Rowland Feilding Belatedly Locates the Machine Guns of the Somme; John Ronald Tolkien Still Suffers from its Fevers; Ivor Gurney on the Courage of Women

Rowland Feilding has been mixing light letters about life in reserve with accounts of how he is spending his own free time (which, as a battalion commander, can be considerable), namely walking the old battlefield of the Somme and remembering what he and his men endured during the Battle of Ginchy last September 9th.

You will remember what a terrific fire we encountered when we attacked at this place. I have ever since been curious to know where that fire came from, and how so powerful a concentration of machine-guns could have complete escaped our artillery. Now I know. A well-concealed and winding trench, branching into two, and worked in conjunction with nests of shell-holes adapted as machine-gun positions! That is what we ran into, and it was a hopeless task we undertook that day…[1]

 

One of the casualties of the Somme–of its infectious diseases rather than its bullets, shrapnel, or gas–was John Ronald Tolkien. He has yet to return to full health, and, after a severe relapse which put him in the hospital for nine weeks, he went before a Medical Board today in Hull. The report was middling:

He has still not recovered his strength; he suffers from debility and pain in his arms and shins, and he looks delicate

Declared “30 per cent disabled,” Tolkien was sent back to the 3rd Lancashire Fusiliers at Thirtle Bridge, for light duty. The board’s decision may be changed later, but for now Tolkien has some reason to hope that he has seen the last of the trenches.[2]

 

Alas for Ivor Gurney that this is not true. He remains in hospital, but with a wink and a nod: his lungs are more or less fine–it is his talented fingers which keep him there, accompanying all the would-be singers in their own recoveries.

16 October 1917

My Dear Friend: This is a most lovely morning, and I ought to be out on the hills somewhere instead of writing letters, even to you. For letter writing is work of a sort, though I like it not badly here, and in France it is often a pleasure.

There is not much to tell you, there is no masterpiece of chiselled and exquisite verse…

Is it wise of me to play music? Well, I do, but know only too well that the effort to forget will be an extra difficulty against the little serenity I shall have in France. Unless I grow stronger of soul of course, and so much stronger is unlikely. The things I should most like to write are things of beauty with a vinegary ending, something after “The Fire Kindled”. Heine I believe is famous for that sort of thing. It is best to be Shakespeare but good to be Heine — though not Thersites.

Gurney is almost always etceterative–and occasionally tremendous. What an idea–to write beautiful, vinegary things, like Heine. And Thersites is a rare reference, but an excellent one: Gurney perhaps remembers him as the one common soldier who makes a role for himself in the Iliad, where Thersites is an ugly, misshapen grumbler amongst the gleaming heroes and handsome demigods who lead the Greek army, a would be mutineer who is scorned and battered into silence by his betters. But he is, nevertheless, a common man with a voice in the great poem.

Gurney is, as usual, writing to Marion Scott, and he segues now from his own classically-cast ambition (and muted grumbling) to a consideration of women at war. It is typical of his intelligence that he takes an observation (and one which runs against the grain of all-too-typical prejudices) and proceeds without much fanfare to a sensitive (and sensible) reconsideration of a Big Concept–courage, in this case  .

…Nurses are really wonderful people to do so many things distasteful and still to smile. There is a very nice set of nurses here (have I told you?) that could hardly be better. They call this the “Ragtime Ward”, a name of envy given by men oppressed in places of female dragons and discipline. The courage of women is certainly not less than that of men. To my mind, that is. The serene performance of hateful duties, and the refusal to be depressed by them is the finest form of courage. The more sensational are the wilder forms — no higher. There are a few soldiers who go on till they are knocked out, not heeding wounds, most of these comparative few have supported their nerves only too freely beforehand. The rest may be the flower of earth, but the man who can be brotherly and crack a joke on a winter night in a shell hole has undoubted undeniable unsupported courage, which is not always certain of the spectacular gentlemen, who may be Berserk or drunk. But there! It is only my preference perhaps for serene and quiet strength rather than for the violent kind. Violence is waste of energy.

Here endeth the umptieth lesson…

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 215.
  2. Chronology, 102.
  3. War Letters, 222-4.

Ivor Gurney’s Memory, After Music; Wilfred Owen Drafts a Masterpiece

Ivor Gurney has been writing letters nineteen to the dozen lately from a hospital near Edinburgh, and I promised that we would get caught up. His letters are all over the place–at some points nearly manic–and much of what he has to say he has already said, and recently. Gurney is cooped up in the hospital, dragooned into bashing out popular tunes for sing-songs, uncertain if the swallowed gas that landed him here is causing much real trouble, or that his mind isn’t

An undated letter to Marion Scott praises some of the personalities he has met since landing in the hospital, and strains to produce verse:

Damn the War!

…Last night I played Bach and Beethoven for two hours, and got a little into swing towards the end. That was good. I am too lazy to write, and besides nothing will come to me when I try to pump — the bilge pumps, I think, by the results.

Memory, let all slip

Memory, let all slip save what is sweet
Of Ypres plains.
Keep only autumn sunlight and the fleet
Cloud after rains.

Blue skies and mellow distance softly blue;
These only hold
Lest I shall share my panged grave with you.
Else dead. Else cold.

