Harold Macmillan’s Last Letter from the Somme; Very Special Nursing: Kate Luard on the Worst Cases, and Vera Brittain is Outward Bound

Today is a day after, a century back. Britain is reacting to what was probably the most successful day on the Somme so far: High Wood is taken at last, as are several objectives that the attacking troops have been slogging toward for months. Much of the high ground is now in British hands. And then, too, there was the springing of the secret weapon, these strange lumbering “tanks”–almost all of which broke down or were damaged, but never matter, they were a surprise, and a change. This was progress, in two senses, and something real to celebrate.

It was a very costly success, but everything is costly, now, so never mind that. It was success, and it fanned the jealously guarded flames of General Staff Ambition, their ancient hope that, once again, those milling cavalry troops might find a real breach to exploit, and flanks would be turned, open warfare resumed, and on to Berlin…

A fool’s hope, really, for as battered as the Germans were they had not neglected to build further supporting lines behind the original three of July 1st. A handful of tanks and somewhat improved artillery coordination are not enough to break through such ruggedly defended country. But optimism in war is at once a necessary (if preferably small) component of successful strategy and the spur to terrible slaughter.

Which leads us back to the Guards. Their section of the front featured some of the worst ground, and early checks meant that they were deprived of the cover of the pre-timed “rolling barrage” and exposed to fire from three sides. Raymond Asquith–and many others–were killed. Today his surviving comrades can begin to mourn, even as they see to their own wounds and their shattered companies. But no one at home knows, yet.

So a strange and tacitly horrible day for readers who have followed Asquith’s correspondence to his wife Katherine and to his intimate friend Diana Manners.

 

We can begin, though, with good news that will perhaps not surprise those attuned to later decades of British politics. Harold Macmillan, hit by shrapnel and a machine-gun bullet in the same advance, will survive. Today he managed a note to his mother, “written in a shaky hand on a small scrap of paper.” This was collected and sent, with a covering letter, by the Corps Chaplain, Neville Talbot. Who, naturally, had been at Oxford before the war, and was chaplain of Balliol College when Macmillan was there.

Dear Mrs. Macmillan–

I enclose this from Harold. You need not be anxious about him. He has two wounds, one in the left buttock and the other in the right leg below the knee. There is nothing broken and no danger…

And the enclosure:

Dearest mother–

I am wounded–not badly. I am in the clearing station, where Nevelle Talbot has given me this paper.

I shall be home soon.

Your own, Harold.

“Not badly” is hardly true, but the rest of the letter is. He will be home soon, and he will stay there for a long time. This is a “blighty one”–but only as the term has stretched from relatively pleasant flesh wounds to anything that gets a man home and leaves him less than severely disabled. Macmillan will have a long recuperation and will not return to active service.[1]

 

So it’s appropriate, then, that we close with two notes now from nurses. First, the terrible business as usual, from Kate Luard. Is Macmillan fortunate, to have much of his lower body punctured and torn by white-hot metal?

Yes, he is fortunate.

Saturday, September 16th. Only time for a scrawl; still very busy. The man with two broken arms has also a wound in the knee–joint in a splint–and has had his left eye removed to-day. He is nearly crazy. Another man has compound fractures of both legs, one arm, and head, and is quite sensible. Another has both legs amputated, and a compound fracture of arm. These people–as you may imagine–need very special nursing.[2]

 

And finally, today, a new chapter is about to begin for Vera Brittain. Long ago, wanting something more difficult, more “honorable”–if still-recently-provincial-young-ladies are to be allowed access to that male conceptual preserve–than mere assistant nursing at a London hospital, she had put in for foreign service. Many VADs are dilettantes, as Brittain has often complained, but she is a striver–she wants to be the best, to do the hardest work.

Never mind that being up to her elbows in blood for weeks in a military hospital in the wake of the Somme is hardly light duty. She wanted to get as close as possible to Roland‘s experience–to France, to danger. Only having her brother to nurse had dampened that urge. But the wheels of bureaucracy move, however slowly, and she has proven herself a capable nurse. Recently, she and several of her V.A.D. comrades at Camberwell had been warned for active service. It’s not France…

Saturday September 16th

We are all ordered to Malta.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Webb, From Downing Street to the Trenches, 224.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 88.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 328.

The Last Day of the Old Guard and the First of the Tanks: Raymond Asquith Goes Forward; Harold Macmillan Reads Aeschylus, Downed; The Master of Belhaven on the Most Alarming Thing Imaginable

Today, a century back, a major attack was launched on the center of the Somme front. It will be a considerable success–except where two brigades of the Guards Division attacked from the outskirts of Ginchy towards Lesboeufs.

Through some accident, Zero had been a little mistimed, and the troops left their lairs, not under the roar and swish of their own barrage, but in a silence which lasted perhaps less than a minute, but which seemed endless… till, with a wrench that jerked the ground, our barrage opened, the enemy’s counter-barrage replied.[1]

Thus a great stylist. A blunter romancer condemns the tactics as succinctly as possible: “Their front of attack was too narrow, their objectives too far distant, and from the start their flanks were enfiladed.”[2]

For any and all of these reasons, the 3rd Grenadier Guards met heavy, direct fire as soon as they left their trenches–there were machine-guns on three sides, and unexpected rifle fire just in front.

Harold Macmillan, leading his platoon, was hit in the knee, and stumbled on.

raymond asquith, 1915

Raymond Asquith

Raymond Asquith, leading No. 4 Company, was hit in the chest, and couldn’t.

Attempting nonchalance–perhaps to calm his men–Asquith lit a cigarette. He was quickly found by stretcher bearers and given morphia.

But he died on the stretcher on the way to the aid post. His soldier-servant, Needham, accompanied the body to burial.[3]

 

What else can we add? Not much. Asquith’s contribution here has been wit, and a special sort of provocation–to take him lightly, to miss the context of his letters just because he dares us to. He’s been whistling into the hurricane, fiddling all the harder because his naughty, beloved, decadent Rome is being fired on from all sides. It looks like cynicism, and it tastes, sometimes, almost like nihilism–but it was, really, a tough, contrary, formidable love of life and love and beauty.

Now he’s gone, and his legacy–for his friends, but especially for his wife and three young children–is loss.

 

Is it too sentimental to claim that, although much wonderful writing is to come (we are not yet halfway through this ordeal) we will not see his like again? I hope not, because, really, we won’t. It’s September, and this death, surely, is the last fallen leaf of the Last Summer.

 

Onward, anyway. What happened? How did he die? There is not much more to know, since he was shot down so early on this chaotic day. There’s not much of a story, in the end. And the rest of the day is terrible chaos.

For form’s sake I will link my battle-piece-agnosticism to a narrator of unquestioned bravado:

ginchy-flers-road

German dead along the Ginchy-Flers sunken road

There naturally cannot be any definite or accurate record of the day’s work. Even had maps been issued to the officers a week, instead of a day or so, before the attack; even had those maps marked all known danger-points — such as the Ginchy-Flers sunk road; even had the kaleidoscopic instructions about the Brown and Yellow lines been more intelligible, or had the village of Ginchy been distinguishable from a map of the pitted moon — once the affair was launched there was little chance of seeing far or living long.[4]

 

If there cannot be a definite or accurate record–if there cannot be pre-historical chronicle, let alone “history”–there can still be impressions. C.E. Montague, who, now that he is an intelligence officer, has begun to keep a brief diary of his movements, was a witness in the rear, where all great hopes reside.

Sept. 15.–To point between Maricourt and Hardécourt (close by Nameless Copse) to see battle begin. Start 5 A.M., moonlight. Cavalry on silent road by Querriers. Lances bristling against dawn–twilight sky in fields beside road.[5]

The cavalry will not advance. But other beasts will. Were it not for the loss of one of our very finest, here, this day’s story of battle would have to begin with the great surprise weapon. Of our writers, Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, may have had the best view–even if, at day’s end, he did not have the most accurate perspective.

Guillemont, 15th September, 1916

To-day there has been another great battle, which seems to have been nothing less than a victory for us.

mark_i_series_tank_in_action

Mark I tank

I cannot talk about the “tanks,” as our new armoured caterpillars are called. These astounding machines… are huge armoured forts, weighting over thirty tons… they can go over any ground, however broken up… they are the most alarming things imaginable and are so heavily armoured that they are impervious to rifle or machine-gun fire; nothing but a direct hit from a gun can stop them…

Would that that were so. Kipling, laying about him with characteristic precision but unusual mercilessness, dwells not on the promise of the tanks but on the uselessness in such a deep attack over such ground of a mere handful of fragile new machines:

There had been instructions in Brigade Orders, as to the co-operation of nine tanks that were to assist the Guards Division that day and would, probably, “start from each successive line well in advance of the attacking troops.” Infantry were warned, however, that their work “would be carried out whether the Tanks are held up or not.” It was. The Tanks were not much more in evidence on that sector than the Cavalry which, cantering gaily across the shell-holes, should have captured Bapaume…[6]

But that is bitter hindsight. Today, a century back, the cavalry were an old familiar hope and the tanks were an impressive novelty.

Charles Carrington, who often styles himself a retrospective voice of reason, notes, for his part, that he “flatly refused to believe” that “we possessed armoured cards that could cross trenches and wire… The secret was wonderfully well kept… And the lesson to be learned from the battle of 15th September was that the Mark I tank has almost no value except for the lift given to our morale and the shock to the German morale by the rumours about our secret weapon… Haig… believed, and for what it is worth I and my friends believed, that there was still a chance of fighting the decisive battle before the autumn and for such a prize everything must be stake…[7]

Back now to the Master of Belhaven, writing this evening, a century back, and sanguine:

As it became lighter we could see four of the new monsters on the Guinchy ridge just in front of us…. They were rolling and pitching on the rough ground like ships at sea, but kept steadily on at about a mile an hour, till they reached the German parapet, hoisted themselves over and were lost to sight on the other side. Accounts vary very much so far, as to how they did…

We could see our infantry attacking, line after line, especially the Guards on our left. They went forward in perfect order at a walk, breaking into a run when they go near the German position…[8]

But as Kipling will write, “no man saw anything coherently.” Belhaven was wrong. Quick progress was made on the flanks, but the Guards walked into machine-gun fire, and were mauled from the beginning. Soon they discovered that a scratch trench–or series of shell holes–that had not even been accounted for in their extremely ambitious orders was still being held by Germans.[9] This was the source of the accurate rifle fire that was added to the traversing machine guns. And the artillery did not lag far behind.

