Saki, a Sniper, and a Cigarette; The Long, Lonely Journeys of Sidney Rogerson and Edwin Dyett

Yesterday, a century back, saw the last major advance of the Somme battle. Today, therefore, was a day in which the exhausted troops fought to hold onto the ground they had gained, while reinforcements struggled up through the mud of the torn battlefield. One of those units was the 22nd Royal Fusiliers, Hector Munro‘s battalion. This is the account of one of his comrades, W.R. Spikesman.

…we left our front line to “flank out” on the left of our advanced line, the troops on the left, through the marsh-like conditions of the ground (men had sunk in mud to their stomachs), being unable to come up. It was a very dark winter morning, but after much excitement we were hailed by voices and a figure rose to the top of the trenches in front of us and shouting greetings to the Company Commander…

A number of the fellows sank down on the ground to rest, and Hector sought a shallow crater, with the lip as a back-rest. I heard him shout, “Put that bloody cigarette out,” and heard the snip of a rifle-shot. Then an immediate command to get into the trenches. It was some time later, about an hour, when a fellow came to me and said, “So
they got your friend…”[1]

Hector Munro–Saki–is dead, killed, apparently, by a sniper.

It’s a strange, sudden end to a life that was rich enough to produce a thick, reliably excellent Complete Works and dark enough to keep several biographies straining to come at their subject.

Munro is a tough man to sum up. He was a writer much more skilled–savagely skilled–and better-known than most of ours, but he hardly wrote of the war at all. I wish we could have seen more of him, read more of his letters, but with Saki we have run up against one of the historian’s most unforgiving category of walls, namely those erected by next-of-kin. Hector Munro will not be the the last closeted gay man whose life story will fall into the hands of a relative who so loves him so much that he or she insists on doing great violence to his memory in order to keep it “pure.” Munro’s sister Ethel “set out to destroy all traces of her brother’s life that did not accord with the view of him that she chose to present.”[2] Thus we are left with scraps, and the necessity of confronting the brief, sanitized, sentimentalized “biography” that she included in a posthumous edition of his work.

From this we can glean not only the above account of his last act and words, but the following assessment by one his officers. I can’t gainsay anything in them, although instant deaths by sniper are always suspect and officers do tend to praise elderly non-coms who refuse commissions…

I always quoted him as one of the heroes of the war. I saw daily the appalling discomforts he so cheerfully endured. He flatly refused to take a commission or in any way to allow me to try to make him more comfortable… He was absolutely splendid! What courage! The men simply loved him.

I hope this was true. It would be good to know that this sharp, sardonic, often-troubled man found himself–and found himself to be happy and appreciated–in some band of brothers.

As for Saki’s literary legacy, I can only put in a general plug and a link. He tends to be characterized, for ease of reference, as much like Wodehouse, just not quite as funny. This is true as far as it goes (who is funnier than Wodehouse?), but it’s not really accurate. There are society fops and dimwits to be sent up, yes, but Wodehouse was a pure comedian where Saki was a satirist. There are things that Saki is plainly angry about; therefore the world intrudes on his writing in ways that, with Wodehouse, it does not.

I’ll cheat, therefore, and go to a quick-and-dirty biographical comparison in order to illustrate what should be a purely literary point: they both made good fun of the English upper classes, but later in life Wodehouse blundered into Nazi apology while Munro insisted on serving in the ranks.

But don’t take my word for it. (I really don’t know his work well enough to temper this assessment–it seems to be right on, though.)

I’ll close the book on Saki with assessments from two biographers. They don’t disagree so much as land on different feet:

This self-effacing, secretive man of numerous acquaintances but few intimates, in some ways deeply unpleasant, in some ways admirable, achieved popularity and even love when he was endeavouring to be a killer. He was certainly capable of love, if for nothing else then for the place and ideal for which he fought and died.[3]

A.J. Langguth, however, reaches back to those odd last words–“Put that bloody cigarette out!”–to close his own book: “Particularly because he had been the victim, the irony to the story might have made Saki laugh.[4]

 

The sudden death of Saki is not the worst thing that happened today, a century back. I’ve come across an odd… I suppose it should be an intertwining–rather than strictly a crossing–of paths, which we will approach by means of Sidney Rogerson’s memoir. For Rogerson and the 2nd West Yorkshires, today was a day of blessed, scheduled, relief–relief that arrived at about 11 last night in the form of a fresh battalion, set to take over their trenches.

In the wee hours of the morning, then, after a final tour of the positions they had so much improved (by hard and skillful digging), Rogerson made his way back with his company. But he had misread his orders, believing that he had to report “relief complete” at his battalion headquarters, several hundred yards back in the reserve trenches, and then rejoin his company.

So Rogerson set off, alone, to cross the debatable lands near Dewdrop Trench. And he swiftly got lost.

Throughout the war this was my worst nightmare–to be alone, and lost and in danger. Worse than all the anticipation of battle, all the fear of mine, raid, or capture, was this dread of being struck down somewhere were there was no one to find me, and where I should lie till I rotted back slowly into the mid. I had seen those to whom it had happened.

It’s a remarkable coincidence, I think, that A.P. Herbert’s tragic novel, The Secret Battle, also uses the occasion of the battle of Beaumont Hamel for a disquisition on what he calls “the theory of the favourite fear.” Herbert’s narrator lists several horrible ways to die and remembers the ways in which soldiers would talk of these fears, swapping them, vainly striving to master them. And his protagonist, Harry Penrose, shares a very similar terror with Rogerson:

That was how it was with Harry. The one thing he could not face at present was crawling lonely in the dark with the thought of that tornado of bullets in his head. Nothing else frightened him–now–more than it frightened the rest of us, though, God knows, that was enough.[5]

So Harry Penrose did quite well today, a century back, playing a fictional part in the very real fighting by the Royal Naval Division. The narrator has been worried about Harry–he had confessed his feeling of nervous terror, his sense that his reserves of courage were depleted, that he would fail. He didn’t.

But Edwin Dyett, the officer whose experiences most informed the creation of Penrose, did. Dyett was left out of the attack, yesterday, and consequently he did not have the reinforcing presence of a platoon to lead, a group of men that he could not let down, other officers who might keep him to the task, before whom simple shame might prop up his will. Instead, Dyett was sent later in the day, with one other unsympathetic officer, to bring reinforcements up over the shell-strewn ground. And then he disappeared.

All day, today, the R.N.D. was holding the line near Beaumont, under terrible pressure from German counter-attacks. Bernard Freyberg, one of the last of the Argonauts, was winning a Victoria Cross with his skillful and courageous leadership of the Hood Battalion. Freyberg also reorganized Herbert and Dyett’s Nelson Battalion, which had lost all of its senior officers and was under the temporary command of a sub-lieutenant.

Dyett, who was supposed to have turned up with those reinforcements late yesterday, was not seen by anyone all day long.[6]

It is strange and fortunate and bitter, then, that Sidney Rogerson made a foolish mistake today, a century back, and was unlucky, and stumbled into his greatest fear, the sort of mischance that can suddenly undo good men… and that it all came out alright. Close to panic, Rogerson eventually found the battalion headquarters, but by that time it had, naturally, been turned over to the relieving battalion. He is far away from the men he is supposed to be commanding, at night, under fire.

Stumbling back out into the shell-strewn darkness, Rogerson is saved by another swift spin of Fortune’s wheel: “this time, luck was with me.” He blunders into Hawley, a friend, along with a guide who knows the ground. Rogerson is a good officer, it would seem, promoted while young, probably never suspected of cowardice or malingering. But then again he has had three days of intense stress rather than Dyett’s all Gallipoli, plus many more months of war. In any event, Rogerson’s explanations of his mistake, his foolish absence, are believed. He was lost, but now he is found, before it is too late.

The danger remained the same, yet the presence of others banished at once the terror that had assailed me.

Rogerson, too, is lucky in his friends. And, simply, lucky. Instead of being lost in the night, and panicked, and away from his unit without any good excuse, he is soon back with the company, leading the exhausted men out through the barrage without a single casualty–a “miracle”–and, eventually, to their rest billets. As if to underscore the strange parallel between Rogerson and Dyett/”Penrose,” Rogerson is nearly accused of dereliction of duty even after he gets back to camp, since the colonel finds his company being issued rum while Rogerson is off in his tent, cleaning himself up. The colonel is satisfied once it becomes clear that a non-com had ordered the rum issue hoping to allow his officer some time to recover himself…

But again, what are the differences here? A brave man and good, and a coward and failure? No. If the remarkable conjunction of Rogerson’s memoir and Dyett’s tragedy should tell us anything, it’s that the length and intensity of a man’s service and the opinion of him formed by his fellows and immediate superiors is of much more importance to the “reception,” as we might say, of his actions than any inherent qualities of courage or cowardice. And then there is luck. Rogerson is certainly a good officer, and he has behaved bravely. But by his own account he panicked, and only the turn in his luck in the dark of the night saved him from, at the very least, an enormous loss of prestige and a probable spot on his colonel’s mental list of untrustworthy and possibly cowardly officers.

Who is to say that, if he had not blundered into his friend and the guide, he would not have done something foolish and been away too long and become–if not then, then later on–an officer whose confidence in himself and his “luck” is shattered. Without luck, does he become someone without the strength to go forward, and with no other other way out? Someone, that is, like Dyett?[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Biography," 102; Langguth, Saki, 276.
  2. Langguth, Saki, 316.
  3. Byrne, The Unbearable Saki, 277.
  4. Langguth, Saki, 277.
  5. Herbert, The Secret Battle, 132-4.
  6. Seelers, Death for Desertion, 43-44.
  7. Twelve Days on the Somme, 90-99.

Rogerson, Blunden, and Carrington on the Edge of the Beaumont Hamel Battle; The Tragedy of Edwin Dyett Begins; Saki Sick in the Line; Frederic Manning, and Bourne’s Band of Brothers, Under Fire

Today, a century back, is a day of battle. In keeping with the usual procedure, here, I will not attempt any broad description of the action–it is “in the histories,” as one of our writers will note. It’s the last convulsion of the Somme, the last, exhausted shove forward into the battered German positions that if been in the British sights since July. It’s an especially notable day, here, because several of our most evocative memoir-writers were under fire–and because its events loomed large in two of the war’s most vividly rendered fictional lives, Frederic Manning‘s Bourne and A.P. Herbert’s Penrose.

We will begin with two writers on the outskirts of the battle, and work our way in from there. First, Sidney Rogerson, awaiting the return of his marauding Corporal Robinson.

About midnight Robinson reappeared, looking like some vendor of cheap jewellery at a fair. He was garlanded with watch-chains, and his pockets and haversack bulged with the haul of his gruesome search. He reported his return  to me and added “You know that shell-hole with the two dead Jerries in it where I had to shelter last night, sir? Well, there aren’t two. It’s the same Jerry, sir, only his head has been blown across the other side of the hole!”

This news he gave me with the cheerful air of one correcting a piece of false information, with no hint of either horror or disgust.

Forthwith he proceeded to spread out his trophies on the fire-step as if arranging a shop-counter… There were six or seven German watches complete with chains, two gold rings, an automatic pistol, several pocket-books…

As per his unofficial orders, he has also collected twenty pay books, which will serve as proof of decease for the British dead. I’ll pass over more discussion of parcels, trench cooking, and a rare admission that some of the infantry’s complaints about their own artillery may have been ill-founded, in order to get us to today’s main event. An officer named Hawley is just receiving a cup of hot café au lait brewed from a casualty’s parcel,

…when suddenly the flashing of a distant line of light lit up the night sky above the trench. Silence. A great cool rush of steel overhead. Then the roar of a thousand guns rushed upon us and over us, submerging us in a sea of sound. Hawley jumped, spilt scalding liquid down his chin, swore vigorously…

But the barrage–a feint, on their section of the front–is over quickly. Not so elsewhere.

And that is how we were unwittingly stallholders for one of the biggest shows of the Year of Grace, 1916. A few miles north of us the 5th Army had attacked on a wide front. It is known to history as the Battle of Beaumont Hamel. But this we only learnt afterwards. At the time of the assault we drank, smoked, and sang with never a thought for the thousands of lives being choked out by bullet, bayonet, or bomb within a few miles of us. We were content to know someone else was “for it.”

…simultaneously with the 5th Army’s offensive far away to the left, the French had attacked on a smaller scale some few hundred yards to our right, and the front line troops had found themselves in the orchestra stalls for a battle-piece. According to Mac the spectacle was so fantastic as to be scarcely credible. Pressing the metaphor of the theatre, the stage, seen through the curtain of the early morning misty, was lit by the dancing flames of the barrage, the din of which, drowning all else, gave the muted movement of a silent film…

This second-hand description of the French attack continues for a long paragraph–it’s very good, especially with our Fussellian interest in the “theater of war.” But as some of those lives being choked out on the left concern us, we will tread, fearfully, northward.[1]

 

Next comes Edmund Blunden‘s appreciation of Beaumont Hamel, viewed from near the Schwaben Redoubt.

Our own part was subsidiary, and the main blow was to be struck northward toward Grandcourt and Beaumont Hamel. Struck it was in the shabby clammy morning of November 13th.

That was a feat of arms vying with any recorded. The enemy was surprised and beaten. From Thiepval Wood battalions of our own division sprang out, passed mud and wire and took the tiny village of St. Pierre Divion with its enormous labyrinth, and almost two thousand Germans in the galleries there. Beyond the curving Ancre, the Highlanders and the Royal Naval Division overran Beaucourt and Beaumont, strongholds of the finest; and as this news came in fragments and rumours to us in Thiepval, we felt as if we were being left behind. Toward four o’clock orders came that we were to supply three hundred men that night, to carry up wiring materials to positions in advance of those newly captured, those positions to be reconnoitred immediately. This meant me.

A runner called Johnson, a red-cheeked, silent youth, was the only man available, and we set off at once, seeing that there was a heavy barrage eastward, but knowing that it was best not to think about it. What light the grudging day had permitted was now almost extinct, and the mist had changed into a drizzle; we passed the site of Thiepval Crucifix, and the junction of Fiennes Trench and St. Martin’s Lane (a wide pond of grayness), then the Schwaben — few people about, white lights whirling up north of the Ancre, and the shouldering hills north and east gathering inimical mass in their wan illusion. Crossing scarcely discernible scrawls of redoubts and communications, I saw an officer peeping from a little length of trench, and went to him. “Is this our front line?” “Dunno: you get down off there; you’ll be hit.” He shivered in his mackintosh sheet. His chin quivered; this blackness was coming down cruelly fast. “Get down.” He spoke with a sort of anger. By some curious inward concentration on the matter of finding the way, I had not much noticed the frantic dance of high explosive now almost around us. At this minute, a man, or a ghost, went by, and I tried to follow his course down the next slope and along a desperate valley; then I said to Johnson: “The front line must be ahead here still; come on.” We were now in the dark, and before we realized it, inside a barrage; never had shells seemed so torrentially swift, so murderous; they seemed to swoop over one’s shoulder. We ran, we tore ourselves out of the clay to run, and lived. The shells at last skidded and spattered behind us, and now where were we? We went on.