Needless to say, a failed ode to forgetting trauma is not the greatest indicator of good spirits. Another letter discusses minor tragedies–lost manuscripts–and the uplifting arrival of a chaplain “touched with greatness, supremely alive, warmblooded, interested, interesting, fine looking with eyes of humourous power.” (There is also a remarkable pen portrait of “a coalminer of Fife,” an autodidact and force of nature (“he had the Celtic temperament”) whose charisma invigorates Gurney.

They talk of the power of great music to move–but, with no little irony, Gurney’s powers to make lesser music now cause him to stay put.

I am likely to be here another fortnight, for on the colonel’s inspection I was one of the very few not marked Con: Camp. “Why?” “Accompaniments, my dear”. For once, I saw the Army winking its eye at me, and wunk back.

I really like “wunk back.” There are also polite interrogations of Scott and interminable discussions of grand strategy (it’s hard not to suspect that Scott wrote of these things to Gurney because she wanted to write about the war without writing about the experience of the trenches, and that Gurney wrote back in a similar spirit–to please her and to think about less-than-completely-traumatic things).

And there is a delightful discussion of soldiers’ slang and humor… But I will–I must!–cut it short, since we have a very big poem to get to.

…Hearing a few casual catchwords flying around, it struck me that you might like to know some of them — such as I can remember. Poor bare jests, almost too familiar to remember at will.

There is one (just heard for the thousandth time) which brings a picture of a tragic roll call. A man may be shouted for who is not present, and the room answers, “On the wire, at Loos”. A lighter answer, a mock of this last, is “Gassed at Mons”.

Amusing, you see, because although British casualties at Mons were extremely high, it was before gas was used…

A coming strafe means carrying parties, and they are greeted with “More iron rations for Fritz”…

And many similar expressions, plus the rather surprising assertion that “an officer always takes whisky into the line, and his being drunk on any critical occasion is always condoned.”

This we are meant to pass by with a shrug, it’s merely how things go, more or less. But Gurney’s letters do get on to a subject that will occupy us today, and, increasingly, for the rest of the war: namely, how the soldier goes on fighting when the experiential gulf that yawns between them and those at home is so well-defended with a box barrage of lies. Speaking of the typical Tommies of his acquaintance, Gurney writes that

Their faith in newspapers has been sorely shaken for ever by the comparison of accounts with realities. But chiefly by the contrast between the phrase “Mastery of the Air” and the reality. Parliament is a haunt of people who talk and dont care what happens to him and his like.

Today’s letter to Scott begins with a seriocomic rant against low-quality writing implements.

The man who would attempt to write verse with a pencil when a pen is handy and convenient to him would rob a church without more thought than he would give to the flicking of cigarette ash — which indeed is frequently the trick of the melodramatic villain. For the writing of music there can be none so foul of spirit as to contemplate aught but the pen as instrument…

Let us use ink whenever Fate and Supply allow us, for so we shall show ourselves cognisant of and grateful for the civilisation of Europe, that once again has survived onslaught of the barbarian; who showed himself nakedly to all when he would destroy a “scrap of paper”, and the work of pen and ink without a pang…

Gurney is hard to take in large doses, and he is sometimes minor, and sometimes something close to very great, a composer and a poet full of sound and fury:

 

After Music

Why, I am on fire now, and tremulous
With sense of Beauty long denied; the first
Opening of floodgate to the glorious burst
Of Freedom from the Fate that limits us
To work in darkness pining for the light,
Thirsting for sweet untainted draughts of air.
Clouds sunset coloured. Music . . . O Music’s bare
White heat of silver passion fiercely bright.
While sweating at the foul task, we can taste
No Joy that’s clean, no Love but something lets
It from its power, the wisest soul forgets
What’s beautiful, or delicate, or chaste.
Orpheus drew me, as once his bride, from Hell
If wisely, she or I, the Gods can tell.[1]

 

Gurney will continue to try to find ways of wrestling the truth of the war into a traditional poetic context–capitalized Beauty and Music, uneasily combined with images and memories of the trenches. But Wilfred Owen has taken a great leap forward, toward one of the greatest of the war’s poems, and one that, more than any other, succeeds in addressing–and riveting–the attention of the reader on the far side of the experiential gulf. Here he sets out to separate–emphatically, calmly, and unassailably–the combat soldier’s truth from the old lies of his “friends” far from the trenches.

At Craiglockhart, today, a century back, (and only a few miles, again, from where Gurney writes) Owen wrote a first draft of what will become Dulce et Decorum Est. I assume that everyone is familiar with this poem; but I’ll put it here nonetheless–its power certainly holds up…

 

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

 

Siegfried Sassoon will remark that he did not realize how terrible Owen’s few weeks on the line last winter were–but these verses would seem to hint strongly at just such an experience. (They also give the lie, as it were, to Gurney’s insistence that swallowing gas was no worse than a cold–although clearly Gurney had received a much lower dose.) And we must read carefully to notice that in between Owen’s cheerful, busy, haler-and-heartier-by-the-week days at Craiglockhart come terrible nights of “disastrous dreams”–dreams in which his helpless sight has been replaying these traumas.

