Siegfried Sassoon Heads East; Edmund Blunden Bangs Around in No Man’s Land

Siegfried Sassoon has broken out of the war’s pattern–and he hardly seems broken up about it. He has arrived back in France, but instead of an interminable and miserable slow train up the line, he cuts across the grain of the war, and across the unspoiled hinterland of France, bound–still slowly, but much more scenically–for the east.

February 15

Awoke in the railway carriage to find a bright, frosty morning—and the train in a station. We started about 9 and crawled to St Germain (fifteen kilometres from Lyons) Arriving there at 12:30. The morning journey was through fine country—fir-clad hills and pleasant little valleys threaded by brooks and shallow rivers.

Notes (oxen pulling a tree: boy standing among trees looking down-at the train). Yesterday was through level, brown, buff, sand-coloured places. To-day dark-green firs are the colour-note, and the sun shines gloriously on all, and warms my face as I crane from the window to see the unfolding prospects.

We stay at a rest-camp near the station—bath and lunch—in the afternoon go marketing. The blue Saone River flowing nobly along. We leave again to-night…[1]

Sassoon’s diary has taken on a different cast, reminiscent more of Edward Thomas‘s field notes of a soldier intending to return to his poetry than of his own recent modes of hunt diary or journal of self-discovery.

 

Although Edmund Blunden doesn’t describe his brief stint as battalion adjutant, it’s likely that this passage of the memoir refers to tonight, a century back. According to the battalion diary–the 11th Royal Sussex are now near Gouzeaucourt, on the old Cambrai battlefield–“Companies [were] employed at night on working parties, cable burying, & improvement of defenses.” The fact that there were no casualties (unlike on several other nearby nights) makes the dating more likely, if far from airtight. It is yet another study of the ominous quiet on the German side of the line.

The silence and inertia in the German trenches were a puzzle, and the old remark about “holding the line with a man and a boy” was passed round among us. One might sit, as I did, upon our parapet, and spend several minutes looking at the opposite line and the ruins and expensive cemetery of Villers Guislain, without any disaster. One night, the whole battalion was ordered to put out wire in No Man’s Land, and although such an order created the usual terrible imaginings, the reality was almost like a practical joke. Conversation went on among the men, the wire was uncoiled with all possible noise, the jangling tin crosses on the ends of the reels were allowed full voice, company commanders bawled for sergeant-majors — No Man’s Land became (to speak comparatively) a parade. Worley was the specialist in charge, and he ran about with his favourite gloves on, putting mistakes right here, and fancy touches on there — and telling me loudly the work was going on well — “is the old General about, d’you know sir?” At last a machine gun was turned on, but the wire was in place, and no harm was done. [2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diary, 213,
  2. Undertones of War, 206.

Isaac Rosenberg is Blunted; Edmund Blunden Hits the Books

Another quiet February day… Isaac Rosenberg has now joined the first battalion of his regiment–a completely new unit for him, as far as friendship and emotional support are concerned. He does not seem to be in good spirits.

We had a rough time in the trenches with the mud, but now we’re out for a bit of a rest, and I will try and write longer letters. You must know by now what a rest behind the line means. I can call the evenings—that is, from tea to lights out—my own; but there is no chance whatever for seclusion or any hope of writing poetry now. Sometimes I give way and am appalled at the devastation this life seems to have made in my nature. It seems to have blunted me. I seem to be powerless to compel my will to any direction, and all I do is without energy and interest.[1]

 

And although he will say nothing about this in his memoir, it would appear that Edmund Blunden–the harmless shepherd, the good-natured innocent–was temporarily appointed battalion adjutant today, a century back. Or so says the battalion diary. It also notes that that the C.O. was sent away on a course, which would have meant that the adjutant was temporarily in command, hence the vacancy. Still, it is an ample indication of the state of things in 1918 that a twenty-one-year-old amateur, not yet three years removed from his post as Senior Grecian at Christ’s Hospital, is now running the day-to-day affairs of a several-hundred-man unit, judging expenses, dispensing justice, etc…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Works, 378.

Three Poems for February: Edmund Blunden’s Deceitful Calm, Vera Brittain’s Dream Grown Vain, and Siegfried Sassoon’s Upteenth Idyll; Thomas Hardy Looks to Past Collapse; Kipling and the War at Home; Happy Birthday Muriel Spark

And so we come to February, a strange month. It will be slow, here (though enlivened by two strange and awesome childhood visitations by later writers, on which see below). In fact, it’s really the last “slow” month of the war. Is the end in sight? Well, in hindsight, yes. But, then, of course, to see February in this light is a violation of the terms of our compact. Yes, a German offensive is expected, and yes, the strategists see this spring and summer as crucial, because Germany is under tremendous pressure to strike a winning blow after the collapse of Russia and before the weight of the United States can turn the tide on the Western Front. But “the strategists” have been promising breakthroughs for several years now, and we can hardly be look complacently forward and congratulate them for being right. And yet…

I have three poems, today–one dated to the day and the other two appearing as “month poems.” And the first one, at least, is a bit of a cheat. The argument I’m trotting out here is that this February occupies a doubly ironic position: there is no reason to expect–or so the poor bloody infantry would feel–any change, any way to remember another cold, muddy month in the fourth winter of a war of attrition. And yet there is no way to remember this month other than as the month before[1] the last German offensive, before everything changed.

On the other hand, many things stay the same, so we’ll hear from two great Victorian writers as well. And on the other, other hand, “everything changed;” so we’ll also hear from a Modern woman as yet unborn–this morning, that is–and yet at the top of her game.

 

Gouzeaucourt: The Deceitful Calm

How unpurposed, how inconsequential
Seemed those southern lines when in the pallor
Of the dying winter
First we went there!

Grass thin-waving in the wind approached them,
Red roofs in the near view feigned survival,
Lovely mockers, when we
There took over.

There war’s holiday seemed, nor though at known times
Gusts of flame and jingling steel descended
On the bare tracks, would you
Picture death there.

Snow or rime-frost made a solemn silence,
Bluish darkness wrapped in dangerous safety;
Old hands thought of tidy
Living-trenches!

There it was, my dears, that I departed,
Scarce a plainer traitor ever! There too
Many of you soon paid for
That false mildness.[2]

 

So Edmund Blunden, looking back only to look ahead, and writing yet another agonized version of the survivor’s poem, this time in retrospect and prospect at once.

 

Vera Brittain, barred by her gender from any sense of comradeship in the face of death–indeed, from any tighter embrace of danger (she’s done as much as she can, in that regard, to get to a hospital in France)–is already a three-fold survivor. Her poem–written this month, a century back, amidst the calm that Blunden would remind us is about to be disturbed–looks steadfastly back at the first love she lost. This is more than personal mourning or general disenchantment. Given the short lines and traditional rhymes this reads, at first, as a rather prim poem–which makes the sharpness of its despair surprising: a pretty thing with jagged edges.

 

Roundel

(“Died of Wounds”)

 

Because you died, I shall not rest again,
    But wander ever through the lone world wide,
Seeking the shadow of a dream grown vain
            Because you died.

 

I shall spend brief and idle hours beside
    The many lesser loves that still remain,
But find in none my triumph and my pride;

 

And Disillusion’s slow corroding stain
    Will creep upon each quest but newly tried,
For every striving now shall nothing gain
            Because you died.[3]

 

 

Siegfried Sassoon is also sad today–“very sad,” in fact.

February 1 (Limerick, Maine)

Went to the Meet… but weather very wet and stormy, and hounds went home from the meet… Twenty-three miles for nothing… Very sad.

Once again Outdoor Sassoon comes home from a hunt and writes a poem, its music sweet and its sentiment… sentimental.

 

Idyll

In the grey summer garden I shall find you
With day break and the morning hills behind you
There will be rain-wet roses; stirring wings;
And down the wood a thrush that wakes and sings.
Not from the past you’ll come, but from that deep
Where beauty murmurs to the soul asleep:
And I shall know the sense of life re-born.
From dreams into the mystery of morn
Where gloom and brightness meet. And standing there
‘Til that calm song is done, at last we’ll share
The league-spread quiring symphonies that are
Joy in the world, and peace, and dawn’s one star.

February 1[4]

 

And back in England, two great men of the older generation (two different older generations, really) cope with the war in very different ways. Sometimes it seems as if there are really only two modes of being an old (i.e. past military age) man in times like these: you either lament the war and all its foolish, backward, wickedness, or you fantasize about taking part.

Thomas Hardy, in this letter to Edward Clodd, takes the first course.

Max Gate, Dorchester, Feb 1. 1918.

My dear Clodd:

My best thanks for “The Question” which I shall read with interest, as I do everything of yours…

What a set-back this revival of superstition is! It makes one despair of the human mind. Where’s Willy  Shakespeare’s “So noble in reason” now! In another quarter of a century we shall be burying food & money with our deceased, as was done with the Romano-British skeletons I used to find in my garden.

Sincerely yours,

Th. Hardy.[5]

 

And then there’s Rudyard Kipling–a great writer in a different mode. In terms of sheer narrative energy and storytelling verve he is almost without peer–which says little enough about his life or his politics, which are both far less exemplary and entertaining. But I don’t comment, here, upon his imperialist writings, or his celebrations of the manly spirit of adventure. I just quote from this letter, about how, having sussed out the movements of the enemy by careful observance of the natives, he has to stay home this weekend to defend his castle against maliciously anti-Kipling rioters and other crypto-socialist/peacenik undesirables.

Bateman’s
Burwash
Sussex

Feb. 1.1918.

Dear Colonel–

I ought to go up to London tomorrow for the week end as I have a good deal of important business there. But I understand that some sort of “demonstration” with regard to the food question is being planned by some of the women in the village, for Saturday night, which is not the sort of thing to leave behind one as it might easily end in window-breakings and other things that would upset our maids…

There has been in our service a Mrs. Smith–sister of Fennels–who has been here as charwoman. She has suddenly given notice for no reason though she has no other work and has been carried by us through hard times; and I understand that she is among the women concerned.

