Vera Brittain on Knowledge and Memory; Gilbert Frankau Starts for France; Alf Pollard Gets Medieval in an Outpost

It has been quite a while since we have checked in with Gilbert Frankau, ex-businessman, future novelist, and swaggering subaltern in Kitchener’s army. He, like more than a handful of our officers (Edward Brittain, for instance), found enough antipathy among the hastily-assembled cadre of senior officers in his ramshackle battalion to seek a transfer. His Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant contains a vicious portrait (evidently quite recognizable–there will be legal action) of the “scheming and incompetent adjutant” who had made life impossible for anyone he perceived as a threat.

So, along with his fictional altar ego, Frankau had escaped, in March, into the artillery. This was not an uncommon course: while Kitchener’s army had added scores of infantry regiments to the army’s strength, it was soon clear that there would need to be proportionally much more new artillery than infantry. Once the guns were manufactured (or borrowed from the French) and the men trained, the new batteries were sent into the line as soon as possible. Today, a century back, the 107th Artillery brigade marched away from its training grounds toward the coast–they will be needed for the Autumn offensive.[1]

 

Alf Pollard has decided to aim high. His Lady merits an officer, and so an officer he will be. And why not a diligent officer? Nay–why not a hero?

After rest and leave, Pollard returns with his battalion of the Honourable Artillery Company to the nasty, close-in trenches around Hooge, at the southern end of the salient.

With the knowledge that I would soon be an officer, I spent as much time as possible roaming round No Man’s Land. The Huns were now eight hundred yards away and there was plenty to see in the intervening space. On one of these excursions I came across an excellent Burberry with only five small shrapnel holes in it and which I promptly annexed. By it, in the bottom of the shell-hole where I found it, was a solitary head. It stood upright in the centre of the crater and there was no trace of the body to which it belonged anywhere near it. For some reason it fascinated me. It looked so droll and yet so pathetic. To whom had it belonged?  …I hoped he was a fighter who had done down with his face to the enemy, his courage high and his mouth set in grim determination. That was how I hoped to die if I had to; though I should have liked one second’s warning so that I could breathe Her name. Afterwards, if my head remained to mark the spot, I should like it to be pointing to the trenches I had never reached.

Yes–he is serious. Deadly earnest.

It’s odd to see what seems to be a sort of schlock horror film aesthetic in a writer who professes his enthusiasm for a chivalric/heroic approach to the world. But then again–unless he strays from grandiloquence into outright falsehood–the severed head is… historical.

Pollard is a brave man, a cheerful killer, a “fire-eater” describing his own motivations… so the bathos, I think, is unintended. Have I, as a reader, gone so far into willed sympathy with the suffering infantry of the trenches that I’m entirely around the bend? Have I turned my reading eyes past any understanding of the emotions happy warriors, toward disdain for this sort of bloodthirstiness, especially when expressed in such clunky prose?

I hope not. Maximum readerly sympathy with all writers who shared in this experience is a worthy goal…

And yet I can’t help but read this description as some sort of unintentionally Python-esque variation on Hamlet. The Great White Man-Hunter contemplates not a skull but a still-fleshed and aggressively idealized head, and sees not so much the meaning of his death but his hopes about its mentionable-in-dispatches circumstances…

Pollard goes on to note that he specially enjoys duty in a “listening post in the middle of this desolation. It was three hundred yards in front of our line.” Naturally, then:

I wrote home on the 29th August whilst actually in the outpost.

“–We ought to have a lively time on this outpost with corpses all around us…. I shall take jolly good care that if the Huns try to surprise us none of my command will have their tails down and the surprisers will be surprised.

Surely he won’t be surprised while in the act of penning a letter… But he closes with a solid (ha!) bit of commentary on the new lows of trench warfare:

I have about a hundred bombs with me so out to make a good show. Talking of bombs, bombers in an attack now carry a mace which consists of a stout handle with a huge lump of iron on the end. One, found on the late battlefield, had a number of large spikes in the end as well. It shows what modern warfare is coming to when we have to go back to the dark age for our weapons. They will be serving out bows and poisoned arrows next…”[2]

Well, the poison, at least, is coming.

 

Vera Brittain received today Roland Leighton‘s “short but very comprehensive”[3] letter of the 26th. She wrote back immediately.

Buxton, 29 August 1915

No, somehow ‘the memory and the pain and the insatiable longing for Something which one has loved’ doesn’t sound as if you were forgetting quite as soon as one might have supposed you would, even though ‘each picture flies’.

For my part, I find you still elusive, still intangible, and truly in that way it seems to count for so little that you did come back at all. When I get your letters I feel as though I know and understand you much better than when I meet & see the actual you. You yourself always puzzle me. Reverence–reserve–indifference–in their actual manifestation they are so alike, and the more full of emotion you are, the more alike they become. If there weren’t a few physical signs to help me, if the expression you resolutely drive away from your mouth didn’t sometimes betray itself in your eyes, I should never know you at all…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Flower of Battle, 217-9.
  2. Fire-Eater, 104-5.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 265.
  4. Letters of a Lost Generation, 151-2

Ghastly Days in Antwerp for Sarah Macnaughtan; Rupert Brooke Arrives

Julian Grenfell and the rest of the Royal Dragoons at last embarked today, a century back. They loaded their horses aboard ship during the wee hours, enjoying a “lovely night with blazing moon, which was very lucky.”[1] And Gilbert Frankau received a commission in the East Surrey Regiment–presumably with the help of his Public School bona fides–and began, perforce, gathering material to be loosely fictionalized (largely under the theme of  “officers, corrupt and incompetent”) in his next novel.

 

In Antwerp, Sarah Macnaughtan, serving as an orderly with Mrs. Stobart’s Hospital Unit, was very much in the thick of it. The unit had set up a temporary hospital in a philharmonic hall, which was already filled to capacity.

6 October
I think the last two days have been the most ghastly I ever remember. Every day seems to bring news of defeat. It is awful, and the Germans are quite close now. As I write the house shakes with the firing. Our troops are falling back, and the forts have fallen. Last night we took provisions and water to the cellars, and made plans to get the wounded taken there.

All these last two days bleeding men have been brought in.Today three of them died, and I suppose none of them was more than 23.

The guns boom by day as well as by night, and as each one is heard one thinks of more bleeding, shattered men. It is calm, nice autumn weather; the trees are yellow in the garden and the sky is blue, yet all the time one Iistens to the cries of men in pain. Tonight I meant to go out for a little, but a nurse stopped me and asked me to sit by a dying man. Poor fellow, he was twenty-one, and looked like some brigand chief, and he smiled as he was dying.[2]

 

Let’s again go to Conan Doyle as our semi-official (meaning “rousing, uncritical, and journalistic to a fault”) historian. He reminds us that while the Royal Marines, i.e. the trained professionals of the Naval Division, had now spent two days in the trenches around Antwerp, our first Kitchener-ish units have now arrived (these are not technically New Army formations, but they are similar ad hoc formations of barely trained volunteers–in effect Churchill’s New Land Navy).

On the night of the 5th the two other brigades of the division, numbering some 5000 amateur sailors, arrived in Antwerp, and the whole force assembled on the new line of defence. Mr. Winston Churchill showed his gallantry as a man, and his indiscretion as a high official, whose life was of great value to his country by accompanying the force from England. The bombardment was now very heavy, and the town was on fire in several places. The equipment of the British left much to be desired, and their trenches were as indifferent as their training. None the less they played the man and lived up to the traditions of that great service upon whose threshold they stood. For three days these men, who a few weeks before had been anything from schoolmasters to tram-conductors, held their perilous post. They were very raw, but they possessed a great asset in their officers, who were usually men of long service. But neither the lads of the naval brigades nor the war-worn and much-enduring Belgians could stop the mouths of those inexorable guns…[3]

Oh Good, stereotypical stuff: “play the man,” brave “lads,” the leap from good will and the presence of proud “traditions” to a reasonable hope of military efficiency. Well. It’s difficult to rate the effectiveness of a formation when it has been sent, too little and too late, into the face of the “inexorable” German siege artillery, so perhaps the substitution of general praise for their conduct is less egregious than usual.

Here’s how Rupert Brooke described his day:

So we got out at Antwerp, and marched through the streets, and everyone cheered and flung themselves on us and gave us apples and chocolate and flags and kisses, and cried Vivent les Anglais and ‘Heep! Heep! Heep!’