So, you know–biography, experience. But also poetry: while many serious readers of Owen prefer his more subtle poems, this is still a remarkable achievement for a young man who was writing forgettable verse only months ago. (This is one of the least forgettable poems I know.) The task here is simple and direct, like the poem’s address: show what this is that has happened, and what it was like. Declare not some foolish overweening confidence in “what it all means,” but show what it proves cannot be true. This does the job with the efficiency and clarity of a mature poet.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 214-22.

Edward Brittain’s Heavy Work; Ivor Gurney Impressed at the Keyboard; Wilfred Owen Requires a Reputation

We have been following–at least a little–the superstitiously strained epistolary connection between Vera and Edward Brittain, now so close in distance but so far from confident about their chances of ever seeing each other again. A century back, she will not know that he is safe–that he has been safe up until the point of writing–until she gets this letter.

France, 2 October 1917

A line to tell you that I am alright. We were suddenly called upon to go up again and take over our former sector for another 4 days much to our disgust, but fortunately most of us are back again and for the moment well behind the line in the same place as we were at the end of July and beginning of August. I am expecting leave any day but I’m afraid I shall not be able to see you on the way as we now go by C. I haven’t heard from you since I wrote last but I expect you are very busy owing to this continual pushing… Some time I will tell you all about what we have done in the 2nd half of September during which we only had 3 1/2 days out of the line, which is heavy work for the salient
when straffing.[1]

 

Ivor Gurney is thrilled to be in Blighty–safe, able to rest, clean–but as he is also, as he wrote in excitable fashion to Marion Scott yesterday, oppressed by the hospital atmosphere:

Allons, I am nothing but grumbles because staying in bed makes me unfit in no time — a bundle of oppressed nerves; and those ruddy drawing room ballads set me afire.

In a letter to Herbert Howells of today, a century back, he enlarges upon this theme:

…I am in the devil of a temper. I am not quite sure whether the gas has not slightly aggravated my ordinary thickheadedness and indigestion. If this is so, then there’s hope for the Wangler: if not, then no hope; I should be merely a Lucky Blighter soon to be cast out into outer darkness again.

Anyway, I am that spoilt pet of Society, an accompanist that can read at sight. But O! what that same Pet has to endure! The rapturous soulfulness that disdains tempo. The durchganging baritone that will not be stayed long by interludes of piano, whose eager spirit is bars too early for the fray. The violinist that will play songs—not only the voice part but any choice twiddly bits that a careless writers has left to the piano. The universal clamourous desire for ragtime.

There is something funny, certainly, about the skilled musician and composer being implored to hammer out popular tunes for the benefit of the hospital–and something very sad and worrisome about the way in which his psychological state is disregarded while his allegedly not-much-worse-than-a-cold symptoms of being gassed are attended to.

Gurney next discusses Edinburgh.

Enbro is indeed a magic name. Its glamour is increased (as usual) by distance and denial. 16 miles and regulations of the most strict. I wonder which was Henley’s hospital? There are many memories round this city, but the dearest to me are those of R L S, that friend of Everyman. Henley and the Great Sir Walter…[2]

Alas, again, that it is gas inhalation that has brought him to the outskirts of Edinburgh, and not the underlying and exacerbated psychological problems that plague him–he might have been in more salubrious company. But I forget: Gurney is an enlisted man, and no gentleman, however temporary. He would under no circumstances end up at Craiglockhart, or in Siegfried Sassoon‘s good graces…

 

Speaking of those graces and their salubrious and salutary effects, here is Wilfred Owen:

Tues. Aft.
2 October 1917

I have rescued these sheets from under a few feet of later accumulations. I have been quite well all week save for a cold. Nothing has been announced about my Board. Clearly I have another 3 weeks yet—before leaving—or having another board. Have been to School again. Am going to do Hiawatha with them now.

Then follows an ugly bit of casual racism about a Japanese envoy encountered on a visit to the fleet. Then this:

I have before me a letter, (as the novelists say,) from Lady Margaret Sackville to Sassoon, shyly presenting him with her war poems—some of them very fine. She is the great Patroness of Literature, and I am going to ask her for something for the Magazine…

Next comes a combat officer’s perspective on literary pacifism–and if it is mild and middling (as we might expect), it is very much a combat officer’s perspective–an undecorated combat officer.

I have never been much convinced that there was any serious accusation of cowardice hanging over Owen regarding his performance in the line this winter–but it is still clear that he feels he could have done better, and must do better when he returns to action. It will take generations before there is widespread understanding that to experience psychological symptoms after prolonged combat does not indicate any weakness of character. Nevertheless, hanging about with “Mad Jack” Sassoon and his MC (the ribbon may have floated down the Mersey to the sea, but the aura remains) may be having an effect on Owen’s sense of self in more than merely poetic ways:

Read Wells’ article in today’s Mail. Most important. I enclose it. As for myself, I hate washy pacifists as temperamentally as I hate whiskied prussianists. Therefore I feel that I must first get some reputation of gallantry before I could successfully and usefully declare my principles.[3]

In the article in question Wells does not argue for present pacifism but rather for a postwar solution that will prevent the re-emergence of militarism: ‘I have always insisted that this war must end not simply in the defeat but in the disappearance of militant imperialism from the world . . .”

