A Century Back

Writing the Great War, Day by Day

We Meet Olaf Stapledon: It’s Just Foolery, But My Heart Is in It; Rowland Feilding Expects Stirring Events, Alan Seeger a Grandiose Affair; Charles Sorley and Henry Farnsworth Reassure the Folks at Home

Should I really introduce Olaf Stapledon? I suppose so. He’s the sort of writer that 157 of every 158 readers hasn’t heard of, but half of the rest consider titanic and seminal. But all that’s in the future. Right now he is a young driver with the Friends’ Ambulance unit, recently arrived in France.

He has decided to serve, but he is of a very different temperament from most of our young volunteers–a dreamer, not a fighter (personality-wise; as a Quaker unwilling to take up arms yet willing to risk shellfire and to save the sounded, he is something other than a fighter in a stricter sense as well). He is a writer whose mind is… elsewhere. The war will be–or so young Olaf is determined–the focus of neither his writing nor his life. The war we shall see in a moment, but his life he has long envisioned as revolving entirely around the “quixotic, improbable, charming” romance with his cousin Agnes Miller.

He met his very own Beatrice–the only possible comparison here, and I follow in the footsteps of Robert Crossley, who edited their letters–in 1903, when he was seventeen and she was nine. He was struck with her–but he was English, and her parents had emigrated to Australia.

He saw Agnes again five years later and fell firmly in love. The correspondence began soon after. In 1913 and 1914 she spent many months in Europe, and they spent several weeks together. But the war began, and she went home to Australia. Like Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton their romance will now have to be largely epistolary. But these letters took at least five weeks to make their way halfway around the world. And there was no question of seeing each other again–and no point in formalizing their increasing understanding and undeniable love–for the duration.

But they were prodigious writers. Those of you with no interest in early speculative fiction, skip down to the next date: Sorley, Rowland Feilding and our two Legionnaires await!

Whoever’s left, read on. Now, what if someone with Max Plowman‘s religion and politics, Roland Leighton‘s high-minded devotion, Tolkien‘s quiet but unshakable confidence in his own imagination, and a sweetness we have seen only in younger soldiers’ letters to their mothers wrote a long, story-like letter to his own Beatrice/Vera (Veratrice?)

Stapledon begins by describing a bone-rattling journey through a “pitchy black night, up congested, rutted roads–no headlights allowed–in the rattling ambulance, and back again with a load of sick and wounded.

Friends’ Ambulance Unit, 16 September 1915

…Last night when I got in from a trip West I was hailed with abuse because six sevenths of the mail was for me. One of those six was from you, and worth seventy sevenths. So I made my bed and got in and read by the light of a candle and Jupiter. Other people came in soon & began to make cocoa. I begged a cup, and lay in bliss with your letter and an excellent cup of hot rich cocoa, trying to make out your pencil writing in the semidarkness…

Are you in the mood for another fairy story? It’s just foolery, but my heart is in it. Sort out the truth from the fiction if you will. The other night I decided to sleep outside under the stars, instead of under canvas. It was warm, and the stars were so bright. I took out my stretcher & sleeping bad, and a glorious leather rug belonging to my car…

I then swept the heavens with my Zeiss glass (once your father’s) and marvelled at the thousands of sparkles that make the Milky Way…

The Pleiades were in front of me… Jupiter also was present with his satellites, and stars without number. To one side was the pyramid form of a tent, and laughing voices came from it, and a gleam of candle light. There were dark trees also, and a sand dune… It was Sunday night. It happened that there was no sound of firing at all that night, which made a Sunday feeling. After everyone had gone to sleep I still lay watching, trying to see the heavens deep, as they really are, not flat as they seem. At last I began to go to sleep. Why is it so thrilling to go to sleep under the stars?

Suddenly far overhead a voice called me by name, with a musical singing sound. The voice of course was yours; what other matters to me? Immediately I soared out of bed, all booted & belted, and shot up into the cold air. There of course I found your very self, as real as I, dressed for walking (among the stars), with the woolly jacket and woolly cap. You stretched out two hands to me, and I took them, & would have kissed the girl at once. But you leaned back laughing and said, “Don’t be in such a hurry, you impatient thing.” Wherefore we remained holding hands like children in a game, and looking into one another’s eyes. It was verily you & your eyes, such as I knew them, but with an added year. Then we soared, gathering every speed every second. We left the dark world behind and leapt out of its shadow, the night, into bright scorching day. The planets also fell behind us, and the sun dwindled to a mere star. Still we soared. The constellations changed and many stars dropped behind us. All around above & below was starry sky, jet black with blazing stars, for of course we had left the air long ago. There was just you & me, smiling, playing this wonderful child’s game, each dimly seen by the other, each holding fast to the other’s hands, and gazing intently into the eyes of the other, lest the spell should be broken.

Tell me, is this a very silly story? After a while I bethought me that it was time for that belated kiss; but you still held back. So there was a scrimmage up there among the stars, ending with a victorious kiss on the cheek of the maiden, the soft cheek of the maiden.

Thereupon all things suddenly changed. The sphere of sky remained indeed the black starry sky, yet somehow every star was seen to be a sun of tremendous magnitude. All the planets of all the stars were seen as worlds, and all living beings on all world were clearly seen. Far away there was the earth, with her dark continents and sleeping people. The battle lines were seen, and the fleets, and all the homes. We saw also into the hearts of all the soldiers and all those who were not soldiers. We felt with regard to each one “It is I.” And the tired souls of all the horses were also open to us, so that we grieved for them; & the souls of all creatures great and small, down to the tiniest. And strange noble beings in other worlds were seen, and of each one we felt “It is I.” We also saw worlds where life was hardly yet dawning, and worlds whence life had long since gone; worlds also where life would never be, rolling patiently along, lonely and humble. This is a fairy tale, my dear, but if you think hard enough it will all seem true, even though it feebly tries to tell the untellable. This vision was brought by a kiss, please note. It lifted us out of the mood for scrimmages.

For a long while we stayed still, gazing together, conscious of all this. For age and aeons we stayed so, watching the lives begin and die, watching the worlds so so also. Watching, but never looking from each other’s eyes… And you were kissed on the lips. We were a real flesh and blood couple up there in the skies, and were were dressed in the clothes of this world. Therefore the embrace was a very real and ordinary one, also gentle, and willing on both sides. But again came a change. Suddenly all time became now. That means nothing to us here, but in the fair tale it meant that everything that ever happened or will happen was for ever present fact. The heavens also in their immensity were seen to be a very small thing, and an overwhelming sense came over us that a third person was present, one outside and beyond all creation, one of whom Life and Love are our nearest image. Then came the Truth. There the fairy tale breaks down hopelessly, and can only wind up by saying that the perception of that Truth woke me up, in my sleeping bag, alone.[1]


September 16, 1915; Lumbres

This morning Lord Cavan, who commands the newly-formed Guards Division, reviewed the 2nd Brigade. Although he is a “dug-out,” he has a tremendous vogue, and induces quite extraordinary confidence among all ranks. We formed up in mass in a flat meadow by the brook here, and John Ponsonby, who is now Brigadier, sat on his horse in front and gave the order for the General Salute to the whole Brigade, which was very effective. We then marched past in column of half-companies, to the Divisional Band, the Coldstream in rear.

It was a memorable occasion. Two out of the four battalions, as you know, have been right through the war, and might almost have been excused had they got rusty in ceremonial: yet Cavan said he had often seen ceremonial in London after months of practice done not half so well; and he ought to know.

The Prince of Wales was there.

A royal review, then, is a good time for us to review the basic terminology here. Recall that a regiment is, essentially, a very-semi-autonomous organization that produces battalions. Regiments recruit on their own–generally from the same region and/or social class, although those barriers are falling–and they preserve certain unit traditions and jealousy guard their perks and quirks. The differences are largely superficial–Highland regiments wear the kilt, the Guards have those fancy uniform for the London tourists, the Royal Welch wear a “flash” of black ribbon in commemoration of having missed an order to cut off their pigtails a century before (could I make that up?)–but now they all wear the same khaki and carry the same weapons in the front lines.

So regiments make battalions: usually two “Regular” battalions of the old army, a Reserve and a Territorial battalion or two, then several “Service” or “New Army” or “Kitchener’s Army” battalions of wartime volunteers, usually with numbers higher than 5, e.g. 5/Gloucestershires or 14/Royal Welch. But “regimental” identity ceases to matter at levels higher than the division (unless one thinks that the generals favor the regiments they came up with…)

Four battalions make a brigade, commanded, logically for once, by a brigadier. Three or four brigades make a division–something like 10,000 men, give or take–commanded by a major general. A corps, or, confusingly, an “Army Corps” is bigger still, and several of those fit into an “Army.” The British Expeditionary Force now has several “Armies” in France. The First Army is commanded by Douglas Haig, and the entire B.E.F. by Sir John French. No problem!

Yesterday, the Corps Commander (General Haking) came over and met the officers and some of the N.C.O.’s of the Brigade, and told them about some stirring events which are about to happen…

He spoke very confidently, comparing the German line to the crust of a pie, behind which, once broken, he said, there is not much resistance to be expected. He ended up by saying, “I don’t tell you this to cheer you up. I tell it you because I really believe it.”

As he spoke of “pie-crust” I looked at the faces around me, and noticed a significant smile on those of some of the older campaigners who have already “been through it.”[2]

Thus Rowland Feilding, one of our handful guardsmen. The Germans, it hardly need be said, have layered their crust in several thick layers. The Guards–at least the old campaigners and the heads cool enough to look at the faces of the old campaigners around them–know that they will either be the knife that plunges deep into the pie, as the generals promise (and we will hear more of Haking and Cavan and the rest), or the sharp old blade that will be sent sawing in at the unyielding crust once the shiny but untried new tool blunts and crumples.

This Guards Division is a brand-new formation. It is, in fact, unusual for battalions of the same regiment to find themselves in the same division, let alone the same brigade. But there are only five Guards regiments (the Coldstream, the Grenadiers, the Scottish, the Irish and the [brand new] Welsh) and these now field a dozen battalions in three brigades, so the more numerous Coldstreams and Grenadiers are doubling up. Very unusual, as is the fact that all of the new units–the Welch, the Second Irish, the Third and Fourth Grenadiers, etc., are technically “Regular” battalions. So the Guards are an elite who play by different rules. But like everything else this month, there is no secret as to what is intended. The best troops have been rested, expanded, trained up, and grouped together, and they will either lead the breakthrough into the rear or the second wave against reinforced and even-less-surprised German defenders.


Just a quick check with Charles Sorley, who wrote home to his parents today, a century back, continuing a letter he had begun last week:

Just a line of the I-am-quite-well type. Both parcels received with many thanks. Excellently useful. A wonderful burst of rich September sunshine. I have just been into _______ and had such a lunch! We become such villagers here. A visit to an unbombarded civilized town is a treat which makes one quite excited. I was so set up by that lunch seven courses, lager beer and coffee. I in my newly-arrived tunic too!…

Leave seems to be offering itself to me about the middle of October, though heaven knows what we have done to deserve it. However the great advantage of the Army is the freedom from questions of deserts and preferences that it gives. Going where you are sent and taking what you can get makes life very easy.[3]


A calm before the storm? We have two letters, as well, from our legionnaires, away South and East in Champagne.

First, Alan Seeger fills us in on the movements of the Legion as France shuffles its forces in preparation for the great offensive.

