Withdrawals and Approaches: Charles Carrington, Hugh Quigley, Edmund Blunden, and Guy Chapman near Passchendaele Ridge

Before we turn to the tribulations of Charles Carrington on the Steenbeek, we must look to our immediate rear, where we have such a build-up of memoir writers in the support lines of the Salient that poetry can pass from one to the next…


First is Hugh Quigley, soon headed back toward the front lines. A fell mood is upon him:

The Canal Bank, Ypres, 6 October, 1917

I am right in the thick of it again, in this historic place which I shall describe some time. When I think of the glorious weather, sunlight shimmering in the molten sky, slow winds just breathing over the wilderness of shell-holes, it seems so hard throwing it all aside for an uncertain end. Yet it must be done. Perhaps Fate may have some kindness in store for me. Last night I had a strangely poignant dream: I was lying in the hospital trying madly to move my legs, both tied down in splints, and biting my lips to overcome pain coming from the right groin. A comfortable wound might be the outcome of this premonition. Let us hope so: then I can see again the Old Country I had given up for lost, hear the old voices, look at the friendly glad faces.[1]


Edmund Blunden, too, is on the way back in. His last tour had been harrowing, although of course it could have been worse. All of his unsurpassed talent for knitting together Gothic horror and pastoral idyll in close company on the page is exerted here, as he describes the withdrawal and then the time in reserve:

After the most vigorous display by the Bosch artillery that I have yet had to cast my eye upon and a narrow escape from being pulled under in a swamp on the way out (I was in such a hurry to get out of the barrage that my foot missed the dead man I was going to use as a duckboard),  we came back to this Corydonian spot for a B.E.F. rest. We feed in a barn which smells most pleasantly of hops…

Or not–not yet: this is not the studied, sumptuous memoir bur rather a contemporary letter to his school friend Hector Buck, which soon more fully embraces the usual tone of frenetic gaiety:

A bevy of milkmaids flitters about and warbles dithyrambs in the sunny air; at times they cease to warble but make a noise exactly similar by working an obese and crotchety cream separator. Since I knew they were on the go I have broken my vow and shaved; but even then my Charms are not availing.[2]

The memoir also fills us is in on how Blunden and the 11th Royal Sussex were really spending their time out of the line: drilling, marching, shooing on rifle and pistol ranges, and practicing for some of the least Arcadian recourses of the war.

This next episode–gas training–makes it possible, using the Battalion War Diary, to date this description fairly securely to today, a century back:

It was even a pleasure here to see Williams, the divisional gas officer, and his same old sergeant, at their kindly, deadly work again. I forget what type of gas it was that Williams discharged upon us, leaving it to us to get our helmets on or pass out. However, I believe it was not at full strength, for some hens poking about in the stubble did not suffer. Perhaps God tempers the gas to the Ypres hen.

But here is a point of interest not only specifically to this project but to the entire genre of the war memoir. Several of our writers involved in Passchendaele have–even while describing its horrors at great length–begun to refuse to dwell firmly in their evolving historical moment. In 1917 the war has become too much to bear–or its young wager-victims have become too prematurely old to live without the melancholy shoring-up of reminiscence:

Our minds receded with actual joy to the 1916 war, and particularly that season when we were within the kindly influence of Bethune. When had we heard the word “a bon time” since? How few there were left even to understand what hopes had then borne the battalion on, singing, toward the Somme! When we left this camp of disastered 1917, to be merged again in the slow amputation of Passchendaele, there was no singing. I think there were tears on some cheeks.

More prosaically, Blunden reports that he was passed over for promotion at this time–“the General would not hear of it, claiming that I was too young. My offences against propriety of speech and demeanour were in any case sufficient to spoil my chances…”–but also that he will be given a company nonetheless (to command as First Lieutenant, rather than a Captain).

Before that I had had a special duty to do. It was to act as “Tunnel Major” in Hedge Street Tunnels — to regulate the very limited and fiercely coveted accommodation there, and the traffic in and out. This took me back to the accursed area again, and even while I made my way there the evil nature of the place displayed itself. Going up by way of Zillebeke, I was obliged to stop. An “area shoot” began, a solid German bombardment for an hour on a chosen space, enclosing several battery positions. This shelling was so concentrated and geometrical that, leaning against the side of our old trench just beyond its limit, one was in safety. But the area covered was treated as with a titanic roller and harrow. About half an hour after this shoot began, from the very middle of the furnace two artillerymen suddenly emerged, running like demons but unwounded.

Outside the large dugout which I was to supervise a quartermaster-sergeant’s body was lying. Men were afraid to pause even a few seconds at this point and bodies were not quickly buried…

I found the tunnels crammed with soldiers on business and otherwise. The Colonel and Adjutant of the R. F.’s, who had taken our place in the Tower Hamlets sector a fortnight or so before, were occupying a new and half-finished dugout; they used me very hospitably. The Colonel remarked, pouring me out a drink, “We no longer exist.” I asked how: he explained that their casualties had been over 400.

Our experience had been only the prelude to their full symphony…[3]


Guy Chapman‘s symphony, as it happens–it was his battalion of the Royal Fusiliers which greeted Blunden, though Blunden does not recall the young officer’s name.[4]

On our third evening in Hedge Street we welcomed a very young, very fair and very shy subaltern from the Royal Sussex, who were to relieve us the next day. His battalion had preceded us at Tower Hamlets and had suffered a like experience. Late that evening a 6-inch How-battery commander came in to ask for accommodation and stayed to dinner. He was a pale bald man with a near fair moustache. He thumped on the table and recited Kipling for our entertainment.

This next bit, then, would be proper to tomorrow, a century back:

On the next day I showed our incoming tenant from the Sussex over his noxious habitation. As we bade him good-bye, he shyly put a small paper-covered book into my hand. The Harbingers, ran the title, ‘Poems by E.C. Blunden.’ It went into my it along with the battered Shakespeare, the torn Evan Harrington, and Sir Thomas Browne.[5]


Finally, though, we must skip ahead, more in the geographical than the anticipatory sense. We left Charles Carrington (the “Edmonds” of A Subaltern’s War), yesterday, about to grab a few hours overnight in the A Company dugout. After two long sleepless days and nights, he was exhausted, jumpy, and not too proud to simply sleep in a place of greater safety, “a little bit of narrow trench partly covered with a sheet of iron.”

After dawn, Carrington/Edmonds continued to lay as low as he decently could.

I determined quite basely to take shelter for a few hours in C company’s pill-box, and presently plucked up courage and squattered across through the stream to it.

This pill-box was the only piece of good cover in the battalion area. Imagine a small room ten feet square and six feet high with walls of thick rough concrete. There is only one opening, the door, over which a waterproof sheet is draped. The furniture consists of four bunks made of wire stretched on wooden frames. Signallers and officers’ servants have made a little hutch under the lee of the outer wall. Inside, live Marriott and Flint, a serjeant, and as many other people as are thought to deserve refuge. During the day Newsom and Wolfe each pay a visit to get some rest. I come first and stay longest. After all, the headquarters of a front-line company make quite a good command-post for a support company commander, and Thorburn’s position is within shouting distance and full view by daylight. On such a little journey had we lost our way last night.

Flint is something in the same exhausted state as myself; Marriott, who came up from reserve with Thorburn and Wolfe after the attack, is very cheerful and doing most of the work…

Descriptions of pill-boxes will be a major feature of “Edmonds'” narrative from here on out, with loving attention both to their horribleness and their precise degree of protection against different armaments.

But war narratives can never be truly predictable: today passes pleasantly and amusingly, with a tone of light comedy, however much strained, by tension, toward hysteria:

Marriott welcomed me cordially enough, and found me the dry corner of a bed, where I tried to get an hour’s sleep, but with little success. After a time he came into the pill-box, grinning, to ask me to take away some men of mine who were creating a disturbance in his trench. I went out and found the ten ration-carriers of last night all roaring drunk. The poor devils had got lost, just like everyone else, had wandered all night, and finally decided that the company was annihilated. Not without good sense they decided not to starve. They did their best with a whole company’s rations, but a whole company’s rum defeated them. Hither they had wandered very happy and very sleepy, but rather inclined to sing themselves to sleep. We saved the rest of the food and rum, and sent over the
remains, plenty for my handful of men.

