The Master of Belhaven Aghast; George Coppard in (and out) of Danger; Jack Martin at Rest, Siegfried Sassoon in the Field, and Cynthia Asquith on the Stage

A peripatetic day, today, a century back. But first we should tidy up matters on the Western Front.

The Master of Belhaven is doomed to remain on the outskirts of the battle of Cambrai, now in what is essentially its final day.

An intense bombardment began at 5 o’clock, but I don’t know who is attacking. It is still raging now at midday…

The current action will remain opaque to Hamilton, but he meets one of his former subordinates who lost his guns in the initial German counterattack. Perhaps he should have known not to trust what he was reading in the papers when away from the front.

The disaster seems to have been much worse than we have been told… There is no doubt this is the worst reverse the British Army has ever had in France. I believe we lost about 4,000 prisoners, but it is impossible to get any reliable information.

It’s still not so easy, in such cases where entire battalions melt away and brigades are surrounded–but the real number of prisoners was probably about 6,000.

The cold is something dreadful, thick ice everywhere–I can hardly hold a pen to write.[1]

Which also explains why “major offensive operations” are over for the winter.

More irony: just as Hamilton learns that things have been wildly out of control, they are once again stabilizing. Although the German counter-attack will continue, it was essentially forestalled by Haig with the expedient decision to retire–i.e. retreat–along most of the line, falling back onto defensible positions not all that different from the start line of November 20th.

Two more days of fighting will lead to a stalemate with little net change of position. In fact, in what is as neat an irony of attrition as one could wish, the situation is probably worse for the infantry on both sides, as on one section of the line the British held early gains while on another they ceded more than a mile of territory to the Germans, resulting in a double salient. Which meant that both sides could pound the new lines with mortars and machine guns from multiple angles and closer distances.

 

But we left George Coppard in a bad way, in hospital, and the operating theatre under preparation.

When I came to my senses the following morning my mother and grandmother were sitting beside the bed. There was a basket affair over my leg and I thought the leg had been amputated, but I was soon put at ease on that score. Happy though I was to see my folks I had no inclination to talk. A policeman had informed them that I was on the danger list, and had handed them free rail passes from Croydon to Birkenhead. They stayed for two days, but money was tight and they had to return home… I had discovered that getting a “Blighty one” was not always what it was cracked up to be…[2]

Coppard will suffer another major bleeding incident in a few days, but after that third loss of blood, his recovery, though slow, will proceed without major interruptions…

 

Next we check in on Jack Martin, who is enjoying the slower pace of life in Italy:

An Italian Labour Company is working in our vicinity making trenches and barbed wire entanglements, and they are making them well. It is amusing to see how they scuttle for shelter at the slightest alarm. We cannot help laughing as, compared with Ypres and the Somme, this is like being back at rest.[3]

 

But, of course, not actually like being at rest. That would be more like what Siegfried Sassoon is doing, in his own active fashion:

Bob Nichols came for Saturday and Sunday. Monday December 3 went to Lewes and hunted with Southdown at
Offham. Poor day: very sharp frost. Stayed at Middleham.[4]

I’m glad that Sassoon, on this bit of leave which he was awarded after his four-month stay as a (healthy) hospital patient, is able to complain about the effects of the cold. Soon, no doubt, like the Master of Belhaven, he will be sharing the ill-effects of such weather with the men for whom he made that protest…

 

To London, now, and our second excerpt from the diary of Lady Cynthia Asquith, who bears (and bares) the vicissitudes of the privileged in wartime with perhaps a bit more tongue-in-cheek bravado than Sassoon. I’m not really sure, if I happened to enjoy mounted blood sports, whether I would consider a frigid and poor hunt a worse day out than what seems to be some sort of ill-conceived society fundraiser… a close call, no dout:

Monday, 3rd December

… Lunched in and had to go off to the Albert Hall for the Tombola–the worst of all the horrors of war. We, the Seven Ages of Women—Self (carrying baby) Erlanger child (flapper), Sonia Keppel (debutante), Diana (betrothed). Ruby (mother), Belgian woman (queen of the household), and Baroness D’Erlanger (old lady)—dressed and made up in the most preposterous discomfort in a curtained-off space…

Basil Gill (as Old Father Time) had to recite the most appalling doggerel verses—one for each of us—and one by one (me first, carrying that damned baby) we had to walk through columns on a stage before a dense, gaping crowd. Never have I felt so great a fool!

And then there is more silliness and naughty decadence. Or not: perhaps we should be reading this as a frightening situation of sexual aggression sanctioned by social attitudes. Asquith has admitted to an attraction to Bernard Freyberg, the comrade of her friends and relatives, but it’s unclear to what extent she is being harassed or pressured by him, in the absence of her husband.

Ava Astor drove me home. Mary Strickland, Oc, and I dined with Freyberg at Claridges. Mamma called for Mary and took her off; Oc, Freyberg, and I sat and talked—discussing marriage, and so on—then we dropped Oc at the Manners’ and Freyberg insisted on coming into the flat. I oughtn’t to have let him, but he commands me like a subaltern. I had an awfully difficult time with him. He stayed till 1.30.[5]

 

Finally, today–for those growing tired of society diaries and poetry fragments–there happens to be an old-fashioned war yarn in the short story collection Everyman at War entitled “La Vacquerie, December 3rd, 1917.”

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 416-7.
  2. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 131.
  3. Sapper Martin, 150.
  4. Diaries, 197.
  5. Diaries, 375-6.

George Coppard Bleeds Anew; Wilfred Owen Writes Himself into a Hospital Bed

We step away from Cambrai, today, and visit with one of its survivors, George Coppard, back in Blighty.

At lunchtime on 2 December, when I lay propped up in bed to deal with the welcome contents on my tray, I became aware of a change of sensation in my thigh. Throwing back the clothes I saw that the bandages were drenched in blood… I yelled out with fearful wind-up. A young nurse rushed across the ward, took one look at the bloody sight and dashed off. With amazing speed she returned with a young Indian doctor. He pressed hard on my groin and the bleeding stopped. The nurse lashed a rubber tourniquet above the wound, leaving me pillowless while the operating theatre was being made ready.[1]

A frightening experience… one of many, here, made significantly less worrisome for the reader by its being told in the first person.

 

Our only other tidbit for today, a century back, is this letter from Wilfred Owen to his mother. It’s a letter full of ordinary conversation… which mentions, in passing, the beginning of an extraordinary poem.

Sunday[2]

Dearest Mother,

I wrote in the middle of the week. Did you get a complete letter?