Suippes, September 16.

Left Plancher-Bas for good, day before yesterday evening… our rifles decorated with bouquets and our musettes filled with presents from the good townspeople.

We entrained at Champagney, about 45 men in a car. Terrible discomfort. Impossible to stretch legs or lie out flat…

We had been hearing for some time of the big concentration of troops at the Camp de Chalons… Everything bore testimony of the big offensive in preparation, troops cantonned in the villages, the rail road lines congested with trains of cannon and material, but most sinister and significant, the newly constructed evacuation sheds for the wounded, each one labelled “blessés assis”[sitting wounded] or “blessés couches…”[stretcher cases]

It is going to be a grandiose affair and the cannonade will doubtless be a thing beyond imagination. The attack this time will probably be along a broad front. Our immediate object ought to be Vouziers and the line of the Aisne, but it is probably the object of the État-Major to expel the Germans from Northern France entirely.

They are fortunate who have lasted to see this, and I thrill at the certain prospect of being in the thick of it.[4]


Henry Farnsworth has made the same march, but he seems to have arrived in a somewhat lighter mood. He writes today to his sister, from whom he has received a letter that, among other things, acknowledged the receipt of a gift–a souvenir ring crafted from a German shell.

September 16, 1915

Dear Ellen:

Yours of August 30 was a true pleasure. The Da had just written me a backing-up of Wilson, in which he assumes that if I knew more of current events and had a wiser heart, I should already have come to the same conclusions. These things being so, you poured oil on the waters…

I was in the ranks beside Kraimer, the man who made the ring, this morning, when, a division being drawn up, M. Poincaré and M. Millerand and Général de Castelnau and a lot of others presented the regiment with a flag decorated with the grande croix de guerre. When the collective bugles crashed out with the “Au drapeau” and the twenty thousand rifles flew up to the present arms, there were tears in his eyes…

I shall write again in three or four days. Now I must go and bathe in a mountain stream. Thirty-five kilometers on top of the review and the defile make it necessary.

With love, Henry[5]


And finally today, with his leave drawing to an end, Robert Graves headed to Victoria Station for his train to Folkestone, and then France. It was delayed, however, so he–along with his parents and one of his elder half-brothers–visited Westminster Abbey, stopping for a bit in Poets’ Corner.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Crossley, ed., Talking Across the World, xiv-xxi, 99-102.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 36-7.
  3. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 307-9.
  4. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 154-6.
  5. Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 202-3.
  6. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 133-4.

The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XI: America Praises the Great Gift of War to English Literature; Tolkien Journeys to Aryador; Thomas Hardy Still Mourns; Henry Farnsworth Hopes for Better Things; Donald Hankey Regrets His Commission

We have a poem from Tolkien to get to today, as well as a trio of letters from Hardy and two letters from soldiers at the front. But first, an oblique crossing of paths, as Rupert Brooke is reviewed in the New York Times by none other than Joyce Kilmer, the Catholic public intellectual, critic, and recent author of “Trees.” This poem holds–or once held–a position relative to general perceptions of poetic taste much like the one Brooke’s “1914” sequence will hold in terms of war poetry: love it or despise it, but it does force one to pick a side. But the comparison is inexact. Kilmer’s ditty is the original “widely-beloved but critically-derided.” (Perhaps the politic thing is to declare it intentionally simple–it’s a sweet religious sentiment, pleasantly rhymed, suitable for Sunday school. Another way to put it would be “this is a cloying, awful poem.”) But Brooke’s sonnets are now nearly universally beloved (although we have heard some dissenting voices[1]) and will only later become the target of a major critical counter-attack.

Kilmer’s review, available here, is part of the first wave of high praise. He makes a booming–and very flawed–case not only for Brooke’s poetry but for the effect of war on soldier-writers. It kicks off with a rather definitive judgment:

Critics tell us, until they and we are tired, just what will be the war’s effect on literature. War stops literature, says one. War purifies and strengthens literature, says another. Rupert Brooke has proved them both right.

Kilmer goes on to declare Brooke, following his most fervent English admirers, to be a “genius” who, due to the war, is “certain of literary immortality.” But this is not, Kilmer argues, just because of his “romantic and noble death.” (Again, it feels churlish to point this out, but Brooke “sleeps under a little wooden cross on an island of olive trees” not because he fell in battle with the enemy but because of a mosquito bite, and subsequent questionable doctoring. Kilmer elides this fact, and lets the incautious reader assume that Brooke died gloriously.)

No–Kilmer’s claim is that Brooke was elevated by the war, from “a clever and whimsical rhymester” to a “great poet.” Brooke was older than Keats was when he died, and Kilmer quotes the entirety of “The Dead” as representative of Brooke’s Keatsian transformation. Alas, the sonnet he quotes is the fourth in the “1914” sequence, not the third (they have the same title), which Roland Leighton has just railed against–that would be too perfect a juxtaposition.

Still on the fence? Kilmer may be voicing a popular opinion, he may doing it on his own, and he may have some short-range critical justificaiton for praising portions of the “1914” poems. But now he really puts his foot in the bucket. Before Brooke “became a soldier… he had been writing cynical little songs, like those of Thomas Hardy.”

Whoa there, little fellah! The battle lines are now drawn. It’s possible that we’re seeing the effect of a religious/cultural divide, as opposition to Hardy often coalesced around the idea that his brutal tragedies of fate (not to mention his “Satires of Circumstance“) are essentially atheist.

Perhaps. But the “Satires” are ironic, not cynical. And such a judgment would require Kilmer to be unaware of Brooke’s own flirtations with atheism (not to mention bohemianism, bisexuality, and general petulant raunchiness). Which is possible–he seems to have fallen for the anodyne biographical note included in the forthcoming edition of his poems, which goes as far as mentioning Brooke’s socialism and vegetarianism but omits the more shocking alliegiances.

So let’s keep it critical… except we can’t. The rest of Kilmer’s review is just as circumstantial, and not so much ad hominem as pro homine ad homines: Brooke is held up as the great cleanser of English poetry, the man who beheld “Signor Marinetti and his Futurists, Ezra Pound and his Imagistes, Wyndham Lewis and his Vorticists” and rebelled–because “he was too much of a man and too much of a poet.”

I do miss Rupert Brooke, and it would have been painful fun to read this review over his shoulder: this is precisely the fame and glory he was aiming for with the 1914 sonnets, precisely the facile immortality he desperately desired. And, of course, in the eternal internal strife between his self-love and self-loathing, this is also a perfect proof of his own half-conscious betrayal of his significant poetic gifts.

He could have been a contender, a good, solid poet–but he made himself a hollow bronze god, suitable for mounting in a public square. And thereafter collecting pigeon shit.

And therefore this is precisely the critical misreading, the false career trajectory that he knew he was setting up as he sailed into the Aegean dawn, writing prettily accessible sentimental verses at last.

The war didn’t elevate Brooke by enabling his escape from “shoddy Bohemianism” and naughtily direct poetry. As we know, it enabled his escape from neurosis, self-doubt and intractable personal problems. It is sad that Brooke embraced war–and the hope of his own extinction–as something of an escape from his own mind, his own personality. Very sad.

But that he chose–once buoyed not by the spirit of the war per se (as Kilmer assumes) but rather by the sense of escape that the uniform allowed him–that he chose to write very different poetry is not a tragedy or a beautiful sad story. It was, in the classic American phrase of the last half-century, a sell-out.

Kilmer’s conclusion is that, while the loss is great, “English literature has gained by the thing that caused his death”–note the refusal there, as in later American executive actions, to avoid naming “war.” In fact, sins of omission for constitutional convenience are rather like critical smoke screens–dodging the word does no good, and can do evil. Silence can be cant, too.

But back to Kilmer’s argument: Brooke’s good death elevates his questionable life, and the poetry conveniently followed the same trajectory. Rupert Brooke is, apparently, to be seen as Sydney Carton, redeemed of a wasted life/talent in doing one great thing as history carted him off to slaughter.

This is a disgusting sentiment, really, a sort of Providentialist nihilism. Unforgivable and, given the events of the past century, lamentable.

But, first of all, Brooke was asking for it. And, second, my objection to Kilmer’s review is a gauntlet in my own face. If we don’t believe that the war–despite its horrors and destruction–elevated the writing of its participants, then what exactly are we doing here? Am I protesting too much, because Brooke is a secretly (even to himself) cynical patriot, and because I prefer the verses that will be written by other tortured souls, young men who didn’t really get a chance to “sell out” and pour the mold for their own fame?


Awkwardly–for Mr. Kilmer, for at least–Thomas Hardy‘s writing is about to take its own war-driven turn. It won’t be much less “cynical,” perhaps, and nothing like Brooke’s pleasant appreciation of his own demise, but it will be poetry touched by war nonetheless–and an improvement upon his dutifully pro-war 1914 work. But not yet. Over the last two weeks Hardy has been writing and writing again of the death of his young cousin at Gallipoli. Shouldn’t that death  be preceded by an adjective? “Senseless death?” “Tragic death?” “Useless death?” These short letters are something like drafts of the poetry to come.

Max Gate, Sept 4, 1915

Dear Mr Phillpotts:

My best thanks for your note… He was so much more to us than a cousin, & the most promising member of my family. I  wish he were not lying mangled in that shambles of the Gallipoli Peninsula, where we ought never to have gone. However, nothing can touch him further.


Max Gate 7 Sept, 1915

Dear Shorter:

Just a line to thank you for your letter. Please do not trouble about putting in that portrait till quite convenient. It is really for the sake of his poor mother. When he told us he was going to that shambles Gallipoli we thought he was doomed.

But Hardy is not immune to recognizing another sort of merit, distinct from the canceled “promise” of his future life:

Max Gate, Dorchester,  Sept 12, 1915

Dear Sir Evelyn Wood,

You may be interested in hearing of the end of my cousin young Frank George, whom you so kindly recommended for a commission in the 5th Dorsets. He was in that frightful night attack in Suvla Bay Aug 21-22, & was killed just as his company was leaving the trenches.

His colonel—(now Brig. General Hannay) tells me that he had done splendidly since they started fighting out there on the 7th August. On the 17th he distinguished himself particularly, & brought great credit to the 5th by rushing a Turkish trench with his platoon, for which his name was sent forward for reward. He bayonetted some 8 or 10 Turks & brought
back 14 prisoners.[2]

I called on his mother last week. Poor woman; she is a widow, but bears up as well as she can…

Sincerely yours
Thomas Hardy[3]


Reaching back to Kilmer-on-Brooke, here’s another sort of juxtaposition: a young writer as yet far from fame, who will one day achieve enormous popularity amidst vociferously mixed critical reviews. But his poetry…

Anyway, young lieutenant Tolkien is finding time while training at Whittington Heath camp to work on his evolving mythos. After again revising The Happy Mariners a few days ago–a work that lies near the heart of his imaginative leap from an English past to an Elven sub-creation–today he wrote ‘A Song of Aryador.'[4]

This poem envisions human beings dwelling in a green and pleasant land, knowing somehow that “Shadow Folk” are passing through. On the face of it, a typical example of 19th century fairy poetry, and nothing to get excited about. And yet the scene depicted in this poem will, with many changes in the conception and the context, take up a very minor but very firm place within the History of Middle Earth. Aryador is–or is in–Hisilómë, one of the regions of Beleriand. And the Shadow Folk are not 19th century fairies tripping mischievously or numinously along–they will become the High Elves, people of the Noldor or Teleri taking the long journey at last into the West–the slow movement of loss which runs through Tolkien’s work from beginning to end.

