,

…You seem to be having a pretty dull time of it. Not that you say so or suggest it but I know what the Bank of England till 9 o’clock every night must be. Didn’t I serve in a shop not so far away, not so long ago? Well never mind… get all the consolation you can out of knowing that you are doing war work quite as indispensable as mine… plenty of men over here are doing less important work in my opinion than the average woman in England. Not every one who comes out here knows the feeling of “No Man’s Land” & plenty of the wonderful things you see in uniform know more about feather beds than they do about Front Line Trenches. Which is only a roundabout way of saying “& things are not what they seem”. And to point that moral in my own case: it’s exactly a month by the calendar since I heard a shell burst at anything like close quarters.

See, if I were prepared, I could have dated a section of his memoir from that very line… alas. It seems as if Plowman may want in on the betting pool action of a few days’ ago. Or perhaps it’s just that everyone has–must have–a fixed expectation of the war’s ending…

We are having a rare rest… I’m not in any particular hurry! It seems certain as anything can be that the war won’t be over this year… I should think next August will see the end of the war…. Some time before that I hope I shall have the chance of doing some really useful work, other than hanging about in trenches which are shelled from time to time & then of getting enough lead inside me to see me safely back till it’s all over…

First duration, now disenchantment. Barring the war’s end, there’s nothing for it: it’s the infantry’s lot to get shelled, and hope for a blighty. And how to sustain flagging hopes (or distract from them, at the least)? Poetry.

You talk about The Golden Book of Sonnets… I’m very glad you like it. Very few people (comparatively) like poetry at all. I’ve only met one fellow out here who reads any at all & he reads very, little, but poetry is the essence of literature & literature is… simply the best thought & feeling expressed in words… when you write again tell me what you like & why you like it…

A sad corrective to the sort of assumption this project encourages us to slip into: there are millions of men in uniform, so even several thousands of working and aspiring poets and memoir-writers are spread thin on the ground. Most battalions–the First and Second Royal Welch aside–might sport hardly a poet, and no more than a brace or two readers of poetry…

When the war’s over I think we’d better make another (& rather longer) tour on your way back to Switzerland… We might wander out from Amiens & end up at the “Café Cavour” & I’d show you the house & cellars & dugouts & trenches I’ve lived in when you wanted a thrill. Meantime my love to you & all at home…

Your affectionate brother


Tell them I am perfectly well.[1]


Ronald Tolkien, writer of poetry (but not, I don’t think a particularly devoted reader of it), is rather more busy at the moment. For ten straight days his battalion of Lancashire Fusiliers have been at the front lines near Thiepval. As battalion Communications Officer–working now out of the battalion headquarters in Zollern Redoubt–Tolkien has been kept busy establishing and maintaining telephone communications in the battered warren of the recent German positions and back over no man’s land to the higher echelon British formations. Busy, rather than idle–and so probably not writing much, be it letters or the private mythos that is now underway.[2]


Segues are one of many features of historical commentary that muffle our effort to connect empathetically to lived experience–especially the experience of a sudden shock.

The phone rang today, a century back, in the office of Lt. Col. Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence.

Hankey answered it himself. He listened impassively to the voice at the other end; then, as he replaced the receiver, he merely remarked, ‘Donald‘s gone.’ After only a brief pause Maurice Hankey turned again to his stenographer. ‘Where was I, Owen?’ were his only words.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge into the Future, 52-55.
  2. Chronology, 92.
  3. Kissane, Without Parade, 262. Kissane relies on his brother biographer, namely Roskill, Hankey, Man of Secrets, I, 308.

Donald Hankey’s Conditional Prayer: Death or Blighty; Kate Luard Finds a Few In Between

hankeys-deathToday, a century back, the 1st Royal Warwickshires formed up in their assault trenches, east of Lesboeufs. These were newly-captured, heavily damaged trenches, still occupied by their late defenders (note the absence of blue-marked trenches on the near-contemporary map at right–the British are moving so quickly through German territory now that new “British”–i.e. defensive–trench systems have not yet been established.)

The Warwicks will be attacking east and north, toward Le Transloy. The map tells us all we need to know: there is low ground over which the attackers will have to move, and then attack uphill; there are thick belts of barbed wire–represented by dotted red lines–in front of the German positions.

The attack was scheduled for 2:00 p.m. At 1.45 bayonets were fixed. One of the men in Hankey’s platoon, Private Crudgington, remembered the strong sense of esprit de corps and his officer’s calming prayer:

I heard Lieut. D. Hankey ask his platoon to let him give them a prayer. I remember him saying, ‘If you are wounded, “Blighty”; if killed, the Resurrection.’

This sounds, a century on, like a stab at clever tough-guy war movie rhetoric. But of course it couldn’t have been, then. And even if the punchy formula was a bit of a gambit, a bid to raise the spirits of the terrified men with a pithy bit of inspiearion, there is nothing light or unconsidered about the words themselves: “they reflect his characteristic trust in the pragmatic value of belief as a source of worthy action.”[1]

The order is given to advance, every man is over the top. The Irish were on our left and the French on our right. We had gone about 100 yards, when we were told to lie down. The firing was dreadful, what with the machine-gun and rifle-fire, and then the barrage from the Germans. Our men were falling fast. We were ordered to advance again. Then the firing got more severe. We had only gone about 12 yards in the second advance when the fatal moment came. The French on our right started to retire. The Irish noticed it and started to retire, as they thought the order to retire had been given. Our men started to waver, and the officers saw what was happening.

Then I saw a thing that will always be in my mind. I saw Lieut. D. Hankey wave his men on; they went forward like a shot, as his men had great faith in him. That was the last time I saw him alive. We were ordered to dig in. We made holes big enough for ourselves to get into, then we dug to each other and so made a trench. We collected our wounded, and we came across the C.S.M. of C Company, and we thought that he and his men were the only ones in ‘No Man’s Land.’ He fetched his men, and they helped us to enlarge our trench. They made us about 150 strong. I was asked if I could dress wounds. I was told that one of our officers was lying out wounded. I went and found him.

It was Lieut. Glika, A Company. The poor fellow was so badly wounded in the arm and leg that I could not stop the bleeding. I got help, and I made a stretcher out of two rifles and an oil-sheet, but the officer went out of his mind, so I left him in the care of a man. I went and found some stretcher-bearers, but when we got to him he was dead.

We found the body of Captain Somers, C Company, and the body of Captain Harrison, B Company, on top of our trench. Then Lieut. D. Hankey’s servant came and told Captain Walters that his officer had been killed, and where the body lay. Captain Walters went out and fetched the body in. I was asked by Lieut. Beamish to dig a pit, and Pte. Woods, Lieut. D. Hankey’s servant, gave me his help. We dug a pit about 6 by 5 by 3 ft. and we laid the four officers in it. We were relieved by the ‘Dubs,’ and they filled the grave in. We went back to Guillemont for a rest.[2]

And that’s it. That’s all.

Exactly where or exactly how Hankey was killed, I do not know. But he was shot down today, by bullet or shell, and died either immediately or soon thereafter.

Our knowledge of this last action rests entirely on the scanty Battalion diary and on the post-war memories of Private Crudgington. But even Crudgington–who will name his son Donald, and writes in glowing terms of his officer–wasn’t there, and although there is no reason to doubt his facts, the tone of the letter does seem to show a man happy to write the sort  of response that will please anyone inquiring into the death of an admired writer. He was well-liked, even loved; and he died bravely, and without pain. So we would hope.

This is another case where all we have the writings, through the last letter, then a few less-secure words in a trench… then chaos, and then… it’s all over.

Hankey was not a nobleman or a celebrity, and his relationship with his older brother Maurice, an important government minister, was, at least during the war, a carefully distant one. Once his sister Hilda learned of his death she made efforts to learn more and to secure his personal effects, but there was no immediate outcry or public mourning. His hasty grave was lost, his body never identified, and Hankey will join many thousands of others on the Thiepval Memorial.

Crudginton provides that last prayer and the forlorn scene of burial, and he writes that he was asked a few days later by a passing officer of another regiment if it was true that the writer of the Student in Arms essays had been killed. Word spread quickly, then, but although his sister Hilda will enter into a sad and frustrating correspondence about recovering his personal effects, it seems that no family member or biographer was ever able to track down more information about Hankey’s last days.

