A Brother and a Friend Lost at Ypres; Lord Dunsany Pleads for the Poets; Frederic Manning Dodges Delusion

After a long week of Ypres memoirs, all of our recent mainstays are in reserve. But the battle goes on, and if our writers aren’t in it, they can still suffer its losses. Today we have a memorial and then two new losses; this attempt to chronicle the most attritional of the war’s battles is beginning to take on the form of its object.

Lord Dunsany is back in France, on the Hindenberg Line–we know this because this is where he writes the latest and last in a series of prefaces and introductions for his protege Francis Ledwidge, whose new, posthumous collection, is entitled, inevitably, “Last Songs.” Dunsany had seen the volume into the press before he left for France only a few days ago, perhaps feeling that the preface should be written closer to the line, where Ledwidge had spent his last days. Or, perhaps, he wrote it now in order that such a very martial dateline might give his work the authority to suggests what he now does:

Writing amidst rather too much noise and squalor to do justice at all to the delicate rustic muse of Francis Ledwidge, I do not like to delay his book any longer, nor to fail in a promise long ago made to him to write this introduction. He has gone down in that vast maelstrom into which poets do well to adventure and from which their country might perhaps be wise to withhold them, but that is our Country’s affair.

This is an argument that should rile a democracy (Dunsany, of course, is a Peer of the aristocracy in this democracy). It would overturn, too, the strange situation that underlies our fascination with the war–that so many talented, privileged young men went to miserable deaths. The ironies ripple out in different directions–Ledwidge was talented, but not privileged; democracies will indeed come to find many ways, both open and underhanded, to shield the best and the brightest (and the richest and the most privileged) from the worst of future wars; and it won’t be the poets who are carefully preserved for the good of the nation, or even of poetry.

He has left behind him verses of great beauty, simple rural lyrics that may be something of an anodyne for this stricken age. If ever an age needed beautiful little songs our age needs them; and I know few songs more peaceful and happy, or better suited to soothe the scars on the mind of those who have looked on certain places, of which the prophecy in the gospels seems no more than an ominous hint when it speaks of the abomination of desolation.

He told me once that it was on one particular occasion, when walking at evening through the village of Slane in summer, that he heard a blackbird sing. The notes, he said, were very beautiful, and it is this blackbird that he tells of in three wonderful lines in his early poem called “Behind the Closed Eye,” and it is this song perhaps more than anything else that has been the inspiration of his brief life. Dynasties shook and the earth shook; and the war,
not yet described by any man, revelled and and wallowed in destruction around him; and Francis Ledwidge stayed true to his inspiration, as his homeward songs will show.

I had hoped he would have seen the fame he has well deserved; but it is hard for a poet to live to see fame even in
times of peace. In these days it is harder than ever.

Dunsany.

October 9th, 1917.

 

Lady Dorothie Feilding is still in Ireland with her new husband, so this coming news will take some time to reach her.

Her younger brother Henry, a subaltern in the Coldstream Guards, led his company today, a century back, on the northern flank of the renewed attack. This extension of Passchendaele/Third Ypres is dignified with the title of the Battle of Poelcappelle, and it went much as most of the fighting recently had gone.

First, the torrential rain stopped just in time to allow the attack to proceed, albeit over a horrible morass that made progress very difficult. Nevertheless, under a heavy barrage, the Guards, on the left of the British push, generally carried their objectives. But, of course, at great cost. This is Ypres–still a salient, still easily reached by a huge concentration of German guns–and if mud and barrage made the defender’s trenches uninhabitable, many hardened pillboxes survived long enough to pour devastating fire onto the advancing troops.

The historians of the Guards (we will read the account of a different battalion, below) give the general impression that their success turned to disaster due to the failure of a Newfoundland battalion of the 29th Division on their right. Held up by rain and mud, they were late in starting and driven back by the occupants of several pillboxes, whose machine guns were now able to take the Guards in flank.

Henry Feilding’s 2nd Coldstreams had led the assault at 5.20. His commanding officer will write, in the unmistakable, stilted prose of a letter of condolence, that

He was commanding the company on the right of the assault and got into a heavy German barrage. I cannot tell you what a loss he is both as a friend and a soldier. It was the first time that he commanded a company in action, and he was doing so well. He was full of enthusiasm for this first attack and I only wish he could have seen the successful ending of such a great day for the regiment, but all the officers of his company fell wounded before reaching the final objective.[1]

Once again, “all the officers” were hit. Henry Feilding was carried from the field and will die in a field hospital in two days, aged twenty-three. Dorothie’s elder brother Hugh died last year at Jutland, while the eldest of her siblings and the last of her brothers (there were seven sisters, Dorothie is fourth of ten), Rudolph, Viscount Feilding, remains with the Coldstreams.

 

An hour behind the 2nd Coldstreams were the 1st Irish Guards. Captain Raymond Rodakowski, mentioned several times in Kipling’s chronicle of the battalion, was the second-in-command of No. 1 Company, which waded through the muddy, waist-high Broembeek and spent two hours in drawing even with the first wave ahead of them.

Rodakowski had been Robert Graves‘s first school friend, the “first Carthusian to whom I had been able to talk humanly.” Humanly, and supportively: Rodakowski also told him that he was “a good poet, and a good person”–(“I loved him for that”)–and encouraged Graves to take up boxing. This put an end, eventually, to the worst bullying and helped Graves find his own idiosyncratic path through Charterhouse.[2]

After the long slog through the exhausted Grenadiers ahead of them, the Irish Guards now prepared to carry on the assault, attacking Houthulst Forest:

The companies deployed for attack on the new lines necessitated by the altered German system of defense — mopping-up sections in rear of the leading companies, with Lewis-gun sections, and a mopping-up platoon busy behind all.

Meantime, the troops on the Battalion’s right had been delayed in coming up, and their delay was more marked from the second objective onward. This did not check the Guards’ advance, but it exposed the Battalion’s right to a cruel flanking fire from snipers among the shell-holes on the uncleared ground by the Ypres-Staden line. There were pill-boxes of concrete in front; there was a fortified farm buried in sandbags, Egypt House, to be reduced; there were nests of machine-guns on the right which the troops on the right had not yet overrun, and there was an almost separate and independent fight in and round some brick-fields, which, in turn, were covered by the fire of snipers from the fringes of the forest. Enemy aircraft skimming low gave the German artillery every help in their power, and the enemy’s shelling was accurate accordingly. The only thing that lacked in the fight was the bayonet.

The affair resolved itself into a series of splashing rushes, from one shell-hole to the next, terrier-work round the pill-boxes, incessant demands for the Lewis-guns (rifle-grenades, but no bombs, were employed except by the regular bombing sections and moppers-up who cleared the underground shelters), and the hardest sort of personal attention from the officers and N.C.O.’s. All four companies reached the final objective mixed up together and since their right was well in the air, by the reason of the delay of the flanking troops, they had to make a defensive flank to connect with a battalion of the next division that came up later. It was then that they were worst sniped from the shell-holes, and the casualties among the officers, who had to superintend the forming of the flank, were heaviest. There was not much shelling through the day. They waited, were sniped, and expected a counter-attack which did not come off, though in the evening the enemy was seen to be advancing and the troops on the Battalion’s right fell back for a while,  leaving their flank once more exposed. Their position at the time was in a somewhat awkward salient, and they readjusted themselves — always under sniping-fire — dug in again as much as wet ground allowed, and managed in the dark to establish connection with a battalion of Hampshires that had come up on their right.[3]

Kipling, with admirable economy, explains why it is that these battles continue to take such a high toll of the officers: unlike the waves-and-trenches battles of 1915 and 1916 (where officers were killed in high numbers because they were in front, and dressed distinctively) these “affairs” are tactically complex. And difficult to write about, given that few diary-keepers survive unscathed…

More than most, the advance on Houthulst Forest had been an officer’s battle; for their work had been broken up, by the nature of the ground and the position of the German pill-boxes, into detached parties dealing with separate strong points, who had to be collected and formed again after each bout had ended. But this work, conceived and carried out on the spur of the moment, under the wings of death, leaves few historians.

So, once again, the now-familiar toll:

Every Company Commander had been killed or wounded during the day… The battle, which counted as “a successful minor operation” in the great schemes of the Third Battle of Ypres, had cost them four officers killed in action on the 9th, one died of wounds on the 11th, seven officers and their doctor wounded in the two days forty-seven other ranks killed; one hundred and fifty-eight wounded, and ten missing among the horrors of the swampy pitted ground.

Raymond Rodakowski was one of the four officers killed outright.

 

The tenuous Irish theme continues, today, as it was in Cork that Frederic Manning‘s career as an officer received yet another check: once again his alcoholism had led to serious problems, in this case some sort of breakdown and hospitalization. At today’s “’confidential”Medical Board, however, he seems to have escaped a more serious embroilment, perhaps in both the medical and bureaucratic senses: the doctors ruled that Manning was almost fit to resume light duty; moreover

Crossed out in their report was another diagnosis, “delusional insanity”… Manning, probably with some
official encouragement, decided to salvage what honour he could.[4]

 

Another coincidence can serve as the segue to a last brief note. Manning was Australian, although serving with an English unit in Ireland. And it was not the Irish Guards or the Inniskillings that mounted a raid on “Celtic Wood” this morning, a century back, but an Australian battalion. This distinct set-piece of today’s bloodletting a few miles away on the southern flank of the battle has a whole short book of its own, Tony Spagnoly and Ted Smith’s The Anatomy of a Raid. The raid-in-force was a bloody disaster: 85 Australians, leaving trenches near Polygon Wood, attacked the Germans in Celtic Wood at dawn. 14 returned, and the rest were never heard from again. The “Anatomy” is a careful inquiry into what happened–and to why no inquiry into this one-disaster-among-many had taken place before.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 220.
  2. Good-Bye to All That, 43.
  3. The Irish Guards in the Great War, I, 211-13.
  4. Marwil, Frederic Manning, an Unfinished Life, 184-5.