A Song of Aryador

In the vales of Aryador
By the wooded inland shore
Green the lakeward bents and meads
Sloping down to murmorous reeds
That whisper in the dusk o’er Aryador;

Do you hear the many bells
Of goats upon the fells
Where the valley tumbles downward from the pines?
Do you hear the blue woods moan
When the Sun has gone alone
To hunt the mountain-shadows in the pines?

She is lost among the hills
And the upland slowly fills
With the shadow-folk that murmur in the fern;
And still there are bells
And the voices on the fells
While Eastward a few stars begin to burn.

Men are kindling tiny gleams
Far below by mountain-streams
Where they dwell among the beechwoods near the shore,
But the great woods on the height
Watch the waning western light
And whisper to the wind of things of yore,

When valley was unknown,
And the waters roared alone,
And the shadow-folk danced downward all the night,
When the Sun had fared abroad
Through great forests unexplored
And the woods were full of wandering beams of light.

Then were voices on the fells
And a sound of ghostly bells
And a march of shadow-people o’er the height.
In the mountains by the shore
In forgotten Aryador
There was dancing and was ringing;
There were shadow-people singing
Ancient songs of olden gods in Aryador.


Donald Hankey has the most unusual, most conflicted relationship to military authority of any of our writers. An ex-cadet and ex-officer, he insisted on serving in the ranks, among the sort of men he intended to minister to after the war. He accepted promotion to sergeant, returned to the rank of private to avoid serving under an officer who didn’t measure up to his “beloved captain,” and then–as the army has been scouring its rolls for suitable officer material amidst all the enthusiastic enlistees of 1914–accepted persistent suggestions that he needed, for the nation’s state, to take a commission. And now he regrets it.

Sept. 12, 1915

Dear Grandmamma,

Thanks awfully for your encouraging letter. I still think that it was a mistake for me to apply for a commission, and that if I had waited another ten days I shouldn’t have done it. But it is no good crying over spilt milk, and I must try and make the best of existing circumstances…

I am going up to town to-morrow for the day, to see my dentist, banker, brother, tailor, boot-maker, publisher, etc.! It is promotion. I am getting very bored here, and I am afraid my sister finds me very grumpy! It is very interesting to be a rolling stone while one is rolling; but there is an indefiniteness of aim which is rather disquieting when one is made to stop and think. I don’t quite know what I want, and I don’t feel as if my personality was knit together sufficiently to find out. I suppose it is the old war of the spirit and the flesh!

Aha–one more of our not-quite-lost, not-quite-found souls who took some peace of mind from the lack of initiative and responsibility that military discipline imposed. But Hankey will not let himself off that easy. He segues quickly from his military career to his writing:

Sometimes I can write things which I don’t really feel at all, though I would like to be able to, and then other people take it for granted that I do feel like it, and I feel rather a humbug, and understand why it is that so many people write under noms de plume. However, I hope soon to be busy, and then I shall no longer be introspective, and anyhow it is a shame to worry you with my imaginations.

An excellent line. And yet, for Hankey–a serious Christian thinker–there is more to peace of mind than the avoidance of personal choice.

I agree with you that presentiments are a great argument for God’s fatherly government of life. My favorite cousin, D. G., has the most extraordinarily accurate ones quite often. Some of them, of course, are sheer telepathy, but others relate quite definitely to events in the immediate future. I am very sceptical on such subjects; but I admit that in her case I find it very hard not to believe some of the instances she has told me…

Your affec.,



Finally, today, Henry Farnsworth writes home to update his family on the confusing evolution of the Foreign Legion.

September 12,1915

Dear Mamma:

Your letters, two of which arrived this morning, are a great blessing. A little sympathy is a very grateful thing when one is bored to death and exasperated by every one else in the world.

I always try to write of the most interesting events in these surroundings, and the fact that you seem to look at them in something the same way makes it all seem a little less futile.

As for your glorious French Army—I beg to differ… Our old 3 de marche was never considered as a very remarkable outfit, but it is significant that all of the three secteurs we occupied, strengthened, fortified, and turned over to French regiments are now in the hands of the Germans—the last one, Tilloloy, what with the barbed-wire, sixty feet thereof, in front of the trenches, and heavily embanked loopholes, was untakable as long as the defenders stuck to their guns. That the thing was done by surprise makes it all the more inexcusable.

To-morrow, so they say, we leave at 3 a.m. for Division Headquarters and Poincaré presents the regiment with a flag. I suppose the ceremony will be impressive, but do not look forward to it very much. Marching orders are all I ask of Heaven, and there seems no sign of them.

Why we were rushed back from the trench-digging in Alsace and all our hopes raised is a question I suppose only the Chiefs can answer. The thought that they had their reasons gives one no comfort.

I wish you could or would read “War and Peace” again. Tolstoi, even more than Stendahl, arrives at complete expression of military life. Incidentally, his conception of family life is no less utterly true to nature, at least as I see and experience it…


Tolstoy! Well, yes indeed. It’s interesting that War and Peace doesn’t come up all that much–the English are more likely to go to The Dynasts when looking for epic treatment of the great war of a century (further) back, so perhaps that explains it. There can be no complaining about the judgment for Tolstoy as the great military writer (although the “Sevastopol Sketches” come much closer to the atmosphere of the trenches), especially over Stendahl. But, really, the only thing these young Francophiles should be reading is Zola’s La Débâcle.

But, here at the end of a mammoth post, I digress. Tomorrow we will hear from Alan Seeger, who is now in the same unit as Farnsworth, and similarly doomed to reorganization, similarly hoping for a more violent future. But there the similarities end: Farnsworth, though the callower of the callow, remains proud of his unit–like the Guards or the Royal Welch, they pride themselves on having improved their section of the line and see evidence of their own elite status when another regiment loses the position. And with a sigh and some heavy reading he hopes for greater things–not that he is looking forward to the intervening parade.

Seeger, as we will see, has more or less given up on the Legion (he enlisted several months earlier, however, and in an older regiment, one with a unique set of pre-war problems) and yet is pleased by the prospect of military ceremonial. They both want action, but only one is consistent in identifying “glory,” rather than pride, experience, or service, as the foremost motivation.


References and Footnotes

  1. In the numerous previous "Afterlife" posts, especially from Edward Thomas and Charles Sorley.
  2. This is possible, but unlikely--I do not believe there was a posthumous decoration. Then again, Gallipoli was a lost cause at this point. but exaggeration, at least, is likely in this letter to the bereaved (and famous) relative.
  3. Letters, V, 122-3.
  4. Chronology 73.
  5. Letters of Donald Hankey, 312-13.
  6. Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 200-1.

Charles Sorley is a Captain, Henry Farnsworth a Well-Financed Ditch Digger

Charles Sorley turned twenty in May, and has demonstrated not only competence but initiative in his months in France. This is enough, in an expanding New Army battalion of the Suffolks, to win promotion to captain. Today, a century back, he returned his father’s letter of congratulations. But there is a significant downside to this honor:

2 September 1915

Many thanks for your letter and congratulations. Without this promotion, I should have been with you on “leaf” in a fortnight’s time: as it is, as junior Captain, no longer as second senior subaltern, I shall have to wait my time till the end of October–supposing the present state of busy deadlock continues, or that a bullet or shell or bomb does not quicken that desired time.

I have, of course, left behind my platoon and am now second in command of D Coy. The second in command’s job is with the Coy money and business–the pay, rations, records, etc., of the men: also unfortunately their correspondence. In so far as it gives me a training in accounts and business, it will be a very useful move for me. Curiously enough my platoon-sergeant has got a move at the same time: he is now Coy Quartermaster-sergeant, that is, I still have him to work with.

I now run (during our periods in reserve) a large public-house: buying barrels of beer direct from neighbouring brewers and selling it as nearly as possible at cost price to the men, thus saving them from the adulterated and expensive beer at the local estaminets. Selling beer at 10 centimes a pint I still manage to make a slight profit–about 5 francs to 60 gallons–which goes in mouth-organs and suet, the Suffolk’s love of suet pudding being as great almost as his love of sleep. The quartermaster-sergeant of course is the publican, myself merely the landlord.

We are still very busy, but more on our protections from weather than from Germans, the latter being about complete. The line can now never be bent backwards where we are: but I wonder if it can or will ever bend forward. Reading the casualty lists each morning I feel thankful our division was not sent to the Dardanelles.

Three sentences, neither vociferous nor disenchanted, and perfectly accurate–the stalemate is not hard to see.

During next week I take on the Adjutant’s job, that official going on leave. So you can think of me as hard-worked but absolutely safe in a triple-sandbagged office well removed from the front line. We are now dealing in our Coy Mess with a very excellent thing “The Field Force Canteen” just set up in France by the W.O. So perhaps Mother could save on her parcels to me to the advantage of ——-‘s brothers and her old hospital friends to whom she sends. . . A parcel once a fortnight. . . would be sufficient. You know we are rather spoiled out here at present![1]

A captain, now. Deputy company commander, and acting-adjutant-to-be, a landlord of the trenches well fixed for parcels. But with his accurate assessment of the defensive strength of the trench lines on both sides comes the apparent ignorance of the coming offensive. Sorley is sharp, and surely he has heard the rumors? Yes, probably, but he is far too junior to know if his battalion is actually slated for the assault, and why pass disturbing rumors home? Everything can change, quickly.


Away to the southeast, near the far end of the allied line, our Americans of the Legion continue to labor, and to hope for active combat. Henry Farnsworth, today, details precisely the same experience as his fellow legionnaire Alan Seeger, who recently completed nothing more glorious than a round-trip digging expedition. Which is not all that surprising, since their units have been amalgamated and now, it seems, may disperse.

September 2, 1915

Dear Papa:

…This time things are sure. We can’t stay here more than two or three days, and drill and reviews and all the hell of military life is over.

As to where we are going, nobody knows or cares very much. Some say Dardanelles, but I don’t think the tirailleurs would ever be sent to take Constantinople. It is too much in the foundation of their creed. Others say Champagne, Argonne, Alsace, etc., etc. Sukuna and I… pray for Belgium and a general drive alongside the English. We both want it so much that we do not put much faith in our arguments…

And yet, his confidence is running absurdly high. Farnsworth is a young romantic, and he missed the brutal battles of 1914.

…it is known that the Legion and the tirailleurs can break the German lines in one go, and it is merely a question of having troops that will go into the gap we make. I should think the English could hardly refuse that position, with the two million and the twenty kilometer front.

And that, by the way, is an excellent English-language precis of what the French are feeling right now. In 1914, the tiny British segment of the front fit the tiny Regular army. Britain still does not have conscription, and will never field the massive armies of France and Germany, but the New Army is indeed something like two million strong, and still holding only a few miles (it’s more than twenty kilometers, though!) of Belgium and the northernmost section of the line in France. The British General Staff, of course, is concerned that the New Army will buckle if it is tested too severely before it gains experience…  but soon, attack. And, thereafter, an expansion of the British sector into Picardy.

Farnsworth, meanwhile, is the very model of an unblooded enthusiast. Glory and destruction would be better than more hard work, anyway…

This would be very glorious indeed, and as the regiment would immediately be very much shot up, it might get what was left of us out of winter in the trenches. On the other hand, it is a sad fact that regimental changes are always for the worse, and I suppose shortly you will hear from me digging trenches in some filthy hole where it rains all the time.