…Every mile the noises got louder, immense explosions and detonations. We stopped in the town square in Vieux Dieu; five or six thousand British troops, a lot of Belgians, guns going through, transport waggons, motor-cyclists, orderlies on horses, staff-officers, and the rest. An extraordinary and thrilling confusion. As it grew dark the thunders increased, and the sky was lit by extraordinary glares. We were all given entrenching tools. Everyone looked worried. Suddenly our battalion was marched round the corner out of the din through an old gate in the immense, wild, garden of a recently-deserted château. There we had to sleep. The rather dirty and wild-looking sailors trudged over lawns, through orchards and across pleasaunces. Little pools glimmered through the trees, and deserted fountains: and round corners one saw, faintly, occasional Cupids and Venuses–a scattered company of rather bad statues–gleaming quietly. The sailors dug their latrines in the various rose-gardens and lay down to sleep–but it was bitter cold–under the shrubs. It seemed infinitely peaceful and remote. I was officer on guard till the middle of the night…[4]

I have my issues with Rupert Brooke and his fraught and often petulantly hostile way of representing himself and his experiences, but he’s a good writer. So is Conan Doyle, obviously, but in a different way.

Doyle’s great work is invention–and heavily rational invention at that–wherein wit and reason must flash and fire and reality fall back and dig in. Brooke, whatever else he is doing (this is from the same long and intermittently flirtatious letter to Eileen Wellesley that I quoted from yesterday), is describing real experience, and he has the skills for this. As a poet his better poems, like this letter, describe the world justly, yet suggestively. (His more famous, weaker work, is prone to pseudo-philosophical declamation. Oh yes, the sonnets are a-comin’.)

Sure, Doyle, posing as a historian, has a battle to describe, while Brooke can share with us the sights and sounds of subjective experience and the ironic strangeness of entrenching in a garden of love. All I’m saying is that this juxtaposition is why I prefer–why this project dotes upon–literature-describing-personal-experience-of-the-war, and not history per se.

References and Footnotes

  1. Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, #222.
  2. From Women in the War Zone, 45.
  3. Conan Doyle, The British Campaign in France and Flanders (A History of the Great War, Volume One), 198.
  4. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 623.

Peter Jackson Earns a Commission; The Nursing Sister Tours a Cathedral; We Meet Will Streets

I want to introduce a new writer today, on the date of his first letter home from training camp, a century back. Will Streets had joined a local Kitchener’s Army unit, the Sheffield City Battalion (later the 12/Yorks and Lancs), only a few days before.

I have just finished my first day as a soldier. We have had six hours squad drill, but I am not so tired as a I thought I should have been.[1]

Two things at the get-go here: first, the reason he was not so tired was probably that he was neither a clerk nor a student nor a fox hunting man but a coal miner, and long used to prolonged stretches of labor; second, this short quotation is all I have, since Streets’ letters have not been extensively published. He will write poetry–and this has been well studied, of late, especially by Elizabeth Vandiver–but there is very little in the way of datable material that I can get my hands on, so he will appear here only infrequently as the daily subject. I hope to be able to bring his war poetry into the larger discussion as it is written.

Born in 1885 in the Derbyshire village of Whitwell, Will Streets was an enthusiastic student–he loved singing, drawing and painting, and he is said to have felt a strong vocation for poetry from an early age. But at fourteen he left school and went to work in the mines. He was the oldest of twelve siblings–living with their parents in a small three-bedroom house–and his earnings were essential to the family’s well-being.

Yet despite six long days of manual labor–and his evident devotion to his family and active participation in the local Methodist chapel on Sundays–Streets continued to read and write. Of the books he bought with what little money was left over he later wrote “no books are as dear to me as some of those books I bought with my own blood, as it were,” including volumes of Tennyson, Shakespeare, and Keats. Streets worked slowly on his poetry and took correspondence courses; he even worked on Latin, knowing how deeply that language informed English poetry. Along the way he had had a poem published in The Poetry Review, and he dreamed of publishing more.

So he worked fifteen years in the mines–and then took the king’s shilling. This is a life that–especially knowing little more than the outlines–is difficult to write about without slipping into condescension or, worse, admiring cliché. It’s hard, though, if “dreams” (i.e. ambitions) can be earned, to imagine someone more deserving than Streets of having his or her verses remembered.

 

Speaking of cliché, let’s check in on Glibert Frankau’s alter ego.

 

It was the 16th of September, 1914, a morning of warm sunshine, that silhouetted the dome and wireless masts of the Admiralty in sharp sable against the glinting gravel of the square ; that glistened gold on the foliage of the gardens beyond, and accentuated the breakfast-time emptiness of the tented recruiting-station…

Decision once reached, he had wasted no time in the writing of useless letters. Four days had been spent in the settling-up of affairs…  Everywhere he had encountered astonishment that he should be going, veiled opposition, attempts to dissuade. “Single men first,” said one. “Your duty is to your business,” the other…

And so does our hero, Peter Jackson, former Cigar Merchant, having been shocked from his businessman’s complacency by his loathsome profiteering brother-in-law, march down to the War Office to seek a commission. Shown to an office by a boy scout (yup, true enough in general, although it is shocking indeed to find the scout out of school on a weekday), Peter is confronted by two staff officers, one “affable” and the other “saturnine.” Commences a most typical conversation:

“Major Anstruther?” queried Peter impersonally.

The affable one looked up from his work, said: “That’s me.”

“I’ve a chit for you from Barton, sir. Hugh Barton of the N.S.L.”

“Commission, I suppose ?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, let’s have a look at it. Sit down, won’t you?” He opened the envelope ; began to read. “H’m. Ha. What’s the name? Jackson. You’re an O.E., are you? Whose house?”

“Impey’s, sir.”

Major Anstruther had not troubled to finish Barton’s letter. He was an old Etonian himself, and the qualification sufficed…

Should this picture of clubby disorganization not suffice to stimulate a knowingly derisive chuckle, Jackson is dispatched to Shoreham (near Brighton) to find a colonel with open subaltern posts in his battalion, and discovers instead, at around lunch-time, an Eton acquaintance who is now a battalion adjutant. This fellow claims Jackson for his battalion, over the appeals of several other assembled adjutants, with the irrefutable “I saw him first” argument.

“Rather a casual way of doing things, isn’t it ?” commented our Mr. Jackson as–luncheon over–they strolled out of the little club-house, over the already derelict last green towards the main camp.

“Well, what are we to do?” explained Travers. “We keep on sending applications to the War Office and nothing happens.” He flicked a speck of dust from his shining field- boots. “We’ve got twenty thousand men in this camp. All in civvies. Hardly any N.C.O’s. And about two officers per battalion. No rifles, of course except those two you saw at the gate. I borrowed them from the Lancing O.T.C.[2]

 

Two of our subjects–an anonymous writer (the Nursing Sister), and a fictional alter-ego–are in France, and drawing closer to each other.

Wednesday, September 16th–Still here: only four of the twenty-five (five sets of five) who formed our unit have been found jobs so far: two are taking a train of sick down to St Nazaire, and two have joined No. — Stationary Hospital in the town. We still await orders ! This is a first-class War for awaiting orders for some of us.

Yesterday it poured all day. We explored the Cathedral, which is absolutely beautiful, perched high up over an open space–now crowded with transport and motor ambulances. We made tea in my quarters, and then explored the town, narrow streets thronged with Tommies as usual.

We have lunch at eleven and dinner at seven, at a dingy little inn through a smelly back yard; there is not much to eat, and you fill up with rather nasty bread and unripe pears, and drink a sort of flat cider, as the water is not good. To-day it is sunny again. I have just been to High Mass (Choral), and taken photos of the Cathedral and the Market below, where I got four ripe peaches for 1 1/2 pence…

They have had a good many deaths, surgical and medical, at L’Evêché; they have pneumonias, and paralysis, and septic wounds, and an officer shot through the head, with a temperature of 106  and paralysis; there is a civil surgeon with a leg for amputation at No. — Stationary.[3]

 

The 14th City of London regiment–a Territorial Army battalion–landed in France today to begin work in support of the Regular division on the front, mostly loading and unloading trains (with shells and their victims, respectively). Known as the “London Scottish,” the battalion will see significant action later in the fall. None of our central writers served in this battalion, but Henry Williamson–who served in a different London Territorial regiment–placed his fictional protagonist Phillip Maddison in it. Although he calls it “the London Highlanders,” the combat history carefully traces the actual record of the real London Scottish.

References and Footnotes

  1. Piuk, A Dream Within the Dark, 22-3.
  2. Frankau, Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant, 64-8.
  3. Diary of a Nursing Sister, 36-7.

Hardy Publishes a Poem and the Poets Disagree; Mr. and Mrs. Jackson Have a Talk; Henry Williamson’s Headmaster is With Him in Spirit

Men Who March Away

(Song of the Soldiers)

What of the faith and fire within us
Men who march away
Ere the barn-cocks say
Night is growing gray,
To hazards whence no tears can win us;
What of the faith and fire within us
Men who march away?