We don’t need to indulge heavily in historical irony here. A famous writer advocates something like a League of Nations to prevent militaristic “bloodbaths,” and a gentle poet–already committed to the position that any true Christian ethic requires resistance to militarism–decides that he must be recognized for excellence in violence before he publicly espouses pacifism…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 375-6.
  2. War Letters, 212-4.
  3. Collected Letters, 497-8.

A Raid on Potatoes; A Pair of Tales, and a Book of Poems, In Memoriam

Still recovering from the fighting around the Menin Road, we will back into October with the Second Royal Welch, who lost around a third of their strength–including 60 dead–during their recent, nearly officer-less spell in the line. But a few days away from the front can make a huge difference, and if wartime traumas make lifelong memories, then there is another sense in which psychological recoveries, however shallow, must be very brief.

Dr. Dunn’s chronicle recounts the march into reserve, praises the dead, and moves on into the light humor of reserve-area hijinks. This bit sure sounds like it could feature Frank Richards, but if he is the signaller in question he forebears to confess in his own memoir:

October 1st.–Two signallers making a midnight-raid on sacks of newly-dug potatoes were thwarted by the watchful, voluble, and scarcely placable farmer.[1]

 

Otherwise, things are quiet, but we will observe the rite of the “Month Poem” in slightly heterodox fashion. In addition to a single poem, we have first a tale–The Tale–then a whole book of poems, and then one plucked from another sheaf.

I mention “The Tale” only because it is nominally a war story, and because it is by the notable friend-and-collaborator-of-Ford-Madox-Hueffer Joseph Conrad. Set at sea in the early months of the war and published this month, a century back, it’s a sea story, really, a spooky tale of uncertainty and human darkness that borrows the backdrop of 1914 and shares–more, perhaps, than Conrad’s tales usually caught the popular currents–the mood of the fall of 1917..

 

And we have a book of poems. It is always so very difficult to follow the experiences of the bereaved more than a few days or weeks past the telegram that tells of the death of their husband or son or lover. For a while there are dates to be had from letters of condolence and such, but then, usually, nothing. Long grieving, without much to shape it, and a slog through remaining responsibilities; too little distance and calm, yet, to reflect and write about who and what has been lost. So we have heard little of the afterlife of Edward Thomas, and it will be years before Helen–or Eleanor, or Myfanwy–writes of him. But his friends have not been idle, and this month, a century back, his Poems will be published, almost all of them for the first time.

But I couldn’t pick one of those–Adlestrop, the Great English Poem; or Lob, or As the Team’s Head Brass, or even the handful of frank war poems. Thomas can’t really be reduced to one poem, or a handful–and besides, the whole corpus only makes for a few hours’ ruminative reading. They’re all there, at the link above, and elsewhere on the web, and in Edna Longley’s excellent editions–all except, of course, for the poems sprung from the observations and jotted images in his “War Diary” between January and April, which are not, because he did not live to write them.

 

So for one poem for this month, we’ll go to one of several written in hospital by Ivor Gurney–and there’s an unusual Conrad-in-Scotland feel, here, from our gentle Severnside poet:

 

Hospital Pictures. No. (l) Ulysses

A soldier looked at me with blue hawk-eyes.
With kindly glances sorrow had made wise
And talked till all I’d ever read in books
Melted to ashes in his burning looks.
And poets I’d despise and craft of pen.
If, while he told his coloured wander-tales
Of Glasgow, Ypres, sea mist, spouting whales,
(Alive past words of power of writing men)
My heart had not exulted in his brave
Air of the wild woodland and sea-wave.
Or if, with each new sentence from his tongue
My high-triumphing spirit had not sung
As in some April when the world was young.

Bangour Hospital.Oct 1917.[2]

 

Well, no, not one poem, and not “I can’t pick just one Thomas poem”–I’ve changed my mind.

Since April and youth have been mentioned, and since it’s only a tough four lines, hovering between expansive eulogy and complete silence, and since the manuscript has so much blank space, we’ll close with this, the poem that will from now on, thanks to Thomas’s editors, be referred to as “In Memoriam (Easter, 1915).” Thomas’s working title, seen below, is much better–only the date:

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should

Have gathered them and will do never again.

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford.

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 405.
  2. War Letters, 229.

Wilfred Owen on the Next War; Ivor Gurney on Blighty Ones and Souvenirs

Not all that very long ago, Wilfred Owen was overjoyed to be part of something as polished and literary as The Hydra, Craiglockhart Hospital’s in-house literary magazine. But he has come far in recent weeks, not least in his own estimation. Two days ago, a century back, he wrote to his mother in long-suffering-editor mode.

Thursday, 10 p.m.
My own dear Mother,

Glad to have your reproach this morning & to think my letter could not arrive long after your posting. The Result of the Board has not been officially announced, but before it Dr. Brock said I should be kept on. In a few minutes I must go down to a special meeting about the Magazine. We have a new House President now, who is willing to lay out more money for it. At last, moreover, there seem to be people capable of helping to it. Sassoon is too much the great man to be bothered with it, and I wish I had back again the time I have wasted on it. I was cajoled into promising to act in the next big play, but had the fortitude to get out of it again.

