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.
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.
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.
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.” 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.
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.
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,
(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.
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. 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.
(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.
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.