Isaac Rosenberg’s Daughters of War; Francis Ledwidge’s Gods of Greece; Siegfried Sassoon Declares the Death of Youth

Some days we make do with an update and a diary excerpt or two… other days three important poets are writing about their minds and their methods.

Isaac Rosenberg posted a letter to Eddie Marsh today, which probably included a draft of his difficult, sui generis, mythological poem “Daughters of War.” It also contained an attempt to allay the perplexity the poem would cause:

I am now fearfully rushed, but find energy enough to scribble this in the minute I plunder from my work. I believe I can see the obscurities in the ‘Daughters’, but hardly hope to clear them up in France… The first part, the picture of the Daughters dancing and calling to the spirits of the slain before their last ones have ceased among the boughs of the tree of life, I must still work on. In that part obscure the description of the voice of the Daughter I have not made clear, I see; I have tried to suggest the wonderful sound of her voice, spiritual and voluptuous at the same time. The end is an attempt to imagine the severance of all human relationship and the fading away of human love. Later on I will try and work on it, because I think it a pity if the ideas are to be lost for want of work. My ‘Unicorn’ play is stopped because of my increased toil… It is to be a play of terror—terror of hidden things and the fear of the supernatural. But I see no hope of doing the play while out here. I have a way, when I write, to try and put myself in the situation, and I make gestures and grimaces.[1]

Of the play, more anon, I hope. And this almost touching personal detail is a reminder of just how difficult it must be to write poetry in the trenches, especially as a private. Of course he gestures and grimaces–and many writers talk to themselves, at their leisure, in rooms of their own…

As for “Daughters of War,” the poem has been long in gestation–Rosenberg sent an early draft to Gordon Bottomley in December–and it has been growing in power. Like the ancient poets who dreamt Valkyries and Amazons–and like David Jones and his Sweet Sister Death–Rosenberg summons up female embodiments of war’s power.

Space beats the ruddy freedom of their limbs,
Their naked dances with man’s spirit naked
By the root side of the tree of life…

I saw in prophetic gleams
These mighty daughters in their dances
Beckon each soul aghast from its crimson corpse
To mix in their glittering dances :
I heard the mighty daughters’ giant sighs
In sleepless passion for the sons of valour
And envy of the days of flesh,
Barring their love with mortal boughs across–
The mortal boughs, the mortal tree of life.
The old bark burnt with iron wars
They blow to a live flame
To char the young green clays
And reach the occult soul; they have no softer lure,
No softer lure than the savage ways of death.

We were satisfied of our lords the moon and the sun
To take our wage of sleep and bread and warmth–
These maidens came–these strong everliving Amazons,
And in an easy might their wrists
Of night’s sway and noon’s sway the sceptres brake,
Clouding the wild, the soft lustres of our eyes…

 

Next to this wrenching vision, full of sex and death, the melodious prose and harmonious rhymes of Francis Ledwidge seem to come from an entirely different war, a different era. They don’t, of course–they come from the same day. These are very different sensibilities: our two poets in the ranks and out of the working classes share very little else than those three facts of their identity.

Ledwidge wrote another letter to the prominent writer Katherine Tynan today, a century back, and it begins with a strange confusion.

19.6.17

This is my birthday. I am spending it in a little red town in an orchard.

Actually, it is not his birthday. Which goes a longer way to show one of the larger cultural and social gaps among our writers than a ream of commentary about Ledwidge’s rural roots or Lord Dunsany‘s reflexive condescension towards his Irish “peasant” protégé. It seems that birthdays were little regarded in rural County Meath a century and another score of years back, and even when he enlisted Ledwidge did not know the date of his birth. His mother, flustered, confused his and his brother Joe’s, or so the story goes. Our Frank Ledwidge was born on the 19th, but of August–his twenties have two months left to run.

Again I think of how this sort of confusion might have arisen in Rosenberg’s family too, with an absent father and Yiddish-speaking mother, or how Ledwidge and his surviving siblings might have shared, like Rosenberg and his brother, the “family suit.” But for such similarities there are more striking differences. Rosenberg is a child of the London slums. And Ledwidge?[2]

There is a lovely valley just below me, and a river that goes gobbling down the fields, like turkeys coming home in Ireland… I was down here earlier in the spring, when all the valley wore its confirmation dress, and was glad to return again in the sober moments of June. Although I have a conventional residence I sleep out in the orchard, and every morning a cuckoo comes to a tree quite close, and calls out his name with a clear voice above the rest of the morning’s song, like a tender stop heard above the lower keys in a beautiful organ…

If you go to Tara, go to Rath-na-Ri and look all around you from the hills of Drumcondrath in the north to the plains of Enfield in the south, where Allan Bog begins, and remember me to every hill and wood and ruin, for my heart is there. If it is a clear day you will see Slane Hill blue and distant. Say I will come back again surely, and maybe you will hear pipes in the grass or a fairy horn and the hounds of Finn…

Ledwidge also enclosed three new poems, “The Find,” “Stanley Hill,” and “The Old Gods:”

I thought the old gods still in Greece
Making the little fates of man,
So in a secret place of Peace
I prayed as but a poet can:

And all my prayer went crying faint
Around Parnassus’ cloudy height,
And found no ear for my complaint,
And back unanswered came at night.

Ah, foolish that I was to heed
The voice of folly, or presume
To find the old gods in my need,
So far from A. E.’s little room.[3]

 

Siegfried Sassoon has not written in his diary since beginning to work on his “declaration.” Today, a century back, he is very much still in declaration mode, railing angrily at the waste of the war and the evil cynicism of those who prolong it.

June 19

I wish I could believe that Ancient War History justifies the indefinite prolongation of this war. The Jingos define it as ‘an enormous quarrel between incompatible spirits and destinies, in which one or the other must succumb’. But the men who write these manifestos do not truly know what useless suffering the war inflicts.

And the ancient wars on which they base their arguments did not involve such huge sacrifices as the next two or three years will demand of Europe, if this war is to be carried on to a knock-out result. Our peace-terms remain the same, ‘the destruction of Kaiserism and Prussianism’. I don’t know what aims this destruction represents.

I only know, and declare from the depths of my agony, that these empty words… mean the destruction of Youth. They mean the whole torment of waste and despair which people refuse to acknowledge or to face; from month to month they dupe themselves with hopes that ‘the war will end this year’.

And the Army is dumb. The Army goes on with its bitter tasks. The ruling classes do all the talking. And their words
convince no one but the crowds who are their dupes.

The soldiers who return home seem to be stunned by the things they have endured. They are willingly entrapped by the silent conspiracy against them. They have come back to life from the door of death, and the world is good to enjoy. They vaguely know that it is ‘bad form’ to hurt people’s feelings by telling the truth about the war…

The diary continues, wandering into violent territory as Sassoon decries the bloodthirstiness of women and imagines a mob awakening to “lynch” the “dictator” who has plunged it into war.

The soldiers are fooled by the popular assumption that they are all heroes. They have a part to play, a mask to wear. They are allowed to assume a pride of superiority to the mere civilian. Are there no heroes among the civilians, men and women alike?

Of the elderly male population I can hardly trust myself to speak. Their frame of mind is, in the majority of cases, intolerable. They glory in senseless invective against the enemy… They regard the progress of the war like a game of chess, cackling about ‘attrition,’ and ‘wastage of man-power’, and ‘civilisation at stake’. In every class of society there are old men like ghouls, insatiable in their desire for slaughter, impenetrable in their ignorance.

Soldiers conceal their hatred of the war.
Civilians conceal their liking for it…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Works, 375; Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 359-61.
  2. See Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 183.
  3. The Years of the Shadow, 294-6.
  4. Diaries, 175-6.