I think one of the most humanly useful things I am doing now is the teaching at Tynecastle School…[1]

 

Owen will now do his utmost to get out of any further editing duties, but he was responsible for the issue of The Hydra which hit the breakfast room at Craiglockhart today, a century back. It included one of his latest poems, a naked homage to Sassoon, published anonymously:

 

The Next War

War’s a joke for me and you,
While we know such dreams are true.

 

Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death, —
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland, —
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We’ve sniffed the green thick odour of his breath, —
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn’t writhe.
He’s spat at us with bullets and he’s coughed
Shrapnel. We chorussed when he sang aloft,
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.
Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier’s paid to kick against His powers.
We laughed, — knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars: when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death, for lives; not men, for flags.

 

In another hospital only a few miles away, Ivor Gurney, is writing his own verse–but he is not pleased with it. Nevertheless, like Owen, he wishes that his cure might take just a little while longer…

29 September 1917
Hospital, Bangour.
Ward 24, Edinburgh Military

My Dear Friend: I have just turned over a page, just finished writing a most unsatisfactory piece of verse with which I shall not trouble you.

And would you really be polite enough to ask how I am getting on? Then you shall learn that the will of the doctor still keeps me in bed and on Light Diet; as that does not include bully-beef and biscuits I am not unsatisfied altogether, but it does mean Lightness, and that is not good. And the little baccy I have is of the most distressing; cigarettes are no companions like a pipe, and one tires of them. They do not care for classical music much here; my head is thick; my fingers stiff; the weather dull; there is nothing worth reading.

So there you are out of my grumbles. For to lie between clean linen in a light room is no small thing; nor to be able to buy todays papers a small blessing. It is good to wander surreptitiously from ones own room to another and listen to Scots tales of battle and winter hardship — if one does not look forward. Rest is good, and for the present that is all my business. Would to God I had a cough — a cough! What can a gassed man do without something hoarse or rattly? My chances are small, for my chest betrays me, of staying peacefully “in silk and scented down”.

Gurney then makes a black comedic allusion–he has no doubt that Marion Scott will catch it–to Alan Seeger:

I have a rendezvous with Fritz
By some disputed barricade”
and that before long.

Gurney, released from the strictures of censorship, then sketches all his movements–with the real place-names–and some of his actions. Frustratingly, when he now could tell us everything that has happened to him, he only distractedly sketches a few scenes and hints at a few notably horrible moments.

This next bit, however, is remarkable. Does he have any regrets about his time just behind the front lines?

O the souvenirs I might have had! But only officers have any real good chance of souvenirs, since only they can get them off. The men find things, and people who live in dugouts will hang them up and brag of great deeds in that old time. But the men, who could not carry very well, and had no place to store things and hardly a leave, will be empty-handed. You see, if one finds something interesting, it may be in a hot comer, and how is one to carry it, for the haversack is full… And if a wound comes all your stuff is lost. A man found a quartermasters stores at Omiecourt, near Chartres, with hundreds of brand new helmets, but all that could be done was a little traffic with officers. I had two books and some papers for you, all lost at Vermand. Men hang on to revolvers and badges, watches and compasses etc, all that can be easily carried. There is too much sniping for the fighters to get  souvenirs, the salvage and burial parties get them. (Will this letter interest you? And if so, why?)

Of course it will: from the far side of the experiential gulf it feels like a privilege to identify with the humble fighting soldiers–and against the knaves and R.E.M.F.’s who cheat them of their booty… and this is poetry:

People unfitted for the line, lunatics, funks, bosseyed idiots and such like, from whom an officer with 50 francs may make himself rich with booty — and reputation, the ASC do well, for they have room to store. R.T. officers, with Real Homes. Brass Hats can get what they would. Only the poor fool who goes over the top — and under the bottom — seems to be without anything at all. It is only fair to say that he is easily contented—with bare life, warmth, and food he must be counted rich; so by all means load weights of discipline on to him till he cares not whether he is in Rest or in the Line. And doesnt care a ha’peny obscenity about souvenirs save in his leg or arm; marketable, magic-carpet-like, transmuting talismans as they are. What an ode Bums would write to a Piece of Shrapnel! I hope for a letter from you very soon:

Your sincere friend – Ivor Gurney[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 496-7. Coincidentally, (Owen's soon-to-be intimate friend) Charles Scott Moncrieff published, on the same day as this letter, a review of Alec Waugh's novel of adolescent love, writing wryly that "If I had been given the alternatives--to lie about in Flanders and, in mid-August, occupy Langemarck, or to return to England, about the same time, criticise 'The Loom of Youth', I know not which of these adventures, alike so arduous and so gratifying, I should have chosen. But I had no choice..." See Chasing Lost Time, 137.
  2. War Letters, 208-210.

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.

Ivor Gurney and the Touch of Gas

Just yesterday, Ivor Gurney was scribbling away on another long and winding letter to Marion Scott; discussing his reading, writing, view of the war, and general state of mind.

