David Jones and Hedd Wyn Together on the Worst Night of All; Siegfried Sassoon and the Healing Rivers; Kate Luard Returns to No. 32; Llewelyn Wyn Griffith Wins his Way to Rhiw, on Llyn; Max Plowman on the Coming Generation; Will Harvey’s Comrades Tunnel Out; Isaac Rosenberg’s Immense Trust

This is one of those rewarding but vexing days of overabundance. A very big day for one of our central writers and what may be an unrecognized conjunction of two others are both busily trespassed upon by the smaller doings of several others. The three principals are all men of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, too: David Jones and Hedd Wyn can be found, tonight, a century back, in the same section of trench, only hours after Siegfried Sassoon arrived[1] at Craiglockhart War Hospital. Sassoon is, technically, a prisoner remanded to medical treatment, but since both Robert Graves and a second officer detailed to accompany him missed the train, he came to Edinburgh himself.

And thus, for his lightly fictionalized alter-ego George Sherston, ended the second volume of his autobiography. With his arrival at “Slateford War Hospital,” near Edinburgh, the third volume, Sherston’s Progress, begins.

But first, for us, that crowd of less momentous military-literary events…

 

Max Plowman, another shell-shocked infantry officer, another anti-war writer and poet and, by this evening, a century back, a man with whom Sassoon will have an important mutual connection–is in a slightly different place, vis a vis pacifism, than our Siegfried. And might we suggest that it is a more advanced stage?

…My view is that the war is a national calamity for which we are all responsible–either actively or passively or hereditarily–& that everyone really suffers it most where he is most alive. Clods almost purely in their skins & so upwards. And if anybody enjoys it he is to be pitied most of all…

But the damned nuisance about it is that after a certain age you can’t change your skin with the ease & frequency of a jolly young snake.–It’s useless to revile circumstances (unless they’re the direct result of one’s own behaviour). Even if we of this generation have to suffer life, I don’t doubt but that Life knows her way, & that the coming  generation will reap what we’ve sown…[2]

This is high-flown stuff, and beside it Sassoon’s quick capitulation from his campaign of attempted martyrdom, and of course it is disastrously prescient. But it doesn’t quite address the question that Sassoon tried–and failed–to address: yes, but what is one mere lieutenant to do about it?

 

Nor is this a question that Isaac Rosenberg–a mere private–can even dream of entertaining. There is no time or energy–no standing, really–to engage with questions more than a step or two from those of personal survival. But one of these, for a poet and artist like Rosenberg, is the question of artistic progress. He wrote, or perhaps posted, another letter to Gordon Bottomley today, a century back:

…I know my letters are not what they should be; but I must take any chance I get of writing for fear another chance does not come, so I write hastily and leave out most I should write about. I wished to say last time a lot about your poem, but I could think of nothing that would properly express my great pleasure in it; and I can think of nothing now… I wish I could get back and read your plays; and if my luck still continues, I shall. Leaves have commenced with us, but it may be a good while before I get mine. We are more busy now than when I last wrote, but I generally manage to knock something up if my brain means to, and I am sketching out a little play. My great fear is that I may lose what I’ve written, which can happen here so easily. I send home any bit I write, for safety, but that can easily get lost in transmission. However, I live in an immense trust that things will turn out well…

Do not write because you think you ought to answer, but write when you have nothing else to do & you wish to kill time, it is no trouble to me to write these empty letters, when I have a minute to spare, just to let you know that life & poetry are as fresh as ever in me…[3]

 

Meanwhile, yet another literary Royal Welch Fusilier–and a Welsh one, at that–headed home today, at least for a little while. Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, enjoying the perquisites of a staff officer, went on leave, and will shortly be in Rhiw, on the Llyn peninsula in North Wales. “In lovely summer weather… I linked up into the clan and enjoyed myself. Rhiw worked its magic on us both.[4]

 

Then there is Kate Luard, who has completed two short postings at two different hospitals–her unit’s departure from the Arras area after the battle did not mean leave for her. Today, a century back, she rejoined Casualty Clearing Station No. 32. Which is itself on the move: a hospital specializing in abdominal wounds needs to be near where men will be climbing out of trenches and exposing their abdomens… Within two days Sister Luard will be writing about taking the train to Poperinghe, already familiar to us as the last stop before Ypres.[5]

 

And in Holzminden, Lower Saxony, Will Harvey and his comrades are taking a great deal of satisfaction in their recent work. It hasn’t all been sing-songs and poetry–they were digging in shifts the whole time. During the night, a century back, twenty-nine officers escaped the prisoner of war camp through a long tunnel dug from under a cellar floor all the way outside the camp walls. Ten will evade capture and make it all the way back to England. Harvey was not among the escapees, but shared in the general delight at their bullying Commandant’s discomfiture.[6]

 

Penultimately–though this is the most exciting bit, from my point of view–we come to the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers. Strangely–and I do not know whether this means that I have missed blatant references to this fact or have in fact only been mildly obtuse about a conjunction which none of my sources have noticed either–I have only now realized that David Jones and Hedd Wyn are now marching into battle as part of the same battalion.[7] The 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers are the very same “1st London Welch,” which, as Jones will remind us, may have once been a Kitchener’s battalion with many Welsh-affiliated Londoners but is now a heterogeneous unit being replenished by conscripts from the hills of the old country.

Surely some scholars somewhere have noticed this proximity, but I had missed it entirely until a few days ago, and it is curious that in the recent biographies of Hedd Wyn and Jones (by Alan Llwyd and Thomas Dilworth, respectively) there is no mention of the fact that a chaired bard of Wales and the man who would one day work so hard to put the Welsh language and Welsh myth into the great British epic of the war went into battle side by side.

Or are about to go into battle, a century back. Tonight it is hard work and danger, merely. In any event, neither Jones nor Evans (the given name of the bard) were aware of the other. Had they been, Jones would have nothing to share of his own nascent writing, and he would not have been able to read Hedd Wyn’s. The true shepherd-poet Hedd Wyn, for his part, would not have known what to make of the little London artist with no Welsh and only a vague passion for the land of his fathers stimulated by brief childhood holidays…

And, of course, these were not the foremost elements of their identities tonight, a century back. It was a very bad night, and about the only thing that mattered, then, was that Jones, though a “parade’s despair,” was an experienced infantryman who had been through a terrible battle and many bombardments. Hedd Wyn has never yet been under fire. And it was no pro forma interdiction “hate” that fell on the laboring men of the 15/RWF: Jones will remember the night of the 23rd of July as ‘the worst of all.’

Sent up from reserve into trenches less than 200 yards from the Germans, the Welch were hard at work after dark digging new “assembly trenches” to hold the swell of troops before the coming assault. But gas shells were falling amongst the shrapnel and high explosive, so they had to work in suffocating gas masks. Nor were the masks enough, for some of the shells contained the new German blistering agent known as mustard gas…

Hedd Wyn would have seen a strange new sight, described by David Jones:

Colonel C. C. Norman… walked up and down in the open wearing no gas mask but ‘threatening blue murder on any man taking off his mask’, which they desperately wanted to do. Gas masks were ‘ghastly to wear for very long’, Jones recalled, ‘especially if one was exerting oneself–they became a filthy mess of condensation inside & you couldn’t see out of the misted-over talc of the eye-vents’. It was typical of Colonel Norman, who had already won the D.S.O., to stroll in the open amid falling shells. Like his predecessor, he was a man of‘outward calmness & immaculate attire as though he was paying an afternoon call in Belgravia’ –an attitude that was, for Jones, at once amusing, morale boosting, and ‘aesthetically right’. Among those digging

(And here we switch from quotation of Thomas Dilworth, Jones’s indispensable biographer, to his quotation of Jones himself.)

were new recruits who had come straight from Wales. One of them was a farmer’s boy; he couldn’t speak a word of English–when he’d dug his little hole he just got into it and snuggled up. You simply couldn’t budge him. The NCOs kicked his backside and so on but he just wouldn’t move. And it made it jolly difficult to dig the trench. The Germans. . . . must have known about the digging and got the range, but the shells were falling a few yards further on, on a hedge. But this chap was absolutely petrified. Then a nice chap. Sergeant Morgan, said ‘Lift him out and I’ll finish the trench and then you can put him back in.’ All this was in gasmasks. We dug all night. I thought this is the end…

This passage makes the new proximity of the two greatest Wales-minded poets of the war more striking. This, surely, was not Hedd Wyn himself–though why could it not have been? In any case it was one of his comrades, a boy he probably knew, a boy he had shared training with, and the long march to the front, and the shock and terror of this first miserable night under fire. Hedd Wyn has imagined much of what the war will be like, and written of it. But not this. What must he have imagined that night?

As for Jones, he may be mild-mannered, but in his heart he is a wild, thorough poet, able to admire the aesthetics of the old English tradition of exemplary leadership under fire (for which see, most of all, Horatio Nelson). It’s not surprising, perhaps that he was reminded, come morning, “as they covered the new trench with branches cut from the hedge behind it,” of Macbeth:

…The wood of Birnam

Let every soldier hew him down a bough.[8]

Side-by-side or separated by no more than a few hundred yards, Jones and Hedd Wyn both survived the night, and returned to the reserve line to labor and fight another day.

 

And so we come at last to “Slateford.”

In the train from Liverpool to Edinburgh I speculated continuously. The self-dramatizing element in my mind anticipated something sensational. After all, a mad-house would be only a few degrees less grim than a prison, and I was still inclined to regard myself in the role of a “ripe man of martyrdom.” But the unhistrionic part of my mind remembered that the neurologist member of my medical board had mentioned someone called Rivers… evidently some sort of a great man; anyhow his name had obvious free associations with pleasant landscapes and unruffled estuaries.

And we do not need to pull up short and wonder what the real name of “Sherston’s” doctor actually was: W. H. R. Rivers–uniquely in Sassoon’s memoirs–remains Rivers, whether he is treating Sassoon or Sherston.

