Billy Congreve and John Lucy on More Failures at Hooge; Patrick Shaw-Stewart on Julian Grenfell’s Improvisatory Brilliance; Roland Leighton Puts Away an Old Toy

Yesterday Billy Congreve discussed a plan to take a lone German redoubt only twenty yards from the new British positions on the Bellewaarde battlefield, near Hooge. He was confident that a surprise attack–during the lull of the day, since evening and early morning had already become predictable times–with a small group of men could seize it. He even volunteered to lead the assault himself (although he would have been quite confident that such a gesture would be refused).

Congreve’s opinion was ignored–it may have logically been a matter for a few platoons, but when something is planned at the Corps level, it is planned as a Corps-sized operation. Hence the fanfare of a half-hour’s desultory bombardment, which predictably left the Germans both well-warned and undamaged. Today’s diary entry reads, in full:

22nd June

The attacked failed absolutely.

Tomorrow, Congreve will write that he is “fed up with this sort of half-hearted show. It’s not fair on anyone, and must make the Germans laugh…”[1] It’s not fair, perhaps, to condemn an entire organization based on one minor debacle, but it does seem symptomatic. At the very least there is immense rigidity and stubbornness here. Worse, it’s hard not to suspect that the reason “Corps” wants a small attack to be a full-dress affair is that it wants to look busy and impressive. No one will win much notice for an attack so small that staff didn’t even ring up the artillery…

All will be quiet now, even in the Salient’s salient. For a few weeks, at least. Congreve, disgusted and disillusioned, will depart in two days’ time for a six-day leave in England.

 

John Lucy seems to refer to this action,[2] seeing it as grim testimony to the fact that his own unit had not so much failed on June 16th as they had been given an impossible task:

Eight days later, a similar force of infantry attacked the same position, and the operation was a complete failure. Something was very wrong, and though our defeat was somehow justified, we all groaned. Strange and unwanted doubts assailed the older soldiers. We began to look askance at the staff, and in shame some of us avoided the direct glances of inspecting officers of the higher commands.[3]

 

This next relationship is an odd one indeed. Patrick Shaw-Stewart had grown close to Lady Desborough in the years before the war, seeming to fall under the spell of her histrionic charm just as bright young men had been doing for twenty-five years. Yet she was the mother of his school friend, Julian Grenfell. Will his death now come between them as his disapproval in life had not?

Shaw-Stewart wrote to the glamorous bereaved mother today, a century back, with memories of her son:

…When I was going to Dunkirk in a great hurry in September, and longing for expert advice, I heard he was in London and I made him come round to Little Grosvenor Street and give me tips. Edward [Horner] turned up at the same moment, and (in spite of my abundant terror of war) we had a hilarious morning. They each put on my Sam Browne, which was rather a peculiar one, in a different way, and Edward (who was wrong) prevailed. Julian was rollicking, just like earliest Balliol, and looking rather funny and very adorable. He gave me his sword because I couldn’t get one in time, and he said he was going to use a trooper’s “because he could do more killing with it.”

Perhaps that should be our last quotation of the words of Julian Grenfell, second-hand though it is. And he did kill, although not with anything so romantic and brutal as a sword. His freelance sniping during the autumn had “bagged” at least three men–not Achilles, but not bad.

I have written down this bare chronicle because it has been running in my head. You might mind very much having all those golden years–as most of them were–recalled to you, but I am almost sure you won’t. I think I am most tremendously lucky to have had Julian in my life as long and as closely as I did. It is not many who have such a glowing fire to warm their hands at. We quarrelled some times, but always slightly. Julian was often immeasurably shocked with me, chiefly (directly or indirectly) at my habit of trying, to the best of my power, to arrange things ahead in my life, to tabulate, and to reduce to as little as possible the pressure of blind circumstance, which, God knows, must anyhow be big enough.

He was, of course, always for letting things happen to him (perhaps he scarcely realised how his personality
made at least some things happen to him which others would have had to seek out with labour) and making happy improvisations. It spoiled a thing for him, even a house-party, if it was obviously well arranged beforehand. I think he dealt hardly with the powers of his own mind. He cramped them to make room for action. Also, he was put off by the disappointments due to his illness. I wish he had been perfectly well all those years at Oxford.

