Night and Day in the Salient: The Master of Belhaven Empties his Pistol; Kate Luard Returns; Edwin Vaughan in Laughter and Terror; Ivor Gurney Finds Truth and Beauty in Siegfried Sassoon

Today, a century back, seems to be one of those days where any strange thing could happen–and many of them did. I suppose that a vague thematic connection among our first three entries might be the growing nastiness and desperation that characterized the fighting around Ypres, but that hardly even hints at the scope of the sudden violence we’ll encounter.

 

The Master of Belhaven‘s story should probably come first: it’s an unlikely escapade, told with nearly breathless disbelief by a man who is exhilarated to have survived. But it happened. It was a completely new experience–the veteran artillery officer in the midst of real trench fighting–and one which, despite the suffering and death involved, he writes, from beginning to end, as an adventure yarn. He has been writing of gas, shell-shock, and madness lately–but not today. Today was

The most exciting day I have had since I came out. It brackets with the first time I shot a rhino in East Africa.

The sentiment is clear, even if that comparison has not weathered the century well. Hamilton means to evoke the manly excitement of the hunt, rather than what we might see as joy in needless killing of a rare animal… but even a century back there would have been many to point out that the analogy is troubling: these are men that Hamilton is hunting, not beasts.

At dawn this morning I got a telegram… there was another gun firing from 50 yards north of the place I knocked out. I wired back to say that it should have my personal attention.

Hamilton has been praised for his initiative and his effectiveness, and he found it thrilling to actually watch his guns’ rounds hit from a mere few hundred yards away–this is an experience he would like to repeat.

First, however, Hamilton prepares for the “shoot” with exacting care. He registers a new gun and then re-registers his entire battery, firing on known targets to confirm that his calculations are precisely in accordance with each gun’s current state. Next, he lays new wire from the Observation Point back to the battery to ensure real-time communication. Only then does he proceed to the front line to lay his eyes on the target. But, as it turns out to be not-quite-visible even from a front-line post, he asks the Company Commander on the spot–Captain Flack of the First Royal Fusiliers–if he can go even further forward. Flack agrees, since the nearby trenches are not being held in force.

I must now describe the situation in some detail in order to make intelligible what follows.

The tension builds… but I will still cut in: Hamilton’s laying of the land is too detailed and repetitive, and we are familiar (I hope) with the idea of opposing groups of infantry holding “block” or “barrier” positions along a defunct communications trench which has come to serve as a sort of No Man’s Trench between them. In the present case the British barrier is 30 yards from a right-angle in the trench, which presumably turns again (these right-angle-bends are “traverses” meant to limit the effectiveness of enemy fire) and eventually meets a lateral trench still held by the Germans.

Even beyond this traverse, however, the Germans are believed to be “a long way off.” So it is safe to take a peek. Flack accompanies Hamilton in the spirit of a local guide or proprietor.

We drew our pistols and saw that they were loaded and in good order, and then proceeded to climb over the barricade… We crept along yard by yard, holding our pistols in front of us. We got almost up to the bend in the trench, that is, 30 yards from our barricade, when I saw an old hurdle across the trench just at the bend. Flack was about 5 yards behind me at the moment. Suddenly without any warning a German, with a pork-pie cap on, jumped up from behind the hurdle where he had been lying, and without a word flung a bomb in our faces.[1] It went over my head and burst with a crack between Flack and me. As the German rose up I threw myself forward onto my left hand, at the same time firing; at the moment I fired he had his hand above his head, having just let go the bomb. My bullet caught him in the throat; he threw up his other arm and collapsed like an ox that has been pole-axed…

The infantry captain, Flack, is wounded by the bomb. The German–rhino, ox, or human being–is dead, shot through the neck and chest by Hamilton. Our artillery battery commander has suddenly become a front line trench fighter, and, like Han Solo routing a party of storm troopers, he empties his pistol blindly around the corner to cover the retreat, as Flack’s men drag his limp body back over the barricade.

As soon as Flack had been got over, I turned and ran for it, scrambling over the barricade in record time. I knew I had been hit in the left knee, because I could feel the blood running down my leg… but I felt positively no pain at the time. I fired a parting shot just as I reached the barricade and immediately loaded a fresh magazine full of cartridges into my pistol. I was thankful I had an automatic and not an ordinary service revolver. Flack was lying in the bottom of the trench, simply covered with blood.

Hamilton takes command of the infantry detachment, orders the men nearby to prepare to defend against any German follow-up attack, and does what he can for Flack, who was “terribly wounded,” torn open in several places by the grenade’s explosion.

A few minutes later Hamilton hands over command to an infantry lieutenant and sees Flack carried to a dressing station. Captain W.G. Flack had been wounded four times and won the MC and bar, but this was his last fight–his CWGC entry indicates that he will die of these wounds in a few weeks in Étaples (among the hospitals where Vera Brittain now works).

Hamilton’s mission continues nonetheless. The idea of physically seeing the new gun position is now abandoned, of course, but he still wants to destroy any German guns that he can, and he knows approximately where they are located. Using the old vantage point and his high-powered binoculars, Hamilton discovers that–in a rather shocking lapse of tactical attention–the gun pit he destroyed a few days earlier has been reoccupied.

I could see numbers of the enemy walking about in the shade of the wood, so as soon as I got through [reaching his battery on the telephone] I turned all my guns on to it at the fastest rate of fire. The result was excellent…

This, presumably, was more like bagging pheasants than facing down a rhino.

I limped back to Battalion Headquarters, where I had a drink. They offered me food, but I could not touch anything with my hands, as they were simply caked with blood…

I went on to our Brigade Headquarters and reported the result of my day to the colonel, who was much horrified at my going out in front; however, I pointed out to him that if valuable information is to be obtained a certain amount of risk must be taken…[2]

Hamilton has proved his courage, initiative, and–although he would not have thought much of the utility of these at the beginning of the day–his reflexes and pistol marksmanship. He has earned the rather haughty tone of his last comment about risk–and then some. I don’t know how many artillery commanders drew their pistols–let alone fired them–in order to lay eyes to local targets (they stood greater risks for longer periods of time just by being with their guns while the enemy artillery searched for them, but that was the ordinary courage expected of them) but it can’t have been many.

Hamilton did not begin the day bloodthirsty; he was merely eager to do the very most with the means available to him. Yet it still feels–have I tried too hard to inculcate the infantryman’s “live and let live” attitude?–as if the killing today was in some way unnecessary. This despite the fact that it was warfare well done, and to refrain from it would have been foolish and irresponsible in strictly military operational terms. But.. must this sudden surprise killing be recounted in the style of a Boy’s Own Paper adventure?

Well. I may not like it, but I’m not sure that my distaste has any standing–Hamilton is not a great literary stylist, but he wrote out of his own experience, both his prior reading and his emotional state in the immediate aftermath of the events themselves. So perhaps he should be forgiven the adventure yarn/hunting story/action flick style in which people died today, a century back.

 

Next we come to Kate Luard. Her day, yesterday, was similarly intense, but in an almost opposite way. After weeks of near misses from German artillery and aircraft, a direct hit killed one of her nurses. And after weeks of misgivings, practical arguments, praise, and reflexive chauvinism, the medical powers-that-were immediately pulled the nurses out of their forward hospital, sending them to St. Omer. Kate Luard was torn, surely, to be sent back–but she also looked forward, with frank relief now that the test was over, to the idea of leave. For a few hours.

Thursday, August 23rd. No. 10 Sta. St. Omer. I’m afraid you’ll be very disappointed, but we are to re-open on the same spot so Leave is off. The Australians are not to go back, but we are to carry on the abdominal work alone as we did before they came up…

In tracing these reversals of course, Luard describes the initial decision, yesterday, to pull out. After the deadly shells, a discussion among the ranking medical officers “on our middle duckboards” about whether and how to relocate the hospitals ends in harrowing, cinematic fashion.

At that moment Fritz tactfully landed one of his best with a long-drawn crescendoing scream and crash, just on the railway. ‘Oh,’ said the General, ‘that was rather close.’ ‘That settles it,’ said the Q.M.G. firmly; ‘all three will evacuate.’ I made off to the Wards to tell the patients they were leaving, and you should have seen their looks of joy. ‘But you Sisters don’t stop here?’ they asked everywhere with great anxiety, bless them.

In an hour all were packed into Ambulances whether fit or dying, and the Padre was burying the dead. It took us a few hours to get away ourselves and one shell came slick into the Wards of 44 (which was then cleared of patients and Sisters) and blew an Orderly’s arm and leg off and tossed the Sergeant-Major, but he came down intact. By this time Ambulances were waiting for us and our kit, and the poor C.O. was frantic to get us away.