Before I had been inside [Slateford] five minutes I was actually talking to Rivers, who was dressed as an R.A.M.C. captain. There was never any doubt about my liking him. He made me feel safe at one, and seemed to know all about me. What he didn’t know he soon found out.[9]

So begins the third book of “Sherston’s” Memoirs–the first in which the title contains not “Memoirs” but “Sherston.” Sherston’s Progress is a fairly predictable allusion to Bunyan, but it’s also a simply descriptive title. Today is the day that the muddled young man who has been a fox hunter and an infantry officer begins to grow up.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unless he arrived several days ago, but I am fairly certain that this must have been the day, despite the oddity of allowing such a lull to an allegedly mentally compromised prisoner. Many thanks to Anne Pedley for confirming that this date is recorded in Sassoon's personal military record.
  2. Bridge Into the Future, 71-2.
  3. Collected Works, 376. Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head and Heart, 96.
  4. Beyond Mametz, 154.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 129--with thanks to Caroline Stevens for more details on Luard's timeline.
  6. Boden, F.W. Harvey, 205.
  7. Many writers omit military details when they are uncertain (I am many times guilty of this myself), and I have written lately under the vague impression that Hedd Wyn was coming out as part of a new battalion of the Royal Welch, but that was a silly assumption--it is too late in the day for that. And, of course, once the battalion number is known it is very easy to note that that battalion has long been in France. But there are careless errors: on page 17 of the attractive new "Compact Cymru" edition of The Shepherd War Poet, we read that "Hedd Wyn's battalion, the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers sailed to France on June 9th, 1917." No; he came out from Litherland in a group of replacements--the very same North Welsh farmers whose meaningless deaths Sassoon has just failed to bring to the notice of the man responsible for training them. They may have all gone to the 15th, or they may have been distributed among several different battalions of the regiment now serving in France.
  8. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 159-61.
  9. Complete Memoirs, 517.

Will Harvey’s Great Escape Postponed; Henry Williamson Moves on Up; Edwin Vaughan’s Witness to Vandalism… and Gothic Imagination; C.E. Montague Reflects Before a Fire

Back on August 17th, Will Harvey decided it would be a good idea to go out and patrol no man’s land alone. He stumbled into a German post, was captured and eventually taken to Gütersloh Camp, in Westphalia. By the time he got there the tunneling had already begun, and his first book of poems–A Gloucestershire Lad–had been published. (His best friend, Ivor Gurney, mourned him, then rejoiced to hear that he was alive, and in any case continued to write about Harvey often.)

For months now, Harvey has been taking his turns in the tunnel and on lookout duty above, using coded whistles or songs to warn when German guards are about. The months dragged by… until yesterday, a century back, when the British contingent in the multi-national P.O.W. camp learned that they were about to be transferred. A night and day of feverish digging brought the tunnel out under the wire–and right beneath the beat of the German sentry. In a hurried meeting it was decided that, rather than making a dash out of the still-too-short tunnel and hoping for the best, it should be left concealed in place, in the hopes that the barracks’ next inmates–Russian P.O.W.s, in all probability–could continue the work. Today, a century back, Will Harvey, his captivity stretching into a ninth month and his book into its 4th printing, was transferred to Crefeld Camp.[1]

 

Meanwhile, Henry Williamson continues to advance into what was recently the German rear–and to keep his mother well informed of his whereabouts.

Dear mother Cherie,

This awkward phrasing is actually one of his more graceful turns of code-phrase. The letters “ACHIET” are marked out, four of them occurring in sequence in “cherie.”

We have not heard from anyone for about a week–heavens knows where the post goes to nowadays. I have had only about 5 letters from you to date–I wish you would date your letters.

Well I suppose all you in England at the time are rejoicing over the ‘fall’ of Bapaume–but it’s rather a funny business after all. I believe personally that the Bosche has done a very clever and good thing for himself–he is falling back…

So Williamson is back to considering the withdrawal a strategic benefit for Germany rather than a boon to the British, but only a few lines after pointing out that the news of cavalry in action is nothing but the false dawn of open warfare, merely a temporary screen as the British reestablish contact with their foe, he switches course again, implying that it may be a breakthrough after all: “only WAIT a bit and see.”

On the matter of parcels Williamson is more steadfast:

What I should like would be toffee, nice chocolates… a pair of pyjamas, and a cake or so…[2]

 

Edwin Vaughan has what we might call an active imagination, a knack both for finding terror in the quiet corners of trench life and for telling a tale the brings across the shivering horror he experienced. His account of yesterday, a century back–when his battalion advanced into the vacated German rear and took up residence among the booby-trapped dugouts near Péronne–is many pages long, and well worth dipping into.

It was a bright clear morning, and the country looked beautiful as I set off across the open fields…

The gently undulating fields were very little shelled, and the fresh grass was only spoiled here and there by a circular mud-rimmed hole. But each field was liberally besprinkled with graves, in which we took morbid interest. Not one of them had been dug to any depth, and in each case some portion of the corpse protruded–from one a bleached and polished skull, from another a rotted puttee and boot, from another the ammunition pouches. In several cases they had only been covered with a few inches of wet earth which now was caked and hard, giving the appearance of mummies, except where the burrowing rats had broken away the mud and displayed a patch of blue tunic.

There were a few unburied bodies about and I had much difficulty in getting Sissman past them–he wanted to stop and examine each for wounds and souvenirs… I’m afraid we progressed very slowly…

The afternoon becomes a different sort of macabre when Vaughan and a small party, now led by his company commander, Billy Kentish, stumbled up along a muddy canal road looking for their new billets. When Kentish, who foolishly brought his horse (a famous perquisite of company commanders, even in the infantry) on the journey, disappears after repeatedly foundering in difficult places. When he reappears without the muddy, stumbling beast, Vaughan suspects the worst. Eventually they arrive in Halle, where another company of their battalion is now in residence. On the walls of the house taken as HQ,

the playful Hun had left many sketches and ironic messages. Two that we saw were ‘Great British Advance. Many villages taken’ and ‘Haig takes Halle, 4,000 Germans captured–official.’

But their march continues until they reach Péronne, in which a major fire is burning–this was a day after Charles Carrington had entered the town–much of the historical center, including the old library and church, have been consumed.

During all this march I was very nervous. I had heard so many stories of booby-traps and delayed mines that I was terrified by the sight of any old oil drum or coil of wire, and at every cross-roads expected to find myself sailing up into the black sky. Nothing of the sort happened, however…

Instead, Vaughan and his fellow company officers take up residence in a partitioned cellar, and one by one fell asleep, while he listens to the drip of rain and smelled “a filthy smell of decaying vegetable matter.” Before long, Vaughan begins to hear “the tick-tock of a fuse.”

Here–although I suspect that this part of the diary was extensively rewritten after the fact–Vaughan is charmingly open about his failures of courage:

This grew louder and louder until I could stand it no longer, and by coughing loudly and banging the bed, I woke Kentish.

He sat up grumpily, rubbing his eyes. ‘What was that blasted row?’

‘Which one?’ I said guiltily. ‘There’s lots going on.’

He listened for a moment and then lay down again growling. But I didn’t intend to let him sleep. ‘Did you hear about the booby-traps in the Boche lines?’

‘Um!’

‘You know Sullivan found several in Halle?’–no answer.

‘How long do they usually delay before exploding?’–silence. I paused a bit and then asked timorously, ‘I say, Billy, can you hear a curious ticking?’

He pulled the coat from off his head and said ‘You bloody fool,’ and snuggled down again.

I was hurt by that, for I felt that nobody cared if I was blown up, so I resolved myself to die like a martyr and then when we met in the afterworld I could say to Kentish ‘I told you so!’ The consideration of this possibility rather cheered me, and casting aside my fears I fell asleep.

This brings us, more or less, into today, a century back.

I do not know how long I slept, but it must have been a couple of hours. I dreamt that I was lying there asleep, all being horribly quiet except for the drop of water and the wind. Suddenly through the rain and darkness appeared a huge figure stealing across the courtyard to the grating above me. he was muffled up in a great grey coat and spiked helmet. I struggled to wake Kentish and to shout, but I was powerless. I saw him take a bomb from under his coat, a smoking bomb, and slip it into the chimney. With a frantic struggle I overcame my paralysis and sat up shouting as a metallic sliding sound came from the chimney. Waiting for the explosion, I sat staring into the darkness with that apathy that comes when fear has passed its bounds.

But nothing more happened. Kentish slumbered on…

The night continues in a proto-Lovecraftian vein, and, appropriately enough, perhaps, in the morning we get our second sight of one of the weird masterpieces of nihilistic German humor:

Near the centre of the square, an iron paling surrounded a stone pedestal, from which the statue had been removed. I walked over to it, wondering what statue had been there, then I stopped–sickened by the sight of a body impaled on the iron spike. In a Frenchman’s blue uniform, gaily bedecked with ribbons, he hung with arms extended along the railing, his head hanging down on to his bright-buttoned chest, and his legs dangling.

Sick with horror but impelled by curiosity I went nearer, and saw some straw sticking out at the knee. Then I peered into the face–a black grinning mask–and saw that it was a realistic dummy. Nevertheless, in the eerie half-light, with the flicker of flames on that scene of devastation, it was a gruesome spectacle…

The German notice board on the ruins of the Peronne town hall

There is, as a matter of fact, direct photographic evidence of this particular act of desecration, available here.

And the next bit–already familiar to us from Carrington’s account, can be seen at the right:

Reapproaching the town hall I saw, fastened to its side wall, an enormous blue notice board–‘Nicht ärgern nur wundern!’–‘Do not be angry, only be surprised’. This in letters a foot deep.

 

Is it surprising, then, to find that Vaughan will not be sleeping well tonight, either? They are bedding down, now, in a quarry in what, for the moment, is the British reserve line.

…I was keen to know what cover we should take in case of shelling. He [Billy Kentish] answered abruptly, ‘There isn’t any cover,’ and blew his candle out…

‘Was that ours or theirs?’ I asked.

‘Ours now!’ And there was an impatient turn and snuggle.

