Robert Graves, Meet Robert Nichols; Francis Ledwidge’s Rude Awakening; Wilfred Owen Within Sound of the Guns; Ford Madox Hueffer’s “One Day’s List”

The strange/glorious/dismal January efflorescence of war poetry continues, today, a century back: we have a long and soon-to-be-much-quoted war poem from Ford Madox Hueffer, another poem from Francis Ledwidge, and a letter recording Wilfred Owen‘s next step toward the line.

Today is also the day that two other war poets, having independently discovered each other, made contact. So I will put my faith in your patience (and your hunger for poetry) and first discuss the odd, chatty, many-connection-making letter in which Robert Graves replies to a letter of introduction from Robert Nichols.

Nichols, an early volunteer officer who was shell-shocked at Loos (also Graves’s first battle) has long been at home, and now discharged from the army–and he has attained a notable level of poetic success. His Invocation is, although both too early and too hopeful to fit with the verse now being written under the influence of Charles Sorley, far more widely read than the initial efforts of Sassoon or Graves. In fact, with Grenfell and Brooke dead, Nichols is, a century back, perhaps the most celebrated of the “soldier poets.” Yet Nichols has evidently read Graves’s Over the Brazier and found much there that is worthwhile: he wrote to Graves asking for permission to dedicate his next book of poems, in part, to him. Graves greets this rather grand gesture with both genuine enthusiasm and awkwardly emphatic reciprocal fealty.

S’addresser à
Captain Robert Graves
3rd R W Fus.
The Huts
Litherland
Liverpool

7 January 1917

Dear Robert Nichols,

…Of course you may: I’d simply love it. It’s hard to say how cheered I am: Orderly Room and battalion drill and company ledgers and the town of Liverpool and the enforced society of young gentlemen whose sole amusements are liqueur shifting and promiscuous fornication, had almost convinced me that there was no God in Heaven nor any bay trees on Parnassus. I feel tremendously honored.

Funny how things happen. As you may suspect, I’m a very very ardent Sorleian and when I saw your letter in the Westminster Gazette about him… I asked S. Sassoon (a poet of some note who funnily enough has strayed into this battalion and shares a hut with me) who you were because I felt sure you were a fellow of the right stuff. He reminded me of that Oxford Poetry book and I remembered that your things were far and away the best in the collection and that Eddie Marsh was very keen on them.

Eddie Marsh–of course. Despite his desirable status as a poet with a growing public (not to mention as a soldier whose “neurasthenia” has resulted in a not-dishonourable discharge from the army) Nichols has happened upon the Marsh zone rather late, but most profitably. After sending Invocation to Marsh, “almost instantly he had entered the small circle of Marsh’s closest friends.” With Brooke dead and Churchill out of power, this is not what it once was, perhaps–but Marsh is still very much the central node of the network of Georgian poets and their nascent band of assertive little brothers, the War Poets.

Somewhat awkwardly, of course, this younger generation is not looking up to Rupert Brooke at all–they have found another idol, the dead poet of 1915 whose legacy will be the poetry of 1917 and 1918, while 1914 (“and other poems”), while remaining broadly popular, will fall from poetic regard.

I’ve got a very bad memory, worse since I met an old shell last July, and I somehow didn’t connect the two. Did you know Sorley before his death? I met him at Oxford in 1913 when we were both up there for scholarships, but didn’t realize who he was–wasted opportunities, horrid to lack back on…

Graves has invented this memory of meeting Sorley–honestly, wishfully, invented, I believe, rather than duplicitously–and of course he forgets that “who he was” would have been a very clever, unusually mature and reserved potential scholar, not yet the author of Marlborough and Other Poems nor noticeably set in that direction. And now, with Sorley in mind, Graves presumes–these fits of grandiosity do not serve him well–to critique his older friend to his new one.

This fellow Sassoon, not exactly a prepossessing name for a poet, perhaps, was out in France with me in 1915 and is a most extraordinary good man… and says what he means very courageously. No Union Jack flapping or sword waving, but just a picture of France from the front trench, and our ‘brutal and licentious soldiery’. He’s not musical, always, but it’s good stuff; original too and not redolent of Masefield as is so common these days and contains no ode either to Kitchener or Rupert Brooke. Look out for his The Old Foxhunter and Other Poems[1] about February or March, with William Heinemann. I was to have brought out a second volume at the same time, but hitches occurred…

A bit of hemming and hawing follows, and then some preemptive self-criticism about his own published work–Graves evidently wants Nichols to approve of him as a fellow war poet.

Well, cheeroh, and best of luck and don’t recover from your shell-shock too soon. I’m rather stupidly going back to France this week with only one lung–having deceived the medical board. Chiefly because I want to hurry into hospital again and do a bit of writing for which soldiering provides no leisure.

Yours

Robert Graves

I hope to see you sometime when I come on leave, in London, say, or aprés-la-guerre[2] at any rate…[3]

Francis Ledwidge, is fired up, these days–and homesick and fairy-struck. He goes back to yesterday‘s theme–those fairies who lurk just at the edge of the fields we know, just at the edge of our dreams. But there is something of a shock at the end of this one.

 

The Dead Kings

All the dead kings came to me
At Rosnaree, where I was dreaming.
A few stars glimmered through the morn,
And down the thorn the dews were streaming.

And every dead king had a story
Of ancient glory, sweetly told.
It was too early for the lark,
But the starry dark had tints of gold.

I listened to the sorrows three
Of that Eire passed into song.
A cock crowed near a hazel croft,
And up aloft dim larks winged strong.

And I, too, told the kings a story
Of later glory, her fourth sorrow:
There was a sound like moving shields
In high green fields and the lowland furrow.

And one said: “We who yet are kings
Have heard these things lamenting inly.”
Sweet music flowed from many a bill
And on the hill the morn stood queenly.

And one said: “Over is the singing,
And bell bough ringing, whence we come;
With heavy hearts we’ll tread the shadows,
In honey meadows birds are dumb.”

And one said: “Since the poets perished
And all they cherished in the way.
Their thoughts unsung, like petal showers
Inflame the hours of blue and gray.”

And one said: “A loud tramp of men
We’ll hear again at Rosnaree.”
A bomb burst near me where I lay.
I woke, ’twas day in Picardy.

France,
January 7th, 1917

A deft reawakening to the reality of war.

 

Wilfred Owen, too will find his reality defined by the sound of explosions today, a century back. I promise to find time in the next few days to really dig into what Owen is experiencing, but suffice it to say that if his letters have suddenly sobered up, it’s because his initiation into combat has not been easy. The weather is terrible, and they are headed for a nasty section of the front.

Sunday, 7 January 1917

My dear dear Mother,

It is afternoon. We had an Inspection to make from 9 to 12 this morning. I have wandered into a village cafe where they gave me writing paper. We made a redoubtable March yesterday from the last Camp to this. The awful state of the roads and the enormous weight carried, was top much for scores of men. Officers also carried full packs, but I
had a horse part of the way.

It was beginning to freeze through the rain when we arrived at our tents. We were at the mercy of the cold, and, being in health, I never suffered so terribly as yesterday afternoon. I am really quite well, but have sensations kindred to being seriously ill.

As I was making my damp bed, I heard the Guns for the first time. It was a sound not without a certain sublimity. They woke me again at 4 o’clock…

But Owen withholds further comment there, which I am once again tempted to interpret as wisdom: there will be more of this, so let us wait until our experience is deeper…

The letter goes on in Owen’s new manner–one sentence paragraphs likes faits divers, which veer from matter-of-fact to comic to foreboding. He still wants to be deep, to write heavily… but now, at least, he doesn’t trust himself to. Owen is treading lightly into this new unknown, feinting toward serious statements and then pulling back…

I have had to censor letters by the hundred lately. They don’t make inspiring reading.

This morning I have been reading Trench Standing Orders to my Platoon. (Verb. Sap.)

Needless to say I show a cheerier face to them than I wear in writing this letter; but I must not disguise from you the fact that we are at one of the worst parts of the Line.

I have lost no possessions so far; but have acquired a pair of boots and a map case (presents). And of course my valise is heavier by much dirt…

I can’t tell you any more Facts. I have no Fancies and no Feelings.

Positively they went numb with my feet.

Love is not quenched, except the unenduring flickerings thereof. By your love, O Mother, O Home, I am protected from Fatigue of life and the keen spiritual Cold.

Your own W.E.O.[4]

 

And our last poem today is quite amazing. Just yesterday Ford Madox Hueffer, was writing a letter that was at once self-serving (the subtext being “I am a good writer, and would like a cushy job from you) and feeling towards both an honest appraisal of shell shock and a literary approach to writing seriously about fragmented experience. And he was complaining of his own stupidity, poor memory, and shaky sanity. Yet today he wrote a poem, fluidly an quickly, in a very different vein, which will not only turn up in many anthologies–which is to say that it is neither difficult nor offensive nor heavily “disillusioned” nor, as so many of Ford’s writings, unnecessarily provocative–but is also quite good. He has not made close friends in the 8th Welch, but he has made friends, and lost them.

I think it’s fair to say that “One Day’s List” is unique in his oeuvre; I’m certainly not sure how to comment on it. Modern? Yes. Traditional? In a way. A lament, a threnody, a war poem? Sure. Honest, true, and a new take on the ever-growing subject of loss, and coping with loss? I think so. Yesterday Sassoon imagined the German dead and the English dead in some underworld; today it’s the Germans and the Welsh in heaven…

 

One Day’s List

(Killed. — Second Lieutenants unless otherwise stated.
Arnott, E. E. — Welch Regt.
Jones, E. B. D. — Welch Regt.
Morris, J. H. — Welch Regt.[5]
And 270 other ranks, Welch Regt.

Died of Wounds.
Knapp, 0. R. — 2nd Lieut. Welch Regt.)