This seems to point to Bateman’s as one of the objectives in the “demonstration.”

Very sincerely

Rudyard Kipling

The editor of Kipling’s letters notes that there are no records of disturbances in Sussex this weekend, a century back. There is general unhappiness about food shortages at home, and Kipling is far from the only person in Britain tempted to believe the rumors of nefarious doings afoot. But if any vengeful members of the working class laid siege to Kipling’s Keep, he seems to have annihilated them in complete secrecy… I imagine that his gardeners diligently kept the grass short, otherwise I would imagine the Great White Hunter stalking up and down in the long grass in pith helmet and tweeds, shouldering his elephant gun…[6]

 

Finally, to begin a week in which we observe (in a very clever and literary way!) the birthdays of two major women writers of the mid-20th century, I should mention that Muriel Spark was born today, a century back. This would be trivia rather than literature were it not for her brilliant, lacerating satirical story, “The First Year of My Life.” This makes Spark surely the youngest person to contribute a properly dated fictionalized memoir to A Century Back.

The story begins with these memorable sentences:

I was born on the first day of the second month of the last year of the First World War, a Friday. Testimony abounds that during the first year of my life I never smiled.

It’s viciously good–and, much like Blunden’s backward-looking song of February–it rather spoils the outcome of the war, noting her babyish progress at each of the major milestones to come. Reader, the war will end in November, and the unsmiling baby will grow up to write a great deal, and little enough of it smile-provoking…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Well, there were also three quiet weeks at the beginning of March...
  2. Later published in Undertones of War.
  3. Later published in Verses of a V.A.D.
  4. Diaries, 208-9.
  5. Collected Letters, V, 247.
  6. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 482.

Horseplay with Alf Pollard; Reading and Reflection with Vera Brittain, Olaf Stapledon, Cynthia Asquith, and Edmund Blunden; Wilfred Owen Goes Out a Poet; Thomas Hardy in the Moon’s Bright Disbelief

The last day of the year, with its predictable subjects of reflection and memorable rituals, is often described even in otherwise sparsely dated accounts. So we’ve got a lot of material, and will check in today with not only most of our remaining regulars but also a half-forgotten figure or two.

One of the latter is Alf Pollard, V.C., now spared further death-defying heroics in the front line. His tale of the year’s end foreshadows important developments on the Western Front. He has been assigned to teach at a Lewis Gun school, and without the Lewis gun, a mobile light machine gun, it is extremely difficult for infantry to sustain their own advance. Moreover, many of his students are particularly innocent, fresh, and eager for the fray:

There were nineteen Americans altogether in the school. They were all picked officers who had been sent on ahead of their army to learn as much as possible about British methods. They were a quiet, studious crowd, more like a party of bank inspectors than soldiers…

Of course they had their legs pulled unmercifully…

I was guilty of organising a rag against them on New Year’s Eve… According to custom we British had a merry party to see the old year out. The Americans on the other hand carried on with their studies all the evening and retired to bed as usual at ten o’clock.. It seemed to me that they might at least have thrown aside the dignity of being the advanced guard of the American Army for one night…

Close on one o’clock in the morning, I and three other fellows entered quietly by one door.[1]

Ah, but that’s next year, already. And that’s the sort of tale told by a man who was never deeply troubled by the violence of the war. Pollard is both psychologically suited to fighting, and more or less immune to doubt. Which does not make him less honest than more sensitive writers: many men–especially men who are not at the front and not likely to see it anytime soon–spent New Year’s Eve in a spirit of holiday horseplay, deliberately forgetful of other things. Others, no less honest, will nevertheless feel constrained to write something in a mood of solemn reckoning.

 

Edmund Blunden has been sustained through his long and relatively scatheless service by his feelings of fellowship with his battalion. But he is away from the old battalion as much as he is with it now, and this signaling course seems both endless and pointless… but it does allow Blunden, even without being on an active front, to close the year with one of its characteristic sights: the mute messages of signal flares, playing over a background noise of ordnance.

I began to be careless whether I was in the line or out of it; nothing seemed to signify except the day’s meals, and those were still substantial, despite the lean supplies of the people at home. The price of all luxuries in the shops was rising fast, but still one could manage it; why trouble about getting back to the battalion? This was the general spirit, and we did not lament when the course was lengthened and the year ended with us waving flags in unison in the snow, or rapping out ludicrous messages to the instructors’ satisfaction, or listening to muddled addresses on alternating current.

At the moment of midnight, December 31, 1917, I stood with some acquaintances in a camp finely overlooking the whole Ypres battlefield. It was bitterly cold, and the deep snow all round lay frozen. We drank healths, and stared out across the snowy miles to the line of casual flares, still rising and floating and dropping. Their writing on the night was as the earliest scribbling of children, meaningless; they answered none of the questions with which a watcher’s eyes were painfully wide. Midnight; successions of coloured lights from one point, of white ones from another, bullying salutes of guns in brief bombardment, crackling of machine guns small on the tingling air; but all round the sole answer to unspoken but importunate questions was the line of lights in much the same relation to Flanders as at midnight a year before. The year 1918 did not look promising at its birth.[2]

 

For the Asquiths, the old year ended with a pleasant surprise–an unexpected leave for Herbert Asquith (“Beb,” to his wife). Whether for convenience or out of courtesy–or a certain delicacy–Herbert had telegraphed ahead on the 27th to let her know that he was on his way. Not coincidentally, perhaps, Bernard Freyberg, a constant presence in Cynthia’s diary for weeks now, disappears.

Today, a century back, Cynthia and Herbert had a walk and a talk, in which she discovers how happy she is that her husband is not inclined toward the family business. Even the son of the former prime minister is aggrieved at what appears to be a callous prolongation of the war…

Beb and I walked up to the top of the New Hill and back via Coscombe. It was one of the most lovely-looking days I have ever seen. Beb is in very good form—in good, lean looks and very keen and eager—seething with indignation against the Government and the ‘hate campaign’ of the civilians. He is ashamed of the way England brutally snubs every peace feeler, and reiterates that, either we should negotiate or else fight with all our might, which he says would mean doubling our army in the field. He speaks with rage of the way we are not nearly up to strength at the Front and says it is to a large extent merely a paper army. In existing circumstances a military victory is quite out of the question until America can really take the field, which will not be for years—and he thinks all the lives now being sacrificed are being wasted, it’s like going about with a huge bleeding wound and doing nothing to bind it up. Thank God Beb isn’t in the House of Commons! I should never have the moral courage to face the reception given to the kind of speech he would make.[3]

Siegfried Sassoon may have had more allies than he knew.

 

Olaf Stapledon would disagree with little of what Asquith is saying. But he is neither politician nor officer, and he is possessed of a much sunnier spirit. Sunny enough, anyway, to relate this pleasantly furry little portent of the coming year:

The other day someone in clearing out some straw came on a queer little beast hibernating. He was rather smaller than a rat and far more elegant, having a delicate brown back, a white underneath, with a black line dividing the two shades. He had a long and furry tail; in fact he was rather like a dormouse, only bigger and fatter & greyer. I saw him lying on his back in someone’s hand with his four dainty feet in the air and his tummy rising & falling ever so gently with his slumberous breath. After a while he opened his mouth and yawned but did not wake up. Some sympathetic fellow put him by the fire, the warmth of which naturally came to him as a hint of spring, so that he finally woke up and ran away. The frost must soon have induced him to find another corner in the straw and turn in again for the rest of the winter. It was very strange to see the little beast in his winter trance, so peaceful he was, almost as still as death, but without death’s stiffness. He let people wind his tail round their fingers and move his legs about and he went on heavily sleeping all the while. One kept thinking of Bergson’s elan vital, the great universal Life, that lay in him patiently awaiting the spring & the opportunity of further creativeness.

It is the last day of the year. Best wishes for the New Year to my Agnes. May there be peace. May the world begin its new and happier age. May you & I meet and marry and begin our new & happier age also. With all my love

Your own Olaf Stapledon[4]

Stapledon is a good writer, isn’t he? With ingenuous brio and a near-total absence of cynicism he takes the microcosmic beast and the whole universe, the world war and the love that carries his hope through all the horror.

And even with all the power of the internet at my disposal (for a good four minutes or so) I can’t do better on beast-identification than Stapledon. This is perhaps not surprising… Anyway… probably a dormouse!

 

But some of those who are away from the front prefer not to think of the war at all, as its fourth year draws to a close. Wilfred Owen, writing to his mother, is not so much solemn as pompously/mock-pompously portentous. And why not? It has been a momentous year for him: action and injury, shell shock and recovery, promotion from poetic striver to protegé-of-the-young-poets. The full effect of their help–and, more importantly, of his new confidence in his poetry–will be felt this year. He is melodramatic and self-aggrandizing, here… and correct:

31 December 1917, Scarborough

My own dear Mother,

…I am not dissatisfied with my years. Everything has been done in bouts: Bouts of awful labour at Shrewsbury & Bordeaux; bouts of amazing pleasure in the Pyrenees, and play at Craiglockhart; bouts of religion at Dunsden; bouts of horrible danger on the Somme; bouts of poetry always; of your affection always; of sympathy for the oppressed always.

I go out of this year a Poet, my dear Mother, as which I did not enter it. I am held peer by the Georgians; I am a poet’s poet.

I am started. The tugs have left me; I feel the great swelling of the open sea taking my galleon.

Buoyant, and beautiful. But then the galleon bobs on the tide, and the lookout looks back.

I take Owen to task, in these boyish letters to his mother, for being a self-centered young man. And he is–but he is also possessed of enormous powers of sympathy.

Last year, at this time, (it is just midnight, and now is the intolerable instant of the Change) last year I lay awake in a windy tent in the middle of a vast, dreadful encampment. It seemed neither France nor England, but a kind of paddock where the beasts are kept a few days before the shambles. I heard the revelling of the Scotch troops, who are now dead, and who knew they would be dead. I thought of this present night, and whether I should indeed—whether we should indeed—whether you would indeed—but I thought neither long nor deeply, for I am a master
of elision.

