Adlestrop Arrives; Kate Luard Quotes a Critique: “It Seems a Pity;” Battle Pieces and Counter-Bombardments: Two Ways to Observe a Battle, with Guy Chapman; Herbert Read Arrives; Duff and Diana Read the Source

None of Edward Thomas‘s poems appeared under his own name while he lived. Today, a century back, The New Statesman published what will become his best known and most widely loved poem, Adlestrop.

He would have been less interested, I think, in such fame than in the praise he has won from friends, above all the words which were just sent by Frost for the comfort of his widow.

But there are other traditional assessments of death and its qualities, hardly less conditional in their predication of judgments to the mind of the deceased: some might say something like “at least we can say that Edward Thomas had a quick and painless death.” I distrust cliches on such unfathomable topics, but perhaps we can inch toward comprehending such a sentiment as we read accounts which describe the sufferings of those who die slowly.)

 

Which brings us to Kate Luard, who continues to take stock of the pain of the Battle of Arras. Her celebration of courage never wavers, but I questioned recently whether that very celebration–absent any sense that the war’s cost might be protested by the men bearing the worst of it–isn’t more problematic than it might seem. Sister Luard is not about to turn protestor, but she seems almost to have heard the question, posed a century on, and opened up her record of the war to one short, stoic query of all this suffering. If she won’t ask the question, she will let one of her patients–to whom she has accidentally been cruelly (by her own lights) honest–speak freely. (And, indeed, what could someone already devoting all her time and energy to nursing the wounded of both sides do, but write?)

There’s a handsome Scot with one leg off who asked me last night to take his socks off. I took one off. ‘Have you taken the other off, too?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I said guiltily; ‘they’re both off now.’ Next day Sister told me he knew his leg was off, but he didn’t. To-night he said, ‘My feet are hot.’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘especially the one you haven’t got, I suppose?’ (It always is the one they feel most.) ‘Have I got but one?’ he said. I was covered with confusion. ‘Ah, well, I can see by what ye say I’ve got but one, but it’s no matter. I feel a pain in them whiles, but I can smile between the pains. I’ve got two daughters and a wee son I’ve never seen. I know what I’ll do when I do see them. Don’t I know!’ (And I’m afraid he’s in for gas gangrene and may not see them.) Then he looked round the ward at all the stumps and splints and heads and said, ‘Seems a pity nearly everyone has to get like this before Peace is declared.'[1]

 

From Sister Luard, then, to the Royal Welch, where the semi-official chronicle of Dr. Dunn also draws a very thin, sharp line between the truth of war and the lies that spring up like mushrooms in the mud.

The account of our recent action which G.H.Q. has received and published makes very interesting reading. “Our troops charged down the ridge,” “driving the enemy down at a canter”: of aught else–nothing. What artistry!

…Rumour is never so busy as during a fight. Following the fight comes the legend, and it grows hourly as individuals, often far away, and units gather to themselves credit and garlands, or have these thrust upon them for the credit of someone else. It’s all so human and amusing.[2]

Amusing, perhaps, but only to those on one side of the experiential gulf. G.H.Q. may be in France, but it is far from the troops, and the truth.

 

Guy Chapman‘s A Passionate Prodigality is one of the best books written about the war, and both its subject and its execution fit this project up and down. Except for the alight problem that Chapman, another literary young officer, never gives dates. But today, shortly after Chapman is sent down from the staff to find his battalion (the 13th Royal Fusiliers), I get a rare chance to match his memoir to a historically recognizable action. We won’t really be able to track his development, so this is s snippet to recommend a worthy book to enterprising readers–and to advance today’s accidental discussion of truth in battlefield historiography.

The attack was to be launched at streak of dawn, 4.25; and at that moment a wild racket was once more loosed into the void. Once more the curtain of darkness was changed to a whirling screen in which flaming clusters, red, orange and gold, dropped and died; and dun smoke, illuminated by explosions, drifted away greyish white. Once more red and green rockets called frantically for aid. Once more eyes stared into the impenetrable cataract, vainly trying to pick out familiar outlines. The enemy’s barrage joined the din. Black columns of smoke stormed up in the foreground. And through it all came wave on wave of the malicious chitter of machine guns.

But Chapman isn’t in the attack; he is watching from a hill–at least at the start. He is no Epicurean, and does not find the spectacle a soothing one. His account of watching the attack from a distance harmonizes marvelously with the Royal Welch complaint about “battle piece” obfuscations.

The story of this attack will no doubt appear in the military history of the war, elucidated by diagrams. To the watchers on the hill-side it was only a confused medley, in which English and Germans appeared most disconcertingly going to and fro, oblivious of each other. Even later it was only possible to glean that one brigade had lost direction, and coming up behind the flank of the other after the position had been taken, had swept on, carrying away with it the better part of two companies of the 13th; that some reached Square Wood, a mile past the objective, and that perhaps a dozen in all returned. This is part of history, but all we were able to see were some of the ingredients.

Chapman is no doubt right about how the battle will look in large-scale histories, but, ironically, his later “gleaning” seems to derive from either the official regimental history or a common source among regimental papers:

On April 28th began that series of attacks which aimed principally, if not wholly, at assisting the French. The 13th Battalion attacked from the trenches about 300 yards east of the Gavrelle-Roeux road. Their objective was the Whip cross-roads, south-east of Gavrelle. The attack began at 4.25 a.m…  At 10.15 a.m… Nos. 3 and 4, held the road, including the cross-roads, for some 250 yards. The success was complete though the Fusiliers had been constantly harassed by fire from snipers and machine guns…

While the Fusiliers were on their objective a body of the 63rd Brigade swept across their front leading towards Square Wood from the south-west. They had lost direction, but they succeeded in carrying a body of Fusiliers with them until they were recalled. The 10th Battalion, in support of the 13th on their right flank, had made persistent attempts to get into touch with this brigade, but without success.[3]

Just one more brief bit of Chapman. He sees the German counter-attack massing and tries to help, rushing to alert the gunner-observers on the hill with him. But they know their business, and Chapman is once more forced to be the more passive sort of observer, and a very different sort of ancient Roman exemplar from the smooth-browed Epicurean philosopher:

I caught in my glass a grey ant crawling over the edge of the railway cutting, followed by another, and then more…

When I looked again, the assembled ants had moved. They came crawling over the top of Greenland Hill in three lines, about six hundred strong. They were just starting down the forward slope when something flashed in front of them. A column of bright terra-cotta smoke was flung upwards so high, that there shot into my memory the pictures of the djinns in an old copy of the Arabian Nights, and I half expected a leering hook-nosed face to look down from its summit…

More Germans join the counter-attack.

All the field guns were firing now. In what seemed a few minutes this formation too was scattered. Small groups tried to escape by flinging away to the flank. ‘One-o degrees more right, up fifty,’ shouted my neighbour.  A little puff of white smoke danced gallantly in the air. A few tiny figures shrank to dots. ‘Got ’em,’ he shouted; ‘Repeat.’ other officers up and down the trench were excitedly calling similar orders. In ten minutes the counter-attack was broken, smashed, and tossed in the air like a handful of dust: and up here everyone was whooping, laughing, and holloing. We were a Roman audience at the Coliseum, bull-fighting fans at a fiesta, good citizens who brown a pack of grouse tearing down the October wind: we were in fact a group of young Englishmen who had just helped to knock out about a thousand Boche, and we were damned glad about it.

His counter-attacks broken, the enemy spent the day shelling what he could get at. One shuddered to think of flesh cringing beneath the huge shells which fell again and again along the battered line. Darkness came gently in. I turned as I crossed the skyline. Solitary shells were singing through the air. Dull crunches announced their arrival in the distance. A dump was burning in Plouvain, and against its lights, black ghosts towered upwards.[4]

 

Another young officer and powerful writer will shortly become a bit easier to keep tabs on. Herbert Read has returned to the fight, and joins our recent company of subalterns quite pleased with their new company.:

28.iv.17

I arrived at my battalion last night, after wandering over the face of France for three days…

I am in the thick of the new fighting. We are not in the trenches, but expect to go up sooner or later. But it is intensely interesting: no fear of getting bored here. The guns are going all day and night. this morning, very early, we were wakened by a furious strafe. You know what ordinary thunder is like: imagine that continuous for a couple of hours and yourself not listening to it, but inside the heart of it: that’s something like it. And then the air is one continuous quiver of gun-flashes…

I like my new battalion very well on first impressions: there are three other officers in my company, and they are all very decent fellows… I expect I shall be quite happy. We are all optimists out here. We’ve got the Boche absolutely cowed, and our men are splendid. There are big events pending–and if they go as we expect the war will be over in no time. With a bit of ordinary luck I’ll see you sometime these summer holidays.[5]

 

And back in London, Duff Cooper continues to pursue Diana Manning, only to be continually driven to distraction by the interference of “Scatters.” Three days ago, Duff “went home in a black rage not only of jealousy and anger but also of sorrow that she should sink to such depths as Scatters.” Two days ago she called to apologize, and he accused her of “deteriorating” and confided in his diary that “I loved her less.”