We reached St. Omer about 10 p.m., and it took till 1 a.m. before all were housed and fed and bedded (without any beds!) on the floors of an empty house. The personnel of our three C.C.S.’s came to over 100 and was divided between various Matrons here. We were dropping with fatigue by this time…

But back they will go: once again the belief that soldiers shouldn’t die because essential medical staff are being kept back from the guns wins out over the belief that women should not be exposed to the direct fire of the enemy. But the enemy are everywhere

Of course there was a Raid that night – there would be! – and one had to tear upstairs and order them all down on to the next floor out of their beds; 10 civilians were killed and a lot wounded. We, however, looked on that as child’s play; it seemed so far off, compared to our nightly entertainments…

It is only when you leave off that you realise how done you are, but fortunately having to begin again will correct that. I’m indulging in a pestilential cold, and a toothache. Otherwise I am very fit! The 36 Sisters to a man are loyal and good and vie with each other in attentiveness! The only real worry would be if they were tiresome.

The older Surgeons think it’s dreadful having us there, but as the C.O. says, without us they couldn’t carry on at all, so it’s worth it.[3]

 

With Edwin Vaughan we have yet another emotional reversal. Yesterday, a century back, the constant shelling was a laughing matter:

Pepper and the doctor—Carroll—amused me mightily by feigning abject terror and fighting to stand behind a tiny sapling about five inches across, whence they leered at the reeking shell-holes while chunks of iron sang about them. Pepper is awfully good fun nowadays…

Today, however, not so much:

During the night I was awakened by half a dozen tremendous crashes, apparently close to our tent. There were no yells and I was too tired to get up, but the next morning we found that the shells had all fallen within a hundred yards of us…

I got sudden windup this morning, for no reason whatever…

Later, after a ride with a tank unit, Vaughan’s courage returns. It would seem that, even under constant fire in reserve, the battalion’s morale remains impressively high:

I went to bed at 10 p.m. and at about midnight was awakened by an unusual sound. Far in the distance was the clanging of a gas gong—a warning that was taken up and came nearer and nearer until our own gong was struck. I woke Harding and went out of the tent to find the air faintly charged with a sweet scent of peppery butterscotch. I put on my gas-mask and went round the tents to find the men wearing theirs and playing at being lions and bears. Ewing, who had his tent flaps laced, did not smell the gas, so took no notice of the warning. He was not affected and the gas had dispersed in under half an hour.[4]

 

Three deadly back-and-forths in the Salient is enough for any one day, but bear with me for one more brief post. This one is a treat–from my point of view, at least. Some of our writers are writing in safety, some are in great danger. But while Owen sweats his guts out for Sassoon‘s approval, another poet in the firing line is traversing his critical eye across the horizon of The Old Huntsman.

Ivor Gurney‘s machine gun team is now in action, and, although he is personally in support, that is nevertheless well within the range of the guns. He too, shares all the difference the chances of a day can make, in war:

…last night on fatigue I had the roughest chanciest hour I ever had. My shrapnel helmet has an interesting dent in it….

We got caught in a barrage for an hour on the fatigue, and shrapnel caught me twice — once on the blessed old tin hat, (dint and scar) and once on the belt (no mark.) Pretty hot just there.

But today all is well, and he has time to read. And what? Well, Marion Scott is a very good friend/editor/patron, and she has promptly sent him a recent book of poems in which he had previously declared an interest:

I hope you will send me some more Sassoon, for his touch of romance and candour I like. He is one who tries to tell Truth, though perhaps not a profound truth…

Gurney is well off into a letter about his poetic hopes and his desire for long friendly conversations when another parcel arrives. He leaps into the book and dashes off his initial reactions–Sassoon’s poetry is something that strikes Gurney, evidently, as immediate in a way other art is not. And his criteria? Truth, and beauty, of course.

My Dear Friend: Your letter with Conan Doyle’s “Guns in Sussex” arrived yesterday, and Sassoon today. Thank you so much for the trouble and patience it must have cost you to copy them. The Conan Doyle is not very good; sincere but dull. The Sassoons not so good as a whole as they might be — but true…

Wisdom‘s last line is good.
Whispered Tale. True and good.
Absolution beautiful. But — one finds in it the fault of minor poets who make beautiful lines of unmeaning or not of any particular significance.

Why is time a wind, a golden wind, why does it shake the grass? I’ll tell you; because of “pass” and because it is a good line as a whole. He was proud of it, and may have written the poem round it.

Golgotha” is strained, though true, but not poetry.

They” needed to be said, but is journalism pure and simple…

Gurney now goes line by line through Sassoon, separating the inspired and “true” from the journalistic and merely verse-smithing. But he also comments with acuity (and, yes, the authority of himself being a poet in combat) on what Sassoon’s emotional intent might be:

…you must remember that a lot of this has been written to free himself from circumstance. They are charms to magic him out of the present. Cold feet, lice, sense of fear—all these are spurs to create Joy to such as he; since Beauty is the only comfort.

Stand-to: Good Friday Morning.

Not perfect; not what he meant, but good; and the end absolutely true, save perhaps “old”…

Thank you again. These thing stimulate me and give me hope. My Anthology enlargens.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I don't like to break in to this paragraph, in the midst of describing a deadly fight only hours after it occurred, but it is interesting to note how much "genre"--by which I mean the expectations that go into Hamilton's processing of his experience between when it happens and when he writes it down--influences his account of this sudden violence. "Without any warning?" Of course not! "Without a word?" Would we expect a real life German trying to kill two armed, approaching men to take the time to shout "Gott strafe England?" But this is, to an extent, what Hamilton expected...
  2. War Diary, 375-77.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 151-3.
  4. Some Desperate Glory, 215-6.
  5. War Letters, 187-190.

Claude Templer Wins His Losing Fight; Edwin Vaughan Takes Up His Pen

We have seen very little of Claude Templer, here: a brief time in the front lines, an ill-fated patrol, capture and imprisonment. In Germany he attempted to escape again and again; he was punished again and again, wounded during brief escapes, and transferred to ever more restrictive camps. In July, after two and a half years in Germany, he was moved to Ströhen, and immediately began plotting another escape.

The room which served as bathroom was situated above a kind of barn or outhouse. In this room a large number of the officers bathed together whilst, as usual, sentries were placed at the doors. By dint of working every day they managed to scrape, with pocket knives, a tunnel in the floor of this bathroom communicating with the barn beneath; their operations being concealed by the other officers crowding round whilst the work was in progress. The upper planks were replaced each day and so the hole remained unobserved. On the 20th : of Aug : the arrangements were completed and, provided with a supply of food, compasses and a small map, they slipped unnoticed into the barn, the planks being quietly replaced above their heads. In this barn they remained till nightfall. Shortly after they had quitted the bathroom their absence was remarked and the Commandant, coming to the place where they had last been seen, stood practically over the very spot from which the escape had been made; and, furious with rage, gave orders to the guards for immediate pursuit. Little did be think, that as he spluttered out directions as to the particular places be required the search parties to scour; that Capt : Tempter was calmly noting down his indications from the hiding place beneath his feet!

Night came, and with it a violent rainstorm. A sentry on guard outside the camp took shelter in the entrance of the barn. Silently, in stockinged feet, the ‘escapers’ walked one by one lightly past him, and owing partly to the obscurity and the noise of the rain, the sentinel remained in blissful ignorance.

With the help of the information gleaned from the Commandant, the party was able to elude the patrols that were sent out in various directions…

Templer, an enthusiastic poet (were it not rather obnoxious to be snide about the exploits of brave, long-dead officers, I might risk the joke that he was as determined and as successful in his versifying as in his warfaring) will continue to elude these patrols. Eventually, too, his manuscripts from some of those prison camps will see the light of day.

And if ever the weight of experience can drive home a blunt point of literature it is in this poem:

 

The Losing Fight

If Fortune knocks you down and has you beat.
Don’t give up hope. Don’t strike that Kismet pose.
But keep your head and get up on your feet
For fortune’s blows must be returned by blows.

Destiny at the finish of your fight
Awards the irrevocable decree,
And it is only then that you’ll be right
In saying, “I must bow to destiny”.

Therefore fight on until the closing day,
No matter if your cause be won or lost.
‘Tis not defeat or triumph, but the way
In which you’ve fought your fight that matters most.

Fight on and may it be your joy to see
Dawn pressing hard upon the heels of night;
They only gain the final victory
Who learn the way to fight the losing fight.

 

From our more regular correspondents, only this, today, from Edwin Vaughan, who assumed command of his company on the battlefield of four days past:

August 20

My next few days were very busy. I had casualty returns to render, deficiencies to replace, reorganization to carry out and—worst of all—letters to write to the relatives of fellows who had been killed. In my leisure time I would go for a stroll with Jimmy or Pepper, or lie smoking to watch Jerry trying to hit the road junction.[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 214. The entry beginning with "my next few days" is a reminder of the fact that the fluent and detailed diary was reworked after the fact.

Kate Luard on Models and Women; Edwin Vaughan Rests; Siegfried Sassoon Keeps in Touch with the Old Views

Today, a century back, in both Belgium and Scotland, is another “day after.” Two nights ago Kate Luard reported that three nurses at a nearby hospital had been wounded–a “dirty trick,” since the hospitals should be identifiable from the air–and that her “letters to relatives of died-of-wounds are just reaching 400 in less than three weeks.” Of these she tries to write “about a dozen every day or night.” But today is quiet–another lull just behind the glassy eye of the still-gathering storm.