For I have discovered a page of writing to you among my papers. This afternoon I had a fire in my grate, which smokes horribly in the wind. Thus I finished an important poem this afternoon, in the right atmosphere…

The draft is currently entitled “Wild With All Regrets”–another Tennyson reference–and it carries a prospective dedication to Siegfried Sassoon. But the poem is not what we might expect. There is Owen’s sensuousness, and a version of his effusiveness, too, but this is nothing like a love poem. And yet there is that great access of empathy that makes even Owen’s most terrifying war poems seem something like a love poem… here, he takes on the voice of a terribly wounded soldier.

 

My arms have mutinied against me — brutes!
My fingers fidget like ten idle brats,
My back’s been stiff for hours, damned hours.
Death never gives his squad a Stand-at-ease.
I can’t read. There: it’s no use. Take your book.
A short life and a merry one, my buck!
We said we’d hate to grow dead old. But now,
Not to live old seems awful: not to renew
My boyhood with my boys, and teach ’em hitting,
Shooting and hunting, — all the arts of hurting!
— Well, that’s what I learnt. That, and making money.
Your fifty years in store seem none too many;
But I’ve five minutes. God! For just two years
To help myself to this good air of yours!
One Spring! Is one too hard to spare? Too long?
Spring air would find its own way to my lung,
And grow me legs as quick as lilac-shoots.

Yes, there’s the orderly. He’ll change the sheets
When I’m lugged out, oh, couldn’t I do that?
Here in this coffin of a bed, I’ve thought
I’d like to kneel and sweep his floors for ever, —
And ask no nights off when the bustle’s over,
For I’d enjoy the dirt; who’s prejudiced
Against a grimed hand when his own’s quite dust, —
Less live than specks that in the sun-shafts turn?
Dear dust, — in rooms, on roads, on faces’ tan!
I’d love to be a sweep’s boy, black as Town;
Yes, or a muckman. Must I be his load?
A flea would do. If one chap wasn’t bloody,
Or went stone-cold, I’d find another body.

Which I shan’t manage now. Unless it’s yours.
I shall stay in you, friend, for some few hours.
You’ll feel my heavy spirit chill your chest,
And climb your throat on sobs, until it’s chased
On sighs, and wiped from off your lips by wind.

I think on your rich breathing, brother, I’ll be weaned
To do without what blood remained me from my wound.

I wonder whether the soldier’s wish, in the middle of the poem, to bargain for new life by accepting the dirtiest of jobs, is an echo of Achilles’ thoughts in the Odyssey…

It is strange, isn’t it, to take a break from working on a piece like this to write an everyday letter-to-mum? But, then again, that is how we all live–only perhaps less intensely.

Here I have a certain amount of what might degenerate into worry, but it doesn’t with me. I think my chief trouble is watching that hundreds of windows are shaded at 4 p.m. And no unnecessary lights burning. I think I have hereditary aptitudes for this. I housekeep on a scale that would fairly stagger you and Mary, don’t you know…

I hope you’ll see Dunsden & the Vicar..

Ever your boy Wilfred

Am writing on my knee.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 130.
  2. Misdated to tomorrow by Owen's editor.
  3. Collected Letters, 513-4

Dr. Dunn on Passchendaele: Unburyable Corpses and Magical Light; George Coppard in Blighty; Phillip Maddison at Cambrai; The Master Learns the Cathedral

Today, a century back, George Coppard, shot through the leg during the battle of Cambrai, arrived at Birkenhead Borough Hospital:

It was not a fancy place, but after the turmoil of war it seemed as near to heaven as I was likely to get. Britain was still celebrating the victory of the the Third Army [at Cambrai] and the bells of the churches had rung out in praise. At that time the tank thrust was regarded as the first real turn of the tide against German might… fresh from the fray, I attracted my little share of attention from the visitors and nursing staff… but there was trouble ahead.

And not just with the strategic failures at Cambrai; Coppard’s wound, which has severed the femoral artery and been staunched by his own none-too-sterile thumb, was both too deep to easily repair and liable to infection…[1]

 

Cambraiis no victory–but at least it took us away from Passchendaele. Remember Passchendaele? Tens of thousands of infantrymen are still there, holding the miserable wasteland into the winter. Today brings one of the most striking passages in Dr. Dunn’s narrative of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers. He[2] has been on leave and, returning, is struck anew by the sheer wretchedness of the battlefield. Dunn would never make such a dramatic statement, but… only men could make such a hell.

At dawn I went with Radford round part of the line. Many scarcely recognizable dead lie about, a few of them Germans. Passchendaele is not quite levelled… Mud flows through entrances, and rain drops through the cracked cemented-brick floors roofing the cellars, on to the occupants… When the position is overlooked the men are pinned down by day, and numbed with cold by day and night… In the morning some of our planes came over in an objectless-looking way…

A rapidly filling cemetery… is a most unrestful place. It is the labour of a squad to keep the dead in their graves. A sapper officer was killed and buried in the morning; his tormented body had to be reburied twice during the day.

The next line comes as a shock. But should it?

But for all the havoc up here the effect of a glint of sunshine on the waste is magical.[3]

 

Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, is in Amiens, on the way back from an officers’ course in England.

Let’s see: misery, destruction, attrition, mass death… all modern and unavoidable, now. But perhaps one of the more overlooked ways in which the Great War qualifies as the first modern war is that the regular rotations of leaves and courses–and habits like tourism while on military journeys–rarely stop.

I had a good lunch there and went to see the Cathedral with an excellent guide-book. I spent an hour there and discovered all sorts of interesting things that I did not know before…

He will reach his batteries, still on a quiet sector of the Somme, after midnight…[4]

 

Finally, today, Henry Williamson is still in England on Home Service, but Phillip Maddison, his tireless alter ego, is drawing nearer to the cauldron of Cambrai. His “diary,” which fills several pages of the novel Love and the Loveless at this point, is an improbably knowledgeable (he is still, despite his brush with greatness, a mere lieutenant charged with resupplying a Machine Gun Company currently in reserve) crib from the history books, explaining all the movements of, for instance, the Guards in Bourlon Wood.

But tonight the company moves up, and Williamson writes a long scene full of many familiar elements–the confusion of a night relief, the misery of a march under fire–and some stranger ones, such as the description of horses and mules “screaming” through their gas masks. When the German counter-attack breaks through, Phillip will be, as always, on the scene.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 130.
  2. I believe it's Dunn himself; it's sometimes difficult to tell who the "speaker" is.
  3. The War the Infantry Knew, 417.
  4. War Diary, 414.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 333-49.

George Coppard’s Scarlet Arc Ends at Cambrai; Family Reunions for John Ronald Tolkien and Robert Graves

Yesterday, a century back, as the German resistance at Cambrai stiffened, George Coppard and his machine gun teams had a quiet day. With no officers present, he was summoned by the local infantry battalion commander to be interviewed about his dispositions–a source of “warm satisfaction” for a young corporal to be able to give a colonel an account of his independent dispositions. But by this morning, a century back, Coppard’s lieutenant had returned with his relief and “the finger of fate was beginning to point in my direction.”