Is it a purblind prank, O think you,
Friend with the musing eye
Who watch us stepping by,
With doubt and dolorous sigh?
Can much pondering so hoodwink you!
Is it a purblind prank, O think you,
Friend with the musing eye?

Nay. We see well what we are doing,
Though some may not see –
Dalliers as they be –
England’s need are we;
Her distress would leave us rueing:
Nay. We well see what we are doing,
Though some may not see!

In our heart of hearts believing
Victory crowns the just,
And that braggarts must
Surely bite the dust,
Press we to the field ungrieving,
In our heart of hearts believing
Victory crowns the just.

Hence the faith and fire within us
Men who march away
Ere the barn-cocks say
Night is growing gray,
Leaving all that here can win us;
Hence the faith and fire within us
Men who march away.

This is Thomas Hardy’s first big war poem, written four days ago at least in part in response to Masterman’s summons of one week ago. It was published today in The Times, and immediately became a major part of the war’s poetic soundtrack.

What to make of it? Well, it is ostentatiously humble: a mere marching song, a simple appeal to the most basic of emotions. It’s catchy enough, and, especially when compared with Newbolt or Kipling, admirably restrained. It’s not Hardy’s fault that “bite the dust” has worn oddly, or that “victory crowns the just” is perhaps not so often a majority sentiment in our times.

But it is his sentiment none the less, and it doesn’t fit at all, not one little bit, with the fatalist and ironic tone of the bulk of his poetry. But why take my word for it? We have, in Charles Hamilton Sorley, a gifted young critic who will soon earn the personal authority to criticize sloppy pro-war sentiments. (Sorley, home and writing few dated letters, has been on hiatus, here–but we will hear more from him soon.)

To Sorley, this is an “arid poem, ”

untrue of the sentiments of the ranksman going to war: “Victory crowns the just” is the worst line he ever wrote–filched from a leading article in The Morning Post, and unworthy of him who had always previously disdained to insult Justice by offering it a material crown like Victory.[1]

Harsh–but perhaps true? Paul Fussell damns the poem at the start of his great book with his most dismissive adjective: it is “unironic.”[2] And yet, the other poet I have hitherto extolled as an unfailingly sensitive reader–Edward Thomas–“surprisingly, liked the poem.”[3]

I thought Hardy’s poem in The Times

Ere the barn-cocks say/Night is growing gray,

the only good one concerned with the war.

A quandary. Thomas picks out his sort of thing–the rural night, the homely animals–while Sorley focuses on the problems in his own bailiwick: Hardy’s paltry philosophy and negligent logic. Thomas, too, is speaking early in the war, and damning with faint praise.

If we were to try to decide the matter, well, there’s not much to go on in the poem itself. One thing we might read closely is, of course, the observer figure, the “friend with the musing eye.” It’s easy to treat him as Hardy himself, inserted into his own little marching song to look askance at its simplistic argument and jaunty meter.

Perhaps: in any case, the observer can hardly be faulted for sighing sadly at the sight of men marching away, for doubting that all is well with the assumptions and the intentions of the new soldiers. But the observer hardly carries the day: it’s either a weak hedge against the dominant sentiment of unthinking faith or it’s a cop-out, a few poison-penned lines that neither redeem the poem nor weaken it is a recruiting tool. I’m with Sorley.

 

From a great poet’s unfinest hour to a popular novelist’s darkest night of the literary soul.

Two days ago we witnessed the odious, profiteering, churlish, lower-middle-class bad form of Peter Jackson’s brother-in-law shock our semi-fictional cigar merchant into an outburst. Hitherto he had considered his responsibilities to his business too important to be discounted. He was innocent of soldiering and so had no fear of it: “on the contrary… it seemed to him the obvious, glorious, and easy solution of his problem” while dropping everything to enlist would show “a lack of moral courage, a yielding to popular clamour.” Sounds a bit self-serving, but then again, we have a growing body of evidence that it tends to be the schoolboys and recent-ex-schoolboys who pine away for a commission. It is a bit more complex for married men with financial responsibilities.

But this is fast-paced fiction, so:

Two nights later [i.e. today, a century back]–at the very moment when the Beasts in Gray, muttering “Grosse Malheur” as they shuffled through darkling towns, were reeling back to the Aisne before the armies of France and a handful of Englishmen–Peter Jackson and his wife sat over their coffee in the drawing-room at Lowndes Square…

“Pat,” he began, “I don’t think I can keep out of this thing any longer. It wouldn’t be”–he fumbled for the expression–“quite playing the game. but if I go, there are risks…”

Jackson, about as gifted an uxorial interlocutor as one would expect–if one based one’s assessment of the English business classes entirely on John Cleese characters–chatters on for a bit about how the insurance is all in order if he should fall in the fray, but that the firm, in dire straights already, will likely fail if he abandons it. The dialogue is painfully mannered, but it may be at that is–at least in part–intended to be so. Patricia Jackson’s internal monologue, however, is meant to be taken straight, and it’s pretty tough to read.

‘Oh, what do you care about losses?’–her heart cried out in her. ‘He’s going. He’s a man. What else matters?’

The ensuing paragraphs are too awful to quote at length. Realizing that her man has made a cool decision to to make “a great sacrifice,” Patricia at once melts from mere “pal” into “at a word his mate, his woman to do with as he would.” She feels herself becoming a real woman, and lies awake sighing at the depths of her new love. Stay tuned for a dissertation on “The English Male Novelist and the Erotic Imaginary of Condescending Gentlemanly Explications of Their Decision-Making.”

I’m going to complain, as this project goes on, about the general failure of soldier-novelists to write plausible female thoughts–but it’s nice to have this truly abysmal failure in the background, that we might better appreciate the earnest, sporting, second-rate failures.[4]

 

Charles Carrington, having volunteered three days previously, joined a long queue in Birmingham today to be

‘attested’, medically examined, sworn in, handed the King’s symbolical shilling, and… dismissed to wait the calling-up order. Again nothing happened for four weeks and while the Battle of the Marne was fought and won I was riding around Warwickshire on my bicycle. But I was a soldier, drawing pay at the rate of one shilling, with subsistence allowance at he rate of two and ninepence per day. Twenty-seven and sixpence a week was a good wage for a working man in those days.[5]

Carrington, however, was not a working man, but middle-class and well-educated, with a pedigree close enough to that of the typical subaltern to make his enlistment in the ranks proof of real enthusiasm and a lack of pretension–some of his formative years were spent, after all, in New Zealand.

 

Henry Williamson probably received today[6] two letters from masters at his old school, Colfe Grammar School. Both were dated the 7th: he had evidently been sending milder versions of his complaint/brag letters to destinations other than home during last week’s YMCA writing tent frenzy. Colfe’s was an old school, but it was not as prestigious as the real Public Schools. It aspired. The headmaster’s letter is worth quoting at length:

My dear Williamson,

Many thanks for your most interesting letter. The hardships will not be without their use & when you get fit,–why, glorious. I speak having suffered in many a weary walk…

Yes, the old master likens his strolls to military training marches–then again, Henry was probably asking for it with his paeans to his own mahogany fortitude.

Very many old Colfeians have taken the post of honour. We hope to make a roll of all such for undying memory, Never was there a more righteous war–civilization against despotism. None of us can survive with honour unless there is victory.

It is quite probable the war may be short. What sort of soldiers are made by scouring & spitting in the face. There can be no ideals. And we must hope & trust though all the strings of our lyre be broken….

In fairness, neither have Henry and the other Territorials learned to respect German soldiers and loathe the bravado of old men now asleep in England. But, histrionic as Williamson’s letters have been, there is no excuse for a man of (presumably) mature years indulging in the following sort of “I’ll be there in spirit” sentiment. Horseshit:

…when you lie in the field amid all the panoply of war, seeking memories of the past ere sleep falls upon you, think that my thoughts will be with you nightly in my solitary walk between 10 & 11 p.m. with regrets that I cannot be with you to share your fighting & hardships.

Kindest wishes. Very truly yours, F.W. Lucas.[7]

Well, Master Lucas has done very well to force me to a positive revision of my opinion of Hardy’s watcher-of-the-troops. The figure in the poem may ponder ineffectively and get shouted down by the marching men, but at least he ponders. He’s no great victory for poetry over jingoism, but he reminds us, even from the wayside of such a weak poem, why Hardy will be beloved of the trench poets when so many old writing fellows are despised. As for Lucas, it’s frightening that a teacher, even one writing to buck up a young man in the army, can string together casual stereotypes of German militarism, bullshit classical references, total assurance of righteousness, and the unquestioned assumption that, strolling along of a London evening, he can “share” the lot of the soldier. No wonder so many soldiers will feel that they have to take the burden of writing the war upon themselves, to question their faith and redirect their fire.

