Vera Learns of Roland’s Success; Edward Hulse’s Brother Officers Write to Lady Hulse

Monday March 15th, Buxton

I had finished my breakfast when the letters came–one from Roland which had been sent on from Somerville. He has obtained his wish at last, and is off to the front in about 10 days’ time. He has been given a transfer to the 7th Worcestershire Regt.–Territorials–which is on the point of going abroad & is short of two officers. This news was not unexpected but is none the less a terrible shock to me. I can hardly realise that the moment has come at last which ends my peace of mind until the war is over–that in a few days’ time the individual so very dear to me will have gone to those regions of bloodshed and death, perhaps–nay, probably–never to return. The worst of it is he wrote to me at College thinking I was going down on Monday & trying to arrange a meeting in London on that day.

Vera Brittain, we now learn, had been ill and gone down early for the Easter vacation. Now she will have to act quickly if she is to see Roland before he embarks for France.

He says he can’t possibly go to the front without seeing me, & certainly I could never let him go without saying goodbye, however sad it is to do so. But the letter was delayed & now I don’t know where he is or where to write to him.

Later. I was getting ready for bed this evening when a telephone message–which with a kind of presentiment I had been half expecting all day–came for me from Roland in London. The beloved voice made me shiver with apprehension, thinking of the time when I should hear it no more. He tells me he is going to the front–not in ten days’ time–but on Saturday. I said I supposed he wanted me to say I was glad about what had happened but I was not even going to pretend to. He only laughed.

Telephoning is very unsatisfactory & there was such a noise going on I could scarcely hear anything. However I went to Mother & Daddy & announced my intention of going to London to say goodbye. They demurred a little at first but gave in sooner than I expected.[1]

By the time Roland called, Vera had already written back and, presumably, mailed the letter–hence the diary’s “later.” It’s interesting to once again see Vera using similar–but perhaps more forceful–language in the letter, as if the diary were a tentative rough draft:

You will have received my first letter by now telling you that I went down ten days earlier because I was ill, so I did not get yours till to-day. I can hardly believe it is true; I was expecting something like it of course but it was none the less of a shock for all that. It is still difficult to realise that the moment has actually come at last when I shall have no peace of mind any more until the War is over. I cannot pretend any longer that I am glad even for your sake, but I suppose I must try to write as calmly as you do–though if it were my own life that were going to be in danger I think I could face the future with more equanimity…[2]

 

Three days ago Edward Hulse was killed, and in the very same post we saw the letter of Roland’s that Vera received today. A strange symmetry, then, as Vera hears and absorbs that information just as the first letters of condolence begin their short journey from France to Hulse’s mother, who would have learned of his death by telegram.

There is, of course, an immense difference between grief predicted and the reality of a loved one’s extinction. I’ve been giving Rupert Brooke a very hard time for his forebodings, because–contrary to the sloppy stereotype of this war–no major attack ever saw half of its participants killed, so no specific premonition of doom is ever statistically likely.

And there is also an enormous difference between the feelings of a young woman for her lover and of a mother for her son.

Before the letters–which are brief enough–a brief explanation. I’ve made it a principle of this project to avoid direct discussion of any facts dating from less than a century back,so it’s appropriate to reveal a bit about how we know what we know about Sir Edward Hulse’s life (even if it feels a bit melodramatic). It’s simple: his mother saved his letters, and in 1916 she arranged to have them published.

The following two letters make up the last page of the book–both were written today, a century back. I know nothing else about the circumstances of Hulse’s death, but I will add the unpleasant comment that virtually all such letters of condolence–especially those to mothers and wives–assert that death was instantaneous and without suffering. This is usually a falsehood–a humane defiance, generally speaking, of the realities of battlefield carnage.

March 15th, 1915

Monday

Dear Lady Hulse,

I am taking upon myself the sad duty of writing you a few lines to ex-press my deepest sympathy for the great loss you have suffered in the death of your son. I will try and give you an outline of the occurrence as far as I have been able to obtain it from men who saw it.

We were attacking a position held by the enemy and had to cross some open plough to get into some support trenches, and while doing so the Commanding Officer, Major Paynter, who was directing the operations, was badly wounded and lay in the open. Slightly before he was struck, your son had gained cover behind a shallow trench, and upon learning that the Commanding Officer was hit, without hesitation went to see if he could render him any assistance, and in so doing was killed. He died instantly and suffered no pain whatever.

Of course under the circumstances I feel it my duty to write to you, owing to the Commanding Officer being wounded otherwise you would have heard from him personally.

Yours very sincerely,

ARCHIBALD JARVIS, 2nd Lieut.

 

No. 7 Stationary Hospital, Boulogne, Wednesday.

Dear Lady Hulse,

He was a grand fellow that son of yours, and I can realize a bit by my own feelings how awful his loss must be to you. He was with me trying to help me when he was hit. There was no finer soldier in the battalion, and his men would do anything for him.

Forgive this scrawl. Wish could write more.

Yours sincerely,

GEORGE PAYNTER.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 154-5.
  2. Letters from a Lost Generation, 57-8.

Edward Hulse’s Last Advance; Roland Leighton Has His Wish at Last; Billy Congreve Damns the Staff

As the British reserves moved forward to attack the German positions behind Neuve Chapelle today, a century back, they met stiff resistance from the reinforced German line. The Second Battalion of the Scots Guards–still behind the line yesterday when Wilfrid Ewart was hit–now approached the forefront of the battle.

As the battalion advanced across an open field, the commanding officer, Major Paynter, was badly wounded. Seeing this, Captain Sir Edward Hulse left cover and came up to help his commander.

Just after reaching him, Hulse was hit, either by shrapnel or machine gun fire, and killed.

 

 

Life goes on, as does the rush toward death. It feels unfair to Hulse to chatter on about the trivial tribulations of our other writers, but, as usual, there must be a compromise between solemnity (and focus) on the one hand and attention to the wide range of experience (and the complexity of following so many lives) on the other. So.

Roland Leighton has news today, for Vera Brittain:

Liverpool Street Hotel, London, 12 March 1913 11.30 p.m.

I think I have succeeded at last. If all goes well, I stand a good chance of getting out to the front–either straight to Belgium or else to the Dardanelles–in about ten days time…[1]

 

Lastly, a look at the continuing failure of British tactics. There was an effort underway now to distract the Germans with actions on other parts of the line, in the hopes of keeping their reserves away from Neuve Chapelle. Billy Congreve describes today his division’s futile attempt in one such diversionary attack, on the Spanbroek Molen.

Congreve is astute in his criticism, as usual, and yet his very position is part of the problem. He’s on the staff, but neither in a position senior enough to insist on adequate artillery preparation, nor forward enough to actually witness the fighting. Note most of all the use of “apparently,” below.

About 2 p.m. we received orders to commence the bombardment and attack at once, whether the mist was lifting or not. So it took place. The shelling went on for about forty minutes, and then the attack went in and failed. Apparently our shelling did too little damage, and the Wilts[hires] never got home at all, being held up by machine-guns and rifle fire. The Worcesters got into one bit of German trench, but found it unoccupied. They stayed there for several hours and were told then to withdraw; bringing nothing with them to show as a result of the attack but a meerschaum pipe. We lost about 400 men and 20 officers, and did no good at all

The reasons for the failure are, I think: 1) No small attack on a strongly fortified position will be successful, unless the preliminary bombardment is so intense in power and duration as to completely wipe out the hostile wire and trenches; 2) Any bombardment… is useless unless made with very many heavy guns on a small front. Wire cutting by shrapnel is very slow… 5) All brigade and battalion commanders concerned should be close up…[2]

We will be hearing similar analyses for many months, and yet the British army will continue to attack with far too much confidence in the ability of light guns and shrapnel to destroy entrenchments and obstacles. And, again, the attack that Congreve describes was not the main effort at Neuve Chapelle, but a mere diversion, with no geographical or strategic goals of its own. At least 420 men were killed.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters from a Lost Generation, 56.
  2. Armageddon Road, 110-11.

Letters from Edward Hulse and Patrick Shaw-Stewart; Rupert Brooke on Bad Luck, Lesser Peoples, and Classical Beauties; Billy Congreve on Grandmother’s Successes

Before we get to a clutch of letters, a rare dated note on the activity of the prolific Rudyard Kipling: he was at work today on a new story, to be entitled “Mary Postgate.” This will be one of his most significant war stories… and we’ll discuss it upon publication.[1]

 

Billy Congreve has not had much on his mind these days, other than the gradual draining of the country and the exploits of ‘Grandmother.’

