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.

The Afterlife of Charles Sorley I: He is Dead, But His Writing Will Yet Live; A Decoration for Julian Grenfell; Rudyard Kipling’s Agony Continues; Patrick Shaw-Stewart Reads On

I didn’t have the heart to write, yesterday, of anything other than Charles Sorley‘s death. Nor did I have the foresight to dig into the sketchy biographical material to learn more of its circumstances. Sorley, more than most of our writers who have been killed–or who will be killed–was simply here, enduring the war, writing letters, writing poetry–and then gone.

He was not part of a famous unit, just an ordinary New Army battalion of the Suffolks; he was killed in an afterthought attack, a line-straightening exercise, a final ripple in the wake of Loos; he was killed instantly,[1] without the terrible uncertainty that followed John Kipling’s mortal wounding or the lingering death of Julian Grenfell.

Strangely enough, our lockstep with the calendar links Sorley to these better known casualties. Yesterday, a century back, was a significant day in the afterlife of Grenfell: October 13th, 1915, is the date of his posthumous Distinguished Service Order, a decoration which indicated, in this case, very valorous service over some period of time, and was second in prestige only to the Victoria Cross. Grenfell was a brave and aggressive officer, but since he was killed during a defeat and without achieving any particularly spectacular feat it is fair–if churlish–to note that his social prominence and his parents’ many highly-placed friends might have something to do with the award.

And today, a century back, Rudyard Kipling continued to reach out in the hopes that his son might still live. He wrote to the American ambassador to the Netherlands, a tenuous social connection who, as a neutral ambassador in a neutral country, is a potential go-between. It’s always the little details that are the most touching:

My dear Van Dyke
… We are still hoping that our boy, who was wounded and missing on the evening of Sep. 27th… if he were slightly wounded may, by now, be better and in some prisoner camp. Might I ask you of your kindness to see if you can find any trace of him…

He wore a small gold signet-ring with monogram J.K. and though he would have been wearing spectacles in action the mark of pince-nez which he usually wears is very distinct on both sides of his nose. He has a small scar on his forehead. For the rest he was 5 foot 7 or thereabouts, with slight dark moustache, dark brown hair and very strongly marked black eyebrows over brown eyes…

But he’s dead, of course, and hastily buried somewhere–those distinguishing marks are already gone. John Kipling, more than posthumously published Grenfell and Sorley, is now one of the millions of mouthless dead.

I’m still not really ready to write about Sorley’s death–or, that is, I don’t know what to say.

John Kipling we barely heard from, and his loss gets too easily swamped by the figure of his father. The myopic, courageous son of the imperial prophet becomes a sort of Abrahamic sacrifice stumbling forward into the descending blade,[2] Or, perhaps, his vanished body is stuff of the lesson learned–or not learned–by the powers that be, that the true cost of war is not measurable.

Grenfell’s death can almost be read as a sort of apotheosis, in part because of what he wrote, and in part because of the way in which his inimitable, sadness-denying mother, Lady Desborough, queen of the Souls, controlled the “message” of his death more firmly even than she had directed his life.

Grenfell loved war and he loved killing, and he claimed in his poetry that death in battle could be beautiful. This would seem to absolve those of us influenced, a century on, by the long literature of the pity of war, from mourning him quite as much as we mourn those who were reasonable and perceptive enough to hate war from the very beginning, like Charles Sorley; those who were brave enough to hate it without hating the German soldiers in the trenches opposite or even the old men (of whatever nation) who made it, like Charles Sorley; those who were wise enough to hate it more fiercely when they came to know it intimately, like Charles Sorley; and those who were unflinching in playing the role they had chosen, even when they came to realize that even a good officer could hardly save his men, and that continuing to serve likely meant only misery and violence, then death. Like Charles Sorley.

How to mourn a man dead a hundred years, and a day?

I don’t know, really, other than to read him. So we will keep on doing that, and we will see that his literary afterlife may be more fruitful (I wanted to write “happier,” but that seems even more directly in contradiction to the warning of Sorley’s last poem) than those of Grenfell and Brooke. Sorley, as a reader and a critic, was a prodigy. As a poet he was very good, but not fully developed. (Naturally; he was twenty.) He did not have an easy, musical ear, like Brooke at his best, but then again he had made the opposite choice in his last months: he eschewed bullshit and easy thoughts, and wrote straight to the real war, and from his place in it. This will gain appreciation.

All three poets–Grenfell, Brooke, Sorley–wrote (or can easily be read as writing) of their own deaths. For Brooke, a beautiful, soft-focus sacrifice for an air-brushed England. (Never mind the mosquito bite, and the disaster of the Dardanelles.) For Grenfell, a Homeric aristeia and a seat at the table, bullying lesser heroes in some Eton-ish Valhalla. (Never mind stalking men like stags, and the slow misery of a lingering head wound.)

Charles Sorley’s “last words” are enormously authoritative. Nor must we dabble in post-modern mysticism (or deny it?) to feel the terrible weight of context: these are words about the meaning of the dead physically salvaged from the body of their author. The poem is a warning: against easy sentiment, and against bad poetry. Sorley had read Brooke’s last sonnets, and demolished them.

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.”

If tears could do no good, a century back, then how much less use are they now? Nor are other emotional gestures–praise, honor. We nod our heads in agreement–prescience!

But what about what we are then bidden to say?

“They are dead.”

This sounds like an anticipation of what would become the dominant note of public memory after the war–formulated, of course, in part by Kipling, and given shape by Edwin Lutyens, an architect tormented, incidentally, by Osbert Sitwell‘s father–the simple, concrete statements of loss. The names on the blank and wounded walls. “A soldier of the Great War, known unto God.”

But this isn’t what Sorely is saying. The next image draws on the Classics, specifically the scenes in the Aeneid and the Odyssey in which the shades of the dead can communicate brief messages but cannot linger, or make real contact, or convey any certainties:

Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

Awkward prosody, but a powerful statement, and not one that had yet become commonplace. Death not only renders honor and glory meaningless–it destroys individuality.

This doesn’t finish the conversation. As I hinted yesterday, Robert Graves will be one of the first poets to pick up Sorley’s verses and carry them forward, to think “yes, this is how a serving officer and poet can write truthfully about the war.” So there will be more to talk about.

But Graves was only able to pick up Sorley’s verses–and we are only able to discuss his life and writing–because of the way his parents decided to remember him. (This is another thing that should be explicitly discussed here, at some point, as the number of dead grow, and fewer deaths will be “spoiled” by a discussion of what exactly we are reading and how it made its way into print/onto the internet.)

Compared to some of the war poets, several of whom wrote themselves memoirs and then later “received” (Sorley would smirk at this cliché) intensive biographical treatment, Sorley is not well-known. There are few stories, no flashy poems, no famous friends, only one rather awkward photograph. He would be–he could have been–almost completely forgotten were it not for his parents’ effort to see his work into print. First, Marlborough and Other Poems, which will come out early next year. Then a volume of his letters, which has been almost the sole source for his presence here.

So the Sorleys decided–despite their son’s wry commitment to a modesty that is very rare in brilliant young men, despite the warning in his last poem that memory is too weak, that no praise can reach the dead, and that the living should not imagine any success in their efforts to connect over this last divide–to make a memorial of his own words.

So the face is gone;  the boy, the young man, is irretrievably lost. For a century now, and a day. So I’ll write it as bidden: “He is dead.”

But then, stubbornly, inevitably, I’ll drone on. But his words, you see, his words linger… and if history and literature are not quite memory–and are certainly not some mystical preservation of vanished life–well, neither are they oblivion, quite. We can keep reading.


In the spirit of this “reading and writing go on” idea, then, I will gird up my loins and continue with one typical century-back fragment. This from our man in Gallipoli–and, of course, the fast friend of Julian Grenfell and his mother–Patrick Shaw-Stewart. He writes today to his childhood nurse and constant confidante, about food and books.

See? Food and books. Life goes on.

Own Dear, you are a perfect sweet to have sent those lovely cakes, the one that was like a Scotch bun was a great success with the French Staff, who had never tasted anything like it.

I think I am going to end my days on this old Peninsula, not necessarily prematurely, but just because I don’t see how I am to get off… However, I have very little to complain of. The senior liaison officer has gone away for the time being, and I am the Great Panjandrum myself, and have seven signallers and a Viscount under me!

…Did you ever tell me what a good book Redgauntlet is? I read it the other day and loved it on the strength of it. I’ve sent for Guy Mannering and The Heart of Midlothian, and am going to become a Sir Walterite in my old age. The one advantage of war is that one has time to read.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Or so all the secondary accounts I have read state. But whether they are based on more (believable sources) than the usual letters from officers to next of kin--which nearly always describe a swift and painless death--I do not know.
  2. Wilfred Owen will, of course, seize on the binding of Isaac story in one of his most explicit poems of protest.
  3. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 149-50.

Francis Grenfell Goes Back to the Sunlight; Julian Grenfell’s Outlook Darkens; Siegfried Sassoon Meets a Lovely Young Man


Francis and Riversdale Grenfell

This is another day to turn a page–a title page, to push the morbid analogy a bit farther.

I have quoted quite often from “Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell,” but the full title is Francis and Riversdale Grenfell: A Memoir. Buchan, a prolific writer on many subjects, is already, a century back, working on thrillers, journalism, and a history of the war. And now he will begin work on the joint memoir of the Grenfell twins. This has been my primary source on the lives of the twins, and I have been quoting occasionally from it since last spring.

Buchan today goes into the mode of a traditional military historian. He writes rousing prose, but with close attention to detail–when he can get it. When he can’t provide us with information on the doings in the very front, he writes in sweeping, broad-canvass fashion (cinematic prose, we would say). There is the brilliance of the day, the awesome misery of enduring the German attack, the heroic and bedraggled band of survivors…  Buchan is always a good reminder for us: he is a a well-connected, serious-minded, militarily-knowledgeable historian who is–always–writing literature. Being a writer of ripping yarns doesn’t really make you a good or bad historian on the facts, but it surely puts you on the road to writing compelling, strongly-shaped history. Today, however, the historian is only the advance guard for the life-writer.

The dawn of Monday, 24th May, promised a perfect summer day with cloudless skies and a light north-easterly breeze. About three a.m. the cavalry in the trenches saw a thick yellow haze, thirty feet high, rolling down from the ridge a hundred yards before them, and the air was filled with a curious pungent smell. They had had no previous experience of gas, and in twenty seconds the cloud was upon them. Then came the German guns, making a barrage behind to keep back reinforcements. Though our respirators at the time were elementary the cavalry managed to weather the gas, and held their ground through the seventeen long hours of daylight that followed. It was the last phase of the battle, and the German assault broke for good on that splendid steadfastness.

But a high price was paid for victory. In the small hours of the 25th a little party of some forty men stumbled in the half light along the Menin road, through the crumbling streets of Ypres, and out into the open country towards Vlamertinghe. Those who passed them saw figures like spectres, clothes caked with dirt, faces yellow from the poison gas. They were all that remained of the 9th Lancers. Their Brigadier, General Mullens, met them on the road, but dared not trust himself to speak to them. “Tell them,” he told the Colonel, ” that no words of mine can express my reverence for the Ninth.” Next day General Byng, who commanded the Cavalry Corps, visited the remnant. ” Put anything in orders you like,” he said. ” Nothing you can say will be adequate to my feelings for the old Ninth. Of course I knew you would stick it, but that doesn’t lessen my unbounded admiration of you all.”

With them they brought the body of Francis Grenfell. When the attack opened and the infantry on the left fell back, he was busy converting a communication trench into a fire trench, and shouting out in his old cheery way, “Who’s afraid of a few dashed Huns?”‘ He stood on rising ground behind the trench when he was shot through the back. He managed to send a message to his squadron, the true testament of the regimental officer: “Tell them I died happy, loving them all.” Then he who had once lived cheerfully in the sun, but for months had been among the fogs and shadows, went back to the sunlight.