Edwin Vaughan in Slaughter Wood; Jack Martin in the Noxious Saps; Lord Dunsany Remembers Francis Ledwidge

Edwin Vaughan is almost there:

August 12 Sunday. We had sudden orders in the forenoon to move up nearer the line, and after a hurried packing we marched off at 2.30 p.m. Straight up to Pop and out on the Ypres road with my nerves tingling, unable to talk for excitement and drinking in the real atmosphere of war. We were part of the never-ending stream now, welling up into the great reservoir behind Ypres which was swelling and deepening until the dam should be loosed and all the men and guns and shells should pour out on to the enemy lines…

But the eve of battle is not battle–and it is predictably shabby. Their home for the next few days will be

…a nondescript camp consisting of bivouacs, tents, huts and tarpaulin shelters into which we stowed the troops as best we could. For our combined mess and bedroom we had a small hut with a table and a couple of forms. It was a baleful place for the shell-holes and shattered trees bore testimony to the attentions of the German gunners. Amongst the trees was a great concentration of tanks—and the name of the camp was Slaughter Wood![1]

 

Jack Martin‘s experience has been somewhat difficult to integrate with the rest, here. But he is a rare voice from the ranks and our only engineer, and in this capacity his diary sometimes takes us to new depths, as it were. He and the rest of his company of sappers live, now, like moles in their tunnels, working by day and sleeping by night–or the other way around. This has always been unpleasant and dangerous, but the new German technique of firing different gas shells at all hours has made it even more dangerous–and unimaginably unpleasant.

The Huns have made some fierce counter-attacks on our left today… This evening we have heard that we are to be relieved tomorrow. Thank God. Although we have spent most of our time in the comparative security of the saps, this period in the line has been most trying and exhausting. By day and night the Hun has kept up a continual harassing fire, mainly of HEs and gas shells. The entrances to the saps are covered at night with double gas curtains which are daily saturated with some mixture intended to neutralise the poison…

Owing to the gas curtains being kept down at night and the ventilation shaft being shut, the air in the tunnels becomes most fetid. Seventy or eighty men crowd in one of these galleries, mainly with wet clothes, and all in a filthy dirty condition, breathing the same air over and over again, their bodies stewing in the close, damp atmosphere and exuding all manner of noxious odours–this alone is sufficient to make us ill. It is positively choking to enter the tunnel in the early morning… you choke and splutter and gasp for breath… But foul air is better than poison gas, and dugouts are to be preferred to shell holes.[2]

 

Lastly, today, a century back, was a Sunday. It seems to have been the Sunday on which Father Devas, chaplain of the First Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, kept his vow of saying a funeral mass for Francis Ledwidge–Frank, to his friends–thirteen days after he was killed by a shell while road-making on the first day of the battle.[3] It must have been around now, too, that Ledwidge’s patron, Lord Dunsany, an officer of the same regiment serving on garrison duty, learned of his protegé’s death. Dunsany will see Ledwidge’s second book through to publication, but he is also at work on a volume of his own, a collection of slight, lightly fantastic war-themed short stories. These generally feature lightly drawn every-soldier characters–the book is full of soft-focus celebrations of British steadfastness and gentle wish fulfillment. But one soldier, at least, is drawn from life.

 

The Road

The battery Sergeant-Major was practically asleep. He was all worn out by the continuous roar of bombardments that had been shaking the dugouts and dazing his brains for weeks. He was pretty well fed up.

The officer commanding the battery, a young man in a very neat uniform and of particularly high birth, came up and spat in his face. The Sergeant-Major sprang to attention, received an order, and took a stick at once and beat up the tired men. For a message had come to the battery that some English (God punish them!) were making a road at X.

The gun was fired. It was one of those unlucky shots that come on days when our luck is out. The shell, a 5.9, lit in the midst of the British working party. It did the Germans little good. It did not stop the deluge of shells that was breaking up their guns and was driving misery down like a wedge into their spirits. It did not improve the temper of the officer commanding the battery, so that the men suffered as acutely as ever under the Sergeant-Major. But it stopped the road for that day.

I seemed to see that road going on in a dream.

Another working party came along next day, with clay pipes and got to work; and next day and the day after. Shells came, but went short or over; the shell holes were neatly patched up; the road went on. Here and there a tree had to be cut, but not often, not many of them were left; it was mostly digging and grubbing up roots, and pushing wheelbarrows along planks and duck-boards, and filling up with stones. Sometimes the engineers would come: that was when streams were crossed. The engineers made their bridges, and the infantry working party went on with the digging and laying down stones. It was monotonous work. Contours altered, soil altered, even the rock beneath it, but the desolation never; they always worked in desolation and thunder. And so the road went on.

They came to a wide river. They went through a great forest. They passed the ruins of what must have been quite fine towns, big prosperous towns with universities in them. I saw the infantry working party with their stumpy clay pipes, in my dream, a long way on from where that shell had lit, which stopped the road for a day. And behind them curious changes came over the road at X. You saw the infantry going up to the trenches, and going back along it into reserve. They marched at first, but in a few days they were going up in motors, grey busses with shuttered windows. And then the guns came along it, miles and miles of guns, following after the thunder which was further off over the hills. And then one day the cavalry came by. Then stores in wagons, the thunder muttering further and further away. I saw farm-carts going down the road at X. And then one day all manner of horses and traps and laughing people, farmers and women and boys all going by to X. There was going to be a fair.

And far away the road was growing longer and longer amidst, as always, desolation and thunder. And one day far away from X the road grew very fine indeed. It was going proudly through a mighty city, sweeping in like a river; you would not think that it ever remembered duck-boards. There were great palaces there, with huge armorial eagles blazoned in stone, and all along each side of the road was a row of statues of kings. And going down the road towards the palace, past the statues of the kings, a tired procession was riding, full of the flags of the Allies. And I looked at the flags in my dream, out of national pride to see whether we led, or whether France or America. America went before us, but I could not see the Union Jack in the van nor the Tricolour either, nor the Stars and Stripes: Belgium led and then Serbia, they that had suffered most.

And before the flags, and before the generals, I saw marching along on foot the ghosts of the working party that were killed at X, gazing about them in admiration as they went, at the great city and at the palaces. And one man, wondering at the Sièges Allée, turned round to the Lance Corporal in charge of the party: “That is a fine road that we made, Frank,” he said.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 190.
  2. Sapper Martin, 93.
  3. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 189.

Wilfred Owen and Charles Scott Moncrieff Return; Lord Dunsany’s “Songs of an Evil Wood,” Siegfried Sassoon Breaks Through, and Finds Something to Live For: “Love and Beauty and Death and Bitterness and Anger.”

Today we have two brief updates, a rant and a poem from our fox hunting man, and then, naturally, a poem from a foremost fantasist set in an all-too-real wood.

 

First, tonight, a century back, the relief arrived, and Wilfred Owen led his platoon–intact except for the blinded sentry–back through the miles of cloying mud toward safety in the reserve line. Tomorrow he will take up his pen in an initial attempt to describe his first days in the line.[1]

 

Charles Scott Moncrieff, meanwhile, is returning to the front for the first time in many long months. He had expected a training assignment in France, as his health is generally none too good. But he seems pleasantly surprised–or is he just putting a brave face on?–to return to active duty in winter.

15th Jan.

We reached part of the Battalion last night, after a circuitous journey, by various funny trains. We were sent on Saturday to the wrong place, a village which our men had left that morning. It was very sad and sorry and beginning to snow, however we found some hospitable Irishmen who took us in, and next morning we found our way to the 1st Bn. of our own regiment. It is a great triumph being here. My friend Major Campbell Johnson is commanding at present, the Colonel being on a month’s leave and I shall probably be Second in Command till he returns. . . . Do not worry. I am very happy with the Regiment, particularly as I didn’t expect to rejoin it. I am looking forward to occupying a responsible and important position, and the risks are at present negligible.[2]

 

Two days ago, and a century back, Siegfried Sassoon went a-hunting–we may recall the disappointing end of the hunt, with the fox’s unsporting resort to a “wet drain.” Afterwards, Sassoon “stayed the night at Wistason Hall and danced at Alvaston. Came home yesterday afternoon.”

Which all sounds pleasant enough. But apparently that dance wasn’t quite the thing. Today Sassoon caught up with his diary, first recording the events of the hunt in the usual sporting shorthand. But his mood changes rather suddenly as he reflects on the indoor pursuits that followed:

A few hours in the pre-war surroundings… Pleasant enough; but what a decayed society, hanging blindly onto the shreds of its traditions. The wet, watery-green meadows and straggling bare hedges and grey winding lanes; the cry of hounds, and thud of hoofs and people galloping bravely along all around me; and the ride home with hounds in the chilly dusk—those are real things. But comfort and respectable squiredom and the futile chatter of women, and their man-hunting glances, and the pomposity of port-wine-drinking buffers—what’s all that but emptiness? These people don’t reason. They echo one another and their dead relations, and what they read in papers and dull books. And they only see what they want to see—which is very little beyond the tips of their red noses. Debrett is
on every table; and heaven a sexless peerage, with a suitable array of dependents and equipages where God is [page torn out].

Page torn out, eh? Deliberately? Tough to tell. The editor is unwilling to risk an explanation, and no paleographer could do much with the stub and scattered characters that remain.

Sassoon’s rant, however, has not yet run its course. He describes an officer who has been at the depot for eighteen months and takes sick leave because of an “injury caused by riding” which (in a precise foreshadowing of a Seinfeld joke) is actually gonorrhea.

What earthly use are all these people? They don’t instruct anyone; they simply eat and drink. I think nearly half the officers in our Army are conscripted humbugs who are paid to propagate inefficiency. They aren’t even willing to be killed; I can at least say that for myself, for I’ve tried often.

There’s the rub–the gulf that separates one kind of soldier from a very different kind, the absolute difference between the combat tribe and all those who are safe. And Sassoon’s thoughts race from death to fame and poetry, even while staying on the ostensible subject of military efficiency:

Twelve months ago today my poem appeared in The Times. “To Victory”–and it’s not arrived yet–not the sort of Victory I meant. And since then I’ve been lucky. Things might have gone just a little differently, and all those decent poem’s I’ve done since then might never have been written. Now I’ve got my book fixed up, and there’s nothing to do but wait for something else to happen to set my emotions going in a blue-and-crimson flare-up–mostly blue—with a touch of yellow (for liver). Now I’ve really got a grip of the idea of life and describing it, I hope I shan’t get myself killed in 1917. There’s still a lot to say. Love and beauty and death and bitterness and anger.