Today, a century back, Duff and Diana made up–almost successfully. They had dinner and “a great quantity of champagne,” Afterwards, to get her back to his place, Duff

bribed her with the promise that she should read my diary. She came and I read her all the last month. I was drunk and had forgotten, when I started, the incident of reading hers, I had to go through with it. She took it well and assured me that she didn’t mind. I regretted bitterly having done it.[6]

Whether in France or in London we have strange optimism, questionable tactics, nonsensical strategy, and valor in the face of self-inflicted adversity…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 119.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 340-1.
  3. O'Neill, The Royal Fusiliers in the Great War.
  4. A Passionate Prodigality, 163-6.
  5. The Contrary Experience, 90-1.
  6. The Duff Cooper Diaries, 52-3.

Robert Frost on Edward Thomas: It Was Beautiful as He Did It; Vera Brittain Recommits; Kate Luard on Kindness and Courage

Vera Brittain‘s recent thoughts about her future–and about Victor Richardson–are not yet settled. It occurred to her almost immediately that she might come home in order to turn her service into a more personal form of sacrifice–but she is not yet ready to give up her service with the V.A.D. In a letter of today, a century back, to her brother Edward she reacts to new details of Victor’s wounding, but we also learn that she has recommitted to her nursing job.

Malta, 27 April 1917

…I am so longing to hear more details about Victor, whether he is soon likely to be out of danger & whether his eyesight can be saved. Some member of the family sent me a cable after yours to say ‘Head wound improving. Recommended Military Cross.’ It would be so splendid if he could get the latter — some small compensation for all that he has lost. He will indeed have bridged that gulf between you which made him so miserable; do you remember that evening when we all dined at the Coventry Restaurant & he would hardly speak because he felt the difference between you so acutely. I always thought he would rise to the occasion in the end; when nervous & sensitive people can once make up their minds to a thing they usually do it supremely well; the fear is only beforehand. I feel a little  sad, perhaps, to think that Roland, the bravest of the brave, alone of you three has no decoration, & lies beneath His Cross instead of wearing it. But He would have been the last to grudge them to you, & after all His courage
needed no guarantees.

… None of you have mentioned at all anything about [Victor’s] reason being affected, so I am hoping it is not, though unfortunately it is a characteristic of so many head wounds, though sometimes only temporally…

I do wish I could see & talk to him, but am afraid it is not likely yet (though in this world of vicissitudes anything may happen) as I have just signed on again to-day. Now that I have served so long I feel very unwilling to break my service even for a little time, as continuous service in these days, when so many people who started nursing got bored & left it off, is an honourable & in many ways an advantageous thing, & of course even the least little interval breaks it, spoiling one’s record & cancelling the past. This doesn’t necessarily mean that one can’t come to England for a little time without breaking it. There may be ways & means in the future of managing that…[1]

To these reasons–honor, service, and the possibility of losing her accumulated seniority–she will add that she suspects that exciting things will be happening in the Mediterranean…

 

I did promise that I would return to Kate Luard‘s diary in part to let her respond, as it were, to my complaints that unstinting praise of stoic suffering is in some way loosely aligned with the censorship of wartime dissent.

This is a little oblique, but more or less on point: suffering can also stimulate a humanity that ignores the very lines that define the war.

…In one ward there’s hardly a man with two legs; and when one Boche made a noise when he was being dressed, there was a chorus of encouragement from the British beds: ‘Hold on, Fritz, soon be done–be all right in a minute,’ regardless of any difficulty in language!

Or perhaps this scene is more fraught than it seems: would these men have no qualms about going out and doing to each other what they have already done, the same violence that landed them together in this hospital?

Next, Luard writes about the particularly “glorious boy” who is paralyzed. There seems to be some confusion or uncertainty about what X-rays might accomplish. It is painful to think that after being kept in the dark about his condition (as Victor Richardson has been), however briefly,  the paralyzed young officer is being offered false hope of recovery:

…The 6 ft. boy wounded in the spine with total paralysis below the chest was safely taken to the train this evening. When I told him he was going down to be X-rayed, he said, ‘That’ll be better than lying on my back all my life,’ and his eyes filled with tears. All these days he has never said one word of complaint or self-pity, though he knew his probable fate from the second day.

And finally, a pen portrait we might wish a little longer:

An Orderly who has been running the Marquee of 50 stretcher-cases without a Sister, has gone sick with trench fever. He leads one of the most Christlike lives I’ve ever seen; there is no other word for his selfless devotion, though he is comic beyond words in speech and appearance![2]

 

Finally, today, a few excerpts from Robert Frost’s letter to Helen Thomas.

Amherst Mass
April 27 1917

Dear Helen:

…People have been praised for self-possession in danger. I have heard Edward doubt if he was as brave as the bravest. But who was ever so completely himself right up to the verge of destruction, so sure of his thought, so sure of his word? He was the bravest and best and dearest man you and I have ever known…

I want to see him to tell him something. I want to tell him, what I think he liked to hear from me, that he was a poet…

It was beautiful as he did it, And I don’t suppose there is anything for us to do to show our admiration but to love him forever.

Robert[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 343-5.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 118-9.
  3. Elected Friends, 189-90.

Edmund Blunden and Edwin Vaughan Are Among Friends; Siegfried Sassoon is Blighty Bound; Richard Aldington Remembers Edward Thomas; Geoffrey Thurlow Bids Edward and Vera Brittain a Provisional Farewell

We haven’t been keeping up with Edwin Vaughan, and things have changed. First, his battalion has been withdrawn from the line and gone into billets in Péronne. Second, he has at long last found fellowship in his battalion–he dined yesterday in a “ripping” mess and discovered that his fellow D Company officers–including three new replacements–were in fact “excellent fellows.” So we’ll begin with him, as a bit of unexpected light comedy before the more dire notices to come.

Today, a century back, the new band of brothers of D Company “sallied forth in a body after breakfast” and went promenading. Exploring Péronne, they wended their way to the citadel–once again a fortress, its moat converted to a rifle range–and, in exploring one of its attics found, incredibly, “an ancient arquebus,” daring the eldest of their company to carry it out as his sidearm for the next parade…[1]

 

Edmund Blunden, in ominously peaceful Ypres, is on precisely the same wavelength as Vaughan. Today, a century back, an officer named Tice, a schoolfellow of his friend Vidler, joined the battalion, filling out a group of five fast friends:

Vidler now had a fresh audience for his school recollections and mimicry; he almost gave his orders in the nasal tones of our famous writing master, and filled the desert air with imitations which a starling would have been proud of Amon and Collyer, his old schoolfellows, bore the burden, Tice with his sweet mournfulness listened and gave suggestions and approval, while I made up the party of five and the colloquy of Sussex at peace with all my heart.[2]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, meanwhile, is about to be parted from his own new band of brothers. Today he was sent home from France, transferred to the Fourth London Hospital, a clear indication that his wound, while not dangerous, will take a considerable time to completely heal.

 

Arras has been quiet for some days now, but, further to the south and east, the main French thrust of the Nivelle Offensive has been launched. Olaf Stapledon‘s ambulance unit is there.

SSA 13
20 April 1917

Agnes,

We have had the first dose. Twenty-four hours at the front & 24 hrs. working behind. Most of us worked 36 hrs. on end, or more. We had very good luck–only two fellows wounded & neither bad, and one car reduced to scrap iron. I drove sometimes the Sunbeam, sometimes an ambulance, & sometimes I filled up shell holes in the road, & sometimes I helped to drag dead horses off the road, but mostly I just helped to load ambulances…[3]

 

But Arras is only temporarily quiet. The units slated to take place in the new assault that will open the second phase of the battle are now preparing to march for the front. Geoffrey Thurlow, concerned to get his letters posted before leaving billets, added a quick post-script to his recent letter to Edward Brittain, quoting Tennyson and otherwise expressing a very great wish very simply:

Later 20th

We moved [back] a bit last night & are now down in deep dugouts for a day & a bit & then we move again and in haste to get this posted…

‘Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer than this world knows of’

Hoping to see you sometime in the future.

Thine.

Gryt

 

But even as he himself faced battle, Geoffrey Thurlow learned about Victor Richardson–a man he knows primarily as the other close friend of his close friends. But he took time to write to Vera Brittain, and to open his heart to her once again. As with so many of our young soldiers, he will need to write himself into intimacy over the course of the letter. Beginning with the horrible immediacy of another’s severe wound, he takes a winding tour through a numinous landscape before arriving at a place where he can speak to his own private feelings:

France, 20 April 1917

I have had a note from Edward today to say that Victor Richardson is at Rouen and badly wounded. Awfully sorry & I can only hope he will soon get over it and that by time you get this you will have had better news of him. It was a very brief note from Edward and yet terribly concise.