But chiefly I thought of the very strange look on all faces in that camp; an incomprehensible look, which a man will never see in England, though wars should be in England ; nor can it be seen in any battle. But only in Étaples. It was not despair, or terror, it was more terrible than terror, for it was a blindfold look, and without expression, like a dead rabbit’s.

It will never be painted, and no actor will ever seize it. And to describe it, I think I must go back and be with them.

We are sending seven officers straight out tomorrow.

I have not said what I am thinking this night, but next December I will surely do so.[5]

 

I wondered, on Christmas, whether Vera Brittain‘s description of that night might have run into New Year’e eve. If not, her Christmas gifts may well have: she has begun reading poetry again, including two writers who have featured slightly here. She mentions not only “an impressive poem called ‘The City of Fear’ by a certain Captain Gilbert Frankau, who had not then begun to dissipate his rather exciting talents upon the romances of cigar merchants” but also reading

some lines from E. A. Mackintosh’s “Cha Till Maccruimein,” in his volume of poems A Highland Regiment, which Roland’s mother and sister had sent me for Christmas:

And there in front of the men were marching.
With feet that made no mark.
The grey old ghosts of the ancient fighters
Come back again from the dark. . . .

Her brother Edward, the one of her ancient fighters who has not yet failed to come back, is thinking along much the same lines as he wrote to her today, a century back:

Italy, 31 December 1917

It has been a rotten year in many ways — Geoffrey and Tah dead and we’ve seen each other about a week all told: so there’s a sob on the sea to-night. I don’t seem to be able to write decently; so often I feel tired and fed up when I’ve done my ordinary work and so waste what little spare time I have; I wish I could manage to write to you more…[6]

 

Often at the beginning of the month I discuss a poem that was written or published during the month (but can’t be fixed to a particular day). But this month-inaugurating habit has such a hopeful, generous cast to it, doesn’t it? Why not mention poems at the end of the month as well?

Well, in December 1917 Thomas Hardy published Moments of Vision, a tremendous collection by a great poet–an old, cranky, great poet still either disesteemed by many as a novelist of less than impeccable writerly morals or ignored as an eminent Victorian who could surely have little to say to the current moment. Well, the more fool them. But as Hardy himself predicted, the book attracted little notice, since it offered little solace and tended to make people face an uncomfortable truth and “mortify the human sense of self-importance by showing, or suggesting, that human beings are of no matter or appreciable value in this nonchalant universe.”

I don’t need the poem to bring Hardy into the end of 1917 as the voice of doom…  there are, too, several end-of-year letters that will also serve…

To James Barrie:

We wish you as good a new year as can be hoped for, & a better one than the old…

To Edmund Gosse, and picking up Owen’s nautical theme:

Just a word of Salutation to you & your house on this eve of the New Year, for which you have our best wishes as fellow passengers in this precious war-galley…

And to Henry Newbolt:

…I don’t know that I have ever parted from an old year with less reluctance than from this.

…Always sincerely

Thomas Hardy.[7]

Yes, always sincere. And what of the old man himself, tonight, a century back?

Went to bed at eleven. East wind. No bells hear. Slept in the New Year, as did also those “out there.”[8]

This, I think, is why Hardy, more than any other eminent older man of letters, will be pardoned, by the young solider poets, of all offenses related to the Experiential Gulf or the Conflict of the Generations. He thinks, in his private thoughts, of what it must be to be a soldier, cold, at the front. And when he gestures to the troubled times, he does not do so without noticing the discomforting dramatizing of just such a gesture, from an old man snug abed…

In this spirit, then, and to see out the year, one of my favorite (write it!) of Hardy’s poems from the recent book. Happy New Year!

I looked up from my writing,
And gave a start to see,
As if rapt in my inditing,
The moon’s full gaze on me.

Her meditative misty head
Was spectral in its air,
And I involuntarily said,
“What are you doing there?”

“Oh, I’ve been scanning pond and hole
And waterway hereabout
For the body of one with a sunken soul
Who has put his life-light out.

“Did you hear his frenzied tattle?
It was sorrow for his son
Who is slain in brutish battle,
Though he has injured none.

“And now I am curious to look
Into the blinkered mind
Of one who wants to write a book
In a world of such a kind.”

Her temper overwrought me,
And I edged to shun her view,
For I felt assured she thought me
One who should drown him too.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Fire-Eater, 241.
  2. Undertones of War, 202-3.
  3. Diaries, 385-6.
  4. Talking Across the World, 266.
  5. Collected Letters, 520-1.
  6. Letters From a Lost Generation, 387-8.
  7. The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 236-9.
  8. The Life of Thomas Hardy, 378-9.

Christmas 1917: Melancholy Milestone, Vicarious Joy, and Less Unhappy Than I Thought

It’s a complicated Christmas, 1917. Several of our writers–including Cynthia Asquith, with whom we’ll start, and Vera Brittain, whose long, sad day will come last–will dwell on the same themes of unsettled traditions and mixed memories.

It’s not simply the quandary of being caught between an instinct for celebration and the need to use a family occasion to grieve and lament for those who have been lost, but also a problem that has grown with this long, static war: if Christmas used to be a trigger for happy memories and the balm of reenacting old joys, there are now three Christmases for which the boys have not been home; three Christmases tinged with that same sickly feeling of mixed emotions, and the fear that absent loved ones may at any moment turn out to be permanently absent. For those who have lost brothers, lovers, sons, or husbands, Christmas may now provoke sharp memories of painful and bereft Christmases past.

 

It’s a very complicated Christmas at the Asquiths. Cynthia Asquith learned last night from her father-in-law, the former Prime Minister, that his son “Oc”–her husband’s sole surviving brother–has been dangerously wounded.

What bad luck! And it sounds bad, too—compound fracture of both bones above the ankle: P.M. wrote, ‘However, they hope to be able to save his foot’. I do hope he won’t lose it.

I packed up parcels after tea, and after dinner we had the usual bedroom marauding parties, but none of us had the heart for any of the time-honoured stocking jokes . . . once the old passage seemed so impregnated with darling Ego and Yvo.

Yes, if she sounds less than horrified about the serious wound to her brother-in-law, that might be because she is in her mother’s house, and both her brothers are dead.

Christmas has become a melancholy milestone for us, but luckily the men of this house-party (who are all under six years) take a glorious joy in all the old rites. Michael was the most satisfactory Christmas child imaginable: he refused to have the fire in his bedroom lit because he was afraid Father Christmas might bum his toes coming down the chimney. Bibs was wonderful with her presents—one for every servant and all beautifully done up in fancy paper and labelled. She kept putting the wrong parcels in the various stockings, so our labours lasted far into the night. I had a sad little hair-combing with Letty. She has been so valiant this year—no breakdown like last Christmas Eve and energising all day over the house decorations. My heart aches for my little John: one turns for salvation to the nursery and that is ‘the most unkindest cut of all’.

And this morning?

Tuesday, 25th December

Nurse called me at 7.30 to see Michael opening his parcels: the vicarious enjoyment was very great. Most of the family went to early service. I joined them at a late breakfast. Found a gorgeous enamel fountain pen from Freyberg. Great excitement over an anonymous present to Bibs—a lovely, and very costly-looking star-sapphire Grenadier badge brooch…[1]

And where is papa? With the artillery in Flanders:

The Major asked what the men would like for their Christmas dinner: we had expected that they would choose either geese or turkeys, but we were completely wrong; our sergeant-major reported that there was a very strong feeling in favour of sucking pigs, and a party was sent out from the wagon line to search the farms of Flanders for a sufficient supply of these delectable animals.[2]

 

Let’s take a quick tour of some of our main characters, now:

 

Robert Graves took a short leave for Christmas, and was able to be with his intended: the Nicholsons were at their house in Wales, near Harlech, and only a few hours’ journey from Rhyl. The wedding is now planned for about a month hence…[3]

 

Rowland Feilding is home, with Edith and their four daughters, aged about one to thirteen–there will be no need to write a war letter to his wife today.

And a very blurry picture of Blunden at the signal school at Mont des Cats

 

 

Edmund Blunden is away from his beloved battalion, a home away from home. He is on a less-than-thrilling signal course, tramping around in the snow and learning about German wireless procedures.

 

 

Wilfred Owen, quite busy with a hotel-full of reserve officers, will tell his sister–while thanking her for her gift and apologizing for not yet sending one to her–that he had

a very mopish Christmas. The C.O. held an orderly Room for punishments in the morning—a thing forbidden in King’s Regulations on Christmas Day—and strafed right & left, above & below…[4]

 

As for Siegfried Sassoon, he has been mopish for a while now, but he enjoys moping more than most. At least, he doesn’t sound too displeased with his Christmas:

Christmas Day (Litherland)

Alone in the hut, after a day of golf at Formby, in fine, cold weather; dine to-night with Colonel Jones Williams and family at Crosby.[5]

 

Back, then, to the front, where the Master of Belhaven is (tremendously) better prepared than he was yesterday:

Our fourth War Christmas, and a typical Christmas Day, snow everywhere…  The men on my H.Q. had a tremendous dinner with six turkeys and a bottle of stout a man, which I provided… We had a tremendous dinner with five French officers; it was really overpowering, as I had only four of my own… the doctor and I had to do all the talking…[6]

 

Carroll Carstairs will recall a similar scene in the mess of the 3rd Grenadier Guards:

Christmas night. Champagne was drunk by the Battalion Headquarters mess. We became flushed and merry—purely artificially so—all very jolly.[7]

 

Kate Luard‘s diary-in-letters has lapsed during her posting to a new hospital, but a Christmas letter to her father survives:

My darling father,

The Division is busy giving concerts in our big theatre this week. Each Battalion has its own troupe and the rivalry is keen. We three sisters are the solitary and distinguished females in a pack of 600 men and inspire occasional witty & polite sallies from the Performers. We sit in the front row between Colonels of the 3[rd] D[ragoon] G[uard]s and 2nd Black Watch & others. Each concert party has its ‘Star Girl’ marvellously got up as in a London Music Hall. Some sing falsetto & some roar their songs in a deep bass coming from a low neck & chiffon dress, lovely stockings & high heels![8]

 

As for Jack Martin, Christmas came early, and so today, in the line, he was grateful for a faint echo of the famous truce of yesteryear:

Today has been beautiful and very quiet. Our guns have fired a few rounds but the Italians and Austrians have religiously abstained from any act of warfare…[9]

 

Olaf Stapledon surely wrote something to Agnes Miller, but the letter seems not to have survived. But Agnes herself isn’t pulling any punches: it may be Christmas, but it’s still only a few days after the vote on conscription.