Now that’s a soldier-poet’s ars poetica. The next page in the journal holds this poem:

England has many heroes; they are known
To all who read of German armies beat.
One chap got drunk and took a trench alone,
And grinned to cheering mobs in every street.
Though England’s proud of him—her stuffed V.C.—
No medal was attached to his D.T.
Think of the D.C.M’s and D.S.O’s
And breasts that swell with Military Crosses;
They are the pomps of War; and no one knows
Nor cares to count the bungling and the losses.
But I would rather shoot one General Dolt
Than fifty harmless Germans; and I’ve seen
Ten thousand soldiers, tabbed with blue and green,
Who, if they heard one shell, would crouch and bolt.
But when the War is done they’ll shout and sing.
And fetch bright medals from their German King.[3]

This is a private journal, of course. But Sassoon is waxing powerful here, and trying out a new power, a new rage, that cannot be unleashed on the world. Yet.

Only one year after “To Victory” and we have suddenly a near-repletion of the tropes of disillusionment, rage, and protest: the cost of war, the hypocrisy of rewarding valor without reckoning those costs, the bungling of generals, the emptiness of military pomp (but also the cynical injustice of its distribution), the fantasy violence against his own superiors, the preference for hating the Englishmen-of-the-rear who get killed without risking themselves rather than hating the “harmless” Germans, his fellow front-fighters; and, last, the sharp-elbowed play with the military acronyms and the nasty last couplet which, if not exactly coherent in its critiques, shows how well verse can serve these sorts of emotions…

To become a great war poet one needs, at a minimum, intense combat experiences and a fallow period that focuses emotional turbulence into some sort of breakthrough in the craft. Owen has just had the first and now Sassoon has moved on to the second.

 

According to a dated letter of his wife’s, Lord Dunsany left England today, a century back, for France. Due to some combination of age (though he is only thirty-eight), infirmity (he has been wounded and ill), possible unreliability (although there is no evidence of this) or general unpopularity (being an Anglo-Irish lord, a litterateur, and a former-ex-officer all may have made life in the mess difficult), Dunsany has been kept at home for rather a long time. His movements over the next months are difficult to trace, but it may be that he is intended now for a depot/training officer and is merely being sent out for a bit of first-hand trench experience. He will not be out long (and if there is an explanation for his recall other than his next bout of illness–tonsilitis–I don’t know it) and I have no dates for quite some time, yet in the next week or two he wrote his most significant real “war poem.” So I’ll give it here–it’s usually entitled either “Songs of an Evil Wood” or “Plug Street [i.e. Ploegsteert] Wood.”

.
There is no wrath in the stars,
They do not rage in the sky;
I look from the evil wood
And find myself wondering why.

Why do they not scream out
And grapple star against star,
Seeking for blood in the wood,
As all things round me are?

They do not glare like the sky
Or flash like the deeps of the wood;
But they shine softly on
In their sacred solitude.

To their happy haunts
Silence from us has flown,
She whom we loved of old
And know it now she is gone.

When will she come again
Though for one second only?
She whom we loved is gone
And the whole world is lonely.

And the elder giants come
Sometimes, tramping from far,
Through the weird and flickering light
Made by an earthly star.

And the giant with his club,
And the dwarf with rage in his breath,
And the elder giants from far,
They are the children of Death.

They are all abroad to-night
And are breaking the hills with their brood,
And the birds are all asleep,
Even in Plugstreet Wood.

II.

Somewhere lost in the haze
The sun goes down in the cold,
And birds in this evil wood
Chirrup home as of old;

Chirrup, stir and are still,
On the high twigs frozen and thin.
There is no more noise of them now,
And the long night sets in.

Of all the wonderful things
That I have seen in the wood,
I marvel most at the birds,
At their chirp and their quietude.

For a giant smites with his club
All day the tops of the hill,
Sometimes he rests at night,
Oftener he beats them still.

And a dwarf with a grim black mane
Raps with repeated rage
All night in the valley below
On the wooden walls of his cage.

III.

I met with Death in his country,
With his scythe and his hollow eye
Walking the roads of Belgium.
I looked and he passed me by.

Since he passed me by in Plug Street,
In the wood of the evil name,
I shall not now lie with the heroes,
I shall not share their fame;

I shall never be as they are,
A name in the land of the Free,
Since I looked on Death in Flanders
And he did not look at me.[4]

References and Footnotes

  1. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 209-215.
  2. Diaries, 121-2.
  3. Diaries, 118-20.
  4. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 133. Patches of Sunlight, 293-5.

Bim Tennant’s Perpetual Smile Falters; Kate Luard Among the Mad and the Mangled; Rudyard Kipling Will not Yield; Francis Ledwidge Hymns a Patron’s Pen

Today, a century back, we have a strange and terrible quartet. We will end with the gentlest sort of prospective-farewell poem, and preface that with a survivor’s half-suppressed outburst of grief and relief. But first, the obscenity of war’s damage to young bodies, and then a clenched, wretched testament to the ongoing agonies of a bereaved parent.

Kate Luard‘s hospital was, once, a fairly orderly place where minor wounds were dealt with quickly so the staff could focus on abdominal wounds. It is now, like any medical facility on the Somme, a shambles and a madhouse. (And I’m letting loose with the rhetoric only as suppressing fire, really: because today’s second entry is, in its quiet, specific way, worse.)

Monday, September 18th. We are all grappling with work all day now, some of it is wonderful, but much of it is nothing but black. There is a boy dying who has his Will in his Pay-book made out ‘to my beloved mother.’ He looks about 17…There is a mad boy who is very funny: when you feed him he says, ‘1,2,3 a cup of tea, bread and butter 4,5,6, it’s 238 now…’ All his thoughts are in numbers… The blind boy with both legs off is dying; he doesn’t know his legs are off, and is cheerfully delirious most of the time. He calls us ‘Teacher…’ He was murmuring ‘Such is life’ just now.[1]

 

Even the greatest writer with swiftest, strongest imagination can be brought to his knees by a form letter. Rudyard Kipling has carried on; it’s been nearly a year since his son John’s death, and he has continued to live, and to write. And he spared no effort in finding those of his son’s men and comrades who might shed light on his disappearance on the battlefield of Loos. And they, trying to be kind, may have been cruel–Kipling came away with hope, despite the fact that these witnesses saw his son shot down, fatally, in a failed attack. But maybe there was nothing else they could say.

Four days ago, a century back, the War Office generated a form letter stating that the younger Kipling must be officially considered dead “unless further information about his fate has been received.”

Bateman’s / Burwash / Sussex
18th September 1916.

The Secretary
War Office, Alexandra House

Sir,

In reply to your letter. No. 125146 /1 (C. 2 Casualties) of the 14th September, I should be glad if you would postpone taking the course you suggest in regard to my son Lieutenant John Kipling. All the information I have gathered is to the effect that he was wounded and left behind near Puits 14 at the Battle of Loos on September 27th 1915. I have interviewed a great many people and heard from many others, and can find no one who saw him killed, and his wound being a leg wound would be more disabling than fatal.

May I draw your attention to the fact that in your letter you state my son’s rank as 2nd Lieutenant, whereas he was Lieutenant. Also in the published casualty list, he was incorrectly report as “Missing” instead of “Wounded and
missing.”

Yours truly,
Rudyard Kipling.

But there isn’t any hope–his comrades know he was fatally shot, and other than desperate and melodramatic hopes about amnesiac survivals, there is no chance that a captured officer would not have been identified through neutral parties many months before. Even that second paragraph is desperately sad, a proud man cloaking desperation in simple fussy umbrage: John Kipling’s promotion was not formalized until after his death, so, in the present view of the bureaucracy, it cannot have taken place. He is missing, and he is dead, and forever a 2nd Lieutenant.[2]

 

The advance at Loos that killed Kipling was the last great action by the Guards in 1915. Three days ago, they suffered through their worst disaster of 1916. And Bimbo Tennant survived.

18th September

. . . Thank Heaven I have come safely out of this battle after two days and two nights of it. It started properly at 5 a.m. 15th, and the artillery fire was terrific. We were in support and went up about 7.45 and sat down again further up just the right side of the German barrage. Then I was sent across to the ——– Guards to go with them, find out where they proposed going, and lead the Battalion up beside it. Off I went, and joined the ——— Guards, and went forward with them. When we had skirted G, the further of the two G’s [Ginchy, not Guillemont?] and were going through a little dip in the ground, we were shot at by Boches on the high ground with rifles, there must have been about twenty shooting at us. I was walking in front with their C.O. and Adjutant, and felt sufficiently uncomfortable, but didn’t show it. Bullets scuffed up dust all around with a wicked little ‘zump,’ but they were nearly all short and none of us, at least who were in front, were hit. Thus we went on, and they took up their position between two of these huge steel tanks on the near side of the ridge. Then they lent me an orderly, and I started back to bring the Battalion along; it was an unpleasant journey of about half a mile over nothing but shell-holes full of dead and dying, with any amount of shells flying about: Several whizz-bangs landed very close to me, but I got back to the Battalion and explained the position to them and then we all went down there…

The C.O., the Adjutant, the Doctor, and I spent that afternoon, evening, and night in a large rocky shell-hole. We were severely shelled on and off the whole time, and about four men were done in in the very next shell-hole a couple of yards away. That night was one of the coldest and most uncomfortable it has ever been my fortune to spend–‘with the stars to see.’ Meanwhile most of the Battalion had gone up to support the ——– and ——– Brigade, who had done the attack at five that morning, and had lost heavily. At seven or eight next morning we moved our Batt. head-quarters to the line of trenches in front which had been dug the night before. This was safer than our shell-hole, and as we had the worst shelling I have ever experienced during that afternoon and evening, it was probably a very wise move.