I’ve noted before that Sister Luard enjoys exploring, no matter where she is, and will take country rambles or sight-seeing trips on any rare occasion when the hospital is calm enough to spare her for a few hours. In the midst of a battle she can’t go far but–gratifyingly–she is as efficient as ever in discovering and taking in the newest sight of the behind-the-lines tour:

I went with two Sisters to Evening Service at the Church Army Hut at the cross-roads, only standing room, all men soon going over the top. Very nice hymns. Then we went a bit up the road continuous with this, parallel to the line, all of it camps, Archies and all the various paraphernalia of War. There was an aeroplane caught in a tree and there was a model of the present offensive laid out in miniature in a field, with dolls’ rails, trenches, cemeteries, farms and dug-outs – a fascinating toy.

But after nightfall the war resumed, and Luard had to face it–as well as a sexist but complimentary colonel and the mute demand of her diary that she try to record her true feelings about the war. She answers both like the old campaigner she is:

The mosquitoes are appalling to-night, so are the Gothas… [one] dropped a bomb about 200 yards from our quarters – it made a red flare and heavy cloud of black smoke and knocked my photos off my shelf.

Colonel F. said to me just before they came, ‘We’re going to be bombed to-night.’ I said, ‘Yes, probably.’ Then he said, ‘I don’t know how you women stick it – it’s much worse here than in London, where you can go into your cellar.’ I said, ‘Well, we’ve got to stick it,’ and he said, ‘Well, I’m amazed at the level of calm of you Sisters.’ I am too sometimes. They’d rather die than show any windiness, though everyone hates it. And to-day there has been shelling too – one just now. Personally, I wouldn’t be anywhere else while the hospital is here, but it’ll be a relief when the War’s over![1]

 

Edwin Vaughan‘s last few days have been the most intense and miserable of his life. His diary maintains a steady, somewhat anesthetized calm throughout, but his eyes are always open. Relief has come at last–for his battalion and for his beleaguered psyche–and today he reaches his reserve billet, a muddy tent near the Yser canal.

Harding was asleep in his valise, and I sat down on the floor and cut my puttees off with a knife. I had shed my sodden clothes and rubbed down with a towel when Martin came in with my supper. He, like all the others, was rather uneasy and made no reference to the attack. I got into pyjamas and ate my stew lying in bed. It was wonderful to have a hot meal and I was grateful for it after my four days of nibbling at filth.

The tent flaps were laced over, the rain had ceased, the guns were silent and Jimmy Harding lay motionless. I ate
slowly and dully, staring at my candle. I took my Palgrave from the valise head; it opened at ‘Barbara’ and I read quite coldly and critically until I came to the lines

In vain, in vain, in vain.
You will never come again.
There droops upon the dreary hills a mournful fringe of rain

then with a great gulp I knocked my candle out and buried my face in my valise. Sleep mercifully claimed me before my thoughts could carry me further and after my four days of strain I slept for eight hours—and at noon I was awake and sitting up with Jimmy eating sausage and bacon with the sun streaming in through the wide opened tent flaps.

‘It’s all wrong,’ said Jimmy whimsically.

‘What is?’ said I, with a mouthful of toast.

‘That coughing Lizzie out there.’

I regarded him questioningly and he assumed his shocked expression. ‘Is it possible that you were so debased as to indulge in Aunty’s Ruin last night? For my part I didn’t sleep a wink all night,’ said he blandly. ‘Ugh! There she goes again, the spiteful cat!’ and I spilt my tea as a terrific roar shook the earth.

‘What on earth is it?’ I asked.

‘Oh, merely a 12-inch gun that has been firing all the morning.’ And walking to the tent door I saw the smoking barrel of a naval gun towering over the hedge 30 yards away. I could hardly imagine myself having slept through a number of explosions like that, but Jimmy assured me that I had. ‘Incidentally,’ he added, ‘it’s not going to be too healthy for us here when Jerry starts trying to find her.’ I agreed…[2]

 

Yesterday’s meeting between Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon was, to put it plainly, a bigger deal for one than the other. If Owen–or Sassoon, looking back–was aware of a touch of hauteur in Sassoon’s attitude, the same quality is visible from a different angle as he writes to Lady Ottoline Morrell. Despite Sassoon’s abandonment of the pacifist cause, they seem to be on relatively good terms still. And, not coincidentally, they even discuss an important work of war literature in its new role of anti-war literature, namely Henry Barbusse’s Le Feu, which will be the most important non-English influence on Sassoon’s writing… Sassoon seems to plead agnosticism, now, on all matters of war and politics…

19 August, Central Station Hotel, Glasgow

I am never sniffy or snubby with my friends–as you ought to know by now! I thought you understood that when I don’t feel like writing letters I don’t write them.

Barbusse’s French is beyond me, but the translation is good enough to show the truth and greatness of his book, so you needn’t be so superior about it!

I have been working at new poems lately, and a few of them are shaping themselves all right.

A man has motored me over to this large city and I have lunched ponderously.

Your delightful tiny Keats has been my companion lately, but most of my days have been spent in slogging golf-balls on the hills above Edinburgh. I admire the “views” prodigiously: they are bonny. A month ago seems like a bad dream. ‘And still the war goes on, he don’t know why’.

S.S.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 147-8.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 212-14.
  3. Diaries, 184.

Wilfred Owen Calls on Siegfried Sassoon; Edwin Vaughan in Charnel Hysterics; Ivor Gurney on Sassoonish Sonnets and the Fire and Fate of Francis Ledwidge

Life–and death–go on today, a century back, in the Salient. Kate Luard and her hospital survived another night of bombing, while for Edwin Vaughan “dullness and depression” beset his company on their third straight day of combat. But we must come as quickly as we can through his long day in the wasteland, and hasten back to Scotland where our main business lies.

I had had no sleep since the 15th but even now I dared not close my eyes… I was forced to divert my mind by climbing up again to look around…

Despite my searching, I could discover nothing of interest; the ridge, churned into a broad brown mudheap, showed no sign of life; there were no pillboxes on the slope and the horizon was so ragged that it was impossible to locate the various points. There only remained a few tree stumps and a few broken posts to show where gunpits had been. Then I lowered my glasses and fell to examining the foreground.

Vaughan’s diary today is a minor masterpiece of the eyewitness-to-horror genre, and to omit it entirely in favor of poetic friendship would be obscurely hypocritical. But a few short excerpts are, perhaps, enough:

The outstanding characteristic of this area was, of course, death. And this seemed to be brought home to me, not so much by the numerous corpses, as by the stranded and battered tanks. The nearest one was that which we had
visited when we arrived here, and I shuddered to see it standing gaunt and grim, its base distorted by a shell and a horrid black corpse half-turmbled out of the open door, whilst around it lay the black charred shapes that had been the crew.

…with gruesome fascination I concentrated on the bodies—tried to read the shoulder plates or recognize the battalion markings. The causes of death were mostly all too obvious, for death at Ypres is a fierce, distorting death—death from a direct hit or from a huge fragment. The mud which drags us down and breaks up our attacks has the one merciful effect of deadening the blasts of shells and localizing their death-dealing power.

Bodies there were in German uniform, mostly old and black, but many English killed in the last attacks with black, clotted blood still upon them. These are the most terrifying—if they can be terrifying now…

There was one which upset me. He was lying with the top of his head towards me; caught in the remnant of wire entanglement his two fists were raised clutching a strand. The backs of his hands looked white and slim, his hair fluffy and dusty like a miller’s. I don’t know why I didn’t like him, but he seemed somehow much more gruesome than the uglier bodies and I turned suddenly sick and was forced to sink down into my seat.

After a long day in the killing-slough, Vaughan’s relief arrives–and the company commander who is to take over the line is “windy”–trembling and unwilling to leave the meager shelter of a shell-hole. But Vaughan, now the sturdy veteran, forces him to do his duty in touring the line, with a subordinate in tow. A strange, demented sort of comedy ensues when shells begin falling in the mud around them:

…shell after shell hizzed through the darkness to burst with blinding flashes around us. I felt terrified but elated, and continued to sit on top making conversation while Hancocks leaned against me shaking. I was getting worried about him and kept giving him prods with my fist. Then suddenly there was an extra loud whizz and a smack as a dud slid into the mud almost under Hancocks. Spencer gave a hollow groan and Hancocks gave a loud shout of laughter, lying back with tears rolling down his face. I gave him a push, for I thought he had got shell shock, but when I realized that he was really tickled, I started to laugh too for the situation was really funny.

The sight of Spencer—bent almost double with his head pressed into the earth, looking at me and answering me upside down, his great bespectacled face white with fear and streaked with mud, his incoherent babblings, his starts and grunts at every shell burst—made us forget the danger. So Hancocks and I sat on the wet mud in the midst of the rain and shells and darkness of Ypres and laughed ourselves into hysterics.