He was buried in the churchyard of Vlamertinghe, and beside him was laid Sergeant Hussey, one of the most gallant N.C.O.’s in the Ninth. Some one said at the graveside, “How happy old Hussey would have been to know he died with Francis.”[1]

Neither Francis nor Riversdale were writers, really, although Buchan has quoted at times from their vivid letters. Nor were they intellectuals or unusual in their lives and opinions. I included them at first because they seemed to represent a certain type: the unreflective, self-assured aristocrats who have, however, the courage of their convictions–and more to spare. Orphaned, then done out of their money by an older brother’s financial mismanagement, the two–never mind their famous family, their costly educations, their lives of privilege–had come to seem like a strange sub-species of the innocent, blinkered-but-benign British boys who stumbled upon the war and embraced it as the answer to their problems.

Or does this story only resound so ringingly because Buchan–writing, with love, but also a good deal of condescension–made it that way? I don’t know his sources for today’s events, but he has taken what seems to be hearsay from combat-exhausted fellow soldiers and presented it without equivocation as Francis’s heroic last words. Is this too far for “history” to go? Can we be as confident as we would like that Francis died as he lived, a happy warrior to the end?

grenfell9thLancersIn any event it seems unfair to mark the death of the twins–Rivy was killed in September–by declaring them to be “types” who represent or “signify” some fundamental aspect of the early war experience. They were hardly ordinary officers–Francis, after all, won the Victoria Cross–and no one person’s experience (nor any pair of twins’) can be representative in any meaningful way. The point I want to make is about life-writing rather than historiography: these two will end up standing for the early war experience because that’s how their lives were written. By Buchan. Not that Buchan has traduced them, but he has shaped their stories as he chose–they, simply, did not get a chance to write their own lives. As the photo of his V.C. trading card at right vividly illustrates, one cannot control how one is remembered, nor can depth come from silence.

Because this project cleaves to the idea of being always exactly one century back, I rarely talk about the sources I’m using, not wanting to draw attention to a very likely presumption: that those who have published their stories must have survived the war (spoiler!), and those who are being written about by others (or who appear here only in contemporary documents) do not. This is a flaw in the plan, here–but worth, I hope, preserving the strange historical sensation of reading the war “in real time,” a century back. It’s true, too, that the presumption will not always be correct: some memoirs are written in the midst of the war, and do not guarantee their author’s survival; and some survivors published not a memoir but collections of letters or poems written during the war, with dates that I can seize upon.

Enough explanation. Francis Grenfell is dead, and John Buchan tells us that he lived joyfully and died, despite the cloud of his fortunes and the death of his twin, happily, in the end. His war story ends now, and his silence is absolute.


His cousin Julian, meanwhile, is still clinging to life. Lady Desborough’s diary is faintly upbeat today:

24 May  Home at 6:30. Lay down for an hour. Back to Hosp. Lister. Sargent at 11 gave us one thread of hope. We had quite given up hope. Ca & W[2] stayed there. I slept till 2. With him whole aft. Shade better. Slept there. he had fair night.[3]

Julian’s sister Monica wrote to his friend in hunting-and-innuendo Flossie Garth today, with greater medical detail–and additional positive reporting. She explains that the second operation had involved trepanning to remove pressure building up around the site of the first operation, and praises her brother’s fortitude:

He has been so wonderful and good and brave though it all–and he had been conscious almost all the time. He was talking today about you & Mr Hubert and of the happy hunting days…[4]

Conscious, but beginning to lose feeling in his extremities. According to Nicholas Mosley, who is probably drawing on Lady Desborough’s memoir,

One or other of his family were always with him… they told him of how well he had fought, and how they would cake him to get well in the forests by the sea in Normandy. They talked to him of old holidays, in Scotland or
at Panshanger; of an enormous fish he had once caught. He once clasped his mother’s hand and she said to him ‘That is what you do when you are asleep and you think I am going away’ and he said ‘No, it is only affection’. He said to his father when one of his arms began to be paralysed ‘Take my hand in your two strong hands and rub my poor arm’; and when his father did this and he groaned, he explained–‘It is only contentment’. He liked to have poetry read to him, and sometimes said poetry to himself. Of his own poems he liked to say ‘The Fighting Boar’. He also said his favourite speech from Euripides’ Hippolytus, in which Phaedra laments that she cannot be like her stepson. He prayed, mostly childhood prayers–those about which he had sometimes been ironical.[5]

Here, too, it is hard to separate reality from the stricken mother’s version–never mind the biographer’s point of view. Mosley, with that last phrase, is clearly signaling a polite disbelief of this beautiful, sad, symbolic family tableau. He is at pains to explain throughout the biography–which at times is almost a dual biography of Julian Grenfell and Ettie Fane/Grenfell/Desborough–that Lady Desborough’s most remarkable charismatic feat was to rewrite reality at her pleasure and compel others to conform to her view of the world. For many years Julian had violently and completely rejected his mother’s cult–but his letters usually show only affection. And now, paralyzed and silenced, his narrative–of their relationship and of everything else–is completely in her hands.

This isn’t history–this is a family story, and a very sad one.


There is sunlight and shadow in England today, too, but the shadow falls not yet on young Siegfried Sassoon–apologies, on “George Sherston”–living the heady life of a good regiment’s training camp.

Life in the officers’ mess was outwardly light-hearted. Only when news came from our two battalions in France were we vividly reminded of the future. Then for a brief while the War came quite close; mitigated by our inexperience of what it was like, it laid a wiry finger on the heart. There was the battle of Festubert in the middle of May. That made us think a bit. The first battalion had been in it and had lost many officers. Those who were due for the next draft were slightly more cheerful than was natural.

The next thing I knew about them was that they had gone—half a dozen of them. I went on afternoon parade, and
when I returned to the hut my fellow occupant had vanished with all his tackle. But my turn was months away yet… [Sassoon’s ellipsis]

The following day was a Sunday, and I was detailed to take a party to church. They were Baptists and there were
seven of them. I marched them to the Baptist Chapel in Bootle, wondering what on earth to do when I got them to the door. Ought I to say, “Up the aisle; quick march”? As far as I can remember we reverted to civilian methods and shuffled into the Chapel in our own time. At the end of the service the bearded minister came and conversed with me very cordially and I concealed the fact that it was my first experience of his religion. Sunday morning in the Baptist Chapel made the trenches seem very remote. What possible connection was there?

This, it hardly bears pointing out, is the “novelistic” prerogative of the memoir writer in all its glory. He foreshadows. He gives us, that is, a prospective irony of proximity that he had not yet, a century back, himself earned. We smile sadly with him, knowing, as he did not, that the trenches are very close indeed.

Sassoon will give us a carefully “factual” account of his past. The names are changed, sure, but the fiction is stretched so close to the skeleton of his own experiences that the real threat to the historically-minded reader’s sensibilities is not that he writes of “Sherston” and not “Sassoon” or that the dates might be wrong, but rather that his greatest concern as a writer is with the nature of time and memory. This is Sassoon’s “binary vision–” but one eye is always dominant. He writes what he sees in retrospect, after ruminations and reconsideration of the vanished years between. He is not trying to recapture what he saw then, or perhaps what he saw–but not how he saw it. The Sassoon of 1915 is a reporter become a character in a future report–and he doesn’t get the final edit.

We arrive now at today–a Monday, a century back:

Next day some new officers arrived, and one of them took the place of the silent civil engineer in my room. We had the use of the local cricket ground; I came in that evening feeling peaceful after batting and bowling at the nets for an hour. It seemed something to be grateful for—that the War hadn’t killed cricket yet, and already it was a relief to be in flannels and out of uniform. Coming cheerfully into the hut I saw my new companion for the first
time. He had unpacked and arranged his belongings, and was sitting on his camp-bed polishing a perfectly new pipe. He looked up at me. Twilight was falling and there was only one small window, but even in the half-light his face surprised me by its candour and freshness. He had the obvious good looks which go with fair hair and firm
features, but it was the radiant integrity of his expression which astonished me. While I was getting ready for dinner we exchanged a few remarks. His tone of voice was simple and reassuring, like his appearance. How does he manage to look like that? I thought; and for the moment I felt all my age, though the world had taught me little enough, as I knew then, and know even better now. His was the bright countenance of truth; ignorant and undoubting; incapable of concealment but strong in reticence and modesty. In fact, he was as good as gold, and everyone knew it as soon as they knew him.

Such was Dick Tiltwood,[6] who had left school six months before and had since passed through Sandhurst. He was the son of a parson with a good family living. Generations of upright country gentlemen had made Dick Tiltwood what he was, and he had arrived at manhood in the nick of time to serve his country in what he naturally assumed to be a just and glorious war. Everyone told him so; and when he came to Clitherland Camp he was a shining epitome of his unembittered generation which gladly gave itself to the German shells and machine-guns—more gladly, perhaps, than the generation which knew how much (or how little, some would say) it had to lose. Dick made all the difference to my life at Clitherland. Apart from his cheerful companionship, which was like perpetual fine weather, his Sandhurst training enabled him to help me in mine. Patiently he heard me while I went through my repetitions of the mechanism of the rifle. And in company drill, which I was slow in learning, he was equally helpful.[7]

“Dick Tiltwood” is David Cuthbert Thomas, a young Welsh officer impossible to dislike, and easy to love. “Sherston” has found a friend and model–never mind the fact that “Tiltwood” is eight years younger–a practical teacher and a comrade gifted with the sort of peaceful sunny strength that will both draw others to him and serve them all in good stead when they go together into the violent dark…

And Sassoon the memoir writer has found a symbol, an epitome, a focal point, an embodiment of a nation and a class and a generation, with no idea how much he might lose…


References and Footnotes

  1. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 233-5.
  2. I.e. Willy, Lord Desborough, and Monica, "Casie," their daughter.
  3. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 299.
  4. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 332.
  5. Mosley, Julian Grenfell, 263.
  6. For my American readers, perhaps, especially, this name will seem to be a remarkably blatant bad joke, as both "dick" and "wood" are common slang terms for the penis. Given Sassoon's quondam homosexuality and his love for Thomas on the one hand and his memoir's sad seriousness on the other, it might seem to be a bizarre choice... but it is a linguistic coincidence. This is not a "dick joke."
  7. Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man, 240-1. (I will use page numbers from the one-volume Complete memoirs of George Sherston throughout.)

Julian and Francis Grenfell Take Communion; Charles Sorley and Vera Brittain’s Thoughts Wander in Church; Bally Belgians & Dirty Dogs Have Been Spreading Yarns About Lady Feilding; Patrick Shaw-Stewart on Larks, Corpses, and Poetry; Robert Graves Spins a Yarn

The swelling around Julian Grenfell‘s brain has increased. His mother’s diary is grim today–but still hopeful.

23 May

We all had Communion with Julian at 7. Darling Julian less well, a second operation sole chance, performed at 11. Saw him at 1. With him from 4 straight on & all 3 there all night. He slept after 1.15 & from 20 to 5 very soundly.[1]

While Julian clings to life, his cousin Francis prepares for battle–and he too sought the solace of sacrament.

On the morning of Sunday the 23rd Francis, along with his Colonel, attended early Communion. I have said little of that religion which was so strong a feature of his character, for it was of the simple and vital type which is revealed more in deeds than in phrases. He was never at ease in Sion, and shunned the professions of facile piety. But he did not lose his childlike trust in God, and drew strong and abiding comfort from a creed which was as forthright and unquestioning as a mediaeval crusader’s. He and Rivy during their brief campaign together read the 121st Psalm every morning. Francis never went into a match, much less a battle, without prayer.[2]

This connection of sport and battle–placing the two at different locations on the same sliding scale by which one determines the need for divine aid and protection–is more common now, surely, than it was a century ago. And Buchan is not quite making the same semi-assertion by so many of today’s religious athletes that God has beenvwith them–them more than others–during a game. Rather, I think, he is presenting the idea that Francis and Rivy looked to God before times of danger. Their sport was polo and polo is a dangerous sport, if “much less” than battle. But they were more often co-conceptualized as trials, contests, opportunities for glory… so the phrasing still begs the question: “do you mean to hope that God protects you from harm or also, you know, that He will help you defeat/kill the other fellow?”