The 15-inch fired four rounds yesterday; the first two at Wytshaete tower which they were just short of. A great column of smoke and flame went up and, I think, gave the Germans something to think about. The next two rounds were at Pt 76 (Spanbroek Molen) and fell within fifteen yards of each other. So the gun is fairly accurate and this is what we wanted to find out…

[Today, ‘Grandmother’] hit the tower full pitch. It made a most enormous cloud of pink and yellow smoke which hung about for two or three minutes, When it cleared we saw that the tower had all the right side blown away. The range was about 8,000 yards, so it was a fine shot. I hope to goodness that there were some Germans close to it! Of course we had up the usual crowd of sightseers–it’s really rather absurd.[2]

 

Before an outpouring from the ship-bound Rupert Brooke, an inconsequential letter from Edward Hulse. This I wanted to include because of what the move he mentions portends: the Spring Offensive is, at last, almost upon us.

Billets, 8.3.15

My Dearest Mother,

Very short and hasty letter, as busy beyond words; we have moved again. Owing to possible hasty moves, do not expect regular correspondence; in fact, Field Service Postcard is the form it will probably take, and posts may be very irregular from here…

After foul rain it cleared up this morning early and looked like being a perfect day, though very cold. But it was too much to ask of it, and at the present moment (2 p.m.) it is snowing, with a young gale behind it.

Very best love to you and O.

Ever your loving

Ted.[3]

 

Early this morning, a century back, the Grantully Castle docked in Malta. There would be outgoing mail, so Rupert Brooke got down to it, tearing through at least three letters. By the evening, he and several of his comrades were, believe it or not, at the opera. Tosca.

For Violet Asquith, some winsome lyrical prose:

All day we’ve been just out of sight of land, thirty or forty miles away—out of sight, but in smell. There was something earthly in the air, and warm—like the consciousness of a presence in the dark—the wind had something Andalusian in it. It wasn’t that wall of scent and invisible blossom and essential spring that knocks you flat, quite suddenly, as you’ve come round some unseen corner in the atmosphere, fifty miles out from a South Sea Island. But it was the
good smell of land—and of Spain, too I And Spain I’ve never seen, and never shall see, maybe. All day I sat and strained my eyes to see, over the horizon, orange groves and Moorish buildings and darkeyed beauties and guitars and fountains and a golden darkness. But the curve of the world lay between us…

Pretty, shallow stuff. But Brooke segues deftly into what all this slow dreaming amounts to from a soldier’s point of view:

…We’re in the dreamiest, most utter, most trustful, ignorance of what’s to come. Some even say it’ll all be over before we get there. I hope not: and certainly think not. Impossible. I rather figure us scrapping forlornly in some corner of the Troad for years and years. Everyone will forget all about us. We shan’t even be told when peace is declared…

Strange to see one of the “forever war” fantasies so far from the Western Front, and placed in such a dreamy context.

Brooke also wrote to Dudley Ward, his fast friend and frequent last resort in the times of the breaking of relationships. It’s interesting to see how Brooke reuses some phrases–the “quarter-million Turks” we saw yesterday as well–and yet still presents an entirely different mood. This is the efficient writer and unhappy man, self-plagiarizing to aid in the draining labor of being many things to many friends. Ward, however, gets the brunt of Brooke’s melancholy:

Do not care much what happens to me or what I do. When I give thought to it at all, I hate people—people I like—to care for me. I’m selfish. And nothing but harm ever seems to have come of it, in the past.

I don’t know. In some moods that thought seems wrong. Generally right. I don’t know the truth about that—or about anything. But somewhere, I think, there’s bad luck about me. There’s a very bright sun, and a lot of comedy in the world; so perhaps there’s some point in my not getting shot. But also there’s point in my getting shot. Anyway, you’re very good to me.

There are a quarter of a million Turks awaiting us. We are ten thousand. This is some expedition…

Take care of Ka. Ever,

RUPERT
I enclose another address for tidings of my casualties. The rest must find out for themselves, damn them. I’ll make Eddie give you tidings if anything happens.

This letter makes it hard to escape the conclusion that the cheerful morbidity and dramatic possibly-dying-poet flair are mostly blinds, that the showy melancholy is a clever cover for deep and lasting depression.

Or maybe that’s the Brooke that Brooke thinks Ward needs to see–if he’s not to be the special confidant of a friend on the edge, he may wonder why exactly it is his lot to pick up all the pieces, to watch over Ka Cox and pass along any news to several other secret paramours (he already has Taatamata’s contact information, as it were, so this must be another woman).

A third letter, today to Jacques Raverat, has nothing of the same desperate candor. Instead, Raverat gets the brave and playfully blustering Brooke:

Near Africa. On Active Service.

This is probably the first letter you ever got from a Crusader. You expect to hear that we saw the sea-serpent off Algiers, that the Patriarch of Alexandria has blessed us, and that an outbreak of scurvy was healed by a prompt application of the thigh-bones and pelvis of SS. John the Divine, Mary Magdalene, and Chrysostom. Not a bit. But the early Crusaders were very jolly people. I’ve been reading about them. They set out to slay the Turks—and very finely they did it, when they met them. But when they got East, to the Levant and Constantinople, were they kind to their brother Christians they found there? No. They very properly thwacked and trounced them, and took their money, and cut their throats, and ravished their daughters and so left them: for that they were Greeks, Jews, Slavs,
Vlachs, Magyars, Czechs, and Levantines, and not gentlemen.

Not gentlemen! Funny–but, you know, he does mean it.

So shall we do, I hope.

That’s right. Here’s a thing to keep in mind when we are pondering in future years whether the war against German aggression (remember when Brooke was telling everyone who listened about how horrible it had been to see the Germans destroy Antwerp?) has in fact become a war for the perpetuation of the British empire. Brooke is blustering, perhaps, but this thought is not really out of step with his politics: he hopes that this expedition will enable the British to dispossess the lesser races of the east…

Ugly. You know what’s nicer? Dreamily invoking the classics…

But, for the present, we’ve been gliding through a sapphire sea, swept by ghosts of triremes and quinqueremes, Hannibal on poop, or Hanno. Oh, and we came down by Spain, and saw Algiers, and thought of the tribes of dancing girls, and wept for Andalusia. And now we’ve left Trinacria behind (you would call it Sicily) and soon—after Malta—we’ll be among the Cyclades. There I shall recite Sappho and Homer. And the winds of history will follow us all the way…

Do not forget me. Love to you both

RUPERT
Dr Johnson never came. But I have Latin and Greek and Shakespeare.

Oh, it’s good to be well-read.

 

We’ll finish the day off with a contribution from Patrick Shaw-Stewart, also aboard the Grantully Castle (and then to Tosca) and serving in the Hood Battalion of the RND. Shaw-Stewart had had a brilliant, armfuls-of-scholarships sort of academic career (Eton, Balliol, All Souls), became the youngest managing director of Barings Bank, and will go on to do–and write–some rather notable things… but at this point he is difficult to treat as other than one of the subsidiary MCs in Brooke’s posse of poetic crusaders.

Shaw-Stewart hits many of the same notes, forcefully–but with less grace.

It’s been a very jolly voyage and would have been perfect if there weren’t so many little irritating parades for no particular purpose except to fill up the stoker’s’ time and waste ours. Also there is the constant difficulty of persuading the stokers to be (a) vaccinated; (b) inoculated…

We’ve had the most admirable silhouettes of North Africa, which we’ve been hugging the last two days; to-day we passed a little island called Galita, and now we’ve left Tunis behind, and are heading straight for Malta… I have read Beauchamp’s Career (never before: I love it), and Oliver’s Alexander Hamilton, and Gibbons’ The New Map of Europe, and some of the Iliad[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Carrington, Rudyard Kipling, 500, citing Carrie Kipling's diary.
  2. Armageddon Road, 106-7.
  3. Hulse, Letters Written From the English Front in France, 92-3.
  4. Shaw-Stewart, Basil. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 122.

A Gruesome Homecoming for Knocker and Chisholm; Hulse on Promotion and Canadian Informalities; Plowman on Life in the RAMC

Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker returned to Pervyse yesterday, a century back, following home leave. It was the first leave they had had since they had been decorated by the King of the Belgians–an event covered in several English papers–so they returned to sacks full of fan mail.

And today, as they settled in, heavy artillery hit the Belgian lines just in front. Five soldiers were brought in, all badly wounded, two with shattered heads. These two died almost immediately, and Mairi, going through one of their overcoats for personal effects, discovered that its owner was nineteen–her own age–and only two days into his first tour in the trenches. She also discovered the congealing brain matter of his companion, driven into the wool of the coat by the force of the explosion that killed them both.[1]

 

Sir Edward Hulse has been promoted to captain, and he reflects here not only on red-tape and its constraining effect on the career of real fighting men but also on issues of broad contemporary concern: Canadian character and violent children’s games.