After a while I realized that it was hysterics—that it was a temporary madness that had kept me dawdling in the shellfire, a disinclination to return to the reality of a new life out of the line. That my nerves had been giving way under the strain until I was reduced to the childishness of laughing at another man’s fear…[1]

This crazed stumbling from horror to hysteria provides an all-too-apt segue to “Dottyville,” as its inmates called the shell-shock-specializing hospital of Craiglockhart. There, today, a century back, a meeting took place which stands at the very center of this project.

 

It’s tempting to overwrite the first meeting of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, but, really, it’s an introduction that probably doesn’t need too much of an introduction. Their first encounter has been described by both men and by several noteworthy later writers, and it’s as if only Sassoon was surprised by what followed. This change meeting feels like one of the rare drops of sweetness distilled from war’s misery, a fortunate convergence of the twain that must be celebrated like a birth in a plague year, a new sort of orchid that blooming improbably in a new-mown field. See–overwritten.

In any event, the meeting was no surprise to Owen. He has known of Sassoon, he has read him, and he realized at some point recently that they were patients at the same hospital. They would have passed each other in the halls, but there would have been no way for Owen to discover what Sassoon looked like and come upon him “accidentally.” Today, a century back, Owen screwed up his courage and visited Sassoon in his room.

This small social step–dropping in on a fellow patient, a comrade of sorts–is hardly a heroic act. Yet it is a pretty good indicator of Owen’s returning calm and confidence. He may still be showing some of the outward signs of shell shock–the stammer, in particular–but he has otherwise been doing very well: he had “dumped bundles of his third Hydra outside the breakfast room that morning and was due to appear in the second part of Lucky Durham in the evening.” Which is all well and good, but it’s tempting to see Owen recognizing that the “the final stage of his cure” might involve both winning the respect of a hero (he admires his doctor, Brock, but not in the same worshipful way that Sassoon admires Rivers), and accomplishing something with regards to his own poetry, which matters much more to him than literary writing or the stage.[2]

But was it an auspicious meeting? All of the accounts focus to some degree or another on the distance between the two men: Sassoon is significantly older (six years, although Owen doesn’t realize this), significantly taller, and a full lieutenant. True enough, but the real differences are that he is a published and well-regarded poet and that he is from a much higher social class. Owen, the “station-master’s son,” is barely middle class and received a patchy education at non-prestigious local schools; Sassoon has a private income, rode to hounds, knows lords, ladies, and the London literary elite, and received a patchy education at Marlborough and Cambridge.

But what aspect of a first meeting of two friends can be more subject to revision in retrospect than the social angle from which they viewed each other as two strangers?

One morning at the beginning of August, when I had been at Craiglockhart War Hospital about a fortnight, there was a gentle knock on the door of my room and a young officer entered. Short, dark-haired, and shyly hesitant, he stood for a moment before coming across to the window, where I was sitting on my bed cleaning my golf clubs. A favourable first impression was made by the fact that he had under his arm several copies of The Old Huntsman. He had come, he said, hoping that I would be so gracious as to inscribe them for himself and some of his friends. He spoke with a slight stammer, which was no unusual thing in that neurosis-pervaded hospital. My leisurely, commentative method of inscribing the books enabled him to feel more at home with me. He had a charming honest smile, and his manners — he stood at my elbow rather as though conferring with a superior officer — were modest and ingratiating…

I had taken an instinctive liking to him, and felt that I could talk freely. During the next half-hour or more I must have spoken mainly about my book and its interpretations of the War. He listened eagerly, questioning me with reticent intelligence. It was only when he was departing that he confessed to being a writer of poetry himself, though none of it had yet appeared in print.

It amuses me to remember that, when I had resumed my ruminative club-polishing, I wondered whether his poems were any good! He had seemed an interesting little chap but had not struck me as remarkable. In fact my first view of him was as a rather ordinary young man, perceptibly provincial, though unobtrusively ardent in his responses to my lordly dictums about poetry. Owing to my habit of avoiding people’s faces while talking, I had not observed him closely. Anyhow, it was pleasant to have discovered that there was another poet in the hospital and that he happened to be an admirer of my work.[3]

Let not the calibrated self-mockery of “my lordly dictums” draw all the old sting from “perceptively provincial.” But what Sassoon acknowledges here is how Owen meets a need of his own, perhaps one that, in his instinctive diffidence about intellectual things, he had not yet recognized. Replete with mentors and advisors, goaded by his rivalry with the brash Graves, he has many co-conspirators, but never yet a follower. Sassoon may have failed to make a martyr of himself, but he will still welcome a disciple, a “faithful squire to [his] quixotic knight.”[4]

Which is exactly what Owen will sound like when he describes this meeting, in bantering faux-medieval style, to his cousin (and fellow poetic aspirant) Leslie Gunston.

22 August 1917 Craiglockhart

My dear Leslie,

At last I have an event worth a letter. I have beknown myself to Siegfried Sassoon… The sun blazed into his room making his purple dressing suit of a brilliance—almost matching my sonnet! He is very tall and stately, with a fine firm chisel’d (how’s that?) head, ordinary short brown hair. The general expression of his face is one of boredom…[5]

It’s customary, when quoting this letter, to omit the parenthetical “how’s that?” Which is a bit manipulative, since the winking parenthesis shows that Owen knows he is acting the part of the smitten fan. But the “boredom” does the trick too: Owen is aware of what he is up against, socially–and yet he is confident. He wouldn’t have dared to approach the Published Poet otherwise.

It’s a smoother story, perhaps, if Owen is all diffidence and unrecognized talent, and Sassoon all drawling confidence. Pat Barker’s version draws attention to Owen’s lingering stammer and emphasizes Sassoon’s bona fides as a poet of protest, although this is not what would have been most appealing to Owen.

A short, dark-haired man sidled round the door, blinking in the sudden blaze of sunlight. Sassoon, sitting on the bed, looked up from the golf club he’d been cleaning. ‘Yes?’

‘I’ve b-brought these.’

A few lines later, the meeting gets straight to the starting point of the poetic relationship:

‘Are you . . . quite sure your mother wants to be told that “Bert’s gone syphilitic?” I had trouble getting them to print that.’

‘It w-won’t c-come as a sh-shock… I t-tell her everything. In m-my l-letters.’

‘Good heavens,’ Sassoon said lightly, and turned back to the book.[6]

 

It’s a small world. In a letter to Marion Scott written today a century back, from the reserve areas in France, Ivor Gurney mentions Sassoon’s poetry by way of complimenting Scott’s.

My Dear Friend: Is “Field Daisy” yours? Then I may congratulate you very much…  I took it for Sassoon… The sonnet might have been Masefield’s, might have been Sassoon’s. Cheerio!

But Gurney is abreast of recent news, and the high spirits of the letter end in elegy. So we began today writing the mud of the ongoing offensive, then witnessed the beginning of a poetic friendship that will drive the development of war poetry–and now observe, with Gurney, a man still in the thick of it, the mysterious and terrible relationship between war and war poetry. We should all be irritated (or outraged) if a later commentator or critic were to make a remark along the lines of “violent death is terrible, of course, but at least it was good for his poetry”–this, surely, is a judgment that is meaningless, even offensive, without the “authority” that comes from considering such questions from within the soldier’s undetermined future. But Gurney has this authority.

…And so Ledwidge is dead. If the new book is not too.expensive you shall have it from me. He was a true poet, and the story of his life is (now) a sad but romantic tale, like that of so many others, so wastefully spent. Yet the fire may not have been struck in them save for the war; anyway it was to be, and is.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 205-212.
  2. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 267.
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 58.
  4. Ricketts, Strange Meetings, 104.
  5. Collected Letters, 485.
  6. Regeneration, 80-1.
  7. War Letters, 185-6.

Kate Luard Waits for the Bombs; George Coppard Loses a Pal; Edwin Vaughan in the Slough of Despond; Wilfred Owen Prepares to Meet a Maker

In the early morning hours of today, a century back, Kate Luard turned to her diary to stave off exhaustion and despair.

I feel dazed with going round the rows of silent or groaning wrecks and arranging for room for more in the night without opening new wards not yet equipped. Many die and their beds are filled instantly. One has got so used to their dying that it conveys no impression beyond a vague sense of medical failure. You forget entirely that they were once civilians, that they were alive and well yesterday, that they have wives and mothers and fathers and children at home; all you realise is that they are dead soldiers, and that there are thousands of others. It is all very like a battlefield. And between 10 and 11 to-night when I was writing to that boy’s mother at his father’s request, he dropped bombs on the Field Ambulance alongside of us, and killed an orderly and wounded others, and also on to the Officers’ Mess of the Australian C.C.S. alongside of them – not three minutes from us, and killed a Medical Officer and a Corporal. Pretty beastly, isn’t it? Shells are dropping about as usual – but farther off, I think.

The day brought little relief:

More dying men all day. Brilliant dazzling day. Capt. H. has gone to be O.C. Stretcher Bearers in the front line. He’s already got an M.C. and will now get a funeral. The news is bad, parts of it like Gommécourt, July 1st 1916 over again. They let us through and then bobbed up behind and before us and cut us to pieces with machine-guns. Gas-shelling going on heavily too. Officers and men say it is the bloodiest of all the battles. Remnants of Divisions are coming out to-night and new ones going in. He’s sure to come bombing tonight.