My dears . . .
The rain drips down on Rouen Town
The leaves drip down
And so the mud
Turns orange brown. . . .
A Zeppelin, we read, has been brought down.
And the obscure brown
Populace of London town
Make a shout of it,
Clamouring for blood
And reductions in the price of food . . .
But you — at least — are out of it. . . .

Poor little Arnott — poor little lad . . .
And poor old Knapp,
Of whom once I borrowed a map — and never returned it.
And Morris and Jones . . . and all the rest of  the Welch,
So many gone in the twenty-four hours of a day . . .
One wonders how one can stay . . .
One wonders. . . .
For the papers are full of Kelch,
Finding rubbishy news to make a shout of it,
But you at least are out of it.

One wonders how you died . . .
The mine thunders
Still where you stuck by Welch Alley and turned it. . . .
The mine thunders
Upwards — and branches of trees, mud, and stone,
Skulls, limbs, rats, thistles, the clips
Of cartridges, beef tins and wire
Belch
To the heavens in fire
From the lips
Of the craters where doubtless you died,
With the Cheshires and Wiltshires and Welch
Side by side.
One wonders why you died,
Why were we in it ? . . .
At home we were late on parades.
Seldom there to the minute,
When “B.” were out on Cathays
We didn’t get much of the lectures into the brain. . . .
We talked a good deal about girls.
We could all tell a story
At something past something, Ack Emma !

But why? why? Why were we there from the Aisne to Mametz,
Well — there’s a dilemma. . . .
For we never talked of glory,
We each thought a lot of one girl,
And waited most days for hours in the rain
Till she came:
But we never talked of Fame. . . .

It is very difficult to believe
You need never again
Put in for week-end leave,
Or get vouchers for the 1.10 train
From Cardiff to London. . . .
But so much has the Hun done
In the way of achievements.

And when I think of all the bereavements
Of your mothers and fathers and sweethearts and wives and homes in the West,
And the paths between the willows waiting for your tread,
And the white pillows
Waiting each for a head,
Well …. they may go to rest!

And, God help me, if you meet a Hun
In Heaven, I bet you will say, “Well done,
You fought like mad lions in nets
Down by Mametz.”

But we who remain shall grow old,
We shall know the cold
Of cheerless
Winter and the rain of Autumn and the sting
Of poverty, of love despised and of disgraces,
And mirrors showing stained and ageing faces,
And the long ranges of comfortless years
And the long gamut of human fears. . . .
But, for you, it shall be forever spring,
And only you shall be forever fearless,
And only you have white, straight, tireless limbs,
And only you, where the water-lily swims
Shall walk along the pathways, thro’ the willows
Of your west.
You who went West,
And only you on silvery twilight pillows
Shall take your rest
In the soft sweet glooms
Of twilight rooms. . . .

No. 2 Red Cross Hospital,
Rouen, 7/1/17

References and Footnotes

  1. Graves has got the title of the forthcoming The Old Huntsman wrong; the sort of hunting solecism which would drive Sassoon to distraction.
  2. Sic! There, I said it! Wrong accent...
  3. In Broken Images, 61-3. The end of the post-script mentions--disapprovingly, of course--Wheels, the modernist journal/anthology edited by Edith Sitwell. Its first issue, published in 1916 (and regrettably left all but unmentioned here) positioned it as an alternative to Marsh's anthologies and featured work by Edith's brother Osbert (and their younger brother Sacheverell) and his friend Bimbo Tennant. These, for now, are the rival cliques of poets...
  4. Collected Letters, 423-4.
  5. Morris and Arnott are listed in the C.W.G.C. records as being killed two days apart, on the 21st and 23rd September, 1916. Jones I have not found. Nevertheless, they may all well have appeared in the same newspaper casualty list.

Phillip Maddison Follows a Coffin; Vera Brittain’s Adventure Abroad Begins; Bimbo Tennant’s Grave; Arthur Graeme West Against the War

London was waking up this morning to the aftermath one of the worst zeppelin raids of the war. Henry Williamson, omnivorous novelist of the war’s notable actions, made use of this event to secure an awkward rapprochement between Phillip Maddison and his father–and to kill off Lily Cornford, the girl who was not good enough for him (socially) and too good for him (morally).

This morning, a century back, Phillip saw the twenty-two coffins of the German air crew, accompanied by an RFC honor guard, and fell in behind, reflecting on what has become a touchstone text of the novel.

Last of all walked Phillip, feeling lost, wondering if the spirits of the dead men were lingering in the autumn air, looking down, faintly curious, at the poor little bodies below. Was Lily there, too? He felt that the dead would not be angry, nor would they know any more fear. If only he could write poetry in which his feelings, and the scenes he had known, would live forever, like Julian Grenfell’s poem.[1]

But he can’t, and, inasmuch as Williamson’s hard-driven and haphazardly-elaborated themes can be summarized, the death of Lily and Phillip’s segue away from a period of Grenfell-idealizing (in which, not coincidentally, he performs bravely under fire on the Somme after several early instances of experiencing panic under fire) into a more introspective mode. We’ll pick up Phillip’s story in the next volume, when he is in France once more.

 

In a truer but somewhat attenuated incidence of historical irony, the raid qualified as something like a near miss for Vera Brittain. Yesterday she had bid farewell to her mother and brother in Camberwell before setting off for her eponymous liner. As her brother Edward will write, bombs fell on the site of their goodbyes not twenty-four hours after she had left to brave the threat of German submarines for hazardous service abroad: “The windows of the White Horse were smashed–just where Mother and I passed that morning after saying good-bye to you.”

We have come as far as air raids and U-boats: Julian Grenfell and the heroic tradition be damned, there is no need to go “Into Battle–” modern war will come to you.

And yet, if War brings movement and new opportunity–combined with manageable levels of danger and deprivation–it is not going to shake entirely free of its long conceptual partnership with Romance. Today is also the beginning of an adventure for a young woman who, for all the misery of hospital service and the death of her beloved, has been sheltered from both the terrors and the freedoms that 20th century war can bring… Malta is very far from Buxton.

Sunday September 24th Britannic

First thing in the morning Gower & I wandered over the ship, exploring the lower wards. A hospital ship is a very wonderful thing, but when I saw the swinging iron cots & realised the stuffiness of the lower decks even when empty, I was thankful that fate had not ordered me to serve on a hospital ship. We heard during the morning that our voyage was going to be much longer than we had hitherto supposed, for the Britannic, being too large to put in at Malta, would go straight to Mudros…

I felt no especial pang when I saw England disappear; it was all part of the hard path which I have assigned to myself to tread. So that my chief sentiments were much those of Roland’s verse written from my point of view (how truly prophetic He did not know) & which came into my mind as I stood on the boat deck–

I walk alone, although the way is long,
And with gaunt briars & nettles overgrown;
Though little feet are frail, in purpose strong
I walk alone.

And again I had that very strong feeling that in spite of the long distance that there was to be between me & all the people I loved, I was not really going very far away, and that no separation, so long as those who were separated were still on earth, could be so very great.[2]

Ah, but she is being brave. Looking back, Brittain will admit to terror.

Now that the perils of the sea were really at hand, the terror that had hung over me since I volunteered for foreign service and for one grim second had gripped me by the throat when Betty told me that we were going to Malta, somehow seemed less imminent. The expensive equipment of our cabins was illogically reassuring; those polished tables and bevelled mirrors looked so inappropriate for the bottom of the sea… it was difficult on so warm and calm an evening to convince one’s self that at any moment might come a loud explosion, followed by a cold, choky death in the smooth black water…[3]

 

This is a young imagination, only–although the threat of submarines is all too real. But young Bim Tennant, as polished and bevelled a young man as any mother could wish for, is really dead.

Today, a century back, his hasty grave was consolidated by the survivors of his battalion. His commanding officer’s letter to the family is the first of many letters of condolence which Lady Glenconner will receive and later excerpt in her memoir:

… We all loved him, and his loss is terrible. Please accept my deepest sympathy. His Company was holding a sap occupied by Germans and ourselves, a block separated the two. Bim was sniping when he was killed absolutely instantaneously by a German sniper. His body is buried in a cemetery near Guillemont. The grave is close to that of Raymond Asquith, and we are placing a Cross upon it and railing it round to-day. Forgive this scribble, we are still in action, and attack again to-morrow morning. Bim was such a gallant boy.

Yours very sincerely,

Henry Seymour,

Lt.-Col., 4th Batt. Grenadier Guards.[4]

 

Perhaps, with Bimbo Tennant dead and buried and the Somme not yet behind us, this is a good time to turn to an officer-writer I’ve been neglecting. Arthur Graeme West is as near to the temperamental opposite of Bim as we are likely to find. A gentle, quiet, middle-class Public Schoolboy, West had gone to Balliol and taken an interest in modern philosophy and radical politics. After some soul-searching he had tried for a commission in 1914, but was turned down, like so many others, due to poor eyesight. But the Public Schools Battalion accepted him, and he saw the trenches in 1915, including hard fighting over the winter of 1915-16. Not much of his writing from this period, however, is available, and so we met him only briefly in the spring.

It was then that West was commissioned and trained as an officer, despite his increasingly strong feeling that the war was inexcusable murder. And so, ironically, he missed the slaughter of his old unit on the Somme. He arrived in France earlier this month, an unwilling subaltern of the 6th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and we will now begin to have somewhat regular reports on his feelings and doings.

West is hard to get a handle on–in part because of the vexed nature of the publication of his writing–but by now he is certainly firm in his central conviction: that war is wrong, its evils mitigated neither by heroism nor by the stoic virtues of sacrifice and endurance.

How can a man with such views lead other men? It’s hard to tell; for the time being he works through his problem as if it were his problem alone.

Sunday, Sept. 24th 1916. A Tent.

I am very unhappy. I wish to make clear to myself why, and to thrash out what my desires really tend to.

I am unhappier than I ever was last year, and this not only because I have been separated from my friends or because I am simply more tired of the war.

