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