Another thud! ‘How far away was that?’ No answer. It made me worse to think that he was going to sleep to leave me to face the danger alone. So I asked him: ‘I say, if a shell got us, would it hit the top of the quarry first, or drop straight in?’

At that he sat up in bed. ‘You are a windy young b—– Vaughan! You’ve got to chance it wherever you are, so for God’s sake shut up and go to sleep.’

I did shut up, but though thoroughly ashamed, I was still windy… At last, however, the lack of sleep on the previous night did its work and I slept peacefully…[3]

 

C.E. Montague may be the temperamental opposite of Edwin Vaughan: Montague is a fearless, practical, politic, hard-driving, modest rationalist… which does not mean he is not subject to melancholy. He had wanted–despite his age, his obvious fitness for an officer’s job, and his journalistic skills–to be an ordinary soldier in the trenches. But his age and his health–he turned 50 on New Year’s Day, and had proved too susceptible to infection–led to his being kicked upstairs to the dubious duty of greasing the wheels of the propaganda machine from a chateau well behind the lines.

That he’s an officer now, and can, at least, scare the daylights our of his touring V.I.P.s by bringing them too close to the line, sometimes seems like small consolation. A rare excerpt from his diary of today gives us some insight into how a reflective soul and a sharp mind near both the sinews of the army’s power and the engine of its self-misrepresentation feels about the German withdrawal:

Chateau de Rollencourt, 10.15 p .m., March 19, 1917

A year ago to-day I marched away from the front with my battalion, soon to leave it.

To-night I sit in an oil-lamp-lit room in a chateau, of 1770 perhaps. A log fire burns brightly in a big open, fenderless hearth, with little noises of hissing and crackling in the damp wood and the dry.

Outside an equinoctial gale is pressing on the house and whining and sniffing.

From the line E. of Arras-Nesle comes news at short intervals of further German retirements, of villages blazing in the Eastern sky at night, of cavalry entering empty villages, of aeroplanes bringing back word of the cavalry’s progress.

The big room is dark outside the zones of fire-light and lamp-light.

Five minutes ago the motor-cyclist despatch-rider came from G.H.Q. with our letters and to-day’s London papers. In a few minutes he will go into the night silence again, with my letter to M. and the other letters. Now and then a train can be heard on the railway to Arras, 300 yards off, doubled this winter for our advance, which the German retreat must be intended to baffle.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Boden, F.W. Harvey, Soldier, Poet, 125-59.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 99-100.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 53-62.
  4. Elton, C.E. Montague, 156-7.

Robert Frost’s Mountain Interval, a Darkling Edward Thomas and the Missing Thrush; Siegfried Sassoon Anticipates the Blackbirds; Ivor Gurney on His Monument and His Prisoner Pal; Rowland Feilding Bangs the Gong

If you can hold on through the moody poets and sentimental verse, today, there is a bracing bit of trench doggerel waiting at the end…

First, though, Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon continue to record their adjacent poetic vigils. Sassoon, near Rouen:

February 23

The stillness of the pine-tree’s is queer. They stand like blue-green walls fifty or sixty feet high with the white sky beyond and above. They seem to be keeping quite still, waiting for the war to end. This afternoon, off the road by the training-ground, I found an alley leading downhill to a big shuttered red house that overlooks the valley and the distant wall of hills. It was so quiet along, the paths with.green moss growing-under the pine-stems. And chiffchaffs and tits chattering; and some Frenchmen chopping timber in a brown copse down below. It might almost have been England (though I don’t know what difference that would make).

Now that’s a striking parenthesis. Doesn’t the English countryside make all the difference? It was supposed to. The first time I read this next bit I missed the slide from observation to anticipation, but that makes all the difference too, in February, in France:

I could hear a dog barking in the stable-yard, a cow lowing, and hens clucking. These homely things come strangely when one is up to the neck in camps and suchlike. And it is good to think of spring being near, and daylight at 6 o’clock soon. Blackbirds scolding among bushes in gardens, and red sunsets fading low down, and the smell of late March, and daffodils shining in the dusk and the orchard grass.[1]

 

And now Thomas, in too February a mood to summon the sights and sounds of spring:

Chaffinch sand once… Partridges twanging in fields…

For a moment, there, I thought I had made an epochal literary discovery–until I realized that chaffinches and chiff-chaffs are not, in fact, the same bird. Nowhere close! Still, the poets are making similar observations…

Thomas’s eye is drawn, next, to human things–he is inspecting the “sordid ruin of an estaminet” in which some men are billeted, and he includes a long list of the litter to be found therein. The men he hardly seems to see, although they are there, but they are natural (as it were) to the scene of a much-shelled ruin. What strikes him later is the presence–and absence–of the birds.

2 owls in garden at 6. The shelling must have slaughtered many jackdaws but has made home for many more.

So while Sassoon anticipates the absent blackbirds, Thomas notes–as we will see, in a moment–their absence only after he notes the absence of birds that, seasonally speaking, might have been there. Owls, blackbirds, jackdaws…

Thomas does not have evening duties, and so he girds himself now to write a letter that he has probably been brooding over for some time. I wondered recently how it was that he could claim not to have read Robert Frost’s “Mountain Interval.” It seems that Thomas may have been carefully correct in his statement: he read all but the final poem before he left England, so he hadn’t “read it” in the sense of having not completely finished it. Until today:

Finished Frost’s ‘Mountain Interval’. Wrote to Frost.[2]

The letter:

My dear Robert,

It is going to be harder than ever for us to talk, I suppose. I did write you a week or so back after I first went & had a look round in the trenches… Well, I have read “Snow” today & that puts me on to you. I liked it. You go in for ‘not too much’ in a different sense from Horace’s yet your ‘not too much’ is just as necessary. But I can’t read much…

Is this loyal brevity? Terse praise? Something of a slap in the face? Exhaustion preventing a decent concealment of his adverse reaction?

I don’t know. And any letter from a soldier so new to the war zone will soon turn to describing “what it’s like.” But it is still hard not to see this quick transition as carrying the force of “no time for that sort of poetry now–I am almost in action, not reflection.”

We are living in rather a palace–a very cold dark palace–about 2000 yards from the Hun, in a city which is more than half in ruins already… I woke last night thinking I heard someone knocking excitedly at a door nearby. But I am persuaded now it was only a machine gun…

But I am very anxious to go back soon to my battery. They are only 3 miles away & when I walk over to see them it is something like going home…

A wan effort, so far, and now Thomas musters some intellectual effort in order to avoid offending Frost–to send the message that he misses him, that he wishes he could write a better letter.

You know that life is in so strange that I am only half myself & the half that knows England & you is obediently asleep for a time. Do you believe me? It seems that I have sent it to sleep to make life endurable–more than endurable, really enjoyable in a way. But with the people I meet I am suppressing practically everything (without difficulty tho not without pain). I reserve all criticism just as I reserve all description. If I come back I shall boast of the book I did not write in this ruined city…

This is plaintive, a depressive writer’s twist on all the other versions of “if I should die” that are to be found in soldiers’ letters. And a little afterthought dash of humor will not sweeten the absence of the birds:

I daren’t tell a neutral more than that it is a small cathedral city. It is beautiful chalk country all round. What puzzles me is that I haven’t heard a thrush sing yet, & of course not a blackbird.

Do you write when you can to 244 Siege Battery, B.E.F., France, if only because I am probably the only man in A[rras] who has read “Mountain Interval.’ My love to you all.

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[3]

Sassoon imagines the blackbirds, soon; Thomas only imagines the slaughtered jackdaws…

 

One reason–though not the foremost–for the trough in the friendship between Frost and Thomas is that Thomas suspects that Frost is not exerting himself to get his (Thomas’s) book published in America. Ivor Gurney, in this way at least, is more fortunate in his friends. He writes once again to Marion Scott, who is almost solely responsible for the fact that his poems will soon be published.

Those whose interest in Gurney and his waxing poetic skills has been well-piqued should read on; others might want to skim his remarkably clear and brief poetic mission statement (the numbered list, below) and skip to the end…

23 February 1917

My Dear Friend: Soon we are to be at work again — after the Rest — that is we go into trenches; for myself there are not many regrets, for Resting is a tiring business; and though being shelled is not pleasant, yet the escape from death gives in itself some slight interest in life. Anyway, Spring’s first signs cannot be so far off now, and the cold relaxes a little…

Gurney then launches into the minutiae of proof-reading, answering Scott’s questions about his upcoming first boom of verse. But the specific leads to the general, and this major statement of purpose:

What I want to do with this book is

(1) To leave something definite behind if I am knocked out
(2) To say out what Gloucester is, and is to me; and so to make Gloucester people think about their county
(3) To have some good stuff in it, whatever one might say about the whole.
(4) To make people realise a little what the ordinary life is.

Anyway it was good fun, writing; and gave me something to do. “Hail and Farewell’ I think will stand; it is impossible for me to try and perfect these things, save after 6 months of life in peace and beauty…

From his book his thoughts turn to death, via Scott’s news of the death of a friend (from cancer, even in wartime) to thoughts of his own lost friend, Will Harvey, Gloucester poet, decorated front fighter, and German prisoner, and from there, well, where else but England?

I wonder how FWH has got on in his prison lately . . . My thoughts of England are first and foremost of the line of Cotswold ending with Bredon Hill, near Tewkesbury, and seen with him. Or the blue Malvems seen at a queer angle, from the hayfield, talking when War seemed imminent, and the whole air seemed charged with fateful beauty. For illness I can feel strong sympathy, but Death means not much to me. Either I do not care much, or care a great deal and am not separated…

This is one of those days where there is no way to keep up with Gurney. We’ll note these scattershot thoughts on such little matters as the Gloucestershire of the Mind which sustains him, and friendship, and the ubiquity of death in wartime…

A few more corrections and details follow, and then Gurney pauses, sniffs, and senses an omission (here, too, for I have avoided discussing the details of Gurney and Scott’s relationship; I still need to learn more).