It is because my whole outlook towards the thing has altered. I endured what I did endure last year patiently, believing I was doing a right and reasonable thing. I had not thought out the position of the pacifist and the conscientious objector, I was always sympathetic to these people, but never considered whether my place ought not been rather among them than where I actually was. Then I came back to England feeling rather like the noble crusader or explorer who has given up much for his friend but who is not going to be sentimental or overbearing about it, though he regards himself as somehow different from and above those who have not endured as he has done…

“This war is trivial, for all its vastness,” says B. Russell, and so I feel. I am being pained, bored, and maddened—and to what end? It is the uselessness of it that annoys me. I had once regarded it as inevitable; now I don’t believe it was, and had I been in full possession of my reasoning powers when the war began, I would never have joined the Army. To have taken a stand against the whole thing, against the very conception of force, even when employed against force, would have really been my happier and truer course.

The war so filled up my perspective at first that I could not see anything close because of it: most people are still like that…

Most men fight, if not happily, at any rate patiently, sure of the necessity and usefulness of their work. So did I
once! Now it all looks to me so absurd and brutal that I can only force myself to continue in a kind of dream-state;
I hypnotise myself to undergo it…

Even granting it was necessary to resist Germany by arms at the beginning—and this I have yet most carefully to examine—why go on?

Can no peace be concluded?

Is it not known to both armies that each is utterly weary and heartsick?

Of course it is. Then why, in God’s name, go on?

…The argument drawn from the sufferings of the men in the trenches, from the almost universal sacrifices to duty, are not valid against this. Endurance is hard, but not meritorious simply because it is endurance. We are confronted with two sets of martyrs here–those of the trenches, and those of the tribunal and the civil prison, and not by any means are the former necessarily in the right.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Golden Virgin, 446.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 328-9.
  3. Testament of Youth, 295-6.
  4. Memoir, 238.
  5. Diary..., 109-11.

Bimbo Tennant’s Shoot-Out in Gas Alley

gas-alleycrop

The scrap of nowhere, northeast of Delville Wood, where Bim Tennant died. “Gas Alley” is the trench that runs across the center of the map, from southwest (where the transition from blue to red marks the ownership of the trench as of a few days ago) to the northeast.

The Somme battle was in a lull between major attacks today, a century back. The 4th Grenadiers had been sent up yesterday to help prepare the way for the next stab at the third German line. North of Ginchy, between Longueval toward Flers, there was a tangle of trenches where an earlier push had entered the German lines and then been halted.

The Grenadiers did not go “over the top” yesterday as Bimbo Tennant had expected, but found more painstaking work before them. They had to fight sideways through a trench system, up communications trenches that had been blocked by the German defenders, who then withdrew and lay in ambush.

This was work for Grenadiers indeed. But when Tennant’s friend and company commander Captain Spencer-Churchill[1] went over to try to connect “Gas Alley” with the next bit of trench, he was hit by snipers and wounded.

Tennant, cropped

Edward Wyndham Tennant, by John Singer Sargent, 1915

 

Bim Tennant was less fortunate. Left behind in Gas Alley, he took it upon himself to respond to the short-range Germans sniping, and “occupied his time in shooting at the enemy. Apparently, there was some movement by the Germans which led him to shoot with his revolver, and a moment later he fell dead, shot through the head by one of the enemy’s snipers.”[2]

 

Lady Glenconner (née Pamela Wyndham), was a much-beloved mother. We have so many of Bim’s letters to her, with her loving commentary, and the two seem to have been the best of friends. If there was ever a cross word, it was not preserved.

It seems cruel, in any case, to speculate: Lady Glenconner is a mother of dead children. In the spring she lost an infant far too young to speak, and in the beginning of Autumn, now, she has lost her eldest, all of nineteen years old, the boy who always wrote so sweetly of his love for her.

She will publish his poems and his letters, a continuation of their joint effort, in life. And more: the Sargent drawing Bim had wanted for the frontispiece of a little volume of poems will now be the frontispiece of his mother’s Memoir of his brief life. Productive in grief, Lady Glenconner will also publish many of Bim’s earliest poems and letters to her–overpoweringly sentimental and desperately sad proof of a little boy’s love for his beautiful, loving mother.

I have written before about the difficulty of integrating the writing of grief-stricken parents into this polyphonic project–grief-stricken mothers, for the most part. Lady Glenconner, however, writes sparingly in her own voice, and says much of what she would say in quotation–of young Bim above all. She means to show not only his love of her, but his love of life–both not to be doubted–and also, with some of the poems, his claim to poetic talent.

I’m not sure what to do but include some of what she preserved, here and over the coming days. It’s heartbreaking and, I hope, raw. I’ll close with something of hers, of his (if that makes sense).

But first, one mourner to begin the condoling: Osbert Sitwell, a friend and comrade who had made himself a family friend, is perhaps best positioned to call across the unfathomable gulf that now separates Bim and his mother,

I, though I only have known Bim for two years, feel a gap which can never be filled; I shall always feel the gratitude for his friendship. I am sure he faced death with the marvellous vitality, courage, and love of beautiful ideas and things that always actuated him. His only sorrow in death would be your sorrow, and that of those who loved him. You were always his one thought, and he would never even smoke, because he had promised you, once, not to. He was convinced of a future life. I am sure that a vitality such as his can never be wasted.

It was this same note–Christian, gentle, uplifting–that Lady Glenconner used when it came time for the abrupt transition from the letters of the living boy to the memorials of the dead officer.

The posthumous chapter begins with this epigraph:

“‘Out on thee, Death,’ Justice and Pity said,
‘Why take the young, and let the old go free?’
‘Religion is the worship of the dead,’
Death answered, ‘know ye not? more foolish ye.
How could Below look upward to Above
Did not these die, whom Gods and Mothers love?'”

F. W. Bain

Then there is a brief quotation from Tennyson–“That death whose truer nature is Onward. . . “–and Lady Glenconner’s brief confirmation of what every reader must already know:

On the 22nd September, 1916, Bim went on.[3]

But what could be as sad as this?bimbo-tennants-dedication-to-moth

References and Footnotes

  1. Edward George, I believe, a cousin at some distance to Winston.
  2. The Grenadier Guards in the Great War, II, 137.
  3. Memoir, 237-9.

The Prime Minister Grieves; Isaac Rosenberg and Edward Thomas Get On With Their Writing; Richard Aldington Goes for a Noncom; Bimbo Tennant’s Heart of Triple Bronze

A brief flurry of four letters, today, and several impending movements–some routine, others ominous.

First, the poets.

Isaac Rosenberg has been on the Somme front for much of the year. His battalion has not been in any of the attacks, but has seen a good deal of the war of attrition. In and out of trenches, working in salvage, Rosenberg has, by now, as great a claim to be a “poet of the trenches” as anyone. He has written much, but he has written well. And the tenuous connection to mainstream (i.e. Anglican, and wealthy or well-connected) poetry that Eddie Marsh has provided him is beginning to take hold. Gordon Bottomley has written to Rosenberg several times, now, with praise and advice, and reciprocal gifts are promised. In a letter postmarked today, a century back, Rosenberg thanks Bottomley and allows himself the luxury of dreaming for the future.

22311 A Coy 3 Platoon
11th KORL BEF

Dear Mr Bottomley

I have not had the chance till now of thanking you for your beautiful thought of me in your letter & book. It has been wet and mucky in the trenches for some time & the cold weather helping, we are teased by the elements as well as by the German fireworks, I don’t think Ive been dry yet these last few days… It gave me fine pleasure that you liked my drawing. I have not yet written home about that Adam & Eve drawing as I don’t remember where it is but I want you to have it when I get back if I am lucky…

I am most eager to read your early book but it would be far from safe to send it here, beside the little time there is for reading.

Yours Sincerely,

Isaac Rosenberg[1]

 

Back in London, Gordon Bottomley’s old friend Edward Thomas wrote once again to Eleanor Farjeon.[2] As artillery training and a commission approach, his poetic pen is once more drying up. But he did write several poems recently which we, dragged once more into death on the Somme, did not read here. Today he sends them–possibly “That Girl’s Clear Eyes” and “What Will They Do” (a poem we will return to)–to Farjeon, whom he recognizes as his best first reader. She’s the person he would prefer to send his draft verses to–rather, that is, than the powerful and distant Frost. It doesn’t hurt that she types them for him…

Wednesday

My dear Eleanor, I don’t know yet whether I am going. The exam was easy but I expect others found it so too. Of course if I don’t go to Trowbridge I shall see you before long. In case I don’t could you send me a copy of those last verses—the Blenheim Oranges—of mine? I can’t find one or the original. You will see I have written some more too—if you can see the faint type. Perhaps one of them is better than the others…

Yours ever
Edward Thomas[3]

 

And one more fairly dull London literary note: Richard Aldington, high-minded modernist and alternately strutting soldier and lamenting conscript, has been selected for training as a non-commissioned officer. This meant six days’ leave, and he and his wife, the poet H.D.–who had moved away to be near him in camp and was miserable there–“went straight to London to resume something resembling their former literary life.”

Aldington, H.D., F.S. Flint and several friends “dined together in Soho. Flint wrote to [Amy] Lowell that it was a ‘comprehensive gathering of the clan . . . the absent ones being yourself on the bay where the tea was spoiled and Lawrence on some little bay in Cornwall.’”[4] It’s worth noting that Aldington had not wanted to fight, waited nearly two years to be drafted, and then turned proud army man, writing sneeringly of people like Flint who were too physically infirm to be desirable to the draft boards. Meanwhile Flint seems to be casting aspersions on D.H. Lawrence, who has chosen a sort of internal exile on his “little bay,” in the hopes of weathering the storms of social backlash meted out to confirmed pacifists. Which is a difficult and uncompromised position…

 

Others, of course, who had no desire to go to war had promptly gone nonetheless. It seemed to many men to be, even in August 1914, an inevitable duty–which is to say that serving in the armed forces was both necessary and socially unavoidable, and therefore there was nothing to do but make the best of it.

