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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Billets, France, 3 July 1917

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

But this was no happy return.

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Thomas Hardy Will Not Go For a War Writer; Olaf Stapledon Will Not Judge

First, today, a quick note to readers: for much of the next three weeks I will be on vacation–on holiday, that is–with my family (in England and Wales!) I’ve worked ahead and set the posts to be published each day, but I may not be able to check in regularly. Everything should be fine, but if there is any website snafu, please send me an email and I will try to fix it as soon as possible. There may be some problems with links to recently-published posts.

And if there are any big revelations in the next few weeks about the events of June/July 1917, they will not, alas, be discussed in a timely fashion here…  Thanks for reading!

 

Just two letters today: an inevitable crossing of paths and then some maintenance work on one of the longest and strongest bridges ever built over the “experiential gulf” from France to peaceful places.

For the last few months, John Buchan has been working like a Trojan as the first Director of the Department of Information. Way back in 1914, efforts were made to enlist the grand old men of English literature in a more amateurish sort of propaganda effort, and the greatest of them gently but firmly resisted, producing “war writing,” but only in his own voice and after his own fashion.

But now Thomas Hardy has been approached once again, and perhaps more cleverly–he has been asked to make an official visit to France (which would have put him in the way of C.E. Montague) alongside his friend James Barrie and Sir Owen Seaman of Punch.

I don’t think he wants to go, or see the war, or be seen trotting along in harness, implying support for the General Staff and all the unfatalistic vagaries of patriotism–but he need not say so outright.

Max Gate, Dorchester.
1 June 20; 1917

Dear Colonel Buchan:

I appreciate your thought of me: & there are many things that would have led me to embrace eagerly the opportunity of visiting the fighting lines in France in such attractive company. But I remember that I am not so young as I was, & am compelled to give up almost all enterprises nowadays that comprise travelling more than a few miles, though I am as well as anybody of my age.

I am endeavouring to console myself by thinking that in the past I have studied a good many battlefields and battles of the flint-lock & touch-hole period & that it is really not worth while for me to open up an investigation of modern scientific warfare, but to leave it for those who are young in these days, or unborn.

I must thank you for your consideration in sending the passport form, which shall be returned if required: otherwise I will keep it to show what I was on the brink of doing at 77. . .

Most sincerely yours

Thomas Hardy[1]

Hardy is yet only 76, but, war-wise, he’s a century-back sort of man. The Napoleonic Wars are worth writing about… these present calamities seem only lamentable evidence of human folly and cruelty…

 

And who better to balance Hardy than one of the young and most forward-looking. Actually, Olaf Stapledon is not so terribly young, but he seems young in his sweetness and ardor, and he is certainly the most forward-looking of our crew. But today’s missive to Agnes is not an idyll or a love-letter or a runnel of purest science fiction–it’s about regular everyday horror and suffering, and it’s the second recent letter in which a note of despairing sarcasm has inflected his usually sunny prose.

SSA 13
20 June 1917

…We are now further from the front than the convoy has ever been before… It is lovely peaceful hilly country with rivers for bathing and woods and “hanging” gardens…

Yesterday Sparrow went off on a call and got a man who had just had his legs cut off at the thigh by a train, cut off almost at the hip. Seems unnecessary for that sort of thing to happen now, doesn’t it…

Today, let’s be frank, we have startled this peaceful place by a display of a very bloodstained car. (Bloodstained! the little word one uses for a hanky that has a spot on it!)

Olaf than receives letters from Agnes–the mail between Australia and France, never swift, has been irregular of late–but even when being flattered he is careful to keep to his principles…

Cheers! Two long letters from you… you must not say I am a soldier when I am not, but only a rather militarised civilian engaged in clearing up the mess. You say a lot again about war & me in one of those letters. I don’t know whether the thing I am doing is right or wrong, but it seemed right when I began… Don’t be too hard on the fellows that don’t do anything. They may be right in their own cases…[2]

The wise know that it is not always best or easiest to do what is asked, or to do what everyone else is doing… and the good fight hard against the instinct to think less of those who do otherwise, and less…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 220.
  2. Talking Across the World, 231-2.

Siegfried Sassoon a Country Wanderer Once More; Wilfred Owen’s Faith Shifts: Christ is Literally in No Man’s Land; John Buchan in the Halls of the Great; Ralph Hamilton is Reassigned

Is the once and future thriller-writer Lt. Col. John Buchan taking to his role as head of the Information Office? He is. In France in April to win the acquiescence of Haig in his propaganda efforts, he is now working hand in glove with even more august personages.

16 May 1917. I was working till all hours yesterday. I had to go to the Palace this morning, for I have a shocking amount to do with Royalties these days. Then I had the War Cabinet in the afternoon and a long time with the Prime Minister; and after that correspondents and secret-service agents till all hours.[1]

 

Siegfried Sassoon remains ensconced in the charming, subtly galling precincts of Chapelwood Manor, Sussex. It’s the precincts that charm, however, and the priestess who galls–so today’s entry, heavy on countryside and light on human interaction, is a happy one.

May 16

For a while I am shaking off the furies that pursued me. I am an Orestes freed from the tyranny of doom. The War is a vague trouble that one reads about in the morning paper. The communiqués are almost insignificant. I no longer visualise the torment and wretchedness there.

The world is just a leafy labyrinth with clouds floating above the silence of vivid green woods and clean meadows bright with cowslips and purple orchis. My thoughts have the voices of the tiny brook that runs along the woodland, slipping and twisting over mossy stones, and bubbling out into a rushy field to gurgle merrily in its narrow bubbling channel.

I am a country wanderer once more—climbing gates and staring through tangled hedges at the mossy boughs of apple-trees laden with blossom, while the sun comes out after a passing shower. I roam the narrow lanes, light-hearted as a lambkin, emotionless as a wise gander. I desire nothing more than to stop and discuss.the weather with an old gaffer mending the gaps in a hedgerow. I could almost praise the Apostles Creed to the village parson if I chanced to meet him in the road, or saw him leaning over his garden gate as I passed. And the Sunsets are
yellow and serene—never dyed with crimson or hung with banners of war.[2]

This is too much, and Sassoon realizes it, of course. Hence the tongue-in-cheek gamboling: it’s so overdone that it becomes unsettling, as if some sort of overdecorated 18th century French baroque painting is being foisted onto unassuming, blooming Sussex. The landscape might pass with unaffected appreciation, but all these sun-drenched rosy-cheeked swains on swings, paradoxically, seem to remind us of the absent war, and the invisible, mud-caked, sallow-cheeked subalterns.

And this encounter with a wise old gaffer during a ruminative walk in the English countryside… it’s exactly like something Edward Thomas would write about. And yet nothing about the way it is written is anything like Thomas… Sassoon laughs, but bitterly, and he writes his country walk at a sharp angle…

 

This undated letter of Wilfred Owen‘s was probably written today–and if he seems confused, it is the fault of the bureaucracy: the 13th Casualty Clearing Station seems to have been reorganized around him, and shortly he will be in the same bed, but in a new Stationary Hospital… And yet perhaps he would be grateful for the metaphor: as he will explain in the letter, he has not altered in his Christian faith, but he feels the bureaucracy of his belief system shifting around him…

My own dear Mother,

Just had yours of Sat. Evening and was astonished to apprehend that the Great Shadow is creeping on towards Colin. What will he be next birthday, seventeen?

I wrote him a wholesome bit of realism in that last letter, as well as a fantasy in the language of the Auth: Ver: of 1611. I have changed my mind and see no reason why you should not have that letter and that fantasia…

I did it without any reference to the Book, of course; and without any more detraction from reverence, than, say, is the case when a bishop uses modem slang to relate a biblical story. I simply employed seventeenth century English, and was carried away with it.

Incidentally, I think the big number of texts which jogged up in my mind in half-an-hour bears witness to a goodly store of them in my being. It is indeed so; and I am more and more Christian as I walk the unchristian ways of Christendom. Already I have comprehended a light which never will filter into the dogma of any national church: namely that one of Christ’s essential commands was: Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonour and disgrace; but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed; but do not kill. It may be a chimerical and an ignominious principle, but there it is. It can only be ignored: and I think pulpit professionals are ignoring it very skilfully and successfully indeed.

The letter rambles on into some stern criticism of institutional religion, both high church and evangelical. At first this reads rather as if Wilfred is concerned mainly to allay an sense of gross impiety that the letter to Colin may have imparted. He is not messing around with the Bible, he implies, but, rather, thinking seriously about how its precepts might apply. He is working up to a religious argument that rests on his own authority, as well:

Christ is literally in no man’s land. There men often hear His voice: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life—for a friend.

