Two Fusiliers in the English Country Clover: A Final Chapter From John Bernard Adams, Siegfried Sassoon on the Hunt

We return with two Royal Welch Fusiliers to their home hunting grounds, today: one at ease thinking diligently of war and the other riding hard and strenuously avoiding all thought. But first, our second mention of the American Guardsman Carroll Carstairs, whose movement toward the front lines is simple physics: he goes to fill the vacuum left by the lacerations of September 15th.

We left Waterloo Station on the 21st of September, eight of us, embarked at Southampton and reaching Le Havre the next morning proceeded to the Guards Divisional Base Depot at Harfleur. Harfleur! Five hundred years ago Henry V had taken it from the French. We still seemed to have it! Here we were billeted in huts, two officers per hut. Paths with trim herbaceous borders gave to the camp, for its transient inhabitants, a final touch of home before the train that took one up to the front had jerked slowly out of the station at Le Havre.

Around the table in the officers’ mess one pondered over the lists of casualties that, occurring on the 15th, had begun to appear in the “Roll of Honour.” But not for long. We were needed to fill the gaps and remained at Harfleur scarcely more than a day or two before we received orders to join the Division…[1]


Has Siegfried Sassoon been beating a path toward protest, toward poetic efflorescence, toward an outing of the indoor man? Is the sensitive poet ready to fling barely metaphorical bombs at the profiteers and jingoists on his own side? Perhaps. He has, after all, just spent time in Wales with Robert Graves and at Garsington Manor with the “sophisticated hospitalities” of Lady Ottoline Morell.

But he has also, during this strange prolongation of sick leave (he is healthy, and the army is shorter and shorter on officers, yet several medical boards will renew his leave), beaten a certain path of retreat into “that pre-war personality.” Today, a century back, was his first day in quite some time as a fox hunting man. Cub-hunting, rather–five times in the coming week. Cub hunting, it seems, is a way of training dogs and horses for the proper hunting season while killing off young foxes who are full-grown but not yet sexually mature. If Sassoon sees the irony in training the young to cull the weaker young this fall, he doesn’t mention it.

September 21st. Met at Orton Waterville, 6.30. Fine morning after slight frost. Found in the Long Covert and hunted one over the road and railway, through the osiers and along by the railway bridge; then back by the river and lost him beyond the ferry… they afterwards killed a brace. Scent fair. Home 11.30. Rode Westmorland.[2]


Not every officer on medical leave was using the fine Summer weather to escape the war, however.


Chapter XVII

It was a slumbrous afternoon in September. My wound had healed up a month ago, and I was lazily convalescent at my aunt’s house in one of the most beautiful parts of Kent. The six soldiers who were also convalescent there were down in the hop-garden. For hop-picking was in full swing. I was sitting in a deck-chair with Don Quixote on my knees; but I was not reading…

I was listening to the incessant murmur that came from far away across the Medway, across the garden of England, and across the Channel and the flats of Flanders. That sound came from Picardy. All day the insistent throb had been in the air; sometimes faint bimips were clearly distinguishable, at other times it was nothing but one steady vibration. But always it was there, that distant growl, that insistent mutter. Even in this perfect peace, I could not escape the War.

So begins the end of John Bernard Adams‘ memoir, Nothing of Importance. Wounded in June, Adams has missed the Somme battle which claimed the lives of so many of his Regiment, the Royal Welch Fusiliers. But he came back to this moment to put a coda to his book–I am fudging here, for he does not give a precise date for his “slumbrous afternoon” when news of a bloody attack is in the papers, but this one fits the bill fairly well–and I wanted to observe it with him.

Like his comrade Siegfried Sassoon–another Kentish officer of the Welch–Adams finds the contrast of perfect English peace with the chaotic hell of trenches almost too much to bear. But unlike Sassoon, Adams finds himself–or writes himself–sure of his subsequent direction. Out of dissonance and irony, conviction. I will excerpt at length:

To-day I felt completely well; the lassitude and inertness of convalescence were gone — at any rate, for the moment. My mind was very clear, and I could think surely and rapidly…

I tried to imagine trenches running across the lawn, with communication trenches running back to a support line through the meadow; a few feet of brick wall would be all that would be left of the house, and this would conceal my snipers; the mulberry tree would long ago have been razed to the ground, and every scrap of it used as firewood in our dug-outs; this desk chair of mine might possibly be in use in Company Headquarters in one of the cellars. No, it was not easy to imagine war without seeing it.

I picked up the paper that had fallen at my side. There had been more terrible fighting on the Somme, and it had seemed very marvellous to a journalist as he lay on a hill some two miles back, and watched through his field-glasses: it was wonderful that the men advancing (if indeed he could really see them at all in the smoke of a heavy artillery barrage) still went on, although their comrades dropped all round them. Yet I wondered what else anyone could do but go on? Run back, with just as much likelihood of being shot in doing so? Or, even if he did get back, to certain death as a deserter? Everyone knows the safest place is in a trench; and it is a trench you are making for. Lower down on the page came a description of the wounded; he had talked to so many of them, and they were all smiling, all so cheerful; smoking cigarettes and laughing. They shook their fists, and shouted that the only thing they wanted to do was to get back into it! Pah! I threw the paper down in disgust. Surely no one wants to read such stuff, I thought. Of course the men who were not silent, in a dull stupefied agony, were smiling: what need to say that a man with a slight wound was laughing at his luck, just as I had smiled that early morning when the trolley took me down from Maple Redoubt? And who does not volunteer for an unpleasant task, when he knows he cannot possibly get it? Want to get back into it, indeed! Ask Tommy ten years hence whether he wants to be back in the middle of it again!

I wondered why people endured such cheap journalism…Are not our people able to bear the truth, that war is utterly hellish, that we do not enjoy it, that we hate it, hate it, hate it all? And then it struck me how ignorant people still were; how uncertainly they spoke, these people at home: it was as though they dared not think things out, lest what they held most dear should be an image shattered by another point of view…

Well then, let’s get shatterin’. But he has been, carefully and methodically, for a few hundred pages now. He thinks of horrible wounds on one side of the experiential gulf, of smug pro-war convictions on the other.

Oh! you men and women who did not know before the capabilities of human nature, I thought, please take note of it now; and after the war do not underestimate the quality of mankind. Did it need a war to tell you that a man can be heroic, resolute, courageous, cheerful, and capable of sacrifice?

There were those who could have told you that before this war. There was a lull in the vibration. I turned in my chair, and listened. Then it began again.

“People are afraid to think it out,” I said. “I have not seen the Somme fighting, but I know what war is. Its quality is not altered by multiplication or intensity. The colour of life-blood is a constant red. Let us look into this business; let us face all the facts. Let us not flinch from any aspect of the truth.” And my thoughts ran somewhat as follows:

First of all, War is evil—utterly evil. Let us be sure of that first. It is an evil instrument, even if it be used for motives that are good. I, who have been through war and know it, say that it is evil. I knew it before the war; instinct, reason, religion told me that war was evil; now experience has told me also.

I break in now really only for the rhythm of the thing. It should be clear by now that Adams is closing his book with what we might call a programmatic statement. And that he has our interests at heart: the knowledge that experience confers, and the ethical, historical, and literary challenges that it poses.

He is angry, but he pauses and, Hankey-like (yet pushed to a more radical position) forces himself to weigh things carefully.

It is a strange synthesis, this war: it is a synthesis of adventure, dullness, good spirits, and tragedy; but none of these things are new to human experience… I have seen and felt the adventure of war, its deadly fascination and excitement: it is the greatest game on earth: that is its terrible power : there is such a wild temptation to paint np its interest and glamour : it gives such scope to daring, to physical courage, to high spirits: it makes so many prove themselves heroic, that were it not for the fall of the arrow, men would call the drawing of the bow good. I have seen the dullness, the endless monotony, the dogged labour, the sheer power of will conquering the body and “carrying on”: there is good in that, too. In the jollity, the humour, the good-fellowship is nothing but good also. There is good in all these things; for these are qualities of human nature triumphing in spite of war. These things are not war; they are the good in man prostituted to a vile thing.

For I have seen the real face of war: I have seen men killed, mutilated, blown to little pieces; I have seen men crippled for life; I have looked in the face of madness, and I know that many have gone mad under its grip. I have seen fine natures break and crumble under the strain. I have seen men grow brutalized, and coarsened in this war. (God will judge justly in the end ; meanwhile, there are thousands among us—yes, and among our enemy too—brutalized through no fault of theirs). I have lost friends killed (and shall lose more yet), friends with whom I have lived and suffered so long.

Who is for war now! Its adventure, its heroism! Bah!

Adams goes on–at some length–about the horrors of war. But he soon arrives at his second point: the duties of a Christian in this time of murder are not the same as those of a writer from the trenches–they are, in fact, in no way predicated on experience:

I knew that war was vile, before I went into if. I have seen it: I do not alter my opinion. I went into this war prepared to sacrifice my life to prove that right is stronger than wrong; I have stood again and again with a traverse between me and death; I have faced the possibility of madness. I foresaw all this before I went into this war. What difference does it make that I have experienced it? It makes no difference. Let no one fear that our sacrifice has been in vain. We have already won what we are fighting for. The will for war, that aggressive power, with all the cards on its side prepared, striking at its own moment, has already failed against a spirit, weaker, unprepared, taken unawares. And so I am clear on my second point. We are fighting from just motives, and we have already baulked injustice. Aggressive force, the power that took up the cruel weapon of war, has failed. No one can ever say that his countrymen have laid down their lives in vain.

And yet experience has played an important role. It hasn’t changed reality, but it has catalyzed perception:

I got up from the chair, and started walking about the garden. Everything was so clear. Before going out to the war I had thought these things; but the thoughts were fluid, they ran about in mazy patterns, they were elusive, and always I was frightened of meeting unanswerable contradictions to my theorising from men who had actually seen war. Now my conclusions seemed crystallised by irrefutable experience into solid truth.

After a while I sat down again and resumed my train of thought:

War is evil. Justice is stronger than Force. Yet, was there need of all this bloodshed to prove this? For this war is not as past wars; this is every man’s war, a war of civilians, a war of men who hate war, of men who fight for a cause, who are compelled to kill and hate it. That is another thing that people will not face. Men whisper that Tommy does not hate Fritz. Again I say, away with this whispering. Let us speak it out plain and bold. Private Davies, my orderly, formerly a shepherd of Blaenau Festiniog, has no quarrel with one Fritz Schneider of Hamburg who is sitting in the trench opposite the Matterhorn sap; yet he will bayonet him certainly if he comes over the top, or if we go over into the German trenches; ay, he will perform this action with a certain amount of brutality too, for I have watched him jabbing at rats with a bayonet through the wires of a rat trap, and I know that he has in him a savage vein of cruelty. But when peace is declared, he and Fritz will light a bonfire of trench stores in No Man’s Land, and there will be the end of their quarrel…

It is hard to trace ultimate causes. It is hard to fix absolute responsibility. There were many seeds sown, scattered, and secretly fostered before they produced this harvest of blood. The seeds of cruelty, selfishness, ambition, avarice, and indifference, are always liable to swell, grow, and bud, and blossom suddenly into the red flower of war…

And it is because they know that we, too, are not free from them, that certain men have stood out from the arena as a protest against war. These men are real heroes, who for their conscience’s sake are enduring taunts, ignominy, misunderstanding, and worse. Most men and women in the arena are cursing them, and, as they struggle in agony and anguish they beat their hands at them and cry ”You do not care.” I, too, have cursed them, when I was mad with pain. But I know them, and I know that they are true men. I would not have one less. They are witnesses against war. And I, too, am fighting war. Men do not understand them now, but one day they will.

I know that there are among us, too, the seeds of war: no cause has yet been perfect. But I look at the facts. We did not start, we did not want this war… It was the seeds of war in Germany that were responsible. And so history will judge.

But what of the future?

Adams ends his book on this September afternoon, a century back (give or take a few days), with a return to fundamentals. There is no way out of modern war, he argues, except for a way that was there from the beginning. Experience has sent him back to the central Christian story. John Bernard Adams will be neither the first nor the last to see the sufferings of the infantry prefigured in the Passion:

…I walked up and down the lawn, my eyes glowing, my brain working hard. Here around me was all the beauty of an old garden, its long borders full of phloxes, delphiniums, stocks, and all the old familiar flowers; the apples glowed red in the trees; the swallows were skimming across the lawn. In the distance I could hear the rumble of the wagon bringing up the afternoon load of hop-pokes to the oasthouse. Yet what I had seen of war was as true, had as really happened, as all this. It would be so easy to forget, after the war. And yet to forget might mean a seed of war. I must never forget Lance-Corporal Allan.

There is only one sure way, I said at last. And again a clear conviction filled me… There is only one Man whose eyes have never glittered. Look at the palms of your hands, you, who have had a bullet through the middle of it! Did they not give you morphia to ease the pain? And did you not often cry out alone in the darkness in the terrible agony, that you did not care who won the war if only the pain would cease? Yet one Man there was who held out His hand upon the wood, while they knocked, knocked, knocked in the nail, every knock bringing a jarring, excruciating pain, every bit as bad as yours…

Do you want to put an end to the arena? Here is a Man to follow. In hoc signo vinces.