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 246.
  2. Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 3.
  3. Silkin, Out of Battle, 51. The quote below is, to be bibliographically explicit, found in Fussell, 58, who quotes it from Silkin, 51, who takes it from William Cooke's biography of Thomas, who wrote it in a letter to W.H. Hudson.
  4. Frankau, Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant, 62-3.
  5. Carrington, Soldier from the Wars Returning, 52.
  6. This is blatant guesswork, but there seems to be a two-day lag in his correspondence with home, and it would be a shame to omit this letter.
  7. Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 21.

J.B. Priestley Enlists; Peter Jackson Takes Offense

Sir John French has acquiesced to Joffre’s plan/prophecy of yesterday afternoon. The strategy was clearly correct, and although Sir John was timid, incompetent, and none too devoted to the cause of France, he realized that Britain needed, at least, to stand beside the French at the crucial turning point of the campaign. And then he exerted himself, and his armies, very little. The BEF was exhausted (hardly more so than the French, but no matter) and so it rested today, with only a few units moving slightly to the north in support of the French advance. “The Miracle on the Marne” was a French achievement.

To England!

 

Nineteen-year-old J.B. Priestley, a Yorkshire clerk and freelance journalist, enlisted today, his motivations obscure–at least to his later self.http://images.esellerpro.com/2486/I/300/4/lrgscalebritons-want-you-coaster.jpg

The usual explanations were no good. I was not hot with patriotic feeling; I did not believe that Britain was in any real danger. I was sorry for ‘gallant little Belgium’ but did not feel she was waiting for me to rescue her.

So nuts to you, Kipling.

The legend of Kitchener, who pointed at us from every hoarding, [see right] had never captured me. I was not under any pressure from public opinion, which had not got to work on young men as early as that; the white feathers came later.

These would be the white feathers handed by young women to fit-looking men of military age in civilian clothes, in order to shame them out of their cowardice. Works like a charm. This being an ironic war, the feather-girls seem to always have picked officers on leave, in mufti. Although perhaps the feathered officers are just more likely to pass on the anecdote.

I was not carried to the recruiting office in a rush of chums, nobody thinking, everybody half-plastered. I went alone… I was not simply swapping jobs…this was no escape to freedom… I was not so green. And I certainly did not see myself as a hero, whose true stature would be revealed by war… What is left then to supply a motive?

Nothing, I believe now, that was rational and conscious…. I went at a signal from the unknown… There came, out of the unclouded blue of that summer, a challenge that was almost like a conscription of the spirit, little to do really with King and Country and flag-waving and hip-hip-hurrah, a challenge to what we felt was our untested manhood.[1]

Well, fair enough. Priestley knew what he was about, and re recognized the spiritual/big time old fashioned gender constructed call as driving force behind his enlistment. A retrospective judgment, but not therefore necessarily untrue or renovated with unseemly thoroughness. And yet Priestly doesn’t earn the Brittain/Williamson/Sassoon Order of Merit For Definitely Not Whitewashing Youthful Pigheadedness and Folly, does he?

 

It’s been a while since we checked in on Peter Jackson, non-Hobbit-directing fictional alter-ego of Gilbert Frankau. This is heavy-handed stuff, with some good class-sneering from an author (yes, yes, it’s the character who will speak, not the author, but they are very close) who was often subjected to class snobbery and anti-Semitism in his own life. It’s also a rare look into the British business community at this time of the war. Later the question of profiteering will come at least a bit further to the fore, but it’s interesting to imagine how cynical businessmen might have dealt with September’s combination of panic, patriotic enthusiasm, and unleashed government spending.

It was a month and three days since the outbreak of war. Paris–thought Peter, as he sat alone in the back office at Lime Street–was practically safe. Still, it might easily be six months before the Cossacks got to Berlin. Meanwhile…

Meanwhile the business–Nirvana Cigarettes–is in trouble. In comes the detestable Hubert Rawlings, whom we know to be detestable because he is Jackson’s brother-in-law, because he is manifestly very detestable, and because he replaced a mobilized officer during the Bank Holiday Tennis Party.

Hubert Rawlings, publicity agent, had not been worried with any whispers of the ‘British spirit.’ The contemptible cry of ‘business as usual’ found in him an able propagandist. Government officials, eager to do anything except fight, had decided on a campaign of advertising, as wasteful to the country’s purse as it was degrading to its patriotism; for this campaign, Hubert Rawlings proved himself an invaluable henchman. Posters, leaflets…  one more revolting to decent folk than the other–spawned themselves in his lower-middle-class mind, spewed themselves over London and the provinces.

And to think, Peter Jackson had never even seen this: http://img3.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20070108204019/uncyclopedia/images/c/ce/Kitchener.PNG

But anyway. Peter Jackson takes the meeting, and Hubert tries to cut him in on a deal, with four other men, to sneak in as middlemen and make a killing selling overcoats to the government.

“Overcoats?”

“Yes. For Kitchener’s Army… the coats work out, for cash, at fifteen shillings…. The War Office is paying twenty-five. That”–the voice became unctuous–“means a profit of….”

“Five thousand pounds,” snapped Peter. for a moment, old habits asserted themselves ; he was tempted. A thousand more for Nirvana ! Then all the emotions of four weeks blazed into cold flame. He got up from his chair, eyes black with rage ; controlled himself in time ; and said slowly:

“don’t slam the door as you go out, Rawlings.”

“But surely….” began the other,

“did you hear what I said?”

“Yes, but…”

“Damn your eyes! Will you get out of this office before I throw you out….”

Rawlings went.[2]

Well then. Peter Jackson may now view his business responsibilities in a new light. Kitchener aside, can he put a finger on the whole manhood/spirit/country/sacrifice thing? We shall shortly see.

References and Footnotes

  1. Priestley, Margin Released, 81-2.
  2. Frankau, Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant, 60-61.

The Master and the Regulars; Pooh on Armageddon; Vera (shows) appeals to Edward; Donald Hankey Adopts a Gospel of Tough Love; Osbert Writes for Money

Before we get to the Master (that’s Henry James!)[1] a word on the Regulars: as I mentioned in a post a few days ago, we will need, now that war is upon us, to find a few committed diarist/letter-writers/memoirists who were serving in the army when the war began. Their accounts will allow us to follow the fighting in France, day by day, while our poets are still in school, or dithering, or just beginning their training. The regulars will be joined, in a few weeks, by a number of volunteer nurses.

So please do bear with this week of cacophonous posts: we meet a few more people, now and soon, and then try to keep the other balls slowly rolling while we follow our Regulars to France. There we will keep a close eye on one or two at a time and letting each voice speak several times a week.

 

As for today, a century back, the reactions to yesterday’s momentous events began. Henry James, the suddenly superannuated master of the civilized novel, wrote that

The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness by the wanton feat of those two infamous autocrats is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for my words.[2]

 

And now to a brace of one-and-future Regular Officers:

 

August 5, ’14

The Gospel says: ‘Love your enemies.’ That means: ‘Try to make them your friends.’ It may be necessary to kick one’s enemy in order to make friendship possible. A nation may be in the same predicament, and be forced to fight in order to make friendship possible.[3]

These were the thoughts that Donald Hankey jotted down in his notebook today, a century back. Hankey, twenty-nine, entered into the same soul-searchings and deliberations as so many other young Englishmen with a somewhat unusual perspective. From a wealthy middle class background, he attended Rugby (overlapping with Rupert Brooke, although Hankey was older) but then went on to the Royal Military Academy. His army career, however, was very short, due both to illness and an antipathy for military life, and Hankey spent most of his twenties as a student of religion and home-front missionary in some of England’s poorest urban neighborhoods. He had also traveled, tried foreign mission work, and wrote–both a scholarly book on Christian doctrine (the result of his studies at Oxford) and as a travel journalist.

So Hankey would need to square his English gentleman’s desire to enlist with his very serious commitment to a life lived for the gospel. He had experience living outside of the usual haunts of a privileged life–he had traveled to Australia in steerage and he made a habit of pursuing his missionary work in the clothes of a poor laborer or farm worker. This seems to have been a high-minded attempt to bridge the famous English class gap and bring the good news without its distancing effect, although it’s hard to imagine this sort of class-drag not causing some resentment. Hankey wasn’t really trying to pass, however–he still lived well when he was not working–but rather saw his attempt to mix with those less, er, fortunate then himself as essential experience for his chosen path in life.

It was his intention to eventually become an ordained minister, in fact, that led him to consider the unusual step of not seeking a commission but rather enlisting in the ranks. His military expertise might be more valuable if he served as an officer, but wouldn’t a gentleman ranker gain invaluable insights into the lives of the lower classes by fighting alongside them, insights that would enable him to be a better future shepherd of their souls? Hankey will waver for a few days.

