Christmas 1917: Melancholy Milestone, Vicarious Joy, and Less Unhappy Than I Thought

It’s a complicated Christmas, 1917. Several of our writers–including Cynthia Asquith, with whom we’ll start, and Vera Brittain, whose long, sad day will come last–will dwell on the same themes of unsettled traditions and mixed memories.

It’s not simply the quandary of being caught between an instinct for celebration and the need to use a family occasion to grieve and lament for those who have been lost, but also a problem that has grown with this long, static war: if Christmas used to be a trigger for happy memories and the balm of reenacting old joys, there are now three Christmases for which the boys have not been home; three Christmases tinged with that same sickly feeling of mixed emotions, and the fear that absent loved ones may at any moment turn out to be permanently absent. For those who have lost brothers, lovers, sons, or husbands, Christmas may now provoke sharp memories of painful and bereft Christmases past.

 

It’s a very complicated Christmas at the Asquiths. Cynthia Asquith learned last night from her father-in-law, the former Prime Minister, that his son “Oc”–her husband’s sole surviving brother–has been dangerously wounded.

What bad luck! And it sounds bad, too—compound fracture of both bones above the ankle: P.M. wrote, ‘However, they hope to be able to save his foot’. I do hope he won’t lose it.

I packed up parcels after tea, and after dinner we had the usual bedroom marauding parties, but none of us had the heart for any of the time-honoured stocking jokes . . . once the old passage seemed so impregnated with darling Ego and Yvo.

Yes, if she sounds less than horrified about the serious wound to her brother-in-law, that might be because she is in her mother’s house, and both her brothers are dead.

Christmas has become a melancholy milestone for us, but luckily the men of this house-party (who are all under six years) take a glorious joy in all the old rites. Michael was the most satisfactory Christmas child imaginable: he refused to have the fire in his bedroom lit because he was afraid Father Christmas might bum his toes coming down the chimney. Bibs was wonderful with her presents—one for every servant and all beautifully done up in fancy paper and labelled. She kept putting the wrong parcels in the various stockings, so our labours lasted far into the night. I had a sad little hair-combing with Letty. She has been so valiant this year—no breakdown like last Christmas Eve and energising all day over the house decorations. My heart aches for my little John: one turns for salvation to the nursery and that is ‘the most unkindest cut of all’.

And this morning?

Tuesday, 25th December

Nurse called me at 7.30 to see Michael opening his parcels: the vicarious enjoyment was very great. Most of the family went to early service. I joined them at a late breakfast. Found a gorgeous enamel fountain pen from Freyberg. Great excitement over an anonymous present to Bibs—a lovely, and very costly-looking star-sapphire Grenadier badge brooch…[1]

And where is papa? With the artillery in Flanders:

The Major asked what the men would like for their Christmas dinner: we had expected that they would choose either geese or turkeys, but we were completely wrong; our sergeant-major reported that there was a very strong feeling in favour of sucking pigs, and a party was sent out from the wagon line to search the farms of Flanders for a sufficient supply of these delectable animals.[2]

 

Let’s take a quick tour of some of our main characters, now:

 

Robert Graves took a short leave for Christmas, and was able to be with his intended: the Nicholsons were at their house in Wales, near Harlech, and only a few hours’ journey from Rhyl. The wedding is now planned for about a month hence…[3]

 

Rowland Feilding is home, with Edith and their four daughters, aged about one to thirteen–there will be no need to write a war letter to his wife today.

And a very blurry picture of Blunden at the signal school at Mont des Cats

 

 

Edmund Blunden is away from his beloved battalion, a home away from home. He is on a less-than-thrilling signal course, tramping around in the snow and learning about German wireless procedures.

 

 

Wilfred Owen, quite busy with a hotel-full of reserve officers, will tell his sister–while thanking her for her gift and apologizing for not yet sending one to her–that he had

a very mopish Christmas. The C.O. held an orderly Room for punishments in the morning—a thing forbidden in King’s Regulations on Christmas Day—and strafed right & left, above & below…[4]

 

As for Siegfried Sassoon, he has been mopish for a while now, but he enjoys moping more than most. At least, he doesn’t sound too displeased with his Christmas:

Christmas Day (Litherland)

Alone in the hut, after a day of golf at Formby, in fine, cold weather; dine to-night with Colonel Jones Williams and family at Crosby.[5]

 

Back, then, to the front, where the Master of Belhaven is (tremendously) better prepared than he was yesterday:

Our fourth War Christmas, and a typical Christmas Day, snow everywhere…  The men on my H.Q. had a tremendous dinner with six turkeys and a bottle of stout a man, which I provided… We had a tremendous dinner with five French officers; it was really overpowering, as I had only four of my own… the doctor and I had to do all the talking…[6]

 

Carroll Carstairs will recall a similar scene in the mess of the 3rd Grenadier Guards:

Christmas night. Champagne was drunk by the Battalion Headquarters mess. We became flushed and merry—purely artificially so—all very jolly.[7]

 

Kate Luard‘s diary-in-letters has lapsed during her posting to a new hospital, but a Christmas letter to her father survives:

My darling father,

The Division is busy giving concerts in our big theatre this week. Each Battalion has its own troupe and the rivalry is keen. We three sisters are the solitary and distinguished females in a pack of 600 men and inspire occasional witty & polite sallies from the Performers. We sit in the front row between Colonels of the 3[rd] D[ragoon] G[uard]s and 2nd Black Watch & others. Each concert party has its ‘Star Girl’ marvellously got up as in a London Music Hall. Some sing falsetto & some roar their songs in a deep bass coming from a low neck & chiffon dress, lovely stockings & high heels![8]

 

As for Jack Martin, Christmas came early, and so today, in the line, he was grateful for a faint echo of the famous truce of yesteryear:

Today has been beautiful and very quiet. Our guns have fired a few rounds but the Italians and Austrians have religiously abstained from any act of warfare…[9]

 

Olaf Stapledon surely wrote something to Agnes Miller, but the letter seems not to have survived. But Agnes herself isn’t pulling any punches: it may be Christmas, but it’s still only a few days after the vote on conscription.

…A Happy Christmas to you, dear, in your far away village or barns or car, wherever you are.

If only you were here! …this is the fourth Christmas… without you… It surely must be the last…

It seems that everything works up all through the year towards Christmas & one counts the waiting of all the past year at Christmas & the sum of it is very great. . . .

The result of the Referendum has left many a tear of desperation in train. I forget the figures, but the main fact is that there is a very much larger majority for no than there was last year. I feel a terrible outsider because I cannot take it to heart like all my friends…

The sad part about it is that those gaps will be filled by men who are not the right ones to go—married men, & boys & families who have already done their bit—the willing ones. That is the wicked part about not having conscription. They may bring it in compulsorily yet—but then the fat will be in the fire!

…You would have voted against it, would you not? Your ‘no’ would have been the outcome of very different thinkings to the no of 99 per cent of the Victors in our Referendum, but the result is the same. There is the pity of it. The Quakers stuck to their no. Mother is one of their black sheep.[10]

 

Finally, today, Vera Brittain. There is an evocative and deeply sad section of her memoir, Testament of Youth, set at Christmas, 1917. But after reading it over several times, it seems a bit fishy, in terms of the exact timing. I’m not alleging any malfeasance greater than the “telescoping” that many memoir writers indulge in, but if it’s done for effect, and if we care about the day-to-day timing of “history,” then we might well ask–and why, then, are these changes made? And for what effect?

Except for the weather it didn’t seem much like Christmas, with no Roland or Victor or Geoffrey to buy presents for, and Edward so far away that the chance of anything reaching him within a week of the proper time was discouragingly remote. Wartime Christmases anyhow had long lost their novelty, but Mary and I got up early all the same and made shopping expeditions to the village, walking back in pitch darkness through the frozen mud laden with fruit and sweets and gaudy decorations. Christmas Day itself was less unhappy than I had expected, for after a tea-party with the men in my ward, I spent the evening warmly and sleepily at a concert given by the convalescents from the two next-door huts, of which Hope Milroy was now in charge by day.

My own tea-party had to be brief because of another Corporal Smith — though of a type very different from that of the first mortally ill man that I had seen at the Devonshire Hospital — who was rapidly dying of phthisis.

Thus the transition from a melancholy but warm Christmas day to a dismal night of suffering and death. But note the lack of chronological specificity in the transition. That is, she doesn’t say that her own tea party was also to take place Christmas night, but rather implies it… does she telescope all the way to New Year’s Day?

Soon, in any case, Corporal Smith will die:

The traditional only son of a widow, who had been sent for from England, he was one of those grateful, sweet-tempered patients whom it was torture to be unable to save. As he and 1917 ebbed away together, I couldn’t rest even though the surviving gassed cases had gone to England and the convoys had suddenly ceased, but hovered ail night between the stove and the foot of his bed, waiting for the inevitable dawn which would steal greyly around the folded screens. Only once, for ten minutes, did I forsake the self-imposed futility of watching the losing struggle, when Edward’s Christmas letter, written on December 22nd, came out of a snowstorm to remind me that love still existed, quick and warm, in a world dominated by winter and death.

So here is the real Christmas gift. And yet it can hardly have arrived on Christmas. Three days would be good time–but quite reasonable–for a letter from the trenches in France to England. But from the new Italian front to a hospital in France? And she has just commented that she would expect it to take a week for her letter to get to him…

But here in her chronology–whether she remembers it as Christmas or she knows that it must have been a few days later and she is merely prolonging the “scene” for effect–comes Edward’s fond, but distant greetings…

“To-night I owe you a long letter… I am so thankful for your letters — they are now as before the greatest help in the whole world. . . . I don’t know whether I am glad to be here or not — it sounds strange but it’s quite true; I was glad to leave the unpleasant region we were in not far from you and the novelty was good for a time but yet in a way it is all the same because there is no known future and the end is not yet, though, on the face of things at present, there is perhaps more chance of return…

“It seems so much more than two years ago since Roland was killed — to-morrow and Monday I will think of you whenever I can and our love of him may lessen the miles between us.”

And that is how the strange, syncopated blow falls on the reader. I almost missed it: it has been two years since Roland died–two years and two days, for us–but the reader of the memoir would pass from then to there in an hour, or else in a few days of casual reading. Vera Brittain has seen fit to let the anniversary of the worst Christmas pass by unremembered, until she reads the letter.

She includes one more line from her brother’s letter, before bringing us back to the here and now (whenever, precisely, that is):

“What a long war this is! It seems wonderful to have lived so long through it when everyone else is dead.

“Good night, dear dear child.”

It must have been very soon afterwards that Corporal Smith died. His mother, a little woman in rusty black, wept quietly and controlledly beside him when the final struggle for breath began; she gave us no trouble even when Mary replied “Yes, quite sure,” to her final piteous inquiry. After I had taken her through the bitter, snowy darkness to the night superintendent’s bunk, Mary and I laid out the boy’s wasted body. His rapid death had been due, we were told, to an over-conscientious determination to endure; he had refused to complain until too late.

There, and none too subtle, is the message: another year, another day, another death–and why do we not complain, why do we not protest? Whence (and wherefore) any help for our plight?

And then, softly, Brittain turns back to a much more traditional Christmas, a moment out of Dickens, with a slight uncanny tinge of Rilke.

When the orderlies had carried him away, we sat shivering over the stove and discussed in whispers the prospect of a future life; that old discussion, the answer to which three of the four with whom I had most often shared it had now discovered for themselves — or not, as the case might be. But on night-duty many things appeared possible which were quite improbable by day; there seemed, that midnight, to be strange whispers in the snow-laden silence, and the beating of invisible wings about us in the dimly lighted ward.[11]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 384.
  2. Moments of Memory, 310.
  3. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 190.
  4. Collected Letters, 519.
  5. Diaries, 198.
  6. War Diary, 422-7.
  7. A Generation Missing, 146-7.
  8. Unknown Warriors, 205.
  9. Sapper Martin, 156.
  10. Talking Across the World, 263-4.
  11. Testament of Youth, 396-9.