An attack took place at 1.15 p.m. that day, and I will tell you more about it when I see you, D.V. My worst job was that of taking messages down the line of trenches to different captains. The trenches were full of men, so I had to go over the open. Several people who were in the trench say they expected every shell to blow me to bits. That night we were again shelled till about 8 p.m. and were relieved about midnight. We got in about 2.30. I was dog-tired, and Churchill,[3] who now commands No. 4 Company, was even more tired. Soup, meat, champagne, and cake, and I went to bed till about 2 p.m. That is the time one really does want champagne, when one comes in at 3 a.m. after no sleep for fifty hours. It gives one the strength to undress.

So far, so good–in the effort to write, as well as in the effort to survive the 15th. But young Bim makes an error here–he opens himself out to a somewhat irrational (if modest enough) hope, and this quickly brings down his facade of stoic endurance.

Now the great question is will leave start soon? They say it will. I wish my poems could come out soon. The lighter blue cover is sure to be charming. If there is any question of a photy in the papers please try and get my Sargent drawing in and not my other photographs, as most of them are bad…

Darling Moth’, I am so thankful to be alive; I suppose you have heard who are dead? Guy Baring, Raymond Asquith, Sloper Mackenzie, and many others. It is a terrible list. . . Poor Olive will be heart-broken–and so will Katherine. Death and decomposition strew the ground. . . . [4] I must tell you of other things.

I made a very pleasant discovery the other day. I had occasion to walk a few hundred yards with Corporal Jukes, one day, and he told me that his father was keeper at Clouds, and he remembers your wedding, and has a photy of it at home. He knows Willson as ‘Ernie,’ and remembers when Icke was footman! He is such a charming man. What is more, he has a sister, Polly Jukes (such a nice name), who was housemaid to Glen–Grandpapa at Glen, so he is altogether a great family friend. I was so glad he introduced himself. We had a very good talk about people like Mr. Mallet, Mrs. Vine, and suchlike hench-folk. Do write and tell me if you remember him? He was butler to some general in Cairo before the War, and is forty-one years old, very young-looking, and a perfect man. . . .[5]

I wouldn’t trade those last two paragraphs for a fat volume of careful trench-life description. Why does Bimbo write to his mother? Or rather, why–for his part–does he write to her? (Of course he writes to her to comfort her, to allay her worry for him, to interrupt the misery of a mother’s fear with his high-spirited hijinks… but this is, so far, selfless.) He writes, of course, to build the bridge from his end.

If goofy endearments wear on the reader, a century on, their purpose is revealed when he breaks here, and writes himself turning squarely from grief and loss and fear toward the sunlit uplands of the past. Was the past great and glorious because we have drunk deeply of the Soul-powdered kool-aid of aristocratic Panglossian self-celebration? Yes. Is this a voice of enormous privilege? Yes. But like many young men, he had a happy past, and now is heading into battle and sees… unhappy things ahead…

 

Finally–disparately, incongruously–today, Francis Ledwidge has written a poem, and dedicated it to his fellow-Irish-writer-and-Royal Inniskilling and patron Lord Dunsany. Or, rather, to one of his instruments. Ledwidge has been home from Gallipoli for months, but he will be going out again… eventually. There is some drama (and winking self-dramatizing) in this very poetic pose. The poet is not exactly on the brink of going forward with a forlorn hope, contemplating an object of significance before setting out for peril. But he has cause more than good enough to brood upon an awaiting Rubicon…

You have to like old-fashioned poetry to feel this sort of thing, I think. But if you do, then, crack a smile, please. Let the last of the singers lift your spirits.

 

To an Old Quill of Lord Dunsany’s

Before you leave my hands’ abuses
To lie where many odd things meet you,
Neglected darkling of the Muses,
I, the last of singers, greet you.

Snug in some white wing they found you,
On the Common bleak and muddy,
Noisy goslings gobbling round you
In the pools of sunset, ruddy.

Have you sighed in wings untravelled
For the heights where others view the
Bluer widths of heaven, and marvelled
At the utmost top of Beauty?

No! it cannot be; the soul you
Sigh with craves nor begs of us.
From such heights a poet stole you
From a wing of Pegasus.

You have been where gods were sleeping
In the dawn of new creations,
Ere they woke to woman’s weeping
At the broken thrones of nations.

You have seen this old world shattered
By old gods it disappointed,
Lying up in darkness, battered
By wild comets, unanointed.

But for Beauty unmolested
Have you still the sighing olden?
I know mountains healther-crested,
Waters white, and waters golden.

There I’d keep you, in the lowly
Beauty-haunts of bird and poet,
Sailing in a wing, the holy
Silences of lakes below it.

But I leave you by where no man
Finds you, when I too be gone
From the puddles on this common
Over the dark Rubicon.

Londonderry, September 18th, 1916.[6]

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 88-9.
  2. Collected Letters, IV, 402-3.
  3. No, not he--this is a Captain Spencer-Churchill.
  4. I'm not certain, but I do think this is Bim's ellipsis, a dip of his own mask at the thought of Asquith...
  5. Memoir, 231-4.
  6. Complete Poems, 231-3.

Richard Aldington on Henri Gaudier-Brzeska; Claude Templer’s Daring Escape; Lord Dunsany Under the Knife, but not Under; And How the Royal Welch Learned of Kut

An unusual smattering of writing today, a century back. First, a poem from Richard Aldington, whose contributions here have been limited not just by my profound dislike for him but also by his delayed decision to enlist. Aldington, a card-carrying member of the English Modernist avant-garde, was published in The Egoist, still the movement’s most important journal.

This is a handy coincidence of the actual publication date with our habit, here, of placing poems front-and-center on the first of each month, but Aldington’s pre-military-service verses would be of marginal interest–were it not for the poem’s subject: Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a French citizen and thus the first of this mostly-British circle to be mobilized, in August 1914. And killed, in June, 1915.

 

A Life

He was a peasant boy
With sharp eyes and beaked nose;
His hair was too long, ragged
And a little greasy.

He was generous, indifferent to comforts.
Lived on bread, onions and apples—
Worked in a shed under a railway arch—
Was very witty and a little violent.
His red shirt was none too clean;
When he got hot he stank.
His hands were mostly filthy
With marble-dust and clay.

In all his sketches and statues
He made you see something fresh—
An unsuspected beauty, a new strength.
The clear line of a naked woman’s body.
The lightness of a stag,
A new grotesqueness or hideousness.

He had the blithe intolerance of the very young
But there was nothing petty in him;
He worked hard, had no obvious vices.

Then the war came.
He went off with a joke:
‘I’ll be back safe in three months:
I’ll steal the Picassos from Düsseldorf!”

He was away three months
And another three months;
Was wounded, promoted, went back.
Accepted things cheerfully,
“Without arrogance” (his own phrase).

A few more weeks—
He was shot in the head.
Quenched that keen, bright wit.

Horribly crushed the wide forehead.
Limp and useless the able hands
Of our one young sculptor.
I wish he were not dead;
He was wholesome, his dirt and his genius.
So many “artists” are muffs, poseurs, pifflers.

I sit here, cursing over my Greek—
Anacreon says:
“War spares the bad, not the good.”

I believe him.[1]

Modernism here seems to stand for realism–“He was shot in the head” is not a phrase with prior claims to poetic status–and a certain sort of simple “truth to power” defiance. Which is not nothing, in the atmosphere of 1916.

But neither is this a poem of revolt. It rejects sacrifice, yes, and certainly stands against the tradition-and-Brooke idea of uniting beauty and the young soldier’s death. Aldington lets ugliness be ugliness, and calls attention to this staying of the poet’s hand. But these are still half-measures within a lingering penumbra of romance: war is still a force which means something–the ironic destruction the good, rather than the bad, here, rather than a meaningless force used by the powerful and indifferently destructive of all in its path.

 

I have mentioned Claude Templer, here, once or twice, and despite his… verses… and so it would be churlish not to follow up on his very unusual experiences, when the dated data permit. Templer had been captured early in the war, and almost immediately attempted to escape.., After thirteen months of close confinement, Templer was transferred today, and, en route to the Magdeburg P.O.W. camp, seized the opportunity:

The journey was made with an armed guard consisting of an N. C. O. and a private. On the way to Magdeburg they were obliged to change trains and to wait for the connection at a certain country station. The N. C. O. left Capt. Templer in charge of the private only, who duly marched his prisoner up and down the platform. During the entire journey, be had been searching for an opportunity to elude his guards and now be took in the situation at a glance.

The station was practically deserted save for one or two old men and a few women and children. At one end the platform was bounded by a low brick wall some three feet high; on the opposite side of which an old bicycle was leaning. “Halt! Right turn!” The private turned in the most approved military fashion but his prisoner, instead of following his example, quickly stepped behind him and, putting his foot in his back, at the same time clutched his throat and pulled him bodily down. Seizing the man’s rifle, Capt. Templer threw it as far away as possible and vaulting over the wall, mounted the bicycle and scorched down the road for dear life.

A moment later and the N. C. O. came running up. Shot after shot whined through the air. Capt. Templer, his bead bent low over the handle bars, swayed from side to side of the road till, turning the corner, be left his guards to their impotent rage. He bicycled on for about fifteen miles, when to avoid detection, be hid the bicycle in some undergrowth and concealed himself in a wood, only a few miles from the Dutch frontier. Here be remained for about twenty-four hours in order to elude the search parties that he knew would be sent out; living the while on what raw vegetables be could pull out of the neighbouring fields. Being in need of sleep, he selected a spot to lay himself down in behind some bushes close to a small clearing. He slept heavily and awoke some hours after to find, to his horror, that a company of German infantry had bivouacked in the clearing. They had but now discovered him and it was the noise of their coarse guttural exclamations that had awoken him. On his arrest be was taken to Burg camp where he was again tried by court-martial.[2]

 

A valiant effort. But here’s a bit of information on German efficiency to stack against the rather absurd guttural bivouackers and mini-martinets who figure as Templer’s foes. Given the delays inherent in journalism and the creeping tendency of propaganda to distort reporting even in the British press, how does bad news make it to the men in the trenches?