The best way to learn to write is to read classics like Milton, Keats and Shakespeare, and the Georgian poets… Remoteness and Modernity mixed, is the best diet for youth — or age…  I do not ask you how you are for Form’s sake, (since nearly always I forget Form,) but because I wish to know…  “The Song of Honour” was good enough when it was written, but it is better still now…  My books up here are few—Tolstoi’s “Master and Man etc”, “A Gloucestershire Lad” and verse taken from your letters… Such an afternoon![1]

But “on or about” today, a century back, still near St. Julien in the Ypres Salient, Gurney inhaled poison from a German gas shell. He will give two similar accounts in coming letters:

By the way I am still in the line, but not having at all a bad time of it. My throat is sore from gas; it is just (or was) as if I had had catarrh, but only an occasional explosion of coughing is left now. No luck! One cannot smell the new gas. One starts sneezing. The old gas had a heavy hothouse Swinbumian filthy sort of odour — voluptuous and full of danger.

Which doesn’t sound all that bad. The next letter admits both Gurney’s pain and his hopes by dismissing them:

Thanks be to goodness I am out of it for a day or two, gassed in the throat… but not thinking to get anything out of it. How long will it last? Couldnt say, but not so long as I would wish. Being gassed (mildly) with the new gas is no worse than catarrh or a bad cold.[2]

There is an emphasis, isn’t there? Gurney repeats himself often in his letters–and repeatedly bemoans his memory–but of course it bears pointing out that even if the effects of swallowing poison fired from artillery shells can be compared to a bad cold, it hardly feels the same. Context is all.

An unpublished, rather shambolic poem paints the coming period in a sharply different light than that of the distracted-but-breezy letters to Scott:

…gas changed all…

                                   …a tale
Of five hours gas bombardment, which was true
(I brought that down) or keeping silence as to the
Real reason — which was three weeks at Ypres,
Without a rest (or laurel) (nor yet a cypress).
Having seen a Passchendaele lit with a flare of fire
And Ypres a dawn light ruddy and golden of desire.
The stuck tanks — and shook at our guns going in
As my body would not stay still at such Hell of din;
Worse than any of theirs — and seen Gloucesters going over;
Many for the last time — by accident gone further.
Dwelt in two pillboxes, had open station —
And lost of geography any the least notion.
Seeing Verey lights going up from all quarters.
And all German, and yet to go onwards where the
Tangle of time and space might be somehow dissolved.
Mixed with Londoners, Northerners and strange Gloucesters
Whom I knew not — and seen shattered Ypres by canal waters.
Our own guns shook me more than Fritzy guns with fear.
An airplane burned to earth near me in disaster.
Barrages on barrages fell on fatigue parties unhelped there —
Gas was driven, out of summer heaven
Bombs fell to shatter near artillery to no matter.
Machine guns bothered at biscuits, bully beef tins.
Naval guns blasted a dug-out to no use there.
Terribly fell the anger of the German clangour
Of guns on any that dared to move an inch in daylight there.
Death was compelled a hundred times and withheld.
Yet there is no honour of Ypres — though the Romans had
Saluted Ypres the word — without word gainsaid
They bent my helmet for me; they broke the machine gun nearly,
Carefully ranging, traversing, till the gun was tilted
Which after setting upright we set tobacco alight.
The routine of Ypres, the daily way of artillery fight,
I keep it for an honour out of Hell’s will wrested.
And remember courages in faces eager or resolute and white;
September’s sun that hallowed all that earth unthought
That even Passchendaele exalted and gilded —
The forward post of Gloucesters by nothing shielded.
And our post naked of shelter, save one trench hidden in the night:
Ypres, they that knew you are of a Company through you.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 196-7.
  2. War Letters, 198-9.
  3. Hurd, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, 102-5.

The Black Chair of Hedd Wyn; Wilfred Owen’s Forbidden Verses; Love, Poetry, and a Neat Picturesque Writer

It is relatively rare that we can identify a particular day on which a dead man became a legend. But for Hedd Wyn, surely, it was today, a century back, when the winning bard at the Welsh National Eisteddfod was due to be chaired. Ellis Evans had won several local chairs during his lifetime, but nothing came close to the prestige of the national competition. This account is from the The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard:

In the afternoon meeting was to come the ceremony of chairing the bard. There was a hushed premonition in the circles round the stage that this beautiful and ancient ceremony was not to take place; and, after the reading of the adjudication by Mr. Gwyn Jones, the nom-de-plume of “Fleur-de-lys” was called out as that of the winner. In dead silence it was announced that the successful poet was “Hedd Wyn,” the shepherd-poet from Trawsfynydd, Merionethshire, but that he lay in a quiet grave somewhere in France. No words can adequately describe the wave of emotion that swept over the vast audience when the chair was draped with the symbols of mourning…

The Black Chair–carved, as it happens, by a Flemish refugee–will be brought back to Trawsfynydd, a belated cortege for the bard whose body was unceremoniously buried alongside his comrades. And there it remains, a once and now-recently-refurbished place of pilgrimage for readers of Welsh poetry.

 

By an odd coincidence, the rest of our writers, today, are also concerned with poetry–the poetry of one particular Englishman who was an officer of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers (headquartered in Caernarfon, not all that far from Trawsfynydd). But the reviews on Siegfried Sassoon today are… mixed.