 

Hankey was a thoughtful Christian, both a student of his religion and a man determined to make actual sacrifices (of financial and social comfort) in order to serve his God. Many of the writers who set the tone of English public discourse about the war in its early weeks were, however, willing to put God and religion to use–it was patriotism first and religion wherever it was useful. (It should not need pointing out, after all these years, that all the combatant nations claimed god for their side–the Germans even created a hot little corner of the military souvenir resale market by asserting this fact on their belt buckles, which read Gott Mit Uns.)

Now it won’t do much good to complain simply that each nation claimed right for their side, and backed that claim up with the most universal sort of appeal (fewer, even, than now, were those then willing to openly disespouse any sort of monotheism). If they were going to fight a bloody foreign war, how could they not claim that (their) God was with them?

Well, so: we’ll come back to this subject when more specific outrages against religion are committed. What I want to show today is that the knee-jerk assumption of divine backing for national policy got particularly sodden and sneaky-noxious when it was mixed with the late Victorian habit of couching patriotic sentiment in the pseudo-medieval language of chivalric warfare. These barrages of cant and gassy hypocrisy were so dense, especially in the war’s early days, that they infiltrated the edges even of the most resilient minds, those intelligences most swiftly and tightly masked against lies.

Everyone caught at least a touch of the gas–even Robert Graves, even Thomas Hardy. But here is the unadulterated stuff:

So shalt thou when morning comes
Rise to conquer or to fall,
Joyful hear the rolling drums,
Joyful hear the trumpets call,
Then let Memory tell thy heart:
“England! what thou wert, thou art!”
Gird thee with thine ancient might,
Forth! and God defend the Right!

The standard-bearer (see?) for this sort of imperialist, retro-phony horseshit was Henry Newbolt, best known for “Vitai Lampada” (thesis: cricket is like war, and the playing fields of Eton will literally teach you how to die well at your primitive machine gun, and earn undying glory–“vitai lampada” means “torch of life,” or, perhaps “eternal flame”–over the bodies of so many heathens). Newbolt was a very bad poet, and very popular (see here; scroll down for elitism!) but a professional writer of sporty doggerel can’t afford to be slow off the mark. Today–the first full day of the British war effort–his poem “The Vigil” appeared in the Times. Its last stanza, quoted above, gives a good sense of the rest (there are, for instance, several other exclamations to “England”).

This gives us, at least, the ability to ask, here at the beginning, what exactly “war poetry” is supposed to do. Drums, trumpets, sure, well–those won’t go up to the line of battle, anyway–but “gird” and “thou wert?”

What does it mean (to be a man far too old for active service and) to exhort the youth of England to risk their lives in an idiom that no one speaks any longer, and one that refers to an invented chivalric past? As it happens, Newbolt had written these lines sixteen years before, in alleged “mystical anticipation” of this, its initial publication on the day when thousands of young Englishman would begin to choose whether or not to gird themselves.[4] Unless we take the mysticism literally, we might then wonder what sort of sacred and heroic feelings can lie unblunted in a desk-drawer for almost long enough to raise new cannon-fodder from scratch and yet retain any real meaning: there is a very frightening thought–or un-thought–behind this poem, namely that whenever capital-W War comes, it is Joyful and Right.

 

From the heart of London, Osbert Sitwell wrote to his father. Although his autobiography mentions a sudden paternal offer of cash a few days earlier–and implies that he refused it–his father’s archives preserve a letter from today requesting money: “I hate worrying you about these things as I know how dreadfully the war will affect you… but one’s chance of survival in this war seems so small that it is not worth taking small risks on account of expense,” so please, Daddy Dearest, send me some money so that I might buy a new pistol and field glasses.

An unimpeachable request! And, considering the circumstances–Osbert’s constant high living and indebtedness–also a monumentally manipulative and cheeky one.[5]

 

 

And on the fictional outskirts of London, Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant, handed over the wheel of his car to his chauffeur, the better to ponder how the war will affect his fledgling cigarette company. (Not well.) In the back seat, cousin Francis, the gifted layabout and imaginary-best-friend-of-thedashing-secondary-character-who-is-not-a-stand-in-for-the-author, practices his Dutch and German–what could he be thinking of?

Rather awkwardly, today, a century back, marked the publication of an issue of Punch, the great and influential humor magazine, that had, of course, gone to press before the events of the Last Weekend. The magazine, like all major British cultural organs, would immediately toe the line and unstintingly support the war effort–so today, of all days, marked its only real anti-war gesture. You can’t even pick up a newspaper, a century back, without stumbling over situational ironies. He’s a rascal, that young A.A. Milne; here’s how his story began:

 

The conversation had turned, as it always does in the smoking rooms of golf clubs, to the state of poor old England, and Porkins[6] had summed the matter up…

“What England wants,” he said, leaning back and puffing on his cigar, – “what England wants is a war. (Another whiskey and soda, waiter.) We’re getting flabby. All this pampering of the poor is playing the very deuce with the country. A bit of a scrap with a foreign power would do us all the good in the world.” He disposed of his whiskey at a draught. “We’re flabby.” He repeated.” The lower classes seem to have no sense of discipline nowadays.” We want a war to brace us up.”

It is well understood in Olympus that Porkins must not be disappointed. What will happen to him in the next world I do not know, but it will be something extremely humorous; in this world however, he is to have all that he wants. Accordingly the gods got to work.

There’s not much more to the story: the gods get to work, and because one fat useless English club-man subscribes to the popular idea that cultural decadence can be sweated out in a war, hundreds of thousands are slaughtered.

 

Back to reality: today was also the day that a handful of fully equipped regular battalions began to move toward France.
The signal arrived at Dorchester at about 2.30 a.m., and we were underway 3.15. We started in pouring rain, the men in the best of spirits, singing at the top of their voices. I have forgotten what they sang, but it was certainly not “Tipperary,” which was already out of date in Quetta the previous year.

The Second Royal Welch (2/RWF) was an old regular formation, and these old sweats were too cool for Tipperary. A “humorist” will later sing it when the battalion appears to be lost on the march, but this was not a song, apparently, that real soldiers embraced, even at the beginning. A striking number of memoirs make reference to “Tipperary,” usually with a hard commitment one way or the other: either “Ah, but did we love that song!” Or “Real soldiers scorned that false stereotype of the carefree Tommy, and we only ever heard rookies or idiot civilians singing it.” History can be tricksy, and now you know: lightweight Great War buffs talk about Tipperary, but the real vicarious Tommies sigh at the affectations of the nubes.[7]

We need to meet yet another young officer, stationed today, a century back, as it happens, in Tipperary itself–yet another reminder that the war that until very recently had seemed to loom largest in possibility was civil war in Ireland.

Lieutenant Billy Congreve of the Rifle Brigade was twenty-three years old and extremely tall and skinny, looking more like a well-brushed and knobby-kneed school boy than a soldier. And there are lots of clearly pre-war pictures on the web, so enjoy. But he was a graduate of Eton and Sandhurst, the son of a VC and the older brother of a midshipman who were, by the time the news reached Ireland, already moving. With trouble on the horizon, Billy Congreve had recently started a diary, in which he will record his combat experiences, which will begin not long after those of the 2/RWF–few were as well-prepared or apt in the sudden new war. Still, Tipperary aside, the story of mobilization in Ireland is one that Congreve can hardly help reporting–in a journal he began in anticipation of war–in an ironic register:
15222a_0009

Billy Congreve in a pre-war photo

We were all medically examined today and made wills–at least the men did. I didn’t, as I have nothing to make one about.
All the village is very perturbed. They follow us about and weep copious tears and utter long-winded blessings. Mr. Hegarthy came up to me with a somewhat alcoholic manner, and mysteriously ushered me into his holy of holies, a stuffy, dirty hole. Here he gave me whiskey of great merit (?) and potent beyond words, and a box of cigars. I had to take all this and many words of affection besides, I hope I played my part well.[8]

 

Considerably closer to the action was Lieutenant Edward Louis Spears, the rare British regular officer with fluent French, and conveniently located in Paris:[9] ,

I was ordered to the Grand Quartier General on August 5th, and was told I would be taken there in the liaison car leaving the War Office at 1.30 p.m…  Our departure caused some excitement. We piled into the car, a huge racing machine owned by a very nice man who had been mobilised as its chauffeur…

As the great doors swung open and the first British officer started for the front, a cheer burst forth from the hundreds of clerks, orderlies, etc., who had just marched back from dinner… and were leaning out of the windows or were still in the immense courtyard.

The driver stopped at a bazaar to buy two large Red Ensigns which were secured to the wind screen as a sign that the British really were in the war…[10]

Showing the flag indeed. By that evening, Spears had been presented to General Joffre, the French commanding general, and begun his work as official British Liaison.