After tea tonight wanting to be alone–we came back last night for a day or two & then we go up for a stunt–I walked out along a high embankment and everything was fresh and cool quite in contrast to the heated atmosphere of our dugout. As I looked westward I saw just below me in front of the embankment the battered outline of Hun trenches with 2 long straggling communication trenches winding away into some shell torn trees: the setting sun reflected in the water at the bottom of many crump holes making them look masses of gold. Over this derelict plain a thin line of men going back to billets in a large town, which stood outlined against a pale yellow sky with dark purple clouds low down in the sky: over to the right tall trees astride a river also looking gold in the last rays of the sun and beyond the river more ruined houses from which occasionally flashed a large gun.

Well! It was all quite beautiful & I wish Edward could have been with me if it were any other place than this…

This is easier to say to Vera, I think, than Edward–not that she understands the full measure of Geoffrey’s longing for Edward. Thurlow will also need more up-to-date poetic armor than the gleaming hauberks of Tennyson–of the five now-canonical sonnets available to him, he will choose to quote from “Safety“:

Everything seems very vague but none the less certain here & I only hope I don’t fail at the critical moment as truly I am a horrible coward: wish I could do well especially for the School’s sake.

I think you would love Chigwell–everything is so peaceful there. Often have we watched the many splendours of the Sunset from the School field. But all this will be boring you.

‘War knows no power safe shall be my going
Safe tho’ all safety’s lost, safe where men fall
And if these poor limbs die, safest of all’

Rupert Brooke is great and his faith also great. If Destiny is willing I will write later

In haste

G .R .Y .T .

And in Malta, where she can only learn more news of Victor by telegram, and where she cannot receive Geoffrey’s beautiful letter until weeks after the battle, Vera is feeling the twin frustrations of distance and ignorance. She writes to her mother:

Malta, 20 April 1917

There really does not seem much point in writing anything until I hear further news of Victor, for I cannot think of anything else . . . I knew he was destined for some great action, even as I knew beforehand about Edward, for only about a week ago I had a most pathetic letter from him–a virtual farewell. It is dreadful to be so far away & all among strangers…[4]

 

Finally today, it’s been some time since we’ve had a chatty letter from Richard Aldington to F.S. Flint, and it will be a while until the next one, as the correspondence will lag. I include this one not so much for Aldington’s experience (or his wit) but because it’s an early chance to see the ripples of Edward Thomas‘s death spreading far beyond the initial plunge into grief.

20/4/17

My brave [My dear fellow],

…You will be glad to know I’ve had several very close shaves in the past fortnight & missed one particularly dirty do by a fortunate accident.

I collected some souvenirs for you but chucked them away on account of the weight, but I have in my pocket a
button cut from a Boche uniform which I’ll present you with one day, d.v…

I hope you escape, in your capacity of an ailing functionary, from this new half million; I don’t think you’d find it very amusing here. It lacks repose and distinction…  But honestly I think that a week in the trenches teaches a man more than six months in England.

I see poor Edward Thomas is dead in the last shove–he must have caught a long-digger, as he was in the R.G.A.,
who, as a rule, are miles back of the line. I’m sorry for him, he was a pleasing and melancholy individual I remember to have seen at literary teas–odd to think of him out here…

Au revoir, dear boy; there’s a beastly battery firing right in my left ear!

Cheer-O.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 97-99.
  2. Undertones of War, 159-60. See the Battalion History for the date.
  3. Talking Across the World, 220.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 336-8.
  5. Imagist Dialogues, 204-5.

Ethel Hermon Gets the Telegram; The Best of Servants Writes in Sorrow; Eleanor Farjeon and Helen Thomas Come Together in Grief; Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon on the Eve of the Attack

Today is a pause in the fighting–for us, anyway–as the push at Arras resumes, but without any of our writers on the front lines.

But it’s a bad day at home in England, another day of shock and grief.

Edward “Robert” Hermon

Today, a century back, it was Ethel Hermon’s turn to see the post boy’s bicycle. The War Office telegram, at right, begins “Deeply regret to inform you…”

Her husband’s commanding officer’s letter will reach her soon, providing context and detail, if little consolation. Eventually there will be relics,  a posthumous decoration (the DSO), and other letters of praise that may for a brief moment lighten the load of grief.

From what little we know of Ethel Hermon–there is only that one letter, which she wrote, in ignorance of his death, yesterday, to show her reciprocal affection, and to stand ironically for all the time she spent praying for his safety–I can’t imagine much solace coming from any source, except perhaps one.

Gordon Buxton had worked for the family for several years before the war, as Robert Hermon’s manservant. Buxton–known as “Buckin”–had volunteered when his “master’s” Yeomanry unit was called up at the beginning of the war. Buckin stayed with Hermon when he transferred to the infantry, serving all the while as his soldier-servant, or “batman.” Buckin’s family live on the Hermon’s estate, and he has been the only man close to Robert that Ethel herself knows well.

Yesterday, Buckin wrote to his former mistress. It’s a very long letter, as Bucking struggles to express how he feels and repeatedly hopes that he can come and condole with Mrs. Hermon in person:

My dear Madam, it is impossible for me to express in my letter my deepest and heartfelt sympathy for you in your terrible loss. I have prayed to God to comfort you. I have thought of you night & day since I found the poor dear Colonel, oh dear it is too awful. I feel broken-hearted and I don’t know how to write this letter…

Gordon Buxton–“Buckin”

We buried the dear Colonel in the military cemetery in the village close to the trenches yesterday afternoon at 3 o’clock… We had a nice little service & after everybody had gone I lingered by the grave of my dear master & friend…

I never thought I should lose him but it is you & the dear children that I am thinking of all day & night. He died a brave soldier’s death. I have got the gold disc & chain which the Colonel wore round his neck. I hope I didn’t do wrong in taking it off but I thought you would like it…

Well dear Madam I am afraid I haven’t explained things very well but I feel lost, I shall never be happy until I have been home to see you…

I will now await your orders.

Please accept my very deepest sympathy in your great sorrow. I do hope they will grant me leave.

I am your obedient servant,

Buxton

Parsing the British class system is always difficult, especially for a yank a century on, and while I want to say that this is not a good time to point to the stresses in the system that sort of evasion seems akin to the cant of politicians who refuse to talk about their awful policies in the days of grief that follow the events that show how destructive those policies are.

An awkward analogy: this is not a question of destruction or of outright awfulness. Gordon Buxton, by all accounts, seems to be a man who has found a satisfactory place in an unjust system, and it would be odd, just now, to mount a protest against the class system and the privileges of officers.[1] Which in this case extends to him, and which is why I interrupted to point out the language of his letter: he will get leave, not on his own schedule but as a sort of compassionate leave for his “master”‘s wife’s benefit. It’s not striking that a man who was in service in the Hermon household would appeal for orders to his dead master’s wife–what’s striking is that the officers of the brigade who are charged with seeing to Hermon’s burial and effects also take it as a matter of a course. Private Buxton may be a soldier in the B.E.F., but he is being seconded for special duty to a widow in Sussex.

Today, a century back, in any event, Buxton wrote a letter to his own wife. It may be that she took it to Mrs. Hermon, for it ended up in the same archive. It is long and heartfelt and not only gives Buckin more voice but provides perhaps the most affecting description of the moments after Hermon’s death.

My darling sweet Marie

You have heard the sad news by now, poor Mrs Hermon whatever will she do… I wanted to go ‘over the top’ with him but he wouldn’t let me…

But he hadn’t gone long before I was over the top myself & I hadn’t gone far before I met one of our men who told me the Colonel had been killed. I looked around for a long time before I found him, he was then quite dead, oh my darling I did not know what to do, it upset me so. I feel I have lost a good Master & Friend…

I am all right but very sick at heart. Goodbye my sweetheart.

With my fondest love & kisses to everybody,

Ever your loving Freddie.[2]

 

And that’s as close as we can come to the people who loved Edward Hermon, and their loss. With Edward Thomas, we are more fortunate–a strange way of putting that we have more terribly painful things to read. The most moving part of Helen Thomas’s own writing about Edward came in the section of her book that described his parting(s) in December and January, and the miraculous Christmas in between. I chopped those sections up, trying to leave a sense of how they read while obscuring what pervades the chapter–the retrospective knowledge that he will not come back. If they didn’t read well then, perhaps another try now…

But today Helen Thomas is still awash in almost mute grief, and it is up to Eleanor Farjeon–who so strangely and fairly and beautifully loved Edward Thomas with a hopeless passion, but loved his wife and children too, and was loved by them in return–to write of their pain. Helen had come to London to spend a night with her sister, and was going back now to the family’s home in High Beech. By telegram, Eleanor arranged to meet her at the Liverpool Street Station ticket barrier.

I was waiting for her there when she arrived, not with the laughing face and hurrying steps with which she always ran a little to a meeting. She was very pale, said ‘Eleanor’ in a faint voice as we passed through, and found a corner seat in a carriage. She sat in it, and I by her, between her pale face and the incoming travellers. We held each other’s hands. Suddenly in a great burst came her sobs and tears. ‘Don’t let me cry, don’t let me cry,’ she sobbed. I put my arms round her and held her while she wept, and nobody looked. Presently she whispered, ‘I asked you to come because I thought I could comfort you—oh Eleanor, you’ll have to comfort me.’