 

Which brings us back to Harold Macmillan, who lived to tell this tale. Those of his platoon of the 3rd Grenadier Guards who made it through the first wave of machine-gun fire discovered that the tanks had failed–Macmillan saw one of “these strange objects” stranded in a shell-hole–and the barrage had moved on with its brisk, foreordained optimism. They had to scrape together some sort of improvisational attack, or die where they lay. Macmillan will write that

the German artillery barrage was very heavy,  but we got through the worst of it after the first half-hour. I was wounded slightly in the right knee. I bound up the wound at the first halt, and was able to go on. . . . About 8.20 we halted again. We found that we were being held up on the left by Germans in about 500 yards of uncleared trench. We attempted to bomb and rush down the trench. I was taking a party across to the left with a Lewis gun, to try and get in to the trench, when I was wounded by a bullet in the left thigh [apparently at close range]. It was a severe wound, and I was quite helpless. I dropped into a shell-hole, shouted to Sgt. Robinson to take command of my party and go on with the attack. Sgt. Sambil helped me tie up the wound. I had no water, as the bullet had previously gone thro’ my water bottle. . .

I don’t believe that Macmillan and Asquith knew each other well, but they were both Balliol men, and readers, and Asquith, minutes or hours dead, would have approved of how Macmillan spent his morning:

He lay in the shell-hole all morning, while the tide of battle flowed back and forth around him–lying ‘doggo’ and pretending to be dead when any Germans came near, lest they be tempted to ‘despatch’ him. Though realising that he had been seriously wounded, he was surprised to discover that–unlike the far less dangerous wound through his hand at Loos–‘which was excruciatingly painful, this body blow knocked me out but did not hurt’. Remembering that he had in his pocket a copy of Aeschylus’s Prometheus (in Greek), which Nellie had sent him, he fell to reading it intermittently; ‘It was a play I knew well, and seemed not inappropriate to my position.’

The great classical wit is dead, but long live classical wit. Prometheus Bound (no longer unanimously attributed to Aeschylus, but we live in a fallen world) features a number of long speeches made to and by the titan Prometheus, as he is chained in place and tortured. “Violence” and “Authority” appear as characters, and there is a matter of giving fire to mankind…

After a morphia-aided nap, Macmillan was found:

Company Sergeant-Major Norton, a splendid man, I can see him now . . . bottom of shell-hole, sloped rifle: “Thank you, sir, for leave to carry you away,” as if he’d been on a parade ground!

But Macmillan’s grim adventure was not over. After dark he and another wounded officer were carried to Ginchy, where confusion reigned and ambulances could not be found. They sent their bearers back to the battalion, then tried to limp back on their own. They became separated, and Macmillan, wounded and alone, felt fear catch up with him at last. He will look back on today, and comment that

bravery is not really vanity, but a kind of concealed pride, because everybody is watching you. Then I was safe, but alone, and absolutely terrified because there was no need to show off any more, no need to pretend . . . there was nobody for whom you were responsible, not even the stretcher bearers. Then I was very frightened. . . . I do remember the sudden feeling–you went through a whole battle for two days . . . suddenly there was nobody there   . . . you could cry if you wanted to. . .[10]

After passing out in a ditch, Macmillan was found by a passing officer and taken at last to an ambulance.

 

There are tales of heroism that go with this attack, of course. Macmillan’s friend Oliver Lyttleton, who as adjutant did not go forward with the attacking companies, went forward later to gather in the remnants of several battalions and defend the few trenches they had taken. He was driven out by German counterattacks, throwing his empty revolver at the Germans like a grenade as a last ruse to cover the last retreat.

But for the most part it is only death. So we’ll close with two concise tales of death, framed as tragedies. A few days ago, Rowland Feilding had marched back with his new, shattered, battalion past his former battalion of the Coldstream Guards. He will remember this chance meeting when he next writes to his wife:

I stopped for lunch. The young officers crowded round me afterwards to hear my news, joking and laughing about it all, and asking what it was like “up there.” Poor little Dilberoglue, who commanded one of the Companies, clung to the boy next to him, and pretended to shiver with fear at the prospect of what was before him. And the Fates have taken his joke seriously, for to-day he is dead. He was a very competent young officer.[11]

 

Finally, I want to end with a new turn, a twist away from the death of Raymond Asquith that nonetheless shows how the war’s thread runs through so many lives, linking even where it does not entangle. Carroll Carstairs, a writer we have heard nothing from yet, is an American volunteer. By now he has taken a commission and made his way into the Grenadier Guards, completing training at one of their depot camps. He has only been awaiting a gap to fill–so he will be moving up to the line shortly, now. He remembers another American Guardsman, and the dreams and strange paths of eager young volunteers.

While on short leave in Amiens I heard about Dill Star. He wanted to go into the Flying Corps, but thought it would take too long to get to the front. Walter Oakman, who had joined the Coldstream, persuaded him to transfer into that Regiment.

Dill went to France about September 1st, and was killed on the 15th of that month.

“You knew him?” asked the young officer in the Coldstream with whom I was having a drink.

“Yes.”

“He went over in fine style . . .”

And then I thought of the story told me once about Dill. Whenever he had had a bit too much drink in his club at Harvard he could be found sitting in front of a certain picture. It was an old coloured print and represented a charge by a regiment in the Brigade of Guards.[12]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I, 158-9.
  2. Buchan, Pilgrim's Way, 58-60.
  3. Life and Letters, 296.
  4. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I, 159.
  5. Elton, C.E. Montague, 143.
  6. Kipling, The Irish Guards, II, 94.
  7. Carrington, Soldier From the Wars Returning, 123-4.
  8. War Diary, 251-3.
  9. This may refer to the sunken road, pictured above.
  10. Horne, Macmillan, 44-6.
  11. Feilding, War Letters to a Wife, 119.
  12. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 66-7.

Harold Macmillan on Death and Glory; Rowland Feilding Relieved; A Dangerous Mission for the Master of Belhaven; Ivor Gurney’s Teeming Mind and Mighty Reading List

ginchy2crop2So Guillemont is taken, but Ginchy is not. Rowland Feilding‘s new battalion, at least, are out of it.

September 13, 1916. Corbie

The battalion is resting at Vaux, a pretty little village on the Somme, about a mile from Corbie, into which town I have ridden to-day, and where I have seized a few minutes at the Town Major’s office to write to you.

My days are spent in reorganizing the battalion, which, as you may imagine, is not an easy task, since practically all the old officers, including the Adjutant, have become casualties. The boy Jourdain is still acting Adjutant and is doing it marvellously well, in spite of his extreme youth.[1]

 

But another attack is planned for the day after tomorrow. Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, commands an artillery battery, and if the renewed attack is to have any chance of success, he needs to support it.

Carnoy, 13th September, 1916

Late last night I got orders to again reconnoitre the Guillemont Cemetery, as we have positive orders that we must get there to-night at all costs…. we eventually reached the cross-roads at the cemetery. There is nothing left of the roads at all, and as a matter of fact we passed the place without knowing we had reached the road… I did not feel at all happy about it…

This would be in the lower left quadrant of square 20, above.

We have certainly got Guinchy and some part of Leuze Wood, but I had been told that the Germans were still holding out in shell-holes on our side of the Telegraph. We picked out way through the craters and eventually came on to a platoon of our infantry in a shallow trench. They gave me the pleasing news that we were within 400 yards of the Germans, and that they had not been cleared out of the slope yet. This was soon confirmed by bullets which flew past my head…

This is one case where even an inexpert glance at the map confirms Hamilton’s sang froid. These Germans are shooting straight down at him from the slope to the southeast of his position.

The Staff may say what they like, but until tracks have been made it is not possible to get horses and guns through that country… It is all very well for the Staff to sit miles behind, with their map, and say “Go there.” I wish they would come and show us how to do it…

But he will figure it out–or something near enough. Hamilton’s battery will begin moving into a decent position tonight, and dig in tomorrow. It’s worth observing, here, that even a diary is not snapshot-of-the-moment historical testimony: he writes this looking back a few hours, after having survived the day’s reconnaissance. And the curious thing about mortal danger in trench warfare is that it is soon more or less behind one…

During out morning’s walk I had good luck to find a German helmet with its brass spike and all complete. I have been looking for one of these since the beginning of the war…

We are going up with the guns late tonight.[2]

Harold Macmillan, too, waits to go forward–behind the guns, as it were. His letter of today, a century back, to his mother, gives no sense that it might well be a “last letter.” And yet it hardly avoids the subject…

My dearest mother–

We are in the trenches, in an interesting position. Everything has been fortunate for us so far. There is no reason to be alarmed about us. The news seems to be good lately and the enemy must be suffering on every side.

There is nothing to tell you in particular. The flies are again a terrible plague, and the stench from the dead bodies which lie in heaps around is awful… The act of death in battle is noble and glorious. But the physical appearance and actual symptoms of death are, in these terrible circumstances, revolting only and horrid…[3]

 

And, for neither the first nor the last time, a jarring lurch from death and the imminent guns to a letter from a man in relative safety, busy surviving, hoping to write his mind to far-off times and places, where beauty and creative purpose remain. Today, a century back, Ivor Gurney wrote to Marion Scott, today, full of energy and plans:

13 September 1916

My Dear Miss Scott:

Thank you for your letter and the postcard, which is very fine, and you are to be envied; the more so as, both from your writing and matter, you seem to be getting better. Well done, and stick at it. Here am I beside a French canal, watching the day, and remembering with an ache what Glostershire is in such a season as September, and with whom I usually spent the best of it—with Will Harvey.

The sunsets and afterglow are lovely now and behind their joy lurks ever the fear. . . . which I cannot put aside, as it is my only hope to train my mind to think of such things for the music that one day may come out of such a saturated mind, full of sunsets and the smell of earth. Well one must pay something for being born in an heroic age. An age of continent shaping, when foundations are set afresh.

Hear Gurney is part Frederick-the-mouse, part unreconstructed Newboltian, and part sensitive young man only half in control of his mind and the steps he might take to preserve it. He is prolix and poetic, but his sense of himself fits quite with Macmillan’s, actually: present circumstances are awful, but while they surround “glory” and “heroism” with terrible suffering, they do not subsume or deny it…

Gurney has been ill… and, as befits a man who has struggled not to be overwhelmed by his own teeming mind, he is very perceptive about the psychological cruxes of this strange experience:

I am out of hospital, just out of it, and going into the line very soon, for which I am not sorry, as the chief delight in the Army remains for me the coming out of danger, which means in this connection reaching a place commanded by every sort of gun except trench mortars and field artillery…

And this fits perfectly with the turn of Hamilton’s diary, above, from point-blank sniping to the pleasure of finding a souvenir “all complete.”

Gurney’s next subject is even more hopeful–there are reports that Germany is faltering:

I see by the French papers that Prussia is about to call the boys of sixteen to military service. Surely this is the last straw; the women will hardly stand that, and a copy of a broadsheet entitled “Hunger” now being circulated secretly, a most significant document if authentic. Peut-etre six mois, peut-etre moins [perhaps six months, perhaps less]. But that should do the trick.