Rowland Feilding Before Messines; Jack Martin Goes up the Line; Phillip Maddison to Test his Courage; A New Brief and a Fine Old Book for C.E. Montague; A Short Life of Francis Ledwidge

Early tomorrow morning will see one of the most dramatic “shows” of the war, and the most successful British opening to date. Rowland Feilding, has been heavily involved in the preparations for the battle, organizing a last-minute raid–a “success” despite the losses involved, as a number of Germans were captured–and nearly being blinded himself when a heavy-caliber German shell fell nearby during the retaliatory bombardment. Last night, a century back, Feilding’s battalion was relieved, and will spend the battle in a supporting role, giving him time to describe much of the action in a long letter to his wife. He sets the scene for her, and for us:

The village [Wytschaete] tops the crest of the Messines Ridge, and the breastworks, which we have occupied since we came from the Somme, last September, run across the swampy fields to the west of and below it, with the hospice (or convent)—represented by a heap of bricks—standing out prominently against the skyline, beyond the Petit Bois…

That evening (June 6) we tea’d in the open, about half a mile behind the fire-trench, our artillery shooting hard over our heads all the time, but eliciting no reply from the enemy. The Brigadier called and congratulated us on the success of the raid. He was in the best of form, and indeed everybody was very cheerful and full of confidence. It was very edifying to see the almost exhilarated state every one was in, both officers and men, seeing what a colossal business lay immediately before them. Later, we had dinner in the open… The 6th Connaught Rangers were to be broken up for the battle in order to provide “mopping up” and carrying parties for the attacking battalions, thus leaving me personally with very little to do, and after dinner I moved to my Battle Headquarters—a deep mined dug-out in Rossignol Wood, above which I am now writing this letter. The wood reeked of gas shells, to which the enemy further contributed during the night.[1]

 

Jack Martin, a signaler with the 122nd brigade, will be going forward soon after midnight.

This afternoon we were all ordered to pack everything in our valises, except fighting kit, and hand them to the care of the QM… I joined the Forward Party and moved up the line.

…It was a wretched night–the strain of waiting was great–our guns were going continually–Fritz was ‘nervy’…

Crowded into a forward trench, the men now have to endure bombardment from the German artillery which, although the extent of the underground preparations seem not to have been guessed, must realize that some sort of attack is in the offing.

I was crouched down in the trench with my back to Jerry when a small shell landed almost on the parapet a matter of only inches from my head. The trench came in on top of me, and, but for the fact that it was strongly revetted, I should have been completely buried. When the smoke and dirt had cleared away, the other fellows were surprised to see me pick myself up unhurt. Aitken said, ‘That one had got your name on it, Joe,’ ‘Yes,’ I replied,’ but it was the wrong number.’ It gave me a terrible shaking but it might have been worse.[2]

 

Henry Williamson is safe behind the lines on the now-quiet Somme front, but he has sent his alter ego north, and placed him behind the lines at Messines. The talk in the transport section of Phillip Maddison’s turned somewhat morbid. Never mind that thousands of Germans were about to die and thousands of British infantry go over the top–the transport men, though currently fairly safe, have to bring up ammunition through an interdiction barrage. They too are frightened, and they begin to talk of their mothers. Phillip, even though he is so close to the place his courage failed in 1914, decides that he feels confident–because “he himself had broken away” from his mother and because he has the love of the faithful Lily: “if he hadn’t the thought of Lily to keep him going, he would be windy himself.”

With nothing to do as midnight passes and with his confidence buoyed both by the love of Lily and by his assessment–rather perceptive, this–that the German counter-barrage will be enfeebled and directed elsewhere, Phillip begins to contemplate a walk toward the front…[3]

 

One of the wonders of this project, in a small way, is the realization that even when great and terrible events are in the offing, “ordinary” life goes on for the soldiers even as it does across the experiential gulf. C.E. Montague has just received a welcome reassignment: instead of being a glorified assistant propagandist and minder of journalists (many of whom were far less skilled than he, not to mention his unusual moral and physical courage), he “was now to hold a position of some authority… better than showman-work however variegated.” He is now an ‘assistant press officer,’ and will have more freedom to choose his own course and no direct involvement in the dissemination of propaganda.

So late tonight, Montague will pack several well-known journalists into cars and head for Messines. But first he sits down to write a letter to his wife. To whom, of course, he cannot mention the coming battle, even at this late hour. Instead, he discusses what any good literary soldier does in his spare time–in this case his reading of the master of malign fate (and of brave human resistance against it) is at once exasperated and grateful:

June 6, 1917

I have gone on with The Return of the Native, admiring it more than ever. . . . I had forgotten how directly Hardy’s pessimism is declared in the description of Clym Yeobright, where he says that mankind’s enjoyment of life must decline, and the view of life as ‘a thing to be put up with’ prevail, and that we shall all cease to admire beauty of face as distinct from full expression of experiences mainly painful and disillusioning. What perversity it is. Life only seems to me to be more of a wonder and glory and ecstasy, the more I see of it, and I feel it specially when reading Hardy’s own descriptions of beautiful-natured people like his faithful lovers, and of lovely places.[4]

 

Finally, today, Francis Ledwidge is in France, far enough from Messines and surely in ignorance of tomorrow’s huge attack. But even if he knew he would still use an infantryman’s rare hours of leisure to attend to his growing poetic reputation. He wrote today an extremely long letter to Professor Lewis Chase, from which I will excerpt a few choice rambles:

B.E.F
France, 6th June 1917

Dear Sir,

Your letter of May 15th reached me this afternoon. I have to thank you for introducing my books into your University library and for the interest which you take in my poems and will endeavour to supply you with what details you require of myself and my work for the composition of your proposed lecture. You will, of course, understand that I am writing this under the most inept circumstances between my watches, for I am in the firing line and may be busy at any moment in the horrible work of war.

I am on active service since the spring of 1915, having served in the Dardanelles and the First British Expeditionary Force to Serbia… Some of the people who know me least imagine that I joined the Army because I knew men were struggling for higher ideals and great empires, and I could not sit idle to watch them make for me a more beautiful world. They are mistaken. I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilization, and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions…

I am of a family who were ever soldiers and poets… I have heard my mother say many times that the Ledwidges were once a great people in the land, and she has shown me with a sweep of her hand green hills and wide valleys where sheep are folded which still bear the marks of dead industry and, once, this was all ours.

These stories, told at my mother’s doorstep in the owl’s light, are the first things I remember except, perhaps, the old songs which she sang to me, so full of romance, love and sacrifice. She taught me to listen and appreciate the blackbird’s song, and when I grew to love it beyond all others she said it was because I was born in a blackbird’s nest and had its blood in my veins. My father died when I was two…

The “Poet of the Blackbirds” goes on to describe his family and his early life.

There were four brothers of us and three sisters. I am the second youngest. For these my mother laboured night and day, as none of us were strong enough to provide for our own wants…

I was seven years of age when my eldest brother died, and though I had only been to school on occasional days I was able to read the tomb-stones in a neighbouring grave-yard and had written in secret several verses which still survive. About this time I was one day punished in school for crying and that punishment ever afterwards haunted the master like an evil dream, for I was only crying over Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village,” which an advanced class had been reading aloud.

It was in this same class that I wrote my first poem, in order to win for the school a half holiday…

Much as I would like to use the sheer bulk of the letter to enhance the slight irony of writing one’s life story on the brink of a major attack, patience dictates that we must skip the tale of Ledwidge’s early literary development. After a short and unhappy apprenticeship to a Dublin grocer, Ledwidge returns home.

I took up any old job at all with the local farmers and was happy. I set myself certain studies and these I pursued at night when I should be resting from a laborious day. I took a certificate of one hundred and twenty words a minute at Pitman’s shorthand, and soon knew Euclid as well as a man of Trinity College…  I read and studied the poets of England from the age of Chaucer to Swinburne, turning especially to the Elizabethans and the ballads that came before the great Renaissance. I thirsted for travel and adventure, and longed to see the Italy of Shelley and the Greece of Byron. But the poems of Keats and his sad life appealed to me most.

The young poet, in his own estimation at least, begins to mature:

I began to pick faults with Longfellow and Tennyson…

I burned many copybooks which contained fugitive pieces of my own because I thought it were better for them to die young and be happy than live to be reviled.

Georgian Poetry” (with my three excluded) contains, I think, the best poems of the century…

The letter continues in high good spirits, but it’s an open question whether the late switch to a torrent of unrelated anecdotes and quirks is produced because the poet is flattered to be the subject of academic interest, or because he knows that a fighting soldier who might wish to be remembered should give potential biographers as much, and as quickly, as he can.