Wilfred Owen, of course, is a fan. But in another long letter to his mother reporting on his increasingly lively Edinburgh-based social life, there are many anecdotes to get through before we reach Sassoon. Expecting to be called on the carpet for a late night last night, Owen was instead told that he was expected to lunch with an Edinburgh philanthropist.

…So I went to lunch at their palatial house with two maiden sisters. The Misses Wyer. One of them took me over the Gardens and I gave my opinions and views… I went back to a marvellous pleasant Tea with the other Lady, who has travelled far and wide over the continents and the literatures. Then in sailed an enormous old lady of
the type of old lady I have but once or twice met—outside Thackeray—intellectual, witty, vigorous: told some good stories and eat a huge tea; an admirer of Alec Waugh’s book Loom of Youth!

This is fairly remarkable, actually. The Loom of Youth was currently experiencing a succès de scandale, a century back: a Public School memoir written while the author was still a teenager (not long after his expulsion from its thinly-concealed setting), it referred openly to love affairs between schoolboys. (This would have interested Owen, although it’s not clear from the letter–nor would it be, of course–that he knew this fact about the book). In an irony that might not surprise us, by now, Alec Waugh is currently an infantry subaltern in the Salient.[1]

Owen now turns to the master at hand:

But tonight Sassoon called me in to him; and having condemned some of my poems, amended others, and rejoiced over a few, he read me his very last works, which are superb beyond anything in his Book. Last night he wrote a piece which is the most exquisitely painful war poem of any language or time.[2] I don’t tell him so, or that I am not worthy to light his pipe. I simply sit tight and tell him where I think he goes wrong. He is going to alter one passage of this very poem for me.

No wonder I was happy last night, and that tonight I must get it off my chest before I sleep.

I realize that I promised a Sassoon Divergence, only to include other bits of Owen’s letter, but bear with me! The plot thickens here. After a paragraph on a completely different topic–the doings of the Field Club–Owen asks something of his mother. But is this motivated more by Sassoon’s interest or, just possibly, by Waugh?

…Will you do a sacred task for me? Wrench open the Cupboard of my Desk and withdraw from the top-shelf right-hand side, three port-folios—two are khaki, one is Harold’s gilt-stencilled velvet blotter. Upon your unimpeachable honour do not inspect the contents either of the cupboard or of the portfolios. But promptly pack off the portfolios under secure wrappings and plain address. I don’t care if you damage the cupboard-door. But don’t damage the hinges of your mind by wrenching the secrets of my portfolios. This sounds mysterious; but I am serious. Some of these verses will light my cigarettes, but one or two may light the darkness of the world. It is not a question of wheat and chaff, but of devils and angels. . . .[3]

And there the editor[4] notes, with maddeningly prim precision, that “we have omitted seventeen words.” It’s hard not to suspect that these bore on something that might have been deemed more profoundly embarrassing than mere poetic juvenilia. Or, rather, something in the subject matter of those poems seems likely to have been alluded to already…

Was it learning about Waugh’s book? Or is it in some way connected to Owen’s feelings for Sassoon? Or am I busy buttressing mole-hills for future development, while Owen has merely said something about his early writings that might rub a family member the wrong way (and allow some drama to creep into the published letters at the same time)?

 

Who knows? But if Ivor Gurney‘s opinions are to carry the day, it’s a good thing that Siegfried Sassoon has found this new gig inspiring other poets to renovate their style…

My Dear Friend:

…Do not copy any more Sassoon please; I have absorbed him. He is a neat picturesque interesting writer who occasionally reaches poetry…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. His thirteen-year-old brother Evelyn is, much to his irritation, now in school at Lancing College, since Sherborne School, the traditional family destination, had not only expelled his Alec for homosexual activity but was now outraged by the novel.
  2. A note suggests that this was "Dreamers," but if that were published in the Sept. 1st The Hydra then this must have been something else.
  3. Collected Letters, 491-2.
  4. Owen's brother Harold, generally an untrustworthy and censorious presence.
  5. War Letters, 195-6. This letter, posted on the 9th, seems to have been written on or before today, a century back, since a post-script is dated September 7th.

John Ronald Tolkien Works in a Sea Power; Ivor Gurney Writes of Sassoon and Hodgson, to Stave off the Shelling; Robert Graves Follows a Bandit Through the Welsh Countryside

Ivor Gurney‘s pen will not stay still, come “flary hell,” or high mud, trench living or German shells. In fact, it is the latter, and their effect on his mind, that drives him to keep on writing. Once more, then, to Marion Scott, his friend and editor and all-purpose patron. Their correspondence is spreading, now, beyond the practical matters of publication and the ordinary intercourse of friends. Not that there is any direct impropriety (Scott is some years older[1] and from a very different social milieu and the relationship was not openly romantic), but these letters in which Gurney discusses other writers with her are charged with more passion than his accounts of the war or his almost indifferent attention to refining his own work for publication.

August 31st 6 pm

My Dear Friend: Still moving along life’s weary road, not very pleased with the scenery of this section of it, and wishing the guns would give over; for these literally are never still…

Today I have been reading “The Bible in Spain”, that brilliant curious book. Indeed, but [George] Borrow is indispensable — “Lavengro”, “Wild Wales”, Rommany Rye and “The Bible in Spain”! A queer chap though, and often purposely queer…

When windy, “write letters,” and so — here you are.