…A Happy Christmas to you, dear, in your far away village or barns or car, wherever you are.

If only you were here! …this is the fourth Christmas… without you… It surely must be the last…

It seems that everything works up all through the year towards Christmas & one counts the waiting of all the past year at Christmas & the sum of it is very great. . . .

The result of the Referendum has left many a tear of desperation in train. I forget the figures, but the main fact is that there is a very much larger majority for no than there was last year. I feel a terrible outsider because I cannot take it to heart like all my friends…

The sad part about it is that those gaps will be filled by men who are not the right ones to go—married men, & boys & families who have already done their bit—the willing ones. That is the wicked part about not having conscription. They may bring it in compulsorily yet—but then the fat will be in the fire!

…You would have voted against it, would you not? Your ‘no’ would have been the outcome of very different thinkings to the no of 99 per cent of the Victors in our Referendum, but the result is the same. There is the pity of it. The Quakers stuck to their no. Mother is one of their black sheep.[10]

 

Finally, today, Vera Brittain. There is an evocative and deeply sad section of her memoir, Testament of Youth, set at Christmas, 1917. But after reading it over several times, it seems a bit fishy, in terms of the exact timing. I’m not alleging any malfeasance greater than the “telescoping” that many memoir writers indulge in, but if it’s done for effect, and if we care about the day-to-day timing of “history,” then we might well ask–and why, then, are these changes made? And for what effect?

Except for the weather it didn’t seem much like Christmas, with no Roland or Victor or Geoffrey to buy presents for, and Edward so far away that the chance of anything reaching him within a week of the proper time was discouragingly remote. Wartime Christmases anyhow had long lost their novelty, but Mary and I got up early all the same and made shopping expeditions to the village, walking back in pitch darkness through the frozen mud laden with fruit and sweets and gaudy decorations. Christmas Day itself was less unhappy than I had expected, for after a tea-party with the men in my ward, I spent the evening warmly and sleepily at a concert given by the convalescents from the two next-door huts, of which Hope Milroy was now in charge by day.

My own tea-party had to be brief because of another Corporal Smith — though of a type very different from that of the first mortally ill man that I had seen at the Devonshire Hospital — who was rapidly dying of phthisis.

Thus the transition from a melancholy but warm Christmas day to a dismal night of suffering and death. But note the lack of chronological specificity in the transition. That is, she doesn’t say that her own tea party was also to take place Christmas night, but rather implies it… does she telescope all the way to New Year’s Day?

Soon, in any case, Corporal Smith will die:

The traditional only son of a widow, who had been sent for from England, he was one of those grateful, sweet-tempered patients whom it was torture to be unable to save. As he and 1917 ebbed away together, I couldn’t rest even though the surviving gassed cases had gone to England and the convoys had suddenly ceased, but hovered ail night between the stove and the foot of his bed, waiting for the inevitable dawn which would steal greyly around the folded screens. Only once, for ten minutes, did I forsake the self-imposed futility of watching the losing struggle, when Edward’s Christmas letter, written on December 22nd, came out of a snowstorm to remind me that love still existed, quick and warm, in a world dominated by winter and death.

So here is the real Christmas gift. And yet it can hardly have arrived on Christmas. Three days would be good time–but quite reasonable–for a letter from the trenches in France to England. But from the new Italian front to a hospital in France? And she has just commented that she would expect it to take a week for her letter to get to him…

But here in her chronology–whether she remembers it as Christmas or she knows that it must have been a few days later and she is merely prolonging the “scene” for effect–comes Edward’s fond, but distant greetings…

“To-night I owe you a long letter… I am so thankful for your letters — they are now as before the greatest help in the whole world. . . . I don’t know whether I am glad to be here or not — it sounds strange but it’s quite true; I was glad to leave the unpleasant region we were in not far from you and the novelty was good for a time but yet in a way it is all the same because there is no known future and the end is not yet, though, on the face of things at present, there is perhaps more chance of return…

“It seems so much more than two years ago since Roland was killed — to-morrow and Monday I will think of you whenever I can and our love of him may lessen the miles between us.”

And that is how the strange, syncopated blow falls on the reader. I almost missed it: it has been two years since Roland died–two years and two days, for us–but the reader of the memoir would pass from then to there in an hour, or else in a few days of casual reading. Vera Brittain has seen fit to let the anniversary of the worst Christmas pass by unremembered, until she reads the letter.

She includes one more line from her brother’s letter, before bringing us back to the here and now (whenever, precisely, that is):

“What a long war this is! It seems wonderful to have lived so long through it when everyone else is dead.

“Good night, dear dear child.”

It must have been very soon afterwards that Corporal Smith died. His mother, a little woman in rusty black, wept quietly and controlledly beside him when the final struggle for breath began; she gave us no trouble even when Mary replied “Yes, quite sure,” to her final piteous inquiry. After I had taken her through the bitter, snowy darkness to the night superintendent’s bunk, Mary and I laid out the boy’s wasted body. His rapid death had been due, we were told, to an over-conscientious determination to endure; he had refused to complain until too late.

There, and none too subtle, is the message: another year, another day, another death–and why do we not complain, why do we not protest? Whence (and wherefore) any help for our plight?

And then, softly, Brittain turns back to a much more traditional Christmas, a moment out of Dickens, with a slight uncanny tinge of Rilke.

When the orderlies had carried him away, we sat shivering over the stove and discussed in whispers the prospect of a future life; that old discussion, the answer to which three of the four with whom I had most often shared it had now discovered for themselves — or not, as the case might be. But on night-duty many things appeared possible which were quite improbable by day; there seemed, that midnight, to be strange whispers in the snow-laden silence, and the beating of invisible wings about us in the dimly lighted ward.[11]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 384.
  2. Moments of Memory, 310.
  3. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 190.
  4. Collected Letters, 519.
  5. Diaries, 198.
  6. War Diary, 422-7.
  7. A Generation Missing, 146-7.
  8. Unknown Warriors, 205.
  9. Sapper Martin, 156.
  10. Talking Across the World, 263-4.
  11. Testament of Youth, 396-9.

Edmund Blunden Marches West of Ruin and into Dreary New Quarters; Frederic Manning Confined to His; Siegfried Sassoon Hastens to Explain Himself to a Looming Lady Ottoline

Frederic Manning reported himself sick today, a century back. But, unfortunately, everyone knew that he had been out drinking the night before, and the Medical Officer refused to acknowledge the fiction, ordering him confined to quarters. Manning’s C.O., however, dragged his feet, no doubt debating how exactly to report this lapse–so soon after an exonerating Medical Board–to the War Office.[1]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, meanwhile, is keeping up with his correspondence. Lady Ottoline Morrell, who took Sassoon’s deflection from the anti-war cause in stride, seems to be less enthused about his coming defection. I’m not sure exactly what she has written to him, but there is a strong sense that she has demanded an explanation about how exactly he plans to rejoin the war effort without considering himself a traitor to her cause.

28 October 1917, Craiglockhart

My dear Ottoline,

The trouble is that if I continue my protesting attitude openly after being passed for General Service they will call it a ‘recrudescence’ or relapse and keep me shut up here or elsewhere. They will never court-martial me. The only chance would be—after being passed fit—to get an outside opinion from a man like Mercier. I don’t quite know how they’d act if he said I was normal.

So Sassoon is still thinking of his return in terms of guarantees and bureaucratic arm-twistings on the matter of his sanity, rather than success of the appeal, made by Rivers and Sassoon’s other friends, to his sense of loyalty to the fighting troops. What Sassoon writes doesn’t make a great deal of sense, and he says nothing, yet, to Lady Ottoline about his having skipped a medical board… It’s hard to tell if he acts as if he holds the cards in order to reassure her that he is still a principled pacifist or in order to conceal from himself that he has decided to give in–and that he only has Rivers’s assurances that this is a compromise rather than an unconditional surrender.

At present the War Office has been informed that the only conditions under which I will undertake soldiering again are with my old Battalion in France, which makes it fairly clear. I mean to get a written guarantee from them before I do anything definite, as I know their ways too well. I am glad you like ‘Death’s Brotherhood‘. It is the best that is in me, however badly I may have expressed it.

Nor does he want a visit from the eminent pacifist:

It isn’t worth while your corning all the way to Edinburgh in this awful weather. Wait a bit—I may be getting away soon…

I am not depressed—only strung up for supreme efforts—whether they’ll be out in that charnel-place or not is in the hands of chance. Only I want to be active somehow because I know I can do it. Strength is something to be glad for—and one needs it to be able to face the bare idea of going back to hell…[2]

 

Speaking of hell, Edmund Blunden has been in and out all autumn. Today, a century back–matching his memoir to the Battalion War Diary–he made it as far back as, if not quite paradise, something approaching the appropriate pastoral antithesis of Third Ypres…

A day or so later (my company being reconsigned to its ordinary commander) the battalion marched back several miles to another camp. The route lay through Kemmel, where we made a halt, wondering to see the comparatively sound state of the houses and particularly the chateau’s ridiculous mediaeval turrets in red brick. Its noble trees were a romance and poetry understood by all. The day was gloomy, but to be “stepping westward” among common things of life made it light enough. Gently the chestnut and aspen leaves were drifting down with the weight of the day’s dampness. We passed over hills still green, and by mossy cottages, with onions drying under the eaves. It was as though war forgot some corners of Flanders…

But that doesn’t mean that western Flanders can forget the war: their camp is no clutch of cozy cottages.