Well, such beliefs are not uncommon, if not universal. We will be reminded–forcefully, tomorrow–that the British strategy which seems like senseless self-slaughter from historical distance is predicated on these same beliefs–overconfident, ill-informed, but not completely groundless, as Germany is beginning to suffer both from the relentless assault on the Somme and from hunger–that Germany may falter if one hard blow can yet be delivered before winter.

Gurney’s letter now turns to Scott’s comments on the songs Gurney recently sent her. Much of the technical discussion is obscure to the uninitiated, but since we are reading Gurney on this busy day on the Somme, we might as well pay attention to what we have. He is confident again now, very confident–manic, one might be tempted to say:

There should be another bar at the beginning — the C major chord to be played twice. You please me in saying that it gives you the impression of looking down at a bier. In my mind I saw a picture of some poet-priest pronouncing an oration over the dead and lovely body of some young Greek hero. No song writer ever wrote a better phrase for Beauty than the one at the beginning.

At least I begin to fulfill some part of my desire — to see and tell the ultimate truth of things, and especially of the primal things; what H. Belloc calls “Sacramental”.

This despite–because?–what might for others be a crushing mishap:

Yesterday, some misbegotten fool took all my books and burnt them. They were in a sack and too near other rubbish sacks for safety as it seems. This includes the French war songs I had promised. You will have to wait for them till I can get back into “rest” again. We are just going up again and will be on business for a little while now…

Despite the loss, Gurney chatters on about books. Pepys, a tale of Tolstoy, and, then, closer to home:

I read a great deal of Kipling‘s Fringes of the Fleet in a shell hole, during one of the most annoying times we have had. It was during heavy fatigue, and the Bosches spotted us and let fly with heavy shrapnel and 5.9s…

The reckoning continues–of books and of Gurney’s mental state. Perhaps he is indeed manic, for he accounts himself–recently, it would seem–depressed:

In books, after a careful survey, I find myself reduced to Wordsworth’s Excursion, and a few blitherings from the “Pastor” have reduced me to a state of “wet” melancholy. (“Wet” is B.E.F. for half-witted…)

It is lucky that some of my books were distributed, and can be begged back. But alas! Walt Whitman and
Browning are napoo.[4] However there is a luckful wight that has W. W. him must I cajole.

A list follows. With Gurney, dear reader, I will read it into the record–and then we are finished for the day…

Books recommended for an invalid
By Land and Sea — Tomlinson
Dumas Memoirs
Huckleberry Finn. Tom Sawyer. Roughing It. (Mark Twain)
Nicholas Nickleby. Pickwick.
London Voices — Keble Howard.
A Book of Stories by Andrieff (?) not very long published. (Or the author might begin his name with a V. Pretty indefinite) Tolstoi’s Short Stories, especially the Prisoner in the Caucasus. Stevenson’s Wrong Box. New Arabian Nights. Kidnapped. Treasure Island. Davies “Autobiography of a Super Tramp” and “Beggars”. All these, or nearly all, if you belong to a library. Arnold Bennetts “Buried Alive” “A Great Man” “Those United States”. “Paris Nights” Yoshio Markino’s books — a Japanese Artist in London especially. Up in trenches we are not to be allowed to send any letters now. So write whether you hear or not from me.

Yours very sincerely

Ivor Gurney[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Feilding, War Letters to a Wife, 118-9.
  2. War Diary, 249-50.
  3. Webb, From Downing Street to the Trenches, 222-3.
  4. Army slang for "gone," "finished."
  5. War Letters, 101-3.

Harold Macmillan Finishes With Much Ado, and Passes to the Tragedies; Rowland Feilding Between The Guards’ Toc Emmas and a Kitchener Mob of His Own; An Impromptu Speech for Robert Graves in Wales

Rowland Feilding is after a new job. He is a competent and experienced officer from the right sort of family. It’s a cadet branch, however, and he has followed a profession between his two stints in the army, so his social position is only good, not excellent. But he can also boast of the right sort of reputation (if boasting were permissible)–he’s a fighter.

Yet while the army continues to get bigger the Guards have hardly more than doubled in size–regimental jobs are not abundant. Since his return to the Guards Division, Feilding has been lunching and dining and meeting his way toward a job more suited to his age (forty-five), rank (senior captain), and ambitions (command).

August 30th, 1916. Morlancourt.

I told you in my letter of yesterday how things stood with regard to myself. This afternoon I got a message to go and see the Brigadier as soon as possible. He told me he had had a talk with Geoffrey [Feilding], and also with Guy Baring. Geoffrey, apparently, had approved of the idea of a battalion tor me, and thought it would be much to my advantage, and that I would do it well. The Brigadier added that it is practically certain that I shall be offered the job of Divisional Trench Mortar Officer, but they are now also going to recommend me for the command of a battalion, which, in any case, even if the recommendation succeeds will involve a delay of a few weeks—which will give us time to decide.

So you see things are going well with me. Moreover, you need have no anxiety, because it is hardly likely that my new battalion (if I get it) will have to make any more attacks this year. Indeed, it is extremely unlikely, because the attacking season will be practically over by the time I get there.

This battalion went out to practise open fighting this morning. I rode with the Colonel, but it poured with rain, and, when we were all wet through, it was decided to give it up.

Yes, we are two solid months into the Somme, and the reserves are still practicing “open fighting,” just in case the great breakthrough takes place. And we are still shutting down practices because rain makes such things difficult…

As for Feilding, he realizes that this drive to be reassigned has much to do with status, but also with health and safety. It is not likely to get him killed this, year at least. He stops, now, and queries his wife, Edith:

I wonder what you will think of my news to-day. I have always said before that I would rather command a Coldstream Company than a battalion elsewhere. But the difficulty is my age. There is no getting away from the fact that, although physically I am well fitted for the strain and hardships, I am, in years, very old as Company Commanders go. I am double the age of all or nearly all the other Company Commanders of the Division, and there is practically no chance of promotion here.

Do write and tell me what you think.[1]

 

And today, a century back, Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon attended a charity concert in a Welsh village near the Graves family’s country home. Robert’s father A.P. Graves chaired the meeting, but his son took a part, which the proud father duly recorded in his diary:

…to us the most touching incident was Robby’s practically impromptu speech of thanks on behalf of the Welsh soldiers–manly, modest, simply eloquent. It brought down the house… We had a happy little supper after of sardines & blackberries & junket.[2]

Sassoon, it would seem, did not take a part, but one imagines many vague smiles of bemused tolerance, and perhaps an underlying pleasure at seeing his awkward, troublesomely enthusiastic friend so well loved.[3]

 

And finally, today, Harold Macmillan is still on the Somme, slogging along in and out of trenches. He kept a sketchy sort of diary during this summer, which he mailed home to his mother. In it he periodically relieves the relatively bare military details with notes on his reading.

Macmillan is one of those young officers whose serious efforts to keep up serious reading seems less like a program of diversion and more like a necessary discipline, a way of keeping mental life going amidst the deadening and deadly routine.

30th: Wet. No parades–Boswell is finished at last, and with Much Ado most of the Shakespearian comedies. Now I must pass to the tragedies…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 106-7.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves The Assault Heroic, 161.
  3. Sassoon does not mention his visit to Graves--at least in its proper chronological placement, in either version of "his" memoirs. I believe he mentions it elsewhere, but he appears to have little enough that he wished to say about it...
  4. Webb, From Downing Street to the Trenches, 221.

Three Writers Down; The Royal Welch Fusiliers Before High Wood: Frank Richards a Runner and Robert Graves in Mid-Stride; A Letter from Harold Macmillan and a Phone Call for General Congreve

The Battle of the Somme continues, with the British forces near the center of the initial assault pushing north into the German second line. This phase is usually called the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, and the map below will help situate us: the contour lines the snake over the north of the map show the height of the ridge–and of the aptly named High Wood. Mametz Wood, now securely in the rear, is just to the south of the western section of this map.

As of this morning, the British have been driven out of High Wood, and the line generally runs across the central and southern reaches of this map. Elements of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers are moving up toward the Cemetery (between the 8 and 9, left center) in support of another assault of the Wood, while South African troops have made their name in bloody fighting at Longueval and Delville Wood (in the lower right of the map). Today, a century back, the 2nd Royal Welch will await their turn to enter High Wood, while elements of Billy Congreve‘s 76th Brigade will attempt to secure the rest of Longueval.bazeintin ridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Graves preserved and published this battalion order, still in its signalling grid, that he received just after midnight, i.e. at the very beginning of today, a century back. He has now–that politically unfortunate Special Reserve seniority of his–been given command of B Company:

To O.C. B Co. 2nd R.W.F. 20.7.16.

Companies will move as under
to same positions in S14b
as were to have been
taken over from Cameronians aaa
A Coy. 12.30 a.m.
B Coy, 12.45 a.m.
C Coy. 1 a.m.
D Coy. 1.15 a.m. aaa
At 2 a.m. Company Commanders
will meet C.O. at X
Roads S14b 99. aaa
Men will lie down and
get under cover but equipment
will not be taken off
s14b99, bazentin

A lesson in map-reading from Robert Graves. A detail of the above map, we can find square 14, quarter-square “b” (always the top-right quarter-square), and the crossroads in the very top corner (9, 9 on the x and y axes). Amusingly, we’ve got the maps available online and Graves evidently didn’t have his handy when he was working from the battalion order: the crossroads is not near the churchyard. See the next map, below.

Graves continues:

S 14b 99 was a map reference for Bazentin churchyard. We lay here on the reverse slope of a slight ridge about half a mile from the wood. I attended the meeting of company commanders; the colonel told us the plan. He said: “Look here, you fellows, we’re in reserve for this attack. The Cameronians are going up to the wood first, then the Fifth Scottish Rifles; that’s at five a.m. The Public Schools Battalion are in support if anything goes wrong. I don’t know if we shall be called on; if we are, it will mean that the Jocks have legged it. As usual,” he added. This was an appeal to prejudice. “The Public Schools Battalion is, well, what we know, so if we are called for, that means it will be the end of us.” He said this with a laugh and we all laughed. We were sitting on the ground protected by the road-bank; a battery of French 75’s was firing rapid over our heads about twenty yards away.[1] There was a very great concentration of guns in Happy Valley now. We could hardly hear what he was saying. He told us that if we did get orders to reinforce, we were to shake out in artillery formation; once in the wood we were to hang on like death. Then he said good-bye and good luck and we rejoined our companies.

At this juncture the usual inappropriate message came through from Division. Division could always be trusted to send through a warning about verdigris on vermorel-sprayers, or the keeping of pets in trenches, or being polite to our allies, or some other triviality, when an attack was in progress. This time it was an order for a private in C Company to report immediately to the assistant provost-marshal back at Albert, under escort of a lance-corporal. He was for a court-martial. A sergeant of the company was also ordered to report as a witness in the case. The private was charged with the murder of a French civilian in an estaminet at Béthune about a month previously. Apparently there had been a good deal of brandy going and the French civilian, who had a grudge against the British (it was about his wife), started to tease the private. He was reported, somewhat improbably, as having said: “English no bon, Allmand très bon. War fineesh, napoo the English. Allmand win.” The private had immediately drawn his bayonet and run the man through. At the court-martial the private was exculpated; the French civil representative commended him for having “energetically repressed local defeatism.” So he and the two N.C.O.’s missed the battle.