Georgian Poetry the Third; Wilfred Owen’s Busy Month; Sassoon and Nichols Together in the Country; the Rout at Cambrai Continues, with Phillip Maddison; We Meet Lady Cynthia Asquith, as she Entertains a New Zealander, and Doubts

December! First of the last months! I wasn’t sure we would make it to December, 1917, but somehow we have. In celebration, there will be an entire volume of “month poems,” some excellent and topical, some indifferent and timeless, in rather a b ad way: December 1917 will see the release of Georgian Poetry III, a volume notable for bringing several of our poets together, at least between two covers. Later this month Isaac Rosenberg, finishing his own works in the alphabetical layout, will happen upon Siegfried Sassoon and read him for the first time.

 

Now Sassoon is, in one important way, a very generous soul: he is generous to his readers, especially those who came afterwards and interest themselves in his solipsism. There are the two piles of autobiography, the letters, the poems, and… ah, but he has been neglecting the diary. It was a place for notes on combat, cris de couer, and, once upon a time, his sporting doings.

So, now that he is a poet of protest no more but not yet a Mad Jack returned unto the bosom of the only men worth having as comrades and followers, what is the post-Rivers, pre-redemption Sassoon to do? Which of the various Siegfrieds will come to the fore?

So far, at least, he is having his cake and eating it too. Visiting his mother, he is at once George Sherston, fox-hunting man, and Siegfried Sassoon, habitué of London literary drawing rooms:

Went on leave November 29. Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Weirleigh. Bob Nichols came for Saturday and Sunday…

Which means Nichols will depart tomorrow, a century back, with their somewhat inevitable, somewhat unlikely friendship cemented; and then, on Monday, the diary will resume its oldest form: a hunting journal.[1]

 

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford

Sassoon’s other recent friendship–a far more momentous one–has reached a period of enforced cooling, as Wilfred Owen has been exiled to Scarborough and all-day duties as a Camp Commandant (not that Owen wasn’t trying to keep things simmering). Owen is on his own again, but he has begun–he has been started, as it were, and he is refreshed, driven. For those who didn’t follow the link above and read all of Georgian Poetry, then, here is a shorter and more aspirational document, looking ahead to the month’s accomplishments:

 

And what of the ongoing war?

 

For The Master of Belhaven, today was a day of false alarms. Standing-to from 5 a.m. until 9, they expected news of the assault of the German Guards Divisions, but his batteries, on the far flank of the Cambrai action, eventually stood down.[2]

 

So our war story, for the day, is carried on best in fiction. Henry Williamson‘s Phillip Maddison had yet another climax–and anti-climax–to his manifold military experiences. His Machine Gun Company is called into the line to stem the German counter-attack: the British near-breakthrough of November 20th has become a German near-breakthrough, and Williamson seems to take a cruel pleasure in depicting the routed and panicked men who stream back past “286 M.”

Phillip himself, though “windy” and teary, is back in heroic mode, fighting in his pyjamas and helping to hold the line on what was, by all accounts, a desperate day. But in a bitter irony–Williamson perhaps intends this as a microcosm for the belated bureaucratic reckoning which will come for the commanders at Cambrai–Maddison’s commander, Teddy Pinnegar, is blamed for the Machine Gun Company being in the wrong place, even though this happens as a result of Phillip’s decisions during last night’s march… It’s all very confusing.

The day ends with Phillip guilty, feverish, diagnosed with trench fever by an American doctor, and sent to Blighty–not grateful, as he has been in earlier, more fearful times, but rueful that he has let his commander down and is going home sick rather than with a heroic wound. The climax of the book’s non-military action will come in England over the next few weeks, as the war and Phillip’s romantic escapades come together at last.[3]

 

Finally, with the new month, I’d like to introduce one more–just one more!–society diary.

Lady Cynthia Asquith has few connections to anyone we know. Except that she is a daughter of two “souls,” her mother a Wyndham (the grace on the right) and her father Hugo Charteris, the Earl of Wemyss; her brothers Yvo and Hugo (“Ego”) have both been killed in action; she is a confidante of D.H. Lawrence, secretary to J.M. Barrie, daughter-in-law of the ex-Prime Minister (her husband, Herbert Asquith, still serving in uniform and most evidently away from home was Raymond‘s younger brother), and, generally, friends with all of the smart set of society still left in England.

Which includes Bernard Freyberg, a New Zealandish interloper on the group who has earned his stripes (and stars) as a member of the Argonauts and, now, a hero of the Naval Division’s land battles. Lady Asquith will become a prolific author, but already, a century back, it’s clear that, surrounded by war and loss, she knows how to write warriors very well. Ardent lovers, however, are another thing altogether…

Saturday, 1st December

Went down to Brighton by 11.40 to spend the day with Freyberg. He met me at the station. He is staying at the Royal York, but we drove straight to the Metropole for luncheon. He was looking better and had a fine appetite. With his youthful face and the insignia of his anomalous rank (his medals and preposterous number of gold stripes), he is very conspicuous and much stared at—obsequious deference from the waiters. I insisted on taking him to Professor Severn, the phrenologist, but he was hopelessly out about him, marking him low for self-esteem and concentration…

We walked to dinner at the Metropole. He told me of his wonderful swimming exploit in Gallipoli, when he swam for four hours and landed naked and alone, and crawled quite close to the enemy’s trenches and lit torches. His eyes shine and he becomes poeticised talking of military adventures, and I was touched to see his eyes fill with tears once when he was talking about his men. I find him very, very attractive.

He drove me to the station to catch the 9.40. He made love to me all day with simplicity and sweetness, and I don’t know what to do. Several times he said he thought he had better not see me any more, and I suppose I ought to take him at his word: it is the candle that should withdraw, the moth cannot, but it would require considerable unselfishness on my part. I should hate to give him up altogether—conscience tells me I should. He kept asking me if I would have married him had I been free. I enjoyed the day very much—injudicious as it was.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 197.
  2. War Diary, 414-5.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 333-49.
  4. Diaries, 374-5.

Dr. Dunn on Passchendaele: Unburyable Corpses and Magical Light; George Coppard in Blighty; Phillip Maddison at Cambrai; The Master Learns the Cathedral

Today, a century back, George Coppard, shot through the leg during the battle of Cambrai, arrived at Birkenhead Borough Hospital:

It was not a fancy place, but after the turmoil of war it seemed as near to heaven as I was likely to get. Britain was still celebrating the victory of the the Third Army [at Cambrai] and the bells of the churches had rung out in praise. At that time the tank thrust was regarded as the first real turn of the tide against German might… fresh from the fray, I attracted my little share of attention from the visitors and nursing staff… but there was trouble ahead.

And not just with the strategic failures at Cambrai; Coppard’s wound, which has severed the femoral artery and been staunched by his own none-too-sterile thumb, was both too deep to easily repair and liable to infection…[1]

 

Cambraiis no victory–but at least it took us away from Passchendaele. Remember Passchendaele? Tens of thousands of infantrymen are still there, holding the miserable wasteland into the winter. Today brings one of the most striking passages in Dr. Dunn’s narrative of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers. He[2] has been on leave and, returning, is struck anew by the sheer wretchedness of the battlefield. Dunn would never make such a dramatic statement, but… only men could make such a hell.

At dawn I went with Radford round part of the line. Many scarcely recognizable dead lie about, a few of them Germans. Passchendaele is not quite levelled… Mud flows through entrances, and rain drops through the cracked cemented-brick floors roofing the cellars, on to the occupants… When the position is overlooked the men are pinned down by day, and numbed with cold by day and night… In the morning some of our planes came over in an objectless-looking way…

A rapidly filling cemetery… is a most unrestful place. It is the labour of a squad to keep the dead in their graves. A sapper officer was killed and buried in the morning; his tormented body had to be reburied twice during the day.

The next line comes as a shock. But should it?

But for all the havoc up here the effect of a glint of sunshine on the waste is magical.[3]

 

Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, is in Amiens, on the way back from an officers’ course in England.

Let’s see: misery, destruction, attrition, mass death… all modern and unavoidable, now. But perhaps one of the more overlooked ways in which the Great War qualifies as the first modern war is that the regular rotations of leaves and courses–and habits like tourism while on military journeys–rarely stop.

I had a good lunch there and went to see the Cathedral with an excellent guide-book. I spent an hour there and discovered all sorts of interesting things that I did not know before…

He will reach his batteries, still on a quiet sector of the Somme, after midnight…[4]

 

Finally, today, Henry Williamson is still in England on Home Service, but Phillip Maddison, his tireless alter ego, is drawing nearer to the cauldron of Cambrai. His “diary,” which fills several pages of the novel Love and the Loveless at this point, is an improbably knowledgeable (he is still, despite his brush with greatness, a mere lieutenant charged with resupplying a Machine Gun Company currently in reserve) crib from the history books, explaining all the movements of, for instance, the Guards in Bourlon Wood.

But tonight the company moves up, and Williamson writes a long scene full of many familiar elements–the confusion of a night relief, the misery of a march under fire–and some stranger ones, such as the description of horses and mules “screaming” through their gas masks. When the German counter-attack breaks through, Phillip will be, as always, on the scene.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 130.
  2. I believe it's Dunn himself; it's sometimes difficult to tell who the "speaker" is.
  3. The War the Infantry Knew, 417.
  4. War Diary, 414.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 333-49.

A Shell Inscribes a Line in Edward Brittain’s Hand; Hugh Quigley Girds for Battle; Herbert Read Welcomes the Conquering Heroes; Isaac Rosenberg Goes Under the Weather; Phillip Maddison Goes from Safety to the German Lines, and from the German Lines to G.H.Q.

Today, a century back, brings a welter of writing–wry, wet, windy, and ominous.

 

Hugh Quigley knows that he about to march back into the thick of things, and so he writes, to someone he loves, with the cruel candor of the soldier before battle:

I expect this will be the last letter you will get from me for at least ten days. You know what that means. I can only only hope to get out safely, or, at worst, with a comfortable wound. If the same fate happens to me as to Peter, I have done my duty, according to conventional standards. By higher and more ideal standards, it is too perverted to be called duty at all, if it does not immediately help to stop war and avoid sacrifice.

Our men are growing more confident everyday; in fact, one could almost go into battle now with a bag of provisions and a walking-stick. The rifle plays only a small part, for the enemy invariably throw up their hands when the infantry approach…

Quigley’s confidence is more than a bit overstated, but then again this is a letter home, a last letter before combat, meant to reassure. Or something along those lines. While it is true that the rifle-toting infantryman is increasingly just a pawn in an artillery war, the idea that there will not be any fighting necessary in an advance against German pillboxes is ridiculous, as we have seen so often, recently.

Regardless, Quigley is soon back in a full-blown romantic mode: he even finds a “curiously apposite” French poem on a scrap of paper.