Is it spoken in English only and French?

I do not believe so.

Thus you see how pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism. I am glad you sent that cutting from Wells’ Book.

This would be The Soul of a Bishop, just out.[3]

I hope you understood it. I did not. Not a word of it can I make sense of. I would rather we did not read this Book. Now The Passionate Friends I found astounding in its realism but like all the great terrible books it is impossible to take sides. It is not meant to be a comfortable book; it is discussional; it refuses to ignore the unpleasant.

(This practice of selective ignorance is, as I have pointed out, one cause of the War. Christians have deliberately cut some of the main teachings of their code.)

Just as I was going to speculate that Owen is trying to disguise the reasonably radical (if logically irrefutable) opinion that pure patriotism and pure Christianity are incompatible by moving on to discuss secular literature, Own returns to his criticism. He blithely tacks away again into a discussion of his other reading material, but the point is made, and I do not think that his mother would consider it a light one, especially because it rests on that new source of authority: clergymen fulminating at home against the Germans do not understand what Christ might be like in the trenches, but Owen does. The experiential gulf has theological implications, now…

At present I am deep in a marvellous work of Hugo’s The Laughing Man. By the same post as your letter came two books from Leslie by O. Henry.

So I am well set up.

I am marked for the next Evacuation!!

…Many thanks for Punch, Yes Colin has been very good in writing to me. Keep him up to it. It will do him good, don’t-you-know! And as for me: they bring me Shropshire, even as yours bring me Home.

Expect me—before Christmas.

Your—one and only—Wilfred x[4]

 

Finally, a brief update on Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven. Hamilton began work today, a century back, in command of a new battery, part of the 106th Brigade, near Cassel. The transfer, he believes, is because he will shortly be promoted to command a brigade. The journey over the last two days was quite arduous, owing both to confusion about the location of the units and sub-standard railway porting–“I have got a lot of stuff… Bath and I… had to carry it ourselves”–but Hamilton made use of the day to get to know his new subordinates. The next task, of course, will be to announce his presence with authority…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Smith, John Buchan, 204.
  2. Diaries, 167.
  3. In two days' time, Patrick Shaw Stewart will mention to Ronald Knox, future clergyman and popular writer, that "[b]y the way, I have of course ordered [Wells's] new book about God, and we shall probably disagree violently about it.’ Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 197.
  4. Collected Letters, 460-2.
  5. War Diary, 285-6.

John Buchan to Propagandize; Siegfried Sassoon on “A Pathetic Scene of Humbug and Cant;” Edward Thomas Strides Toward Departure

A few weeks ago, John Buchan–well-connected man of letters, former civil servant, and, aided in part by a stomach ailment that kept him busy in bed instead of busy-idle in some foreign posting or the army, now a phenomenally successful author of thrillers–was “invited to prepare a memorandum with proposals for a new Department of Information.” There is something absolutely fitting about the fact that the man who wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps–the first modern spy-adventure novel–should be present at the birth of the first proper English propaganda department.

So the wheels are in motion now–but someone has expressed reservations about Buchan to Lloyd-George, the new Prime Minister and driving force for the rationalization of the war effort. Rumors of these reservations made their way to Alfred, Lord Milner, “public servant par excellence.” At once an ardent imperialist and a reformer; Milner had appointed Buchan to his staff in South Africa just after the Boer War, and now, a member of the streamlined War Cabinet, he pushes back to get his former aide the job:

My dear Prime Minister,

Don’t think me too insistent! I wish you would not ‘turn down’ John Buchan, without seeing him yourself….

I am not satisfied to have him rejected on hear-say, and ill-informed hear-say at that.[1]

What these rumors were I do not know, but Buchan will soon be rocketed from publishing sensation and governmental nonentity to Director of the Department of Information. Several agencies now independently conducting propaganda activities will be combined under his watch, including the long-established Wellington House operation run by C.F.G. Masterman (friend and non-savior of Ford Madox Hueffer) more or less on the lines of a particularly patriotic amateur literary society.

 

And at Litherland Camp, disillusionment deepens. As it happens, in his merciless skewering of the lame orations and general cluelessness of camp-bound old men, Sassoon hearkens back to the first great product of the Masterman era of inspirational poetry.

January 17

A draft of a hundred and fifty ‘proceeded’ to France to-night. Most of them half-tight, except those who had been in the guard-room to stop them bolting (again), and the Parson’s speech went off, to the usual asides and witticisms. He ended: ‘And God go with you. I shall go as far as the station with you.’[2] Then the C.O. stuttered a few inept and ungracious remarks. ‘You are going out to the Big Push which will end the war’ etc (groans). And away they marched to beat of drums—a pathetic scene of humbug and cant. How much more impressive if they went in silence, with no foolishness of ‘God Speed’—like Hardy’s ‘men who march away … To hazards whence no tears can win us’.[3]

If this parson and depot C.O. are archetypes of the sanctimonious, tone-deaf old men who send the young off to die with halfhearted lies ringing in their ears, then Thomas Hardy is the exception who proves the rule of the Conflict of the Generations: only a great poet, a master of drama, tragedy, and bitterly ironic satire, can speak properly of what the men who march away are being asked to do…

 

Sassoon fancies himself an old soldier, and the depot of the Royal Welch a backwater and a holding pen where many of the dug-outs, wash-outs, and other mid-war flotsam and jetsam have begun to accumulate. But things are very different with Edward Thomas: his battery is a new formation–the first real unit to which he has belonged, as a soldier or officer–and most of the men in it are preparing for their first trip to France. They are not perhaps overburdened with illusion, but neither are they soured in reaction and disenchantment. Indeed, Thomas, who has struggled all his adult life to write and be happy, seems to have found some peace in the structure, clarity, and task-oriented nature of military life. Knowing, now, that he has committed himself to France, he is impatient to go.

And yet, temporarily based at a sort of staging-camp in Codford, Wiltshire, he seems to be having the best of both worlds. Long cross-country walks have always been a favorite occupation, and yesterday, a century back, he merely had more company:

…Took route march to Wigtye, Stockton, Sherrington, and had great luck in short cuts and bye-roads over river. A frosty clear day: men singing ‘Dixie’, ‘There’s a long long trail of winding [sic] to the land of my dreams’ and ‘We’re here because we’re here’ to the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne’…

And today he followed up another such march with a pleasure walk with a fellow officer.

Light snow in night; hard frost. Men on fatigues or drawing overseas clothes etc. Office full of boots, blankets, pails, axes, shovels, dixies, stretchers etc. Route march to Tytheringron, Heytesburyand Knook. Afternoon walked over Downs by Stockton Wood to Chilmark with Smith: tea at the inn and Smith played ragtime etc… Back over the downs on a dark night, but only went astray 200 yards…[4]

Thomas returned to write several letters, including ones to his mother and his wife. And Eleanor Farjeon. With bleak honesty, he moves from the personal to the literary, and claims, nearly, to break his staff and drown his book–or, rather, he washes his hands of it, as he must, and leaves Farjeon in charge of seeing this long-desired first book of poems into the press.

244 Siege Battery
15 Camp
Codford, Salisbury
17 i 17

My dear Eleanor,

You will have heard from me by this. Perhaps I could have seen you again, as I could have seen my Mother again.
But I thought I would not.

I shan’t take Shelley. Some Shakespeare, the Prayer Book, and ‘The Sentimental Journey’ is what I have with me. It will probably be all I want.

I have had some beautiful walks here…

To judge by other batteries we shall leave next week.

I can do any thing but write now. I could enjoy a ballet but I couldn’t write about it. We found such a nice inn at Chilmark tonight and Smith suddenly played something rapid and clever that was quite suitable in the dark.

Goodbye.

Yours ever
Edward Thomas.

P.S. If John Freeman sends you the proofs of my verses will you revise them after him?[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Smith, John Buchan, 106, 200.
  2. According to Dunn, it was the C.O. who offered this ready-made bit of oblivious REMF-speak.
  3. Diaries, 120.
  4. War Diary (Childhood), 154-5.
  5. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 242-3.

Raymond Asquith Mourned and Remembered; Ford Madox Hueffer in the Light of the Moon

It has been two days since the assault of the 15th, which we can now describe as the opening of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. C.E. Montague continues to roam the margins of the recent battlefield.