It is very like Robert Graves to seize on this story of triplicate absurdity–bureaucracy’s impervious shamble, pointless violence and exculpatory cant–and insert it here between build-up and disaster. And yet: given what we know of Graves’s punctilious preference for the yarn over the whole cloth of the truth–and given what we will read of the difficulty of getting any message to the advanced battalions today, this must be, at the very least, an anecdote-out-of-time.

But the Royal Welch were in a bad position. They had moved forward (from the crossroads of the meeting into or near Bazentin Cemetery) but then waited for hours in an area devoid of real cover–an area, moreover, which was constantly searched by German artillery, firing against the nearby British batteries or seeking to drop shells on the routes used by reinforcements and carrying parties. By about 10 o’clock, the battalion had taken something like 100 casualties. When the barrage increased, Graves ordered B company to move slightly back, and as they did so, a German “crump”–a large-caliber shell–exploded among them.

I heard the explosion and felt as though I had been punched rather hard between the shoulder-blades, but had no sensation of pain. I thought that the punch was merely the shock of the explosion; then blood started trickling into my eye and I felt faint and called to Moodie: “I’ve been hit.” Then I fell down. A minute or two before I had had two very small wounds on my left hand; they were in exactly the same position as the two, on my right hand, that I had got during the preliminary bombardment at Loos. This I had taken as a sign that I would come through all right. For further security I had repeated to myself a line of Nietsche’s, whose poems, in French, I had with me:

Non, tu ne peux pas me tuer.[2]

It was the poem about a man on the scaffold with the red-bearded executioner standing over him. (This copy of Nietsche, by the way, had contributed to the suspicions about me as a spy. Nietsche was execrated in the papers as the philosopher of German militarism; he was more popularly interpreted as a William le Queux mystery-man–the sinister figure behind the Kaiser.)[3]

One piece of shell went through my left thigh, high up near the groin; I must have been at the full stretch of my stride to have escaped emasculation. The wound over the eye was nothing; it was a little chip of marble, possibly from one of the Bazentin cemetery headstones. This and a finger wound, which split the bone, probably came from another shell that burst in front of me. The main wound was made by a piece of shell that went in two inches below the point of my right shoulder and came out through my chest two inches above my right nipple, in a line between it and the base of my neck.

My memory of what happened then is vague. Apparently Doctor Dunn came up through the barrage with a stretcher-party, dressed my wound, and got me down to the old German dressing-station at the north end of Mametz Wood. I just remember being put on the stretcher and winking at the stretcher-bearer sergeant who was looking at me and saying: “Old Gravy’s got it, all right.”

Dr. Dunn came up indeed, and treated what he called “a bad chest wound of the kind that few recover from,” and then sent Graves on to the dressing station near Mametz Wood. This was at present overwhelmed with casualties coming back from the bungled attack in front. So, following standard procedure, Graves, unconscious with a sucking chest wound, was left to die while medics focused on helping those who could be saved.

 

But it still goes on. Colonel “Tibs” Crawshay[4] was by now frustrated nearly to distraction. His battalion is being destroyed, deedless, waiting to be committed to an attack that is obviously failing (the wounded of other battalions in the brigade are streaming back), by a command structure so far back that it can’t possibly do the right thing soon enough.

The passage of messages… between front and rear was always a difficulty, and a vexation at both ends. Before the action Radford had been asked for by Brigade to be employed as a Forward Liaison Officer. He was detailed with some signallers to use Bazentin-le-Petit Windmill, 200 yards east of the Cemetery, as the forward post of a relay system.

bazentin to high wood

The Churchyard, the Windmill, and High Wood

(On the map at right we can see the ground covered between Graves’s crossroads and the churchyard. Each of the smaller squares (i.e. quarters of the numbered squares) is 500 yards long and wide, so they had moved by about that much. The crossroads can be seen at center, bottom, and the cemetery and the windmill are at 8b-c and 9a-b, respectively; High Wood is some 1400 yards away to the northeast, in the upper right.)

Captain Radford, seconded to the Brigade for signalling, describes the problem of communications, the heart of “command and control:”

At the beginning of the morning attack the enemy barrage cut the wires. The barrage smoke made lamp signalling impossible… the wireless set provided was for transmission only, so it was not known if messages were being received… Brigade was in poor quarters… in… Mametz Wood, nearly two miles from High Wood, although deep and roomy dug-outs made for a German division were in Bazentin-le-Petit within a few yards of screened view-points from which the face of High Wood and the Flers road could be seen. Advanced Brigade, so-called, in the quarry by the Cemetery roadside, was a mere relay post. This remoteness was laid down in a General Routine Order issued because of casualties earlier in the War. The Order was circumvented by Brigadiers who know when and how to do it, but times without number it warranted the utter negation of Command when prompt and authoritative decision was needed, especially if more than one unit was concerned. Prompt decision and action were essential this day, ‘yet none of our Brigade Staff came within hundreds of yards of its dissolving units.’ The cost in all the lower ranks of preserving some General of brigade and division, and some members of their Staffs, is beyond reckoning, but must be stupendous.

 

Frank Richards‘s account of this attack is fascinating. A trained signaller, he was one of the men sent forward under Captain Radford and took up a position in the mill. Briefly, then:

We had a good view of everything from here, but we also found that when we were exchanging messages with the wood, the enemy would have an equally good view of us, especially when we were flag-waving… by 10 a.m. they had put up one of the worst barrages that I was ever under.

Richards has set up this moment well. A day or two before, a fierce barrage had left a man mortally wounded–Richards uses the transparent euphemism “hit low down”–and his buddies contemplating killing him to stop his agony. As they deliberated, a stretcher-bearer “went mad and started to undress himself. He was uttering horrible screams and we had to fight with him and overpower him before he could be got to the Aid Post.” The man died before any action was taken, but then Richards’s pal Duffy is also hit “low down.”

…it was a bad wound and I knew his case was hopeless; but he was conscious…

As Richards and three men carry him back, a shell splinter narrowly misses Richards’s foot.

Although Duffy was dying on the stretcher he noticed it as he hung his head over the side and said “Hard lines, Dick! If a youngster had been in your place he would have had a beautiful Blighty wound through the foot. We old ones aren’t lucky enough to stop one that way. We generally stop one the way I have done.”

Duffy dies not long after reaching the aid post, and Richards returns to action. Today, then, his parting words hang heavily. As the shelling picks up pace, five of the men in the brigade signalling post on the hilltop retreat to a shell-hole “absolutely useless and terror-stricken.” Richards has to summon a runner to write down a message as he reads it.

When I was about halfway through it, he gave a shout; I turned round and found him groaning on the ground. A shell splinter which must have passed high up between my legs had hit him in the thigh. It was a nasty wound…

Near-emasculation has become a strangely persistent theme, perhaps to counterbalance the fact that these of all wounds were impossible to introduce into polite company in 1916…

Nor does the message that nearly killed Richards get through. After the advanced signalling team is hit by shellfire, the flags are abandoned and Richards is ordered to run messages–literally run, since no more swift or more advanced form of communications is working–between brigade headquarters and the brigade’s advanced battalions in High Wood. He sees terrible things passing through the debatable valley. On one run he passes a trench full of men as he goes toward the wood, then re-passes it minutes later and sees that it is full of corpses and scattered body parts.

Richards has seen a lot, but today moved him to a rare note of protest:

I have often wondered since them, if all the leading statesmen and generals of the warring countries had been threatened to be put under the barrage during the day of the 20th July, 1916, and were told that if they survived it they would be forced to be under a similar one in a week’s time, whether they would have all met together and signed a peace treaty before the week was up.

Then, true to his “old soldier” persona, Richards ends the chapter on a different note. The Royal Welch took heavy casualties, but the well-born men of the Public Schools Battalion suffered even more.

It was the custom that all parcels that arrived for men who were casualties should be distributed among the survivors. The Commanding Officer of the Public Schools Battalion kindly sent a number of mailbags full of parcels for distribution among our men. We lived on luxuries for the next few days.[5]

 

Back, now, to Captain Radford’s account:

The supply of runners was soon exhausted and was not replaced. At noon I went to Brigade to report the futility of it all…

Ironically, as he left his post to protest its futility an earlier order from Brigade finally reached some of the forward battalions. It was hours late, and in urging reinforcements into the Wood it referred to an earlier stage of the attack, but it nevertheless gave Colonel Crawshay of the Royal Welch the excuse he needed to move forward. The battalion had been at roughly half-strength when it came up, then suffered many casualties and detached a good number of men for carrying parties and duties such as Richards’s signalling station. Only a few hundred men formed up. By the time they had organized, covered the shell-strewn near-mile to High Wood, and fallen out into attack formation, it was nearly 2 o’clock.

The 2nd Royal Welch entered High Wood in something like replay of the 15th entering Mametz Wood. Thick foliage, fallen trees, enfilade fire and bursting shells, confusion, no real sense of where the Germans were, the shattered panicky remnants of the earlier units… but the 2nd Battalion was a highly experienced battalion built around a core of prideful Regulars, and they cleared much of the wood in a furious “bush-mêlée” that the chronicle essentially cannot describe. Furious, and incredibly costly: there were 150 casualties in the batalion, perhaps more than half of the men engaged in the fight. Every single officer who entered the Wood was either killed or wounded.

And then, crippling anti-climax. The Welch and the other battalions of the brigade are now ordered to fall back because the farthest parts of the Wood are untenable due to German machine gun fire. But these machine guns had never been addressed by any part of the attack plan. So have they been sent, twice, to assault a position, at great cost, when it was never thought to be worth holding? Or is the staff at Division and Corps level so callous and foolhardy that they are willing to spend hundreds of lives to take a place and only then decide if it is worth the taking?

The interloper from the Divisional Staff who arrived in the early evening had no satisfactory answer.

Nothing, however, was so maddening as his parting remark, “the General has the situation in hand”–spoken with a straight face. The situation never was grasped. Fumbling fingers far away had trifled with opportunity for hours…[6]

Dr. Dunn’s chronicle is woven from the words of career soldiers, regulars of a proud regiment not given to undue carping about the higher-ups (and supplemented, too, by a few temporary officers and tough old soldiers and non-coms). These are not the disillusioned volunteers crying out against chateau generals. And yet their history, today, is one of foolish attack plans, horribly wasteful standing orders, poor management, and craven overconfidence–it’s not the chateau generals that did for their plan of attack, but rather the remote brigadier and the indifferent, ignorant, map-besotted divisional general–their few miles over hill and dale is more than enough for complete incomprehension.