It sometimes puzzles me what you find to interest you in my letters, since what is not verse, is either about verse or myself. You support all this very bravely, and deserve better things: but so much it means to me to cling to verse, the one interest (now cafe au lait is not possible) left to me in life, and so good to talk about it, that I fear you will have to suffer yet more.

All I can think of is — What an unholy waste of time this is, what a lot I have to learn…

As for my comrades — after the war I can be interesting about them, but not yet. Goodness knows I am fond of them — some of them; but I cling to life by deliberately trying to lose myself in my thoughts of other things; trusting to some innate pluck in me to save me at moments when pluck is wanted. This is not the way to make a soldier of oneself — just the opposite in fact; and increasing sensibility must balance the advantage gained by concentration of thought on other things. But though I were sure of saving my life if I altered, and losing it did I not, still I should be the same, having set all on the future.

Forgive all this egotism, and may your book and you progress cheerily. Continue, flourish and triumph, and put up a little longer with my cockeyed epistles. With best wishes:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney

Although he dates the first of these two poems “January 1917,” both were included in today’s letter to Scott. The first is strong, but sentimental–one Gloucestershire soldier’s paean to another. The second is very strange. Very charming, that is, but strange to find here.

Afterglow        to FWH

Out of the smoke and dust of the little room.
With teatalk loud and laughter of happy boys,
I passed into the dusk. Suddenly the noise
Ceased with a shock; left me alone in the gloom,
To wonder at the miracle hanging high
Tangled in twigs, the silver crescent clear —
Time passed from mind. Time died; and then we were
Once more together, in quiet, you and I.
The elms with arms of love wrapped us in shade.
That watched the ecstatic West with one desire.
One soul uprapt; and still another fire
Consumed us, and our joy yet greater made —
That Bach should sing for us; mix us in one
The joy of firelight and the sunken sun.

Praise

O Friends of mine, if men mock at my name.
Say “Children loved him”.
Since by that word you will have far removed him
From any bitter shame.[4]

I don’t doubt they did. But what children, here? I wish I knew more…

 

And finally, today, Rowland Feilding is waiting for the other shoe to drop after the failed raid and informal armistice of last week. He may even be trying to edge out from underneath that dropping shoe. In the meantime, some light verse:

February 23, 1917. Curragh Camp (Locre).

The battalion is out of the trenches for eight days. The weather has completely changed, and there is a dense fog, which is almost constant.

I have applied for twenty-one days’ leave, to which I am entitled. I feel I want a little time and opportunity to
freshen up.

I found the following poetic effort, the other day, posted up by the gas gong at S[trong].P[oint]. 10.

To H.M. Troops

If the German gas you smell.
Bang this gong like blazing hell.
Put on your helmet.
Load your gun,
And prepare to meet
The ruddy Hun.[5]

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 134-5.
  2. War Diaries, (Childhood), 163-4.
  3. Elected Friends, 179-80.
  4. War Letters, 136-9.
  5. War Letters to a Wife, 157.

Isaac Rosenberg is Feeling Poorly; Siegfried Sassoon Posts Robert Graves; Ivor Gurney on Severn and Somme; Olaf Stapledon on a Pleasure-Loving Prophet; The Irish Guards Break a Truce

All the poets are busy as bees, today. First, Isaac Rosenberg got a rare letter into the mail–to Eddie Marsh, of course. Each man is different, and Rosenberg may be both sickly and hypochondriac… yet it’s hard to see the predicaments of the soldier–as opposed to the officer–in Rosernberg’s worries. There is no question of leave, or of getting books published… Rosenberg has written a tremendous poem and learned that it has been published in a reputable periodical–but that news goes by in a line, and his lungs take up an entire paragraph… can Marsh get him away from the army?

[Postmarked January 18, 1917]
My Dear Marsh

My sister wrote me she would be writing to you. She’d got the idea of my being in vile health from you’re letter addressed to Dempsey St, and naturally they at home exaggerated things in their minds. Perhaps though it is not so exaggerated. That my health is undermined I feel sure of; but I have only lately been medically examined, and absolute fitness was the verdict. My being transfered may be the consequence of my reporting sick or not; I don’t know for certain. But though this work does not entail half the hardships of the trenches, the winter and the conditions naturally tells on me, having once suffered from weak lungs, as you know. I have been in the trenches most of the 8 months Ive been here, and the continual damp and exposure is whispering to my old friend consumption, and he may hear the words they say in time. I have nothing outwardly to show, yet, but I feel it inwardly. I don’t know what you could do in a case like this; perhaps I could be made use of as a draughtsman at home; or something else in my own line, or perhaps on munitions. My new address is

Pte I R 22311
7 Platoon F. Coy
40th Division
Works Battallion
B.E.F.

I wrote a poem some while ago which Bottomley liked so, and I want you to see it, but Im writing in most awkward conditions and can’t copy it now. ‘Poetry’ of Chicago printed a couple of my things and are paying me. I should think you find the Colonial Office interesting particularly after the war.

I hope however it leaves you leisure for literature; for me its the great thing.

Yours sincerely

Isaac Rosenberg[1]

 

So there we have some sharp contrast for another friend-of-Eddie, a man whose illness has brought him six months of hunting, writing, and semi-military idleness, with no objections from bureaucracies or medical boards. Siegfried Sassoon, today, is playing friend and writer, poet and patron. First the observation, then the work:

January 18

Gulls were flapping and calling; the tide was low; the sea level; ships—one full-rigged—and steamers and a liner slipped along, grey ghosts across the water, and the houses ashore were grey ghosts too—only they did not move. So I stood on the sandflats between the two with a quiet cloudy hazy sky overhead and a little frosty wind blowing the smoke from the north. Then the sun began to come out, as I stood on the huge, green-stained sewer-pipes, and the mud-flats were beaten-silver with level water creeping in as level as a sheet, and across the Mersey mouth the sea was shining pale coppery-gold. Then the sun went in again, and the arena of sand and sea was drab. And some soldiers flapped and wagged their signal-flags—tiny figures hundreds of yards away along the shore; crusted with melting ice.

This afternoon I sent Robert’s new poems to the Chiswick Press. Only nine of them—but the best work he has done, or will do for some time, I am afraid.

A Captain from the Second Battalion, on leave, was here last night. He said the soldiers in France regard the end of the war in the summer as certain. It will be a successful Push and victory, or else—failure and a patched-up peace![2]

This will be Goliath and David, a small private edition of Graves’s recent poems, and this will not be Sassoon’s last about-face on the likely outcomes of the war.

 

I suppose we might also have had updates on Edward Thomas or Wilfred Owen, but nothing much is going on with either of them. It’s only all the rest of the major war poets will all be represented today. I need Chrissie Hynde to ask the crowd if they can handle another guitar hero…

In this case, the next poet up is Ivor Gurney, writing once again to Marion Scott. The letter begins with a long, rambling discussion of poetry good and bad, dropping many familiar names. But then come two poems, sandwiched (pun intended) around the inevitable discussion of parcels, which are so much more important to enlisted men of limited means than they are to officers. But many war poets actually in the combat zone are more likely to think of home than the dangers and vicissitudes of their days. Poetry isn’t “escape,” but it is an act of meaningful remembering… and Gurney on the Somme resides in an intensely idyllic Gloucestershire.

 

Song

Only the wanderer
Knows Englands graces
Or can anew see clear
Familiar faces

And who loves Joy as he (Who loves fair joy as he?)
That dwells in-shadows?
Do not forget me quite,
O Severn meadows.

Your brown bread parcel came three days ago on the 7th. It was tres bon. Bread and biscuits first rate and most acceptable; particularly as the rations did not turn up one day. How good it was to get bread not dust dry to eat.  What is in the stuff to keep it grateful to eat?

 

West Country

Spring comes soon to Maisemore
And Spring comes sweet.
With bird-songs and blue skies,
On gay dancing feet
But she is such a shy lady
I fear we’ll never meet.

Some day round a comer
Where the hedge foams white
I’ll find Spring a-sleeping
In the young-crescent night
And seize her and make her
Yield all her delight.

But theres a glad story
That’s yet to be told.
Here’s grey Winters bareness
And no-shadowed cold

O Spring, with your music
Your blue, green, and gold!
Come shame this grey wisdom
With laughter and gold.

All these lispings of childhood do not prevent terrific strafing on the left, where Hell is apparently combined with the angry gods to make things thoroughly uncomfortable.

With Sassoon and Thomas it usually seems as if the poetry comes from an entirely different part of the brain, even when poetry and prose share the same notebook sheet. But Gurney’s poems-in-letters are remarkable documents. It’s true, of course, that no written work is historically “immediate:” everything is filtered as it is written down, even if only seconds elapse. But rarely do we get poetry explicitly written during a bombardment, and Gurney’s letter seems to present military experience and poetic desire as a sort of experiment in counterpoint. Dreams of Severn meadows, and thundering death along the Somme…

But Gurney is thinking of his poetry, now. He is focused, and he has direct questions for Scott, asking to be compared to his friend Will Harvey, languishing in a POW camp. And not his immediate heroes, the Georgians? Perhaps not yet.

Would you mind telling me candidly sincerely as possible, what you think of my things were they collected in a book and compared to F W Hs? Personally, I think there is nothing of mine so good as “Flanders”. And also, perhaps, “If we return”, but outside those, I think my things are better on the whole and more poetical. Do you think there is too much regret in mine? His book has a fine spirit, is mine too much the confession of being unwillingly a soldier? Is there too much of a whine? I would not be out of it — right out of it — for anything: this gives me a right to talk and walk with braver men than myself and an insight into thousands of characters and a greater Power over Life, and more Love. But if I get knocked out—with the conviction sometimes of being able to write the finest sort of songs — then “deevil a ceevil word to God frae a gentleman like me.” But it is not good to let this appear since the forfeit of Life is paid by the noblest so often. After all (I take pride in it) there are not many chronic dyspeptics writing verse at the —. I think this is a title of Pride, and gives me excuse to be a little selfish…[3]

 

Even the non-poets are deep in poetry today, a century back. Olaf Stapledon, idle with his ambulances in Belgium, is spurred by poetry to write perhaps his most effusive and sensual letter yet.