Billets, 4-3-15

My Dearest Mother,

Many thanks congrats. Am now covered with “stars,” and feel quite heavy about the shoulders from sheer weight of metal. I have been unable to write during last two days, as we have moved…

The temporary rank has to appear as such, but is as good as the full rank, and it is only a matter of red tape and two more notices in the Gazette to get the full promotion…  I have had the Coy. for three months now, and hope to be antedated some time, but one can never tell, as the way the Army List, Gazettes and promotions are being worked is beyond the ken of even the most astute and learned red-tapist that ever trod. Prisoners, interned officers, ensigns who have not been out, have done no duty at all at home, and every sort of person has been promoted; however, we do feel out here that we have deserved ours and worked a bit for it!

…Now for news, confidential; we have been relieved by the Canadians. We have moved to billets a bit further South and about ten miles behind the firing-line; great comfort, nice people, an excellent family in this farm who have eight kids, all of whom parade up and down, all day long, with pitch-forks, saws, hoes and axes, shouting “Allemands! Pooff!” and accompany the above remarks with a fierce lunge; how they have not had a sad accident with the improvised weapons, I do not know, as the two axes are considerably larger than the young French patriots who carry them!

We cannot say for certain what they are going to do with us, but I should think probably a few days’ rest, perhaps a long one, even, and keep us in readiness to move to any threatened point. On the other hand, we may be going to take over trenches again, further down, and at a more important point…

Hulse is one of the aristocratic regulars whose prejudices I enjoy exposing and fretting over–the snobbish bastards!–and here comes another round. This time, however–and although though I still find his politics to be more than a century backward–the perspective of the military professional lends interest to his apparent narrow-mindedness. It’s true that there are significant cultural differences even among the British dominions–will they be all be able to fight well together, and in the same fashion?

Hulse is amused by the informality of the Canadian troops, and impressed by their physical robustness,

But you cannot get away from the fact that discipline cannot be grafted on to men who have been brought up to regard no one but themselves as master, and that every man is as good as another. They will fight like demons, no doubt, hand to hand, and in the excitement of a charge; but given the filthy conditions without any of the glamour, or
excitement, it is very questionable whether the machine, without iron discipline, will not go to pieces. But they are keen, excellent at scouting, nothing they don’t know about taking care of themselves, and practical common sense, and have a large percentage, I believe, of country-bred men, which means a great deal out here. They can shoot, and one and all mean business.

These are all, it should be clear, preconceived notions–prejudices confirmed by an acquaintance of hours, rather than observations made over long mutual service. And they are mostly wrong. Iron discipline is useful for keeping men in miserable situations, but that sort of top-down harshness will degrade the morale of most units to the point where any active fighting will be performed very poorly. The stick might prevent a defense from collapsing, but there are no successful attacks without some sort of carrot.

The Regulars of the British Army may be a partial exception to this general rule–there were many bold assaults in its then-recent history led by officers by Hulse and followed up well by the men they had ordered whipped for petty crimes. But most of the regular battalions who were used to the lash and other harsh punishments have already been hollowed out by casualties, and the volunteer replacements were much less likely to treat “iron discipline” from a “master” as all in a day’s work. The egalitarian Canadians will do very well in miserable conditions…

To make matters worse, Hulse takes his conception of the Canadian as wild man of the woods in a grim direction:

May the Good Lord so order the councils of our higher commanders that the Canadians get on to German soil, well in the front line, and I think we shall be able to show the Huns what Louvain, Rheims and Malines really mean!

Yes, well–we’ll get to the revenge atrocities when we get to them.

Ironically, the most famous Canadian-related atrocity will be an apocryphal story of a Canadian soldier who is crucified by diabolical German troops–the mythical/religious flip side to the Angels of Mons… this too we will get to in good (bad) time.

Hulse tacks back from his hopes of vengeance to a report on how exactly his battalion is amusing itself when not in trenches.

We have had yet another draft… which means an addition during the last ten days of 4 officers, and 370 men…

We had a concert before we left the old place, and found some perfectly astounding talent in the new drafts… one Jamieson, a private, who has joined for the war… is the nearest thing to a gentleman possible, and has one of the best tenor voices I have ever heard, and plays the piano the very best!

The general tone and level of our concerts rises, as we get more fresh men, recruited from higher circles, and the mixture of the better class song, with a few efforts of the very small minority of old serving-soldiers and rough and tough nuts, whom we have left, is very curious…

Curious indeed. We’ll keep an eye on entertainment at the front, as the mixing of men from all over the social and geographic maps of Britain begins to prefigure the coming age of mass entertainment.

We’ll skip Hulse’s queries about the Dardanelles action and his fulminating against “dirty” trades unions–the man can cover a lot of ground in a single letter to mater, and we have one more letter to read today.

Ever your loving,

Ted[2]

 

From the militant and conservative aristocracy to a middle-class pacifist: Max Plowman wrote again today, a century back, to his friend Janet Upcott, this time with a light-hearted description of his life in training in the RAMC Ambulance Corps.

…You know I’m going to be a sort of First Maid to the Injured if the 4th F[ield]. A[mbluance]. ever see any? “Waggon Orderly” is the technical name.I washed out the Ambulance Motor this afternoon to be ready for a great inspection by the D.D.M.S. (Deputy Director of Medical Services) & a thorough-going Field Day tomorrow, & in the performance of my duties (as the Hairdressers’ Journal would say) I found that the particular car I have charge of was presented by John Galsworthy. Which is all very fitting, I think…

Plowman goes on to describe himself–and here the humor seems to mix with legitimate class discomfort–as a “resplendent combination of a Pickford’s-boy-railway-porter-barmaid + mother’s help.”

Heaven preserve the poor wounded!

…Blast the army & the war.–I wish I could come home at once & drag you all from your respective seats of duty & compel you to take me for a walking tour of the Lakes. When it’s all over, will you come? It would be something to look forward to. I cherish the though we might get it in this year… [3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Atkinson, Elsie and Mairi Go to War, 100-1.
  2. Hulse, Letters Written From the English Front in France, 88-92.
  3. Bridge into the Future, 34-5.

Rupert Brooke Plots a Byzantine Revenge: It’s Off to Constantinople!; Edward Hulse on Night Wiring; Billy Congreve Visits a Hospital

Rupert Brooke has news at last. Which he will immediately[1] dish, contrary to regulations, in a letter to his friend Dudley Ward:

It’s too wonderful. We’re going in four days. And the best expedition of the war. Figure me celebrating the first Holy Mass in St Sophia since 1453. (But this is to your censorial ear.) Reviewed by the King on Wednesday. Off on Thursday. I may want some things. I’ll wire if I do… It should be a mildish affair. But one might get shot.

One of the most overwhelming–and most simple–commonplaces of Great War History is to view the war as the dawn of a new modern age, the first act of a two-act European disaster, the innocent and idiotic stumbling entry into our most violent century, etc. Like all strong historical readings these are sweeping generalizations which do violence to some of the facts and tend to treat the contours of individual experience the way a snow-blower treats all those goddamn putatively unique snowflakes. But, as such, they’re perfectly reasonable interpretations.

But 1914 (o.k., 1915) is as much an end as beginning–and endings are so much more vivid to people living in the present, knowing as they do the story that came before and not their fate. So the war also comes at the end of a previous history: it’s sunset as well as dawn and Brooke is not wrong (it’s an easy guess) to position the Ottoman “sick man of Europe” as the place where old arcs of history will be resolved. The Ottomans conquered Constantinople/Byzantium in 1453, and they will soon lose their grip on it, although not quite in the way that Brooke hopes.

Still, this is the early 20th century too: a time when an expedition to the East can, if it begins with a lung-straining inhalation of Romance, contemplate the restoration of a 15th century defeat (a defeat of the Eastern Christian empire which succeeded Rome, and so very Romantic indeed, if not really terribly British).

But it will not be “a mildish affair.”

As always with correspondence, the romance doesn’t last, and concern for the acquisition of impedimenta follows hard on any news.

I want… A waterproof sheet so slight that it folds up and goes into your pocket and weighs a pound—but is not tearable…   A tiny medicine ‘chest’ for the pocket. Including morphia, or some such thing, if possible

I enclose a cheque for 3 pounds. I don’t know what I owe you. Get the money for these latter purchases from my executors. What bloody fun!

RUPERT[2]

 

Also today, an interesting glimpse, via one of Edward Hulse‘s letters to his mother, into the inter-regimental and intra-battalion politics of the front.

It seems that the 2/Scots Guards were ordered to extend their line to the left, to take over a section that had been held in rotation by two other regiments.[3] Hulse seems to have expected to be ordered to take over the new trenches–perhaps he was the best  company officer in the 2/Scots Guards–“but by the direct intervention of Providence and a few forcibly put remarks by myself, I did not have to take over the new bit.”

The job falls to another company whose transfer will be less disruptive, but it’s a bad job–“There was absolutely no cover at all, and the above-mentioned Regiments must have simply sat still for two months and watched their parapets and defences fall in without doing one stitch of work”–and Hulse makes a deal with his friend “Pip,”[4] whose company is stuck with it:

I agreed to do all the “wiring” I could in front of him, and kept my part of the bargain.