I get more pleasure from a good line than from a big cheque. Though I love music I cannot write within earshot of any instrument. I cannot carry a watch on account of the tick, real or imaginary, and might as well try to sleep under the Bell of Bruges as in a room where a clock stands… I have written many short stories and one play which is declared a success by eminent playwrights who have read it…

The letter closes with several poems, including “Rainy Day in April,” “The Wife of Llew,” and Pan. Ledwidge assures the professor that the best is yet to come…

 

Tomorrow, the mines go up.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 183-88.
  2. Sapper Martin, 70-1.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 153.
  4. C.E. Montague, 161-2, 172-3

Olaf Stapledon in 1999; Francis Ledwidge in a Fairy Ring; Siegfried Sassoon in an Underground Dressing Station

I’m always excited when we can play on the century-back conceit and take additional literary-centennial glances, either looking back a century back again, often with Hardy, or a century forward, as one of our writers ponders what two centuries may bring

But today, a century back, we go back only 77 years, and forward a mere 82: first of all, it is Thomas Hardy‘s 77th birthday… so best wishes. And then there is this strange and very charming letter by Olaf Stapledon to his fiancée Agnes Miller. It begins ordinarily enough.

Annery, 2 June 1917

My own girl,

Agnes, I have been trying to write a nice letter to your Daddy, but have not succeeded so far. I don’t want to write about pacifism, because it’s no use arguing, but I do want to write a nice letter with just a word or two about the war in it. I have tried two or three times unsuccessfully…

Olaf has time on his hands, now, at home on leave, so he included four miniature letters along with this one, each in its own envelope, marked with the year in which she was to have read it. Two were linked to moments in their past and one was marked “1917.” The last, however, was marked “1999,” with the additional directions “Open it & read it for her, dear Agnes of 1917. She, poor soul, will not be able to. Pour soul? Glorious blessed soul or nothing.”

Dearest,

It will be all over when you get this. This war will be over, & you and I will be over. What we two shall be then, I don’t know, but if we do live in some way or other, and can remember and feel, then we will be lovers still. Perhaps you smile at this letter, & perhaps I also must smile at it in 1999. But I in 1917, in the middle of all these wars and wonders, set down as a certain thing that for you & for me both then & now the main thing in all the world is that we love one another.

For ever

Your Olaf[1]

Scarcely more warlike–or less romantic, should we use the old extensive sense of the word–is this poem, written today, a century back, by Francis Ledwidge. Really, this is a day of three visions, sweet-numinous, foreboding-fantastic, and deadly-traumatic.

The Find

I took a reed and blew a tune,
And sweet it was and very clear
To be about a little thing
That only few hold dear.

Three times the cuckoo named himself,
But nothing heard him on the hill,
Where I was piping like an elf
The air was very still.

‘Twas all about a little thing
I made a mystery of sound,
I found it in a fairy ring
Upon a fairy mound.

June 2nd, 1917.

 

Will no one remember the war? Oh, Siegfried Sassoon will. As his release from Chapelwood Manor draws near he knows that he will soon have to decide (after a period of leave, naturally) whether he will really act on his growing disgust and anger with the conduct of the war. But there is no question that as his body strolls through a peaceful Sussex spring, his mind remains in the tunnels of the battle of Arras.

 

In an Underground Dressing Station

They set him quietly down. I think he tried
To grin . . . moaned . . . moved his head from side to side.

He gripped the stretcher; stiffened; glared, and screamed,
‘Oh put my leg down, doctor, do!’ (He’d got
A bullet in his ankle; and he’d been shot
Horribly through the guts’.) The surgeon seemed
So kind and gentle, sayings above that crying,
‘You must keep still.’ But he was dying . . . dying.'[2]

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 228.
  2. Diaries, 173.

Duff Cooper Gets the Call; Henry Williamson is Laid Low; C.E. Montague Draws Strength From Hardy; Woolf Praises Sassoon; Francis Ledwidge Gropes Toward God; Isaac Rosenberg Lifts His Eyes to the Larks

I don’t mean to make fun of Duff Cooper–he is a capable man, and not nearly as daffy as he sounds in his journal–but, until today, all we’ve heard of his recent decision to take an Army commission is that is seemed to yield positive short-term results in his endless pursuit of Diana Manners. Ah–but has he forgotten the other woman in his life? Yes, yes he has.

In the afternoon Mother telephoned. She has found about my prospects of joining the army. She is naturally much upset–it is most awkward.[1]

 

Nor did I set out to make fun of Henry Williamson, today, but this disjunction between diary and novel is… also pretty funny:

Thursday, 31 May. Kicked on head by Tommy.

The editors add, helpfully, that “Tommy was a mule.” Which, given that Williamson is a mule-riding Transport Officer–and despite the fact that he describes stubborn men as “mules”–should probably be taken literally, and not as a slight on the stubborn character of some insubordinate “Tommy Atkins.”[2]

In the novel, instead of this misadventure, Phillip Maddison attend a conference held by Captain Hobart in which he is initiated into further tactical secrets of the coming Messines Ridge attack. There is much admiration expressed for General Plumer, the rare innovator among the British senior officers and the man most responsible for the novel use of what are essentially early modern siege warfare tactics scaled up by several orders of magnitude and undertaken over the course of many months: there will be some very big mines. Which, of course, were top secret at the time.

After the conference Phillip goes walkabout, as he so often does. Leaving his work to his sergeant, Phillip strolls past signs and organizational tapes and models and remarks on the fact that every possible preparation for the coming attack has been carefully thought out. He is then struck by the idea that if such detailed tactical information were to be passed on to the men of the Machine Gun Company, surely it would be a good thing for morale, and who better to lecture them than himself…[3]

 

But today is a busy day, and with those bits of silliness out of the way we can move toward a few more formal literary accomplishments.

First, I’d offer this definition of a worthy novel: a book that can offer intellectual and emotional support to a reader burdened by cares and mired in doubt, yet far from any easy resonance with its subject matter. We have a nomination, then, today, from C.E. Montague, writing to his wife:

May 31, 1917

A man here has got The Return of the Native and I borrowed it last night and read the first few pages again. How wonderful they are—I do believe the finest opening ever written for a novel of that kind. I shall try, at odd times, to read on. There is something massive and hill-like about Hardy which makes him good to read during this passing madness of the world—he helps one to feel what a mass of durable things in human nature as well as in other ‘nature’ are going on all right, all the time, and will be there to come back to when the evil time is overpast.[4]

 

Time in its dogged unidirectionality is a strange thing. Thomas Hardy has held out an austere kind of hope to many of our writers, and his approval meant more to Siegfried Sassoon than that of any writer… but if one were to try to sell an unacquainted reader on the merits of Sassoon’s poetry today, a more powerful endorsement might be felt to come from a review of his verses that was published today, a century back, in the Times Literary Supplement:

…the beauty in them, though fitful, is of the individual, indefinable kind which comes, we know not how, to make lines such as we read over each time with a renewed delight that after one comes the other.[5]

Thus Virginia Woolf on The Old Huntsman and Other Poems.

 

We also have a relative rarity, today: a long letter from Francis Ledwidge. Written from reserve billets in France, to Katherine Tynan, it shows Ledwidge in the thick of the action and, characteristically, able to wring beauty from the terror and violence of his surroundings.