Now as I stood on the lawn, I heard the long continuous vibration of the guns upon the Somme.

“You are War,” I said aloud. “This is your hour, the power of darkness. But the time will come when we shall follow the Man who has conquered your last weapon, death: and then your walls of steel will waver, cringe, and fall, melted away before the fire of LOVE.”[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Generation Missing, 61-2.
  2. Siegfried's Journey, 24-5.
  3. Nothing of Importance, 313-29.

The Last Day of the Old Guard and the First of the Tanks: Raymond Asquith Goes Forward; Harold Macmillan Reads Aeschylus, Downed; The Master of Belhaven on the Most Alarming Thing Imaginable

Today, a century back, a major attack was launched on the center of the Somme front. It will be a considerable success–except where two brigades of the Guards Division attacked from the outskirts of Ginchy towards Lesboeufs.

Through some accident, Zero had been a little mistimed, and the troops left their lairs, not under the roar and swish of their own barrage, but in a silence which lasted perhaps less than a minute, but which seemed endless… till, with a wrench that jerked the ground, our barrage opened, the enemy’s counter-barrage replied.[1]

Thus a great stylist. A blunter romancer condemns the tactics as succinctly as possible: “Their front of attack was too narrow, their objectives too far distant, and from the start their flanks were enfiladed.”[2]

For any and all of these reasons, the 3rd Grenadier Guards met heavy, direct fire as soon as they left their trenches–there were machine-guns on three sides, and unexpected rifle fire just in front.

Harold Macmillan, leading his platoon, was hit in the knee, and stumbled on.

raymond asquith, 1915

Raymond Asquith

Raymond Asquith, leading No. 4 Company, was hit in the chest, and couldn’t.

Attempting nonchalance–perhaps to calm his men–Asquith lit a cigarette. He was quickly found by stretcher bearers and given morphia.

But he died on the stretcher on the way to the aid post. His soldier-servant, Needham, accompanied the body to burial.[3]


What else can we add? Not much. Asquith’s contribution here has been wit, and a special sort of provocation–to take him lightly, to miss the context of his letters just because he dares us to. He’s been whistling into the hurricane, fiddling all the harder because his naughty, beloved, decadent Rome is being fired on from all sides. It looks like cynicism, and it tastes, sometimes, almost like nihilism–but it was, really, a tough, contrary, formidable love of life and love and beauty.

Now he’s gone, and his legacy–for his friends, but especially for his wife and three young children–is loss.


Is it too sentimental to claim that, although much wonderful writing is to come (we are not yet halfway through this ordeal) we will not see his like again? I hope not, because, really, we won’t. It’s September, and this death, surely, is the last fallen leaf of the Last Summer.


Onward, anyway. What happened? How did he die? There is not much more to know, since he was shot down so early on this chaotic day. There’s not much of a story, in the end. And the rest of the day is terrible chaos.

For form’s sake I will link my battle-piece-agnosticism to a narrator of unquestioned bravado:


German dead along the Ginchy-Flers sunken road

There naturally cannot be any definite or accurate record of the day’s work. Even had maps been issued to the officers a week, instead of a day or so, before the attack; even had those maps marked all known danger-points — such as the Ginchy-Flers sunk road; even had the kaleidoscopic instructions about the Brown and Yellow lines been more intelligible, or had the village of Ginchy been distinguishable from a map of the pitted moon — once the affair was launched there was little chance of seeing far or living long.[4]


If there cannot be a definite or accurate record–if there cannot be pre-historical chronicle, let alone “history”–there can still be impressions. C.E. Montague, who, now that he is an intelligence officer, has begun to keep a brief diary of his movements, was a witness in the rear, where all great hopes reside.

Sept. 15.–To point between Maricourt and Hardécourt (close by Nameless Copse) to see battle begin. Start 5 A.M., moonlight. Cavalry on silent road by Querriers. Lances bristling against dawn–twilight sky in fields beside road.[5]

The cavalry will not advance. But other beasts will. Were it not for the loss of one of our very finest, here, this day’s story of battle would have to begin with the great surprise weapon. Of our writers, Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, may have had the best view–even if, at day’s end, he did not have the most accurate perspective.

Guillemont, 15th September, 1916

To-day there has been another great battle, which seems to have been nothing less than a victory for us.


Mark I tank

I cannot talk about the “tanks,” as our new armoured caterpillars are called. These astounding machines… are huge armoured forts, weighting over thirty tons… they can go over any ground, however broken up… they are the most alarming things imaginable and are so heavily armoured that they are impervious to rifle or machine-gun fire; nothing but a direct hit from a gun can stop them…

Would that that were so. Kipling, laying about him with characteristic precision but unusual mercilessness, dwells not on the promise of the tanks but on the uselessness in such a deep attack over such ground of a mere handful of fragile new machines:

There had been instructions in Brigade Orders, as to the co-operation of nine tanks that were to assist the Guards Division that day and would, probably, “start from each successive line well in advance of the attacking troops.” Infantry were warned, however, that their work “would be carried out whether the Tanks are held up or not.” It was. The Tanks were not much more in evidence on that sector than the Cavalry which, cantering gaily across the shell-holes, should have captured Bapaume…[6]

But that is bitter hindsight. Today, a century back, the cavalry were an old familiar hope and the tanks were an impressive novelty.

Charles Carrington, who often styles himself a retrospective voice of reason, notes, for his part, that he “flatly refused to believe” that “we possessed armoured cards that could cross trenches and wire… The secret was wonderfully well kept… And the lesson to be learned from the battle of 15th September was that the Mark I tank has almost no value except for the lift given to our morale and the shock to the German morale by the rumours about our secret weapon… Haig… believed, and for what it is worth I and my friends believed, that there was still a chance of fighting the decisive battle before the autumn and for such a prize everything must be stake…[7]

Back now to the Master of Belhaven, writing this evening, a century back, and sanguine:

As it became lighter we could see four of the new monsters on the Guinchy ridge just in front of us…. They were rolling and pitching on the rough ground like ships at sea, but kept steadily on at about a mile an hour, till they reached the German parapet, hoisted themselves over and were lost to sight on the other side. Accounts vary very much so far, as to how they did…

We could see our infantry attacking, line after line, especially the Guards on our left. They went forward in perfect order at a walk, breaking into a run when they go near the German position…[8]

But as Kipling will write, “no man saw anything coherently.” Belhaven was wrong. Quick progress was made on the flanks, but the Guards walked into machine-gun fire, and were mauled from the beginning. Soon they discovered that a scratch trench–or series of shell holes–that had not even been accounted for in their extremely ambitious orders was still being held by Germans.[9] This was the source of the accurate rifle fire that was added to the traversing machine guns. And the artillery did not lag far behind.


Which brings us back to Harold Macmillan, who lived to tell this tale. Those of his platoon of the 3rd Grenadier Guards who made it through the first wave of machine-gun fire discovered that the tanks had failed–Macmillan saw one of “these strange objects” stranded in a shell-hole–and the barrage had moved on with its brisk, foreordained optimism. They had to scrape together some sort of improvisational attack, or die where they lay. Macmillan will write that

the German artillery barrage was very heavy,  but we got through the worst of it after the first half-hour. I was wounded slightly in the right knee. I bound up the wound at the first halt, and was able to go on. . . . About 8.20 we halted again. We found that we were being held up on the left by Germans in about 500 yards of uncleared trench. We attempted to bomb and rush down the trench. I was taking a party across to the left with a Lewis gun, to try and get in to the trench, when I was wounded by a bullet in the left thigh [apparently at close range]. It was a severe wound, and I was quite helpless. I dropped into a shell-hole, shouted to Sgt. Robinson to take command of my party and go on with the attack. Sgt. Sambil helped me tie up the wound. I had no water, as the bullet had previously gone thro’ my water bottle. . .

I don’t believe that Macmillan and Asquith knew each other well, but they were both Balliol men, and readers, and Asquith, minutes or hours dead, would have approved of how Macmillan spent his morning:

He lay in the shell-hole all morning, while the tide of battle flowed back and forth around him–lying ‘doggo’ and pretending to be dead when any Germans came near, lest they be tempted to ‘despatch’ him. Though realising that he had been seriously wounded, he was surprised to discover that–unlike the far less dangerous wound through his hand at Loos–‘which was excruciatingly painful, this body blow knocked me out but did not hurt’. Remembering that he had in his pocket a copy of Aeschylus’s Prometheus (in Greek), which Nellie had sent him, he fell to reading it intermittently; ‘It was a play I knew well, and seemed not inappropriate to my position.’

The great classical wit is dead, but long live classical wit. Prometheus Bound (no longer unanimously attributed to Aeschylus, but we live in a fallen world) features a number of long speeches made to and by the titan Prometheus, as he is chained in place and tortured. “Violence” and “Authority” appear as characters, and there is a matter of giving fire to mankind…

After a morphia-aided nap, Macmillan was found:

Company Sergeant-Major Norton, a splendid man, I can see him now . . . bottom of shell-hole, sloped rifle: “Thank you, sir, for leave to carry you away,” as if he’d been on a parade ground!

But Macmillan’s grim adventure was not over. After dark he and another wounded officer were carried to Ginchy, where confusion reigned and ambulances could not be found. They sent their bearers back to the battalion, then tried to limp back on their own. They became separated, and Macmillan, wounded and alone, felt fear catch up with him at last. He will look back on today, and comment that

bravery is not really vanity, but a kind of concealed pride, because everybody is watching you. Then I was safe, but alone, and absolutely terrified because there was no need to show off any more, no need to pretend . . . there was nobody for whom you were responsible, not even the stretcher bearers. Then I was very frightened. . . . I do remember the sudden feeling–you went through a whole battle for two days . . . suddenly there was nobody there   . . . you could cry if you wanted to. . .[10]

After passing out in a ditch, Macmillan was found by a passing officer and taken at last to an ambulance.


There are tales of heroism that go with this attack, of course. Macmillan’s friend Oliver Lyttleton, who as adjutant did not go forward with the attacking companies, went forward later to gather in the remnants of several battalions and defend the few trenches they had taken. He was driven out by German counterattacks, throwing his empty revolver at the Germans like a grenade as a last ruse to cover the last retreat.

But for the most part it is only death. So we’ll close with two concise tales of death, framed as tragedies. A few days ago, Rowland Feilding had marched back with his new, shattered, battalion past his former battalion of the Coldstream Guards. He will remember this chance meeting when he next writes to his wife:

I stopped for lunch. The young officers crowded round me afterwards to hear my news, joking and laughing about it all, and asking what it was like “up there.” Poor little Dilberoglue, who commanded one of the Companies, clung to the boy next to him, and pretended to shiver with fear at the prospect of what was before him. And the Fates have taken his joke seriously, for to-day he is dead. He was a very competent young officer.[11]


Finally, I want to end with a new turn, a twist away from the death of Raymond Asquith that nonetheless shows how the war’s thread runs through so many lives, linking even where it does not entangle. Carroll Carstairs, a writer we have heard nothing from yet, is an American volunteer. By now he has taken a commission and made his way into the Grenadier Guards, completing training at one of their depot camps. He has only been awaiting a gap to fill–so he will be moving up to the line shortly, now. He remembers another American Guardsman, and the dreams and strange paths of eager young volunteers.

While on short leave in Amiens I heard about Dill Star. He wanted to go into the Flying Corps, but thought it would take too long to get to the front. Walter Oakman, who had joined the Coldstream, persuaded him to transfer into that Regiment.

Dill went to France about September 1st, and was killed on the 15th of that month.

“You knew him?” asked the young officer in the Coldstream with whom I was having a drink.


“He went over in fine style . . .”

And then I thought of the story told me once about Dill. Whenever he had had a bit too much drink in his club at Harvard he could be found sitting in front of a certain picture. It was an old coloured print and represented a charge by a regiment in the Brigade of Guards.[12]


References and Footnotes

  1. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I, 158-9.
  2. Buchan, Pilgrim's Way, 58-60.
  3. Life and Letters, 296.
  4. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I, 159.
  5. Elton, C.E. Montague, 143.
  6. Kipling, The Irish Guards, II, 94.
  7. Carrington, Soldier From the Wars Returning, 123-4.
  8. War Diary, 251-3.
  9. This may refer to the sunken road, pictured above.
  10. Horne, Macmillan, 44-6.
  11. Feilding, War Letters to a Wife, 119.
  12. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 66-7.

John Bernard Adams is Free at Last; C.E. Montague Settles for Intelligence

One of the things which John Bernard Adams does very nicely in writing his memoir is to show the effort of striving to recapture the pervading tension of his wartime experience. He’s not trying to reach deftly through the fog of memory to pluck some precise event but rather to feel his way into the mental state that he inhabited at the time. Which, of course, is precisely the sort of thing that one can’t fully appreciate until it’s gone:


It was somewhere about ten o’clock Monday morning. The sister had just finished dressing my arm; the doctor had poked it about; now it lay cool and quiet along by my side. I had not slept that night again, except with morphia. I still felt extraordinarily tired, but was very comfortable. I watched the tall sister in blue with the white headdress that reminded me of a nun’s cap. She was so strong and quiet, and seemed to know that my hand always wanted support at the wrist when she lifted my arm. I did not want to talk, just to lie.