 

And finally, Vera Brittain:

Wednesday August 5th

 

All the news of last night was confirmed this morning.. war between England & Germany is formally declared…

The town was quite quiet when we went down, though groups of people were standing about talking & one or two Territorials were passing through the streets. Several Territorials & one or two Reservists were going off by train this morning & there was a small crowd on the station seeing them off. Close by us a Reservist got into a carriage & his father & a girl, probably his wife, came to say goodbye. The girl was crying but they were all quite calm…  Though excitement & suspense are wearing, I felt I simply could not rest but must go on wandering about.

…I showed Edward an appeal in The Times & The Chronicle for young unmarried men between the ages of 18 & 30 to join the army. He suddenly got very keen & after dinner he & Maurice wandered all round Buxton trying to find out what to do in order to volunteer for home service.  They were informed by someone at the Police Station that the best thing to do would be to telephone to the Territorial Headquarters at Chesterfield. They got on to a very interesting officer there, & told him they wanted if possible to be allowed to serve for a period as they did not want their service to interfere with their going to Oxford if it could be avoided…[11]

The “appeal” mentioned here is Lord Kitchener’s call for one hundred thousand volunteers to form what would soon be called the “New Army.” Kitchener was one of the few senior British politicians to voice the opinion that the that the war might last several years, and that a larger army–something at least closer to the relative scale of the continental conscript armies–would be needed. His appeal was well received: many more than a hundred thousand were ready, willing, eager to serve, and so Edward and his friend Maurice–and Roland too, of course–began their maneuvers upon the formidable British military bureaucracy, their goal being to seize a place in “Kitchener’s Army.”

Now, my fondness for young Vera Brittain should be apparent, and I hope I am conveying something of the rare mix of stubborn self-regarding intelligence and writerly sensitivity which she possessed even in 1914–but oh the cruelty of a young woman scorning! Just yesterday she was taunting her rejected suitor, Bertram, about his uselessness to his country–he had evidently not been in his school’s cadet corps–and today she opines that Roland, despite his cadet training, should be spared war, on account of his lofty beautiful brains…

References and Footnotes

  1. No, he's not important to this project, but why pass up a chance to sentence us to a booming sentence by the master of the incomparable whopper sentence?
  2. Quoted in this fashion by Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined, 1. Transcriptions of this letter differ somewhat widely; one site even attributes the quote to Paul Fussell...
  3. Hankey, A Student in Arms, 187.
  4. Hynes, A War Imagined, 25.
  5. Ziegler, Osbert Sitwell, 53.
  6. I do not at this time know of any connection between this proto-Pooh and his namesake who flew under the call sign Red Six, but I fervently hope to discover one.
  7. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 5, 25.
  8. Congreve, Armageddon Road, 20--yes, another book entitled "Armageddon."
  9. Né Spiers--like Ford Madox Hueffer he kept his birth name until after the war, then published his most famous work--in Spears' case, an account of the first month of the war--under his newer and more English name. Spiers wanted his name to be "correctly" pronounced. And also not to reveal his Jewish ancestry.
  10. Spears, Liaison, 19.
  11. Chronicle of Youth, 87-88.

Siegfried Sassoon Pedals Away from His Past Life, Stephen Graham lolls in the Altai, Phillip Maddison Shivers in the City, and Peter Jackson Dominates at the Net

Stephen Graham, intrepid journalist and travel writer, will not officially qualify for inclusion in our great game for quite a while–he will not see France for more than three years. But he did see some unusual sights at the beginning of the war, and his rather syrupy writing should carry a day like today, as we teeter on the edge of the Last Summer’s Last Weekend–1914’s week is one day ahead of ours, today being, a century back, a Friday.

Thousands of miles from any of the rest of our correspondents, hanging around one of the outlying settlements of a tottering and backward empire, Graham was nevertheless a witness to the accelerating effects of technological progress. A century on, we tend to overemphasize the extent of our globalization and interconnectedness. Things move faster now, but the shrinking of the globe had, in the most fundamental ways, already occurred, a century back: even the Tsar had a telegraph system that moved his orders thousands of miles in a matter of hours.

I was staying in an Altai Cossack village on the frontier of Mongolia when the war broke out, 1,200 versts south of the Siberian railway, a most verdant resting-place, with majestic fir forests, snow-crowned mountains range behind range, green and purple valleys deep in larkspur and monkshood. All the young men and women of the village were out on the grassy hills with scythes; the children gathered currants in the wood each day, old folks sat at home and sewed furs together, the pitch-boilers and charcoal-burners worked at their black fires with barrels and scoops, and athwart it all came the message of war. At 4 A.M. on July 31st the first telegram came through, an order to mobilise and be prepared for active service. I was awakened that morning by an unusual commotion, and, going into the village street, saw the soldier population collected in groups, talking excitedly. My peasant hostess cried out to me, “Have you heard the news? There is war.”

A young man on a fine horse came galloping down the street, a great red flag hanging from his shoulders and flapping in the wind, and as he went he called out the news to each and every one, “War! War!” Horses out, uniforms, swords!

…The Tsar had called on the Cossacks; they gave up their work without a regret and burned to fight the enemy. Who was the enemy? Nobody knew.[1]

In his next book about his Russian and Asian travels, Graham gives us perhaps the most far-flung Englishman Abroad version of a Last Summer piece. He imagines England, now that it is

holiday time, the end of July, the Englishman’s great liberation moment when, even if he goes on working in office or factory, he ceases to work hard and lazes at his work. His wife and family have gone to the seaside. He will join them in a week or so. Meanwhile he is “camping out at home.” The young man is buying stout boots and greasing them for tramping, is scanning maps and guidebooks, and making absurd tables of mileage, prospective hotel bills and expenses.

And where is Graham?

Just outside the Cossack settlement it was late summer, and the glossy peony fruits were turning crimson from green, opening to show rows of black teeth – seeds. But as you climbed upward toward the snow the season changed, and it was possible to recover the lost spring…

It was comparatively easy to reach districts where it might be thought no foot of man had ever trod–primeval moss-grown forest…

Above this jungle was a stretch of steep mountain-side sparsely grown with young firs, and then grey, barren, slippery rock. Wonderful shelves and chasms, fissures, precipices, and ways up without ways down, boulder-strewn tracks and founts of bubbling water, milk-white streams, crystal streams.

Most days I spent by the side of a little mountain river, where I built a sort of causeway out of rocks, diverted the channel, made a deep bathing-pool–enthralling occupations. Here also I had a bonfire, made coffee, baked potatoes, cooked red currant jam. Strips of red currants hung like bunting on some of the bushes, and were so thick that you could pick a potful in a quarter of an hour. Here also I sorted out and re-read thirty or forty copies of The Times, saved up for me, with letters, at the post office of Semipalatinsk–all the details of the political quarrel over Ulster, the resignation of Sir John French (as he was then called), of Colonel Seely, the vigorous speeches of Mr. John Ward, the brilliant defences of Mr. Asquith. We seemed to be running forward silently and smoothly to an exciting rebellion or civil war in Ireland, and nobody seemed to deplore the prospect of strife. The Government, nominally in favour of peace at all costs, were incapable of preventing their opponents obtaining arms, and were, therefore, allowing their friends to arm. On the whole we seemed to be tired of the dull blessings of peace, out of patience with peace. Yet we were not ready for the strife that was coming, though certainly in a mood to take arms. It is astonishing that with our many international characters – those diplomatical journalists of ours – we did not know what was coming, or no one was at pains to undeceive us….

It is astonishing to look back now to those serene and happy weeks in the Altai and to feel the contrast of the innocence of Nature and the devilish conspiracy in the minds of men. If there are devils in the world, black spirits as opposed to white spirits, what triumph was theirs, what hidden ecstasy as at the coming triumph of negation. Behind the screen of this silence horns were blowing announcing the great feasts of death, the blasting of the temples wherein the spirit of man dwells, the orgy of ugliness and madness.[2]

Awfully purplish prose, even though Graham is looking back from a comparatively near future–it feels as if the spectres and trumpets, so blatantly super-imposed, shade the memories of July to a hew of technicolor wistfulness we can’t quite trust.

Still, like Vera’s daily diary summaries of The Times, a nice way (I hope) to sneak an ironic reminder of how much the gaze of the war’s future participants was, that summer, astray. They gazed at the pretty flowers, whether in the Altai or Kew Gardens, or they stared in consternation across the Irish Sea…

 

Back home in Kent, we pick up Siegfried Sassoon after his day of cricket and stormy pianoforting.

Next day, which was July 31st, it seemed that any form of movement would be preferable to the intolerable suspense of waiting for further bad news… A good long bike-ride, I decided–even if it didn’t stop me thinking–might perhaps enable me to think with a less benumbed brain.