These seem like insights. The circumstances of the letter are very strange–is Shaw-Stewart still smitten with his friend’s mother? Is the praise of such a friend to such a woman after the death of her son really admissible as character evidence? Yet it rings true–Julian Grenfell with his wild willingness to let things run, a mixture of innate confidence (or arrogance) and determination to bend his actions to his philosophical commitments.

But the last bit of Shaw-Stewart’s letter bends back toward mere eulogy:

He had unexampled and endless freshness of viewpoint, than which nothing is more valuable. His last poem is an amazing message to get from him, like others out here, with the news of his death.[4]

 

Finally, today, Roland Leighton also has death on his mind. Perhaps it is too cynical to suggest that people writing of the recently deceased choose consciously to remember only the best of them. Perhaps–especially when it occurs among those also in great danger– it’s a sort of anaphylactic reaction.

Roland writes to Vera Brittain in a melancholy mood–and with only a shrug for the days she has spent, letter-less and surely anxious. But what has he been doing?

Flanders, 22 June 1914

It is such a long time since I wrote to you last. We have just taken over some fresh trenches and so I have been busier than usual these last few days…

Did you ever come across J.S. Martin at Uppingham… I see that he was killed out here a few weeks ago. He was in the R[oyal] Irish Rifles and, though not intellectually brilliant, one of the most charming persons I have known. I came back from Camps with him the many years ago that make last year, when War was a newly discovered toy which both of us hungered to play with. I was growing to have quite an affection for him. The second of my year now.[5]

Vera will write about this letter when she receives it, so we’ll read it more closely then…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Armageddon Road, 153.
  2. Or perhaps a similar attempt to adjust the lines after Bellewaarde--his dating is off by at least a day.
  3. There's a Devil in the Drum, 332.
  4. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 138-9.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 125.

Billy Congreve, Alf Pollard, and John Lucy in the Battle of Bellewaarde; A Letter from Gurney and a Book for Brooke

Congreve, Hooge

Billy Congreve’s Sketch of the Southern Flank of the German Mini-Salient Near Hooge, Made in Preparation for Today’s Attack

Some days we make do with a scribble or two. Today, three of our writers are close behind two separate assaults while another charges into the German trenches–and several writers yet far from the guns are inconveniently busy as well.

The major action of today was the assault by elements of V Corps on recently ceded areas of the Ypres salient near Hooge. It’s usually called the Battle of Bellewaarde, and it has its own website, to whose editors I am today very heavily indebted.

Yesterday we read the build-up to the battle in the words of one infantry lance-corporal, and we’ll get back to Alf soon. But first, a primer on the preparations for this battle by our man on the staff, Billy Congreve. A brief reminder: there are several (usually four) battalions to the brigade, and several brigades (usually three) to the division. Congreve is the aide-de-camp to Major General Haldane of the 3rd Division and thus an influential member of the divisional staff, which will oversee the attack plan for several thousand men. But the 3rd Division is one of several divisions subordinate to V Corps–and we shall see what Billy thinks of those guys. Let’s move back six days to take in the planning as seen on the divisional level.

9th June

We have been ordered to do an attack on Bellewaarde Fam. The date of the attack is the 14th. It’s now the 9th and, of course, it is the most desperate business to get everything ready in four days. It is almost ludicrous…

The 9th Brigade… will have had some small chance of training themselves, but the 7th… will have no rest, no chance to organize all the little details… the ammunition supply is very limited… Altogether it is no pleasing job. The general has made up his mind, I think to fail. I think there need be no failure, but it is not a bit satisfactory…

11th June

We may now, I hear, get a day or possibly two days extra…

General A. comes every day and sits talking for ages, and generally finishes by saying how easy the whole thing is…

Who’s this, now? Why its Edmund Allenby! He’s now the commander of V Corps, and already well on his way to earning his reputation as a general who just does not give in, but only gets a devastating proportion of his men killed every time instead. The lion-leading donkey stereotype is not a fair representation of the British general–but the shoes do fit more than a few feet. Allenby is a paragon of the stubborn butcher.