Which is what Raymond Asquith did, preserving himself as a loving husband and father and a sharp-penned society wit, while also becoming a capable and widely-admired Guards officer. And he survived more than two years of war…

Today, a century back, a first letter from his father, the beleaguered prime minister, H.H. Asquith, reacting to his son’s death.

I can honestly say that in my own life he was the thing of which I was truly proud, and in him and his future I had invested all my stock of hope. That is all gone, and for the moment I feel bankrupt…

I drove from here yesterday to Mells, nearly 80 miles, to see Katherine who wanted me… I have never seen anyone so stunned and shattered: all she wants is to die. Only yesterday morning she had received a letter from him, written last Thursday:[5] she showed it to me–a delightful little love letter.[6]

Two things, at least, are needless to say: that a letter from beyond the grave, as it were, seems like a most sharp and perfect manifestation of the grim ironies of proximity; and that such a letter could hardly increase the real suffering of a bereaved wife. There’s little to be felt from a knife twisted in a such a gaping wound–but it hurts.

 

Asquith’s younger friend and fellow guardsman Bim Tennant (his polite acquaintance, really–the two were related by marriage and moved in the same circles, but they were not close, separated as they were by more than eighteen years and almost diametrically opposite temperaments) has avoided grieving for the many losses of September fifteenth. He has other matters to attend to: it will be his turn to go forward on the attack, soon.

20th September, 1916

“… To-night we go up to the last trenches we were in, and to-morrow we go over the top. Our Brigade has suffered less than either of the other two Brigades in Friday’s biff, so we shall be in the forefront of the battle. I am full of hope and trust, and pray that I may be worthy of my fighting ancestors. The one I know best is Sir Henry Wyndham, whose bust is in the hall at 44 Belgrave Square, and there is a picture of him on the stairs at 34 Queen Anne’s Gate. We shall probably attack over about 1200 yards, but we shall have such artillery support as will properly smash the Boche line we are going for. And even (which is unlikely) if the artillery doesn’t come up to our hopes the spirit of the Brigade of Guards will carry all resistance before it. The pride of being in such a great regiment! The thought that all the old men, ‘late Grenadier Guards,’who sit in the London Clubs, are thinking and hoping about what we are doing here! I have never been prouder of anything, except your love for me, than I am of being a Grenadier. To-day is a great day for me. That line of Harry’s rings through my mind, ‘High heart, high speech, high deeds, ‘mid honouring eyes[7] I went to a service on the side of a hill this morning, and took the Holy Communion afterwards, which always seems to help one along, doesn’t it? I slept like a top last night, and dreamed that someone I know very well (but I can’t remember who it was) came to me and told me how much I had grown. Three or four of my brother officers read my poems yesterday, and they all liked them very much which pleased me enormously. I feel rather like saying ‘If it be possible let this cup pass from me,’ but the triumphant finish ‘nevertheless not what I will but what Thou wiliest,’ steels my heart and sends me into this battle with a heart of triple bronze.[8]

I always carry four photies of you when we go into action, one is in my pocket-book, two in that little leather book, and one round my neck, and I have kept my little medal of the Blessed Virgin. Your love for me and my love for you, have made my whole life one of the happiest there has ever been; Brutus’ farewell to Cassius sounds in my heart: ‘If not farewell; and if we meet again, we shall smile.’ Now all my blessings go with you, and with all we love. God bless you, and give you Peace.

Eternal Love,

from BIM.”[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Liddiard, e.d, Poetry Out of My Head, 83-4.
  2. The letter is postmarked "21 September 1916," a Thursday.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 213.
  4. Whelpton, Richard Aldington, 137.
  5. This is either a truly "last" letter written on the 14th along with the last letter to Diana Manning that wasn't printed in the Life and Letters, or this one, written last Tuesday, the 12th.
  6. Webb, From Downing Street to the Trenches, 230.
  7. "Harry" Cust's Non Nobis.
  8. Congratulate me for recognizing this as Homeric--but Bimbo is probably taking it via Horace.
  9. Memoir, 234-5.

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.

Bim Tennant Denies Death’s Sting; Kate Luard’s Wards are Very Heavy; Edmund Blunden Takes Us on a Long, Musing Walk from the Meadows to the Trenches

Bimbo Tennant and his Fourth Grenadier Guards are preparing for battle (alongside Raymond Asquith‘s 3rd Battalion, and several others of the Guards Division). He can’t quite bring himself to let his mother know this fact, but it seems as if she might be able to read between the lines:

14 September, 1916.

” . . . We came here at 1.30 a.m. yesterday morning, and after a heavy meal I slept till 11 a.m. I feel none the worse for the unpleasant three days and feel more than ready to go in again to-night, which we shall do… Do send me photographs of you all… I am longing to see you. God grant it may be soon. I will write to you whenever I get the chance, but no one knows what may happen in the next day or two. I pray I may be all right, but in any case ‘Where is Death’s sting?'”[1]

What a thing to write to your mother! But it’s of a piece: be always cheerful, and don’t give the worst things the courtesy of direct address…

 

And as for deadly stings, we should let Kate Luard briefly weigh in on those.

Thursday, September 14th, and I have a third to-day who will not be here many more hours. The wards have been very heavy lately with wrecks, horrors and heroes in every bed…[2]

 

Finally, today, and with exquisite timing,[3] Edmund Blunden writes of the slow progress of the 11th Royal Sussex, recently battered, up to a quieter section of the line. Quieter, but not quiet: their new trenches in Beaumont Hamel (with reserve billets at Auchonvillers) are only three miles from Thiepval, now the heart of the ongoing Somme battle.

Reorganized, the battalion was quickly sent back to the more obvious kind of war. My batman and a large number of his cronies used to spell the name of our new locality “Ocean Villas,” but it appears on the map as Auchonvillers… a good example of the miscellaneous, picturesque, pitiable, pleasing, appalling, intensely intimate village ruin close to the line. As we go up to the new sector, we must pass through, and we will look about us.

We will indeed. This is the great strength of Blunden’s memoir–not so much the fury (we have others for that) as the calm. He titled it Undertones of War and here it reads almost as syncopation. On the day before others attack nearby, he is strolling through the countryside, and all his observations are neither aimless nor forced–they add up to a very thorough exposure of the ironic danger of these “pastoral” or agricultural scenes. Quietly, Blunden see the danger in quiet, in sentimentality, in a perfect parody of English gardening’s recent passion for archaic and picturesque ruins… What is in an ancient bell, a handsome-if-ruinous church, a clutch of rusting metal implements?

I won’t interrupt again, but instead let Blunden and a few ellipses take us from today into the near future. Tread lightly, dreamy subalterns…

20120417151533

The Church in Auchonvillers

The direct road from Englebelmer over the downs is too generally exposed for a battalion relief…  we enter Mailly, and turn at the church, still neatly jacketed with straw, but with a new hole or two in it, along a leafy side road; another turn, and we are between excellent meadow grounds, which lack only a few fat sheep, an old molecatcher, and some crows. Groups of shell holes, however, restrain the fancy from useless excursions, and, sitting under some tall slender elms on a convenient bank for a few moments’ rest, we keep our ears eastwardly attentive. Crossing a light railway, we are in Auchonvillers. The large logs by the roadside speak of former French activity here; our own engineers do not make their dugouts with such timber. The mildew-ridden bomb-store also has a French style, and is full of antiquated cricket-ball grenades and others with tennis-bat handles, which we had best leave alone. Outside, on a kind of gallows, hangs a church bell, beautifully dark green, and the gift of some fantastic ancient “seigneur de Mailly” — so its fair engraved inscription boasts. Perhaps he would not be wholly indignant if he knew that it was being used (as another chalk inscription on it advises) as a gas alarm; doubtless he intended it for the good of humanity.

The heart of the village is masked with its hedges and orchards from almost all ground observation. That heart, nevertheless, still bleeds. The old homes are razed to the ground; all but one or two, which play involuntary tricks upon probability, balancing themselves like mad acrobats. One has been knocked out in such a way that its roof, almost uninjured, has dropped over its broken body like a tea-cosy. The church maintains a kind of conceptional shape and has a cliff-like beauty in the sunlight; but as at this ecclesiastical corner visitors are sometimes killed we may, in general, allow distance to lend enchantment. Up that naked road is the eye of Beaumont Hamel — turn, Amaryllis, turn — this way the tourist is charmed by ruins and fruitful branches.

Someone was telling us lately he had taken coffee in the Auchonvillers estaminets. Doubtless he could explain that roomy building with the red cross painted on it; it seems irrelevant now. Here is a walnut tree, under it a rubble heap, and on the other side of the road another rubble heap. Reserve company headquarters: but who’s to know that? The enemy apparently knows it. Here is a sandbag sentry box, with the inscription “Sam’s Abode.” The roadway close to it has a distressed look. Poor Sam. But now we come to some very respectable and sizable farm buildings, with conspicuous holes in the bottom of the walls, admitting to desired cellars, and nettles flocking rankly about the gaping windows, and even green doors hanging a little recklessly on their hinges. Odd sensation, we feel that it is good for us to be here. We look back at the church’s white and gray hulk, not three hundred yards away, and do not like that look. A mound of those trench-mortar bombs called footballs, shot out on the roadside like potatoes — more where these came from! — marks the garden of the last house block in Auchonvillers; then we walk under the lee of a damp-smelling bank of chalk, along a chalky track, pick a blackberry from the bramble which takes a fancy to our khaki, and enter that long and noted trench, Second Avenue…

…The post which had to be maintained near the church had scarcely been manned, and I had just visited the section there, when a shell broke in their cellar and killed and wounded almost all. At night, too, that company headquarters under the walnut tree was again and again treated to salvos of shells. The servants, bringing over our dinner in the dark, judging the time — a plate of soup in each hand, for instance — felt a comical but also real terror, and when we found that our dugout roof of brickbats and earth, instead of being yards thick, was scarcely more than a decent rag against publicity, we also noticed the disturbance. Nor, though great energy with spades and “air spaces” and steel girders succeeded, did I object to leaving this den for battalion headquarters alongside Second Avenue.