It did not hesitate long: as Coppard walked back to company headquarters, a German machine gun bullet, fired haphazardly from long range–or “destined to take a hand in my affairs,” as Coppard will have it–passed through his leg. Lying on the ground with the lieutenant and another non-com, Coppard waited, bleeding heavily, while the German gunner sprayed bullets all around them.

The fact that I was a machine gunner myself increased my fear, and for a few paralysing seconds I felt that death was about to claim me.

But the gun moved off, and Coppard’s companions hurried to give him first aid.

When they ripped open the leg of my trousers a spout of blood curved upwards like a scarlet arc, three feet long and as thick as a pencil, then disappeared into the ground. Fate was kind to me.

By which he means not that a long-range bullet severed his femoral artery–or perhaps that as well, since it is certainly a blighty one, although also dangerous–but that he was not alone, and quick action by the others saved his life. After stopping the severed artery himself–“I bunged my thumb on the hole…  [which] stopped the flow like turning off a tap”–his companions rigged a tourniquet. Passing German prisoners were enlisted to carry Coppard back to a dressing station, and “within an hour or so” he was in a field hospital.

We’ll check in with Coppard in a few days when he reaches England but, just like that, his war is essentially over. He will title his memoir, matter-of-factly, With a Machine Gun to Cambrai–and so he came, and now he is headed back again, soaked with his own blood, but alive.[1]

 

The rest of today’s entry has a heavy family theme–fathers and mothers and sons.

First, it was perhaps today, a century back, that John Ronald Tolkien obtained leave to go and see his wife, and meet his son. Father Francis, the priest who had been something like a surrogate father to Tolkien, baptized the baby John Francis. Appropriately enough, the baby John Francis Reuel Tolkien will grow up to be a Catholic priest himself. But that is well in the future. In the present, Tolkien, well-educated but not very well connected, sold the last of his inheritance–South African mine shares–to pay for Edith’s medical care. With his recurring fever, he is unlikely to be in harm’s way again. Which is a good thing, of course, now that he is a family man–but he will begin to look at the war and the prospects for peace, now, in a different way: there will not be time for him, come “duration,” to revel in his survival or to make art out of the horrors of the war. He will need to find a good job.[2]

 

And Robert Graves has come home to Wimbledon, enjoying his first non-Sassoon-centered leave in some time. He arranged the leave himself, since he is now his own commanding officer, at the R.W.F. depot at Rhyl, in order to visit just before his sister Rosaleen left for France to work as a nurse. His parents arranged for the five full siblings to attend, the two youngest boys from Charterhouse, and all arrived last night. After “a good family breakfast…” Robert ruined the vibe…

His father, the incredibly eminent-Victorian-looking little fellow in the center, had his heart set on a family photograph. Robert insisted that he didn’t have time–he was needed in Cambridge and had to take an early train–and agreed only to sit for two brief exposures.

You be the judge, then, of the mood in the photo–but Robert’s nephew and biographer sees the parents as “dreadfully disappointed” and sitting with “her most martyred expression,” while Robert looks “both impatient and rebellious.” Well, well, who knows–A.P. Graves is certainly mad; Robert looks anxious, to me, rather than rebellious… and Amy looks like a mother whose daughter is about to go to the dangerous and pain-filled place where her son was wounded and left for dead.

The situation, R.P. Graves suggests, did not improve when a telegram for Robert arrived just after he left, making it clear that he had lied: he was rushing off not to a military responsibility, but rather to see Nancy Nicholson.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 127-130.
  2. Chronology, 103. The date of the journey may be today, but is uncertain.
  3. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 187. For the photograph, see Fundacio Robert Graves.

George Coppard’s Machine Guns to Cambrai; Rowland Feilding’s Rangers at Bullecourt; Robert Graves Sets the Record Straight; Agnes Miller as Lizzie Bennet, Olaf Stapledon as Mr. Darcy

Today, a century back, was the first day of the battle of Cambrai. There shouldn’t have been any real hope for a breakthrough, especially so near to the beginning of winter. But the ground in front of Cambrai–between the Arras battlefield and the Somme battlefield–was relatively unspoiled, and it was conceivable that the British could take the town and the Bourlon Ridge and thus threaten to cut off the Hindenberg Line. It is also conceivable that since the Third Army hadn’t suffered horribly, lately, its restive commanders simply wanted to experiment with massed tanks and new artillery tactics, and so an intelligent commitment to holding the line gave way to an experimental local attack that grew out of scale as the planning continued.

But I’m not capable of giving an intelligent precis of the strategy here, nor do we really need one. Six divisions of infantry and over 400 tanks were massed for the traditional dawn assault, and there was some hope that the Germans, expecting a long barrage, would be unprepared for the sudden attack after a short, furious bombardment by over a thousand guns, most of which had been “silently” registered on their targets. The new tactics worked well, but they will not be enough to sustain initial successes against the heavily built-up Hindenberg Line.

Among the thousands lying out between the British front lines in the early morning hours were George Coppard and his two machine gun teams, part of the 37th Brigade, 12th Division.

There we were, a brigade of men, shivering on a cold November night, without a smoke, and suffering like drug addicts… we were only allowed to communicate in whispers. It was the queerest sensation being packed with a vast crowd of warriors, within 400 yards of our front line, and out in the open, after living like rabbits in burrows for many months. It was a spooky business, and we kept as quiet as mice…

Like all the rest I was excited at the prospect of going into battle behind these new-fangled Wellsian monsters. I felt they were really going to exact retribution, on behalf of all of us, for the countless miseries and privations that we poor blighters had suffered at Jerry’s hands.This was to be the reckoning…

Zero was at 6.30 am on that memorable day, 20 November. We heard the sound of tank engines warming up. The first glimpse of dawn was beginning to show as we stood waiting for the big bang that would erupt behind us at the end of the countdown. Lieutenant Garbutt and Sergeant Critcher were standing near me. At last the officer began to count. He was bang on, and in a flash the black sky at our backs was ablaze with stabbing shafts of light. A vast drum of terrible thunder swept along the eight-mile front and a chorus of shells screamed over to the east. The need for silence was over, and we exploded in a babble of excitement. That concentration of artillery was surely one of the greatest ever known. The tanks, looking like giant toads, became visible against the skyline as they approached the top of the slope. Some of the leading tanks carried huge bundles of tightly-bound brushwood, which they dropped when a wide trench was encountered, thus providing a firm base to cross over. Suddenly, the bombardment ceased. By now the tanks were near the German lines and shooting it out where resistance was met…

We went forward into enemy country in a manner never possible without the aid of tanks. ‘A’ section fell in behind the Queen’s, my two guns being on the right flank. No enemy fire of any sort impeded us until we passed Gonnelieu on our left… It was broad daylight as we crossed No Man’s Land and the German front line. I saw very few wounded coming back, and only a handful of prisoners. The tanks appeared to have busted through any resistance. The enemy wire had been dragged about like old curtains, though it was not comparable in density to the terrible wire at the beginning of the Somme battle.