I’m dog-tired, going to bed early.

Here he is…[1]

 

George Coppard‘s memoir records one more death–the dead soldiers leave behind comrades, pals, and mates, too–in circumstances we seldom encounter.

…on 17 August heavy shelling started again in our vicinity.

Jock Hershell left the dugout during the shelling and didn’t return for a while. I became apprehensive and went along to a latrine sap where I thought he might be. I found him there, slumped in a heap, severely wounded. We carried him into the dugout. At a glance I saw that his broad back has caught a blast of shrapnel. I slit his tunic and underclothes with a hack-knife and separated them. I winced at the sight. Jock’s back was full of punctures, and blood bubbles were wheezing out of the holes as he breathed… He appeared to be in no pain, though he was anxious and kept asking the extent of the injuries he could not see. We lied like hell and gave him first-aid, using nearly all our bandages and iodine in the process. ‘You’ve got a Blighty one for sure,’ I cried.

It seemed hours before we got him away to a first-aid post, where we left him, knowing that we would never see him again. Strong as he was, he could not survive his terrible injuries, and he died shortly afterwards.[2]

It doesn’t mean anything that Herschell was mortally wounded while relieving himself, alone in a latrine trench. But it adds, somehow, to the pathos of trench warfare. There is no safe place, no private routine left undisturbed by the deadly chances of attrition.

 

Back in the salient, Edwin Vaughan does not witness death at close quarters today–but he still sees the dead.

It was dawn when I dropped into my shell-hole where Dunham had shaped a great armchair for me in mud. I stared vacantly at the large mound behind me like a four-foot-high tortoise until I became aware that I was staring into the face of a dead Tommy, upside down…

Although I was tired to death, I could not sleep, so removing my tin hat and ruffling my hair I stood up and looked over the front of my hole. There was just a dreary waste of mud and water, no relic of civilization, only shell-holes and faint mounds behind the German lines. And everywhere were bodies, English and German, in all attitudes and stages of decomposition. No sign was anywhere of a living man or a gun. The morning was clear and bright and everything now was deadly quiet. Sinking back into my mud chair I looked into the face of the body behind me. He had a diamond-shaped hole in his forehead through which a little pouch of brains was hanging, and his eyes were hanging down; he was very horrible but I soon got used to him. Then I heard a faint buzz far above and saw five Boche planes heading over our lines; I fell to watching them and saw a great battle when they were met by some of ours. I was quite sorry when, two of the planes having come down in flames, the combat ceased, the planes flying away to leave the world empty again.

The hours dragged slowly by and still I sat staring into the cloudless sky…

But the empty battlefield is teeming with life, of course, and attrition has its quotas to meet, even on a day when no new push is launched.

At about 3 p.m. I heard the German guns open and dragging myself up I saw a line of bursting shrapnel far away to the left. As salvo after salvo poured over, I got my glasses onto the spot and saw that they were pounding their own line. Soon a line of figures appeared running back out of the shelled zone; immediately our machine guns opened and mowed them down. I felt terribly sorry for them, for they looked very new and untried, and I was so tired and weary myself…[3]

Vaughan’s day involved further adventures of his own:  he discovered his own CO to be in a state something like shell shock after a hit on his command post, and then ventured, on his own initiative, to make contact with the neighboring battalion. There the atmosphere of slimy terror–rain, mud, darkness, bodies underfoot, German guns trained on the forward-facing entrances of their own former dugouts–takes on an air of fantastic, twilight-zone tension when Vaughan encounters a cowardly (or traumatized) subaltern who shares his surname being repeatedly ordered out into the storm of steel…

This is almost too good to be true–officers screaming at a cowardly Vaughan to brave the shell-fire even as our cowardly Vaughan has done so… but it should be read at length in the source.

 

In any case, that summary will have to do, as I want to take us back to Scotland, where Wilfred Owen added a post-script to a letter to his mother. He, too, is steeling himself for a new encounter on the morrow…

(Friday)

…I have just been reading Siegfried Sassoon, and am feeling at a very high pitch of emotion. Nothing like his trench life sketches has ever been written or ever will be written. Shakespere reads vapid after these. Not of course because Sassoon is a greater artist, but because of the subjects, I mean. I think if I had the choice of making friends with Tennyson or with Sassoon I should go to Sassoon.

That is why I have not yet dared to go up to him and parley in a casual way. He is here you know because he wrote a letter to the Higher Command which was too plain-spoken. They promptly sent him over here! I will send you his book, one day, and tell you what sort of pow-wow we’ve had.

your own W.E.O. x[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 145-6.
  2. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 119-20.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 200-205.
  4. Collected Letters, 484-5.

The Battle of Langemarck: Four Seconds in the Life of Harry Patch; Edwin Vaughan in Command

Today, a century back, is another day of battle, as the British (and French) forces in the Ypres Salient surge forward once again. The Master of Belhaven is firing in support and Kate Luard will be picking up the pieces, but we will focus on two infantrymen as they attack today in the segment of Third Ypres known as the Battle of Langemarck. Neither is in the first attacking wave, but there is more than enough horror for the supporting troops and each will experience one of the most terrible days of their war.

 

At 4:45 the bombardment began, and two battalions of the 61st Brigade attacked toward Langemarck. Harry Patch, with C Company of the 7th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, was in the second wave.

I remember the names–Pilckem Ridge was one and the other was Langemarck… How were we to know that a pile of rubble was this village or that, or that a gentle slope was a particular ridge…? You only knew what was right next to you…

I have a memory of crossing a flooded stream…

This was the Steenbeck, the second waterway (after the Yser canal) that now marks the pilgrims’ progress out of Ypres and into the Slough of Despond.

Our guns’ opening bombardment had begun with an almighty clap of thunder. You can’t describe the noise, you can’t… There was an officer going down the line… He had drawn his revolver, and I got the distinct impression by the set look on his face that anybody that didn’t ‘go over’ would be shot for cowardice where they stood…

For once the British operational luck was good: the weather held (though the ground was still terribly muddy) and the German defense was disorganized due to a half-completed relief. Langemarck was swiftly taken, and by 5.45 the second wave was moving through to its attack positions.

It was absolutely sickening to see your own dead and wounded, some calling for stretcher-bearers, others semi-conscious and beyond all help… I saw one German… all his side and his back were ripped up, and his stomach was out on the floor, a horrible sight. Others were just blown to pieces; it wasn’t a case of seeing them with a nice bullet hole in their tunic, far from it, and there I was, only nineteen years old. I felt sick.

It got worse.

We came across a lad from A Company. He was ripped open from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel, and lying in a pool of blood. When we got to him, he looked at us and said, ‘Shoot me.’ He was beyond all human help, and before we could draw a revolver he was dead. And the final word he uttered was ‘Mother!’ I was with him in the last seconds of his life. It wasn’t a cry of despair, it was a cry of surprise and joy… I’m positive that when he left this world, wherever he went, his mother was there, and from that day I’ve always remember that cry and that death is not the end.

I remember that lad in particular. It is an image that has haunted me all my life…

Patch and his team soon reached the German second (support) line, where they set up their gun to fire in support of the men of their battalion just ahead, who were pushing into the German third (reserve) line.

I’d just changed a magazine… and Bob was looking elsewhere in the support line when two or three Germans came out of a trench and one of them spotted the machine gun and came straight for us with rifle and bayonet…

My right hand was free… I drew my revolver and I shot him in the right shoulder. He dropped his rifle but he came stumbling on, no doubt to kick the gun in the mud and us to pieces if he could…

I had four seconds to make my mind up. I had three rounds in that revolver. I could have killed him with my first; I was a crack shot. What should I do? Four seconds to make my mind up. That Cornishman’s ‘Mother’ was ringing in my ears and I thought, ‘No I can’t kill him’, and I gave him his life. I shot him above the ankle, and above the knee. I brought him down… for him the war was over… at the end of the war he would rejoin his family. Perhaps he was married; perhaps he had children.[1]

 

No more than two or three miles to the south, Edwin Vaughan‘s day developed more slowly, as his 8th Royal Warwickshires moved up behind several attacking waves.

August 16

At 2 a.m. a guide led us out of the camp in an easterly direction. We moved in column of route, in silence and with no smoking. I was leading with Ewing, but it was pitch dark and as our guide led us, sometimes on a hard road then on to mud then again on a sleeper track, I could not follow our direction. At last we arrived at a canal, with a steep
bank on either side and a towing path. We crossed a rough bridge and Ewing gave the order to fall out.

We were at Bridge 2A of the Yser canal, a few hundred yards north of Ypres. The air was poisoned by a terrible
stench that turned me sick. In the dim light the water appeared to be a dark-green swamp wherein lay corpses of men and bodies of horses; shafts of waggons and gun wheels protruded from the putrefying mass and after a shuddering glance I hurried along the towing path to clearer air. The bank was honeycombed with dugouts, chiefly occupied by REs. At one point I saw a fingerboard ‘To the RC Chaplain’.