Monstrously black a hill rose up before us; we crossed; then I thought I knew where we were. These heavy timber shelters with the great openings were evidently howitzer positions, and they had not been long evacuated, I thought, stooping hurriedly over those dead men in field-gray overcoats at the entrances, and others in “foxholes” near by. The lights flying up northward, where the most deafening noise was roaring along the river valley, showed these things in their unnatural glimmer; and the men’s coats were yet comparatively clean, and their attitudes most lifelike. Again we went on, and climbed the false immensity of another ridge, when several rifles and a maxim opened upon us, and very close they were. We retreated aslant down the slope, and as we did so I saw the wide lagoons of the Ancre silvering in the Beaucourt lights, and decided our course. Now running, crouching, we worked along the valley, then sharply turning, through huge holes and over great hunks of earth, came along high ground above what had been St. Pierre Divion, expecting to be caught at every second; then we plunged through that waterfall of shells, the British and German barrages alike now slackening; and were challenged at last, in English. We had come back from an accidental tour into enemy country, and blessed with silent gladness the shell hole in which, blowing their own trumpets in the spirit of their morning’s success, were members of four or five different units of our division. We lay down in the mud a moment or two, and recovered our senses.

The way to Thiepval was simpler. At the edge of the wood a couple of great shells burst almost on top of us; thence we had no opposition, and, finding a duckboard track, returned to the battalion headquarters. Johnson slipped down the greasy stairway, and turned very white down below. We were received as Lazarus was. The shelling of the Schwaben had been “a blaze of light,” and our deaths had been taken for granted. Harrison was speaking over the telephone to Hornby, and I just had vitality enough to hear him say: “They have come back, and report an extraordinary barrage; say, it would be disaster to attempt to send up that party. Certain disaster. Yes, they say so, and from their appearance one can see that they have been through terrific shelling. . . . Yes, I’ll bring him along.” “That’s all right,” he turned to his second in command. “No wiring party. Seven o’clock — take it easy; Rabbit, we’ll go and see the General when you feel a bit better.”[2]

 

Charles Carrington, too, had a small part to play in the day’s battle. First the theater, then a brief brush with the war:

On 13th November 1916 there took place the last active operation of the Somme Battle, when the Durham Light Infantry of the 50th Division attacked the Butte of Warlencourt. We had moved to Prue Trench, a reserve position far down the forward slope, and enjoyed a view from the stalls, just as on 1st July we had watched the assault on Gommecourt from Hebuterne trenches…

I’ve had a tough time finding good maps for today’s action–our viewers are widespread, and the attacks happen to spread out over several sheets, few of which (available in the unparalleled McMaster University online archive) show anything like the current extent of the trenches. Here, then, is a large-scale map of the battlefield without any trenches at all, which will at least show the relative position of the many towns and villages mentioned.

beaumont-hamel

Serre is in the extreme northwest; Beaumont Hamel in the north center, Thiepval east and south of center…

 

Carrington at least got to fire a shot in the battle, if only from the periphery. He fired point-blank, from a Lewis Gun mounted on his corporal’s soldier, at a German airman, “a florid young man with a little dark moustache,” as he swooped down, strafing their trench. “We both missed.”[3]

 

So Charles Carrington and “Rabbit” Blunden have survived their day on the periphery of the battle. Others are headed for its center. The 22nd Royal Fusiliers were in reserve, but still directly behind the main line of the attack and sure to get into action eventually. They formed by 3 a.m., and in their ranks was Hector Munro–Saki–just back from the hospital so as not to miss the show. “He looked a very sick man and should have been in bed, but I knew his thoughts and the reason for his being fit.”

The 22nd moved up behind the troops attacking Beaumont Hamel, taking over the old British assault positions later in the morning. By mid-afternoon they had taken up a flanking position in no man’s land, protecting the new advance from possible counter-attack.[4]

 

Leading the assault, in the center of today’s action, was the Royal Naval Division. This unusual division–formed of two battalions of marines and six battalions, named after famous admirals, of volunteers and surplus sailors–did not perhaps have the trust of the army command, especially after the failures of Gallipoli (which were hardly the fault of the infantry, naval or otherwise). But today, despite heavy casualties, they were successful, taking several lines of German defense and the town of Beaumont Hamel. The hero of the battle will be the New Zealand athlete and Friend of Rupert Bernard Freyberg, commanding the Hood Battalion.

The Nelson battalion will take terrible casualties, losing almost all of its officers before Freyberg rallied its remnants to cover a floating left flank. Two officers of the Nelson who survived the day were A.P. Herbert and Edwin Dyett. Herbert will avoid describing the day in any detail, but neither is it absent from his later novel:

 I shall not tell you about it (it is in the histories); but it was a black day for the battalion. We lost 400 men and 20 officers, more than twice the total British casualties at Omdurman… Harry and myself survived.

Ah, but now I have crossed into fiction. Harry, in whose mind is waged The Secret Battle, is an officer whose struggle with his failing nerve is based–to a certain extent, at least–on Edwin Dyett. But while “Harry Penrose” will struggle on into 1917, today was the day that Dyett failed.

Dyett was considered unreliable. He was “windy”–which might mean either that he was anxious and jumpy or that he was considered to be cowardly, but which is a pretty good colloquial place holder for what we should think of as “exhibiting symptoms of PTSD.” He had also applied for transfer four times, letting his commanders know that his “nerves” were not bearing up under the strain. Dyett, accordingly, was left with the small cadre of reserves, back with the Divisional headquarters, out of the battle.

But not all the way out of it–just in reserve, cut off from his men and his fellow-officers, whether scornful or understanding. Late in the day, Dyett was ordered up, along with another officer, to take charge of reinforcements at Brigade headquarters and lead them into the line. The other officer found his men and, after showing Dyett a map of their destination, marched off. But Dyett disappeared somewhere between Brigade and the front, and no one will lay eyes between the middle of the afternoon and the end of the battle.[5]

 

So much for the men who were there (more or less). But the most affecting piece of writing that I can associate with today, a century back, is Frederic Manning‘s The Middle Parts of Fortune. The entire novel is devoted to the mental life of Bourne as he endures the long Somme campaign, and to his observation of the men of his company. It’s a very, very good book, and the chapter that takes place today is in most ways the climax. It is based, surely, on today’s attack on Serre (on the left of the line, to the north of the R.N.D.’s attack on Beaumont Hamel), in which Manning’s 7th Shropshire Light Infantry took part, suffering heavy casualties before returning to their trenches.

I can’t post an entire chapter, but I will post most of it… and I have more justification, perhaps, than usual. I haven’t read deeply in the literature on Manning, but I have several times come across statements to the effect that he named his fictional alter ego after the town of Bourne, where he had lived. But in my sketchy research aimed at ascertaining that today was indeed the day on which his fictional battalion attacked–i.e. on which his real battalion suffered heavy casualties–I came across an entry in the CWGC database that I have not seen referenced in the Manning scholarship. I’ll save that (possible) revelation, though, for after this lengthy excerpt…

If you have been reading along then you have been working up to this attack for several days. If not, the following details will suffice: Bourne, an educated man in the ranks, has had to slowly win the trust of the laborers and countrymen in his battalion. But he has done so: he is accepted as a good soldier, despite the fact that he was recently given a stripe (i.e. promotion to Lance-Corporal) in earnest of his officers’ intention to send him, against his wishes, to be trained as an officer. Bourne doesn’t want to go–he feels that he belongs with his battalion, and he has flatly refused to be sent away before the attack. So, today, he marches into it, together with his two particular mates, Shem and young Martlow.

 

Chapter XVI

We see yonder the beginning of day, but I think we shall never see the end of it…
I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle.

SHAKESPEARE

The drumming of the guns continued, with bursts of great intensity. It was as though a gale streamed overhead, piling up great waves of sound, and hurrying them onward to crash in surf on the enemy entrenchments. The windless air about them, by its very stillness, made that unearthly music more terrible to hear. They cowered under it, as men seeking shelter from a storm. Something rushed downward on them with a scream of exultation, increasing to a roar before it blasted the air asunder and sent splinters of steel shrieking over their heads, an eruption of mud spattering down on the trench, and splashing in brimming shellholes. The pressure among the men increased. Someone shouldering a way through caused them to surge together, cursing, as they were thrown off their balance to stumble against their neighbours.

“For Christ’s sake walk on your own fuckin’ feet an’ not on mine!” came from some angry man, and a ripple of idiot mirth spread outwards from the centre of the disturbance. Bourne got a drink of tea, and though it was no more than warm, it did him good; at least, it washed away the gummy dryness of his mouth. He was shivering, and told himself it was the cold. Through the darkness the dripping mist moved slowly, touching them with spectral fingers as it passed. Everything was clammy with it. It condensed on their tin hats, clung to their rough serge, their eyelashes, the down on their cheekbones. Even though it blinded everything beyond the distance of a couple of yards, it seemed to be faintly luminous itself. Its damp coldness enhanced the sense of smell. There was a reek of mouldering rottenness in the air, and through it came the sour, stale odour from the foul clothes of the men. Shells streamed overhead, sighing, whining and whimpering for blood; the upper air fluttered with them; but Fritz was not going to take it all quietly, and with its increasing roar another shell leaped towards them, and they cowered under the wrath. There was the enormous grunt of its eruption, the sweeping of harp-strings, and part of the trench wall collapsed inwards, burying some men in the landslide. It was difficult to get them out, in the crowded conditions of the trench.

Bourne’s fit of shakiness increased, until he set his teeth to prevent them chattering in his head; and after a deep, gasping breath, almost like a sob, he seemed to recover to some extent. Fear poisoned the very blood; but, when one recognised the symptoms, it became objective, and one seemed to escape partly from it that way. He heard men breathing irregularly beside him, as he breathed himself; he heard them licking their lips, trying to moisten their mouths; he heard them swallow, as though overcoming a difficulty in swallowing; and the sense that others suffered equally or more than himself, quietened him. Some men moaned, or even sobbed a little, but unconsciously, and as though they struggled to throw off an intolerable burden of oppression. His eyes met Shem’s, and they both turned away at once from the dread and question which confronted them. More furtively he glanced in Martlow’s direction; and saw him standing with bent head. Some instinctive wave of pity and affection swelled in him, until it broke into another shuddering sigh, and the boy looked up, showing the whites of his eyes under the brim of his helmet. They were perplexed, and his underlip shook a little. Behind him Bourne heard a voice almost pleading: “Stick it out, chum.”

“A don’t care a fuck,” came the reply, with a bitter harshness rejecting sympathy.

“Are you all right, kid?” Bourne managed to ask in a fairly steady voice; and Martlow only gave a brief affirmative nod. Bourne shifted his weight onto his other foot, and felt the relaxed knee trembling. It was the cold. If only they had something to do, it might be better. It had been a help simply to place a ladder in position. Suspense seemed to turn one’s mind to ice, and bind even time in its frozen stillness; but at an order it broke. It broke, and one became alert, relieved. They breathed heavily in one another’s faces. They looked at each other more quietly, forcing themselves to face the question. “We’ve stuck it before,” said Shem. They could help each other, at least up to that point where the irresistible thing swept aside their feeble efforts, and smashed them beyond recovery…

“It’ll soon be over, now,” whispered Martlow.

Perhaps it was lighter, but the stagnant fog veiled everything. Only there was a sound of movement, a sudden alertness thrilled through them all with an anguish inextricably mingled with relief. They shook hands, the three among themselves and then with others near them.

Good luck, chum. Good luck. Good luck.

He felt his heart thumping at first. And then, almost surprised at the lack of effort which it needed, he moved towards the ladder.

Martlow, because he was nearest, went first. Shem followed behind Bourne, who climbed out a little clumsily. Almost as soon as he was out he slipped sideways and nearly fell. The slope downward, where others, before he did, had slipped, might have been greased with vaseline; and immediately beyond it, one’s boots sank up to the ankle in mud which sucked at one’s feet as they were withdrawn from it, clogging them, as in a nightmare. It would be worse when they reached the lower levels of this ill-drained marsh. The fear in him now was hard and icy, and yet apart from that momentary fumbling on the ladder, and the involuntary slide, he felt himself moving more freely, as though he had full control of himself…

Then suddenly that hurricane of shelling increased terrifically, and in the thunder of its surf, as it broke over the German lines, all separate sounds were engulfed: it was one continuous fury, only varying as it seemed to come from one direction now, and now from another. And they moved. He didn’t know whether they had heard any orders or not: he only knew they moved. It was treacherous walking over that greasy mud. They crossed Monk Trench, and a couple of other trenches, crowding together, and becoming confused. After Monk was behind them, the state of the ground became more and more difficult: one could not put a foot to the ground without skating and sliding. He saw Mr Finch at one crossing, looking anxious and determined, and Sergeant Tozer; but it was no more than a glimpse in the mist. A kind of maniacal rage filled him. Why were they so slow? And then it seemed that he himself was one of the slowest, and he pressed on. Suddenly the Hun barrage fell: the air was split and seared with shells. Fritz had been ready for them all right, and had only waited until their intentions had been made quite clear. As they hurried, head downward, over their own front line, they met men, some broken and bleeding, but others whole and sound, breaking back in disorder. They jeered at them, and the others raved inarticulately, and disappeared into the fog again. Jakes and Sergeant Tozer held their own lot together, and carried them through this moment of demoralisation: Jakes roared and bellowed at them, and they only turned bewildered faces to him as they pressed forward, struggling through the mud like flies through treacle. What was all the bloody fuss about? they asked themselves, turning their faces, wide-eyed, in all directions to search the baffling fog. It shook, and twitched, and whirled about them: there seemed to be a dancing flicker before their eyes as shell after shell exploded, clanging, and the flying fragments hissed and shrieked through the air. Bourne thought that every bloody gun in the German army was pointed at him. He avoided some shattered bodies of men too obviously dead for help. A man stumbled past him with an agonised and bleeding face. Then more men broke back in disorder, throwing them into some confusion, and they seemed to waver for a moment. One of the fugitives charged down on Jakes and that short but stocky fighter smashed the butt of his rifle to the man’s jaw, and sent him sprawling. Bourne had a vision of Sergeant-Major Glasspool.

“You take your fuckin’ orders from Fritz!” he shouted as a triumphant frenzy thrust him forward.

For a moment they might have broken and run themselves, and for a moment they might have fought men of their own blood, but they struggled on as Sergeant Tozer yelled at them to leave that bloody tripe alone and get on with it. Bourne, floundering in the viscous mud, was at once the most abject and the most exalted of God’s creatures. The effort and rage in him, the sense that others had left them to it, made him pant and sob, but there was some strange intoxication of joy in it, and again all his mind seemed focused into one hard bright point of action. The extremities of pain and pleasure had met and coincided too.