Our camp by Westoutre at length appeared, through a drifting rain, in the bottom of a valley, undisguised slabby clay; the houses hereabouts were mean, and no entertainment for the troops could be anticipated. Indeed, the mere physical needs were unanswered by the tattered canvas of this wretched open field. Protests were “forwarded,” and we were moved to a hutment camp in a wood, called Ottawa, as fine as the other was miserable…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Marwil, Frederic Manning, An Unfinished Life, 185.
  2. Diaries, 193.
  3. Undertones of War, 255.

Siegfried Sassoon Will Return to France, But Not Acquiesce; Edmund Blunden Bestrides the Becrumped Duckwalks of Ypres

Siegfried Sassoon was not in the best of moods when Robert Graves recently came to visit. He was reminded, surely, of Graves’s role in sending him to Craiglockhart, and irritated by how easy Graves has found it to make his peace with the war, as it were. But the friendship endures, and is sustained by another, now:

19 October, Craiglockhart

Dearest Robert, I am so glad you like Owen’s poem. I will tell him to send you on any decent stuff he does. His work is very unequal, and you can help him a great deal.

Seeing you again has made me more restless than ever. My position here is nearly unbearable, and the feeling of isolation makes me feel rotten. I had a long letter from Cotterill to-day. They had just got back to rest from Polygon Wood and he says the conditions and general situation are more bloody than anything he has yet seen. Three miles of morasses, shell-holes and dead men and horses through which to get the rations up. I should like the people who write leading articles for the Morning Post (about victory) to read his letter.

This letter from Cotterill may have undercut the last of Sassoon’s resistance to returning to active service, but Sassoon has clearly been nearly ready to find a way to come in from the cold. In any case, even old Joe Cotterill, the quartermaster of the 1st Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, has scant influence on Sassoon compared to the man he sees daily, respects most of anyone, and can only not disappoint by giving up his protest:

I have told Rivers that I will go back to France, if they will send me (making it quite clear that my views are exactly the same as in July—only more so).

This is at once wishful thinking and specious logic. Sassoon–a man hopelessly unable to either outwit or out-muscle the ponderous bureaucracy of the war–is writing to the very friend most instrumental in having helped that bureaucracy shuffle him neatly aside, and yet he is imagining that he can both keep his opinions and negotiate the terms of his return. It takes a strange form of bullheadedness to refuse to understand the official illogic of a system whose callous officiousness one had previously protested:

They will have to give me a written guarantee that I shall be sent back at once. I don’t quite understand how it is that Rivers can do nothing but pass me for General Service as he says, because I am in the same condition as I was three months ago, and if I am fit for General Service now, I was fit then.

This is, again, strangely obtuse coming from a man with such a gift for viciously exposing official hypocrisy. Sassoon loves Rivers and hates the War Office, but he doesn’t imagine that just because the War Office cynically sent a more-or-less healthy protester to a hospital, a doctor in its employ won’t sacrifice his own integrity… but I took him to task over this only two days ago.

This next line should be taken, I think, as a joke, on Rivers’s part. (That, in any event, is how Pat Barker plays it.)

He says I’ve got a very strong ‘anti-war’ complex, whatever that means. I should like the opinion of a first-class ‘alienist’ or whatever they call the blokes who decide if people are dotty. However we shall see what they say. Personally I would rather be anywhere than here.

Sassoon realizes–at least on a slightly subconscious level–that he has lost the fight over making his own mental state relevant to his opinions. And so his mind returns to the trenches.

It’s too b….y to think of poor old Joe lying out all night in shell-holes and being shelled (several of the ration-party
were killed) but, as he says, ‘the Battalion got their rations’. What a man he is.

And as for Graves? Is Graves a real man? Sassoon pulls no punches, here:

O Robert, what ever will happen to end the war? It’s all very well for you to talk about ‘good form; and acting like a  ‘gentleman’. To me that’s a very estimable form of suicidal stupidity and credulity. You admit that the people who sacrifice the troops are callous b….rs, and the same thing is happening in all countries (except some of Russia). If you had real courage you wouldn’t acquiesce as you do.

Yours ever Sassons[1]

Is it sadness and confusion or sheer effrontery to end a letter that contained the news of his decision to abandon his protest with an attack on his friend for his own acquiescence?

 

And speaking of the trenches, Edmund Blunden and his 11th Royal Sussex left them tonight, a century back. It’s been a (short) while since we’ve had a harrowing, flare-smeared Ypres night relief:

But as yet we are not relieved. The most dangerous moment of the tour is to come. Upon the arrival of the “guides,” there was the usual process of sorting one another out by company headquarters, and some mistake led to a certain amount of noise. The moment was when my company was halting in the open, near Hunwater Dugout. At once the Germans fired so many illuminants that the ground with its pools was like a jeweller’s shop; I shouted to my anxious men to stand fast, but one or two were new or nervous, and ducked or moved on; then the enemy’s machine guns played, the informing white lights multiplied, were repeated farther off; red lights, bursting into two like cherries on a stalk, went up by the dozen. There seemed now no doubt that a box barrage of the highest quality would come down on us, and my skin felt in the act of shrivelling. To our amazement, the German guns held their peace; the streaming bullets raced over a little longer, then slackened, and we went with sober minds on our way. It seemed a long way, as all night journeys in the Salient did, but we knew we had been lucky this time, and as we picked our way between the roaring batteries and the greasy roadside wreckage, we rejoiced. Finally a number of short leafy trees in the mist showed that we were on the borders of life again; it was Voormezeele, and our camp was at hand — Boys Camp. A hot meal awaited all, and I suppose the surviving officers still reckon that night’s roast pork in the flapping, icy marquee as particularly notable among Quartermaster Swain’s many capital performances…[2]

A few days hence, Blunden will craft a comic version of the horrors of this tour in one of his schoolboy-baroque letters to Hector Buck. If we skip some of the more toweringly referential sentences (not to mention the cricket bits), there is a nice bit of purple-prosey description of night work with the battalion:

…The tents flap wildly in the teeth of the nor’easter, the mud stretches unimaginably that way and this, stolchy and skin-deep; the too thoughtful foeman tries to vary our dull existence with bombing beanos when the raspberry-coloured moon ariseth…

we string along the becrumped duckwalks in a darkness that may be felt, a remnant manages to find its way up to the foremost shellholes and lies down in them. The previous tenants quit as fast as the sludge will allow… meantime the scorbutic Blunden is crawling around trying to find the ruins of Potiphar Farm or Usedtobe Castle in order to get his correct dispositions back to a Fuming and nail-nibbling C.O. Ruins are not, so he falls back on lesser symptoms of bygone villages; such as a contortion of metal which proves a Brewery lost…

At last he sees that there is nothing for it except compass bearings so he drops his compass into one or two pools of water and goes back to Company HQ. This place is usually an old Bosch pillbox with the typical Bosch smell and a large doorway facing right towards the Bosch gunners, machine-gunners, minnymen, snipers, and whatso else there be that crump, zonk, bump, plonk, or in any other way soever worry, annoy, or badger the nonchalant Englishmen. But mark you, there is no means of getting into the dugout except this doorway, screened though it be with two or three ground sheets and some German equipment: and once inside, the unguarded foot suddenly falls lovingly into about 18 inches of Hunwater, with noisome bubbles winking at the brim…

And with the shells comes an amusingly over-the-top parody of bureaucratic “Bumf.”

The arrival of a muster of 5.9’s just outside the door causes the last drain of whisky to jolt off the pro-table and vanish for ever in the seething depths. And then up comes some paper warfare – ‘You will submit a Raid Scheme’ or ‘s e c r e t. The Battalion will not be relieved for 25 years’ or ‘The 333rd course for intending Landscape Painters will assemble at Medicine Hat on the 1st April 1918. Coys, will detail 50 young & intelligent men each, with if possible some knowledge of wombat culture, gingernut-fancying and love cages, to report at Bn. HQ at 2 a.m. today. Rations for 1920 will be carried and the men will have a bath before they leave the front line.

(Sd) Napoleon Buonaparte
Lt, & A/Adjt 6 p.m.’[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 191-2.
  2. Undertones of War, 253-4.
  3. More Than a Brother, 13-14.

Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen Link Up–A New Spat and a New Friendship; Owen’s “Disabled,” and Isaac Rosenberg’s Simultaneous Prequel, “Girl to a Soldier”

Robert Graves spent the night on the train from London to Edinburgh. Arriving at Craiglockhart, today, a century back, he found Siegfried Sassoon in a bad mood, fed up with his intolerable Theosophist roommate (although it is unclear whether the man’s relentless Panglossianism, the actual tenets of his pseudo-faith, or merely his baroque shenanigans with English diction are the real cause of Sassoon’s ire). But Sassoon’s troubles are deeper, probably: after long weeks working with Rivers, and then a long break while Rivers himself was on sick leave, Sassoon is beginning to be convinced that regardless of the rightness of his cause–his protest, that is–there is no ethically acceptable course for himself but to rejoin the men he protested for, and put himself once more in harm’s way.

After all, for how long can one write and golf and complain when one’s friends (not to mention the soldiers who, by all accounts, respected Sassoon and would not fare as well under most other subalterns) are going back to war?

For a little while longer, evidently. Sassoon is most stubborn when others might want to give him a nudge. Even though Graves took the night train to see him, Sassoon couldn’t be bothered to wait, and called in a subordinate (of sorts) to entertain his guest.

 

Biography can be a sweeping, powerful genre, filled with insights into life and history and the human condition. But it’s also, fundamentally, an assemblage of interesting tit-bits. And here’s a good one: Wilfred Owen only became friendly with Robert Graves because this very morning, a century back, Sassoon would not, by Jove, be stayed from a round of golf, no matter how many friends-and-poets want to spend the morning with him. Owen appreciates the strange gesture of selfish generosity:

On Sat, I met Robert Graves (see last poem of O.H.) for Sassoon, whom nothing could keep from his morning’s golf; & took Graves over to the Course when he arrived. He is a big, rather plain fellow, the last man on earth apparently capable of the extraordinary, delicate fancies in his books.