For eight nights, ending tonight, a century back, Hulse “wired” from 7 p.m. to 1 or 2 a.m., and thus “perpetrated
such an entanglement as you never saw.”

It is always a ticklish job wiring in front, with occasional sniping, but I have got some good N.C.O.s who are absolutely expert on the job, and don’t panic when shots come near in the middle of the night, as many do!

In the last four nights alone, his team “put up entanglements, including 43 coils of wire (1/4 mile long each) and 870
posts and pegs!

Hard work, but it won Hulse a general’s congratulations, and his men a generous tot of whiskey, on the sly. The rest of the letter, written tomorrow, describes the arrival of a new draft of troops, bringing the 2/Scots Guards back up close to their paper strength for the first time in months.[5]

 

Lastly, a brief word from Billy Congreve, and not a happy one. Eleven days ago his old friend “Godders”–Captain Maurice Godolphin Osborne–had been shot in the head by a sniper while helping to build up a low section of parapet made perilous by that same sniper (exactly what the Scots Guards were trying to prevent on their stretch of the front). Congreve had rushed to see him in hospital in Armentières, where

I found Wyatt (his servant) looking after him. Godders looked awful bad, paralysed all down his right side and quite unconscious, but his left arm and leg moving up and down continuously… The bullet went in at the top of the head and, besides breaking a bit of his skull away, seriously injured his brain.

Despite this horrible injury and the doctors’ prediction of imminent death, Osborne lingered. Congreve–taking advantage of the staff officer’s greater freedom of movement–visited him nearly every day. His friend seemed to improve, becoming semi-conscious, and Congreve began to hope. Yesterday, a century back, he wrote that “I really believe that he knew me.”

But then the improvement stalled–a fact which Congreve seems to attribute to the departure of a particularly good nurse:

Sunday, February 21st

Saw Godders as usual-much the same. The new nurse could not give much account of him. I do wish he would speak–sometimes I feel he tries to and, today, when I said, “Give me your hand” he did so, but that’s all.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The letter is dated "Sunday, 20 February," which presumably means the 21st, which was a Sunday in 1915.
  2. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 660-1.
  3. Their names are tastefully redacted from the published text--and in fact should not have been mentioned in the letter, although it seems that they were.
  4. Possibly the protagonist of Great Expectations, greatly aged and re-enlisted; I'm looking into it.
  5. Letters Written From the English Front in France, 85-7.
  6. Armageddon Road, 101-2.

Milne Arrives; Brooke Parades for Winnie, Clemmie, and Eddie; Alan Seeger Sees a Long War, Edward Hulse on the Vicissitudes of Rehearsal

Two letters and two events to mark, today, a century back. First,  Alan Seeger wrote a letter to his mother:

February 17, 1915

You are quite wrong about my not realizing what I was going into when I enlisted. I had not been living for two years in Europe without coming to understand the situation very well and I was under no illusion that the conflict which was to decide the fate of empires and remake the map of Europe would be a matter of a few months. I knew that it would be a fight to the finish, just as our Civil War was.

Perhaps a lucky guess on the defensive, but a good insight nonetheless. An American paying close attention in Paris would see more than the vast majority of our Englishmen, with the mental habits of long peace and a naval/economic empire, and he could claim–as he does–national memory of a truly harrowing war.

The conflagration, far from diminishing, seems to be spreading. The lull during the winter has allowed each side on this front to fortify itself so strongly that, in my opinion, the dead lock here is permanent…

Our Jan. 20 rumor of going to Orleans evaporated into thin air. Now it is Feb. 27 to Vincennes. Someone has suggested that they really meant Feb. 29th. But I do hope we shall have a little change of air soon. Will stop now for it is hard writing amid a Babel of conversation.[1]

I do like the leap year joke–the little flashes of true absurdism will fire off here and there, although the tinder will require another full generation and a desperate second war to flare into the full-blown Heller/Vonnegut version.

 

And another letter from Edward Hulse:

Billets, 17.2.15

My Dearest Mother,

We have had a very busy time indeed in Divisional Reserve, and I have not had a minute to write… We have had to make up books, lists and all company matters, and get everything ship-shape, as we are expecting a
draft, but I shall not believe it until I see the men actually before me…

In addition to that, we have been pow-wowing night and day, and submitting schemes for the best method of attack, both by night and by day, and yesterday had to carry out an attack on an old line of trenches 3/4 mile behind the firing-line. If only a German aeroplane could have seen us, I wonder what it would have reported!

More early instances of what will become two very common bits of trench routine: paperwork, and rehearsal. Yet the eagerness–submitting plans unasked for, especially–is indicative of the fact that this is still a relatively undamaged elite pre-war formation. The Scots guards will not sit idly by!

Ah: but what betrays élan? Matériel.

…everything went well until the inevitable happened. (This is not to be published.) To make matters thoroughly realistic, the Brigade bomb-throwers with live bombs, portioned up, so many to each of our columns, took part. They were 6th Gordons, and of course just as we got to the barbed wire and were breaking through, when it was their business to bomb the enemies trenches, one of the damnable machines went off before it was thrown and blew one man’s thigh half away and broke his leg and wounded another. Of course we stopped the business and had all bombs removed, and carried out the attack again without the infernal inventions.

Grisly. But no ironic casting from Hulse here. Or in this next bit, which we will pick up in his next letter:

To-day we go back to the trenches, and have just heard that we have all got to move to the left, and take over the
trenches, which are in a filthy condition from neglect…  as soon as we have got comfortable by sheer hard work, we have got to go and begin all over again, and do a great deal of strengthening and wiring to the front, all of which is ticklish work. It is hard on the men, but of course a great compliment.

However, the men don’t see that at all. Filthy weather, rain and high wind…

(Please ask F. L. Smith to send me two boxes of a hundred cigarettes, over and above his ordinary consignments at once.)

…Telescopic sights, being made in Germany, are almost impossible to get, and cost from £12 to £15, and want specially sighting on rifles, etc. Do not trouble about that; we must trust to what we get sent out. Not another minute to spare. Hope to have time to write from the trenches, but doubtful.

Very best love to you and O.

Ever your loving
Ted.
P.S.—Many thanks for Humorous Verse.[2]

 

The Hood Battalion turned out smartly today for a review of the Royal Naval Division, Rupert Brooke and his delicate constitution in line with the rest. The weather did not cooperate, and an erstwhile dinner companion is now only a drive-by mucky-muck. Good thing Eddie Marsh is always there, to hold the middle register:

It rained all the time, but [Winston Churchill] was very much pleased. I saw ‘Clemmie’ in a motor-car for a second: and Eddie came to lunch with the Hood.[3]

Don’t worry–more details in tomorrow’s letter!

 

Finally, A.A. Milne joined his new unit today, the 4th Battalion of the Warwickshire Regiment, on the Isle of Wight. One of the reasons we will hear from Milne only intermittently is that this was a static and fairly unexciting posting: the 4th Battalion was a Reserve unit, used for training drafts for other battalion, and Milne finds his way onto the officers cadre without first accumulating any combat experience.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 70-1.
  2. Letters Written From the English Front in France, 83-5.
  3. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 660.
  4. Thwaite, A. A. Milne, His Life, 165.

Hulme has a Lovely Breakfast; Hulse has an Extremely Pretty Moment; Vera is So Glad; Julian Grenfell Begins a Diary; Edward Thomas Begins a Farewell

Hulme, feb 1915

Hulme is in the center, silhouetted against the window, his cap at a rakish angle. This photo, taken in February 1915, may represent today’s breakfast.

A lot to get to today–there’s a Hulme and a Hulse[1] and a farewell to one poet and a new beginning from another.

 

But first, T.E. Hulme. He, strangely enough, is having a good day:

The last day of the last 4 days rest here was like summer. We had breakfast outside the cobbler’s cottage and in the afternoon went up to the Inn on the hill and they all drank wine outside. A regular who was up there said ‘Who says there’s a war now’ and it certainly did seem absolutely remote from it, tough we could see here and there the […] of heavy artillery firing at the Germans. The same evening we marched straight from here up to the trenches…[2]

 

Sir Edward Hulse is next, with a weapons-heavy report for mater:

Billets, 6/2/15

My Dearest Mother,

Back in Brigade Reserve again, and expecting to be called out any moment to dig.

By-the-by, Fortnum and Mason parcel has arrived safely, and Ludo’s cake; also 7 pr. of mittens from Grandma, for which please thank her, and tell her that they are very much appreciated by the men…

A very interesting thing happened the day before yesterday: we had a trench-mortar working in my trenches, and it made a very nasty mess of the enemy’s trenches and dug-outs as far as we could see. It made very little noise going off, and an appalling explosion when it arrived chez les Bosches. They replied with shrapnel, and we picked some up where they had burst weakly and were more than surprised to find that they contained marbles, rather larger than the lead shrapnel bullet which I gave you, but lighter in weight by far than an ordinary marble, and made of some very light stone. It could not possibly hurt anyone, unless it actually struck one on the head, and even then I doubt whether it could penetrate…

My reference to our astounding newspaper statements still holds good; we all held ourselves in readiness to go to the assistance of the 1st Division, but they did good work with their second counter-attacks; the first failed. The second pushed the Germans back, and they got fair hell from our guns and the French combined, but the announcement that we retook all trenches was not quite compatible with facts!