May 1st–A perfect May day. Our first news of the surrender of Kut came on a sheet of paper which a German had wrapped round a stone, and thrown into one of our saps after dark. Townshend’s name is spelt correctly. How many of us could have done it?[3]

 

Finally, today, a rather frightening denouement to Lord Dunsany‘s dreamlike week of rebel imprisonment.

…before I said farewell to the kind people of Jervis Street, they took off all the sticking-plaster that they had put on my face, and I remember this sticking-plaster coming off with quite as much vividness as I remember the bullet going in. We drove to King George V’s Hospital at a pace that seemed to me greater than anything I had ever known before. “No speed limit for us, you see,” said a corporal of the R.A.M.C.

There I was photographed, and I have a copy yet; no mere superficial photograph of my skin, but one of my bones and my brains, with the bullet snugly ensconced.

An X-ray, in other words. Dunsany is, of course, a seminal fantasist, with only very slight inclinations toward the amazing potential of science…

He then recounts every patient’s near nightmare of inefficient anesthetizing:

…common politeness would have made them pay attention to what I was talking about; but they did not until I said, “I can hear everything you are saying,” and not even then till I repeated their exact words, which, having a learned and authoritative sound to them, made them take me seriously, and they gave me more ether at once. A fair division was afterwards made, by which the doctors kept a piece of my skull and I got the bullet, which I have in a show-case still.

I got a month’s sick-leave and went home…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Copp, ed., An Imagist at War, 54-5.
  2. Templer, Poems and Imaginings, 11-12.
  3. The War the Infantry Knew, 198.
  4. Patches of Sunlight, 289-90.

Lord Dunsany: Alarums, and Exeunt Rebelles; Aubrey Herbert–and Some Fellow Named Lawrence–at Kut, and the Future of Military Romance; Raymond Asquith on Depressed Glamor Queens and the Pleasures of the Breast

Lord Dunsany is still a prisoner in Jervis Street Hospital; but the cavalry–or, rather, the infantry–have nearly arrived.

That night I got some sleep, and, when I woke up, the Leinsters had captured the hospital. There was a song that the men of the 5th Battalion used to sing on our marches round about Dublin, which I liked the least of all the songs that they sang. Many of their songs were delightful, but this was a vulgar song, that I always disliked. Now, in the bright morning, there was a soldier singing that song in Jervis Street; and, being rather weak, I was nearly moved to tears by it. And there was no one firing any more in the room above my head; but the roof was still occupied, and empty cartridges came tinkling down past my window.

I’ve been overusing the word “reverie,” usually with reference to Siegfried Sassoon‘s uncanny ability to summon a mood of pastoral beauty-mongering no matter what his actual circumstances. This is another sort of thing entirely: a fierce concentration of the autobiographer’s powers of memory on a period when time stretched endlessly out, when complete, enforced inaction was combined with distant sounds of deadly dramatic action. There is one natural metaphor for such an experience–blindness, stillness, the reliance on hearing–but an even better metaphor didn’t occur to me until I read this next bit.

Dunsany is revered by many as one of the founding English fantasists, the noble father to a proliferating progeny of impoverished genre productions, and his light way with wonder is certainly on display in these descriptions of lying abed during the Rising. But his greatest literary successes in his own time came as a playwright.

Troops came up the passage, and I have reason to believe that others went out by the other end of it, leaving the passage empty only for as long as the stage is sometimes left when an author does not wish two parties to meet, but at the same time must not leave the stage empty… Soon after this an officer of the Sherwood Foresters, Captain Okeover, came in, fit and well and unwounded, and, exercising a conqueror’s right, demanded a bath.[1]

 

July will be the cruelest month, this year. April is the month of that early 20th century British specialty: the imperial side-show that distracts from the main-effort theaters of global conflict. From Ireland, now, to Mesopotamia, where Aubrey Herbert has been summoned to negotiate the surrender of the garrison of Kut to the Turkish general Khalil Pasha.

We three then went out to the trenches with a white flag, and walked a couple of hundred yards or so ahead where we waited, with all the battlefield smells round us. It was all a plain with a river to the north and the place crawling with huge black beetles and stinging flies, that have been feeding on the dead. After a time a couple of Turks came out. I said “We have got a letter to Khalil.” This they wanted to take from us, but we refused to give it up, and they sent an orderly back to ask if we might come into the Turkish lines. Meanwhile we talked amiably. The Turks showed us their medals, and we were rather chagrined at not being able to match them.

Several hours passed. It was very hot. I was hungry…

We were blindfolded and we went in a string of hot hands to the trenches banging against men and corners, and sweating something cruel. Beyond the trenches we went for half an hour, while my handkerchief became a wet string across my eyes. Then we met Bekir Sami Bey. He was a very fine man and very jolly…

After coffee and yogurt, a long ride to Khalil’s camp. Remember, Herbert, you are the living bridge between two British eras, the age of the “Dr. Livingston I presume” imperial adventurers and the Greenmantle-to-Bond secret agents. How to begin?

“Where was it that I met your Excellency last?”

And he said: “At a dance at the British Embassy.”

Well-played!

Khalil throughout the interview was polite. He was quite a young man for his position, I suppose about thirty-five, and a fine man to look at–lion-taming eyes, a square chin and a mouth like a steel trap… We began on minor points…

And thence they proceeded to the matter of the treatment of the Arab population in Kut, which had aided the British; to possible prisoner exchanges, to Khalil threatening to hang any Arab troops who had surrendered, to the destruction of the British big guns, and then to the question of British ransom payments. These will prove controversial…  nothing is definitively decided, but there can be no more pretense that Britain has anything, really, to negotiate with. Khalil is secure, and the fate of Kut is in his hands… and so the British retire to tents to write their reports.

Herbert is pleased with himself. He shouldn’t be: he’s an amateur and flatters himself both that he is a gentleman dealing with gentlemen and that he has handed Khalil well, by extracting a hint of concessions despite the British position of weakness. This is either absent-minded overconfidence or willful blindness. (Apologies for going to this metaphor-to-hand so often, but I remind readers that Herbert is in fact extremely myopic.)

The Arabs of Kut will be badly treated nonetheless. The Turks are a dominant imperial people willing to ignore feeble notions of honor in order to punish a restive subject population–an action which should not stretch the British imagination very far. There will be reprisals, torture, massacres… and Herbert will return to negotiate about wounded prisoners, etc., while the rest of the British command turn to what we nowadays call “spin,” trying to suppress reports of their failure to win real concessions, of Townshend’s breakdown, and of the fact that their offer of payment–to be spurned by Khalil–was essentially a failed bribe offered to escape the consequences of military defeat.[2]

A bad scene. But let’s tart it up in thematic dress: is this the death of amateurism, a grubby end to an imperial misadventure that clears the decks, in a way, for the different sort of full-on industrial disaster which will befall the British armies in July? Is this, then, the very last gasp of Britain’s 1914-and-before?

Or are we merely present at the sundering of romantic adventure from the action of military history?

There will still be armies, going forward. And there will be war literature in great profusion and terrible strength. But it will be much harder, now, to mistake a work of military history for a work of “romance.” It’s not that commando raids and spy escapades and guerrilla successes are not a part of military history; it’s that once they were close to its heart, holding the stage whenever big battles and sieges didn’t, and now they are mere rounding errors in the ledger of war.

What has Aubrey Herbert to do with the Somme? Or any one unusual man (sniper stories aside) with Verdun, or Stalingrad, or Kursk? We love adventure stories, light or dark–but what has Rambo, or Conrad’s Kurtz, to do with the Tet offensive or Operation Rolling Thunder? The size of the forest is imagination-beggaring, now, so we must leave the landscape to the serious historians, who only deign to decorate with individual trees when they sense our attention flagging. Meanwhile we may transplant the little saplings of romance, find some secluded glade, and clone them to our hearts’ desire.

Apologies for the semi-coherent critical cadenza, but I have a rare opportunity: who else is in that tent, scribbling away beside Herbert?

None other than the living embodiment of the escape from our nightmare of modern bureaucratic warfare–T.E. Lawrence! Lawrence of Mesopotamia just now, but not for long.[3]

Lawrence, another talented irregular, was, like Herbert, irregularly attached to the staff. He too described today’s events in a letter home. Lawrence takes more interest in their adversary:

Colonel Beach, one of the Mesopotamian Staff, Aubrey Herbert (who was with us in Cairo) and myself were sent up to see the Turkish Commander in Chief, and arrange the release, if possible, of Townshend’s wounded. From our front trenches we waved a white flag vigorously: then we scrambled out, and walked about half-way across the 500 yards of deep meadow-grass between our lines and the Turkish trenches. Turkish officers came out to meet us, and we explained what we wanted. They were tired of shooting, so kept us sitting there with our flag as a temporary truce, while they told Halil Pasha we were coming–and eventually in the early afternoon we were taken blind-folded through their lines and about ten miles Westward till within four miles of Kut to his Headquarters.

He is a nephew of Enver’s, and suffered violent defeat in the Caucasus so they sent him to Mesopotamia as G.O.C. hoping he would make a reputation. He is about 32 or 33, very keen and energetic but not clever or intelligent I thought. He spoke French to us, and was very polite, but of course the cards were all in his hands, and we could not get much out of him. However he let about 1,000 wounded go without any condition but the release of as many Turks–which was all we could hope for.

We spent the night in his camp, and they gave us a most excellent dinner in Turkish style – which was a novelty to Colonel Beach, but pleased Aubrey and myself.[4]

 

Surely we should down pens after Dublin and Kut, but it feels almost as if a little Raymond Asquith–idle, witty, but persistently human despite it all–would allow us to claim that we have run the gamut of war-letter-writing all in one day… or maybe it’s just that I just can’t resist a few of these bits. No war blog is complete without a reference to the difficulties of breast-feeding! First, snippets from two of yesterday’s letters, to his wife Katherine and to Diana Manners.