This paper was lying beside a tombstone under the shadow of a great church. I spent an afternoon wandering round that church, sentimentalizing to my heart’s content, with no one to disturb me and no one to utter bald consolations about the price of life. The slow passage of time came to a sweetness of thought, not melancholic, not poignant, just a lingering tenderness and a faint regret, tenuous as a web of sun in the tree-shadows. High chestnuts, browning through shimmering gold, dropped solitary leaves with a faint pat on the flat stones or rustled them through the wire-enclosed wreaths hanging from grey crosses, half-ruined, green with a decay of beauty, so that the harmony of life came very close to death, reality to dream…

You will see the old sentiments cannot die… They are worth something more than this, farther and higher… Not ephemeral, but progressive and continuous on a way of perfection…

Each man prepares for the ordeal of a tour in the trenches in a different way. Quigley, it’s safe to say, complicates the stereotype of the enlisted man’s “this leaves me in the pink” letter before battle…[1]

 

And Vera Brittain, who has lost a fiancé and two close friends after letters more or less like that one, has decided that she can’t hang on every turn of the front line/reserve/rest rotation of her only brother. So Edward writes to her today, only when he is safely out of the latest mess. I include this letter mostly for how it begins:[2] with a mark made by the war, not just on a day, a century back, but in a single moment:

France, 10 October 1917

— That curious dash because a shell made me jump. This is rather a filthy place… We haven’t had a mail for 3 days owing to our sudden move and so I expect there will be a letter from you when it does come. I am very glad you have written some more poems so as to make enough for a small volume; I will ask Mrs L[eighton] about it; I believe you were thinking of Erskine Macdonald before. By the way why haven’t you sent me any of your new poems as you know I should like to have them?[3]

 

Isaac Rosenberg has just had leave–his first–and has been writing poems. But the heavy rain of the last few days has done no good for his always-problematic lungs. The weather will save him, perhaps, if it doesn’t kill him: today, a century back, he went sick with influenza, which for a man of his physique is certainly more dangerous than ordinary trench duty.[4]

 

Comfort and the fortunes of leave are also on the mind of Herbert Read, guilt-stricken at having missed his battalion’s part in the Passchendaele battle. He can make amends by preparing decent beds for them all: having been held back in reserve and appointed billeting officer, he spent a long day’s negotiation with the inhabitants of a poor northern French village–“Mais c’est la guerre, as they all say.”

10.x.17

They came in shortly after midnight, very weary and ready to drop down and sleep anywhere. It isn’t three weeks since I left them, but it was like greeting long lost friends… It isn’t only fancy that makes them seem to have aged five years and more. They have gone through what as probably the most intense shell fire since the war began.[5]

 

Finally, today, we have a date-in-a-novel, a time-stamped activity from our strangest and most carefully calendrical fictional war book. Henry Williamson himself missed the summer and Passchendaele because of a long stint recovering from symptoms that may have been simple illness or may have been worsened by gas or the psychological toll of his service in the winter and spring around Arras. But his enormous semi-autobiographical sequence on the life of Phillip Maddison elongates the author’s combat experiences, compresses his time at home, and puts the protagonist always where the action is. Phillip Maddison never misses a battle.

Today, a century back, his heroic mentor, “Westy,” has turned up again as well, and this time Phillip plunges in unlikely fashion into the German lines (as he has done several memorable times before, including during the Christmas Truce and at Loos) as a sidekick rather than as a lone ranger.

Before sending us over the top, as it were, Williamson dutifully gives us a potted military history of the “Fourth Step” of Third Ypres, a.k.a. the “Battle of Poelcappelle.” Which is all well and good,[6] but sits rather jarringly with the most Gumpish of the many Gumpish moments in the series so far. I will quote and then summarize, as best as I can.

(The whole sequence of novels is a slog, but so very interesting: there is an unprecedented devotion to raking oneself over the coals of memory while raking out the embers of traditional military history at the same time–just not well-enough written to enchant other than a devoted reader over several thousand pages.)

The day after the fourth step had been launched, two men, each with a long stick in his hand, were walking on one of the many duck-board tracks lying parallel to the Wieltje-Frezenberg road, alongside which was an almost continuous row of 18-pounder field-guns….  The senior of the two, whose diminutive scarlet gorget patches on the collar of his ranker’s tunic were concealed under a woolen scarf, carried, in addition, a map-case.

“I don’t see how the infantry can possibly move in this weather, Westy. Must the attacks go on?”

“If only the Chief could have had his own way, and attacked up here last May, instead of down south, as demanded by Joffre… Third Ypres was put off in 1916, and again last spring. With the results that everyone can now see–only everyone, as usual, will draw the wrong conclusions.”

Well, Westy, you didn’t really answer the question.

Now commences the aforementioned Gumpish adventure, a sort of shark-jumping in the Passchendaele mud. It’s ridiculous to find this (over and over again) in a book that is generally concerned both to represent the progress of the war from a young soldier’s point of view and to dwell on the very real push-and-pull between rashness and cowardice, confidence and self-loathing that seems to have riven Williamson’s character, as well as that of his alter ego. Ridiculous, and suited more to a pot-boiler than an attempt at literature/transmuted memoir, but nonetheless fascinating. If Williamson had a slightly steadier hand, we could even begin to make the argument that his sprawling Bildungsroman is actually an argument that the realist novel is a poor sort of form for telling war stories…

The setting is this: “Westy,” the clear-eyed, far-seeing, casually imperturbable Cassandra of the Old Contemptibles, has become a sort of minister-without-portfolio for the staff, charged to roam wherever he will and report on the “real” situation without regard for the normal channels of command. He takes Maddison forward with him into the front lines, where another assault–the “Fifth Step” of the battle–is about to take place. Commandeering a platoon of Lancashire Territorials, the two adventurers cross into no man’s land near the town of Passchendaele itself, and find a crucial hole in the German defenses.

So far, only the freelancing of Westy and Maddison is ridiculously far-fetched. There does seem to have been a disconnect–mostly environmental and unavoidable (and to some extent a product of bureaucratic awkwardness and scale management and inefficient traditions)–between the enormous effort put into planning an attack in the weeks and months before it and the failure to process any knowledge of German plans and movements during the days when the pending attack must have been obvious to them. The strategic plan must be, to a large extent, inflexible, but there is a horrible sense that while the attack could be built to respond to reports from the front in the last days–to adjust to the adjustments made by the defense–the will just isn’t there. It’s such a big bureaucracy, and the top planners are so very far from the trenches…  The British guns mass on known German positions, there are raids and counter-raids, withdrawals and new positions… and the machinery of the attack clicks slowly forward…

More or less alone in a gap in the vaunted German defenses, “Westy” writes out a dispatch, describing the tactical omission and opportunity. But while he is doing so the green subaltern of the platoon they have borrowed blows a whistle, as if he were on parade or mid-attack. Alerted, a German machine gun opens up, Westy us shot through the chest–his eighth wound–and it is left to Maddison to save the day.

And here’s where it gets interesting. Maddison–touched now by the hand of of the divine and possibly dying West–is suddenly, once again, brave and resolute, decisive and dashing. But he is also on a segment of the line where he is known to various officers, and not well liked. He has a significant reputation for both shirking and for wild immaturity, and so the perils which spring up to prevent him from getting Westy’s report to the men who must read them are not just physical obstacles like broken country and German bullets, but also the enemies of his past, among his own army.

Calm and collected, Maddison takes off, D’Artagnan-like, but find that he must explain himself to an officer who knows him from his days a misfit and lead-swinger.. He is disbelieved, disrespected, place under arrest, and then left alone with a horse and an easily-bluffed enlisted man. So Phillip Maddison, veteran of First and Third Ypres, Loos and the Somme, turns horse-thief, and gallops off to G.H.Q… and there, dropping dead with exhaustion and telling a strange tale, he is warmly listened to, fed and bedded, and made to tell his tale to the assembled mucky-mucks. There is good food and wine and cigars, but also the confident formality (of the very well-bred Englishmen). The unkempt messenger is heeded, and a better plan is put in motion… Phillip has saved day, and will have a pleasant rest at G.H.Q. before returning to his ordinary duty as a transport officer in a humble Machine Gun Company… And Henry Williamson leaves us wondering–is this a personal triumph in the face of the cold indifference of strategy? Is the implication that the Staff, with its cigars and clean clothes and expensive liquor, is nonetheless doing the best it can by men like Westy (not to mention all those thousands of platoons in the front lines? Or are the two worlds as incompatible as they feel, since the distance between the two seems to have grown greater after the unlikely gallop of our hero from one to another, rather than smaller?

I’m not sure. The simple answer, surely, is that when Williamson is writing of a time when he was abed in England, he works from a military history and indulges himself by writing a Boy’s Own Paper adventure. Whether this means that he was unable to consistently write a giant realist novel as a consistently realistic “War Book,” or simply unwilling to do so, is another matter.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Passchendaele and the Somme, 144-7.
  2. If there is an image of it available somewhere, I didn't find it with a desultory search, alas.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 377.
  4. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 172.
  5. The Contrary Experience, 111.
  6. It seems a relatively clear and balanced history of the battle as seen from the decades afterwards, and didn't Tolstoy do much the same thing, after all?

Frank Richards and Doctor Dunn on a Day of Battle for the Royal Welch: Desperate Measures under the Rockets’ Glare; Phillip Maddison Finds Balance; Ivor Gurney Overjoyed, Isaac Rosenberg to Return

The Second Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers is currently bereft of famous poet officers–Siegfried Sassoon is in Scotland while Robert Graves is with the depot in Wales–but two of their acquaintances are very much with the Regiment today, a century back, in one of its worst days in the Salient. It is a day of combat, and crisis, and an unusual confusion of roles. Dr. Dunn, we must remember, is both currently the battalion medical officer and subsequently the chief chronicler–but he has not been a fighting soldier for many years.

At the risk of aggravating Dunn, we’ll let Graves introduce the day’s story, even though it is not quite standard historical procedure to begin with hearsay before examining the eyewitness account. Ironically, however, Graves’s more dramatic rendering–based on reports he will get later from other members of the battalion–is probably more plainly true than the doctor’s account. Graves might self-aggrandize and take liberties with local truths, but he seems intent on giving the characters of the Regiment their due–especially when they themselves fail in to sing their own deeds quite loudly enough.

Doctor Dunn was what they call a hard-bitten man; he had served as a trooper in the South African War and won the D.C.M. He was far more than a doctor; living at battalion headquarters he became the right-hand man of three or four colonels in succession. When his advice was not taken this was usually afterwards regretted. On one occasion, in the autumn fighting of 1917, a shell burst among the headquarters staff, knocking out adjutant, colonel, and signals officer. Dunn had no hesitation in pulling off the red-cross armlets that he wore in a battle and becoming a temporary combatant officer of the Royal Welch, resigning his duties to the stretcher-bearer sergeant. He took command and kept things going. The men were rather afraid of him, but had more respect for him than for anyone else in the battalion.[1]

Today, a century back, would be that occasion. The 2/R.W.F. were in support of the second day’s push (of this new phase of Third Ypres, that is), and spent the early morning waiting as the battle raged to their east. It is only after they receive their orders, around 8.15, to attack at noon that we learn just how things are with the battalion. This is the collective account narrated by Dunn, now:

Poore called a conference of Company Commanders; the C.O. had gone on leave when we came out of rest. C and D companies were under their own commanders, Radford and Coster; but owing to leave, Battle Surplus, and the inexperience of subalterns, Moldy Williams had been transferred from C to B, and Hywel Evans from B to A., both only the previous day.[2] A shortage of maps caused some confusion to begin with…

A simplified battle plan is hammered out, and the battalion was soon marching over the Menin Road. Dunn, at this point following the battalion and tending to the wounded, saw a man desert for the rear, and noted that he was later arrested (whether he was shot for desertion is not made clear). This lone incident does more than a lengthy situation report to remind us just how hopeless and terrifying it would have felt to march over the shattered German defenses.. and toward the deep lines of still-intact German defenses…

Nevertheless, the battalion eventually reached its starting point “without serious loss.” But as they were forming up–without artillery support or a sure sense of where the enemy was–they came under machine gun fire. To some degree, their progress to this point is evidence of the success of the “Bite and Hold” tactics: it is the second or third day of an offensive, reinforcements are getting nearly intact nearly to their starting points, and the counter-attacks are not in the ascendancy.

But this is still the salient, with German artillery on three sides and German machine guns in hardened pillboxes nearly everywhere. Two officers, including Coster, were soon killed. Their maps proved to be incomplete. With McMaster University‘s archive available online, we can find their position on a map that is probably quite similar to the ones they were using. Dunn’s sketch of the tactical situation is actually a minor masterpiece of tactical clarity, and the Welch can be precisely placed, arrayed roughly north-south along the left middle of the excerpt above, in the mess of old trenches and pillboxes near Carlisle Farm (square 15) and under fire from the Polderhoek Château (bottom of 16) on their right. Pinned down and cut off from their own H.Q., the companies falling out of touch with each other and no clear objectives in sight, they continue to take casualties. The irony of Dunn’s precise record of their whereabouts is that it bears no tactical fruit. He knows–and he tells us–where he was, but confusion about the whereabouts of everyone else–including the Germans–will continue throughout the day.

