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.

Siegfried Sassoon is Blighty Bound… and Eighteen Other Updates

Although I am almost as tired of writing extremely long posts as you are of reading them, so very many of our writers committed some sort of date-fixable act today, a century back, that I thought I should nod to the fates and survey everyone who showed up.[1]

After we wrap up with Siegfried Sassoon, withdrawn from the Hindenburg trench to the Hindenburg tunnel with a new “patriotic perforation” in his shoulder, and after we read the progress of Edward Hermon‘s widow, I will try to be judiciously brief with the others. Somehow, yesterday, Sassoon was not only seen and treated by the battalion Medical Officer, but was swiftly evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station. Within hours of being held back from an attempted one-man bombing war, he is tucked in and headed for Blighty.

April 17

After a blessed eight hours’ sleep (more than I’d had since last Wednesday) I waited till 5 o’clock reading Far from the Madding Crowd, when we got on board a Red Cross train of serpentine length. Five hundred men and thirty-two officers on board. Warlencourt is eighteen kilometres from Arras—quite near Saulty, where we stayed on April 7. We passed through Doullens about 6 p.m. and Abbeville at 8.30 and reached Camiferes at midnight.

An officer called Kerr is with me—one of the First Cameronians. He was hit in the bombing show about an hour before I got up there on Monday morning, so I’ve got some sidelights on what really happened.

At present I am still feeling warlike, and quite prepared to go back to the line in a few weeks. My wound is fairly comfortable, and will be healed in a fortnight, they say. I know it would be best for me not to go back to England, where I should probably be landed for at least three months, and return to the line in July or August, with all the hell and wrench of coming back and settling down to be gone through again. I think I’ve established a very strong position in the Second Battalion in the five weeks I was with them. My luck never deserts me; it seems inevitable
for me to be cast for the part of ‘leading hero!’

Things to remember

The dull red rainy dawn on Sunday April 15, when we had relieved the 15th Northumberland Fusiliers—our Company of eighty men taking over a frontage of nine hundred yards.

During the relief—stumbling along the trench in the dusk, dead men and living lying against the sides of the trench one never knew which were dead and which living. Dead and living were very nearly one, for death was in all our hearts. Kirkby shaking dead German[2] by the shoulder to ask him the way.

On April 14 the 19th Brigade attacked at 5.30 a.m. I looked across at the hill where a round red sun was coming up. The hill was deeply shadowed and grey-blue, and all the Country was full of shell-flashes and drifting smoke. A battle picture.

Scene in the Hénin Dressing Station. The two bad cases—abdomen (hopeless) and ankle. The pitiful parson. My walk with Mansfield.

Sergeant Baldwin (A. Company) his impassive demeanour—like a well-trained footman. ‘My officer’s been hit.’ He bound up my wound.[3]

As these notes suggest, there will be a good deal more to write about all this.

 

A few days after learning of her husband’s death, Ethel Hermon received the heartfelt letter from his long-time manservant Gordon Buxton.

Dear Buxton,

Your letter came this morning & I can never thank you enough for your loving care of him & your sympathy & prayers. I knew you would be heartbroken & that I should have all your sympathy as you probably knew as well as anyone could know how much we were to each other.

You will by now have had my other letter telling you that I have asked Gen. Trevor… to let you come home if it is possible as I simply long to talk to you… I seem to know all that pen & paper can tell, one just longs to talk to someone who was there…

I should leave it there, as we press on into this massively choral day. To summarize, Ethel also charges Buckin with seeing that her husband’s valuable and useful possessions are distributed to his friends, and that the items that had been personal, close to his body–“the old basin & cover & its contents”–be returned to her. She hopes, too, that he can care for her husband’s grave. Which he will do–and he will come home.

A British tank ditched in the German lines at Arras, IWM

Dear Mrs. Hermon,

I’m sending this note by Buxton who goes on leave today to report to you. He will bring the papers etc. found on your husband…

…a tank was caught up on the German front line… & the Boches were firing at it… there seems little doubt that one these rifle bullets hit your husband just below the heart… The medical officer tells me he thinks a big blood vessel below the heart was severed & that death was almost instantaneous.

Your husband’s horses are being sent to Div. Hd. Qrs with the groom…

I can only repeat how much I feel for you in your irreparable loss.

Yours very sincerely,

H.E. Trevor[4]

 

Kate Luard‘s parade of horrors (we’ve read but a little, lately) has abated, as the Arras push lags. So time for a stroll–and paperwork.

We have had a lull the last two days, and everybody has been off duty long enough to go for a walk in relays and pick Lent lilies, cowslips, and anemones…  I believe another stunt is expected tomorrow…

I got about 60 behind in Break-the-News letters the first few days of last week…[5]

 

Ivor Gurney, realizing perhaps that he is even more lucky to be wounded and out of it than he had thought, managed a post card today to Marion Scott:

Dear Friend: Still at the Base. No certain address. No certain tomorrow. No luck. No money. No damage to my arm, save a hole. Yet, had the boats been running, I might have got to Blighty…[6]

 

Let’s see: what else is happening with the Great War writers?