Our cookers now rolled up and the cooks carried a hot meal over to our men. For my part I had lost my fear now, and in spite of the imminent attack and the fearful mass below me, I ate a hearty breakfast of sausages and bacon…

Vaughan is a commanding writer, and one who is keen both to describe the remembered scene with all the tools of the language and to record the raw emotions of the moment:[2]

…I walked along the path to where Sergeant Major Chalk was standing on the bank, silhouetted against the sky. I climbed up beside him and stood gazing across the darkness of the earth into the dawn. After a few minutes of silence he said ‘what is the time. Sir?’

‘Four forty-five’ I said, and with my words the whole earth burst into flame with one tremendous roar as hundreds of guns hurled the first round of the barrage…

Spellbound I saw a line of coloured lights shoot up from the Boche and then Chalk tugged my sleeve to indicate that our Company was lining up on the towing path…

My nervousness was gone now; trembling with excitement, but outwardly perfectly reasonable, I drank in every detail of the scene almost with eagerness. To the east we moved along the winding track between batteries of heavies that belched smoke and fire as we passed. The light grew rapidly, and the line of fire changed to a line of smoke. Around us and ahead of us was earth, nothing but earth—no houses or trees or even grass just faint shapeless humps from which the great guns hurled their iron death…

The men sing as they march up to take their positions in support.

The road had now almost disappeared and we were marching over shell-holes around which was scattered debris and wreckage at which I now dared not look. I kept my eyes fixed on the distance until we came to some low buildings—Van Heule Farm.

These were some of the concrete pillboxes of which we had heard. In front of them were six dead Germans and a disembowelled mule…

I led my platoon off to the right and we continued to move steadily across that muddy waste until I realized that we were walking into a curtain of fire. We were right on top of the German barrage when glancing round I saw Ewing give the signal to halt.

I repeated the signal to my men, and we all dived into shell-holes right on the fringe of the shell-torn zone. With my head just over the edge of my shell-hole I lay blinking into the shrieking, crashing hail of death 30 yards in front. We were too close to fear anything except a direct hit and fascinated I stared at that terrible curtain through which we soon must pass. One gun was firing regularly onto a spot only a few yards in front of me and as I watched the bursts I became aware of Private Bishop in the shell-hole in front with a thick red stream running down his back. I shouted to him ‘Are you hurt, Bishop?’ Turning round he said, ‘No Sir’ in surprise. So I leaped across the edge of the hole and found that the stream proceeded from a shrapnel wound in a carton of jam in his haversack…

Soon the order comes to occupy a more forward position. Since they are some distance to the south, the line of the Steenbeck (which runs from south east to northwest across the west-to-east oriented battlefield) is further to the east than where Patch and his battalion crossed it.

Dully I hoisted myself out of the mud and gave the signal to advance, which was answered by every man rising and stepping unhesitatingly into the barrage… we were surrounded by bursting shells and singing fragments, while above us a stream of bullets added their whining to the general pandemonium. The men were wonderful! And it was astounding that although no one ran or ducked, whilst many were blown over by shells bursting at our very feet no one was touched until we were through the thickest part of the barrage and making for the little ridge in front.

Then I saw fellows drop lifeless while others began to stagger and limp; the fragments were getting us and in front was a belt of wire. At this moment I felt my feet sink and though I struggled to get on, I was dragged down to the waist in sticky clay. The others passed on, not noticing my plight until by yelling and firing my revolver into the air I attracted the attention of Sergeant Gunn, who returned and dragged me out. I caught up the troops who were passing through a gap in the wire, and I was following Corporal Breeze when a shell burst at his feet. As I was blown backwards I saw him thrown into the air to land at my feet, a crumpled heap of torn flesh.

Sick with horror I scrambled over him and stumbled down into the cutting, which was the Steenbeck Stream. Crouched in here we found the Irish Rifles, and we lined up with them. There was a padre who gave me a cheery grin and further along was a major smoking a pipe as he sat on the bank with his back to the enemy. I climbed out of the stream and saluted him, noticing out of the corner of my eye that a tank was ditched in the cutting. I sat down beside him and told him who we were, and then from the heap of flesh that had been Breeze, I saw the stump of an arm raised an inch or two. Others saw it too and before I needed to tell them, the stretcher-bearers were on their way to him. Very gently they brought him in to where I was sitting. He was terribly mutilated, both his feet had gone and one arm, his legs and trunk were torn to ribbons and his face was dreadful. But he was conscious and as I bent over him I saw in his remaining eye a gleam of mingled recognition and terror. His feeble hand clutched my equipment, and then the light faded from his eye. The shells continued to pour but we gave poor Breezy a burial in a shell-hole and the padre read a hurried prayer.

…The ground sloped up so sharply in front that I could only see for about 30 yards. Behind us was nothing but the shell-swept waste of mud and filth. So I called to Corporal Benjamin to come and talk to me. He had just made some reference to poor Breeze, when there was a clang and he staggered back, his helmet flying off into the stream. A bullet had gone through it without touching him and his comical look of amazement and indignation as he retrieved it made me shriek with laughter…

We are now at the stage of every battle where things slow down: whatever was planned so minutely has run its course, and the various units who have come “through” the attacking waves must now assess the situation, discovering just where the enemy has been destroyed or retreated, and where he is hanging on. And with every hour on the battlefield the danger increases, as the German artillery, too, discovers what territory has been held and what can now be fired upon.

At about 3 p.m. we saw two figures walking back behind us, and recognizing Radcliffe we hailed him and ran across. His right wrist had been shattered by a sniper’s bullet and he was very upset for it was a rotten sort of blighty for a Doctor of Music to get. With him was Sergeant Bell who had got a bullet in the arm from the same sniper. It was with real regret that we gripped their left hands and said goodbye—we knew for ever. We felt that this was the beginning of the break-up and we rejoined our troops in deep dejection.

Half an hour later Ewing arrived, breathless from dodging the energetic snipers, and told me that I was to take command of the Company as he was going to HQ as adjutant in place of Hoskins, who had been hit… My instructions were to move the Company at dusk straight over to the left, form up behind the Gloucesters and after dark to push forward and deal with any machine guns in front.

Vaughan has not always had the confidence of the higher-ups in his battalion, but needs must. Despite being issued vague orders to make a lateral movement across a battlefield and then attempt the sort of small-unit tactical feat that will be the stuff of hundreds of war movies to come, he seems to acquit himself well–at least at first.

Owing to the murk of battle and the misty rain, we were able to move at 6 o’clock, so stumbling and dodging round the shell-holes we followed our guide over half a mile of mud and water in front of what had been St Julien. The  snipers were very busy as we crossed, but the light was so bad that the shots sang over our heads and no one was hit.

By the time we had formed up behind the Gloucesters, it was quite dark, so I immediately sent out four small patrols to locate the enemy line. In a very few minutes machine guns opened out and sprayed bullets over our line. The patrols all returned and reported that the ground in front was a morass of mud and water, and before they had gone a hundred yards the Boche had heard them floundering about, and had opened fire. I believed them but to satisfy myself I took a couple of men and went out towards a spot where I had judged a gun to be. In five minutes we were stumbling into deep holes full of water, and the noise we made dragging our bodies through the mud caused flares to shoot up all along his line and the ground was swept by traversing guns. By the light of one flare I thought I saw a low pillbox with figures standing before it, but I was not sure. In any case it was obvious that to attempt a night attack would be madness, so I took my patrol back. On the way we stumbled into a large swamp and waded about in water for some time before striking our positions.

Vaughan’s habit of honesty about his own shortcomings as an officer is one of the most valuable aspects of his diary. He hasn’t quite refused to perform a direct order, but he has asserted his own judgment–as a second lieutenant of very limited combat experience–that the suggested attack is “madness,” and demurred. This could be interpreted–unfairly, but still–as a failure of nerve, an unwillingness to get some of his men killed in capturing an important local objective. As a company commander, Vaughan now has only the battalion’s commanding officer to answer to:

I found the CO waiting for me and I sat down in the mud beside him feeling dead beat and horribly ill. What he was saying I had no idea, for I must have fainted or gone to sleep. After what seemed a long time I heard a voice saying
unintelligible things, and I was just able to mutter, ‘I’m awfully sorry. Sir, but I haven’t the least idea what you’re saying.’ He shook me violently and said ‘Now, Vaughan, pull yourself together.’ Whereupon I was alert in a moment and he repeated his instructions. I was to form up my platoons in depth to the right of where we were then sitting. The Gloucesters were going out before dawn and the following night I was to spread out to the left and form a line joining the Ox and Bucks. Then he left me and I sat for a while staring into the darkness, realizing that we were in a hell of a place.

It was a very different attack from what I had imagined we would experience: terror and death coming from far away seemed much more ghastly than a hail of fire from people whom we could see and with whom we could come to grips. And now we were in an unknown district and must await through the long night the uncertainties of the dawn…

But they still must go forward–the uncertainties of dawn are likely to include a counter-attack, and they must prepare for this as best they can.