Intelligence,
G.H.Q.
B.E.F.
28 April 1916

…I’m delighted to hear that the baby has your eyebrows; as you say, one is grateful enough for their having anyone’s. I hope it may also inherit your eyes (not to mention “little classical”) and my own kind heart and hatred of impurity . . .

 

28 April 1916

Katharine has kept on telling me for weeks now that you have been very sweet to her but very low in your spirits. I do hope that you are not sick of love for one of these terribly young men?

. . . And yet there is a bitter pleasure in your being subject to chance and change like the rest of us . . . Much as one likes you, one would like you less if you were not (occasionally) depressed. Do you think yourself that you would love anyone who was so free from human vicissitude as to be always on the top of the wave? Perhaps you do think so. But if you do it is only because you regard people as if they were things. The Matterhorn would certainly lose its somewhat dreary point if once a week it looked like a molehill, and Venice similarly if it had moods of Manchester…

 

Finally, today, a century back, once again to Katherine Asquith, who, one presumes, has learned to deal with receiving sympathy in the form of self-centered humor:

Intelligence,
G.H.Q.
B.E.F.
29 April 1916

I have a beautiful long letter from you with a few complaints which I take to be a healthy sign. I always understood that the first clutch of infant lips on the breast was the most thrilling and exquisite moment in a woman’s life. Don’t tell me that I have been misinformed. Really I think you must be mistaken in supposing the sensation to be unpleasant.

…I am glad to hear that the child has a curly mouth as well as curly eyebrows, but a little surprised that it has not yet given proof of the exceptional cleverness which your children have always been used to display during the first few days of their lives at any rate . . .[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Patches of Sunlight, 287.
  2. Fitzherbert, The Man Who Was Greenmantle, 178-82.
  3. It behooves me to note here that I am aware of one of the most memorable and wicked little digs-at-the-reader in Robert Graves's Good-Bye to All That. Graves confessed, afterwards, that he was eager to make money with his book, and so, following the suggestion of a craven publisher, he put a little Lawrence into a draft that had nothing to do with Lawrence, or Arabia. But if that's what people wanted to read...
  4. Letter of May 18th, available here.
  5. Life and Letters, 260-1.

The Peacocks Scream in Dunsany; Rowland Feilding on the Quiet of the Somme; Bim Tennant Struts Gaily Upon the Stage; We Meet Ben Keeling

Lord Dunsany, still abed in Dublin in the rebel-held Jervis Street Hospital, began his day at 3 A.M., when Sister Basil woke him up in order to assure him that there was absolutely no danger at all.

It transpired that parts of Dublin, now under assault by troops loyal to the crown, was burning.

I learned then that if you have one thing to worry about, it is quite enough, and more do not matter. For instance the doctor did not know where my bullet had gone… And then there was the possibility of septic trouble; and there were the shells, though only one came our way, and that one had burst before it entered the hospital… And then there was a question as to what the Sinn Feiners, who had spared me while holding their ground, would do when they came back that way in defeat… There were the bullets too, and very low window-sills, so the prospect of being burned did not have my undivided attention; but Sister Basil was troubled about her patients. These flames were seen at my home, and they and the guns set the peacocks screaming all night, and rumour reported me dead.[1]

 

Rowland Feilding has been away from France for rather a while. In his letter to his wife, today, he describes a recent dinner–of whitebait–with a nearby general. The dinner is provided courtesy of “a very persevering mess cook, who sits on the bank of the Somme, with a gauze net at the end of a pole…it takes several hours to get a plateful.” A shameful waste of military manpower?

But they are very good, and I shall adopt the idea.

Yes, do that. More usefully, Feilding now describes the Somme area, which is new to him:

From a spectacular point of view this is probably the most interesting section of the British Front. A succession of rolling hills and ridges—in striking contrast to the flat low-lying lands further north—here permits of close and distant observation, with exceptional facility, and one lives with field-glasses “at the ready.”

…The sun was shining brightly, and the nightingales were singing for all they were worth, and all seemed very restful as we visited the outposts. One of those silent lulls was on, when both sides seem to have gone to sleep.[2]

 

Feilding’s even-more-well-born fellow-guardsman Bimbo Tennant is having an even less strenuous time of it. Extrapolating from small sample sizes is bad history, but it’s also what we’re doing here, day in and day out (although the sample size is steadily rising), but it’s hard not to notice that the Guards really do seem to function like an old noble and elite unit. They seem to have the easiest time of it out of the line, flush with perquisites and staff jobs and follies and plovers’ eggs. But when it comes to the cruxof a long-planned battle, they are expected to lead the way.

I suppose I have foreshadowed, but broadly enough. The battles will come again: right now it is meat and drink, wine and song…

. . . I rode with the General to inspect various battalions, transport-horses this morning. Then we came back, got into a motor and went about 2 miles in it to meet Sir Douglas Haig. I have just bought some things for my god-son, Wilfrid Gough’s boy, who has been christened George Wyndham Gough. I shall have his name put on them. I still perform gaily every night; it is meat and drink to me, and I shall be sorry when we close to-morrow night. You need not worry about me, if I should return to the battalion towards the middle of next month, nothing will happen for a fortnight after that as we are coming out for a rest. I hope everything is going well with you, I pray there may be no trouble. Of course I will not agitate to go back to the battalion until you are perfectly well.[3]

So Bimbo still treads the boards, and feels no guilt at being out of harm’s way, his reasoning being that to be in the trenches would cause his mother–who is pregnant–undue worry. No word yet on whether non-aristocratic (Bimbo’s father is Lord Glenconner, his aunt is married to the Prime Minister, etc.) enlisted men are afforded such considerations… but then again Bimbo is not taking action, but rather refraining from taking action, and in the grips of military bureaucracy this is always a more acceptable course…

 

Well, readers, I have found another interesting letter-writer. Where have you been Ben Keeling? How can I only now have set myself to scanning the letters of a man described–by his friend H.G. Wells–as “copious, egotistical, rebellious, disorderly, generous, and sympathetic?” A shocking lapse. Since I’m not sure we can really bear another such character–Winchester, Trinity College (Cambridge), restless (or feckless) intellectual striving, enlisted in August 1914 alongside Rupert Brooke, etc.–and since I haven’t read through the earlier letters, we’ll keep him as a “tag” rather than a “category” for now.

But this is an interesting debut, no?

…I am thankful that there has been no good war poetry, or very little. There is not much that is poetic about this war. It is bad enough to have to listen to those people who justify war because it gives them a quasi-sensual satisfaction to see humanity crucified after the manner of the founder of Christianity. It would be almost worse to find our intellectual reactionaries ineligible for the trenches deriving satisfaction from war as a stimulant of great literature. I am more interested in life than in poetry, and I should regard it as a disaster to humanity if really great war poems began to appear. It would imply that war did really express something essential and inevitable in the human soul…

Keeling’s assumptions here are interesting: first, that the war poetry would come from men “ineligible for the trenches” and not from writerly young officers; and second, that “great war poems” must necessarily be pro-war poems.

The second assumption is certainly a fair one, given literary history. And yet, although we might react with our superior knowledge of the future–or even our century-back-current awareness of the direction taken by Charles Sorley, and the signs Graves and Sassoon have given of following that lead–Keeling’s question holds up on a more fundamental level. Poetry will soon show the horror and the misery, the antipathy of warfare to the essentials of the human soul… yet we are reading it, and we remain fascinated with war.

Back to Keeling, as we complete our “registration” of his manner, tone, and point of view.

I have seen too much, and my heart is too much set on a new life, to leave me much emotion to spare for the ruined stones of Ypres. When I was there I acquired a sort of affection for the place from our Army’s association with it. But debris are debris, and the Cloth Hall is rather reminiscent of the dead beauty of Venice, which simply gets on my nerves…

The Boches have been sending pretty heavy stuff just over my head this morning. Am sorely tempted to come on leave next Wednesday. Only three of my men who have never missed trenches remain to go. Well, I must be off to have a look at my scavenging party. I hope to specialize on dead rats, which I think are rather pernicious.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Patches of Sunlight, 285-6.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 73-5.
  3. Memoir, 190-1.
  4. Keeling Letters, 279-80.

Birds Singing, Rats Gnawing: Two Scenes from Fusiliers in France; Lord Dunsany and the Good Lord’s Permission in Dublin; Vera Brittain Laid Low

April 27

Another glorious day. Starlight on the mill-water and the unrythmed music of the weir. And birds singing all day as if they were trying to draw the heart out of me with dreams of English woodlands and orchards.[1]

So Army School continues to go well. Siegfried Sassoon, back in bliss and several days from his last mention of David Thomas, will now neglect his diary for a few weeks…

 

But it still goes on. On the Somme, near Annequin, the Germans have been using gas as a nuisance weapon when the wind is right. According to the chronicle of the 2/Royal Welch, there is a distinct upside to this–and for us it makes an impossibly apt counterpoint to the wayward Sassoon’s rural reverie:

There was more gas at night. It should thin out the rats, filthy pests. Two of them once woke Ormond, mating on his bed; his vigorous kick threw them on to Robertson, who mumbled, “Yes, what is it?”–thinking that Brigade Orderly’s familiar midnight hand had been laid on him. Other rats gnawed away Ormond’s Flash[2] to swaddle their young.[3]

The rats, feeding and breeding where men are dying, now have the temerity to attack badges of regimental pride. Logically, this should make them liable to German gas attacks…

 

And it still goes on in Dublin, where Lord Dunsany lies wounded, a nominal prisoner of the Rising. But not for long, now:

All Thursday the guns went on and the rifle-fire; and the bombers came nearer. I had not so many nurses in my room now; but, however heavy the firing in the street, however bright my window-sill with splinters of nickel, Sister Basil never failed to look in, to see how I was getting on. Sometimes she looked at he street a little wonderingly. “I suppose it is by God’s permission,” she said.[4]

 

And in London, where Vera Brittain now suffers one of the consequences of her decision to continue on as a nurse. She handles it in the usual way, namely a mixture of plucky candor and grim brooding:

South Western Hospital, Stockwell, 27 April 1916

I have been unintelligent enough to get an attack of German measles.. .This is one of the numerous London fever hospitals; I was brought here in a motor ambulance . . . It is quite an interesting experience to be a patient in a hospital though I have not been put into a general ward & treated like a pauper, as I expected to be…

The worst of this kind of situation is that one has such a long time to think; I can’t read for long as it hurts my eyes, and I haven’t sufficient energy to write very much, so I lie here and think about Roland and picture to myself the details of His death over & over again.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 61.
  2. This, amusingly, is the bundle of black ribbons that the Royal Welch are sort-of allowed to wear, in obscure continuity with an era in their regimental history as the Twenty-Third Foot.
  3. The War the Infantry Knew, 198.
  4. Patches of Sunlight, 285.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 251.