As for the $85, thanks very much. It is easily thought I had better do without luxuries. I even see the point myself, but in the meantime a few francs make the well-nigh unbearable supportable with philosophy.

With love to all,


I wonder if this means that father has softened his stance toward his wayward son. Henry has now been relatively uncomplaining for some time, and seems to have given up his midsummer hopes for abandoning the legion for yet another daring plan. He’s in, and facing a long, wet autumn campaign. America is too far for parcels, but money orders are always welcome…


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters of Charles Sorley, 306-7.
  2. Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 195-7.

Henry Farnsworth Thinks of Reading, Writing, and Underwear; Vera Brittain Takes the Next Step

August 13, 1915

Dear Ellen:

I have received Mother’s of July 19 and 25 and can think of nothing but one quotation therefrom: “Our last note is off, and now if Germany persists, we shall have to take action.” Since then, according to Paris newspapers, another American boat has been blown up. When will people perceive that Wilson will never do anything but talk, and realize the Devil’s role that his calm views, high principles, and endless staying open to the other side’s point of view has played in Mexico?

I suppose as usual that all this will be put down as childish and unconsidered, but save this letter as you did the one about the Illusions Perdus, and you will see I am right later on. I feel more bitterly about Wilson and his bourgeois—in Balzac sense, not the ordinary French one—virtues than I ever did about any public thing before. As for local news, as usual there is rien à signaler

It’s natural enough that our Americans in France are disdainful of the slow simmer of American neutrality… but, yeah, that’s enough politics. After some soldierly grumbling, Henry Farnsworth turns briefly to the special subject of so many of his letters to his sister: his writing.

We march, clean rifles, present them and ourselves and our linen and our reserve rations till the grasshopper weighs like a cross and the men grumble and do it so stupidly that it’s worse than the infernal barking of the Sergeant.

We will probably go to the trenches shortly. If so, so much the better; but if we are liberated, I think I shall dash home by the first boat and stay there a month or six weeks and get my “Campaign with the Legion” written, and then try to get back again in the Aviation or Ambulance, or anything that Papa approves. This seems too ideally happy ever to come true—worse than that, I dreamt the whole thing last night, and my dreams never come true…

So a memoir is planned. But now, thinking of the past, young Farnsworth can’t help but look to the future as well:

…I am bored to death and make up for it by dreaming about past and present and future. The last looks bad. I don’t see as any of this campaign has done anything towards that hoped-for day when I shall be capable of earning my own living in the way the Da thinks I ought to. I suppose the poor Da realizes this and it adds to his worries; then, the more I gloom about present and future, the more I dream about Dedham and the happy days there with you and Mother and the Da, and long for another session of it with no worries in the wind.

This is a surprise, and a bit of a giveaway–it’s the letter of an unblooded soldier. Farnsworth looks to the future and–instead of proclaiming that he cannot bear to peer beyond the dangers of the war before him–he remains able to brood on his career prospects après la guerre!

Or should we say it’s the letter of a confident child of the New World, his only worry whether he can slay his father’s baleful influence and still rake in the big bucks, rather than the doom-laden future-shrouding of some languid child of the European twilight? No decadence! Burgeoning strength! Isn’t history silly when it is tossed, like a two-ton shipping pallet onto a paper cup, onto the letter-constructs of an individual?

An undated written to his mother at some point this month explains Farnsworth’s continued preference for the Legion, despite the lack of excitement and the large amount of what later American soldiers would label “chickenshit:” it is strict and exacting, and the other men are often brutes–but they are made into real soldiers–“to the very marrow of their bones.”

Farnsworth then reassures his mother about his “refinement and fears that I may lose it:” although his hands are “rather toughened,” his mind seems intact. Lofty, even:

I have of late been reading Charles Lamb, Pickwick, Plutarch, and a deal of cheap French novels, and “War and Peace” over again. If I see we are to spend winter in the trenches again, am thinking seriously of writing to London for a pair of real waterproof and practical boots and some Vicuna underwear. H. G.Wells’ “Ann Veronica” I found interesting, though it was trite and irritating at bottom. I wonder if you remember it. I wish from time to time you would send me one novel that you find interesting. Books are too heavy to carry when on the move. Naturally either in French or English. The state of the German mind, Plato, or Kant are not necessary for the moment, and I have read Milton, Shakespeare, and Dante.[1]


Vera Brittain went to London today to pursue the next step in her wartime career. To remain a probationary nurse at the Devonshire hospital is to linger in a sort of provincial young-ladyhood of the medical world. Real service is in London, with a Voluntary Aid Detachment.

Friday August 13th

Mother & I went to London for the day—and I was very lucky all through, in spite of the unpropitious date…

I found out that if you go to a good V.A.D. they will do all the wire-pulling for you and all you have to do is to volunteer. So I joined this V.A.D. and they will send me a Special Service form which when I have filled it up I shall return to them, volunteering to serve as a V.A.D. for 6 months either at home or abroad, wherever they want to send me. [Her friend] Cora & I asked if it were any good saying where we preferred to go, and if it were any use saying who we wanted to join with when we were sent. She & I of course want to go together, and Stella. The Secretary said she wouldn’t advise us to ask to be sent to any special place as they might keep us much longer and then not send us there in the end, but she said it was almost certain that we could all go together as V.A.D.s are sent out in batches, and she promised to write a note herself to the Commandant, asking if we could be together.

We enquired if there was any likelihood of our going abroad and she said there was a possibility but that it was more probable we should get somewhere in England, as for one thing nurses are more wanted in England just now and, for another, they usually send out abroad people more experienced than we are. Though we should of course prefer to be in London it doesn’t much matter where, we go so long as we go together, and I don’t much mind about not going abroad if I am wanted more in England; the chief point is to do what is needed.

The Secretary told us we aren’t likely to be called up till October as the demand for nurses follows the fighting, and as there has been a lull lately the length of the nursing waiting-list corresponds.[2]

It seems the Secretary of this V.A.D. has a good sense of when the next offensive will take place, and of how it will go.


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 188-95.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 232-3.

Donald Hankey is on His Way Home; Henry Farnsworth is Ashamed of Neutrality; Francis Ledwidge Arms for Landing

Donald Hankey is writing today, a century back, from some link in the long chain of aid posts, dressing stations, casualty clearing stations, hospital trains, and base hospitals that make up the medical evacuation system–most likely a base hospital near the coast. His wound, sustained in the recent counter-attack at Hooge, is stable enough to permit movement and yet serious enough to require a long convalescence. Blighty beckons, and thus Hankey will soon become, after T.E. Hulme, one of the first of our writers to experience the ironic reverse of the journey to the front: he is now approaching the rear–slowly, steadily, and painfully–and with each step comes greater ease, and greater safety.

Hankey is looking ahead now, to a time without marching, polishing, or ducking shells: he will recover, then train as an officer. There will be time to write, too, and he now has the authority–the experience–to write a certain sort of piece. He tells his sister of his plans:

August 6, 1915

Dear Hilda,

Thanks awfully for yours, and the handkerchief, etc. My leg is going along splendidly, and I shall probably be in England quite soon. This afternoon I am sitting up in a chair for the first time, and this evening I am going to play auction bridge. I have written two articles with a view to Mr. Strachey, but I don’t know that he will like them. One is on different kinds of courage, and one is called ” Flowers of Flanders,” and is about lots of things, including parcels and religion and love of nature and all that sort of thing. Neither could possibly have been written except by one who had been at the front. I shall be in England so soon that it really isn’t worth while for you to come out. I might be off almost any day now.

Your aff. brother,

Donald Hankey,[1]


Francis Ledwidge and the 5th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers have reached the war zone. Ledwidge’s biographer reconstructs the scene:

On the afternoon of 6 August the S.S. Heroic arrived in Mitylene and berthed beside the Novian. Although the sides and bows of the newcomer had been repainted the same dark grey as the battleships [many of the Inniskillings] recognized her as a former passenger steamer that used to ply between Belfast and Liverpool. But the spruce vessel they remembered was now battle-scarred, her bridge and funnels pierced and dinged.

The men had been told to leave behind them on the Novian everything not essential for their personal needs at the war-front. The order did not prevent them from looking grotesquely overloaded as they filed across the gangway between the two vessels. Every soldier carried in a bulging pack his greatcoat, two blankets and a ground sheet. His haversack was filled with three days’ iron rations of tins of bully beef and bags of biscuits. Draped around his neck and packed into his pouch were two hundred rounds of ammunition. He carried on his person two respirators and a full water-bottle. He also had a rifle and bayonet, an entrenching implement, mess-tins, and either a pick, shovel, or camp-kettle. His pockets were stuffed with writing materials and an assortment of personal impedimenta.

The sun poured on the scene out of a brassy sky; underfoot, the decks were scorching. There was scrambling on board the Heroic as the men pushed and elbowed for the coveted space in the shade of the lifeboats. The ship weighed anchor again and and began to glide towards the harbour entrance. The men were looking their last on the dreamlike scene: still water reflecting motionless shipping; land like a painted back-drop of hills clothed in olive groves, peaceful farms, little villages twinkling in the sun. Once outside the long, narrow passage into the harbour, they encountered a pleasant breeze that tempered the heat.

The sea turned a darker blue, with lively foam-capped waves. When night fell, however, the tropical heat made it impossible to sleep below and the men, pouring with sweat, had to come up again to rest on the closely packed deck where the wind was chilly and the boards sticky with salt dew.[2]

The Inniskillings will not be long on Mytilene. Gallipoli is close by, and every available unit is being poured into the stalled landing zones at Suvla Bay and “Anzac Cove.” Tomorrow they will find their way to the landing craft, and we will take issue with this sort of historical prose: evocative, vivid, and bobbing along innocently unmoored from the specifics of historical experience.


While Gallipoli rages toward its conclusion, most of the line in France  has been quiet. Henry Farnsworth‘s letter home today is largely a settling of accounts, personal and political. He and Seeger, fighting for France, are, essentially, foreign adventurers–mercenaries. But they believe in their cause (or in some sort of historical destiny, anyhow) and each will find himself increasingly frustrated that his home nation has delicately avoided choosing sides.

August 6, 1915

Dear Papa:

News from Hottinguer of 330 francs has arrived just now and is more welcome than ever. Many thanks to you and Mother and Ellen and Alfred… Parcels I receive at weird intervals; I think five altogether—three of chocolates and two of cigarettes… The only kick I have about mail is that “Life” stopped coming some time ago—after four or five numbers, in fact. I much enjoyed it, though I could not agree with Mr. Martin’s high opinion of Wilson as President…

As long as the people “stand behind the President,” they will stay where the immediate profit leads. I am, of course, in no position to judge those things, and only splutter a bit because I remember the unwholesome position I was in last August, when there could be no feeling of pride in announcing my nationality. Here people seem well disposed towards Americans and many individuals are doing fine work, but as a Government I am ashamed to say that I really and truly feel that we are contemptible, and that it is Wilson’s talk and shilly-shally that makes us so.

We have an expression over here for the souls who never can take a leap at the Rubicon and yet are fine talkers—here in the Legion, but I shan’t obtrude it on you. I do wish you would write me at some length what you and your friends do think of our attitude.

With much love to you all, Henry[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters, 302-3.
  2. Curtayne, Ledwidge, 121.
  3. Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 186-8.