No doubt he thought me a slacker sort of sub. S.S. when they were together showed him my longish war-piece ‘Disabled’ (you haven’t seen it) & it seems Graves was mightily impressed, and considers me a kind of Find!

No thanks. Captain Graves! I’ll find myself in due time.

So, yes, although he has just met another impressive published poet, not to mention a man, however gawky, from a literary family, with a Public School behind him and Oxford ahead (should he survive)–a man so esteemed of Sassoon that he is the addressee of several poems–Owen is able to puff out his chest and hold his head high. He might accept more friendship, but he doesn’t seem to be in need of any more mentors or patrons (though, of course, in the professional sense he very much is). Nor does he: “Disabled” is not one of Owen’s more subtle pieces, nor does it have that compression and swift, quiet musicality of some of his best poems. But it is direct, and very, very sad:

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.
                            *        *        *        *        *
About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,—
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,
All of them touch him like some queer disease.
                            *        *        *        *        *
There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.
                            *        *        *        *        *
One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join. He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts.
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of, all their guilt,
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.
                            *        *        *        *        *
Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.
                            *        *        *        *        *
Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

 

A good poem, terrible in its lingering agony.

But we were in the middle of a letter marked by Owen’s high spirits and new confidence. So: Owen is flattered by Graves’s compliments, and he values Sassoon very highly–esteems him, even loves him in some sense(s)–but he is his own poet now, and not so smitten that he doesn’t see the condescension and inequality of their relationship:

I think it a rather precious exhibition of esteem that S.S. lends me the MSS. of his next book. On the other hand, when I pointed out a quotation from Shakespere that I intended for my Frontispiece, he collared it by main force, & copied it out for himself![1]

 

Let’s return to Sassoon, and to what he is avoiding. And let’s give him his due as a thinker: he is slow to decide and easily influenced on the way to decision, but he is bullish and not easily swayed once underway, less brilliant than several of our young poets, but not nearly as plodding as he portrays himself in the proper-person autobiographies.

The problem is not what to do–he can hardly wait out an indefinite war as an asymptomatic victim of its neuroses, and he will not accept a sham permanent disability–but how to explain his about-face, how to justify it to himself as well as to others.

Graves, for instance, hates the war and fights on, but his explanations are not satisfactory to Sassoon:

It doesn’t matter what’s the cause.
What wrong they say we’re righting,
A curse for treaties, bonds and laws.
When we’re to do the fighting!
And since we lads are proud and true,
What else remains to do?

 

Graves generally styles himself as a bit of a rebel, but he is conventional, at least, in the fact that his pride in serving well–and in serving with well-respected units of a proud old Regiment–is a central facet of his war experience. Sassoon can’t object to this, exactly, but he also can’t express his loyalty this simplistically.

His irritation with Graves, however, may have relatively little to do with poetic expressions of dissent. He may be annoyed at another aspect of what could be seen as either immaturity or commendably heedless devotion. Not only is Graves fighting on with only the most conventional not-reasoning-why as his excuse, but he is (conventionally) besotted with a young woman, one whose outspokenness and enthusiasms (feminism, the literature of childhood) are hardly to Sassoon’s taste.[2]

There are worse things in the world than differences of opinions, friendly spats, and petulant devotion to previously planned rounds of golf, especially when they conspire to spark new friendships. Whatever the initial impressions that Owen and Graves garnered of each other, they will be friends, now, to the benefit of both. If Graves seems an unsuitable mentor he will still a very useful reader. And Owen, like most poets in the course of making leaps and bounds, makes good use of the criticism his work-in-progress receives.

 

But there are other poets not in Scotland. Isaac Rosenberg, for instance, is in France, where he recently returned from leave and promptly fell ill with influenza. One slim benefit of this dangerous illness is the ability to catch up on his correspondence…

Dear Mr. Bottomley

When I returned from my holiday I as taken sick and sent down the line. So I can write to you more leisurely than before. When I was in England I felt too restless to write or read…

Rosenberg then confides that he purchased a book of Bottomley’s, and proceeds to be assiduously complimentary of the work, as well as concerned about his mentor’s health–this from a sick, weak man who, if he survives the ‘flu, will be sent back into the line. But Rosenberg’s deferential attitude never falls all the way into obsequiousness. His leave was emotionally confusing (as of course it must be, after a first long experience of the trenches), but despite the feelings of dislocation his confidence is high:

I don’t knew whether you sent that photo you promised… but I am looking forward to seeing it very much. If ever I get the chance I will remind you of your promise to sit for me–if I still have the skill and power to draw. I wrote a small poem I’ll enclose, I may now be able to think about my unicorn although so many things happening puts all ideas our of ones head.

Yours sincerely,

I Rosenberg

The poem he included was this early draft of “Girl To A Soldier On Leave,” which makes, I now realize, a rather haunting companion–too late, or too early–to “Disabled.” Sex and death and fear ans suffering are all hand-in-hand, today…

 

Girl To A Soldier

I love you – Titan lover,
My own storm days Titan.
Greater than the sons of Zeus,
I know whom I should choose.

Pallid days, arid & wan
Tied your soul fast.
Babel cities smoky tops
Bore down on your growth
Vulturelike… What were you?
But a word in the brain’s ways
Or the sleep of Circe’s swine.
One gyve holds you yet.

Love! You love me, your eyes
Have looked through death at mine.
You have tempted a grave too much.
I let you – I repine.[3]

 

And, finally,–and just so we can get all five of the most famous surviving war poets into one post–let’s have a quote from the War Diary of the 11th Royal Sussex, for today, a century back:

Orders to move on 14th received. Party with Lieutenant Blunden reconnoitres camp near Vierstraat.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 499.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 185-6.
  3. Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head, 110-12.

Withdrawals and Approaches: Charles Carrington, Hugh Quigley, Edmund Blunden, and Guy Chapman near Passchendaele Ridge

Before we turn to the tribulations of Charles Carrington on the Steenbeek, we must look to our immediate rear, where we have such a build-up of memoir writers in the support lines of the Salient that poetry can pass from one to the next…

 

First is Hugh Quigley, soon headed back toward the front lines. A fell mood is upon him:

The Canal Bank, Ypres, 6 October, 1917

I am right in the thick of it again, in this historic place which I shall describe some time. When I think of the glorious weather, sunlight shimmering in the molten sky, slow winds just breathing over the wilderness of shell-holes, it seems so hard throwing it all aside for an uncertain end. Yet it must be done. Perhaps Fate may have some kindness in store for me. Last night I had a strangely poignant dream: I was lying in the hospital trying madly to move my legs, both tied down in splints, and biting my lips to overcome pain coming from the right groin. A comfortable wound might be the outcome of this premonition. Let us hope so: then I can see again the Old Country I had given up for lost, hear the old voices, look at the friendly glad faces.[1]

 

Edmund Blunden, too, is on the way back in. His last tour had been harrowing, although of course it could have been worse. All of his unsurpassed talent for knitting together Gothic horror and pastoral idyll in close company on the page is exerted here, as he describes the withdrawal and then the time in reserve:

After the most vigorous display by the Bosch artillery that I have yet had to cast my eye upon and a narrow escape from being pulled under in a swamp on the way out (I was in such a hurry to get out of the barrage that my foot missed the dead man I was going to use as a duckboard),  we came back to this Corydonian spot for a B.E.F. rest. We feed in a barn which smells most pleasantly of hops…

Or not–not yet: this is not the studied, sumptuous memoir bur rather a contemporary letter to his school friend Hector Buck, which soon more fully embraces the usual tone of frenetic gaiety:

A bevy of milkmaids flitters about and warbles dithyrambs in the sunny air; at times they cease to warble but make a noise exactly similar by working an obese and crotchety cream separator. Since I knew they were on the go I have broken my vow and shaved; but even then my Charms are not availing.[2]

The memoir also fills us is in on how Blunden and the 11th Royal Sussex were really spending their time out of the line: drilling, marching, shooing on rifle and pistol ranges, and practicing for some of the least Arcadian recourses of the war.

This next episode–gas training–makes it possible, using the Battalion War Diary, to date this description fairly securely to today, a century back:

It was even a pleasure here to see Williams, the divisional gas officer, and his same old sergeant, at their kindly, deadly work again. I forget what type of gas it was that Williams discharged upon us, leaving it to us to get our helmets on or pass out. However, I believe it was not at full strength, for some hens poking about in the stubble did not suffer. Perhaps God tempers the gas to the Ypres hen.

But here is a point of interest not only specifically to this project but to the entire genre of the war memoir. Several of our writers involved in Passchendaele have–even while describing its horrors at great length–begun to refuse to dwell firmly in their evolving historical moment. In 1917 the war has become too much to bear–or its young wager-victims have become too prematurely old to live without the melancholy shoring-up of reminiscence:

Our minds receded with actual joy to the 1916 war, and particularly that season when we were within the kindly influence of Bethune. When had we heard the word “a bon time” since? How few there were left even to understand what hopes had then borne the battalion on, singing, toward the Somme! When we left this camp of disastered 1917, to be merged again in the slow amputation of Passchendaele, there was no singing. I think there were tears on some cheeks.

More prosaically, Blunden reports that he was passed over for promotion at this time–“the General would not hear of it, claiming that I was too young. My offences against propriety of speech and demeanour were in any case sufficient to spoil my chances…”–but also that he will be given a company nonetheless (to command as First Lieutenant, rather than a Captain).

Before that I had had a special duty to do. It was to act as “Tunnel Major” in Hedge Street Tunnels — to regulate the very limited and fiercely coveted accommodation there, and the traffic in and out. This took me back to the accursed area again, and even while I made my way there the evil nature of the place displayed itself. Going up by way of Zillebeke, I was obliged to stop. An “area shoot” began, a solid German bombardment for an hour on a chosen space, enclosing several battery positions. This shelling was so concentrated and geometrical that, leaning against the side of our old trench just beyond its limit, one was in safety. But the area covered was treated as with a titanic roller and harrow. About half an hour after this shoot began, from the very middle of the furnace two artillerymen suddenly emerged, running like demons but unwounded.