It was the weather when leaves begin to turn and sing a little drily in the wind; when spiders apparently spend the night in making webs on fences; and when the distances dare assume the purple as the sunset dislimns. As far as battalion headquarters, one might notice these nocturnal effects. Beyond that point, the facts and probabilities of war obscured them. One’s fine fancy was smothered with the succession of typewritten decrees, “Secret” or “Confidential” one and all, the collection of maps and diagrams with their gaudy purple and yellow and matter-of-fact symbols…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Memoir, 231.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 88.
  3. Accidental, of course, but, if nothing else, this project has me seeing the hand of Melpomene in the chronological coincidences that must accumulate when reading widely in an army that always has many men in combat, and many at rest.
  4. Undertones of War, 92-6.

The Guards Clear the Decks: Bimbo Tennant and Raymond Asquith Write Home

Today, a century back, Bimbo Tennant writes to his mother with what seems to be boyish good cheer and youthful bravado… twisted into a somewhat bloody-minded, Grenfellite enthusiasm.

12 September, 1916.

“… We were safely relieved last night and are now going back for a day or two. We have had all the kicks and none of the ha’pence in this show, as other batts. had the fun of repulsing attacks and killing hundreds, while we had to just sit and be shelled. No doubt we shall have a better chance soon. The C.O. is very envious of what he calls the ‘other chaps’ hellish good shoot.’ We are delighted to be out, and should be in comfortable quarters by midnight to-night. I have not changed my clothes yet, so shall be glad.[1]

They will have another chance soon indeed.

 

Raymond Asquith keeps up a brave front in his letters home. He does so, generally, with exaggerated complaint, wicked humor, and witty diversions. Today, with the Guards due to make a major attack–Tennant must know this too–the mask slips just a bit, and Asquith’s weariness and worries show. The letter begins, however, in an ordinary tone of conversation:

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
12 September 1916

After a long interval I have 3 letters from you today–one sweeter than another…

Thank you very much for the Ford plays which also came today. Then I have got a nice parcel of food. Lux, tinned grapes, honey etc. Diana tells me she sent some–don’t know if this lot is hers or yours. Anyhow very good.

My client in the Court Martial was an unfortunate fellow . . . He was convicted on 4 out of the 5 charges and sentenced not only to be cashiered but to serve one year’s imprisonment–most barbarous I call it. His buttons were cut off in the Orderly room yesterday and he was taken off to Rouen by the military police, poor devil. His father was killed earlier in the war and he is the 6th consecutive generation of his family to hold a commission in the Grenadiers.[2]

Your suggestion about leave to Paris may turn out to be feasible later on, but not till this push is over. A few lucky ones managed to get there last week, Sloper among them–but it is stopped for the present. I believe it is not difficult for women to go, but rather uncomfortable as I think they have to go round by Havre. It would be great fun if we could bring it off. Don’t worry, my pretty, about money and never mind if you don’t succeed in letting Bed. Sq. I have several hundred pounds worth of Exchequer bonds which I can sell at any moment for their full value if we get really short.

I liked your ironical passage about the mosquitoes. As a matter of fact I have been exceptionally lucky this season with the harvest bugs and hardly suffered at all. The flies here are what they call ‘a caution’. Nothing seems to have any effect on them.

Asquith has a great deal of a curious sort of courage–but he has now delayed now as long as he can with his thank-yous and updates. His wife Katherine has asked him to seek once more a (safe) position on the staff:

As to the staff, you must see my pretty, that this is hardly the moment for. seeking shelter. I don’t think I shall have the least difficulty in getting a job whenever I want one. Probably they will keep this place on the division open for me a reasonable time, and anyhow my general at G.H.Q. told me he would always find a billet for me if I wanted one.

It would be not altogether disagreeable to come back and do something at the War Office during the winter months. I am getting terribly tired of not being at home, and not seeing my sweetest Fawnia. But I must see out the fighting season. Tomorrow we shall move forward again, probably into the line.

Angel, I send you all my love. Remember me to Trim.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Memoir, 230.
  2. It would seem to be possible, given this information, to find out the identity of this gay officer whom Asquith defended in private word as well as, more reluctantly, by public deed. I haven't done so, nor do I know if some scholar of the war, the Guards, or Gay History, has done so. Probably?
  3. Life and Letters, 294-5.

Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves Come Down From Wales, and the Narrative Gets Dodgy; Bimbo Tennant in the Front Lines

Today, a century back, marked the end of the Welsh idyll of Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. They have been writing and reading each other’s work and rewriting (but not, alas, dating their manuscripts) and walking the hills, and Sassoon has played more than a few rounds of golf. But their joint holiday is not quite over–it merely pivoted, today. The two went to London together to see the same lung specialist–Sassoon’s lungs had been damaged by a fever, Graves’s by a German shell–and will then continue into Kent, to Weirleigh, Sassoon’s home.

This, in any event, is the dating provided by Graves’s nepotic biographer R.P. Graves, and although he is not inerrant, he seems correct on this, despite his uncle’s assertions in Good-Bye to All That, which include dating his first meeting-up with Sassoon to September 6th rather than late August.[1] In any event, today’s doctor’s appointment marked the transition from Wales to Kent, and since it is also a calm between two storms on the Somme, it’s a good point to work in, here, some of their interesting but factually unreliable stories of this month.[2]

The reason the 6th stuck in Graves’s memory is probably because it was a horrible day for the two young men, each of whom had each served with the First Battalion of the Royal Welch (Graves was with the Second when he was wounded). This memory may be misplaced or combined, but it seems unlikely to be fabricated:

Siegfried bought a copy of The Times at the book-stall. As usual, we turned to the casualty list first; and found there the names of practically every officer in the First Battalion, listed as either killed or wounded. Edmund Dadd, killed; his brother Julian, in Siegfried’s Company, wounded–shot through the throat, as we learned later, only able to talk in a whisper, and for months utterly prostrated. It had happened at Ale Alley near Ginchy, on September 3rd. A dud show, with the battalion out-flanked by a counter-attack. News like this in England was far more upsetting than in France. Still feeling  very weak, I could not help crying all the way up to Wales. Siegfried complained bitterly: ‘Well, old Stockpot got his C.B. at any rate!’ 

So far so awful. Survivors’ guilt is not a new phenomenon, but it is growing more common. Both Graves and Sassoon are at pains to explain how ill at ease they were as officers honorably at leisure in wartime England, and although Graves partially backdates his disillusionment to 1915 and Sassoon was shaken by the deaths of his brother in late 1915 and, especially, of David Thomas, in March, they both write this long period of leave as a key passage in their emotional and political progress.

Characteristically, Sassoon is gentle, and Graves knocks over all the tea trays he can get his hands on.

Also characteristically, Graves is direct and offensive, while Sassoon would prefer to wound with erasure styled as gentle reticence–but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Sassoon’s fictionalized memoir’s task is made easier by the fact that “George Sherston” is not visiting his bereaved mother but his “Aunt Evelyn.” There is an aside to the reader about “the difficulty of recapturing war-time atmosphere” and wanting to write something more personal and specific than any historian’s generalization–ironic from a man who has chosen the stylish veneer of fiction, but piles that veneer on awfully thick at times like this. So “Sherston” wanders about deserted stables–his beloved groom “Dixon” and his hunting friend “Stephen Colwood” have both been killed–and broods upon empty cricket pitches, finding everywhere time-capsule mementos of the Last Summer.

This is literarily appropriate, since we are closing the book on the “Fox-Hunting Man” before he begins to face the destructiveness of war and contemplate protest. But it also omits Graves entirely.

Sherston’s wilful idyll, undisturbed by “David Cromlech”– who is not mentioned at all during the account of these weeks in Sherston’s Memoirsis eventually interrupted by letters from his friend Joe “Dottrell”/Cottrell, the quartermaster of the First Royal Welch:

The old Batt. is having a rough time. We… lost 200 men in three days… The Batt. is attacking to-day… All the boys send their love and best wishes…

This is bad enough, but then come details of the news he would have already learned from the casualty lists:

Dear Kangaroo… Just a line to let you know what rotten bad luck we had yesterday. We attacked Ginchy with a very weak Batt. (about 300) and captured the place but were forced out of half of it… Poor Edmonds was killed… Also Perrin. Durley was badly wounded, in neck and chest… Asbestos Bill died of wounds. Fernby… not expected to live… Only two officers got back without being killed.

These are pseudonyms, but the September 1st attack on Ginchy–and its cost–was real. “George Sherston,” spared all this by an illness, can’t quite handle the news–but what choice has he?

I walked around the room, whistling and putting the pictures straight. Then the gong rang for luncheon. Aunt Evelyn drew my attention to the figs, which were the best we’d had off the old tree that autumn.[3]

 

Graves also discusses the unpleasant strangeness of being celebrated by fatuous civilians, but instead of containing himself he launches an attack on “The Little Mother,” an anonymous letter-writer who gained fame around this time. She seems to have been a creation of the propagandists, and she is pretty awful, objecting to peace-talking soldiers by whipping up a sort of sacrificial-holy-mother version of 1914’s pretty-girls-waving-white-feathers phenomenon. The claim–made to silence any protest against the war–was that British mothers were very proud to “fill the gaps” by shooing in their sons–and any shirkers alongside–forward. Graves includes numerous blurbs of fulsome praise for this letter–perfect and complete evidence, in his eyes, of the wicked immensity of the experiential gulf, where the older generation are lemmings who push younger beasts off the cliff while keeping their own gazes piously elevated–and moves on…

Which brings us to a bit of a bump in the road. Graves cites the praise for “The Little Mother” as an example of what he was “up against” a century back, but he follows with another rather more personal illustration of the impossibility of soldiers’ mothers…  Let’s just say that his handling of his visit to Kent is difficult to discuss without spoilers. But I will do my best to write clearly without violating the letter of the law.