I would have written to thank you for the sweets, only that lately we were unsettled, wandering to and fro between the firing-line and resting billets immediately behind. This letter is ante-dated by two hours, but before midnight we may be wandering in single and slow file, with the reserve line two or three hundred yards behind the fire trench. We are under an hour’s notice. Entering and leaving the line is most exciting, as we are usually but about thirty yards from the enemy, and you can scarcely understand how bright the nights are made by his rockets. These are in continual ascent and descent from dusk to dawn, making a beautiful Crescent from Switzerland to the sea. There are white lights, green, and red, and whiter, bursting into red and changing again, and blue bursting into purple drops and reds fading into green. It is all like the end of a beautiful world. It is only horrible when you remember that every colour is a signal to waiting reinforcements or artillery, and, God help us if we are caught in the open, for then up go a thousand reds, and hundreds of rifles and machine-guns are emptied against us, and all amongst us shells of every calibre are thrown, shouting destruction and death. We can do nothing but fling ourselves into the first shell-hole and wonder as we wait where we will be hit. But why all this

I am indeed glad to think you are preparing another book of verse. Will you really allow me to review it? I don’t want money for doing it. The honour would be more worth than money…

A. E. sets me thinking of things long forgotten, and Lord Dunsany of gorgeous Eastern tapestry and carpets. Do you get such impressions from the books you love? I met a traveller in Naples who told me that he never read Andrew Marvell but he remembered a dunce’s cap and a fishing-rod he had when a boy, and never could trace the train of thought far enough back to discover where the connection lay. I am writing odd things in a little book whenever I can. Just now I am engaged in a poem about the Lanawn Shee, who, you remember, is really the Irish Muse. One who sees her is doomed to sing. She is very close to you. I am writing it in the traditional style of the ‘Silk of the Kine.’

Here are the opening verses:

Powdered and perfumed the full bee
Winged heavily across the clover,
And where the hills were dim with dew,
Purple and blue the West looked over…

There is some more of this exercise in willful aestheticism, but Ledwidge also includes a finished poem in a very different vein:

 

Ascension Thursday, 1917

Lord, Thou hast left Thy footprints in the rocks,
That we may know the way to follow Thee,
But there are wide lands opened out between
Thy Olivet and my Gethsemane.

And oftentimes I make the night afraid,
Crying for lost hands when the dark is deep,
And strive to reach the sheltering of Thy love
Where Thou art herd among Thy folded sheep.

Thou wilt not ever thus, O Lord, allow
My feet to wander when the sun is set,
But through the darkness, let me still behold
The stony bye-ways up to Olivet.

 

Yet neither Sassoon nor Ledwidge can lay claim to the most important poetic reference point of today. Isaac Rosenberg wrote recently to Gordon Bottomley (the letter was posted today, a century back) about a number of things, including his new work alongside the Royal Engineers, putting out barbed wire at night. The letter mentions both Dead Man’s Dump and Daughters of War, and also seems to indicate that he has completed “Returning, We Hear the Larks,” a poem which can speak for itself, about many things, not least that a poet walking in the shadow of the valley of death who chooses not to look to God might also look to nature–even here–and then, through nature’s verse-entwined messengers, to poetry.

Sombre the night is:
And, though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.
Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp—
On a little safe sleep.
But hark! Joy—joy—strange joy.
Lo! Heights of night ringing with unseen larks:
Music showering on our upturned listening faces.
Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song—
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man’s dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides;
Like a girl’s dark hair, for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.[6]

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 54.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 157.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 144-5.
  4. C. E. Montague, 161.
  5. See Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 360.
  6. I'm not entirely convinced by Moorcroft Wilson's dating of the poem to May 1917, but it seems plausible... and this is a poem that can't be left to slip through the cracks entirely...

Edward Thomas Can’t Stay to Tea; Kate Luard Plates her Moss; Bob Hermon Admires the New Knights; Covering the Retreat with Rudyard Kipling and Charles Carrington; St. Patrick’s Day in France and Revolution in England

The bad nights are spreading, a century back. From the Somme north to Arras, where Edward Thomas is roiled by nightmares.

A horrible night of bombardment, and the only time I slept I dreamt I was at home and couldn’t stay to tea… Then the most glorious bright high clear morning… A beautiful day, sunny with pale cloudless sky and W. wind, but cold in O.P. Clear nightfall with curled, cinerous cloud and then a cloudless night with pale stains in sky over where Bosh is burning a village or something…[1]

 

No, that’s not right–nightmares aren’t the real story. Most of our hardy souls are doing what they can to treat late winter as if it might be early spring. Kate Luard likes nothing better than wildflowers (especially if she can take a long walk and gather them herself), but an experienced Nursing Sister makes do.

Saturday, March 17th, and no sign of any buds out anywhere in these parts. I’ve got a plate of moss with a celandine plant in the middle, and a few sprouting twigs of honeysuckle that you generally find in January, and also a bluebell bulb in a jam tin…[2]

 

No, no, that’s not quite right either. Actually, many of our writers who are not yet engaged in combat are able to appreciate all that is traditional and right with the war. No need for winter or spring when chivalry abides! Any guesses whom Bob Hermon has just laid eyes on?

There’s been some wonderful air fights here today. There is a Hun who flies a bright scarlet machine & is real hot stuff. He seems to be a sort of star flyer & does most of the fighting. He is a real gallant fellow & we all admire him.[3]

The Red Baron himself.

 

But there is, of course, a ground war on. One of the reasons that Richtofen has been released to roam is that the German aircraft are getting their first crack at what will become a crucial task of tactical air power: covering the movement of infantry. Let’s step back two days (and south to the Somme) to see how the Guards are getting on with following up the German withdrawal:

Captain Alexander took our two forward companies… the German shelling was intense. They used 5.9’s and larger, as they were firing from a long way back. The trouble for the 2nd Irish Guards companies developed almost at once on their left, where their patrol was fired at by machine-guns from a German trench on the edge of the wood. Their own 1st Battalion, trying to push out of Sailly-Saillisel, was hung up, too — they heard and saw it — for the same reason. The Division could have driven through at the cost of fairly heavy casualties, but nothing was to be gained by wasting men in rushes on hidden machine-guns that can lay out thirty good lives in two minutes. The Scots Guards got on into the wood without much trouble at first, till they, too, ran on snipers between tree-stumps and up and down the defaced trenches, or opened some single machine-gun slinking from cover to cover. It was all slow “feeling,” with alternating advances at walking pace, and long checks — “something like drawing a gorse for wolves instead of foxes…”

As they worked their way more into St. Pierre Vaast Wood came the sensation, which there was no mistaking, that they were being played with by the Hun, and losing touch as he intended them to do. Certain vital trenches would be controlled by a few snipers and machine-guns; a sunk road offering shelter would be plastered with heavies, and a full company would be held in it, digging for more cover, by dead accurate long-range fire; while far and far behind the orderly German withdrawal of the main body continued in peace.

On the 17th March, for example, “we were never really in touch with the enemy’s rear-guard during the day except for one or two snipers…”

Which brings this narrative-of-a-period to today. But a little analysis of the general effectiveness of the German withdrawal is worth our while, too:

Here is the comment of the time and the place on our advance: “The German retreat was conducted very skilfully. One cannot say that we caused them to leave one position an hour before they intended. They inflicted upon us a considerable number of casualties (twenty in this battalion, while on our left the 1st Battalion lost considerably more). On the other hand, we saw no evidence that in the actual retirement we had even damaged one German. They left little or nothing behind.”

And the professional judgment is equally fair. “But of course it must be remembered that the task of the (German) regimental officers was an easy one, however difficult it may have been for the Staff. Given time, there is no difficulty in withdrawing battalions from trenches by night, for a few snipers and machine-gunners, knowing the ground, and retreating from trench to trench, can hang up an advance indefinitely unless the troops advancing have strong reserves and are prepared for heavy losses.”

This last was not our situation… things had to be done as cheaply as possible…

We are generally in sure hands when Rudyard Kipling takes up the military narrative–this is a work of memorial devotion, remember, and he suppresses his polemical opinions unless he feels that they are an echo of the those of the officer corps he is writing about. But we are in excellent hands when the worst of the war must be invoked on the scale of the battalion history–neither pointillistically subordinated to a grand narrative nor awash in the subjectivities of the personal.

The advance of the Second Irish Guards

…led them into a stale hell which had once been soil of France but was now beyond grace, hope, or redemption. Most of the larger trees in St. Pierre Vaast were cut down, and the smaller ones split by shell or tooth-brushed by machine-gun fire. The ground was bog, studded with a few island-like formations of fire-trench, unrevetted, unboarded, with little dug-outs ten or twelve feet deep, all wet and filthy. There were no regular latrines. Numberless steel helmets and heaps of stick-bombs lay about under foot. The garrisons must have been deadly uncomfortable, and there was good evidence that the enemy had economised men beyond anything that we dared. The ground had been cut to bits by our fire, and in one place yawned what had been a battery position wiped out, unseeing and unseen, weeks ago, as the dead teams round it testified. Very few booby-traps were left behind. The Battalion lost only five men in all through this cause.[4]

 

After several nights in No Man’s Land as patrols pushed into the old German lines, Charles Carrington too learned, today, how successful the German withdrawal had been:

This time, the morning of the 17th March, they really had gone. My captain went forward for orders and presently sent me back word to bring the company over the top, by daylight… to the German front line.