He knew, they all did, that the barrage had moved too quickly for them, but they knew nothing of what was happening about them. In any attack, even under favourable conditions, the attackers are soon blinded; but here they had lost touch almost from the start. They paused for a brief moment, and Bourne saw that Mr Finch was with them, and Shem was not. Minton told him Shem had been hit in the foot. Bourne moved closer to Martlow. Their casualties, as far as he could judge, had not been heavy. They got going again, and, almost before they saw it, were on the wire. The stakes had been uprooted, and it was smashed and tangled, but had not been well cut. Jakes ran along it a little way, there was some firing, and bombs were hurled at them from the almost obliterated trench, and they answered by lobbing a few bombs over, and then plunging desperately among the steel briars, which tore at their puttees and trousers. The last strand of it was cut or beaten down, some more bombs came at them, and in the last infuriated rush Bourne was knocked off his feet and went practically headlong into the trench; getting up, another man jumped on his shoulders, and they both fell together, yelling with rage at each other. They heard a few squeals of agony, and he saw a dead German, still kicking his heels on the broken boards of the trench at his feet. He yelled for the man who had knocked him down to come on, and followed the others. The trench was almost obliterated: it was nothing but a wreckage of boards and posts, piled confusedly in what had become a broad channel for the oozing mud. They heard some more bombing a few bays further on, and then were turned back. They met two prisoners, their hands up, and almost unable to stand from fear, while two of the men threatened them with a deliberate, slow cruelty.

“Give ’em a chance! Send ’em through their own bloody barrage!” Bourne shouted, and they were practically driven out of the trench and sent across no-man’s-land.

On the other flank they found nothing; except for the handful of men they had encountered at first, the trench was empty. Where they had entered the trench, the three first lines converged rather closely, and they thought they were too far right. In spite of the party of Germans they had met, they assumed that the other waves of the assaulting troops were ahead of them, and decided to push on immediately, but with some misgivings. They were now about twenty-four men. In the light, the fog was coppery and charged with fumes. They heard in front of them the terrific battering of their own barrage and the drumming of the German guns. They had only moved a couple of yards from the trench when there was a crackle of musketry. Martlow was perhaps a couple of yards in front of Bourne, when he swayed a little, his knees collapsed under him, and he pitched forward on to his face, his feet kicking and his whole body convulsive for a moment. Bourne flung himself down beside him, and, putting his arms round his body, lifted him, calling him.

“Kid! You’re all right, kid?” he cried eagerly.

He was all right. As Bourne lifted the limp body, the boy’s hat came off, showing half the back of his skull shattered where the bullet had come through it; and a little blood welled out onto Bourne’s sleeve and the knee of his trousers. He was all right; and Bourne let him settle to earth again, lifting himself up almost indifferently, unable to realise what had happened, filled with a kind of tenderness that ached in him, and yet extraordinarily still, extraordinarily cold. He had to hurry, or he would be alone in the fog…

Bourne leaves Martlow and catches up with the main attacking wave.

And Bourne struggled forward again, panting, and muttering in a suffocated voice.

“Kill the buggers! Kill the bloody fucking swine! Kill them!”

All the filth and ordure he had ever heard came from his clenched teeth; but his speech was thick and difficult. In a scuffle immediately afterwards a Hun went for Minton, and Bourne got him with the bayonet, under the ribs near the liver, and then unable to wrench the bayonet out again, pulled the trigger, and it came away easily enough.

“Kill the buggers!” he muttered thickly.

He ran against Sergeant Tozer in the trench.

“Steady, of son! Steady. ‘Ave you been ‘it? You’re all over blood.”

“They killed the kid,” said Bourne, speaking with sudden clearness, though his chest heaved enormously. “They killed him. I’ll kill every bugger I see.”

“Steady. You stay by me…”

 

They were now convinced they could not go on by themselves. They decided to try and get into touch with any parties on the left. It was useless to go on, as apparently none of the other companies were ahead of them, and heavy machine-gun fire was coming from Serre. They worked up the trench to the left, and after some time, heard footsteps. The leading man held up a hand, and they were ready to bomb or bayonet, when a brave voice challenged them.

“Who are ye?”

“Westshires!” they shouted, and moved on, to meet a corporal and three men of the Gordons. They knew nothing of the rest of their battalion…

Some Huns were searching the trench. Sergeant Tozer, with the same party, went forward immediately. As soon as some egg-bombs had burst in the next bay, they rushed it, and flung into the next. They found and bayoneted a Hun, and pursued the others some little distance, before they doubled back on their tracks again. Then Mr Finch took them back to the German front line, intending to stay there until he could link up with other parties. The fog was only a little less thick than the mud; but if it had been one of the principal causes of their failure, it helped them now. The Hun could not guess at their numbers; and there must have been several isolated parties playing the same game of hide-and-seek. The question for Mr Finch to decide was whether they should remain there. They searched the front line to the left, and found nothing but some dead, Huns and Gordons.

Bourne was with the Gordons who had joined them, and one of them, looking at the blood on his sleeve and hands, touched him on the shoulder.

“Mon, are ye hurt?” he whispered gently.

“No. I’m not hurt, chum,” said Bourne, shaking his head slowly; and then he shuddered and was silent. His face became empty and expressionless. Their own barrage had moved forward again; but they could not get into touch with any of their own parties…

 

By now it is clear that the attack has failed (despite the success to the east, of which they could know nothing).

To remain where they were was useless, and to go forward was to invite destruction or capture.

“Sergeant,” said Mr Finch, with a bitter resolution, “we shall go back.”

Sergeant Tozer looked at him quietly.

“You’re wounded, sir,” he said, kindly. “If you go back with Minton, I could hang on a bit longer, and then take the men back on my own responsibility.”

“I’ll be buggered if I go back with only a scratch, and leave you to stick it. You’re a bloody sportsman, sergeant. You’re the best bloody lot o’ men…”

His words trailed off shakily into nothing for a moment.

“That’s all right, sir,” said Sergeant Tozer, quietly; and then he added with an angry laugh: “We’ve done all we could: I don’t care a fuck what the other bugger says.”

“Get the men together, sergeant,” said Mr Finch, huskily.

The sergeant went off and spoke to Jakes, and to the corporal of the Gordons. As he passed Bourne, who’d just put a dressing on Minton’s wound, he paused.

“What ‘appened to Shem?” he asked.

“Went back. Wounded in the foot.”

“E were wounded early on, when Jerry dropped the barrage on us,” explained Minton, stolidly precise as to facts.

“That bugger gets off everything with ‘is feet,” said Sergeant Tozer.

“E were gettin’ off with ‘is ‘ands an’ knees when I seed ‘im,” said Minton, phlegmatically.

There was some delay as they prepared for their withdrawal. Bourne thought of poor old Shem, always plucky, and friendly, without sentiment, and quiet. Quite suddenly, as it were spontaneously, they climbed out of the trench and over the wire. The clangour of the shelling increased behind them. Fritz was completing the destruction of his own front line before launching a counterattack against empty air. They moved back very slowly and painfully, suffering a few casualties on the way, and they were already encumbered with wounded. One of the Gordons was hit, and his thigh broken. They carried him tenderly, soothing him with the gentleness of women. All the fire died out of them as they dragged themselves laboriously through the clinging mud. Presently they came to where the dead lay more thickly; they found some helplessly wounded, and helped them. As they were approaching their own front line, a big shell, burying itself in the mud, exploded so close to Bourne that it blew him completely off his feet, and yet he was unhurt. He picked himself up, raving a little. The whole of their front and support trenches were being heavily shelled. Mr Finch was hit again in his already wounded arm. They broke up a bit, and those who were free ran for it to the trench. Men carrying or helping the wounded continued steadily enough. Bourne walked by Corporal Jakes, who had taken his place in carrying the wounded Gordon: he could not have hurried anyway; and once, unconsciously, he turned and looked back over his shoulder. Then they all slid into the wrecked trench…

Bourne has survived. Of his two great friends, the canny Shem has been lucky, and gotten a blighty one in the foot. But Martlow, the kid, is dead, and Bourne is in shock.

…He sat with his head flung back against the earth, his eyes closed, his arms relaxed, and hands idle in his lap, and he felt as though he were lifting a body in his arms, and looking at a small impish face, the brows puckered with a shadow of perplexity, bloody from a wound in the temple, the back of the head almost blown away; and yet the face was quiet, and unmoved by any trouble. He sat there for hours, immobile and indifferent, unaware that Sergeant Tozer glanced at him occasionally. The shelling gradually died away, and he did not know it. Then Sergeant Tozer got up angrily.

“Ere, Bourne. Want you for sentry. Time that other man were relieved.”

He took up his rifle and climbed up, following the sergeant into the frosty night. Then he was alone, and the fog frothed and curdled about him. He became alert, intent again; his consciousness hardening in him. After about half an hour, he heard men coming along the trench; they came closer; they were by the corner.

“Stand!” he cried in a long, low note of warning.

“Westshire. Officer and rations.”

He saw Mr White, to whom Captain Marsden came up and spoke. Some men passed him, details and oddments, carrying bags of rations. Suddenly he found in front of him the face of Snobby Hines, grinning excitedly.

“What was it like, Bourne?” he asked, in passing.

“Hell,” said Bourne briefly.

Snobby moved on, and Bourne ignored the others completely. Bloody silly question, to ask a man what it was like. He looked up to the sky, and through the travelling mist saw the half-moon with a great halo round it. An extraordinary peace brooded over everything. It seemed only the more intense because an occasional shell sang through it.[6]

 

bourne-perhapsThere is no dating fiction, really, but it would be strange to deny that Manning’s depiction of the attack on Serre in his novel is not based on the day his battalion attacked Serre, losing many men.

And it is very strange indeed to learn–this is the aforementioned fact that I stumbled upon on the CWGC website–that one of the men who of the battalion who was killed today, a century back, was a lance-corporal named John Bourne.

Is this a mere coincidence? Simply a name from the battalion that Manning bore with him, that linked a place and a feeling and a man in his mind? Or did this man, the real-life Bourne, mean something more to Manning?

If it’s entirely a coincidence, it’s uncanny. John Bourne’s body moulders in no known grave–he is listed, with the other missing of the Somme, on an Addenda Panel of the Thiepval Memorial. And then there’s the odd fact that his name is hand-written belatedly into the register–a correction or an afterthought (see at right). Unlike most of his fellow casualties, there is no information about his family.

I don’t know anything about the provenance of the CWGC’s documents… is it possible that this entry is “reality” influenced by fiction, that someone has written Bourne into the record after reading the novel? That would be strange indeed… it seems more likely that there was a John Bourne in the Shropshires, known to Manning.And so in some sense–weighty and interesting? trivial?–this man may have been the model for Manning’s Bourne, one of Great War Literature’s most important characters..

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Twelve Days on the Somme, 75-85.
  2. Undertones of War, 119-21.
  3. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 129-130.
  4. Munro, "Biography," 101; Langguth, Saki, 276-7.
  5. Herbert, The Secret Battle, 131-6; Seelers, Death for Desertion, 44.
  6. The Middle Parts of Fortune, 211-21.

A Comedy of Flares and Scrounging for Sidney Rogerson; Saki Falls In; Manning’s Bourne and the Westshires March for the Front; Isaac Rosenberg’s Timely Poem of Destructive Hoards

Today, a century back, is the second in front-line trenches for Sidney Rogerson and the 2nd West Yorkshires, and it begins with a jolt. Yesterday ended, more or less, with the late night arrival–with, once again, only two casualties–of the ration party.

With the day’s duties successfully accomplished and the enemy contenting himself with shelling of a desultory nature and mostly directed far away in rear, I curled myself up on the trench floor and was soon off to sleep. Hardly had my senses left me than I was up and on edge in a second! Shells had begun to fall more quickly all around us! Then, with  a whoosh of metal overhead, down came the barrage! Explosions whirled, stamped and pounded the tortured ground; the splitting hiss and band of the field guns screaming above the deep, earth-shaking thud! thud! of the heavies until they blended into the one steady pandemonium of drumfire. The trenches rocked and trebled, while their garrisons, blinded by the flashes, choked by the acrid fumes, pressed themselves tight to the sodden walls as the avalanche of metal roared above and all around them.

Out of the smoke along the trench emerged a runner, crouching low. “Front line–Verey lights–urgent!”

Amidst the barrage, a grim sort of comedy. The Verey lights–flares that can be used to communicate with the artillery–can’t be found. But a box of abandoned German flares turns up.

“Are you sure they are the white ones?” I roared back across the din. “Yes sir…”

The flares are sent with the runner back up the perilous hundred yards to the front trench. Rogerson, convinced that the German barrage is the prelude to an assault on his isolated position, readies his men.

Suddenly, from about the position of Fall Trench, over the brow there was a hiss, and up flew a rocket. Horror of horrors! It burst with a rosy glow and hung, a ball of claret light, over our line! Before it had died a second went up, bursting this time into golden rain. That German box of lights had been a mixed lot for signal purposes! But what had we done? Whatever request to the enemy had we in our extremity sent up? For a few breathless minutes we waited, momentarily expecting the barrage to be shortened and fall on our unlucky heads.

Instead, just as a thunder-shower abruptly ends, so the shelling on the instant died away, as suddenly as it had begun… after much fruitless conjecture over the first claret affair, we decide that he golden rain rocket must mean “Lengthen range: we are here…”

It turns out that this guess is correct. A very lucky accident indeed. Forgotten amidst the barrage is Robinson, the NCO who had gone scrounging. He returns safely, but only after spending a “smelly half-hour in the same shell-hole with ‘two dead Jerries,’ getting lost, and almost walking into the German lines.”

But once again, all of this midnight activity is only the beginning of Rogerson’s long day. After a few hours’ sleep, followed by the dawn ritual of stand-to, the day proves to be so foggy that they can move about in the open for the first time, and survey their circumstances.

Between the trenches, we found, were only enemy dead, here a field-grey arm poked out of a shell-hole, there a heavy boot, here a man lay, head on crooked arm, as if asleep; there the remains of three or four littered the crater made by the shell that killed them. Beside the communication trench a huge German lay sprawled on his back, arms and legs splayed starfish-like, sightless eyes gazing perplexedly heavenward…

A scrounging soldier presents his officer with a small piccolo taken from this corpse’s pocket. Soon afterwards, they jump back into the trench upon receiving word that the colonel is soon to arrive, in company with the brigadier. While Rogerson does not hesitate to criticize the out-of-touch staff, he is equally careful here to praise the colonel, the commanding officer of their battalion, whose daily tour of his forward positions involves at least four hours of “strenuous walking.” Some memoir-writers claim never to have seen a brigadier in a forward trench; but Rogerson’s Brigadier-General Fagan was there, today, a century back. The colonel’s praise of their efforts at trench improvement prompts a reflection on esprit de corps, and how many men will be able to look back fondly on the war as a time during which, despite the horror and the hardships, they belonged to a group that looked after all its members and took pride in its accomplishments:

In spite of all differences in rank, we were comrades, brothers, dwelling together in unity. We were privileged to see in each other that inner, ennobled self which is in the grim, commercial struggle of peace-time is all too frequently atrophied…

The rest of the day involves continuous movement punctuated by meals. A tour of the trenches, breakfast a tour of older German positions nearby; lunch. Then a paean to tea, then evening stand-to. Trench routine indeed: Corporal Robinson once again requests permission, at dusk, to go out “scrounging.” It is once again denied in such a way as to allow it. As night comes on, a runner comes up with orders: there will be a dummy attack tomorrow, on their front, at 5:45. But this must mean that the attack, elsewhere, will be real…[1]

 

Further to the north, the 22nd Royal Fusiliers assemble to support this attack. Lance-Sergeant Hector Munro is back among them, though he is not yet entirely recovered from his bout with malaria.[2] Also nearby were Frederic Manning and the 7th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, and thus Bourne, Shem, and Martlow of the “Westshires.” One of The Middle Parts of Fortune‘s many representative subordinate characters–Miller, the profligate coward, the canny, several-time deserter-on-the-eve-of-action–comes to the fore today.