It was difficult to know what to do with these men. One or two were helpless and comatose, one or two were incurably cheerful, the others varied from one extreme to the other. To arrest them and send them down the line would bring shell-fire on them and their escort, besides weakening the outposts. I stormed at them in my severest manner, promising them all courts-martial and death sentences. Some understood me and sobered a little, but Bridgwater and two or three others only blinked and looked more amiable than ever. If I had had any laughter in me I should have burst out laughing, too. We brought most of them round to a condition soon where they could go back to the company. The hopeless cases we left to sleep it off. There were no shooting parties at dawn, after all, as a sequel to this episode.

During the rest of the day I remained almost entirely in the pill-box. The shell-fire gradually increased as it had done yesterday, but we had no direct hits, any one of which would have done for us. Marriott kept up a running fire of conversation all day, little jokes and reminiscences, sly hints about my company and the rum, comparisons of our men with the Colonials, anecdotes of the day and of old battles. He had a N.C.O. in the pill-box with him, as orderly serjeant, one of those professional humorists without whom no company could hang together. The queer turns of his dialect, and an attractive little stuttering in his speech, an acute street-arab sense of humour, combined with the
manners and deference of a gentleman, made him perhaps a perfect example of the urban soldier. The stories flowed out of him all day, his adventures with long-forgotten brigadiers, ‘madamaselles’ or serjeant-majors, his friends and their idiosyncrasies, love and war and the weather, the bitterness of things, red tape and bad language.
(I cannot refrain from quoting ‘that our armies swore terribly in Flanders.’) He could tell a tale against a staff officer always with tact enough not to scandalise the officers present. If I were Dickens and could write down what he said,
my fortune as a novelist would be made. But I’m afraid the jokes that made us reel with laughter would be flat to-day. One jumped at any excuse to be gay, and to laugh meant to forget that open door, facing the wrong way, through which a shell might come at any moment to burst in the midst of us…

But relief from anxiety through laughter is temporary–relief from the front line, by another battalion, is what they crave.

At dusk when we were all ready the orderly arrived again. Where were the Berks? we asked. Not yet come up. But he had brought instead a large rough mongrel sheep dog, trained to carry messages through fire. Marriott grew quite despondent. “I thought they were going to send up the Berkshires,” he said, “ but all we’re going to get now is barks”; at which we laughed uproariously. The Berks never did come, but before long a company of another regiment began to arrive. I collected my gear (we were in full marching order), and splashed through the stream to Thorburn, who had had another day’s shelling and felt a little neglected. We headed back a second time to the jumping-off line, where we were now to be reserve company. Marriott withdrew his men to our position in the shell-holes by the Stroombeek.

As Thorburn and I ploughed through the mud after our men, we passed one of the relieving platoons going forward. Their subaltern gripped me by the arm.

“Who are you? Where are you going? Where’s the front line? Have you seen A company?” he asked all in a rush.

“Keep straight on,” I answered jauntily, “follow the tape. Your captain’s up there. We’ve just been relieved.”

“Don’t go! ” he said. “Don’t leave us! For God’s sake, show us the way.” I had met someone more frightened than
myself. My confidence came back to me in a moment. This man was in a shivering funk.

“God damn it!” I said. “You’re all right. You’re much stronger than we were. There’s a good dugout up there—you can’t miss it.”

And I shook him off and walked on. I wonder what state that poor devil was in at the end of his tour. But I had only gained a momentary confidence, and before morning was sinking back into the same apathy of suppressed fear as before.

We took up our position on the right half of the jumping-off line, quite near headquarters. There were about twenty-seven men to organise in four sections, and place in the best shell-holes. For company headquarters Serjeant Walker, Thorburn and I found an old incomplete pill-box called on the map Cluster House. It was one of those early German efforts made of concrete on the western and of wood on the eastern side, so that in case of capture it would give no cover against German shell-fire. But it gave shelter from the rain, and here we settled. To make some amends to Thorburn for the twenty-four hours duty he had taken alone, I sent him to battalion headquarters to sleep, where they found him a corner of some kind. Walker took the top bunk in the little room, I took the lower one, but could only doze for an hour or two, in spite of the fact that I had not had eight hours’ sleep out of the last ninety. It was very cold and I was acutely aware of my wet knees.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Passchendaele and the Somme, 133-4.
  2. More Than a Brother, 12.
  3. Undertones of War, 246-9.
  4. Blunden's poetry will soon be well known; Chapman published his memoir five years after Blunden's Undertones.
  5. A Passionate Prodigality, 207.
  6. A Subaltern's War, 170-77.

Harry Patch Patched Up, and Loses Part of His Life; Jack Martin’s Near Miss; Guy Chapman in the Salient

The next evening, the doctor came. As shrapnel wounds went, mine was serious but not as serious as others’. He could see the shrapnel in my stomach and asked me, ‘Shall I take it out? before you answer yes, we’ve no anaesthetic in the can, it’s all been used on more seriously wounded than you and we’ve had no more to replace it.’ I thought for a moment. The pain from it was terrific, and I felt that perhaps a couple of minutes’ more intense pain might be worth it, so I said, ‘All right, carry on.’ The surgeon called for some help. Four people caught hold of me, one each leg, one each arm, and the doctor got busy, I’d asked him how long he’d be and he’d said, ‘Two minutes,’ and in those two minutes I could have damned well killed him. Swear poured off me. He cut around and then got hold of the shrapnel with tweezers, and dragged it out… It was two inches long, about half an inch thick, with a jagged edge. ‘Do you want it as a souvenir?’ he asked. ‘I’ve had the bloody stuff too long already,’ I told him and with that he threw it away. The doctor went over to the table and the fellow in the next bed said to me, ‘If he writes anything in the green book at the desk, you’re for Blighty…’

Harry Patch “was lucky, very lucky indeed, for the word Blighty meant everything to a soldier.” But, cut off from his unit and now in the grasp of the long tendrils of the medical evacuation system, he will not learn what other damage yesterday’s shell did until long after he reaches Blighty. When that “whizz-bang” shell hit, the last three men in the line, ammunition carriers for his gun team and his close comrades of many months, were all killed.

…it was like losing a part of my life… we belonged to each other… It is a difficult thing to describe, the friendship between us.[1]


Our writers continue to be not so much in lockstep as in stutter-step: now it is Jack Martin‘s turn to come out of the line, by night, into reserve, with his close friends and comrades around him. All that might differ is wind and weather, operational intentions and firing plans–or fickle fortune and sweet sister death.

It was a slow procession as the tramway track was blown up every hundred yards or so and we had to lift the wagon loaded with stores across shell holes. After about six of these adventures we met a very bad hole and decided to unload the wagon, carrying the things on our backs across the country till we should meet another truck. Fritz shelled us all the way but fortunately there were a large number of duds, the ground being so soft that the percussion was not sufficient to explode the shells. There were more stores than we could carry in one journey so we had to go back a second time. The distance was not far and just as we had put down the first load and were going back for the second a shell burst close to the wagon. A man who was making his solitary way down the line was very badly hit in the face and side and arm, his fingers were only hanging on by bits of skin. Two stretcher-bearers happened to be close by and they quickly carried him off. Just as we reached the wagon and were all crowded round it grabbing at the things in our haste to get back, another shell burst in the same place. The pieces flew all round us and over us and in between us but not one of us was scratched, whereas the other poor creature, making less than a twentieth of the target that we did, got so badly wounded. Such are the fortunes of war…[2]


And speaking of the fortunes of war in such an old-soldierly fashion, the next few days encompass one of the most vivid sections of Guy Chapman‘s A Passionate Prodigality, in which he fashions his unit as a bunch of grim and unflappable grognards. The precise dates of each event are difficult to ascertain, so I won’t be treating them at length. But if they weren’t, then his memoir would be as prominent here as Blunden’s, for it is nearly as good, and and the matter is similar enough to make an excellent close comparison: mud and confusion, blood and trauma, direct hits on dugouts, even bewildered carrier pigeons. I’ll see if I can tie down a date or two and copy some of the best bits of Chapman, but this note is more by way of recommendation: if you would read more of the particular grim insanity of Third Ypres, Chapman is your man…


References and Footnotes

  1. The Last Fighting Tommy, 110-12.
  2. Sapper Martin, 108-9.

Adlestrop Arrives; Kate Luard Quotes a Critique: “It Seems a Pity;” Battle Pieces and Counter-Bombardments: Two Ways to Observe a Battle, with Guy Chapman; Herbert Read Arrives; Duff and Diana Read the Source

None of Edward Thomas‘s poems appeared under his own name while he lived. Today, a century back, The New Statesman published what will become his best known and most widely loved poem, Adlestrop.

He would have been less interested, I think, in such fame than in the praise he has won from friends, above all the words which were just sent by Frost for the comfort of his widow.