Lord Dunsany and the Rising’s Fall; Siegfried Sassoon is a Happy, Thrusting Schoolboy Once Again; Aubrey Herbert at the Surrender of Kut

We begin by picking up Siegfried Sassoon‘s Tale of the Bloody Good Bayonet:

Whatever my private feelings may have been after the Major’s lecture, the next morning saw me practising bayonet-fighting. It was all in the day’s work; short points, long points, parries, jabs, plus the always-to-be-remembered importance of “a quick withdrawal”. Capering over the obstacles of the assault course and prodding sacks of straw was healthy exercise; the admirable sergeant-instructor was polite and unformidable, and as I didn’t want him to think me a dud officer, I did my best to become proficient. Obviously it would have been both futile and inexpedient to moralize about bayonet-fighting at an Army School.

Futile and inexpedient, sure. But these are an officer’s equivocations, not a poet’s protest… but the problem, really, is not so much the snigger-behind-the-hand immorality of such bloodthirstiness, but rather the fact that the poet is having a good time. Which Sassoon is honest enough to cop to:

There is a sense of recovered happiness in the glimpse I catch of myself coming out of my cottage door with a rifle slung on my shoulder. There was nothing wrong with life on those fine mornings when the air smelt so fresh and my body was young and vigorous, and I hurried down the white road, along the empty street, and up the hill to our training ground. I was like a boy going to early school, except that no bell was ringing, and instead of Thucydides or Virgil, I carried a gun. Forgetting, for the moment, that I was at the Front to be shot at, I could almost congratulate myself on having a holiday in France without paying for it.[1]

 

Lord Dunsany began this morning, a century back, as a prisoner in a rebel-controlled hospital in Jervis Street. He spent much of it chatting with the four nurses who, lacking other patients, were all attending to his wound, a dramatic but not particularly serious facial wound. It seems somehow appropriate to the heroic, idealistic, bumbling, and doomed Rising that our one intimately involved writer is a Celtophilic lord and a fantasist, and that he receives a bloody, insignificant wound from a bullet that missed badly, and bounced back into his face…

On the way across Dublin yesterday Lord Dunsany had seen the British response building: artillery was coming into the city. His careful testimony of today’s events–quietly ironized, just-slightly-aestheticized–deftly handles the problem of harmonizing the tone of the surrounding memoir with the shocking specificity of the historical events he witnessed. This is not war on the Western Front, it is a shocking intrusion of violence into the heart of a city that had been at peace… and yet the notes of innocence and bewilderment are familiar

It was not till 8 a.m. that they opened fire, and a new voice echoed through Dublin. I was in no pain…

My room was on the first floor, and during all the time I was there I was never molested by any Sinn Feiner, but I began to notice from sounds overhead that fighting was taking place on the second storey. The mighty voice of the guns on Wednesday morning altered the situation: some of the Sinn Feiners had showed the nurses their rifles, and told them how they worked, and they had evidently thought they were winning; but with the arrival of our artillery the question arose as to whether this was quite fair. After a certain amount of shelling, bombing began, and one heard it coming methodically nearer, as house after house was bombed; one crash, and then a tinkling rain from every window in the house. And so on from house to house…

By nightfall the Leinsters and Sherwood Foresters, who were coming our way, had got very close, and there was heavy firing. For quite a minute nobody was hit, and then a voice cried out calling on saints, and was silent. What struck me most about that clear cry in the night was that there was surprise in it, as though the man had not thought that he would be hit, though the firing was heavy and close.

For the rest of that night I heard men dying, and when the cries seemed to have reached an apex beyond which one had not thought that horror could go, one voice was lifted up more horrible than anything else in that night, and this came from a wounded dog. A man was carried down the street to the hospital, calling on God with every breath that he took, for he only got each breath with great difficulty. He was put in the next room to me. And many more were brought in. I used to enquire how these men were doing, when I could no longer hear them, and I always got he same answer, hearing a word that is rarely heard by patients in hospitals: “Ah, he’s dead long ago.”[2]

It takes a botched rebellion, a short, sharp, shock of “asymmetrical” civil war, to strip the comfort of cant from the process of getting shot and dying.

Or it’s just an unusual situation: the nobleman who conjured up the Gods of Pegana from nearly nothing will give us a straight description of the sounds–and silences–of men dying. But he does so because he is a prisoner, a prisoner of no one in particular, or, rather, no organization that will still function tomorrow. This is a time-out from the “real” war, a moment where lords and officers are all ears abed, and where rebel nurses will speak the truth uncosseted.

 

In an odd coincidence, as Lord Dunsany lies in a Dublin hospital with a new hole in his nose, Robert Graves was released from a London hospital today, a century back, after his elective (and mildly botched) nasal operation.[3]

 

And in Ottoman Iraq, Aubrey Herbert began serving as the translator for surrender negotiations between the Turkish besiegers and the British garrison of Kut. A last effort to bring food to the beleaguered garrison had failed, and they were starving. Surrender was inevitable. After months of being cut off and abandoned, the British commander, General Townshend, was beginning to crack. Herbert, who often seems to be the only employee of the British empire able to speak decent Turkish, now had to carry messages between the paranoid general, who had been authorized to try to buy or bribe his force’s freedom, and the Turkish besiegers. Herbert possessed more than a little too much confidence and a genuine flair for absurdly courageous and ill-considered actions. The Turks, on the other hand, held all the cards.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Complete Memoirs, 290-1.
  2. Patches of Sunlight, 283-4.
  3. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 146.
  4. Fitzherbert, The Man Who Was Greenmantle, 177-8.

Lord Dunsany is Shot; Siegfried Sassoon Savors the Bayonet’s Kiss; Olaf Stapledon Contemplates Prison

This weekend, a century back, Lord Dunsany enjoyed a short leave at his eponymous castle, hosting both a brother officer and his agent,[1] who was now a brigadier. The plan was to return to duty today in Londonderry. But upon appearing at breakfast, Dunsany found that the brigadier had been summoned to Dublin early in the morning–there were rumors of a large-scale revolt. What to do?

To stride into G.H.Q., and offer my services, and then to find that there had only been a scrimmage between a policeman and a couple of boys, would be extremely ridiculous. We had no certain news, but the rumours were growing worse…

So off went Lord Dunsany and his fellow-officer, Lindsay, fearing the loss of an opportunity to be of assistance slightly more than the embarrassment of over-reacting. Reaching British Army headquarters, they discovered that a serious revolt was indeed in progress, with many hundreds of Republican militiamen manning barricades. The two officers were sent, in Dunsany’s chauffeured car, to a British unit stationed in Amiens Street–a coincidental intrusion of the Somme on this day of Irish bloodshed.

I had not been told which way to go, and I did not know that, if I went by the shortest route, there was an army in the way. So we took the shortest route.

The particular part of the army that we met was drawn up across the road behind a row of barrels, about a hundred yards on our side of the Four Courts. They stood up from behind the barrels with their rifles already at their shoulders, with the bayonets fixed and the scabbards still on the bayonets, and as soon as they were standing they began to fire. We had stopped the car and were forty yards away, and they were standing shoulder to shoulder all the way across the broad street. Though Dublin must have been echoing to those volleys, to us they were firing in complete silence, for the crash of bullets going through the air drowns all other sounds when they are close enough.  We saw the men’s shoulders jerked back by the recoil of their rifles, but heard no sound from them except the tinkling of their empty cartridges as they fell in the road. I go out and lay down in the road, and many bullets went by me before I was hit. My chauffeur, Frederick Cudlipp, was shot at he wheel, but not fatally.

When the volleys went on I saw that there was no use in staying there lying down in front of them at forty yards, so I went across the road to a doorway where I thought I could get cover. There was no cover when I got there, but it was lucky I moved, for they all concentrated on me, presumably neglecting to aim in front, and it gave Lindsay an opportunity to dodge round to the other side of the car.

So our aristocrat, fantasist, and patron-of-Ledwidge is suddenly wounded in combat, in Dublin, a few miles from his ancestral home. What follows, despite–and because of–the unique situation, is an excellent account of how just how subjective a wounded man’s impressions may be:

I looked for that doorway afterwards, a black door at the top of a flight of steps, but could not find it. The reason that those steps, so clear in my memory, had disappeared from the street was that only one doorstep and the kerb existed, and I must have been rather weak from loss of blood, so that the kerb and the doorstep seemed steeper than they were.

Lord Dunsany is in a bit of a tight spot.

If I got cover there from their right-hand man I certainly had none from the rest of the line, but at that moment one of them came forward and took me prisoner. Patches of Sunlight I recollect I have named this book. Well, one patch was their neglect to aim three inches in front of my neck as I went across the street, and then so many bullets would not have gone, where I heard them, just behind it. The Irish are a sporting people, and so I will state here that I should consider it an unsporting act to make use of this tip against me, if any of them should try it again.

The jocularity continues, but this is not really a funny bit. It’s dead-serious, a fantasist’s dry report on the bizarre emotional swings of real, sudden combat.

The man that took me prisoner, looking at the hole in my face made by one of the bullets, a ricochet, made a remark that people often consider funny, but it was quite simply said and sincerely meant: he said, “I am sorry.”

He led me back to the rest, and one of them came for me with his bayonet, now cleared of its scabbard; but the bullet having made my wits rather alert than otherwise I saw from his heroic attitude that here was no malice about him, but he merely thought that to bayonet me might be a fine thing to do. When the other man suggested, with little more than a shake of his head, that it was not, he gave up the idea altogether. “Where’s a doctor? Where’s a doctor?” they shouted. “Here’s a man bleeding to death.”