Sept. 17.–To outskirts of Martinpuich. Many of our dead on ridge. More Germans in sunken lane under trees. Millions of flies black on them. Blackened faces. Open eyes staring up at sky as if asking whether there is any god anywhere.[1]

Some, of course, asked this question from their living lips, or from their quick and nimble pens. But Raymond Asquith–or those who loved him, at least, were spared this after-fate. Asquith was buried in a British cemetery just behind the lines, the day he died, under a heavy German bombardment.

Rumor flew, once, to the wives and mothers of slain soldiers, but in modern war she makes her way slowly back through the ruinous aftermath of a battle, trudging down communications trenches into a day or two of bureaucratic limbo. Then after this first slow progress she bursts like a MIRV, speeding grief to all those who might feel it most.

I don’t know when, exactly, Katherine Asquith received the telegram, but today is likely. As for how she took this worst of news, we have the testimony of Diana Manners, her friend and her husband’s Coterie-mate. Asquith’s last letter, it seems, was to Diana rather than to Katherine. Written literally on the eve of battle, it did not overstate his chances in the coming attack. Perhaps Asquith needed to worry someone other than his wife, or perhaps a letter to Katherine is lost. Perhaps, too, he was just being realistic–seventeen officers in his battalion were killed or wounded on the 15th.[2]

But whatever his reasons, the dark tone of that last letter had left Diana Manners terrified.

She did not often pray, but she spent much of the next two days on her knees, once in church before a lighted candle. Her state was so desperate that it was almost a relief when the news arrived. The pain, she said, was physical: ‘a sensation never before felt… my brain is revolving so fast, screaming “Raymond killed, my divine Raymond killed” over and over again… I have lost with him my energy and hope and all that blinds one to life’s horror. I loved him a little better than any living soul and the near future seems unfaceable.’

But Raymond wasn’t her husband, and there were other bright and dashing men among her intimate friends. Manners immediately rushed to Mells, where she found her old friend Katherine Asquith “crouched in a dark room,” “too dead a thing to seek death, only craving to die from numbness.”[3]

There she cared for her friend as best she could, but with death as with life, rivalry. Soon the widow’s superior mourning rights would begin to chafe the never-exceeded Diana, and the two women separated. Manners had her work as a nurse and Katherine Asquith had her children, and despair had, eventually, to be turned aside.

A sampling, now, of the eulogies.

First, Maurice Baring, of the coterie and the Royal Flying Corps, who gives our grounding in today, a century back.

On the 17th, while I was showing a party of Russians round the Aerodrome, someone casually told me that Raymond Asquith had been killed.

εἶπέ τις, Ἡράκλειτε, τεὸν μόρον[4]

That is,

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.

Baring turns next to the implicit question that the death of a promising man raises:

What a waste people said, when they thought of his brilliant brain, his radiant wit, his mastery of language, his solid scholarship, and all his rare gifts. But it wasn’t a waste, and never for one moment did I think so.

Raymond’s service at the front was the crown and purpose of his life. A purpose fulfilled to a noble close. He loved being in the Army as much as he had hated being at the Bar. He went on with his life in the Army where he had left it off at Oxford, and he died in a second miraculous spring; and by being in the Army and being what he was, and doing what he did, in the way he did it, he made it a little easier for us to win the war.[5]

The epilogue to the Life and Letters volume includes passed-along praise from Asquith’s men. His batman, the unforenamed Needham,

added in a letter to Katharine that ‘such coolness under shell fire as Mr. Asquith displayed would be difficult to equal’. The tributes that were paid to his courage and sang-froid were by no means confined to the privileged circle in which so much of his life had been spent. Another private soldier in his platoon wrote home to an old schoolmaster at Walworth Vicarage in south London: ‘There is not one of us who would not have changed places with him if we had thought that he would have lived, for he was one of the finest men who ever wore the King’s uniform, and he did not know what fear was…’

 

One by one, their friends gathered themselves and wrote to Katherine:

Baring dared–I think that’s the right word–to argue at once for a meaningful death: “R. having gone will make it more difficult for everyone who knew him to bear the war—and yet, dearest Katharine, I feel his death to be the most triumphant of all his brilliant achievements . . . only there is no one who ever lived who will be so much missed.”

Winston Churchill took months to write–out of an excess of emotion, he claimed, rather than a refusal to face a difficult task. He walks the line between acknowledging loss and asserting consolation with a bit more grace:

I always had an intense admiration for Raymond, and also a warm affection for him; and both were old established ties… These gallant charming figures that flash and gleam amid the carnage–always so superior to it, masters of their souls, disdainful of death and suffering–are an inspiration and an example to all. And he was one of the very best.[6]

Aubrey Herbert managed a more human tone, and addressed not only the loss of Raymond–“A great bit of our life has gone with Raymond, the bit that was full of light”[7]–but also the coming and continuing suffering of his widow: “It is always best to be brave, and now there is nothing else, but who has had to give what you have given?”

Who else? Let’s see: John Buchan will break into his own memoir to write an extended eulogy for Asquith. It squeaks a bit on the highest notes–one imagines Asquith chortling in Elysion to hear himself compared to a Byzantine object stripped of ornament and revealed as a Phidias–but then comes back down to praise a man recognizable from his letters: “He disliked emotion, not because he felt lightly but because he felt deeply… War meant to him the shattering of every taste and interest, but he did not hesitate.”[8] Buchan goes on to praise his “perfect lucidity of mind and precision of phrase” and “pale grace.” “Our roll of honour is long, but it holds no nobler figure.[8]

But I think I will give the last word on Raymond Asquith to Diana Manners. In some ways, at least, each loved the other best. For her this was “…the worst of all our losses… By his death everything changed, except the war that ground its blind murderous treadmill round and round without retreat or advance, with no sign of the beginning of the end.”[10]

 

I have exhausted us with condolence, I think, and yet it feels, even a century on, like grim and unrewarding reading. In our pale, century-gone following-up, there is also nothing to do but be brave, in a small way, and keep reading. So it falls to Ford Madox Hueffer–a most unlikely candidate for the offering of oblique solace–to provide the “moving on” poem.

First, though, a quick note. There was too much, two days ago, to discuss the dated manuscript of an essay on war writing, which he called “A Day of Battle,” appropriately enough (although he was in the Salient, and knew nothing of the Guards at Flers-Courcelette). Which is a shame, because it is very much on point. Ford has been prolific of late, and in several genres, but I realized to my surprise that his essay’s opening claim is actually accurate: “I have asked myself continuously why I can write nothing… about the psychology of the Active Service of which I have seen my share. And why cannot I even evoke pictures of the Somme or the flat lands around Ploegsteert?…”

This is a problem for a novelist, naturally. Ford’s first attempt at a war novel, entitled “True Love & a GCM,” features a protagonist, Morton, who suffers from memory problems after being concussed by a shell and is stuck with the battalion transport when he would prefer either to be in the trenches or on the staff… a familiar-sounding chap. And today, a century back, in the novel’s chronology, Morton gets a whiff of gas from a German gas shell that lands nearby–I do not know if this is a “real” date or not.[11]

But if it was, it didn’t stop Ford from writing another strange and winsome poem which parlays the ironic contrast of trenches and conventional poetic effects into a wistful (but also somewhat ungainly–can poetry lumber and still be wistful?) love poem:

 

Clair de Lune

I

I should like to imagine
A moonlight in which there would be no machine-guns!
For, it is possible
To come out of a trench or a hut or a tent or a church all in ruins:
To see the black perspective of long avenues
All silent.
The white strips of sky
At the sides, cut by the poplar trunks:
The white strips of sky
Above, diminishing–
The silence and blackness of the avenue
Enclosed by immensities of space
Spreading away
Over No Man’s Land. . . .
For a minute . . .
For ten . . .
There will be no star shells
But the untroubled stars,
There will be no Very light
But the light of the quiet moon Like a swan. And silence. . . .

Then, far away to the right thro’ the moonbeams “Wukka Wukka” will go the machine-guns,
And, far away to the left
Wukka Wukka.
And sharply,
Wuk . . . Wuk. . . and then silence
For a space in the clear of the moon.

II

I should like to imagine
A moonlight in which the machine-guns of trouble
Will be silent. . . .

Do you remember, my dear,
Long ago, on the cliffs, in the moonlight,
Looking over to Flatholme
We sat. . . . Long ago! . . .
And the things that you told me . . . .
Little things in the clear of the moon,
The little, sad things of a life. . . .

We shall do it again
Full surely,
Sitting still, looking over at Flatholme.

Then, far away to the right
Shall sound the Machine Guns of trouble
Wukka-wukka!
And, far away to the left, under Flatholme,
Wukka-wuk! . . .