But there are other traditional assessments of death and its qualities, hardly less conditional in their predication of judgments to the mind of the deceased: some might say something like “at least we can say that Edward Thomas had a quick and painless death.” I distrust cliches on such unfathomable topics, but perhaps we can inch toward comprehending such a sentiment as we read accounts which describe the sufferings of those who die slowly.)


Which brings us to Kate Luard, who continues to take stock of the pain of the Battle of Arras. Her celebration of courage never wavers, but I questioned recently whether that very celebration–absent any sense that the war’s cost might be protested by the men bearing the worst of it–isn’t more problematic than it might seem. Sister Luard is not about to turn protestor, but she seems almost to have heard the question, posed a century on, and opened up her record of the war to one short, stoic query of all this suffering. If she won’t ask the question, she will let one of her patients–to whom she has accidentally been cruelly (by her own lights) honest–speak freely. (And, indeed, what could someone already devoting all her time and energy to nursing the wounded of both sides do, but write?)

There’s a handsome Scot with one leg off who asked me last night to take his socks off. I took one off. ‘Have you taken the other off, too?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I said guiltily; ‘they’re both off now.’ Next day Sister told me he knew his leg was off, but he didn’t. To-night he said, ‘My feet are hot.’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘especially the one you haven’t got, I suppose?’ (It always is the one they feel most.) ‘Have I got but one?’ he said. I was covered with confusion. ‘Ah, well, I can see by what ye say I’ve got but one, but it’s no matter. I feel a pain in them whiles, but I can smile between the pains. I’ve got two daughters and a wee son I’ve never seen. I know what I’ll do when I do see them. Don’t I know!’ (And I’m afraid he’s in for gas gangrene and may not see them.) Then he looked round the ward at all the stumps and splints and heads and said, ‘Seems a pity nearly everyone has to get like this before Peace is declared.'[1]


From Sister Luard, then, to the Royal Welch, where the semi-official chronicle of Dr. Dunn also draws a very thin, sharp line between the truth of war and the lies that spring up like mushrooms in the mud.

The account of our recent action which G.H.Q. has received and published makes very interesting reading. “Our troops charged down the ridge,” “driving the enemy down at a canter”: of aught else–nothing. What artistry!

…Rumour is never so busy as during a fight. Following the fight comes the legend, and it grows hourly as individuals, often far away, and units gather to themselves credit and garlands, or have these thrust upon them for the credit of someone else. It’s all so human and amusing.[2]

Amusing, perhaps, but only to those on one side of the experiential gulf. G.H.Q. may be in France, but it is far from the troops, and the truth.


Guy Chapman‘s A Passionate Prodigality is one of the best books written about the war, and both its subject and its execution fit this project up and down. Except for the alight problem that Chapman, another literary young officer, never gives dates. But today, shortly after Chapman is sent down from the staff to find his battalion (the 13th Royal Fusiliers), I get a rare chance to match his memoir to a historically recognizable action. We won’t really be able to track his development, so this is s snippet to recommend a worthy book to enterprising readers–and to advance today’s accidental discussion of truth in battlefield historiography.

The attack was to be launched at streak of dawn, 4.25; and at that moment a wild racket was once more loosed into the void. Once more the curtain of darkness was changed to a whirling screen in which flaming clusters, red, orange and gold, dropped and died; and dun smoke, illuminated by explosions, drifted away greyish white. Once more red and green rockets called frantically for aid. Once more eyes stared into the impenetrable cataract, vainly trying to pick out familiar outlines. The enemy’s barrage joined the din. Black columns of smoke stormed up in the foreground. And through it all came wave on wave of the malicious chitter of machine guns.

But Chapman isn’t in the attack; he is watching from a hill–at least at the start. He is no Epicurean, and does not find the spectacle a soothing one. His account of watching the attack from a distance harmonizes marvelously with the Royal Welch complaint about “battle piece” obfuscations.

The story of this attack will no doubt appear in the military history of the war, elucidated by diagrams. To the watchers on the hill-side it was only a confused medley, in which English and Germans appeared most disconcertingly going to and fro, oblivious of each other. Even later it was only possible to glean that one brigade had lost direction, and coming up behind the flank of the other after the position had been taken, had swept on, carrying away with it the better part of two companies of the 13th; that some reached Square Wood, a mile past the objective, and that perhaps a dozen in all returned. This is part of history, but all we were able to see were some of the ingredients.

Chapman is no doubt right about how the battle will look in large-scale histories, but, ironically, his later “gleaning” seems to derive from either the official regimental history or a common source among regimental papers:

On April 28th began that series of attacks which aimed principally, if not wholly, at assisting the French. The 13th Battalion attacked from the trenches about 300 yards east of the Gavrelle-Roeux road. Their objective was the Whip cross-roads, south-east of Gavrelle. The attack began at 4.25 a.m…  At 10.15 a.m… Nos. 3 and 4, held the road, including the cross-roads, for some 250 yards. The success was complete though the Fusiliers had been constantly harassed by fire from snipers and machine guns…

While the Fusiliers were on their objective a body of the 63rd Brigade swept across their front leading towards Square Wood from the south-west. They had lost direction, but they succeeded in carrying a body of Fusiliers with them until they were recalled. The 10th Battalion, in support of the 13th on their right flank, had made persistent attempts to get into touch with this brigade, but without success.[3]

Just one more brief bit of Chapman. He sees the German counter-attack massing and tries to help, rushing to alert the gunner-observers on the hill with him. But they know their business, and Chapman is once more forced to be the more passive sort of observer, and a very different sort of ancient Roman exemplar from the smooth-browed Epicurean philosopher:

I caught in my glass a grey ant crawling over the edge of the railway cutting, followed by another, and then more…

When I looked again, the assembled ants had moved. They came crawling over the top of Greenland Hill in three lines, about six hundred strong. They were just starting down the forward slope when something flashed in front of them. A column of bright terra-cotta smoke was flung upwards so high, that there shot into my memory the pictures of the djinns in an old copy of the Arabian Nights, and I half expected a leering hook-nosed face to look down from its summit…

More Germans join the counter-attack.

All the field guns were firing now. In what seemed a few minutes this formation too was scattered. Small groups tried to escape by flinging away to the flank. ‘One-o degrees more right, up fifty,’ shouted my neighbour.  A little puff of white smoke danced gallantly in the air. A few tiny figures shrank to dots. ‘Got ’em,’ he shouted; ‘Repeat.’ other officers up and down the trench were excitedly calling similar orders. In ten minutes the counter-attack was broken, smashed, and tossed in the air like a handful of dust: and up here everyone was whooping, laughing, and holloing. We were a Roman audience at the Coliseum, bull-fighting fans at a fiesta, good citizens who brown a pack of grouse tearing down the October wind: we were in fact a group of young Englishmen who had just helped to knock out about a thousand Boche, and we were damned glad about it.

His counter-attacks broken, the enemy spent the day shelling what he could get at. One shuddered to think of flesh cringing beneath the huge shells which fell again and again along the battered line. Darkness came gently in. I turned as I crossed the skyline. Solitary shells were singing through the air. Dull crunches announced their arrival in the distance. A dump was burning in Plouvain, and against its lights, black ghosts towered upwards.[4]


Another young officer and powerful writer will shortly become a bit easier to keep tabs on. Herbert Read has returned to the fight, and joins our recent company of subalterns quite pleased with their new company.:


I arrived at my battalion last night, after wandering over the face of France for three days…

I am in the thick of the new fighting. We are not in the trenches, but expect to go up sooner or later. But it is intensely interesting: no fear of getting bored here. The guns are going all day and night. this morning, very early, we were wakened by a furious strafe. You know what ordinary thunder is like: imagine that continuous for a couple of hours and yourself not listening to it, but inside the heart of it: that’s something like it. And then the air is one continuous quiver of gun-flashes…

I like my new battalion very well on first impressions: there are three other officers in my company, and they are all very decent fellows… I expect I shall be quite happy. We are all optimists out here. We’ve got the Boche absolutely cowed, and our men are splendid. There are big events pending–and if they go as we expect the war will be over in no time. With a bit of ordinary luck I’ll see you sometime these summer holidays.[5]


And back in London, Duff Cooper continues to pursue Diana Manning, only to be continually driven to distraction by the interference of “Scatters.” Three days ago, Duff “went home in a black rage not only of jealousy and anger but also of sorrow that she should sink to such depths as Scatters.” Two days ago she called to apologize, and he accused her of “deteriorating” and confided in his diary that “I loved her less.”