Meanwhile, accurate enemy fire is constant, and no advance is possible.

When the Companies lay low the Germans held their fire, but any movement, even by one man, drew a very accurate fire. In these circumstances A and B ceased to shoot at their unseen enemy.

Several more company and platoon officers were wounded, and the Welsh lost touch with the Scottish and Australian troops around them.

At about 1.30, the doctor’s narrative returns to the first person, and the battalion’s leadership takes a direct hit.

…I, finding nothing more to do for the time being, and having had no food since last night’s dinner, was sent in the same direction to seek my servant. He and another man, with the heedless coolness which was so common, had lighted a fire on the enemy side of a pill-box, and made tea. They were about to give some to a young Australian with a bad belly wound. After stopping them I was trying to placate him when Signaller Barrett came and told me that while Colquhoun was talking to Poore and Casson, the Assistant Adjutant, a 5.9 burst along them, killing all three. That happened about 2 o’clock.

Dunn is not in command of the battalion, per se–he is permanently outside the chain of command, and quite unusual in being a doctor with combat service in a previous war. But someone needs to go forward from HQ and find the company commander who now must take over. Dunn will not explicitly acknowledge his heroism, here, but he seems to allude to the strangeness of the moment–as well as the general surrealism of prolonged battle–with this memory of the mind’s habit of recalling harmless happy moments to compare with some horrifying present vision.

Thereupon, I went to look for Radford about the Reutel road where I had seen him an hour before. On the way, two men suddenly rose into the air vertically, 15 feet perhaps, amid a spout of soil about 150 yards ahead. They rose and fell with the easy, graceful poise of acrobats. A rifle, revolving slowly, rose high above them before, still revolving, it fell. The sight recalled, even in these surroundings, a memory of boyhood: a turn that thrilled me in a travelling circus at St. Andrews…

He did not, perhaps, take time for the theatrical gesture of removing his red cross armbands. Or perhaps he did, to give the Germans a sporting chance of killing him while he considered himself a combatant, and modestly omits to tell us?

In any event, according to Dunn’s account he almost immediately found Radford, a company commander at the beginning of the day but now the senior combat officer, and stayed with him while he wrote out a report to be sent back to Brigade. Dunn does not mention Radford being in command, but he implies it… and then Radford vanishes from the narrative for some time, and the narrative slips into the passive voice.

The worst of the day is over, but there is still much consolidation to be done:

When the light failed A and B Companies were reorganized… After dark a sudden commotion was caused by D Company falling back on the Reutel road. They reported that the enemy was massing in Polygon Wood, and that they had very little ammunition left. The decision to fall back was made in consultation with the O.C. their Australian comrades…

But who made this decision with the Australian commander? It sounds like it was Dunn, as Graves suggests.

 

Let’s work back a bit, and see how Frank Richards saw this afternoon. Richards is the consummate old soldier, and not above tarting up a yarn for the benefit of his readers,[3] but he was indisputably an eyewitness to these events, serving as he did with the signallers of the battalion, and thus often alongside the headquarters contingent, or bearing messages to and fro.

Richards’s account of the terrible hour around noon is more direct and more, dare we say, cinematic:

A few minutes later Dr. Dunn temporarily resigned from the Royal Army Medical Corps. He told me to get him a rifle and bayonet and a bandolier of ammunition. I told him that he had better have a revolver, but he insisted on having what he had asked me to get. I found them for him, and slinging the rifle over his shoulder, he commenced to make his way over to the troops behind the bank. I accompanied him. Just before we reached there our chaps who were hanging on to the position in front of it started to retire back. The doctor barked at them to line up with the others. Only Captain Radford and four platoon officers were left in the Battalion and the doctor unofficially took command.

Radford’s presence is something of an embarrassment, then–why is this company commander not in active command of the battalion? And hence, perhaps, Dunn’s professional modesty is a cloak for the honor of a brother officer? But neither is there any suggestion that Radford failed to do his duty or did not fight well. It’s tempting to assume that he was momentarily overcome (as so many people would be in such a situation), but it is also possible that, given the force of Dunn’s character and his long service as a sort of consigliere to the colonel, it just seemed natural to Radford to continue commanding a consolidated line company and leave the direction of the battalion to the doctor.

In any case, no one hints that Dunn so any moral quandary in ceasing to be a healer–technically sacrosanct, even if those badges that he may or may not have removed were not often respected–and picking up a rifle and directly ordering men to wound and destroy those opposite. War is madness.

Back to Richards:

We and the Australians were all mixed up in extended order. Behind everyone had now left the standpoint and we all lined up behind the bank, which was about three feet high. We had lent a Lewis gun team to the 5th Scottish Rifles on our right, and when it began to get dark the doctor sent me with a verbal message to bring them back with me if they were still in the land of the living. When I arrived at the extreme right of our line, I asked the right hand man if he was in touch with the 5th Scottish. He replied that he had no more idea than a crow where they were, but guessed that they were somewhere in the front to the right of him. I now made my way very carefully over the ground. After I had walked some way I began to crawl. I was liable any moment to come into contact with a German post or trench. I saw someone moving in front of me, so I slid into a shell hole…

I waited in that shell hole for a while, trying to pierce the darkness in front. I resumed my journey, and, skirting one shell hole, a wounded German was shrieking aloud in agony… he must have been hit low down, but I could stop for no wounded man. But I saw two men in a shallow trench but did not know if they were the 5th Scottish or the Germans until I heard some good Glasgow English. When I got in their trench they told me that they had only just spotted me when they challenged. The Lewis-gun team were still kicking and my journey back with them was a lot easier than the outgoing one.

I reported to the Doctor that there was a gap of about 100 yards between the 5th Scottish Rifles and we; and he went himself to remedy it. The whole of the British front that night seemed to be in a semi-circle. We had sent some S O S rockets up in the air… they were only used when a situation was deemed critical, and everybody seemed to be in the same plight as ourselves…[4]

Dunn remembers these rockets as well:

Twice between dark and midnight the S O S went up in the Reutel direction, and was repeated by other units. It was a red-over-green-over-yellow parachute grenade at the time, a pleasing combination of colours hanging about the fretted outline of pines that stood in dark relief against a clear night sky. Each time the gunners on both sides opened promptly…[5]

 

These are two true stories of one battalion’s role in a major attack. We can also read, for a strange sort of leavening, Henry Williamson‘s fictional account of the attack. Williamson is still convalescing in England, but Phillip Maddison, for all that his (fictional) presence at nearly every major offensive is beginning to wear thin, witnessed the battle from his position with the supply train of a Machine Gun Company and described it in his patented “History Painting” style. Williamson is working from published histories, of course, so it is not surprising that he echoes the accounts we have just read. In fact, it’s quite useful, since Maddison consciously takes up a middle position between an army that is–in some quarters at least–beginning to despair and a propaganda machine that churns on without acknowledging the ratcheting tension of 1917.

Maddison writes in his pocket diary that “there ‘were persistent rumours of hundreds of thousands killed,'” yet he spent many evenings of the battle regularly hearing optimistic reports–internal army propaganda, essentially–read out to the troops by the rear-area ammunition dumps. So the army is preaching success to its own rear elements (who may or may not know about the disturbances at Étaples) even though they can look to the East and see precisely what Dunn and Richards have been describing: the colored SOS signals going up “again and again.”

For Phillip, at least, weariness is leading toward maturity: he begins to see a balance between the alarmist rumors of total collapse and tens of thousands of men killed and the sanguine army announcements. Under the tutelage of “Westy,”–the old heroic officer whose ex post facto facts about the Passchendaele campaign are clunkingly parachuted into the narrative at this point–Maddison is starting to see the war for what it is: a grim attritional battle that, at this moment, is narrowly tilted in the allies’ favor by Plumer’s operational initiatives.[6]

 

Finally, today, three short notes. In contradistinction to the misery of the Salient, let’s spend just a moment with Ivor Gurney, who is safely out of it all, for a few weeks at least, with a blighty touch of gas.

26 September 1917

My Dear Friend: To write to you on common notepaper, white and smooth, to be in between sheets white as snow—yesterday, but I smoke in bed! — and to hear noises domestic and well known flurries and scurries about one — how sweet are all these!

And to be within 17 miles of Enbro, that old city of Scott and R.L.S.; such is my nature that this last idea in fact is sweetest of all.

Ward 24, Edinburgh War Hospital, Bangour, Scotland is my present address. Only slowly and uncertainly is the conviction leaking in through the strong covering of frost and use that I am really in Blighty…

With time on his hands, Gurney’s letters ramble even more than usual, but he returns in the end to the simple theme of a soldier’s thankfulness at being somewhere safe and quiet–and clean:

Clean sheets, clean clothes and skin; no lice; today’s papers; ordinary notepaper. . . What next?

Good bye, and all good wishes for all good things:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[7]

 

Many others will be coming to Blighty too. When Ronnie Knox converted to Catholicism last week, his father, an Anglican bishop, determined to cut off all contact with him for at least a year. But Bishop Knox will shortly be abrogating this policy in order to pass along a telegram. Ronnie’s older brother Eddie, an officer with the 2/4th Lincolns, was shot in the back today, a century back, by a German sniper somewhere east of the Menin Road, under those same SOS flares.[8]

 

And, of course, for every man that comes home, another most go back to take his place. In London, today, Isaac Rosenberg bid farewell to his family and belatedly caught a train back to the coast, his leave over. When he returns, he will be transferred from his assignment as a laborer attached to the engineers and sent back into the line.[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 260-1.
  2. What would Siegfried Sassoon have thought, in his room at Craiglockhart or out on the links, or wherever he is right this moment, were he able to listen in to this conference in real time?
  3. He will have the assistance in this of the very best, namely his one time battalion superior Robert Graves.
  4. Old Soldiers Never Die, 246-251.
  5. The War the Infantry Knew, 392-400.
  6. Love and the Loveless, 286-7.
  7. War Letters, 205-6.
  8. Fitzgerald, The Knox Brothers, 139-40. Eddie Knox was a talented satirist and frequent contributor to Punch. But he had not felt able to write amusing poems from the trenches and thus sidesteps the label of "war poet." He will survive the war, and his daughter Penelope will write the biography of him and his brothers from which this information derives--as well as several of the best 20th century British novels.
  9. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 171. His actual departure may have come two days later, after missing or being unable to take several trains. See Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 373.

The Immaculate Man of the Trenches Survives–in Silence

Our men in the salient are quiet today–too quiet. In fact, Edward Brittain has also been in the thick of it for ten full days. But he hasn’t told his sister Vera, who has been engaging in a sort of magical-thinking silent treatment.

Four days later, I learnt that his company had left the front line on September 24th, after being in the “show” without a break since the 14th. “We came out last night,” he told me, “though perhaps ‘came out’ scarcely expresses it; had about 50 casualties, including 1 officer in the company — the best officer of course. I ought to have been slain myself heaps of times but I seem to be here still.”

It was during this offensive that he came to be known as “the immaculate man of the trenches.” In addition to his
daily shave, he wrote most considerately whenever he could to let me know that he was still “quite alright.”

…This was war in real earnest, yet to my tense anxiety he did seem to bear the proverbial charmed life. So long as he remained, even though the others were dead, hope remained, and there was something to live for; without him — well, I didn’t know, and blankly refused to think… his activities so distressed me that I seldom wrote to him at all, superstitiously believing that if I did he would certainly be dead before the letter arrived. With his usual tolerance he only protested very mildly about this unexpected treatment.