 

Christopher Wiseman arrived in Harrogate to visit John Ronald Tolkien, and to help him in compiling a memorial volume of their friend G.B. Smith’s work.[7]

 

In fiction, today is the key date in “The Colonel’s Shoes,” a curious supernatural shaggy-dog short story by Ford Madox Hueffer. It’s a tale told in retrospect that hinges on bitter, childish infighting among a few officers and plays out in the orderly room of their overworked battalion. Today, a century back, a vindictive captain writes up a Company-Sergeant-Major for perceived insubordination, and it will take a very, very minor miracle to set things right…[8]

 

And after the excitement of last night’s chaotic patrol, tonight’s action provided tension in a lower key for Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. Ordered to move forward under cover of darkness and entrench within 200 yards of the Germans, Pollard accidentally led his men all the way up to the German wire obstacles. But once again “Fritz was keeping a very bad watch” and Pollard and his men are able to withdraw to the proper distance and begin entrenching before they are discovered. Pollard being Pollard, he ascertains that the battalion on his left is in the wrong position and blusters back under fire to explain his prowess and sure grasp of the situation to the Brigadier, as well as the embarrassed colonel of that neighboring battalion…[9]

 

Rowland Feilding missed the first week of the battle, but it is now the lot of his battalion to hold trenches in the worst possible weather, and fight the same war of patrol and counter-patrol.

April 17, 1917. “‘Turnerstown Left” (Fierstraat Sector).

I think this year must be accursed. Never was a fouler day than to-day. After a wet night it is still raining this morning, and the wind is howling dismally, but overhead. There are points, after all, in being in a trench. The French seem to have made a spectacular re-entry into the arena yesterday, but they must have been greatly handicapped by the weather, like our men at Vimy.

Last night we captured two big Prussian Grenadiers (unwounded) on our wire. They were brought to my dugout at 2 a.m., looking frightened—with their hands still outstretched in the orthodox manner of the surrendered prisoner who desires to show that he is not armed; coated with mud; one bleeding from a tear from the wire; but neither seeming too unhappy. If one only knew German this would be the proper time to extract information. They are too scared to lie much. Later, when they find out how kindly is the British soldier, they become sly and independent.[10]

 

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, whose harrowing summer was followed by a long spell of peaceful staff work, was sent back to his battalion today, a century back, taking over C Company of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers. We hear time and again how officers pine for their comrades and their men when they are sent off to safe billets and cushy staff positions–not so Griffith, who “set off despondently” to return to the hardships of the line.[11]

 

And with another Kitchener battalion of the Royal Welch, David Jones is also heading back toward the front.

On the 17th, in wind and sleet, they left for divisional reserve at Roussel Farm–the cold mud so deep that it took hours to pass through 400 yards of communication trench. They arrived at 3.30 a.m.[12]

 

Henry Williamson “wrote a lot of letters” today, including one to his mother enclosing a piece of army propaganda about German demoralization and one to his father describing the roar of the big naval guns, the sight of a British tanker driven mad by the gunfire concentrated on his tank, and the recent transaction of parcels: cake and bullseyes to Henry in France, and souvenirs–including “2 tin boxes of bombs, etc., and 3 lovely helmets… & a saw bayonet”–sent home.[13]

 

Vera Brittain remains too far from the front, and full of worry. To her brother Edward, today, a century back:

I have to keep on writing letters, because the vague bits of news from France that filter through to us make me so anxious to receive them. From the long list of names that appear in the telegrams there seems to be a vast battle going on along the whole of our front & the French one too, but it is very difficult to make out at all what is happening. Is Geoffrey anywhere in the Bapaume direction? The longer the War goes on, the more one’s concern in the whole immense business seems to centre itself upon the few beings still left that one cares about, & the less upon the general issue of the struggle. One’s personal interest wears one’s patriotism rather threadbare by this time. After all, it is a garment one has had to wear for a very long time, so there’s not much wonder if it is beginning to get a little shabby![14]

Looking back on this night, she will add these thoughts:

Yet another night’s red moon, I thought, looking up after finishing Edward’s letter at the ominous glow in the unquiet sky. Another night, and still no news. Is Victor still alive? Is Geoffrey? Oh, God–it’s intolerable to be out here, knowing nothing till ages afterwards, but just wondering and wondering what has happened![15]

 

Jack Martin, in billets at Dickebusch, took today to write out fairly lengthy pen-portraits of some of his comrades… but I’m only human…[16]

 

Vivian de Sola Pinto, working for weeks now at the Bull Ring near Rouen, records today’s date–I would guess a scrap of his orders was preserved, for there are few dates and few such specifics in his book–as the occasion of a “huge fatigue party” that spent the entire day loading lorries. But it was also a memorable occasion because the station from which he was to supervise the loading contained a sergeant and two classes of furniture: a comfy chair and a biscuit tin.

With wry approval de Sola Pinto notes the sergeant’s insistence–“a fine example of what I would call a manly spirit of volunteer subordination”–that the officer take the better chair, despite the fact that both of them “knew he was an infinitely better soldier than I should ever be.” de Sola Pinto insists on taking turns, but recognizes that the Sergeant’s principled, if nominal, subordination “actually enhanced” his dignity.[17]

 

George Coppard, recovered from the accidental shooting in the foot, arrived today at “Camiers, a reception base for drafts.”[18]

 

C.E. Montague wrote both a letter and a diary entry recording his view of the battle from close behind. Wise though he is, he still feels bereft that his old companions are in battle and he is not. And he shows what a man with the time for literary composition on his hands can do. This is a good mix of eyewitness reportage and refined “battle-piece” history.

April 17, 1917

…Behold me again in the midst of our long-drawn battles—-meet incidents of our long-drawn war.

I saw the beginning of this one, before daylight on the morning of the 9th, from a little height above our front, from which I could see all our guns flash off together at the second of starting, like a beaded line of electric lights all turned on from one switch, and then each of them turned on and off and on again as fast as possible by a switch of its own. At intervals beyond this line of flashes there were the big geysers of flame, and dark objects visible in the middle of it, spouting up from our mines under the German front trench; and then at every two or three hundred yards there went up signal rockets from the German trenches, that seemed like visible shrieks to their artillery and supports to protect them from our infantry, who, they knew, were then on their way across from our trenches. I could see all this going on along several miles of front, and it was strangely dramatic, though all expressed through lights in the darkness alone, until the day broke and we could see our infantry already beyond the second line of enemy trenches and sauntering across quietly to the third, with our barrage of smoke walking steadily in front of them like the pillar of smoke in the desert—only of course it cannot give complete safety; and now and then the line would have a gap made in it by a shell and would join up again across the gap, and go strolling, with the strange look of leisureliness that an infantry charge of the scientific kind has now, until the time comes to rush the last few yards and jump down into the enemy’s trench.