Chalk and I went in front… in a few moments a salvo of high-velocity shells kept us flattened out in the mud as they crashed amongst us.

Coincidentally, David Jones sketched a different British tank elsewhere in the Salient today, a century back

As we pushed on again we discerned dimly, through the rain and darkness, a derelict tank. ‘What about that for an HQ, Sir?’ said Chalk. I assented and when I had positioned the troops in front with Jimmy Harding among them, I led my staff of runners, signallers and pigeon carriers back to that spot. As we approached it, however, we were met by a filthy, overpowering stench and found that a shell had burst underneath it and it had burnt out. The charred bodies of the crew were inside or half out of the open door. So I sought the healthier atmosphere of a large crater 30 yards away and gathered my staff in neighbouring shell-holes.

I was very tired but had to stagger out at once to see that the line was unbroken and I had a rotten time dodging shells. Feeling half dead I was on my way back when I heard a voice yelling ‘Stretcher-bearers’. It was Sergeant Swingler with a chunk of shrapnel in his shoulder…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Last Fighting Tommy, 90-101. The name Harry Patch will be familiar to Great War cognoscenti and even perhaps to those with little reading in the subject, and/or an interest in alternative rock. He was not really a writer, but his story is terribly moving, and even almost hopeful: at his funeral, in 2009, soldiers from Belgium, France, and Germany accompanied his coffin--and, in strict accordance with his wishes, there were no weapons present, not even ceremonial swords. So that was Harry Patch, and it seemed a shame, in the strange logic of military history, not to include his terrible day, here, in some way. At the very least this trauma of a century back gave a renewed push to the effort to remember the Great War properly--in its full awfulness--in hte two decades leading up to the centenary. But there is a good methodological reason, too, for including him: his story, "as told to" interviewers (and, for the book, to the military historian Richard Van Emden) is the most extreme sort of counterpoint to what I generally value the most, here. Instead of a near-immediate record in a dated diary entry or letter, we have the memories of a day only after these memories have weathered eighty or nineties years in the mind of a survivor--Patch didn't start talking about the war until he was over a century old. It's a reminder of what, from another point of view, really matters, and a rebuke from a very gentle old man: the section I quote from, above, begins "I'm told we attacked on 16 August, but the date doesn't mean much to me..." and then he, in Hemingway/Fussell fashion still remembers the names, but, as the first ellipsis, above, continues "it is such a long time ago that I can't quite connect them up in my head."
  2. His diary will be extensively worked over after the fact, at least in part to achieve this effect.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 193-200.

Toward Langemarck: More Gas for the Master of Belhaven; Kate Luard’s Saddest Sight; Harry Patch and Edwin Vaughan Arm for Battle

Today, a century back, was another eve of battle in the Ypres Salient. We begin with the Master of Belhaven, as the German artillery, surely aware of the new preparations, fire gas shells into the British support areas.

We were badly gassed last night. About midnight the Huns started off and we had to wear our gas-helmets for four consecutive hours. He is not content with firing .77 gas-shells, but is sending the gas over in 5.9 shells now. This is simply horrid, as the amount of gas liberated from one shell is so great that it is still highly concentrated at a considerable distance from where the shell burst. By bad luck the very first gas-shell that arrived last night burst just outside our dug-out. We were asleep at the time but woke at the crash and with the debris falling on the roof. In less than ten seconds the place was filled with concentrated phosgene. The first mouthful simply seized me by throat like a swallowing a spoonful of cayenne pepper. In the dark I was rather slow getting my gas mask on, and could not get the nose-clip to go on right. The result was that I got quite a lot of the horrible stuff. Within ten minutes I was feeling pretty bad–great difficulty in breathing and a dreadful sinking pain in the heart; the latter going rather fast and every now and then missing out a beat, which gave the sensation of sinking through the floor. This morning I am feeling very sick with a dull aching around the heart that is very uncomfortable. The bombardment is becoming intense again…[1]

 

Ypres is a cozy place, and if the smaller guns can’t reach the hospitals a few miles back, the big guns can–and so too the bombers, as Kate Luard reports. Few people can have had as much experience with the pathos of death from wounds as she has, but new situations can still bring home the depths of suffering which ripple outward from each of these torn bodies. Usually her duties as a nurse include easing the death of hopelessly wounded young men, and then providing what comfort she can to their parents–but not at the same time.

Wednesday, August 15th, 11.30p.m. This has been a horrid day. He bombed a lot of men near by and all who weren’t killed came to us. Some are still alive but about half died here. One of the saddest things I’ve ever seen is happening to-night. An officer boy is dying with his father (a Colonel) sitting holding his hand. The father happened to meet the Ambulance bringing him in, and the boy’s servant stopped him and told him his son was inside. He’s staying here to-night, and has just been pacing the duckboards with me, saying, ‘The other boy is a darling, but this one is the apple of our eye. I knew it must happen.’

…The Colonel’s boy died at 12.30.[2]

 

Going forward now are thousands of men from fresh divisions that have rotated into the line since the battle’s terrible first week. Edwin Vaughan now commands a platoon of the 8th Royal Warwickshires, the143rd Brigade, 48th (South Midland) Division. They are slated to support the new attack in the northern bulge of the Salient, near Saint-Julien, just south of Langemarck.

August 15

I could not sleep, but lay awake thinking and wondering about the attack, fancying myself blown to bits, or lying out on the wire with a terrible wound. It was not until dawn that I dozed off and slept fitfully until 9 a.m. The whole day we were busy, examining gas-masks, rifles, Lewis guns, field dressings, iron rations, identity discs, etc, and trying to joke with the troops despite the gnawing apprehension that was numbing our minds. Early in the evening I changed into Tommy’s uniform and tried to prepare for every contingency—spare laces and string in one pocket, spare pencils in another, scissors in my field dressing pochette, rations and cigarettes in my haversack with my maps, small message maps stuffed into my respirator satchel, and a pocketful of revolver ammunition. I also saw that my rosary was sewn into my tunic with the sovereign that Marie had given me for luck, and that my holy medals were firmly attached with my identity discs to my braces. We handed our money and decent cigarette cases over to CQMS Braham so that if anything happened to us Jerry would not have them. Then we mingled with the troops and talked lightly of tomorrow’s excitement.[3]

 

The 20th (Light) Division has recently taken the place of the 38th (Welsh) Division, so the 7th Duke of Connaught’s Light Infantry–among them a nineteen-year-old infantryman named Harry Patch–are assembling tonight in the area overrun by the comrades of David Jones and Hedd Wyn on the battle’s opening day. After taking up their burdens–as part of a Lewis gun team, Patch was issued a large amount of ammunition to carry along with the gun’s spare parts, his personal equipment, rations, water, and revolver–they crossed the Yser Canal at around 11:00 p.m.and headed toward the Steenbeck to take up positions for their early morning assault. [4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 367.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 144-5.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 193.
  4. The Last Fighting Tommy, 89.

The Master of Belhaven Returns to His Guns; Edwin Vaughan Continues On; The Meaning of Gordon Harbord; Frank Richards on Leave

Two dispatches from the Ypres Salient today are quite similar. First, the Master of Belhaven‘s battery has been sent back into the firing line, and the recent German shelling has left both physical and psychological scars.

After four nights’ rest in the wagon-lines, we have returned to our position in the Valley of the Shadow. It gave me the usual reception–a salvo of gas-shells landing within 50 yards of us just as we reached the guns. I found the sergeant who had been left in charge of the guns in a horrid state of nerves. He says they have been shelled all the time and gassed every night for at least five hours at a time. There certainly are a lot of new and large holes everywhere; however, that what is to be expected in this charming spot…[1]

 

Though still in the rear, Edwin Vaughan‘s day today is very much a day after action.

August 14 The others were all astir and excitedly examining the walls and roof which were literally riddled with shrapnel. Each of us had had a miraculous escape. Over each bed was a hole through which had passed shrapnel and had any of the others been sitting up they would have been hit. A chunk had gone through my valise and would have gone through me had I been in bed. Three separate chunks must have missed my head by inches, for the biscuit tin, tobacco tin, whisky bottles and a Tommy’s cooker on the table were all smashed to bits.

The papers showed that one man was an HQ man, the other a sergeant from the Trench Mortars. His papers were chiefly indecent postcards and we had just burnt them when the padre came in. I handed him the remainder of the effects, put on some dry pyjamas and went to bed.

From dawn onwards we received a constant stream of visitors to whom we displayed our shell-splintered hut with great pride, enjoying considerable notoriety. Then after lunch we packed up, and taking various little zigzag roads in an easterly direction for about two miles, we found ourselves at Dambre Farm near Vlamertinghe. Here we marched into a little field furrowed with deep channels full of water with knolls and shell-holes everywhere, and a few leaky old tents into which we crammed the troops who were in a rotten temper—induced chiefly by the rain.

Two miles further east is, here and now, a significant descent toward the infernal regions. Once again Vaughan is scrupulously honest about his own fear–and his comrades’.