As we moved forward… I could see several tanks rolling forward steadily. There did not appear to be any organised defence against them. Some changed directions to meet isolated spots of resistance, mostly from machine guns. One or two had come to a stand-still, probably with engine trouble…

From the general situation it seemed to me that the German infantry had either fled at the apparition of the tanks or had pulled out deliberately, leaving their machine guns to do what they could…

Whatever the reason for the feeble resistance, it suited my gun team very nicely, and we moved forward steadily with guns and gear. Officialdom had designated tanks sex-wise, i.e. those with light cannon were males and those with machine guns were females. This caused the lads to think up some bright expressions when viewing the lumbering monsters, such as, “Here’s an old bitch,’ or, ‘There goes a bloody great bull.’

Advancing along captured communications trenches, Coppard and his men eventually discovered that not all German resistance had been overcome. His wide-ranging memories of the day[1] narrow, now, as he comes under direct fire.

We reached a point where it cut through the banks of a sunken road. We had to cross the road, but pulled up sharp at the sight of three dead Tommies lying on it. I dashed across the road to where the trench continued–a matter of about ten feet. From a concealed position on my right a Jerry machine guns opened fire. My hair stood on end as the bullets hissed past my back. The gunner was just a trifle late to get me.

There was a tank nearby beginning to move after a stop. I told one of the crew about the enemy machine gun, ‘We’ll fix the bastard,’ he replied, and slowly the tank shuffled round on its tracks and rolled off in the direction of the hostile gun. Then came a fiery burst as the hapless weapon tried to beat off the tank, the bullets clanging and ricocheting. The teams crossed the road safely, well-bucked at this practical demonstration of a tank in action.

Other than this adventure, Coppard saw little action–most of the German artillery seems to have withdrawn before the attack–evidence, perhaps, that they were not in fact strategically surprised. The 37th Brigade advances seven kilometres, just as planned, and without finding targets along the way. After his two teams dig in for the night–and for the expected counter-attack–Coppard explored their immediate area, finding a German command dugout with a body at the bottom. Nauseated–and fearing booby traps–he and his hungry men forgo taking any of the food in the dugout…[2]

 

Rowland Feilding‘s battalion was part of the 16th (Irish) Division, and attacked not as part of the main effort at Cambrai but with the subsidiary attack several miles to the west, at Bullecourt. They held the right flank of their brigade attack, which would prove to be a difficult situation.

Shortly before Zero I headed for the front to wish the assaulting Companies good luck before they went over, but I was delayed, and found myself still in the fire-trench when, bursting out of almost perfect silence, our barrage started…

As a precautionary measure I had had the direction of the objective marked out with tape the night before, having learned, from previous experience, the difficulty of keeping direction in the dark.

Absolutely to the tick I watched the men scaling the ladders… and scrambling over the parapet, the signallers under their sergeant struggling with the coils of telephone wire that was to keep me in touch with the assaulting troops once they had established themselves in the German trench. Those are sights that are very inspiring, and which engrave themselves upon the memory, but I prefer to turn away from them…

By this time the usual inferno… had worked up to its full fury.

It is very clear, at least, that British synchronization has reached a high level of efficiency. Feilding describes the barrage, and his attempt to control the attack from a forward position, but the small dugout soon becomes crammed with wounded men and German prisoners, so he headed back to his “proper Headquarters.”

At this moment poor Brett came stumbling back, crimson with blood, having been shot through the face, bringing further confirmation of the news which I already had from him by runner, that the enemy was furiously counter-attacking our exposed right flank.

The two bunkers are visible in the upper left of the map segment, below, just to the left of the hatched vertical line. Both are marked, appropriately enough, with a symbol much like the conventional “mars” symbol, but in this case indicating a “mebus” machine gun emplacement.

In his next letter, Feilding will explain the tactical situation. The primary objectives of his two companies were two huge reinforced concrete bunkers (“Mebus” was then the term) known as “Mars” and “Jove.” Both were swiftly outflanked under a precise barrage and smoke-screen–“the advance to the attack across Noman’s Land had been carried out precisely as rehearsed”–and surrendered after brief resistance. Eventually, 152 prisoners were collected, but the engineers accompanying the infantry, focused on clearing mines and booby-traps, were unable to block all of the tunnels connecting the German network of defensive positions.

When the counter-attack came, less than an hour after zero, it was both over the open ground to their right and through tunnels that led to the bunker.

You will appreciate its severity when I tell you that the Commander and twenty-six out of twenty-eight other ranks of the right flank platoon became casualties. The officers and men fought with the most heroic determination in spite of a failing and finally disappearing supply of bombs…

At a critical moment one of the men, Private K. White, rushed close up to a traverse from behind which the enemy was bombing, and actually catching some of their bombs in the air, threw them back before they had exploded.

But it was not enough–after an hour, Captain Brett, shot through the face, led a retreat onto the other pillbox. This held, and after another hour, Feilding himself crossed No Man’s land with his orderly in order to visit the position.

I talked to the men as I passed along the line, and found them in good spirits, and confident in the knowledge of the splendid part they had played that morning…

They have done well–and still suffered heavy casualties.

The familiar scene of desolation confronted me. Each time I see this kind of thing I think it is worse than the last time, and indeed, on this occasion, so churned up was the surface that, but for the line of tunnel entrances and the trodden ground between them, there was little left to indicate where the trench had been. It was just a sea of overlapping craters of huge dimensions–a dismal chaos of fresh-turned earth.