Today, a century back, Duff and Diana made up–almost successfully. They had dinner and “a great quantity of champagne,” Afterwards, to get her back to his place, Duff

bribed her with the promise that she should read my diary. She came and I read her all the last month. I was drunk and had forgotten, when I started, the incident of reading hers, I had to go through with it. She took it well and assured me that she didn’t mind. I regretted bitterly having done it.[6]

Whether in France or in London we have strange optimism, questionable tactics, nonsensical strategy, and valor in the face of self-inflicted adversity…


References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 119.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 340-1.
  3. O'Neill, The Royal Fusiliers in the Great War.
  4. A Passionate Prodigality, 163-6.
  5. The Contrary Experience, 90-1.
  6. The Duff Cooper Diaries, 52-3.

Phillip Maddison Writes, but not to Father; Rowland Feilding on Deep Dugouts, Glistening Seals, and the Hell of Mametz Wood; Donald Hankey Neat as a Pin

Phillip Maddison, wounded on the First of July, reached England a few days ago. He has endured the agony of early treatments for large flesh wounds–scraping, probing, tweezers. And he is in shock, it would seem–or despair. He has written only a brief note, telling his family that he is alive and wounded, and then a field postcard to the keeper of his local pub.

Today, a century back, chided by a nurse, he brings himself to write to his mother. Still, he pretends that only two visitors are allowed, and asks her to bring his sister with her. The scene immediately shifts to his father, near their suburban London home.

On the Saturday afternoon of July 8, Richard Maddison was working in his allotment, with a satisfaction based on two thoughts that gave him a calm feeling: one, that his son was at least out of the battle, with wounds that were not so severe as to lead the authorities, in whom he had implicit trust, to send for his mother and himself; two, that the benefit of sub-soiling he had done upon his rods of land was to be seen in the healthy appearance of the growing crops.

This minor reverie is then interrupted by Lily Cornford, the troubled, winsome, soft-focus girl who loves Phillip. She registers as merely an intrusion for Richard Maddison until she reveals that she is now a hospital volunteer. Then her inquiry is acceptable, and, when she blushes, and becomes a “Vision.” Lily has heard that Phillip is wounded, and is reassured by his father’s bland confidence.

Richard Maddison is distracted, pleased by the pretty young woman’s attentions. We are left for a moment watching him savor the expansive feeling that these attentions bring–watching, if we’ve been reading, with something of the snide derision that his son (or, rather, the author) might feel. Only a foolish old Victorian Polonius would have “implicit trust” in the authorities that sent waves of half-trained soldiers into intact wire and machine guns…

The puncturing of this mood is, by Williamsonian standards, fairly subtle. Lily moves on and, a few minutes later, one of Richard Maddison’s fellow special constables (these middle aged men were tasked with enforcing blackout restrictions and watching for Zeppelins) brings home the meaning of the encounter: the whole neighborhood knows more about Phillip’s condition than his father does.[1]

Henry Williamson‘s fiction is usually even more obvious: he’s the ham-handed man-child caught axe-grinding once again… really! It can be very heavy going indeed. He aims to comment on every aspect of the war, borrowing from his own war experience only when it’s conventionally exciting and otherwise throwing Phillip into every possible battle and using the public record for the details. At the same time he bears down, for thousands of pages, in exhaustive scrutiny of the salient facts of his actual personal life. These are, essentially, twofold: his fickle, immature, and changeable character (“Phillip” is always high-minded, but alternately clownish and noble, courageous and cowardly), and his father’s responsibility for molding that character.

Which is why it is good to read Williamson, here. Going into the details of why we have what writing we do have from these century-back soldiers breaks the fourth wall of the project, as it were: suffice it to say that few nasty or whingeing letters from serving soldiers are preserved, and fewer published. And we don’t have much in the way of complaint about one’s parents. I often make reference to one Philip Larkin poem, here, but there’s another one that serves just as well as a reminder of what British writing c. 1916 (or 1930, by which time almost all of the seminal novels and memoirs had come out) is too polite to encompass. And mum and dad–dad especially–did a number on Henry Williamson.

So, thanks to fiction, we are reminded here of a sobering fact: some wounded soldiers were miserable and depressed. Some blamed their parents for their predicament–fairly or no. Williamson/Maddison is in the army because the Territorials, just before the war, seemed an easy way to find the social acceptance and manly aura that he craved–and this craving stemmed from his father openly despising him as a weakling and Mama’s boy. It’s fiction, but, hey–it’s plausible. Today, a century back, somewhere, a young officer was suffering not only the misery of his wounds but the wounds of his unhappy childhood. And a father–a stiff, unpleasant father–was suffering the wound of his son’s skilfully nasty flanking fire: that postcard to a publican, that pretty girl who knows more, who cares more than he does…


Back to the front, now, with Rowland Feilding, who reports to his wife on the aftermath of the Somme.

July 8, 1916. Bois des Tallies.

Yesterday I went off alone to visit Fricourt, which our troops captured last Monday. There was a picture of the village two or three days ago in the Daily Mirror, which I saw yesterday. The picture showed a church and a street
of battered houses. It was not the Fricourt of to-day, which has no church, nor even a house standing. There remain just fragments of walls: that is all.

As you enter the village from this side you pass the cemetery. The tombstones—practically all—have been shattered and scattered broadcast. Scarcely a grave could be recognized by its nearest and dearest, save through its position. In one case, near the roadside, a shell has fallen upon one of those elaborate and rather pretentious family vaults so much in vogue in France, pulverizing the great black granite slab which covered it, and exposing the coffin shelves below. What a sudden and rude awakening for those sleeping bodies, and how undreamed of when they were laid in their highly respectable bourgeois tomb!

Heavy rain began to fall at midday, and continued in torrents at intervals throughout the afternoon, and all last
night. I had gone to Fricourt to look for Percy Clive, but when I reached the place I found that heavy fighting was in
progress before Mametz Wood, about a mile in front, and that his battalion was in it. So I had to postpone my visit.
The wounded were being carried back in streams, all covered from head to foot with the mud in which they had
been fighting, slimy and glistening like seals. It looks more and more as if Hell cannot be much worse than what our
infantry is going through at the present moment.

I should break in here, for a moment–Feilding has gone to report on aftermath, to do some prompt battlefield tourism, and he has found instead a fierce battle in progress. Percy Clive, a liberal MP and fellow Grenadier Guardsman, is now with (and, I believe, commanding) the 7th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment, part of the 17th Division. It has fallen to that unit–“The Northern Division”–together with the 38th or “Welsh” Division to drive the Germans from the steep, still-in-fact-wooded Mametz Wood.

Mametz Wood, before

Mametz Wood, which awkwardly straddles a dividing line in the trench map system

This attack will be one of the worst–the bloodiest, the most futile. Overly-complex plans, delays both avoidable and inevitable, and staunch German resistance to attacks that could not be less surprising led to several bloody repulses, yesterday and today.

This is an area that concerns our literary war very closely: in the map at right we can see “The Quadrangle,” in which one trench was single-handedly captured, and then relinquished, by a buccaneering Siegfried Sassoon. That area has been taken now, but the over-matched soldiers of the Northern and Welsh divisions had to attack from there and positions further east up the steep hillsides (note the contour lines) into the Wood.

David Jones and the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers were in the area but missed the attacks–today and tomorrow they will be in brigade reserve, just behind the lines. The day after tomorrow, they will go forward. And yes, it will be “hell,” but with Jones writing, it will be a far stranger, more rich, and more terrible place than that stock comparison suggests.

And in what may be my single greatest sin of omission, I did not discuss Wyn Griffith‘s memoir yesterday.[2] Griffith is another Welshman (in both senses–he was bilingual and more firmly fixed to Wales than many of the 15th RWF or “London Welsh”) and another very good writer. Although he had been an officer in Jones’s battalion (the two may never have interacted directly) he was now on the Brigade staff of the 115th Brigade, 38th Division.[3]

mametz wood, east

Mametz Wood, eastern half, showing Caterpillar Wood

Griffith watched yesterday’s disastrous attack from a position of relative safety and terrible helplessness. No detached observer, like Feilding, he was part of the chain of command that should have been able to adapt the battle to changing circumstances. But not at this point of this war: “brigade” was close enough to the battle to see what needed to be done, but not high enough in the chain of command to make it happen. Telephone and telegraph wires were cut, artillery plans were not to be trifled with, and ill-conceived attacks ground on…

Griffith was in Pommiers Redoubt (just to the south of the positions shown in the map at right–this attack occurred over the junction of four different maps), which had an excellent view of the futile advance down and up the little valley between Caterpillar Wood and Mametz Wood. The Welshmen were raked by enfilading machine-gun fire from the right as well as stiff defensive fire from the wood itself. There was no supporting barrage, no smoke screen… but this was yesterday, a century back, and I omitted it because the only way to do it justice would be to include an entire chapter of Griffith’s book.