The willingness to at least imply the answer “both” is, to my mind, a thing recent and American and strange. (When, that is, sport and battle are deliberately placed on the same continuum–obviously the invocation of God against the enemy has a long and distinguished and nearly universal history.) But we should remember that it is actually a very British thing, a Newbolt thing, sprung from the exact milieu of these Grenfells, in the generation of their fathers.

Back to the war. The 9th Lancers had seen bloody battle in the Ypres Salient between the thirteenth and the fifteenth, then had two days in rest-reserve and several more in support. Tonight, a century back, they moved into the front line at Hooge, as the core of an ad-hoc force which their colonel divided into two squadrons. Francis commanded “B” Squadron, on the left, “with the two regimental machine guns and about 200 Yorkshires.”


Battle is coming again. But some are still awaiting their chance–and no longer patiently. Charles Sorley writes to Arthur Watts, erstwhile teacher of English at the University of Jena, and now, like Sorley, a New Army subaltern.

Aldershot, 23 May 1915

We are in a mass of accounts I do not understand, and sometime next week we shall exchange this bloody
“area” for a troop-ship at Southampton, and then a prim little village in France in the middle of some mildly prosperous cultivation–probably. On the other hand we may sit here for weeks, making our wills and looking at our first field dressings and reading our religions on our identity discs. In jedem Falle [in any event, always, no matter what happens] we know that we are stale to the moulding point and sooner or later must be chucked across to France. We profess no interest in our work; our going has lost all glamour in adjournment; a weary acceptance of the tyranny of discipline, and the undisguised boredom we feel toward one another, mark all our comings and goings: we hate our general, our C.O. and men; we do not hate the Germans: in short we are nearing the attitude of regular soldiers to the army in general.

And so one lives two lives. The other one–appearing very occasionally in London, at the theatre watching the Irish Players; in church, when the band plays and amazement at the noise and splendour and idolatry shakes one to one’s senses–is still as pleasant as ever. So I have no cause to complain, really. I am so convinced that one’s profession is bound to be dull, and it is only in by-paths that one finds enjoyment, that I am almost thinking of staying in the army, as a fairly profitable, not too exacting main course…[3]

That, surely, is a half-joke. Sorley, irascible and certainly not in possession of any “childlike trust in God,” is deeply frustrated, and this is probably just a casual sally. But he, an independent spirit and intellectual, is stultifying. Boredom, waiting–and, though he doesn’t say it–not even the satisfaction of doing what one volunteered to do, of learning whether one is brave, efficient, etc. is weighing hard upon him. It won’t be long now.


The faint religious theme continues, with its new musical motif. Vera Brittain, who received yesterday Roland’s letter about seeing bodies removed from a mine and essentially re-copied it into her diary, today begins with religious music. She is not tending atheistical, quite, (she had an intellectual/religious revival phase in her late teens) but she is neither simply entertained by the “noise” of religious music and the “idolatry” of ceremonial, nor moved to thoughts that are exactly churchly…

Sunday May 23rd

After prayers I went again to the New College organ recital. I have come to the conclusion that music awakens the usually dormant physical side of my emotions. When I am listening to music it is always the touch, the voice, the physical embrace of the beloved that I long for. I ache more then for the feel of his hand over mine and the glance of his eyes when I look into his, than at any other time. And I dream of my imagined children…[4]

This, alas, is not something she can put in a letter to her beloved, or at least not half so baldly.


Vera and Roland have been chaste, however strong their longings. Lady Feilding too, so far as we know. There Belgian beaux from time to time, but she is working too hard to worry about propriety. The world is changing… but the gender politics police are not hanging up their whistles, quite yet:

May 23rd

dorothie and Dr. Jellet

Lady Feilding and Dr. Jellett outside their home in Furnes

Mother darling–it’s a puzzling world & I get fed up with it at times. Here am I out here, wearing trousers & hoping people will look on me like a boy just because I feel & live like one & it seems no one is the least deceived & old Mrs Grundy as active ever! You see since Fumes was shelled the corps has been necessarily split into four small groups… The Fumes group consisted of the Coopers & Gurney in one little house & Munro, Mrs Clitherow, Jellett & I in the other. Well for the last 2 or 3 weeks, Munro & old Clitherow having left, Dr Jellett and I have necessarily been alone in the little house. There are two other rooms used at odd times by casual members drifting in but at the moment there are no other possible inhabitants. It appears bally Belgians & dirty dogs have been spreading yarns that I had no business to be there alone with Jellett, but there is no alternative. Bevan was asking the Mission advice about the ‘lady’ question & they were very indignant & said to pay no attention & it didn’t matter a scrap. We had just to adapt ourselves to war conditions & everyone realised it & more honour to us because we just ‘lumped’ things…

I am just writing you all this in case you might get yarns via Dunkerque or some busybody which would worry you. Whereas there is nothing to be worried about when you know the facts. Jelly is a hot tempered old cuss but a very good sort really & does his work A1 & is one of the most genuineely useful members we have in the corps…[5]


Penultimately, today, let’s look in on Patrick Shaw-Stewart, still ashore at Gallipoli with the Hood Battalion and writing to his childhood nurse.

A lovely pair of drawers arrived yesterday, which I am now wearing with great pride, having prepared myself for them by bathing in the sea yesterday afternoon, and getting rid of some of the dust and dirt of the trenches. (Dust is better than mud anyhow, and hot than cold.) We had been to the French camp to try and buy wine, and so bathed near there—and the difficulty we had to get out of the range of dead horses in the sea was something painful. There’s no doubt, Dear, that that’s the worst part of war—the dead bodies of man and beast. There was another heap of dead in front of the trench, and at dawn a lark got up from there and started singing—a queer contrast. Rupert Brooke could have written a poem on that, rather his subject.

Is this… a little bit of cheek? To his old nurse? Is he slighting Brooke?  What would-be modern wouldn’t write a poem on such a contrast (we shall see dozens), and why should this new situation be Brooke’s subject in particular? Brooke was not a notable ironist, and had anything but a light touch with the subject of mortality…  but perhaps there is no disrespect intended, and this is just the bluff manner of a new old soldier.

A strange letter, and setting a record, perhaps, for the shortest distance between “thanks for the parcel” and the “death and (beautiful) nature” theme. But Shaw-Stewart covered similar ground ten days earlier, and in this one there is no real jadedness to his ironic appreciations:

To-day I am… interested in Nature—the most divine poppies and vetches making the whole place red and blue, and a quite black cypress grove full of French artillerymen down which I took 100 stokers this morning to bathe sumptuously in the actual Dardanelles themselves! And the great and startling beauty of blue jays and cranes, the latter as large and frequent as aeroplanes. (Ibycus did himself proud in birds.)

…Another aspect of creation which is of vital interest is the insect department. Besides centipedes and other monsters, this peninsula is marvellously rich in various species of ants, spiders, and beetles, with which, in our troglodytic life, one becomes curiously familiar. I am constantly reminded of the invocation of Achilles in the Iliad which mentions the Selloi,[6] a peculiar tribe of dervishes sacred to Zeus, ‘‘who couch on the ground and never wash their feet.” The former prescription I have complied with rigorously for the last fortnight and the latter I have broken very seldom. I am slightly surprised, not so much at my health, which I knew I could trust, as at my absence of tiredness. Three nights running (with the fight in between) I had practically no sleep, as one can’t trust the Petty Officers to control the men’s fire in the first line trenches—and I really felt as fresh as a lark at the end of it.

No ellipses before larks, even in similes! Shaw-Stewart has asked for supplies from home, as well, and you know I also can’t resist these lists:

Malted milk and gelatines are wonderful to carry in the pocket, but one isn’t always on the march, and the amount of more solid and luxurious food one can consume at one meal is surprising—so that some more unpractical non-portable treats like that first lot of shortbread, or any sort of cakey substance, would be most acceptable. Another great idea which has struck me, is that you might get hold of a bottle of good old brandy… another thing is that chocolate goes in a flash… another still is that butter is a wonderful treat…

On the other hand, cease to bother about shaving sticks, as I have grown beautiful red beard. On the other hand, socks, bootlaces, and note-paper (plenty of it) always wanted, and pencils and matches. Oh, and I want a really good air cushion, that must be tested by sitting on it—the fattest shopwalker—for a good stretch, as they nearly all leak if you put them under the hip-bone, and you wake up collapsed on the hard earth…[7]


And finally, today (according to the suspect but basically acceptable dating given in the memoir version of his first days in the trenches), Robert Graves presents one of the all-time-great trench tall-tales:

Our machine-gun crew boil their hot water by firing off belt after belt of ammunition at no particular target, just generally spraying the German line. After several pounds’ worth of ammunition has been used, the water in the guns–which are water-cooled–begins to boil. They say they make German ration and carrying parties behind the line pay for their early-morning cup of tea. But the real charge will be on income-tax after the war.[8]

Terrific stuff, worthy of a sight-gag/ironic aside in a latter-day action film. But, you know, not true. Another of our writers–George Coppard, who is going out soon and will eventually become a specialist machine-gunner, has heard the tale, and explains that it cannot be true.

This suggests that machine gunners who fancied a cup of tea or a shave simply loosed off a couple of belts. In fact, this was not the case, as tea laced with mineral oil would taste pretty ghastly. Also machine-gun crews who seemed to be firing ‘indiscriminately’ might well be engaged on barrage fire,[9] and infantry officers would not necessarily be aware of that fact.[10]

That bastard Graves! Memoir fraud! Lies! How dare he!

Paul Fussell reassures us:

We are in no danger of being misled as long as we perceive that Good-Bye to All That is no more “a direct and factual autobiography” than Sassoon‘s memoirs. It is rather a satire, built out of anecdotes heavily influenced by the techniques of stage comedy…[11]

The whys and wherefores of this genre-bending decision by Graves–the literary glories and the historical dangers of embracing satire and comedy and factual flexibility and dressing it up as autobiography–we shall continue to explore in the coming months and more…


And, hardiest of readers, a post-script: Edward Thomas took a walk past Warnford, Hampshire, today, a century back, where he saw a clear-running brook and heard the calls of Sedge-Warblers. He scrawled down in his notebook a few fragments of what would shortly become a wonderful poem… which there will be a little more room to write about in two days’ time…

References and Footnotes

  1. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 298.
  2. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 232-3.
  3. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 265-6.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 200.
  5. Lady Under Fire, 75-6.
  6. Il. xvi. 235.
  7. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 131-4.
  8. Good-Bye to All That, 109-110.
  9. Firing, that is, not directly at targets they can see, but on a ballistic arc, lofting bullets from behind their own trenches into--or so they hoped--those of the enemy.
  10. Coppard, With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 93.
  11. The Great War and Modern Memory, 207.

The Cavalry Are Into Battle at Last, and Both Grenfells Under Fire; A View-Halloo from Colwyn Philipps; The Nursing Sister Can’t Bear the Graves

The 1st and 3rd Cavalry Divisions–the last, elite reserves–are bearing the brunt of the German push toward Ypres. Both Grenfells–Julian and his cousin Francis–are now going into action for the first time this spring.