This reference to his last letter to his mother, in which the scales fell from Sir Edward’s eyes–propaganda-wise–probably referred to the account of a local action in which the British suffered, but which the Daily Telegraph (relying on official reports) reported as a British victory. That letter I’ve linked to the Telegraph of the 27th, but he may have meant the 28th, available here–in both cases the gist is right but the wording is not exactly what he reports.

…There are also many proofs that the British troops are the only ones which are employed, time after time, on dirty work. The French, if they have a rough time, are immediately taken out in rear to rest, and the enemy do the same. I really believe that our fellows are the only ones who will take it on three or four times.

But it wouldn’t be a letter home from Sir Edward without a sniping update:

During the last few days in the trenches I have had grand sport with a telescopic sight on my rifle. It is giving the enemy a bit of their own,as a telescopic sight is a “Zeiss,” made in Germany. We know that they use them a lot, and lately I have been worried with a swine who makes infernally good practice; he hits anything one puts up, and missed my C.S.M. by not more than 2 inches.

We put up several marks for him in the place that we generally snipe from, and which he had driven us out of, and watched carefully, and noticed that the bullets were coming at an angle; this meant that his position was right away to the flank, and that he was not opposite us, where we were looking for him. We found a convenient little spot which faced in the required direction, and was shielded from the front, and at once spotted him and two other swine, right away to the right at about 550 yards (the trenches are not more than about 350 yards apart at opposite points).

My C.S.M. and I had stocking-caps on so as to draw less attention, and to assimilate easily with the background of the trench behind us. We had a man at the old place, about 20 yards to our right, and we knew that the German had spotted us there, so we made the man hold up a big turnip, with a stocking-cap on it, just above the loop-hole. I must explain that these rifles with telescopic sights cannot be used through loop-holes, owing to the size of the fitting and rifle together. Well, sure enough, bullet after bullet plastered into and around the old turnip, and the German was so keen that he leaned well on to the parapet to make better practice. I could see his two pals with their caps just showing, but he showed half way down his chest, and I could make out his telescopic sight clearly on his rifle. The moment had arrived, and, with my C.S.M. watching carefully with my glasses, I pulled!

With these telescopic sights you can see everything, every little detail, and it was an extremely pretty moment for me—his arms went up and his head went back, his cap fell off and he disappeared backwards, heavily into the trench.

Being so much more refined than early-20th century European gentlemen, I find this account of the cold-blooded shooting and killing of another man unpleasant to read about. Which is good news for my gentle soul–and proud I am of all of my sensitivities–but not so good, history-wise. Hulse isn’t shooting civilians, or children.

At other points he, and Julian Grenfell, have gone hunting for German soldiers not engaged at the time in any active hostilities. That merits discussion, if not as a horrifying crime–this is war–then at least as a reflection on the character of the men who volunteered to do such things. But today he is luring and killing a man who would do the same to him, and who has been engaged in doing that very same sort of opportunistic hunting.

The goal here should be to study how and why Hulse writes of his experiences the way he does. (Which, by the way, I’m finding difficult to do. With Julian Grenfell, there are other ways to demonstrate, and reflect upon, the quality, and qualities, of his mind, so a story of unhappiness and brutality can come out and color the stark events. Of Hulse I know little–he sounds sane, and yet he blithely tells his mother how happy he feels at killing, which doesn’t. And nor does his language reveal much–swine are swine and things that feel good are “pleasant” and “pleasing,” and there are no conspicuous doubts–no self-doubt at all, really.)

But that goal rests on a simpler, more profound (in the sense, too, of “foundational”) historical purpose. Which is to understand the experience as it was viewed and understood at the time. And I don’t mean “Well, Hulse was a hunter and an aristocrat, and it’s only too easy to go from massacring grouse for weekend entertainment to head-shooting despised categories of human being.” I mean what the men in his trench must have felt when they learned that, through persistence, initiative, and skill, he had removed an ongoing and serious threat to their lives.

Paul Fussell, fiery polestar of Great War history-and-literature, also wrote an essay whose title refers to his feelings as a member of a later army slated to invade the heavily fortified coastline of another country: “Thank God for the Atom Bomb.”

He had let go his rifle, and one of his pals leant over quickly to get it, and I put another shot in, and just missed by the left. I was really pleased at getting the brute, as he had given us endless trouble. They have not got many crack shots, and what there are very rarely show themselves and nearly always use loop-holes, and it is a mere chance if one gets one through a loop-hole. Also the fact that he had a rifle with telescopic sight shows that he was a picked shot. I saw his two pals appear at loopholes just after, and they fairly plastered our old position (where I had had
the turnip dressed in the Balaclava helmet), and I made them both move up and down to various loop-holes, until they gave it up. The second I saw a rifle being shoved through a loop-hole I let drive, and could see the earth fly up just below, or just at the side.

It was a pleasant reward for three hours’ hard work, and they daren’t show their little fingers by day, now.

To put it shortly, “‘e come down proper, ‘e did.” It is a novel and a pleasant sensation to see the fellow you hit fall.

Generally, firing with the naked eye even at 250 yards, if a head or head and shoulders is your only mark, you don’t see much of what happens. Unfortunately, we have only this one telescopic sight in the Battalion, and next time in the trenches another Company has got to have it…

By-the-by, please send me at once the Anthology of Humorous Verse, by Theodore A. Cook (Price 3s. 6d. net), you can get it at Bumpus’, or anywhere. I have discovered untold talent in my Coy., including a really
good tenor…

Very best love to you and O.

Ever your loving

Ted[3]

 

Interestingly, Vera‘s short diary entry for today, a century back, lets us know something Roland was too modest to mention–but immodest enough to enclose in his most recent letter:

Saturday February 6th

I had a letter from Roland telling me that his attempt to get transferred had so far been unsuccessful, & that he is to stay in the 4th Norfolks. I am so glad. But best of all he enclosed a small cutting from the paper saying that he is promoted to be 1st Lieutenant. Consequently I enjoyed my classes with Miss Lorimer & the Logic lecture more than I have enjoyed any work this term. He must be excellent to be promoted so soon in a reserve battalion.[4]

Vera, conventional enough to use such excellent ammunition for the persuasion of the mothers of provincial young ladies, will immediately fire off a letter to her mother with news of Roland’s promotion.

 

And like a promising new artillery piece brought into action only to fire erratically, and with a high percentage of duds to boot, here’s an exciting announcement… and a less-than-thrilling follow-through: Julian Grenfell has decided to keep a diary! As Nicholas Mosley, Grenfell’s biographer, reminds us, “this is his only piece of writing that has survived which was not written to be seen by others.” This could be big… but alas, it’s only “a small pocket-book in which he wrote spasmodically.” (“Spasmodically” only in terms of its application to the ongoing, progressive sense of the simple past tense. He wrote, that is, sporadically, but his manner of writing, when he wrote, was not spasmodic.)

The diary was begun, oddly, just as Grenfell left for home for a late-January leave–which he largely spent hunting–and then contains a few scattered notes that don’t quite add up to a “return to the trenches” narrative. But it’s very much a diary, an aide-memoire not meant for public consumption–the note for the 2nd, for instance, contains the sentence “Slept at farm, found woman.” (These five words describe an affair now lost to “history”–but they could just as well stand as a precis for R.H. Mottram’s three volume novel The Spanish Farm Trology, which we’ll get to in ’16.)

Then it’s a quick tour of the Gothic ruins (more in the 18th than the 13th century sense) of Ypres, and today Grenfell is back with his unit.

February 6th. Wonderful Excitement of getting up to the firing line again and back to business. Men tremendously excited too. Funny how tired the war feeling and the sound of guns makes one. Nerves? No, just strain of excitement.[5]

Here, yes, is intentional honesty and even, perhaps–and right at the diary’s beginning!–the semi-intentional honesty of the self-examining diarist. “Nerves,” eh? If none, then why mention it, Jules?

The rest of the short entry reports Grenfell’s satisfaction with the new rotation system, of five days in and out. He is, apparently, rotating with both battalions of the Life Guards–Crofton and Hamilton’s regiment–a proximity which I will keep an eye on and try, naturally, to exploit.