There will soon be editorial memorials and obituaries, but it’s hard not to feel that some of the shock of Hankey’s death is in the way that it hardly caused a ripple. But of course that is the normal condition–men have been dying in hundreds and thousands all summer–and we can grope toward the idea that Hankey’s swift “offstage” death and hasty burial is somehow “fitting” because Hankey, a reluctant officer, lived his army life with careful humility. After all, the attack was a failure, but not a massacre; a drop in the bucket of the Somme’s autumn denouement…

It’s only that he was a writer… and we have no writings that immediately fill the void. Only years later, after the war, did a biographer track down Crudgington and solicit his long letter. It’s good to have–full of praise and detail, giving us some sense of specifics to attach to the day that Hankey disappeared forever into a muddy mass grave… But, after all, it was written so long after the events, and the more specific a memory is, the more confident the details, the more we feel that other unbridgeable gap, the one between experience and historical writing.


It feels cruel, always, to carry on after the death of one of our writers, like some insensitive literary mockery of the military reality of carrying on even after a hero or leader has been killed. But I plead a dual excuse for seguing now to Kate Luard‘s diary. First, she is about to be reassigned, spending several months at home. Since her “diary” is really a running series of letters to her large family, we will not hear from her until she returns to France–it will be a bleaker beginning to the winter then, for us.

Second, it always seems fitting to follow a death with an account of wounds. I’m not sure why. Because there is hope in the ones who survived? Because some of these wounds are so awful that a swift death on the battlefield seems like a better fate?

Thursday, October 12th. Still busy, with increasing demand for coffins… two patients have each lost an arm through the shoulder joint, and instead of a clean stump each has a black evil-smelling crater… both have the main artery exposed, and pulsating in the wound. They have both been within as near a view of their graves as you can get to without getting in, so it will be fine if they pull through. A boy who died in the night said, ‘Tell them I died like a soldier.’ He would always apologise when he was sick all over you…

There are a few cases of Shell Shock in; they have no wound, but tremble violently at the least noise, and don’t speak. There is a ‘Specialist’ to whom they are all sent, who treats them by suggestion and hypnotism.[3]

These unfortunates are, then, from the point of view of after-care for what we would call PTSD, relatively fortunate. As we will learn over the next two years, the early remedies for “Shell Shock” ranged from these sorts of benign, non-invasive, and often effective psychological measures all the way to doctor-ordered torture.


References and Footnotes

  1. Davies, 258-61, is (understandably) rather dubious about these words. Did Hankey say something like this? Perhaps, but Crudgington is communicating them years later, and may have been "putting down... what he felt was expected of him." Nevertheless, the sentiments are true of Hankey's long struggle to conceive of the war as a Christian enterprise.
  2. Budd, A Modern Pilgrimage, 140-5.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 92-3.

Hamish Mann Reaches His Zenith; Dorothie Feilding Under Fire Once More

Two quick notes and a poem, today.

Donald Hankey and his battalion have marched up over the last few days from rest areas into support. Today, a century back, they were in trenches just east of Lesboeufs, preparing for the next phase of the attack.[1]

And while Lady Dorothie Feilding can be disorganized and forgetful, often telling her mother the same thing in consecutive letters, this second letter of “birthday thanks” is probably a mindful one. She may regret having signed off with a rare admission of of a rather black mood.

9th Oct 16
Mother dear–

Thank you so very much for your nice birthday letter, I meant to write yesterday but we were awfully busy as there was the devil’s own hate on.

Fritz started & looked like attacking, so we gave him hell & then he did give us hell & so the world keeps going round & round. Dear old N was no health resort & we trembled for the car one time when we had left it under
an arch while getting blesses at the dressing station. Two fat obus landed just over the car but luckily both duds & so nothing happened.

Which is to say “two heavy artillery rounds hit within killing distance of our car, but both failed to explode.”

It’s been a while since Lady Feilding has been in such peril, but she still remembers how to brush it jauntily away in these oddly reassuring letters. And yet the letter now takes a different strange turn, from the near-miss story to the subject that had pitched her birthday letter toward despair–the death of her naval officer brother, Hugh, at Jutland.

Yesterday morning Mr Vaughn, RN (Hughie’s friend) turned up cheerfully here having got 3 days leave to spend in Flanders so he came in the car with us, got lots for his money so was frightfully pleased at coming in for a strafe, as are all Cooks conducted tourists! We have given him a cabin up at our barracks…

Thank you ever so much for my birthday fiver. I nearly fell over with excitement at so much wealth. I will use it for my expenses at 14 & it will be awfully useful as it takes pretty much all my time to find the pennies, as I pay more now Winkie is here, as she is extra on my account. Must go & do my bed–good-bye Mother dear–all quiet & calm today.

Yr very loving

Finally, today, a poem by Hamish Mann. To each man his own mood–and to each genre its own habits of soul-rendering in the lead-up to battle: Hankey and Mann are headed for the same fight, but Hankey is confiding his worries in letters to his sister, while Mann has turned himself outward, writing a stirring (and rhetorically traditional) poem:


The Zenith

Albert (en route for the Somme), 9th October, 1916

A twenty-year-old subaltern in the Black Watch, Mann is facing his first real assault. Which he will survive unscathed.


References and Footnotes

  1. Kissane, Without Parade, 258.
  2. Lady Under Fire, 168.

Edmund Blunden Takes on a Tour of Thiepval; Donald Hankey on the Fear of Death; Birthday Wishes for Lady Feilding; Vera Brittain Takes to Her Bunk

Edmund Blunden and the 11th Royal Sussex have been lucky, lately. In reserve for much of bloody September, they held a quiet sector just north of Thiepval during that battle, and then promptly rotated into rest. But now, they fear, they are for it. Having marched into the reserve area, they now reconnoiter a nasty section of the line, and Blunden, remembering, brings us along.

Some, unluckier, were detailed to join some unlucky officers in a reconnaissance party to Thiepval Wood.[1]

Thiepval, key of that region where the Ancre curves southward, had at length fallen; and yet the Germans might recapture it if they could make its north flank, Thiepval Wood, still more of an inferno than ever. This they were efficiently doing.

Blunden is a man after my own heart–or vice-versa, rather. He interrupts himself, here, for a reminder of a writer’s duties. He is a quiet observer, thorough, perceptive–and courteous. We could not have a better guide…

But I anticipate — I would have you see that little reconnaissance in its natural or unnatural evolution. Come; the day is moody, the ground churned and greasy; leave Martinsart Wood, and the poor dear platoon cleaning equipment, coaxing stray dogs, and scrawling letters. We cross the Nab, that sandy sunk road, and, if we are not mad, the ancient sequestered beauty of an autumn forest haunts there, just over the far ridge. Aveluy Wood, in thy orisons be all our sins remembered. Within, it is strangely uninhabited; the moss is rimy, its red leaves make a carpet not a thread less fine than those in kings’ houses. But here the poetic path comes out on a lonely and solemn highway. There are signposts pointing between the trees beyond — “Ride to Black Horse Bridge,” and others; but we turn along the road, unmolested, unimagining. It leads to a chasm of light between the trees, and then we have on our left hand a downland cliff or quarry, on our right hand a valley with many trees. One tall red house stands up among them. Why? Why not? There is no roaring in the air. But here we leave the road, and walk along the railway track, which, despite all the incurable entanglements of its telegraph wires, might yet be doing its duty: surely the 2.30 for Albert will come round the bend puffing and clanking in a moment?

Below, among mighty trees of golden leaf, and some that lie prone in black channels as primeval saurians, there is a track across the lagooned Ancre. A trolley line crosses, too, but disjointedly; disjointedness now dominates the picture. When we have passed the last muddy pool and derailed truck we come into a maze of trenches, disjointed indeed; once, plainly, of nice architecture and decoration, now a muddle of torn wire netting and twisted rails, of useless signboards, of foul soaked holes and huge humps — the old British system looking up toward lofty Thiepval. And Thiepval Wood is two hundred yards on, scowling, but at the moment dumb; disjointed, burned, unchartable. Let us find, for we must, Gordon House, a company headquarters; and we scuttle in the poisoned presence of what was once fresh and green around unknown windings of trenches. “Over the top” would be simpler and less exhausting; it is the far edge of the wood now; we must have come too far forward. Gordon House, someone finds out from his map, is behind us. We crawl or scamper along the wood edge as the plainest route, and are at once made the target for a devil’s present of shells; they must get us; they do not. Shell after shell hisses into the inundations of the Ancre below this shoulder of brown earth, lifting high as the hill wild sputtering founts of foam and mud. God! Golly! the next salvo — and here’s that dugout. A stained face stares but. “I shouldn’t stand there, if I were you: come in.” “No, I’m all right; don’t want to be in the way.” “Come in, blast you; just had two killed where you are.”