Up to Mametz is one of the best memoirs (I know I write this a great deal), but, as the title suggests it falls in between those whose scale approach autobiography and those which describe only a few days or weeks of particular intensity–it is the story of his war, up to Mametz Wood. I very much recommend reading it, but little is to be gained right now from a mid-sized excerpt, so I will just bring us up to date and include one short but representative comment.

The climax of the book–emotionally and operationally, as it were–will come in two days’ time. Yesterday, however, Griffith was the right-hand man to a quiet hero of the war. This was the brigadier, Horatio Evans, who felt he had no choice but to go along with the foolish staff plan of attack. But after a morning of senseless slaughter (another cliche, but merited here), in which scores of men had been killed in order “to prove to our command that machine guns can defend a bare slope,” Evans sacrificed his career to save the remainder of his attacking battalions.

A further advance was being ordered by staff officers–located six miles back–and the brigadier decided to refuse. But his lines were cut, and so it was Griffith who remembered seeing an artillery observation officer with a separate telephone line, ran and found him, brought his Brigadier to verbally refuse the order, and then ran back up to the assembly trenches, through shell-fire, with the written order to stand down, all the while “feeling perfectly safe in the hands of Destiny.”

Hundreds of men were saved, and Brigadier Evans was soon sent home, as he had predicted to Griffith–“they want butchers, not brigadiers.”[4]

He had saved the Brigade from annihilation. That the rescue, in terms of men, was no more than a respite of days was no fault of his, for there is no saving of life in war until the eleventh hour of the last day is drawing to an end.[5]


So today, while Rowland Feilding looks for his friend, that friend’s 17th Division is facing machine-gun fire in “knee-deep mud.” Griffith’s brigade has been sent back–he is filling in for a wounded Staff Captain, and spends the day on the phone “parrying all demands from Division”–but other elements of the 38th division are struggling forward at the same time. They will miss their timing for a planned night attack–another intervention of providence or destiny, and likewise temporary.

Tomorrow, in a farther-off echo of the 38th Division getting rid of Brigadier Evans, Haig will fire the divisional commander of the 17th (although he was responsible neither for the German defense, the weather, nor the British plan of attack, which originated either with Haig’s staff or at the Corps or Army level) for this delay.

Ironically, the delay caused by replacing the general who was sacked will put off the assault by another day, giving the German defense more time to prepare.[6]


Cutting back to Feilding makes him seem cold-hearted, but there it is. His “hell” may be unimaginative, but the image of wounded, beslimed infantry “glistening like seals” certainly isn’t, and this is an experienced soldier at war: he can do nothing to relieve the sufferings of other men even in a hell so proximate, so he gets on with his day. He continues to tour the recently-captured German front lines around Fricourt and gives us an excellent closing-of-the-circle on a subject of much discussion these last few weeks: the German dugouts that were responsible for the survival of so many of their gunners on July 1st.

I mentioned to a machine-gun officer, whom I met, that I might be going on leave in a day or two, and should like a
souvenir from Fricourt. Said he, “I think I can help you then,” and took me to a place his men had just discovered.


British Troops in a German dugout-entrance, Fricourt, July 1916

I have seen many dug-outs, but this beat them all. It might almost be described as an underground house, where instead of going upstairs you went down, by one flight after another, to the different stories. There were three floors, the deepest being 60 feet or more from the door by which I entered. The entrance hall—so to speak—was the brick cellar of a former house. There were two entrances, one of which, however, could only be recognized from the inside, since the doorway had been blown in. The other door, by which we entered, had been partly closed by a shell, a hole being left just big enough to crawl through on hands and knees.

The German occupants had evidently abandoned the place in a hurry, in the fear—entirely justified—that they might be buried alive if they stayed there. They had left everything behind. The floors were littered with every kind of thing, from heavy trench mortar bombs to grenades, the size of an egg, and from steel helmets to underclothing.


An unusual souvenir

Many rifles hung from the wooden walls of the first flight of stairs. The nooks and corners of the rooms were occupied by sleeping-bunks, and from one of these I picked up the French Alphabet de Mademoiselle Lili, par “un papa,” delightfully illustrated, which I will send home to the children.

As I returned to camp I passed many fresh troops on their way up to the line. What a bad start for them in these
deluges of rain! One meets nowadays on the roads many wagons returning from the direction of the line, loaded with “swab” equipment. The troops of the new army wear pieces of cloth of different colours to distinguish their Divisions and Brigades. A battalion—I think of Royal Fusiliers—which I saw marching up, fresh and clean and full of life and vigour, a day or two before July 1, had pieces of pink flannel over their haversacks, displayed in such a way as to be recognizable in battle by our aeroplanes.

A few days later I passed a wagonload of salved equipment returning from the line. It was interleaved with the same pink flannel, now no longer fluttering gaily, but sodden and bedraggled, and caked with sticky clay.[7]


Here’s a pretty comparison. Rowland Feilding writes to his wife; Donald Hankey–who has been in the fighting, and buried many men in the days following–writes to his young niece. Hankey has escaped the slaughter once again and, apparently, been sent on a course. See, then, what of the war can be written to a young lady, and how it can be safely garbed in familiar lineaments–the horror story, the religious lesson–without either quite meeting the scale of wartime killing head-on or, otherwise, abandoning some form of truth for utter falsehood:

July 8, 1916

My Dear Eileen,

Thank you for your letter, and please thank Kathleen for hers. When I got your letter I was living in a “dug-out,”  which was a horrid dark place without any windows, which was full of rats. The rats used to eat my breakfast and my candle, and even my clean socks! But now I have gone to school again. Fancy an old fellow like me going to school! But to school I have gone, and it is very nice too! The school is called the 24th Army School, and if you want to write to me you must put on the envelope

2nd LIEUT. HANKEY, 1st R. War. Rgt.
No. 2 Mess, 4th Army School,
B. E. F., France.

There are about 200 students at this school, and some of them are even older than me! We learn all there is to know about killing Huns without getting killed ourselves, and this is very important because a lot of people were killed the other day. Only one must remember that as they died doing their duty, God took care of them, and took them home with Him.

Well, I am sitting in a great big garden, with a great big house just near, and yesterday I went to a funny old French town to get my hair cut and buy some trousers, because when I came here I was covered with mud, and all my clothes had holes in them. And I had lost my walking stick, but now I am as neat as a new pin. But whether wet or dry, ragged or neat, I am always

Your affectionate uncle and godpapa[8]


One final note: for the past three days, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien, now with his battalion’s headquarters at Bouzincourt, has been near the battle, but not in it. Two companies of his battalion have gone forward to hold trenches near Usna Hill, but Tolkien, as the signals officer, stayed back. And in Bouzincourt he crossed paths, rather providentially, with his friend and fellow TCBS-ite G.B. Smith. The three “talk as often as they can, ‘discussing poetry, the war, and the future. Once they walked in a field where poppies still waved in the wind despite the battle that was turning the countryside into a featureless desert of mud’.”[9] The two know nothing, yet, of the fate of Rob Gilson.


References and Footnotes

  1. The Golden Virgin, 319-21.
  2. I also missed, yesterday, the first attack of the 13th Royal Fusiliers--Guy Chapman's battalion--on La Boisselle. It's described in A  Passionate Prodigality, 95-100. Chapman himself was left out of the attack, but he includes disturbing second-hand evidence of the murder of German prisoners. The Somme is overwhelming...
  3. To review: there are four battalions to a brigade, three brigades to a division. Thus the 38th Division had twelve battalions--each a New Army formation created by one of three different regiments.
  4. Evans was slightly wounded yet stayed at his post for the next several days--he seems to have guessed that the wound would be used as an excuse to send him permanently away from the battalion.
  5. Up To Mametz, 206.
  6. In a detail impossible to miss--and perhaps not coincidental--the Welsh Division was at this time commanded by Major General C. G. Blackader.
  7. War Letters to a Wife, 88-90.
  8. Letters of Donald Hankey, 338-9.
  9. Chronology, 83, quoting Carpenter's Biography, 83.