“quite understand why you didn’t write during the interval but, if possible, please don’t do so again or else I shan’t tell you when I am about to face anything unpleasant, and then you will not be able to help me face it.”[1]

This is not the first time that Vera Brittain has had to contend with the emotional push and pull of communicating with front-line soldiers. It’s the fourth time, really: Roland, Victor, and Geoffrey all went into danger, and from each, eventually, there was a letter that became a last letter, and a telegram that brought the worst news. But Edward is safe, for now, and he has explained for us the soldier’s side of the story: I need your letters, too; and even if I can’t write often or in depth from the trenches, I still need to be able to signal across the gulf, and know that someone is there, reading and waiting…

 

Henry Williamson has been convalescing in Cornwall–after illness and a touch of gas–for several happy months. At a medical board, today, a century back, he learned that this pleasant interval will end–but gently. Wililamson was declared fit for “light duty,” and given leave…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 387-8.
  2. Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 168.

The Battle of Pilckem Ridge: Hedd Wyn and Francis Ledwidge; David Jones, Edmund Blunden, Phillip Maddison, Ralph Hamilton, and Kate Luard

After a difficult spring, it’s been a relatively quiet summer so far. But that’s over, today.

Looking a century back, we know that today’s attack begins the last of the truly enormous offensive disasters of the British war. After Third Ypres, that is, there is only one more disaster, and then one last offensive. But in 1917, of course, today wasn’t the last of anything, only the latest in the long series of “big pushes,” each of which has been very costly, and none of which has achieved a breakthrough into the German rear.

The reason I’m dwelling on our inevitable position of historical irony (i.e. knowing more than the writers knew then, a condition which this project usually seeks to obscure, due to the governing conceit that we are there, a century back, and know no more of the future) is that this may be the last of those days, before the end of the war, that seemingly everyone who was there (and some who weren’t) wrote about. It will be one of the last days, at least, that I will insist on exploring from many vantage points, and perhaps no day in the next fifteen months will produce so long a post. Even if the coming weeks will find the British army as miserably mired as it has ever been, for readers it may well be all downhill from here…

Which is all to say, please bear with me, today: there are several poems and several long prose extracts. It’s a terrible day.

 

We’ll begin, not entirely inappropriately, with melodramatic fiction. Henry Williamson‘s alter ego Philip Maddison never misses a battle, and there is a strange, fruitful tension between Maddison’s use as a tightly-grasped mirror onto the life-history of his creator and the plot contortions which deliver him to every major action of the British war to witness the “show.” It seems fitting to let him talk us into the opening of yet another battle, before we try to understand the experiences of the poets who were there.

Dragging clouds broke into rain on the night of July 31.[1] Some said it was due to the gunfire… Everything he had experienced in war so far was diminished by the sinister feeling all around him as he rode through the Grand Place [in Ypres], despite the almost furtive activity among the ruins, where were hidden masked batteries of guns, including a 15-inch howitzer known as ‘Clockwork Charlie’ for its regular bombardment of Passchendaele station thirteen thousand yards away.

…A psychical vacuum of lost life, old terror, and chronic hopelessness lingered in the crepuscular ruins… ahead lay nihilism… One of many hundreds of thousands who had passed that way, Phillip proceeded, nervous animation of flesh and bone on innocent horseflesh because there was no alternative, while he remained unbroken.[2]

But it will go easily with Phillip: he commands a Machine Gun Company’s transport unit[3] and will have no duties until it is time to bring ammunition up later in the day. He sleeps through the opening barrage.

 

This rose to a climax at around a quarter to 4:00 a.m., as dawn was breaking–or would have, if it were not so heavily overcast. At 3:50 the 15th Royal Welsh Fusiliers moved up and out. At the same time, their own 14th Battalion attcked from assembly trenches directly in front. To their left were other battalions of the 38th Division, then the Guards Division, and eventually a strong French force. To their right were the 51st and 39th Divisions, then divisions belonging to four other corps–including Canadians and Anzacs–arrayed further to the south.

A map of the area showing the precise expectations of advance. At four hours and five minutes after “Z”–7:55 A.M.–the 38th Division’s second wave should have arrived at a slight ridge line east of “Iron Cross,” often referred to as the “Green Line.”

The 15th RWF had been given the task of moving over the muddy wreckage of No Man’s Land and the German front lines, then “through” the 14th Battalion and its captured objectives near the village of Pilckem. This was accomplished with relative ease and few casualties: the enormous barrage had obliterated the lightly-held forward German positions (remember all those patrols into empty space) and it was not until the 15th were almost a mile into what had been German territory that they started taking direct fire.

The geography of Flanders favored the assault more than the Somme: the “ridge” that was the objective in this battle was only twelve or fifteen meters higher than the Yser Canal which the Royal Welch (and, just to the south, Edmund Blunden) have so frequently been crossing, so there would be no uphill advance into the muzzles of the enemy’s guns, as it were. Yet the flat terrain also meant that there would be very little cover for advancing infantry. (Worse, on the operational level, the geography of Flanders made resupply and consolidation miserable and difficult: unless there had been many days without rain, much of the area was waterlogged, and all resupply had to be through the open mud.)

At some time around 8:00, after resting briefly, the battalion launched its attack from near Pilckem village toward its own objectives to the east. They were now in the sights of the slightly elevated German machine guns, encased in concrete pillboxes, many of which had survived the opening barrage. The next few minutes are the sort of experience that defy description, and the Battalion War Diary perhaps wisely opts for simple elision.

Considerable opposition was met with at BATTERY COPSE & by this time there were but few officers remaining.

In other words, the battalion, though continuing to move forward, was met with murderous fire from nearby strong points, fell behind the carefully timed “walking” support barrage, and was stopped by that mysterious combination of moral failure, confusion, exhaustion, and physical depletion that leads to historians of battles using metaphors of physical force. They had done well, penetrating much further into the German lines than most of the units on the southern part of the assault, but still not quite as well as the ever-optimistic planners had hoped. And that planning was everything: there was no possibility of getting messages back over a mile of broken ground to the the telephones that could contact the artillery. There was no possibility of bringing up heavy weapons to address the German pill boxes. The ridge was held, by the German Third Guards, and when the barrage lifted they came up and fought. There was nothing for the Royal Welch to do but rush whatever German positions could be rushed, until they were… halted, pushed back, forced to a halt, and dug in.

The Diary remained matter-of-fact:

… the smoke barrage… tended to confuse the men… Lt. Col. C.C. Norman[4]… was wounded and ordered the Bn. to consolidate on the IRON CROSS ridge. As no officer remained, the Bn. was handed over to the R.S.M. Jones who saw to the consolidation which was being carried out some way in rear of the GREEN LINE giving a greater task to the 115 bde who were passing through us.

It is striking, even on such a day, that the battalion’s ranking member, only a few hours into the battle is the Regimental Sergeant Major: there should have been between twelve and twenty officers at the start, but all of those who went forward have been wounded or killed.

And many of the men, including Ellis Humphrey Evans, the Welsh shepherd and bard better known as Hedd Wyn.

Not long after the 15th Welsh began to advance from Pilckem he was hit, probably by a large piece of shrapnel from a German shell. The shell struck him in the stomach, or the back–a great wound would have been visible, in any case, on both sides of his body. He fell, somewhere near a crossroads on the road to Langemarck, and lay there for around three hours. Perhaps he was in shock at first, probably in terrible agony thereafter. At some time around midday, stretcher bearers found him, and struggled back through the thickening mud to an advanced dressing station.

Hedd Wyn–Private Ellis Humphrey Evans–died on a stretcher not long after arriving at the dressing station. There is a mention of his receiving morphia before the end (which we might fervently hope, even a century on, to be true) and unreliable accounts of last words.[5]

Evans–Hedd Wyn–will be buried nearby, with a chaplain reading the burial service in Welsh. His last letters and his last great poem–an ode written for the upcoming National Eisteddfod–will find their way slowly back to Britain over the next days and weeks. For many officers the telegram is sent within a day or two, but not to the far-off farming family of an enlisted man, living their lives in a language other than English. Hedd Wyn’s parents and siblings will have to wait through weeks of dire rumor before the War Office confirms his death.

 

This is one stanza from the ode that Hedd Wyn sent, only a few weeks ago, for adjudication at the National Eisteddfod:

Y macwy heulog, paham y ciliodd?                       Why did he depart, this radiant youngster?

Ba ryw hud anwel o’m bro a’i denodd?                  What drew him from me, what unseen power?

Ei oed a’i eiriau dorrodd, – ac o’i drig                Breaking his word and pledge together–then he

Ddiofal unig efe ddiflannodd                            In his carefree home was seen no longer.[6]

 

 

Onward. It seems that David Jones never met Hedd Wyn. He surely laid eyes on him, over the past two weeks, but I can find no record of anyone making Jones aware that he had “fought alongside,” however briefly, a true Welsh bard.[7] But he did not fight alongside him on his last day.

Yesterday, a century back, David Jones learned that he would be kept back from the attack along with a small cadre of officers[8] and men.

Jones was assigned to ‘battalion nuclear reserve’ — a group from which the already depleted battalion could be reconstituted if it were wiped out during the assault. Upon receiving his assignment, he asked the adjutant to be removed from the list so he could take part in the attack. Although he wanted merely to remain with his friends, he argued that he ought to trade places with a married man. The adjutant furiously berated him for ‘pretending to wish to be a bloody hero’ while knowing full well that men detailed had no choice in the matter. Simmering down, he told Jones that there would be plenty of other opportunities, that the nucleus was likely to be called upon anyway, and that he only wished he had been assigned to it. Feeling foolish, Jones tried to explain that he had not meant it that way. He was forced to endure the ignominy of relative safety…

Thomas Dilworth’s account of the battalion’s advance emphasizes their success in meeting and defeating German opposition between Pilckem village and the not-quite-obtained “Green Line,” even after the loss of so many officers.

Keeping in formation, the remainder struggled in deep mud past Pilckem village and concrete machine-gun emplacements, which they outflanked, compelling their garrisons to surrender. In reserve, listening to the gunfire, Jones worried about his friends and bitterly regretted his separation from them.[9]

Jones will nevertheless write their advance, presumably drawing on his comrades’ memories, in the thick description and black comic mood of the “Balaam’s Ass” section of The Sleeping Lord. The section about the openness of the advance, as the men contemplate their coming exposure to German machine guns, is frightening. Jones draws thorny little historical-personal sketches of the men of the unit, alternating several of these with sardonic and tragic descriptions of the landscape, or lack thereof:

It’s as level as Barking and as bare as your palm…

All the fine fiery waters in Headquarter’s larder won’t raise a mole-hill for Lieutenant Fairy on that open plain…

not a bush, no brick-bat, not any accidental & advantageous fold, no lie of dead ground the length of a body…

Not a rock to cleft for, not a spare drift of soil for the living pounds of all their poor bodies drowned in the dun sea…

Nor yet was there aid or covering wing, or upright, or linden hedge or agger or paraduct or mothering skirt for a frightened last-born, or gunnal for the evil swell; or anything drawn to mask or shadow…

The list of men, and the lack of cover that will kill them, goes on for pages before Jones, in an echo of the medieval Welsh “Triads,” names “the three who escaped.” And then the poem ends:

But for all the rest there was no help on that open plain.[10]

 

There were more than three survivors, in prose, and Jones will join them later on, where they hold their muddy positions near what had been the German second line and their “Black Line–“the penultimate line of intended advance. But the tone of tomorrow may be different than the tone of today: the survivors of the battalion took pride in its success, and celebrated it.

And so it is a curious fact that the one image I have found which links the material facts of this day to the work of one of our writers is about as traditionally triumphal as 1917 art could get: it is Jones’s sketch of a German howitzer–proof that they fought through the infantry and reached the artillery–captiured today, a century back, and drawn soon after.