Suddenly I realized that my head was no longer buzzing. I knew that I should sleep to-night—at last! My body relaxed: the tension suddenly melted away.

“Hurrah!” I thought, “I have not got to move, or think, or decide— and I can just lie for hours, for days.”

At last I was out of the grip of war.[1]

And their endeth the main narrative of Nothing of Importance, Eight Months at the Front with a Welsh Battalion. There will be postscripts…


Isaac Rosenberg, however, is just beginning to feel the rough grip of war. Today his battalion was attached to 44th brigade, at Hulluch, to complete their training by initiating them into the front line.[2]


And C.E. Montague, who fought harder than most to get himself within reach of war’s clawing fingertips, slipped through them months ago, and has been stewing at home since his most recent illness. It was a brave try, to be a sergeant in the trenches in his fifties, but his health is not up to it. And it’s 1916–the bureaucracy lumbers, but it is beginning to clear out the corners…  Sure to be deprived of real combat, Montague has girded his loins, reached out to his contacts, and decided to be useful. He has reached out to his peacetime boss, C.P. Scott of the Manchester Guardian, in the hopes of getting “an intelligence job.”

This belated acknowledgment of his age is also a belated acknowledgment of his class and professional usefulness–he will be commissioned and given what we would call a P.R. job, mainly involving the conducting of visiting dignitaries around the front. This, he thinks, will be an excellent second best:

Please thank [Scott] most kindly for his help in this rescue of me from the abominable life or a reserve battalion at home. I shall be right up among the guns again and I feel as if I had been given back my early youth. In a way I can feel almost grateful, now, for all the past vicissitudes, because I shall have had such a wide experience, before the war ends, of the life of the New Army–in training, in trenches, at the base, at the dêpot, in a surgical ward and in a medical one, as a private, an N.C.O. of three grades, and an officer in the line and in the artillery, in the army at large and at headquarters…

I came out of the W[ar].O[ffice]. walking, as they say, on air… When I get back to Granton I must insist on going on guard for the 24 hours from nine to-morrow morning, to deprecrate Nemesis for my present exultation…

So to his wife–and what shows wisdom better than a healthy respect for Nemesis in both her violent and bureaucratic forms? The next letter is to his elder brother, and straight to the point:

I must confess it will be with a little pang that I shall surrender my sergeant’s stripes, but if I had remained an N.C.O., there was nothing before me but the formal humdrum of guarding a bit of coast or drilling conscripts till the end of the war and it does seem as if, with the dearth of educated men in the Army, a man who has been educated and can speak French and has seen a bit of the war can be of more use on a job like my new one. So I am jolly happy.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Nothing of Importance, 292-3/311-2.
  2. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 315.
  3. Elton, C.E. Montague, 130-1.

Blighty in a Bowler Hat for John Bernard Adams; Siegfried Sassoon’s Gradations of Thankfulness; Richard Aldington Takes Up His Role in the Farce; Raymond Asquith Keeps the W from the D

First, today, John Bernard Adams has reached the shores of blighty:


“I represent Messrs. Cox and Co. Is there anything I can do for any of you gentlemen?”

A short, squarely built man, with a black suit, a bowler hat, and a small brown bag, stepped briskly into the room. He gave me intense pleasure: as he talked to a Scotch officer who wanted some ready cash, I felt that I was indeed back in England. It was a hot sunny day; and a bowler hat on such a day made me feel sure that this was really Southampton, and not all a dream. Sir, whoever you are, I thank you for your most appropriate appearance.

A century on, this moment requires more elucidation: Cox and Co. were a sort of general agent to British officers, a combination of concierge service and ATM (with, one assumes, steep fees) that was particularly useful to non-moneyed officers (who are now, of course, the great majority). Elucidation, then ratification: yes, what could be more reassuringly early-20th-century-English than a bowler-hatted businessman being of particular service to a particular class?

The hospital ship had been alongside nearly an hour, I believe. It was three o’clock in the afternoon. Breakfast, the dressing of my wound again, lunch; all had followed in an uneventful succession. The throbbing of the engines as the boat steamed quietly along had been hardly noticeable at all. At last there was a bustle, and we were carried out of the room, out into the sunshine again, and along the quay to the train. Here I was given a berth in the middle tier this time, for which I was very thankful. I felt so utterly tired; and the weight of my arm across my body was intolerable. That seemed a long, long journey too; but I got tea without delay this time, and it was hot. At Farnborough the train stopped and a few men were taken out. The rest came on to London.

“Is there any special hospital in London you want to go to?” said a brisk R.A.M.C. official, when we reached Waterloo.

“No,” I answered.

He wrote on a label, and put that round my neck also.

“Lady Carnarvon’s,” he said. I lay for some time on the platform of Waterloo station, gazing up at the vault in the roof. Porters and stretcher-bearers stood about, and gazed down at one in silence. Then I was moved into a motor ambulance, and a Red Cross lady took her seat in the back. My head was in the front, so that I could see nothing. Just before the car went off, a policeman put his head in.

“Any milk or anything?”

“Would you like any milk or beef tea?” the lady said.

“Milk, please.”

“He says he would like a little milk,” said the lady.

And then we drove off.[1]

A man in a bowler hat, a lady offering milk–Adams, it would seem, is nearing Journey’s End.


In an odd non-crossing of paths, Siegfried Sassoon, who had left the 1/RWF a day later on leave, beat his battalion comrade ashore by a few hours. It’s not odd, really. These two paths of return from the trenches–the evacuation of the wounded and the ferrying-to-leave–are of course distinct, and it’s not surprising that a healthy man moves faster than a wounded one (if Adams had been more severely wounded his evacuation would have stopped temporarily at a base hospital). So not odd–really just frustrating. Hey! I’ve been reading all these books and you two don’t even comment on the fact that you’re riding the same waves and rails at the same time?

June 11

Arrived at Southampton beat to the world at 10.35 this morning in showery weather with bright clouds over it all. And the smooth water and the low green Isle of Wight.

Very strange to be in Melbury Road again with someone playing on a piano over the way and the late June evening only just dusk at 9.30 (but of course it’s the extra hour that deceived me).[2]

An epochal event, this: one of history’s first experiences of mild confusion and irritation at Daylight Savings Time. In writing his memoirs–or, rather, “George Sherston’s” memoir, Sassoon takes advantage of his binary vision to draw our attention to what I have called the “irony of proximity.” From great danger, rats, and misery to apparent civilian normalcy in a few days–or a few sentences.

Flook was in a hurry to tell me that I was to go on leave. I didn’t wait to inspect my platoon’s rifles, and not many minutes later I was on my way down the Old Kent Road trench. Maple Redoubt was getting its usual evening bombardment, and as a man had been killed by a whizz-bang in the Old Kent Road a few minutes earlier, I was glad when I was riding back to Morlncourt with Dottrell; glad, too, to be driving to Mericourt station behind the sluggish pony next morning; to hear the mellow bells of Rouen on the evening air while the leave train stood still for half an hour before making up its mind to lumber on to Havre. And thus the gradations of thankfulness continued, until I found myself in a quiet house in Kensington where I was staying the night with an old friend of Aunt Evelyn’s.

To be there, on a fine Sunday evening in June, with the drawing-room windows open and someone playing the piano next door, was an experience which now seemed as queer as the unnatural conditions I had returned from. Books, pictures, furniture, all seemed kind and permanent and unrelated to the present time and its troubles. I felt detached from my surroundings–rather as if I were in a doctor’s waiting room, expecting to be informed that I had some incurable disease. The sound of the piano suggested that the specialist had a happy home life of his own,
but it had no connection with my coming and going. A sense of gentle security pervaded the room; but I could no longer call my life my own.

This is diary-to-memoir conversion with a heavy thematic hand, yet wielded with sufficient skill so as to seem deceptively gentle. But here’s a bit we can’t miss:

The pensive music had caught me off my guard; I was only an intruder from the Western Front. But the room contained one object which unexpectedly reminded me of the trenches–a silent canary in a cage. I had seen canaries in cages being carried by the men of the tunnelling company when they emerged from their mine galleries.

In an odd double-twist of his gently fictionalized life, Sassoon did not spend tonight, a century back, with a friend of his (invented) “Aunt Evelyn,” but rather with his actual aunt, in a house which had a studio for his sculptor uncle Hamo Thornycroft attached. Perhaps his real Aunt and Uncle had a conveniently caged fringillidine memento belli, and perhaps not…

The real Sassoon will now be off home to Kent, and we will greet him soon enough, on his return to the Western Front.[3]


No such luck for Noel Hodgson, whose battalion of the Devonshires went into the line today, a century back, opposite Mametz. Before marching up from billets, Hodgson managed a quick note to his sister Stella, whose first baby was due within the week:

Dear old girl; a word in haste to wish all luck to you and the BIT, this week; your loving brother. Bill. I think
much of you.[4]


And from a young subaltern of the Devonshires to one of the regiment’s newest privates. Richard Aldington writes a chummy, not to say fawning letter to Amy Lowell, patroness of modern poetry, about his coming metamorphosis:

Woodland Cottage,
N. Devon

My dear Amy,

So many thanks for your kind letter. I ought to have written earlier to thank you…

I am called up for June 24, so by the time you get this I shall be awa’! I hope you will write to me, Amy, even if I am
not always able to write you. As soon as I can I will let you know my military address. My number on the form is 61, so that in a fortnight I cease to be “Richard Aldington, the celebrated Imagist poet” (vide Drama ad.I) and become
Private R. Aldington, 61, 6th Devonshire Regiment!

Quelle farce [what a farce]!

Aldington did not volunteer, but was drafted after conscription was extended to include married men. This, of course, does preclude a bit of better-late-than-never snobbishness about his friends and fellow modernist writers:

I don’t know what is happening to Flint and Lawrence. As they are older than I, they are several “classes” later, which may mean a week or more delay. I am certain that neither of them will be passed for “Service Abroad”, as I
shall probably be. If they are passed for “Garrison Service at Home” or “Clerical Work”, they won’t be actually required for some time–at least so my officer friends tell me. Flint, I imagine, will continue for some time in the G.P.O. And Lawrence will continue to nurse his hatred of mankind in Cornwall!

D.H. Lawrence would, in fact, continue to nurse his principled opposition to the war, in Cornwall, and suffer for it.


Finally, today, Raymond Asquith. Death of course, is only one of the trench officer’s two inevitable worries:

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
11 June 1916

Certainly it was a formidable bundle you sent me from the Income Tax people. It is quite impossible out here to discuss what one’s income is or what one’s tax should be, so they will have to kick their heels for a bit. Luckily I have been paid a little for Revenue cases and enclose you £50 to keep the W. from the D.

I am glad that Trim’s baptism went off nicely and that he scooped in some presents; also that Helen has the right instincts about Archbishops . . . How like Visey and Margot to make such a fuss about Lord K. As if it mattered these old men being killed . . .

This will be our last news of the news of Lord Kitchener’s death being received. Margot Asquith had, apparently, burst into the church during the baptism of Raymond’s son to spread the news. Very rude…

As so often with Asquith, it’s hard to tell where the humor ends and the hurt begins. He has missed his son’s baptism, naturally, and cares little enough for the death of another old man…  Or is it merely that the closeness of trench life keeps him from his best letter-writing form?

In any case, this final example of General Staff idiocy must be an invention:

There is such a noise in the room that I can’t write you a proper letter. An order has just come out that there is to be no cheering in the trenches when peace is declared. No one can say that our Generals don’t look ahead.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Nothing of Importance, 290-2/304-7.
  2. Diaries, 77-8.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 312-4; Infantry Officer, 47-8.
  4. Zeepvat, Before Action, 183.
  5. Life and Letters, 267-8.

John Bernard Adams is Blighty Bound; Edward Thomas and Robert Frost: “The Past is the Only Dead Thing that Smells Sweet

First, today, we continue to follow John Bernard Adams as he makes his return journey “down the line,” wounded in the arm, and persistently–points for honesty!–class-conscious.


I suppose it was about 7.0 A. M. when we arrived at Étretat. I was taken and laid in the middle of rows and rows of Tommies in a big sunny courtyard. I thought how well the bearers carried the stretchers: I did not at all feel that I was likely to be dropped or tilted off on to my arm. There were a lot of men in blue hospital dress on the steps of a big house. I wondered where I was: in Havre probably. It was a queer sensation lying on my back gazing up at the sun; we were tightly packed in together, like cards laid in order, face upwards. How high everyone looked standing up. Then they discovered one or two officers, and I said that I too was an officer. I felt that they rather dared me to repeat this statement. Then a man looked at my label, and said: “Yes, he is an officer.”

And I was taken up and carried off. I found myself put to bed in a spacious room in which were only two beds. The house had only recently been finished, and was in use as a hospital. As soon as I was in bed, I felt a great relief again. No more motion for a time, I thought. There was a man in the other bed, threatened with consumption. We were talking, when a pretty V.A.D nurse came in and asked what we wanted for breakfast. I felt quite hungry, and enjoyed tea and fish. I began to think that life was going to be good…

Then two V.A.D. nurses came and dressed my wound. They seemed surprised to find so big a one, and sent for the doctor to see it. They dressed it very well, and gave me no unnecessary pain.