Bicycling to Rye–a distance of thirty miles which I covered without dismounting–I felt very much as if I were pedalling away from my past life. My unseeing eyes were on the dusty road, and my brain was automatically revolving the same ideas over and over again. In the leisurely contentment of normal times I should have looked at the country and remembered how I had ridden over it with the Mid-Kent Stag Hounds. I should have stopped to note some place where I jumped a fence into the road or a stile out of it. That sort of thing had now been wiped off the map. Germany, France, and Russia were all rumoured to be mobilizing. As for me, I was merely resorting to restless exertion while disentangling my mind from its reluctance to face the fact that the only thing left or me to do was to mobilize myself into the Army… Having achieved this decision, which seemed embarrassingly heroic, I approached Rye feeling more relieved than elated…

I ate a big tea, lit my pipe, and stared seaward toward Winchelsea from the friendly terrace of an old inn on what had once been the city wall. Having renounced independence of action (joining the army meant that, I assumed) I now felt immune from any sense of responsibility… I should have been quite put out if someone had told me that there might not be a war after all, for the war had become so much my own affair that it was–temporarily and to the exclusion of all other considerations–merely me! It even occurred to me that–whatever else I might be in for–there was no more cause to worry about money. And I did not need to be reminded that–not many days ago–I had been faced by a deplorably unfertile future. I was clear of all that, anyhow.

And so our Siegfried, however much he usually dawdles, trailing the play of his more mentally agile acquaintances, is a good step and a half ahead of everyone else–it’s only Friday, with the Fateful Bank Holiday Weekend still in the future, and yet his mind his made up.

It’s curious: is this about patriotism (yes–or at least in the same basic sense that all “gentlemen” thought it incumbent upon them to volunteer if they were fit; Sassoon is just quiet about that) or about escaping debt and poetic dead ends (a little bit, but he could have continued to dawdle at home indefinitely)? It’s also the larger and more diffuse question of the meaning of life in late youth: as indolent as he was and as slow as he makes himself out to be, Sassoon was not a fool. Neither was he a cynic, nor a hedonist. He was wealthy, but he felt he needed to do something, and so the war, even with his lack of jingoism or bloodthirstiness, was welcome.

Still, bicycling home, he realizes that he has decided to involve himself in an enormous and terrible struggle–a better thing to be a pawn in than to contemplate from without. Back home, he dismounts with “a sinking sensation in my middle,” and the latter-day Sassoon suddenly throws this telescopic view of one fateful day into binary vision.

Observing that bicyclist from to-day, I find it difficult to imagine and share his emptiness and immaturity of mind, so clueless, so inconsequent, and so unforeseeing. Confronted by that supreme crisis, he rides to meet it in virtual ignorance of its origins and antecedents… Confused and uncomprehending, he has no precedent to guide and instruct him.[3]

This is a bit thick–another last crashing chord for the Last Summer theme of Perfect Innocence, albeit with the emphasis falling the blindness of foresight rather than the richness of hindsight–but it’s not unfair. Sure: we can wonder, here in the after, why there was so much complacency when politics had been so volatile for so many years (although there’s your answer right there…) and we might hope that a firmer understanding of history would head off such immaturity in the future (sure! Why not?), but the crucial note is a true one: there has been no big European war in more than a generation, and no British involvement in such a conflict in ninety-nine years. There is no one to instruct him.

 

The willingness to ironize, to complicate the past and retell pristine experience as a protest against what will come,is very familiar now–a staple of war writing. But it wasn’t then. A more typical approach is that of Gilbert Frankau, a popular middlebrow novelist of the war. Here is the knowledgeable and skilful Peter Jackson, on holiday in Berkshire:

Peter, playing brilliantly at the net, and Patricia, backing him up accurately from the base-line, defeated their opponents in three straight setts [sic]. Followed [sic again, it’s an affectation] tea, a languid paddle towards Shiplake, the dressing-gong, stiff shirts and low frocks, auction bridge…

July the thirty-first, Nineteen Hundred and fourteen ! Already the Beasts in Gray–murder, rape, and plunder in their swinish eyes–were abroad. Already the Crime, so long premeditated, had been committed. Even as these four sat at their game, less than fifty miles away from them, up in London, amiable old gentlemen of Westminster were scuttling hither and thither, incredulous, anxious to compromise, fearful.

“Two no trumps,” said our Mr. Jackson.[4]

Follows snark. The style is clunky, and after Sassoon’s Sassoon, it is jarring to read of a protagonist whose mental processes are so thinly drawn, whose thoughts chime in Capital Letters along with the fussy and bombastic narratorial voice…

 

Less sensitive, if perhaps even less subtle, is Henry Williamson’s rendering of his alter ego’s last Friday in the office.

It was Friday, the last day of July. Desmond was home from school… Willie was arriving that afternoon at Waterloo; Monday was August Bank Holiday. Then, very soon, camp at Eastbourne! Life was tremendous fun, really. [Williamson’s emphasis.]

And yet–and yet–somehow, under everything, a feeling of coldness, of longing, of dread, was growing; and the feeling became entered on the talk of war, which, stealthily, and in secret, was a thing to be desired. War–everyone spoke about it… Secretly, awefully, fearfully, one part of him desired the excitement that was war to become more and more; while another part of him quailed before a vast, fathomless darkness.

When the news comes in that the Lutine bell has been rung, the older men of the office suddenly drop their eminently British assurances that business will proceed as usual–all the Mr. Darlings suddenly wonder what the long weekend will bring, whether business will indeed proceed on Tuesday.

Young Phillip, yet to figure out that his larkish enlistment in the Territorial Army will now mean something very different than a second-holiday-ish camp at Eastbourne, nevertheless accepts the verdict of his current superiors: war is all but inevitable. Williamson makes quite sure we know the confusion this wreaks in the soul of a simple British boy:

Phillip felt a cold shiver pass through him, and then the fearful longing for war, like a dark spectre.[5]

References and Footnotes

  1. Graham, Russia and the World, 1-2.
  2. Graham, Through Russian Central Asia, 248-52.
  3. The Weald of Youth, 270-73.
  4. Peter Jackson, 47.
  5. How Dear is Life, 116-19.

Wilfred Owen in the Mountains, Siegfried Sassoon’s Cricket Match Interrupted, a Plain, a Weekend Party, an Imagist Dinner, and a Dead Goat

So, readers, we near the end of the beginning: the Great Powers are mobilizing, and even Siegfried knows that war is coming. For the next week, then, this blog is going to be a busy mess–a mobilization less rigidly planned–as I try to give crucial updates on our “main characters,” introduce the soldiers who will first take us into combat, and fail to resist a plethora of interesting writerly tidbits. Bear with the madness, and in a week or so things will have settled down into regular daily posts of assimilable size.

Early in the morning of July 30th, 1914, Wilfred Owen left Bordeaux behind, taking a train south toward the little Pyrénéen town of Bagnères-de-Bigorre and the villa rented by the Léger family, whose daughter he was now to begin tutoring. By mid-morning, then, “for the first time in his life Wilfred saw real mountains.” By mid-afternoon he had also experienced an uphill ride in a donkey cart. As M. Léger was too old for service and there was no son to worry about, the rampant talk of war and mobilization seems hardly to have affected the isolated ménage.[1]

 

Meanwhile, in merrie olde England, Reggie Trench, no Orlando, but a rather sharp young accountant with a commission in the Territorial Army and an “ear to the ground,” wrote a letter to Clare Howard, his fiancée, as he prepared for the annual camp on Salisbury plain. Many other young Territorials and the even younger men and boys of the OTC had looked forward to these camps for weeks or months–they were good fun. But Trench was reading the papers, which had begun to acknowledge the gravity of the European crisis, and saw that the camp was likely to have a more serious air than usual, or even be rudely interrupted.

Of Germany, he wrote “If they come in we do inevitably I think, and one must remember that we would not then be fighting for any abstract “Serbian” reason but rather to prevent France being overwhelmed and to protect the neutrality of Belgium and Holland…” Already commissioned, Trench was ahead of the game (given his prophetic surname, he would be) in working out exactly why he should fight.[2]

 

That same afternoon, Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant, was reflecting on the success of his new cigarette company while motoring out through the suburbs of London behind the wheel of his shiny new cabriolet. Sales were climbing and, since “nothing could stop their automatic increase,” the future was rosy and his gambled capital would soon pay off. It was a good time–Thursday afternoon of the August Bank Holiday weekend–to take off early and get away to the house in the country.

Arriving in Wargrave (oh come ON!), Berkshire, at around tea-time, Jackson was met by his wife Patricia and his cousin Francis. The two cousins, fast friends since school days, had each inherited ownership in the family cigar business when their parents died young, but Francis was artsy and intellectual and lived a life of leisure while Peter, a tireless striver, had expanded the cigar business and gambled now on the new concern, Nirvana Cigarettes.