Bennett now went back to ‘C’ Company and the remaining four of us took one tent and settled down to a terrible night of anticipation. After dawdling over a miserable dinner, we lay on the ground wrapped in our oilsheets and listened to the rain beating on the tent and the booming of the guns. We talked a bit and drank a lot until Radcliffe fell into a nasty mood. He said that we were all implying that he had windup; then he told us one at a time and all together that we had windup. Finally he cried and said we were all brave boys and none of us had windup. Then he went to sleep.[2]

 

Nothing much happened to Siegfried Sassoon today, as far as I can tell. Perhaps he played golf and read and walked, and enjoyed a chat with Dr. Rivers in the evening. But two significant things are going to happen soon: he will learn that he has lost one friend, and he will gain another. The lost friend is Gordon Harbord, a captain in the Field Artillery, who was killed today, a century back, in Flanders. They had been fox hunting buddies–Sassoon and Harbord and Harbord’s brother Geoff hunted together frequently in the years leading up to the war–and they had kept in touch with frequent letters ever since.

Despite–or because of–the fact that Harbord was not a comrade in arms or a fellow poet or in any way connected to the turmoil of Sassoon’s disillusionment, heroism, protest, and capitulation, this death will affect Sassoon more than almost any other. And yet we have very little to read about this reaction (Sassoon will find out about Harbord’s death in about a week, and there is at least one dated poem). This is largely due to an interesting authorial choice: in Sherston’s” memoirs George Sherston has no family, yet he loses one of his closest pre-war friends, Steven Colwood, in the autumn of 1915–at precisely the same time that the real Hamo Sassoon was killed. The prewar Colwood is closely based on Harbord, and the date of his death is the only significant departure from reality. It is, in fact, one of the most important deviations from Sassoon’s actual experience in the fictionalized memoir, and this gives Harbord the status of a sort of surrogate brother. But with “Colwood” having been killed off long before August 1917, there will be an absence now where Sherston–enthralled with his new father figure–should soon be mourning the death of his “brother.”

 

We’ll stay with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, now, and touch briefly in Belgium, England, and South Wales in noting a curious coincidence which might just be a slight mistake or fib. Dr. Dunn’s chronicle of the 2/R.W.F. includes a brief anecdote from a “senior N.C.O.” who went on leave today, a century back–the night before the battalion began to move from rest billets on the coast toward the Salient. It’s a good one-liner:

He was asked, after his return, what it was like at home. “I don’t know,” he said, “I got drunk the night I arrived, and was back in France again before I got sober.”[3]

Could this have been Frank Richards? Richards is an Old Soldier–a prewar regular who rejoined just after war was declared–but one who avoided promotion, so he’s not an N.C.O. Furthermore, in his memory (far from infallible) he went on leave not the night before but the very night the battalion went into the line–which would be tomorrow. And then there’s the fact that, in his own telling, he deviated from precisely the behavior described above. So perhaps this is just a coincidence, then, rather than a near miss/crossing of paths of two different tales stemming from the same source:

On the night the Battalion went in the line I went on leave. It was eighteen months since I had the last one and as usual I made the most of it. I didn’t spend the whole of it in pubs: I spent two days going for long tramps in the mountains, which I thoroughly enjoyed after being so long in a flat country… This time every man of military age I met wanted to shake hands with me and also ask my advice on how to evade military service, or, if they were forced to go, which would be the best corps to join that would keep them away from the firing line…[4]

So even the toughest miner-turned-soldier has taken to walking the hills of Wales for peace of mind and advising a sort of resistance. He writes with a touch of sardonic contempt instead of martyrous outrage–but otherwise it would seem that the officers and men are not as far apart as they are sometimes portrayed…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 366.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 192-3.
  3. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 374.
  4. Old Soldiers Never Die, 243-4.

Edward Heron-Allen in the Home Guard; Edward Brittain Admits it is Very Strange; A Fortunate Headache for Edwin Vaughan

Sir Edward Heron-Allen has previously turned up here only as the target of return fire in a rather ridiculous dispute with not-actually-an-enemy-alien Ford Madox Hueffer. But he kept a wide-ranging diary which is often very interesting despite itself. It charts a course somewhere between Duff Cooper‘s blithe privilege and Alfred Hale‘s proto-elderly schlimazzeling–it is privileged, high-spirited, yet cranky–and otherwise reflects the huge range of interests and self-interests proper to a middle-aged Late Victorian eccentric polymath. Still, who needs to read what one old county gentleman thinks of politics, farming, and the follies of the young?

Ah, but Heron-Allen has–like those other two–belatedly found his way into uniform. He’s a soldier now, too, of a sort, yet seldom does the diary have anything to do with the war that everyone else is fighting. Today, a century back, his local Home Guard unit (formed in 1914 but not recognized by the War Office until this year) is at last preparing for duty, and his account of his uniform and accessories has a bizarre but irresistible charm:

The Selsey Platoon has now got its uniforms… some of them like nothing on God’s earth but a foreign caricature of the British Tommy. My tailor could not do much to my uniform… I do not think I shall wear it very long however for the Sergent-Major tells me that soon after I am made Platoon Sergeant I am sure to be made Lieutenant…  All this is very trivial and Pepys-like, but I confess to a childish pleasure on this being ‘dressed up’…

I dined on Tuesday with my dear old mother, who was much interested in my military career! My father was one of the first volunteers (of 1859)… The old lady proudly presented me with his sword, a really beautiful weapon, elaborately etched with designs of various kinds… I have always wanted to possess it for it was always the admiration of my childhood…

I made a note on the exhibition of intensive hen-keeping, at the Zoological Gardens…[1]

 

Edwin Vaughan‘s diary is a different animal altogether. Less well-kept-hen than tense–but carefully groomed–rabbit, he has spent two days in a crouch, ears flared, near Poperinghe. But this is the real war…

August 13 We heard this morning that we are moving up again tomorrow and that on the 16th we will be in support to a battalion of Irish Rifles at St Julien. The imminence of the attack made me very frightened and I trembled so much that I could not take part in the discussion at first. But after poring over the map for a bit and passing on all information to my platoon, I grew calmer. Before noon we had learnt every detail of the ground from the map and, incidentally, had been issued with private’s clothing.

So this should be another stage of that slow journey up the line, from safety to misery and danger. But, especially in the Salient, the war doesn’t always follow the script.

After lunch Radcliffe, Harding and I went down to Pop for a farewell dinner. We have heard so much now, that we know what we are in for. We found the trench model quite close to Slaughter Wood and we stopped to examine it. At La Poupée we had a most wonderful dinner with many drinks so that when we started back through the darkness, we were all a little unsteady. When we got back into camp, Radcliffe and Harding were asleep in no time, but the champagne and the excitement of the attack prevented me from lying down even. I felt that my head was bursting, so in pyjamas and slippers I went out again into the wood. A gentle rain was falling and the mud came up over my bare ankles. I had walked about 30 yards from the hut when without warning there was a blinding flash and a shell burst close beside me. Staggering back I hurried to the hut as three more crashed down among the trees. Kneeling on the steps I groped along the floor for my tin hat; at the same moment another salvo fell around us, chunks whizzed past my head and I heard the splintering of wood and a clatter as if the table had gone over.

Then I heard a voice screaming faintly from the bushes. Jamming on my tin hat I ran up the track and stumbled over a body. I stopped to raise the head, but my hand sank into the open skull and I recoiled in horror. The cries continued and I ran on up the track to find that the water cart had been blown over on to two men. One was crushed and dead, the other pinned by the waist and legs. Other men ran up and we heaved the water cart up and had the injured man carried to the aid post. I took the papers and effects from the dead men and had the bodies moved into the bushes until morning. Then soaked with rain and covered in mud I returned to the hut.[2]

 

And finally, today, Edward Brittain has heard from his sister Vera, now stationed at a hospital at the Étaples base camp. He writes back to her with a mixture of dogged persistence in former roles (why write to a working nurse in Étaples about your six-weeks-lost valise?!?) and bemusement at her new circumstances. But neither of these subjects hold his pen for long: an officer who knows that battle is looming generally cannot entirely lift his eyes from the narrow horizon of future cares, and the “absurd” becomes a plan of attack without even a full stop.

France, 13 August 1917

Many thanks for your letters of the 7th and 9th. I think I know whereabouts you are though I don’t really know the side towards the sea…  I don’t want anything now thanks except that accursed valise…

It is very strange that you should be nursing Hun prisoners and it does show how absurd the whole thing is; I am afraid leave is entirely out [of] the question for the present; I am going to be very busy as I shall almost certainly have to command the co[mpan]y. in the next show because, as you know, some people are always left behind and Harrison did the last show just before I came out. I shall probably not be able to write at all regularly after the next few days though I don’t know for certain. . . Things are much more difficult than they used to be because nowadays you never know where you are in the line and it is neither open warfare nor trench warfare.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Journal of the Great War, 111.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 191-2.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 371.

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

Edwin Vaughan is almost there:

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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