In the afternoon, I was again moved to a motor Ambulance, which took me to Havre. It jolted and shook horribly. “This man does not know what it is like up here,” I thought. All the time I was straining my body to keep the left arm from touching the jolting stretcher. (The stretchers slide in the ambulance.) I was a top-berth passenger; I could touch the white roof with my right hand; and there was a stuffy smell of white paint.

At last it stopped, and after a wait I was carried amid a sea of heads, along a quay. I could smell sea and the stale oily smell of a steamer. Then I was taken over the gangway with that firm, steady, nodding motion with which I was getting so familiar, along the deck, through doorways, and into a big room, all green and white. All round the edge were beds, into one of which I was helped. In the centre of the room were beds that somehow reminded me of cots. I dare say there was a low railing round the beds that gave me this impression. A Scotch nurse looked after me. These nurses were all in gray and red; the others had been in blue. I wondered what was the difference. I asked the name of the ship; they said it was Asturias.

Later on a steward brought a menu, and I chose my own dinner. Apparently I could eat what I liked. The doctor looked at my wound, and said it could wait until morning before being dressed; he pleased me. I was more comfortable than I had been yet. The boat was not due out till about 1 A. M. At eleven o’clock I again asked for morphia, and so slept four hours or so.[1]


And in England, Edward Thomas has had his favorite thing–a letter from Robert Frost. Today, a century back, he wrote back, mixing news and gardening reports,–and, of course, poetry.

10 vi 16 1916
Hare Hall Camp
My dear Robert,

I like all these poems, but particularly ‘An Old Man’s Winter Night’, ‘Out, out’, and ‘An Encounter’. Is the ‘Encounter’ from the South? I like to remember you talk of the South as much as anything local. ‘Not to Keep’ is more like an abridgement of part of a play. That is what occurs to me after liking it. Are you actually attempting plays now as well as sowing peas? Our peas are fairly well up but most things have done shockingly. It nearly broke my heart to see the garden last weekend. But now the Government instead of a pension is going to give me £300 in a lump. This will simplify some things. Mervyn’s case, for example, especially as my engineer brother has promised to get him into a big motor works on Sept. 1 & this is being settled.

Implicit in this concern for Mervyn’s career is the problem of his prospects in the shorter term: he is sixteen, this year, and an apprenticeship as an engineer will be a valuable thing, should it come to finding service other than in the infantry, if the war drags on…

And now the letter does, as Thomas shovels a great deal of news into the letter. Family, friends, war, and poetry:

Also I am rather expecting I may get a commission before very long as an officer in the Anti-Aircraft Corps. It will mean a term of training in gunnery in London. My map-reading will help.

We are now working pretty steadily here. But you wouldn’t believe how much more importance they keep attaching to smartness—in drill, dress, & brightness of all brass things in dress & equipment. It may be right. One notices only the time spent on it.

…We are in for a wet turn after the heat. Warm & wet. But we walk when we can & now & again I must settle down & work something out. I must send you one or two things more.

That Annual of Trevelyan’s & Abercrombie’s is perhaps being hung up. So unless ‘Form’ does appear I shall remain unpublished.

I am accumulating such a mass of verses & I have an affection for so many.

Eleanor Farjeon has whooping cough but in a mild form which merely keeps her away from friends who have never had it…

One of the instructors here in mapreading now is an artist named Paul Nash who remembers you.

That £300 would help me to come out to you if the war were over as soon as people are now talking of. But the only certain thing is that the unexpected will happen.

Goodbye & my love to you all
Ever yours
Edward Thomas[2]


Thomas has also been working for the last few days on a limpid, folksongy poem. It’s as timeless and in-that-sense-carefree as any ancient, well-handled verse. Surely it is. But it’s also a song written one morning in May by a man about to go away…

Early one morning in May I set out,
And nobody I knew was about.
I’m bound away for ever,
Away somewhere, away for ever.

There was no wind to trouble the weathercocks.
I had burnt my letters and darned my socks.

No one knew I was going away,
I thought myself I should come back some day.

I heard the brook through the town gardens run.
O sweet was the mud turned to dust by the sun.

A gate banged in a fence and banged in my head.
‘A fine morning, sir’, a shepherd said.

I could not return from my liberty,
To my youth and my love and my misery.

The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet,
The only sweet thing that is not also fleet.
I’m bound away for ever,
Away somewhere, away for ever.


I’m tempted to assert that this is Thomas at his very best–it’s not open poetry, it’s a folk-song sneak-attack. We can hum this, chant it almost–and yet the now-time hangs heavy in the not-so-limpid timelessness: but will he come back? With his letters burnt, not to say his ships, and his feet (socks!) prepared for marching?

Folk song or stealthy meditation, death is here: the singer is bound away for ever, the past behind him, and dead things unlovely to the nose all ahead…


References and Footnotes

  1. Nothing of Importance, 288-90/304-7.
  2. Elected Friends, 157-8.

John Bernard Adams in Pain on the Hospital Train; Siegfried Sassoon in Social Distress on the Leave Train; Raymond Asquith in (Practice) Trenches; Edward Thomas Out of Character

One of the many stories that nearly all of our writers tell, in some way, is that first journey into war, the long approach up to the line. But that, of course, is only a beginning, a story fragment. The inherent question is, simply, how will I return?

Death is the end, but that’s not a story a man can tell of himself. Nor will the war force the story’s end–demobilization after peace hardly seems, just now, like a plausible path–it may happen, but it will be too long for one story (there will have to be an entire Iliad, perhaps, before the return-story of the Odyssey). Leaves are unpredictable, and unsatisfying–after leave, inevitable and swift return.

Many writers, then, contemplate a compromise: a “blighty one,” a wound that is not maiming or life-threatening, but serious enough to require recuperation in England. This is desirable: relief, before too long; violence and pain, but within limits.

John Bernard Adams describes, today, a century back, the third day of his reverse journey, wounded and relieved.


Again the only sleep I could get was by morphia. In the morning they told me I should go by a hospital train leaving at three o’clock. I scrawled a note or two and gave them to Lewis, and instructed him about my kit. I believe they made an inventory of it. I gave him some maps for Edwards. And then he said good-bye. And I thought of him going back, and I going to England. And I felt ashamed of myself again. I wondered if the Colonel was annoyed with me.

They gave me gas in the morning. It seemed such a bother going through all that again: it was not worth trying to get better. Still I was glad, it was one dressing less! Then in the afternoon I was carried on a stretcher to the train. I hardly saw anyone to say good-bye to. I thought of writing later.

It seemed an interminable journey. By some mistake I had been put in with the Tommies. There was no difference in the structure or comfort of the officers’ or Tommies’ quarters; but I knew they were taking me wrong. However, I was entirely passive, and did not mind what they did. The carriage had a corridor all the way down the centre, and on each side was a succession of berths in three tiers. On the top tier you must have felt very high and close up to the roof; on the centre one you got a good view out of the windows; on the third and lowest tier (which was my lot) you felt that if there were an accident, you would not have far to roll; on the other hand, you were out of view of orderlies passing along the corridor.

A great thirst consumed me as I lay waiting. I could see two orderlies in the space by the door cutting up large pieces of bread and butter. This made my mouth still drier. Then they brought in cans of hot tea, and gave it out in white enamel bowls. I longed for the sting of the tea on my dry palate, but the orderly was startled when I said, “I suppose this is all right; I am an officer.” He said he would tell them, and gave the bowl to the next man. The bowls were taken away and washed up, before a cup of tea was at last brought me. A corporal brought it; he poured it out of a little teapot; but I could not drink it out of a cup. My left arm lay like a log beside me, and I could not hold my right arm steady and raise my head. So the corporal went off for a feeding cup. I felt rather nervy and like a man with a grievance! And when I got the tea it was nearly cold.

I say it seemed an interminable journey, and my arm was so frightfully uncomfortable. I had it across my body, and felt I could not breathe for the weight of it. At last I felt I must get its position altered. I called “orderly” every time an orderly went past: sometimes they paused and looked round; but they could not see me, and went on. Sometimes they did not hear anything. I felt as self-conscious and irritated as a man who calls “waiter”  and the waiter does not hear. At last one heard, and a sister came and fixed me up with a small pillow under the elbow. I immediately felt apologetic, and I wondered if she thought me fussy.

The train made a long, slow grind over the rails; and it kept stopping with a griding sound and a jolt. Why did it go so slowly? At ten o’clock I begged and obtained another morphia dose, and got four hours’ sleep from it again.[1]


But Adams’s navel-gazing battalion mate is headed home, too–and in one piece. It’s the sort of thing that would happen to Siegfried Sassoon: while others have their leaves postponed or canceled, his has been moved up. And, of course, there is a looming shadow moving to block out this sunny news: it has been moved up, surely, so that he will be back in time for “The Big Push.”

But that lies in the future–today Sassoon, hale but grouchy, rides the same rails as Adams. There’s an odd, amusing coincidence as these two men–acquaintances, but not really friends–almost literally parallel each other. Adams is in pain, and remembers his discomfort about an Army mistake that has compromised his rank and status–he’s in the wrong compartment of the hospital train. “I don’t want to bother anyone, but I am an officer.” Sassoon, unwounded, is properly assigned–to an officer’s compartment on a leave train–and can’t speak openly about what annoys him. But writing privately, he is thoroughly snobbish about what he seems to view, unrealistically, as a different order of army mistake, namely the admitting of not-quite-gentlemen into the officer class. A strange, off-kilter symmetry…

But first Sassoon must begin the tale of the katabasis, the return from the war, where it properly begins–in the trenches. And, you know, he’s in fine fettle as long as he can observe nature and humanity at a decent distance…

June 9

Another wet night… Out with the wirers from 10 to 1.15. I can’t imagine anything much more unpleasant than lugging coils of ‘concertina’ wire along a narrow trench and stumbling with it over shell-holes-and trip-wires in inky gloom and pouring rain…

This morning the sun shone warm and the liquid mud slowly becomes like glue or porridge. Sitting on a heap of bags behind the support trenches and scraping the caked mud off my tattered puttees, I thought things didn’t seem so very bad after all. But I do hate that smelly dug-out, and the meals, when a mouse comes and stands on his head in the sugar-bowl, and one dare not think of the recent history of the things that one eats. And the sound of cautious-nibbling rats in the roof and behind the walls, & the dull boom of things bursting above ground. But I think I get less fed-up than most of us.

In the evening my leave came in. So I rode down to Morlancourt with the Quartermaster in a perfect sunset,  clover-red and glittering; the muddy road as we walked away from the Citadel was red before our feet—blood-red. And they were strafing the Maple Redoubt with their usual vehemence. Driving down to Mericourt station on a sunny morning, with strong fresh northwest breeze, the green hills looking fresh and fair… As we steam out of Amiens a long trainful of Australians—slouch hats, some adorned with a red or white flower—clean-shaved faces—young, keen, wild as hawks—shouting and craning out of-crowded window—the usual buck and banter…

As we roll out of the station, on the gloomy-lit platform we pass the strange-looking throng of people—Frenchwomen men in black, girls, collecting for the Red Cross, blue-clad elderly officers, with glasses and medals and moustaches; English Line of Communication staff-officers, trim, and carefully dressed, and pleased with themselves… Everyone standing still—with eyes gazing straight or sidelong at the departing train. And we are all going home.

It is raining when we are clear of the city; three Manchester officers and one Suffolk in the carriage: all of them the last word in nonentitude and flatness and commonness. How rotten these people seem compared with the men who get orders from them, and go on leave once in twelve months if they are lucky. I can’t see that the officer-class (second-rate) have any more intelligence than the private soldier. And their chief standard seems to be the London Mail and the illustrated papers with pictures by ‘Kichener’ and (for a treat) La Vie Parisienne, and eternal dull trench-shop, unlightened by any touch of originality or freshness of vision. And they are at their worst while they go
on leave.

The train crawled…  The first time I went this way it was night, lit with pallor of snow. And when I came back it was still snow and March winter. Now I’m going back to clustering roses and green trees and hayfields and bird-sung dawn… [2]

This, it would seem, is the Fox Hunting (Gentle)Man’s bid for a truly aristocratic point of view: the men are brave and noble (and they know their place), but these barely-middle-class officers are not the sort one should be compelled to dine, travel, or consort with…

Predictably, this bit of the diary is picked up by Sassoon when he crafts the “Memoirs” of “George Sherston,” and with the most snobbish bit suppressed. The mood will be the same, but with the advantage of retrospect the experience is telescoped and more definitively shaped–the few days it takes to get from the line to London pass in moments.