Feilding, with little to do now that the counter-attack has petered out, explores the new position, coming upon the dead, the dying, and the wounded. Even though he is so close to the action–he was in command of the men who stormed the two pillboxes and took the tunnels with hand-grenades, he writes almost as an observer. He sees the horrible aftermath, promises aid to the wounded, and collects souvenirs…[3]

 

Back down in the main battle, Edward Horner (one of the last of the Coterie, and a great friend of both Diana Manners and Duff Cooper) moved up with his 18th Hussars as the battle began. We have read Coppard’s and Feilding’s tales of heavy machine guns, precise artillery coordination, and tank exploits against pillboxes, and the battlefield was overflown by hundreds of aircraft–1917 as a foreshadowing of 1939. But there were only a few hundred tanks to be had and, as we shall see, they were mechanically unreliable, and so the plan for exploiting any breakthroughs was essentially the same as it had been in 1915 and 1916, and behind the attacking tanks and infantry trotted three entire divisions of cavalry–Hussars, Dragoons, and Lancers no longer dressed in their flashing Napoleonic finery, but still booted, spurred, helmeted, and mounted. Cambrai was, in the words of one of our writers who was not there but will study the subject, “a harum-scarum affair, ill-planned and feebly directed.” It was a raid that got out of hand, in terms of its scale, and could only do what raids do: snatch a bit of ground which cannot be held. The tactical coordination may yet be a model for future operations, but they have not solved the operational problem of continuing the advance.

So, as the German counter-attack gathers, Horner’s Hussars, part of the 1st Cavalry Division, passed through the infantry and attacked the village of Noyelles, south-east of Cambrai. But too slowly: although in some places all three major layers of the Hindenberg Line were pierced to a distance of nearly five miles (a fourth line was incomplete), by the time the heavily-laden horses had picked their way through, the German defense had had time to organize. The cavalry were in it, at last, but they were not cantering through the open fields toward Berlin. They were fighting a confused battle on a torn up field, against undisturbed reserves who had easier access to heavy weapons.

 

Back to the infantry, now. E. A. Mackintosh’s 4th Seaforth Highlanders were in reserve, although they probably assumed that they would be called in when the attack bogged down. But they were not–and if the cavalry were both elated and disappointed to be involved in heavy fighting, the infantry were very pleased to have a short march forward into the captured area. So, despite yesterday’s note, Mackintosh saw no fighting today. During the night they will take over for the first waves, victorious but exhausted.[4]

 

Also in the battle were both of Isaac Rosenberg‘s recent units–the company of Royal Engineers with whom he had served as a laborer and the 11th King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster). As with Mackintosh’s Seaforths, their easy first day will turn out to be only be a brief reprieve: the German counter-attack will come soon, and it will be as devastating as the British assault was successful. And so Rosenberg will come to know that he has been very fortunate to be very ill, and in hospital, and not in Bourlon Wood.[5]

 

It might make sense to end here, or to spend more time fleshing out these scattered notices of a large battle–but that, of course, is not how today, a century back, was experienced. It was all in bits in pieces, and only later would it be the beginning of a strategic story of ambition, success, and cruel but predictable reversal. In England the evening papers will have some news of the attack, but for most people, most of the day, their thoughts were elsewhere.

Robert Graves, for instance, is writing from his garrison job in Wales to Robert Nichols. The letter happily discusses their recent literary successes–“My God, Robert, we have lit such a candle as by God’s grace will set the whole barn alight”–and proposes various projects, before it works around to Graves’s real business–clearing the air of any lingering questions about his sexuality.

It’s only fair to tell you that since the cataclysm of my friend Peter, my affections are running in the more normal channels and I correspond regularly and warmly with Nancy Nicholson, who is great fun. I only tell you this so that you should get out of your head any misconceptions about my temperament. I should hate you to think I was a confirmed homosexual even if it were only in my thought and went no further.

Fair enough, perhaps. It is testimony to both Graves’s enthusiasm and his obliviousness that it might only recently have occurred to him that his habit of being honest about his (chaste) passion for a younger schoolboy might lead some to think that he was “a confirmed homosexual.” The topic may be on his mind, too, because Nichols–his heterosexuality confirmed by syphilis apparently contracted from prostitutes–has recently spent time with Siegfried Sassoon and Robbie Ross. And then there is one more poet whose affections run in less “normal” channels… and whom Graves, after connecting Nichols and Sassoon (though Ross was there to do the real work) will try to take credit for discovering, even though, of course, it was Sassoon who introduced them.

I think I have found a few poet as yet unfledged. One Owen, subaltern in the 2nd Manchester Regiment.[6]

Owen, meanwhile, left home this morning, a century back, his leave up, for garrison duty in Scarborough.[7]

 

Finally today, we’ll take a perversely wide view of “war literature” and swing from the tanks at Cambrai to the nineteenth century novel inspiring in Australia.

Agnes Miller–together with a score of other wives and sweethearts–suffers the compounded insult, here, of once again waiting quietly in the background while men’s words take center stage. The excuse, of course, is that we are interested, a century on, in the experience of the war and the problems of writing about it, and therefore the letters of those at the front naturally take precedence over those written from home to the soldiers (and ambulance drivers). Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s still a shame that this echoes the general devaluing of women’s voices, a century back. Although sometimes any fault is mine–I choose to omit the letters, that is–another reasonable excuse is that there is often no possibility of including the other half of the conversation: letters from the front could be bundled and laid lovingly away in drawers and trunks, while letters to the front were very often lost or simply thrown away, since a bundle of letters would become a burden to a front-line soldier.

But some recipients were able to keep at least some of their letters, and, while I often skip Agnes Miller’s tales of daily life in wartime Australia, today’s letter, though ill-timed to coincide with a major tank battle and the climax of one machine-gunner’s memoir, is impossible to resist. In fact, it’s about as excellent a letter from a lover as one could hope to receive… which is also to say that I approve of its subject and position, a century on. Moreover, after he will have received her long-delayed doubts on the strength of their relationship to survive these years apart, this letter will surely overwhelm Olaf Stapledon with love for his beloved–and with gratitude for the timely wisdom of that “lady novelist” then dead a century and four months.

20 November 1917

I wonder if perhaps you are at home now on leave—perhaps at this very minute waking up one morning at Annery. I have a habit of always thinking of you eight weeks ago, sort of. I don’t realise that you are really there keeping pace with me at every fresh minute of the day. It is nice to think that. It makes you more real. I have read two books in the past three days. That is my record! I kept thinking how much you would have enjoyed them if we had been reading them aloud to each other. Of course you must have read them—“Pride & Prejudice” & “Northanger Abbey.” You do like Jane Austen, don’t you? I simply love her. Such really artistic delightful writing. Such books make me think of diamonds, small diamonds but perfect in workmanship. Absolutely genuine—clean cut, perfectly smooth & sparkling. Full of such delicious humour & such sound good sense, & although the ways & the language that day are so very different from ours yet the characters are just such as we meet everywhere. I should like to have been friends with Jane & Elizabeth Bennett. . . . I should so like to be as bright & intelligent & sprightly as Elizabeth! No wonder Mr. Darcy “got it badly” when he did get it! I like to picture you in the characters of all the nice lovers— my
Mr. Darcy!