The Somme: The Calm and the Storm

Today is the worst day. The First Day on the Somme, more than any other day of the war, strains the limits of chronicle. It’s a day unlike any other–it has its own books,[1] it has a secure place as historical symbol or shorthand–the concentrated essence of the bloody futility of trench warfare–and it has its own legend. This is the day that stands both for British sacrifice–that noble, Brookean ideal of patriotic sacrifice beloved of so many of the men who will die today–and for the horrific toll that bad generalship will take on infantry.

On the one hand, then, this is a day of days for this project. On the other hand, the disastrous First of July overwhelms it. There is the nagging sense that this day “means” too much, or that it’s not really a matter of a day but a matter of hours, even of minutes–those horrible minutes when the first waves climbed out of their trenches and were mowed down in the open. But more than that there is the sense that this day overwhelms the sort of individual experiences that this blog seeks to stitch together. If we didn’t feel that the sufferings of individual men on specific days mattered, we wouldn’t read history. But when more than nineteen thousand men die and nearly twice as many are wounded, can “experience” still stretch out and keep contact with “history?”

So much happens today that it feels necessary not only to do some (relatively) careful geography but to examine the century-back war hour by hour, rather than taking the day in one glance.[2]

I’ve prepared a simple map (see below), showing the approximate position of ten of our writers (or their friends and loved ones), and I’ve decided to break up the day into four sections and follow each soldier’s story through the day, as far as it goes.

I’ve done one post each day since the start of the war, and I plan to do the same until the end. But today there will be four sequential posts. This one will go on to describe the last hours of preparation and bombardment while the next three will cover the initial attack at 7:30, the development of the battle, and the aftermath of the afternoon and evening. I usually time the posts for the British morning, but I’ve set this one to go early, the next to be posted at the moment of the assault,[3] and the following two at noon and six in the evening.[4]


First, let’s take stock: many of ‘our’ central writers were not in the battle: Edward Thomas spent the morning clearing out his study, reclaimed by his landlady;[5] Wilfred Owen was in barracks, still adjusting to officerhood; Robert Graves is en route to the battle, but has not yet rejoined a combat battalion in the wake of nasal surgery; Isaac Rosenberg and Ivor Gurney two poets in the ranks, are both in new battalions still being held in reserve; and the entire Guards Division–including Bim Tennant, Harold Macmillan, and Raymond Asquith–will remain in Belgium throughout the early stages of the Somme battle. Some of these men were relatively carefree today, others freighted with worry: J.R.R. Tolkien, whose 11th Lancashire Fusiliers were also in reserve, will be safe, but he had recently received what amounted to “last letters” from two of his old school friends.

somme positions 3

A map of the main assault, from Hart, “The Somme,” with authorial intrusions

Others will find themselves in direct supporting roles and witness the attack, while five young men who have appeared here before will go over the top with the first waves.

Let’s begin with Charles Carrington, teenage adjutant of the 1/5th Royal Warwickshires. Most of an adjutant’s work is clerical, and so he will have few specific duties during the battle, serving instead as his colonel’s aide. The 5th Warwickshires, part of the 48th Division, have been assigned a supporting role at one of the hinge-points of the attack, the junction of the Third and Fourth Armies (see the map, at right, top. The attack of the Third Army is intended as a diversion, and hence is omitted from most maps, including this one.)

Carrington will not himself assault the German lines, but he will have a good view of one section of the battle, and he thus chooses to take up the role of on-the-ground tactical commentator rather than personal memoir-writer. With him we can follow the progress, and regress, of the most northerly thrust of the main effort.

The colonel and I had a command post, obligingly constructed for us and ‘camouflaged’ (a new word in those days) by the divisional engineers. No sooner was it ready than the Germans scored a direct hit on it with a rather large shell at a time when, fortunately, we were not at home. Whereupon we decided to fix our battle position in an open trench behind a hedgerow from which there was a long view across country towards Serre and Bucquoy. I was much concerned with the state of the Serre road which ran through the lines, since I should have to organize the movement of our transport along it when the general advance should begin–not, we thought on the first or second day of the battle. The senior major teased me for my anxiety, assuring me that all we needed would be the officers’ mess-cart, since he had a case of champagne in store for celebrating the coming victory….

We and the 7th Battalion were to hold the line in front of Hebuterne and were to discharge a cloud of smoke and poison gas… On our right the main attack would be delivered by the Fourth Army…

Ours was thus the left-hand battalion of Hunter-Weston’s 8th corps and Rawlinson’s Fourth Army… at this difficult key-point in the battle I never received a visit from any staff officer from either army of from either corps headquarters. They stood odd at a distance and discharged preemptory orders at us.

My notebook is full of detailed instructions, largely relating to intricate traffic plans…[6]


Siegfried Sassoon, convinced that he will not survive the summer, has known for some days now that he will surely survive the initial attack: the first battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, too, are to be in support only. Yet Sassoon, like Carrington, will have an excellent view of an important junction: he is within view of the fortified village of Mametz, at the hinge between the eastward and northward sections of the attack.

Sassoon set the scene in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer:

On July the first the weather, after an early morning mist, was of the kind commonly called heavenly. Down in our frowsty cellar we breakfasted at six, unwashed and apprehensive. Our table, appropriately enough, was an empty ammunition box. At six-forty-five the final bombardment began, and there was nothing for us to do except sit round our candle until the tornado ended. For more than forty minutes the air vibrated and the earth rocked and shuddered. Through the sustained uproar the tap and rattle of machine-guns could be identified; but except for the whistle of bullets no retaliation came our way until a few 5 9 shells shook the roof of our dug-out. Barton and I sat speechless, deafened and stupefied by the seismic state of affairs, and when he lit a cigarette the match flame staggered crazily. Afterwards I asked him what he had been thinking about. His reply was “Carpet slippers and Kettle-holders”. My own mind had been working in much the same style, for during that cannonading cataclysm the following refrain was running in my head:

They come as a boon and a blessing to men,
The Something, the Owl, and the Waverley Pen.

For the life of me I couldn’t remember what the first one was called. Was it the Shakespeare? Was it the Dickens? Anyhow it was an advertisement which I’d often seen in smoky, railway stations.[7]

It was “the Pickwick,” a brand of steel nib–but then again the point is that the minds of men tense with expectation and bruised by long bombardment are neither here nor there, neither sensible nor complete.


Sassoon, at least, had to be primed to lead his men in various support missions–they were detailed to bring up materiel in support of the attack. Other battalions had done their work, and were entirely out of today’s fighting. This is all we’ll hear from Guy Chapman, whose 13th Royal Fusiliers were behind the lines, near Adinfer Wood.

The morning of July 1st dawned in its usual heat haze. We stood down about half-past three. I had been on duty since six o’clock on the previous evening, and going to my shelter fell asleep at once. Presently there crept over me the sensation of being rocked to and fro by someone with no sense of rhythm…[8]


As the bombardment built toward its conclusion, several of our writers were still hours away, including Donald Hankey, his battalion scheduled to attack in a mid-morning support wave; George Coppard, detailed to support the northern subsidiary attack; and Alan Seeger, who will go forward with the French Army, far to the south, in the afternoon.


But Rob Gilson, J.R. Ackerley, Will Streets, Edward Brittain, and Noel Hodgson will either leave their trenches during the last minutes of the bombardment or go “over the top” when it ceases. Streets, now a sergeant with the 12th Yorks and Lancs, will attack in a second wave, at “zero plus twenty.” In preparation, he and his men crawled out into no man’s land during the final minute of the barrage.

We’ll let Charlotte Zeepvat’s reconstruction of the experience of Hodgson and his battalion–the 9th Battalion, Devonshire Regiment–stand for what the tens of thousands of first-wave troops were now feeling.

At 6.25am the bombardment became intense. The air vibrated with the sound and the ground shook.

Rowand Freeman, a platoon commander in B Company of the 9th Devons, described the last few minutes:

…we were in assembly trenches waiting to “go over”. [Hodgson] and Capt. Martin and I were watching the bombardment of Mametz village. Then we sat on the fire step and ate some sandwiches. We were all very cheery & I don’t hesitate in saying that dear old “Uncle” was the cheeriest of the lot.