I stayed in High Beech, for the next two weeks. I slept with her. Grief like hers was shattering thousands of homes all over the world, but I had never before been identified with such grief. My own seemed to be obliterated in it. I took responsibility, as best I could, for the house and children; the meals and shopping, and whatever has to be thought of in a home. After a fortnight Irene, Helen’s elder sister came, and I went back to Fellows Road.[3]

 

And tomorrow the war will continue. Two of our poets are still pushing forward today, a century back, some 40 miles or so apart as the storm crow flies.

 

Siegfried Sassoon and the 2nd Royal Welch came up behind a brigade attack in the battle of Arras, and saw British corpses–and a tank carcass–strewn around the first defenses of the Hindenburg line. Tomorrow’s attack will find the battalion still in reserve, but ever closer to the fight.[4]

 

And Wilfred Owen, part of a brigade that is feeling forward in confused conditions near St. Quentin, is warned, together with the rest of the 2nd Manchesters, that they will attack at 4 A.M. tomorrow.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Buxton will get a second chance to use his own voice, just below, in a private letter to his own wife which contradicts nothing of the sincerity of his grief and the bonds of love that held these people together despite their rigidly unequal status. But then again that letter too ended up in the Hermon archive, and would have passed out of the battalion only after being read by another officer.
  2. For Love and Courage, 352-5.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, The Last Four Years, 261.
  4. Diaries, 154.
  5. Collected Letters, 452.

Ethel Hermon Writes to Her Laddie; The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke, XVII: Re-Read by Read; Duff Cooper and Patrick Shaw Stewart and the Huntress Hunted; Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Alf Pollard All Draw Near to Battle

We have a full complement of disparate subjects today: grief on the home front, idle high society, and a new wave of soldier-writers going forward in France.

 

We’ll begin in England, where the toll of April 9th is still being felt–except where it has yet to become known.

In 2008, Anne Nason published a book of letters written by her Grandather, Edward “Robert” Hermon, to her grandmother Ethel. Nearly 600 letters tucked away in a desk drawer had remained there for almost a century, until after the death of her mother, the Hermons’ second daughter, Mairy. For Love and Courage contains most of those letters, but the even greater number of letters that Ethel sent to Robert did not survive–letters to serving soldiers are hard to store away in desk drawers, and few made it out of the war even when their recipients survived. All of Ethel Hermon’s letters to Robert were lost except for one, written today, a century back, in ignorance of the fact that the man to whom she writes has been dead for three days.

Laddie my own,

I got a lovely letter this morning, 52, written on the 7th & doubly appreciated as you must have been feeling far more like going to bed that writing to me. You must be having a desperate, strenuous time, so laddie, do spend your spare minutes in a bit of rest & not in writing.

I know, of course, now that you must have been in the front line when the show started on Monday… All surmise is quite useless, I know, & yet one simply can’t help thinking & picturing things…

I could read so easily between the lines that you knew big & strenuous things were in front of you & I do so hope & pray you’ll come thro’ them safely laddie my own…

My best of everything to you dear, dear laddie.

Yours ever,

Ethel[1]

This letter will be returned to Ethel Hermon in the coming days, the envelope marked “Killed in Action.” When his effects reach her, they will include a card she wrote for her “laddie” this summer, enclosing a lucky clover. The double hole made by the bullet passing through is visible on either side of the center fold.

 

In London, Eleanor Farjeon waits to find out where Helen Thomas has gone, so that they can mourn together the man they both loved.

I went back home, to wait for the next news. It came in the morning, in Helen’s letter forwarded from the
Billingshurst post-office. She did not say much, only that she had had the telegram, was coming to her sister Mary’s in Chiswick, and would be returning almost at once to High Beech, and wanted me to go with her. I got in touch with Mary and was told the train Helen would take to Loughton next day.[2]

One thing her sister Mary seems to have helped Helen with is mailing some of the letters she had composed a few days earlier, informing their friends of Edward‘s death:

Post Mark: Battersea S.W. 11.15p.m. 12 April 1917

High Beech, nr. Loughton, Essex

My dear Emily & Gordon,

I wanted to be the one to tell you that Edward was killed on Easter Monday.

You will know how desolate I feel, in spite of the perfect union of our souls which death only completes. He lives on.

Helen[3]

 

 

Herbert Read is a fascinating case–a fierce intellect and by now an experienced infantry officer, but he is a young northerner in a northern regiment, and seems far from the turmoil stirring among London-based artists. But it’s hard to tell just where he is: he has been difficult to include here, too hard to pin down to particular dates. A slew of recent letters have been, essentially, philosophy-addled love letters, and I am to be praised for omitting them despite my eagerness to discuss him…

But today’s letter–also to the young woman he admires–goes a long way toward demonstrating both that he will eventually be very interesting to compare with Siegfried Sassoon and that he is not “there,” yet. It’s 1917, and Read has served in the trenches before (his first tour came to a premature end after he was injured by barbed wire, and it’s been a slow path back), and he’s a fiercely independent skeptic and cutting edge modernist… in theory. But look whom he’s quoting…

12.iv.17

Three weary days have passed, waiting rather impatiently for orders to proceed up the line. I was inoculated this morning–and now umteen million germs are disporting themselves in my blood, making me somewhat stiff–and cross.

But I really feel extraordinarily calm and happy–very different sensations from those that accompanied my former ‘coming out’. Then I felt reckless with the rest–and rather bacchanalian. Didn’t care a hang what happened. And, in a way, I don’t care a hang this time, but it’s a different way, a glad way. And it rather troubles my soul to know why? Because, as you may know, I’m not exactly a warrior by instinct–I don’t glory in fighting for fighting’s sake. Nor can I say that I’m wildly enthusiastic for ‘the Cause’. Its ideals are a bit too commercial and imperialistic for my liking. And I don’t really hate the Hun–the commonest inspiration among my comrades. I know there are a lot of nasty Huns–but what a lot of nasty Englishmen there are too. But I think my gladness may be akin to that Rupert Brooke expressed in one of his sonnets:

Now, God be thanked who has matched us with his hour,
      And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping!
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
      To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary;
      Leave the sick hearts that honor could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
      And all the little emptiness of love.

But the real surprise is still to come: Read sees himself as less disillusioned than Brooke. And it’s a fair reading–at least of the last four lines. But, in the context of the last two years’ celebration of Brooke, an odd one. Which Read may belatedly realizes, as he glosses the verses:

Though I must say I’m not yet so ‘fed up’ with the world as the sonnet implies. I haven’t yet proved ‘the little emptiness of love.’

A good point to make, since he’s writing to a girl.

The half-men I still have with me in goodly numbers. And I’ve still faith that there are hearts that can be moved by honour and ideals. But England of these last few years has been rather cold and weary, and one finds little left standing amid the wreckage of one’s hopes. So one is glad to leap into the clean sea of danger and self sacrifice.

So, then, he’s half-rejecting the fastidious and hypocritically extroverted self-loathing that informs Brooke’s casting of the 1914 world as “dirty?” And despite the fact that he can substitute two more brutal years of war for Brooke’s hatred of peacetime England, he is still eager to die for his king and country?

But don’t think that I am laying claim to a halo. I don’t want to die for king and country, If I do die, it’s for the salvation of my own soul, cleansing it of all its little egotisms by one last supreme egotistic act.

All this is rather melodramatic; and forgive me if it is morbid. It is only a mood and has more to do with inoculation than anything else…[4]

Well that’s a nice way to wiggle out at the end. He quotes Brooke, but he doesn’t want to die; he isn’t fed up with love and doesn’t hate the small men of little England enough to seek sacrifice… but nor does he like England, either, though he might die for it, except not for it but for himself in some neo-Romantic sacrificial mode. Except it’s just the germs talking.

 

Will not any member of the old Coterie stand up for the glamorous, cynical, privileged, pre-war social-aesthetic staus quo?

Well, as it happens, I have been waiting for a good opportunity to introduce here a new acquisition, namely the diaries of Duff Cooper, who is essentially the last of the men of the “Coterie” not in his grave or in uniform. I didn’t get the book initially because, well, he’s not in uniform. (Cooper has a job at the Foreign Office.) He’s not a bad writer, but he comes off, in his diary, as a bit of a rake (pretty accurate) and a bit of a dope (not entirely accurate). In retrospect, I should have consulted him on the loss of so many of his friends, especially in the Royal Naval Division and the Grenadier Guards. But today, in the midst of tracking the grief caused by the attack at Arras, he is here for painful counterpoint only. Society–like strategy–being drawn into our trench narrative largely for the purpose of dark ironic comparison.

Diana Manners is the muse of the wits of the Coterie, the Queen of the clique, the shining light, just as Raymond Asquith, probably her only equal in social skill, had been (despite his marriage to Katherine Horner) the “king” of their circle. But Asquith is dead, along with many of their friends. Katherine’s brother Edward is with the cavalry in France, and only Duff Cooper and Patrick Shaw-Stewart, back in England after his long sojourn in the East, remain as intra-Coterie suitors for the elusive Diana.