It is grievous to to think that my battalion has twice had this great moment since I left it last midsummer, and that I may never know any more thrilling contact with the enemy than mutual sniping and a little reconnoitring of ground between his trenches and ours. The only compensation, so far as it goes, is that I see much more of the war and of the front as a whole, and the battlefield of the moment in particular, than one sees when engaged in honest regimental labour.

And in his diary:

Miles and miles of our front begin to dance in the dark, with twinkling and shimmering flashes. Suggests a long keyboard on which notes of light are being swiftly played. Then, from points all along German front, signal red and white and green rockets go up. Also ‘golden rains’ of our liquid fire, and one or two mine volcanoes. Dawn breaks on this firework show. Then on to a huge earthwork, an outwork of Arras citadel and lie on safe side and look over with fieldglass. Our infantry visible advancing in successive waves to take the second German trench-line N.E. of
Arras. Disquieted flocks of rooks. Then to Divl. H.Q., to find good news.

 

Charles Carrington‘s writing is honest, balanced, and well-informed. But he generally takes pains to, as they say, accentuate the positive. His morale and that of his unit’s was generally good–they have not despaired, they are more grim and more devoted to each other when they have started, but they would not acknowledge any sea change in their motivations, etc. But some days–and some nights, like last night, a century back, as they pressed up through the wreckage of this second push at Arras–were enough to drive a man to madness, despair, and self-slaughter. Last night he huddled under trench mortars; today was worse.

…In the morning, when we advanced unopposed, I passed the corpse of a British sergeant, not of my regiment. He lay on his back holding a revolver in his hand, shot through the throat at such an angle that I wondered if it had been suicide. If I had been suicidally inclined that night would have driven me to it.[19]

 

Edwin Vaughan and his battalion have been following the attack as well, and he writes voluminously of these days. But given his sensitive nature and penchant for drama, I don’t think he would mind my making this the representative incident:

At the Epéhy crossroads, we found a huge cat squatting on the chest of a dead German, eating his face. It made us sick to see it, and I sent two men to chase it away. As they approached it sprang snarling at them, but they beat it down with their rifles and drove it into the ruined houses. Then we covered the body with a sack, and went on.[20]

 

But we’ll end in Britain, in safety, and in the boudoir, where Duff Cooper has also been engaged in dire combat. Patrick Shaw-Stewart has been called back to war, but Cooper’s worries about other adversaries have pushed him closer to total war. Or, at least, to warfare unbefitting a gentleman. During Diana Manners‘ temporary absence from their long house party in Scotland he had been “obliged”–this is four days ago, a century back–to take a bath in her room. Where he opened and read her locked diary.[21]

It was rather vile of me…

It was, and we’ll skip the justifications. Amazingly, Cooper is both moved by learning “how much she loved Raymond” and urged to take action against his living rivals for her affection, including one Wimborne and a Lt-Col. Wilson who, of course, is known as “Scatters.”

There is no reference to me in the diary that I could quarrel with but I do not think she loves me… I rose from the perusal of this intimate diary which I had no right to read, loving, liking, and admiring her more than before.

And somehow this added up to progress. Cooper confessed his deed and was not banished. In fact, by last night he was reading her pages of his diary, then listening in agony outside her door while she (scandalously) entertained “Scatters” in the wee hours of today, a century back, and then returning in before dawn to wake her up with recrimination.

She cried and reproached me bitterly with not trusting and spying on her. I felt in the wrong and implored forgiveness which only after long pleading she granted. Then we had a night of the most wild and perfect joy. The best perhaps we ever had.[22]

And somewhere, every dawn, some men attack, and many sighs are drained.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This may be--I joke here, almost completely, and with full apology for trespassing on the sanctity of life-or-death experience "from my armchair" (three words which I omitted from the Memoirs yesterday; but the armchair was only one possible destiny, for Sassoon)--the centennial blogger equivalent of Sassoon's mood at the very end of his escapade, yesterday, a century back...
  2. See Sassoon's "The Rear Guard," at the bottom of that post.
  3. Diaries, 156-7.
  4. For Love and Courage, 355, 358.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 114.
  6. War Letters, 155.
  7. Chronicle, 100.
  8. War Prose, 159-69.
  9. Fire-Eater, 209-11.
  10. War Letters to a Wife, 168.
  11. Griffith, Up to Mametz and Beyond, 138.
  12. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 153.
  13. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 119-20.
  14. Letters from a Lost Generation, 334-5.
  15. Testament of Youth, 339.
  16. Sapper Martin, 60-4.
  17. The City that Shone, 190.
  18. With a Machine Gun, 106.
  19. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 145.
  20. Some Desperate Glory, 95-6.
  21. What, I ask you, is the point of all of that fancy classical education if Cooper can pull up and manage some allusion to Actaeon, transformed into a deer and torn apart by his own hounds after seeing Artemis in the bath. Perhaps, as he considers leaving the Foreign Office for the Army, the vengeful hounds of his old hunting partners, become ravening ghosts, perhaps, are a bit too frightening to contemplate.
  22. Duff Cooper Diaries, 50-1.