Even if “Sherston” is alone with “Aunt Evelyn,” Graves and Sassoon did journey to Kent together, this week, a century back. And Graves writes about the behavior not of the fictional Aunt Evelyn but the real mistress of the house, Sassoon’s mother. Which will not make Sassoon happy–never mind that a man who entirely eliminates his mother from his lightly-fictionalized “Memoirs” doesn’t have a perfect claim to the moral high ground.

Graves’s posture of reticence about embarrassing a good friend is tissue-thin. He talks about early September with Sassoon, and directly after this next quotation he is again talking about what he and Sassoon did together. Gosh! Who could this Kentish friend be I wonder?

Towards the end of September, I stayed in Kent with a recently wounded First Battalion friend. An elder brother had been killed in the Dardanelles, and their mother kept the bedroom exactly as he had left it, with the sheets aired, the linen always freshly laundered, flowers and cigarettes by the bedside. She went around  with a vague, bright religious look on her face. The first night I spent there, my friend and I sat up talking about the war until past twelve o’clock. His mother had gone to bed early, after urging us not to get too tired. The talk had excited me, and though I managed to fall asleep an hour later, I was continually awakened by sudden rapping noises, which I tried to disregard but which grew louder and louder. They seemed to come from everywhere. Soon sleep left me and I lay in a cold sweat. At nearly three o’clock, I heard a diabolic yell and a succession of laughing, sobbing shrieks that sent me flying to the door. In the passage I collided with the  mother who, to my surprise, was fully dressed. ‘It’s nothing,’ she said. ‘One of the maids had hysterics. I’m so sorry you have been disturbed.’ So I went back to bed, but could not sleep again, though the noises had stopped. In the morning I told my friend: ‘I’m leaving this place. It’s worse than France.’ There were thousands of  mothers like her, getting in touch with their dead sons by various spiritualistic means. 

This is cruel, and neither is it fair or entirely truthful–Graves will also write a letter praising the peacefulness of Weirleigh several days after arriving. Otherwise, sadly, it falls into the category of probably-essentially-true tales altered by Graves for dramatic effect. Theresa Sassoon is one of many bereaved parents who have begun to indulge in spiritualism.

Sassoon will write about his mother during this period, eventually, in his own autobiographical voice:

I could get no relief by discussing the war with my mother, whose way of looking at it differed from mine. For her, the British were St. George and the Germans were the Dragon; beyond that she had no more to say about it. The war had caused her so much suffering that she was incapable of thinking flexibly on the subject.

Sassoon–who defies me by using the “barrier” metaphor rather than the “gulf,” will note that their mutual understanding is also thwarted by the fact that he doesn’t know “what it feels like to be an elderly civilian in a great war.”[4] But this is wisdom yet to be realized, a century back.

 

Bimbo Tennant moved up past Rowland Feilding yesterday, taking the place of his exhausted Connaught Rangers. Tennant survived the trip and seems, naturally, to be enjoying himself so far. Not every man of the 4th Grenadier Guards was as lucky:

Sept. 11th, 1916.

“… Up to now I am safe and well; but we have had a fairly uncomfortable time, though we have been lucky on the whole. Poor Thompson (in my Company) was killed yesterday. I shall miss him so, he was such a charming fellow. We have been heavily shelled everywhere of the line.

We had very good luck getting up here, having hardly any casualties in the whole Battalion. I was flying up and down the batt. with messages to different people from the Commanding Officer all the time, it was quite a busy time for me; but since then, apart from helping to write messages, and being generally useful and cheerful, it’s been less strenuous. I keep my ‘Oxford Book of English Verse‘ with me.[5]

This is no passing reference, really: the Oxford Book of English Verse is, among our poetically-inclined subalterns, second-best to a bible–or even quietly preferred to it.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. And despite Jean Moorcroft Wilson's rather sensible abdication--"the dates simply do not tally" (Siegfried Sassoon, 294). They don't, but I'm not sure why anything more nefarious is going on with Graves than either a confusion of dates or a conflation of the memory of crying on a train with another day on which Sassoon read the casualty list. Today is a plausible day for reading of the Royal Welch at Ginchy (see below), but otherwise Moorcroft's complaint stands: "Sassoon's autobiography is clearly not factually reliable," and neither is Graves's. Worse, from my shallowly date-obsessed point of view, Sassoon is not writing many letters or keeping up his diary, so there is no way to securely date several important things. Alas: in late August I had no place to discuss he and Graves planning to co-publish like Coleridge and Wordsworth, and none of the biographers can quite find a date for Sassoon's September introduction to life at Lady Ottoline Morrell's Garsington Manor...
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic, 162.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 376-7.
  4. Siegfried's Journey, 27.
  5. Memoir, 229.

Tom Kettle, Rowland Feilding, and the Irish Division Move Up for the Attack; Raymond Asquith, Bimbo Tennant, and the Guards are Not Far Behind

The assault on Ginchy has hitherto failed. But it will continue. The Guards Division have been warned to move, and they have practiced attacking their objectives under cover of a rolling barrage. Other units, however, will be in for it first.

Today it was the Irish Division–already badly bloodied in the taking of Guillemont a few days before, that moved once more into the front lines. A New Army Division largely made up of Irishmen, the 16th Division had formed in 1915, and this late phase of the Somme was the first great test both of their fighting ability and their loyalty, in troubled times, to Britain.

With the division were Tom Kettle, lieutenant in the 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and Rowland Feilding, the new commanding officer of the 6th Connaught Rangers. We’ll begin with Feilding’s account of today’s action, but I want to leave room now for a large image of a map. This one is up-to-date, with the German trenches corrected up to the observations of September 3rd. It not only gives us a view of the places to be assaulted but also a clear representation of the progress of the battle: Mametz Wood, the paramount hell of mid-July, falls on the western border of this map; Ginchy, today’s target, is near the center right of the excerpt.

ginchy, 9-3-16

 

 

 

 

But it’s easy, these days, to zoom in and snap just the right area (thanks to McMaster University).

Picking the map excerpt is the strategic equivalent of “emplotting” a narrative by choosing particular aspects on which to focus. But time is really subjective; distance, less so, and the map scales do not lie. Each of those larger numbered boxes is one thousand yards across–Ginchy is two months of fighting away from Mametz Wood, but less than four miles. In between are the little forests of the Bazentin ridge and its southern slopes–Trones Wood and Delville Wood, each called “hell” in their turn–and, just left of the upper edge of the excerpt, a red ribbon shows a German trench still running through High Wood. The British are within sight of the fabled German Third Line, but the approaches are still not clear. Some of these places were objectives for the first day of the battle, July 1st. Even if they are taken now, the Germans have had more than two months to strengthen that third line and build newer defenses further back. It’s not a good situation.

 

Now to Feilding’s letter to his wife. It begins with a grim tour of the battlefields show on the map above.

September 8, 1916. In Trenches, facing Ginchy.

At 5.50 last evening I paraded my 250 Irishmen, who, before moving off, were addressed by the Senior Chaplain of the Division. Then, kneeling down in the ranks, all received General Absolution:—after which we started to move forward, timing our arrival at Bernafay Wood for 8.20, when it would be dark.

At Bernafay Wood we were met by a guide, who led us through Trones Wood—that evil place of which doubtless you have formed your own conception from the newspaper descriptions of the past two months. Thence, to what once was Guillemont.

All former bombardments are eclipsed by the scene here. Last year, in the villages that had been most heavily bombarded, a few shattered houses still stood, as a rule: last month, occasionally, a wall survived. But to-day, at Guillemont, it is almost literally true to say that not a brick or stone remains intact. Indeed, not a brick or stone is to be seen, except it has been churned up by a bursting shell. Not a tree stands. Not a square foot of surface has escaped mutilation. There is nothing but the mud and the gaping shell-holes;—a chaotic wilderness of shell-holes, rim  overlapping rim; and, in the bottom of many, the bodies of the dead. Having reached this melancholy spot, we left the cover of a battered trench which we had followed since leaving Trones Wood, and took to the open.

The guide was leading. I came next, and was followed by the rest of the party in single file. The moon shone brightly, and, as the enemy kept sending up flares from his trenches at intervals of a minute or less, our surroundings were constantly illuminated, and the meandering line of steel helmets flickered, rather too conspicuously, as it bobbed up and down in crossing the shell-holes.

I do not know if the Germans saw it or not. They soon started shelling, but as the ground we were passing over is commonly being shelled, there was nothing peculiar in that. We plodded on.

The guide soon began to show signs of uncertainty. I asked him if he had lost his bearings—a not uncommon thing on these occasions. He admitted that he had. I crawled past the body of a dead German soldier into the doorway of a shattered dug-out, and with an electric torch studied the map.

As we started off again the shelling increased, and once I was hit by a small splinter on the chest, which stung. The men began to bunch in the shell-holes. They are brave enough, but they are untrained; and 91 of my 200 fighting men were from a new draft, which had only just joined the battalion.

I shall not forget the hours which followed. Remember, I had only the slightest acquaintance with the officers, and as for the rank and file I did not know them at all;—nor they me.

The shells were now dropping very close. One fell into a group of my men, killing seven and wounding about the same number. My guide was hit and dropped a yard or two in front of me. I told him to lie there, and I would have a stretcher sent for him: but he pulled himself together, saying, “ It’s all right, sir,” and struggled on.

About 10.30 p.m. we reached our destination—only to find the rear Company detached and missing, as well as the medical officer and my servant. However, they turned up just before daybreak, having spent the night wandering among the shell-holes.