This weekend–life goes on–they are all at a house party in Scotland. Don’t worry–in a few days I will attempt an even more gruesome juxtaposition of the romantic high jinks of the idle rich and what is going on in the trenches.

April 12, 1917

We spent the morning in Diana’s room reading The Egoist.[5] It was delightful–while Patrick and I enjoyed the contemplation of Diana–but he watched both our faces all the time. He had a cryptic telegram this morning to say his orders had arrived and he will probably have to go back to London tomorrow and to France on Monday. I am so sorry. I am very fond of him. I do hope that his luck will not desert him. His death now would matter to me more than anyone’s and would be a terrible blow to our small diminishing society.

Which is to say that the leading contender can afford to be magnanimous to the man on the outside looking in… but the campaign is not won yet.[6]

 

It is once again Siegfried Sassoon‘s turn to look for a solution to his confusion in the direct and deadly challenge of battle. Well, almost his turn. Today, a century back, the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers draw within sight of the battle front.

April 12 10 p.m.

Moved to St Martin-Cojeul, a demolished village about four kilometres north-west of Croisilles, three kilometres south-east of Wancourt where the Germans counter-attacked to-day. We take over an old German third-line trench from the 17th Manchesters. Arrived about 3 o’clock in wet weather after a fine morning. The snow has gone and left bad mud. The British line is about a mile in front of us. A dead English soldier lying by the road as we came to the village, his head hideously battered. I visited the underground Dressing Station this evening, and got my hands seen to.[7] Several wounded in there—one groaning with broken leg. A few five-nines dropped in the village, which is the usual heap of bricks. Absolute desolation—and the very strong line of German wire which they left. They have cut down even the pollard willows by the river.

Writing this in a tiny dug-out, but luckily it has a stove. Just room for Kirkby and self to sit. He is asleep. Rations getting very short. Only one meal to-day, and that scrappy to a degree. Casson and I finished our last orange to-night but feeling fairly fresh (just the usual trench-mouth). A fair amount of grumbling going on all round… Quite impossible to sleep as it is bitter-cold, and nowhere to lie down.[8]

 

Lastly, today, as Sassoon leads an inexperienced platoon toward the Hundenburg line, two other officers–one battle tested, one tried only in the ordinary cauteries of trench-holding–are rejoining their old units, each of which has lately seen action.

 

Wilfred Owen missed his battalion’s last action in hospital with a concussion, but he will not miss its next. With the recovered Owen marching at the head of his platoon, the 2nd Manchesters moved back up to the line today, a century back, in support of recent gains before the Hindenburg Line on the southern end of the British sector.[9]

 

And, near Arras, Alf Pollard hopped from one train to another, rushing to bring his draft of replacements back to the Honourable Artillery Company before the rumored supporting attack could begin without him. However, he hopped too quickly, and the men he was supposed to be leading missed the train.

This is only a comic mishap: the important thing is that he is there, and cannot be accused of missing an attack, as he once missed an assault in order to visit his mother. The draft? No big deal…

“Where are they?”

“I’ve lost them,” I said innocently.

The Adjutant was horrified… I laughed. What did I care about the draft now that I was back with my beloved battalion.”

There’s no question mark in the text. The H.A.C. will go up to the line tomorrow–not for an attack, but to hold trenches, for a few days, at least…[10]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 351.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, The Last Four Years, 261.
  3. Letters of Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 283.
  4. The Contrary Experience, 89-90.
  5. Meredith's novel, not the modernist periodical!
  6. Duff Cooper Diaries, 50.
  7. Sassoon has some infected scratches; he has not been wounded.
  8. Diaries, 153.
  9. Collected Letters, 452.
  10. Fire-Eater, 202-3.

Edward Hermon’s Last Words; Edward Thomas Mourned; Olaf Stapledon and Kate Luard on the Edge of the New Slaughter

103 Inf. Bde.

Dear Mrs. Hermon,

You will know that you have the very deepest sympathy from all ranks in the brigade concerning the death of your husband. He had established himself as a very able & gallant commander in the Field & was recommended for promotion to command a Brigade.

On the morning of the 9th inst. about 5.30 a.m. an attack on a very large scale was launched on the German lines… The attack succeeded & about 6 a.m. your husband decided to move his Hd Qrs from our own trenches to one in the German line & follow up his Battn…

An enemy shrapnel bullet caught him as he was walking forward. It appears to have gone through the papers in his left top jacket pocket & killed him instantaneously. I am sending you the papers in a small parcel…

He was buried at Roclincourt as shown on attached map this afternoon about 3 p.m. I’ve seen his servant and he is looking after your husband’s kit…

This would be Gordon Buxton, known as “Buckin,” who had been Edward Hermon‘s manservant before the war and his batman throughout. He appears quite often in Hermon’s letters, although infrequently in the excerpts I chose to include here. “Buckin” will soon plant primroses around Hermon’s grave. He will survive the war and go on to raise a family in a cottage on the Hermon estate.

The brigadier’s letter continues:

I know that nothing I can say can be of any use to you…

I hope you may be given strength to bear your sorrow which I feel acutely (as I once told you) because I am responsible for his becoming an infantry C.O. I hope to write to you again later & you will of course let me know whether I can do anything for you. With deepest sympathy,

Yours very sincerely

H.E. Trevor.

The last words your husband said (as stated by his adjutant who was behind him) was ‘Go on’ to his Battalion.[1]

With the War Office swamped by casualty notifications from the attacking army, Ethel Hermon has yet to learn of her husband’s death.

 

Helen Thomas has, and although she will come to write voluminously about her last days with her husband, she will not write about her first days without him. But many people loved Edward Thomas, so, instead, their daughter Myfanwy and their friend Eleanor Farjeon will take up the thread of the lament on what I take to be today, a century back.

The day after, before arrangements were made for us to go to London to stay with Auntie Mary, I was looking at my favourite picture in a story book, an engraving which Bron had delicately coloured for me. Suddenly I ripped it out, screwed it up and flung it on the fire in a rage of tears–for what couldn’t possibly happen to us had happened. My father would never come back. Why had I only prayed for his safety crossing the stormy sea? No answer.[2]

And Farjeon:

At night in the cottage, among my ‘pretty things’, I wrote to Edward once more before I left; and when I posted my letter at Billingshurst Station I did not know that another was on its way to Gillman’s from Helen in High Beech, where she had received the news that broke her heart. I went blithely in ignorance to London, and in Fellows Road found an envelope addressed in Viola Meynell’s delicate hand. The family was sitting at the supper-table; still standing, I opened the letter.

‘My darling Eleanor, I can hardly bear this for you . . .’

I made some sort of cry as I dropped the note. Somebody said, ‘What is it?’ I said, ‘Edward’, and went upstairs to my room where I went on standing in a state beyond feeling. The door opened and my mother came to me, and stood there with her mouth trembling and her eyes full of tears. I heard myself saying to her very clearly, ‘Mother, it was never as you feared with Edward and me’. I say I heard myself, for I seemed separated from my body’s movements and words and actions. I remember her saying, ‘Nellie—– ’ pleadingly. After a little while we went back to the dining-room, and I sat down with the others. I never forgot Harry’s quiet injunction the day our Father died: ‘We’ve got to eat, you know’: at times when I’ve known I mustn’t break down.[3]

 

It’s bad form, I know, to only touch on strategy for purposes of identifying bitter ironies. But despite the initial success of the Arras attack it must be put in the context of the larger allied plan for the Spring, known as the “Nivelle Offensive” for the French general now in control. The British attack is only a prelude to this coming, largely French effort, another clumsy smaller thrust in another one of the grandiose, arrows-on-large-scale-map plans that have bedeviled the war since von Schlieffen’s demise (which was, in fact, before the war, but then again that is the point). The stalemate will not be broken this Spring, and, just as the total human misery of Verdun far exceeded that of the Somme (but such sums are meaningless, in literature, too huge to weigh in balance and difficult to translate) the Aisne campaign will be a bigger disaster than the Arras offensive.

Olaf Stapledon of the Friends Ambulance Unit, attached to the French Army, is our only writer on the spot. They have been newly stationed in a village just outside Rheims. He writes, as always, to his fianceé, Agnes, in Australia.

Olaf Stapledon in 1917, in front of the Sunbeam ambulance

SSA 13
11 April 1917

…I am in a deserted château that is an aid post. Our people on duty there have stood us coffee and now I am squatting down to write a line on a piece of paper on my knee. This place was once a great private house with marble pillars and a huge conservatory. Now the whole thing has gone to decay though it has not been strafed at all. There is a pretty big bombardment going on and the whole place is shaking and clattering with the shock of very many guns…

We are living a funny sort of life at present, so ordinary in all outward appearance and yet it is one long excitement. In our village all is peaceful but–No, I had better not prattle, because of the censor…

You ask for photos. We are not allowed to send them, so whenever I get hold of any I send them by anyone who is going home on leave…. A snap of me standing in front of my car reading a letter from Dot is now on the way to you probably.[4]

 

 

And what does he have to look forward to? A little bit of what Kate Luard experienced today:

Wednesday, April 11th. Post just going. We began admitting, evacuating, operating at 1 a.m.