And the next day was the same, in all outward seeming. They got their tea, they washed, shaved, and had their breakfast, smoked, and fell in on parade, in the ordinary course of routine. The extra weight they were carrying was marked, but the overcoat worn banderole had been washed-out, a rumour among the men being that the colonel had sent a man up to Brigade, equipped as they had ordered, to show the absurdity of it. As he arrived in front of A Company’s huts, Bourne, Shem and Martlow found groups of men talking among themselves.

“What’s up?” he asked. “Miller. ‘E’s ‘opped it, again. I knew the bugger would. ‘E’s a bloody German spy, that’s what ‘e is. They should ‘ave shot the bugger when they ‘ad ‘im! One o’ them fuckin’ square’eads, an’ they let ‘im off!”

There was an extraordinary exultation in their anger; as they spoke, a fierce contemptuous laughter mingled with speech.

“Yes, they let a bloody twat like ‘im off; but if any o’ us poor fuckers did it, we’d be for th’ electric chair, we would. We’ve done our bit, we ‘ave; but it wouldn’t make any differ to us’ns.”

The angry, bitter words were tossed about from one to another in derision…

So the insider who squandered the value of corporate identity, who couldn’t hack it, who was forced into self-exile, has defaulted once again. If he is found he will likely be shot.

But that doesn’t matter. What matters, I think, is that the man who failed, the coward who ran, helps to bind the others to the group they are in, the implicit decision they have made to face battle, together, rather than save themselves, for the moment and become outcasts (and risk being executed by their own army). Miller’s work, then, is done.

The men fell in; and Captain Marsden, with Mr Sothern and Mr Finch, came on parade. The final inspection was a very careful one. Bourne noticed that Marsden, who often spoke with a dry humour, restricted himself to a minimum of words. He saw that one of Bourne’s pouches didn’t fasten properly, the catch being defective. He tried it himself, and then tried the clipped cartridges inside, satisfying himself apparently that they fitted into the pouch so tightly that they would not fall out until one clip had been removed. Anyway he ignored it, and loosening Bourne’s water-bottle, shook it to see if it were full. Bourne stood like a dummy while this was going on, and all the time Captain Marsden looked at him closely, as though he were trying to look into his mind. It angered Bourne, but he kept his face as rigid as stone: in fact his only emotion now was a kind of stony anger. Some of the men had forgotten to fill their bottles, and were told what bloody nuisances they were. Eventually it was over, and they went off to their huts for what little time was left to them. One had a vague feeling that one was going away, without any notion of returning. One had finished with the place, and did not regret it; but a curious instability of mind accompanied the last moments: with a sense of actual relief that the inexorable hour was approaching, there was a growing anger becoming so intense that it seemed the heart would scarcely hold it. The skin seemed shinier and tighter on men’s faces, and eyes burned with a hard brightness under the brims of their helmets. One felt every question as an interruption of some absorbing business of the mind. Occasionally Martlow would look up at Shem or Bourne as though he were about to speak, and then turn away in silence.

“We three had better try and keep together,” said Shem evenly. “Yes,” answered the other two, as though they engaged themselves quietly.

And then, one by one, they realised that each must go alone, and that each of them already was alone with himself, helping the others perhaps, but looking at them with strange eyes, while the world became unreal and empty, and they moved in a mystery, where no help was.

“Fall in on the road!”

With a sigh of relinquishment, they took up their rifles and obeyed, sliding from the field into the road, which was about five feet lower, down a bank in which narrow steps had once been cut, though rain and many feet had obliterated them. The details crowded there, to see them go. They fell in, numbered off, formed fours, formed two deep, and stood at ease, waiting, all within a few moments. A few yards on either side, the men became shadows in the mist. Presently they stood to attention again, and the colonel passed along the ranks; and this time Bourne looked at him, looked into his eyes, not merely through and beyond him; and the severity of that clear-cut face seemed today to have something cheerful and kindly in it, without ceasing to be inscrutable. His grey horse had been led down the road a few minutes before, and presently the high clear voice rang through the mist. Then came the voices of the company commanders, one after the other, and the quick stamping as the men obeyed, the rustle as they turned; and their own turn came, the quick stamps, the swing half-right, and then something like a rippling murmur of movement, and the slurred rhythm of their trampling feet, seeming to beat out the seconds of time, while the liquid mud sucked and sucked at their boots, and they dropped into that swinging stride without speaking; and the houses of Bus slid away on either side, and the mist wavered and trembled about them in little eddies, and earth, and life, and time, were as if they had never been.[3]

 

We must keep our attention fixed on the Somme, this week, so I will omit a letter from Edward Thomas to Eleanor Farjeon thanking her for her work on “The Trumpet.” But a very different sort of poet, Isaac Rosenberg, also on the Somme front (though safe in a salvage battalion), got a poem in the mail today to Gordon Bottomley, a member of Thomas’s circle and now an important mentor to Rosenberg. Rosenberg is a strange and wonderful poet, and no one else has quite his knack (although David Jones will approach similar ground from another angle) of putting the current conflict in a biblical frame.

And, thus framed, ancient and eternal warfare seem a fitting backdrop to the latest and last of the Somme.

We are now on a long march & have done a good deal towards flattening the roads of France. I wrote a little thing yesterday which still needs working on.[4]

 

The Destruction Of Jerusalem By The Babylonian Hordes

They left their Babylon bare
Of all its tall men,
Of all its proud horses;
They made for Lebanon.

And shadowy sowers went
Before their spears to sow
The fruit whose taste is ash,
For Judah’s soul to know.

They who bowed to the Bull god,
Whose wings roofed Babylon,
In endless hosts darkened
The bright-heavened Lebanon.

They washed their grime in pools
Where laughing girls forgot
The wiles they used for Solomon.
Sweet laughter, remembered not !

Sweet laughter charred in the flame
That clutched the cloud and earth,
While Solomon’s towers crashed between
To a gird of Babylon’s mirth.

References and Footnotes

  1. Twelve Days on the Somme, 51-75.
  2. Languth, Saki, 276.
  3. The Middle Parts of Fortune, 208-10.
  4. Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head and Heart, 85.

Henry Williamson and the Rumble of Jutland; Noel Hodgson Renounces, T.P. Cameron Wilson Writes a Soldier, and Bimbo Tennant Worples Fey-ward; then Friendships, Farewells, Transfers, and Wedding Bells

A strange day, today, a century back. For a good two centuries, Britain’s security was guaranteed by its navy. For the last 22 months, that navy has had little to do, and all eyes were on the enormous expansion of the unloved younger son of the military family. There were a few famous chases and cruiser actions, and there was the submarine war, but confidence was high that should the German fleet–and the rapid expansion of that previously negligible body had been one of the most important catalysts of Brittain’s alliance with France and Russia–ever venture out into the North Sea the Royal Navy would treat it much as it had treated the Spanish Armada.

Yesterday, a century back, the battleships and battle cruisers of the German navy came out at last. The complicated plan involved separating the two major elements of the British fleet and using a screen of submarines to torpedo the slow capital ships. It failed almost immediately, since the British battle cruisers steamed through the submarine line before it was fully prepared, but the beginning of the battle nevertheless went Germany’s way. I do not have a good grasp of naval warfare, and this battle–the only truly big steel-ships-and-guns battle in European history–is quite complicated, but, hopefully, a brief summary should suffice to prepare us for the responses of various Britons.

Despite the superior gunnery of the British fleet–and, once combined, its greater size–the initial engagement revealed a major design flaw that resulted in the swift sinking of three battle cruisers. Reading up on the battle after some years is shocking, even after–in fact because of–my many-months-long immersion in trench warfare. The British ships were well armored against broadsides, but when a few German shells hit at long range, they plunged through the thinner armor over deck and turrets. Exploding below decks, their blasts rushed through the open hatchways that connected the British guns with their magazines deep below decks. Naval combat, too, has its special horrors: flash fires spread through steel rooms; ships are saved only by flooding burning areas before ordinance is ignited, drowning the men who remain below to save those stationed higher up; if the fires are not contained, the chain explosion of shells tears the ship apart; concussed and burned men who are thrown clear are likely to drown.

The Queen Mary was struck twice and rent by internal explosions, capsizing and sinking within minutes. Twenty men were rescued, 1,266 died.

The Invincible may have been hit only once, but this shell too plunged through and ignited a magazine. Invincible broke in half and sunk in ninety seconds. 1,026 men died, and six–blown through the air from their positions in a turret and a fire-control mast–lived.

The Indefatigable was hit several times and also blew up, settling quickly as internal explosions tore out its keel. Although more men may have been blown clear, they would have been sucked under by the displacement of the sinking ship. 1,017 men died, and only two survived long enough to be rescued.

 

The news of yesterday’s disaster be absorbed by our writers over the next few days, but the battle continued overnight and into today, a century back. The British fleets drew together, and a running battle was fought as the Germans, their plan negated despite the destruction of the three battle cruisers, withdrew toward their bases. Although they mostly eluded the British Grand Fleet, one modern German battleship was sunk, along with ten smaller ships, while the Royal Navy lost eleven more (smaller) ships.

In the wake of this sudden carnage, the debates began–and they continue. But for our purposes another simple summary will do: Jutland is a very good example of a tactical victory that is also a strategic defeat (for Germany, that is). Britain, when the number, tonnage, and quality of the ships are factored in, had lost roughly twice as heavily. And let’s not forget human lives: more than 6,000 British sailors died in the two days, and “only” some 2,500 Germans. That is very much a “battlefield,” or tactical, defeat. But the German Imperial Navy and gambled on a sortie and been stopped–it returned to its bases and there would be no more serious attempts to destroy the British Grand Fleet, ergo something of an “operational” draw and a strategic defeat.

As tactics gives way to strategy, so strategy yields to Grand Strategy (which seems like it should be capitalized). If the Royal Navy could not be defeated, then Britain could not be assaulted/invaded. It could, however, be besieged/ blockaded. Therefore, in order to starve Britain, Germany would keep its battleships in port, turning instead to its submarines in a broadcast campaign against merchant shipping. So in the failure of the German fleet to defeat the British today, a century back, there originates a straight line which leads to the decision to wage “unrestricted” submarine warfare, and thus to the significant U.S. presence in Europe in 1918, at the time of the breaking of the European armies.

 

After all that blood and steel, it feels curious to return to our usual matter of little movements among writerly soldiers. But Henry Williamson, never able to resist putting his Gumpish alter ego on the outskirts of all the war’s most famous actions, provides the link.

Phillip Maddison, having been trained as a machine gun officer (this much following Williamson’s own experience), now headed back to France, recalled from a home leave to arrive in time for the “big push.” There has been drama, culminating in a nasty quarrel with his old friend Desmond over the woman they both… admire. This is the appallingly thin (character of) Lily: a wan, unfortunate girl, ill-used, and now rising toward nineteenth century middlebrow novel sainthood through her improbable and steadfast love for Phillip…

Her first, partial martyrdom was to an abusive older man. Her second is to her creator’s thematic imperatives. The events of spring 1916 are chronicled in a chapter entitled, amazingly, “Lily and the Nightingale.” After the quickening of love and the noble decision to resist desire and wait, Phillip is packed off to France (while Williamson was in fact on convalescent leave). He arrives today, a century back, and Williamson allows us, surely, to date his arrival:[1]

Phillip tottered off the gangway at Boulogne having, as he said to his companion from Victoria, catted up his heart, despite the fact that the crossing from Folkestone had been made in sunshine on a blue and waveless channel. Fear had taken the heart out of him: fear of being sick: fear of the idea of having to face machine-guns again. The apparition of death from the back of his mind had come forward to share his living thoughts, so the voyage had been a semi-conscious froth of nausea, of endurance despite abandon.

While the transport had been crossing, with its destroyer escort, there had been a constant heavy thudding of guns. Either the Big Push had started, along the coast towards Ostend, or there had been a naval battle. When the ship docked, they heard: the German fleet had come out, and there had been a tremendous battle in the North Sea…[2]

 

Once again I have failed in my resolution to streamline this project. But we march from great battle to great battle, and we mark the last month before the Somme with not one but rather three or four “month poems.”

First, I want to suggest reading an excellent and spectacularly a propos prose piece by Hector Munro (a.k.a. the prominent prewar satirist Saki: Birds on the Western Front is of a feather with much of our reading.

Second, Noel Hodgson‘s “Renunciation” doesn’t quite qualify as a “month poem” because it was published on this very day, a century back, in The New Witness:

Take my love that died to-day.
Lay him on a roseleafbed,–
He so gallant was and gay,–
Let them hide his tumbled head,
Roses passionate and red
That so swiftly fade away.
Let the little grave be set
Where my eyes shall never see;
Raise no stone, make no regret
Lest my sad heart break,–and yet
For my weakness, let there be
Sprigs of rue and rosemary.

Brookeish, and sentimental, but not bad for all that. And can we read toward the turning of the poetic tide just a bit? I don’t think so, really: this a beautiful death for a gallant soldier, beautifully mourned. But if we imagine how a head might “tumble” or why else a grave might be unmarked… but no.

In addition, Hodgson will shortly write a prose sketch set today, a century back. June 1st 1916 was Ascension Day, and for Hodgson it brought back memories of a school days’ ramble one Ascension morning, an expedition with a friend, after birds’ nests, in the early morning light.

And I remembered the chill of the water round our middles as we forded the river, where the mist still hung in wreaths, and the heavy dew on the grass. We took a grebe’s nest, I remembered, and a reed-warbler’s…

I remembered, too, how, as we sat in a cottage and ate lemon-curd and bread, a clock struck eight; and how we girded ourselves and ran, and were in time for callover at nine, whereby was great renown to us for many days; and how I slept, in my oaken seat at matins.

But his companion that day was Nowell Oxland, killed at Gallipoli. It must have been a day of melancholy thoughts for the often high-spirited Hodgson. He is young, full of life, a believer in divine Providence and a patriot, and yet he is unwilling to leave thoughts of despair unexpressed, unwilling to betray memory, denying its pain by sentimentalizing the past or putting loss to utilitarian (not to say militarist) purpose. What else would we ask, really?[3]

 

Third, then, Bim Tennant, gallant and gay, wrote a rather lengthy fairy tale fantasia in verse at some point during this month. He thought highly of the strange-but-charming “Worple Flit.” But I shall content us with an excerpt. And no follow-up questions, please: though I love this unquiet-ghost-of-William-Morris sort of stuff in principle, just today I have no idea what is going on in Bimbo’s little world:

And as we jogged along the road, the night grew wondrous fine,
And out of the Hills the Hill-folk came, and the Down-men, all in a line,
Their packs right full of their elfin gear, and their flasks of their trollish wine…

And their talk was soft as a cony’s back, and swift as a whippet hound.
‘By the puckered cheek of my barbary ape! ’tis an ill sight we see,
The glamour of England fades this day with the folk of the South Countree.’