I cannot explain the consternation caused by this order. For two years no one had raised a hand over the parapet by daylight unless in the stress of battle and covered by an artillery barrage. Tired as we were… we were exhilarated. Open fighting had come…

It had not, of course, but Carrington remembers the high mood of the next few days as they pursued the Germans east toward the new line of defenses–which the British officers all knew of, of course, even if they could not realize its strength. There was the thrill of moving and of seeing cavalry units trotting about over open country. But this was not a victory:

The main German forces had gone when we moved forward, having burnt every house, blown up every church, public building and ancient monument, broken every bridge and culvert, mined every crossroads, polluted every well. They had carried away all the able-bodied men and women into captivity, leaving the old and feeble concentrated in one or two villages; and–which seemed to distress the French most–they had even found time to ring-bark the apple-trees in the cider orchards. The country was dead, laid waste with a destructive fervour worse than anything in the Thirty Years War… When we marched into Peronne… we saw a huge notice erected on the town hall: ‘NICHT ARGERN NUR WUNDERN’, ‘Don’t be angry, only wonder!’ Indeed it puzzled us a good deal. We were not angry but delighted that so large a region of France should be liberated and if we had any astonishment left it was at the ingenuities of German barbarity. What they had not destroyed they had defiled…

The sequel is not prettier, and it is a good deal bloodier than Kipling’s account of the Irish Guards:

On the first day we lost two officers from my mess, one shot by a German sniper when leading the advance guard, the other caught by a booby trap. In a German dugout he had sat down in a chair and had drawn it up to the table, thus igniting the fuse of a concealed bomb…[5]

 

So it goes. In the strangeness of this advance, many things are forgotten. What was missing from Kipling’s account of the Irish Guards today? (Other than deadly booby traps, which surely varied by location).

It says something about the English perspective of the officers that St. Patrick’s Day went unmentioned in the history of an Irish unit. Not so with the First Inniskillings, out of the line resting near Corbie after several days of following the German withdrawal, and counting among their number the poet Francis Ledwidge:

In the morning there was an issue of shamrock to all the Irishmen. The Australians, who happened to be going into action that day, also asked for shamrock and wore it in their caps. Most of the forenoon was taken-up with a church
parade…  In the afternoon, the Inniskilling fife and drum band played in the village to the great delight of the French children, who crowded around them. The men got up a concert for themselves in the afternoon. The officers went into Corbie, that night for dinner. The rations were greatly stepped up in honour of the feast and there was a good dinner too, in the mess, after which most of the men also went into town to sample the estaminets. These kept
open very late, as they did on Christmas Day. Despite the army concessions, however, commemorating their patron saint in such a setting inevitably made the Irishmen melancholy.[6]

 

And here’s a good example of why I hardly mention (or don’t cover at all, really) grand strategy and international affairs, despite their enormous influence on the war: their immediate effects are almost never felt by fighting soldiers. But here’s a strange example, in a tale told by the officer currently narrating in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle of the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers. He began a long-awaited leave today, a century back, taking a train to the coast and then a boat for England:

We had a fine crossing–to what? On debarking we were ordered to report at once to our local police, and be in readiness for any emergency.

Uniquely, the officers on leave found themselves marshaled to deal with expected unrest, as the government feared a rising in sympathy with the early stages of the Russian Revolution. There is sympathy, at first, in the officer’s voice–“the political air was sharpened” by privation and the wealth of war profiteers, by “the slaughter of the Somme.” And then much less sympathy: the conclusion, looking back from a later point in time, is that a wicked alliance of convenience has formed between armchair theorist liberals and trade unionists that will pressure the government into foolish concessions “to the serious hurt of the Army.”[7]

 

That is surely enough for today–unless you would prefer to close the day with Edward Thomas, in a quiet mood, writing a long letter to his wife Helen, and reflecting in relative tranquility on last night’s anxieties.

17 March 1917 Arras

Dearest

This has been quite a good day at the O.P. [Observation Post] and after a bad night of heavy shelling. The morning was bright and clear and all day long the sun shone and the sky has been pale and without a cloud. I have been drawing little panoramas.

Those I had done last time are more interesting now because the Old Hun has been destroying many of the buildings on the skyline. Tonight he is burning something away in that direction. The sky is lit up with two big glows beyond the crest. It hasn’t been tedious at all, and now we are installed in our dug out which hardly anything could penetrate. It is so small that if one moves the other five have to.

I am wondering if a letter has come for me at last. I think in any case I will keep this till I do hear, though Bronwen’s letter implied that there was nothing abnormal.

To cram this little room still more the men insisted on dragging in one of the box spring mattresses from the other place. They had to cut it to fit it in at all, and now three of us are sitting on it; we have a door up, a fire going, one candle alight and can only hear the rustle of a Daily Mail.

Now it is 11 p.m. I have to be awake till 12. Then I sleep until 6 unless I am wanted which I shall be unless the night is quite quiet. So far there has only been a distant roll now and then as I sat reading ‘Julius Ceasar’, warm in front because of the fire, cold behind because of a door leading up into the street.

I dreamt (almost for the first time since I left home) last night — a very feeble dream, that I was at home but did not stay to tea.

I don’t know who was there. I was a sort of visitor and I could not stay to tea. I think Baba asked if I wouldn’t stay to tea.

Every hour the telephonist tests the line to see if it is O.K. He has just done it and there is another hour to go before I begin to lie on those very bouncy springs…[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 170.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 101.
  3. For Love and Courage, 338.
  4. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 120-1.
  5. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 138-42. Carrington, writing later, is careful--I think that's an appropriate qualification--to represent the innocence/confidence that still obtained, in his experience, in 1917, and only a few paragraphs after the booby traps he is making claims once again for the effectiveness (and gloriousness) of cavalry...
  6. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 173-4.
  7. The War the Infantry Knew, 304-5.
  8. Letters to Helen, 84-7.

Panpipes from Francis Ledwidge; Lark Song from Edward Thomas; Wilfred Owen Does Not Want Chocolate; Edwin Vaughan Returns Through Fire and Mud; Edward Hermon Loses His Padre

We begin in a light pastoral mood, today, with Francis Ledwidge… and then work quickly through a series of increasingly violent incidents.

Pan

He knows the safe ways and unsafe
And he will lead the lambs to fold,
Gathering them with his merry pipe,
The gentle and the overbold.

He counts them over one by one,
And leads them back by cliff and steep.
To grassy hills where dawn is wide,
And they may run and skip and leap.

And just because he loves the lambs
He settles them for rest at noon,
And plays them on his oaten pipe
The very wonder of a tune.

France,
March 11th, 1917.

 

The very wonder. But will there be divine music to lead the sheep safely through this coming spring? Ledwidge is never harsh, really, but I wonder if there is some gentle irony behind this idea of a shepherd god carefully numbering his sheep as he watches over them…

 

Before the guns arrive to drown them out, the song of the larks is spreading. From the diary of Edward Thomas:

Out at 8.30 to Tonville O.P. and studied the ground from Beaurains N. Larks singing over No Man’s Land—trench  mortars. We were bombarding their front line: they were shooting at Arras.