Hodgson, in command of the battalion’s specialist bombing section, was apparently moved up at the last minute from one of the supporting waves to the second. He hurried off to get the rum ration issued to his bombers…

All along the British front line, zero hour was 7.30am, but the 9th Devons and 2nd Borders, with extra ground to cover, went over the top three minutes before the barrage lifted. At 7.27am, Captain Martin with two platoons of A Company and Captain Pridham with two platoons of B Company, one of which was led by Rowan Freeland, climbed out of their trenches and began to move forward. Behind them, in the second line, the other two platoons of both companies and the first of the bombing sections; in the third line, Harold Rayner leading C Company, probably flanked by the remaining bombers, all three lines going over the top and moving forward simultaneously towards Mansel Copse, across the lower slope of the hill.[9]


Two literary bits, now, before this post closes. The next will begin with the assault.


The First Day on The Somme seems to have overawed most of the writers of Great War combat fiction. It seems to generally play a subsidiary or background role, a historical crater (or, thematically, a looming peak) around which historical-fictional protagonists gingerly edge. It’s too big, too much, and, perhaps, too deadly.

But Henry Williamson climbs every mountain, and he sloshes across every mud-filled crater. His fictional alter-ego Phillip Maddison has arrived back at the front in time to set the stage for the battle’s disasters, and to join the first waves of the assault. His (fictional) battalion will attack from an assembly trench between Ovilliers and La Boiselle, apparently as part of the 8th division, and thus not far from where Edward Brittain will do the same. With admirable economy, he provides for us the inevitable symbolic prelude:

The steely light above the north-west horizon, beyond the valley of the Ancre and Athuille wood, had scarcely began to fade when a new light, as of an electrified and glowing energy, began to rise in the north-east, over the Bapaume Road and the fortress of La Boiselle. Soon larks were rising above no-man’s-land, eager to see the sun.

With the lark-song came the hot soup containers, each slung on a pole borne on the shoulders of two men. Phillip saw his sergeant, and told him to dish it out at 6 a.m.[10]


Lastly, to represent poetry and to see us off to the attack, Ivor Gurney. His entire division, the 61st, was in reserve, but evidently well-positioned to watch the troops assemble.


To England — A Note

I watched the boys of England where they went
Through mud and mire to do appointed things.
See one a stake, and one wire-netting brings.
And one comes slowly under a burden bent
Of ammunition. Though the strength be spent
They “carry on” under the shadowing wings
Of Death the ever present. And hark, one sings
Although no joy from the grey skies be lent.
Are these the heroes — these? have kept from you
The flood of German beastliness so long?
Shall break the devil’s legions? These they are,
Who do in silence what they might boast to do.
In the height of battle tell the world in Song
How they do hate and fear the face of War.

Ivor Gurney[11]

References and Footnotes

  1. Martin Middlebrook's The First Day on the Somme is an important work of collective oral history (though not without its flaws) upon which I will draw below. More recently, there is Joe Sacco's The Great War, which is in fact a sort of mute graphic novel, an "illustrated panorama" of the today's attack--it's a strange and fascinating work, not least for the fact that it shows so much detail and yet somehow seems to leave the actual mechanisms of destruction unexplained. There are also, of course, several histories of the entire battle, each with long chapters on the first day, and many studies of different angles and subjects of the war which dilate on today, a century back.
  2. This may be a mistake: just as these hours are the most exhaustively studied by British historians and enthusiasts, these few miles of ground are the most carefully curated, and many historians and battlefield guides know the lay of this land very well. I visited the battlefield once, years ago, and must depend, as always, on secondary descriptions to supplement our witness-writers. But it is more in the spirit of the thing, anyway, to do what I've been trying to do over the last few days, namely to get to know the land from the contemporary maps, and from literature: John Masefield wrote a short book--The Old Front Line--that memorializes the physical locations from which the British attacked, describing them as they appeared in the year after the battle. I had planned to use him more, but have run out of time--a few brief selections, below, will show how the book works to supplement a map (which was included as a foldout in the 1917 edition, for those who would scour the used booksellers rather than settling for the facsimile versions or the scanned version online!)
  3. Unless I have misunderstood British War Time (very possible!), the 7:30 of the attack should be British Summer Time 7:30, or GMT 6:30.
  4. Apologies to those of you who have the posts forwarded via text or twitter or some such service if this puts off the timing. Management is not responsible for third-party delivery systems...
  5. Hollis, Now All Roads, 292.
  6. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 111-112.
  7. Complete Memoirs, 331-2.
  8. A Passionate Prodigality, 89.
  9. Zeepvat, Before Action, 194-5.
  10. Williamson, The Golden Virgin, 276-7.
  11. War Letters, 79-80.

Guy Chapman on Raiding and Loss; Alan Seeger on Absent Leaves and Leafy Bowers; Isaac Rosenberg Limps into France; Olaf Stapledon Challenges the Censor; Vera Brittain Gains and Loses Time with her Brother; Edith and John Ronald Tolkien Part

So I’ve been neglecting another excellent memoir. The major problems with reading Guy Chapman‘s A Passionate Prodigality are two: dates are few and far between, and it is very much in the style of Edmund Blunden‘s Undertones of War. Given that we have barely begun getting to know Blunden and his most beautiful of the war memoirs, it will be difficult for Chapman to find his own voice at the same time, as it were.

But minor Blunden though it may be, Chapman’s is still a very good book indeed, one of the best of the second rank of war memoirs. Chapman, a Kitchener’s Army subaltern in the Royal Fusiliers, has been out since July 1915 and has a good deal to tell us. He establishes several things very quickly: that he was very afraid to go to France and never entertained any “romantic illusions;” nor was he “resigned to self-sacrifice” or drunk on the wine of patriotism. Yet he went willingly enough because–and this is a major theme of the book–by the time the dust of enlistment-fervor settled, Chapman considered himself already welded into the framework of his battalion. And such is the utility of esprit de corps: form a disparate group into a military “unit,” and the bonds of fellowship and corporate pride (and social pressure, and the fear of being outcast) will ensure that the hesitating members of that group will be pulled along by the general obedience.

But Chapman uses a very different metaphor: he feels that he was “born into” the 13th Royal Fusiliers, and he would not be parted from his family.

It’s not unfitting, then–since Chapman first hoped to write a battalion history before settling on a memoir–that our first foray into the book is marked by the date of a death in that family. Chapman is not disenchanted so much as disgusted, in many ways, with the foolishness of the war. Early in his narrative–it is 1915, as his battalion is learning the ropes–he flashes forward to the spring of 1916, when “the costly and depressing fashion of raiding the other side” had been set by “the Canadians.”

I have read elsewhere of this idea that Canadian raids inspired a costly fit of large-scale raiding along the British front, but I don’t think I included it here–in any even,t other officers held the same belief as Chapman. Is this a sort of British Army scuttlebutt, in which rumors of new tactics by those naive roughneck Canadians are to blame for the end of any “live and let live” status quo? It would seem so, since the “fashion” must have been set among various divisional (and higher) staffs, but perhaps there really was some singular inspiration for the raids that are weakening and even demoralizing various units all along the front.

Such raids–especially when conceived as mini-attacks with bombardments that do more to warn the enemy than damage him–do seem pointless, unless it be a matter of relative morale and the “upper hand.” But that’s just the point: it seems even more lunatic to get men killed without even any hope of dislodging the enemy than it does to get (many more) men killed in an effort to win a few miles of trenches, and yet, as we have seen, there were numerous volunteers among the 15th Royal Welch, while officers of the Regular battalions clearly believed both that losses were worth the “moral” advantage of terrorizing the Germans opposite and that raiding provided individuals opportunity to prove their valor (and be rewarded for it). Nothing more primitive, nothing more probable.

In any event, Chapman has recently been on leave, and when he returned, the battalion Transport Officer was departing for his own leave and Chapman was detailed to step in as his replacement. So he took up an easy job–like a wise young subaltern, he let the experienced sergeant do all the work with the carts and beasts–and he missed the raid:

In spite of the Loos fiasco, we of course believed that the big push would succeed. After ten months in France, we were still in our state of primal innocence. But even in those early days the surprised mind woke momentarily to the thought, ‘but–it’s a life sentence.’

A night or so later, our raiding party crept out from the right company’s line and lay waiting for the 60 lb. T[rench]. M[ortar],’s to finish the breaking of the wire. A wind had risen during the afternoon and was now blowing across the front. The twenty-four men lay in the rank grass with Batty, Gwinnell and Perkins in front, waiting for the toffee-apples to lift and waver into the wire in front. The trench mortar fired; but the registrations had not been carried out when there was no wind. The breeze caught the bomb…

‘I say, guv’nor,’ said Private Billett to Gwinnell: ‘I’m ‘it in the bleedin’ arm.’

‘Shut up,’ growled Gwinnell. ‘So am I.’