… I have been sitting in front of the fire reading Walt Whitman, that astounding boisterous pleasure-loving prophet! I have hardly read him at all till now, & now it is a time to do so… His stuff seems haphazard and undisciplined, but it is fine vigorous stuff whether one likes it or not. He seems rather obsessed by sex… Yet the tone is as pure as the blue sky. And his obsession only consists in reading sex into rocks, atoms & stars…

This, actually, is an influence on Stapledon’s writing that now seems obvious. Whitman! Of course. But as far as today, a century back, Whitman seems less a shaper of his worldview and prose style than a goad and a license to write deliriously to Agnes of such topics as “your outstretched bare arm,” many repetitions of the word “beautiful,” and a full physical accounting of himself. Oh, the body electric!

 

Enough of poets and their hesitant pride, dreamers and their passions. Shall we close with humor, and history?

Alan Milne is thirty-five, today, and still recovering from trench fever. But he had a nice birthday present in the form of a note from none other than J.M. Barrie, informing the Punch contributor and sidelined signal officer that would be willing to arrange the production of one of his plays. Wurzel-Flummery will appear on a double-bill with news plays by Barrie in April, a first professional production for Milne.[4]

 

But let’s not forget that there is a war on–more or less. So goes another one of the brilliant bits of historical close-focus in Kipling’s History of the Irish Guards. He takes a notable incident and draws it out, implying that it might stand (ah but how could it? It is an incident…) for an entire period in the life of the battalion. Shall we live and let live, or shall we get on with it? And shall we keep up with the sporting metaphors, even now, in the midst of the war’s third winter?

For the moment, things were absurdly peaceful on their little front, and when they came back to work after three still days at Maurepas, infantry “fighting” had become a farce. The opposing big guns hammered away zealously at camps and back-areas, but along that line facing the desolate woods of St. Pierre Vaast there was mutual toleration, due to the fact that no post could be relieved on either side except by the courtesy of their opponents who lay, naked as themselves, from two hundred to thirty yards away. Thus men walked about, and worked in flagrant violation of all the rules of warfare, beneath the arch of the droning shells overhead. The Irish realized this state of affairs gradually — their trenches were not so close to the enemy; but on the right Battalion’s front, where both sides lived in each other’s pockets, men reported “life in the most advanced posts was a perfect idyll.”

So it was decided, now that every one might be presumed to know the ground, and be ready for play, that the weary game should begin again. But observe the procedure! “It was obvious it would be unfair, after availing ourselves of an unwritten agreement, to start killing people without warning.” Accordingly, notices were issued by the Brigade — in English — which read: “Warning. Any German who exposes himself after daylight to-morrow January 19 will be shot. By order.” Battalions were told to get these into the enemy lines, if possible, between 5 and 7 a.m.

They anticipated a little difficulty in communicating their kind intentions, but two heralds, with three rifles to cover them, were sent out and told to stick the warnings up on the German wire in the dusk of the dawn. Now, one of these men was No. 10609 Private King, who, in civil life, had once been policeman in the Straits Settlements. He saw a German looking over the parapet while the notice was being affixed, and, policeman-like, waved to him to come out. The German beckoned to King to come in, but did not quit the trench. King then warned the other men to stand by him, and entered into genial talk. Other Germans gathered round the first, who, after hesitating somewhat, walked to his side of the wire. He could talk no English, and King, though he tried his best, in Chinese and the kitchen-Malay of Singapore, could not convey the situation to him either. At last he handed the German the notice and told him to give it to his officer. The man seemed to understand. He was an elderly person, with his regimental number in plain sight on his collar. He saw King looking at this, and desired King to lift the edge of his leather jerkin so that he in turn might get our number. King naturally refused and, to emphasize what was in store for careless enemies, repeated with proper pantomime: “Shoot! Shoot! Pom! Pom!” This ended the palaver. They let him get back quite unmolested, and when the mirth had ceased. King reported that they all seemed to be “oldish men, over yonder, and thoroughly fed up.” Next dawn saw no more unbuttoned ease or “idyllic” promenades along that line.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Works, 313-4.
  2. Diaries, 120-1.
  3. War Letters, 118-120.
  4. Thwaite, Milne, 180.
  5. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 113-14

Will Harvey’s Unreasonable Escapade; Rosenberg Among the Poets

Yesterday, the 2/5th Gloucestershires took over a new front-line sector. With a prominent hedge in no man’s land, it seemed like the sort of place that could possibly be reconnoitered by daylight more safely than at night. Today, a century back, Will Harvey–experienced in these matters as a soldier but perhaps over-eager to prove his bona fides as a new 2nd Lieutenant–decided that he would try his luck, all on his own initiative…

On August 17 it occurred to me during my ‘rest period’ that, as I know nothing of the ground we were to patrol that night, I might as well go out and have a look at it. Long unburned grass between the trenches afforded plenty of cover, and it is common knowledge that the hours between two and five were the quietest period of the day alike for German soldiers and English…  I decided to go alone. My company officer had gone off somewhere down the line, taking the other subaltern with him, so I woke up a corporal asleep in a dug-out, informed him of my intentions, and instructed him to warn the sentries, and to replace the wire after me in the sally-port. Then I started.

After leaving the trench, I went crawling along in shadow do the hedge… I carried an automatic pistol.

Harvey nears the German trench and satisfies himself that there are no troublesome listening posts nearby: this may be an outpost trench that is not ordinarily manned..

If I had had a man with me I should now have gone back, but I was beginning to be rather pleased with myself…

Shell-hole by shell-hole I worked my cautiously to a little ditch… edging my way, I came at last into the projected shadow of the parapet, where I lay… There was not a sound…

I wriggled up a little higher and looked quickly over the top of the trench. There was nobody there.

Reason told me at this point that I would be better to go back. What a little thing in human life is reason!

Harvey now hopes to obtain some souvenir as proof of his escapade. The idea is that this will prove to the men who will come out on patrol with him later that they have nothing to fear. So he drops down into the German trench.

It is easier to get into a German trench than to get out. I had barely reached the next bay, which was also empty, when I heard footsteps, and a good many of them, coming along behind me. If I turned back to find my hole in the wire I ran the risk of meeting those feet before I got to it. It seemed better to go on…

Nowhere in the parados was there any sign of an exit. The feet were getting nearer. I continued to walk down the trench before them, looking quickly to the right and left for cover. Then, at the end of the bay, I caught sight of a small iron shelter. It was the only place. I approached it swiftly, and was hurrying in when two hefty Germans met me in the doorway. I was seized. My pistol was wrenched away. There was no escape possible…

It is a strange thing, but to be made prisoner is undoubtedly the most surprising thing that can happen to a soldier. It is an event which one has never considered, never by any chance anticipated.

Yet prisoners are taken pretty frequently. I has myself collared a man the year before on patrol…

Yet now I was dumbfounded.

Dumbfounded, and bound and blindfolded as well, Harvey was taken several miles back behind the lines, where he was interrogated by a German military police officer. Although Harvey refused to give any information about British dispositions in the area, it soon became clear that this German officer knew a good deal more them than he did.

It will be rather a while before we hear from Harvey again.[1]

 

And Isaac Rosenberg got at letter into the mail today, a century back. Rosenberg may have begun as an outsider, but any connection to Eddie Marsh exerts a gravitational pull, and tightens one’s orbit down toward the still-holding center. Now Rosenberg is corresponding with Gordon Bottomley and Laurence Binyon, and soaking up their advice:

My Dear Marsh,

…G. Bottomley sent me ‘King Lears Wife’. I do think it magnificent as a play and some stunning poetry in it too. There are few men living who could whack that as a play. We are kept pretty busy now, and the climate here is really unhealthy; the doctors themselves cant stand it. We had an exciting time today, and though this is behind the firing line and right out of the trenches there were quite a good many sent to heaven and the hospital I carried one myself in a handcart to the hospital, (which often is the antichamber to heaven.)

Binyon wrote me a letter about Moses with the paternal rod half raised in one hand and some sweets and chocolates in the other. But it was a letter I feel grateful for and very good criticism. He says my poetry comes out in clotted gushes and spasms. He has been to France and is back in England now. Write me if you get time as you know a letter (especially Strakers Stationary) is a bit—a very tiny bit like London.

Yours

I Rosenberg[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. From Harvey's account in Comrades in Captivity, quoted at length in Boden, F.W. Harvey, 125-31.
  2. Letters, 311-12.

Will Harvey and Ivor Gurney Together at Last; Gurney on the Stoics, the Depressives, the Poets, and the Music of the Shells; Wilfred Owen Mystified by the Troops

Today, a century back, two friends and fellow Gloucestershires finally crossed paths in France. Or, at least, we are finally aware that they have. Frederick “Will” Harvey came out long before his close friend Ivor Gurney, earned kudos and took a German prisoner, killed a man and won a medal, and was sent back for officer training, one of the thousands of middle class and professional men who joined the ranks of Kitchener’s Army and were shaken out and upward as more officers were required. The newly-minted 2nd Lieutenant has now been posted to Gurney’s battalion, the 2/5th Gloucestershires, and they were able to meet today, and talk. That officer and man should meet as friends would have been an impossibility in the old Regular Army, but in the New Army it is a not uncommon occurrence. It was a good thing, though, that Harvey and Gurney were not in the same platoon, or even the same company.