Time values have changed for a moment from dreadful haste to geological calm when one enters that earthy cave with its bunk beds, its squatting figures under their round helmets, its candles crudely stuck on the woodwork, and its officers at their table shared by the black-boxed field telephone, soda bottles and mugs, revolvers and strewn papers. One of these officers, addressed as “Cupid,” is provoked by our naive surprise at the highly dangerous condition of Thiepval Wood Left. “Barrage? We relieved through a barrage.” (How mildly sweet might it now have appeared to be able to take over trenches at Cuinchy!) “You can rely on a barrage here pretty well the whole time.” At last we have learned something of the defence scheme of this sector, and, by way of friendly general information, the present inmates of Gordon House admit that its roof, though in appearance quite generously thick, is not thick enough: not nearly!

Escaping as hastily and inconspicuously as our slight local knowledge allows, we pass through the wood again and over the causeway through the morass, while the scattered roaring lessens in our ears, and the voices of waterfowl just reach our more numb attention. Harrison, whom we have met at an appointed corner, bustling along on the tramline sleepers, full of combat with the immediate future, speaks with brisker humour than even his usual style: “That spot will suit you, Rabbit. Colonel Rayley tells me that the Germans send up bombing parties of fifty every day about noon, along the C.T. from St. Pierre Divion.” The daylight is fading now, and the red of autumn is dusky all about us; mist, thick in the throat, comes out of the wild valley. A “hate” begins. Flames and flashes kindle the vague wood. What a night we leave behind us!

It turned out that we were after all to be spared the threatened ordeal in Thiepval Wood. New orders had come, and we were to go in again at Hamel. Immediately Harrison rode off to consult authorities (the Black Watch headquarters) about that place, of which he had already had a life’s experience in one inexpressible day. Gratefully now we took over the Hamel positions, the stairs in the hillside so sublimely exposed, the maze of disprivileged trenches principally useless. All eyes were drawn to the storm centre, the savage scenery south of the river, whence our comings and goings were so unpleasantly watched and intimidated.[2]

And Blunden, when he is not interrupting himself, deserves as little interruption as possible. It’s a wonderful bit of writerly magic to take us to the trenches in this sort of safe and savoring mood–no one welcomes us as warmly and effectively into his own recollections as Blunden does. It’s a beautiful book–read it, before all other memoirs–but it can be a troubling thing, too, to the cold-eyed historian: is it well to feel so safe with our guide? After the wood and into the Inferno, didn’t Vergil–safe though he was beyond the reciprocity of tears–tremble?


In addition to this strangely lyrical tour we have an essay to read. But first, let’s check in on two of our medical personnel. Vera Brittain is on her way from Lemnos to Malta on an overcrowded ship that recently unloaded hundreds of sick and wounded men…

Friday October 6th

After lunch I began to feel stiff & very queer & suddenly got a shivering fit on deck. Stella fetched my coat for me but that was no use at all. Finally to her astonishment & perturbation I announced my intention of going to lie down in D Ward–& did so. I did not go to tea & spent all afternoon & evening in a semi-somnolent & very feverish condition, indifferent to everything, even the flies.

But not to the necessity of keeping up her diary, for which we are thankful.

Just before dinner Stella felt me, said I was burning hot & made me report to Sister Chapman. I did so, was received quite pleasantly & with the remark “What, another” & ordered to bed at once… anywhere less suitable for being ill in than D deck of the Galeka is unimaginable, but I felt much too ill to care. Down there I saw two or three other recumbent figures, one or two groaning miserably…[3]


Its Lady Feilding‘s birthday! She is twenty-seven, now, and this is her third birthday as an ambulance volunteer…

6th Oct
Mother dear–

Went to bed at 3am today as we had a little hurrush [sic] last night; our side had a bally gas attack & the devil of a lot of firing all last night. But Fritz was far too wide awake & evidently knew all about it from some of our men he had made prisoners a few days ago, so it all fizzled out & things are ‘as you were’ which is disappointing very. Very few casualties on our side, I only hope we did some damage but I doubt much beyond teasing them a bit…

The 1st birthday at the war, the Boche nearly got me at Ghent. They are determined to keep my birthday on the move.

Many thanks for you people’s wire, I call it rather wonderful of you to remember.
Goo’night–off to make up back numbers of sleep.

Yr loving DoDo

This chipper little missive about a birthday bombardment is followed by a post-script. Something important has changed since Lady Dorothie’s last birthday, namely the death of her brother Hugh, at Jutland. She remembers this, and her effervescent personality suddenly plunges to a dark new depth.

Birthdays are hateful things now so full of memories of Hughie, Mother dear. I hate mine.[4]


Donald Hankey has not been himself lately, either. This is largely because he knows that his unit will shortly be sent into battle, and–just in case–he must put his personal and professional affairs in order. Such thoughts can lead an organized mind into a slough of despond: he has work to do, still, as an officer and as a writer, and it is painful to confront his achievements and shortcomings when mortal danger lurks in the near future. He has had his doubts about his work as a leader of men, lately–but he was never eager to be an officer. In today’s letter to his sister, Hilda, it’s the writing that is on his mind. At first, at least.

Oct. 6, 1916.

Dear Hilda,

I have got two articles which may appear fairly soon. One is on “Not Worrying”  and the other (written at Strachey’s request) on “The Fear of Death in War.” The second he has not passed yet. Perhaps he won’t like it!

We shall probably be fighting before you get this, but one has a far better chance of getting through now than in July. I shall be very glad if we do have a scrap, as we have been resting quite long enough. Of course one always has to face possibilities on such occasions; but we have faced them in advance, haven’t we? I believe with all my soul that whatever will be will be the best. As I said before, I should hate to slide meanly into winter without a scrap…

I have lots of baccy thanks–1 1/2 lb. to be accurate.

I have had a jolly afternoon–went over to a jolly little town, and had a hot bath, tea with John Campbell (the son of my god-father) and did some useful shopping.

I have a top-hole platoon–nearly all young, and nearly all have been out here 18 months–thoroughly good sporting fellows.

I have also some of the best N. C. O.’s in the battalion, so if I don’t do well it will be my own fault.

Yours ever frat.,

Donald W. A. Hankey[5]

Even Hankey–thirty-one, a student of theology who has worked in a mission among the poor and intends to be a minister, a mature man who is patriotic and loyal but without illusions about the murderous mismanagement of many of the attacks on the Somme–even he is restless in the trenches, and claims to prefer the test of sharp violence to the long slog of winter attrition. And Hankey is not immune from mortal weakness. He cares passionately, bitterly, about his own performance. He wants to do well. And he has been dwelling on courage, and fear, and death–I will close with the entirety of the essay that he mentioned above:


The Fear of Death in War

I am not a psychologist, and I have not seen many people die in their beds; but I think it is established that very few people are afraid of a natural death when it comes to the test. Often they are so weak that they are incapable of emotion. Sometimes they are in such physical pain that death seems a welcome deliverer.

But a violent death such as death in battle is obviously a different matter. It comes to a man when he is in the full possession of his health and vigour, and when every physical instinct is urging him to self-preservation. If a man feared death in such circumstances one could not be surprised, and yet in the present war hundreds of thousands of men have gone to meet practically certain destruction without giving a sign of terror.

The fact is that at the moment of a charge men are in an absolutely abnormal condition.

I do not know how to describe their condition in scientific terms; but there is a sensation of tense excitement combined with a sort of uncanny calm. Their emotions seem to be numbed. Noises, sights, and sensations which would ordinarily produce intense pity, horror, or dread, have no effect on them at all, and yet never was their mind clearer, their sight, hearing, etc., more acute. They notice all sorts of little details which would ordinarily pass them by, but which now thrust themselves on their attention with absurd definiteness absurd because so utterly incongruous and meaningless. Or they suddenly remember with extraordinary clearness some trivial incident of their past life, hitherto unremembered, and not a bit worth remembering! But with the issue before them, with victory or death or the prospect of eternity, their minds blankly refuse to come to grips.

No; it is not at the moment of a charge that men fear death. As in the case of those who die in bed, Nature has an anesthetic ready for the emergency. It is before an attack that a man is more liable to fear before his blood is hot, and while he still has leisure to think. The trouble may begin a day or two in advance, when he is first told of the attack which is likely to mean death to himself and so many of his chums. This part is comparatively easy. It is fairly easy to be philosophic if one has plenty of time. One indulges in regrets about the home one may never see again. One is rather sorry for oneself; but such self-pity is not wholly unpleasant. One feels mildly heroic, which is not wholly disagreeable either. Very few men are afraid of death in the abstract. Very few men believe in hell, or are tortured by their consciences. They are doubtful about after-death, hesitating between a belief in eternal oblivion and a belief in a new life under the same management as the present; and neither prospect fills them with terror. If only one’s “people” would be sensible, one would not mind.