Charles Sorley on His Band of Brothers and the Madness of Anniversarial Retrospection; A Year of Brit(t)ain’s War: Intercessions and the Renewal of Vows for Vera Brittain’s People; Prime Minister Asquith on “These Singularly Fatuous Operations at Hooge;” Henry Farnsworth Bestows a Legionary Ring

Well, it has been quite a year… and a century… and a year. One year and one century back from today, Great Britain declared war on Germany. This fact is on the minds of several of our writers, surely?

Charles Sorley, who wrote a letter today to the Master of Marlborough, his old school, seems to be thinking of places rather than dates:

4 August 1915

Many thanks for your last letter. You’ll excuse a two months’ silence.

There is really very little to say about the life here. Change of circumstance, I find, means little compared to change of company. And as one has gone out and is still with the same officers with whom one had rubbed shoulders unceasingly for the last nine months… one does not notice the change: until one or two or three drop off. And one wonders why.

They are extraordinarily close, really, these friendships of circumstance, distinct as they remain from friendships of choice. If one looks back to early September and sees what one thought of these others then: how one would never, while not disliking them, have wished to see any of them again: but that incorrigible circumstance kept us penned together, rubbed off our odd and awkward corners where we grated: developing in each a part of himself that might have remained always unsuspected, which could tread on common ground with another. Only, I think, once or twice does one stumble across that person into whom one fits at once: to whom one can stand naked, all disclosed. But circumstance provides the second best: and I’m sure that any gathering of men will in time lead to a very very close half-friendship between them all (I only say half-friendship because I wish to distinguish it from the other). So there has really been no change in coming over here: the change is to come when half of this improvised “band of brothers ” are wiped away in a day…

This is a fairly calm manner in which to contemplate the destruction of so many men. It is only the war’s first anniversary, and much famous slaughter still lies in the future. Yet Sorley seems to take it for granted that a great attack will wipe out half of his battalion.

…when I think I should tell you something about the trenches,” I find I have neither the inclination nor the power.

Yet he will muster the effort, and hit upon something that will give the Master a sense of Sorley’s routine in France and also throw that long line of connection over the gulf that separates soldier and civilian, battleground and home country. It’s a pity that Sorley could not have been apprenticed to Edward Thomas–the much younger man has, in a way, begun to prove the proposition of the older man and recent enlistee: though one might fight in France, it is English earth which sustains.

This however. On our weekly march from the trenches back to our old farmhouse a mile or two behind, we leave the communication-trench for a road, hedged on one side only, with open ploughland to the right. It runs a little down hill till the road branches. Then half left up over open country goes our track, with the ground shelving away to right of us. Can you see it? The Toll House to the First Post on Trainers Down (old finishing point of A House sweats) on a small scale. There is something in the way that at the end of the hedge the road leaps up to the left into the beyond that puts me in mind of Trainers Down (as C House called it). It is what that turn into unhedged country and that leap promises, not what it achieves, that makes the likeness. It is nothing when you get up, no wildness, no openness. But there it remains to cheer me on each relief…

Sorley, a great walker and an accomplished cross-country runner at Marlborough, has summoned up a little bit of home space, of the fields he knows best, to sooth the worn mind of the warrior. A quick little reverie, before the inevitable next subject. namely a commiseration over the losses among the so very young Old Marlburians. But avert it though he will, his practical pen cannot entirely ignore the date, and the letter ends on a despairing note:

A year ago to-day–but that way madness lies.[1]


Vera Brittain has changed a great deal over the past year–from Oxford hopeful to respected young scholar to probationary nurse–and she is no longer the earnest young woman who filled her diary with recapitulations of the war news fin The Times. Still, she is a committed diarist, and still a scholarly Romantic. How could she resist a meditation on the meaning of the year?

Wednesday August 4th

The anniversary of our declaration of War on Germany. There is nothing to be said about this New Year of War, for it is so obvious that a year ago no one expected a second year of it that disquisitions on the subject take the form of mere truisms. There is more to be done than there is to be said–the renewal of our determination & our vows in a cause which now is much more obviously that of justice and freedom than it was a year ago.

Whatever the papers may say, the majority of us have passed beyond our blatant loud-voiced “patriotism”, our want of realisation, our irresponsibility, our inappropriate indifference, and are quiet & resolute, weary but still tenacious, confident of the issue and determined that come what may, it shall be.

It was an appropriate day, perhaps, for Edward’s last with us. He is typical, in some ways, of England’s best spirit at the present moment; confident & tranquil, ready for death if it must be, anxious to possess a thorough knowledge of the part demanded of him and not overtroubled about the rest of events which he cannot affect. He never worries and is never sentimental; never even emotional.

Being the anniversary of the war, there were special intercession services and prayers for the renewal of vows. There was a service at 7.0 and both Mother & Daddy were anxious that Edward & I should go, though we should both have preferred to stop away. Neither the Church of England nor one’s relations allow themselves to think for a moment that one can renew one’s vows much better in a private place, in resolutions not put into elegant clerical language by other people. God–if there be a God—is much nearer to one on the night-enshrouded moorlands than in a crowded & stuffy church. The only part of the service I liked was Cowper’s hymn “God moves in a mysterious way”, which I am always very fond of.

Vera has been getting her feet back under her, in recent weeks. Nursing is no mere hobby, now and Oxford is on hold. She has survived, too, the first scare over Roland. (He had been unable to write for a fairly long stretch, and she feared the worst.) These first challenges surmounted, she is sounding like the strong-minded, independent, principled woman of last summer’s intellectually rigorous flirtations with Roland and difficult assertions of her will to escape provincial young-ladyhood.

Still–rigor and confidence are powers of a personality, not defining characteristics of its root and bough. Partings and anniversaries are Romantic, and the English countryside beckons to her as well. It beckons, that is, to her and to her brother, Edward, who will soon to leave for the front and be forced back, like Charles Sorley, onto the moorlands of memory:

Edward & I walked up the Manchester Road right as far as the turning own to the Goyt Valley. The night wind blew fresh in our faces, and all around us lay the hills and moorlands, dark and silent. In the distance the lights from the town gleamed faintly & now & again a dim glow shone out from the window of some solitary cottage on the hillside. We talked for a long time & very seriously—much of it was about Roland & much of course about the war. Edward expressed again, as he did that evening in the garden at Oxford, the half-haunting instinct that he may not return. He says it is not as if he were a full-fledged & well-known composer; he cannot see that his life at present is much use to anyone; he is not even sure that it is much good to himself. We walked back the last part of the way almost in silence. There was so much to think—so little to be said. Afterwards he & Mother sat up talking in his room till a quarter to 12.0.[2]


Billy Congreve, a young officer in the know, approves of the struggle for Hooge, if not always of how it is conducted. It’s the high ground, and there’s a war to be won. Others far off may not understand the situation on the ground, but then again they may have a certain perspective on the pointlessness of so many dying for so little, when the war remains a matter of hundreds of miles of front, millions of men, and the awful inertia of mobilized economies.

Or they might just be fed up and angry. Which is understandable… and yet troubling, if one happens to be the Prime Minister, and the deaths one is lamenting are the deaths of family friends.

H.H. Asquith wrote to his new pseudo-paramour Sylvia Henley today, a century back. (One presumes that he addressed the solemn anniversary in other writings and public appearances.)

Isn’t it terrible that Ettie’s 2nd son Billy is also killed? …we have known him ever since he was 3ft high: such a bright clever creature and with lots of character and oceans of promise. I hardly dare to think of her. I gather from K[itchener] (whom I saw before lunch) that the poor boy was killed straight off by a machine gun the first time he had ever been in action, in these singularly fatuous operations at Hooge. French (who has been here for 2 days) told K that he knew little or nothing about them. Some one ought to be heavily dropped upon.

Yes indeed! Who should do the dropping? And, once dropped, how will they conduct the war in less fatuous fashion?

This is a frustratingly frustrated outpouring of frustration. To be clear: the Prime Minister has heard from the Secretary of State for War (Lord Kitchener) that the Commander of the BEF (General Sir John French), who is in London, is not particularly sure why whole brigades are being hurled into enormous craters to slightly improve the lie of the ground in the Ypres Salient, especially when that entire area of the line seems unpromising for any sort of breakthrough. Are the Corps commanders in charge? Are the divisional generals jostling for some murderous way to assert themselves? Why do this? And if it shouldn’t be done, shouldn’t the Prime Minister doing something about that?

Tomorrow, Asquith will turn again to thoughts of the personal cost, thinking of Ettie Desborough, the light of the Souls, and now the mother of martyrs:

I must write to Ettie about the death of poor Billy, but I cannot frame in my mind what to say. There is still one boy left, happily well under military age… Billy had a delightful nature, more so to my thinking than Julian: but they were rare and splendid boys, and her life henceforward will be a desert except for its memories.[3]


And finally, an unconnected bit from Henry Farnsworth, American boy Legionnaire–the date holds little meaning for either the Americans or the French. As is so often the case when he writes to his sister, he exerts himself to describe a “character” of the Legion. These letters are like a young immigrant’s remittances, treasure from the country of real life sent back to the safe-haven of home, a little bit of the novel-that-will-be to store away until the work can be commenced in earnest.

August 4th, 1915

Dear Ellen:

I am sending enclosed in this a little ring. It is not supposed, by myself at least, to be a thing of beauty, but it is interesting. It is made of aluminum from the fuse of a German or Austrian shellhead picked up at Tilloloy and made by an old Legionnaire with a little file he stole somewhere. How he made the little holes in it I don’t know, but he worked for some time, and gave it to me because I did him a good turn one night, when he was about to be arrested by the patrole for being out late at night in a state of obvious and noisy drunkenness.

I wish I could make you see the man in the flesh; people like him appear only, as far as my experience goes, in the Foreign Legion—a Roumanian from Constantinople, speaking Turk, Greek, Roumanian, French, a little English, Spanish, and Arab; about six feet two inches, and very skinny and pale, with a half-dozen long hairs on each side of his upper lip, about the color and consistency of a big tomcat’s whiskers. He has more useless accomplishments than can be stated. He imitates cats, dogs, and mules from Senegal—a peculiarly noisy breed—and can use his feet with the same force and accuracy. When he thinks drill is getting a little dull, he amuses the whole section by going through the motions as though he were a monkey, and when the Sergeant begins to scream, quotes accurately from the theory book how the thing should be done. He was once a sergeant himself…

He can also pour a litre of wine into his mouth, holding the bottle a foot away, and get it all down without spilling a drop. He is also an expert tailor, washerman, rifle-shot, etc., and was originally a law student in Constantinople. He has a fund of comic stories, falls in occasional glooms when off by himself, and sings Turk songs, gets drunk once a month, and stays so for three days.

There is something so incongruous about your wearing his ring that I don’t suppose you will, but the man is absolutely honest, which is more than many are under like circumstances, and even when drunk will never ask a sou from any one. He washes clothes, cleans rifles, mends capotes shaves people, cuts hair, greases boots, and mounts guard for others until he has enough. Also he is a brave man, and always cheerful when it rains and the marches are long and the sacks heavy.

The corporal d’ordinaire is screaming “Au potates;” which means that I must go and peel potatoes, so good-bye, dear, and love to the boys.

There is no news.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 291-4.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 226-7.
  3. Webb, from Downing Street to the Trenches, 121.
  4. Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 184-6.