 

From that unpromising beginning to the beginning of a farewell. The Frosts have not let Edward Thomas down. Since his sprained ankle still makes travel difficult, they came to visit him at Steep, arriving at 10:15 this morning, a century back. For Thomas there will now be a few happy days to spend with his great friend–of only a year or so, but it was a fast and hard friendship. The wild American had done more than anyone else to spark his poetry to life, to change his course utterly. A few more days to talk about family and poetry and the strange demands of the real world… and then a long parting.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. It helps to tell them apart if you are in on the typical British skulduggery of impossible-to-guess pronunciations: 'Hulme' is said as 'Hume,' i.e, ';hyoom,' and if there is a secret pronunciation to Hulse I'm blissfully unaware of it.
  2. Ferguson, The... Life of T.E. Hulme, 195-6, 209; Ferguson's report that the HAC took over new trenches on the 7th, which Hulme will discuss later in the same letter (of February 10th) as being the night after this one, combined with the weather for today (The Master of Belhaven, War Diary, 44: "A lovely day, with warm sun") makes the dating of this memory fairly secure. More on the new trenches, then, tomorrow. The photo too is from Ferguson, plate 8.
  3. Letters Written from the English Front in France, 79-83.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 115.
  5. Mosley, Julian Grenfell, 252.
  6. Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France, 206-7.

Three Confirmed Kills, Misplaced Innocence, and An ABC Poem from Edward Hulse; Herbert Read Reads Marx, Nietzsche, and a Platoon of Durham Miners; Crofton on the Cavalry; Egos are Bruised in Pervyse

There’s a lot to do today–including matching one of our writer’s accounts of a battle to the newspaper archive’s rather different version. But first, Reggie Trench: we have mentioned him here only once before, but his energetic letter writing will make him an invaluable source once he gets to the front. Today, a century back, he’s getting married, so here’s a picture:[1]Trench wedding Wasn’t it nice of the Little Tramp to photobomb the same photograph two or three times?

 

Now then. Before we get to good letters from Edward Hulse and Morgan Crofton, it’s time for an update on Herbert Read. Read is a student whose passion for everything modern–in art, but also in literature–is in its early stages. Which is to say, of course, that he is soaking himself in Nietzsche.

Coincidentally, Read describes his early war experiences in much the same manner as our other modernist critic, T.E. Hulme, namely by stringing together long, descriptive letters. Read’s serial–which he refers to as his “War Diary”–is written, however, not to his family–his mother has recently died, his father is long dead–but to a young woman, an “almost casual acquaintance” whose epistolary friendship will come to provide “a relief to the otherwise intolerable loneliness of his new surroundings.”[2]

But I shouldn’t get excited: the next entry in the published version of the “War Diary” isn’t until March, and then there is a very long hiatus. But it will be good, in the future, to look back on Read in his first days as a twenty-one-year-old lieutenant, at the very beginning of “the process of getting familiar with the idea of death and nothingness.”

28.i.15                                                                                                                                                Wareham, Dorset

I am in very uncongenial surroundings here,

I thought perhaps Karl Marx’s Materialist Interpretation of History developed in Das Kapital would also support the theory, but I have not had time to read Marx yet…

Yes, I think we can see how an army barracks in Dorset might be uncongenial to a young man with those tastes.

I am beginning to suspect that Nietzsche’s appeal to me is largely poetical. Nevertheless I think he is a fine stimulus…

This too is good news–since the only other options are an unending study of conflicting and impossible writings or a slide into badly read super-race madness. Not that Read is yet immune to those tendencies–he also writes that he is “trying to reconcile his idea of the Superman with Democracy.” So that could get ugly…

Mild spoilers: Read doesn’t end up a racist or a madman, and he does become a poet with a fairly obvious debt to Nietzsche. But he is no distracted philosopher or delicate aesthete: anarchism and other hard, ragged edges of modernism will remain part of his outlook even as he holds His Majesty’s commission and fights with notable effectiveness.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves, and this would be a bad time to assess Read’s personal philosophy or his reading. He’s trying to impress a girl, remember, with these letters… so let’s move on to the army stuff:

…Nietzsche and all divine heretics seem like a dream. The only compensation this life offers is that it brings me into direct contact with a class of men I wanted to know. They are a rough lot–mostly miners from Durham and MIddlesbro’. And how different they are from the newspaper fiction. I don’t think one per cent. are here for spiritual motives. They are always grumbling about their food and pay and I must say I sympathize with them… Their food is disgusting… The huts they live in are filthy. If we get away before an epidemic breaks out I shall be surprised. The attitude of the average officer to them is overbearing and supercilious. My position as one of these little, homage-receiving gods is very quixotic…[3]

This is excellent stuff. I am aware that this project involves oddly-spaced, piecemeal introductions to dozens of writers, some of whom I know fairly well but haven’t properly introduced. (But aware enough? Never!) I realize, too, that it is more or less impossible for a reader to keep them all straight, especially when we’ve hardly read anything yet… so perhaps it is more annoying than helpful for me to happily declare certain utterances to be “characteristic.”

Therefore I apologize. But that last sentence makes a perfect comparison to Charles Sorley, who recently described his first fortnight as an officer as “the first fine glow of seeing people twice your age and size obey and salute you.” Note the difference between Sorley’s Jeffries-like “fine glow”  and Read’s Nietzschean “homage-receiving gods” and you will be able to match the rest of their writings–letter or verse–to the correct author nine times out of ten. If only I had time to put quizzes up on the blog…

 

Far from Dorset and class-conscious thoughts of the nature of officer-hood, Sir Morgan Crofton worries about the fate of his fine old cavalry unit, the 2/Life Guards:

THURSDAY JANUARY 28

Dull and very frosty but fine. A lot of chat goes on about our return to the trenches. I cannot help thinking that people depress themselves very much long before they go in by talking like this. It is like the discussion which invariably precedes a point-to-point or steeplechase. People reduce themselves to a state of nervous collapse by continuing to say how awful the jumps are. But when the race is being run no one notices the jumps, which before had appeared so ominous.

I trust that this will be our last appearance in the trenches, but now they have got us there again, the authorities are quite capable of keeping us there. I am sorry if they do, for trenches ruin the cavalry spirit, and should we be wanted later in the war to act as Cavalry, we shall have greatly deteriorated.[4]

This, I must say, is like a sneaky preface to the work of Siegfried Sassoon, who will go to great autobiographical lengths to connect the emotions of the hunt and the point-to-point race with the emotions of the hate and the trench-to-trench fight.

Sir Edward Hulse updates his mother on trench life, truth, and fiction:

Billets,
28. 1. 15.

My Dearest Mother,

Strange to say we have had six days without rain, and the change has been very welcome, and has enabled us to make ourselves a good deal more comfortable in the trenches. We have even reclaimed several bits which had been abandoned, and have got to work with the pumps again. Keen frost and little snow at night is all we have had, and as a result the men are cheery beyond words, and years younger. They marched out of the trenches last night with mouth organs, penny whistles, etc., playing “Highland Laddie,” as if they had only just landed in the country.

We have had one or two alarms during the last few days, but nothing came of it. The Kaiser’s birthday was not celebrated by the enemy in any way beyond a little singing.

I and my C.S.M. have made some pretty practice, working together with rifle and glasses, turn and turn about. We have accounted for three Germans for certain, and probably two others during the last four days, but it is no easy matter, as they will not show up now, and three hours hard work may result in a complete blank!

A nice little update: frost is better than mud; more evidence that that Kaiser’s birthday–like a small, inverted version of the Christmas Truce–was observed differently in different parts of the line; and shooting other men in the head is getting more challenging as everyone adjusts to the war of attrition.

But now an interesting bit. Hulse–one of our paradigms of the confident, aristocratic, fox-hunting manner–is suddenly an innocent, shocked at a fairly obvious aspect of war that seems not to have dawned on him in anything like good time. It turns out that there is propaganda… lies! That somehow even defeats are represented in the home press as victories!

…The poor old 1st Battalion took it in the neck again the other day. The enemy attacked five times, and R.F. and L.F. Coys., which were in the trenches at the time, had heavy casualties: more, I cannot say, except that we are all aghast and making large goggle-peeps at the official account, which appeared in the D.T. of 28th, or possibly 27th,
under heading “La Bassée.” I shall never accuse the German papers of talking again. I may be able to write more later on about it…

Well, hats off to the Daily Telegraph, which is doing its own century back project: follow this link and check out the rightmost column of page 8 to see the account of the victorious operations at La Bassée in yesterday’s paper. One German attack was “instantly stopped” and another was “stopped dead”–a sure sign of an exhausted propagandist’s imagination–with 300 German dead, and no mention of British casualties. This must be the official account that Hulse refers to, but if there is more in today’s “D.T.” I will update this post accordingly.

This is trench warfare, then: open warfare is always chaos, but there can be little confusion about casualties taken in local trench-to-trench attacks. Two companies of Hulse’s Scots Guards “took it in the neck” and the papers printed an official communique that reversed the result of the fight. Scales are falling from the eyes of even the non-cynical…

Hulse really is quite the correspondent: in addition to these frank accounts of his own killing prowess and his sudden discovery of (British) military prevarication, he closes the letter with a reference to my favorite quotidien military equipage, and includes documentary evidence of trench-generated humor for his mother’s amusement.