Later Ronville heavily shelled and we retired to dugout. At 6.15 all quiet and heard blackbirds chinking. Scene peaceful, desolate like Dunwich moors except sprinkling of white chalk on the rough brown ground… [1]

 

Wilfred Owen, it seems, is stuck in the middle. Neither tentatively exulting in spring nor in the war’s worst grips, he writes to give his mother an update on his whereabouts:

Another Place
More Deserted Village
11 March

No sooner had I set out my Kit and done a page for you, than I was boosted back nearer the Line on a special job; in charge of a party of Dug-Out Diggers. It is a soft job. I take the men up sometimes by day, sometimes by night, so that (as today) I lie snug in my blankets until lunchtime. We are 4 officers living in this cellar; our servants cook for us. It is a relief to be away from the Battalion for a while. How I hope it will last. It may spin out 3 weeks…

I have just been sweating along a dangerous road to a factory where there is a shower bath. There was no water today! I sweated some more coming back. (Methinks I am becoming something crude in my speech.) Tis a crude, vagabondage of a life…

And downright unbearable if one runs out of good books and is forced to fall back upon the press:

I am able to read here, but have nothing left now… do you think, now, that I am going to read the war-impressions of home-editors?  If, here & there, you get a true version of the business—so much the more unreadable. Punch, on the other hand takes humour too seriously. From Punch you would take a Sentry to be the laughingstock of Europe.

Spleen!

No, I still tipple Punch as hilariously as ever. But don’t send any, for some one or other is bound to have one.

What I should like would be a current Poetry Review.

Please don’t send anything special for my Birthday. You have sent so many specialities lately. For instance, expensive chocolate!

I hope to be able to write again tomorrow…

Longing unspeakably to see you, dear Mother, I look forward to Leave in about 3 more months!!

Your own Wilfred xx[2]

“Please don’t send anything, particularly not expensive chocolate for my birthday” has got to be one of the all-time disingenuinities of wartime soldier-maternal correspondence…

 

We are rejoined today by Edwin Vaughan, who, despite being fairly fresh from training, has just spent two and a half weeks at a refresher course at Amiens. There he “paid many visits to the Cathedral, which is very beautiful and dignified.” He returned to the battalion’s billets on the 10th. On the way back he saw a German airplane shoot down an observation balloon. The two observers jumped clear but the balloon, burning, caught up with their descending parachutes, burning them to death.

Today, coming up from reserve into the line, Vaughan and the other returning men were shelled by light trench mortars:

As we loosened ourselves in the mud, to continue our round, there was a faint ‘pop’ in the distance like a blank cartridge, followed by a rapid whistle and the sharp crack and flash of a bomb bursting about five yards away. Even as we ducked, there was another ‘pop’ and another bomb burst in the same place.

As we crouched low in the mud, they continued to fall about us, and Hughes whispered that they were grenatenwerfers–called by us ‘blue pigeons’ or ‘pineapples’. He said that the sounds of our squelching through the mud was perfectly audible in Jerry’s line, and he would follow us with these bombs until we reached our right post, when he would open with a machine gun…

Accidentally banging his ‘tin hat’ on an old iron pump, Vaughan attracts more fire:

…an angry burst of machine gun fire swept over our heads whilst a perfect hurricane of bombs fell about us. Several of them fell within two yards of us, but owing to the mud we were unhurt, one dud actually falling between us, and a few inches from where our faces were pressed into the side of the trench…[3]

This tour will not be an easy one for Vaughan, but so far it is nothing worse than a near miss.

 

Not so for Edward “Bob” Hermon. Now commanding the the 24th Northumberland Fusiliers, he is much burdened by the organizational and physical challenges of work just behind the Arras front. He strives to keep up his end of his voluminous correspondence with his wife, and he can’t really hide the fact that everyone in his part of the world is in danger.

11th March 1917

I’m very weary old dear & so you must excuse a somewhat short letter tonight. I’ve had an awful lot to do lately & life is pretty strenuous…

Nevertheless, Hermon musters the strength to comment—endearingly—on the pictures he has been sent of his daughters at their riding lessons. One daughter’s position is “good enough to print in the Cavalry drill book” while another must “keep her heels down a bit more.”  Tiny details, but the effort is not a negligible one.

Darling mine I can’t write you any more I’m too tired & must be up at 4 a.m. I’m rather in the dumps tonight as I’ve lost a few men these last few days & my friend Duncan the Padre was killed today. He was actually conducting a service at the time & a shell came in & killed him.

My love to you my darling.[4]

This is an unusual disaster, but not an isolated one. Any huge concentration of troops–necessary for any major attack–means that thousands of men who are not actually holding the line will still be going about their daily business well within the range of the enemy heavy artillery. The Rev. Edward Francis Duncan, MC went to the aid of men wounded by such a shell bursting just outside his makeshift church–a second shell from the same battery killed him.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 168.
  2. Collected Letters, 442.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 36-40.
  4. For Love and Courage, 334-5.

Francis Ledwidge Remembers Spring; F.S. Flint Dines With the Inimitable Ford, Who “Still Invents His Life, Rather;” Dirty Rhymes from Siegfried Sassoon; Good News Brings No Relief to Edward Thomas; Bob Hermon Arrives in Arras

We’ll open today with Francis Ledwidge, minding poetry’s seasonal business. Is it spring, yet, in France? No; but it is Spring at home, in a sense:

Spring

Sweet by the river’s noisy brink
The water-lily bursts her crown,
The kingfisher comes down to drink
Like rainbow jewels falling down.

And when the blue and grey entwine
The daisy shuts her golden eye,
And peace wraps all those hills of mine
Safe in my dearest memory.

France,
March 8th, 1917.

 

Next comes an amusing letter to Richard Aldington from his friend, fellow Imagist, and frequent correspondent F.S. Flint. Aldington, I often forget, was once private secretary to Ford Madox Hueffer:

…I had a telephone call yesterday, and a voice said. Is that you, Flint. I’m Ford Madox Hueffer! Good god, I cried. Yes, can you come and dine with me to-night? –Rather, where can I meet you? So I met him at 5.30 outside Shipwrights, the barber’s, in Coventry Street. We walked to his lodging in the Y.M.C.A. bungalow at Victoria, thence by way of the R.C. Cathedral to the Authors’ Club, where we had a sherry and bitters… we proceeded by way of the tube to the Rendezvous in Soho, where Ford spend [sic] 16/6 on a dinner consisting of Chambertin (I think), hors d’oeuvres varies, salmon and turkey, large helpings of each, to keep within the three course limit. Thence we returned in a taxi to the Authors’ Club, where I took down a list of the poems Ford wants collected in a volume which he wants me to look after.

He had already asked me from France to do this, but I like a churl refused in beautiful French and sent him Poverty. I repented in a few days… and sent him another letter begging his pardon, and accepting the job. He had had neither of these letters. Ford is very quiet, some great change has taken place in him. He says he is going to stay in the Army and not write another book. He laughed when I chaffed him and pointed out the inconsistency of this declaration with his wanting me to pilot a book of poems for him. But he is changed. He is no longer the fat man he was, and he is uglier, and there is another look in his eyes. He still invents his life rather, but I felt that he was rather down and out. Here is a poem I have written as a result of our meeting. It has not come off, but I feel that if I concentrate on it again, it will come out all right…[1]

No, the poem does not quite come off. But what a description of Ford! Changed, and yet unchanged in his total changeability–gorging himself, but on a budget; forswearing art but pushing his war poems. The down-and-outness seems just right, and the propensity for fabulation is something we have been tracing ever since Ford started writing of his experiences in France last summer. And yet can Flint, loyal modernist of the younger generation, have any idea that Ford’s tendency to mythologize his own life will lead to a great fat brilliant beast of a war novel?

 

Things with Edward Thomas could be better–he’s stuck doing office work away from his battery, where he might be doing something to alleviate the feelings of uselessness and loneliness that have been tugging him down toward depression. But things could also be much worse: he’s had a walk, and a good word from across the pond.

Snow blizzard—fine snow and fierce wind… but suddenly a blue sky and soft white cloud through the last of the snow… I liked the walk. Letters from Helen, Eleanor, Oscar and Frost (saying he had got an American publisher for my verses). [2]

Thomas wrote back to Eleanor Farjeon the same day–but there is little of the good cheer we might have hoped for:

March 8

My dear Eleanor, Another letter from you today. I think I already owed you one, but was waiting for the Fortnum and Mason to arrive. It hasn’t done so yet, so I won’t wait any longer, though I doubt if I can do much tonight. I have become rather fed up by this job. It has meant a lot of idle cold hours indoors, a lot of dissatisfaction with myself and some with other people. The Colonel here, though a charming and often entertaining man, is very tyrannical and I have done many trivial things that annoyed me to have to do. Also the nights have been disturbing. I must expect that, but of course artillery in a city is exceptionally noisy. As a matter of fact though I fall asleep very quickly both on putting out my candle and after being wakened up by the fear of God. You mustn’t joke about leave. There is no leave for anyone in this army, neither for men who have been out 9 months nor for men whose wives are dying. If I come back it will be wounded or at the end of the war, I don’t mind which…

This is a poor letter for you. I hope it will find you in fine weather in your cottage garden and able to imagine me much better off than in this belated frost.