The good folk passed and silence fell, save where among the trees
Their elfin jargon echoed back and sighed upon the breeze,
Like channeling mice in barley shocks, or humming honey bees.
‘Now by my chin and span-long beard,’ I heard the beldame cry,
‘I wot we ha’ missed the Dairy Thief ‘mid the good folk flitting by.’

But scarcely had the word been said, when down a lapin track,
Behold the goblin slowly come, bent double beneath his pack,
And slow and mournful was his stride, for ever a-glancing back.
‘Give ye the luck,’ the beldame cried: ‘give ye the luck,’ quo’ she,
And the Dairy Thief he doffed his cap, but never a word spake he.

Then over a knoll and under a stile, until my eyes were sore,
I watched him go; so sad an elf I never did see before…

Silent I stood and thought to hear across the open Down,
Some lingering lilt of a goblin song from pixie squat and brown,
Or perchance to spy some faerie dame in her dewy cobweb gown.
I search’d and found ne witch ne folk, but as I stood forlorn,
Three green leaves flickered to the ground, of oak and ash and thorn.

Poperinghe, June, 1916.

It is very strange indeed, to read a poem like this–there’s an ode to a Nightingale, too, this month, borrowed from Boccaccio–with such a place and date affixed.Such verse should be the text for some winsome Pre-Raphaelite woodcut, and yet it comes from an ante-room of hell on earth…

 

Fourth, then, T.P. Cameron Wilson weighs in. I have been slow to pick him up–and I still, given the low volume of writing that I have in hand, resist making him a “Category” all his own–but he elbows in rather nicely. Who is he writing to, today, and with a poem? Why, Harold Monro, of The Poetry Bookshop, of course.

But this is no professional letter–it’s a chilling, tale well-told, ready for a Great War memoir or some latter-day omnibus of the short-form uncanny. Memory, and death, it seems, are the themes for June the First:

1.6.16

I wish you were here, with your sympathy and your power of laughing at the same things as the man you’re with — laughing and weeping, almost, it would be here.

Here’s a thing that happened. When I first “joined” out here I noticed a man — a boy, really, his age was just 19 — who had those very calm blue eyes one sees in sailors sometimes, and a skin burnt to a sort of golden brown. I said to him, “When did you leave the Navy?” and he regarded this as the most exquisite joke! Every time I met him he used to show his very white teeth in a huge smile of amusement, and we got very pally when it came to real bullets — as men do get pally, the elect, at any rate.

Well, the other day there was a wiring party out in front of our parapet — putting up barbed wire (rusted to a sort of Titian red). It is wonderful going out into ‘No Man’s Land.’ I’ll tell you about it one day — stars and wet grass, and nothing between you and the enemy, and every now and then a very soft and beautiful blue-white light from a Very pistol — bright as day, yet extraordinarily unreal. You have to keep still as a statue in whatever position you happen to be in, till it dies down, as movement gives you away.

Well, that night they turned a machine gun on the wiring party, and the ‘sailor boy’ got seven bullets, and died almost at once. All his poor body was riddled with them, and one went through his brown throat. When I went over his papers I found a post-card addressed to his mother. It was an embroidered affair, on white silk. They buy them out here for 40 centimes each, and it had simply “remember me” on it.

And they say “don’t get sentimental!” I wanted you then, to — oh! just to be human.

We had to collect what had been a man the other day and put it into a sandbag and bury it, and less than two minutes before he had been laughing and talking and thinking. . . .[4]

A Soldier

He laughed.
His blue eyes searched the morning,
Found the unceasing song of the lark
In a brown twinkle of wings, far out.
Great clouds, like galleons, sailed the distance.
The young spring day had slipped the cloak of dark
And stood up straight and naked with a shout.
Through the green wheat, like laughing schoolboys,
Tumbled the yellow mustard flowers, uncheck’d.
The wet earth reeked and smoked in the sun . . .
He thought of the waking farm in England.
The deep thatch of the roof — all shadow-fleck’d
The clank of pails at the pump . . . the day begun.
“After the war . . . ” he thought.
His heart beat faster With a new love for things familiar and plain.
The Spring leaned down and whispered to him low
Of a slim, brown-throated woman he had kissed . . .
He saw, in sons that were himself again,
The only immortality that man may know.

And then a sound grew out of the morning,
And a shell came, moving a destined way,
Thin and swift and lustful, making its moan.
A moment his brave white body knew the Spring,
The next, it lay
In a red ruin of blood and guts and bone.

Oh! nothing was tortured there! Nothing could know
How death blasphemed all men and their high birth
With his obscenities. Already moved,
Within those shattered tissues, that dim force,
Which is the ancient alchemy of Earth,
Changing him to the very flowers he loved.

“Nothing was tortured there!” Oh, pretty thought!
When God Himself might well bow down His head
And hide His haunted eyes before the dead.

Is this the sailor-boy himself, mildly alchemized to verse, and a victim of shell rather than machine gun? It hardly matters, and today’s assemblage of dated found-object-writing seems both more numinous and more depressing than usual.

 

So nothing more in the way of commentary. But still, on this busy but less-than-Glorious First, we have a few updates for the month:

 

John Buchan, an invalid at the beginning of the war and no spring chicken, has become an all-but-official propagandist on the (prop-a-) grandest scale: between his voluminous quick-fire histories for Nelson’s and teh very popular Greenmantle, he must be one of the most-read war writers going. But this month he finally went: like C.E. Montague, Buchan has been absorbed into the expanding bureaucracy of the Intelligence branch. He makes his first visit to France early this month–just missing his friend Raymond Asquith at G.H.Q.–and will begin touring and writing from within the military-journalistic complex.

 

Billy Congreve, recently awarded the DSO for his conspicuous gallantry in April in the Salient, is home in London on leave. An active leave: today, a century back, he was married to Pamela Maude at St Martin-in-the-Fields, with the Bishop of London presiding. The honeymoon will last a few days only, for the young brigade major is needed back on duty.[5]

 

And Herbert Read, whose sporadically preserved writing about his experiences as an officer of the Green Howards has been of little use here yet , will return to the front this month, after recuperating from a barbed-wire-related injury.

 

Then there is Isaac Rosenberg, warned to be ready to depart for France at a few hours’ notice. He has just mustered up the courage to tell his devoted sister, Annie, that he is bound for the front.

I asked my boss for the day off and went to Aldershot. It was bleak. I didn’t see a soul except Isaac coming towards me from the other side of the high fence. Talking to him through the wire I said, “But Isaac you’re not fit.” He said, “I’ve been examined, and passed.” I asked him to let me go and see the medical officer. He wouldn’t let me do it. I asked him how much money he had, and he replied “One shilling.” I didn’t know whether he needed anything, but had ten shillings with me, which I gave him. I wasn’t with him more than an hour. I stood there begging him not to go. He said goodbye and disappeared into the distance…[6]

This is a sister’s anguish at the coming suffering and agony of suspense, but it’s also hard not to see the poet reflected in his poem. Moses had much to say about slavery and oppression, about violence and the potential human heroic response…

 

Finally, then, Siegfried Sassoon, in a brown study. The problem is, once you’ve left, where is home?

June 1

I can’t read or enjoy poetry at all since I came back here. Two new officers in C Company since Stansfield
went–G. Williams, who was hit a year ago; and Morris–Sandhurst one. Neither of them at all interesting. Heard from Robert Graves, now at Litherland; he says he ‘wants to come home—to France’. I only wish he would.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Yes, it could be yesterday as well, but the knowledge that the sound is naval gunnery would point more toward today.
  2. The Golden Virgin, 205.
  3. Zeepvat, Before Action, 178-82.
  4. Housman, War Letters, 299-300.
  5. Armageddon Road, 190.
  6. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 136.
  7. Diaries, 70.

A Nice Cup of Tea with Saki; Max Plowman is a Father; Siegfried Sassoon Ends an Idyll

A rare letter today from Max Plowman. It’s to his friend Janet Upcott, with big news. Plowman has always been an outlier, here: thirty at the outbreak of war, he was newly married and a convinced pacifist when he decided to join the Ambulance Corps. Last year, Plowman went through the same agonizing self-examination that Olaf Stapledon has recently been submitting to. But while Stapledon, who believes that the Allies are the better cause and risks his life to heal allied soldiers, continues to walk the fine line between pacifist “martyrdom” and agreeing to serve in a potentially death-dealing capacity, Plowman came to see the ambulances as a half-measure. If he was participating in a war he hated, he might as well fight. Stapledon, in an upcoming letter, will describe it well: if even the ambulances will be run on military lines and thoroughly subordinated to the allied cause, then “one might as well be in the army honestly working for victory.” Stapledon is hanging on, but Plowman came to this conclusion a year ago, and he is now nearing the end of his training as an infantry officer.

Recently, however, Plowman became a most unusual subaltern indeed: not to be content with metaphorical fatherhood to a platoon, he is become an actual father.

No 1 (Northern Command) School of Instruction,
Brocton Camp, near Stafford
Sat. May 20th 1916

My dear Janet,

I hope you will have been able to go over to Fulham & see the small son before you receive this. Anyway I won’t attempt another description of him now for these small things apparently alter in appearance so quickly any description might not tally with your impression…

I don’t feel a very different mortal now I have the honour to become a parent from what I did before. Perhaps that is because he took 9 months being born & one has such a long time to get thoroughly used to the idea of him… I don’t feel I possess him & I hope I never shall. He’s just a jolly little beggar with an individuality of his own to develop and I confess I feel impatient to know that, it is so frightfully interesting.

I’m tremendously grateful Janet… To you… & to that kindly fate which prevent things like Zepp. bombs from dropping where they’d have been least welcome & which gave me leave just at that week-end. It was lucky, for if I hadn’t happened to be there you know I should have been at least 12 hours late. D. was an absolute Spartan. We spent the night alone together & it wasn’t until 8 o’clock that the matrons & nurses took care of her, & Christopher was born at 8.45…

Oddly–but these are serious folk–Plowman’s letter moves from the subject of the birth of his infant son to an apparently ongoing discussion of spiritual vitality, the use of the mind, and the retarding and obfuscating effects of conventional religion: Christianity is a religion of “jelly fish” and “an insidious quagmire.” But duty calls:

I am writing this when I should be doing platoon drill but the reason I’m free is that I’ve busted my leg a bit. I went for a 5 1/2 mile Cross Country Race last Wednesday just to convince the boys here that Fathers were not necessarily “Dug-outs” & I did … But I was very stiff after it! And the next day furiously (& foolishly) assaulting a sack with a bayonet I suppose I tore some little muscles in the calf of my left leg so that now I can only hobble about…[1]

 

Next, a letter from Hector Munro, a.k.a Saki. I believe I have mentioned before that his letters to his sister are to be considered a fairly strong example of the anodyne/obscurantist “all is well” genre. It’s good for us, sometimes, to read letters that are definitely not honest efforts to bridge the gulf and explain the experience of war to those at home. If something were wrong, if something were horrible, he would find a way to reassure, to neutralize, or simply not to mention it…

20 May, 16

. . . We are for the moment in a very picturesque hill-top village, where we have been twice before; I had a boisterous welcome from elderly farm-wives, yard dogs and other friends. . . . I am in very good health and spirits; the fun and adventure of the whole thing and the good comradeship of some of one’s companions make it jolly, and one attaches an enormous importance to little comforts such as a cup of hot tea at the right moment.[2]

 

And finally, today, Siegfried Sassoon is back from Fourth Army School, ending both an idyll and a blank expanse in his diary:

May 20

My last day at the Fourth Army School. A cloudless hot morning. Numerous generals rolled up for the bayonet work, wiring, etc, and two mines were exploded; a brown spuming hill of loose earth and chalk is hurled skyward; the ground shakes and rocks; then there is a sound like a rain-storm gone mad, and downward whizzing of clods and lumps, and stones, and the hiss of smaller stuff: then a huge fountain of smoke goes up over the debris, rising like a figure with draperies and writhing arms to melt into nothing…

Sassoon then spent a half-holiday in Abbeville, and the journey provokes rhapsodies:

…the green expanses of country on each side, rolling away into the hot hazy distance, every tree proud of its young leaves, splashes of white and pale blossom in orchards and gardens, lovely glooms of sun-glinted woods, vivid patches of clover-red, silver of daisies in lush grass, and yellow glory of buttercups. Acres of green barley and rye and wheat and oats, besomed by the breeze, and leagues of rust-coloured ploughland. O those leagues of open country, glorious under the sky!

…I want many more eyes than two on such a rushing journey through a delightful unfamiliar country; we met a shepherd boy at the head of his large flock of ewes and three-parts-grown lambs; he looked about fifteen, and very Arcadian with crook and slouchy hat, brim turned down. The villages look so clean with their white cottage-walls and charming orchards and gardens; so different from the same winter-villages of squalor and mud and chilliness. How May changes everything!

And the roads that wind away over the ridges; what magic is in their hidden miles; and to what happy places might they lead? Dear lands of Nowhere. Any road that leads away from the trenches is a good road. No one else in the bus but me and my friend seems to take any notice of the country we pass. They talk of war and folly, and sing snatches of ‘Maconachie’ and ‘Charlie Chaplin Walk’. Soon we are rolling down a long hill, and the town lies below between the wooded ridges; the usual tall trees lining the river-side; the distant towers and roofs and chimneys and surrounding tree-muffled country, seen through the haze and dust of the hot glaring afternoon sunshine…

Oddly enough, Abbeville interrupts the reverie by provoking Sassoon with too many examples of undistinguished-looking English officers. This is Sassoon the late-Victorian snob, seeking (and believing that he fins) quality in bearing and appearance…

But let’s skip to the ride home:

Coming home, the bus dashed and lurched along in the warm, dark, starry night: along the white road—with trees slipping to meet us out of the gloom—like people surprised, standing still and hoping not to be noticed—some of them looked as if cut out of cardboard—stage-trees—in the white glare of our headlights. And at other times I could fancy their boughs were laden with glimmering blossom—but it was only the light shining on the young green leaves…

…let anyone who reads this know that I was four weeks at Flixécourt, and four weeks happy and peaceful—and free, with my books and my work and the heaven of spring surging all round me over the noble country, and lighting the skies with magnificence.[3]

Duly noted–along with the fact this diary is written, it would seem, with readers in mind.

Tomorrow, it will be back to the line.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge Into the Future, 40-1.
  2. The Square Egg, 92.
  3. Diaries, 61-3.

Isaac Rosenberg Pens a Grim Spring for 1916; Saki Trips Lightly From the Trenches; Edward Thomas on Monocles and Publications; Charles Moncrieff Knows His Poets

A literary day, today. We begin with a celebrated satirist playing straight and end with a sober new poem from Isaac Rosenberg–skip a little, then, if you grow weary of Edward Thomas‘s epistles.

We begin, today, with a letter from Saki to his sister. It is most definitely of a certain type:

March 11, 16.