Harvey, who looked like a mild-mannered clerk is actually a bit of a fire-eater.[1] Any battalion commander faced with a new officer with the ribbon of the DCM (won by enlisted men, often for aggressive valor) would do well to keep an eye on him. Instead, when Harvey pointed out the long hedge in no man’s land that would give good enough cover for a daylight patrol to discover the location of the nearest German posts, the colonel was non-committal. They will plan a conventional evening raid in the near future…

And as for that crossing of paths, it is attested to by this long, fascinating, and worrisomely meandering letter of Gurney’s to his friend and patron Marion Scott:[2]

August 1916 (E)

Dear Miss Scott:

The address on the label of the packet of M. S. is shaky and would not impress a real expert in such matters, but it seems to be yours, and so I guess that you are out of danger, and will soon be able to resume that correspondance which is inevitably fated some day to be the joy and wonder of my biographers. That is, if my biography is not fated to be one line in the casualty list, with the wrong number and a J. instead of an I — as is set forth on my identification disc. I hope you have not been having too evil a time of it though, and that this is the last attempt at dissolution for a long time…

So, after politely joking a bit more about what was evidently a serious illness, Gurney gets down to business.

I have just finished a setting of Masefields “By a Bierside”, and this will come to you either now or when we get back out of trenches. I hope you will like it. I will praise it so far as to say that I believe there was never anybody could have set the words “Death opens unknown doors” , as it is set here. The accompaniment is really orchestral, but the piano will get all thats wanted very well. It came to birth in a disused Trench Mortar emplacement…

A private soldier managing musical composition in a front line position does seem even more impressive than the usual trick of writing poetry.

…everything is queer here. I feel like a cinematograph shadow moving among dittoes…

It is bad to hear that you cannot sleep. Read Dr Johnsons works, or Addison’s, which are nearly as bad…

Gurney, who has struggled as times–even before the war–to maintain a firm grip on his sanity, now writes a most unusual, most apt and most upsetting explanation of the psychological mechanics of wartime fear:

The fear of death in sickness is widely different from that in a strafe. The most of us do not fear death very much. Hardly at all, in fact. It is hearing the shells and mortars soaring down to wipe you out, and the spiteful gibbering of the machine guns which may get you that does the trick. If a hypochondriac in the last stage of depression were to stand by a river, having fully made up his mind to drown himself when his waistcoat would come off; if a boy were to throw a brick at such he would dodge it. It is the same instinct that makes war dreadful, but by a merciful dispensation relieves the flat boredom of living among sandbags.

This letter is a spasmodic affair, and has already been interrupted 3 times, but we get on.

Mrs Voynich has sent me M Aurelius and Epictetus. The last is a game old boy, and I should dearly love to watch him in a strafe, but M Aurelius is a pious swanker in comparison, though he says some lovely things. Epictetus remains among the persons decidedly worth getting to know; perhaps after the next strafe.

This is forbearance, no? Here we find a man whose lot it is to lie in a trench and be shelled receiving, politely, two stoic philosophers sent by a non-combatant, warm and safe and dry!

I don’t know Gurney well enough to know if he is earnest or politely appalled, but I suspect some chuckling middle ground. Gurney then wanders off a bit. I’ll intersperse my ellipses with his own, so we get some sense of his mind… but death hangs over all of this,

Keats certainly was no end of a poet. If he had lived? And Schubert? Well, no one can say. (If the violet were not so frail. . .)  …Shelley wrote well too… Walt Whitman is my man however and I want to write in music such stuff as “This Compost”. Everyday my mind gets less sick and more hopeful someday of sustained effort…

I wonder whether any up to date fool will try to depict a strafe in music. The shattering crash of heavy shrapnel. The belly-disturbing crunch of 5.9 Crumps and trench mortars. The shrill clatter of rifle grenades and the wail of nosecaps flying loose. Sometimes buzzing like huge great May flies, a most terrifying noise when the thing is anywhere near you.

Interestingly, as Gurney himself recognizes, he’s much better on the weird and threatening than on the sneaky intrusions of ordinary romantic beauty into trench life.

There are better things to treat though, and among them are sunsets such as the last, which would have coloured my thoughts had it not been for the greasiness of the duck-boards. Life is an aggravation unless the duck boards are dry. (There are fine opportunities in an Ode to a Duckboard.) There was also a double rainbow — a perfect thing of its kind. But rainbows always look as if a child had designed them in crayon, garish and too shapely.

That was a good save… ‘ware sentimentality!

The letter, however, continues on in an increasingly distracted, almost manic mode. I’ll skip to the end, and the official crossing-of-paths.

…Goodbye and best wishes for a quick recovery. ..

Good luck Ivor Gurney

PS …I hardly think of music at all, but stick to books. My friend Harvey who is now a lootehant in this battallion has just lent me his “Spirit of Man” ; and I am now browsing therein. Masefield is quite right, “Life is too wonderful to end”, and the better part of me is on fire adequately to praise it before I go. O please excuse the dirtiness of the M.S. but mud abounds here, and I always manage to find more than most people. And it is a horrid clayey muck that sticketh closer than a Flag seller…[3]

Gurney gathers himself in the end, and apologizes for the distractedness of the letter. He is writing, after all, from the front lines….

 

And after all that, a letter of a very different sort from a man of a different kidney. Wilfred Owen, too, has recently been elevated to officer-hood. But he has no combat experience, no passing-of-the-test from which to draw strength, and his class status is slightly uncertain too. As so often, he practices his posturing as he writes to his mother.

Tuesday [16 August 1916] [Mytchett Musketry Camp]

Dearest My Mother,

Just a scrap to thank for your letter just arrived tonight….  I have just scraped enough points to be a 1st Class Shot.
Most of the men are 2nd Class and more are 3rd…

We were, caught in Monsoonal Rains this afternoon, and my poor troops were wet to the bone, (But I had my Trench Coat.) It was the first time I had seen these men really cheerful. British troops are beyond my understanding. On a bright warm day they, are as dull and dogged as November…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I just realized who he reminds me of: the forensic accountant character in The Untouchables.
  2. The Letters does not give the date, but Hurd, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, 77, dates it to today.
  3. War Letters, 91-4.
  4. Collected Letters, 405.

Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton Are Cynical Scribblers; Noel Hodgson’s Reverie Continues; High Tide for F.W. Harvey and the Gloucestershires

Vera Brittain often transcribes much of Roland‘s most recent letter into her diary. It seems to be less an act of preservation (she kept the letters as well) then a practical way to absorb his words, to fix the ghost of his presence amidst her own. Today–interestingly–she includes a long section that is omitted by the editors of Letters from a Lost Generation. Vera makes no comment other than this rueful introduction:

A letter came from Roland which was rather bitter and cynical. He must be catching it from me…

Omitting what I included in the September 1st post, I’ll skip straight to this striking flash of insight:

“Poor diary! Don’t let it get behindhand if you can help it; though it must be very difficult to write in it–afterwards–what one really felt so long ago. (To me it seems months ago already.) But think how useful it may be some day, when I have forgotten you and you have forgotten me; you might find it hidden away somewhere, and read it through again and laugh a little over it and perhaps cry a little too, and in the end find it very useful to make a novel out of. Such things have happened before… But I must not be cynical.”[1]

What does he mean? Vera clearly does not see this as a serious jab, an attempt to undermine their shared belief in the strength of their love. It’s a mixture of warnings, really: write–write because memory is fallible and weak, and write because one day we may be parted, and this will be the record. (As the letters will be also–which Roland surely realizes. He must have smiled, writing, as he followed this lead even as he gave it.)

So how, then, is Vera to read this reference to forgetting each other? If it’s not a truly cynical attack, then perhaps it is a demonstration–a feint, covering the flank of that more terrible, more tangible idea that they will be torn from each other soon, rather than drift apart in the future.

Still, I was brought up short to see Roland looking unflinchingly ahead and on into literary adaptation, just as we look back. With a tight mouth and a quiet voice he’s sent a quick glance our way, if not up the long century than at least ten or fifteen years into the future, when the novels and the memoirs will indeed begin bridge the war’s losses, resting where they can on the piers and pile of war-time writing. (Apparently I am not going to be as scrupulous at avoiding pseudo-mystical gobbledygook as I had intended.)

 

Let’s move on to another poetical subaltern. Noel Hodgson‘s initial approach to the line continued today, as his battalion marched through the crowded town of La Bourse tonight, a century back, before continuing on to Noyelles, “a half-ruined village close to the lines.” His biographer, Charlotte Zeepvat, is of the opinion that his Reverie–dated to August, 1915–is probably still in progress, its composition perhaps continuing on marches such as these. It seems to be the case, at least, that in August he had not yet composed the last stanza, which runs:

Above the graves of heroes
The wooden crosses grow.
That shall no more see Durham
Nor any place they know.
Where fell tops face the morning
And great winds blow;
Who loving as none other
The land that is their mother.
Unfalteringly renounced her
Because they loved her so.[2]

 

All of this marching was made miserable by several days of torrential rains, which significantly hampered preparations for the expected attack. New positions must be dug, supplies stockpiled, trenches improved–and all of this is impossible if the earth is too liquid to hold a new shape.

Several of our writers will lament the awful weather, but F.W. Harvey, writing in the 5th Gloucester Gazette, one of the first of the trench newspapers, splashes bravely forward. I’ll excerpt three lines from a bucketful of silliness, most of it echoing the voice of official communications:

4.9.15

Only men with a very well developed and powerful side stroke can get along our communication trenches…

Rainfall for the last 24 hours–4.3836 metres

High tide–6.40 p.m.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 267.
  2. Zeepvat, Before Action, 110-11.
  3. Boden, F.W. Harvey, 95-6.

Will Harvey Kills His Man; Donald Hankey in Hospital; Henry Farnsworth on Parade; Vera Brittain’s Brother Prepares to Embark: “All I Care For Will Be At The Front”

Will Harvey went out on patrol tonight near Hebuterne, armed with a revolver and a “heavy bludgeon.” It was unusual for patrols to seek combat–especially when no officer was present–but the “Glosters” were apparently out for blood. The patrol went out 350 yards from their trenches toward a suspected enemy listening post and came upon several Germans, probably the covering force for a working party.

Will HarveyFiring broke out and Will Harvey, together with the corporal commanding the patrol, rushed the listening post. Our Gloucestershire poet shot two Germans with his revolver, killing them, and felled a third with his bludgeon. The potential prisoner apparently escaped when German reinforcements arrived but the patrol retreated without loss, bearing with them three German rifles and a Mauser pistol as trophies.