Raymond Asquith will slot smoothly into our developing themes today–bitterness, Kitchener (and his middle-class officer class!), leave, and blighty, with the now ever-present foreshadowing of the battle to come. Practice, practice, practice…

3rd Grenadier Guards,
9 June 1916

. . . An intolerable thing has happened in the Expeditionary Force–much more deeply felt by the troops than Kitchener’s death–leave has been reduced to 6 days or some say to 5; it is not quite clear which. It doesn’t make so much difference to the line regiments, who, poor devils, never got more than 7 but it is perfectly bloody for us who-have grown used to 10. There is some hope that the change may be only temporary, but I should think it would last all through the summer, and bitch my next expedition to Blighty.

We are supposed to be doing Brigade training here but life is really very much less strenuous than it was in the ‘rest camp’. We have dug an elaborate system of trenches copied from aeroplane photographs of a particular part of the German line and every day we practise attacking them. There is a great deal of sitting about, and on a sunny day it is really very restful and not unpleasant…

The night before I dined with John Ponsonby who told me that, without asking me, he had sent my name in on a list he was told to make out of officers eligible to be G.S.O. 3 (if you know what that means)–practically intelligence
officer to a Division, Corps .or Army. He has always been very friendly to me and anxious to do me a good turn, but I hope nothing will come of it for the present. I wouldn’t mind having a shot at it for a while in the winter . . .[3]

So: it is June and they practicing for the carnage to come. Asquith will face it, but if winter finds him hale and whole, he may refuse the privilege of the safer, more uncomfortable winter months in the trenches and let privilege and position whisk him away to another staff job, an opportunity not generally available to ordinary subalterns of line regiments, poor devils…


Finally, Edward Thomas has news. The trajectory sketched in his poetry and our manifold prose-tracking reminders has now solidified into a definite course of action. There will be no face-saving government pension (which would also save his current non-commissioned instructor’s job, safe but poorly-paid). Instead a grant that will go to his son, and a new determination to seek a commission in the artillery. The team is turning, and it’s time to go…

But first we are cast back to May 13th, when the not-quite-ready-to-change Thomas wrote himself a sonnet.

June 9, 16.

My dear Eleanor,

Thank you for your letter and the typescript. I am glad you liked the sonnet, I suppose it was one. My fear was
that it ended with a click. ‘One’ is, I suppose, a weakness.

This would be “Some eyes condemn,” a nearly perfectly proper Petrarchan sonnet. Thomas is being mordant with his first “I suppose.” Of course it’s a sonnet–it’s just that Thomas never liked sonnets and is either vaguely annoyed or mock-disgusted with his own production of one. And it’s a love sonnet, too, with hints more of his muted affairs of the heart than either of Helen, his wife, or Eleanor, who loves him, as he must know. But he sent it along for her criticism–and her typing–nonetheless. Here is the poem as she typed it:

Some eyes condemn the earth they gaze upon:
Some wait patiently till they know far more
Than earth can tell them: some laugh at the whole
As folly of another’s making: one
I knew that laughed because he saw, from core
To rind, not one thing worth the laugh his soul
Had ready at waking: some eyes have begun
With laughing; some stand startled at the door.
Others, too, I have seen rest, question, roll,
Dance, shoot. And many I have loved watching. Some
I could not take my eyes from till they turned
And loving died. I had not found my goal.
But thinking of your eyes, dear, I become
Dumb: for they flamed, and it was me they burned.

Back then, to the letter, and the news:

…They are to give me £300 instead of a pension. So I can set Mervyn up for a time. He may go to the London United Tramway Works at Walthamstow if I can arrange lodgings there. I don’t like his being just anywhere and on his own with so little of his own apparently. One of my brothers thinks he can get him there as an apprentice with every chance of learning.

…I have been trying for an artillery commission but without military influence it looks as if I might have a long wait. Luckily we have been quite busy here and I have had less to complain of…

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Nothing of Importance, 286-8/304-7.
  2. Diaries, 76-7.
  3. Life and Letters, 267.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 198.

Relief for David Jones; Noel Hodgson’s Monument in Stone; Sassoon’s Dawn; John Bernard Adams is Blighty-Bound

Noel Hodgson is near the front lines on the Somme, but his thoughts today are of home. And as the mounting preparations make it clear that there are only weeks–perhaps days–until the great battle, his thoughts are of the long years that came before. This is a month of fateful moods.

Durham Cathedral

Above the storied city, ringed about
With shining waters, stands God’s ancient house,
Over the windy uplands gazing out
Towards the sea; and deep about it drowse

The grey dreams of the buried centuries,
And through all time across the rustling weirs
An ancient river passes; thus it lies.
Exceeding wise and strong and full of years.

Often within those dreaming aisles we heard.
Breaking the level flow of sombre chords,
A trumpet-call of melody that stirred
The blood and pierced the heart like flaming swords.

Long years we learned and grew, and in this place
Put on the harness of our manhood’s state.
And then with fearless heart and forward face,
Went strongly forth to try a fall with fate.

And so we passed and others had our place.
But well we know that here till days shall cease.
While the great stream goes seaward and trees bloom,
God’s kindness dwells about these courts of peace.

June 8th, 1916[1]


And we have a fragment, today, of the diary of David Jones.

Big bombardment on the right at ‘stand-to’ bombing attack by Bantams–glad to get relieved by the 16th RWF.

In six days, the 15th RWF had seen two men killed and four wounded–this qualifies as continuing a gentle initiation.[2]


From that brief mention of two of the Kitchener battalions of the Royal Welch Fusiliers (both enrolled in the new Welsh Division) we go to two officers of the venerable First Battalion. First, Siegfried Sassoon:

I was out from 9 till 3, with the wirers from 10 till 1.15. Everyone was getting quite soaked… the east was shoaled and broken with a colourless dawn beginning, a solemn effect of black and white; or slate and silver (but as though washed over with faint grey-green) and afterwards a glow of amber and rose broke gradually upwards and the sooty cloud-bars grew softer and more purple, arid the arches of heaven soared above the shrill soaring larks. And down in the craters the water gleamed, and the tangle of wire and leaning posts showed clear against the dawn–the same old scene of desolation crowned with lovely promise of morning. So about 3:30 I splashed back to the dug-out, not so very ill-content with life and my wet feet…[3]


Dawn comes early, now, on the Western Front. Sassoon, who has always been marked by a rather generous my-friends-and-me solipsism, does not even take note of the wounding of another officer of his battalion (but not of his company, which is to say that it would have happened well out of his sight, but certainly not out of his daily knowledge).

John Bernard Adams is out of it now, and headed back down the line.


I can hardly disentangle these days; night and day ran into one another. I can remember little about Thursday. I could not sleep however much I wanted to; and all the time my brain was working so hard, thinking. I worried about the company: they must be in the line now. Would Edwards remember this, and that? Had I left him the map, or was it among those maps in my valise which Lewis had gone to Morlancourt to fetch?

And all the time there were rifle-grenades about; I daren’t let the buzzing come, because it was all rifle-grenades really; and always I kept seeing Lance-Corporal Allan lying there. Why could I not get rid of the picture of him? Yet I was afraid I might forget; and it was important that I should remember. . . .

I remember the waiting to have my arm dressed. It was like waiting before the dentist takes up the drill again. I watched the man next to me out of the corner of my eye, and felt it intensely if he seemed to wince, or drew in his breath. And I remember in the morning Mr. Bevan dressed my wound. I looked the other way. For a week I thought the wound was above instead of just below the elbow. “This will hurt,” he said once.

Some time in the day the man behind the screen died. I had heard him groaning all day; and there was the rhythmic sound of pumping—oxygen, I suppose. . . . I heard a lot of moving behind the screen, and at last it was taken away and I saw the corner for the first time and in it an empty bed with clean sheets.

The man next to me, with the bandaged head, kept talking deliriously to the orderly about his being on a submarine. Once the orderly smiled at me as he answered the absurd questions.

There was one good incident I remember. After the surgeon bad dressed my arm, I said, “Is there any chance of this getting me to Blighty?” And I thought he did not hear; he was looking the other way. But suddenly I heard that calm deliberate voice:

“Yes, that is a Blighty one. There is enough damage to those muscles to keep you in Blighty several months.” And this made all the rest bearable somehow.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Verse and Prose in Peace and War, 37.
  2. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 98-9.
  3. Diaries, 75.
  4. Nothing of Importance, 284-6/303-4.

Patrick Shaw-Stewart Located by Lions; Ivor Gurney on Welsh Music; David Jones on Patrol; Siegfried Sassoon in a Brown Study; John Bernard Adams is Hit

A lot to get to today, but I will trust in my readers’ fortitude and build slowly through the little updates toward the main event, which is another bloody day for the 1/Royal Welch Fusiliers of Siegfried Sassoon and John Bernard Adams.

First, then, our last man in the East, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, is up to his usual trick of censor-eluding by means of a classical atlas.

…If you were a reader of Herodotus I might talk of the place where Xerxes’ camels were attacked by lions, and where his army drank one river dry among several named: Ronald would tell you that, if you asked him, and, indeed, one might even perhaps with impunity name the Echedorus, as the name is not exactly in modern use.

7 June, 1916.[1]

Indeed not–but, a century on, a little sleuthing can reveal his location: he is near the Gallikos river, in northern Greece.


But Ivor Gurney is in the trenches, in France. Here is his first big “from the trenches” letter to his friend and patron Marion Scott:

7 June 1916

Dear Miss Scott: Your letter has just reached me, here, dans les tranchées. Where and how of course I may not say; bang in the front seats we are…

But O what luck! Here am I in a signal dugout with some of the nicest, and most handsome young men I ever met. And would you believe it? — my luck I mean; they talk their native language and sing their own folksongs with sweet natural voices. I did not sleep at all for the first day in the dugout — there was too much to be said, asked, and experienced: and pleasure in watching their quick expressions for oblivion. It was one of the notable evenings of my life….

Like most happy poets, Gurney has found music in his comrades–Welshmen, it would seem–and like pretty much all happy Englishmen in France, he has found something of England in the scenery:

Some of the country we passed through was very beautiful — rather like the Stroud Valley only far longer, and there was later a river, most serenely set in trees, long lines of trees…

The food in trenches is curiously arranged, apparently. I dont know whether the A[rmy] S[ervice] C[orps] steal it, but nobody gets more than a third of a loaf ever, and as a rule only a quarter. This is serious to a battallion that has innocently trusted to the army and spent all its money, before knowing how fickle and uncertain is the day of pay. Where everybody is broke there is of course a certain consolation of comradry, but O give me any other reason to be thankful for this spirit which binds the Infantry into a happy band of brothers. But who may resist French bread, and the inviting open door of cafes?

Like Frank Richards, Gurney sings the praises of the signaller’s life:

But these few days in the signal dugout with my Cymric friends are of the happiest for years. Out of the company to an extent we breathe the air of freedom almost forgotten. It really does not do for one who so much desires freedom as myself to think of the general conditions of the last few months.

A waste of spirit in an expense of shame…

His high spirits are tempered, still, by the accumulated indignities of army life. But that is merely personal–and a poet and composer has higher thoughts to tend to:

War’s damned interesting. It would be hard indeed to be deprived of all this artists material now; when my mind is becoming saner and more engaged with outside things. It is not hard for me to die, but a thing sometimes unbearable to leave this life; and these Welsh God makes fine gentlemen. It would seem that War is one of His ways of doing so.

Best wishes for health: Yours very sincerely Ivor Gurney[2]


Speaking of artists and the Welsh, we have now an update from our Royal Welch–but only half-Welsh, although increasingly Cymrophilic, albeit non-Welsh-speaking artist and poet David Jones:

Went on patrol with Lieut. Frost in search of working party on German crater. Bombs thrown. Frost–splendid, but a bit “wild”.

The patrol ran into a German patrol, but the skirmish that developed resulted in no injuries. Although Jones manifests here, through his writing, as mild-mannered and unsoldierly, he admired–with reservation–the reckless courage of the aggressive subaltern. His biographer comments:

Courage of the sort that made Lt. Frost ‘splendid’ meant a lot to Jones… Without ever laying claim to courage himself, Jones admired it above all other virtues… ‘fortitude is the cardinal virtue because without fortitude, which is the same thing as courage, you can’t have charity, you can’t do anything because you’re too cowardly–you’re unjust because you’re too cowardly.”[3]


From this sensible paean to courage we go to another Fusilier’s self-doubt. It’s a dark late-afternoon of the soul today for Siegfried Sassoon.

June 7 7:30 p.m.

Sitting in a dark dug-out twenty steps down after tramping about the sticky trenches all day. I suppose this cramped cellar is really rather ‘picturesque’ with its three candles and six thick wooden props down the middle and beams…

And I’m feeling a bit worried about being given the job of Sniping Observing’ Officer (knowing nothing about sniping or map-making) though it’s a less strenuous job than being a company officer. On these rare occasions when I lose my courage to face the future there is usually some explanation for it: Liver or over-smoking or we weather. I shall have to do a patrol in the long grass to-night to get rid of this hemmed-in feeling.

I don’t often descend to the desire of a blighty one which everyone talks about. If I get one I’m sure it won’t be a ‘cushy’ one. And I rather want to see the summer out, and get the experience of the big battle which surely must come next month. And as for dying, I know it’s nothing, and there’s not much for me to lose except a few years of ease and futility…

Here it would seem that we come close to despair–and yet does despair produce what sounds like a first political statement (about the recent death of the very high and mighty)? Does despair permit the wit to sketch such an indelible image of symbolic “Victory?”