 

By now it should be clear–to us if not to all the contemporary generals–that, as a matter of strategy, the front line positions on a Great War “battlefield” matter very little. They will change hands as counter-attacks and second efforts are launched, and the place where a battered battalion went to ground may not turn out to be defensible. What matters, really, is whether the newly occupied territory can be connected to the arteries of warfare in the rear. If reinforcements can be brought up quickly, if the cavalry can follow the infantry and the guns can get to new positions with vantage points over the enemy rear, then the offensive can be sustained.

These are deep battles, therefore, and when attacking waves of infantry face little in the way of enemy shellfire it is both because they are being left for the machine guns to deal with and because the artillery may also have “lifted” in order to focus on the interdiction of reserves. The infantry in the immediate rear, whether working or moving up in support, are the most vulnerable targets of shrapnel, gas, and high explosive as the day wears on.

The 1st Royal Inniskillings, therefore, had drawn a less dangerous assignment than leading the attack, but it is now far from a safe job. A few miles south-east of the Royal Welch, they have detailed to build the forward-area infrastructure that the offensive would depend upon.

Francis Ledwidge‘s biographer puts us with the men of his battalion, in support, questioning the only British soldiers they see who are likely to have some sense of how the battle is progressing.

All during the morning… the tide of wounded flowed back from the front line. Once again the stretcher-bearers had to raise their burdens shoulder-high as they sloshed along. Questioned how the day went, there was not much they could tell… All they could say was that the German front line of shell-craters was quickly taken, as it was manned by only scattered outposts. But immediately they found themselves in an inferno of gunfire as wave after wave of Germans came out against them, fighting like tigers.

Francis Ledwidge

Ledwidge and his comrades in reserve had been toiling since early morning at road-making…

There was a violent rainstorm in the afternoon, shrouding the region in a grey monochrome… Road-work could not be suspended, however, as the tracks were in use as fast as they were laid down. Tea was issued to the men and, drenched to the skin, they stopped to swallow it. A shell exploded beside Ledwidge and he was instantly killed.

There is no doubt about Ledwidge’s fate; the shell killed six other men and wounded many more. The battalion chaplain, Father Devas, was nearby, but still far too far away for last rites. He performed the burial service soon afterwards, and will write in his diary, tonight:

Ledwidge killed, blown to bits; at Confession yesterday and Mass and Holy Communion this morning. R.I.P.[11]

 

It was a battlefield burial, and not much like the one Ledwidge had described in “A Soldier’s Grave.”

Then in the lull of midnight, gentle arms
Lifted him slowly down the slopes of death,
Lest he should hear again the mad alarms
Of battle, dying moans, and painful breath.

And where the earth was soft for flowers we made
A grave for him that he might better rest.
So, Spring shall come and leave it sweet arrayed,
And there the lark shall turn her dewy nest.

 

Within a few miles and a few hours, Wales and Ireland lost their foremost war poets. Hedd Wyn was 30; Ledwidge, born half a year later, would have turned 30 in August. Both came from Celtic “peasant stock” and humble circumstances: Evans was one of nine children who survived infancy and left school at around the age of fourteen; Ledwidge, too, was one of nine children and left school perhaps a year earlier. Hedd Wyn stayed at home until conscription, but Ledwidge traveled–and only he crossed over into the language of the conquerors and received a lord‘s patronage and wide publication while he lived.

Each worked with their hands while working on their verse, and each will receive a posthumous epithet which confines their work even as it helps hold their place in collective memory: they were the Shepherd Poet and the Poet of the Blackbirds.

Each was looking forward to the reception of his latest work–Ledwidge’s second book, Hedd Wyn’s awdl for the Eisteddfod. Ledwidge, who had lost Ellie, wrote a last letter to Lizzie; Hedd Wyn, who had lost Lizzie, wrote a last letter to Jini. Both are buried, now, in Artillery Wood Cemetery.

Francis Ledwidge, who did not turn his poet’s pen toward the worst of the war, wrote these verses in February:

The silence of maternal hills
Is round me in my evening dreams;
And round me music-making bills
And mingling waves of pastoral streams.

Whatever way I turn I find
The path is old unto me still.
The hills of home are in my mind.
And there I wander as I will.

 

And Hedd Wyn wrote these lines about one of his friends who had gone before him to the war. It could have been for Ledwidge, almost, or, now, for himself:

Ceraist ti grwydro gwlwdydd pellenig,—             You loved to roam the distant lands
Y gwlwdydd sy ‘mhell tros y don;                           The countries beyond the sea,
Weithiau dychwelit i’th gartre mynyddig              Sometimes you’d return to your highland home,
A’th galon yn ysgafn a llon.                                    And so light of heart you’d be.

Gwelsom di ennyd cyn dychwel ohonot              We saw you awhile before you returned
I’r rhyfel sy’n crynu y byd;                                       To the war that makes the world quake,
Nodau y gwlatgar a’r beiddgar oedd ynot,           Bearing the marks so dearly bought
Y nodau sy’n costio mor ddrud.                              For your country and bravery’s sake.

Fe chwyth y corwynt tros fryniau Trawsfynydd    The storm rages over Trawsfynydd’s hills
O’th ôl fel yn athrist ei gainc;                                   After you, as if it would weep;
Tithau yng nghymni’r fataliwn ddi-hysbydd          You, who with numberless battalions in France
Sy’n cysgu’n ddi‑freuddwyd yn Ffrainc                   Lie there in a dreamless sleep.[12]

 

 

Does this strange practice of following a number of lives faithfully through their day-to-day progress, even to their deaths, help us see a perhaps-too-familiar war in a new light? Sometimes it doesn’t quite seem worth the effort. But on other days, even on sad days like this one, it does seem to intensify historical experience. And, yes, often in that familiar, bitterly ironic way.

What is to be done? Why are thoughtful young men from the green and pleasant hills of England’s first colonies (to say nothing of the thousands who came from England’s more recent and farther-flung colonies, essentially invisible in this project, or the English boys themselves) dying in Flanders? What good is it doing?

In England, the same papers that carried the news of the opening of the offensive at Pilckem Ridge carried news of yesterday‘s parliamentary questions about a certain unruly officer. Sassoon’s protest has fallen entirely between two battles. Inspired by Arras, it has lapsed during a quiet summer, and only the wake’s last mild ripple laps up against Passchendaele.

Robert Graves, now back at the Royal Welsh depot at Litherland, seems somewhat jealous of his friend’s publicity, however negative it is. (Only two newspapers will come out in support of Sassoon; others will mock him, dismiss him, or publish would-be exposés of his family history.)

My dear Sassons

…Well you are notorious throughout England now you silly old thing! Everybody here who’s been to France agrees with your point of view, but those that don’t know you think it was not quite a gentlemanly course to take: the ‘quixotic-English-sportsman’ class especially.’ But you have accomplished something I suppose… What a ridiculous business! I hope it won’t injure your poetry: and that old Gosse won’t think better of celebrating his protégé in the Edinburgh Review. I’m longing to get my Sorley back. Hurry up with it…

Poor devils at Pilkem![13]

 

Yes, the poor devils. Hedd Wyn and Francis Ledwidge would perhaps have written verse about the battle, if they had lived. Hedd Wyn surely would have; his war verse was very strong even before he had seen the war. But what could they have written about the attack itself? This war is beginning to produce great literature–small recompense for the suffering, but there is no way out of that moral-aesthetic fact–but it has yet to produce many good accounts of a major offensive. This is not surprising: it has always been very difficult first to make any sense of a battle and then represent it in words, let alone in verse. And it’s not getting any easier.

But Edmund Blunden, who is here and who will survive the day, will try. He wrote a poem (“Third Ypres”), a story (“Over the Sacks”), and he addressed the ongoing battle in the most harrowing chapter of his memoirs.

The story we will pass over (a page of the manuscript is at right, and it can be read in full at the First World War Poetry Digital Archive). And the poem is none of his best, not least because Blunden tries to describe the progress of the war, blow by blow. This is no wartime lyric, but an attempt, as it were, at a fragment of descriptive epic, something to fall between Vergil and Lucan.

It begins with the realization among the men of the writer’s battalion that the early stages of the attack are going well.

Triumph! How strange, how strong had triumph come
On weary hate of foul and endless war
When from its grey gravecloths awoke anew
The summer day. Among the tumbled wreck
Of fascined lines and mounds the light was peering,
Half-smiling upon us, and our newfound pride;
The terror of the waiting night outlived,
The time too crowded for the heart to count
All the sharp cost in friends killed on the assault.
No hook of all the octopus had held us,[14]
Here stood we trampling down the ancient tyrant.
So shouting dug we among the monstrous pits.

Amazing quiet fell upon the waste,
Quiet intolerable to those who felt
The hurrying batteries beyond the masking hills…

The War would end, the Line was on the move,
And at a bound the impassable was passed.
We lay and waited with extravagant joy.

This is verse, but it’s also historical witness. This is how the day went, for many of the battalions involved. The first waves did well, but the effort was impossible to sustain.

Now dulls the day and chills; comes there no word
From those who swept through our new lines to flood
The lines beyond? but little comes, and so
Sure as a runner time himself’s accosted.
And the slow moments shake their heavy heads,
And croak, “They’re done, they’ll none of them get through,
They’re done, they’ve all died on the entanglements,
The wire stood up like an unplashed hedge and thorned
With giant spikes — and there they’ve paid the bill.”

Then comes the black assurance, then the sky’s
Mute misery lapses into trickling rain,
That wreathes and swims and soon shuts in our world.

The rain happened that way too. Although the attack had been held back in the hopes that August would be drier than July, it began raining this afternoon and rained almost steadily for most of the next week. This rain was more than symbolic, but less than strategically decisive: the attack had failed to break through, so no matter how many Germans were killed, no matter how many guns were captured, it was already doomed to failure on the strategic level. The only remaining question is not strategic or tactical but attritional: there will be no breakthrough, but will one army or the other break?

Neither will collapse, yet, but no one could have known that for certain. Nevertheless, they could have guessed with more intelligence, or good sense, or pity. Instead, Haig and his staff will long press the question, on into an autumn of mud and misery and death.

Blunden’s account of today in Undertones of War begins with the Staff–but those who command the battle have already become irrelevant to its progress by the time it begins; another familiar irony. He improves on the poem in many ways, not least in allowing the generalized vision of battle to focus briefly–if distantly–on actual people. The runner is joined by captains and churls; the Thersites of the Royal Sussex and some of the far-off Captains of Contingents.

The hour of attack had been fixed by the staff much earlier than the infantry wanted or thought suitable. The night had passed as such nights often do, shelling being less than was anticipated, silent altogether at times. I suppose it was about 3:00 when I shook hands with Colonel Millward, mounted the black-oozing steps of battle headquarters in the burrows below Bilge Street, and got into the assembly ditch (Hornby Trench) with my signallers. It was thick darkness and slippery going, but we used an old road part of the way. Where we lay, there were in the darkness several tall tree stumps above, and it felt like a friendly ghost that watched the proceedings.