Thursday, 13th May, a day of biting north winds and drenching rains, saw one of the severest actions of the battle. The German bombardment began at three a.m., and in half an hour parapets were blown to pieces, and the whole front was a morass of blood and mire. The heaviest blow fell on the 3rd Cavalry Division south of the
Roulers railway, but the 1st Division did not escape. Its two brigades in line, the 1st and 2nd, were able to maintain their ground, but it was by the skin of their teeth. The 9th Lancers’ front was held by ” C ‘ Squadron, under Captain Graham, on the left, and ” B ” Squadron, under Francis, on the right…

1915_mapAll day the battle lasted, and by the evening the right of the cavalry front towards the Bellewaarde Lake sagged backward. During the early night the bombardment revived, and it was the turn of “B” squadron to have their right flank exposed… At one a.m. on the morning of the 14th the Ninth were relieved, and went back to water-logged trenches in front of Ypres, whence late that evening they were withdrawn to Vlamertinghe. They had lost 17 killed and 65 wounded, and “B” Squadron 16 killed and 30 wounded, including all troop leaders and sergeants.

Francis’s part in the great fight is only hinted at in his diary:

The most fearful bombardment lasted for fifteen hours. It is wonderful how one escapes. These cursed coal-boxes burst all down the trench, but often missed us, often only by two or three yards, but that makes all the difference. Whatever is in store for the future, I shall never be nearer death than I was on the 13th. The spirit of the men was simply splendid. No one dreamed of retiring, and when some Huns began advancing there was a cheer of ‘Hurrah! at last we shall get our own back!’ Unfortunately one of our own shells pitched near them, and they ran like hares. Oh, dear! What a lot of friends I have lost.

He mentions casually that during the whole battle he “felt keen and never lost confidence.” Indeed he seems to have behaved throughout as if he were having a good day in the Shires… During the 13th, when generals and staffs were in utter perplexity as to where the line stood, and were receiving scarcely varying messages of disaster, the report which Francis sent back to General Greenly was a welcome relief. He concluded thus: “What a bloody day! Hounds are fairly running!”[1]


Julian Grenfell began the day no more than a mile or two away, and was soon ordered forward.[2] The regimental diary gives the bare bones of the day’s actions:

4 am–Very heavy bombardment of GHQ line, Railway… The enemy employed Heavy Howitzers, H[igh]E[xplolsive], shrapnel and ‘whizz-bangs’.

5.30/6 am–A slight lull. Rifle fire could be heard but not very heavy. Capt Atkinson tried to get telephone contact communication but was hit in the back by shrapnel and died within half an hour.

6 am–Firing started again as heavily as ever… Sclater-Booth had been posted as an observer at the corner of the communication trench but we had no news from him.

7 am–Lt Col Smythe-Bingham, Com[man]ding 3rd D[ragoon] G[uar]ds informed the General that the Germans had broken through his line. On receipt of this information the Royals were ordered to form up for the counter-attack. The Colonel with most of the Regiment moved up through the wood towards the front edge…

This movement can be seen in the tactical map, above, just up and in a bit from the lower right corner. The next paragraph in the diary relates an extremely confusing series of movements and counter-movements, and the likely mistaking of kilted British troops for Germans. Eventually, the line was found to be intact, the last reserves not yet needed:

The Regiment meanwhile having advanced to the edge of the wood with their left near the railway and their right on the communication trench had found there was no need for their help and returned again to their original dugouts… During this operation we had been subjected continuously to a very heavy shelling and our losses had been very severe.

Only the officer casualties are noted: four are dead and two wounded, out of the fifteen on hand when the day began. It is now 8:30 AM.

Later this year we will spend some time here learning how to read and use trench maps. Or at least I shall, and I will pass on whatever is most useful. Part of the ground fought over by the Royal Dragoons today can be traced on these maps, but the only one I’ve readily found on the web is much later, from 1917. So the map references are correct, but all the trenches were not there yet, a century back.

Still, you can just see the farm referred to below–“Oskar Fm” in the left center of the square labeled 6. The Royal Dragoons were, then, a few inches directly below, accounting for the off-kilter photo of the map. (Different maps are good! Difficulty in reading forces more than a glance, and starts the process of really grasping the landscape. Here, for instance, the same railway runs straight across the map. As for the blurriness, I do apologize. I will investigate the DVD-ROM version.)

frezenberg trench map cropped

The diary continues:

8.30 am–We now had got all our men back into the dugouts or in a trench just above them. From the left of the trench the situation could be seen… The Germans appeared to be massing in the Farm houses referred to above and certain number of them had occupied the trenches vacated by the 7th Brigade and some irregular trenches in front of these. There was a gap of over 60 yds N of the railway, which was unoccupied. From our position we could enfilade any further German advance and selected a Machine Gun position to take them in flank. They did not, however, come on any further and this gun did not come into action. We had an observation post at the corner of the wood, and Corporal Talbot rendered valuable service at this duty.

10 am–About this time, Captain Miles who was in one of the dugouts was hit by a shrapnel bullet through both calves. Capt Sclater-Booth consequently took command of ‘C’ Squadron. The Germans continued to concentrate in the farms referred to above and the General asked our guns to shell the farms. This they did but without much success as most of the shrapnel burst too high. There was no artillery observer with us and no telephone.

Second-Battle-of-Ypres-1915Because of this, runners, mounted officers, and even a private on a bicycle were used to carry messages to and from the scattered units of the brigade and between the infantry and the artillery.

This was very much the 19th century manner, in which generals exposed themselves on hilltops in order to survey the situation and brave officers galloped about with their orders. But here there is 20th century artillery–not always much good against entrenchments and concrete, but very deadly to exposed men. In the map at right the lake (Hooge Lake labeled here as Bellewaarde Lake) is visible and the railway now runs in its familiar SW-to-NE direction. If you work south to the bottom of the map and take note of the contour lines, you will arrive at the wooded hills from which the brigadier was attempting to direct fire.

The diary goes on to praise several officers and men who acted as runners during the morning. Julian Grenfell has not yet been mentioned, but it is evident that he has unofficially attached himself to the brigadier, serving as a sort of aide de camp while his squadron is once again (relatively) safe in trenches. He seems to have gone forward more than once to take messages to the North Somerset Yeomanry, and, according to one witness, Grenfell affected perfect nonchalance, “stroll[ing] around as if he were on a river.”[3]

The diary continues:

1.30 pm – About 1.30 pm Grenfell and the Brigadier who had been observing were both hit by a shell, the former severely in the head and the latter slightly in the back.

Nicholas Mosley, in his biography of Grenfell, reconstructs the scene:

A shell landed a few yards from them, and both Julian and the General were hit. Julian said ‘Go on down, I’m done’. But the General, who was only slightly wounded, helped Julian down the hill. Julian had a splinter of shell in his head. He was so cheerful that people did not think his wound was serious. He said ‘I think I shall die’. When a friend remonstrated with him he said ‘You see if I don’t!’

He was taken to a dressing station, and it was still thought that his wound was not serious enough to prevent him being sent to England.[4]


Not far away–in trenches between the Menin and Zonnebeke road, both of which can be picked out, above–was another cavalryman poet. Among the most elect units of the old army were the Royal Horse Guards, part of the 8th brigade. In the first map, above, they can be seen occupying a place just to the north of the railway. Throughout a day of “the most awful shell fire that God ever had allowed” they were constantly moved to threatened portions of the line, just to the north of where the Royal Dragoons had advanced, and then retreated.

At about 2:30 in the afternoon, the Horse Guards were ordered forward again “in a terrific hailstorm, only lead instead of hail.” Captain Colwyn Erasmus Philipps led his squadron forward, and the trooper in his squadron who wrote the account cited was immediately hit, and began a seven-hour crawl to the aid post. Philipps’ body was never found.

artist or estate?; (c) Philipps House, Dinton; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Colwyn Erasmus Philipps

According to one of his brother officers, Philipps sold his life dearly:

His end was worthy of his life, as he was the first man in the trenches and killed five Germans before he was shot at close quarters and instantly killed. The whole regiment is ringing with his gallantry.

As far as I can remember Colwyn was giving view-halloos [the call of a hunter in sight of his quarry] as we advanced and shouting.” Come on, boys,” and waving his cap. The last I saw of him was when he was on his knees, in front of us and facing us, waving his cap and shouting, “Come on, boys.” Every time I looked at him he was cheering the men on.

This is harsh, in the face of such slaugher (such heroism, such sacrifice), but it’s what we’re here for: it’s impossible to know, historically speaking, what happened to Philipps. Nothing is less reliable than a combat memory tinted with trauma and loss and recorded as a conscious memorial, and the officer registers his fictionalizing with “as far as I can remember.” We don’t know–but we can read it as written. The story of his death is a tightly-focused, stirring, suspiciously derivative, stirring story.

When Colwyn Philipps’s kit was sent home to his parents, the following verses were found in his notebook, and later published:

There is a healing magic in the night.
The breeze blows cleaner than it did by day.
Forgot the fever of the fuller light,
And sorrow sinks insensibly away
As if some saint a cool white hand did lay
Upon the brow, and calm the restless brain.
The moon looks down with pale unpassioned ray—
Sufficient for the hour is its pain.
Be still and feel the night that hides away earth’s stain.
Be still and loose the sense of God in you,
Be still and send your soul into the all,
The vasty distance where the stars shine blue,
No longer antlike on the earth to crawl.
Released from time and sense of great or small
Float on the pinions of the Night-Queen’s wings;
Soar till the swift inevitable fall
Will drag you back into all the world’s small things;
Yet for an hour be one with all escapèd things.[5]


A very bad day at Ypres. Things are not going well in Artois today either.

Thursday, May 13th, 11 a.m.—Can’t face the graves to-day; have had an awful night; three died during the night. I found the boy who brought his officer in from between the German line and ours, on Sunday night, crying this morning over the still figure under a brown blanket on a stretcher.

Of the other two, brought straight in from the other dressing station, one only lived long enough to be put to bed, and the other died on his stretcher in the hall.

The O.C. said last night, “Now this War has come we’ve got to tackle it with our gloves off,” but it takes some tackling. It seems so much nearer, and more murderous somehow in this Field Ambulance atmosphere even than it did on the train with all the successive hundreds.

We can see Notre Dame de Lorette from here; the Chapel and Fort stand high up in that flat maze of slag-heaps, mine-heads, and sugar-factories just behind the line on the right.

Again I feel compelled to note that the Nursing Sister’s vantage point is uniquely effective: far enough back for a sense both of military strategy and the scale of the carnage, close enough to the front to hear of individual pain and suffering and heroism and despair.

This view of Notre Dame de Lorette confirms, by the way, that she is in Artois, near both the southern end of the British line (the names are Cuinchy, and Aubers, and, soon, Festubert) and the more successful French assault. I suppose it fits well my practice of sonorously chiming the war’s major themes while avoiding any individual spoilers to note that Notre Dame de Lorette will be ruined, and its ridge will become France’s largest military cemetery.

As the sister will soon realize, the British are about to resume their offensive.

9 p.m., O.D.S.—Everything very quiet here.

A gunner just admitted says there will probably be another big bombardment to-morrow morning, and after that another attack, and after that I suppose some more for us.

Another says that the charge of the Black Watch on Sunday was a marvellous thing. They went into it playing the pipes! The Major who led it handed somebody his stick, as he “probably shouldn’t want it again.”

It is very wet to-night, but they go up to the trenches singing Ragtime, some song about “We are always—respected—wherever we go.” And another about “Sing a song—a song with me. Come along—along with me.”

11 p.m.—Just heard a shell burst, first the whistling scream, and then the bang—wonder where? There was another about an hour ago, but I didn’t hear the whistle of that—only the bang. I shouldn’t have known what the whistle was if I hadn’t heard it at Braisne. It goes in a curve. All the men on the top floor have been sent down to sleep in the cellar; another shell has busted.

12.15.—Just had another, right overhead; all the patients are asleep, luckily.

1.30 p.m.—There was one more, near enough to make you jump, and a few more too far off to hear the whistling. A sleepy major has just waked up and said, “Did you hear the shells? Blackguards, aren’t they?”

The sky on the battle line to-night is the weirdest sight; our guns are very busy, and they are making yellow flashes like huge sheets of summer lightning. Then the star-shells rise, burst, and light up a large area, while a big searchlight plays slowly on the clouds. It is all very beautiful when you don’t think what it means.