But as the hour approaches when the attack is due to be launched the strain becomes more tense. The men are probably cooped up in a very small space. Movement is very restricted. Matches must not be struck. Voices must be hushed to a whisper. Shells bursting and machine guns rattling bring home the grim reality of the affair. It is then more than at any other time in an attack that a man has to “face the spectres of the mind,” and lay them if he can. Few men care for those hours of waiting.

Of all the hours of dismay that come to a soldier there are really few more trying to the nerves than when he is sitting in a trench under heavy fire from high-explosive shells or bombs from trench mortars. You can watch these bombs lobbed up into the air. You see them slowly wobble down to earth, there to explode with a terrific detonation that sets every nerve in your body a-jangling. You can do nothing. You cannot retaliate in any way. You simply have to sit tight and hope for the best. Some men joke and smile; but their mirth is forced. Some feign stoical indifference, and sit with a paper and a pipe; but as a rule their pipes are out and their reading a pretence. There are few men, indeed, whose hearts are not beating faster, and whose nerves are not on edge.

But you can’t call this “the fear of death”; it is a purely physical reaction of danger and detonation. It is not fear of death as death. It is not fear of hurt as hurt. It is an infinitely intensified dislike of suspense and uncertainty, sudden noise and shock. It belongs wholly to the physical organism, and the only cure that I know is to make an act of personal dissociation from the behaviour of one’s flesh. Your teeth may chatter and your knees quake, but as long as the real you disapproves and derides this absurdity of the flesh, the composite you can carry on. Closely allied to the sensation of nameless dread caused by high explosives is that caused by gas. No one can carry out a relief in the trenches without a certain anxiety and dread if he knows that the enemy has gas cylinders in position and that the wind is in the east. But this, again, is not exactly the fear of death; but much more a physical reaction to uncertainty and suspense combined with the threat of physical suffering.

Personally, I believe that very few men indeed fear death. The vast majority experience a more or less violent physical shrinking from the pain of death and wounds, especially when they are obliged to be physically inactive, and when they have nothing else to think about. This kind of dread is, in the case of a good many men, intensified by darkness and suspense, and by the deafening noise and shock that accompany the detonation of high explosives. But it cannot properly be called the fear of death, and it is a purely physical reaction which can be, and nearly always is, controlled by the mind.

Last of all there is the repulsion and loathing for the whole business of war, with its bloody ruthlessness, its fiendish ingenuity, and its insensate cruelty, that comes to a man after a battle, when the tortured and dismembered dead lie strewn about the trench, and the wounded groan from No-Man’s-Land. But neither is that the fear of death. It is a repulsion which breeds hot anger more often than cold fear, reckless hatred of life more often than abject clinging to it.

The cases where any sort of fear, even for a moment, obtains the mastery of a man are very rare. Sometimes in the case of a boy, whose nerves are more sensitive than a man’s, and whose habit of self-control is less formed, a sudden shock will upset his mental balance. Sometimes a very egotistical man will succumb to danger long drawn out. The same applies to men who are very introspective. I have seen a man of obviously low intelligence break down on the eve of an attack. The anticipation of danger makes many men “windy,” especially officers who are responsible for other lives than their own. But even where men are afraid it is generally not death that they fear. Their fear is a physical and instinctive shrinking from hurt, shock, and the unknown, which instinct obtains the mastery only through surprise, or through the exhaustion of the mind and will, or through a man being excessively self-centred. It is not the fear of death rationally considered; but an irrational physical instinct which all men possess, but which almost all can control.

References and Footnotes

  1. I'm picking up Undertones of War with the sentence immediately following the bit I used yesterday: the Battalion diary puts the move to Martinsart Wood the day before officers reconnoitered Thiepval, while Blunden seems to combine the two in his memory/memoir...
  2. Undertones of War, 100-2. The Battalion War diary confirms that on the 6th the battalion's orders were changed, and that while the men rested and bathed, a party of officers toured the line in Thiepval Wood, even as the C.O. was already riding to their new assignment at Hamel.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 331.
  4. Lady Under Fire, 167-8.
  5. Letters, 355-6.

Kate Luard on a Beer Run; Donald Hankey is Peevish–a Threat to Discipline

A rest day, it would seem, a century back. Things are mercifully slow, just now, at Kate Luard‘s CCS. A day semi-off included a drive to Lillers “to fetch the beer and coffins.” She also got some shopping in…[1]


For Donald Hankey, a rainy day means a break in training for the next attack, and provides time for a letter to his sister. But his mood is as miserable as the weather. We often see Hankey wearing a semi-public face in his letters; he is an aspiring man of the cloth and a mildly famous war writer, by now–the honest-but-confident “Student in Arms.” He is a capable man, too, or has always seemed to be. But he does not like being an officer–this we knew–and today he goes so far as to claim that he is, in fact, not a very good one.

Oct. 4, ’16.

Dear Hilda,

The weather at present is simply loathsome. It rains persistently the whole morning, and we are glad to be under cover; but it affects our tempers considerably and we are rather peevish…

I believe that we are to go up to the trenches again fairly soon, and personally I shall be glad. This life is far too monotonous and irritating for words unless one has just had a spell of something worse to enable one to appreciate it.

I suppose that what makes it worse is not being good at one’s job. I know what an officer ought to be like and I am not a bit like it! The consequence is that one or two of my platoon have got into serious trouble, and I have the feeling that if I had not been so essentially a bad disciplinarian it wouldn’t have happened, and a good man or two might have been saved from going to the dogs. It is so easy in the army for a fellow to go to the dogs without doing anything of which he need be seriously ashamed as an individual. It is only necessary to have too little sense of discipline and to lose one’s temper, and lo! one has been insubordinate, and is in for field punishment No. 1, which is often enough to make a fellow take the wrong turning for good and all.[2]

Hankey is in a bad mood; his confidence is at an ebb. I would guess that he is a decent officer, and that, even if his desire to “minister” to the men in a certain way complicates the necessity of being a firm and staunch giver-of-orders, he has the respect and affection of many of his men.

But even if he overstates his failings, he’s not wrong here: the system is terrible, and many units like his are having deep trouble in the continuing transition from small professional army to large volunteer army to an even larger hybrid and hodgepodge where a few grim prewar regulars are mixed among early volunteers of variously diminished enthusiasm and recent, less highly motivated volunteers and conscripts.

“Field Punishment No. 1” is a hold-over from the days when the rank and file of the army were treated frankly as an underclass. It involved tying a man’s wrists and ankles to a large wagon wheel, so that he was strapped into a sort of “X” position–painfully, shamefully, in full view of his comrades–for hours at a time. If there ever was a cultural moment in which such punishments had a salutary effect on esprit de corps, that moment is long past. It’s brutal, brutish, and–as Hankey points out–stupidly wasteful.

And yet it’s a symptom of Hankey’s unusually bad mood that he introduces this persistent barbarism not to protest but rather to point out how difficult his job is. A cranky officer who provokes a soldier or responds to a soldier’s intemperate remark will not just have slipped in terms of his own performance–he will have condemned the man to a humiliating and counter-productive punishment.


References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 92.
  2. Letters, 354-5.

Phillip Maddison, a Girl, and a Zeppelin; Horror and Pathos from Kate Luard; Vera Brittain Aboard the Britannic; Donald Hankey on What We Shall Be Writing Twenty Years Hence

Kate Luard‘s diary does many things. One of the best–one of the most terrible–is to place side by side a medical professional’s view of dreadful wounds with a writer’s record–a woman’s record and a nurse’s record–of the ways in which the social instincts of these shattered men lead them toward the comprehension of the new realities of their lives.

Saturday, September 23rd. There is a man in with both eyes and the top of his nose scooped out by a bit of shell. When I was cleaning him up he told me he was 49, but he’d given his age in as 38 to join the Army. Then he said, without any sort of comment, ‘I think I’ve lost my eyesight,’ as if it had been his rifle or his boots.[1]


I know of no extensive writing from anyone so horribly wounded in this war.[2] So we move on… to a significant letter from Donald Hankey to his sister Hilda. Hankey has been spared the worst of the Somme, in terms of danger and casualty, at least. But can a serious man–a man who has seen terribly wounded soldiers in the hours before they reached places like Kate Luard’s hospital–really hope for “action” and its greater destruction as an alternative to the grim slog of trench duty? Yes.

1st R. W[arwickshire] R[egiment]. Sept. 23, 1916

Dear Hilda,

I enclose one or two more cuttings. Melrose tells me that 3,000 copies of A Student in Arms have been sold…

We are still at peace; though I am hoping that we may get a scrap before the winter. It would be very horrible to slide squalidly into the winter without any excitement at all.