The fog of war is to a certain extent inevitable, but there is no excuse for generals who believe that they can collate fragmentary and out-of-date reports, glance at the map, and know the truth. Decisive action in effective ignorance is worse than resignation, especially when there are capable officers actually on the scene. These generals are fraudulent seers and cold-eyed killer kings in one person, and all the worse if, in telling themselves that it’s tough job and someone has to do it, they don’t even realize what they are doing.

 

Apologies for the outburst. It’s a century gone, no? Anyway, this concludes today’s entry as far as the Royal Welch go. There is much more to come, of course–we will not leave Robert Graves lying on that stretcher under the eaves of Mametz Wood. But there was much fighting elsewhere on the Somme, and two more of our writers have been hit.

 

Amidst the staccato beat of calamity and notification, there is a more hopeful stroke, today. Harold Macmillan, too, has been wounded on the Somme:

I don’t know whether my postcard has reached you. I hope it didn’t frighten you. I wrote it as soon as I got down to the Bn. dressing station and had seen the Doctor.

Both my wounds are luckily very slight…

Macmillan had volunteered for a patrol, either last night or the night before, to ascertain the location of nearby German positions.

I said I would go, and I took 2 men, both of whom I knew and trusted.

We got out a good way and I think we obtained all the information that we wanted. Unfortunately, just as were were going to come home, about 2.30 a.m. we were spotted by a German bombing post in a sap. They challenged us, but we cd. not see them to shoot, and of course they were entrenched while we were in the” open. So I motioned to my men to lie quite still in the long grass. Then they began throwing bombs at us at random. The first, unluckily, hit
me in the face and back and stunned me for the moment… the men never moved or ran till I gave the word… A lot of flares were fired, and when each flare went up, we flopped own in the grass and waited till it had died down…

…I was able to master myself, and it was not till I got back in the trench that I found I was also hit just above the left temple, close to the eye. The pair of spectacles which I was wearing must have been blown off by the force of the explosion, for I never saw them again. Very luckily they were not smashed and driven into my eye…[7]

The rest of Macmillan’s letter–which omits the grim details of his men returning fire and killing at least one German at close range–is concerned with letting his family down easy. These are slight wounds, and he would only be sent to England if it so happened that the hospitals in France were still filled with the more seriously wounded. His duty, he explains, is to find a way to stay in France and return to his duties as soon as may be…

 

Finally, today, and worse, we have a family that won’t be notified in the usual way.

Billy Congreve was a conscientious Brigade Major, and when his brigade’s attack on Longeuval (see the first map, above) was held up, he went up himself to investigate. From a former German gun-pit he observed the front line and the German positions now under attack, ignoring warnings of nearby snipers. Exhausted after several days with little sleep and much movement around the battle zone–including multiple trips to bring in the wounded after failed attacks–Congreve seemed to the men around him to be depressed. He may have become incautious. And he was very tall.

Only minutes after Robert Graves was hit, a mile or two to the west, apparently killed but actually at the first stage of an excruciating odyssey, Congreve stepped down from the gun-pit into the main trench, and was shot through the neck. A sergeant standing next to him saw the bullet hit.

He stood for half a second and then collapsed. He never moved or spoke, and he was dead in a few seconds.

 

It’s unfortunate that this death reads here almost like a lost detail, a swallowed anti-climax of the already endlessly brutal Somme. This is not intentional, and it’s mostly unavoidable: Congreve had lost a volume of his diary, and if he began keeping another one it seems not to have made it home. So he fell silent, here, months before he was silenced.

congreve

Major Billy Congreve, VC

Congreve was a formidable soldier. Boyishly handsome and gangly, he was cool-headed and brave and had seized the opportunity of the war to swiftly advance the career he had just begun. A twenty-five-year-old (brevet) major, he had twice been decorated for gallantry, and his performance in the extreme situation of the last few days will soon earn him a posthumous Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest decoration for valor. This award had also been won by his father, W.N. Congreve.

And so the passing of the most terrible news began not with the usual grim race between the bureaucracy’s telegram and the notes of fellow-officers, but with a telephone call from 76th Brigade back to 3rd Division, and then across to XIII Corps Headquarters. A Brigadier General Greenly gave the news to General Congreve:

It was at a very important and critical moment, when the Corps were on the point of carrying out a very important and very daring operation, and where the direction of the corps commander was of the greatest importance. When I told him what had happened he was absolutely calm to all outward appearance and, after a few seconds of silence, said quite calmly, ‘He was a good soldier.'[8]

Billy Congreve was married to Pamela Maude on June 1st, and there was a brief honeymoon, but he parted from his wife in mid-June to return for the planning of the Somme Offensive. I don’t know this for certain, but it seems unlikely that he could have known, then, that he would become a father, in March. When the little girl is born, her father will be eight months dead.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The very battery that Rowland Feilding admired yesterday. It would seem, however, that the valleys on both sides of Mametz Wood have attracted the same black comedic nickname... Or perhaps I am confused: in any event, this "Happy Valley" is north of the wood, not the "Death Valley" south of it...
  2. "No, you cannot kill me."
  3. This is not the oft-trotted-out "that which does not kill us" quote, but rather an oddly off French translation of a line in "Unter Feinden," which reads "Sterben? Sterben kann ich nicht!" or "Die? I can't die!" Suffice it to say that Nietzsche's complex and contradictory writings are just about the last thing that can, or will, get a fair shake in the British Army of the Great War. Which is why, of course, Graves is into them...
  4. If General Blackader anticipates Atkinson, surely this is a Monty Python name, avant la lettre.
  5. Old Soldiers Never Die, 186-92.
  6. The War the Infantry Knew, 229-41.
  7. From Downing Street to the Trenches, 207-9.
  8. Armageddon Road, 193-4.

Edward Thomas Improves a Song; Harold Macmillan on the Big Bombardment; Herbert Read is Back and E.A. Mackintosh is Decorated; Alan Seeger Prepares for Battle: “In Moments Like These, Words are Futile.”

First, today, Edward Thomas reports in to Eleanor Farjeon, the woman most responsible for keeping him an honest poet.

Postmark 24 June 1916
Saturday Hut 14

My dear Eleanor

Look what I have done. I have been 5 days sick and confined to the camp, practically to the hut and this is the result. I have altered Rio because I feel you are right. I have cut out the 3rd and 4th verses and the only refrain is

‘I’m bound away for ever
Away somewhere, away for ever’

Does that do it any good?

It does–but then again the version of the song to which I have linked, above, already had Farjeon’s suggested amendments. Farjeon–the female friend, the unrequited lover, the unpaid amanuensis, the uncredited editor–is a very good writer in her own write, as it were (some children I know vastly prefer her stories to Thomas’s work), and letters like these make clear that she was his first and best reader as his poetry matured and turned toward the war. While support from his several friends who were established English writers wavered or lapsed (Frost, across the sea, offered all-important confirming belief, but he couldn’t read over Thomas’s shoulder at a few days notice) Farjeon was always ready not simply with praise but with formative critical readings.

And in Thomas’s daily life, more changes beckon:

I am better now and just going out for the first time and hope I can get a walk tomorrow and be fit on Monday.

There are more changes ahead and in case I should be robbed of it I am trying to arrange my leave to begin next Saturday. I have got to move my books from the study. Mrs. Lupton has turned me out. After that Helen and I are going to the Guthries, the Ellis’s, and finishing up in London. If you were at Greatham we could call there. I suppose there is a place to put up at. Otherwise we should see you in town.

It is most satisfactory that Duckworth has altered his terms in the right direction…

Goodbye. Yours ever
Edward Thomas

All in all this qualifies as a very strange letter from Edward Thomas” he has accepted criticism, he is moving forward, and, as the last line suggests, he may even make some money from book-selling. Farjeon explains that “Edward’s ‘Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds’ and my ‘Nursery Rhymes of London Town’ [both soothing English anthologies] were both being published by Duckworth in the autumn. His book was dedicated to me and Clifford Bax.”[1]

But lost in there is the slightly distressing news that his family’s landlord has reclaimed the room he uses as a study. A slight dislocation, since he is now with his family only while on leave, but then again this is Thomas we’re talking about–Thomas of the English villages, Thomas of the black moods–and what writer, having just decided to uproot and accept a new life (as an artillery officer) likes to have his books uprooted as well? Many will have to be sold for whatever they might bring.

 

And a few odds and ends:

 

Richard Aldington, not quite kicking and screaming, left today, a century back, for the camp of the 11th Devonshires near Wareham in Dorset.[2]

 

And E. A. Mackintosh, hero of a recent raid, had his MC gazetted today. This is a considerable honor, if not an overwhelming one–for dramatic self-sacrifice or aggressive heroism in victorious encounters, higher honors were possible. But more than one of our writers will win the Military Cross for demonstrating courage and self-command during the deadly confusion of a night raid, and account his courage well-requited, the passage of the main test confirmed. Mackintosh’s citation read:

For conspicuous gallantry. He organised and led a successful raid on the enemy’s trenches with great skill and courage. Several of the enemy were disposed of and a strong point destroyed. He also brought back to wounded men under fire.[3]

It’s that “also” that tells the tale. The raid was tactically successful–even if strategically pointless–but the decoration is given for the officer’s initiative during the developing situation. In an action such as this, the only way to demonstrate courage and initiative is, generally, to go and try to save the wounded. Which is to say that the plan does not make provision for the predictable eventuality of men being wounded in or near in the enemy lines… this is not one of those “never leave a man behind” outfits, this British army, but it is still happy to celebrate those who refuse to.

 

Today also brings the return of one of our most inconstant writers. Herbert Read‘s diary will be published in very selective fashion, and today’s entry comes after a fifteen month gap, during which he served at the front, was badly lacerated by barbed wire, and was sent home to recover. Well, what’s up with Hebert?

24.vi.16 Rugeley Camp, Staffordshire[4]

I came to this dreadful place a week ago. The Medical Board gave me ‘light duty’–but they don’t understand the term here. We get up at 5.30 a.m. and are at it till tea time and sometimes later. And all the time the same monotonous work–shouting oneself hoarse trying to initiate remarkably dense recruits into the mysteries of ‘forming fours’, etc.I think I shall flee to the front for a little peace at the earliest opportunity…

This is an opinion we’ve heard before, and will hear again. It’s neither sardonic nor fatuous–soldiers who have seen action are having trouble adjusting to the lugubrious routine of training units.