This exploit by a patrol of a New Army unit was deemed worthy of celebration (see the illustration at right, from Boden’s biography of Harvey). It even earned Lance-Corporal Harvey the Distinguished Conduct Medal,”for conspicuous gallantry on the night of Aug. 3-4, 1915, near Hebuterne.”[1]

It’s hard to know what to make of this. Harvey was a poet, a friend of the gentle Gurney, and a scholarly-looking fellow (for what little that’s worth). Perhaps it was simply his section’s turn for a patrol, but the nature of the action and the resulting decoration strongly imply that the violence involved voluntary valor. This is one of those writers, then, who is not out merely to experience the war, but to fight. And this is one of those units, apparently, that would rather kill the men opposite–thus preventing their working parties from strengthening their position–and suffer retaliation than to follow the path of “live and let live.”

 

When we last left Donald Hankey, he was–in semi-fictionalized form–crawling off with a wounded leg after a bitter, terrible day in trenches on the flank of the lost trenches of Hooge. Today, after an ordeal about which he will keep a stoic silence, he wrote a short letter home from hospital:

I suppose you will be expecting a bulletin! There is either a bullet or a shrapnel ball in my right thigh, but otherwise I am perfectly fit. I haven’t the foggiest idea how long my job is likely to take. At present they are only dressing it, and haven’t started to try and locate the ball, which seems to have lost its way inside somewhere. But I don’t suppose I shall be lucky enough to get a trip home anyway I think it is best not to let myself hope for it in case I am disappointed![2]

Hankey is playing down the wound: this, especially after the long day’s blood loss, was certainly a blighty one.

 

And Henry Farnsworth wrote home today, describing the same divisional parade that his new comrade-in-arms Alan Seeger has already written about. Farnsworth has seen no combat to speak of, and the spell of military spectacle lies heavily upon him:

Postmarked August 3, 1915

Dear Mamma:

I have received at least five letters from you and two from the Da. They are the greatest of blessings and come into my weary world most welcome. The two regiments being cast into one and the whole division being brought up to strength, etc., goes wearily on…

The other day we were waked at 2 a.m., and at 3 sent off in a pouring rain for some indefinite place across the mountains for a divisional review. We went off slowly through the wet darkness, but about dawn the sun came out and as is usual with the Legion, everybody cheered up, and at 7 a.m. we arrived at the parade ground after fifteen kilometers in very good spirits. The two regiments of Zouaves from Africa were already drawn up. We formed up beside them… Suddenly the Zouave bugles crashed out sounding the “Garde à vous” and in two minutes the division was lined up, every man stiff as a board—and all the time the bugles ringing angrily from up the line, and the short staccato trumpets of the Chasseurs answering from the other extremity. The ringing stopped suddenly, and the voices of the colonels crying ”Bayonnettes aux Canons”’ sounded thin and long drawn out and were drowned by the flashing rattle of the bayonets going on—a moment of perfect silence, and then the slow, courtly-sounding of the “General! General! qui passe!” broken by the occasional crash as regiment after regiment presented arms. Slowly the General rode down the lines, with the two Brigadiers and a Division General in his suite… The Zouaves led off, their bugles playing… Then the Tirailleurs playing some march of their own, slow and fine, the bugles answering the scream of the Arab reed flutes…

On and on went the bugles playing that light, slangy tune, some of the verses of which would make Rabelais shudder, and the minor variations of which bring up pictures of the Legion marching with thin ranks in foreign, blazing lands, and the drums of which, tapping slowly, sound like the feet of the regiment scrunching through desert sand. It was all very glorious to see and hear…

As for news, that’s all I have, but do continue to write me frequently, even if there is nothing to say. Here in this division I feel incredibly far from home. Love to Ellen and the boys and the Da. There is a rumor that we may go to Morocco, as things are going badly there, but I don’t believe it; we cannot be replaced here.[3]

 

Lastly, Vera Brittain reacts to the unwelcome news that Roland Leighton has returned to the front line.

Tuesday August 3rd

Roland is–alas for me!–back in the trenches…

They went back into the trenches 3 days from when the letter was written–to-day. [4]

Thus Roland’s letter provides a rare moment of real-time information: a letter written from the trenches doesn’t even guarantee that the writer was still alive on the date of the post-mark. But this slight respite from worry is little compared to the loss of the promise of relative safety in staff work:

Buxton, 3 August 1915

I am sorry you have left the Corps Headquarters. It was such a relief—even if only for a short time—to feel that you were safe. But I hope very much that the General will form his permanent Headquarters Company very soon and that you will go back. It would be a fine appointment…

Edward came here on Saturday & goes again on Thursday. He keeps telling the family most cheerfully that the 9th Sherwood Foresters had three last leaves, and the same thing may happen to him, but he told me privately that it is his opinion that they really are going in about a fortnight…

He talks mostly about music & books, with an interest that is quite unimpaired & not the least assumed. In town the day he came here he bought several new books to read & quite a lot of music to learn & try over while he was at home. And yet he isn’t the least in the dark about what the Front means—or the least afraid of facing the reality.

He had a long talk with one of my patients at the Hospital and the man—an absolutely straightforward & candid person–said to me afterwards that he thought he would be some good at the front and at any rate seemed to know well enough what he was in for. But he is very cheerful and unapprehensive, and the Future–near or far–doesn’t appear to trouble him very much. Although on Sunday night when we went for a walk together he became suddenly very serious as he told me a few things he wanted done if he should die…

I only know I don’t understand him at all. Perhaps I never shall now. He is about the last of all my friends & acquaintances to go.

When he is gone all I care for will be at the front—except your Mother. War or the Country or whatever name you like to call it will have taken almost all that makes my existence worth while–my work, my future and the people I love best.

Isn’t it queer that to-morrow is War’s first birthday! I wonder how many people there were who on last August 4th thought the War would not be over by that time next year.

And here we are after a year’s fighting further from the end than we were at the beginning! (That sounds like a paradox, but indeed when we began there seemed to be many more reasons for hoping for a speedy conclusion than there are now.)[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Boden, F.W. Harvey, 89-90.
  2. The Letters of Donald Hankey, 301-2. The apparently-loosely-fictionalized story of the charge was told in "The Honour of the Brigade," available here.
  3. Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 180-3.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 226.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 137-8.

Another Bombing Accident; Dorothie Feilding Almost Loses Her Sidekick; Rowland Feilding Joins a Family Party

The British Army has been scrambling to meet the technological imperatives of trench warfare, and with some success. British machine guns are decent, an excellent trench mortar is on the way, and a very good grenade–the Mills Bomb–has been developed. But it takes a while to scale up production, and many millions of the bombs will be needed. Most units, the 1st/5th Gloucesters included, are still being supplied with the old improvised “jam tin” grenades.

This afternoon, a century back, a lesson in the use of these weapons–with their dangerously imprecise fuse-lengths–went badly awry. The instructor, a Lieutenant Guise, and one of his students, Private Bates, were killed. Several other men were blinded.[1]

Sometimes it seems that German shells always produce a near-miss and a nifty story, while British grenades never even make it to the enemy. This is, of course, an effect of our sources, a sort of storyteller’s bias: in the line, where death is everywhere, you write of the exceptional survivals. In reserve, or billets, or the training schools–where tension is high but death is supposed to be lurking over he horizon–you write of the shocking exception.

(And, of course, one always writes of unusual events–it takes a great writer to make the flow of time in an ordinary day compelling, and almost every genre is in some sense a study of the unusual and exceptional. Now, the study of storytelling habits is at the heart of this project, while weighing evidence as a technical historian must is not. A whole battalion might witness a terrible accident, while the numerous near-misses in the trenches are usually among dispersed and dug-in troops, and seen by fewer people. And no one can write about the one that didn’t miss. Still, it’s an awful damn lot of accidents, and I will do some research on that at some point soon.)

 

Would it surprise you, reader, to find that we also have a near-miss story for today? Here is Dorothie Feilding, providing an upbeat tale–that comically inefficient artillery!–for her mother’s benefit:

May 8th, same old place

They were very rude to us in Ramscapelle on Thursday afternoon. There is a little sheltered nook we always put ‘Daniel’ the car in, well for some funny reason we didn’t that day as we wanted to dig up some pinks for our garden at Fumes, there being no blessés we went to dig up the aforesaid pinks when they started shelling like fun & one bally one landed plumb in the place we always put ‘Daniel’ the car & we had bits pattering round us as we dug up the pinks. I picked up the fuse & the case of the shell which was so hot I couldn’t hold it. Clare shall have it for her museum perhaps.

Then it got so unhealthy & they put shrapnel over us. Too high to hurt luckily & we had to dive into the German’s dugout for a bit, just as well we did as a fat one fell next poor Daniel, drove a chunk of iron into his tyre & punctured it & sieved-the canvas roof & sides a bit. But otherwise didn’t hurt the bus which was ok. I should have been most profane if the new car had been broken up…

For today’s commúniqué I see that ‘The only incident on the Belgian front was the bombardment of Ramscapelle’. It sounds so simple doesn’t it?[2]

For some reason–perhaps the coincidence of the ambulance and the actor sharing a name–this makes me think of C3PO. The human heroes are so dashing that they can trip blithely through a fusillade from any number helmeted Storm Troopers (hey, wait a minute…) but every major adventure reliably involves the loyal, fussy, hapless droid getting torn, smashed, or dismembered. Is Lady Feilding’s “Daniel” a forerunner of the robot side-kick?

 

When I first stumbled across Rowland Feilding’s War Letters to a Wife I assumed that I had found a second collection from Dorothie Feilding’s family. There’s the name, the Coldstream Guards Connection, and the fact that she refers to her brother as “Rollo.” Ah, but that would be Rudolph Feilding–this is Rowland Feilding, and he and Dorothie are not brother and sister but second cousins (both are descended from William Basil Percy Feilding, 7th Earl of Denbigh).[3]

This branch of the family was somewhat less exalted: Rowland was the son of a clergyman and was himself a mining engineer and part-time soldier–he had fought in South Africa and remained involved in the Yeomanry (the cavalry arm of the Territorial Force). But he still had the larger family connection with the Coldstream Guards, and so it was into that august regiment that he was transferred. Now forty-three, he arrives today with the 3rd battalion, where, in fact, cousin Rollo, already a winner of the DSO for bravery in the late autumn fighting, is also serving.