At the position of assembly, which was at the junction between the Guillemont-Combles road (known officially as Mount Street) and the sunken road leading to Ginchy, we found things in a state, of considerable confusion. The battalion we had come to relieve had apparently thought it unnecessary to await our arrival, and as, consequently, there was no one to allot the few shallow trenches that were available, a sort of general scramble was going on, each officer being naturally anxious to get his own men under cover, before the daylight of the morning should reveal them to the enemy.

Luckily, the enemy was now quiet, and before it was light enough to see, the troops were disposed more or less in their “jumping off” positions, where they were to wait some forty hours or more for “Zero”—the moment of attack.

During the night a wounded Saxon crept into the trench close by me and I sent him to the rear.[1]

Feilding’s main concern here is to record, as simply as possible, what has happened to him–for his wife’s benefit and for his own. But he can’t avoid some commentary, and more-than-faint damning by implication. He has come from an elite, intact Division to one that is being thrown back in for its second action in days. Things, again, are not good.

Or is it the entire army that is breaking down? These small scale forward assaults against extremely predictable targets are murderous. Where is the tactical innovation? (Well, there is the creeping barrage, and something new is this way clanking.)

Worse, what has happened to command and control? What sort of brigade sends up a half-reconstituted battalion with a new O.C., a single guide, and no assurance that the battalion they are relieving will stay put? Feilding could note, too (but he wouldn’t–he is both reasonably trusting in the good offices of his fellow men and averse to complaining) that he–a temporary officer and a Catholic–has been ejected from the Guards to take command of an Irish battalion that is being used as cannon fodder. He might be right, too–being the odd Catholic officer on hand when an Irish battalion commander is killed surely has more to do with his promotion than any connections or merit. But we would be at least mostly wrong to suggest a nefarious use of the Irish Division. It seems awful that battered battalions are thrown back into an attack with so little respite, but many are, this late summer. And the Guards are only being held back, now, in order to be thrown in at what the generals hope will be a more decisive moment.

This is the Somme from bad to worse, declining from tragedy toward the sickening farce of a slasher film.

 

Tom Kettle’s 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers were moving across the same map tonight, a century back. Before leaving the reserve lines Kettle wrote home. Kettle aspires to write–among many things–the history of his regiment. But now there is no time for anything other than provisional farewells. The first of these potential “last letters” was to his wife:

The long-expected is now close to hand. I was at Mass and Communion this morning at 6 o.c., the camp is broken up, and the column is about to move. It is no longer indiscreet to say that we are to take part in one of the biggest attacks of the war. Many will not come back.

Should that be God’s design for me you will not receive this letter until afterwards. I want to thank you for the love and kindness you spent and all but wasted on me. There was never in all the world a dearer woman or a more perfect wife and adorable mother. My heart cries for you and Betty whom I may never see again…

God bless and keep you! If the last sacrifice is ordained think that in the end I wiped out all the old stains. Tell Betty her daddy was a soldier and died as one.

Kettle struck a different note in letters to a friend and to his brother. There are few better descriptions of a soldier’s mind on the eve of battle–the dread and the keen anticipation, the beatific calm and the desperate anxiety, the sense of a barrier falling behind that these last letters must just slip beneath, and a swelling of fellow-feeling for the men who will share the coming cautery. And affirmation of faith and a wry uncanny reach for pagan mysticism…

I passed through, as everybody of sense does, a sharp agony of separation… Now it is almost over and I feel calm. I hope to come back.. If I live I mean to spend the rest of my life working for perpetual peace. I have seen war and faced modern artillery, and know what an outrage it is against simple men…

We are moving up to-night into the battle of the Somme… I have had two chances of leaving [his battalion]–one on sick leave and one to take a staff job. I have chosen to stay with my comrades… I am calm and happy, but desperately anxious to live…

The big guns are coughing and smacking their shells, which sound for all the world like over-head express trains, at anything from 10 to 100 per minute on this sector; the men are grubbing and an odd one is writing home. Somewhere the Choosers of the Slain are touching, as in our Norse story they used to touch, with invisible wands those who are to die. . . .[2]

 

Under orders, but not yet ducking under the wands of the Valkyries, is the Guards Division. With any luck they will be the ones to punch through the German third line and open up a gap…

3rd Grenadier Guards
B.E.F.
8 September 1916

. . . We move either tomorrow or the day after. Probably tomorrow. We are only allowed 50 lbs. of kit, which is a bore. It would be awful to arrive in Berlin looking a perfect scarecrow. The noise of the bombardment makes me feel quite sick. I am so sorry for the wretched Hun .,. .[3]

That, of course, was Raymond Asquith to his wife Katherine. Bimbo Tennant, ironically, is still reassuring his mother that a recent illness was not serious. And then–this is unwisdom rather than irony–he gives her an epistolary tour of the ruins of the battle he is about to enter.

8th September, 1916.

. . . I received your wire last night, but as I have been feeling perfectly well for several days, I took no action about it. You must not be anxious like this… It is unfortunately impossible to be given sick leave out here; I promise you that, now, I am absolutely all right…

I rose at 5.40 and went up to last night’s place with [his battalion C.O.], only we went much further. It was awfully interesting, and I would not have missed it, though it is horribly grisly in places. The wastage of material all the way is something terrific. I saw a lot of machine-gun magazines lying about, still wrapped up in brown paper, as they came from the makers. We got back to breakfast, and I have seized about four hours’ sleep through the day since.

There are big guns all round us as I write, but none near enough to be unpleasant, as they were at Vermelles last year. We have nothing to do here, and it is quite fine, though wind-swept. I now hear that we shall probably take over the most newly won line to-morrow night, which will probably not be a very quiet locality. However, I trust implicitly in God, and am in very high spirits…

Now I must stop. My eternal love to you; I think of you every moment, and love you more than I can say. I hope there may be leave when we go into a quieter part of the line. . . .[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 112-14.
  2. A Deep Cry, 136-7; Housman, War Letters, 168.
  3. Life and Letters, 294.
  4. Memoir, 226-8.

Ford Madox Hueffer Imagines Peace, with “No Shrapnel and No Huns/And No Nuns or Four-point-ones;” Rowland Feilding Hits the Ground Running; Two Asquiths at the Crossroads; Bim Tennant Prepares for Action

Ford Madox Hueffer. is still scribbling gallantly through the barrage, today. Evidently up early, he has another classically dawn-themed poem for us today… Or not, actually. As soon as we pass the title we find not a hymn but a chilling, charming nursery rhyme:

Albade

The little girls are singing, “Rin! Ron! Rin!”
The matin bell is ringing “Din! Don! Din!”
Thirty little girls, while it rains and shrapnel skirls
By the playground where the chapel bells are ringing.

The stout old nuns are walking,
Dance, little girls, beneath the din!
The four-point-ones are talking,
Form up, little girls, the school is in!
Seven stout old nuns and fourteen naval guns
All around the playground go on talking.

And, my darling, you are getting out of bed
Where the seven angels watched around your head,
With no shrapnel and no Huns
And no nuns or four-point-ones. . .

Getting up to catch the train,
Coming back to tea again
When the Angelus is sounding to the plain
And the statue shells are coming from the plain
And the little girls have trotted home again
In the rain . . .

Darling, darling, say one funny prayer again
For your true love who is waking in the rain.

The Salient, 7/9/16

 

This rhyme is one of the best surprises this project has recently provided. How very charming! Hueffer really is very good. He can do more or less anything, it seems, except those genres requiring modesty. Is he thinking of Violet Hunt, his would-be wife, with this rhyme, when all his letters of this vintage only complain of her? Or is there another? Well, presumably shortly after drafting the poem, he turned to another task at hand. He is to provide a preface for Hunt’s latest novel, Their Lives. Naturally, Hueffer, having worked out the lyric impulse with his Albade, now subsumes his own persona and place in order to better support Hunt’s work:

I took the proofs of this books up the hill to read. From there I could see the gas shells bursting on Poperinghe; it was a very great view…[1]

And while I was looking at that great view, perceiving the little white mushrooms of our own shells suddenly existing in the dark line under [Wytschaete]–miles and miles away–and then turning down my eyes and reading… it occurred to me that violet Hunt’s characters… were Prussians. Their cold materialism, their absence of any shading, their direct methods of wanting a thing… these are characteristic of… l’Ennemi.

Is this the most openhanded way to pseudo-blurb one’s pseudo-wife’s book? “But I was just making a comparison….” Hmm. Hueffer continues, less as a loyal Janeite than as a blunderous Great White Male attempting gallantry toward lady novelists:

This attempt to apply the method of Jane Austen… gives to Their Lives the character of a work of history. It is history–and it makes it plain. For that horrible family of this author’s recording explains to me why today, millions of us, as it were, on a raft of far-reaching land, are enduring torture it is not fit that human beings should endure, in order that–outside that raft–other eloquent human beings should proclaim that they will go on fighting to the last drop of our blood.

I have never accused Hueffer/Ford of simple self-centeredness–this is complex self-absorption, dating back to his childhood influences and manifold anxieties:

This may sound a little obscure: but if the somnolescent reader will awaken to the fact that selfishness does create misery he may make a further effort of the imagination and , and see that the selfishness of the Eighties–of the Victorian and Albert era–is the direct Ancestor of… Armageddon. Those fathers, and particularly those mothers, ate the vines of Carlyle, Ruskin, and Self-help Smiles; our mouths are filled –are burned–by minenwerfer.

Yes, that is a bit obscure. Somehow we’re reviewing a novel of manners (apparently) and have gotten to a sentence that combines Ruskin, high priest of 19th century British aesthetics, and the feared German trench mortar. Together at last!

But this is very Fordian. He has roped in his celebrated past (and his extreme Englishness, always an odd facet his character, considering his German roots, fluency in French and German, and otherwise extreme Continental-ness) and his precious present. Ford now borrows more directly from the experiences recounted yesterday, a borrowing which reminds us of a through-theme in all of these different writings of yesterday and today: they are all very different, but they are all firmly situated on his side–the Somme side–of the experiential gulf. As a writer of light verse, or letters, or literature, or a preface to a novel, he is writing always as a soldier. I have been there–I am “there” now–and you, reader, are not.