Will Harvey Kills His Man; Donald Hankey in Hospital; Henry Farnsworth on Parade; Vera Brittain’s Brother Prepares to Embark: “All I Care For Will Be At The Front”

Will Harvey went out on patrol tonight near Hebuterne, armed with a revolver and a “heavy bludgeon.” It was unusual for patrols to seek combat–especially when no officer was present–but the “Glosters” were apparently out for blood. The patrol went out 350 yards from their trenches toward a suspected enemy listening post and came upon several Germans, probably the covering force for a working party.

Will HarveyFiring broke out and Will Harvey, together with the corporal commanding the patrol, rushed the listening post. Our Gloucestershire poet shot two Germans with his revolver, killing them, and felled a third with his bludgeon. The potential prisoner apparently escaped when German reinforcements arrived but the patrol retreated without loss, bearing with them three German rifles and a Mauser pistol as trophies.

This exploit by a patrol of a New Army unit was deemed worthy of celebration (see the illustration at right, from Boden’s biography of Harvey). It even earned Lance-Corporal Harvey the Distinguished Conduct Medal,”for conspicuous gallantry on the night of Aug. 3-4, 1915, near Hebuterne.”[1]

It’s hard to know what to make of this. Harvey was a poet, a friend of the gentle Gurney, and a scholarly-looking fellow (for what little that’s worth). Perhaps it was simply his section’s turn for a patrol, but the nature of the action and the resulting decoration strongly imply that the violence involved voluntary valor. This is one of those writers, then, who is not out merely to experience the war, but to fight. And this is one of those units, apparently, that would rather kill the men opposite–thus preventing their working parties from strengthening their position–and suffer retaliation than to follow the path of “live and let live.”


When we last left Donald Hankey, he was–in semi-fictionalized form–crawling off with a wounded leg after a bitter, terrible day in trenches on the flank of the lost trenches of Hooge. Today, after an ordeal about which he will keep a stoic silence, he wrote a short letter home from hospital:

I suppose you will be expecting a bulletin! There is either a bullet or a shrapnel ball in my right thigh, but otherwise I am perfectly fit. I haven’t the foggiest idea how long my job is likely to take. At present they are only dressing it, and haven’t started to try and locate the ball, which seems to have lost its way inside somewhere. But I don’t suppose I shall be lucky enough to get a trip home anyway I think it is best not to let myself hope for it in case I am disappointed![2]

Hankey is playing down the wound: this, especially after the long day’s blood loss, was certainly a blighty one.


And Henry Farnsworth wrote home today, describing the same divisional parade that his new comrade-in-arms Alan Seeger has already written about. Farnsworth has seen no combat to speak of, and the spell of military spectacle lies heavily upon him:

Postmarked August 3, 1915

Dear Mamma:

I have received at least five letters from you and two from the Da. They are the greatest of blessings and come into my weary world most welcome. The two regiments being cast into one and the whole division being brought up to strength, etc., goes wearily on…

The other day we were waked at 2 a.m., and at 3 sent off in a pouring rain for some indefinite place across the mountains for a divisional review. We went off slowly through the wet darkness, but about dawn the sun came out and as is usual with the Legion, everybody cheered up, and at 7 a.m. we arrived at the parade ground after fifteen kilometers in very good spirits. The two regiments of Zouaves from Africa were already drawn up. We formed up beside them… Suddenly the Zouave bugles crashed out sounding the “Garde à vous” and in two minutes the division was lined up, every man stiff as a board—and all the time the bugles ringing angrily from up the line, and the short staccato trumpets of the Chasseurs answering from the other extremity. The ringing stopped suddenly, and the voices of the colonels crying ”Bayonnettes aux Canons”’ sounded thin and long drawn out and were drowned by the flashing rattle of the bayonets going on—a moment of perfect silence, and then the slow, courtly-sounding of the “General! General! qui passe!” broken by the occasional crash as regiment after regiment presented arms. Slowly the General rode down the lines, with the two Brigadiers and a Division General in his suite… The Zouaves led off, their bugles playing… Then the Tirailleurs playing some march of their own, slow and fine, the bugles answering the scream of the Arab reed flutes…

On and on went the bugles playing that light, slangy tune, some of the verses of which would make Rabelais shudder, and the minor variations of which bring up pictures of the Legion marching with thin ranks in foreign, blazing lands, and the drums of which, tapping slowly, sound like the feet of the regiment scrunching through desert sand. It was all very glorious to see and hear…

As for news, that’s all I have, but do continue to write me frequently, even if there is nothing to say. Here in this division I feel incredibly far from home. Love to Ellen and the boys and the Da. There is a rumor that we may go to Morocco, as things are going badly there, but I don’t believe it; we cannot be replaced here.[3]


Lastly, Vera Brittain reacts to the unwelcome news that Roland Leighton has returned to the front line.

Tuesday August 3rd

Roland is–alas for me!–back in the trenches…

They went back into the trenches 3 days from when the letter was written–to-day. [4]

Thus Roland’s letter provides a rare moment of real-time information: a letter written from the trenches doesn’t even guarantee that the writer was still alive on the date of the post-mark. But this slight respite from worry is little compared to the loss of the promise of relative safety in staff work:

Buxton, 3 August 1915

I am sorry you have left the Corps Headquarters. It was such a relief—even if only for a short time—to feel that you were safe. But I hope very much that the General will form his permanent Headquarters Company very soon and that you will go back. It would be a fine appointment…

Edward came here on Saturday & goes again on Thursday. He keeps telling the family most cheerfully that the 9th Sherwood Foresters had three last leaves, and the same thing may happen to him, but he told me privately that it is his opinion that they really are going in about a fortnight…

He talks mostly about music & books, with an interest that is quite unimpaired & not the least assumed. In town the day he came here he bought several new books to read & quite a lot of music to learn & try over while he was at home. And yet he isn’t the least in the dark about what the Front means—or the least afraid of facing the reality.

He had a long talk with one of my patients at the Hospital and the man—an absolutely straightforward & candid person–said to me afterwards that he thought he would be some good at the front and at any rate seemed to know well enough what he was in for. But he is very cheerful and unapprehensive, and the Future–near or far–doesn’t appear to trouble him very much. Although on Sunday night when we went for a walk together he became suddenly very serious as he told me a few things he wanted done if he should die…

I only know I don’t understand him at all. Perhaps I never shall now. He is about the last of all my friends & acquaintances to go.

When he is gone all I care for will be at the front—except your Mother. War or the Country or whatever name you like to call it will have taken almost all that makes my existence worth while–my work, my future and the people I love best.

Isn’t it queer that to-morrow is War’s first birthday! I wonder how many people there were who on last August 4th thought the War would not be over by that time next year.

And here we are after a year’s fighting further from the end than we were at the beginning! (That sounds like a paradox, but indeed when we began there seemed to be many more reasons for hoping for a speedy conclusion than there are now.)[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Boden, F.W. Harvey, 89-90.
  2. The Letters of Donald Hankey, 301-2. The apparently-loosely-fictionalized story of the charge was told in "The Honour of the Brigade," available here.
  3. Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 180-3.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 226.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 137-8.

Alan Seeger and Henry Farnsworth Take a Hike, Together, and Seeger Capitalizes History and Chooses an Epitaph; Ford Madox Ford Issues Challenges Both Literary and Personal; Colin Mitchell’s “Hooge!”; Robert Frost Writes to a Soldier

(What could be more mulish than beginning a long, multi-hued, and unusually eventful post with a very bad poem? Skip a little!)

I have some (fairly obvious) prejudices to confess. There is a tendency here to read prose–however overtly fictional–for its “historical” value, while at the same time approaching each poem first from an aesthetic point of view and then perhaps working in toward its deeper meanings. This is, in part, because poetry rarely any longer describes specific combat events. The days of the “Light Brigade”–still less of a hundred Greek hexameters of precisely described spear penetrations–are over. Good poetry may help elucidate experience, but there’s little point in reading bad poetry that can’t really be brought to bear on historical specifics. Yet there are still old-fashioned versifiers producing poems immediate and specific enough to speak to a particular event of interest. Can the struggle to render a horrifying defeat in clunky heroic stanzas give insight into the actual experience?

So, yes, there was another aspiring poet in the Rifle Brigade during yesterday’s desperate fighting around Hooge. Colin Mitchell, of the 8th Battalion, hacked out these verses in the aftermath:

Hooge! More damned than Sodom and more bloody,
‘Twas there we faced the flames of liquid fire.
Hooge! That shambles where the flames swept ruddy:
A spume of heat and hate and omens dire;
A vision of a concrete hell from whence
Emerged satanic forms, or so it seemed
To us who, helpless, saw them hasten hence.
Scarce understood we if we waked or dreamed.

“Stand To! Stand To! The Wurtembergers come!”
Shouting vile English oaths with gutter zest.
And boastful threats to kill they voice, while some,
In uniforms of grey and scarlet dressed,
Wear flame-projectors strapped upon their backs.
How face a wall of flame? Impossible!
“Back, boys! Give way a little; take the tracks
That lead to yonder wood, and there we’ll fill
Such trenches as are dug, and face the foe,
And no Hell-fire shall move us once we’re there.
We’re out to win or die, boys; if we go
Back and yet back, leaving good strongholds bare,
We’ll save our lives, perhaps, but not our name.
There’s no one in this well-trained company
Who’d save his skin and perjure his good fame.

I won’t transcribe the whole thing, but it does continue, and Mitchell should be credited with including not just the stirring words of the brave defenders but also descriptions of the damage done by the German weaponry:

…The scarlet splash
Shows everywhere, and everywhere the maimed
Are crawling, white-lipped, to a dug-out where
The doctor in a drip of sweat seems framed,
So hard he works to hide the horrid stare
Of wounds adrip; while many pass away,
And need no lint to bind their frailty,
For God has ta’en them; ’tis their triumph day
And all their sins shall expiated be…[1]

A rather desperate turn, there, in defeat, toward theological consolations.


From the trenches of traditional poetry to the rarest airs of militarized Modernism. Ford Madox Hueffer delivered a review of Blast II today, in the form of an all-guns-blazing counter-attack against the initial critical onslaught. Many of his judgments can only provoke a little grin from we-who-are-burdened-with-the-dramatic-irony-of-the-future–yes, Fordy, indeed: others will find this odd new American T.S. Eliot to be of interest.

Much of the rest of the review is actually less about high art or Modernism or the rendering of brash artistic theory into printed practice than it is about our basic question: how is the war to affect writing? Ford finds the self-declared Vorticists to be somewhat compromised, but admirably, partially, appropriately. He approves of the fact that their work–Wyndham Lewis and all the rest of his flock–has been inflected by the mood of the war, but not changed beyond recognition. They are themselves–modernist tricksters and tub-thumpers, yet, due to the horrors and disasters and disappointments of the war, less “jaunty” about their “larks.”

Ford, as was always his wont, turns toward himself at the end of the piece. But he does so by way of a quotation from Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, foremost of the modern artists who have died on the battlefield:

I have made an experiment. Two days ago I pinched from an enemy a Mauser rifle. Its heavy, unwieldy shape swamped me with a powerful image of brutality. I was in doubt for a longtime whether it pleased or not it pleased me. I found that I did not like it. I broke the butt off; with my knife I carved on it a design, through which I tried to express a gentler order of feeling, which I preferred. But I will emphasize that my design got its effect, just as the gun had, from a very simple composition of lines and effects.