As he drily points out, Dunsany was not bleeding to death. The bullet, much of its force spent from the ricochet, has lodged in his sinus, causing a bloody and fearsome–but not life-threatening–wound. Which now, perhaps, saves the life of Dunsany himself, his friend Lindsay, and his chauffeur, Cudlipp. The chauffeur was released to a hospital in the still English-controlled section of the city while Lindsay was held by the rebels. As for Lord Dunsany, he was sent to a hospital in Jervis street, where he was well-looked-after, although he remained a prisoner of the rebels.

This was on a Tuesday, and there followed an interesting week…[2]

 

On the very day that Lord Dunsany was facing an unsheathed bayonet Siegfried Sassoon was, believe it or not, hymning another. Today’s diary entry will be expanded in the Memoirs into a rather pointed (sorry) bit about a most memorable instructor.

April 25

There was a great brawny Highland Major here to-day, talking of the Bayonet. For close on an hour he talked, and all who listened caught fire from his enthusiasm: for he was prophesying; he had his message to deliver. When he had finished, I went up the hill to my green wood where the half-built mansion stands.

So Sassoon resists, at first the lure of lecture-hall violence.

And there it was quite still except for a few birds; robins, and thrushes, and lesser notes. The church-bells were ringing in the town, deep and mellow. A pigeon cooed. Phrases from the bayonet lecture came back to me. Some midges hummed around my head. The air was still warm with the sun that had quite disappeared behind the hills. A rook cawed in the trees. A woodpecker laughed, harsh and derisive. ‘The bullet and the bayonet are brother and sister.’ ‘If you don’t kill him, he’ll kill you!’ ‘Stick him between the eyes, in the throat, in the chest, or round the thighs.’ ‘If he’s on the run, there’s only one place; get your bayonet into his kidneys; it’ll go in as easy as butter.’ ‘Kill them, kill them: there’s only one good Bosche and that’s a dead ‘un!’ ‘Quickness, anger, strength, good fury, accuracy of aim. Don’t waste good steel. Six inches are enough—what’s the use of a foot of steel sticking out at the back of a man’s neck? Three inches will do him, and when he coughs, go and find another.’ And so on.

It would be wonderful to learn that this passage had some influence on the climax of T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, in which a chorus of friendly animals arrive to cheer young “Wart” in his own task of blade-extrication, but it’s merely a strange coincidence. And chivalry-addled, nature-steeped English writers are not all that rare a breed.

The bloody lecture stuck in Sassoon’s mind for a long time, and it became a famous episode in his memoir (I see that the “massive sandy-haired Highland Major” has even made it into anthologies of military anecdote). Rather than simply juxtapose his experience of rural tranquility with the fuming violence of the bayonet lecture, Sassoon enters the ironic mode:

…the star turn in the schoolroom was a massive sandy-haired Highland Major whose subject was “The Spirit of the Bayonet.” Though at that time undecorated, he was afterwards awarded the D.S.O. for lecturing. He took as his text a few leading points from the Manual of Bayonet Training.

To attack with the bayonet effectively requires Good Direction, Strength and Quickness, during a state of wild excitement and probably physical exhaustion. The bayonet is essentially an offensive weapon. In a bayonet assault all ranks go forward to kill or be killed, and only those who have developed skill and strength by constant training will be able to kill. The spirit of the bayonet must be inculcated into all ranks, so that they go forward with that aggressive determination and confidence of superiority born of continual practice, without which a bayonet assault will not be effective.

To hear the Major talk, one might have thought that he did it himself every day before breakfast…[3]

The memoirs go on to describe the antics of the soldier who accompanies the lecture with vivid pantomime: it sounds (although Sassoon is no humorist, and plays it dry) a little like a cross between a Monty Python sketch about Scottish Martial Arts and a bizarre, militaristic take on a flight attendant’s rote safety presentation.

But today, a century back, Sassoon once again chooses to refuse the lure of the comic–or hateful–military lecture and to do so simply by letting it be overwhelmed by his immediate experience of nature.

I told the trees what I had been hearing; but they hate steel, because axes and bayonets are the same to them. They are dressed in their fresh green, every branch showing through the mist of leaves, and the straight stems most lovely against the white and orange sky beyond.

Perhaps the only thing less a propos to Sassoon than a Monty Python comparison is a Tolkien allusion. But this bit reminds me of a moment in the Silmarillion when two of Tolkien’s “powers” (gods, mythologically speaking) disagree. Yavanna is a goddess of growth and loves the trees best, and so calls forth beings to protect the trees from the axes of Middle Earth’s peoples. But Aule, the maker, the craftsman, and the father of the tool- and weapon-making dwarves, insists that his children will nevertheless have need of wood…

Which is neither here or there, but it prompted a second thought. The serious, studious, careful, loyal Tolkien and the dreamy, landed, sometimes snobbish Sassoon have little in common, in their writing or otherwise. But here they almost share a mood… Tolkien’s mythology is unusual in that it does not permit a true war god–or, rather, because his pagan-seeming pantheon is backed by a Christian mythology of fall and repair. Only the evil, fallen powers are lovers of war. Tolkien’s fighter-god (Tulkas) is mighty and terrible in his rage, but he is also slow to wrath and notable for his gentle nature-spirit wife and his habit of uproarious laughing. Mars would enjoy bayonet drill, but not Tulkas…

Back now, and none too soon, to Sassoon:

And a blackbird’s song cries aloud that April cannot understand what war means.

So what comes of this odd mixture of aggressive exhortation and pastoral serenity? A poem. A poem that you must, must not read straight.

The Kiss

To these I turn, in these I trust—
Brother Lead and Sister Steel.
To this blind power I make appeal,
I guard her beauty clean from rust.

He spins and burns and loves the air.
And splits a skull to win my praise;
But up the nobly marching days
She glitters naked, cold and fair.

Sweet Sister, grant your soldier this;
That in good fury he may feel
The body where he sets his heel
Quail from your downward darting kiss.[4]

This poem is not as simple as it sounds, but neither is it firmly tongue in cheek. If it is supposed to be so ridiculous–and ridiculous it surely is–then why is it so sensual?

 

Lastly today, a letter from Olaf Stapledon, which gives us rather a wider spread than usual on the political questions of the day: from rebellion to ironical bloodlust to principled pacifism. The letter, to his fiancée, Agnes Miller, is so heavily censored that it is difficult to make out what is going on, at first. It’s something about politics: he is relating the discussions in his unit–the Friends’ Ambulance Corps, a Quaker unit–about the rumor that English tribunals may begin challenging the word of would-be conscientious objectors by sending them to the ambulance corps under the threat of jail or the draft. This would present another dilemma.

We who joined long before there was any question of conscription do not want our unit made into an underhand weapon again complete objectors…

We out here have had to decide on our attitude… They read us letters from Friends now in prison who feel that the FAU is cutting the ground from under them in their fight for free conscience. The letters were quiet, Quakerish and very forcible. We have had to think very seriously, whether or not in this crisis we should go home to fight for freedom of conscience or whether we should continue here at our small but real work.

Their unit, in other words, will now be tarnished by the suggestion that it is where men more afraid of prison than of German shells–but still too afraid of German bayonets, why don’t we say, o actually fight for their country–are sent…

Must a committed pacifist then make a more definite stand?

I know you would be very grieved if I were to go. I know you look at the FAU as just one form of the great war service, while I look at it in a quite other light. I know it would mean no end of horridness for many people if I were to go. I can’t explain the ins & outs of it all to you, but realise that in England a considerable number of admirable people are suffering severe imprisonment rather than join the FAU. Realise that what you see in the papers (most papers) is an altogether distorted account of these things. Realise that we here are mostly very convinced and ardent antimilitarists and upholders of freedom. Try to realise… that it is at least possible that these “martyred” people may after all be doing more good than we…

The middle ground is slipping away, it would seem. We have seen (if briefly) how Max Plowman chose the ambulances from a desire to avoid either shedding blood or dishonor. But Max Plowman changed his mind, and is bound for the Somme.

Olaf won’t do that. He will stay, or he will refuse to be used as a half-measure, and demand that his principles be recognized. At what cost?

If I were to go back now you would be engaged to an ostracized person, & that could not be. In fact it would be altogether inextricable & horrible, and the mere giving you back your promise would be very far from squaring things. But I am not going back, not yet anyhow. The great majority of us are signing a strong protest against the various evils, but are saying that we will not resign simply because we don’t feel it right to give up this work to support the people who cannot conscientiously do this work. My dear, this is a fearfully muddled explanation…

Yes, but it’s unique here, and far, far better than silence from the pacifists. Here’s my question for Olaf, however: these diaries and letters are supposed to be immediate and memorable, segments of daily history not analytical documents that step back and consider the questions of the “day”–can you remind us of the pressing reality of this dilemma?

It is muddled because there’s the deuce of a noise going on from certain too near artillery, also there are things happening in the air. Bang! I am sitting outside. The earth seemed to shake with that bang & the air to split. It’s getting rapidly impossible to write at all…

Interestingly, Stapledon now interposes a paragraph break, and lets today’s installment of the letter mosey off into simple description of what he hears and sees. It’s war, a terrible thing, even at a distance…

From various directions comes the sound of rifles & sometimes of singing bullets. Occasionally the rat-at-at of the mitrailleuse [machine gun] is heard, Trench flares go up and brightly light the place. One passes by a spot where a shell scored a direct hit on the trench, the sides being blown out, & in course of repair. Rats crawl about & squeak. Talking is reduced to an undertone. Away to one side is the sound of some construction work under way, & the clanking of heavy iron. Far away on the horizon are occasional brilliant pinprick flashes in the sky–shrapnel bursting somewhere down the line…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A land or estate, rather than a literary, agent. I think.
  2. Patches of Sunlight, 277-83.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 288-90.
  4. Diaries, 59-60.
  5. Talking Across the World, 143-4.