I wonder, my dear, can you stick it?
As we should say: “Stick it, the Welch!”
In the dark of the moon,
Going over. . . .

Nieppe, near Plugstreet, 17/9/16

References and Footnotes

  1. Elton, C.E. Montague, 143.
  2. I have depended for my Asquith narrative on the published Life and Letters, which mentions the last letter to Manners but does not include it. Which is very curious, but I do not know why.
  3. Ziegler, Diana Cooper, 78. This probably occurred a day or two hence, given that Ziegler allows two days after receiving Asquith's letter of the 14th before she heard the news. But surely Manners would have learned not long after the official telegram was sent to Mells--she was in London and knew many people with War Office or Grenadier Guards connections
  4. The epigram continues: ἐς δέ με δάκρυ ἤγαγεν, ἐμνήσθην δ᾽ ὁσσάκις ἀμφότεροι. Really, this is kind of an annoying move, because even in an ideal world of Asquiths and Shaw-Stewarts and shell-hole-Aeschylus-readers like Macmillan, pretty much everyone still had to look up Greek. Latin tags? Well, hey, maybe, because even the non-classicists had to absorb a few dozen in school. But not Greek. While this bit of Callimachus is very well known, it was surely very much better known to the vast majority of Baring and Asquith's contemporaries in its English translation. So I will break in with William Johnson Cory's chiming couplet.
  5. Baring, R.F.C.H.Q., 178-9.
  6. A Deep Cry, 151.
  7. Fitzherbert, The Man Who Was Greenmantle, 185.
  8. Pilgrim's Way, 58-60.
  9. Pilgrim's Way, 58-60.
  10. Autobiography, 149.
  11. War Prose, 36, 128.

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:

ginchy-flers-road

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_series_tank_in_action

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.

“Yes.”

“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.

Henry Williamson and the Rumble of Jutland; Noel Hodgson Renounces, T.P. Cameron Wilson Writes a Soldier, and Bimbo Tennant Worples Fey-ward; then Friendships, Farewells, Transfers, and Wedding Bells

A strange day, today, a century back. For a good two centuries, Britain’s security was guaranteed by its navy. For the last 22 months, that navy has had little to do, and all eyes were on the enormous expansion of the unloved younger son of the military family. There were a few famous chases and cruiser actions, and there was the submarine war, but confidence was high that should the German fleet–and the rapid expansion of that previously negligible body had been one of the most important catalysts of Brittain’s alliance with France and Russia–ever venture out into the North Sea the Royal Navy would treat it much as it had treated the Spanish Armada.

Yesterday, a century back, the battleships and battle cruisers of the German navy came out at last. The complicated plan involved separating the two major elements of the British fleet and using a screen of submarines to torpedo the slow capital ships. It failed almost immediately, since the British battle cruisers steamed through the submarine line before it was fully prepared, but the beginning of the battle nevertheless went Germany’s way. I do not have a good grasp of naval warfare, and this battle–the only truly big steel-ships-and-guns battle in European history–is quite complicated, but, hopefully, a brief summary should suffice to prepare us for the responses of various Britons.

Despite the superior gunnery of the British fleet–and, once combined, its greater size–the initial engagement revealed a major design flaw that resulted in the swift sinking of three battle cruisers. Reading up on the battle after some years is shocking, even after–in fact because of–my many-months-long immersion in trench warfare. The British ships were well armored against broadsides, but when a few German shells hit at long range, they plunged through the thinner armor over deck and turrets. Exploding below decks, their blasts rushed through the open hatchways that connected the British guns with their magazines deep below decks. Naval combat, too, has its special horrors: flash fires spread through steel rooms; ships are saved only by flooding burning areas before ordinance is ignited, drowning the men who remain below to save those stationed higher up; if the fires are not contained, the chain explosion of shells tears the ship apart; concussed and burned men who are thrown clear are likely to drown.

The Queen Mary was struck twice and rent by internal explosions, capsizing and sinking within minutes. Twenty men were rescued, 1,266 died.

The Invincible may have been hit only once, but this shell too plunged through and ignited a magazine. Invincible broke in half and sunk in ninety seconds. 1,026 men died, and six–blown through the air from their positions in a turret and a fire-control mast–lived.

The Indefatigable was hit several times and also blew up, settling quickly as internal explosions tore out its keel. Although more men may have been blown clear, they would have been sucked under by the displacement of the sinking ship. 1,017 men died, and only two survived long enough to be rescued.

 

The news of yesterday’s disaster be absorbed by our writers over the next few days, but the battle continued overnight and into today, a century back. The British fleets drew together, and a running battle was fought as the Germans, their plan negated despite the destruction of the three battle cruisers, withdrew toward their bases. Although they mostly eluded the British Grand Fleet, one modern German battleship was sunk, along with ten smaller ships, while the Royal Navy lost eleven more (smaller) ships.

In the wake of this sudden carnage, the debates began–and they continue. But for our purposes another simple summary will do: Jutland is a very good example of a tactical victory that is also a strategic defeat (for Germany, that is). Britain, when the number, tonnage, and quality of the ships are factored in, had lost roughly twice as heavily. And let’s not forget human lives: more than 6,000 British sailors died in the two days, and “only” some 2,500 Germans. That is very much a “battlefield,” or tactical, defeat. But the German Imperial Navy and gambled on a sortie and been stopped–it returned to its bases and there would be no more serious attempts to destroy the British Grand Fleet, ergo something of an “operational” draw and a strategic defeat.

As tactics gives way to strategy, so strategy yields to Grand Strategy (which seems like it should be capitalized). If the Royal Navy could not be defeated, then Britain could not be assaulted/invaded. It could, however, be besieged/ blockaded. Therefore, in order to starve Britain, Germany would keep its battleships in port, turning instead to its submarines in a broadcast campaign against merchant shipping. So in the failure of the German fleet to defeat the British today, a century back, there originates a straight line which leads to the decision to wage “unrestricted” submarine warfare, and thus to the significant U.S. presence in Europe in 1918, at the time of the breaking of the European armies.

 

After all that blood and steel, it feels curious to return to our usual matter of little movements among writerly soldiers. But Henry Williamson, never able to resist putting his Gumpish alter ego on the outskirts of all the war’s most famous actions, provides the link.

Phillip Maddison, having been trained as a machine gun officer (this much following Williamson’s own experience), now headed back to France, recalled from a home leave to arrive in time for the “big push.” There has been drama, culminating in a nasty quarrel with his old friend Desmond over the woman they both… admire. This is the appallingly thin (character of) Lily: a wan, unfortunate girl, ill-used, and now rising toward nineteenth century middlebrow novel sainthood through her improbable and steadfast love for Phillip…

Her first, partial martyrdom was to an abusive older man. Her second is to her creator’s thematic imperatives. The events of spring 1916 are chronicled in a chapter entitled, amazingly, “Lily and the Nightingale.” After the quickening of love and the noble decision to resist desire and wait, Phillip is packed off to France (while Williamson was in fact on convalescent leave). He arrives today, a century back, and Williamson allows us, surely, to date his arrival:[1]

Phillip tottered off the gangway at Boulogne having, as he said to his companion from Victoria, catted up his heart, despite the fact that the crossing from Folkestone had been made in sunshine on a blue and waveless channel. Fear had taken the heart out of him: fear of being sick: fear of the idea of having to face machine-guns again. The apparition of death from the back of his mind had come forward to share his living thoughts, so the voyage had been a semi-conscious froth of nausea, of endurance despite abandon.

While the transport had been crossing, with its destroyer escort, there had been a constant heavy thudding of guns. Either the Big Push had started, along the coast towards Ostend, or there had been a naval battle. When the ship docked, they heard: the German fleet had come out, and there had been a tremendous battle in the North Sea…[2]

 

Once again I have failed in my resolution to streamline this project. But we march from great battle to great battle, and we mark the last month before the Somme with not one but rather three or four “month poems.”

First, I want to suggest reading an excellent and spectacularly a propos prose piece by Hector Munro (a.k.a. the prominent prewar satirist Saki: Birds on the Western Front is of a feather with much of our reading.

Second, Noel Hodgson‘s “Renunciation” doesn’t quite qualify as a “month poem” because it was published on this very day, a century back, in The New Witness:

Take my love that died to-day.
Lay him on a roseleafbed,–
He so gallant was and gay,–
Let them hide his tumbled head,
Roses passionate and red
That so swiftly fade away.
Let the little grave be set
Where my eyes shall never see;
Raise no stone, make no regret
Lest my sad heart break,–and yet
For my weakness, let there be
Sprigs of rue and rosemary.