I can’t see things in proportion at all to-night. Death seems the only fact to be faced; the rest all twaddle and purposeless energy. Lord Kitchener is drowned—there’s another shock to everyone’s tender hearts. And yet, why shouldn’t he die? We’re all dying. And the war will go and on till we can’t stick it any longer and Victory will greet us with a very wry smile and a dud shell in each hand. I suppose I’m feeling what Robert Graves felt when he wrote ‘Is this limbo?’ Shut in; no chance of escape. No music; the quest for beauty doomed. But I must go on finding beauty here and now; not the sort of beauty I used to look for.

I’ll take this next bit as a pretty devastating pre-emptive attack–with a century’s anticipation no less, on my recent attempts to work up the honest headlong joy and relief of the “going home on leave” piece. Good lord Sassoon is down today, and cutting.

And then I shall be going home on leave next week. There’ll be the tedious train-journey down to Havre, and the boat waiting in the twilight, and chatter of officers going home like me. Then the beastly hours of trying not to feel ill, and Southampton, and the sentimental thrill as one sets foot on an English railway-platform (the eyes should fill with unbidden tears—England, my mother, and so on). Then London, and luxury, and being clean and tidy, and going down to Paddock Wood, and the Weirleigh garden in the June sunset; and poor old Mother trotting out to meet me. It’s all so nice, but do I really long for it (to keep me safe) as much as I long to keep my freedom out here? For it is freedom, even when it rains and I get the blues. And I have been most awfully slack in every way till I had to be a soldier. Really, I’m in a desperate muddle to-night, and I haven’t written down anything which will bring this hour back to me vivid and true. It’s the little details that speak out clear.[4]

Sometimes Siegfried Sassoon is a very good writer with very bad instincts.


And, it would seem, a soldier “slack” enough to be entirely disconnected from the events taking place on the very same day in a different company of his own battalion. Sassoon has no comment on what for John Bernard Adams was very much a “day after.”

Lance-Corporal Allan was killed on Tuesday the 6th of June. For the rest of that day I was all “on edge” I wondered sometimes how I could go on: even in billets I dreamed of rifle-grenades; and though I had only returned from leave a fortnight ago, I felt as tired out in body and mind as I did before I went…

My nerves were all jangled, and my brain would not rest a second. We were nearly all like that at times.


A type of pre-fab wire obstacle similar to the one Adams describes


What heavily-wired sections of non man’s land might come to look like…

I decided therefore to go out again to-night with our wires. I had been out last night, and Owen was going to-night, but I wanted to be doing something to occupy my thoughts. I knew I should not sleep. At a quarter to ten I sent word to Corporal Dyson, the wiring-corporal, to take his men up at eleven instead of ten, as the moon had not quite set. At eleven o’clock Owen and I were out in No Man’s Land putting out concertina wire between 80a and 81a bombing posts, which had recently been connected up by a deep narrow trench. There was what might be called a concertina craze on: innumerable coils of barbed wire were converted into concertinas by the simple process of winding them round and round seven upright stakes in the ground; every new lap of wire was fastened to the one below it at every other stake by a twist of plain wire; the result, when you came to the end of a coil and lifted the whole up off the stakes was a heavy ring of barbed wire that concertina’d out into ten-yard lengths. They were easily made up in the trench, quickly put up, and when put out in two parallel rows, about a yard apart, and joined together with plenty of barbed wire tangled in loosely, were as good an obstacle as could be made. We had some thirty of these to put out to-night.

This was last night, a century back, but it will be a long night.

When you are out wiring you forget all about being in No Man’s Land, unless the Germans are sniping across. The work is one that absorbs all your interest, and your one concern is to get the job done quickly and well. I really cannot remember whether the enemy had been sniping or not…

After a time I went along to Owen, whose party was working on my left. Here Corporal Dyson and four men were doing well also. All this strip of land between the trench and the crater edge was an extraordinary tangle of shell-holes, old beams and planks, and scraps of old wire. Every square yard of it had been churned and pounded to bits at different times by canisters and “sausages” and such-like. Months ago there had been a trench along the crater edges; but new mines had altered these, and until we had dug the deep, narrow trench between 80a and 81a about a fortnight ago, there had been no trench there for at least five months. The result was a chaotic jumble, and this jumble we were converting into an obstacle by judiciously placed concertina wiring…

I had just looked at my luminous watch, which reported ten past one, when I noticed that the sky in the east began to show up a little paler than the German parapet across the crater. “Dawn,” I thought, “already. There is no night at all, really. We must knock off in a quarter of an hour. The light will not be behind us, but half-past one will be time to stop.”

It seems like an impossibly early dawn, but it isn’t: the army has not yet put its clocks forward (this month, a century back, saw the first imposition of Summer or “Daylight Savings” time) and Northern France is more northerly than one thinks, at times.

So, treacherous light draws near:

I was lying out by the bombers, gazing into the black of the crater. It was a warm night, and jolly lying out like this, though a bit damp and muddy round the shell-holes. Then I got up, told Corporal Evans to come in after fixing the coil he was putting up, and was walking toward 80a post, when ”Bang” I heard from across the crater, and I felt a big sting in my left elbow and a jar that numbed my whole arm.

“Ow,” I cried out involuntarily, and doubled the remaining few yards, and scrambled down into the trench.

Corporal Dyson was there.

“Are you hit, sir!”

“Yes. Nothing much—here in the arm. Get the wirers in. It’ll be light soon.”

Then somehow I found my equipment and tunic off; there seemed a lot of men round me; and I tried to realize that I was really hit. My arm hung numb and stiff, with the after-taste of a sting in it I felt this could not be a proper wound, as there was no real throbbing pain such as I expected. I was surprised when I saw a lot of blood in the half light. Corporal Dyson asked me if I had a field-dressing, and I said he would find one in the bottom right-hand corner of my tunic. To my annoyance he did not seem to hear, and used one of the men’s. Then Owen appeared, with a serious peering face.

“Are all the wirers in?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered. “How are you feeling?”

His serious tone amused me. I wanted to say, “Good heavens, man, I’m as fit as anything. I shall be back to-morrow, I expect.” But I felt very tired and rather out of breath as I answered “Oh! all right.”

By this time my arm was bandaged and I started walking back to Maple Redoubt, leaning on Corporal Dyson. I wanted to joke, but felt too tired. It seemed an interminable way down, especially along Watling Street.

I had only once looked into the dressing-station, although I must have passed it several hundred times. I was surprised at its size: there were two compartments. As I stepped down inside, I wondered if it were shell-proof. In the inner chamber I could hear the doctor’s quick low voice, telling a man to move the lamp: and it seemed to flash across me for the first time that there ought to be some kind of guarantee against dressing-stations being blown in like any ordinary dug-out. And yet I knew there was no possibility of any such guarantee.

Adams is shortly examined by the battalion doctor.

“Now then, Bill,” said the doctor. “So sorry to keep you…”

It smarted as he undid the bandage. I don’t know what he did. I never looked at it.

“What sort of a one is it?” I asked.

“I could just do with one like this myself,” said the doctor.

“Is it a Blighty one?”

“I’d give you a fiver for it any minute,” answered the doctor.

This, needless to say, is a very skillful translation of the bedside manner to a front-line dugout. Within a few minutes, Adams begins the long journey back down the line.

“I can’t make out why there’s not more pain,” said I.

“Oh, that’ll come later. You see the shock paralyzes you at first. Here, take one of these.” And he gave me a morphia tabloid.

“Cheero, Bill,” he said, and I went out of the dug-out leaning on a stretcher-bearer. Bound my neck hung a label, the first of a long series. “Gun-shot wound in left forearm,” it contained. I found later, “? fracture. 1.15 a.m., 7.6.16.”

Outside Lewis was waiting with my trench kit. He had appeared a quarter of an hour back at the door of the dressing-station, and had been told by the doctor so rapidly and forcibly that he ought to know that he would go with me to the clearing station, and that he had five minutes in which to get my kit together, that he had fairly sprinted away. Poor fellow! How should he know, seeing that he had been my servant over six months, and I had never got wounded before! But the doctor always made men double.

As I passed our dug-out, Edwards, Owen, Paul, and Nicolson were all standing outside. “Cheero,” I shouted. “Good luck. The doctor says it’s nothing much. I’ll be back soon.”

…I wanted to say such a lot I wanted to say that I was sure to be back in a week or so. I wanted to think hard… I wanted to talk to Sergeant Andrews… But the stretcher-bearer was walking on, and I must go as he pleased… in the full light of dawn, about half-past two, I was rolled serenely down the hill to the Citadel.

Adams’ day is only beginning. At the citadel, a tetanus shot and an ambulance, then the Casualty Clearing Station at Heilly, where he rested and waited for a surgeon’s attentions. It was here that Adams learned, of all things, of Kitchener’s demise. His impressions, available here–but spoilers abound–of the work of orderlies, nurse, matron, and surgeon are interesting to set against all we’ve read from Lord Crawford and, especially, Kate Luard.

The upshot, if one pardons the phrase, was that Adams’ wound was quickly repaired, and he awoke to pain and anxiety: anxiety because the bone was not broken after all. Would he still see blighty?[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 168-9.
  2. War Letters, 67-8.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 98.
  4. Diaries, 74-5.
  5. Nothing of Importance, 268-284, 285-95.

A Cockney Farewell for Lord Kitchener; John Bernard Adams on a Bow at a Venture; Will Streets, An English Soldier; Rowland Feilding, Foolhardy No More; Tolkien Leaves the Lonely Isle for the Eastern Shore

The pace of the war, at least as we read it, begins to quicken, now, toward summer. There is much to get to today, a century back, and once again I beg forbearance: at the end of today’s post is a very long quotation from Adams’ Nothing of Importance–an incident of the greatest importance for his advancing understanding of the real nature of war.


On the 5th, Will Streets‘s battalion, the 12th Yorks and Lanks, were withdrawn from the line to the upspoiled country around Doullens. But they were still overshadowed by the Somme: their new home has been chosen for its physical resemblance to Serre, on the Somme. Tapes set out on the rolling ground represented the location of the German trenches they would now “practice” assaulting.

Nevertheless, it was a reprieve. It’s hard to keep dates on Will Streets, but today, a century back, he wrote a letter home to his mother:

For the first time since we have been at the front we are away from the sound of guns. It is certainly a blessed relief. The papers say there is a war–but who in these shining hours desires to read the papers! They disturb one’s ideas, for which of them tells you that it is Spring? It is only the kisses and faces of those ‘over there’ that we miss. But Spring is in the air and leads us to hope that soon we shall gaze upon those faces and accept those kisses, and the mother, let me tell you, that for us soldiers Spring will never end.

This is a high-spirited letter home, nothing more. But, of course, there are many ways that last line could be read. A poem written very close to this date does not avoid the issue.

An English Soldier

He died for love of race: because the blood
Of Northern freeman swell’d his veins: arose
True to tradition that like mountain stood
Impregnable, crown’d with its pathless snows.

When broke the call, from the sepulchred years
Strong voices urged and stirr’d his soul to life;
The call of English freeman fled his fears
And led him (their true son) into the strife.

There in the van he fought thro’ many a dawn,
Stood by the forlorn hope, knew victory;
Proud, scorning Death, fought with a purpose drawn,
Sword-edged, defiant, grand, for Liberty.
He fell: but yielded not his English soul:
That lives out there beneath the battle’s roll.

There is no disenchantment here, no unwillingness, in Streets’ writing persona, to be a sacrifice for his country; no bitterness from a young Derbyshire miner given so little by that country until he was asked to serve and sent out to prepare a daunting attack… And although he had to use his scant hours of leisure to scratch together something of the education that so many of our writers had handed to them–because, surely, of that conscious, aspirational investment–Streets has no interest at all in spurning traditional diction.

Streets’ letter to his mother reinforces his commitment to the undimmed ethos of Kitchener’s Army:

The English Tommy… needs not any praise, for what he does is natural and free, and wherever there is freedom of action there is freedom of spirit.[1]

It’s odd, to our ears, to hear a soldier claim “freedom of action.” But it shouldn’t be. Perhaps class–and Streets’ long-deferred dream of bettering himself through education–enters into it rather heavily here: the privileged officers who could find their way to safe billets if they were willing to risk a little social opprobrium may begin to doubt the whole enterprise, while the man who sees military service as an elevation to a larger sense of belonging is still carried forward by his initial motivations. And these are very fine, but generalized, impersonal.

Or then again perhaps not: perhaps Streets writes poetry when he writes poetry and reassures his mother when he writes to her, and perhaps he, like everyone else, is closely bound to the men of his platoon, and will fight for fear of letting them down… Even after all this reading, all we have are glimpses and guesses: do the men of Kitchener’s army really yearn to fight and win the big battle, or are they beginning to see that this war’s battles–even the hoped-for successes–are consumers of infantry more terrible than any hundred-handed monster of antiquity.