Two more—the last very loud and close. It is somehow much more alarming than Braisne, perhaps because it is among buildings, and because one knows so much more what they mean.

Another—the other side of the building.

An ambulance has been called out, so some one must have been hit; I’ve lost count of how many they’ve dropped, but they could hardly fail to do some damage…

Nine officers have “died of wounds” here since Sunday, and the tenth will not live to see daylight. There is an attack on… This has been a ghastly week, and now it is beginning again.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 229-31.
  2. This late bloody surge of Second Ypres is sometimes dignified with the title "the Battle of Frezenberg."
  3. The source of this anecdote is, however, General Pulteney, who was praising a brave officer as generals are wont to do... and who also had the reputation of utter incompetence and obtuseness regarding things taking place directly in front of him.
  4. Mosley, Julian Grenfell, 259-60. Many thanks as well to Robert Dunlop, for posting large sections of the regimental War Diary online, here.
  5. Colwyn Erasmus Arnold Philipps, 121-7.
  6. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.

Francis and Julian Grenfell Move Up to the Front Lines at Ypres; Robert Graves Leaves for France; We Meet Private Lord Crawford; Vera Brittain Dreams of Roland Leighton and Rupert Brooke

It was a tense morning, a century back. The British First Army has temporarily suspended its assaults on Aubers Ridge as it recovers and reinforces. But in the support lines around Ypres, Julian Grenfell, more or less ignorant of the true state of affairs even a few thousand feet further east, wonders if he will soon get to fight again. The Germans have not broken through, but the signs are not good:

Wednesday 12th. Wandering infantry. Say that front trenches shelled v. badly. Hardly any of our guns fire up here.[1]

A letter was winging toward him today from his mother, however, with the news that, despite “unspeakable difficulty” she and Lord Desborough have gotten permission to visit their daughter Monica (Casie) in Wimereux (near Boulogne), where she is serving as a nurse. Lady Desborough also told Julian about her efforts to get “Into Battle” published and passed along news of several friends. Lord Desborough had just dined with Lord Kitchener and Lady Desborough with the Prime Minister, and with contacts like these one learns things ahead of the newspapers: Julian’s good friend Charles Lister, and the Prime Minister’s son, “Oc” Asquith, have both been wounded at Gallipoli. She hopes, of course, that Julian can manage a day’s leave while they are in France…


But things can change quickly. We have three forward (or war-ward) movements, today. Two of our more curious characters are finally leaving England, and we will get to them below. But Julian Grenfell, as a matter of fact, is also getting closer to the action. The orders must have come after he wrote today’s entry, but his Royal Dragoons, part of the 3rd Cavalry Division, were sent into the line today (or tonight–the move, below, is described as being completed only “late on the evening of the 12th”). Somewhere nearby was his cousin Francis, whose 9th Lancers were in the 1st Cavalry Division:

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d9/MountSorrel1916.jpg/300px-MountSorrel1916.jpgOn 3rd May the British line had been shortened, and on the 12th it was possible to relieve the 28th Division, which had been fighting continuously for twenty days. Its place was taken by a cavalry detachment–the 1st and 3rd Cavalry Divisions under De Lisle. Their front ran from the Frezenberg ridge southward across the Roulers railway to the Bellewaarde Lake north of Hooge.

Francis, who had been uneasy waiting behind the line, welcomed the change. “Here we are,”
he had written,” sitting peacefully behind like
the next man to go in to a fast bowler. You don’t
want to go in, and yet you would like to be knocking about the bowling.” His brigade took up position in the front line late on the evening of the 12th. The trenches had been much damaged, and it was necessary to reconstruct the parapets and traverses.[2]

So the “iron ration,” the trusted reserves of pre-war professional cavalrymen, have been thrown into the line. If Ypres is to survive, they must hold it. And if Britain is to persevere, there must be a long chain of ready reserves stretching back from the support lines now vacated by the two cavalry divisions all the way to the depots of England.



Robert Graves in 1915; given that he is wearing a sword, this photo probably dates from before his first trip to the front…

And so the Telemachiad of Young Robert Graves is almost at an end. He had been able to enter the Royal Welch Fusiliers in August, obtaining a Regular commission through the “militia back door.” And then his progress stalled. He was an impossible young officer: gangly, uncouth, oblivious to the fact that conformity in dress and manners was an absolute requirement of the peacetime Regular army–and all of the officers running the show at the Fusilier depot in Wrexham, Wales, were old Regulars, including the all-important adjutant, “Tibs” Crawshay. Graves had a bad tailor, and he had volunteered to remain on duty so that other officers could attend the Grand National. Not a sportsman. They were snobs, of course, but in general they were acting with a reasonable amount of rationality: this officer didn’t fit in, and seemed to make no effort to do so. He was bright and unconventional, but subalterns were required to be brave, deferential, and obedient. He didn’t seem to be the latter two things, and it seemed a bad bet to assume that this overgrown Public School poet would turn out to be be courageous under fire.

Until Graves, who had boxed in school in order to assert himself and put an end to bullying, stepped into the ring in an exhibition with a Royal Welch sergeant who was also a professional welter-weight.

Pretending to know nothing of boxing, I led off with my right and moved clumsily. Basham saw a chance of getting another laugh; he dropped his guard and danced about with a you-can’t-hit-me-challenge. I caught him off his balance, and knocked him across the ring. He recovered and went for me, but I managed to keep on my feet. When I laughed at him, he laughed too. We had three very brisk rounds, and he very decently made me seem a much better boxer than I was, by accommodating his pace to mine. As soon as Crawshay heard the story, he rang me up at my billet and told me that he had learned with pleasure of my performance; that for an officer to box like that was a great encouragement for the men; that he was mistaken about my sportsmanship; and that, to show his appreciation, he would put me down for a draft to France in a week’s time.[3]

Boxing: for Julian Grenfell the next best thing to combat; for Robert Graves, his ticket to the combat zone. The boxing exhibition was a week ago, a century back, and Graves continued to spar with Basham, who last night went on to win a coveted belt. This morning a telegram arrived at the Graves residence in Wimbledon:

Starting France today Don’t worry Best love, Robbie[4]



Lord Crawford, Earl, former-MP, and RAMC private

And a new figure here; too odd to do much with yet, too wonderful to omit. Lord Crawford–David Alexander Edward Lindsay, 27th Earl of Crawford & Balcarres–was “the premier earl of Scotland,” a forty-three-year old businessman with eighteen years as a conservative MP (before his father’s death had inopportunely kicked him upstairs, in 1913, to the newly obsolescent House of Lords), seven children, and a pregnant wife. So he hadn’t thought, in the summer of 1914, that he was likely to get either a useful political job or a new army commission. (This may have been a miscalculation–plenty of overage eccentrics made it to France as officers, whether by playing dress-up like Aubrey Herbert, dying their hair like C.E. Montague, or begging, borrowing, string-pulling, and eye-exam fudging like hundreds of others.)

So Lord Crawford played the part of Lord Crawford–harrying the Lords, going to recruitment meetings (where his willingness to describe the horrors of war was not welcomed) all until the battle of Neuve Chapelle. Devastated by the British failure, he considered suicide and decided instead (in early April) to enlist as a private in the RAMC–the medical corps. He saw this as an unquestionably noble calling–he followed, in fact, four of his gardeners into the RAMC–and seems not to have been troubled by the general expectation that lords should be officers. Today, a century back, Private Lord Crawford

set sail for France with his unit, CCS number 12. He then resumed his life-long practice of keeping a diary which he had abandoned because of depression induced by the disastrous Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March.

Wednesday, 12 May 1915

Left Aldershot at 8am after two hours packing hospital stores. Noted as singular that our officers never visited or inspected us during this heavy work. Difficulty of combining military and medical duties exemplified in deplorable
waste of men’s time at Aldershot. After school of instruction is finished, men on draft attend incessant parades, at which they have stood at ease over two hours a day, for three days in succession–it should be practical continuation of stretcher drill and bandaging.[5]


And finally, today, Oxford and war gently blend together. Vera Brittain and her friend Marjorie have the “immense privilege” of being invited into their tutor Miss Darbishire’s rooms after dinner, to talk of Blake and Milton.

Then she read us, at my request, five sonnets by Rupert Brooke, the most promising poet of the younger generation, who enlisted in the Navy when the war broke out & died at Lemnos a week or two ago–to the great loss & mourning of all modern writers & literature. The sonnets are all sad & moving, in spite of their spirit of courage & hope, & through them all ran a strangely prophetic note, a premonition of early death.

I should not have asked her to read them if I had known, they were so sad that I could scarcely keep back tears from my eyes. I believe she noticed something was up, too. She gave me the impression all the time that she wanted to speak seriously & couldn’t come to the point. After the sonnets she showed us her facsimiles of Milton’s manuscripts. When we retired to bed–I sorrowful & heavy-laden with the thoughts of Roland & Rupert Brooke’s sonnets mingled in my mind.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 296. 
  2. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 229.
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 73-4.
  4. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, 122.
  5. Private Lord Crawford's Great War Diaries, 1-3.
  6. Chronicle of Youth, 195.

Billy Congreve on the Attack, and Defense; Second Ypres Begins–the First Use of Gas; Rupert Brooke is Ailing Again

Billy Congreve, our man on the (divisional) staff, gives us a short-term post-mortem on the fight for Hill 60.

22nd April

A long dull day. Hill 60 is fairly quiet again now, but it is an awful shambles up there. All these exploding mines and the terrible quantity of crumps have brought to light many things that were better buried, especially large quantities of very old Frenchman. These added to our own and German dead, make things very bad…

But this small, costly British victory is about to be overshadowed.

At 7 p.m. I went again to Armentières and, on arriving back, I head the bad news that the noise we heard at 5 p.m. was the forerunner of a very heavy attack by the Germans on the junction of the Canadian division and the French. We have little news of it as yet, except that the Germans used poison gases (as we were warned they were going to) and drove back our extreme left and the French right a longish way…[1]


Several of our regulars (in both senses) will be involved in this attack, and if we pick up John Buchan’s account of Francis Grenfell‘s return, yesterday, we find that he moved immediately toward the new fighting.

Next evening orders suddenly came to saddle up and support the French north-east of Ypres. In the April twilight a strange green vapour had appeared, moving over the French trenches. It was the first German gas attack, and with it the Second Battle of Ypres began.[2]

Note the difference here between the matter-of-fact young staff officer–yes, we’d heard they might do this–and Buchan’s deployment of a rather cheap literary effect. But this was a significant “first.” Poison gas was against the rules, even then, and, like any fiendish innovation, it invited retaliation both heavy and self-righteous. Not only could a new charge of frightfulness be laid upon the Germans (American public opinion will shortly become a decisive new front in the war) but the British could respond more effectively with their own gas: the prevailing winds in northern France were westerly.[3]


img010The special cruelty of gas is something that we could debate later on–is it worse to suffocate than to be torn apart by bullets or shells?–but for the moment, at least, the new weapon terrified, and terror is usually as effective as actual killing. A number of French colonial regiments broke and retreated, and the general sense was that only a stand by a handful of Canadian units prevented the collapse of the northern half of the salient.

One of the battalions which would bear the brunt of the continuing German assault was the 9th Royal Scots. We have already met W.S. Lyon, and today we make the acquaintance of another subaltern of this same battalion, Lieutenant John Brown.

Brown, another Balliol man and aspiring poet, enlisted in September and arrived in the salient  in February. Like T.E. Hulme, he seems to have compromised with the rule against diary-keeping by writing lengthy and detailed letters home.