Robert Graves Rejoins the Second Royal Welch; George Coppard is Dead Lucky; Francis Ledwidge on the Somme

Last night, a century back, was one of ill-omen for our most literary battalion. “Tibs” Crawshay, highly-respected C.O. of the 2nd Royal Welch, was shot and wounded while out in no man’s land diligently inspecting the barbed wire. In one account it is a German patrol that took the “unlucky” shot, but rumor has it that he was fired on by nervous sentries of a neighboring battalion.[1]

And who is more likely to spread piping-hot rumors than Robert Graves, just now arrived with the battalion and tacking on a post-script to yesterday’s letter to Siegfried Sassoon:

PS. I have just arrived at the Second Battalion. James Cuthbert is commanding Tibs was shot last night through the arm and thigh by a bloody fool of a 20th Royal Fusilier: I don’t think he’s bad… We are at ‘freeze’ in both senses. Young Jagger has flu. Everyone else I know is on leave…[2]

This experience is common even to men like Max Plowman, still on his first tour but briefly absent at an Army School. For Graves, gone since July, the situation is even more stark–his best friend left behind, and none are here to smooth his path.

Actually, Graves does have friends. He is infuriating, but he has proven himself brave and generally competent, and that means a lot. And the battalion itself has changed, with fewer of the horsey, anti-intellectual career officers that had railed at his unconventionality but accepted a quiet sportsman like Sassoon. The most important friend he will have, however, is one of our most important informants: today is not so much a crossing of paths as a conjoining of two–Graves is now back within the purview of Dr. Dunn’s battalion chronicle.

I found the Second Battalion near Bouchavesnes on the Somme, but a very different Second Battalion. No riding-school, no Battalion Mess, no Quetta manners, no regular officers, except a couple of newly arrived Sandhurst boys. I was more warmly welcomed this time; my supposed spying activities had been forgotten…

Dr. Dunn asked me, with kindly disapproval, what I meant by returning so soon. I said I couldn’t stand England any longer.

Melodramatic, but perhaps not untrue. Graves is known to be brave, in trenches, and it is certainly another point in his favor that he has returned to the battalion in the miserable depths of winter rather than milk his injury for more time at the depot. He is, as it were, now proven to be operationally as well as tactically courageous. And his worst tormentors are gone–it’s safe, then, for him to be made safe, and Dr. Dunn steps in.

He told the acting C.O. that I was, in his opinion, unfit for trench service, so I took command of the Headquarter Company and went to live with the transport, back at Frises, where the Somme made a bend…

We lived in dug-outs, close to the river, which was frozen over completely but for a narrow stretch of fast-running water in the middle. I have never been so cold in my life. I used to go up to the trenches every night with the rations, Yates being sick; it was about a twelve-mile walk there and back.

Graves’s other memories of this period include focus on the cold, including inter-Company football played on the frozen river and piping hot dinners eaten in billets so cold that “ice had formed on the edge of out plates before we finished eating.”[3]

 

And two more brief updates for today, a century back.

George Coppard‘s engaging tale of life as a teenage machine gunner is of limited usefulness, here, because he did not keep a detailed diary and can apply few specific dates to his memoir. But everybody remembers his or her birthday! Coppard, shot in the foot by a pal, was cleared of wrongdoing and has been recovering at Lady Butler’s private hospital in Hereford.

I was dead lucky to have struck that hospital. I’ll never forget the food and perquisites we Tommies had there. Her Ladyship personally issued the daily ration of twenty cigarettes or an ounce of pipe tobacco per man. On my nineteenth birthday, I had a surprise birthday cake.[4]

 

Francis Ledwidge’s burgeoning prominence as a poet has not kept him from shipping out once again. It’s his first tour in France after a long odyssey in Gallipoli, Serbia, Macedonia, and Egypt. After a week of drill and instruction his battalion of the Royal Inniskillings had moved to a camp near Trônes Wood, on the Somme, for further combat training. This afternoon, a century back, they began their march to the front line. For men who had not seen France before this would have been a sobering–not to say awful–march: over a rutted road and then over miles of the old Somme battlefield, muddy and cold, safely traversed only by slick and icy duckboards. Men slipped into the mud whenever the duckboards tilted, and even tying sandbags over boots for better traction was of little avail. “After a horribly wearisome journey, they reached their line, consisting of a series of shell-holes connected by a shallow trench.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 293; Good-Bye to All That, 238.
  2. In Broken Images, 64.
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 238-9.
  4. With a Machine Gun, 105.
  5. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 171.

Everyone Wounded and Ill: George Coppard’s Sandwich-Bearing Angels; Henry Williamson’s Year of Anemia, and the Likely Fates of Vera Brittain’s Three Boys

First today, we follow the elated George Coppard–cleared of wrongdoing in the matter of his “blighty one”–from the war zone to Blighty itself.

On 23 October I was aboard the hospital ship Western Australia. The wooded banks of the Seine were in a blaze of autumn colour as we set out on the eight-hour journey down to Le Havre. Everything was so peaceful and quiet that it seemed to belong to another world. It was a happy trip, with sing-songs and good eating…

At Southampton, a crowd of uniformed angels hovered around with lashings of sandwiches, drinks, and cigarettes It is not easy to find the right words to describe my feelings then. I leave it to the reader to imagine.[1]

 

With Vera Brittain in Malta, where the mails take weeks, her correspondence with three young officers has taken on an even greater importance in her life. And with winter coming and the Somme entering its final throes, I will try to keep closer tabs on their doings. Geoffrey Thurlow, for instance, wrote to Edward Britain three days ago to let him know where his battalion was headed. The next day, Edward forwarded the news–or, more likely, similar news from a slightly older letter–without knowing himself that Thurlow evidently had just missed the nasty fighting between Thiepval and Courcelette–the attach that had killed several subalterns of Blunden‘s and Tolkien‘s acquaintance.