Bad news, upon arrival, however: Patricia’s brother, one Jack Baynet, had wired to say that he couldn’t make the weekend after all. Jack being an army officer, our hero assumes that his brother-in-law is being deployed to ever-restive Ireland.  But never mind: the cancellation is rather a beastly wrench in the works, given how much Peter had been looking forward to doubles tennis and bridge. The fact that a smarmy advertising fellow and his wife are coming instead is hardly a fair exchange. Well, a less than ideal situation–but even a rocky marriage and a half-spoilt weekend will hardly wreck the equilibrium of a conquering capitalist, cigar firmly between his teeth.

Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant, is too good to be true. Which makes sense, because he isn’t. Alas, Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant is also too trite to be tolerable–but I got this far and noted the dates, so we’ll give him his head and see how he plays. The novel, by Gilbert Frankau, is a bit dull and very self-serious–but it was a successful novel in its day and its protagonist shares so much in the way of personal experience with its author that it may prove to be a valuable addition to the project, in the category of “what certain of our war experiences look like when we freely fictionalize them.” Frankau was, like Peter Jackson, from a wealthy middle class merchant background (Peter had an easier time than his creator in moving his Jewish ancestry firmly into his personal past) and went straight from public school (Eton) into business. He had also over-extended himself with a risky expansion in 1914…  we’ll learn more about Frankau as we follow Jackson into the army, but for now let two facts stand: first, Wargave (no etymological relation!) really exists and is quite a reasonable place for a successful London bourgeois to take a summer cottage; second, I severely doubt that Frankau noticed the homophone or intended any irony. It’s not the subtle-perceptive sort of novel…

 

At about seven in the evening at Bovington Camp in Dorset a bugle sounded “Company sergeant-majors, at the double.” CSM Boreham duly doubled back to the Orderly Room, where he learned that the orders he had just received–concerning the movement 2nd Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers to Salisbury Plain for maneuvers–were entirely countermanded.

This time the Orders were very brief: “Pack up, we march back to Portland to-night.” Then the thought flashed through my mind–War. The men were jubilant, as is usual in such circumstances. I’m not afraid to place it on record that I was not ; the South African [i.e. Boer] War had taught me that there was nothing at all to get jubilant about. It is strange what thoughts pass through one’s mind in times of crisis. The very first thing that came to mine was the recollection of being verminous in South Africa, and the horror of being so again…

CSM Boreham is the first voice in a chorus-within-a-chorus: the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Welch (yes, that’s [their] preferred spelling) is, from our particular point of view, the most remarkable unit of the war. Several of the most interesting war poets–our central characters–passed through the battalion, and several other major poets and memoirists served in other battalions of the same parent regiment.

A brief word on regiments and battalions (skip ahead a bit, ye initiates): most British regiments at this time had two service battalions, called the 1st and 2nd–so we’re here with the 2/RWF–plus a “depot” formation and a number of territorial and/or special reserve battalions. The battalion was the very-roughly-a-thousand-strong basic operational unit, and battalions of various regiments were combined (moving up the scale of formation size) into brigades, divisions, corps, and armies. These were building blocks; but Britain being Britain, and old armies being old armies, each block was stamped with the special mark of the regiment that produced it. The army will soon expand, and battalion numbers will fly up into the twenties–but all battalions of the Royal Welch, be they ever so amateur and not so very Welsh, will get a little bit of regimental history and tradition, a little bit of esprit de corps, a little bit of a sense that, before they get to killing Germans, they might consider a fist-fight with a member of some inferior regiment, just to show who’s really part of the best old regiment in the army.

A lot to learn, here, but there are only two really important bits: first, “regimental” loyalty represents the old, traditional, conservative elements of military life–many of the things that soldiers value and have always valued–while the constant expansion and reshuffling of battalions represents the work of foolish or hard-hearted generals and governments producing and expending so much cannon fodder; second, in the opening months and years of the war, the first and second battalions of any regiment were the “regulars”–career officers and men who were hardened to military life and usefully trained, particularly in “musketry.”[3]

Now back to the 2/Royal Welch: not only did they host a number of poets (reasonably good poets among the actual professional army, as opposed to wartime volunteers, were much more limited in number–that number being approximately Julian Grenfell, himself a Royal Dragoon) but they also eventurally acquired a remarkable doctor, J.C. Dunn, who later engineered a collective history of the unit, a sort of human and polyvocal version of the usually staid and unprotesting battalion war diary.[4] So we will be seeing a lot of this battalion, and paying more than usual attention even to the other battalions of the RWF, which share traditions and, often enough, personnel with the second battalion.

And about those traditions: we will learn about the “flash” and St. David’s Day and Albuera in good time. For today, I only want to note that the Royal Welch, as a matter of ancient (some decades, to be sure) tradition, had a regimental goat. Not a pet mind you, but a Regimental Goat, born on the official strength of (at least the 2nd) battalion.

Today, a century back, the regimental goat died. “He must have known something.”[5]

 

At around the same time, at the Berkeley hotel in London, Amy Lowell was making some important connections over dinner.[6] The influential American poet and critic is only two days removed from hating on/heckling poor young Rupert Brooke, but tonight she dines with her own people. These are the “imagists,” self-declared vanguard of the Modernist movement, roaring poetic engines primed to race screaming down the highway of the literary future, hauling the twentieth century willy nilly into their slipstream and leaving the Georgian poets wandering dazedly amid the roadside wildflowers, coughing dazedly in the dust. We have yet to meet Richard Aldington, whose acid Death of a Hero is one of the most important (and least Roman-a-Clef-y) angry novels of the war, but we mention him today because he and his wife–the probably-more-significant modernist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)–were introduced, at this dinner, to the much-more-significant-indeed novelist D.H. Lawrence.

Lawrence owed his first break to none other than Ford Hermann Hueffer (a.k.a Ford Madox Ford) and was influenced by T.E. Hulme (the Modernist poet and philosopher we keep mentioning, but have yet to really meet) will exercise a huge influence on Aldington. He would never completely throw in his lot with the angry/radical Modernists or Vorticists (recall Blast) and was published in both Lowell’s Imagist anthologies and Eddie Marsh’s Georgian anthologies. But Lawrence never served–he was a committed anti-militarist and spent the war being harassed by the English authorities for his supposed pro-Germanism. So, despite his eminence, he is for us a great crumping blast from a big gun–but an “over,” a near-miss behind and away somewhere else. The Vorticist Wyndham Lewis, and the angry modernists Aldington and Ford, will reach the trenches, and we will see more of them…  Ah, I remember when I reassured myself that, even if the project seemed to be getting out of hand, at least I wouldn’t bother dealing with the Modernists… never such innocence…

 

Finally, in a lovely old house in rural Kent, after an afternoon on the cricket pitch, doing “quite a decent bit of defensive batting” for the Blue Mantles, a future subaltern of the 2/RWF struggled–awkwardly as ever–with a new complex of feelings. The cricket match had broken up as several players with military affiliations learned that they had been recalled to their stations. “That evening I played Prince Igor with more expressiveness than ever, while Mrs. Anely sat on the sofa by the window, appreciative of my performance, but unable to conceal her opinion that God alone knew what we should all be doing in a month’s time. My mother, whose courage was unshakeable, did her best to ‘change the subject’; but she couldn’t change the look in her own face.”[7]

 

And really finally, for today, Sometime earlier, in both absolute and solar-relative time, also at about tea-time–although presumably and despite his fondness for cousin George, he was not thinking of it as such–Tsar Nicholas signed Russia’s mobilization order. This was to take effect the next morning, although some troops in Moscow began immediately entraining for the West. A general war is now (even more) inevitable.

References and Footnotes

  1. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 126-7.
  2. Reggie Trench's letters are drawn upon by his grandson Anthony Fletcher in Life, Death, and Growing Up on the Western Front, a book with much the same approach to telling the story of the war as I've taken up here. I'm reading along with Fletcher now, and will be checking in on Reggie Trench regularly--I would urge any fanatical readers to get the book, which is an admirable hybrid of social history and personal history/group biography, although of course you would then find out what happens to Trench and the other subjects of the book before the century progresses in its due time. You'd find out much, in fact, from the cover. The quotation above is found on page 9.
  3. Change came slow enough to weapons, but even slower to words: musketry is shooting with a bolt-action rifle.
  4. Dunn's The War the Infantry Knew is the best--or possibly the only--book of its kind, and, although it's necessarily patchy and dependent on the memories of survivors, it's the only really compelling contemporary unit history. I would recommend it unreservedly were it not for the fact that I plan to steal and post all of the best parts.
  5. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 1-2.
  6. See Kinkead-Weekes, D.H. Lawrence: Triumph to Exile, 136.
  7. The Weald of Youth, 270.