I find that a very touching and wise passage of prose. And I will ask the reader to observe that it contains the thoughts of an artist who had a mystical and beautiful mind and who had been long under fire. Is it not interesting and valuable to observe what such a mind selects? If Blast had presented us with nothing else it would have been justified of its existence.[2]

And I find this a very revealing and precise passage of prose. Ordinarily I would have to follow this up with some coy suggestions about how we must wonder whether Ford will put his money where his mouth is, whether he will risk his flesh for the greater power of his pen. But we’ve got a very handy letter to that effect, to the poet Lucy Masterman:

South Lodge
Campden Hill Road

My dear Lucy,

You may like to know that I went round to the W[ar] O[ffice] after seeing you and got thrown into a commission in under a minute—the quickest process I have ever known…

I can assure you, for what it is worth, that it is as if the peace of God had descended on me—that sounds absurd—but there it is! Man is a curious animal…[3]

Relief, and a sense of peace–as with Edward Thomas. But Ford has a commission, and more writing to do.


And, at last, high in the hills of the Franche-Comté, our two Legionnaires cross paths:

July 31

Walked up to Plancher-les-Mines with Victor Chapman; there met Farnsworth, who is in the 1er Étranger, and we all had dinner together. A dozen sous-officiers–old légionnaires–were in the room, drinking and making good cheer. These were men who had been at Arras, and the camaraderie of soldiers whose bond is that of great exploits achieved in common was of a sort which does not exist among us, and which I envied…

Alas, but that is all. There is no report from either Farnsworth or Seeger, today, on what they thought of their fellow Harvard man and aspiring writer. Seeger, instead, launches into a major philosophical statement-of-purpose:

Perhaps historic fatality has decreed that Germany shall come out of this struggle triumphant and that the German people shall dominate in the twentieth century as French, English, Spanish, and Italian have in preceding centuries. To me the matter of supreme importance is not to be on the winning side, but on the side where my sympathies lie.

Feeling no greater dignity possible for a man than that of one who makes himself the instrument of Destiny in these tremendous moments, I naturally ranged myself on the side to which I owed the greatest obligation. But let it always be understood that I never took arms out of any hatred against Germany or the Germans, but purely out of love for France. The German contribution to civilization is too large, and German ideals too generally in accord with my own, to allow me to join in the chorus of hate against a people whom I frankly admire.

It was only that the France, and especially the Paris, that I love should not cease to be the glory and the beauty that they are that I engaged. For that cause I am willing to stick to the end. But I am ready to accept the verdict of History in this case as I do, and everyone does, in the old cases between Athens and Sparta, or between Greece and Rome. Might is right and you cannot get away from it however the ephemeridae buzz. “Victrix causa diis placuit, sed victa Catoni.” It may have to be the epitaph on my tomb. I can see it on some green slope of the Vosges, looking toward the East.[4]

What exactly were they drinking? This is a serious dose of fatalism, at a time when there is no very particular reason to despair. It seems very American–or, perhaps, German–to write of capital-D Destiny in such Historical terms and to choose to align oneself with some sort of beautifully-conceived disaster.

The quote, from Lucan’s Pharsalia, the maddest and most horrifying of the Latin epics, is well chosen: “the winning side pleased the gods, but the defeated pleased Cato.” This casts Germany as Caesar, the nascent emperor about to destroy the remnants of the old (very oligarchic) republic.

But there is a nearer parallel, a lost cause that has placed a prior claim on the reference: the quotation was a popular choice for Confederate memorials. An ugly association, although perhaps one unknown to Seeger.

Nevertheless, it is unusual to see such a willingness to relinquish the gods and truth and right and history. Seeger, perhaps, is prone to the dramatic gesture–recall his jealousy of Rupert Brooke–and indulging in a stock poetic fantasy of a beautiful and tragic and sacrificial death. But still: Germany’s aggression and responsibility for starting the war were broadly accepted (and have become so once again, mutatis mutandis), and, ever since the great advances of the first few months, the war in the West had been a stalemate. Why relinquish the gods to accept the role of Cato? Isn’t there a war to win?


Finally, today, Robert Frost has received Edward Thomas‘s letter of explanation:

Dear Edward:

I am within a hair of being precisely as sorry and as glad as you are.

You are doing it for the self-same reason I shall hope to do it for if my time comes and I am brave enough, namely, because there seems nothing else for a man to do.

You have let me follow your thought in almost every twist and turn toward this conclusion. I know pretty well how far down you have gone and how far off sideways. And I think the better of you for it all. Only the bravest could come to the sacrifice in this way…

I have never seen anything more exquisite than the pain you have made of it. You are a terror and I admire you. For what has a man locomotion if it isnt to take him into things he is between barely and not quite understanding…

Your last poem Aspens seem the loveliest of all. You must have a volume of poetry ready for when you come marching home.

I wonder if they are going to let you write to me as often as ever.




References and Footnotes

  1. Powell, A Deep Cry, 332-3.
  2. Outlook, 36 (31 July 1915), 143-4; Critical Essays, 185.
  3. Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 60-1.
  4. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 139-41.
  5. Elected Friends, 86-7.

We Put Rowland Feilding on the Map; The Old Legion is Breaking Up for Seeger and Farnsworth; Vera Brittain Weighs Mental and Physical Agonies


Courtesy of McMaster University, download link in footnote below

Rowland Feilding‘s letter to his wife contains–or was restored, after initial deference to censorship, to include–rather specific information as to his whereabouts:

July 17, 1915

Right Fire-trench opposite the Lone Tree

That would put Captain Feilding along the dashed line in the map at left, just under the “D.” The map was prepared this summer, a century back, to aid attacking troops. Therefore it shows the (known) details of the German trenches–in red–while omitting the British trench system except for the single dashed line marking its most forward edge.

While this project is primarily interested in writing, it is an article of faith here that the understanding of war writing requires an understanding of war. And war means maps. Many wars move too fast to make map study worth the literary effort–but not this war. If one of my favorite parts of the research and writing here involves the discovery of two writers crossing paths, a slightly less exciting but increasingly common experience will be the realization that they are using precisely the same paths at only slightly different times.

This particular section of the front will shortly become quite familiar, so perhaps we will make a bit of a study of it. If you were to pull back a bit[1] you would discover that the Coldstreams are holding trenches between Vermelles and Hulluch, just south of the main road between the two. Back a bit more, and you would find the Welsh Regiment in reserve. But back to the Coldstreams:

…After a very wet night’s work we again this morning got to bed at about half-past three. It had been rather a jumpy kind of night. It is difficult to describe what I mean. But there are certain times more than others when a man feels the responsibilities of a long stretch of front line for which he is solely responsible. I think this is especially the case after one has been up, night after night, as we have lately, without quite enough sleep.

Yet this is an easy bit of line, and the German trenches are a long way off. Last flight, the wind was blowing directly to us from the German lines, and at just about the right velocity for gassing. On our left the night started with a furious burst of fire, accompanied by a firework display that would have attracted attention even at the Crystal Palace.

The shooting was taken up by the enemy on our immediate front, and flights of their bullets came whistling overhead as I stood on the parapet, setting the men to their digging. It soon died away, but the general eeriness of such a night affects the men. They do not work with their, usual vigour. They are wet through and uncomfortable, and they keep glancing over the parapet, while the covering party lying in the long grass in front shoots freely at whatever arouses its slightest suspicion.[2]


Alan Seeger‘s recommenced diary has taken us from quiet trenches through leave in Paris to a series of disjointed moves as the Foreign Legion reorganizes. (Most of this I have omitted, as so many other voices are clamoring for our attention.)

Seeger is now in the Haute-Saône with the Second Regiment of the Legion, and suspects that he and others will be amalgamated with the First. They have had casualties, but the greater manpower drain has been a more indirect effect of a European war of attrition. Many men joined the Legion before their own country was involved, and now they wish to go home to fight with their countrymen; others joined during peacetime to be colonial soldiers and have no wish to spend the rest of their short lives in trenches, so they are making use of their nation’s combatant status to escape the legion, ostensibly to serve at home. Their are few non-belligerent nationals to be found now, in Europe, as the legion’s many Belgians, Russians, and, now, Italians depart–so the ranks are thinning and the end of the old battalion seems nigh.

But there is still our brace of young Americans. Henry Farnsworth is in the Third Regiment of the Legion–a wartime formation–and experiencing the exact same uncertainty. Seriously understrength after all the departures, the Third is withdrawn from the line, amidst rumors that the rump of the regiment will join (naturally) the Second…

And should the Legion dissolve, what will be required? Money! And who do we write to when we need money? Papa!

[About July 17, 1915]

Dear Papa:

By this time I suppose the drafts have arrived, and any way there is no good in mincing matters. I was given two days’ permission in Paris, as an American citizen, and at the first sight of a big city went quite off my head and blew in every cent I could get hold of…

I am sincerely sorry for it, and am now doing the penance of regimental life on one sou a day quite contentedly. Many people with broad hems to their garments say that the Legion makes a brute of a man; but don’t blame my proceedings on the Legion. I have done the same thing before, as you know, and the Legion is in no way to blame. Think only that, when all the other troops said the thing was impossible, the Legion took not one line, as planned, but four, and was not stopped then, though more than half the officers and men were down at the taking of Souchez.[3]

I have all this to say about the Legion, because now I am in it—the real, hard, incredible thing…

After coming back from Paris we did two days’ desultory drill, with constant rumors of the change coming, and then suddenly at the company rapport one afternoon the Captain came into the square formed by the sections…

Farnsworth’s unit is to be disbanded indeed, and attached to the Moroccan division, a regular French formation with a formidable reputation. His letter turns out not to be a plea for money at all, but rather an affecting paean to comradeship dissolved:

the Captain said ”’Repos”’ right away, and stood for an instant looking at us. Then in the formal military way he told us… he began to speak of the regiment, how it had never been tried, but how he had never doubted it, and what a comfort it had been to him ever since the winter months to have a little nucleus of men who always could be trusted to volunteer for anything hard or dangerous, and could be trusted to do it well and intelligently. He ended up with the bad news that he was to leave us…

If after the war any of us should ever see him anywhere, he hoped that we would take a drink together as two good Legionnaires, Then he walked out, and not half a dozen had the voice to cry, ” Vive Captain Escall! ” By his justice, gallantry, and wonderfull constantly good spirits this most unemotional of men had so eaten himself into our hearts that many wept frankly at the idea of leaving him, and those of us who did not had a hard time not to…

The next morning after the Captain had made his good-bye speech and… came down the line and shook us all by the hand. When he came to our squad, with Corporal Mortens, Sukuna, Covalieros, and that crowd, everybody being already much strung up, he embraced us one and all. I have not had the same feeling of desolating woe at leaving anybody since the days when I used to say good-bye to Mother and take the train to Groton, finding all lonely in the world. Escall had punished me, but there had never been any discussion about the justice thereof nor any respect lost on either side, and if you only knew him, it would be a pleasure to you that this no mean judge of nature liked and respected me in spite of certain obvious failings. I shall be proud of the fact all the rest of my life…

With love to Mother and Ellen. Henry[4]


And in Buxton, today, a century back, Roland‘s silence lengthens and Vera Brittain‘s anxiety intensifies.