Brookeish, and sentimental, but not bad for all that. And can we read toward the turning of the poetic tide just a bit? I don’t think so, really: this a beautiful death for a gallant soldier, beautifully mourned. But if we imagine how a head might “tumble” or why else a grave might be unmarked… but no.

In addition, Hodgson will shortly write a prose sketch set today, a century back. June 1st 1916 was Ascension Day, and for Hodgson it brought back memories of a school days’ ramble one Ascension morning, an expedition with a friend, after birds’ nests, in the early morning light.

And I remembered the chill of the water round our middles as we forded the river, where the mist still hung in wreaths, and the heavy dew on the grass. We took a grebe’s nest, I remembered, and a reed-warbler’s…

I remembered, too, how, as we sat in a cottage and ate lemon-curd and bread, a clock struck eight; and how we girded ourselves and ran, and were in time for callover at nine, whereby was great renown to us for many days; and how I slept, in my oaken seat at matins.

But his companion that day was Nowell Oxland, killed at Gallipoli. It must have been a day of melancholy thoughts for the often high-spirited Hodgson. He is young, full of life, a believer in divine Providence and a patriot, and yet he is unwilling to leave thoughts of despair unexpressed, unwilling to betray memory, denying its pain by sentimentalizing the past or putting loss to utilitarian (not to say militarist) purpose. What else would we ask, really?[3]

 

Third, then, Bim Tennant, gallant and gay, wrote a rather lengthy fairy tale fantasia in verse at some point during this month. He thought highly of the strange-but-charming “Worple Flit.” But I shall content us with an excerpt. And no follow-up questions, please: though I love this unquiet-ghost-of-William-Morris sort of stuff in principle, just today I have no idea what is going on in Bimbo’s little world:

And as we jogged along the road, the night grew wondrous fine,
And out of the Hills the Hill-folk came, and the Down-men, all in a line,
Their packs right full of their elfin gear, and their flasks of their trollish wine…

And their talk was soft as a cony’s back, and swift as a whippet hound.
‘By the puckered cheek of my barbary ape! ’tis an ill sight we see,
The glamour of England fades this day with the folk of the South Countree.’

The good folk passed and silence fell, save where among the trees
Their elfin jargon echoed back and sighed upon the breeze,
Like channeling mice in barley shocks, or humming honey bees.
‘Now by my chin and span-long beard,’ I heard the beldame cry,
‘I wot we ha’ missed the Dairy Thief ‘mid the good folk flitting by.’

But scarcely had the word been said, when down a lapin track,
Behold the goblin slowly come, bent double beneath his pack,
And slow and mournful was his stride, for ever a-glancing back.
‘Give ye the luck,’ the beldame cried: ‘give ye the luck,’ quo’ she,
And the Dairy Thief he doffed his cap, but never a word spake he.

Then over a knoll and under a stile, until my eyes were sore,
I watched him go; so sad an elf I never did see before…

Silent I stood and thought to hear across the open Down,
Some lingering lilt of a goblin song from pixie squat and brown,
Or perchance to spy some faerie dame in her dewy cobweb gown.
I search’d and found ne witch ne folk, but as I stood forlorn,
Three green leaves flickered to the ground, of oak and ash and thorn.

Poperinghe, June, 1916.

It is very strange indeed, to read a poem like this–there’s an ode to a Nightingale, too, this month, borrowed from Boccaccio–with such a place and date affixed.Such verse should be the text for some winsome Pre-Raphaelite woodcut, and yet it comes from an ante-room of hell on earth…

 

Fourth, then, T.P. Cameron Wilson weighs in. I have been slow to pick him up–and I still, given the low volume of writing that I have in hand, resist making him a “Category” all his own–but he elbows in rather nicely. Who is he writing to, today, and with a poem? Why, Harold Monro, of The Poetry Bookshop, of course.

But this is no professional letter–it’s a chilling, tale well-told, ready for a Great War memoir or some latter-day omnibus of the short-form uncanny. Memory, and death, it seems, are the themes for June the First:

1.6.16

I wish you were here, with your sympathy and your power of laughing at the same things as the man you’re with — laughing and weeping, almost, it would be here.

Here’s a thing that happened. When I first “joined” out here I noticed a man — a boy, really, his age was just 19 — who had those very calm blue eyes one sees in sailors sometimes, and a skin burnt to a sort of golden brown. I said to him, “When did you leave the Navy?” and he regarded this as the most exquisite joke! Every time I met him he used to show his very white teeth in a huge smile of amusement, and we got very pally when it came to real bullets — as men do get pally, the elect, at any rate.

Well, the other day there was a wiring party out in front of our parapet — putting up barbed wire (rusted to a sort of Titian red). It is wonderful going out into ‘No Man’s Land.’ I’ll tell you about it one day — stars and wet grass, and nothing between you and the enemy, and every now and then a very soft and beautiful blue-white light from a Very pistol — bright as day, yet extraordinarily unreal. You have to keep still as a statue in whatever position you happen to be in, till it dies down, as movement gives you away.

Well, that night they turned a machine gun on the wiring party, and the ‘sailor boy’ got seven bullets, and died almost at once. All his poor body was riddled with them, and one went through his brown throat. When I went over his papers I found a post-card addressed to his mother. It was an embroidered affair, on white silk. They buy them out here for 40 centimes each, and it had simply “remember me” on it.

And they say “don’t get sentimental!” I wanted you then, to — oh! just to be human.

We had to collect what had been a man the other day and put it into a sandbag and bury it, and less than two minutes before he had been laughing and talking and thinking. . . .[4]

A Soldier

He laughed.
His blue eyes searched the morning,
Found the unceasing song of the lark
In a brown twinkle of wings, far out.
Great clouds, like galleons, sailed the distance.
The young spring day had slipped the cloak of dark
And stood up straight and naked with a shout.
Through the green wheat, like laughing schoolboys,
Tumbled the yellow mustard flowers, uncheck’d.
The wet earth reeked and smoked in the sun . . .
He thought of the waking farm in England.
The deep thatch of the roof — all shadow-fleck’d
The clank of pails at the pump . . . the day begun.
“After the war . . . ” he thought.
His heart beat faster With a new love for things familiar and plain.
The Spring leaned down and whispered to him low
Of a slim, brown-throated woman he had kissed . . .
He saw, in sons that were himself again,
The only immortality that man may know.

And then a sound grew out of the morning,
And a shell came, moving a destined way,
Thin and swift and lustful, making its moan.
A moment his brave white body knew the Spring,
The next, it lay
In a red ruin of blood and guts and bone.

Oh! nothing was tortured there! Nothing could know
How death blasphemed all men and their high birth
With his obscenities. Already moved,
Within those shattered tissues, that dim force,
Which is the ancient alchemy of Earth,
Changing him to the very flowers he loved.

“Nothing was tortured there!” Oh, pretty thought!
When God Himself might well bow down His head
And hide His haunted eyes before the dead.

Is this the sailor-boy himself, mildly alchemized to verse, and a victim of shell rather than machine gun? It hardly matters, and today’s assemblage of dated found-object-writing seems both more numinous and more depressing than usual.

 

So nothing more in the way of commentary. But still, on this busy but less-than-Glorious First, we have a few updates for the month:

 

John Buchan, an invalid at the beginning of the war and no spring chicken, has become an all-but-official propagandist on the (prop-a-) grandest scale: between his voluminous quick-fire histories for Nelson’s and teh very popular Greenmantle, he must be one of the most-read war writers going. But this month he finally went: like C.E. Montague, Buchan has been absorbed into the expanding bureaucracy of the Intelligence branch. He makes his first visit to France early this month–just missing his friend Raymond Asquith at G.H.Q.–and will begin touring and writing from within the military-journalistic complex.

 

Billy Congreve, recently awarded the DSO for his conspicuous gallantry in April in the Salient, is home in London on leave. An active leave: today, a century back, he was married to Pamela Maude at St Martin-in-the-Fields, with the Bishop of London presiding. The honeymoon will last a few days only, for the young brigade major is needed back on duty.[5]

 

And Herbert Read, whose sporadically preserved writing about his experiences as an officer of the Green Howards has been of little use here yet , will return to the front this month, after recuperating from a barbed-wire-related injury.

 

Then there is Isaac Rosenberg, warned to be ready to depart for France at a few hours’ notice. He has just mustered up the courage to tell his devoted sister, Annie, that he is bound for the front.