At 3:50, if I am right, shortly after Vidler had passed me growling epigrams at some recent shellburst which had covered him with mud, the British guns began; a flooded Amazon of steel flowed roaring, immensely fast, over our heads, and the machine-gun bullets made a pattern of sharper sound and maniac language against that diluvian rush. Flaring lights, small ones, great ones, went spinning sideways in the cloud of night; one’s eyes seemed not quick enough; one heard nothing from one’s shouting neighbour, and only by the quality of the noise and flame did I know that the German shells crashing among the tree stumpswere big ones and practically on top of us. We moved ahead, found No Man’s Land a comparatively good  surface, were amazed at the puny tags and rags of once multiplicative German wire, and blundered over the once-feared trench behind them without seeing it. Good men as they were, my party were almost all half-stunned by the unearthliness of our own barrage, and when two were wounded it was left to me to bandage them in my ineffective way. The dark began to be diluted with day, and as we went on we saw concrete emplacements, apparently unattended to as yet, which had to be treated with care and suspicion; I was well satisfied to find them empty. And indeed the whole area seemed to be deserted. German dead, so obvious at every yard of a 1916 battlefield, were not to be seen. We still went ahead, and the mist whitened into dawn; through it came running a number of Germans — a momentary doubt; no — “Prisoners!” shouted my batman. A minute more, and my advanced guard of signallers had come into touch with the companies, digging in along their captured objective. Meanwhile, I went ahead to see all the mist allowed; there were troops of our brigade advancing through the lines of men consolidating shell holes, and with map before me I could recognize some of the places which we had certainly captured. It seemed marvellous, for the moment! All ours — all these German trenches. Caliban Support, Calf Avenue, Calf Reserve. But, stay — even now a pity looks one in the face, for these trenches are mostlymere hedges of brushwood, hurdles, work for a sheep-fold, with a shallow ditch behind; and they have been taking our weeks of gunfire in these!

The sympathy actually occurred to me, but was soon obliterated by the day’s work and an increase in the German gunfire upon us. The passage of the tanks through our position was thought to be the reason, for as these machines wheeled aside from the pits where our men were digging, heavy shells came down with formidable accuracy. Besides, the enemy must have captured our operation maps with all the stages of advance displayed. I remember that I was talking with somebody about one “Charlie” Aston, an officer’s servant, who had been running here and there to collect watches from German dead. He had just returned to his chosen shell hole, with several
fine specimens, when a huge shell burst in the very place. But not much notice was taken, or elegy uttered, for everywhere the same destruction threatened. And Tice and Collyer were already killed—news as yet failing to have its full painfulness in the thick of things.

The battalion headquarters soon advanced from the old British front line, still conspicuous with the tall tree stumps, and crushed itself into a little concrete dugout with a cupola over it, formerly used for a perfect survey of the British defences. Road-making parties had lost no time and, strung out among the shellbursts, were shovelling and pummelling tracks across old No Man’s Land.

These men might be Ledwidge and his companions–except that they are in a neighboring division. The road they’ve made allow the staff–not the Olympian General Staff but its least august and most local branch office–to see the battle.

And then the brigade headquarters came, beautiful to look upon, and their red tabs glowed out of several shell holes. This was more than the German observers could endure, and in a short time there was such a shower of high explosive on that small area that the brains of the brigade withdrew, a trifle disillusioned, to the old British trenches. Another shower, and a more serious and incontestable one, was now creeping on miserably over the whole field. It was one of the many which caused the legend, not altogether dismissed even by junior officers, that the Germans could make it rain when they wanted to. Now, too, we were half aware that the attack had failed farther on, and one more brilliant hope, expressed a few hours before in shouts of joy, sank into the mud.[15]

This is life-history, or personal prose–but it seems to fit the battle. Or, at least, what the battle will become.

 

But that too is taking liberties with historiography. It was not raining in the morning, and the Germans did not make it rain–nor were all the staff’s objectives impossible to obtain. Can one attempt more traditional battlefield historiography, on a day like today?

Just to the left of the Royal Welch Fusiliers’ 38th Division were the Guards, including the Second Irish Guards, whose official historian, already on the job a century back, was Rudyard Kipling.

July 31st opened, at 3.30 a. m., with a barrage of full diapason along the army front, followed on the Guards sector by three minutes of “a carefully prepared hate,” during which two special companies projected oil-drums throwing flame a hundred yards around, with thermit that burned everything it touched. The enemy had first shown us how to employ these scientific aids, and we had bettered the instruction.

His barrage in reply fell for nearly an hour on the east bank of the canal. Our creeping barrage was supposed to lift at 4 a. m. and let the two leading battalions (2nd Irish Guards and 1st Scots Guards) get away; but it was not till nearly a quarter of an hour later that the attack moved forward in waves behind it. Twelve minutes later, Nos. 1 and 2 Companies of the Battalion had reached the first objective (Cariboo and Cannon trenches) “with only one dead
German encountered”; for the enemy’s withdrawal to his selected line had been thorough. The remaining companies followed, and behind them came the 1st Coldstream, all according to schedule; till by 5.20 a. m. the whole of the first objective had been taken and was being consolidated, with very small loss…

About half-past five, Colonel Greer, while standing outside advanced Battalion Headquarters dug-out in the first objective line, was killed instantly by shrapnel or bullet. It was his devoted work, his arrangement and foresight that had brought every man to his proper place so far without waste of time or direction. He had literally made the Battalion for this battle as a steeple-chaser is made for a given line of country. Men and officers together adored him for his justice, which was exemplary and swift; for the human natural fun of the man; for his knowledge of war and the material under his hand, and for his gift of making hard life a thing delightful. He fell on the threshold of the
day ere he could see how amply his work had been rewarded…

No Greek heroes here, but a Moses out of the grimmer warfare of the Hebrew Bible–they did it first, and we will do it more ruthlessly and competently. And he falls within sight of the promised land.

And here’s a strange if superficial coincidence: on a day when the Sassoon family is being dragged through the tabloids (Siegfried, though he was baptized and raised as an Anglican and identified with his maternal family–the eminently English Thornycrofts–descended from a prominent Sephardic Jewish mercantile clan) in search of their scion’s wretched anti-militarism, a half second cousin, Reginald Ellice Sassoon, is credited with speeding an important advance.

Lieutenant Sassoon, commanding No. 3, got his Lewis-gun to cover a flank attack on the machine-gun that was doing the damage, took it with seven German dead and five wounded prisoners, and so freed the advance for the Scots Guards and his own company. As the latter moved forward they caught it in the rear from another machine-gun which had been overlooked, or hidden itself in the cleaning-up of Hey Wood.

Sassoon sent back a couple of sections to put this thing out of action (which they did) and pushed on No. 4 Company, which was getting much the same allowance from concrete emplacements covering machine-guns outside Artillery Wood…

All in all, the Irish Guards had been quite successful.

Indeed, they admitted among themselves — which is where criticism is fiercest — that they had pulled the scheme off rather neatly, in spite of their own barrages, and that the map and model study had done the trick. By ten o’clock of the morning their work was substantially complete. They had made and occupied the strong points linking up between their advanced companies and the final objectives, which it was the business of the other brigades to secure. As they put it, “everything had clicked…”

Successful, yet still costly:

…At three o’clock Father Knapp appeared at Battalion Headquarters — that most insanitary place — and proposed to stay there. It was pointed out to him that the shelling was heavy, accommodation, as he could see, limited, and he had better go to the safer advanced dressing-station outside Boesinghe and deal with the spiritual needs of his wounded as they were sent in. The request had to be changed to a reasonably direct order ere he managed to catch it; for, where his office was concerned, the good Father lacked something of that obedience he preached. And a few hours after he had gone down to what, with any other man, would have been reasonable security, news arrived that he had been mortally wounded while tending cases “as they came out” of the dressing-station. He must have noticed that the accommodation there was cramped, too, and have exposed himself to make shelter for others…

The toll is taken: three officers, including the C.O. (but not the chaplain) killed, and three wounded. More paths cross here: Lady Dorothie Feilding‘s brother “Peter” (Henry) was a captain in the Coldstream Guards, and she will spend much of the rest of her honeymoon seeking news of him before finally learning that he is safe, for the moment–his battalion was in reserve. But as they use “their contacts in Flanders” to try to get news by letter and telegraph, her new husband, late of the Irish Guards, will learn that “his 3 best friends” were all killed today, a century back–Sir John Dyer, Col. Greer, and “Father Knapps who was to have married us.”[16]

Casualties in other ranks came to 280, a large part due to machine-gun fire. It was a steadying balance-sheet and, after an undecided action, would have been fair excuse for a little pause and reconstruction. But a clean-cut all-
out affair, such as Boesinghe, was different, though it had been saddened by the loss of an unselfish priest who feared nothing created, and a commanding officer as unselfish and as fearless as he…

Greer’s insistence that the men should know the model of the ground, and their officers the aeroplane maps of it, and his arrangements whereby all units could report lucidly at any moment where they were, had brought them success. So, with 50 per cent, of their strength gone, and the dismal wet soaking the stiff survivors to the bone, they hobbled about, saying, “If he were only here now to see how he has pulled this off!”[17]

Pilckem ridge, a bloody, partial success–or at least a qualified failure–is over. But the larger monstrosity known as Third Ypres has only begun; Passchendaele is coming…

 

We’ll close today with two more participants–our two most assiduous diarists–both in the British rear. Kate Luard, ready and waiting for the first torn bodies, wrote in her diary at the beginning and the end of the day.

4.15 a.m. …We crept out on to the duckboards and saw. It was more wonderful and stupendous than horrible…

6.30 a.m. We have just begun taking in the first cases…

Same day, 11 p.m. We have been working in the roar of battle every minute since I last wrote… Soon after 10 o’clock this morning he began putting over high explosive. Everyone had to put on tin-hats and carry on… no direct hits but streams of shrapnel, which were quite hot when you picked them up… we were so frantically busy that it was easier to pay less attention to it.

It doesn’t look as if we should ever sleep again…[18]

Luard’s forward hospital dealt with hundreds of abdominal wounds, saving many, perhaps, who would have died on the way to the usual Casualty Clearing Stations. If Hedd Wyn’s wound had only been a little less severe, if it had only been possible for the overburdened stretcher bearers to go farther and faster…

 

But just as Luard worked all day to save the broken bodies, the Master of Belhaven worked all day to break more. That’s in the nature of artillery work.

We… have fired without stopping all day… we have not got as far as was intended just here, I have only seen about a couple of hundred German prisoners, but I believe a great many have been taken. They have no doubt gone back by a different route. On the other hand, I believe we have done very well up to the North…

This is true–both the French advance and the near-achievement of the “Green Line” goal by the Guards and the 38th Division were accounted successes. But ground gained still must be weighed against the flesh and blood it cost. Hamilton summarizes the reports filtering back from the wounded infantry: “I am afraid our casualties have been very heavy.” As for his own batteries, it will not be a one-sided battle for long.

Very few shells have come over us to-day as we expected. During the actual attack the hostile artillery devote themselves to the infantry. Our hard time will come to-morrow.[19]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. By which he means the night of July 30-31st; and he's jumping the gun just a bit on the rain...
  2. Love and the Loveless, 218-19.
  3. As Williamson did, until he went sick and was sent to Cornwall to recuperate.
  4. The cool old officer whom David Jones had so recently glimpsed striding the parapet.
  5. Llwyd, The Story of Hedd Wyn, 93-115. Alan Llwyd has weighed the various testimonies about Hedd Wyn's death, and I follow his reconstruction of the most probable sequence of events.
  6. Trans. Howard Huws.
  7. It's more than possible that I have just missed this. If not--if no one figured this out during Jones's long life and told him about it--then it's a striking and somewhat sad slipped stitch in the patchwork of Great War literature. Jones worked for years to learn enough Welsh to integrate its myths and history into his war epic, and even if he would not, perhaps, have been unduly impressed by the mere coincidence of proximity in space and time, he might, if he had known that a chaired bard had been killed in his own battalion, have thought more about contemporary Welsh poetry and its place in a British accounting of France and Flanders. Or not--there are many things I do not understand about Welsh-language culture a century back--and now--and about the political and cultural complexities of translation. Do Welsh poets claim David Jones--or, rather, do they honor his application for honorary membership in their ranks--for his ancestry, artistry, and benign intent? Does the resurgence of Welsh culture after devolution mean that Hedd Wyn has been annexed, to some degree, away from some more pure bardic/local identity and flattened into a "heritage" figure, half Welsh Rupert Brooke and half Welsh Wilfred Owen? I wish I had started on this particular thread a bit earlier...
  8. This also accounts for all officers becoming casualties--a disproportionate number would have been held back. but still...
  9. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 159-63.
  10. The Sleeping Lord, 100-111.
  11. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 188.
  12. Trans. Howard Huws
  13. In Broken Images, 80.
  14. This line recalls--or rather foreshadows--the closing lines of Undertones of War.
  15. Undertones of War, chapter 21.
  16. Lady Under Fire, 219. The misspelling--"Knapps"--is presumably Lady Dorothie's.
  17. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 193-8.
  18. Unknown Warriors, 133-4.
  19. War Diary, 356-7.