Your three pairs of socks arrived at a most opportune moment, when we were short, and three men wanted them badly…

There is very little news at present. I am enclosing two little items,one of which you have seen. Please send both on to Uncle Mi, who will appreciate the printed one, signed Little Tich Beerbohm. It is made out in regular form, like the information which is circulated from time to time. It really is a good joke, and I believe was composed by one of the “Artist Rifles” themselves. Ask him to return both papers to you.

Very best love to you and O.

Ever your loving

Ted.

Alas: what appears to have been a parody on an official form letter is not included in the published version of Hulse’s letters. Damn you uncle Mi!

But here is the other item, both mildly amusing and a very good primer on the most typical features of trench life:

VERSES BY A SUBALTERN OF ” C ” COY., 2/R[oyal].D[ublin].F[usiliers].
A is our Army, which with impunity,
Bill said he’d smash at his first opportunity.

B is the Base, which is called St. Nazaire,
No longer the home of the gallant and fair.

C is the Charge of the Scottish of London
From the papers you’d argue they only had done one.

D is De Wet, who thought it was wiser
To break his allegiance and follow the Kaiser.

E is the End of this horrible war—
It will probably last for a century more.

F are the Flares which never seem lacking,
Sent up by the Germans to see who’s attacking.

G are the Germans, a race much maligned.
A more peace-loving people you hardly can find.

H are the Huns, their nearest of kin,
A pastoral people they are said to have been.

I am the writer, a perfect nonentity—
That is the reason I hide my identity.

J is the joy on the faces of men,
When they’re told they must go down for rations at ten.

K is the Kaiser, who’s said to be balmy.—
We always feel safe when he’s leading his army.

L is the Lake that protects us from fire,
They call it a trench, when the weather is drier.

M stands for Mud, to describe which foul stuff
Violent blasphemy’s hardly enough.

N is the Noise which we generally hear
On the night when the Germans are issued with beer.

O is the Order—obeyed with a yawn—
Of “Stand to your arms—it’s an hour till dawn!”

P is the Post, which generally brings
Parcels of perfectly valueless things.

Q is the Question we all do abhor,
Concerning the probable end of the war.

R stands for Rum, and also for Russians,
Our two greatest allies when fighting the Prussians.

S as you know always stands for Supplies,
Whose excellent qualities no one denies.

T is Tobacco, that beautiful stuff,
And thanks be to heaven we’ve now got enough.

U stands for Uhlan, who’s gained notoriety,
Both through his kindness and wonderful piety.

V is the Voice of the turtle, which bird
Has been turned into stew, so it’s no longer heard.

W stands for Wine, Women, and War,
We’ll see to the first when the latter is o’er.

X is a perfectly horrible letter—
I’ll leave it alone, and I couldn’t do better.

Y stands for Ypres, which the Germans desire,
They shelled it as soon as they had to retire.

Z stands for Zeppelins, who long to raid
A Circus, a Square and a certain Arcade.[5]

 

Finally, Lady Dorothie Feilding‘s uncle Everard visited Pervyse today–he was taken along for a tour by Doctor Munro, the titular head of the whole operation. For some reason Elsie and Mairi decided to be coy about yesterday’s news, and when Munro eventually figured out that neither he nor his famous, titled orderly/nurse/driver had been honored he was not best pleased. (Assessing how well decorations were earned is a mug’s game, but Chisolm and Knocker had spent much more time under fire than Munro or Feilding, although all accounts praise her coolness under fire and eagerness to enter the combat zone.) Elsie Knocker was amused by this:

“It was so funny that after all the huge advertisement that Dorothy and Father [Munro] have had and flinging titles about that little Mairi and I should have come on a long way first… that is what pleases me most.”

It’s nice to see that intrepid and self-sacrificing aid-workers/nurses can be as petty about decorations and the foolishness of their commanders as any of the intrepid and self-aggrandizing/self-sacrificing subalterns a few miles further east…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The photograph is found in Fletcher, Life, Death and Growing Up on the Western Front. Anthony Fletcher's interesting/promising book, which studies the war through a disparate group of letter-writing soldiers--some more or less unknown, some famous, and one, Reginald Trench, his own grandfather--is a source I hope to draw deeply on as the war continues.
  2. That is Read referring to himself, later on, in the third person. Although he vouches for the "occasional crudity" and "authenticity" of these letters, scholars have been skeptical. There must be others that he chose not to publish...
  3. Read, The Contrary Experience, 60-70,1.
  4. Massacre of the Innocents, 133-4.
  5. Letters Written from the English Front in France, 75-8.

Rupert Brooke’s Life Gets More Romantic than Books; Edward Hulse and I Explain the Servant System and Sir Edward Entertains a Reprise of the Truce; A Peaceful Interlude for Alan Seeger; Hulme Crosses Paths with Pollard and One Navvies While the Other Shirks; A Poem From Edward Thomas

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.”[1]

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.[2]

 

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…[3]

 

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.

Billets, 5.1.15.

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.[4]

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,

Ted[5]

 

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, 1915http://www.cg-aisne.org/cartespostales/photos/02171%20Chaudardes/_600/Chaudardes%20eglise.jpg

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.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Jones, Rupert Brooke, 399-400.
  2. Hassall, Rupert Brooke, 479-80.
  3. In Ferguson, ...T.E.Hulme, 186-7.
  4. Pollard, Fire-Eater, 46-53.
  5. Letters Written From the English Front in France, 71-4.
  6. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 49-51

Edward Hulse Writes the Christmas Truce; Updates from Vera, Osbert, and Morgan

Three brief notes, today, then a lengthy look back at Christmas with Edward Hulse.

Osbert Sitwell wrote home to his father today, with little news but the weather. At least he was appositely folkloric: “As for the weather, ‘The rain it raineth every day.'”[1]

 

Vera Brittain has more exciting news to report:

Monday December 28th

I had a letter from Roland to-day in which he says that he is now with his mother in rooms in town & that she wants him to bring me to see her. I wrote & told him I could manage it quite easily one day, either Wed. or Thur.[2]

 

The cycle of home leave for officers has created a bit of a ripple for Morgan Crofton:

MONDAY DECEMBER 28

Went on a route march at 10 o’clock for about 2 hours. Weather inclined to be wet, anyhow dull but mild. At 2 o’clock we went out on bicycles for a staff ride to discuss a few simple problems with Torrie. Our start from this village was made the occasion of a good deal of levity on the part of the inhabitants and the troops, but we soon got down to riding our cycles with great skill.

General Kavanagh today went on seven days’ leave to England. Not much news from our front. All four corps are in the line there now with the Indian Corps in reserve. The new 27th Division has also arrived. Torrie goes on a week’s leave to England, leaving me in command here…

The day’s entry continues with ordinary local news and analysis of the events of the war elsewhere. Crofton is properly unperturbed at finding himself, retired as recently as August, now in command of an entire regiment of cavalry on active duty…

 

Hey, boring! Wasn’t Christmas more interesting?letterswrittenfr00hulsrich_0089

Sir Edward Hulse, 2/Scots Guards, quondam killer extraordinaire, has been so busy not killing Germans since Christmas Day that only today was he able to write to Mater at length about The Truce:

28/12/14.
My Dearest Mother,

Just returned to billets again, after the most extraordinary Christmas in the trenches you could possibly imagine. Words fail me completely, in trying to describe it, but here goes!

On the 23rd we took over the trenches in the ordinary manner, relieving the Grenadiers, and during the 24th the usual firing took place, and sniping was pretty brisk. We stood to arms as usual at 6.30 a.m. on the 25th, and I noticed that there was not much shooting ; this gradually died down, and by 8 a.m. there was no shooting at all…

At 8.30 a.m. I was looking out, and saw four Germans leave their trenches and come towards us; I told two of my men to go and meet them, unarmed (as the Germans were unarmed), and to see that they did not pass the halfway line. We were 350-400 yards apart at this point. My fellows were not very keen, not knowing what was up, so I went out alone, and met Barry, one of our ensigns, also coming out from another part of the line. By the time we got to them, they were 3/4 of the way over, and much too near our barbed wire, so I moved them back.

They were three private soldiers and a stretcher-bearer, and their spokesman started off by saying that he thought it only right to come over and wish us a happy Christmas, and trusted us implicitly to keep the truce. He came from Suffolk, where he had left his best girl and a 3 1/2 h.p. motor-bike! He told me that he could not get a letter to the girl, and wanted to send one through me. I made him write out a postcard in front of me, in English, and I sent it off that night. I told him that she probably would not be a bit keen to see him again. We then entered on a long discussion on every sort of thing. I was dressed in an old stocking-cap and a man’s overcoat, and they took me for a corporal, a thing which I did not discourage, as I had an eye to going as near their lines as possible!