. . . For the moment, in a spasm between trenches, we are in a small village where I have found excellent Burgundy, but we leave this oasis in a few hours. . . . We are having plenty of snow, but my blood must be in very good condition as I go out on night watches without any wrapping up and don’t feel cold. . . . Our line is so close to the Germans in some places that one can talk to them: one of them called out to me that the war would soon be over, so I said “in about 3 years’ time,” whereat there was a groan from him and his comrades.[1]

This is one way to write home about the trenches: keeping it light for prim maiden sisters. We have snow, but it’s harmless; Germans, likewise, and outwitted by our correspondent; we have a reference to night in no man’s land, but he doesn’t even need a muffler; and a bottle of Burgundy, which is, of course, excellent. Crank up the humor a bit and we might have Bertie Wooster writing to Aunt Agatha (which is almost the sort of thing that “Saki” managed in his pre-War day job).

There is no attempt to cross the experiential gulf: Munro doesn’t even condescend to notice it. We might compare this picture of life in the trenches to Hodgson’s recent sketch, or to its polar opposite, namely the letters that various boys write to Vera Brittain, who is fiercely determined to be spared neither terror nor horror.

 

Charles Scott Moncrieff, meanwhile, has been catching up on his reading.

Billets, 11th March.

. . . We are in billets for six days in a rather gloomy large village, solid stone houses, solider here in Artois
than they were in Picardy. I suppose its always been a richer country. . . .

I have two chilly little rooms, in what ought to be a comfortable farm. Three houses run together, with a fine stone front on to the street. They all have big stone gateways of an impressive appearance. Two others are in another farm, and the remaining three in a bleak room with a tiled floor and a serviceable-looking stove. In the morning my servant came in with a sort of chuckle and said, “We can’t get no place to cook, what shall we do?” So I got up and took Machin out, and found a shop where we bought 30 eggs, a chunk of ham, French jams, and all sorts of pleasant things, then pointed out the serviceable stove, cleared the recumbent officers off the floor, and finally got breakfast about mid-day.

After a description of his responsibilities in billets–sitting on a court martial, restfully enough–Moncrieff turns to his reading, always a favored subject of discussion.

I got Bridges’ Anthology[2] yesterday from Kate. It seems interesting, more a revelation of R. B.’s tastes than a representative collection. Browning he omits altogether for example, and he quotes Rupert Brooke and Julian Grenfell, and Lascelles Abercrombie; but not Walter de la Mare, or Ralph Hodgson’s Song of Honour, or various other indispensable sort of things. . . .[3]

 

We will have more on these developing tastes as they… develop. And speaking of taste, it is thank you note season for Edward Thomas, who has recently celebrated a birthday. First this one, written on the 9th:

My dear Eleanor,

…your parcel came yesterday and I simply couldn’t delay. Your ginger has completed to-day’s lunch at ‘The Bear’ for six of us—we are six instead of 5. As to the chocolate I couldn’t confine it to instructors. It was rather funny seeing the men all take one of the large ones, except Benson. The day has been as it were one grand sweet song—with dates to begin with at breakfast. I must be 39 or 40 by now, with this fresh birthday or birthdays. I have felt like it once or twice, but not on account of your parcel or your letter.

He is only thirty-eight, the silly. The promise of big changes amongst the cadets of the Artists’ Rifles now interferes with his plans to get home to Steep for a short leave–much of which he would have spent working on his poetry.

I was looking forward to quarrelling over my M.S.S. But I hear you have made a selection and I shall have to argue it out through Helen unless it is just my own…

And then there is the possible misunderstanding of the promised monocle. Is Farjeon unaware that Thomas is not, in fact, very happy about his first promotion? That, rather, he is chagrined to have been left single-striped rather than promoted to full corporal?

The monocle will be splendid. When is it coming? The only thing is I doubt if a lance-corporal can wear one except in the privacy of the hut. It will be a great success there…

Farjeon’s commentary helps to clear up this burning question: “the ‘monocle’… as I remember it, was a large chocolate disc wrapped in tinsel.”

But Thomas did get away for the weekend after all, and he made a great deal of progress in terms of editing his recent poetry. Farjeon, the crucial first reader and fair-copier, seems to have missed the editing and selecting after all. In a letter almost certainly written today, a century back, Thomas sends her a selection of poems and hopes to meet her in London once he gets his new (army) assignment. Interestingly, he once again emphasizes that the thing he now values most about army life is the comradeship.

Of course, if our fellowship were not going to be broken up I should in many ways like to stay—largely for the out of door work. But if we are split up I should prefer town. I don’t think there’s much chance. However, if I do get put in charge of the map work in one company (as I may) I shall perhaps be a sergeant all the sooner and wear a bayonet and get photographed…[4]

And today, a century back, Gordon Bottomley, too, got a selection of Thomas’s recent poems.

11 March 1916 Hut 15, Hare Hall Camp

My dear Gordon,

Here are 40 to select from. Most of those I remember your liking are here. I hope you will include ‘Old Man…’

What is happening to Form? I thought it was to be out in March: yet I haven’t had a final proof I was promised. Of course if it should be postponed indefinitely or dropped I would rescue ‘Lob’ & ‘Words’.

I can’t write a letter now. We are in a great state of uncertainty & change still…[5]

This businesslike letter reveals a more confident Edward Thomas. First of all, he sends out a large sheaf of poems to a poetic friend and simply asks him to choose.

Which he will, 18 of the 40 for a coming anthology. And Thomas even prods Bottomley to produce the intended periodical Form. This will come out about four months late–quite good by wartime poetic standards.

 

And finally, today, alas for the poor–for they are poorly documented. We talk little of Isaac Rosenberg here, as there are only a smattering of letters–few of them dated–discussing his travails since the misery-driven decision to enlist late last year. Recently, however, things have been looking up: a bullying officer departed, and a more sympathetic second-in-command succeeded in relieving Rosenberg of some of the harassment that had been his lot. It was not a coincidence that the new officer was also a Jew.

This lightening of the load had immediate effects. Rosenberg began writing again, and, at some point before today, a century back, he completed two poems, ‘Sleep,’ and ‘Spring 1916.’ It is the latter that we should look at today.

RosenbergI_I_226, 9/8/07, 3:02 pm, 8C, 5374x5147 (893+2207), 112%, IWMTESTREPRO2, 1/10 s, R79.0, G44.0, B54.0

Slow, rigid, is this masquerade
That passes as through a difficult air:
Heavily-heavily passes.
What has she fed on? Who her table laid
Through the three seasons? What forbidden fare
Ruined her as a mortal lass is?

I played with her two years ago,
Who might be now her own sister in stone;
So altered from her May mien,
When round the pink a necklace of warm snow
Laughed to her throat where my mouth’s touch had gone.
How is this, ruined Queen?

Who lured her vivid beauty so
To be that strained chill thing that moves
So ghastly midst her young brood
Of pregnant shoots that she for men did grow?
Where are the strong men who made these their loves?
Spring! God pity your mood!

This is the first thing I’ve read of Rosenberg’s–during the war, that is, in the war’s “real time“–that sounds like the work of a (the) mature poet. It’s lugubrious, but plausibly intentionally so. It’s heavy footed, but the formality is put to use; it’s old fashioned, but which fashion? There is something Gothic here from the young sort-of-Modernist, and not just in the “theme of a malignant power punishing the weak and innocent.”[6]

There is something of Keats here, too, but a Keats distilled not just through a cloudier post-Romantic alembic but with an eye on the future. I don’t know… perhaps I’m overdoing it. This may be ponderous, derivative. But to me it begins to sound authentic: Rosenberg writing with a poet’s eye, but controlling his instrument well.

Why shouldn’t spring dawn with brutal foreboding, in a chilly camp of a bantam battalion, bound for war? There will be plenty of time to rail against old men and what their follies will do to the “young brood” that struggles toward fruition this spring. It’s a canny move, a deep-eyed and far-sighted move, to step back and put the coming misery in a full natural context…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Square Egg, 91-2.
  2. I.e. The Spirit of Man.
  3. Memories and Letters, 117.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas...190-1.
  5. Letters From Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 263.
  6. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 291-3.

A Light Letter from Saki; A Dark Tale from Noel Hodgson: There’s No Release from the War

We check in today with two of our demi-semi-regular correspondents, both, as it happens, writing to their sisters. First, Hector Munro, a.k.a. Saki, our least likely soldier (and, bar Montague, our eldest volunteer) now in France.

Feb. 8, 16

. . . We are holding a rather hot part of the line and I must say I have enjoyed it better than any we have been in. There is not much dug-out accommodation so I made my bed (consisting of overcoat and waterproof sheet) on the fire-step of the parapet; on Sunday night, while I was on my round looking up the sentries, a bomb came into the trench, riddled the overcoat and sheet and slightly wounded a man sleeping on the other side of the trench. I assumed that no 2 bombs would fall exactly in the same spot, so remade the bed and had a good sleep. . . . Got some chocolates from Reynolds and his book with a very charming dedication to myself. . . . A lot of owls come to the trenches; they must have a good time as there is a large selection of ruined buildings to accommodate them and hordes of mice to prey on.[1]

It’s always hard to assess letters home that portray life in the trenches as a sort of light comedy. Especially when they are being written by a famous writer of comic short-stories to a sister who pretty plainly does not qualify as a confidante. A near miss! (and a slight wound!) Chocolates! (but no mud or cold?) Owls! (preying on mice… but where are the rats?)

But back to that near miss: we can read it, today, as an eerie (and entirely coincidental) set-up for the contents of our next letter, in which the shell misses, but doesn’t.

 

Noel Hodgson, recently decorated for his role in the Battle of Loos, wrote to his sister Stella today, a century back, enclosing a new short story. The two share a much more open and honest relationship than Munro and his sister, but there is also utility here. Noel is hoping that Stella can help shepherd his writing–both poetry and prose–into print:

Dear Star

Herewith part 1 of another chatty series for the obliging periodicals, entitled After Dinner, Over the Port, Through the Smoke, or anything else you like. Part II to follow in a day or two. How’s it all with you at home? Fit and well yes? All very cheery here; love to all.

Despite the half-serious title suggestions, the sketch included with this letter must have been “Nestoria,” a sad story that springs from his own experience in the trenches but is fiction-based-loosely-on-experience rather than concealed biography. Instead of a narrator’s description of Loos, we have it at one remove, in the voice of a character (who, yes, is a young officer with personal experience of Loos).

During dinner the man on leave had delivered an epic. It had traced the adventures of the faithful few who remained over when the regiment marched back in the grey hours of Friday’s dawn from the chalk lines before Vermelles, to be flung back to trenches thirty-six hours later. It followed them through the Givenchy craters and Festubert marshes, on marches southward and northward, among shellings and bombings, short rests and heavy labours. It told of the slow welding of the new regiment, when the fresh drafts came rolling in from the Base, of worries and perplexities surmounted. . . . of how the battalion, once more conscious of itself as a unity with history and honourable scars, was being tempered to a fine edge for the next stroke.

Hodgson’s speaker is a man of experience, then, and he has a particular story to tell:

“What exactly happened to that rum old bird in No. 10 platoon, Cockbum, W.J.?” asked the junior listener. The young adjutant took out his cigar and examined the end carefully, with a tightening of his cleanshaven
lips. “Its a rotten story,” he answered slowly.

Rotten indeed–it’s a story of a man badly shell-shocked on the battle’s first day and yet sent back into action. Almost an analogue of the experience of Robert Nichols, if there had been no sympathetic officers and doctors to intervene. “Cockburn” is the only survivor of a shell that plunges into a group of men. Physically unscathed, he is, of course, deeply psychologically shaken, then further weakened by illness in the days that follow. But, as our jaded young officer/tale-teller puts it, “there’s no release from the War,” especially for enlisted men. A few days later Cockburn is in a front-line trench when another big shell drops in, burying one man and blowing another to pieces. Cockburn is first thought to be killed, but he is soon found away from his post, wandering, confused.

The officer tries to defend Cockburn when he is court-martialed, but the battalion doctor considers the man a coward and a liar. He gets no sympathy, either, from the soldiers who guard him. They torture him by reminding him constantly that he is likely to be shot for desertion. He steals a rifle, intending to kill himself, but he cannot do it; he shoots himself in the foot instead. An S.I.W.–self-inflicted wound–was nearly as serious an offense as being away from one’s post. Suspect S.I.W.s were often harshly punished–the stick brought down on the most vulnerable men on the theory that collective morale, if low enough, might collapse if this route to “Blighty,” however painful, however dishonourable, was allowed to open.

Hodgson engineers a clunky, heavily ironic way out of Cockburn’s predicament: the foot turns septic and Cockburn dies in hospital before he can be shot by his own army. The officer’s audience for this tale responds unhappily:

There was a prolonged silence, broken by the youngest: “It’s worse to think of the old chap going out like that than to hear of half the battalion getting scuppered in a show.”

Alas, then, that this grim story–written in recent weeks and sent off to Blighty today, a century back–was, while certainly melodramatic, all too plausible. Hodgson’s biographer Charlotte Zeepvat weighs the evidence:

All the background circumstances of this fit Noel Hodgson’s actual experience. The actions he describes, the other casualties; even the replacement medical officer whom the old hands thought inefficient. And Hodgson almost certainly did have experience of preparing evidence for a man facing trial: he refers to it again in a later sketch and obviously it bothered him… But ‘Nestoria’ has the feel of a constructed story, and it seems unlikely that he would give details of an actual case in a sketch that was intended for publication. It is interesting, though, that he chose to tell a story which highlighted the strain of war and the consequences of a mind pushed beyond its limits.[2]

So, a piece of fiction, and a slight one. Yet it’s hard not to see it, in the grim month of February, as a sign of things to come. This is a story that the men in the trenches would write, but the Staff would not approve, and the papers would not print… Stella will have no luck getting this one before the eyes of a still-innocent (or still infantilized) public.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Square Egg, 91.
  2. Zeepvat, Before Action, 147-9.

Christmas in England with Phillip Maddison, Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen, Charles Carrington, and Vera Brittain; A Peaceful Day in France for Hector Munro, Siegfried Sassoon, John Adams, and Olaf Stapledon; Billy Congreve and Bimbo Tennant Strive to Keep the Hate Alive; George Coppard Succeeds

Christmas Day was warm and rainy in northwest Europe, a century back. But it naturally brings us a blizzard of date-able experiences. First, today, our happy huntsman Siegfried Sassoon. He is so happy, in fact, that he seems to stray from Wartime-France-as-Edwardian-Kent into Tolkien‘s future-past Shire:

This country looks very attractive in the mild rainy weather. Rode after lunch out by Warlus and back through the woods behind Mericourt. The Somme valley looked fine in the twilight; and the country westward with its wooded ridges against the yellow sunset low down under the dark clouds; the many little roads winding away over the slopes, wet roads gleaming in the last light climbing and sinking, the roads that lead to the nowhere of romance. Dear are these fields and woods, dear the solitary trees against such evening skies. I am glad to be alive this Christmas, riding home in the dusk (after a day with the hounds), the little horse stepping it out, and my heart musing in the old silly way–then only the bare brown fields and the dark woods.