From all accounts things are going very well now in spite of the Hun having collected all the guns, etc., that he can on the threatened part of the Front.

Hankey may be writing wryly in either of the two previous paragraphs–more likely the earlier. But then again he may be serious. It’s war, even if his battalion is miserably “at peace” in the deepening mud, and it should be fought–there is morale to think of, as well as death. But then he begins, once again, to think of what all this might mean, going forward. It’s not like Hankey not to pause to consider things, and so he does.

How they do hate us! Every day in French and English papers alike you see the signs of it. It is difficult to believe that the war will heal the nations. I should not be surprised if, when we are old, we see a repetition of this war. I have little doubt that it will take most of our lifetime (if we survive the war) for the belligerent nations to recover their strength. But I have little doubt that if, as seems likely, we beat the Hun pretty badly, he will start the moment peace is signed to prepare for his revenge. A depressing thought, isn’t it?

It is–and it was, even without the double-tap of ironic pain that we experience, knowing how right he will turn out to be. And it’s not that Hankey was a pessimist: he feels himself duty-bound, I think, as a servant of God, to be realistic about man’s feeble, fallen state. Nor is his assessment based only on his observations of man’s hatefulness, or even of the foolishness of short memories: it’s also rooted in what he–the successful but carefully humble war-writer–sees as the inherent limitations of war writing.

Also, I doubt if we shall have such a horror of war as lots of people seem to think. The rising generation won’t know what we know, and we shall forget much that is bad. When a soldier can write that the brotherhood of the trench will be “a wistful radiant memory” now, what shall we be writing twenty years hence![3]

What indeed.


Today, a century back, was a momentous day for Vera Brittain. “Excited and apprehensive,” she embarked for Malta, to work at a military hospital there. Her mother and brother came out to Camberwell to see her, but she made them say “a last au revoir” on the street “as I did not want to watch them walk away.” Then it was a bus from the hospital–with her friend Betty–to Waterloo Station, a train to Southampton, and then a tender, out to where the mighty liner Britannic was lying at anchor off Cowes.

Remembering today, Brittain will write that “For a moment a sick dread had seized me when I learnt that she had been built as sister ship to the Titanic…” But, much like Donald Hankey, perhaps, she is rooting for a scrap:

In spite of the depressing effect of the ‘bus and Waterloo it was a great relief to me to leave Camberwell… So much had I grown to hate it that I felt that any change, to however much worse physical conditions, would be a welcome relief…[4]

Relief, perhaps. But as soon as she was safely aboard the Britannic, Brittain wrote home, to her brother Edward:

HM Hospital Ship Britannic, 23 September 1916

We left Waterloo (where by the way I felt very wretched as there were so many instructions & such a crowd & so much to do & such a general air of departure) at 12.30, arriving at Southampton at 2.10… We sailed down the Solent just as the sun was setting; it was a glorious evening with a smooth blue sea & the sun making a golden track which seemed to stretch from us to the fast disappearing mainland… Ships with searchlights are all about us in the dim distance–10.15 now. There is a large life-belt–a new kind, of waistcoat shape, attached to each bed.[5]


Finally, today, we have fictional cause to remember a historical event of tonight and tomorrow–and one that fits very well with Hankey’s gloomy and accurate prediction of the future of war. There have been several notable Zeppelin raids on England, and tonight another began. These ponderous airships are staples of steampunk, now–retro-glamorous alternatives to a noisier, speedier history of air travel–but they were looming, cutting-edge terrors then. They can do nothing but dump bombs indiscriminately on urban areas–but this of course is what makes them so modern. They float over the experiential gulf, and bring the terror of war to the home front.

Nine zeppelins reached England late tonight, making for London and–very memorable–two were brought down. One came to earth at Snail’s Hall Farm in Great Burstead, another bombed Bromley-by-Bow and crash-landed in slow motion, its crew captured by a patrolling constable.

Henry Williamson has been preparing his ponderous fiction for this moment for quite some time: Phillip Maddison is home from the Somme, and recuperating; his father, Richard–with whom Phillip has a fraught, silently nasty relationship–has been lording it as a self-important special constable enforcing blackout rules in their suburb; and Phillip and his friend Desmond have quarreled over a girl, the limpid and saintly formerly-fallen Lily Cornford.

Late tonight, Phillip and Desmond lie out on “The Hill,” while Williamson presents–through the half-crazed Desmond–their wartime experiences as explanations for their behavior. Desmond, who is nearly hysterical and suffering from shell shock, knew Lily first, and loves her, and perceives her devotion to Phillip (an inexplicable thing, really, even if it is supposed to be inexplicable to Phillip himself) as evidence of his diabolic dishonesty. Combat has unhinged Desmond, rendering him violent and paranoid, but he has heard the more or less true stories of Phillip’s cowardice in 1914 (based more closely on Williamson’s own experiences than the present scenes) and introduces them as evidence of Phillip’s habit of treachery to friends. It’s about war, and it’s about what came before, and it’s about a girl. Phillip is not completely convinced that he is wrong.

Then the friends separate, and Desmond calms down, and the story falls back onto its original line of Freudian entrenchments–Desmond returns and tells Phillip that he is himself the son of a “fallen woman,” and the two friends begin to patch things up…

But you, reader, are losing patience with the plodding pace of this (plodding summary of this) plodding novel. For once, Williamson realizes this too, and it is just now that the zeppelin comes into view, tonight, a century back. The two young soldiers on leave watch as nearby anti-aircraft machine guns open up.

Williamson takes another liberty, now, and conflates the shooting-down of this zeppelin with another raid that will take place on October 19/20–a raid in which bombs killed fifteen people, including several members of the same family asleep in bed. But by October Phillip will be elsewhere, and the historically fictional war waits for no man…

You know where this is going. Tonight is the melodramatic climax of The Golden Virgin, the sixth novel in the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, and it clears away a good chunk of Phillip’s past. The two young men are too late: when they come to the site of the bombing, where five houses have collapsed, Special-Sergeant Richard Maddison has already been borne off to the hospital, slightly wounded and in shock–and the bodies of Lily and her mother have been dragged from the rubble.

Phillip meets his father at the hospital, and the old man’s reserve is, for once, gone.

“It was awful, Phillip!”

“Yes, Father, I quite understand…”

“No, oh no. Of course this is all new to me. I suppose… you have many times experienced the effects of bursting shells? Well this one was an eye-opener to me, I can assure you!”[6]

But Lily is dead, transfigured from a not-quite-believable saintly young woman to a saintly ideal for Phillip to ponder as we he returns to the war…


Finally, today–if my math is correct and if we can tolerate a “spoiler” that is very broad indeed–we can mark an occasion that none of our century-back writers were aware of: Britain’s war is half over.


References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 90.
  2. Although Dalton Trumbo did a terrifyingly effective job of imagining something even worse.
  3. Letters of Donald Hankey, 353-4.
  4. Testament of Youth, 292-4.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 276.
  6. The Golden Virgin, 430-42.

Hamish Mann’s “The Shell Hole;” Rowland Feilding on the Aftermath of Ginchy; Donald Hankey Eschews the Poetic; Edmund Blunden on the Face of War

Today provides a brief pause in the slog at the Somme, at least as far as our writers are concerned. Before we read Rowland Feilding‘s after-action report, a poem. And after the poem, we check in briefly with two writers still in reserve.

Hamish Mann, a subaltern in the 8th Black Watch, is appearing here for the first time. A few of his poems can be dated, and this one–written today, a century back–is a meditation on an increasingly familiar theme. Contemplating death and decay is an old topos, but the dead of this war play a role rare in previous ones, in that they can remain present–physically present–on the battlefield for years after they are killed. Static trench warfare means that the dead of 1914 and 1915 are underneath–and all around–the soldier of 1916: skeletons strewn across no man’s land, bodies entombed by blasts, and, especially shocking, the corpses of those who were hastily buried in and around the trenches themselves, to be later revealed by new digging or explosions. This is not a subtle category of memento mori:


The Shell Hole

In the Shell Hole he lies, this German soldier of a year ago;
But he is not as then, accoutred, well, and eager for the foe
He hoped so soon, so utterly, to crush. His muddy skull
Lies near the mangled remnants of his corpse – wars furies thus annul
The pomp and pageantry that were its own. White rigid bones
Gape through the nauseous chaos of his clothes; the cruel stones
Hold fast the letter he was wont to clasp close to his am’rous breast.
Here ‘neath the stark, keen stars, where is no peace, no joy, nor any rest,
He lies. There, to the right, his boot, gashed by the great shell’s fiendish whim,
Retains – O horrid spectacle! – the fleshless stump that was his limb!
Vile rats and mice, and flies and lice and ghastly things that carrion know
Have made a travesty of Death of him who lived a year ago.[1]


The most remarkable thing about Mann’s poem may be the combination of archaic diction and shockingly “unpoetic” subject matter. We can read this as a mismatch of lyric skill–we need those elisions to make the meter!–and topical outrage, but there is too much skill for that, I think. This is a satire of circumstance which operates through the shocking mismatch of pat-rhyme, classic poeticisms (“am’rous”) and frank horror. It is more superficial than Hardy‘s pioneering “Satires,” perhaps–as superficial as the burial of this German “foe,” we might say–but that’s the point. Mann is saying, essentially, “does this sound pretty?–well, it is not pretty.”