. . . I can understand Elizabeth very well. I can understand her resentment at such a sudden & unexpected declaration. I can understand her disapproval amounting to positive dislike on that occasion. I think she would understand my despair & sorrow—almost shame at having won a love that I could never hope to return. If she had understood my feeling she would not have been surprised to find me weeping upstairs in the darkened drawing room. . . .

Then next I see the beginnings of changes in both of us—changes which make us feel how far away we both were before from the real thing & at last “my Mr. Darcy” comes to me—or rather I write to him from the other end of the world & say, “Dear Mr. Darcy—Once, a long time ago, you asked me to be your wife & I said no & I was very cross & horrible & now I am sorry. Everything is different now & I am different too & I understand & if you will only ask me once again I will not say no—indeed I will not.”

And she did not.

Mr. & Mrs. Darcy were very happy after their stormy courtship & Mr. & Mrs. Stapledon will surely be even more so to make up for all the long time they have had to wait. . . . Jane Austen really is a tonic as well as an artist.[8]

We are to be grateful, however, that Agnes didn’t happen upon Persuasion, first, which might have romantically inclined her toward a long sharp wartime separation and a preference, after all, for brave, dashing, and fortunate officers, rather than principled and dreamy pacifists…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Which read a little bit too much, in a few places, as if they had been influenced by the style of later popular summary.
  2. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 122-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 228-34.
  4. Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man With a Cold, 204-5.
  5. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 375.
  6. In Broken Images, 88-89. There is no date on the letter, but it is dated to today, a century back, by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 425.
  7. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 283.
  8. Talking Across the World, 257-8.

Herbert Read on the Pleasures of Rest; George Coppard, E. A. Mackintosh, and Rowland Feilding on the Eve of Battle

Herbert Read has seen a good deal of the nasty late stages of Passchendaele–although, to our loss, he has written little about the experience. Now, however, his battalion is marching south, and he is very well pleased. We, reading over the shoulder of his intended, Evelyn Roff, get another walking-tour-of-rural-Europe sort of letter:

19 XI 17

We are on the trek: for three days we have marched away from the northern horrors and still we march… so contented are we that we don’t mind much the fact that our promised rest has been postponed a while–but only a short while.

This is where we touch the romantic fringe of war–for it is only a fringe, the romance. Now we have all the thrills of a sentimental journey–all the excitement of changing environment and of strange meetings…

The first billet involves a dour Frenchwoman out of central casting, who refuses all amenities, sends them hungry to cold rooms, and overcharges them to cook the food they brought. But the next day’s march ends with Read being directed to mess in “an innocent enough looking house.” What will the tired warriors discover?

I entered boldly enough, only to gasp and fall back on to the toes of whoever was behind me. Seated round a table, enjoying a meal of some sort, were at least six beaming maidens..

The mess, alas, proves to be in the next room, but it doesn’t entirely disappoint:

Again we were tired and hungry, so again we asked (this time more humbly) for café and omelettes. Nothing could have pleased the old lady better (there was one old lady) and we had a delightful meal on the table in no time. That finished, and our morale recovered, we ventured back into the kitchen, where a gramophone was playing selections of English music, and, perhaps more inviting still, a French stove was roaring away and dispelling the chill of the November twilight. Chairs were pushed forward and we had to accept…

After this impromptu country dance, Read and his friend Col go into town and get another dinner and take in a concert, which included

…a violin soloist who seemed perfection. (Fancy, one week in the horrors I can’t describe and the next listening to Chopin perfectly rendered).[1]

 

And, while one decorated and experienced officer marches away from the worst of the fighting, thousands of other men–just fancy this irony!–are preparing for the next ordeal.

Alan Mackintosh of the Seaforth Highlanders, who chose to give up a safe billet training cadets in order to rejoin his friends in the Seaforth Highlanders, had time to scribble only one hasty note–he addressed it both to Sylvia, the woman he had recently met and fallen in love with, and to his sister Muriel.

My darling girl,

We’re going over tomorrow so I’m leaving this in case I don’t come back. Goodbye. No time for more,

Your loving

Alan[2]

 

Rowland Feilding, whose love for–and formidable epistolary commitment to–his wife Edith has been tested by several major battles, no doubt did the same. But then again he, as a battalion commander, had known about the attack for some time, and spent the eve of the assault in calm contemplation of his men.

My orders were to assault with two Companies, which were to advance on the extreme right… it meant that I was to attack with my right flank “in the air.”

It was very edifying to watch the officers and men preparing for the attack–all optimistic, full of confidence, and cheery:–a little more silent than usual, perhaps, during dinner the night before…[3]

 

And at midnight, tonight, a century back, George Coppard and his men–he is now a corporal commanding two heavy machine-gun teams–left their billets to begin a march up to their assembly positions, 400 yards from the front. Dawn, tomorrow, will bring the war’s next major effort, the far-famed and long-rumored tank battle of Cambrai.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Contrary Experience, 114-16.
  2. Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man With a Cold, 204-5.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 227-8.
  4. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 122.

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

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

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

The day brought little relief:

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

I’m dog-tired, going to bed early.

Here he is…[1]

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

(Friday)

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

George Coppard’s Crew Runs Dry; Isaac Rosenberg’s Head and Heart; Siegfried Sassoon’s Inopportunity

George Coppard is near Monchy in the quiet Cambrai sector, his machine gun generally assigned to anti-aircraft duty. But quiet is relative, and it is not only the British who stage surprise, small-scale attacks in search of minor tactical advantage or the moral “upper hand.”

At 5 am on 11 July the enemy made a strong attack on Long Trench on our left, capturing 150 yards of it. For three hours there was hand-to-hand fighting and bombing, but by 8 am the enemy had been driven out, leaving many behind as well as prisoners. During the raid, in response to an SOS signal from our front line, I fired 1,500 rounds on the enemy’s front line and support trenches, thus adding to the general hate that fine evening.

The evening is memorable, however, because of the improvisation that follows. Firing so many rounds so quickly generates enormous heat, enough to melt a gun barrel, so early heavy machine guns were cooled by cycling water through a jacket that surrounded the barrel. Therefore, long shoots demanded large amounts of water, as the heat of firing was transmuted into steam.

It was on this occasion that we ran out of water for the Vickers. Our reserve supply had disappeared and there was very little drinking water left in our water bottles. As a temporary measure all the members of my team piddled into the water jacket of the gun through a funnel, to the accompaniment of much hilarity and many vulgar remarks… The only drawback was the offensive odour.