And as I rode up Warlus road in the gloom I met an old man with leather leggings and a great blue cloak with a pointed hood, and he stopped to peer at me, as if he were startled at my young face and the gallant little horse, so lighthearted–a dragon-slayer, perhaps. I slew the dragon in my heart when the war began, and it was only a little wheedling thing after all. The Angel is still there, Poetry, with bright wings prepared for flights into the dawn, across the cold hills, O joy–‘wild and calm and lonely.'[1]

Christmas night was jolly, by the log fire, the village full of maudlin sergeants and paralysed privates.[2]

(Paralyzed by drink, that is. Avert the omen.) Yet surely Siegfried (his namesake, too, a dragon-slayer) should have stayed his horse and hearkened closer to the wisdom of this Picard Gandalf?

 

In the very same battalion as our angelic dragon-slayer is John Bernard Adams, who chose a more traditional–or at least more indoor–Christmas. Sassoon reveled in horse and countryside, while Adams took advantage of free Saturday bus rides into the nearby city of Amiens, and found his angels in the architecture, swimming in infinity:

23160998000_51d6e3c76d

Notre-Dame D’Amiens, 1915

Of course I went to see the Cathedral that Ruskin has claimed to be the most perfect building in the world; indeed, each Saturday found me there; for like all true beauty the edifice does not attract merely by novelty but satisfies the far truer test of familiarity… down in the mud I had forgotten, in the obsession of the present, man’s dream and aspirations for the future. Now, here again I was in touch with eternal things that wars do not affect…

I was at vespers there on Christmas afternoon, and was then impressed by the wonderful lightness of the building: so often there is a gloom in a cathedral, that gives a heavy feeling. But Amiens Cathedral is perfectly lighted… my imagination flew back to the building of the cathedral, and to the brain that conceived it, and beyond that again to the tradition that through long years moulded the conception; and beyond all to the idea, the ultimate birth of this perfect creation…[3]

He goes on at some length–but, then, it is a wonderful building.

 

Now to several of our soldiers still in England.

Young Charles Carrington had joined up as soon as he could–in the summer of 1914, when he was only seventeen. Therefore he had been left behind when his battalion embarked for France in the summer, to anguish miserably with an unhappy reserve unit. Until today, a century back:

On Christmas night I crossed in a troopship to Le Havre, being extremely seasick all the way.

Next will be base camp at Harfleur and practical training in the “Bull Ring.” Then the trenches, with the Royal Warwickshires. Carrington was “secretly gratified that I had reached my goal irregularly”–he was “eighteen and eight months old.”[4]

 

And our Artists’ Rifles are taking turns going on leave. Edward Thomas has got his, and spent several days at home, reunited with his entire family, his son Mervyn having just returned from nearly a year in America. Wilfred Owen, slated for the next leave rotation, had to spend Christmas Day in Romford. A promised Christmas parcel did not materialize, but the day was far from a washout. As he tells his mother in a note penned tomorrow, he managed two Christmas Dinners, one in his hut with his platoon mates, and the other at the Williamses, a local family whose sons he had befriended:

Your dear, lovely letter reached me this morning. It was the one thing lacking yesterday to make my Christmas the happiest possible, away from Home. I had no letter, parcel or card whatsoever yesterday; but I had my consolations. The Plenty that overpoured in our Hut of good things was noised all over the Camp. In our Hut ‘it snowed of meats and drinks…’  I had scarcely accomplished my last nut, at 3 o clock (we sat down at 1.00) when my Boy Scout came for me. And not long after I got to the house, we began my second Christmas Dinner, rarely good… Afterwards we played Charades, exactly as we played at Home…

We went to Church Parade this morning as well as yesterday. The Major read the Lessons.[5]

 

And back to France, where Frank Richards has settled into trench warfare better than most. The quintessential old soldier, he is now assigned to the signallers of the 2/RWF. Signallers were a sort of privileged caste–they had their own work to do (the repair of telephone and telegraph lines seems to have taken much of their time) and it was dangerous work, in well-shelled places–but they also had much more freedom of movement and were exempted from ordinary fatigues.

We had a grand Christmas dinner. We bought two chickens and pinched seven. We eighteen signallers had plenty to eat that day…[6]

Another older soldier–but young in the trade–was Hector Munro, a.k.a. Saki, the satirist. And he’s got some light verse, today, in a letter to his sister:

Am spending a quaint Christmas in a quaint town. The battalion is in the trenches.

While Shepherds watched their flocks by night
All seated on the ground
A high-explosive shell came down
And mutton rained around.[7]

Tidings of comfort and joy. Ah, but there is a war on yet.

George Coppard is stuck holding down the fort–or, rather, the machine-gun nest on a sandbag-breastwork “island” in the flooded British front line. Worse, the first hours of Christmas Day were the last hours for Mr. Clark, an unusually tall officer who had been hit by a traversing machine gun late Christmas Eve. It was impossible to evacuate him over the open, flooded ground, so he died where he was hit, and his body stayed there throughout the day.

Our thoughts turned to home and our loved ones on Christmas Day. No letters came; no parcels; nothing. The soggy rations were of the meanest kind, the only pretence at Christmas being a few raisins covered with hairs and other foreign matter from the inside of a sandbag. Stretcher-bearers came after dark for the dead young officer. They had a terrible job carrying him over the duckboards.

It so happened that Jerry was fated to pay a penalty for the officer’s death; at least that was the way we chose to look at it. Later that night we became aware of activity in front of the German positions opposite us, where the ground rose slightly. Voices came clearly across No Man’s Land, also the sound of hammering. In fact it was the most careless bit of enemy movement in our experience, causing us to wonder whether it was thought that, because it was Christmas night, we would refrain from hostile action.

Although mere enlisted men of a humble line regiment (this is sarcasm aimed at Raymond Asquith, who ordered a basically identical maneuver a few days ago), Coppard and a comrade took the initiative, moving out from their island in order to stalk the German working party. This time, at least, British technology ably abets British aggression:

Leaving the rest of the team on the island, we took the Vickers with muzzle-extension attached and a full belt of ammo. We stealthily worked out way thigh-deep in water until we came to a point fifty yards clear of the island, where we lay on a mound of wet earth…

For a few moments we listened to the noise and chatter coming across No Man’s Land, which gave us true direction. I fired a Very light into the darkness. Its brilliant white glare clearly revealed the figures of twenty or more Jerries spread out near their wire to a width of thirty yards. The majority of them wore the kaiser-like spiked helmets. Giving them no time to disperse, Snowy pressed the trigger of the Vickers, and I fired a second Very light. The flare burst, casting its glare on the tottering ghost-like figures as they fell. Swiftly, as if wielding a two-edged sword, Snowy plied the hail of bullets. Two Jerries ran into their wire and were trapped.

Coppard, as if suddenly aware of what he is describing, shifts belatedly into the passive voice.

The ground where the enemy had fallen was raked with fire, to finish off any crafty ones who might be feigning death. The second flare had just about burnt itself out when the firing stopped. The whole thing lasted no more than thirty seconds.

Coppard and “Snowy” withdraw, and later contemplated repeating the exercise. But this time, guessing that the noises were from German stretcher parties removing the wounded, “we stayed our hand.” That–then, there, for them–was the line that separated civilization from savagery. But ordinary civilized warfare did not preclude the ambush of Christmas night working parties.

The age-old sentiment of ‘goodwill to all men’ meant nothing to us then. With ten million men under arms on the Western and Eastern fronts, the expression was invalid. Jerry retaliated with whizz-bangs and landed one within five yards of our position. This was close enough in view of the scanty cover of the breastwork.[8]

 

Bim Tennant, too, was hoping for a little sport on Christmas:

I spent a quiet Christmas day in the trenches, killed a large ratto with a stick, and crawled out, armed with pistol and 2 bombs, to within 20 yards of the Boche trench… We met no hostile patrols, and after listening awhile we came back. Two men were with me…

 

Congreve Christmas

This original sketch by the popular Heath Robinson was inscribed to Billy Congreve, the artist’s Christmas gift to the staff officer

One of our other eager young officers, Billy Congreve, has been up to… well, we don’t really know, since a volume of his diary has gone missing, and the next has been sparse of late. But he has had leave, and he has been busy: two days ago his engagement to Pamela Maude was announced in The Times. He’s back at the front now, and, love affairs and calendars aside, he is in agreement with George Coppard: let the Germans have it. And Congreve, a staff officer with the 76th Brigade, has a considerable ability to affect the local course of the war. So, with the holiday looming, and the engagement announcing, he had drawn up an elaborate plan for a special “hate,” or local raid/bombardment plan, a semi-private celebration.

But above brigade is division, and yesterday, a century back, “a wire came in from the division… saying ‘No action is to be taken by us on Xmas Day which is likely to provoke retaliation on the part of the Germans.'” Congreve expostulated with his diary, “Was ever such an order given before?”

With the hate on hold, Congreve was forced to settle for decorations of holly and mistletoe, and a special parcel:

This morning when I awoke I saw hanging above me a large sack. For some time I was too sleepy to realise what it was, but eventually remembered. It was my Xmas stocking. Almost all its contents were from Pam–parcels of sweets and books, and a silver banknote holder. I had a happy time.

When the Germans opposite began singing, Congreve was forced to pass along the divisional orders to restrain a trigger-happy battalion: “I had to say that we had been ordered to be peaceful, though I think Boche hymns do almost call for artillery retaliation.”[9]

 

Olaf Stapledon is peacefully pining for a letter from his intended, Agnes Miller. She is a regular correspondent and the postal service is formidable–but then again she lives in Australia and he is at a Field Ambulance post in France.

Christmas Day in the Afternoon. It is a warm damp afternoon, with soft greens and greys in the sky. Everywhere there are little water-color pictures, so to speak–trees, flat fields and sky… This morning I spent chiefly in decanting petrol from drums to tins, a patient-ox-like sort of work. Now come cocoa & Xmas cakes, then talk, writing, reading, Xmas dinner and soon afterwards bed…

It’s weeks and weeks since I heard from you. There have been no mails from England for some days, but even before that it was weeks and weeks, i.e. over a fortnight. If you knew how I am longing for that letter…[10]

 

Last of our Christmas soldiers, then, is Phillip Maddison. Half-constrained by the biography of his creator–Henry Williamson, too, spent this portion of the war with a non-combat battalion near London–our Gumpish knockabout New Army officer will nevertheless be given cause to reflect on the difference between this Christmas and last. His cousin Willie will write him a letter about his own Christmas in France, this being Williamson’s heavy-handed way of roping in the stock historical point-of-emphasis for today, a century back–namely the non-repetition of The Christmas Truce (although we have seen, have we not, how varied were the local conditions vis-à-vis killing on Christmas.

Christmas Day this year was somewhat different from the one we shared last year, outside Ploegsteert Wood. This time an order came round that there was to be no fraternisation. To see that this was carried out the Corps commander ordered the guns, both heavies and field, to start shelling at 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve. The old Ger. sent over very little by way of retaliation. It turned out that a deserter coming into our lines some days before had spoken of their programme of festivities, and exactly at half past ten at night, or half an hour before Berlin midnight, the batteries concentrated on a particular spot where a dinner was to be held, with Christmas trees and candles, and blow it all to hell. The comment of our C.O. was that “the honours of Christmas Eve belong to the British”.[11]

 

And Vera Brittain, after night duty and a Christmas morning service at Camberwell Hospital, traveled to Brighton and spent a sleepy day. Knowing that news of Roland Leighton‘s safe arrival was unlikely to come until the morning, she fell asleep early, with happy anticipations for the morrow.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A Gordon Bottomley quotation, wouldn't you know.
  2. Diaries, 27-8.
  3. Nothing of Importance, 79-81.
  4. A Subaltern's War, 19; Soldier From the Wars Returning, 79.
  5. Collected Letters, 370.
  6. Old Soldiers Never Die, 138.
  7. The Square Egg, 90.
  8. Coppard, With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 59-60.
  9. Armageddon Road, 178.
  10. Talking Across the World, 118.
  11. The Golden Virgin, 115.

The Worst Mud Yet: Rudyard Kipling, Kathleen Luard, and Rowland Feilding on the Creamy, Slimy, Sucking, Freezing, Crying, Miserable, and Ubiquitous

Our two eldest writers are on the move today: Hector Munro marched out of camp with the rest of 2/King Edward’s Horse for the coast, and C.E. Montague, a few steps ahead, landed with his battalion at Boulogne. More on those two anon.

Our theme today has been a common one, and will be all the more so: mud. Before we get to two short but intense second-hand reports on the inevitable result of wet November weather and destroyed drainage systems, let’s check in with Rowland Feilding, who has returned from leave, only to suffer a less-than-heroic accident. He will describe it in a letter to his wife:

The battalion went into the trenches… but a most humiliating thing has happened to me. I have had a fall from a common push-bike and have injured my knee.

Reconnoitering their battalion’s road up to the trenches, Feilding and two other officers took cover when German shells started falling nearby.

We returned to the spot where we had left the bicycles after dark, and in mounting I missed the pedal—a free-wheel: the miserable machine lurched into some deep mud by the roadside; and I came down with a sickening thud upon my knee on the hard road. When I got home the doctor came to see me and found that I had a temperature…

That was overnight last night. Today, a century back,

I was sent by ambulance to the Casualty Clearing Station at Merville, and here I am in bed, with an Australian Army doctor suffering from influenza on my left, a padre with a rheumatic knee on my right, and in front of me the same Irish Guards Captain whom I travelled with on the sixth, and who now has a shell-wound in the arm.

Which gives him time to give us our second consecutive excellent example of the trench anti-pastoral, or “let me try to describe the mud” letter. Which, for ease of reference, I’ll call the “mud piece:”

I have learnt during the last few days that the most exaggerated stories of Flemish winter mud do not exceed the reality. The mud varies in consistency from the creamy variety to the adhesive kind which holds you fast like birdlime and would suck off the long india-rubber hip boots with which the troops are now provided were they not strapped to the waistbelt…

So sodden is the surface soil that trench-digging is out of the question, and the defences consist of lines of
breastworks built up of sandbags. These breastworks are irregular in design, and, many shells having burst against them, are ragged and dishevelled in appearance. The older bags have rotted and the earth has slipped and shrunk with the weather. The ground in front and behind is thickly pitted with shell-holes, among which occasional little wooden crosses appear, marking the graves of soldiers. The prevailing impression is one of chaotic fresh-turned slimy earth, and the general scene is one of desolation such as I tried to describe to you when speaking of Hohenzollern Redoubt.

The communication trenches leading to the front line are half full of mud and water, which generally reaches your knees, and sometimes your waist. They have in fact ceased to be of any practical use, and most people travel to and from the fire-trench across the open, by night, which apparently is not so dangerous as might be supposed.[1]

 

Rudyard Kipling, no slouch at symbolical natural description, produces his own mud piece for today, a century back. During their current turn in the front line, the Irish Guards found themselves in “omnipresent dampness” and “immensely sticky mud.” Which, we must remember, they live in–there are no deep dugouts in this part of the line, so the men must sleep–if they can–in shallow “funk holes” cut into the trench walls. But these are full of mud, with the “consequent impossibility of being able to lie down even for a moment. Then it froze of nights. All which are miseries real as wounds or sickness.”