Outside the large dugout which I was to supervise a quartermaster-sergeant’s body was lying. Men were afraid to pause even a few seconds at this point and bodies were not quickly buried…

I found the tunnels crammed with soldiers on business and otherwise. The Colonel and Adjutant of the R. F.’s, who had taken our place in the Tower Hamlets sector a fortnight or so before, were occupying a new and half-finished dugout; they used me very hospitably. The Colonel remarked, pouring me out a drink, “We no longer exist.” I asked how: he explained that their casualties had been over 400.

Our experience had been only the prelude to their full symphony…[3]

 

Guy Chapman‘s symphony, as it happens–it was his battalion of the Royal Fusiliers which greeted Blunden, though Blunden does not recall the young officer’s name.[4]

On our third evening in Hedge Street we welcomed a very young, very fair and very shy subaltern from the Royal Sussex, who were to relieve us the next day. His battalion had preceded us at Tower Hamlets and had suffered a like experience. Late that evening a 6-inch How-battery commander came in to ask for accommodation and stayed to dinner. He was a pale bald man with a near fair moustache. He thumped on the table and recited Kipling for our entertainment.

This next bit, then, would be proper to tomorrow, a century back:

On the next day I showed our incoming tenant from the Sussex over his noxious habitation. As we bade him good-bye, he shyly put a small paper-covered book into my hand. The Harbingers, ran the title, ‘Poems by E.C. Blunden.’ It went into my it along with the battered Shakespeare, the torn Evan Harrington, and Sir Thomas Browne.[5]

 

Finally, though, we must skip ahead, more in the geographical than the anticipatory sense. We left Charles Carrington (the “Edmonds” of A Subaltern’s War), yesterday, about to grab a few hours overnight in the A Company dugout. After two long sleepless days and nights, he was exhausted, jumpy, and not too proud to simply sleep in a place of greater safety, “a little bit of narrow trench partly covered with a sheet of iron.”

After dawn, Carrington/Edmonds continued to lay as low as he decently could.

I determined quite basely to take shelter for a few hours in C company’s pill-box, and presently plucked up courage and squattered across through the stream to it.

This pill-box was the only piece of good cover in the battalion area. Imagine a small room ten feet square and six feet high with walls of thick rough concrete. There is only one opening, the door, over which a waterproof sheet is draped. The furniture consists of four bunks made of wire stretched on wooden frames. Signallers and officers’ servants have made a little hutch under the lee of the outer wall. Inside, live Marriott and Flint, a serjeant, and as many other people as are thought to deserve refuge. During the day Newsom and Wolfe each pay a visit to get some rest. I come first and stay longest. After all, the headquarters of a front-line company make quite a good command-post for a support company commander, and Thorburn’s position is within shouting distance and full view by daylight. On such a little journey had we lost our way last night.

Flint is something in the same exhausted state as myself; Marriott, who came up from reserve with Thorburn and Wolfe after the attack, is very cheerful and doing most of the work…

Descriptions of pill-boxes will be a major feature of “Edmonds'” narrative from here on out, with loving attention both to their horribleness and their precise degree of protection against different armaments.

But war narratives can never be truly predictable: today passes pleasantly and amusingly, with a tone of light comedy, however much strained, by tension, toward hysteria:

Marriott welcomed me cordially enough, and found me the dry corner of a bed, where I tried to get an hour’s sleep, but with little success. After a time he came into the pill-box, grinning, to ask me to take away some men of mine who were creating a disturbance in his trench. I went out and found the ten ration-carriers of last night all roaring drunk. The poor devils had got lost, just like everyone else, had wandered all night, and finally decided that the company was annihilated. Not without good sense they decided not to starve. They did their best with a whole company’s rations, but a whole company’s rum defeated them. Hither they had wandered very happy and very sleepy, but rather inclined to sing themselves to sleep. We saved the rest of the food and rum, and sent over the
remains, plenty for my handful of men.

It was difficult to know what to do with these men. One or two were helpless and comatose, one or two were incurably cheerful, the others varied from one extreme to the other. To arrest them and send them down the line would bring shell-fire on them and their escort, besides weakening the outposts. I stormed at them in my severest manner, promising them all courts-martial and death sentences. Some understood me and sobered a little, but Bridgwater and two or three others only blinked and looked more amiable than ever. If I had had any laughter in me I should have burst out laughing, too. We brought most of them round to a condition soon where they could go back to the company. The hopeless cases we left to sleep it off. There were no shooting parties at dawn, after all, as a sequel to this episode.

During the rest of the day I remained almost entirely in the pill-box. The shell-fire gradually increased as it had done yesterday, but we had no direct hits, any one of which would have done for us. Marriott kept up a running fire of conversation all day, little jokes and reminiscences, sly hints about my company and the rum, comparisons of our men with the Colonials, anecdotes of the day and of old battles. He had a N.C.O. in the pill-box with him, as orderly serjeant, one of those professional humorists without whom no company could hang together. The queer turns of his dialect, and an attractive little stuttering in his speech, an acute street-arab sense of humour, combined with the
manners and deference of a gentleman, made him perhaps a perfect example of the urban soldier. The stories flowed out of him all day, his adventures with long-forgotten brigadiers, ‘madamaselles’ or serjeant-majors, his friends and their idiosyncrasies, love and war and the weather, the bitterness of things, red tape and bad language.
(I cannot refrain from quoting ‘that our armies swore terribly in Flanders.’) He could tell a tale against a staff officer always with tact enough not to scandalise the officers present. If I were Dickens and could write down what he said,
my fortune as a novelist would be made. But I’m afraid the jokes that made us reel with laughter would be flat to-day. One jumped at any excuse to be gay, and to laugh meant to forget that open door, facing the wrong way, through which a shell might come at any moment to burst in the midst of us…

But relief from anxiety through laughter is temporary–relief from the front line, by another battalion, is what they crave.

At dusk when we were all ready the orderly arrived again. Where were the Berks? we asked. Not yet come up. But he had brought instead a large rough mongrel sheep dog, trained to carry messages through fire. Marriott grew quite despondent. “I thought they were going to send up the Berkshires,” he said, “ but all we’re going to get now is barks”; at which we laughed uproariously. The Berks never did come, but before long a company of another regiment began to arrive. I collected my gear (we were in full marching order), and splashed through the stream to Thorburn, who had had another day’s shelling and felt a little neglected. We headed back a second time to the jumping-off line, where we were now to be reserve company. Marriott withdrew his men to our position in the shell-holes by the Stroombeek.

As Thorburn and I ploughed through the mud after our men, we passed one of the relieving platoons going forward. Their subaltern gripped me by the arm.

“Who are you? Where are you going? Where’s the front line? Have you seen A company?” he asked all in a rush.

“Keep straight on,” I answered jauntily, “follow the tape. Your captain’s up there. We’ve just been relieved.”

“Don’t go! ” he said. “Don’t leave us! For God’s sake, show us the way.” I had met someone more frightened than
myself. My confidence came back to me in a moment. This man was in a shivering funk.

“God damn it!” I said. “You’re all right. You’re much stronger than we were. There’s a good dugout up there—you can’t miss it.”

And I shook him off and walked on. I wonder what state that poor devil was in at the end of his tour. But I had only gained a momentary confidence, and before morning was sinking back into the same apathy of suppressed fear as before.

We took up our position on the right half of the jumping-off line, quite near headquarters. There were about twenty-seven men to organise in four sections, and place in the best shell-holes. For company headquarters Serjeant Walker, Thorburn and I found an old incomplete pill-box called on the map Cluster House. It was one of those early German efforts made of concrete on the western and of wood on the eastern side, so that in case of capture it would give no cover against German shell-fire. But it gave shelter from the rain, and here we settled. To make some amends to Thorburn for the twenty-four hours duty he had taken alone, I sent him to battalion headquarters to sleep, where they found him a corner of some kind. Walker took the top bunk in the little room, I took the lower one, but could only doze for an hour or two, in spite of the fact that I had not had eight hours’ sleep out of the last ninety. It was very cold and I was acutely aware of my wet knees.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Passchendaele and the Somme, 133-4.
  2. More Than a Brother, 12.
  3. Undertones of War, 246-9.
  4. Blunden's poetry will soon be well known; Chapman published his memoir five years after Blunden's Undertones.
  5. A Passionate Prodigality, 207.
  6. A Subaltern's War, 170-77.

Dr. Dunn, Frank Richards, and Edmund Blunden at Third Ypres: Six Men Dead by a Chance Shell, Six by Deliberate Bombs, One by a Bullet; Trauma, Murder, and Angels in the Rocket-Lit Sunset

As yesterday became today, a century back, most of the remaining 2/Royal Welch were grabbing a few hours of sleep in their makeshift line of shell-holes and captured German pillboxes. Dr. Dunn’s day will hardly be any less eventful, although some relief is given to him and to Captain Radford when one Major Kearsey arrived from the Battalion reserve to take command. Within a few hours of dawn they were back into piecemeal combat, advancing into new holes left by more recently retreated Germans. But British “bite and hold” tactics must still contend with the German “defense in depth,” and the fighting is much more reminiscent of the platoon-driven tactics of the next war than of the “lines” of infantry attacking “lines” of trenches which were the common conceptual coinage of even last year’s battles. To advance means to find and eliminate those strong points that held out yesterday, and soon the Royal Welch, pushing out from Jerk Farm, take a number of prisoners in a now-isolated pillbox.

We will hear more about these men in a moment, but Dr. Dunn’s narrative proceeds quickly toward the late afternoon. If yesterday’s narrative involved an admirable suppression of his own very active role in commanding the battalion, today concludes with an admirable confession of what the day’s combat did to him.