On the afternoon of the 22nd April some of us were in Vlamertinghe [due west of Ypres, just off the map at right] shopping, buying wine, tins of fruit, and some chops… We had just come back when suddenly a terrific bombardment began. There is nothing more depressing than the boom of a bombardment when you are waiting to go into it. We stood to…

We knew we were in for something and abandoned most of our parcels in the dark huts, for all lights were put out. We took the railway. All along it we met old women with bundles flying from Ypres. In front was the glare of the burning city and the thunder of the guns. Then we came on to the main road…

There were some cavalry beside us who called out to us: ‘Give them hell’. We wondered vaguely how we would do it…

Later on, the battalion came under artillery and machine gun fire in the village of St. Julien, which can be seen in the north-center of the map above (the shading rather gives away the future of the battle).

We lay there for some time. We could stretch out our hands, and pick up spent shrapnels. We will always remember two sights. One was a signaller coming crouching along like a shot rabbit, the other the figure of a Lieutenant swanking along as if here were in Princes Street…

We lined a hedge, and were ordered to dig ourselves in. Some of us managed to get some biscuits from a tin lying behind the hedge. Others cleaned their rifle bolts. In about five minutes we were ordered to put up our tools, and file around the hedge. As soon as we got round we began to advance at the double in open order. Bullets seemed to cover all the ground by our feet. We advanced by short rushes. For the first part of a rush one feels very brave and happy, for the last, dead tired. We did not fire a shot…[4]

In the confusion–and with continual British reinforcements moving up–the German advance slowed and then halted. In some places the German infantry were held up by their own gas cloud.

If the pattern already established at Neuve Chapelle and Hill 60 holds–if, that is, initial gains could not be exploited as the defenders regrouped and the attackers struggled to bring up guns and reinforcements through the broken ground of the old front line–then the salient will be saved.


And far away in the Aegean, Rupert Brooke‘s condition worsened today, a century back. Several doctors were brought in for consultations, and they realized now that the sore on his lip was a mosquito bite that had become infected. And the infection was spreading. Oc Asquith and Denis Browne accompanied a comatose Brooke to a French hospital ship, where he became the lone patient. Asquith–a naval lieutenant, but the son of a Prime Minister and the friend, now, of a “genius” poet–radioed the Admiralty, seeking instructions.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Congreve, Armageddon Road, 126-7.
  2. John Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 227.
  3. Falls, The Great War, 112.
  4. Powell, A Deep Cry, 365-6.
  5. Hassall, Rupert Brooke, 508.

Two Grenfells Return to Duty; Francis Ledwidge Has a New Squeeze; Vera Brittain and the Feeling of Unreality

Julian Grenfell left Paris today–leaving a note from Peggy unanswered.

Petit Ami,… Quand partez vous? Dites le moi, et si vous le voulez on pourrait diner ce soir ensemble. Bons Baiser…

[Boyfriend… when are you leaving? Tell me, and, if you want to, we could have dinner together this evening. Kisses…]

Turning his back on the (de)lights of Paris and returning to respectability, Julian visited his sister Monica, now working as a nurse in Wimereux, and then rejoined his regiment.[1]


As did his cousin Francis, now healed of his wounds.

Francis rejoined his regiment on Wednesday 21st April. He found the 9th Lancers in billets at Meteren where they had been training on and off for several months. “I must say,” he wrote, “I am mighty glad to get back here, for this life is made for me… I finds pals everywhere. I somehow never seem to go anywhere out here without finding friends.”[2]


Meanwhile another Francis, Francis Ledwidge, was preparing to depart. It is not so many months since his true love, Ellie Vaughey, had rejected him to marry another. But now Ledwidge is writing–amorously and melodramatically–to Lizzie Healy, the 20-year-old sister of a friend. There have been several letters, but the one dated today bears significant news, as well as bold propositions:

We are off to the war at the end of this week. Our King and Country need us at last. We leave here about Saturday, or Sunday morning, for Reading, England. The Tenth Division mobilizes there, thence we proceed to some part of the great battlefield.

It is for you I will fight as you are all I have, or ever will have, worth fighting for. When I come back I will claim you. I may not be long away as immediately the war is over I will be free again.[3]

Fulsome! But a bit fast and loose…


I realize that cramming in yet another bit of Vera Brittain‘s writing on busy days may exhaust even the most tireless reader, but I have a weakness for these sorts of pronouncements… life is like a novel? Do tell!

Plus, Vera’s habit of distilling the day’s war news into a line or two is a good way of maintaining our vague sense of the general progress of the war.

Wednesday April 21st

Sometimes I can hardly believe I am I. I feel as if I were writing a novel about someone else, & not myself at all, so mighty are the things happening just now. If, that summer just after I came out & things seemed as though they would always be stagnant & dull, someone had to me “Before three years are over you will not only have fallen deeply in love with someone, but that very person will be fighting on the battlefields of France in the greatest war ever known to man. And your anguish of anxiety on his account will be greater than  anything you have dreamed possible.” I should not have believed it could really ever happen. To-night–not only when I heard from Roland but before–I have been full of a queer excitement–almost exultation. There has been no apparent reason for it, so I very much wonder why.

Apparently the hill we have taken near Ypres is a real advantage to us, our losses are reported to be heavy. That means terrible long casualty lists within the next few days.[4]


Finally, notes on the progress of two of our central “characters.”

Henry Williamson–headstrong boy, fearful soldier, and newly commissioned officer–opened an officer’s bank account today, a century back, transferring his own funds out from under parental control for the first time.[5]


And Rupert Brooke is not doing well. He has more or less recovered from the “sunstroke,” but a sore on his lip had never entirely cleared up. Today it swelled considerably and Brooke took to his bed. By evening he had a temperature of 103.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Mosley, Julian Grenfell, 254.
  2. John Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 227.
  3. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 103-4.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 181.
  5. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson, 63.
  6. Hassall, Rupert Brooke, 506-7.

Vera Brittain Arrives in France, at Least by Post; Francis Grenfell, Grown, Bids his Friends Farewell

It has been a good long time since we have seen Francis Grenfell–a quiet, mostly undocumented time.[1] A terrible time, too, although this Grenfell was not an introspective sort: he was recovering both from the death of his twin and from a serious wound. Now the young cavalryman and winner of the Victoria Cross is at last returning to the front.

On 7th April he gave a farewell dinner at Claridge’s…  it seemed to me that he had recovered and more than recovered all his old ardour and youthfulness. The party were his brother Arthur, Lord Grenfell, Reggie Barnes, Mr. Arthur Balfour, Mr. Winston Churchill, Mr. Andrew Weir (now Lord Inverforth), and myself. It was on that occasion, I remember, that Mr. Churchill first expounded his views about those instruments of war which were to develop into the Tanks. The discussion roamed over the whole field of military and naval policy, and I have rarely heard better talk. Some of the best of it came from Francis, and I realized how immensely his mind had ripened and broadened in the past months. I began to think that if he were spared he would be not merely a gallant leader of troops but a great soldier.[2]


And in France, a subaltern new to the front now establishes his lifeline to home. Roland Leighton wrote to Vera Brittain today, a century back, to thank her for the first letter he received at the front. This is the beginning of a new and frightening stage of life for Roland, but it’s also a relief, a consummation of the irresistible longing to be where all the honorable young gentleman ought to be. It’s also, in a similar way, a new stage of his and Vera’s relationship. Not a consummation so much as (here’s a clunky phrase) an actualization of the reality that they had always, in their passion of adolescent self-seriousness, assumed would be theirs. Their proto-engagement has been absorbing, certainly, but now it’s real, real as can be: they are a couple, separated by war. There are high stakes and irrevocable actions that fit with the lofty rhetoric of their love: he will fight and she will sustain him; he will write and she will worry.

France, 7 April 1913
2.45 p.m.

I have only a very few minutes before the post goes out, but I must write if only two lines to thank you for your sweet letter which arrived yesterday afternoon. It is the first and only one I have received so far. I cannot tell you how much it has meant to me.

I am about 5 miles from the firing line now but have not been under fire yet or in the trenches. Will write tonight if I can.

Very much love


References and Footnotes

  1. He is not really one of our writers, but he and his brother Riversdale have an intense early war interest and come in through their friendship with John Buchan and their more or less lapsed counsinship with Julian.
  2. John Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 226-7.
  3. Letters from a Lost Generation, 73.

So This Is Christmas: War Is Briefly Suspended, If You Want It


Soldiers of Henry Williamson’s Battalion, the London Rifles, mixing with Saxon troops between the lines, Christmas Day, 1914. Unless it’s not–other sources have this as Boxing Day…

As a historical event, the Christmas truce is a bit slippery: like other less heart-warming battlefield events it was no unified, coordinated mass movement but rather a concatenation of many different individual actions, differently recalled.

Historians pretty much always fail to resist the urge to slap some simple larger meaning onto the events, making “the” truce into a unique moment of resistance to the horrors of war, or a last moment of old-fashioned European togetherness, or a sideways slipping into some counter-factual reality–a road, away from stalemate and slaughter and the rest of the wicked twentieth century, not taken.

It wasn’t any of these things. It was a series of compromises–truces, unevenly observed–wrought by men confronted by a new contradiction: war as fruitless and static suffering, and a common religious calendar indicating an expectation of… well, peaceful good fellowship. This is the first Christmas, the first major holiday, the first challenge to all those stories of the enemy’s perfidy and our heroism. And there are, as Michael Holroyd’s Christmas Eve letter indicates, other sorts of stories already in circulation.

The legend of what might take place in this first entrenched Christmas preceded the events, a fact which illustrates just how much the participants in these truces were driven by a sense of (conflicting) duty: there is plain old military duty, sure, but there is also the living up to expectation, the requirement that one act up to one’s preconceptions of proper and honorable behavior. We have seen this again and again in terms of the arrival of soldiers at the battlefield with the outdated heroic expectations of their reading–as Paul Fussell might have put it, you go to war with the last war you read about. And yet, in British and German culture alike, stories of Christmas miracles, of the thawing of hard hearts, etc., were very common… isn’t this how it’s supposed to go? Isn’t this what we should do, if we play this by the book? Screw the officers, let’s go have Christmas…

The Germans–in many cases units of Catholic and less enthusiastically militaristic Bavarians–seem to have taken the initiative. Many of the accounts from the French and Belgian sectors emphasize simple humanity or sincerely religious gesture: German troops along the Yser canal returned a looted communion vessel to the Belgians opposite and took i return their letters, to be sent to family members in occupied Belgium.[1] In many places truces were arranged primarily for the purposes of burying the festering, frozen corpses that lay between the lines.

Although mutual burials also took place along the British sections of the lines, in general the Germans and British seem to have had a more jocular time of it. In some places there was singing and shouted greetings, while the men of some units–including the 2nd Royal Welch–actually met and exchanged gifts with their “enemies.” (The soccer game(s) often mentioned in later accounts are not well supported by contemporary evidence, however, and if any occurred they were probably brief pick-up games.) While some units fraternized, others only a few hundred yards along merely refrained from ordinary sniping, and in other sectors the daily violence went on abated–and no one told the artillery it was Christmas.

So rather than pontificate (which didn’t work anyway–Benedict XV’s call for a Christmas truce was rejected by Russia and ignored, despite German grandstanding, by every other government) about the meaning of the truce I’ll let a few of our regular writers describe what they experienced, and then check in with several others at home or in Camp. One thing, though: we will start with truce experiences, then go to English Christmases, but I want to come back to Belgium and discuss Henry Williamson’s experience at the end. It seems to have had a huge impact on him, both in terms of the way he would write the war and the way he would come to see the world.

First, Frank Richards of the Royal Welch Fusiliers:

On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with ‘A Merry Christmas’ on it. The enemy had stuck up a similar one. Platoons would sometimes go out for twenty-four hours rest–it was a day at least out of the trench and relieved the monotony a bit–and my platoon had gone out in this way the night before, but a few of us stayed behind to see what would happen. Two of our men then threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two of the Germans done the same and commenced to walk up the river bank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench. Buffalo Bill rushed into the trench and endeavoured to prevent it, but he was too late: the whole of the Company were now out, and so were the Germans. He had to accept the situation, so soon he and the other company officers climbed out too. We and the Germans met in the middle of no-man’s-land. Their officers was also now out. Our officers exchanged greetings with them. One of the German officers said that he wished he had a camera to take a snapshot, but they were not allowed to carry cameras. Neither were our officers.