London, 21 October 1916

The arm is doing v. well though it is not quite right but I am quite fit for light duty. I applied for a board 10 days ago but as usual have heard nothing so far and the present leave is supposed to be up on Monday next… Geoffrey still seems to be existing but every time he writes he seems to expect the attack soon but if that goes on much longer the weather will soon make attacks impossible…

So Edward is nearly recovered from his wounds, but will be safe from actual combat duty for some time to come, while Thurlow’s fate is still day-to-day. And Victor Richardson?

Tah is in great form judging by a letter from him last Sunday; he thinks the 9th K.R.R., his brigade, and his division are the best of their kind that God ever made. Discipline and general management seem to please him greatly and, as he is apparently in a fairly quiet part ‘some miles North of where Roland was’–probably near Arras, he is doing well at present…

And Geoffrey, for his part, is working on a long letter to Vera:

France, 22—25 October 1916

Edward seems to ‘find life hard’ with most of the people out here he knows; I know the feeling well but I do hope he remains in England for a very long time tho’ the war doesn’t seem to be in its final stage yet by a long way, despite the opinions of some armchaired people at home.

Sensible, so far. But Vera loves Geoffrey in part because of his delicate nature, his sensibility. He, too, has been writing up the sunsets:

Our stunt was suddenly washed out at the 11th hour[2] and we are now settling a little farther South. Our present billet is in some charming scenery; a village in a valley surrounded by wooded hills with the many varied autumn tints on the trees and as the Sun has been brilliant yesterday & today the whole place is beautiful… But our time here is limited alas and we shall go on in motor buses, so soon we shall be in War again and shall be able to look back on our brief stay here with pleasure.

Yes, but where in the war? Vera will want to know, and yet the censors must be evaded. I think we can figure this one out:

And I think we may see again the town with the hanging figure from the Church which Edward knows so well.

So Thurlow expects to see the Somme again, and soon. And of what value is it to have a trusted friend, someone who know something of the pressures that young soldiers and young officers must bear, who can be a confidante outside the little circle of masculine reserve, the straight-jacket that pains them even as it helps them to bear up–for a little while longer–under the stress of battle.

All I hope is that I don’t fail — for I must confess I’m a bit of a coward to use a strong word; not so much for myself but for the men under me am I afraid. Still let’s hope for the best!

(Lunch is ready so must stop. Once again am I Mess President & can’t enthuse over it much!)

This is a startling letter, I think, coming from a straight-laced[3] young man. It speaks both to his need to confess his fears and to the depth of the intimacy that grew up between Vera and Geoffrey in a few short months last winter and spring.

And of course, as a letter from a serving soldier, it is fragmentary and odd, too. Thurlow returns to share this scene:

Monday

We had a cold interesting ride here… we set off and passed thro’ the most charming country I’ve seen here yet. It grew colder as the sun went in and during the halts at odd intervals the A.S.C. man told me all his life history which was both amusing and interesting — he came out in Aug 1914 & had some exciting times in a usually monotonous existence. As we were leaving a main road — it was dark — the road turned to the right at right angles and we saw red and other lights which looked like a hospital train but in “reality it was the front part of the Convoy & I looked back & saw more lights twinkling away to the rear for miles. It was a fairy like sight.[4]

 

And finally today, a century back, Henry Williamson, after fourth months’ convalescence from a bout with dysentery, faced a medical board, and was passed fit for… home service. He will rejoin a unit of the Machine Gun Corps and, incongruously–to us, that is–continue learning about the proper care of horses, donkeys, and mules.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 103-4.
  2. And carried out by, among others, the 11th Royal Sussex and the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers...
  3. Yes, I'm growing aware of the persistence with which I come back to these metaphors; and I don't mean to be dropping heavy hints about the strong possibility that there is a repression of sexuality at play here as well... that is part of the story, perhaps. But it seems sometimes as if the proper, middle-class kids who should be in college now come from an older, stricter world than the likes of Asquith, Shaw-Stewart, et. al. Even though it's the same world, just with less London sophistication, I suppose...
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 280-2.
  5. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 80.

Tolkien and Blunden in the Front Line, and Relieved–A Brother Buried and a Lost Dog Lost; George Coppard is Spared; Patrick Shaw-Stewart Gets a Partridge

For Edmund Blunden‘s 11th Royal Sussex and Ronald Tolkien‘s 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, today, a century back, was the day after.

The Lancashires sat tight in Regina Trench most of the day, doing what they could to shore up the defenses of their new positions. Tolkien must have spent the day trying to establish, protect, and repair lines from the new positions to the rear. In the late afternoon they were at last relieved and began the long march back, in time for soup at Ovillers once more, and then a last stage to a rest camp near Albert, well in the rear.[1]

Blunden, still some hundreds of yards behind the new front line in yesterday’s headquarters post, picks up the tale of the Royal Sussex. I broke in yesterday to give the cold facts of their losses, but Blunden writes with restraint. He has signaled who among his friends will die, but we aren’t supposed to come out of it so lightly scathed, so eased by literature. We must come along with him and see the wreckage, learning its cost as he did:

Another day arrived, and the men in Stuff Trench had to eat their “iron rations,” for we could not supply them. We had also lost touch with our battalion doctor, who was somewhere toward Thiepval, that slight protuberance on rising ground westward; and the bearers of the wounded had to find another way out; yet, we were in possession of Stuff Trench, and the Australians southward held its continuation, Regina. That evening, gloomy and vast, lit up with savage glares all around, a relieving battalion arrived, one disposed to quarrel with us as readily as with the Germans. “Take the companies over to Stuff Trench,” said Harrison to me, “and see them settled in there.” Cassels came with me. We were lucky, the night being black, to find our way through that unholy Schwaben Redoubt, but by this stage our polarity-sense was awakened and we knew how little to expect of local identifications. At last, after many doubts, we had passed (in the darkness) a fragment of road metalling which assured me that all was right; the grumbling relief followed our slow steps, which we could not hasten even though one of many shells crashing into our neighbourhood caught a section of the incomers and the moaning cries might have distracted more seasoned tacticians.

