Returning to camp from leave today, a century back, Rupert Brooke had an interesting surprise waiting for him. During his post-breakdown year of wanderlust he had wandered into his only happily lustful relationship with a woman, a Tahitian named Taatamata. After a blissful interlude à la Gaugin, Brooke left Tahiti–and Taatamata–in March, and on May 2nd she wrote him a letter and gave it to a man traveling to Vancouver. There he mailed it, whence it made its way across the continent and onto the liner Empress of Ireland, which then collided with another ship and sunk in the St. Lawrence River with the loss of over 1,000 lives. Months later, divers recovered the mail, and the letter–“faded, dog-eared, but still legible” has now arrived. Brooke would write, with uncharacteristic brevity: “I think life’s FAR more romantic than any books.”
But what did the letter mean? Taatamata wrote in a mix of English and French, including quotidien news and endearments… and one ambiguous declaration. The endearments are interesting enough: will Brooke’s habitual sexual misery and pinballing vacillation between extremes of misogyny and indiscriminate aspirational uxoriousness be affected by the fact that he seems to have left a fond and satisfied lover behind him? And what could this mean: “I get fat all the time Sweetheart.”
Well. Who knows? Or, rather, who knew, a century back? It might have behooved him to write back for clarification, but instead Brooke got drunk, wrote about it to his friend Dudley Ward, and went about his next order of business, which was to convince his mother to go halfsies with him on a new purchase–a telescopic sight for the platoon to snipe with.
Edward Thomas, unable to move about due to his badly sprained ankle, worked through his old field notes (and his memories of Richard Jeffries’ work) today and wrote yet another poem. This will be a long post, and more relevant Thomas poems are coming up soon. So, briefly: The Penny Whistle is another nature-and-countryside poem in which a troubled mind muses over the English landscape. Similar subject matter, and yet impressive poetic development–this one is no tough little nugget of blank verse but a light five-stanza ballad with obvious rhymes and a cantering meter.
Thomas Ernest Hulme–that’s Hulme, not (Sir Edward) Hulse, who we’ll see in a bit–wrote the second installment in his running letter home today, a century back. We have arrived at the modern war of mass, of attrition, of economies.
Jan. 5th, Tuesday. Rest Camp
We are leaving here today… I shan’t be sorry to leave this mud. You must imagine a large space of clayey earth, no grass, like an undeveloped building plot, all pulped up into mud and covered with tents with large trenches round them.
We get up at 5:30 and march down to the docks, as a rule without breakfast. Here we do […] work in an enormous shed… 5/8 of a mile long and 79 yards wide. On one side are the ships coming in and on the other a luggage train… each truck [train car] is marked with chalk with the amount of stuff that has to go in. So many boxes of corned beef, pepper, salt, bran, hay, oats, etc. We work in gangs and have to fill so many trucks from the piles of food inside the shed… There are two cafes inside the limit of the camp (otherwise we have no leave) and we go and talk to the Tommies there. There are all people from all kinds of regiments, some wounded, some lost, etc., a kind of sorting camp…
At one end of the shed was an enormous cage, in which all the rum was kept. This was to keep it from being stolen by the A[rmy].S[ervice].C[orps] men, who are really London dockers enlisted for the war. It was really impressive to see all the piles of food, all done up into cases a convenient size for men to handle. It makes the word ‘base’ and ‘lines of communication’ more real to have seen it…
Sir Edward Hulse‘s letter of today provides us with a good excuse for a primer on several aspects of trench routine that I haven’t yet had the opportunity to explain. First up is the different levels of “reserve” in which front-line infantry can find themselves when not actually in the front line–the system of regular rotations between “trenches” and billets which Hulse details will be the norm for the rest of the war.
My Dearest Mother,
Back again in billets, but this time in Brigade Reserve, instead of Division Reserve, which means only a short way from the firing line, and that we have to go up every other night and dig.
I have got your letters of 30th and the 1st, and all parcels have arrived safely, for which very many thanks. The second pair of puttees arrived all right after all, and my servant had put them at the bottom of my pack, hence my overlooking them…
Second, his “servant?” It now seems strange now, but it was the case that each British officer had a personal servant (often called a “batman”). But of course it would have been a lot more strange, in the pre-war years, for an officer not to have one– was he not an officer and a gentleman?
I think perhaps I can be forgiven for reducing the definition of “gentleman,” for the sake of brevity, to “a man expected not to flinch when the bullets fly, and also not to be expected to dress himself.” This habitual dependence on body servants will, in the Downton Abbey era, surprise few readers. The majority of pre-war officers were of the class (and wealth) that would have employed at least four or five servants per family, including a valet to see to the needs of the man of the house.