A word on the title–Letters to a Wife. I don’t know of much in the way of secondary scholarship on Feilding’s letters, but the prefatory material emphasizes what we might be tempted to view as a fully realized version of the commitment that Roland Leighton and Vera Brittain have made: the Feildings have pledged to tell each other the truth–the whole truth, making allowances only for the requirements of military censorship. “Fully realized,” that is, in the sense that we are dealing with a long-married couple that have been truly together before they were parted by the war, rather than young lovers. We shall have to see what the letters are like.

But, so far as I know, her letters do not survive, and thus the”to” and the “a wife” rankle. I am working from the first edition, and in it, so far as I have read, I have not even learned Mrs. Feilding’s name.[4] The letters are excellent, and Rowland Feilding’s dedication to the agreement–that persistence in truth-telling will prevent the attenuating bond between entrenched soldier and civilian at home from entirely snapping–speaks silently to his esteem for her. But she is a cipher, and we can have nothing like the circling helicopter views of the experiential gulf that we get reading the to-ing and fro-ing of Vera and Roland.

So with this caveat about the one-sidedness of this particular epistolary marriage, we’ll begin with the approach narrative of Captain Rowland Feidling:

May 6,1915

On Tuesday evening, just a week after leaving Windsor, I went into the trenches for the first time. We left our billets in a heavy thunderstorm and rain and found the trenches in a very sodden condition. Our bit of line ran through the village of Givenchy, practically nothing of which remains now, though the Germans continue to shell it, so that the little that is still standing of the church will soon have disappeared, and even the graves that surround it are giving up their dead.

We relieved the 1st Irish Guards by daylight, my Company being one of the two whose turn it was to man the front line. On either side of me I found relations. On my immediate left Percy Clive commanded a company
of Grenadiers, and the Coldstream Company on my right was commanded by Rollo. I visited Percy at 4.30 on the morning after our arrival. The last time I had seen him was at dinner at the House of Commons, and I was very glad to meet him again. While I was shaving, Rollo brought Henry Feilding to see me. He is with a squadron of King Edward’s Horse, which is acting as Divisional Cavalry to a Territorial Division near here, and was paying a visit to Rollo in the trenches. You will think I have stumbled into a regular family party.

We were relieved, quite unexpectedly, after twenty-four hours, and ordered to a sector a few hundred yards further to the right, on the other side of the canal, and we spent last night at Le Preol, in our former billets.[5]

A family party indeed. Cushy, so far.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Boden, F.W. Harvey, 79.
  2. Lady Under Fire, 69-70.
  3. Correction, I think: they are first cousins once removed: Rollo and Dorothie's grandfather, the 8th Earl, was the elder brother of Rowland's father. Incredibly, the next two brothers entered the clergy (Rowland's father) and the army (a Crimea veteran who would father the Feilding who is currently commanding the Brigade of Guards...), following the old script to the letter.
  4. There is a recent edition promising a new introduction, which I will hasten now to acquire.
  5. War Letters to a Wife, 3-4.

The Nursing Sister Finds a Blackbird, F.W. Harvey a Lark; Farjeon and Lawrence Tramp Together; Julian Grenfell Witnesses the Carnage at Hill 60

We begin with the Nursing Sister, often the best of our writers for briskly communicating the war’s ironic proximity of beauty and violence (although Will Harvey will do the same–if in a lighter vein–below). Her diary entry of tomorrow discusses today, a century back.

A very muddy officer of 6 ft. 4 was brought in early yesterday morning with a broken leg, and it is a hard job to get him comfortable in these short beds.

Yesterday at 4 a.m. I couldn’t resist invading the garden opposite which is the R.A. Headquarters. It is full of lovely trees and flowers and birds. I found a blackbird’s nest with one egg in. From the upper windows of this place it makes a perfect picture, with the peculiarly beautiful tower of the Cathedral[1] as a background.[2]

 

Edward Thomas is too deep in his Marlborough research to take a long break, although he has been invited to join friends in the Sussex countryside. So Eleanor Farjeon found another companion for a long walk today–D.H. Lawrence. And yet somehow it is almost as if Thomas is walking, ghost-like beside them. Farjeon seems to think of him always:

The early hour was to allow for a long day; it was twenty miles to Chichester. I arranged to walk across from Rackham and join him [Lawrence] at the gate on the Greatham road. We met in one of those white Sussex mists which muffle the meadows before sunrise, lying breast-high on the earth, her last dream before waking. We set out, then, in a world still asleep, the known lanes and fields were strangers, as friends sleeping become strangers. The woolly haystacks and the sheep huddled against them were not yet actual haystacks and
real sheep. They were still being dreamed by the land. If a lamb had bleated, one felt the dream must break, earth stir in her bed, and shake the sleep out of her eyes. We talked in lowered voices. At that time I walked with the long lope that matched Edward’s negligent stride. He covered ground fast without any appearance of hurry. It was too fast for Lawrence, who soon said, ‘I must teach you to walk like a tramp…”

Lawrence was in his angelic, child-like mood. We found, followed, and lost the old track the Romans had made over the Downs to Chichester. We lost ourselves as well as the track, and wandered among curling valleys that led us astray. We only occasionally looked at the map. We sang scraps of songs, and every two miles lolled on the grass, where, till the dew had dried, I spread my green silk mackintosh. It was a new one, and Lawrence approved of it. We ate snacks from my knapsack, and talked when we felt like it. Our talk that day seldom touched on the things that irked him unendurably.

In one of the deep bottoms, where the whitebeams looked like trees in silver blossom, he cried, ‘We must be springlike!’ and broke green branches and stuck them round our hats.[3]

Not much of the bayonet’s tender caresses on this jaunt. Just two gentle, child-like writers on a long ramble. One will repeatedly shock the world, the other write gentle poetry and prose for children… People are so changeable, and so many different things happen to them…

 

In Ploegsteert Wood, just south of the salient the 5th Glosters produced a second issue of their trench newspaper, the 5th Gloucester Gazette. Several of the signed works–a comic marching poem, a parody of a soldier’s letter home–carried Will Harvey’s initials (F.W.H.), and one unsigned piece is probably his as well:

Nature Notes

Birds sometimes selected queer nesting places. A lark built a nest and laid three eggs therein at the top of a trench parapet. One day our sapper section indulged in a little trench mortar practice over the nest, and, immediately after a bomb had been fired, it was found that one of the eggs had hatched out. Evidently the young bird was anxious to know what was the matter.

Don’t worry: the same brief note also mentions cuckoos calling during a bombardment, blackbird’s eggs being cooked for breakfast, and nightingales singing nearby.[4]

 

And, just to the north, more ground was lost on the southern flank of the Ypres salient this morning. Behind a cloud of gas released on the flanks of the British position, the Germans retook Hill 60. The gas settling in what had been the British support lines made any immediate counterattack impossible. Among the dead was Captain George V. Robins of the East Yorkshires, a regular officer who had written a few Newbolt-ish verses which will feature in early anthologies including this ode to polo:

On to the ball when the pace is quick,
Galloping all the way,
Stirrup to stirrup and stick to stick
God, what a game to play!

This is the law that mayn’t be broke,
This is our chiefest pride;
Never a single selfish stroke,
Every man for the side.

This is the toast we love to drink,
Every night the same,
Bumpers all ! and the glasses clink,
“Here’s to the Soldier’s Game!”

 

Julian Grenfell, who could write much better stuff from the same sort of vantage point, has been stewing all spring while his (cavalry) regiment was held in reserve. Now, with the salient under such pressure, they are marched close behind the front (Proven is only a few miles northwest of Ypres), near enough to see the carnage, and to begin to hope that he too might soon be sent Into Battle.

Wednesday, 5 May:

Exercise in morning.News at midday to go up & dig trenches in reserve line… about 1/2 mile from Ypres. Stayed with horses. They say the men dug awfully well…

Went into dressing station in farm. Cases kept coming in. 30 men died of gas. Kitchener affair. Everyone smoking. Dead & wounded lying on stretchers in barn waiting for ambulances. Men dressed on the small kitchen floor.

Staff officer told me we are going to hold line just round outskirts of Ypres. Told me also Hill 60 taken by gases. NB “Shattered” look of wounded & men going back.[5]

This is an unfamiliar position for Grenfell, who has had little leisure to stroll about and observe the after-effects of battle. We tend to see him, here on A Century Back, as either a fighting soldier or a sui generis character–troubled, perhaps, but quiet, interior, the violence concealed behind the smirk. He writes jaunty letters across the fraught distances to his mother, or he makes frightful comments about fighting and killing… and then the poetry comes out of nowhere.

But this is 1915, and poetry is not solely the province of aesthetes or sensitive types. Grenfell had written a few poems before he experienced battle, and the best had evoked other killers and killing sports: his greyhounds, and the thrill of the hunt. Now, suddenly, he is in an unusually passive role, and yet he is jotting down an observation.

“NB–“is this an idea for a future poem? It seems likely. He reuses diary observations in his letters without making any particular note of it, and this is not the sort of thing he would toss into his cloyingly upbeat letters home. So is the poet of “Into Battle” now contemplating verses about its costs?

The world is changing…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I am not sure precisely where she is, given the redacted unit numbers and place names, but she is somewhere south of Ypres, with a Field Ambulance unit attached either to the 3rd, 4th, 27th, or 28th Division. Perhaps, then, she can see the cathedral in Ypres (St. Martin's Church) from her window. Or perhaps she is referring to another smaller "cathedral."
  2. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 134-5.
  4. Boden, F.W. Harvey, 73-74.
  5. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 295-6.