We mucked in all day with one another. They were Saxons and some of them could speak English. By the look of them their trenches were in as bad a state as our own. One of their men, speaking in English, mentioned that he had worked in Brighton for some years and that he was fed up to the neck with this damned war and would be glad when it was all over. We told him that he wasn’t the only one that was fed up with it. We did not allow them in our trench and they did not allow us in theirs.The German Company-Commander asked Buffalo Bill if he would accept a couple of barrels of beer and assured him that they would not make his men drunk. They had plenty of it in the brewery. He accepted the offer with thanks and a couple of their men rolled the barrels over and we took them into our trench. The German officer sent one of his men back to the trench, who appeared shortly after carrying a tray with bottles and glasses on it. Officers of both sides clinked glasses and drunk one another’s health. Buffalo Bill had presented them with a plum pudding just before. The officers came to an understanding that the unofficial truce would end at midnight. At dusk we went back to our respective trenches.

…Just before midnight we all made it up not to commence firing before they did… During the whole of Boxing Day we never fired a shot, and they the same.[2]

Dr. Dunn’s History adds some corroborating evidence for the Welch-Saxon truce. The maker of the signboard was the pioneer sergeant “Nobby” Hall, and Ike Sawyer is named as the first Fusilier to go and meet the Germans. And then we get to hear from Buffalo Bill himself, a.k.a. Captain Stockwell:

I think I and my Company have just spent one of the most curious Christmas Days we are ever likely to see. It froze hard on Christmas Eve, and in the morning there was a thick ground-fog… the Saxons opposite had been shouting across in English. Strict orders had been issued that there was to be no fraternizing on Christmas Day. About 1 p.m., having seen our men get their Christmas dinners, we went into our shelter to get a meal. The sergeant on duty suddenly ran in and said the fog had lifted and that half a dozen Saxons were standing on their parapet without arms. I ran out into the trench and found that all the men were holding their rifles at the ready on the parapet,

Well there’s a slight difference: do we trust the captain who indicates that his men followed his orders, or the private who portrays the officer, elsewhere, as a dishonest bully and claims here that the men were moved to their own private truce, and the officer had to follow suit to save face? History! Buffalo Bill, tell us what you saw:

…the Saxons were shouting, “Don’t shoot. We don’t want to fight to-day. We will send you some beer.” A cask was hoisted on to the parapet and three men started to roll it into the middle of Nomansland. A lot more Saxons then appeared without arms. Things were getting a bit thick. My men were getting a bit excited, and the Saxons kept shouting out to them to come out. We did not like to fire as they were all unarmed, but we had strict orders and someone might have fired, so climbed over the parapet and shouted, in my best German, for the opposing Captain to appear. Our men were all chattering and saying, “The Captain’s going to speak with them.”

Yeah, I’m with Frank Richards. Even without the strong circumstantial evidence that Buffalo Bill is an asshole, he’s clearly spinning a yarn here that is at once self-aggrandizing and ass-covering:

A German officer appeared and walked out into the middle of Nomansland, so I moved out to meet him amidst the cheers of both sides. We met and formally saluted. He introduced himself as Count Something-or-other, and seemed a very decent fellow. He could not talk a word of English. He then called out to his subalterns and formally introduced them with much clicking of heels and saluting. They were all very well turned out, while I was in a goatskin coat…

Stockwell explains that the two officers very sensibly agree to ignore their orders to keep shooting, but that they should clear out of no man’s land. But the Germans have already brought out a barrel of beer, and social obligations are social obligations.

…We agreed not to shoot until the following morning when I was to signal that we were going to begin. He said. “You had better take the beer. We have lots.” So I called up two men to take the barrel to our side.

Note, please, the discrepancy about the number of beer barrels. Richards does insist, however, that it was weak stuff, impossible to get properly drunk on, in any case.

As we had lots of plum-puddings I sent for one and formally presented it to him in exchange for the beer. He then called out, “Waiter,” and a German private whipped out six glasses and two bottles of beer, and with much bowing and saluting we solemnly drank it amid cheers from both sides. We then all formally saluted and returned to our lines. our men had sing-songs, ditto the enemy.[3]


Edward Hulse was also involved in a prolonged and chummy truce, and he wrote perhaps the best-known contemporary letter about it… but not until the 28th. So we will look back again on the truce in three days’ time.

But it was not beer and plum pudding everywhere on the line. For the Irish Rifles,

The Christmas Truce of 1914 reached the Battalion in severely modified form. They lay among a network of trenches, already many times fought over, with communications that led directly into the enemy’s lines a couple of hundred yards away. So they spent Christmas Day, under occasional bombardment of heavy artillery, in exploring and establishing themselves as well as they might among these wet and dreary works. In this duty Lieutenant G.P. Gough and Lieutenant F. H. Witts and six men were wounded.

Earl Kitchener, their [ceremonial] Colonel, sent them Christmas wishes and the King’s and Queen’s Christmas cards were distributed. Their comfort was that Christmas night was frosty so that the men kept dry at least.[4]


Billy Congreve, our man on the divisional staff, has recently been highly critical of orders which failed to take into account the real situation at the front. And yet today, while men of his old battalion, the 3/Rifle Brigade, enjoyed “a day of perfect peace” and were entertained by a German juggler in No Man’s Land, Congreve, out of view of the front line, believes that tall of his division have obeyed orders and “opened rapid fire on” unarmed Germans, “which is the only sort of truce they deserve.” To add a further shading to the spread of opinions on what exactly is godly, sporting, or soldierly on Christmas day, Congreve’s father, a brigadier general, reported that some of his officers unwillingly followed their men into fraternization, but took the opportunity to locate a sniper’s loophole and, while sharing a cigar with the sniper himself, planned how “to down him tomorrow.”

Congreve does give the details of “a great Xmas dinner–oxtail soup (from a tin), fillet of beef with macaroni, oie rôti, plum pudding (on fire), caviare, champagne and port to drink. The chef quite rose to the occasion. It’s not a bad Xmas day, but I hope the next I shall spend at home.”[5]


Morgan Crofton also reports a Crofton xmas card 2quiet and Crofton xmas card 1culinary Christmas. Rather cleverly, someone turned the ubiquitous Field Service Postcard into a Christmas dinner menu/report card. See how many bad puns/forced war references you can find! (Both sides are reproduced, at right and below.)


Lady Feilding, writing to her family, reports a distinct lack of a truce in Pervyse.

Xmas Day 1914

To my family in general & each individual one in particular.

What a life! – Here I am on Xmas Day warming my toes up at the old dressing station – we thought the Teutons would have the decency to leave us in peace, as we expected they would be just as excited over their plum pudding as we over ours. But blessed if the offensive blighters didn’t spend the whole morning throwing shrapnel and shells at us, having gone to the trouble to bring a gun up closer too under cover of the fog – a really dirty trick & most unchristmassy I consider…

I never got to church this morning which was rather sad. There was midnight mass on in a barn last night about 3 miles off. I wanted so to go, but couldn’t very well as I didn’t hear about it until going to bed & could not go all that way alone – if I had known about it I could have got one of the soldiers to be a bodyguard…

Such a frosty day. Lovely for Xmas, a gorgeous morning but foggy now. We are very merry here — I feel we are friends & are having a much nicer Xmas than you people at home – the front is really the only place where one can be genuinely happy ‘on occasions’ these days…

Much love all – Luv,



So a range of opinions, then, on where Christmas cheer and peace of mind can be found. Mairi Chisholm, with Dorothie Feilding in Pervyse, adds the detail that the shells not only wounded several soldiers but did so as they were lining up to receive Christmas presents from the staff at the aid station. For the record, socks: “the joy of a new pair of dry socks was worth the risk.” And Christmas Dinner included not only plum pudding but also oxtail soup, fowl, and potatoes. And yes, shrapnel.[7]

While many soldiers and nurses in France and Belgium were longing for their families. Back in England, Francis Grenfell, still recovering from his wounds, is facing his first Christmas without his twin, Rivy, killed on September 14th. An orphan and now a lone youngest son, the family he longs for is his squadron, in France. John Buchan writes of the intensity of regimental identity–“Old comradeships in sport and play and the easy friendliness of peace-time are transformed into something closer even than friendship. Every communal success becomes an individual triumph, every loss an individual sorrow”–but seems to miss the point that Francis is most attached to the men of his actual squadron. This is small-unit esprit, loyalty to a particular group of men, each one known by name and face and habit, rather than affiliation with the undying life of the old regiment. Francis wrote this Christmas Day missive to his men:

I wish you all the very best of luck and good wishes for Christmas and the New Year. I am always thinking of you, and hope very soon to return. Sir John French said the regiment had exceeded the greatest traditions of the army, and in this ‘ B ‘ Squadron has played the leading part. You were the first squadron of the regiment in action at the beginning on 24th August, and have since always given the lead. Remember the brave that have fallen, and be determined to serve England as faithfully as they. You have all my very, very best wishes and thoughts. God bless you and keep you, and help you to remain the finest squadron in the world the only squadron that has got for itself already a D.C.M., a Legion d’Honneur, a commission, and a V.C.[his own], for what is won by the leaders belongs to the men. God bless you all.[8]


Rupert Brooke, utterly unseparated from the men under his command, writes instead to one of his many women friends–Christmas is also, of course, a traditional time for jollity.

Hood Battalion, 2nd Naval Brigade

Blandford, Dorset

Xmas Day

My dear Violet,

I couldn’t read in your letter where you were going to for Christmas (though I rather suspect you’ll be in bed at Downing Street).[9]

I get six days leave from Wednesday the twenty-ninth… are you going to be at Walmer for that week-end?

…Never say we’re not a hilarious nation. Christmas Day in the Naval Division is a revelation. The Battalion C.P.O., a very fat man, who has been drunk since dawn, is conducting the band in an Irish jig in the middle of the parade-ground. He can’t beat time, but he dances very convincingly… Half my stokers are dancing half-naked in their huts. They spent the night on cheap gin. The surrounding woods are full of lost and sleeping stokers…

I’ve discovered that this is the site of a Roman Camp. Does that move you? …I gave my platoon the slip yesterday morning (they were out gathering holly): and went a delicious country walk, decanting drops of a poem (don’t report me)–

‘And drowsy drunken seamen/Straying belated home,

Meet with a Latin challenge,/ From sentinels of Rome–‘

‘In dreams they doff their khaki,/ Put greaves and breastplate on:/

In dreams each leading stoker,/Turns a centurion–‘ etc…

Good luck for next year.


There is a fundamental injustice to this project–or at least an injudiciousness. Today is a sticky-huge pudding of Christmas bounty, but most days only a few of the writers I’ve been following produce dateable writing. And whatever they wrote–once we allow for the vagaries of manuscript survival and publication–becomes who they are, here. There are long silences and chatty periods; there are poems written with public intent and letters meant for a single pair of eyes.

So Rupert Brooke has been a bit of a dick, lately, writing catty letters to male friends and eyelash-batting flirtations to Cathleen, Eileen, Violet, et. al. But he’s also been writing a bit of poetry. Five sonnets, in fact, since November. Not, alas, dating them precisely, but mentioning them from time to time. Two days ago, for instance, he scribbled down a line for the nascent fifth of the sequence: “If I should die, think only this of me.”  Well, avert the omen–but a promising pentameter, all things considered. Today, a century back, he not only wrote the above light verse, but banged out the rest of that fifth sonnet. They will make a splash–which will give us a second centennial now in which to consider Brooke as a writer of verse.[11]


Edward Thomas, home with his family, is also writing on Christmas. It’s another poem, now known as “An Old Song I,” (a second “Old Song” will arrive tomorrow) and it appears to be a simple thing, another exercise in finding his own voice through his gentle mastery of old folk idioms, in this case the rural ballad tradition. There is a repeated refrain of “delight of a shiny night in the season of the year,” and at first it’s as if he’s written a new Christmas standard. But the rural singer voicing the six-stanza song swiftly proves to be very much Thomas himself:

I took those walks years after, talking with friend or dear,/ Or solitary musing; but when the moon shone clear/

I had no joy or sorrow that could not be expressed…

Since then I’ve thrown away the chance to fight a gamekeeper;/ And I less often trespass, and what I see or hear/ Is mostly fro the road or path by day: yet still I sing…

A gentle thought. But even on Christmas, even in the midst of another celebration of the English rural poetic tradition, Edward Thomas’s failure to fight–or, really, his failure to fruitlessly brawl–is eating at him.