At last Blunden has reached the real front, the zone of the worst suffering. Which is not his:

It was Geoffrey Salter speaking out firmly in the darkness. Stuff Trench—this was Stuff Trench; three feet deep, corpses under foot, corpses on the parapet. He told us, while still shell after shell slipped in crescendo wailing into the vibrating ground, that his brother had been killed, and he had buried him; Doogan had been wounded, gone downstairs into one of the dugout shafts after hours of sweat, and a shell had come downstairs to finish him; “and,” says he, “you can get a marvellous view of Grandcourt from this trench. We’ve been looking at it all day. Where’s these men? Let me put ’em into the posts. No, I’ll see to it. That the sergeant major?”

Moving along as he spoke with quick emotion and a new power (for hitherto his force of character had not appeared in the less exacting sort of war), he began to order the newcomers into sentry groups…

I always say that Blunden is gentle, and he is. But just because he doesn’t rage doesn’t mean he isn’t tough. He doesn’t look away from Salter and his terrible loss.

And yet life and fate and this awful war seem always to take a fond pity on Blunden, our harmless hobbit-shepherd, amazed and sometimes downhearted, but never despairing, always stoutly safe in mind and body, even amidst the ruins. We might be left to face Salter, to see what will happen when the stress of battle relents and allows him to feel what has happened–but no. For Blunden, as for many youths in fairy tales, there is a dumb beast to care for.

…stooping down to find what it was snuffing at my boots I found it was a dog. He was seemingly trying to keep me from treading on a body. I caught sight of him by someone’s torch or a flare; he was black and white; and I spoke to him, and at the end of a few moments he allowed me to carry him off. Cassells and myself had finished, and returned by ourselves by the shortest way; now the strain told, our feet weighed like lead, and our hope was out of action. I put down the dog, who came limpingly round the shadowy shell holes, stopped, whined, came on again; what was the use? he perhaps thought: that way, too, there is this maniacal sport of high explosive, and the mud is evidently the same all over the world; I shall stay here. Much I wished to adopt this dog, but now I could scarcely stoop, and I reflected that the mud and shell zone extended a long way on; so there he stayed; feebly I passed along.

Ah, but care for him he cannot. The war supervenes. But still–the dog turned his face away from horror, for a few moments.

If I was weary, what of Salter and his men? Still I hear their slouching feet on the footbridge over the Ancre by Aveluy, where a sad guard of trees dripping with the dankness of autumn had nothing to say but sempiternal syllables, of which we had our own interpretation. The shadows on the water were so profound and unnavigable that one felt them as the environment of a grief of gods, silent and bowed, unvisitable by breeze or star; and then we were past, and soon asleep in the lee of Aveluy Wood.

The account should end there; but since Blunden steels himself to the responsibilities of writing a dutiful sort of war-book and musters a closing paragraph for the chapter, I’ll let it stand:

The action at Stuff Trench on October 21st and 22d had been the first in which our battalion had seized and held any of the German area, and the cost had been enormous; not intemperate pride glowed among the survivors, but that natural vanity was held in check by the fact that we were not yet off the battlefield. The evenings were shutting in early, the roads were greasy and clogging, and along the wooded river valley the leaves had turned red and now had a frost-bitten chillier tinge; the ridges looked lonelier under the sallow clouds; but in mud and gloom the guns went on, and by our camp of tents at evening we saw the tanks crawl round and round in preparation for something new, and not even rumours of our being sent to Lens or Egypt were heard. Winter clothing was served out, shirts, vests, white leather gloves with fleece lining and a tape to keep them together.[2]

 

With the chapter thus ended, I think we can turn briefly for updates on two other writers. First, and most pressingly, George Coppard. After three days held in the special ward for suspected SIWs (self-inflected wounds), Coppard was cleared of wrongdoing today, a century back, and sent to Rouen, a familiar hospital way-station for Blighty. He had been accidentally shot by his “best pal” in the presence of other witnesses, so he was unlikely to be blamed, but the very fact that he was investigated shows that more and more men were going to extreme lengths to escape the miseries of the Somme.[3]

 

And speaking of non-combat shooting, why not a bizarre letter from Patrick Shaw-Stewart, long-moldering liaison officer on the Salonika front:

Hirsova, October 22 , 1916

The weather has been delicious here lately. I have had several afternoons among the partridges. I had two days in Salonica last week, and extravagantly invested in a 200-drachma gun: but I am worse off than before, for a lying thief of a Greek sold me a hundred cartridges loaded with buckshot…

Meanwhile, I have shot a quail (my first) with one of the buckshot cartridges, probably a record, I should say. On the face of it, I look like being here till all’s blue: but something tells me that I might conceivably find myself in England (at any rate for a few days) before the Winter’s out. One never knows, you know.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 94.
  2. Undertones of War, 109-11.
  3. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 103.
  4. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 178.

George Coppard Wounded and Under Suspicion; Max Plowman, Bayonet Instructor: Pacifist Principles, Grand Intentions, and an Unfinished Sonnet

The morning after being accidentally shot in the foot, George Coppard awoke in a casualty clearing station:

…I discovered that there was something queer about the place, which filled me with misgivings. None of the nursing staff appeared friendly, and the matron looked, and was, a positive battle-axe. I made anxious enquiries, and quickly learned that I was classed as a suspected self-inflicted-wound case. Unknown to me, the letters SIW with a query mark added had been written on the label attached to my chest. Here was a fine kettle of fish, and I was in a state of near-panic. The place was full of SIW cases, or suspected cases, and normal standards of kindness were not allowed to nurture there. Many cases of wounding, even blindness, had been caused by foolish curiosity of needless tampering with detonators, fuses, rusted-up bombs and other weapons away from the trenches. That alone cast dark suspicion on the unlucky victim, who, by carelessness, as opposed to a genuine accident, fell into the fearful SIW category. Whenever it was possible for a patient to do any kind of chore, he was set to work. If he had lost a foot, he could brood over his misfortune while peeling spuds, or any other task that he was able to do without the aid of two feet.