Can this be a peevish sort of joke? (The “frost,” I mean, not this early-onset hope for a blighty one.)

…I have heard from Frost—or Helen did, saying he had found a pushbike, but too late, I suspect.[3]

 

The bad mood would seem to be general, though manifesting very differently in our different poets. Siegfried Sassoon wrote to Robbie Ross today, a century back, including in the letter satiric verse both unusual and unsettling. In “The Optimist,” Sassoon has a dull-witted officer spout clichés about soundly beating the Germans–the usual skewering of safe staff officers, at least until it is revealed that the speaker has suffered a head wound… The poem will be published soon, but Sassoon will regret this… it’s not a very satisfactory satire.

The second bit of verse he included was never intended for publication. We have seen the unfortunate conjoining of Sassoon’s snobbery and prudery descend upon the young Welsh officers out for the first time–really, the Sassoon who bemoans the murder of youth should be in sympathy with them. But not if they are speaking with uncouth accents and patronizing the local prostitutes. Hoping to entertain the “unshockable” Robbie Ross, Sassoon archly pities the “poor harlots… how tired they must be of the Welsh dialect and the Lloyd George embrace!”

But the verse is even worse:

She met me on the stairs in her chemise;
I grinned and offered her a five franc note;
Poor girl, no doubt she did her best to please;
But I’d have been far happier with a goat.

This is obnoxious, but one could choose to read it as merely a juvenile rhyme, a nasty private joke. The Royal Welch, after all, have a regimental goat, and such jokes… But that would be to deny that this, too, might be a window into Sassoon’s conflicted character, “a particularly virulent manifestation of Sassoon’s distaste for heterosexual activity.”[4] Perhaps–but Robert Graves, in principle and later practice an enthusiastic heterosexual–was just as snobbish/prudish and cutting about the sordid business of young soldiers and military brothels.

 

We’ll end with a sharp turn back toward traditional family values then, and check in with Bob Hermon:

My darling,

Your letter about the lovely weather is most encouraging but as I happen to be sitting in a house without any glass in the windows & as it is snowing hard, I fail to see it! I am in the big town close handy to were I was…

I rode down here yesterday in the most biting cold wind I ever remember…[5]

The big town is Arras–Hermon’s battalion, too, is being moved into position for the next big push…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Imagist Dialogues. 196-7.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 168.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas... 254-5.
  4. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 325-7.
  5. For Love and Courage, 334-5.

Edwin Vaughan Approaches the Line, With Nightmares of His Own Demise; Francis Ledwidge Dreams of Fairies

Edwin Vaughan is due to see the front line at last. Denied first by being posted to a battalion at rest, then again when the battalion was sent into trenches but his company was kept in battalion reserve, he will at last have a chance to see the elephant, if only while leading up a ration party.

On the 4th another officer had taken the rations up to the companies in the line. He returned late, after the “terrific rumble and growling” of a barrage, to report that the enemy–Vaughan, oddly, specifies the German regiment–has attacked three times, apparently either a raid or a local effort to seize some trench (more likely a raid, as the Germans were not at this time much interested in advancing their line). This is all a little too specific and certain, but then again that is in the nature of rumors, and it is quite possible that previous raids have identified the Germans opposite. The truth of the matter is of less moment than how it affected Vaughan:

This story seriously disturbed my rest: it brought danger so close to me. I lay awake for hours, thinking that I might have been in the line during that barrage and attack… Then how would I have acquitted myself? I saw horrible pictures of myself lying dead in a shattered trench, or helplessly bleeding to death in a shell-hole with no power to call for help. And not less terrible I saw myself on the road, panic-stricken and unable to go forward with the rations.

No–no less terrible; men have been shot for less.

Devoutly I wished that the war would be over before our turn came to go into the line.

It will not be. But late the next night Vaughan is sent up not with but rather after a ration party, ordered to catch them up on a bicycle. This is surely a strange first approach to the line.

I started off in great fear, fully expecting a repetition of last night’s barrage. The cold was terrible, and I had no gloves… the handlebars… felt like white-hot metal… on every side gaped great black holes, and the snow around was blackened with debris, or yellow with explosive.

Very shortly I sniffed a curious, sweet, choking smell, and falling from my bicycle, I dragged out my gas-mask with numb fingers and pulled it over my head…

I sped on, almost mad with panic, passing no one on the way except two limbers, whose masked drivers were urging their teams into a stumbling trot, until, at last, I felt that my head and heart were bursting, and falling off my bike on to the side of the road I dragged off my helmet and took great gulps of air, not caring whether it were gas-laden or not.

As a matter of fact the air was now quite clear and being close to the trench, I left my bike and walked along to it…

A hero’s welcome? Not in this war book.

I was astounded and chagrined to find in the dugout a strange crowd of officers who told me that my Battalion had been relieved some time before…

This was such an anticlimax and I was so annoyed that I walked back to my bike and then cycled home in an unhurried and serene fashion, not giving another thought to the possibilities of shelling.[1]

 

I can think of no smooth transition from Vaughan’s latest schlimazeling to Francis Ledwidge‘s latest poem, unless it is that counter-intuitive serenity. There is something heroic in being so completely immune to the atmosphere of a grim winter war.

 

Fairies

Maiden-Poet, come with me
To the heaped up cairn of Maeve,
And there we’ll dance a fairy dance
Upon a fairy’s grave.

In and out among the trees,
Filling all the night with sound,
The morning, strung upon her star,
Shall chase us round and round.

What are we but fairies too,
Living but in dreams alone.
Or, at the most, but children still,
Innocent and overgrown?

February 6th, 1917.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 23-4.

Edward Thomas Entrains for the Front; If Francis Ledwidge Had a Golden Pound

Francis Ledwidge has his head in the game, still–the game of sentimental, home-loving poetry, that is. I think we can put him firmly, now, in the camp of those whose poetic instincts serve to insulate them from the horrors of the war, rather than those seeking to turn their poetry to the task of grappling with what they experience.

Had I A Golden Pound

(after the Irish)

Had I a golden pound to spend,
My love should mend and sew no more.
And I would buy her a little quern,
Easy to turn on the kitchen floor.

And for her windows curtains white,
With birds in flight and flowers in bloom,
To face with pride the road to town,
And mellow down her sunlit room.

And with the silver change we’d prove
The truth of Love to life’s own end,
With hearts the years could but embolden.
Had I a golden pound to spend.

February 5th, 1917.

 

Edward Thomas is a new officer rather than an old soldier, but it seems that he intends to do the opposite–or, rather, to continue to do what he has been doing and use his poetic gifts to refract and consider what he sees before him. But it is a halting beginning, to say the least. He arrived in France with an injured ankle and a nearly empty wallet, but even an artillery officer needs to walk a great deal, and he has been searching for new shoes. Finding none in the army stores or in the Havre shops that fit, he “bought low soft boots” on February 2nd and then returned to camp. Rather than drinking or visiting brothels, as many others were doing, Thomas had an “argument with Thorburn about morals, shame, whether poets must go through not only ‘sin’ but ‘repentance’–Dante, Shakespeare. Cold supper in our cold tent-iron ration and cheese and marmalade.”

The 3rd featured more of the same, as well as work preparing the guns and readying the battery for its move up to the front. Yesterday, a century back, the orders came. And naturally it was another case of “hurry up and wait:”

At 11 came warning to move at 5.30. Packing, Censoring, New servant…  Started at 4.45 for station with guns–held up 1 1/2 hours by train across road–2 hours at station doing notion, 1 1/2 hours entraining guns–platform all cotton bales and men singing ‘The nightingales are singing in the pale moonlight’… Sgt Major did practically all the work…

Men quite silent after first comic cries of ‘All tickets’ and imitating cattle…

The fact that soldiers were often transported to the line in train trucks designed for animals is mentioned by scores of memoir writers. An irresistible minor joke, or bit of dark irony… And at least the men are not baaing, voicing themselves as sheep to slaughter, as the French infantry will do.