In a lull not long after 5, a delusive lull, I went out to look for Mann’s body. Some Australians told me where about it was, and added that “one of our fellows is taking care of his ring…” Radford seemed to be amused at the game of I-Spy among the shell-holes that followed. Doubtless the snipers much enjoyed it, and perhaps a German artillery observer; I didn’t, much, until it was over. It was the longest quarter-hour of my life. Beginning near 6 o’clock there was half an hour’s sustained shelling of H.Q., so accurate, so concentrated, that my confidence in a new shell-hole as the safest shelter was shaken. I came to date a failure of nerve from impressions taken then.

In other words–slightly less old-fashioned words–Dunn chose to become a combatant (in violation of the laws of war) and help save his battalion from what otherwise may have been a collective failure. And in doing so, he pushed himself to the point of exhaustion and was exposed to so much trauma–“shell-shocked” by the physical facts of shelling but also psychologically affected by the experience–that he will suffer a stress reaction in the near future.

 

Frank Richards‘s account of today, a century back, is more detailed, and no less focused on the danger that the doctor–and he himself–faced.

Major Kearsley, the Doctor and I went out reconnoitring. We were jumping in and out of shell holes when a machine-gun opened out from somewhere in front, the bullets knocking up the dust around the shell holes we had just jumped into. They both agreed that the machine-gun had been fired from the pillbox about a hundred yards in front of us. We did some wonderful humping and hopping, making our way back to the bank. The enemy’s artillery had also opened out…

Richards also tells the tale–with obvious relish–of a timorous platoon officer (unfortunately paired with a “windy” sergeant) who has to be forced forward to take a German position. When this officer–“The Athlete”–balks in confusion and sends back for orders, Richards is sent to carry verbal instructions–an awkward task, to send a trusted, more experienced private to give orders to a young and hesitant second-lieutenant. Richards delivers the message, and then, returning from the newly-captured pillbox to the H.Q. unit, he becomes a near witness to a war crime:

The enemy were now shelling very heavily and occasionally the track was being sprayed by machine-gun bullets. I met a man of one of our companies with six German prisoners whom he told me he had to take back to a place called Clapham Junction, where he would hand them over. He then had to return and rejoin his company. The shelling was worse behind us than where we were…

I had known this man about eighteen months and he said, “Look here, Dick. About an hour ago I lost the best pal I ever had, and he was worth all these six Jerries put together. I’m not going to take them far before I put them out of mess.” Just after they passed me I saw the six dive in one large shell hole and he had a job to drive them out…

Some little time later I saw him coming back and I know it was impossible for him to have reached Clapham Junction and returned in the time… As he passed me again he said: “I done them in as I said, about two hundred yards back. Two bombs did the trick.” He had not walked twenty yards beyond me when he fell himself: a shell-splinter had gone clean through him. I had often heard some of our chaps say that they had done their prisoners in whilst taking them back, but this was the only case I could vouch for, and no doubt the loss of his pal had upset him very much.

This brutal tale is tied up too neatly. Unless, of course, that is exactly how it happened.

 

The day’s traumas are far from over. Richards has had a very lucky war so far: not a scratch on him and, as he is usually just behind the attack with the signallers, very little in the way of immediate deadly violence to perform. When he is hit today, it is only a spent piece of shrapnel that hammers him on a thickly-padded part of his leg, and he escapes with a painful bruise and a temporary limp. Which means that he can continue carrying messages over a most uncertain battlefield.

During the afternoon the Major handed me a message to take to A Company, which consisted of the survivors of two companies now merged into one under the command of a young platoon officer… The ground over which I had to travel had been occupied by the enemy a little while before and the Company were behind a little bank which was being heavily shelled. I slung my rifle, and after I had proceeded some way I pulled my revolver out for safety. Shells were falling here and there and I was jumping in and out of shell holes. When I was about fifty yards from the Company, in getting out of a large shell hole I saw a German pop up from another shell hole in front of me and rest his rifle on the lip of the shell hole. He was about to fire at our chaps in front who had passed him by without noticing him. He could never have heard me amidst all the din around: I expect it was some instinct made him turn around with the rifle at his shoulder. I fired first and as the rifle fell out of his hands. I fired again. I made sure he was dead before I left him…

This little affair was nothing out of the ordinary in a runner’s work when in attacks.

Returning after giving the message, Richards found Kearsey still in command and Dunn “temporarily back in the R.A.M.C.” After carrying another message to the hesitant “Athlete,” Richards is going forward once again alongside Kearsey when they are caught by a German machine gun, and the major is shot through the leg. Richards dresses the wound and helps Kearsey back to where Dunn and Radford and the H.Q. section were stationed.

The Major said that the Battalion would be relieved at dusk and he would try to stick it until then; but the Doctor warned him, if he did, that it might be the cause of him losing his leg.

He then handed over the command to Captain Radford, who said that he would much prefer the Doctor taking command, as he seemed to have a better grip of the situation than what he had. But the Major said he could not do that as the Doctor was a non-combatant, but that they could make any arrangements they liked when he had left…

Richards accompanies the Major back toward the CCS, and so misses what, precisely, those arrangements were…

Even though the battalion has acquitted itself well–it will shortly be withdrawn, with congratulations heaped upon its few remaining officers–both accounts are framed by implied criticisms of the British staff at brigade and division level (and higher).

Earlier in the day, Richards glimpsed an Australian brigadier in a shell hole, having come forward to see for himself what is happening to the men under his command.

It was the only time during the whole of the War that I saw a brigadier with the first line of attacking troops…[1]

Dunn praises the Australians as well, and in a precise parallel of Richards’ observation, he sees a medical officer from the divisional staff treating the wounded in the front line, and also notes that it was the only time he saw such an august medical personage actually treating the wounded under fire.[2]

 

The Royal Welch will soon be out of it, as will the 11th Royal Sussex. But they have been in the thick of it, too, only a mile or so due south (just on the other side of the chateau that was enfilading the Welsh yesterday). Edmund Blunden was a witness, not so long ago, to one of the worst direct hits we’ve seen; today, a century back–and hardly back with the battalion after a long spell of rest, training, and reserve–he was once again.

There is a special sort of terror in sitting in a pillbox that is very strong and very secure–but not strong enough, and with a door facing the wrong way.

Never (to our judgment) had such shelling fallen upon us. For what reason? The Germans had clearly no idea of letting the British advance any farther along the Menin Road. Their guns of all calibres poured their fury into our small area. Reports of casualties were the principal messages from the front line, and we had no reason to think them exaggerated, with such a perpetual rain of shells. The trenches immediately about our pillboxes were already full of bodies. One man in my headquarters died of shock from a huge shell striking just outside. We endeavoured to send off a pigeon, but the pigeon scared by the gunfire found his way into the dugout again, and presently a noise under the floorboards led to his discovery. The men thought that many shells struck the pillbox. The only question seemed to be when one would pierce it, and make an end.

Next door, so to speak, the adjutant, doctor, and their helpers had a slightly worse position, more exposed to enemy observation. The Aid Post was hit, and the doctor continued to dress the wounded though with only an appearance of protection; the wounded came in great number. I went over to ask for orders and information; Lewis was in an almost smiling mood, and quizzed me about “coming to dinner.” Old Auger, the mess corporal, winked at me over the Adjutant’s shoulder, and raised a tempting bottle from his box. I returned, and presently the firing decreased. Lewis called on us to see how we were, and told me that he really meant some sort of dinner would be going soon, and I was to be there. Colonel Millward had just rejoined, from leave, and I had seen him in the headquarters just now; evidently, I thought, the news he brings is promising. A runner visited me, and went back over the fifty yards to the other pillbox — his last journey. He had arrived in the doorway there, and joined the five or six men sheltering there, including the doctor, consulting about something, when the lull in the shelling was interrupted. I was called on the telephone (we had some inexhaustible linesmen out on the wire) by Andrews at the forward station.

“I say, hasn’t something happened at your headquarters?”

“Not that I know of—all right I believe.” (The sound of shelling had long ceased to impinge.)

“Yes, I’m afraid something’s wrong: will you find out?”

My servant Shearing hurried across, and hurried back, wild-eyed, straining: “Don’t go over, sir; it’s awful. A shell came into the door.” He added more details after a moment or two. The doctor and those with him had been
killed.

Curiously, given Richards’s account of the murder of six German prisoners, six men of the Royal Sussex were killed by this shell–the doctor and five “Other Ranks.”[3]

 

This is the worst of the day’s narrative. And yet only a paragraph later Blunden inserts what has always been for me one of the most memorable pastoral incongruities of the whole war:

During this period my indebtedness to an Eighteenth Century poet became enormous. At every spare moment I read in Young’s Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality, and I felt the benefit of this grave and intellectual voice, speaking often in metaphor which came home to one even in a pillbox. The mere amusement of discovering lines applicable to our crisis kept me from despair.

We were relieved in broad daylight, under observation, but nobody refused to move. The estimate of casualties was 400, and although the real number was 280 or so, the battalion had had enough…

By the end of today, a century back, Blunden has picked up on Dunn’s theme for today: the limits of mental endurance in even the bravest men. And the bitterness of the staff’s indifference to their suffering.

The battalion assembled in the neighbourhood of a small and wiry wood called Bodmin Copse, with tumult and bullets and sometimes shells in the air around…

A steady bombardment with big shells began, and luckily most of them fell a few yards short, but the mental torture, especially when, after one had been carefully listened to in flight and explosion, another instantly followed as though from nowhere, was severe. The trench around me was slowly choked and caved in.

Maycock came up with a train of mules carrying Royal Engineers’ material and petrol cans of water to a point near Bodmin Copse, a star turn for which he earned the General’s stern reproof on account of his not obtaining a receipt for the deliveries.

But gentle Blunden cannot end on that note. No: instead, we see yesterday’s incongruous beauty once again:

The eastern sky that evening was all too brilliant with rockets, appealing for artillery assistance. Westward, the sunset was all seraphim and cherubim.[4]

 

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Old Soldiers Never Die, 251-60.
  2. The War the Infantry Knew, 400-04.
  3. This according to the Battalion Diary; I have not tracked the men through the CWGC or ascertained whether there is a record of the adjutant being killed today.
  4. Undertones of War, 241-5.