This is harsh–unless it is lenient. It’s what the British army, like many large and hidebound institutions, does: split the difference in suspicious cases and do not worry unduly about individual justice.

But Coppard’s tale of today, a century back, shows that I was off-base yesterday with my attempt to make a neat division between accidental bullet and grenade wounds.

One man told me that he had been tampering with what he thought was a dud bomb, and had lost his right hand. Of course, there were patients who had deliberately injured themselves in order to avoid further fighting. They were the blackest among those black sheep. The poor devils must have been in a dreadful state of mind to savage themselves, but I doubt whether severe mental stress was taken into account when pleading for mercy at the court martial which awaited them all.

In every unit there were always one or two men who were below standard, unable to control or hide their fears in times of danger. To be blunt, they ought not to have been soldiers at all, yet they volunteered for service. Events, however, proved too much for them, and they were to be pitied.

Three most anxious days passed…[1]

Coppard’s compassion is retrospective, but it also seems typical of the “Tommy” view at the time. Men who shirked were unacceptable; bounders and the sorts of cowards who sneakily cut corners to save themselves and endanger or burden their comrades were detested. But men who struggled every day to shore up the slipping, sliding, pounded walls of their will to resist generally had sympathy with the men who simply couldn’t do it. To condemn a man whose only fault was–as they recognized, and as their officers generally recognized, but couldn’t condone–to have a smaller stock of courage than his comrades was cruel and unfair.

So there is decency here, and empathy, but also a less exalted psycho-social phenomenon: the sight of men failing to master themselves probably gave heart to many others who felt themselves slipping but were not yet in circumstances so dire. Esprit de Corps improves when there is a demonstration of what disqualifies from membership in the group and, therefore, of what ensures it. So this is but “there but for the grace of God go I” and “I may be slipping, but thank God I haven’t slipped like that, yet.”

 

George Coppard is in hot water, but he intends to soldier on, and the fact that several men witnessed the accidental shooting–it was not his own gun–should save him from permanent ostracism and court martial. His sympathies have been roused, but he was young, and not a political man.

Max Plowman, by contrast, was a committed prewar pacifist who had joined the ambulance corps and then carefully and deliberately changed his mind: there were no half-measures in great wars of nations, and to take part in war without taking a hand in its violence began to seem an unacceptable half-measure. But Plowman, now a Subaltern on the Somme, will explain it better himself, in a letter of today, a century back, to the journalist and budding novelist Hugh de Selincourt:

…If I live Calidore[2] I mean to write my apologianot to contend with yours, not even to justify myself, but to see whether it will really hold water, to discover completely whether my evolution was a real one–to put on record, for my own satisfaction, the reason why I took courses that may otherwise seem–looking back casually—inexplicable. Perhaps it will all seem unimportant then–(it isn’t now),–perhaps I shall find much better things to do…

I want to exploit the fear of War. Do you think that degenerate or a sign if how far from grace I have already fallen? …After the war millions of men in every country will have one dominant conviction–that was is a loathsome inanity to be avoided at any cost. But they’ll be inarticulate in their knowledge. I want to start an International League of individuals sworn never to take up arms. It seems to me that only by such means can pressure be brought to bear on Governments who will then never know their armed strength. The working man never wants to fight. Can’t someone start an International League to give that one & only negative tenet a voice? I know it’s a million of miles from the Kingdom of God, but I feel like Shaw, that we’ve got to start right at the bottom…

Plowman has seen much of the trenches, but nothing of the very worst, yet, and his unit has long been at rest. So why this renewed commitment to pacifism now? What only-in-the-Great-War irony might enliven this Pacifist’s Letter of Intention?

A pretty theory coming from an Instructor in Bayonet Fighting, isn’t it? That’s what I am now, Calidore. The cheese rind of the logical conclusion isn’t it? Not by choice I add in mitigation. I was just “detailed.” They didn’t ask my preferences. And you know another gruesome irony is that “Physical Training & Bayonet Fighting” are one course. An epitome of War.

An epitome of war, and an excellent writer of letter and memoir. But the poetry isn’t quite there…

I never told you about the sonnet I wrote in the trenches did I? It’s very bad and not even finished. It’s over a month ago since I tried it so I can tell you just where I wrote it. In a “dug-out” after spending the morning in the front line at Hébuterne, about 10 miles north of Thiepval. It’s another one to that old Goddess of War. Here it is:

So thou art proven at last, thou Queen of Whores!
The last shred of seduction torn away,
As naked to the piercing eye of day
Thou standest, wholly garmented with sores.
O fruit of loveless passion, mindless deed,
What shall avail thee now, when thy fierce lust
Makes of the brave and skilled a nameless dust
And gives to the coward devilry the meed?

For flashing sword, the creep of poisoned air;
Instead of drums, the earthquake of crash and shell;
While men, like vermin, thread the bowels of earth
And crave the certainty of ancient Hell…

perhaps I shall finish it some day.