This rather personal contribution to Coppard’s gunnery may well have saved a British life:

In the afternoon a fierce dog-fight took place overhead, when four Boche planes singled out one of ours and shot it down. It landed in No Man’s Land in front of our gun position. To our surprise, the airman climbed out and started to hobble towards us. To cover him, I plastered the enemy parapet in a broad sweeping traverse, and the airman managed to roll into a shell hole near a gap in the wire. Very soon a whizz-bang battery set about destroying the crippled plane… The wounded pilot wisely stayed in the shell hole and was brought in at dusk.[1]

 

Without further ado we shift registers in order to read a letter from Isaac Rosenberg to Gordon Bottomley. Rosenberg is on his best behavior, here–the spelling almost perfect, his self-expression unusually restrained–in order to suit this correspondence with an established poet and relatively new acquaintance. But Rosenberg, as his somewhat unlikely patrons have recognized, is entirely an artist, and when he writes he is inescapably honest and unflinching about his experiences.

…your last letter shows you to be in good condition & happy, & I am greatly pleased at this. Above all your tremendous ‘Atlantis’… I think it is as fine as anything you have done…

The other poems I have not yet read, but I will follow on with letters and shall send the bits of–or rather the bit of–a play I’ve written. Just now it is interfered with by a punishment I am undergoing for the offence of being endowed with a poor memory, which continually causes me trouble and often punishment, I forgot to wear my gas-helmet one day; in fact, I’ve often forgotten it, but I was noticed one day, and seven days’ pack drill is the consequence, which I do between the hours of going up the line and sleep. My memory, allways weak, has become worse since Ive been out here…

This was written perhaps a day or two ago, but posted today, a century back, along with the following continuation. Rosenberg, always passionate but not usually in perfect control of his pen, is not given to grand prosy statements about his poetry. But these few words are something close to his soldier-poet’s ars poetica, not least in the compression and incompleteness of the statement.

…I don’t suppose my poems will ever be poetry right and proper until I shall be able to settle down & whip myself into more expression. As it is, my not being able to get poetry out of my head & heart causes me continual sufficient trouble out here. Not that it interferes with the actual practical work; but with forms and things I continually forget… This even may (or may not) interfere with my chances of an early leave (the earliest was late enough) but will never break the ardour of my poetry…[2]

 

And finally, today, events are beginning to catch up with Siegfried Sassoon. Not they are galloping in hot pursuit; it’s more that he has been sauntering just slowly enough to avoid being entirely forestalled by his friends. Sassoon’s “statement” is now public–he has sent it to the authorities and his friends, and it has been printed for sale–but it is still far from a cause célèbre. The point of the protest, logically, should be its publicity–but Sassoon is clearly most worried about how his comrades will take the news.

The hale-fellow disapproval of handsome, dim Bobbie Hanmer is one thing, but today, a century back, brought a response to the news from Joe Cottrell, the steady old Regular who has long been the Quartermaster of the First Royal Welch. The response was both “surprising” and “tactful,” but it was not–of course it was not!–a vote of support. Cottrell seems to want to let his headstrong young friend down gently, and to steer him around the looming threat of a shameful court-martial, but he does not mince words.

I’m afraid the time is not yet ripe for this. I showed this to Reeves and Brunicardi. They, like me, admire your motives but are not so sure of the opportuneness of your action.[3]

This week will bring near-daily action on the slow-developing Sassoon’s protest front…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Coppard, With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 115.
  2. Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head and Heart, 93-5.
  3. IWM, quoted from Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 381.

Swimming in the Scarpe with George Coppard; The Master of Belhaven Returns for a Field Day; Vera Brittain is Coming Home

George Coppard joined a gun team on the Scarpe canal only a few days ago, but he soon had a run in–or rather a swim-in–with the Germans:

As things were quiet at that particular time the officer permitted several of us to go for a swim. We set off towards a bend in the canal about a hundred yards from the gun positions. When we were well round the bend I saw some other swimmers in the water about two hundred yards away. Suddenly one of my companions yelled, ‘Blimey! They’re bloody Jerries!’ And so they were. We turned tail at speed, making a bit of a splash…

With such close proximity, today’s encounter is hardly surprising–evidence of faltering morale among the German defenders of Arras. The British advance may be unsustainably costly, but the concentrated barrage–more than a month into the battle–is still a matter of unendurable madness and misery for the defenders.

The battle of Arras was still going on, and a show was working up to capture to capture ground near Rouex. On 12 May our artillery put up a fierce bombardment and our two guns joined in with barrage fire across the canal on Jerry’s support area. The 37th Brigade attacked, and later a big party of Jerries, carrying no visible arms, swarmed down the other side of the canal. Suddenly they saw us, and up shot their hands. Our guns were trained on them, and it was touch and go whether to open fire… One or two of us favoured the extreme treatment, but Lieutenant W D Garbutt decided they should be taken prisoner… He was courageous, steady and companionable, and we thought a lot of him.[1]

 

While we’re on the subject of artillery, it’s been too long since we’ve heard from Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven. Our gruff battery commander and faithful diarist fell ill in November and was eventually sent to England for an operation The exact nature of the complaint is not clear from his diary, but he has recovered. Hamilton returned to France at the end of April and his brigade is now in rest behind the lines at Fouquière. Well behind the lines–but not quite far enough.

I woke at 7 o’clock this morning to find the Huns having shots at us, with a long-range naval gun. It was a very high velocity gun, as the shells arrived at a tremendous pace. He only fired about a dozen rounds, none of which fell within 500 yards of us, and all except one were “duds.” I suppose it amused him and did not hurt us…

At 5.30 p.m. this afternoon the brigade staff and all battery staffs went out to do a little scheme. It was a distinctly humorous situation if one thinks of it. There were we having a field day, like in England, and all the time we are well within range of the German guns…[2]

 

From this ominous ordinary day we proceed to Malta, where Vera Brittain‘s resolve to return home has been accepted by the authorities. It doesn’t make much sense to refer to this ready permission as an advantage of her gender–not when she had to jump through a number of hoops to be allowed to leave England even though there was a nursing shortage, while young men with far less training were herded into the armies and sent out as a matter of course.

Even though a large number of women are taking advantage of new opportunities for social mobility and becoming nurses, ambulance drivers, and munitions workers, fundamental social expectations are not shifting. One clear sign of this is that the path for a quick return to traditional roles is being kept open. (Naturally: when the war ends, the tens of thousands of women with new industrial or agricultural jobs will be unceremoniously sent home so that returning soldiers can take up their old jobs). A soldier was “in” until his health broke or he was killed or wounded, but a V.A.D. nurse who informed her superiors that she was needed at home was allowed to break her contract. Only a few weeks after deciding to come home in order to support her brother and, she hopes, to nurse Victor Richardson, the great Bureaucracy has inclined its head toward the suppliant, and released her in acknowledgment that, for young women if not for young men, family still has a greater claim than country. But, as she writes today to her brother, getting home will be a slow process, and feel slower still–and it will not be without its dangers, given German submarine warfare.