Thomas Hardy minces fewer words in reflecting to a clergyman friend on the challenge posed to the conscious conscience during a wartime Christmas:

Max Gate | 25 Dec. 1914

We go to London occasionally on brief visits, but do not care about it in the winter, particularly now that it is so dark there. Dorchester is more or less full of soldiers & German prisoners, & I suppose this sort of thing will go on for a long time yet, for I see no prospect of any conclusion to the war.

A newspaper editor asked me to send him a Christmas greeting for his readers, & I told him the puzzle was too hard for me, seeing that present times are an absolute negation of Christianity…

Sincerely yours,

Thomas Hardy[12]


Time, then, to return to the front. I want the Nursing Sister to have the last word;–she is beginning to seem to be something like a star to steer by, a steady median: not in combat, but seeing its worst on a daily basis; conventional yet not entirely sentimental; a sharp observer who keeps her self at arm’s reach from all interpretive challenge even though no one is more literally in touch with the horror of war.

But first, a great deal of Henry Williamson, who experienced the truce, and then extensively re-wrote it in his later novel, A Fox Under My Cloak.

Princess Mary's Christmas Card, WilliamsonDec 26 1914 Trenches

Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o’clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a ‘dug-out’ (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by Princess Mary. In this pope is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Of course, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh, dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands.

This is Henry in his manic mode, writing high and fast, getting a bit too far ahead, repeating himself. He may seem to be showing an unusual sustenance-of-mood–he’s writing tomorrow, a century back, and yet still breathlessly excited. But the event continues:

Williamson relics-matchbox, Mary's gift, tobacco

Henry Williamson’s Christmas 1914 Relics: Princess Mary’s Gift Box, with tobacco and matches (A. Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War)

Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write [i.e. on Boxing Day too]. Marvellous, isn’t it? Yes. This is only for about a mile or two on either side of us (so far as we know). It happened thiswise. On Xmas eve both armies sang carols and cheered & there was very little firing. The Germans… called to our men to come & fetch a cigar & our men told them to come to us. This went on for some time, neither fully trusting the other, until, after much promising to ‘play the game’ a bold Tommy crept out & stood between the trenches, & immediately a Saxon came to meet him. They shook hands & laughed and then 16 Germans came out. Thus the ice was broken. They are landsturmers or landwehr [i.e. militias] I think, & Saxons & Bavarians (no Prussians). Many are gentle looking men in goatee beards & spectacles, and some are very big and arrogant looking… We had a burial service in the afternoon…[13]

So a good time was had by all. Williamson is all exuberance, here, but his Christmas in No Man’s Land seems to have thrown its symbolic weight around his mind for years. It wasn’t so much that the hopeful message he took from the truce curdled with the continuation of the war–in fact almost the opposite.

It wasn’t the aberration of the truce that he continued to remember as much as its fundamental humanity, its appropriateness. War was the aberration. “Christmas” was an idea to try out in its new trench warfare context, but then it was over. Yet Williamson seemed unable to take the idea of “the brotherhood of man,”–or, more to the point, of the essential fellowship of German and English front-line fighters–and collapse it again, stow it away for the duration.

So to the novel. Williamson takes many liberties in writing Phillip Maddison’s Christmas Eve, adding in details of other truce accounts and inventing new events to give Maddison a more thoroughly symbolic experience.

For starters, Maddison is sent out into No Man’s Land on Christmas Eve night with a working party trying to stealthily reinforce a threatened position. Lying out on the frozen, torn earth in one of the curious goat-skin coats, under a dangerously bright moon, the men of the “London Highlanders” gradually realized that they will not be fired upon, even though they are improving their defenses. Then

from the German parapet a rich baritone voice had begun to sing a song Phillip remembered from his nurse Minny singing it to him. Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht–Tranquil Night! Holy Night!

The grave and tender voice rose out of the frosty mist; it was all so strange; it was like being in another world, to which he had come through a nightmare; a world finer than the one he had left behind, except for beautiful things like music, and springtime on his bicycle in the county.

A bicycle ride is, believe it or not, on the agenda for Phillip’s dream Christmas. But first, in the early morning hours, with all military discipline apparently in abeyance, he wanders into a temporary cemetery behind the lines, a clearing “which seemed almost of a fairy world, until he saw wooden crosses in rows. There was not a sound, as he stood there. It was as though all the soldiers had gone, except the dead.”

Williamson is really in fine form here, using the quirks of the man-child he has developed over several novels–his propensity for strolling reveries at any time, his awkwardness–in concert with the strange but historical fact that this uniquely non-violent day offered strange license to explore the new topography of war. Nor does Williamson the novelist shrug off his commitment to realism, just because the day was really like a dream: Phillip is stricken (as Henry apparently was, although he was too fastidious to put it into his letters) with a gastrointestinal complaint, and runs off now to squat painfully in a shell-crater.

On Christmas morning, the symbolic or expansive continues to mix with the historical. Phillip first explores a shell-damaged chateau, pondering the unburied bodies of several Germans, wondering about who they had been in life, whether they might have had friends, fears, etc. Heavy handed moral preparation, no?

The waking dream continues–the roman fleuve style of Williamson’s Chronicle is nowhere better suited to military history–and Phillip is soon trading smokes with Germans and chatting up a former London hotel waiter (both common occurrences, a century back).

But when Phillip witnesses a joint burial service, he doesn’t think of the honorableness of it, or feel the pleasure of a religious rite restored, or think of the families of the men whose identity disks are being retrieved, their fate now certified. He thinks of the humanity of the dead and soon comes to ponder the odd German claim that their men are heroes fighting the good fight.

A soccer game starts up between the lines, and Williamson again pivots his fictional creation away from the historical reality (although as noted above, there were probably no formal football games in No Man’s Land–yet stories about such things grew in the telling and pervaded the folk history of the truce). Phillip, the loner, decides that if a soccer game is acceptable, so will a solo bicycle ride be. Peddling off, he is carried away with the excitement of freewheeling freedom:

What a wonderful adventure it was! The whole thing was a miracle!

How the people at home would be utterly astonished, when they heard that the Germans were not just brutes, as hitherto everyone had imagined!

And then, of course, as with most of Phillip Maddison’s bouts of enthusiasm, he goes too far. In this case, literally. Here, again, fiction “improves” on history: Phillip accidentally turns north and east and rides straight toward the German outposts. He suddenly realizes that whatever truce held back where he began, here he might be shot as a spy (or madman). For once his enthusiasm carries the day, and as he shouts greetings in broken German, the sentries hold their fire.

The ride continues, behind the German first lines, and over the terrain near Messines and Wulverghem which had been the scene of the dreadful battle on Halloween. The impetuous, awkward boy is behaving ridiculously, dangerously, but he’s also, in a sense, rising to the moment.

Soon he realizes that he is not far from where his cousin’s battalion is stationed. Cousin Willy is in the London Rifles–a fictional cousin for a fictional protagonist, but serving in a real battalion, Henry Williamson’s battalion.

If Phillip’s long ride is a bit over the top, it’s in service of a remarkable little juxtaposition of history and fiction. Cleverly, unsettlingly, Williamson uses the real truce to cross a few miles of Belgium and bend fiction back into a confrontation with history. He brings the fictional alter-ego, by means of a surreal bike ride through the intervening Germans, to his own location near Ploegsteert Wood. He was there, and perhaps, if he were a pioneer of meta-fictional gamesmanship instead of a belated nineteenth century novelist, he might have confronted himself. Instead, he produces Phillip’s Cousin Willy to take his own place (literally his own physical location on that morning) and to carry on a sort of doubly-masked inner dialogue:

Willie was full of the strangeness of the Christmas Day.

“I’ve been talking to a Saxon, Phil, all night. We went out to the wire, at the exact same time. It’s most extraordinary, but the Germans think exactly about the war as we do! They can’t lose, they say, because God is on their side. And they say they are fighting for civilisation, just as we are! Surely, if all the Germans and all the English knew this, at home, then his ghastly war would end! If we started to walk back, and they did, too, it would be over!”

“I wish it were as easy as that, Willie.”

“But it is true, Phillip!”

“It would be a miracle if it could happen.”

“But this is a miracle now, Phil! Look, ‘For Fatherland and Freedom’! Isn’t that just the same as our side’s ‘For God, King, and Country’… Why then, when everyone wants it to stop, should it have to go on?

But here, later history intrudes. It’s against the rules for me to discuss the future, and Willie and Phil’s lengthy discussion of German and British Brotherhood, of war guilt and atrocity and the role of the press, is not really a 1914 conversation. It has too much of the quandaries of later, darker Christmastides. And the opinions the author mouths are not, to say the least, in accord with the current historical consensus. Axes that are now only gleaming lumps in the mind of the weaponsmith will later need much grinding…  better to end the real/fictional truce with observation instead of second-hand politicking:

The talk had taken place under the broken crucifix at the cross-roads of Le Gheer, about a hundred yards behind the British front line… German dead lay in the first cottage… one whiff was enough. Outside in the flooded ditch, just under the ice, lay a British soldier, on his back, his blue eyes open as though staring at the sky, arms extended, fingers spread. A look of terror was still visible through the ice.[14]


Lastly, the Nursing Sister:

7 P.M.–Loaded up at Merville and now on the way back; not many badly wounded but a great many minor medicals, crocked up, nothing much to be done for them. We may have to fill up at Hazebrouck, which will interrupt the very festive Xmas dinner the French Staff are getting ready for us. It takes a man, French or British, to take decorating really seriously. The orderlies have done wonders with theirs. Aeroplanes done in cotton-wool on brown blankets is one feature. This lot of patients had Xmas dinner in their Clearing Hospitals to-day, and the King’s Xmas card, and they will get Princess Mary’s present. Here they finished up D.’s Xmas cards and had oranges and bananas, and hot chicken broth directly they got in.

12 Midnight.–Still on the road. We had a very festive Xmas dinner, going to the wards which were in charge of nursing orderlies between the courses. Soup, turkey, peas, mince pie, plum pudding, chocolate, champagne, absinthe, and coffee. Absinthe is delicious, like squills. We had many toasts in French and English. The King, the President, Absent Friends, Soldiers and Sailors, and I had the Blessés [wounded] and the Malades [sick]. We got up and clinked glasses with the French Staff at every toast, and finally the little chef came in and sang to us in a very sweet musical tenor. Our great anxiety is to get as many orderlies and N.C.O.’s as possible through the day without being run in for drunk, but it is an uphill job; I don’t know where they get it.[15]



References and Footnotes

  1. Hastings, Catastrophe, 556-8.
  2. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 65-7.
  3. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 101-2.
  4. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I, 70.
  5. Norman, ed., Armageddon Road, 96-7.
  6. Lady Under Fire, 40-1.
  7. Atkinson, Elsie and Mairi Go to War, 77.
  8. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 223-4.
  9. Violet Asquith is the Prime Minister's daughter, and the sister of one of Brooke's new friend's and fellow-subalterns.
  10. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 645-6.
  11. Jones, Rupert Brooke, 398.
  12. The letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 71-72.
  13. A. Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 46-7.
  14. Williamson, A Fox Under My Cloak, 36-60.
  15. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.