And speaking of Kitchener’s army, today, a century back, brought the shocking news of the sinking of the HMS Hampshire, victim of a German mine. 650 men drowned, including Field Marshal Lord Kitchener and his staff, en route to a strategic conference in Russia. The sudden demise of the Secretary of State for War–Britain’s greatest living soldier and already quite literally both the face and the namesake of its first mass army–was everywhere felt as a major loss. Or, almost everywhere.


Lord Kitchener as he appeared in one of the seminal 10th century posters

It’s not that Kitchener was such an effective administrator–famous old soldiers rarely are, and Kitchener was widely disliked by other cabinet ministers, an opinion he reciprocated. But in a constitutional monarchy whose monarchs were careful to tread quietly, Kitchener’s symbolic volume was very great.

A man–many men–died in a few terrible minutes, and then, as it happens in history, events began to be emplotted, interpreted. Kitchener died, some will say, just ahead of “his” army, like some sort of appropriately bitter and ironic twist on the Moses and Joshua story.

Or, from a victorious general, he became a sort of cabinet-level Rupert Brooke, an image of strength (or beauty) suddenly refigured as a sacrifice–but a “sacrifice” that doesn’t quite work. Is this death glorious? Nothing was accomplished by it, nothing furthered–Brooke died before he landed, and Kitchener’s mission ended in horrific mischance when it had hardly begun. Neither poetry nor strategy were furthered by these “sacrificial” deaths. But perhaps the paradigm lists away from the Christian story of redemptive sacrifice toward the old pagan practices: you can burn all you want on the altars of the pagan gods, and they may or may not accept your sacrifice… Try as they might to make this a sort of devotio (the ritual in which a Roman general charges the enemy alone, trading his life for the divine favor of victory), contemporary realists must try to understand that this was a military bureaucrat done in by a mine… nothing more.

So what did our writers make of it? We’ll hear a few, today and in coming days.

Vera Brittain remembers how her own happiness–her brother Edward is home on leave–was knocked awry by the loss of Lord Kitchener:

The afternoon of his return to London stands out very clearly in my recollection, for on that day the news came through of Kitchener’s death in the Hampshire. The words “KITCHENER DROWNED” seemed more startling, more dreadful, than the tidings of Jutland…

For a few moments during that day, almost everyone in England must have dropped his occupation to stare, blank and incredulous, into the shocked eyes of his neighbour. In the evening, Edward and our mother and I walked up and down, almost without a word beside the river at Westminster… So great had been the authority over our imagination of that half-legendary figure, that we felt as dismayed as though the ship of state itself had foundered in the raging North Sea.[2]

A pall cast over his short leave, brother and sister say goodbye in Piccadilly Service as she goes to work. The ship of state may have swamped there, for a moment, but Vera Brittain’s war–like everyone’s, really–is more about her people, her young men. And whatever Kitchener wrought, he is out of it now–and Edward is headed for the heart of it.

I climbed the steps of the ‘bus with a sinking heart, for I knew very well how many were the chances against our meeting again.[2]


Back to Kitchener, here, for some good soldierly black humor. Did all of Britain’s subjects meet the passing of the great warlord with such gravity? Not according to David Jones:

On 2 June the battalion returned to the familiar Richebourg sector, and made for the front-line trench near Moated Grange. While they moved along a communication trench towards the line, someone coming from the rear announced that Kitchener had been drowned at sea. Jones was passing a wet and weary Cockney who paused in his work to say, ‘Oh, ’e ’as, ’as ’e. Well roll on fuckin Duration.’’

To these men, no man’s death was important news.[4]

Rowland Feilding writes to his wife today, a century back, to continue their conversation (one sided, alas) on duty, honor, and pushing to put one’s self back in harm’s way. Two days ago he wrote to say that “it looks as if I shall have some difficulty in getting back to my battalion.” So that’s that–he will stay with the entrenching battalion rather than the a front line battalion, for the time being. Any regrets? Well, yes:

June 6, 1916, Bois des Tailles

I have been thinking things over to-day, and I feel I should not have worried you by telling you I was bored here, and wanted to get back to my battalion. I ought to have thought more of you and been contented to stay here. Anyhow, my efforts to get away have failed so far, and I shall not renew them. I shall wait until they send for me, though, if I see a chance of getting some more interesting job, I shall still take that.

This is interesting: most officers struggle continually with the balance between obedience and showing eagerness and aggression (or between safety and honor), so why a swift and complete reversal?

But my anxiety to get a more dangerous job is over. I had a walk with my C.O. yesterday, and he told me—more or less plainly—that he had heard I was too chancy. Anyhow, that is over for good and all. I can say, before God, that I have never risked a man’s life unless I was ordered, or thought it necessary: and I have never asked an officer or man to do a thing which I was not prepared to do myself.

He was good enough to say that I was too brave (meaning, I suppose, foolhardy); but, never mind, I won’t be brave in future. I shall hate it, but I will take any safe billet they may offer me.

When they say these things it makes me feel I have been unfair to you. But I have tried to act as I have thought you would like me to act. Besides, my inclinations are to be in the swim.

You must be most careful about yourself. Don’t tire yourself, and you need not worry about me, because I am absolutely safe here.[5]

I wish we knew more about Mrs. Feilding. But here at least is a combination of a regimental realization, as it were–there’s a fine line between brave and foolhardy, and he has been overstepping it–with a soldier’s acknowledgment of the constant buzzing fear that never leaves a wife on the other side of that yawning gulf. These men came out like young warriors, with that schoolboy (or, if we want to do the anthropological deep-dive, that tribal war-band) motivation to excel, to match and exceed their striving peers…

But now they have realized two things. First, that they fight not for a war band but as part of a ponderous bureaucracy that can be trusted neither to give the best the best opportunities nor to ask too much of some while rewarding others for giving less. Second, that they are neither schoolboys nor young unmade men, out to make their names–they have wives, already, and children. Even the Romans of the middle Republic–those paragons of virtuous Victorian aspiration–but the old experienced warriors in the third line.

So Rowland Feilding, like Edward (“Robert”) Hermon, now says, essentially, “I have risked myself, and proven to myself and others that I am willing. But now I won’t seek danger, and as long as I am here in this safe job, rest assured that no deadly telegram will reach you…”


Before we get to the 1/Royal Welch Fusiliers, a brief update on one John Ronald Tolkien. Today, a century back, he crossed the channel and made his way to Étaples. I’ll let the authors of the authorized authorial chronology takes us from certainty to speculation:

Equipment he had bought–including a camp bed, sleeping bag, mattress, and spare boots–having failed to arrive, he begs, borrows, or buys replacements. Possibly on this date he writes or begins to write a poem expressing his feelings for the land he has left, ending with ‘O lonely sparkling isle, farewell.’ The earliest, undated version has the Qenya title Tol Eressëa, but later the poem will be called The Lonely Isle (a literal translation from the Qenya) and will bear the dedication ‘For England’.

A weak mandate! Possibly, he began a poem. Ah, well, but here it is:

The Lonely Isle

O glimmering island set sea-girdled and alone –
A gleam of white rock through a sunny haze ;
O all ye hoary caverns ringing with the moan
Of long green waters in the southern bays ;
Ye murmurous never-ceasing voices of the tide ;
Ye plumèd foams wherein the shore and spirits ride ;
Ye white birds flying from the whispering coast
And wailing conclaves of the silver shore,
Sea-voiced, sea-wingèd, lamentable host
Who cry about unharboured beaches evermore,
Who sadly whistling skim these waters grey
And wheel about my lonely outward way –

For me for ever they forbidden marge appears
A gleam of white rock over sundering seas,
And thou art crowned in glory through a mist of tears,
Thy shores all full of music, and thy lands of ease –
Old haunts of many children robed in flowers,
Until the sun pace down his arch of hours,
When in the silence fairies with a wistful heart
Dance to soft airs their harps and viols weave.
Down the great wastes and in gloom apart
I long for thee and thy fair citadel.
Where echoing through the lighted elms at eve
In a high inland tower there peals a bell :
O lonely, sparkling isle, farewell!

Tolkien seems pretty committed to old-fashioned diction too, doesn’t he? And yet he is doing something strange and new, mapping a mythological world over his own. The citadel, as we have seen, is Warwick, and the isle is England. But no, they are Kortition, and Tol Eressëa, no simple island but a stepping stone carefully placed between the fallen world and an earthly heaven…[6]


Alas, after all this, that there are trenches to visit, and shells still to fall. Two days ago, Siegfried Sassoon reported on the spread of the “latest fashion:

Two raids are fixed for to-night, by the Division on our left…  in the swift glare of bursting shells can be seen the floating smoke and little clouds from shrapnel-bursts. Sometimes the glare is almost ruddy—suggesting burning cities and ruin and all horrors and confusion.

And somewhere a mile or two away the raiding parties are waiting till it’s time to go across–men with blackened faces and grim clubs and axes and bombs–men with knocking hearts, stifling the yawns of nervousness–wondering if our shells have cut the German wire–knowing that the enemy are ready for them–knowing they will probably be killed or wounded or caught like rats. O this bloody war! It will be my turn to go on a raid soon, I suppose.

The diary continues:

June 5

A heavy bombardment along, by La Boiselle, two miles to our left…

It was a battle seen in miniature against a black screen of midnight. Men were invisible: it was a struggle of giants hurling thunderbolts. Star-lights and flares, red and white, kept curving up from both lines…

The glare of the high explosive bursting was a fearful sight. One couldn’t imagine anything living in that hell. Orme and Morris were hit on Sunday night when up with the working-party.

June 6

The clouds are like giants tumbling and striving and leaping round the edge pf the clear blue sky. They are smoky-white and grey and golden-white. They strike huge attitudes and are blown shapeless again. I see colossal faces of Socrates and Diogenes—bearded sages–and slowly they lose their features.[7] The evening sun strikes the glinting wings of an aeroplane forging away westward—and it is a tiny speck of gold glinting high up. Swallows, skim above the long grass that almost hides the low wire in front of trenches; they are companions of light breezes, close to earth they sail, heedless of rifle-grenades.[8]


Finally today, we stay with the very same battalion, stepping only a few hours ahead in time from Sassoon’s diary as we return to John Bernard Adams. The next few days we will linger with this episodic memoir for the sake of an awful new episode. It has been nearly two months since disaster struck the officers of the 1/Royal Welch, and he has sketched in the period with a few undated topical sketches. But now, well–this chapter is worth reading.

“A Certain Man Drew a Bow at a Venture”

maple redoubt

Maple Redoubt is at center

It was ten o’clock as I came in from the wiring-party in front of Rue Albert, and at that moment our guns began. We were in Maple Redoubt. The moon had just set, and it was a still summer night in early June.

“Come and have a look,” I called to Owen, who had just entered the dug-out. I could see him standing with his back to the candlelight reading a letter or something.

He came out, and together we looked across the valley at the shoulder of down that was silhouetted by the continuous light of gun-flickers. Our guns had commenced a two hours’ bombardment.

“No answer from the Boche yet,” I said.

“They ‘re firing on C 2, down by the cemetery.”

“Yes, I hardly noticed it; our guns make such a row. By Jove, it’s magnificent.”

We gazed fascinated for a long time, and then went into the dug-out where Edwards and Paul were snoring rhythmically. I read for half an hour, but the dug-out was stuffy, and the smell of sand-bags and the flickering of the candle annoyed me for some reason or other. Somehow “Derelicts” by W. J. Locke failed to grip my attention. Owing to our bombardment, there were no working-parties, in case the Germans should take it into their head to retaliate vigorously. But at present there was no sign of that.

I went outside again, and walked along Park Lane until I came to the Lewis-gun position just this side of the comer of Watling Street. The sentry was standing up, with his elbows on the ground level (there was no parapet) gazing alert and interested at the continuous flicker of our shells bursting along the enemy’s trenches. Lance-Corporal Allan looked out of the dug-out, and, seeing me, came out and stood by us. And together we watched, all three of us, in silence. Overhead was the continual griding, screeching, whistling of the shells as they passed over, with- out pause or cessation; behind was a chain of gun-flickers the other side of the ridge; and in front was another chain of flashes, and a succession of bump, bump, bumps, as the shells burst relentlessly in the German trenches. And where we stood, under the noisy arch, was a steady calm.

“This is all right, sir,” said Lance-Corporal Allan. He was the N.C.O. in charge of this Lewis-gun team.

“Yes.” said I. “The artillery are not on short rations to-night.”

For always, through the last four months, the artillery had been more or less confined to so many shells a day. The officers used to tell us they had any amount of ammunition, yet no sooner were they given a free hand to retaliate as much as we wanted, than an order came cancelling this privilege. To-night at any rate there was no curtailment.

“I believe this is the beginning of a new order of things,” I said, half musing, to myself; “that is, I believe the Boche is going to get lots and lots of this now.”

“About time, sir,” said the sentry.

”Is there a push coming off?” said Lance-Corporal Allan.

“I don’t know,”  I replied. “But I expect we shall be doing something soon. It’s quite certain we’re going to get our three weeks’ rest after this turn in. The Brigade Major told me so.”