Perhaps I was unkind–the last four lines are pretty good. This one goes into our burgeoning basket of uncertain new work–hesitant starts to a new vocabulary of thoroughly-felt combat poetry. Such a poem must acknowledge the tradition it is rejecting, but if we are to feel the plight of the soldiers as we feel the singers of traditional lyric, we can’t just replace the heroic tone with caustic wit or bitter despair…

Plowman soon returns to his discussion of the proper course for pacifism. As fed up as he is, as devoted to the idea of a “League” against war, he recognizes both that the present German occupation of France and Belgium makes it too late to be a complete pacifist in this war (“I do not believe that when an armed man enters your neighbour’s house he will be moved to tears by your assurance that nothing would induce you to interfere”) and that he bears a duty to stand with his nation.

That’s blind idealism. And so I’m here in mud & blood & all the damned insanity of war & I wouldn’t be out of it, things being as they are, for I can see no alternative things being as they were. –I know that gradually the individual ideal must permeate the nation, but till then how can I, after benefiting by all the nation’s virtues, disclaim all personal responsibility for its sins?

…I’ve never really doubted that the war would only end with general exhaustion. But we shalln’t be as we were. Fools can only learn through suffering… and that suffering, by the way, includes, I believe, the misery of murder.

Wouldn’t I love to believe that the war was just a huge beast let loose upon us by a few crafty self-seeking devils of hell! …Wouldn’t I like to be able to say sincerely–To Hell with Belgium… I don’t know, Cally…. What would Doistoievsky… what would Meredith have done?–Yet I’ve only to imagine what would have happened if England hadn’t joined the Devils Dance to know I’m glad I’m here…

My love always…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 103.
  2. The nickname is an allusion, I think, to Keats, one of Plowman's best-loved poets.
  3. Bridge Into the Future, 55-8.

George Coppard’s Friendly Fire Incident; Dorothie Feilding Loses a Peacock; J.R.R. Tolkien Gets a Map

After ten days in the front lines, the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers are finally relieved, today, dropping back company by company to support trenches near Mouquet Farm, and then on back to Ovillers. Battalion Signals Officer Tolkien spent the night in a dugout there, a century back, and probably learned then the reason for their withdrawal: a new attack is being planned. (But we guessed that.) The map issued to Tolkien for the intended assault on Regina Trench apparently exists, with his notes, but I have not so far laid eyes upon it…[1]

 

We have an update, too, from Lady Dorothie Feilding. She is in daily danger, and works very hard–driving primitive ambulances over the roads of a mud-infested war zone is no joke–but she remains our most reliable letter-writing genre-painter. Whatever her troubles may be, Lady Feilding and her fellows in the Munro Ambulance Corps always seem to be having a gay old time:

17 Oct
Mother honey–

We have been pretty busy these last weeks somehow. My own Fido Fiat has transported 56 people alone since the 1st Oct. One of our new men just come out is as blind as a bat, & we will have to return him on account of his eyesight which is a bore. If you hear of a good driver to suit us let me know…

I dined with the sailors last night. The 1st time for a long long while & we had a pleasant peaceful evening all sat round with our feet in the fire & ate chocolates & were nice & truly at peace with the world & nearly forgot there was a war on. Burbidge has added a tame fox to his menagerie–it gets skittish at night & tears round the mess rolling over & over with the dogs…

Caractacus the peacock has been stolen, frightful sorrow but no sign of him, I fear he was boiled in some Frenchman’s stock pot, Burbidge swears he has gone over to the enemy lines & was a spy all the time!!

…I haven’t yet heard what GHQ told Teck about Da coming out, but fear the odds are against — all hope not dead yet we must just hope for the best.

Yr very loving
DoDo[2]

 

Such is life in the war zone–one night may be merry, but one never knows what accident might lurk around the next corner. Today, a century back George Coppard was the victim of painful, fortunate, suspicious happenstance, at the hands of a comrade:

And now I come to a totally unexpected turning-point in my story, one of those things you could bank on never happening but which do. It was nearly 2 pm on 17 October and we were about to parade for revolver inspection before returning to the line at Gueudecourt. A whistle blew, and as ‘A’ Section moved out of the hut for parade I was shot through the left foot by a .45 bullet from Snowy’s revolver. The bullet tore between two bones in front of the ankle, went out through the instep of my boot and buried itself in the ground. With his revolver pointing downwards, and not realising that it was loaded, Snowy had casually pulled the trigger and Wham!

It will take Coppard–an earnest lad, it would seem–some time to realize that such an accident doesn’t look good.

It occurs to me (rather belatedly) that the suspicion that falls upon the victims of accidental wounds may be another reason why grenade accidents so often produce gruesome, intensely courageous acts of self-sacrifice. With grenades there can be little question that the accident was the act of a broken or cowardly man seeking to avoid further combat–the injuries are too gruesome, the blast too hard to predict. Any man who falls on a British grenade has sacrificed himself to save his fellows… But a bullet wound in an extremity, sustained in the rear, (and in the foot) and close to medical attention? Such may be a man’s attempt to save himself from his fellows’ coming ordeal…

There was pandemonium for a few moments as I hobbled about in pain, and then I found myself on the back of a comrade named Grigg, who carried me to a field dressing station close by. Poor Snowy was put under arrest pending an enquiry… After many months of shot and shell from the enemy, with every missile carrying possible death or mutilation, it was shattering to find myself hors de combat through the unwitting agency of my best pal.

Coppard begins his journey back along with several other wounded men.

The further I went, the more my spirits rose, as it gradually dawned on me that I was surely the luckiest Tommy in the whole of France. My hopes soared at the prospect of getting to Blighty, and I felt immense relief as I moved from the danger zone.

I was puzzled, on being transferred to an ambulance car, to find myself the only casualty in it. Finally I arrived at the 39th Casualty Clearing Station.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 92-3. It is reproduced in the Bodleian's Tollkien: Life and Legend,
  2. Lady Under Fire, 171-2.
  3. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 102-3.