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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.