I asked my boss for the day off and went to Aldershot. It was bleak. I didn’t see a soul except Isaac coming towards me from the other side of the high fence. Talking to him through the wire I said, “But Isaac you’re not fit.” He said, “I’ve been examined, and passed.” I asked him to let me go and see the medical officer. He wouldn’t let me do it. I asked him how much money he had, and he replied “One shilling.” I didn’t know whether he needed anything, but had ten shillings with me, which I gave him. I wasn’t with him more than an hour. I stood there begging him not to go. He said goodbye and disappeared into the distance…[6]

This is a sister’s anguish at the coming suffering and agony of suspense, but it’s also hard not to see the poet reflected in his poem. Moses had much to say about slavery and oppression, about violence and the potential human heroic response…

 

Finally, then, Siegfried Sassoon, in a brown study. The problem is, once you’ve left, where is home?

June 1

I can’t read or enjoy poetry at all since I came back here. Two new officers in C Company since Stansfield
went–G. Williams, who was hit a year ago; and Morris–Sandhurst one. Neither of them at all interesting. Heard from Robert Graves, now at Litherland; he says he ‘wants to come home—to France’. I only wish he would.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Yes, it could be yesterday as well, but the knowledge that the sound is naval gunnery would point more toward today.
  2. The Golden Virgin, 205.
  3. Zeepvat, Before Action, 178-82.
  4. Housman, War Letters, 299-300.
  5. Armageddon Road, 190.
  6. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 136.
  7. Diaries, 70.

Bimbo Tennant Misses a Birthday, but Enshrines a Goddess; Farewell to Billy Congreve; Richard Hannay Faces the Temptations of the Flesh and the Delights of Reunion

Billy Congreve has been a bit of an odd duck here–he’s a cheerful professional soldier, a promising son rising in the family trade, and very happy to be swiftly promoted to staff work. And now he will be the odd man out. His career is flourishing, but his diary-keeping is not. The diary will trail off after today’s entry, at least in part because the duties of a conscientious brigade-major involved constant travel through the entrenched areas and left little time for reflection. We will continue to check in on Congreve, but we leave his regular diary appearances on something of a high note. Although he doesn’t mention it himself, he was “mentioned in dispatches” on New Year’s Day, the third time he had been so honored. This is the very bauble which had eluded Edward Hermon, and Congreve’s award may illuminate why: Hermon has been tidying up after battles and non-combat battalions; Congreve has been driving on a brigade, organizing raids, and pushing himself into the danger zone as often as possible–use those “category” links on the two names and compare!

Nor is that all: a century and two days back, Congreve was awarded the Military Cross for his actions at Hooge. He has now been recognized both for efficiency and for gallantry–and he leaves us in the chipper, unreconstructed Victorian vernacular he has maintained throughout more than a year of combat:

17th January

Some of the Belgian batteries are now being withdrawn. This is very sad, for we all love them. They are such sportsmen and shoot like blazes whenever one wants them to. Our grenadiers gave the Boche 150 rifle grenades, and the Belgians let go their salvoes in fine style.[1]

 

Congreve is the high-achieving son of a military father, but Bimbo Tennant has been a thoughtless boy:

17th January, 1916.
Most Darling Moth’,

I have just this moment remembered that your birthday was 14th, and I have not written to say how much I love you. It is impossible to state this amount in writing, but please forgive me for having remembered as late as this. I pray that we may both live many many more years as happily as we have lived together for 18, for there is no one who loves his mother more (or with better reason) than I do.

What do we have, then, for a belated present?

This afternoon we go back to trenches, and out again (D.V.) in 48 hours. Now that I come to think of it it was on your birthday that the Boche shelled my lines, and I am sure that you were there looking after me, as Nanny saw you once beside my bed when I was ill, do you remember?

…It is now lunch time and I must stop. Please don’t think I don’t always think of you, darling Moth’. This is just a short note to let you know how much I love you and how happy I am that you’re my mother, and not some one else’s. I am longing to see you, darling Moth’…

And now “ God bless us–every one” (as Tiny Tim said), and may we soon all be together after this wretched war is over.

Ever your devoted Son,
Bimbo[2]

Never in the field of human conflict has an officer directly responsible for the lives of dozens of grown men sounded so much like an eight-year-old boy. A sweet eight-year-old boy–but, still.

And there’s another perfect little incident here. He had forgotten her birthday when it was occurring, but afterwards, in reporting to her on shelling that caused several casualties but might have caused more, he suddenly realized something…

This is an excellent example of what letters bring to the ample, slovenly table of this project. Bimbo has not outlined or researched, you see, and so we see get to witness a thought emerge in the precise historical moment (just before lunch, European time, a century back.) He is indulging–apology dispensed with–in the pleasures of chronicle, telling mother just what happened. But now, pen poised in mid-air, he emplots events into a certain sort of story: what had been experienced as good fortune without evident cause is now refigured, a few days later, as the protective magic of a semi-divine maternal guardian… he may only be half serious (or then again he may be a good deal more than half serious) but it’s interesting to see that sort of thinking so near the surface. Is there magic there? Can mother protect him? The recitation of past events has become a story, now–it means something.

But it is lunch time now, and I must stop.[3]

 

And what of Richard Hannay? Today, a century back, is the designated day of rendezvous in Constantinople. But where are his two co-conspirators? The quest stands on the edge of a knife–or, in this eminently proto-Bondian solution, it must be felt for in the murk of exotic night life. There’s nothing for it but to head to a smoky cantina and trust to luck–and, of course, to the British colonialist’s instinctive confidence, sense of entitlement, and casual racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism:

We walked straight through the cafe, which was empty, and down the dark passage, till we were stopped by the garden door. I knocked and it swung open. There was the bleak yard, now puddled with snow, and a blaze of light from the pavilion at the other end. There was a scraping of fiddles, too, and the sound of human talk. We paid the negro at the door, and passed from the bitter afternoon into a garish saloon.

There were forty or fifty people there, drinking coffee and sirops and filling the air with the fumes of latakia. Most of them were Turks in European clothes and the fez, but there were some German officers and what looked like German civilians—Army Service Corps clerks, probably, and mechanics from the Arsenal. A woman in cheap finery was tinkling at the piano, and there were several shrill females with the officers. Peter and I sat down modestly in the nearest corner, where old Kuprasso saw us and sent us coffee. A girl who looked like a Jewess came over to us and talked French, but I shook my head and she went off again.

Presently a girl came on the stage and danced, a silly affair, all a clashing of tambourines and wriggling. I have seen native women do the same thing better in a Mozambique kraal…

Next, more drugs and a huge huff of rabid orientalism:

In a twinkling the pavilion changed from a common saloon, which might have been in Chicago or Paris, to a place of mystery—yes, and of beauty. It became the Garden-House of Suliman the Red, whoever that sportsman may have been. Sandy had said that the ends of the earth converged there, and he had been right. I lost all consciousness of my neighbours—stout German, frock-coated Turk, frowsy Jewess—and saw only strange figures leaping in a circle of light, figures that came out of the deepest darkness to make a big magic.

The leader flung some stuff into the brazier, and a great fan of blue light flared up. He was weaving circles, and he was singing something shrill and high, whilst his companions made a chorus with their deep monotone. I can’t tell you what the dance was. I had seen the Russian ballet just before the war, and one of the men in it reminded me of this man. But the dancing was the least part of it. It was neither sound nor movement nor scent that wrought the spell, but something far more potent. In an instant I found myself reft away from the present with its dull dangers, and looking at a world all young and fresh and beautiful. The gaudy drop-scene had vanished. It was a window I was looking from, and I was gazing at the finest landscape on earth, lit by the pure clean light of morning.

It seemed to be part of the veld, but like no veld I had ever seen. It was wider and wilder and more gracious. Indeed, I was looking at my first youth. I was feeling the kind of immortal light-heartedness which only a boy knows in the dawning of his days. I had no longer any fear of these magic-makers. They were kindly wizards, who had brought me into fairyland…

We get a whirling tumble into drugged-out terror–by way of the 19th century tradition of hash-infused adventure Romances–and then, well, here goes the cold water:

Then suddenly the spell was broken. The door was flung open and a great gust of icy wind swirled through the hall, driving clouds of ashes from the braziers. I heard loud voices without, and a hubbub began inside. For a moment it was quite dark, and then someone lit one of the flare lamps by the stage. It revealed nothing but the common squalor of a low saloon—white faces, sleepy eyes, and frowsy heads. The drop-piece was there in all its tawdriness.

The Companions of the Rosy Hours had gone. But at the door stood men in uniform, I heard a German a long way off murmur, ‘Enver’s bodyguards,’ and I heard him distinctly; for, though I could not see clearly, my hearing was desperately acute. That is often the way when you suddenly come out of a swoon.