I could tell you for hours, stories of the men and the officers, brave, funny, tragic, ghastly, especially the first and the last, but they’ll be lost, because this kind of life allows only work and sleep… The moribund Ward is (fortunately) indescribable; about 25 have died there to-day…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 357-8.
  2. Under Storm's Wing, 301.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, The Last Four Years, 260-1.
  4. Talking Across the World, 219-220.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 112.

Arras and After: Horrors All Day and All Night, and the Ripples of the Death of Edward Thomas

Easter Tuesday, April 10th. The 3rd Army went over the top yesterday and a wire came through by mid-day that we’d taken Vimy and 4,000 prisoners… The Cavalry are after them, and the Tanks leading the Infantry, and all is splendid, but here are horrors all day and all night.[1]

I didn’t have the heart to write about the actual battle of Arras, yesterday, but Kate Luard‘s assessment will do very well.

In tactical terms the battle was much more successful than previous efforts: the Canadians surged forward at Vimy Ridge, and massive concentrated artillery fire, carefully coordinated with the infantry, did a better job not just of killing the German defenders but of destroying barbed-wire obstacles ahead of the attacking infantry. So miles have been gained. But it will all amount to relatively little, once the dust settles: an advance, but, with the deep German defensive lines so well organized, nothing close to a breakthrough. Tens of thousands of Germans will die over the next few weeks, but so will a roughly equal number of British troops, and beyond the wasted battlefield there are still more trenches, studded with concrete pillboxes. Nor have the Germans been effectively “distracted” from defending against the next, horribly costly French offensive on the Aisne, soon to begin.

But here are horrors enough, anyway.

First, there is more death. Arthur James “Hamish” Mann turned twenty-one on the 5th; on the 6th he wrote The Great Dead; yesterday, leading his platoon, he was wounded in the assault; and today, a century back, he died as a result of his wounds.[2]

Victor Richardson lives. His left eye is gone and the bullet is still lodged in the right side of his skull. But he is alive, and slowly making his way–unconscious, one hopes–through the maze of Advanced Dressing Stations and Field Ambulances and Casualty Clearing Stations and Base Hospitals. It will be some days before word of his wound spreads as far as his school friend, Edward Brittain.

Bob Hermon is dead and buried, but the telegram will take two days more to arrive home, a cruel coda to his hundreds of steady, loving letters.

 

Which means we focus, today, on Edward Thomas. I’m not sure what day the telegram reached the house at High Beech–each of the sources I’ve consulted avoids the question, which suggests that it is not easily solved. It may have been tomorrow.

But it may have been today, a century back, that Helen Thomas learned her husband was dead.[3]

I wrote yesterday that Edward Thomas was killed instantly and with an eerie lack of visible violence: the sudden vacuum caused by the shell passing so close to his body stopped his heart, killing him without leaving a mark, without even breaking his pipe. We have learned to distrust stories of painless death–especially of a painless death as described by surviving comrades writing to the dead man’s loved ones. We can never approach the truth too closely, and certainly when the writing mind we know is gone and we must rely on new witnesses.

But in Thomas’s case there is a relic–his diary.

The National Library of Wales

Before they buried Edward Thomas, they removed his effects, notably the “war diary” he carried in his tunic pocket, and the papers tucked into it. These came home to Helen, and it was discovered that the pages had been creased by the pressure wave of the shell that killed him, leaving ridges like “ripples in standing water.”[4] These are just visible in the photograph at right. So the violent disturbance in the air that killed Edward Thomas left no mark on his body, but it did leave a mark on his words.

I am uncomfortable with this–not the object as historical point of reference, as a physical fact that can confirm a subjective account–but with the object as relic. It’s misleading. It’s a sentimental smoke screen, an irresistible metaphor, to see the blast wave over his handwriting and imagine it affecting its meaning.

But the blast wave couldn’t touch his words. I don’t mean that his words are immortal (they are, as far as that goes) but something like the opposite: they are fixed, because he is dead. This is or will be true of any writer, of any words, but if we allow ourselves special pleading for Edward Thomas it only makes the reality more painful: much of what we see on the rippled surface is not testimony or evidence or finished work or communications which served their purpose during his life–they are notes for future poems which, now that that blast has passed through them, will not be written.

The last pages of the diary include a few stray, undated lines:

The light of the new moon and every star

And no more singing for the bird…

I never understood quite what was meant by God…

Neuville in early morning … the beauty of this silent empty scene of no inhabitants and hid troops, but don’t know why I could have cried and didn’t.

Tucked into the diary was a photograph of Helen, an army pass, and a scrap of paper with a few addresses on one side and three lines of verse on the other:

Where any turn may lead to Heaven

Or any corner may hide Hell

Roads shining like river up hill after rain.[5]

 

So those are the last words: now comes intense grief, futile condolence, and memorial.

Myfanwy Thomas–Baba, the youngest of the three Thomas children–was six years old in 1917.

…on that bright April day after Easter, when mother was sewing and I was awkwardly filling in the pricked dots on a postcard with coloured wool, embroidering a wild duck to send to France, I saw the telegraph boy lean his red bicycle against the fence. Mother stood reading the message with a face of stone. ‘No answer’ came like a croak, and the boy rode away. Mother fetched our coats and we went shivering out into the sunny April afternoon. I clutched her hand, half-running to keep up with her quick firm step, glancing continually up at the graven face that did not turn to meet my look.

There were no children in the playground as we hurried to the post office, no calls which I could not have borne–for
although I knew the shouts of ‘Four Eyes’ were aimed at me, Mother also wore spectacles. I waited, with dry mouth and chilled heart, outside the post office, while wires were sent off to Mother’s sisters, to Granny and to Eleanor.[6]

 

Eleanor Farjeon is away from home, and will not receive that telegram until tomorrow. But she preserved not only the letter that was being written today, a century back, by Edward’s C.O.,–to Helen, of course–but also her own inaccurate memory of a tale (or accurate memory of an inaccurate tale) told to her soon after in a chance meeting.

Here, first, is the letter which Captain Lushington wrote to Helen today, a century back.

April 10th, 1917.

Dear Mrs. Thomas,

You will have heard by now from Mr. Thorburn of the death in action of your husband. I asked him to write immediately we knew about it yesterday, but delayed writing myself until the funeral, from which I have just returned.

I cannot express to you adequately in words how deep our sympathy is for you and your children in your great loss. These things go too deep for mere words. We, officers and men, all mourn our own loss. Your husband was very greatly loved in this battery, and his going has been a personal loss to each of us. He was rather older than most of the officers and we all looked up to him as the kind of father of our happy family.

He was always the same, quietly cheerful, and ready to do any job that was going with the same steadfast unassuming spirit. The day before his death we were rather heavily shelled and he had a very narrow shave. But he went about his work quite quietly and ordinarily as if nothing was happening. I wish I could convey to you the picture of him, a picture we had all learnt to love, of the old clay pipe, gum boots, oilskin coat, and steel helmet.

With regard to his actual death you have probably heard the details. It should be of some comfort to you to know that he died at a moment of victory from a direct hit by a shell, which must have killed him outright without giving him a chance to realise anything,—a gallant death for a very true and gallant gentleman.

We buried him in a little military cemetery a few hundred yards from the battery: the exact spot will be notified to you by the parson.

As we stood by his grave the sun came and the guns round seemed to stop firing for a short time. This typified to me what stood out most in your husband’s character—the spirit of quiet, sunny, unassuming cheerfulness…

Yours very sincerely,
Franklin Lushington
(Major Comdg. 244 Siege Battery, R.G.A.)

There is no reason to distrust this account–though it is almost painful to read how little the outward Edward Thomas, as eulogized by his commander, accords with the painfully introspective writer, determined not to succumb once again to depression, that we read. It’s a letter of condolence and praise–but at least it hints that Thomas was successful in keeping his demons under control, in being a good officer, in presenting a usefully cheerful disposition to the men with whom he shared his last months.

But if we were to mistrust it, then the existence of this alternate version, told to Farjeon in the coming weeks by a sergeant on leave whom she chanced to meet, raises familiar questions:

‘At the end of the day when the battle was over we had the Huns on the run, and the plain was full of our men shouting and singing and dancing. We thought we had won the war! Mr. Thomas came up from the dug-out behind his gun and leaned in the opening filling his clay pipe. One of the Huns turned as he was running and shot a stray shot, and Mr. Thomas fell. It was all over in an instant. I went out to the men and called, “Men, we’ve lost out best officer.” The cry went up—“Not Mr. Thomas?” and there was no more shouting that day…’

This was the story as nearly as I remember it in the Sergeant’s own words. But my memory had misled me about the stray shot, it was a stray shell. When Helen came to know Edward’s Captain, Franklin Lushington, he told her that as Edward stood by his dugout lighting his pipe all the Germans had retreated, but a last shell they sent over passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart. ‘He told me,’ Helen writes, ‘there was no wound and his beloved body was not injured.