Where does a veteran belong?[5]

 

We will let Harold Macmillan bring us the major news of the day:

There is a tremendous artillery duel in progress at the moment. The guns are roaring and you can follow the progress of the shell by the noise, from its original roar as it leaves the mouth of our gun, all along its hissing and screaming journey, till the final consummation of its successful explosion in the enemy’s lines…

As I sit in my dug out, writing, I lookout on a little ruined farm… the garden still struggles to keep a civilised look amid ruin and desolation. A few flowers are springing up, between the shell-holes. The birds (who seem quite unmoved by any bombardment) are singing merrily, for all the world as if they were in some peaceful countryside, stranger to High Explosive. The cuckoo can be heard between the firing of the shells. Nature does her best for us even here.

Save only in her vermin-life. Rats are surely among the less successful or meritorious of Nature’s efforts. They infest the trenches–great big fat rats, as large as puppies. I fear them more than the Huns…[6]

With “The Big Push” planned for June 29th, this is the beginning of the preparatory bombardment. It will, of course, give the Germans very ample notice as to where exactly the attack will begin. But the theory is that it will completely destroy the German barbed wire obstacles and front-line firing positions.

 

And finally, a reminder that just because the Battle of the Somme is England’s greatest effort to date does not mean it will be a solely English battle. The French will attack as well, to the right of the British–and with them, a handful of Americans, including Alan Seeger of the Foreign Legion.

June 24, 1916. . . . We had a hard journey coming here. After an early morning’s march of about ten kilometers, we took the train and made a trip of four or five hours. Then we started off in the heat of the day on what was without exception the hardest march I have ever made. There were 20 kilometers to do through the blazing sun and in a cloud of dust. Something around 30 kilos on the back. About 50 per cent dropped by the way. By making a supreme effort I managed to get in at the finish with the fifteen men that were all that was left of the section. The men were out of training after so long in the trenches without practise. The battle field has no terrors after trials like these that demand just as much grit and often more suffering.

I shall probably write nothing but post-cards henceforth. In moments like these, words are futile. Think of me when you read the first big communiqué, which we shall have had a brilliant share in making.[7]

Just to sum things up: training camp is worse than the trenches, the rats are worse than the Huns, and battle is not nearly as scary as a long hot march… rhetoric!

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 200.
  2. Whelpton, Richard Aldington, 126.
  3. Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man, 129.
  4. We have been here before!
  5. The Contrary Experience, 71-2. The rest of the letter discusses Read's reading: serious, leftist material, including Shaw, Sorel, and the New Age.
  6. Webb, From Downing Street, 191.
  7. Letters and Diary, 209-210.

Four Horsemen and a Dark Roman Reference from Noel Hodgson; Ford Madox Ford, Illiterate for the Indecorous; Edward Thomas Retracts; Harold Macmillan on the Empty Battlefield; Ronald Tolkien Knows his Maps

Lots to get to, today. Ford Madox Hueffer, for instance, is writing to Lucy Masterman. Hueffer/Ford is an impossible figure to get a grip on in this context–it’s a shame that great Modernist novels don’t tend to include dated fragments of diary–so this letter is by way of an update on his location and status, a reminder of his odd personality, and an excuse to work in a scandalous story.

3rd Batt., The Welch Regt.
Cardiff Castle
13/5/16

My dear Lucy,

I was very glad to hear from you again…  Literally no one writes to me,

But I am a dull creature with nothing to write to anyone but the happenings here–which are interesting enough when you are inside the shell but will not thrill the outsider. As thus:

The day before yesterday I was set to write a long memorandum about a lady who got into the Rink at night & was chased round and round by sergeants, over the mens’ beds and the like & then, quite illegally, handed over to the police on an impossible charge. I had to exercise a good deal of ingenuity to get our people out of quite a nasty scrape and composed a forcible document wh. went up to H.Q. and was returned with the comment from the Garrison Commander that the document of the subaltern, name undecipherable, was illegible & illiterate & must be written over again…

I do not know if the juxtaposition of the misuse of “literally” and the emphasis on his own commander’s opinion that he, one of the most prominent mid-career English authors, is “illiterate” is a joke. I hope so?

It is amusing, though, that Ford, whose undissolved marriage, ménage with Violet Hunt, and further sexual entanglements were the stuff of literary world gossip, here puts his talents so assiduously and ineffectively at the disposal of his army inferiors. It’s unclear whether these were hijinks involving a professional woman of the night or an episode of more sinister, even predatory behavior, but Ford is trying to keep everyone out of trouble… or, no, no, just “our people.” Presumably the woman was left to fend for herself.

And so everybody strafes everybody else in this microcosm & without doubt discipline is maintained.

I do not seem to get much nearer the fields of France—but I may go suddenly. I devoutly hope so…

He does, actually–Ford does not like being on the far fringes of any scene. But garrison life is not quite all fun and games:

All leave has been stopped here for some months past on account of three Hun cruisers & we have had many alarums & excursions. But I shall try for a weekend, next week, and will come to you & Charlie, then, if I may.

I don’t know: one can’t comment on Ireland. At least I can’t.

As for shooting the rebels: I wish it had been done in situ; I suppose it had to be done, tho’ I don’t know why…. But at any rate it is no business, thank God, of mine to worry about these affairs…

Yrs. always[1]

 

Not far to the northeast of Cardiff we could now find Noel Hodgson‘s heavily pregnant sister Stella, who has fled the Zeppelin-attracting megalopolis of Canterbury for the distant safety of Worcester. That’s the theory, anyway. Noel’s newspaper-worthy sketches have remained pretty anodyne, and I wonder if there’s not a slightly sharper edge to the jocularity here. Noel and Stella are close, and Hodgson is not given to dark moods, but rare is the front line soldier who does not find some bitterness in the idea of a civilian taking drastic action to reduce their minuscule risk of suffering from German Zeppelin raids. In any event, I like “aesthetic paraphernalia” very much”

Dear Star,

I am greatly relieved to think of you as safe from German beastliness for a bit, though it must be rotten to be among aliens, however agreeable, at such a time. . .

We dwell now in tents like Arabs, and have an intense dislike of rain, of which we get much at present. But when the rain is not raining we find it very pleasant, the wood where we now dwell being full of bluebells, anemones, nightingales and other aesthetic paraphernalia.

There is not far from here a chateau and a hostellery of outstanding merit, to which we lately repaired one evening and dined. Our ride back was an epic event, which I duly celebrated in immortal verse, and a copy of the opening stanzas are enclosed for your edification…

Never mind about the sharp edge–he simply moves on and tells his beloved sister of his band of brothers. Hodgson loves rest and reserve as much as Siegfried Sassoon, it would seem. The main difference is that he is part of a large group of friends, while Sassoon was prone to intense one-on-one friendships, and has been bereaved. But instead of sticking to aesthetic prose, he has embraced light verse:

 

The Tale of Four Men

This is the tale of Four Stout Men
Who mounted their stark steeds there and then
And rode to Heilly o’er moor & fen,
Clanrobert, Cuchulain and Curgenven
(Not to mention Gaukrodger)–remarkable men.

And the number of things they didn’t discuss
From Aristotle’s De Partibus
To Marie Corelli and even wuss
Dalhousie, Defoe and Decius Mus
(Not omitting S.M. Grubb) astonishes us.

They feasted like men of Homeric mould
And drank as much as their guts would hold
And sang good songs like the men of old,
Bunyan and Barnum and Charles the Bold
(Not forgetting Barabbas) those hearts of gold.

Then into the saddles the four did vault.
And their spirits soared like the E in alt.
If their horses bolted it wasn’t their fault,
Genghis, and Grettir and Edwin Gault
(And of course John Silver, the excellent salt.)

And as they carolled a man of sin
Exploded a horrible culverin
But in spite of the state those four were in,
Disraeli and Daniel and Gunga Din
(Together with Micawber) survived the din.[2]

Really good stuff–the best that Hodgson has written. But then again I am a sucker for heavily referential doggerel. I won’t unpack this mock epic of English literary adventure–Gunga Din and John Silver should still chime, I would think–or weight down a lengthy post with leaden exposition. But one thing–and here again I may be guilty of over-reading–is worth noting.

Perhaps “Decius Mus” is just tossed in here as a remembered Roman name, dredged from schooldays spent marching through Livy, a properly sober Latin sound summoned to fill out meter and rhyme, and meaning only “some old Roman general.” Or perhaps, on the other hand, Hodgson knows full well the import of the story in Livy: P. Decius Mus was consul when an oracle prophesied that victory would only be bought at the cost of one or the other army’s general. Decius Mus then “devoted” himself–there was a ritual known as a devotio, a consigning-to-the-gods–and won victory with his own death, charging into the enemy ranks.

If Hodgson really does mean the reference to go that far, then this is a dark note to be dropped into a rollicking romance of frolicking subalterns, especially in an army which will shortly expect not its generals, but rather its young, Livy-reading lieutenants to lead the way into the enemy host…

 

I have been neglecting Edward Thomas of late, and he has been writing both letters and poems. Thomas is already our master vacillator, and in a letter today to Gordon Bottomley he backtracks on his recent intra-poetic snark:

13 May 1916
Hut 14,
Hare Hall Camp

My dear Gordon,

…Thank you for the verses & for arranging the substitution, which was what I wanted… De la Mare came down for a Sunday a fortnight ago, & spoke tentatively. He mostly does now. He isn’t well & might be perplexed in the extreme. He doesn’t always write as well as he used to. But his verses I hardly ever see…

Also I withdraw whatever I seemed to mean against the bards who indulged Miss Asquith & performed round Davies. He alone could have refused, I suppose.

I like this next bit, all ironic bases touched with ironic quickness:

It is a horrible war but we have had some fine days for men and vegetables lately. We have nightingales everywhere about us. There is no vexation we do not fairly often forget. My love to you two.

Ever yours Edward Thomas[3]

There’s a poem today too–a rare sonnet–but perhaps we’ll read that in the near future, I think, when Eleanor Farjeon does. Today is rather a full day…

 

Instead, another letter! Just yesterday we saw the “empty battlefield” observation from Alan Seeger. Today it is Harold Macmillan‘s turn, in a letter to his mother.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about a modern battlefield is the desolation and emptiness of it all. . . . One cannot emphasise this point too much. Nothing is to be seen of war or soldiers–only the split and shattered trees and the burst of an occasional shell reveal anything of the truth. One can look for miles and see no human being. But in those miles of country lurk (like moles or rats, it seems) thousands, even hundreds of thousands of men, planning against each other perpetually some new device of death. Never showing themselves, they launch at each other bullet, bomb, aerial torpedo, and shell. And somewhere too (on the German side we know of their existence opposite us) are the little cylinders of gas, waiting only for the moment to spit forth their nauseous and destroying fumes. And yet the landscape shows nothing of all this–nothing but a few shattered trees and 3 or 4 thin lines of earth and sandbags; these and the ruins of towns and villages are the only signs of war anywhere visible.