So, in the army, officers were assigned a servant, a Regular rifleman or trooper who was expected to march and fight with his fellows but also to see to his officer’s food, clothing, and other physical needs. Thousands upon thousands of working class men worked as servants in Britain in 1915, and the class system was alive and well: there was little of the stigma a modern American might imagine would attach to this sort of work.
In fact, since being an officer’s servant implied some personal protection from army discipline and certainly meant an escape from heavy work (“fatigues” like digging or carrying supplies) in favor of lighter duties (heating shaving water, rustling up some toast, etc.) many old soldiers considered it a good gig.
While we’re on the subject of class privilege and the old Regular Army, it’s worth nothing that pre-war Regular officers would also be expected to contribute large amounts of money to the mess fund, in order that they might dine as gentleman as well. In smart, socially elite regiments, the mess bills would far exceed an officer’s pay, so a military “career” was a money-losing proposition. (Only a few decades before, officers had purchased their commissions as a sort of fief, rather than being hired and promoted in modern fashion–but that’s getting deep into British military history.)
These practices were already under stress. The Royal Welch, in fact, have just implemented a very low cap on (mandatory) mess contributions, less in acknowledgment of the inappropriateness of roast beef and champagne in a war of attrition than of the fact that dozens of dead officers were being replaced by unmoneyed men promoted from the ranks or transferred from the Reserve. More changes would be coming soon, as some traditions faded out with the old officer class, its social cohesion destroyed either by German weapons or the promotion of Regular line officers to jobs higher up in the hierarchy and far from the hunkering battalions. Soon they will even let Robert Graves get shot at, despite his sloppy dressing.
But officers will continue to have servants, be they volunteered aristocrats or reasonably well educated men of the lower middle classes who had never before had a servant. There is stubborn tradition and entrenched privilege here, but a bit of practicality too: he may not need a valet to dress him for dinner, but a dutiful platoon officer spent the time that rankers used to prepare food and see to their hygiene either in overseeing practical matters of trench warfare or paperwork, and it was easier to assign a body servant than keep messes functioning in the trenches.
Still, privilege is privilege. I know of no lengthy accounts by men of the pre-war domestic servant class who carried on such work during the war, although many such men existed–there are many stories (perhaps too many, and at least one is fiction) of valets joining up alongside their masters, etc. Just hang on, though, until 1917, and you’ll be rewarded with the account of a sensitive, educated, idle draftee forced into the work of being a batman for the duration.
But I do have one short account, and in fetching it for today I have stumbled across a crossing of paths. We have heard little from Alf Pollard, whose memoir sometimes includes dates and sometimes glosses over months with a few representative but unfixed tales. But here are a few dates, indeed, and a transformation: taken ill on boxing day, Pollard had been sent back to a base hospital and misdiagnosed with jaundice, before being released on January 4th–yesterday, a century back–and sent east toward the front lines by rail.
He arrived today in Rouen. Which means, first of all, that he may have been on the Nursing Sister‘s train, which ran between the base hospital at Le Havre and Rouen. Second of all,
At Rouen I discovered our first draft of reinforcements. I was overjoyed. It would not be long before I was back with the Regiment.
This first draft of reinforcements for the Honourable Artillery Company would include T.E. Hulme. It’s fortuitous for us that they crossed paths like this, and we get two such different perspectives on the huge supply camp at Rouen. And fortuitous too for Pollard.
I was already an old soldier, someone superior to the new draft from home. They had to get up at six o’clock and parade [this jibes perfectly with Hulme’s tale, above, of waking up at 5:30, above, to march to work]. I felt that to do the same would be undignified.
The camp was a sea of tents. I discovered an empty one… Diligent scrounging supplied me with three blankets. I was quite snug and lay in warm comfort each morning whilst the draft [of troops] turned out in the cold…
We’ll check back in with fellow Honourables Hulme and Pollard in a week’s time. The reason I went to Pollard in the first place is that when he does return to the Regiment he will be offered assignment as an officer’s servant:
I thought it over carefully. It would not make any difference to my going into the line. If it had I should have refused. On the other hand it gave me something to do when we were out [of the line] as an alternative to fatigues. It also promised a trifle more physical comfort. I accepted…
Being an officer’s servant in those days as a rag-time business. I have never in my life been much good at getting up early in the morning. To have to get myself out of bed, prepare early morning tea for the Mess, rouse Duggie [the informality stems from the fact that “Duggie” Davis was recently promoted from the ranks], brush his clothes and clean his boots and then cook breakfast was belong me. Something had to go. The something was Duggie. I’m afraid he usually cleaned his own boots and brushed his own clothes…
The H.A.C. is an unusual Regiment–old but still Territorial, the men mostly London professionals–and the situation of a private serving a man he had known as a sergeant makes it all the more so. Pollard makes a tale of it, but he was not interested in remaining a servant–he was a former clerk and a would-be fire-eater. Soldiers who wished to retain this trifle of physical comfort and freedom from the worst of military labor were generally more attentive to their gentlemen.