The place emptied like magic…

We were done, and there was an end of it. It was Kismet, the act of God, and there was nothing for it but to submit. I hadn’t a flicker of a thought of escape or resistance. The game was utterly and absolutely over.

Hannay and Peter are marched to a waiting carriage and brought to a large building, evidently a prison

I guessed that this was the governor’s room, and we should be put through our first examination. My head was too stupid to think, and I made up my mind to keep perfectly mum. Yes, even if they tried thumbscrews. I had no kind of story, but I resolved not to give anything away. As I turned the handle I wondered idly what kind of sallow Turk or bulging-necked German we should find inside.

It was a pleasant room, with a polished wood floor and a big fire burning on the hearth. Beside the fire a man lay on a couch, with a little table drawn up beside him. On that table was a small glass of milk and a number of Patience cards spread in rows.

I stared blankly at the spectacle, till I saw a second figure. It was the man in the skin-cap, the leader of the dancing maniacs. Both Peter and I backed sharply at the sight and then stood stock still.

For the dancer crossed the room in two strides and gripped both of my hands.

‘Dick, old man,’ he cried, ‘I’m most awfully glad to see you again!'[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Armageddon Road, 181-2.
  2. Letters, 105-8.
  3. Letters, 108-9.
  4. Buchan, Greenmantle.

Greenmantle’s Hannay Gets the Goods to Constantinople; Edward Thomas Confined to Camp and John Bernard Adams on Leave; Bimbo Tennant on Shelling and Anxiety; Kate Luard Sees Another Boy Out of this Crooked World

It was the morning of the 16th, after Peter and I had been living like pigs on black bread and condemned tin stuff, that we came in sight of a blue sea on our right hand and knew we couldn’t be very far from the end.

It was jolly near the end in another sense. We stopped at a station and were stretching our legs on the platform when I saw a familiar figure approaching. It was Rasta, with half a dozen Turkish gendarmes.

More peril for Richard Hannay, our (fictional) man in Turkey. The veteran of Loos and amateur intelligence operative has, for convoluted reasons, traveled to Turkey via the heart of the Central Powers. Which has at least given him some practice in brazen chicanery: Hannay simply bluffs his way past an arrogant Turkish officer, savoring the irony that, to maintain his cover, he must now oversee the safe delivery of a load of explosives. (The choice of date, by the way, may be explained by Buchan’s desire to make it clear that these munitions reach Turkey only after the British withdrawal from Gallipoli, thus keeping Hannay’s severe loyalty to the mission from definitively involving the harming of British troops).

Keeping up the pose of being a German cargo-master, Hannay delivers the shells to a German gunner officer and, with his trusty Boer sidekick keeping silent by his side, is treated to lunch and then driven to Constantinople.

So it came about that at five minutes past three on the 16th day of January, with only the clothes we stood up in, Peter and I entered Constantinople.

I was in considerable spirits, for I had got the final lap successfully over, and I was looking forward madly to meeting my friends; but, all the same, the first sight was a mighty disappointment. I don’t quite know what I had expected—a sort of fairyland Eastern city, all white marble and blue water, and stately Turks in surplices, and veiled houris, and roses and nightingales, and some sort of string band discoursing sweet music. I had forgotten that winter is pretty much the same everywhere. It was a drizzling day, with a south-east wind blowing, and the streets were long troughs of mud. The first part I struck looked like a dingy colonial suburb—wooden houses and corrugated iron roofs, and endless dirty, sallow children. There was a cemetery, I remember, with Turks’ caps stuck at the head of each grave. Then we got into narrow steep streets which descended to a kind of big canal. I saw what I took to be mosques and minarets, and they were about as impressive as factory chimneys. By and by we crossed a bridge, and paid a penny for the privilege. If I had known it was the famous Golden Horn I would have looked at it with more interest, but I saw nothing save a lot of moth-eaten barges and some queer little boats like gondolas. Then we came into busier streets, where ramshackle cabs drawn by lean horses spluttered through the mud. I saw one old fellow who looked like my notion of a Turk, but most of the population had the appearance of London old-clothes men. All but the soldiers, Turk and German, who seemed well-set-up fellows.[1]

And just in time: tomorrow is the day appointed for the rendezvous with his fellow secret agents…

 

From our most adventurous fictional lark to one the poet making the heaviest weather of reality. Edward Thomas, writing today, a century back, to Robert Frost, rather lugubriously fills his friend in on the details of life in training camp:

Still at Hare Hall Camp
My dear Robert,

Again it is an immeasurable time since I heard from you & a little less since I wrote. There is little fresh to tell you. I think I told you we were transferred to a new Company which makes us appear on parade first thing in the morning with packs & rifles, & so we move for an hour & then take up our ordinary work. Also I am responsible for the 20 men in the hut, to call the roll, see that the meals are fetched & served & cleaned up, the hut kept clean, to organise & keep a fund for buying luxuries.

There is an interest here in faithful description–in lieu of a diary, Thomas would tell his friend, once in a while, of the texture of his daily life. He will not make a natural officer:

I got into trouble last week end through reporting a man present because I thought he would be in soon after I had to make the report. He arrived at 7 next morning & we both had two serious talks with officers. Probably my promotion will be delayed. I am now L/Cpl P.E. Thomas by the way. If the war lasts long enough I may be Sergeant. The work isn’t dull yet. We go over the same ground every week—the course lasts a week—but each time we learn & vary the course. We take a separate new lot of men each week & they are always different. New work is always turning up & putting us in new positions for a time. The worst of it is I get less leave & it is harder to get. I couldn’t see Mervyn yesterday on his birthday or take him to Coventry to begin school there…

The day, yes, but also the year. So many of our writers have remarked upon the pleasure to be had in physical activity amidst the natural world–it’s hard marching, but there is contentment in the outdoorsy aspect of soldiering. For Thomas it is rather the opposite. He has always walked or bicycled enormous distances, often rigging books around trips that he wants to take. While he will now persist, playing the naturalist and reporting to Frost on the English winter, his six months under arms have been rather more physically confining than his life as a writer.

The winter has been mild & wet since the November snow. Today was a typical day. John Freeman came down to see me & we watched out through the misty cold still weather, with thrushes singing everywhere & no soul about while we ate our lunch. Yesterday all I could do was to draw two panoramas of the neighboring country. We can’t go beyond the 2-mile radius unless we are on leave, nor enter a public house within the 2-mile radius, which is presumably to benefit the camp canteen. Half the men are away this week end, & the rest are out with friends, & I have had a lot of time to myself—which always tempts me to write & sometimes I do…

Time hurries on, and the letter dawdles. Thomas will often criticize himself for aimlessness, but rarely has he embodied it as here:

Of course most of the men are for junior to me in this corps. I am six months old, they are six weeks or little more. Most of our generation are officers now with various regiments, or else settled as non-commissioned officers like myself in this corps. We talk about High Beech, our former camp, & they look at [us] as part of ancient history. Beautiful those Autumn Days almost without rain seem now. Thus camp is perfectly arranged & equipped & we sleep in canvas beds, but we think we would rather be on the floor at High Beech. It is always raining here & the clay holds all the wet & the camp is on perfect flat. Still the country round is low wooded hills & no villas. That is the advantage of clay: you don’t get villas on it…

Such an endless variety of men & accents & names. There is one with a voice like Gibson. I want to know where he comes from. Business men, clerks, teachers, pianists, schoolboys, colonials, men who fought under Botha last year, all mixed up & made indistinguishable at first by the uniform. Until you know a new man fairly well you think of him simply as a soldier. I daresay I have been mistaken for one myself—[.] Well, I can keep step & set a step too, & though I dislike inflicting discipline I can submit to it pretty well & don’t ask questions so often as many do or complain of the unreasonableness of rules, of the war, of life & so on. Goodbye.

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[2]

 

From this picture of aged resignation on English clay we go to youthful enthusiasm in Flanders. Bim Tennant is holding a lively set of trenches:

Sunday, 16th January, 1916

Most darling Moth’,

We came out of trenches last night and were very glad to get back into good quarters as we had rather a trying 48 hours. The Boche shelled us from 10.30 a.m. to 11.45 a.m. on Friday, and though most of the shells went over our trench it was rather unpleasant…

Most, but not all. I tease Bimbo for his cheery ingenuousness, but he shares a sharp psychological insight, here:

We had one man wounded in Flank Post, which was garrisoned by a quarter of my company, and, considering the number of shells, this is quite a small casualty list. One shell burst short and landed right in my front line where I have marked it. It wounded 3 men, the sergeant has died since. We telephoned to the artillery for retaliation which they gave us at once. It makes it much less unpleasant if your own artillery keep at it, because then you do not hear the approach of the Boche shells, and are not consequently so much on the strain…

Things got slightly serious there for a moment. But Bim tacks, now, back toward his usual light chatter.