The Gothic Vortices of Herbert Read; Frederic Manning Drinks Himself into Trouble; Wilfred Owen Steels Himself for Silk Stockings

We have a few shorter updates today, a century back. First, Herbert Read is on leave, and seeing the sights–and it is against the rules, here, to omit certain pilgrimages:

The Army is becoming quite a benevolent old gentleman, arranging little joy-rides for us when we are in reserve… We passed through the valley of the Somme–past Albert, with its leaning Virgin–(when it falls, according to the superstition of Tommy, the war ends.–I would like to have charge of a German battery for a few hours)–and finally arriving in Amiens…

Will Read, now a full-fledged zine-publishing Modernist, have the strength to resist the obvious pull? No… and yes, sort of:

Naturally we made for the Cathedral and spent an hour or so there. I can’t go into ecstasies about it. It is fine, of course, especially the exterior… There are some fine flying bastions, or whatever they call them,

They call them flying buttresses, although it’s possible this is a joke, since flying bastions sound like some sort of late-17th century excrudescence on a French étoile fortress now held against Teutonic machine guns…

which would make a finer ‘vorticist’ design.

Ah! That’s a pretty good call, actually… compare the link to the buttresses at right:

The interior is disappointing… After lunch more sightseeing… we saw the famous mural decoration of Puvis de Chavannes and a bust by Rodin.[1]

 

 

Next we have the long-neglected Frederic Manning. He’s getting a second crack, now, at being an officer–it befits his class status, after all, and his experience–he has seen combat service in the ranks. But once again alcoholism has gotten in the way. He joined a new unit on garrison duty in Ireland ten days ago, and only a few evenings later he had “broken all the rules of the mess out of sheer ignorance and no premeditated vice.’’

As he wrote to William Rothenstein today, a century back, he was”liable to be tried by court martial.” And yet he is oddly defiant about the mess (so to speak:)

…I rather like being under arrest, as it spares me the company of my brother officers at mess… Nothing, I think, will
happen; I am only to be ‘strafed’ in canting phrase; then I shall be told how vastly I have improved under the treatment.[2]

We shall see…

 

Henry Williamson, meanwhile, continues to recover in Cornwall–but slowly. Today he went before a board and was ruled “Unfit [for] G[eneral] S[ervice] 3mos.” His doctor at Trefusis Auxiliary Hospital wrote that “Lt. Williamson has during the last ten days begun decidedly to improve, but in my opinion he will need much longer than the time he has already had under treatment before one can report him recovered.”[3] Since Williamson has recently begun writing in earnest, this lull will provide a long runway for the early drafts of his autobiographical novel…

 

 

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive

And Siegfried Sassoon, after having accepted a second chance at a Medical Board, will be on his way, very shortly, to “Dottyville,” the Military Hospital at Craiglockhart.

And how are things going up there?

Quite well, actually, at least as far as Wilfred Owen is concerned. He was even published today, a century back.

Patient-run hospital magazines were once what they aren’t, that’s for sure.

Owen had a hand in this rather polished production of The Hydra, seen at right. He not only wrote the note on the Field Club‘s activities but also, in all probability–the piece shows, in Dominic Hibberd’s estimation, all the hallmarks of Owen’s style–a light sketch about the awkwardness of going stocking-shopping with nurses. Racy stuff, although you may have to scroll down for the large scanned image of the magazine page:

 

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive

 

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Contrary Experience, 103-4.
  2. Marwil, Frederic Manning, 183. See also Coleman, The Last Exquisite, 129.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 167.

The Death of a Slender Gallant; Edward Brittain Survives an Awful Time; Henry Williamson Breaks New Ground

We have seen Basil Blackwood–Lord Ian Basil Gawaine Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood–only once before… and I didn’t even mentioned his prewar work as an illustrator (for shame). It was near Messines, as it happens–but not recently. Way back in October of 1914, after being badly wounded during what was not yet known as “First Ypres,” we glimpsed Blackwood lying on the stretcher adjacent to Francis Grenfell, who had himself just been wounded.

If many of the “Kitchener” volunteers now see themselves as surrounded by the ghosts of 1915 and 1916, the few aristocrats of the 1914 army who have neither been killed nor promoted and transferred to safer jobs must have felt lonely indeed.

Blackwood needed years to recover from that wound, but he did, and recently transferred from the posh 9th Lancers to the posh Grenadier Guards, where he became a 46-year-old subaltern of infantry. Tonight, a century back, he was killed while leading a patrol near Boesinghe, a few miles across the salient from where he had been wounded.

Blackwood was a friend of John Buchan‘s, and from him he will receive a notable eulogy, an exemplar of fulsome Edwardian-style praise for the fallen “New Elizabethan.”

The phrase ‘Elizabethan…’ can be used with truth of Basil. He was of the same breed as the slender gallants who singed the beard of the King of Spain and, like Essex, tossed their plumed hats into the sea in joy of the enterprise, or who sold their swords to whatever cause had daylight and honour in it. His like had left their bones in farther spaces than any race on earth, and from their uncharted wanderings our empire was born. He did not seek to do things so much as to see them, to be among them and to live in the atmosphere of wonder and gay achievement…

If spirits return into human shape perhaps his once belonged to a young grandee of the Lisbon court who stormed with Albuquerque the citadels of the Indies and died in the quest for Prester John. He had the streak of Ariel in him, and his fancy had always wings… In a pedestrian world he held to the old cavalier grace, and wherever romance called he followed with careless gallantry.[1]

 

Happily, despite being thrown directly from England into the fighting line the night before a battle, Edward Brittain has escaped a similar fate. About the time that his sister Vera will be receiving his “last letter” proclaiming his love for her, he wrote this retraction:

Billets, France, 3 July 1917

It’s alright. I am so sorry to have worried you.

But this was no happy return.

All the same we have had an awful time. When I reported my arrival on Saturday night having only left Etaples in the morning, I was told that I was to go up with the company and that they were going to attack in the early morning.The whole thing was a complete fiasco; first of all the guide which was to lead us to our position went wrong and lost the way completely. I must tell you that the battalion had never been in the section before and nobody knew the way at all.

Then my company commander got lost and so there was only one other officer besides myself and he didn’t know the way. The organisation of the whole thing was shocking as of course the position ought to have been reconnoitred before and it is obviously impossible for anyone who has never even seen the ground before to attack in the dark. After wandering through interminable trenches I eventually found myself with only five men in an unknown place at the time when our barrage opened. It was clearly no use attempting to do anything and so I found a small bit of trench and waited there till it got light. Then I found one of our front posts (there was no proper front line) and there we had to stop till we were relieved last night. As you can imagine we had a pretty rotten time altogether. I don’t think that I and the other officer who reported with me ought to have been rushed into the show like that after a tiring 2 days travelling and not knowing the map etc etc. However we are likely to be out for a few days now and I may have an opportunity of getting to know the officers and men here.[2]

So “good staff work” has not, it would seem, become universal…

 

Henry Williamson is about as far from Ypres and Lens as a Briton can be. He is summering on the Cornish coast, recovering from exhaustion and illness–possibly exaggerated, unless he really has been close to a complete breakdown. In recovering, as if on a self-guided version of Wilfred Owen‘s ergotherapry, he will now be turning his hand to something new. Williamson’s many periods of leave, convalescence, and training have generally featured strenuous efforts to have fun–with motorcycles, with girls, even with his prewar pursuits of country walking. But today, a century back he wrote two words in his diary “began story.”

There were “no reasons given for this most dramatic step.” And yet wasn’t really all that dramatic: Williamson has been a fabulist and a story-teller for as long as we have known him. Now, it seems, he is thinking of his life in more conventional fictional terms. If this is indeed the day he began the novelization of his life–the day that Phillip Maddison was conceived–it would mark the biggest undertaking yet… undertaken… by any of our writers…[3]

 

And finally, today, a brief note. Let readers of Philip Ziegler’s biography of Osbert Sitwell beware: today, a century back, cannot have been the date of a certain letter from Sassoon to Sitwell…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Pilgrim's Way, 103-4.
  2. War Letters from a Lost Generation, 363.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 165-7. Henry Williamson's A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight will eventually run to fifteen volumes.
  4. The letter from Sassoon is cited in Ziegler, Osbert Sitwell, 76. The date of July 3rd is impossible, given the acquaintance between the two men which it mentions. Nor does it seem to refer to "his new book--presumably The Old Huntsman," but rather to subsequent poetry. Presumably, rather, the letter was misdated (by Sassoon, perhaps, but more likely by Sitwell or later scholars) and belongs to the autumn...

The World Begins to Crumble Around the Master of Belhaven; Henry Williamson Heads South

The Master of Belhaven‘s bad week continues–and as the world constricts into a tight horizon of constant bombardment and inescapable mud, his writing expands to fill it.

Another horrible night. Intermittent 5.9 fire all the time after midnight. It is all very well when one has properly constructed gun pits and dug-outs for the officers and men but here we have nothing but wire netting over the guns, and no cover for the men beyond a sheet of corrugated iron… I… gave the order for the men to withdraw under their Nos. 1 to the flank place. I also went myself, and had not left the mess two minutes when a shell pitched clean through the roof and burst inside. If there had been anyone there they must have been killed on the spot… our mess was completely wrecked and everything inside blown into small atoms… Now we are homeless.

I boarded my subalterns on C Battery and went over to Headquarters for lunch. It was a great relief to spend an hour in complete safety, and be able to take off one’s steel hat… I have reached a stage of exhaustion that is not far removed from collapse. I have been exactly a month now living under incessant shell-fire, without any protection whatever. It is the entire absence of sleep more than the shelling, or rather a combination of the two. It is quite impossible to sleep if one is lying under a tarpaulin with 5.9’s and 8-ins. falling within a hundred yards. To begin with, there is the suspense of waiting between shells, which may vary from five seconds to ten minutes. Then there is the four or five seconds beginning with the first faint whine of the shell in the far distance, which rapidly rises to the well-known rushing scream; then there is the crash as it lands, which make the whole place shake for a couple of hundred yards, and finally the angry “zip” of the flying splinters, which may be any size from a match to the size of a large meat-chopper…

This gripping experience of a bombardment he describes with professional precision and an admixture of residual terror. If his diary to date has generally been a professional rather than an intimate production–an after-action report, that is–he is now beginning to write from within the lingering experience. Can a bombardment ever be clinically described by someone who sat through it? Probably not; and Hamilton can no longer even try: he’s been through too much war, now, for what he saw and what he experienced to ever be prised apart.

This may be a description of a post-traumatic disorder, but it is also a description of gripping life writing. And he’s still in it: if not a storm of steel, than a morass of mud:

Last night’s heavy rain has fairly put the lid on everything; the country has suddenly returned to its normal condition of thick yellow pea-soup. The trenches and shell-holes are full of water, and, as what small part of Flanders is not shell-holes is trench, the state of affairs can be left to the imagination. Even that is, I fear, hopeless; no one who has not had the misfortune to experience the mud of this vile country can hope ever to realise what it means. In the good old days of trench warfare at least we had duckboarded trenches; now there is nothing but millions of shell-holes, or rather ponds… I am wet to the waist, and slimy from head to foot–and still the rain comes steadily down.[1]

 

And one more brief note: Henry Williamson traveled to Cornwall today, a century back, to begin a long stint in a convalescent home at Falmouth. He spent the first day messing about in a boat and wandering the coast. Presumably he is very pleased with himself. And the environment may prove quite conducive to writing…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 328-31.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 165.