As we start at 11 suddenly the silent men all yell ‘Hurray’ but are silent before we are clear of long desolate platform of cotton and trampled snow and electric light.

This is the sort of note that could very easily become a great poem.

And today, a century back, the journey continued:

Snow. Gradually flatter and poplars regular as telegraph poles, orchards, level crossings, children. Buchy at 10 a.m…. Amiens at 2… Pale sky and crimson sun at sunset. Doullens at 8. Guns all the time… A restless night.[1]

Not long ’till the line, now.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 159-60.

Ivor Gurney: New Bard of the Barracks-Room; Francis Ledwidge Is In France and Isn’t; Edwin Vaughan Knows Fear and Grows Venturesome

Francis Ledwidge is enduring his first winter in the trenches France, and he faces the task like a true poet. A true poet of one particular, fiercely rooted sort. Tell us, Francis, about your experiences, and about the trenches:

In France

The silence of maternal hills
Is round me in my evening dreams;
And round me music-making bills
And mingling waves of pastoral streams.

Whatever way I turn I find
The path is old unto me still.
The hills of home are in my mind.
And there I wander as I will.

February 3rd, 1917.

Before we get to Ivor Gurney‘s letter, we should catch up with Edwin Vaughan, prodigy of bathos. Since he joined his battalion while it was in rest, he still awaits his first trip up the line. Yesterday, a century back, he prepared for this momentous step:

Although the morning was spent in final packing, I did not feel at all excited; I think it was the long waiting that calmed me down, for we did not parade until 5 p.m…

But fate had another anticlimax in store, although one that Vaughan did not protest too much. While the battalion was indeed going into trenches, he learned that his company would be the one in reserve, in charge of rations and unlikely to face hostile action. Anticlimax, yes, but at least a gentle immersion into danger.

With little chance of being killed–or of discovering that he isn’t mentally tough enough for the ordeal of bombardment–Vaughan’s diary fills once again with lesser evils. Hatwell, the company commander Vaughan has quickly learned to detest, is quick to turn their simple supply mission into a fiasco. He goes up with the ration party, but fails to issue contingent orders to his platoon commanders, and there is complete confusion as elements of the party get lost, run into frightened French soldiers they can hardly communicate with, argue with them about their duties, get lost again, and then learn, once Hatwell returns, that their quarters had been moved and thus there is more marching ahead.

I was too utterly lost in bewilderment at my first night in the trenches. It was so eerie and dull, no lights, no shots or shells, no raids or mines–just darkness, duckboards and rations…

At the end of the long night there is little to be done:

I issued rum to the troops, then to myself, and turned in–still marveling at the ridiculous attempt at warfare I had just witnessed.

That was last night. Today, however, a century back, Vaughan is disconcerted to be reminded of his status as a newcomer.

On comparing notes with the others, I found that I was the only one who had been at all at a loss the night before…

And tonight it will be Vaughan’s turn to go up to the line himslef. His honesty and careful attention to detail in his diary make him a very fine writer–as far along in the recording of experience as he is short of actual experience.

At 6 p.m. Thomas and I set out with the Company to carry the rations up the line… as I walked beside Thomas I had no qualms of fear, when he said in a low voice, ‘If they start shelling, we will have to split up….’

At that, my teeth started to chatter, and I had to stop talking, for my voice trembled so. I don’t think I was really frightened physically, but there was a curious dread of the unknown and an excitement of the imagination. As we marched down the exposed lonely road to the communication trench, I heard in the far distance a curious musical moan which with a gradually changing key came nearer and nearer until, immediately overhead, it made a noise like an emptying drain and then died away. I asked Tommy what that was and he replied ‘Oh! Just one for the back areas.’ ‘One what?; ‘Shell, of course!’ So I had heard my first shell, and it was quite pretty…

At first I was afraid to leave the vicinity of the trench lest any danger should catch me in the open, but after a while I grew more venturesome and went across with Johnny to a belt of broken wire around which the snow was uneven, with scattered rubbish. Here we found the grave of a Frenchman, with the equipment lying beside it, from which I collected the rapier-bayonet as a souvenir. Then we played about in the snow, exploring dumps and shell-holes and graves until an hour later when the troops returned and we marched back…[1]

It remains for us to guess: is this the absurd–but natural–combination of fear and exhilaration which rules front-line life, as tightening fear and careless abandon slosh in turn through the stressed nervous system, or is it another literary anticipation of an ironic twist?

And is it similarly twisted, on my part, to be more worried for Vaughan when he is larking about in the snow than when he is creeping up toward the line–or is it merely the product of long reading in these sorts of books?

 

Finally today, just a bit more from Ivor Gurney to Marion Scott, enlarging on his quick pen-portraits of the men in his section–enlarging, most agreeably, into verse:

3 February 1917

My Dear Friend: The boys are nearly all asleep — eight of us in a room, say, 14 feet by ten, with a large stack of wood, a fireplace and equipment. Outside it is bitterly cold; in here, not so bad; and good companionship hides many things. A miner, an engineer, a drapers assistant, a grocer, an Inland Revenuist, and a musician among
them…

Firelight

Silent, bathed in firelight, in dusky light and gloom
The boys squeeze together in the smoky dirty room.
Crowded around the fireplace, a thing of bricks and tin
They watch the shifting embers, till the good dreams enter in

That fill the low hovel with blossoms fresh with dew
And blue sky and white cloud that sail the clear air through.
They talk of daffodillies and the blue bells skiey beds
Till silence thrills with music at the things they have said.

And yet, they have no skill of words, whose eyes glow so deep.
They wait for night and silence and the strange power of Sleep,
To light them and drift them like sea birds over the sea
Where some day I shall walk again, and they walk with me.

The letter gets even better:

But O, cleaning up! I suppose I get as much Hell as any one in the army; and although I give the same time to rubbing and polishing as any of the others, the results — I will freely confess it — are not all they might be. Today there was an inspection by the Colonel. I waited trembling, knowing that there was six weeks of hospital and soft-job dirt and rust not yet all off; no, not by a long way. I stood there, a sheep among the goats (no, vice versa) and waited the bolt and thunder. Round came He-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Looked at me, hesitated, looked again, hesitated, and was called off by the R.S.M.[2] who was afterwards heard telling the Colonel (a few paces away from me) “A Good man, sir, quite all right. Quite a good man, sir, but he’s a musician, and doesn’t seem able to get himself clean.” When the aforesaid RSM came round for a back view, he chuckled, and said “Ah Gurney, I am afraid we shall never make a soldier of you.”

It is a good thing they are being converted to this way of thought at last; it has taken a long time. Anyway the R.S.M. is a brick, and deserves a Triolet.

He backed me up once;
I shall never forget it.
I’m a fool and a dunce
He backed me up once
If theres rust I shall get it
Your soul, you may bet it
Yes, all sorts [and in?] tons. . . .
He backed me up once
I shall never forget it.

(Triolet form quite forgotten. Please let me have it.)

…Fire went out long ago, while I was hammering out “Firelight”. It is too cold to think, write or read. Then sleep. O if I could but dream such things as would mean escape for me. But I never dream, one way or the other; Please excuse writing:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

If Gurney can be a little frightening in his more extreme emotional states, he is really very winning as a lovable “parade’s despair,” playing the role of a hapless but well-looked-after private even while demonstrating how prolific and unusual he is: he can toss off verse–light verse, yes, but what of it?–and sharp, funny little vignettes with great facility and a graceful but nonetheless thoroughgoing empathy. So here’s to the kind RSM, and the deep-eyed, silent men of the infantry…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 21-22.
  2. Regimental Sergeant Major--an enlisted man of the highest rank, his dignity, as opposed to that of a private soldier, utterly Olympian.
  3. War Letters, 125-7.