Very true. And since there is no sharp dividing line between the mental and the physical, the material and the moral, these miseries led to calculated risks:

When the Coldstream relieved them on the evening of the 16th November, which they did in less than four hours, they felt that they could not face the flooded communication-trenches a second time, and made their way home across the open in the dark with no accident. Avoidable discomfort is ever worse than risk of death; for, like the lady in Ingoldsby Legends, they “didn’t mind death but they couldn’t stand pinching.”[2]

 

And still further into the mud. Yesterday, Kathleen Luard reported on the arrival of an entire Division, relieved from their term in the trenches around Loos, “with happy faces and indescribable clothes, khaki showing here and there through a thick layer of caked dry mud.” One was “slightly lunatic,” undone by shellfire and prone to wandering off, insensible…

Today, Luard reports the officers’ reports from this cold and muddy ordeal. It sounds worse, somehow, coming, again, from the middle distance. This is someone close enough to see the worst–she removes those muddy, bloody, uniforms–and not under discipline and social pressure to put a happy face on things… Misery doesn’t just mean taking cross country risks–it means facing, and facing down, a potential collapse in morale. Could an officer write like this, yet?

There are no dugouts of any sort, because, in this wet weather, when they go to sleep in one, the roof falls in and buries them alive: a lot have been killed in this way… So they have been standing, because you can’t walk in it, over their waists in mud, and they can’t lie down to sleep or they would be drowned. He can’t think how the men stick it and live without the dry change the officers can have. His own company has been standing like this, heavily shelled–the killed and wounded left where they’re hit till night, and then taken down the only communications trench there is there. ‘The ones left alive just cried at last,’ he said, ‘but they’re absolutely marvellous.’ ‘What did you do?’ I asked. ‘Oh, I wasn’t far off crying, too,’ he said, ‘but responsibility keeps your nerves together a bit–though mine wouldn’t have stood any more of it.’ They are resting for a month–some going home on leave and all as happy as larks now…[3]

Luard’s reportage here is a way station between the chipper letters of the still-hopeful second year army and the disillusioned memoirs to come.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 68-70.
  2. The Irish Guards, II, 42.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 32-3.

Vera Brittain: I Feel Almost Angry; John Adams’s Baptism of Mud; Trench-ward Steps for Saki and Doctor Dunn; Olaf Stapledon on Censorship

First today, the deepening epistolary quarrel between Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton. After that, three short bits, as two of our writers take steps toward the front. Finally, a long letter on life in the trenches from John Bernard Adams.

We know that Roland–perhaps depressed, seemingly roiled by half-articulated jealousies–has just written to Vera after a long, er, fallow period. But that letter has not yet arrived. Vera, today, is at the end of her patience. She has tried, recently, direct appeals, coy pouting, and devotional enthusiasm–all to no avail.

So, today, a loud combination: arm-waving petulance-as-flirtation, self-pity, and role-playing with the literary touch-stone of their relationship, her assumption of thecharacter of Lyndall from Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm.

Of course you don’t really deserve a letter. Sometimes, when after a particularly grey and monotonous day, I wish for a letter from you to cheer me up, and don’t get it, I feel almost angry–though more with life in general than with you. With you I never can be quite angry. For the more chill and depressed I feel myself in these dreary November days, the more sorry I feel for you beginning to face the acute misery of the winter after the already long strain of these many months. When at 6.0 in the morning the rain is beating pitilessly against the windows and I have to go out into it to begin a day which promises nothing pleasant, I feel that after all I should not mind very much if only the thought of you right in it out there didn’t haunt me all day. Rain always depresses me; still more rain where there are dead. And I am always thinking of Lyndall’s words ‘How terrible it must be when the rain falls down on you.’

I don’t think she can go on much longer in that vein–but at least she levels out. She is surely very worried about his silence, and about what it could mean, so she has been casting about in trying to attract a response (not knowing yet that she already has). Now, calmed, she writes as she has usually written–thoughtfully, to a correspondent she trusts. But she does not neglect another plank of her platform–she may not be in the trenches, but she is part of the war now too:

I have only one wish in life now and that is for the ending of the War. I wonder how much really all you have seen and done has changed you. Personally, after seeing some of the dreadful things I have to see here, I feel I shall never be the same person again, and wonder if, when the War does end, I shall have forgotten how to laugh. The other day I did involuntarily laugh at something & it felt quite strange. Some of the things in our ward are so horrible that it seems as if no merciful dispensation of the Universe could allow them and one’s consciousness to exist at the same time. One day last week I came away from a really terrible amputation dressing I had been assisting at—it was the first after the operation—with my hands covered with blood and my mind full of a passionate fury at the wickedness of war, and I wished I had never been born…

I am just going back to duty. To-day is visiting day, and the parents, of a boy of 20 who looks and behaves like 16 are coming all the way from South Wales to see him. He has lost one eye, had his head trepanned and has fourteen other wounds, and they haven’t seen him since he went to the front. He is the most battered little object you ever saw. I dread watching them see him for the first time.[1]

Which is to say both “please let this not happen to you” and “this has not happened to you, so do not despair, and do not grow distant.”

 

Two change of address notifications today as well. First, Doctor Dunn has arrived with the second battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. From now on, his “Chronicle”–the right word, really–will combine contemporary records, ex post facto reminiscences, and his own memories.

November 7th–Harley Street. Harbison, who had been Medical Officer for over a year, returned to the Ambulance… The assembler of this Chronicle succeeded him.[2]

And Hector Munro, the finest short-form humorist in all the cavalry, is ready to depart. I’m not sure we can trust the sentiment in his letters to his sister, but then again perhaps there is wry humor behind “too good to be true:”

Tidworth, Nov. 7th, 15.

After the long months of preparation and waiting we are at last on the eve of departure and there is a good prospect of our getting away this week. It seems almost too good to be true that I am going to take an active part in a big European war. I fear it will be France, not the Balkans, but there is no knowing where one may find oneself before the war is over; anyhow, I shall keep up my study of the Servian language. I expect at first we shall be billeted in some French town.[3]

 

One more brief bit: I love to keep track on the various responses to the awkward fact of having one’s letters–especially one’s love letters–read by strangers. Olaf Stapledon, our dreamy and philosophically sturdy Quaker, takes it lightly, and yet does not deny censorship its due weight:

Friends’ Ambulance Unit

7 November 1915

…Don’t let the censoring grieve you; one gets quite hardened after a bit. Yours to me are never censored, not any letters to me. It grieved me once that everything I write to you must be read by someone else, but I have long since got used to it, and spend my pity no longer on us but upon the unfortunate who has to do the censoring. Of all thankless tasks there is none more trying surely! When we are done with wars we will be done with censoring.[4]

 

Finally today, a very long selection from one of John Bernard Adams‘ letters home. He is in the trenches near Givenchy, and adapts the letter into a “trench routine” piece, striving, with that characteristic blend of military detail and enthusiastic lyricism, to give us a sense of the strangeness of a life of comradeship and loneliness, eagerness and passive suffering, boredom and sudden thrilling danger.

7th November

[Beginning on October 29th,] We were three days and three nights in the trenches. Each officer was on duty for eight hours, during which he was responsible for a sector of firing-line and must be actually in the front trench. My watch was 12 to 4 A.M. and P.M. Work that out with ‘stand to’ in the morning and also in the evening and you will see that consecutive sleep is not easy…

Imagine a cold November night—with a ground fog. What bliss to be roused from a snug dug-out at midnight, and patrol the Company’s line for four interminable hours. It is deathly quiet. Has the war stopped? I stand up on the fire-step beside the sentry and try to see through the fog. ‘Pip-pip-pip-pip-pip’ goes a machine-gun. So the war’s still on…

I gaze across into No Man’s Land. I can just see our wire, and in front a collection of old tins—bully tins, jam tins, butter tins—paper, old bits of equipment. Other regiments always leave places so untidy. You clean up, but when you come into trenches you find the other fellows have left things about. You work hard repairing the trenches: the relieving regiment, you find on your return, has done ‘damn all,’ which is military slang for ‘nothing.’ And all other regiments, it seems, have the same complaint.

‘Swish.’ A German flare rocket lights up everything. You can see our trenches all along. Everything is as clear as day. You feel as conspicuous as a cromlech on a hill. But the enemy can’t see you, fog or no fog, if you only keep still. The light has fallen on the parapet this time, and lies sizzling on the sand-bags. A flicker, and it is gone; and in the fog you see black blobs, the size and shape of the dazzling light you’ve just been staring at.

‘Crack—plop.’     ‘Crack—plop.’ A couple of bullets bury themselves in the sand-bags, or else with a long-drawn ‘ping’ go singing over the top. Why the sentries never get hit seems extraordinary. I suppose a mathematician would by combination and permutation tell you the chances against bullets aimed ‘at a venture’ hitting sentries exposing one-fourth of their persons at a given elevation at so many paces interval. Personally I won’t try, as my whole object is to keep awake till four o’clock. And then I shall be too sleepy. Only remember, it is night and the sentries are invisible.

‘Tap—tap—tap.’    ‘There ‘s a wiring party out, sir. I’ve heard ’em these last five minutes.’ Undoubtedly there are a few men out in No Man’s Land, repairing their wire. I tell the sentries near to look out and be ready to fire, and then I sent off a ‘Very’ flare, fired by a thick cartridge from a thick-barrelled brass pistol. It makes a good row, and has a fair kick, so it is best to rest the butt on the parapet and hold it at arm’s length. Even so it leaves your ears singing for hours. The first shot was a failure—only a miserable rocket tail which failed to burst. The second was a magnificent shot. It burst beautifully, and fell right behind the party, two Germans, and silhouetted them, falling and burning still incandescent on the ground behind. A volley of fire followed from our awaiting sentries. I could not see if the party were hit; most of the shots were fired after the light had died out. Anyhow, the working party stopped. The two figures stood quite motionless while the flare burned.

The Germans opposite us were very lively. One could often hear them whistling, and one night they were shouting to one another like anything. They were Saxons, who are always at that game. No one knows exactly what it means. It was quite cold, almost frosty, and the sound came across the 100 yards or so of No Man’s Land with a strange clearness in the night air. The voices seemed unnaturally near, like voices on the water heard from a cliff. ‘Tommee—Tommee. Allemands bon—Engleesh bon.’ ‘We hate ze Kronprinz.’ (I can hear now the nasal twang with which the ‘Kron’ was emphasized.)  ‘D—— the Kaiser.’ ‘Deutschland unter Alles.’ I could hear these shouts most distinctly: the same sentences were repeated again and again. They shouted to one another from one part of the line to another, generally preceding each sentence by ‘Kamerad.’ Often you heard loud hearty laughter. As ‘Comic Cuts’ (the name given to the daily Intelligence Reports) sagely remarked, ‘Either this means that there is a spirit of dissatisfaction among the Saxons, or it is a ruse to try and catch us unawares, or it is mere foolery.’ Wisdom in high places.

Really it was intensely interesting. ‘Come over,’ shouted Tommy. ‘We — are — not — coming — over,’ came back. Loud clapping and laughter followed remarks like ‘We hate ze Kronprinz. ‘ Then they would yodel and sing like anything. Tommy replied with ‘Tipperary…’

I have had my baptism of mud now. It tires me to think of it, and I have not the spirit to write fully about it! The second time we were in these trenches the mud was two feet deep. Even our Company Headquarters, a cellar, was covered with mud and slime. Paradoses and communication trenches had fallen in, and the going was terrible. The sticky mud yoicked one’s boots off nearly, and it felt as if one’s foot would be broken in extricating it. We all wore gum-boots, of blue-black rubber, that come right up to the waist like fishermen’s waders. But the mud is everywhere, and we get our arms all plastered with it as we literally “reel to and fro” along the trench, every now and again steadying ourselves against slimy sand-bags. One or two men actually got stock, and had to to be helped out with spades; one fellow lost heart and left one of his gum-boots stock in the mud, and turned up in my platoon in a stockinged foot, of course plastered thick with clay…

There is more, but the long letter–rewritten, perhaps, but I know not how much–is followed in the text not only by a bone-weary repetition of its themes, but also by the memoir writer’s restoration of the one experience he has omitted from the letter.

Weariness. Mud. The next experience (not mentioned in my letter) was Death. On our immediate right was “C” Company… a great place for “mining activity.” One evening we put up a mine; the next afternoon the Germans put up a counter-mine, and accompanied it with a hail of trench-mortars. I was on trench duty at the time, and had ample opportunity of observing the genus trench-mortar and its habits. One can see them approaching some time before they actually fall, as they come from a great height (in military terms “with a steep trajectory”), and one can see them revolving as they topple down. Then they fall with a thud, and black smoke comes up and mud spatters all about. Most of them were falling in our second line and support trenches. I was patrolling up and down our front trench. We were “standing to” after the mine, and for half an hour it was rather a “hot shop.” I was delighted to find that I rather enjoyed it: seeing one or two of the new draft with the “wind up” a bit steadied me at once. I have hardly ever since felt the slightest nervousness under fire. It is mainly temperament. Our company had four casualties: one in the front trench, the three others in the platoon in support. “C” Company suffered more heavily.

At 6.0 Edwards came on duty, and I was able to go in quest of two bombers who were said to be wounded. Getting near the place I came on a man standing half-dazed in the trench. ”Oh, sirrh,” he cried, in the burring speech of a true Welshman. ”A terench-mohrterh hass fall-en ericht in-ter me duck-out.” For the moment I felt like laughing at the man’s curious speech and look, but I saw that he was greatly scared: and no wonder. A trench mortar had dropped right into the mouth of his dug-out, and had half buried two of his comrades. We were soon engaged in extricating them. Both had bad head wounds, and how he escaped is a miracle. I helped carry the two men out and over the debris of flattened trenches to Company Headquarters.

So, for the first time I looked upon two dying men, and some of their blood was on my clothes. One died in half an hour—the other early next morning. It was really not my job to assist: the stretcher-bearers were better at it than I, yet in this first little bit of ”strafe” I was carried away by my instinct, whereas later I would have been attending to the living members of my platoon, and the defence of my sector. I left the company sergeant-major in difficulties as to whether Randall, the man who had so miraculously escaped, and who was temporarily dazed, should be returned as “sick” or “wounded.”

Another death that came into my close experience was that of a lance-corporal in my platoon. I had only spoken to him a quarter of an hour before, and on returning found him lying dead on the fire-platform. He had been killed instantaneously by a rifle grenade. I lifted the waterproof sheet and looked at him. I remember that I was moved, but there was nothing repulsive about his recumbent figure. I think the novelty and interest of these first casualties made them quite easy to bear. I was so busy noticing details: the silence that reigned for a few hours in my platoon; the details of removing the bodies, the collecting of kit, etc. These things at first blunted my perception of the vileness of the tragedy; nor did I feel the cruelty of war as I did later.

Weariness. Mud. Death. So it was with great joy that we would return to billets, to get dry and clean, to eat, sleep, and write letters…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 183-4.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 165.
  3. The Square Egg, 89.
  4. Talking Across the World, 109.
  5. Nothing of Importance, 27-36.