Malta, 12 May 1917

I have at last got permission to resign & ‘proceed to the United Kingdom’ & now it is a case of wait, wait, wait, until the opportunity to do so comes. I may leave in one week, maybe two, maybe three; the chief point is to get back before you go, & as (D.V) I hope not to be too long once I start, it would be all right even if I didn’t go till the beginning of June, as you cannot go, can you, before June 15th? Should come even if you had gone, because of
Tah, but I must see you. . .

The risk of course is great, but half the world at present are running greater ones daily & the issue may make it well worth while. The uncertainty about going & the suspense about things happening at home are hard to bear, but I shall count these as nothing if only I can reach you. . . I have written to the family about it so you can talk about it to them; don’t let them worry; time enough for that if anything does happen. One only hopes for the best; ‘the Gods are not angry forever’, & perhaps for once they will be kind to those to whom they have been so cruel.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun, 108-9.
  2. War Diary, 284.
  3. Letters from a Lost Generation, 353.

Rowland Fielding on the Guns of Rest; Ivor Gurney on Chance and Chess; Kate Luard’s Mindful Picnic; George Coppard and Patrick Shaw Stewart are Back

We have another pause in the action, today: five writers writing, and all are resting, refitting, or recuperating. Which isn’t to say they aren’t in danger, as Rowland Feilding makes clear:

May 9, 1917. Butterfly Farm (near Locre).

The Germans persist in aggravating mood, and we have just passed through a third night in succession of disturbed slumber.

At six o’clock this morning I was woken up by some “crumps” falling rather close, and, as I lay ruminating whether it was worth while getting out of bed, the question was decided for me by a covey of splinters crashing against the wooden wall of my hut.

Then the five-point-nines began to come thick and fast, obviously aimed at two 12-inch howitzers which periodically heckle the enemy from a hollow, less than a hundred yards from this camp.

Why they will persist in placing heavy guns so near infantry rest camps, or vice versa, it is difficult to understand, but the infantry have come to accept these things as they do the other vicissitudes of the war. Anyhow, the situation was so unhealthy this morning that I decided to move the battalion.

It is interesting to watch the self-possessed and almost leisurely fashion in which such a movement is conducted
nowadays. This comes from the familiarity of the troops with shell-fire. The sections were scattered in the fields around, and by this means we escaped without casualties, though two or more shells fell actually into the camp. The bombardment went on for over an hour, some three hundred shells falling. Then the battalion returned to its tents and huts, and shaved, and had breakfast…[1]

 

Even further back is Ivor Gurney, recently wounded. But his time without the reach of the guns will shortly come to an end.

9 May 1917

My Dear Friend…

All this week I have been down for training at the Bull-ring, as they call it — Napoleons parade ground, a bare white sand and shingle space set among hills and surrounded by pines. It is a fine place, but a nasty job. Perhaps I may be here for another week yet, and then up to the chance of Glory and another Blighty, a real one this time. My arm is quite well now, curse it…

…I have been reading Conrad’s “Chance”, only to get tired of all that analysis, and not being able to get to the end. “The Mirror of the Seas” is Conrad’s best, as far as I know. Otherwise Kipling infinitely surpasses him. Conrad is a good artist, but to me seems not to have much original genius. (But our acquaintance is not extensive.)

Now I am about to steer off for my chess-pupil, who has beaten me in one game — the first! On Saturday I satisfied my vanity by flummoxing him completely, may it be so again…

Your sincere friendIvor Gurney

Please keep on writing[2]

So Gurney’s mood is very good, despite the not-quite-blighty blighty. This is not an original observation, but it would seem that these sorts of high spirits are evidence of one of the most merciful limitations of the human emotional imagination: we know on an intellectual level that more pain is coming, but the absence of recent pain is nevertheless experienced as an almost unreserved joy.

 

It’s much the same with the succorers as the sufferers. Remembering Aubers Ridge, and the labors of two years past, Kate Luard wrote today, a century back, as a study in contrast over two years of the the war’s lengthening life. But it is the last month of hard work amidst the wreckage of Arras that forms the immediate backdrop for this scene.

Wednesday, May 9th (of 1915 brave and black memory). And what do you think we’ve been busy doing this morning, 9th of  May, 1917? A large and festive Picnic in the woods, far removed from gas gangrene and amputations. We bought some chocolate biscuits and some sawdusty cakes and some potted meat in the Canteen, and asked the C.O. and six M.M.’s and seven of us; we had an Ambulance and two batmen to bring the tea in urns to my chosen spot–on a slope in the wood, above the babbling brook, literally carpeted with periwinkles, oxlips and anemones. It was a great success…

When we got back at 5.30 we found the Divisional Band about to play outside the Y.M.C.A. hut… My dear man was dying. At the exact moment that he took his first breath in Heaven at 7.30, the Band was playing ‘There will be such wonderful things to do’ to that particularly plaintive little tune.[3]

 

Further back still is Siegfried Sassoon, lunching once again with the literary lights.

May 9

Lunched with Bennett and J. C. Squirt… Bennett’s mannerisms very marked. A trick of pausing in the middle of a remark and finishing it quickly.[4]

 

And then there are those whose long loop away from danger has closed once again. Two very different writers are back with their pals, today, just behind the front lines near Arras.

After two years spent mostly in the East, Patrick Shaw Stewart rejoined the Hood Battalion, so badly cut up during Arras. He is reunited with a very thin remnant of his original band of socially and intellectually elevated officer-comrades, Argonauts now long ashore, more Nestors, now, than starry-eyed adventurers. These include his Brigadier, Bernard Freyberg, and his battalion C.O., “Oc” Asquith–despite promotion and a staff appointment, Shaw Stewart has fallen behind in military accomplishment by being so far away from attrition’s vacuum. These are, moreover, new surroundings for him. Shaw Stewart has known Gallipoli and Salonika and long weekends in great houses, but tonight he will sleep in a former German dugout in what is now the British reserve line, deep beneath the soil of Northern France.[5]

And finally, George Coppard, teenage machine gunner, was shot in the foot in October–accidentally–by his best mate. Yesterday, a century back, he rejoined his company. Two “old pals” had been killed since he left, but “Snowy” was still there: “he never mentioned the accident in which we had both been so closely involved. I gathered he was a bit touchy about the subject, and I was glad enough to let sleeping dogs lie.” Coppard was promptly sent up to reinforce another gun team holding a position on the Scarpe, site of the recent, costly advance near Arras. He has begun keeping a diary, but it is very brief: “very fine day and plenty of air fights.”[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 173-4.
  2. War Letters, 161-2.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 122-3.
  4. Diaries, 163.
  5. Edwardian Meteor, 226.
  6. With a Machine Gun, 106.