And it is an eerie coincidence of timing that just yesterday Rowland Feilding helped to lay the body of one of his officers in a shell hole. Will he be found in time, and brought back for a proper burial? Or will he be stumbled upon in a year or two by some soldier digging in once again, a nameless corpse to be eventually commemorated on the towering monument to the missing?[2]


We have read of that brutal repose–and many other incidents of the disastrous attack–in a letter of Feilding’s to his wife. It was written today, a century back, and I want to return to it for the “frame” which Feilding provided for his account of the day of battle. It begins very simply:

September 10, 1916. Happy Valley.

It is over.

In other words, “I have survived.” From there Feilding immediately began his record of the battle. We pick up now with the Rangers’ march back from the battlefield, which began at 4.40 a.m. today, when their relief–none other than Bim Tennant‘s Fourth Grenadier Guards–finally arrived.

Then, after three practically sleepless nights, under shell-fire most of the time—often heavy, we marched back to Carnoy Craters, as the old front line of June 30, at the point where it is crossed by the Carnoy-Montauban road, is

Here we are bivouacked, and I have just had a good sleep on the ground, under the canopy of a transport wagon.

The scene was very weird as we picked our way back this morning, through the waste of shell-holes with their mournful contents, accompanied by our wounded, and preceded by a stretcher on which lay the body of Colonel Curzon, who had commanded the Royal Irish, and who dined opposite me with the Brigadier four nights ago—on the night I joined this Brigade. I found myself following immediately behind his body.

During the three days my casualties have amounted to 92 (9 officers and 83 other ranks), out of the 16 officers and 256 other ranks with which I started, bringing the total casualties of the battalion for the past nine days to 23 officers and 407 N.C.O.’s and men. Of the latter, 63 are missing; 54 were killed, and others have since died. Thanks to my splendid doctor—Knight, a Newfoundlander—we got away all the wounded.

Later. This afternoon we marched to “Happy Valley,” where we are bivouacked.[3]

This, by the way, is probably “the real” Happy Valley,[4] rather than the Happy Valley/Death Valley near Mametz Wood, familiar to us from July.


From this nastiness, now, to two quieter moments in the war of attrition. Donald Hankey, present on the first day and after, has been spared the battles of September. Today he responds to a letter from a “literary friend.” It’s interesting primarily because Hankey–a writer in several genres but not a poet–shows himself to be rather different from the run of literary subalterns (but this we knew). A shocking indifference to poetic sensibility!

Sept. 10, 1916.

Dear Oliver,

Yes, now I come to listen, there are birds twittering in the garden of the farm where I am now billeted, though my ear is not trained to tell you what birds they are, or what they are saying, and I am afraid I have been paying more attention to the rumbling of the big guns some ten miles away!

I am afraid I have not the poet’s ear or eye. My world is peopled almost entirely with human beings and abstract ideas. I have even lost to a great extent a once passionate love of flowers, and at present the only form of beauty which thrills me at all is the beauty of strong limbs and the beauty of the human expression. I am even so limited as not to care for female beauty, but only for the male! A graceful boy with the wonderful smile of youth, or a strong man with a look of resolution and compassion fill me with pleasure. Almost anything else leaves me cold, unless it is the lined face of a wise and kind old man or woman whom experience has mellowed and refined, and old age made unself-conscious.

I have no news, so won’t write more. I only write this in order to encourage you to write again to me! Your letters breathe the atmosphere of another world and are infinitely refreshing.[5]

As the context indicates, there is no particular reason to read this as a confession of homosexual inclination. Hankey is demonstrating (with slightly less than his usual elaborate patience) that he is too serious and aesthetically disinclined to care much for the poet’s conventional inspirations. While it’s true that there is an English tradition of gay love poetry (Paul Fussell discusses this) it was not mainstream, and the overtly homoerotic “war poems” have for the most part yet to be written. Hankey may well be gay, but I have read nothing to confirm this, and as an aspiring minister he would have had to be careful. In any event, he is sharing, here, in both a broader English homosocial tradition–admiring other schoolboys, etc.–and perhaps even showing, by a strange path, a growing inclination to accept the fact of the “experiential gulf:” he may still respect old age, but otherwise he has no interest in women or men who do not fall into one of two ideal soldierly types.


Finally, Edmund Blunden. Because his writerly sensibility–in both its fineness and its exquisite tonal control–is very different from, say, that of Henry Williamson, it is easy to forget how young Blunden is. But a rare letter to his mother (we will begin to read more of Blunden’s beautiful memoir in the coming weeks, but few letters)–reminds us that he is an elder son, and a very young man, still only nineteen. And he would like to have more letters from his siblings…

I often wonder why some of them don’t find time to write me a letter–surely they can do so more easily than I can? For very often with us it’s a case of: ‘Wrote that letter of get that hour’s sleep?’ A nasty dilemma.

They don’t realise how much we depend on the mail from England to keep our spirits up. The war may look comfortable and amusing through the curious glasses of the newspapers but to those actually in it, it shows a very different face.[6]

Very true–and a most reasonable request, son…


References and Footnotes

  1. Powell, A Deep Cry, 228.
  2. The former, mercifully.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 114-18.
  4. Gliddon, Somme 1916 Battlefield Companion, 128. Gliddon solves a problem we had earlier by distinguishing this from the Happy Valley/Death Valley near Mametz Wood. There's no resisting that sort of bleak nominal irony, apparently...
  5. Letters of Donald Hankey, 348-9.
  6. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 62.

Raymond Asquith, Prisoner’s Friend and Defender of the Aesthete; Donald Hankey Praises “Militarism,” Edmund Blunden on the Eve of the Attack

We have two very interesting stories today, a century back. First, Raymond Asquith continues the story of his role as “prisoner’s friend”–i.e. amateur defense attorney–in the trial of a brother officer accused of homosexual activity. Like many of the non-violent vicissitudes of Asquith’s life, we know of them because of his tendency to complain to his wife (of death and danger he will not whine, however).

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
2 September 1916

It is days since I wrote you a proper letter but I simply haven’t had a moment to myself. This damnable trial has filled every hour with unbearable fatigue. The case was quite hopeless from the beginning but most of the witnesses were fearful liars and in other respects tarred with much the same brush as the accused, so it was possible to have a certain amount of fun cross-examining them. One of the 2 principal ones was a queer[1] fellow in the Irish Guards who had been, I think, a quack doctor in peace time and a soldier of fortune whenever there was any kind of a war going on, a tiresome officious puritanical creature full of the missionary and detective spirit and apparently with a bee in his bonnet about the corruption and decadence of the English upper classes and particularly of Etonians.

The other was a nephew of Robert Ross, lately a scholar at Eton, who aroused everyone’s suspicions by knowing Latin and Greek and constantly reading Henry James’ novels. He was not ill-looking but with an absurdly cushioned figure and a rather hysterical temperament more like a girl than a boy. He was the accomplice who turned King’s Evidence.

The plot thickens. Robbie Ross was, essentially, England’s most famous surviving public homosexual. A friend of the doomed Oscar Wilde, Ross became his literary executor and bravely and persistently defended his memory. Ross fits–not coincidentally, I think, since he was well-known and probably therefore helped shape it–the old stereotype of the gay man as urban aesthete. He was active in both literature and the arts as a patron and mentor, and sought to aid young artists, particularly those who might share his sexuality, even if–like Siegfried Sassoon, who met Ross last October–they were not secure or public in that still-quite-dangerous identity.

So what is Asquith doing defending a man against such accusations? Despite the tolerance afforded–by moneyed Londoners if not rank and file Englishmen and women–to Ross, gay sex was both illegal and cause for major social scandal, and it’s not hard to surmise that the presence of Ross’s apparently effeminate nephew helped to draw unfortunate attention to the accused officer. This is a bad situation at the least, and possibly something of a witch hunt.