For Fritz has been shelling and it has rattled me…

These letters, then, are in some sense artifacts of shell shock–but in what way does the fact of writing while jumpy and afraid, under constant neurological and physical assault, affect judgments such as these?

You are right about Sassoon; you are right about Hodgson. Sassoon is the half-poet, the borrower of magic. But as for the talk about poetry………. well, I think about that sometimes in this tittle concrete and steel emplacement holding 25 men, but O the crush! Slum conditions if you please…

As for the Imagists — I hate all attempts at exact definition of beauty, which is a half-caught thing, a glimpse. What the devil is a “cosmic poet”? Surely a better name would be cosmetic?

Hodgson is really the true thing, and so I would rather put off comment till later when I am better able to think of such things, and have read the “Song of Honour” in full…[2]

 

Robert Graves would no doubt be irked to be absent from the reading list of a war poet who is considering those other Somme poets Sassoon and Hodgson. Especially Sassoon–half-magic is better than no mention!

But Graves has other things on his mind today, a century back, as his nephew and biographer will attest. Working to train troops at Litherland, he is relatively close to the family’s country home on the Welsh coast.

It was to be a memorable long weekend. Robert heard that some of the Nicholsons were in Harlech; and on Friday evening, after an early supper, he walked over to Llys Bach to call on them. It was a pleasant walk along the country path which meandered from the gate at the back of Erinfa towards the village. The road was down to the right, but invisible beyond the trees; and to the left there was a little stretch of wooded ground, and then the hills. Robert had almost reached the outskirts of the village when he pushed open a gate to his right; and there, with views across the sea just as magnificent as those from Erinfa, stood Llys Bach.

This conjectural walk is, naturally, the prelude to a romance.

Ever since January, when he had last seen the Nicholsons, Robert had been curiously haunted by his last memory of Nancy in her black velvet dress; and now he found her transformed from a schoolgirl into a cheerful, rosy-cheeked and highly independent young woman, within a fortnight of her eighteenth birthday. Boyishly dressed as a bandit, Nancy was just about to set out for a fancy dress dance in a private house; and Robert, suddenly feeling that he wanted to stay with her, went along uninvited. That evening was the first occasion upon which Robert and Nancy spent much time talking to each other; and Robert was so elated by the experience that he stayed up half the night…[3]

 

And finally, today, J.R.R. Tolkien, safely married–he and Edith are expecting their first child–and safe on garrison duty in Humberside, has been taken ill again, with a recurrence of the fever that ended his Somme campaign last autumn. Once again hospitalized, he will spend the weekend redrafting his poem “Sea-Song of an Elder Day.” He did so with a particular end in mind, however: now subtitled “The Horns of Ulmo,” it was altered to fit “explicitly within his mythology.”[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I wrote in the first version of this post that Marion Scott was married--a silly mistake. Gurney often asks after a Mr. Scott, so I merely assumed... sloppy! And ironic, given that Scott was a rare example of a single woman with an influential career in music and the arts, a century back. Apologies for the error! Marion Scott never married, yet was a great friend and patron to Gurney...
  2. War Letters, 193-4.
  3. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 182-3.
  4. Chronology, 101.

Ivor Gurney Would Test God’s Purposes

Today we’ll continue to read Ivor Gurney’s latest letter to Marion Scott. It was posted today, a century back, with another addition, including an unusually direct poem–about himself, this time, and his chances in this war. This is not a soldier dreaming of his native hills; this is a soldier openly questioning what his future in France will hold:

 

I would test God’s purposes;
I will go up and see
What fate is mine, what destiny
God holds for me.

For He is very secret.
He smiles, but does not say
A word that will foreshadow
Shape of the coming day.

Curious am I, curious . . . .
And since he will not tell
I’ll prove him, go up against
The flary mouth of Hell.

And what hereafter — Heaven?
Or Blighty? O if it were . . . .
Mere agony, mere pain the price
Of the returning there.

Or — nothing! Days in mud
And slush, then other days . . . .
Aie me ! “Are they not all
The seas of God?” God’s Ways?

That’s not so bad, I think. Are colours turning yet in Kent? Perhaps…

Not so bad–and very, very clear: God knows, and Ivor doesn’t. Heaven? Blighty, to be bought with mere agony? Or… nothing? Interestingly, this is not the atheist’s “nothing” but rather the strategist’s: the poem is not a theological lament but a military one in which the muddy war of attrition that goes ever on between “shows” seems to take on a theological status… the Slough of Limbo, perhaps.

But for all that “flary mouth of Hell,” Gurney seems to have–or to be taking, in this letter–a relatively sunny view of the war’s recent developments.

Things look pretty hopeful now, dont they? The Italians seem to have remembered Caesar and his far wars and glory. What the Austrians remember I cannot say (Austerlitz?) And the French dont seem exhausted, and as for the English . . . . Our guns would frighten imps in the lowest concrete dugout of Hell, so they shake me up pretty considerably.

Now write to me, prattle sweetly in your accustomed fashion, for how long we shall be in we do not know save from that fickle jade Rumour, whose information is rarely much good. And by all means send the proofs if you can get a double set. Goodbye With best wishes:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 192-3.