Not very sporting, Sir Edward.

…The little fellow I was talking to, was an undersized, pasty-faced student type, talked four languages well, and had a business in England, so I mistrusted him at once. I asked them what orders they had from their officers as to coming over to us, and they said none; that they had just come over out of goodwill.

They protested that they had no feeling of enmity at all towards us, but that everything lay with their authorities, and that being soldiers they had to obey. I believe that they were speaking the truth when they said this, and that they never wished to fire a shot again. They said that unless directly ordered, they were not going to shoot again until we did. They were mostly 158th Regiment and Jaegers, and were the ones we attacked on the night of the 18th. Hence the feeling of temporary friendship, I suppose…

I kept it up for half an hour, and then escorted them back as far as their barbed wire, having a jolly good look round all the time, and picking up various little bits of information which I had not had an opportunity of doing under fire! I left instructions with them that if any of them came out later they must not come over the half-way line, and appointed a ditch as the meeting place. We parted, after an exchange of Albany cigarettes and German cigars, and I went straight to H[ead].-q[uar]r[ter]s. to report.

On my return at 10 a.m. I was surprised to hear a hell of a din going on, and not a single man left in my trenches; they were completely denuded (against my orders), and nothing lived! I heard strains of “Tipperary” floating down the breeze, swiftly followed by a tremendous burst of ” Deutschland über Alles,” and as I got to my own Coy. H.-qrs. dug-out, I saw, to my amazement, not only a crowd of about 150 British and Germans at the half-way house which I had appointed opposite my lines, but six or seven such crowds, all the way down our lines, extending towards the 8th Division on our right. I bustled out and asked if there were any German officers in my crowd, and the noise died down (as this time I was myself in my own cap and badges of rank).

I found two, but had to talk to them through an interpreter, as they could neither talk English nor French. They were podgy, fat bourgeois, looking very red and full of sausage and beer and wine, and were not over friendly. I explained to them that strict orders must be maintained as to meeting half-way, and everyone unarmed; and we both agreed not to fire until the other did, thereby creating a complete deadlock and armistice (if strictly observed). These two fat swine would vouchsafe no information, and, beyond giving me a very nasty cigar, did nothing, and returned to their trenches.

It’s hard to resist the joke here that by being ungenerous and unsporting, yet by permitting holiday license–at least, unlike Stockwell, he admits that his orders were roundly disobeyed–to his underlings, he is partaking of the true Upper Class Christmas spirit.

It must be a real truce, since Hulse generously extends his class prejudice to the Germans. Fraternizing with the enemy is one thing, but having to talk to nasty fat bourgeois swine is a hardship, truly–and (unny how the landowner who retired in his thirties sees our hallowed small business owners as pasty students.

To get a sounder sense of the class situation, it’s worth recalling that Henry Williamson–young, timid and petty bourgeois– liked the looks of “gentle looking men in goatee beards & spectacles” and recoiled from the “big and arrogant looking” fellows that Hulse surely would have gravitated to. It makes one nostalgic for the days of intermarried upper class knights and sweltering, suffering kerns. Or need we be nostalgic at all, a century back?

Meanwhile Scots and Huns were fraternizing in the most genuine possible manner. Every sort of souvenir was exchanged, addresses given and received, photos of families shown, etc…

A German N.C.O. with the Iron Cross,—gained, he told me, for conspicuous skill in sniping,—started his fellows off on some marching tune. When they had done I set the note for “The Boys of Bonnie Scotland, where the heather and the bluebells grow,” and so we went on, singing everything from ” Good King Wenceslaus ” down to the ordinary Tommies’ song, and ended up with ” Auld Lang Syne,” which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussian, Wurtembergers, etc., joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!

Good stuff: it’s the proto-Pynchonization of modern war. “We chatted in a friendly manner and agreed to agree, but we all indicated that we all thought that we were all lying.” “We did it, but it felt as if we were acting out a fantasy.” “It was real, but it seemed fake.”

It gets better: from pre-post-modern menace to a “Cinematograph” scene that is only a few decades ahead of its time–and pure Disney:

…From foul rain and wet, the weather had cleared up the night before, to a sharp frost, and it was a perfect day, everything white, and the silence seemed extraordinary, after the usual din. From all sides birds seemed to arrive, and we hardly ever see a bird generally. Later in the day I fed about 50 sparrows outside my dug-out, which shows how complete the silence and quiet was.

I must say that I was very much impressed with the whole scene, and also, as everyone else, astoundingly relieved by the quiet, and by being able to walk about freely. It is the first time, day or night, that we have heard no guns, or rifle-firing, since I left Havre…

Just after we had finished “Auld Lang Syne” an old hare started up, and seeing so many of us about in an unwonted spot, did not know which way to go. I gave one loud ” View Holloa,” and one and all, British and Germans, rushed about giving chase, slipping up on the frozen plough, falling about, and after a hot two minutes we killed in the open, a German and one of our fellows falling together heavily upon the completely baffled hare. Shortly afterwards we saw four more hares, and killed one again ; both were good heavy weight and had evidently been out between the two rows of trenches for the last two months, well-fed on the cabbage patches, etc., many of which are untouched on the “no-man’s land.” The enemy kept one and we kept the other.

How bizarre to have “hunting” go from reality to metaphor to surreal reality.

After drinking a toast,

We then retired to our respective trenches for dinners and plum-pudding, one of which had been issued to each man in the Battalion that morning, also Christmas cards from King and Queen, Princess Mary’s card and present of pipe and tobacco, and a card from Lady Rawlinson, for 4th Army Corps. We all had a grand meal…

During the afternoon the same extraordinary scene was enacted between the lines…  at 4.30 p.m. we agreed to keep in our respective trenches, and told them that the truce was ended. They persisted, however, in saying that they were not going to fire, and as George had told us not to, unless they did, we prepared for a quiet night, but warned all sentries to be doubly on the alert.

So peace–but a temporary peace. One that can be turned to martial purposes.

During the day both sides had taken the opportunity of bringing up piles of wood, straw, etc., which is generally only brought up with difficulty under fire. We improved our dug-outs, roofed in new ones, and got a lot of very useful work done towards increasing our comfort. Directly it was dark, I got the whole of my Coy. on to improving and remaking our barbed-wire entanglements, all along my front, and had my scouts out in front of the working parties, to prevent any surprise; but not a shot was fired, and we finished off a real good obstacle unmolested…

Now just think what could be accomplished if the better sort of German could be contracted with?

…[Our Adjutant] found an extremely pleasant and superior stamp of German officer, who arranged to bring all our dead to the half-way line. We took them over there, and buried 29 exactly half way between the two lines. Giles collected all personal effects, pay-books and identity discs, but was stopped by the Germans when he told some men to bring in the rifles; all rifles lying on their side of the half-way line they kept carefully! They found poor Hugh Taylor close up against the enemy’s parapet (as most of our fellows were); he had been shot through the chest. They took him back to Head-quarters and buried him close by in a cemetery which we had made there…

Several other officers killed on the 18th are likewise identified and buried.

This officer kept on pointing to our dead and saying, ” Les Braves, c’est bien dommage.”

This episode was the sadder side of Xmas Day, but it was a great thing being able to collect them, as their relations, to whom of course they had been reported missing, will be put out of suspense and hoping that they are prisoners.

This stimulated a more sincere bout of gift-exchange:

When George heard of it he went down to that section and talked to the nice officer and gave him a scarf. That same evening a German orderly came to the half-way line, and brought a pair of warm, woolly gloves as a present in return for George…

…the same comic form of temporary truce continued on the 26th, and again at 4.30 p.m. I informed them that the truce was at an end. We had sent them over some plum-puddings, and they thanked us heartily for them and retired again…

Hulse’s letter goes on a great deal more: a German deserter with a false story of a planned attack led to a sleepless night as the artillery rained down and the infantry on both sides suspected the other of perfidy. Nevertheless, the truce held again on the 27th. Hulse finished one letter and immediately began a continuation:

The whole business of the past three days has been extraordinary and not easy to explain. Yesterday, shooting began again, down in the 8th Division, but although we explained to the enemy that the truce was at an end, never a shot was fired.

Although I do not trust them a yard, I am convinced that all they want is to see us making ourselves thoroughly comfortable and (as you will gather from what I said about them watching us put up obstacles and entanglements) to assure themselves that we are not going to attack; so much so, that I honestly believe that if we had called on them for fatigue-parties that night, to help us put up our barbed wire, they would have come over and done so.

They are, I am sure, pretty sick of fighting, and found the truce a very welcome respite, and were therefore quite ready to prolong it… they were the troops whom we had attacked, and some of them expressed admiration for us, etc…

However, it is all very curious…

Ever your loving,

Ted.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Ziegler, Osbert Sitwell, 56.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 133-4.
  3. Hulse, Letters Written From the English Front, 56-70