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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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
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.