Macmillan is perceptive, too, and ahead of his time, perhaps, in appreciating just how profound an effect such warfare has on the traditional notion of military morale:

The glamour of red coats — the martial tunes of fife and drum — aides-de-camp scurrying hither and thither on splendid chargers — lances glittering and swords flashing — how different the old wars must have been. The thrill of battle comes now only once or twice in a twelvemonth. We need not so much the gallantry of our fathers; we need (and in our army at any rate I think you will find it) that indomitable and patient determination which has saved England over and over again. If any one at home thinks or talks of peace, you can truthfully say that the army is weary enough of war but prepared to fight for another 50 years if necessary, until the final object is attained.

I don’t know why I write such solemn stuff…

Many of us could never stand the strain and endure the horrors which we see every day, if we did not feel that this was more than a War–a Crusade. I never see a man killed but think of him as a martyr. All the men (tho’ they could not express it in words) have the same conviction–that our cause is right and certain in the end to triumph. And because of this unexpressed and almost unconscious faith, our allied armies have a superiority in morale which will be (some day) the deciding factor.[4]

Well, perhaps not all the men.

 

Finally, today, a century back would be the date on John Ronald Tolkien‘s ‘(Provisional) Instructor’s Certificate of Signalling (For Officers).’ Tolkien is now officially proficient in “Telephony… Knowledge of Map Reading,” and various visual and auditory signalling systems: “speeds for disc of 4 words per minute, for lamp of 6 words per minute, for buzzer of 10 words per minute, and for semaphore of 8 words per minute.”

These are cutting edge attainments for a man happier in Old English than Newspeak, a writer who will one day show the ruination of a great wizard through the turn of his mind from old lore to “metal and wheels” and his betrayal of all that is good through his adoption of industrial warfare and long-distance strategic communication…

But now the course is complete, and Tolkien will return to camp, one step closer to France.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters, 64-5.
  2. Zeepvat, Before Action, 177-8.
  3. Letters From Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 267.
  4. Horne, Macmillan, 39-40.
  5. Chronology, 80.

Wyn Griffith and David Jones: The Royal Welch Raid Seen From Two Angles; A Near Miss for Harold MacMillan

Two brief paroxysms of trench violence today, a century back. First, with the Grenadier Guards, young Harold Macmillan described an overnight German bombardment of British positions in the ever-restive Ypres Salient.

Sunday–noon

Last night was a rather exciting night. I was having dinner with Parnell in the dug-out about 8 o’clock, when the enemy suddenly began a very violent bombardment. All round our dug-out was heavily shelled; a barrage was put on the road… It was midnight before I could venture out to go over to the other post. Even then it was a hazardous journey… I took an orderly with me, of course, as it was a rule that no one is ever to walk anywhere alone. This is a sound rule, as a man might be wounded and lie unnoticed for days and perhaps bleed to death…

We ran round the cross-road, which was naturally the hottest spot; just after we had passed the cross-road an enormous H.E. shell pitched right on the road. But we reached our destination in safety…[1]

Nothing to worry about, mum! It’s that little detail about the buddy system that catches the eye: this is a jaunty letter home to mother, for the most part, but that is one of those choice details that tend to turn up in the “sketches,” written most often for dad or the armchair reader of every paper’s war news.

Here we wonder: does the orderly’s presence draw attention to the fact that the young officer may be torn apart at any time, or does it reassure him that his shrapnel wounds–surely to occur in a mentionable place not overly prone to sepsis–will be swiftly dressed on his way to a wound stripe and blighty?

 

And second, the raid of the Fifteenth Royal Welch Fusiliers. We have many Royal Welch to keep tabs on–Dr. Dunn and Frank Richards in the 2nd Battalion, Siegfried Sassoon and John Bernard Adams with the 1st, Robert Graves soon ready to return to duty and with Vivian de Sola Pinto in Egypt–and, having just added Wyn Griffith, we now have two in the 15th.[2] So my habit of working straight from the memoirs and literary secondary sources and only going to battalion records when in doubt (and when they are remotely accessible!) almost tripped us up: Griffith returns to a raid on the 6th, while Thomas Dilworth, a biographer of David Jones, describes the battalion’s first raid as occurring on the 7th.

Griffith may be mistaken, although he gives few dates and therefore the impression that memorable ones are correct. Our approach to the socially retiring and imaginatively enormous Jones is always, necessarily, tentative: there is no letter about tonight, his diary will be mostly destroyed, and there is no incident in In Parenthesis that matches the raid precisely (not that this would provide a date). But he recalled the raid and Dilworth dates it to today, a century back.

Let’s assume that we have a simple problem of dating overnight operations, then, and drop back to tell the story again, from Jones’s point of view.[3]

The 15th are a Kitchener’s Army battalion, many of its men, like Jones himself, Londoners of Welsh extraction–the battalion was also known as the “1st London Welsh.” They have been in and out of the line since early winter, learning the ropes before the big push. This was the first planned raid, which may well have been evidence of the spendthrift folly of the staff and the pointless misery of war, as Griffith has it, but it was also evidence that the higher command now considers the battalion to be competent–and ready for a challenge.

Where Griffith considered his auxiliary assignment as a wire cutter to be a reprieve, at least, from leading the raid, Jones–our gentle artist–showed what was probably still a very common urge: to prove himself, to experience combat–or, at least, to express the desire for such an experience. So, a few days ago, when Griffith was still in England, David Jones volunteered for the raid.

But Jones was small and quiet and there were many volunteers:

So he was assigned, instead, to the covering party and at 11.30 [last night, that would be] slipped into no man’s land with the raiders in order to fire on the flanking sections of the enemy line. As on other such occasions, someone commented, ‘Bloody dark, mate’, and was answered, ‘Christ, mate, it’s a gift.’[4]

Dilworth’s account of the raid, based on battalion records and other sources–but not, it would seem, Griffith’s memoir–continues:

Advancing silently through no man’s land, the raiders came upon a German wiring party finishing its work and followed it into their trench. There they attacked, hurling over 200 grenades and killing most of the enemy, unarmed and crowded together, struggling frantically to get grenades out of a store. The raiders waded into the carnage with bludgeons and revolvers. They withdrew at 2.30 a.m., Jones’s party covering their rear, and were swept by machine-gun fire that killed the young officers leading the raiding party.

So Jones is with the covering party, and Wyn Griffith is back in the trench. Let’s pick up his memoir, now, where we left it yesterday:

Various coloured lights were sent up from neighbouring sectors of the enemy trenches, and his machine-guns were enfilading No Man’s Land. We could, however, hear the bursting of bombs thrown by our men, and we took heart at the sounds; they must now be in conflict hand to hand. Then we knew that the enemy artillery had started his barrage, and for the next ten minutes we knew little else. It did not seem possible that any of us could survive this thunderstorm of bursting shells, but strangely enough we suffered little. The barrages and the machine-gun fire died down to spasmodic outbursts, and our men began to trickle back to our line–some of them, for many never came back.

Dilworth records Jones’s more distant memory of more immediate terror:

When he scurried back into the trench, Jones saw the few prisoners taken in the raid literally shaking with fear. His sergeant-major, who had not been involved in the action, grabbed one of them, twisted his arm up behind his back and began frog-marching him down the trench. Jones and his companions protested, ‘You can’t do that, sir’ and stopped him…[5]

This is a major discrepancy, then: is Jones misremembering the raid, grafting a later memory of the mistreatment of prisoners onto this day, or is Wyn Griffith omitting a fact that would go a long way toward mitigating his account of the raid as an abject failure?

We could get no coherent account of what had happened, but it was clear that their visit was not unexpected… we sent our patrols to scour No Man’s Land in search of our wounded and dead. The searched lasted all night, with diminishing success…

It became evident that we had paid dearly for the assault–no prisoner, dead or alive, came into our hands. Sadness fell upon us all, officers and men, for there were many friends we would never see again, and the reactions from the excitement of the night brooded over the whispering groups, assessing the ultimate value of the enterprise and finding it not worth the cost.[6]

Not an omission then: “no prisoner, dead or alive.” If there were indeed prisoners taken on this raid then Griffith would be committing a graver sort of sin, namely asserting, on the strength of his memory, an incorrect fact. I don’t see why he would do this–it may be an error given undue emphasis by his retrospective shaping of the account of the raid into a story of the uselessness of raids in general… but now it seems more likely that it is Jones who is misremembering the details.

Ah well, I would be more excited by such a discrepancy if both writers actually wrote the raid–but we are dealing here with a reconstruction of Jones’s experience rather than a true sword-crossing of memoirs. Also, this issue wis probably resolvable by a little bit of research that I haven’t done: somewhere in Wales there is a more or less authoritative report that would specify whether or not German prisoners were taken on this raid…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. From Downing Street to the Trenches, 178-9.
  2. They are not, however, in the same company, and an officer would be unlikely to personally know a private soldier not under his command.
  3. It's possible that the night of the 7th is intended by Dilworth, in which case we have a discrepancy... and I'd blindly pick the latter-day researcher over the memory of the memoirist, especially since Dilworth uses Griffith and could check him against the records. Apologies, then, if I have indeed fumbled the date and put today/tomorrow's activity yesterday/today. I must plead the finite nature of time and effort (the Battalion Diary of the 15th Royal Welch is not yet, to my knowledge, scanned and available online) even here, at a crossing of paths in the Royal Welch...
  4. Jones had received a good schooling before art school, but he had not been reared, like the Public School officers of the First and Second battalions, in the shadow of the Western Canon--particularly its oldest and highest caliber works. Jones was more of an autodidact, in terms of literature, than almost any of our other poets (Will Streets being a notable exception) and he first wrote of his experiences without having coming first through Homer and Vergil. He will be delighted, Thomas Dilworth writes, when he learns that darkness is also "a gift" for the soldiers of the Aeneid. The problem is that Jones (and/or Dilworth) does not provide chapter and verse, and I'm not sure what the reference is to. The Aeneid is capacious and notoriously susceptible to different translations and interpretations, so the reference to darkness may well be in there, but any similar reference that I can remember (or swiftly re-locate) is about darkness coming and sleep being a gift...
  5. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 94-5. Dilworth is also drawing on Colin Hughes, but I have not been able yet to acquire either of Hughes's books on Jones and his division's fighting on the Somme...
  6. Wyn Griffith, Up to Mametz, 110-18.

Yarns and Lamentation from Francis Ledwidge; Bimbo Tennant and Harold Macmillan Meet for Lunch; Noel Hodgson Cleans Up After a German Raid

Francis Ledwidge is on the mend, and almost home. Just released from hospital in Manchester and about to enjoy convalescent leave, he would like nothing better than to spend it in Ireland. Which, of course, he can’t.

Ledwidge has fought on the beaches of Gallipoli and in the mountains of Serbia, he has spent months lying almost in the shadow of pyramids, and yet now, although he is only a ferry ride from home he cannot go. There has been battle in the streets of Dublin, and although the Rising was swiftly crushed, all travel to and from Ireland is still suspended.