Well, first of all, Asquith had been assigned to the case. This in itself is unusual: the trial will embarrass the regiment regardless, so why assign the P.M.’s son? His experience as a barrister, perhaps, and also the fact that he is a temporary officer, rather than a career Guards officer who might fear being associated (in any capacity) with such a case.

But Asquith’s spirited defense is not simply due to his contrarianism and punctilious cynicism. This is, in a way, an attack on Asquith’s identity–not sexual, but rather social and cultural. He is defending, to some extent at least, the Coterie and its policy of loose living and haute-bourgeois shockingness. He has cast himself as the ironic lawyer hero in which a loss is nonetheless a brave defense against the restive hordes of conservatism and know-nothingness. Eton is on trial, and fancy big city London aesthetes, and novelists. He jokes, but we know what he means: Asquith isn’t gay, and he is probably, conventionally, homophobic, but he reads. He, too, knows Greek and Latin, and will he will hold the forward positions for learning and taste…

It’s not that he wants to defend an officer foolish or unlucky enough to have been caught having sex. (The passage below seems to confirm the idea that the offense in question may have involved enlisted men of his own unit, which was a serious threat to discipline no matter what the sexual politics involved.) it’s that Asquith is willing to have a go defending outrageous behavior against stodgy and prejudiced sorts who have the bad taste to indulge in outrage.

Outrage, when you come to think of it, is almost always either hateful or hypocritical. And nasty as Asquith can be, he unhypocritically hates both hypocrisy and hatefulness…

The letter continues:

The others were queer grey-faced untruthful boys who saluted like guardsmen when they entered and left the room, but shuffled and stammered most uneasily in the witness box. There were 5 charges, and the Court sat (at Divisional
H.Q.) for 2 days. 6 hours the first day and 10 the 2nd. We jogged over there on horses in the early morning and back again after dark. I found the unusual strain of concentrating one’s mind on a–by now–unfamiliar kind of effort, most tiring–especially the 2nd day when I had to speak for about an hour and a half in the twilight. I think I gave the unfortunate boy a run for his money, but we both knew that there was not a dog’s chance. They announced last night after some deliberation that they had found him guilty of something, but we shall not know on how many of the charges until the findings are confirmed by Haig and after that the sentence will be announced. He is certain, I imagine, to be turned out of the Army. It was a queer experience and now it is over, I am not sorry that I went through it, though I was very sorry at the time.

Asquith is a smart fellow. Here is how he will describe the ordeal to Diana Manners, queen of the Coterie:

It was terribly tiring but not entirely unenjoyable as it was easy to make fools of most of the witnesses (though not unfortunately as to the facts to which they testified) and I wound up by making a speech of considerable length in which I wavered between being a blunt soldier and a cynical barrister, plunging rather recklessly from one extreme of idiom to another. I can tell you it takes some nerve to say to a bevy of flint-faced brigadiers “When one contemplates the picture of——–(chief witness for prosecution) padding down the duck-boards in the twilight with muffled feet and gimlet eyes to spy upon the privacy of a brother officer, one asks oneself whether even the missionary spirit has ever exhibited itself in a more repulsive and ridiculous guise.”

And rather a brilliant fellow, if he does say so himself, when saving the best of his lines for Lady Diana. With a defense attorney’s cunning he plays to the homophobia of the jury, trying to divert their disgust onto the witness, who is not only indecent but treacherous. He appeals to their sense, as English gentlemen, that, whatever the officer was doing, he has been most indecently betrayed, brought down not in fair play but by double-dealing and (worse!) missionary zeal. It’s not cricket–but it wasn’t enough.

Asquith’s letter of today to his wife Katherine winds up with a return to the conventional. As always, there are temptations from duty. Not leave, and rest, but the Staff, and a world of meetings and ease, and neither danger nor respectable hardship… it’s still campaigning season, after all.

Anyhow all the authorities have given me good marks for bearing the burden and I have been allowed 24 hours leave to go into the cathedral city of ———[i.e. Amiens] some 20 miles from here this afternoon where I shall at any rate get sheets and baths and a good bottle of wine. I have also been offered a place on the staff of the Guards Division. I told them I would like to take it when the weather begins to break up…

You seem to be having a pretty busy time with your children and their nutrition and education. Trim ought to be a terrific fellow after all this suckling.

Many thanks for the razor blades and watch strap etc…

Mells must be rather pleasant now among the hollyhocks and dahlias. It is wonderful to have reached September without getting involved in this battle. Another 2 months and the pushing season will be over . . . [2]


For a jarring transition, let’s check in on Donald Hankey, a serious and decidedly non-outrageous young man who not only doesn’t scorn the missionary spirit in all its manifestations but actually possesses and seeks to nurture it. And yet while Asquith is moved more by social scandal than military disaster, Hankey has spent the two months of battle in increasing perplexity. Was it wrong to become the widely-read “A Student in Arms” if it meant being taken for an unstinting supporter of a war effort that had become profligate with all that red, sweet wine of youth?

Hankey’s desire to write critically of the war effort–mild, loyal opposition, let-us-praise-the-suffering-troops criticism, to be sure–led to his column being discontinued. But the times have begun to catch up to him–or The Spectator has, at least. Today, a century back, his first essay in many months was printed.

“‘The Good Side of ‘Militarism’” was written at Flixecourt not long after the disastrous beginnings of the Battle of the Somme. By “militarism,” Hankey means, essentially, military discipline. Where once he wrote of great leaders or heroism, Hankey is interested now in the moral value of submission to authority and hardship. That his editor is willing to print the essay is a sign of the times–we are adapting, facing (some) facts.

But then again Hankey has, like a wrestler thrown off only to angle for a new sort of grip on his hulking opponent, found another “traditional” way to praise the troops. He may have trouble praising the General Staff, now, but the Christian virtues of the soldiers it sends ever onwards into the German guns can still be celebrated. This is troubling–but look how it is framed by a protest that, in the end, means little: the soldier can tell what the journalist cannot.

For though the part of the “great push” that it fell to my lot to see was not a successful part, it was none the less a triumph—a spiritual triumph. From the accounts of the ordinary war correspondent I think one hardly realizes how great a spiritual triumph it was. For the war correspondent only sees the outside, and can only describe the outside of things. We who are in the Army, who know the men as individuals, who have talked with them, joked with them, censored their letters, worked with them, lived with them we see below the surface.

The war correspondent sees the faces of the men as they march towards the Valley of the Shadow, sees the steadiness of eye and mouth, hears the cheery jest. He sees them advance into the Valley without flinching. He sees some of them return, tired, dirty, strained, but still with a quip for the passer-by. He gives us a picture of men without nerves, without sensitiveness, without imagination, schooled to face death as they would face rain or any trivial incident of everyday life. The “Tommy” of the war correspondent is not a human being, but a lay figure with a gift for repartee, little more than the manikin that we thought him in those far-off days before the war, when we watched him drilling on the barrack square. We soldiers know better. We know that each one of those men is an individual, full of human affections, many of them writing tender letters home every week, each one longing with all his soul for the end of this hateful business of war which divides him from all that he loves best in life. We know that everyone of these men has a healthy individual’s repugnance to being maimed, and a human shrinking from hurt and from the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

…In each of those men there is this dual personality: the ordinary human ego that hates danger and shrinks from hurt and death, that longs for home, and would welcome the end of the war on any terms; and also the stronger personality of the soldier who can tolerate but one end to this war, cost what that may—the victory of liberty and justice, and the utter abasement of brute force.

Training–discipline, a form of “militarism” despite being more mild than the reviled “Prussian” version–is responsible for this, Hankey argues. And it is a good thing. Because it enables frontal attacks to proceed again and again without mutiny?

Not exactly. Hankey concludes:

It is a far cry from the old days when one talked of self-realization, isn’t it? I make no claim to be a good soldier; but I think that perhaps I may be beginning to be one; for if I am asked now whether I “loathe militarism in all its forms,” I think that “the answer is in the negative,” I will even go farther, and say that I hope that some of the discipline and self-subordination that have availed to send men calmly to their death in war, will survive in the days of peace, and make of those who are left better citizens, better workmen, better servants of the State, better Church men.

This is a difficult conclusion to contest: too much depends on one’s religious point of view, one’s commitment to the idea of defeating Germany at all costs, and on one’s knowledge of the further suffering that lies in store for these disciplined battalions. On the other hand, it is September, 1916 (or July, at least–the date of writing), and Donald Hankey is unwilling to foresee any future of disenchantment and disillusion…

A biographer of Hankey’s puts all this neatly into its Century Back context:

Hankey, it seemed, had made a peace of sorts with the Army. He had grown resigned…  However much his men, and even their colonel, might rail against the war and the ready acceptance by civilians of soldiers’ privations, nothing changed the fact that the Germans would not return to Germany unless driven back. In September, the battalion went into rest to be ‘fattened up’ for a return to the Somme.[3]


Finally, today, Edmund Blunden‘s 11th Royal Sussex went up to the line. An attack–their first major action since Blunden joined–has been called off several times. But the weather is improving, and this time it seems sure to come off.