This was borne out by the fact that when the contents of his pockets were returned to me—a bundle of letters, a note-book and the Shakespeare Sonnets I had given him, they were all strangely creased as though subject to some terrible pressure, most strange to see. There was no wound or disfigurement at all. He just died standing there in the early morning after the battle.’ Captain Lushington told Helen that Edward could have had a job ‘back and safe, but he chose the dangerous front observation post.’

Farjeon, struggling to end her book about her friend, harks back to a letter Thomas wrote in December, just after he volunteered for immediate service in France:

We have beautiful clear weather and for a few days (at any rate) I can enjoy this flat shingle and the long rows of low huts &c enormously. Lydd itself a few 100 yds away is beautiful—an old group round a very tall church tower and a line of elm trees, the only tall things in all the marsh at all near to us. I find though that nobody else likes it as much.

Farjeon continued:

The news of his going went round among our friends. ‘He won’t come back you know,’ said Arnold Bax. It was what many of us felt.

Those who never knew him, in whose thoughts Edward may live as a man who died, unfulfilled, too soon, I would ask to read again attentively the last paragraph of the letter which came to us as the forerunner of his death. It is not a startling paragraph, and has none of the special beauties which he turned into poems when he stopped writing prose; but it expresses the daily bread of his life while he lived…

Edward lived thirty-nine years. In all of them he kept his senses fresh, and liked what he saw. He saw more than  anybody I ever knew, and he saw it day and night. The seasons and the weather never failed him. It made him wonderful to I walk with, and to talk with, and not to talk with. And when he was alone—as I think he loved best to be, except when Robert Frost increased what he saw and smelt and heard and felt and tasted—he walked with himself, with his eyes and his ears and his nostrils, and his long legs, and his big hands, in shape so strong, in touch so sensitive… he liked what he saw. And knew that nobody else liked it as much as he did.

 

It’s been almost three years since I began this odd project, and more than two since I began to read Edward Thomas seriously. All this time one of the strange regular disciplines of the project–never “revealing” anything that took place in the century after the “current” century-back date–helped to emotionally enmesh me in the lives of the writers. But none more than Thomas, and lately there has been a steadily increasing dread as, in footnote after footnote, I elided the full title of Eleanor Farjeon’s loving collection of letters and recollections, compiled and commented on long after the war.[7] Who was I fooling? What was I hoping to avoid? Now the ellipses only seem to have indicated the path of the shell, an inch away from the man…

Anyway. The footnote for the above paragraphs should read: “Eleanor Farjeon. Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years, 231-2.”

 

 

Now two last words on Edward Thomas–first, a contemporary writer, then back to Eleanor, even though she has yet to learn of her beloved friend’s death.

Thomas features in Robert Macfarlane’s strange and often fascinating The Old Ways, a mix of travel book, essay collection, and memoir, with a chapter given over to a… creative… imagining of his last days. It closes thus:

What was Thomas seeing as he wrote those last verses in his Arras notebook? The old ways of the South Country, or the shell-swept support roads that wound to the front? Both, perhaps, folded together, the one kind of path having led its way to the other.[8]

 

Easter Monday

(In Memoriam E .T.)

In the last letter that I had from France
You thanked me for the silver Easter egg
Which I had hidden in the box of apples
You liked to munch beyond all other fruit.
You found the egg the Monday before Easter,
And said, ‘I will praise Easter Monday now–
It was such a lovely morning.’ Then you spoke
Of the coming battle and said, ‘This is the eve.
Good-bye. And may I have a letter soon.’

That Easter Monday was a day for praise.
It was such a lovely morning. In our garden
We sowed our earliest seeds, and in the orchard
The apple-bud was ripe. It was the eve.
There are three letters that you will not get.

Eleanor Farjeon[9]

No, now I’ve changed my mind–the last words today should be from Thomas himself, the last stanzas of Roads, to which the lines found on his body seem to allude:

Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance:
Whatever the road bring
To me or take from me,
They keep me company
With their pattering,
Crowding the solitude
Of the loops over the downs,
Hushing the roar of towns
and their brief multitude.[10]

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 110.
  2. Powell, A Deep Cry, 230.
  3. The artillery stayed in position as the infantry advanced, and with intact communications it's not impossible that a war office telegram could have been dispatched within thirty hours or so after an officer's death. Finding this death to be particularly upsetting--and well documented, and such a terrible loss to the many people who loved him and, yes, to English literature--I want to begin handling it today, anyway, and press on.
  4. Macfarlane, The Old Ways, 354.
  5. War Diary (Childhood), 175.
  6. Under Storm's Wing, 300-1.
  7. It was mostly a question of the finality of the title, of course, but it was also, I realize, a matter of identifying with Farjeon. She knew him (and she was a very good writer), and she loved him, but he couldn't love her back.
  8. Macfarlane, The Old Ways, 355.
  9. Harvey, ed., Elected Friends, 20.
  10. Returning to these verses reminds me that I should thank Matthew Hollis, whose Now All Roads Lead to France has been invaluable--less a resource, for Thomas is so well documented, than a first primer on how to read his life and his writing.

Arras: Edward Hermon, Victor Richardson, Edward Thomas

The 24th Northumberland Fusiliers went over the top at 5:30 a.m. Just after 6 a.m., Lt. Col. Edward “Robert” Hermon followed his men, crossing open ground still swept by distant German guns. The bullet went through the papers in his pocket, through the picture of his wife and children and the clover Ethel had given him for luck, and then through his heart. He was dead by the time “Buckin,” his servant of many years, found him.[1]

 

By then Lt. Victor Richardson of the 9th King’s Royal Rifles had already been shot through the arm. The wound was quickly bandaged and he continued to lead his platoon forward. They had reached the second German line when he was shot again. This bullet entered the left side of his face and tore across the front of his skull, coming to a stop behind and above his right eye.[2]

 

As the infantry continued their advance the British artillery slackened its fire, and Edward Thomas came out into the doorway of the Observation Post dugout to light his clay pipe. The shell passed so close to his body that the shock wave left ripples in the pages of his war diary and stopped his heart. His pipe fell, unbroken, and he was dead.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 350.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 339.

Easter Sunday 1917: The Eve of Battle; Edward Thomas: Sunshine and Wind and This is the Eve

It’s Easter Sunday, a century back, and the eve of the Battle of Arras. All along a fourteen-mile front, infantry are moving up to their assault positions, while the artillery bombardment intensifies. For the regular writers here who will be involved in the battle there is little to add–they are very busy. Gone are the days when the night before a battle was a quiet time on a moonlit field, good for making one’s peace with God or fate and for writing last letters and testaments.

We’ll open, instead, with a poet we haven’t read here before. Captain John Eugene Crombie, the son of a Scottish M.P., took a commission in the Gordon Highlanders near the beginning of the war, straight from Winchester. Badly wounded in 1915, he has only been back with his battalion since November. Today, a century back, he wrote a poem that can stand very well for the mood of the moment among the remnants of this type of soldier: the young, well-born, classically educated, poetically-minded, aesthetically conservative infantry officer. There is high hope here, and no disillusionment, but the inescapable themes–spring and its promise of rebirth; Easter, and the promise of resurrection–are included without being insisted upon. It’s not a revolutionary poem, but it’s still a poem of 1917–there’s no real hope for anything but a brief respite.

 

Easter Day 1917, The Eve of Battle

I rose and watched the eternal giant of fire
Renew his struggle with the grey monk Dawn,
Slowly supreme, though broadening streaks of blood
Besmirch the threadbare cloak, and pour his flood
Of life and strength on our yet sleeping choir,
As I went out to church on Easter morn.

Returning with the song of bids and men
Acclaiming victory of throbbing life
I saw the fairies of the morning shower
Giving to drink each waking blade and flower,
I saw the new world take Communion then–
And now ’tis night and we return to strife.[1]

 

Edward Thomas added a quick post-script to yesterday’s letter to his wife Helen. Battle is imminent, and every day’s safety that he can add to the tally she will be keeping at home will alleviate a tiny fraction of her terror.

Sunday. I slept jolly well and now it is sunshine and wind and we are in for a long day and I must post this when I can.

All and always yours Edwy

ref]Selected Letters, 165.[/ref]

But he also wrote to Eleanor Farjeon, the dear friend that he knows to be living every day in love and fear for his safety… and whom he has neglected slightly in this busy week of bombardment and “practice” barrages. Picking up the penciled letter of five days ago, he added a post-script in pen:

…Well, this is the eve, and a beautiful sunny day after a night of cold and snow. I am sorting out my things to get together just what I must have to live with over at the battery or wherever I am to be during the next 4 or 5 days. It will be safer there and also we shall be on duty all the time. The clear sunny day is giving the Hun every chance of seeing what is doing about here and he may pay us particular attention. Still I should like many such days to dry up the mud and keep our dug-out free from dripdrip. I have been strengthening it so that unless it gets something very heavy right on top it will be safe. I doubt if I can tell you much more. So goodbye. May I have a letter before long.

Yours ever
Edward Thomas.[2]

What Thomas doesn’t share with either of the women who love him is how close he came to death today, a century back. What must surely seem, to a soldier, as the powerful good luck of a near miss might play differently at home.