If the conundrum of being an Irishman in the British army was not sharp enough, news came down yesterday, a century back, that the English authorities had begun, after brief trials, to execute the leaders of the Rising. Ledwidge wrote today, a century back, in answer to the letter of his close friend and former comrade Bob Christie, who had been wounded at Gallipoli and evacuated:

68H Cambridge Street,
Manchester
4th May 1916

My dear Bob,

How glad I was to receive your letter-this morning, forwarded to me from the hospital. I had a letter from you in Serbia, which I answered, but about that time several mail-boats were waylaid on the sea and my replies are probably safe in Davy Jones’s locker.

We had a terrific time since you left us. It was hell! hell!! hell!!! We lost two-thirds of our men on the day you were wounded, several more the next day, and an occasional man in the trenches which we held until we left Suvla for other arenas. I cannot write you of our hardships in Serbia, as no words could describe the cold, the blizzards, the frost and the hunger. We did not fear the Bulgars even though we were outnumbered; we only thought it unfair of England to send us, a broken division, up there where so many had failed. When we were finally beaten on the Vardar, the retreat to Salonika was more than our strength was equal to…

My liver started troubling me, and does still. I can’t sleep at night. Though I am discharged from hospital I am far from being well, but I hope, nevertheless, to recuperate fully in the green fields of Ireland…

Bob, I, had hard graft in Suvla and Serbia. I was on ‘listening post’ every alternate night. The first night I shot a Turk who came spying and got a certain amount of fame and—more, dangerous work—and a stripe…

The tone of the letter being rather immodest, Ledwidge turns to verse–he encourages Bob Christie in his own efforts, but then reverts to praising his own: “‘Songs of the Fields’ is a great success.”

Next, the talk is of Ireland:

Yes, poor Ireland is always in trouble. Tho’ I am not a Sinn Feiner…  Poor MacDonagh and Pearse were two of my best friends, and now they are dead, shot by England. MacDonagh had a beautiful mind. Don’t you know his poetry?

Inevitably, given the wide-ranging scope of the letter, Ledwidge turns to the subject of the lost love that still haunts him:

I have no rest because of Ellie, even yet. I wrote many keens for her…

So: we have covered the fortunes of the battalion, Ledwidge’s own exploits, writing, Ireland, and true love. Which leaves the question of patronage.

See you when I go to Derry. I hear often from Lord Dunsany. He wrote to welcome me home…

P.S. But how are you? Have you a leg at all?

Quite a post-script. The answer, as it happens, is “yes, but not much.”[1]

There are dramatic accounts of Ledwidge at this time, roaming Manchester, threatening to make cause with the rebels, lamenting, expostulating… but it seems true, at least, that he was a friend of the poet and rebel MacDonagh, and that, like many Irishman, he was torn between amazement that the Rising had finally occurred and disbelief at how utterly it had failed. If he had talked of joining the rebels he would know by now that there was no rebellion to join, and, nationalist dreams aside, it would seem that Ledwidge hoped now only to go home for a visit before the army, of England, called him once more to fight for its empire…

 

Noel Hodgson finished another fictionalized “sketch” today, a century back, closely based on events that recently transpired. We’ve had several “raid” pieces, and we will shortly have several more–it’s all the rage this spring!–but this is the first from the point of view of the raided, the surprised, the defeated…

 

The Raid

The essential difference between ourselves and our enemies is in nothing more strikingly displayed than in the raid which we inaugurated last autumn. It began with a Canadian “cutting-out ” expedition, recalling, by the audacity of its conception and the cool daring of its execution, the recapture of the Hermione or some other heroic stroke of Nelson’s navy. Others followed of the same kind, relying on surprise, nerve and man-to-man superiority for success. Then the German took up the idea and applied to it his hacking-through principle. To pulverise a small portion of trench by a tremendous artillery concentration and then send a party to pick up any fragments, was his scientific adaptation of adventurous enterprise little suited to his character.

“We raided the enemy’s trenches at X, and captured some prisoners.” It sounds a simple and unimportant incident but to those concerned it is not without moment.

It had been an unnecessarily perfect day. Down in the Somme Canal, A.S.C. and other leisured classes had been bathing; a peculiarly spring sunshine, a vintage sunshine, dry and stimulating, drenched the hills. Infinitely distant in the clear heavens, no larger and no louder than silver dragon-flies, had flown the ’planes. The gunners of both sides had lunched well, and given the afternoon to slumber, and now peace seemed to fall with.the dusk like a mantle upon the tired slopes under an opaline sky. A subaltern of impressionable mind was quoting to himself, as he “stood to” his men along the trench, “placidum carpebant fessa soporem Omnia per terras.”

That would be a near-quote[2] of Aeneid IV, 522-3, a fancy way of setting the scene: “all were peacefully slumbering on [or, perhaps here’s the point, “in”] the ground.”

Amusingly, the quote isn’t followed by a soldier being startled by an enemy attack, although there is plenty of that in the Aeneid. Rather it is Dido who awakes, troubled, sensing her plight, as Aeneas prepares to abandon her. Well, in any event, we know that the peaceful sleep is about to be shattered:

The bombardment began without warning. Just when the darkness began to render objects vague, the men who chatted easily upon the firesteps were aware of a sudden rushing sound, as if the Angel of Death flapped his wings above his victims, and in a moment destruction came upon them unawares! Death, in every degree of horror, sudden and unseen, with a voice of unbearable violence, took men up and dashed them lifeless, bags of bone and blood, upon their comrades. The din was as tremendous and incessant as Niagara, without pause or alleviation. It seemed as if by some inhuman device there had been flung upon them a substance which exploded and continued to explode indefinitely. One could not distinguish separate concussions ; the whole atmosphere seemed one interminable explosion.

The subaltern was flung upon his back by the first salvo, and picked himself up from a débris of earth and timber. His hands he noticed were bloody, and the idea “I am hit” occurred to him. Then he noticed that he was alone in the wrecked bay. The sentry had disappeared, and looking at the ruin from which he had crawled, he realised whence the blood had come.

These experiences, I should break in to note, are not Hodgson’s, but rather those of his friends and fellow Devonshire subalterns Harold Rayner and John Upcott.

He walked round the traverse, and found one man firing frenziedly to his front, while all that remained of another was pitifully attempting to bandage a shattered leg with a field-dressing.

He said afterwards that the act of checking the man from wasting ammunition alone helped him retain his reason.’ Certainly one of the most startling features of the horror known as a heavy bombardment is that men will carry out the rules of “the book ” and find comfort from so doing, though death is taking both the calm and the distraught equally.

Round the corner a sergeant was tying the hands of a prostrate man with a handkerchief: “Dotty,” he shouted to the officer, and pointed to foam at the corners of his mouth.

The din admitted of no increase, but a line of bursting shells along the enemy’s front trench showed that the British artillery had come into action. The angry snap of shrapnel made a line of red splashes on the right, which reminded him of a variable electric advertisement he had seen in London.

He had no notion how long the bombardment lasted, but after the first few minutes he lost all sense of fear. To seek for cover was useless, and for the time he became a fatalist, moving up and down upon his duties and taking no heed. Only he was worried by the sickly smell of battle, of explosives and blood and the subtle odour of fresh death.

The bombardment lifted as suddenly as it had begun, to the support lines, and the subaltern found himself on the step, pistol in hand, looking at a clump of dark figures which loomed through the darkness. Down the torn parapet snaked a flicker, as spasmodic rifle fire opened ; from the flank came reassuringly the venomous stutter of a Lewis gun, and the dark figures became few. His pistol jerked twice in his hand, and a twitching mass fell back from the parapet in front of him. Down the trench came the fierce cries of men stabbing, and the report of bombs; in the neighbouring bay a sound of fierce breathing was followed by a noise such as a groom makes to his horse. It was the passage of steel in a man’s lungs.

A handful of crouching figures fled back into the darkness, and soon after the German artillery fire ceased. A tremendous amusement filled the subaltern; “hot shop, eh?” he said genially to the survivor in the next bay. The other, a hard-bitten veteran, wiped his bayonet and looked with satisfaction on a huddle of grey in the corner. But he did not laugh; he was old at the game. Overhead a deluge of avenging shells still passed. The raid had failed.

May 4th, 1916.[3]

 

It hadn’t, really. A (large) “raid” is to be distinguished from a (small) attack primarily by the fact that it does not attempt to hold territory. The Germans were after mayhem, information, and that elusive “upper hand.” “Smiler” Hodgson may reassure arm-chair militarists back home by closing his little piece with an elated middle class youth and a deadly Tommy with a bloodied bayonet, but the real raid ended with eight men “missing,” most or all of them prisoners. It was followed by an inquiry from brigade, and a pervasive sense that, in this sector, the British were on the defensive and the Germans dominant.

 

Finally, today, here’s to the Guardsmen who lunch, for they will cross paths with each other. Writing to his mother–about the need for conscription to be swiftly put into effect, about Ireland, and about the faltering government–Harold Macmillan also reported on his social progress. He was run into “young Tennant… today and he is coming to lunch with us.” Quite a coup…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 150-2.
  2. It's one plausible word off, which may indicate that Hodgson has the line ready to hand--probably as a quote or tag learned by heart long ago rather than as part of a larger section committed to memory. But still... I googled it!
  3. Verse and Prose in Peace and War, 75-78.
  4. From Downing Street to the Trenches, 177.

Moon Gazing with Siegfried Sassoon; Harold Macmillan Reads the Gospel

Irony is pervasive, but then again while military history built on a few score personal accounts provides a certain sort of experiential l truth, it can’t lay a strong claim to a complete picture of any given day. Still, on the day of the passion of Christ–that apogee of suffering which will work its way into so many accounts of the war–it seems that all was relatively quiet. Siegfried Sassoon has only this:

April 21 (Good Friday morning)

A lovely clear dawn, delicate and still, with the belated moon hanging white in the west—the moon that rose so wonderfully, like a large golden balloon with stripes of black cloud across its middle.[1]

 

We haven’t heard from Harold Macmillan in quite a while, but Good Friday found him in trenches in the salient, writing to his mother:

We have been very lucky since we came in… Today has been very quiet, considering the position. We have been troubled by a few rifle grenades, etc…

The two lines are about 70 to 100 yards apart where I am. But the Germans have got a sap out to within about 20 or 30 yards of us. Here they have a sniper who bothers us a little. But a few gas bombs etc. have made him less forward.

I am, I confess, not sorry to think that my time is nearly over now. It is a little trying to be so cut off from every one, as we are here. But of course, it has the corresponding advantage of preventing C.O.’s, Generals etc. from coming along to bother and fuss.

Such as been Good Friday of 1916! I have got my little New Testament with me, and I have read the story of the Passion in St. Luke…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 26.
  2. Webb, From Downing Street to the Trenches, 168-9.