Corporal Allan smiled, and as he did so the flashes lit up his face. He was quite a boy, only eighteen, I believe, but an excellent N.C.O. He had a very beautiful though sensuous face that used to remind me sometimes of the ”Satyr” of Praxiteles. His only fault was an inclination to sulkiness at times, which was perhaps due to a little streak of vanity. It was no wonder the maidens of Morlancourt made eyes at him, and a little girl who lived next door to the Lewis-gunner’s billet was said to have lost her heart long ago. To-night I felt a pang as I saw him smile.

“We’ll see,” I said. “Anyway it’s going to be a good show giving the Boche these sort of pleasant dreams…”

We might skip a bit–but only a bit. For the pastoral interlude is, naturally, not to be missed:

The scene was one of the most perfect peace. The sun was not up, but by now the light was firm and strong; night had melted away. I went back and walked a little way along Park Lane until I came to a gap in the newly erected sand-bag parados. I went through the gap and into a little graveyard that had not been used now for several months. And there I stood in the open, completely hidden from the enemy, on the reverse slope of the hill. Below me were the dug-outs of 71 North, and away to the left those of the Citadel. Already I could see smoke curling up from the cookers. There was a faint mist still hanging about over the road there, that the strong light would soon dispel. On the hill-side opposite lay the familiar tracery of Redoubt A, and the white zigzag mark of Maidstone Avenue climbing up well to the left of it, until it disappeared over the ridge. Close to my feet the meadow was full of buttercups and blue veronica, with occasional daisies starring the grass. And below, above, everywhere, it seemed, was the tremulous song of countless larks, rising, growing, swelling, till the air seemed full to breaking point.

And there was not a sound of war. Who could desecrate such a perfect June morning! I felt a mad impulse to run up and across into No Man’s Land and cry out that such a day was made for lovers; that we were all enmeshed in a mad nightmare, that needed but a bold man’s laugh to free us from its clutches! Surely this most exquisite morning could not be the birth of another day of pain? Yet I felt how vain and hopeless was the longing, as I turned at last and saw the first slant rays of sunlight touch the white sand-bags into life.

“What time’s this working-party?” asked Paul at four o’clock that afternoon.

“I told the sergeant-major to get the men out as soon as they’d finished tea,” I replied. “About a quarter to five they ought to be ready. He will let you know all right.”

“Hullo!” said Paul.

“What are you ‘hulloing’ about?” I asked.

Paul did not answer. Faintly I heard a “wheeoo, wheeoo, wheeoo,” that grew louder and louder and ended in a swishing roar like a big wave breaking against an esplanade — and then “wump — wump — wump — wump” four 4.2’s exploded beyond the parados of Park Lane.

“Well over,” said Edwards.

“I expected this,” I answered. “They’ve been too d—d quiet all day—especially after the pounding we gave them last night.”

“There they are again,” I added. This time I had heard the four distant thuds, and we all waited.

“Wump, wump—CRUMP.” There was a colossal din, the two candles went out, and there was a shaking and jarring in the blackness. Then followed the sound of falling stuff, and I felt a few patters of earth all over me. Gradually it got lighter, and through the smoke-filled doorway the square of daylight reappeared.

“Je ne l’aime pas,” said I, as we all waited, without speaking. Then Edwards struck a match and lit the candles; all the table, floor, and beds were sprinkled with dust and earth. Then Davies burst in.

“Are you all right?” we asked.

“Yessir. Are you?”

“Oh, we’re all right, Davies,” said I. “But there’s a job for Lewis cleaning this butter up.”

At length we went outside, stepping over a heap of loose yielding earth, mixed up with lumps of chalk and bits of frayed sand-bags. Outside, the trench was blocked with debris of a similar kind. Already two men had crossed it, and several men were about to do so. It was old already. There was still a smell of gunpowder in the air, and a lot of chalk dust that irritated your nose.

“I think I’ll tell the sergeant-major not to get the working-party out just yet,”  I said to Paul. “They often start like that and then put lots more over about a quarter of an hour later.” And I sped along Park Lane quickly.

As I returned I heard footsteps behind me. I looked round, but the men were hidden by a traverse. And then came tragedy, sudden, and terrible. I have seen many bad sights—every man killed is a tragedy—but one avoids and hides away the hideousness as soon as possible. But never, save once perhaps, have I seen the thing so vile as now.

“Look out!” I heard a voice from behind. And as I heard the shell screaming down, I tumbled into the nearest dug-out. The shell burst with a huge “crump,” but not so close as the one that had darkened our dug-out ten minutes before. Then again another four shells burst together, but some forty or fifty yards away. I waited one, two minutes. And then I heard men running in the trench.

As I sprang up the dug-out steps, I saw two stretcher-bearers standing looking round the traverse. And then there was the faint whistling overhead and they pushed me back as they almost fell down the dug-out steps.

“Is there a man hurt?” I asked. “We can’t leave him.”

“He’s dead,” said one. And as he spoke there were three more explosions a little to the left

“Are you sure?”

“Aye,” said the stretcher-bearer and closed his eyes tight.

“He’s past our help,” said the other man.

At last, after a minute’s calm, we stepped out into the sunshine. I went round the traverse, following the two stretcher-bearers. And looking between them, as they stood gazing, this is what I saw.

In the trench, half buried in rags of sand-bag and loose chalk, lay what had been a man. His head was nearest to me, and at that I gazed fascinated; for the shell had cut it clean in half, and the face lay like a mask, its features unmarred at all, a full foot away from the rest of the head. The flesh was grey, that was all; the open eyes, the nose, the mouth were not even twisted awry. It was like the fragment of a sculpture. All the rest of the body was a mangled mass of flesh and khaki.

“Who is it?” whispered a stretcher-bearer, bending his head down to look sideways at that mask.

“Find his identity-disc,” said the other.

“It is Lance-Corporal Allan,” said I.

Then up came the regimental sergeant-major, and Owen followed him. They too gazed in horror for a moment. The sergeant-major was the first to recover.

“Hi! you fellows,” he called to two men.” Get a waterproof sheet.”

“Come away, old man,” said I to Owen.

Adams’ book is a different creature than the converted diaries or autobiographical memoirs. It’s a record of some months, but it foregrounds and focuses on the major traumas, of which this was one. I hope, if you have read this far, that you don’t begrudge him (or me) the time. If there is something heavy-handed about going back to the sudden, terrible death of a man and casting it in symbolic terms–the beautiful boy, the classical sculpture come to life, only to be instantaneously ended, reft and ruined–well, who is to say that that was the later hand of the writer? The mind of the witness has to do such things too, to cope with sudden death and the gruesome revelation of the body’s frailty and beauty’s uncertain duration. Either way, it’s a desperate attempt to make meaning of death.

In any event, I think Adams has earned his philosophizing and his biblical references by now. He goes to the bible to express the unbearable helplessness of living under artillery fire–to reject, in a sense, the very instinct he has just indulged, namely to tell a meaningful story about the one shell that happened to cut a man’s head in half.

In silence we walked back to the dug-out. But my brain was whirling. “A certain man drew a bow at a venture,” I thought again. That was how it was possible. No man could keep on killing, if he could see the men he killed. Who had fired that howitzer shell? A German gunner somewhere right away in Mametz Wood probably. He would never see his handiwork, never know what he had done to-day. He would never see; that was the point. Had he known, he would have rejoiced that there was one Englishman less in the world. It was not his fault. We were just the same. What of last night’s bombardment? (The memory of Lance-Corporal Allan up by his gun-position gave me a quick sharp pang.) Had we not watched with glittering eyes the magnificent shooting of our own gunners? This afternoon’s strafe was but a puny retaliation.

Slowly it came back to me, the half-formed picture that had arisen in my mind the night of Davidson’s death. “A certain man drew a bow at a venture,” expressed it perfectly. It was splendid twanging the bow, feeling the fingers grip the polished wood, watching the bow-string stretch and strain, and then letting the arrow fly. That was the fascinating, the deadly fascinating side of war. That was what made it possible to “carry on.” I remembered my joy in calling up the artillery in revenge for Thompson’s death. And then again, whenever we put a mine up, how exhilarating was the spectacle! Throwing a bomb, firing a Lewis gun, all these things were pleasant. It was like the joy of throwing stone over a barn and hearing them splash into a pond; like driving a cricket ball out of the field.

But the arrows fell somewhere. That was the other side of war. The dying king leant on his chariot, propped up until the sun went down. The man who had fired the bolt never knew he had killed a king. That was the other side of war; that was the side that counted. What I had just seen was war.

I leaned my face on my arm against the parados. Oh, this unutterable tragedy! Had there ever been such a thing before? Why was this thing so terrible? Why did I have this feeling of battering against some relentless power? Death. There were worse things than death. There were sights, such as I had just come from, as terrible in everyday life, in any factory explosion or railway accident. There was nothing new in death. Vaguely my mind felt out for something to express this thing so far more terrible than mere death. And then I saw it. Vividly I saw the secret of war.

What made war so cruel, was the force that compelled you to go on. After a factory explosion you cleared up things and then took every precaution to prevent its recurrence; but in war you did the opposite, you used all your energies to make more explosions. You killed and went on killing ; you saw men die around you, and you deliberately went on with the thing that would cause more of your friends to die. You were placed in an arena, and made to fight the beasts; and if you killed one beast, there were more waiting, and more and more. And above the arena, out of it, secure, looked down the glittering eyes of the men who had placed you there; cruel, relentless eyes, that went on glittering while the mouths expressed admiration for your impossible struggles, and pity for your fate!

“Oh God! I shall go mad!” I thought, in the agony of my mind. I saw into that strange empty chamber which is called madness: I knew what it would be like to go mad. And even as I saw, came the thought again of those glittering eyes, and the ruthless answer to my soul’s cry: “The war is utterly indifferent whether you go mad or not.”

Owen was standing waiting for me. I grew calm again, and tamed and put my hand on his shoulder. Together we reached the door of the dug-out.

“Oh, Bill,” he said, “have you ever seen anything more awful?”

“Only once. No, not more awful: more beastly. Nothing could be more awful.”

We told the others.

“Not Allan?” said Edwards. He was Lewis-gun officer, and Allan was his best man.

*Not Allan!*’ he repeated. “Oh, how will they tell his little girl in Morlancourt? What will she say when she learns she will never see him again?”

“Thank God she never saw him as we saw him just now,” I said, “and thank God his mother never saw him.”

“If women were in this war, there would be no war,” said Edwards.

“I wonder,” said I.[9]


References and Footnotes

  1. A Dream Within the Dark, 68-9.
  2. Testament of Youth, 272-3.
  3. Testament of Youth, 272-3.
  4. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 97.
  5. War Letters to a Wife, 78-9.
  6. Chronology, 80-1.
  7. This reminds me of the greatest English language historical novel of mid-19th century siege warfare--Ballard's Siege of Krishnapur (of course). There the dreamy clouds are made flesh--or, rather, stone--and the beleaguered colonialist actually fire these heads of the Western Canon from their (Western) cannon at the mutinous sepoys... Except in that case I think it's Plato and Socrates...
  8. Diaries, 72-3.
  9. Nothing of Importance, 256/267, 272-85.

Football Shenanigans and a Loquacious Master of Belhaven; More Batmen as Supermen

We deserve a break, don’t we? In any case, despite all my over-zealous researches, one was nearly forced upon us. There is a good bit under this date from Dr. Dunn which describes the halcyon Béthune days of the 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers, but neither the hijinks of certain officers during battalion entertainments nor the poor sportsmanship of the Royal Fusiliers battalion in their brigade (which held the members of its battalion football team out of the trenches to keep them in training, and were thus “unbeatable” in brigade tourneys) can be dated precisely to today, a century back.[1]

So it is Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, who comes to our aid. His diary has been a bit of a bore of late, as no sooner was his battery withdrawn from Ypres into reserve than he took ill with a fever. Today, a century back, he is charmingly concise, and I give the whole of the diary entry:

Eecke, 26th March, 1916

Sunday. A beastly day, cold and wet.[2]

That said, I will plump out today’s post with a suggestion for further reading. Since Noel Hodgson‘s recent bit about his enterprising servant has met with much approval, why not try John Bernard Adams? Adams’ story has recently been wracked by death and disbelief, but he chose to follow that chapter–which began with an urge to throw the memoir into the fire, encompassed the death of his best friend in the battalion, and ended “Oh! Damn! damn! Damn!”–with a decidedly less intense one entitled “Officers’ Servants.” It’s available here, beginning on page 207.

Want a hare for the pot? A partridge? Just ask Davies. And what will you heat that pot with, the coal having gone missing? Davies again…

It’s basically the same anecdote as Hodgson’s, except that the coal is scrounged from British sources, rather than French, and the business of vague orders and transparent excuses is a bit more… transparent. A good batman can find anything, and if some lackluster item of trench furniture can be improved upon–an old teapot, say–then it will be eaten by rats or carried off by German raiders, and a new one conjured in its place…

Adams enjoys relating the caper, but despite the similarities of content there is an interesting difference of genre: this is not a sketch, a mere entertainment. It’s part of a memoir, an episode that covers a zone of return and recovery, written to create an undated interval of “ordinary” trench life between sudden loss and looming battle.

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 187.
  2. War Diaries, 165.