‘Are yer, guv’nor!’ returned Billett. ‘I’m sorry to ‘ear about that.’

Light comedy, friendly fire. Bitter ironies:

Gwinnell staggered up, with three wounds in the leg, Perkins hit in both arms; but Batty lay still. A splinter had gone straight through his brain. Eight other men were hit, and there was no more to be done about the raid. Gwinnell, bleeding from his wounds, shepherded the men back and brought in Batty’s body.

This would be lieutenant Francis Clive Batty-Smith, killed in action on June 4th, 1916, at age twenty-two.

The catastrophe wrenched many of us as no previous death had been able to do. Those we had seen before had possessed an inevitable quality, had been taken as an unavoidable manifestation of war, as in nature we take the ills of the body. But this death, at the hands of our own people, through a vagary of the wind, appeared some sinister and malignant stroke, an outrage involving not only the torn body of the dead boy but the whole battalion.

Yet though we all loved Batty-Smith, our mourning was short.[1]


Everyone is chatty today, so I will skip through the long, lovingly-argued (in both senses–Olaf Stapledon can’t write without remembering his regard for his beloved, nor without revealing his deep care for ethical nicety) discussion of the rightnesses and wrongnesses of the war. But this bit, weary though we may be, should be part of the story:

In your last letter you stated as cogently as it can be stated the official position with regard to the war…

You ask if I am sure my cause is right. No, not since conscription. But I know that if I join the army it will be to escape from an uncomfortable position, to shirk responsibility, and not to help the Allies. I won’t join the army (yet I am practically already in the English & the French armies. The difference is a shade only, but a vital shade), because the whole war (especially if we win) is the




and as I love England (more than many a soldier) I will not


even if to refuse means to be damned body & soul. Even if it were to mean shaming the girl I love, even if it were to mean slipping away from her altogether. It may be priggish and snobbish and unsociable and pigheaded and pharisaical and hypocritical and hyperidealistical not to fight. The kindly human thing just now may be to fight. But if I fight it will be be through weakness & selfishness and a wretched desire for applause, and because I shall have shut my heart to the great Spirit that is trying to realise itself in every mind and every nation and in all liberties and human institutions. The Spirit is a live thing & a lovable. To obey it is not selfish salvation-seeking. I wonder how much of that will get through.

Not a whole lot! We see now the plight of suspiciously non-conforming ambulancers, who are not trusted to write “on their honor” as officers generally are. Alas. Olaf?

It is scrappy stuff anyhow…

Well, friend, I guess we have found a pretty deep difference between us, through I hope we are so close as to be able to kiss and be friends over the chasm![2]


Isaac Rosenberg is starting to fly high as a poet, but today, his first day on the march in France, he came down to earth. Rosenberg holds enormous power in his mind, but he’s also a classic shlimazl. He wrote two poems on the troopship, but he also lost his socks…

So I’ve been in trouble, particularly with bad heels… you can’t have the slightest conception of what such an apparently trivial thing means.

He had never told his mother that he was leaving for France–only his sister, and at the last minute. Now, the thing done, he re-establishes contact, and asks her to send him some socks…[3]


And hence to a very different poet–and yet one in a very similar position. The Boston Brahmin, Harvard-educated Alan Seeger also serves in the ranks, and, although he has seen combat and long service in the Foreign Legion, he too knows that summer is likely to foreshorten his mortal span. And he, too, is driven to get his verse at last into print. He wrote to his “marraine” (godmother) in Paris, three days and a century ago:

June 1, 1916

What a bitter disappointment! After having worked feverishly on my poem and finished it, in spite of work and other duty, in the space of two days, behold the 29th comes and the 30th, and no permission [i.e.”leave”] arrives. It would have been such an honor and pleasure to have read my verses there in Paris; I counted on seeing you and getting a moment’s respite from the hard life here. To have raised my hopes and then left me in the lurch like that was certainly cruel…

Disappointed in leave and in poetry, Seeger nevertheless makes the best of his situation.

Meanwhile we have come back to première ligne [front line] and are again in the little camp where Colette was killed. Strange how quickly one forgets here on the front. For a few days after that disaster the men kept to the abris [shelters], but now we are again careless as before and are living outside in the fine weather, though the same thing may happen again at any moment. I have a charming little house, made by bending down saplings and tying them overhead into a leafy roof. In this I have made a bed out of four logs, fastened into a rectangle about three feet by seven, between which chicken wire is strung, and then spread with new straw; voilà a most clean and comfortable couch. All around are sylvan scents and sounds and the morning sun shine slanting through the heavy foliage.

Seeger’s letters home to America are generally very different from our usual France-to-England missives–he discusses poetry, or long-term plans, and naturally enough, given the weeks such letters would take to go and come. This letter, to Paris, shows him in a much more familiar light: first, leave disappointments; then, trench-description. Now for the parcels:

What have I to thank you for since my last letter? The briquet, I think, and the aluminum flask, both of which were exactly the right thing. You cannot imagine what pleasure it is to receive these parcels. You see now we are living entirely in the woods, and never go back to the village cantonments, so that it is extremely difficult to get little luxuries of any kind… the pleasure of receiving them comparable to nothing except that of a child opening his Christmas stocking. Is it not pathetic to be in a state where a man’s utmost possibilities of volupté [sensual pleasure] are confined to the vulgar sense of taste, the lowest of all?

Even a letter to America–to his mother–of today, a century back, has a peculiarly British tone:

This sector has one exciting feature which I have not found in others: the deep woods allow patrols to circulate between the lines in day light. There are frequent encounters and ambuscades. This is very good sport… The enemy are so pushing the game along all the fronts that our reserves will soon have to be thrown in. There is this comfort, that when we go, it will not be to sit in a ditch, wait, and be deluged with shells, but we will go directly into action, magnificently, unexpectedly, and probably victoriously, in some dashing charge, even if it be only of local importance.

Never mind: we are back from “sport” now to the Nietzsche-inflected battler-madness that runs like a counter-theme through certain literary young men of several nations:

In that moment, trust, as I do, in the great god, Chance, that brings us in life, not only our misfortunes, but our greatest bits of happiness, too. Think of so many who are ingloriously stricken by accident in time of peace. War is another kind of life insurance; whereas the ordinary kind assures a man that his death will mean money to someone, this assures him that it will mean honor to himself, which from a certain point of view is much more satisfactory.

And then there is this, one more letter of today, a century back, and once more to his Marraine:

June 4, 1916.

… I hardly think we shall be here much longer. I have a presentiment that we are soon going into action. The last rumor is that we are soon to go to Verdun to relieve the 2nd Moroccan division. That would be magnificent, wouldn’t it ? the long journey drawing nearer and nearer to that furnace, the distant cannonade, the approach through the congested rear of the battle-line full of dramatic scenes, the salutations of troops that have already fought, “Bon courage, les gars!” [approx. “go get ’em, boys”] and then our own debut in some dashing affair. Verdun nous manque. [We miss/long for Verdun] I should really like to go there, for after the war I imagine Frenchmen will be divided into those who were at Verdun and those who were not. . . .[4]


So Seeger expected leave and didn’t get it. When we last heard from Vera Brittain, her brother Edward’s leave (his first since going out to France) had just been canceled. But–there’s always a bureaucratic twist–it was reinstated at the last minute, and so Edward has given his family one of the war’s few types of truly happy surprises… and even those are bittersweet in retrospect.

June 4th-10th

Edward came back on leave for 5 days–so bitter-sweet & all too brief. Got leave from hospital for two days & stayed at the Grafton Hotel with him & Mother. He spoke in veiled but significant language of a great battle–another Big Push–soon to take place, & knew that he was to be in it. He said it would be somewhere in the region of Albert, where he is now. In spite of spending a lot of time with him I hardly had a chance of speaking to him at all, for there were always so many people about.[5]


As Vera Brittain releases her only brother to the wars, her thoughts must have lingered on the lover she lost. She might have thought, as she often writes that she did, of the future they might have had together. So only one year–and a marriage, and his death–separates her experience from that of Edith and John Ronald Tolkien. Last night, the still-nearly-newlyweds spent the night at the Plough and Harrow Hotel in Edgbaston. This afternoon, a century back, they said farewell, and Tolkien set first feet on the road to adventure. Or, rather war, and by rail–to London, first, and thence France.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Chapman, A Passionate Prodigality, 13, 41, 82-4.
  2. Talking Across the World, 153-4.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 313.
  4. Letters and Diary, 201-6.
  5. Chronicle of Youth, 325-6.
  6. Chronology, 80.