On the evening of September 2d, the battalion moved cautiously from Mailly-Maillet by cross-country tracks, through pretty Englebelmer, with ghostly Angelus on the green and dewy light, over the downs to Mesnil, and assembled in the Hamel trenches to attack the Beaucourt rise next morning. The night all around was drowsily quiet. I stood at the junction of four forward trenches, directing the several companies into them as had been planned. Not one man in thirty had seen the line by daylight—and it was a great puzzle even when seen so. Getting out of the narrow steep trenches with weighty equipment threatened to disorder the assault. Every- man remembered the practice attacks at Monchy-Breton, and was ready, if conditions were equal, to act his part; among other things, the attacking waves had to form up and carry out a right incline in No Man’s Land — a change of direction almost impossible in the dark, in broken and entangled ground, and under tremendous gunfire. When the rum and coffee was duly on the way to these men I went off to my other duty. A carrying party from another battalion was to meet me in Hamel, and for a time the officer and I, having nothing to do but wait, sat in a trench along the village street considering the stars in their courses.[4].


References and Footnotes

  1. Again--no, this word did not have that connotation then.
  2. Life and Letters, 290-3.
  3. Davies, A Student in Arms, 183-4.
  4. Undertones of War, 97-98.

John Ronald Tolkien is Told Off; Rowland Feilding Watches a Battle, and Reports Two Victories; Donald Hankey on Discipline, Comradeship, and a Need for Balls

It seems sometimes as if the truly well-bred officer must consider himself an Epicurean. It is de rigueur to comment, for the benefit of the folks at home, on how delicious it is to watch a bombardment from a distance. But Rowland Feilding begs to differ with this Lucretian view of battlefield spectatorship. This may be compassion, and it may also have something to do with the fact that Feilding has been out of action himself for quite some time. In any event, he describes today, for his wife, the continuation of the battle that killed Ben Keeling yesterday.

August 18, 1916. Near Fricourt

This afternoon I watched a huge battle between Martinpuich and Guillemont. I watched from the high ground just south-east of Fricourt, which commands a wonderful view of the country for a long distance in front—from a spot which was visited by the King when he was here, and is now known as King George’s Hill.

The preliminary bombardment, which had continued all through last night and this morning, was greatly intensified, and smoke clouds were turned loose shortly before 2.45 p.m., which was the time appointed for the infantry assault. The latter took place punctually, as was very evident from the simultaneous and sudden crowding of the sky with the bursting shrapnel of the German barrage. Then Hell prevailed till the horizon became blotted out by smoke and dust. It was a terrible sight. To the onlooker on these occasions, as I have said before, it seems almost impossible that any living creature can be in it and survive. But that is not so.

After half an hour the shelling subsided to some extent, though it was renewed about five o’clock on another section of the front.

It was a big show—far bigger, I daresay, than anyone might suppose from reading the newspaper reports of it which will no doubt appear to-morrow.

Feilding, unusually, actually follows up on his supposition. He includes these two communiqués in a subsequent letter:

August 19, 1916. Saturday.
British Official

Our success reported last night has been maintained and extended.

During the night the enemy delivered several very determined counter-attacks against the positions which we had captured. Except on our extreme right, where the enemy regained a little ground, these counter-attacks were everywhere repulsed.

From High Wood to the point where we join up with the trench we have advanced our line over a frontage of more than 2 miles for a distance varying between 200 yards and 600 yards.

We now hold the western outskirts of Guillemont, and a line thence northwards to midway between Delville Wood and Ginchy; also the Orchards north of Longueval Between High Wood and the Albert-Bapaume Road we have captured some hundreds of yards of enemy trench…

As a result of these operations several hundred prisoners have been taken by us.

So much for the British version of events. Next, the Germans.

August 19, 1916. Berlin Saturday Afternoon.
German Official

Our brave troops yesterday victoriously resisted with self-sacrificing tenacity a stupendous effort on the part of our
combined enemy.

At about the same time in the afternoon, after artillery preparation, which increased to the utmost violence, Anglo-French masses advanced to the assault to the north of the Somme on the Ovillers-Fleury front over a section of about 20 kilometres…

At several points the enemy penetrated into our first line of trenches and was driven out again.

Trench sections captured on both sides of Guillemont—which remains firmly in our hands—were occupied. Between Guillemont and Maurepas we have somewhat shortened during the night our salient line in accordance with our plans.

The enemy has paid with tremendous sanguinary losses for his efforts, which, on the whole, have failed…

In the eastern sector of Chapitre Wood over 100 prisoners were taken during a counter-attack…[1]

This is propaganda, of course, and if you read a map very carefully you could confirm that standard measure of military accomplishment: the British have inched forward, and the Germans have “shortened” their lines… but, really, who won? It does rather shake one’s faith–if any remains–in the relationship between military event and narrative description, at least as far as the conventional tendency of each toward some sort of “decision.”


A few days ago, John Ronald Tolkien wrote a long letter to his friend G.B. Smith. It was an elegy of sorts, but a philosophically severe one. In it, Tolkien set out his view of how, exactly, the nature of their schoolboy creative fellowship, the T.C.B.S., has been altered by the death of Rob Gilson, one of its four core members. In short, Tolkien accepted Gilson’s death as the definitive breaking of that fellowship–Rob cannot have been a great writer, now. This opinion was given not so much out of fatalism as from within a consistent worldview: the world is as the world is, and while romantic inventions may still point to the future, there is no sense in allowing them to contradict the past. The others must carry on with their hopes to write, to create beautiful things–but Rob is dead, and the T.C.B.S. has ceased to exist.

Geoffrey Bache Smith begs to differ. Their battalions are both in reserve in the neighborhood of Hédauville, and Smith hoped that they could meet today, but Tolkien proved to be away on a short training course. So Smith sent this howler his way instead:

The idea that the T.C.B.S. has stopped is for me entirely impossible…

The T.C.B.S. is not so much a society as an influence on the state of being. I never for two consecutive seconds believed in the four-ideal-friends theory except in its very widest sense as a highly important and very worthy communion of living souls. That such an influence on the state of being could come to an end with Rob’s loss is to me a preposterous idea… The T.C.B.S. is not finished and never will be.

I am not quite sure whether I shall shake you by the hand or take you by the throat, so enormously do I disagree with your letter and agree with myself![2]

This uncompromising letter written, Tolkien returned to camp the same afternoon, and the two friends were able to meet after all. There is no record of any throat-taking, and one presumes that they agreed to mourn their friend and to redouble their creative efforts.


Finally, today, Donald Hankey, wrote to Will Clift, a friend from his days working among the poor in Bermondsey. If this sounds a little preachy, well, it comes from an officer who was once a missionary of sorts among Will and his friends, and who intends to become a preacher after the war. But it is interesting to see the requests that Hankey is making. He’s a sensitive officer in a New Army battalion, with his men in mind. Perhaps there are other letters to family begging sweets and succulents for himself, but this one shows him preoccupied with the health and morale of his men even out of the line. It’s also, surely, an intentional bridging of his old mission and his new commission, a chance for good deeds to be done all around.

…could you get me some balls for my boys to play with in billets. Any sort of fairly serviceable rubber balls, such as last year’s tennis balls, would come in very handy. It is no good having the sort that split easily, or anything smaller than a tennis ball, or anything very hard. Could you also send me four stout footballs? I understand they cost about 15s. each; and so I enclose a cheque for £3. I am tremendously convinced that the only way to keep fellows straight out here is to give them a chance to amuse themselves in billets, and at present they do nothing but sleep, grumble, and talk smut, I’m afraid. Will, Bermondsey has taught me absolutely the love of the boy. The boys here are topping fellows. You should see the way they smile even when they are fagged out and soaked through and lousy and quaking. Every one–nearly–quakes. But the boys try to hide it with a smile.

Discipline is a wonderful thing teaching men continually to do what they do not want to do for the sake of a great cause, teaching them that as individual units they matter very little, but that as members of an army every trivial detail of their lives is significant. It teaches at once humility and pride, self-control and self-subordination, thoroughness, comradeship. Love to Alice and Ed and the rest of my friends. Yours ever…[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 101-3.
  2. Chronology, 88.
  3. Letters of Donald Hankey, 347-8.