…I had to go over to battery at 3 for a practice barrage, skirting the danger zone, but we were twice interrupted. A 5.9 fell 2 yards from me as I stood by the f/c post. One burst down the back of the office and a piece of dust scratched my neck…[3]

 

Edward Hermon‘s 24th Northumberland Fusiliers left their billets in Arras at about the same time that Edward Thomas was nearly killed by the dud 5.9, making their way toward their assembly trenches. They will be among the leading battalions in tomorrow’s assault; zero hour is 5:30 a.m.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Powell, A Deep Cry, 240.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 265.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 175.
  4. For Love and Courage, 350.

Edward Thomas: “The Artillery is Like a Stormy Tide;” Edward Hermon is Likely to be Pretty Busy; Siegfried Sassoon Feels Elation and Absolute Confidence; A.A. Milne Debuts a Comedy

Tomorrow will be Easter, and particularly well-suited to pondering life and death, pain and sacrifice. Today, a century back, our two Edwards at Arras–though Edward Hermon goes by “Robert”–both write pre-battle, pre-bedtime letters to their wives.

My darling,

I’ve had a rather strenuous time in the line these last three days & so beyond a postcard I haven’t been able to do much for you, old dear.

We have been in for three days during which time our guns have been most particularly active. The result being that one hasn’t known a moment’s peace. The bottom of the trenches has had water & mud over it to the depth of the top of my field boots. Last night I was relieved, thank goodness, & the adjutant, the Doctor and I walked back here together getting in at 6 a.m. (My town residence.)

Three more weary, mud-bespattered officers it would have been hard to find. I just flung myself down on the bed and slept as I never slept before with guns blotting off in all directions close to me without ever hearing a sound till Buckin woke me about noon. I hadn’t had six hours’ sleep in the three days, been damned nearly killed once & was what you call pleasantly weary, but it’s a wonder how very quickly a few hours’ sleep revives one…

The guns make life quite unbearable in the house & now I’m down in a cellar where I’ve got my orderly room & a nice brazier of coke & am really quite warm & comfortable tho’ it sounds hardly so…

I go in the line again tomorrow…

My own dear lass, I must go to bed now as I must store up what energy I can, as I shall probably need it these next few days as I’m likely to be pretty busy so far as I can see. Give the dear little Chugs my love & a kiss from Dad & with all my love to you old dear, & your dear old face to love.

Ever your Robert.[1]

 

Edward Thomas managed a few lines in his diary–including one striking line that places the poet of roads and trees and rainfall more firmly in the ruin-scape than he has ever been–and then wrote once more to Helen.

Up at 6 to O.P. A cold bright day of continuous shelling… Infantry all over the place preparing Prussian Way with boards for wounded. Hardly any shells into Beaurains. Larks, partridges, hedge-sparrows, magpies by O.P. A great burst in red brick building in N.-Vitasse stood up like a birch tree or a fountain. Back at 7.30 in peace. Then at 8.30 a continuous roar of artillery.[2]

Saturday
Beaurains
April 7 or 8 1917

Dearest,

Here I am in my valise on the floor of my dugout writing before sleeping. The artillery is like a stormy tide breaking on the shores of the full moon that rides high and clear among white cirrus clouds. It has been a day of cold feet in the O.P. I had to go unexpectedly. When I posted my letter and Civil Liabilities paper in the morning I thought it would be a bad day, but we did all the shelling. Hardly anything came near the O.P. or even the village.

So he was safe–but that is not news, for the letter is written. But what does he see?

I simply watched the shells changing the landscape. The pretty village among trees that I first saw two weeks ago is now just ruins among violated stark tree trunks. But the sun shone and larks and partridges and magpies and hedgesparrows made love and the trench was being made passable for the wounded that will be harvested in a day or two. Either the Bosh is beaten or he is going to surprise us. The air was full of aeroplane flights. I saw one enemy fall on fire and one of ours tumble into the enemy’s wire. I am tired but resting.

Yesterday afternoon was more exciting. Our billet was shelled. The shell fell all round and you should have seen Horton and me dodging them. It was quite fun for me, though he was genuinely alarmed, being more experienced. None of us was injured and our house escaped. Then we went off in the car in the rain to buy things.

The near misses are coming thick and fast–and see how both men, so different in temperament and literary refinement, laugh off the shell that almost got them, emphasize their great weariness, and tread lightly on the way in which hard work and danger will come hand in hand over the next few days. But not too lightly–he does mention the ways being made for the wounded. Does this terrify Helen with its reminder of possible mutilation, or is it a welcome suggestion that he may be honorably and not too dangerously wounded, and carried home?

We shall be enormously busy now. Rubin goes off tomorrow on a course of instruction and may be a captain before long, our sergeant major has left with a commission. One officer has to be at the O.P. every day and every other night. So it will be all work now till further notice—days of ten times the ordinary work too. So goodnight and I hope you sleep no worse than I do…[3]

 

The third of our officers in France today is Siegfried Sassoon–younger, unmarried and unattached, possessed of a very different psychological makeup. Hermon and Thomas are both brave: Hermon no doubt expected to be just as stolidly brave as he was bred to be, while Thomas was perhaps mildly surprised and relieved to find that he withstood shellfire better than most.

But Sassoon is… fickle. He is certainly brave, but in a curious way he has shown a lack of ability to be the sort of brave that this war demands: enduring, under constant pressure, despite the inability to reply to the danger or to funnel nervous tension into bursts of physical activity. In the Second War they might have made him a fighter pilot or a commando, but an infantry subaltern of the Great War is more akin to a bomber pilot, tasked to fly again and again, in tight formation, through the black flak and nightmare fighters.

Sassoon has forgotten this. He is ready for action, ready to leave behind the introvert poet, the budding anti-war activist, the romantic sulker, and become ‘Mad Jack’ once again. It’s a short few days of marching from bitter moods to combat euphoria.

And yet Sassoon, though on the way up (in two senses of the phrase), still has eyes for the birds: blackbirds confirmed! And could he bring a darkling thrush to Edward Thomas at Beuarains?

April 7 7 p.m.

We are now at Saulty, a village just off the Doullens-Arras road (about twelve miles from Arras)…

I am sitting on a tree-stump, in the peaceful park of a big white chateau which one sees among the trees. The sun is looking over the tree-tops now, and birds singing a way off, and a few little deer grazing; nothing to remind me of the battle, except the enormous thudding of guns from eastward. The brown of the trees and undergrowth grows purple, and the birds sing, thrushes and blackbirds, while a few rooks flap overhead. The bombardment must be terrific. Three Army Corps are reported to be attacking between Arras and Lens. We move to our final concentration area to-morrow (Easter Sunday!)—about four miles from here.

The next paragraph is as nice a blend of insight and bemused resignation as we are likely to find. And another good reminder for we-who-would-understand-the-war: if even a self-studying diarist can’t begin to comprehend his own emotions, how are we to make sense of it all?

I don’t suppose anyone would believe me if I said I was absolutely happy and contented. Of course this is written after a good meal of coffee and eggs. But the fact remains that if I had the choice between England to-morrow and the battle, I would choose the battle without hesitation. Why on earth is one such a fool as to be pleased at the prospect? I can’t understand it. Last year I thought it was because I had never been through it before. But my feeling of quiet elation and absolute confidence now is something even stronger than last summer’s passionate longing for death and glory.

I keep such music in my brain
No din this side of death can quell.[4]

(I never wrote truer words than those.)

This battle may be nothing at all, or it may give me a fine chance. I only hope we are in the forefront of it. Sitting in support and getting shelled is no fun at all. I may even be left out, awful anticlimax for the hero!

The men seem very cheery and have done the forty-odd miles well. These occasions when soldiers are on the verge of hell always seem to show them at their very best. Of course the officers are very prone to a sentimental ave atque vale frame of mind. For the men it is a chance of blighty, and anything for a change.

Aeroplanes are humming in the clear sky, and the sun is a glint of crimson beyond the strip of woodland. And still that infernal banging continues away on the horizon. Holmes, has applied for me to go to the First Battalion, but I
suppose I’ll stay here now.[5]

 

And here’s a quirky reminder that life goes on, even in wartime–never really an inappropriate reflection, from either angle, lately. London is still London, and even with the cost of the war, and conscription, and rationing, and shortages, life–and the show–must go on. For Alan Milne, like Tolkien a victim of “trench fever” in the last months of the Somme, a long convalescence has let him get on with his writing.

And his big break has come quickly: tonight, a century back, on forty-eight hours leave from his new job as a signals instructor, Milne saw the premier of his first play, a comic one-act called Wurzel-Flummery, at the New Theatre in London. The setting was ideal: his play appeared between two other short plays by J.M. Barrie, and the theater was filled with soldiers on leave, eager to be entertained. It was a signal success…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 350.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 175.
  3. Selected Letters, 164-5.
  4. The first lines of his 'Secret Music,' written in December and shortly to be published.
  5. Diaries, 151-2.
  6. Thwaite, A.A. Milne, 181.