Most of the great books of the world are unpleasant books. And whilst I write, the Boches are shelling out of existence the rather ugly little church close at hand. ‘C… r … r… ump!’ go the 4.[2] shells into the mediocre but sacred edifice… Then, in the silence after the shell has burst, whilst you are saying ‘Thank God!’ because it has not hit you, you hear the thin, sifting sounds of the stained glass dropping down the aisles. There is no reason why the Boche should object to our having a church in our village. They are just destroying it… Truly, Our Lord and Saviour Christ dies every day–as he does on every page of this book, and in every second of this 7-9-16.[2]

That task accomplished in inimitable fashion, Hueffer continues his string of letters to Conrad. I hazarded yesterday that he is using Conrad as a sort of writer’s notebook, in much the same way that other writers have written sequentially to their family and counted it as a diary. Today this sense deepens, as Hueffer/Ford turns to the question of memory, memoir, and the urge to record.

Attd. 9/Wclch
19th Div, B. E. F.
7/9/16

Dear Conrad,

I wrote these rather hurried notes yesterday because we were being shelled to hell and I did not expect to get thro’ the night.

I wonder if it is just vanity that in these cataclysmic moments makes one desire to record. I hope it is, rather, the annalist’s wish to help the historian—or, in a humble sort of way, my desire to help you, cher maitre!—if you ever wanted to do anything in “this line.”

Bully for my intuition of yesterday, then, but this is something better: Hueffer, who after all knows a great deal about a great deal and has written a series of historical fictions (how perfect for a man we are investigating, as it were, for dramatizing the facts of his own experience), is very much aware both that date-marked impressions (“the annalist’s” work) are already “creative” rather than perfectly factual and that they are the raw stuff from which a historian constructs narratives further removed from immediate experience.

Or, to return to a modest mode, these “annals” of a war might help a novelist with the little details of his trade. And, again, remind him of what his friend has experienced and he has not.

Of course you wd. not ever want to do anything in this line,—but a pocketful of coins of a foreign country may sometimes come in handy. You might want to put a phrase into the mouth of someone in Bangkok who had been, say, to Bécourt
There you wd. be! And I, to that extent, shd. once more have collaborated.

Next, another perfect observation. We may try–nobly!–to produce a Great War “battle piece.” But that’s overwhelming–only a meandering, intense, fractured four-volume novel could really capture this war… It’s a matter for the accretion of daily detail.

This is a rather more accidenté [uneven; perhaps something like “messed up”] portion of the world: things in every sense “stick out” more in the September sunlight. The Big Push was too overwhelming for one to notice details; it was like an immense wave full of debris…

It is curious—but, in the evenings here, I always feel myself happier than I have ever felt in my life.—Indeed, except for worries, I am really very happy—but I don’t get on with my superior officers here & that means that they can worry me a good deal in details… However, these things, except in moments of irritation, are quite superficial…[3]

 

So Ford. He will not be able to maintain this level of productivity, which is good, as our attentions are needed elsewhere. Back on the Somme, the Guards Division is beginning to move, and we have several officers to keep tabs on. First, Rowland Feilding, even though he has moved away from the Guards, as expected. I’ll let his rapid-fire letters to his wife tell the story of the beginning of his first command:

September 6, 1916. Morlancourt.

There was Brigade Battle training to-day, and on my return to billets I found my orders. I am to assume temporary command of the 6th Connaught Rangers, belonging to the 47th Brigade, 16th (South Irish) Division, who, I find, are not far from here, at Carnoy…  I am to join it this afternoon. I will write again to-morrow, if I get the chance, and tell you how things are going.

 

September 7, 1916. Carnoy.

I reported to my new Brigadier (47th Brigade) last evening. He is General George Pereira, Grenadier Guards… I had tea and dinner with him, and found that he knows many of the family well. He has told me to put up a Major’s crowns. I am of course on probation, and I have not an easy task before me; therefore, I shall require all your prayers. What would I not give for the opportunity of a few words with you! I have hated having to make this great change without consulting you, and even without your knowledge.

My new battalion is one of the two which captured Guillemont four days ago:—as hard a nut to crack as there has been in this battle, so far. It was the battalion’s first attack, so it has not done badly; though the casualties have been heavy, both the Colonel and Second in Command having been killed.

I think we shall very soon be going out for a long rest, which I understand is overdue.

 

September 7, 1916 (Evening). Carnoy.

My new battalion, or rather the remnant of it, was bivouacking when I joined it, on a slope alongside the ruins of Carnoy, amid a plague of flies, reduced (apart from officers) to 365 other ranks, and very tired after the capture of Guillemont, in which it had taken a prominent and successful part, though the toll had been so heavy.

Since General John Ponsonby had first suggested the possibility of my being appointed to the command of a New Army battalion, I had hoped that I should perhaps be allowed a week or two with the officers and men, to get to know something of them before taking them into action: and certainly, in ordinary times, one would not expect a battalion straight out of one exhausting attack, and so punished as was this one, to be ordered back, without rest, into another. Yet such is the case.

To-day, within twenty-four hours of assuming command, I am to move up in front of Ginchy, preparatory to attacking that village the day after to-morrow…[4]

There’s not much to add, really. Feilding didn’t have a chance to consult with his wife, but at least he could reassure her that he would be safer in a new command. Now he is replacing a colonel who has been killed, and leading exhausted men back into battle…

 

But it wouldn’t be much safer with the Guards Division. Raymond Asquith gives us some detail on the purpose of the Guards field day that Feilding, understandably, glossed over. But then his story, like most of his stories, takes a quick twist:

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
7 September 1916

Our 5 minutes notice to move has been cancelled again, as one guessed it would be, and we are continuing our strenuous training. Yesterday we had a Brigade Field Day under John Ponsonby illustrating all the newest and most elaborate methods of capturing German trenches with the minimum of casualties. It involved getting up at 5 a.m. but in other respects was funny enough. The “creeping barrage” i.e. the curtain of shell fire which moves on about 50 yards in front of the advancing infantry, was represented by drummers. The spectacle of the whole four battalions moving in lines across the cornfields at a funeral pace headed by a line of rolling drums, produced the effect of some absurd religious ceremony conducted by a tribe of Maoris rather than a brigade of Guards in the attack. After it had gone on for an hour or two I was called up by the Brigadier and thought at first that I must have committed some ghastly military blunder (I was commanding the Company in Sloper’s absence) but was relieved to find that it was only a telegram from the corps saying “Lieut. Asquith will meet his father at cross roads K.6d at 10:45 a.m.”

fricourt crossroads

The fateful crossroads. Or not–it’s a bit too far from the front line to make sense, but it’s the right map reference, I think…

So I vaulted into the saddle and bumped off to Fricourt where I arrived exactly at the appointed time. I waited for an hour on a very muddy road congested with troops and lorries and surrounded by barking guns. Then 2 handsome motors from G.H.Q. arrived, the P.M. in one of them with 2 staff officers, and in the other Bongie, Hankey,[5] and one or two of those moth-eaten nondescripts who hang about the corridors of Downing Street in the twilight region between the civil and domestic service.

We went to see some of the captured German dug-outs and just as we were arriving at our first objective the Boches began putting over a few 4.2 shells from their field howitzer. The P.M. was not discomposed by this, but the G.H.Q. chauffeur to whom I had handed over my horse to hold, flung the reins into the air and himself flat on his belly in the mud. It was funny enough.

The shells fell about 200 yards behind us I should think. Luckily the dug-out we were approaching was one of the best and deepest I have ever seen–as safe as the bottom of the sea, wood-lined, 3 storeys and electric light, and perfect ventilation. We were shown round by several generals who kept us there for 1/2 an hour or so to let the shelling die down, and then the P.M. drove off to luncheon with the G.O.C. 4th Army and I rode back to my billets.

In the morning I went to an improvised exhibition of the Somme films–really quite excellent. If you haven’t seen them in London I advise you to take the earliest opportunity. They don’t give you much idea of a bombardment, but casual scenes in and on the way to the trenches are well-chosen and amazingly like what happens.

This morning we did some battalion training. It is certainly much easier and pleasanter commanding a Company than a platoon. You tell your subordinates what to do and then canter about the country damning them for not doing it.

Tonight we do some operations in the dark and tomorrow another brigade field day. The books and food you speak of have not yet arrived, but I have received 3 cakes of “Violette’ soap which smells very good.

The weather has become lovely again—bright sun with a touch of autumnal crispness in the air . . .[6]

 

Finally, Bimbo Tennant writes home with slightly forced good cheer. That is, his good cheer always seems to come from the heart, but here it trips up among the competing needs to inform, to be quick about it, and to reassure.

Sept. 7th, 1916.

… We are expecting to leave this place to-day and go off somewhere to make a road; but we have just got the message to ‘ stand-by,’ that is, wait in readiness, so whether we go or not, we don’t know. The news is universally good, the Brigadier said two days ago the 5th September was the most successful day of the war, so everyone is very bucked at the outlook. If there is an attack the C.O. has ordered me to be at Battalion Head-quarters, helping him and the Adjutant. This can lessen your anxiety considerably, darling Moth’; we are just going to march off after all, so good-bye–from Devoted Son[7]

This is good news, but headquarters units remain vulnerable to counter-barrages during an attack and often suffer casualties when trying to move forward to restore order or press the attack. In other words, this is hardly unalloyed reassurance, with an attack in the offing.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Can we count this as another Lucretian moment of Epicurean contentment? Probably not.
  2. War Prose, 189-90.
  3. Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 75-6.
  4. War Letters to a Wife, 110-12.
  5. Maurice Hankey, elder brother of Donald Hankey.
  6. Life and Letters, 293-4.
  7. Memoir, 226.