I hope you are keeping well yourself, and that Clare is also. I am longing to come home, I got a letter
from Osbert to-day. I shot a huge rat with my big revolver yesterday, but await anxiously the other pistol. I have read quite a lot of Keats. I like “ Lamia ” but was disappointed in “ St. Agnes’ Eve…”

Ever your loving Son,

Bimbo[3]

 

Can we manage one more disjointed but attractive piece of prose? John Bernard Adams is going on leave, and he makes it–conveniently, for us–a type-scene rather than a personalized story.

Leave “comes through” in the following manner. The lucky man receives an envelope from the orderly room, in the comer of which is written “Leave.” Inside is an “A” Form (Army Form C 2121) with this magic inscription: “Please note you will take charge of other ranks proceeding on leave to-morrow morning, 17th inst. They will parade outside orderly room at 7 A.M. sharp.” Then follow instructions as to where to meet the ‘bus. “Take charge!” If you blind-folded those fellows they would find their way somehow by the quickest route to Blighty! The officer is then an impossible person to live with. He is continually jumping about, upsetting everybody, getting sandwiches, and discussing England, looking at the paper to see “What’s on” in town, talking, being unnecessarily bright and cheery. He is particularly offensive in the eyes of the man just come back from leave. Still, it is his day; abide with him until he dears off! So they abode with me until the evening, and next morning Oliver and I started off in the darkness with our four followers. As we left the village it was just beginning to lighten a little, and we met the drums just turning out, cold and sleepy. As we sprang down the hill, leaving Montange behind us, faintly through the dawn we heard reveille rousing our unfortunate comrades to another Monday morning!

I very much like the bit about the officer about to go on leave suddenly grown insufferably cheery. Adams is a sympathetic writer–sympathetic with himself, here, the prose taking on the high spirits of the officer destined for home. It’s another matter entirely, of course, if leave is due and a nasty section of trench is being held. Fate can be intolerably cruel, turning and twisting a temporal irony of proximity, and for many men the severest test of their will must have been submitting themselves to the dangers of shell and bullet for an ordinary tour in trenches when leave was so close…

But there is none of this in Adams’ piece. Instead, he flashes forward to jolly old apres la guerre. This is, again, type scene as type scene: it’s a happy day and he revels in the shared nature of the happiness. Won’t we all remember that journey back home?

Then came the long, long journey that nobody minds really, though every one grumbles at it. At B—– an hour’s halt for omelettes and coffee and bread and jam, while the Y.M.C.A. stall supplied tea and buns innumerable. B—– will be a station known for all time to thousands. “Do you remember B—–?” we shall ask each other. “Oh! yes. Good omelettes one got there.” Then the port and the fussy R.T.O’s again. Why make a fuss, when everyone is magnetized towards the boat? Under the light of a blazing gas-jet squirting from a pendant ball, we crossed the gangway.

There were men of old time who fell on their native earth and kissed it, on returning after exile. We did not kiss the boards of Southampton pier-head, but we understood the spirit that inspired that action as we steamed quietly along the Solent over a gray and violet sea. There were mists that morning, and the Hampshire coast was gray and vague ; but steadily the engine throbbed, and we glided nearer and nearer, entered Southampton Water, and at last were near enough to see houses and fields and people. People. English women.

We disembarked. But what dull people to meet us! Officials and watermen who have seen hundreds of leave-boats arrive— every day in fact! The last people to be able to respond to your feelings. Still, what does it matter! There is the train, and an English First! Some one started to run for one, and in a moment we were all running! . . .

But you have met us on leave.[4]

Alas, no, but a fairly clear indication, there, of the author’s expected audience. The spirit of Adams’ recent pan-regimental army course continues to pervade his writing. This is a happy army–especially when it’s on leave.

 

A short, anonymous, twist of the knife for us, then. The erstwhile Nursing Sister, Kate Luard,[5] has just been home on leave herself, returning last week to a “very quiet” hospital with few new admissions. She will take up again her close-in observing of the troops: Lillers is also the sight of a “divisional rest” camp, and yesterday she witnessed the marching out of the Scottish Fifteenth Division “so hung round with packs, steel helmets, sacks and parcels and clothes for their extra comfort that I doubt if they’ll ever get there.” In their place, the 1st Division marched in “covered with mud, but not so worn out and trench-looking.”

But even a quiet period on the line produces steady casualties, and yesterday Luard also assisted at an operation on a “poor little boy officer, D.F., unconscious with his brains blown out… a terrible sight.” Today, a century back, “the boy with the head wound… has been peacefully dying all day; his hand closes less tightly over mine to-day, but his beautiful brown eyes look less inscrutable as he gets farther from this crooked world. His total silence and absolute stillness and unconsciousness have already given him the marble statue look.”[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Greenmantle, 178-9.
  2. Elected Friends, 116-8.
  3. Letters, 105-8.
  4. Nothing of Importance, 84-6 (105-7).
  5. By the way, I have just corrected a long-standing mistake, namely listing Luard here as "Kathleen" rather than "Katherine." Actually,  I'm hedging my bets and calling her "Kate," as her friends seem to have done. But my initial research into the anonymous Diary of a Nursing Sister turned up the name "Kathleen Luard." Having moved, recently, into her published letters--which usually refer to "Kate"--I completely neglected to notice that she is clearly Katherine, not Kathleen--and nor are  there two different writing nurses. These are the perils of anonymity--and slapdash, day-to-day research.
  6. Unknown Warriors, 36-7.

A Green-Mantled Bolt from the Blue

When we last left our hero–New Army officer turned amateur secret agent Richard Hannay, that is–he was helpless with fever, sheltered by the simple goodness of a Bavarian peasant woman. Since recovering, he has made his way to the Danube and found work on a barge. There, most providentially, he made the acquaintance of Peter, his tough old Boer pal who had joined the mission (as rough-knuckled side-kick–the dyspeptic/ingenious American and the mystical master colonialist are traveling separately) in Portugal.

Today, a century back–in spy fiction–Hannay has a sudden insight about the garbled clue which had set his quest in motion. First, though, as he floats along toward the big rendezvous in Constantinople, he must resist the temptation of simple sabotage in order to save himself for the higher cause:

But one morning–I think it was the 5th of January, when we had passed Buda and were moving through great sodden flats just sprinkled with snow–the captain took it into his head to get me to overhaul the barge loads. Armed with a mighty type-written list, I made a tour of the barges, beginning with the hindmost. There was a fine old stock of deadly weapons–mostly machine-guns and some field-pieces, and enough shells to blow up the Gallipoli peninsula. All kinds of shell were there, from the big 14-inch crumps to rifle grenades and trench-mortars. It made me fairly sick to see all these good things preparing for our own fellows, and I wondered whether I would not be doing my best service if I engineered a big explosion. Happily I had the common sense to remember my job and my duty and to stick to it…

We are then treated to Peter’s tale of internment and escape. Good luck–and now, serendipitous plot advancement:

His tale had bucked me up wonderfully. Our luck had held beyond all belief, and I had a kind of hope in the business now which had been wanting before. That afternoon, too, I got another fillip. I came on deck for a breath of air and found it pretty cold after the heat of the engine-room. So I called to one of the deck hands to fetch me up my cloak from the cabin–the same I had bought that first morning in the Greif village.

‘Der grune mantel?’ the man shouted up, and I cried, ‘Yes’. But the words seemed to echo in my ears, and long after he had given me the garment I stood staring abstractedly over the bulwarks.

His tone had awakened a chord of memory, or, to be accurate, they had given emphasis to what before had been only blurred and vague. For he had spoken the words which Stumm had uttered behind his hand to Gaudian. I had heard something like ‘Uhnmantl,’ and could make nothing of it. Now I was as certain of those words as of my own existence. They had been ‘Grune mantel’. Grune mantel, whatever it might be, was the name which Stumm had not meant me to hear, which was some talisman for the task I had proposed, and which was connected in some way with the mysterious von Einem.

This discovery put me in high fettle. I told myself that, considering the difficulties, I had managed to find out a wonderful amount in a very few days. It only shows what a man can do with the slenderest evidence if he keeps chewing and chewing on it …[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Buchan, Greenmantle, Feedbooks edition, 99-104.