So I found a servant, and two guys in the same tent city! All in the middle of a long letter from Sir Edward Hulse… which heads for the mud and then takes a weird turn:
…nearly all the work in the trenches now consists of draining, pumping, diverting channels, etc., and in one of our communication trenches which is deeper than most, 10 ft. 6 in., the water has now attained the astounding and almost comic depth of nine feet!
Many communication trenches have been given up, and we have been working hard draining all water possible in one big one, and passing it on to the enemy. They are doing the same, and the result is that, apart from miles of barbed wire, there are some very formidable lakes and streams in between the trenches, and a man has to be both an expert athlete and swimmer combined to cross from one line to the other by night.
Three days ago I climbed up a tree, with my glasses, and found out where the German officer’s dug-out is just opposite me. I saw him plainly, and recognized him as the fat, heavy-jowled brute to whom I had talked on the 25th. I have had a look every morning since, and every morning he has had four men scooping the water out from just round his dug-out, and, judging by the amount of pumping which they do, I should say that they are worse off than we are…
Apparently Hulse’s famous truce letter, which mentions this same “bourgeois” brute (and wishes for a better sort of sparring partner in both truceful good fellowship and murderous stratagem) is testament to a rather long moment in time–more than a week:
We had another comic episode on New Year’s Eve. Punctually at 11 p.m. (German war time is an hour ahead of ours), the whole of the German trenches were illuminated at intervals of 15 or 20 yards. They all shouted, and then began singing their New Year and Patriotic Songs. We watched them quietly, and they lit a few bonfires as well.
Just as they were settling down for the night again, our own midnight hour approached, and I had warned my company as to how I intended to receive the New Year. At midnight I fired a starshell, which was the signal, and the whole line fired a volley and then another star-shell and three hearty cheers, yet another star-shell, and the whole of us, led by myself and the Platoon Sergeant nearest to me, broke into ” Auld Lang Syne.” We sang it three times, and were materially assisted by the enemy, who also joined in. At the end, three more hearty cheers and then dead silence. It was extraordinary hearing “Auld Lang Syne” gradually dying away right down the line into the 8th Division…
We are strange creatures.
…I had warned all sentries as usual, and had succeeded in getting about 1/2 of an hour’s sleep, when the Platoon Sergeant of No. 12 (my Platoon number from 9-12) burst in and informed me, most laconically, “German to see you, Sir!”
Hulse received the prisoner and, sending him back to headquarters with a bit of paperwork identifying him as a New Year’s present, saved the “receipt” from the duty sergeant, sending it to his mother as something
rather interesting, as it is the first bit of work, or writing, which 1915 brought me, and was considered by the ultrasuperstitious private soldier, of which there are many, as of good augury.
Ever your loving,
Our first catch of the year, yes. It’s an augury, I suppose, but the fates are fickle. Lastly, Alan Seeger reports from the Aisne front–or, rather, just behind it. Half old-campaigner and half educated anglophone abroad, his two main requirements are a bath and a look at the local architecture, in this case a little church which looks more Romanesque than Gothic.
January 5, 1915
We left the Moulin trenches and marched back to Cuiry on New Year s eve. Spent a pleasant four days there. On New Year s Day we rose before daybreak and the whole section was marched off to take a bath… we came to a big sugar refinery. Here were excel lent facilities for bathing and each man had a fine hot shower and the cold water hose turned on him afterwards if he wished…
I had always been anxious to visit the little neighboring town of Chaudardes, whose picturesque belfry peeps up over the hillside only a few kilometers to the east. This was a good occasion and so in the afternoon, which was one of lovely skies and mild weather, I walked over. The little church proved to be exquisite both in line and in the patina of the old stones. It had not been desecrated either, like the poor little church at Cuiry, where the legionaries are quartered regularly now, sleeping in the pews, eating off the altar and raising a laugh sometimes by going through vulgar mockeries of the Catholic ritual. On the contrary, all was neat and well kept up inside. There was no one there when I entered except a soldier of the 36me, who was playing very well on the little organ. I sat long and listened to him in the peace and quiet of the little white-washed interior.