Saturday July 17th

Still no news either of or from him–though I watched for each post with a feverish impatience that was agony. Something really must have happened this time. If it is the worst, may God–if there is a God–help Mrs Leighton & me! If only it could mean that he is wounded! I, last of all people, want him to suffer, but suffering can change to health, while nothing can change Death to Life. And if he were to suffer physically, I should at any rate equal the agony mentally.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Which you could do at the remarkable National Library of Scotland site which overlays modern and trench maps, albeit with a somewhat balky interface. Many thanks to Mark Annand for pointing out this resource--it's quite striking to see satellite photos of the exact ground a century on...
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 26. The trench map can be found through McMaster University, available here, a great resource that I have only just figured out how to use--more download-friendly than the National Library of Scotland, but without the (distractingly) nifty overlays to modern maps.
  3. This was the first regiment, and thus involved neither Seeger nor Farnsworth.
  4. The Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 174-9.
  5. Chronicle of Youth, 221-2.

Dorothie Feilding is Feted and Treated to a Display of Aerial Sand Castles; Ugly Grumbles from Henry Farnsworth; Billy Congreve Reports on Dirty Tactics; Vera Brittain is Spreading the Gospel of Brooke

Dorothie Feilding has quite a tale for us today:

July 4th, Fumes

Mother darling–

Such a tea party as we-had yesterday! …I had been asked to be Godmother to the ‘auto canons’ [armoured cars] Marins flag they had just had made & the dear fat old Col of Zouaves was the Godfather. I found to my horror on arriving at Oost Dunkerque, about 1 1/2 miles behind the lines at Nieuport Bains, all the Zouaves’ regimental band drawn up who played God Save the King & Tipperary & every sort of thing they could think of that had any connection with ‘Mees’.

Then Col Roland made a speech of some half hr which made me hotter & hotter till I nearly fell thro’ the floor in a puddle, & then I christened the ‘Fanion’ [Pennant] & we drank buckets of champagne & eat hundreds of jam tails till we felt sick as dogs. Then a concert, really quite good, sung by lots of the tommies who are opera singers. They gave me a dashed fine Hun Obus with flowers in it[1] & all sorts of wonderful engravings on it done by the Zouaves & really very nice, a copper plate set into with my name & union jacks & Zouaves monograms & red crosses, & auto canons. In fact every damn thing they could think of.

Lady Feilding’s syntax seems unable to bear the burden of such praise and celebration. The breezy and extremely informal style makes the narrative seem artless, and perhaps it is. She writes to entertain her mother, and to reassure. But this proto-flapperish account of a British Lady being wined and dined by her French admirers does eventually edge back toward the war.

After tearing ourselves away we went on to the usual round at Nieuport Bains & I said to Jelly I bet we were going to be obussed to learn us to go to orgies; of course as we arrived they were having no end of a time at N Bains. They were firing big ones at a battery in the dunes just opposite the dressing station some 200 yds off & it was really rather ripping watching them burst as they weren’t hurting no one, & send huge clouds of sand into the air which took odd shapes almost like huge houses & castles & the sand stays in the air the most extraordinary length of time.

In fact it was very nice little sideshow & I think done on purpose to amuse us. They were so kind & put none near us.

What pluck, you see–and nicely described. She does the wry drawling commentary with unusual verve… It’s like a slow turn though: First the party vignette, then the half-war of a picturesque and harmless bombardment, and then a decisive interruption:

Later: I am so sorry to hear Peter is in hospital.

“Peter” is her brother. Who, these being aristocrats, is not really called Peter, but rather Henry Simon Feilding, Lieutenant, Coldstream Guards, temporarily attached to King Edward’s Horse, specifically an independent troop attached to the 47th Division.

There is a chance I may be getting down that way with Major Grant in a few days, & will go & see Peter as it is close by. That is unless something sickening happens to upset our plans. Was it a toss, or the result of an obus in a house or something like that?

I will give the loyal reader one guess at what could have wounded a young officer not yet in combat.


Henry Feilding (and, actually, I should mention–yes, some relation: a different, vowel-inverted branch of the family, but apparently a distant relation of the writer) has had the dubious good fortune of being instructed by his own commander, Major Edward Hermon, in the wherefores and whithertos of comically inefficient, fuse-sprouting grenades.

Hermon had described the incident in a letter to his wife, noting that

Henry, who was on my left, I am sorry to say got it a good deal worse & his wrist was rather badly bruised but his wristwatch was badly damaged & this saved him from having the tendons of his hand cut I am glad to say. His face too was a bit cut & he went to hospital…[2]

So an odd little twist on the irony of communications delays within the framework of this project: we know more about young Feilding’s condition than her big sister does, a century back.

I hope he isn’t bad poor kid. Thank you so much for wiring me.

Perhaps because of the suddent wounding of her not-yet-in-combat brother, the big German guns figure differently, now:

They put 17 inch into Nieuport again last night & absolutely buried about 20 men in the cellar in one of the houses. Some are still alive under it all, poor devils, or rather were last night. They have been working to move the debris for 12 hrs & haven’t got down to them yet. The whole house crumpled up like a pack of cards. They are awful these 17 inch, like a train coming through the air. I’ve never heard one close thank God. I’d hate it & run so you wouldn’t see me for dust, & I’d be home here & hiding under the bed with Charles in no time.

Good bye Mother dear. I am waiting to hear about Peter, if I get down there soon will wire you of course at once how he is, & if I hear it is anything serious could mange it probably sooner.

Yr loving


Vera Brittain has been doing some youthful proselytyzing. We saw her introduced to the poetry of Rupert Brooke, and we knew that she had rather ingenuously recommended his whole beautiful sacrifice bit to Roland. But she has also sent them to Mrs. Leighton–which, come to think of it, was a good idea. From what little I know of her, this formidable-to-Vera writer of romances might very well take comfort from Brooke’s swathing of potential loss in billowing sentiment.

Sunday July 4th

At dinner-time I found a letter awaiting me from Mrs Leighton–and such a dear letter too. Herself & her letters are an “unexpected consolation”–one I never dreamed of possessing a year ago, when I missed seeing her at Uppingham. “If it would give you real pleasure–& I think it would–to send me your copy of Rupert Brooke’s poems I may confess that I shall be very very glad to have it, just because it had been yours.

But if this particular copy has associations for you that another would not have then you must not hold yourself bound by your impulsive & sweet offer of it to me. Write to me about Roland whenever you like & at as great length as you like. I may not always answer quickly but you will know that this is only because I have so many letters to write.”[4]

A faltering sort of unity-in-fearful-expectancy–but consolation is consolation. When, that is, we are not exercising our readerly right to be retrospectively aesthetically critical.


Next, a brace of letters from France to Massachusetts. Henry Farnsworth, extremely feckless for a young man who has gotten himself from a non-combatant nation all the way into a tough combat unit, is once again contemplating a move.

July 4, 1915

Dear Ellen:

… we are again on our way back from the front. We were relieved by a French regiment at 9:30 of a very stormy evening, just as the rain, which had been only an intermittent drizzle during the day, burst into a near-tropical downpour. Wet through and covered with mud to the knees, we started for some vague place the other side of Montdidier. It was only eighteen millimeters[5] of march, but we put the whole night into it, arriving at 3:30 of a damp, misty morning. During the night the rain stopped and we walked ourselves nearly dry.

By a new arrangement five men in each section were told off to put their sacks in the wagon and to walk at the rear of the section and carry sacks of those who otherwise would have fallen out. I was one of the so-called bon marcheurs and excited myself to a great degree of dried spleen by carrying the sacks of lazy, but healthy, Jews. After a day of rest we took the road again and did twenty-five more kilometers. It speaks well for the training you get at the front, for I can truthfully say that I was not a bit tired, though I carried my own sack, which is a heavy one. I hope nobody will shake the wise finger and say I should not have grumbled about the Jews.

Too late, friend: you’re an asshole.

Speaking of which, Farnsworth is (usually) very likeable when he writes to his sister and tense and frosty in his letters to Papa. And perhaps his father is a horror. But it is hard, no matter how much century-old money matters pale compared to our concern for the threatened lives of all these young men, not to sympathize with the elder Mr. Farnsworth’s worries about his son’s costly peregrinations.

…Papa has gathered the impression that because I often write that I am in the boite I am not well looked upon by superiors. That does not follow in the least. The Foreign Legion is not a bit like Groton School or even Harvard College—and in my opinion has a far better spirit.

Except for the lazy Jews, who will doubtless prove themselves slackers and reprobates whenever Groton and Harvard start admitting them…

Rules are many and strict. You break one and get caught. You make no excuses and are given a punishment. There is no ill-feeling on either side…

With the Captain and all the Legionaries, I am very much bien vu [well thought of], and nearly always am called on for patrols, observation posts, etc.

It is my opinion that shortly the regiment will be broken up and the engagements broken. I do not want to become naturalized French and go in a line regiment. Neither do I want to leave the war, or to take a three-year engagement in the Legion. The American Ambulances see nothing, in spite of what they write home. I do very much want to join the Aviation Corps. They have been flying at the front. I shall write to this effect to the Da and explain things fully…

With lots of love, Dear, and many soft memories…and hopes for future ones,


He does indeed turn his pen immediately father-ward:

Dear Papa,

About a week ago I received a welcome note from Hottinguer, saying he had received funds to my account. But there was an unpleasant addition to the effect that of the [francs] 128.50 he had kept 25 for himself for charges he had paid in postage, etc., for me. Hence I have taken £10 out of my letter of credit…

I don’t want to seem stupidly extravagant, but really in the army here money does make an enormous difference. Now that summer is here it means that you can buy eggs, fresh vegetables, etc., even fresh meat in some places. Things cost very much, eggs 3 sous apiece, and all that sort of thing. I don’t merely throw it away…

Now for more seriously depressing news. I have just written Ellen how and why we have been again called back from the front. It is my opinion that we shall shortly be disbanded and all the duration of the engagements broken. In that case I am anxious to join the U.S. Aviators… I suppose I should have to support myself, and it would mean about 1000 to see me to the end of the war—which will occur in November—and get me home afterwards. I hate to ask for the money, and naturally put myself entirely according to your advice…

This has been a long post… do we really need to include the facts which follow on this confident pronouncement that war’s end “will occur” in November? Suffice it to say that only the aviators will do. Ambulances are for wimps–“I know a Sophomore driving one… who thought himself quite a hero because he had two or three times gone up to bombarded villages to cart away the wounded”–and staying in the legion would be a bore…

Love to Mother and yourself,



Lastly, a short excerpt from Billy Congreve‘s diary. There is often a streak of self-righteousness in the self-presentation of British officers, a sense that–even allowing for the real German atrocities in 1914–the British have now come to believe their own propaganda about their sporting and Christian approach to war being entirely different to that of the vicious Hun.

Some of this is fair enough: first, there were very real differences in the two armies’ treatment of civilians, not entirely explained by the distinction between invading and occupying and arriving as allies; second, infantry officers had considerable latitude to choose how chivalrously–and how actively–they waged war on the local frontage.

So perhaps some British officers were quite free to play up play up and play the game. But that’s still an amateur attitude. All’s fair in the eyes of the staff:

It’s been very hot today, a real summer’s day, so thinking that the Boches wold perhaps be bathing, we turned shrapnel on to all the known (from aeroplane) bathing places–rather a dirty trick, perhaps! The results, I think, must have been satisfactory, because the German guns retaliated by knocking a fresh set of holes in the unfortunate École.[7]


References and Footnotes

  1. A German shell casing, that is--presumably an unexploded dud.
  2. For Love and Courage, 58.
  3. Lady Under Fire, 84-5.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 217.
  5. He means kilometers, one assumes.
  6. Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 169-74.
  7. Armageddon Road, 154.