It will take several more battles atop the relative casualty charts before Haig promotes him into a position where his talent for refusing to plan effectively will get fewer people killed. Or not: Allenby will eventually be sent to Jerusalem to work things out the politics there… so at least he’ll have a praiseworthy role in creating conditions of lasting peace somewhere.

Congreve’s description of Allenby is about as harsh as any judgment in his diary: “a bully and not a brilliant soldier.”

Congreve’s diary goes on to describe the problems of acclimating new troops to active warfare. Kitchener’s Army is out, remember, but it has yet to be depended on for a major assault.

We had a pioneer battalion of the 14th Division (K’s army) up to help dig. They were a little shelled and only about a quarter of them turned up for work. This is a beastly place to bring them to learn what war is like. It’s enough to demoralise a brick wall, let alone eight-month old soldiers…

12th June

The arranging is now nearly over… I always hate inspecting troops who are just going into a very gory battle. These next few days are going to be hard for everyone…[1]

Congreve also relates that the same pioneer battalion “ran away” a second time: this explains the scratch trenches Pollard found yesterday.

We have another man crouching close behind the British lines today as well. John Lucy of the 2/Royal Irish Rifles is unusual in being an enlisted man of the pre-war Regular Army with a decent amount of schooling. Not surprisingly, he has been promoted into the non-commissioned ranks and put to literate work.

He fills us in on the mood of a battalion which suffered heavily on the Aisne in the fall–Lucy lost his brother–and is now facing its first intensive combat in many months.

Even the old soldiers began to lose faith. They said a gamble was good enough–a fight with a chance of winning–but useless sacrifice dismayed us all. We got our first touch of this kind of fighting in the following June. Our battalion, supporting an attack on the Ballewarde [Bellewaarde or Bellewaerde] salient near Hooge, went into battle six hundred and fifty strong and lost half that number.

I was busy for days before the attack copying maps of the intricate German trench system for issue to officers commanding companies and platoons. On the morning of the attack, 15th June [i.e. 16th June], our guns bombarded the German front line for an hour and a half…[2]

june 16 1915, congreve

Billy Congreve’s Photograph of German Prisoners Captured June 16th, 1915 Near Bellewaarde

This bombardment, according to Billy Congreve, began at 3:20 and moved on to the second German line at 4:15–this tactic will later be described as “lifting,” and eventually refined into a “walking barrage” in which the artillery slowly increases its range, in theory allowing infantry to advance just behind.

Today, a century back, five battalions attacked in this first wave while the German second line was under fire. And  with great success: the German front line trenches had not been sufficiently deepened or improved, and the artillery had killed and wounded many. The survivors were stunned and dozens of prisoners were taken (see Congreve’s photo, at right).

In yesterday’s post we left Alf Pollard crouched in a shallow assembly trench with the rest of the HAC, ready to act as a reserve to the second wave.

About an hour before zero hour a message came down the line that I was to report to Captain Boyle… Captain Boyle has great news for me. Two men were required to accompany the first wave as a connecting link. I was one of the two chosen; the other was a fellow called Springfield, whose father was the editor of London Opinion.

Springy and I were delighted. I especially so. My ambition was to be realised. I was to take part in a charge. With luck I might bayonet a Hun.

We reported to Captain Spooner of the 1st Lincolns… We had scarcely arrived when the barrage commenced.

congreve, june 16

Congreve’s Sketch Showing the Ground of Today’s Attack

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Swish, swish, swish, swish. Crump! Crump! Crump! Crump! Crump! Deafening Pandemonium! …the continuous noise of guns and shells rendered my sense of hearing completely inoperative. Guns firing and shells bursting were so intermingled, friend and foe, that there was one endless succession shattering detonations.

…My pulse raced; the blood pounded through my veins. I looked at Springy and grinned; Springy grinned back. Only a few more minutes…

Short three-rung ladders were placed against the parapet, a man stood by each one, his foot on the first step, his rifle and bayonet swung over his shoulder…

I fully expected that we should be met by a withering fire as soon as we had emerged into the open. I anticipated the crackle of machine-guns, the rattle of musketry, the sweeping away of our gallant charge, Except that I never once dreamed or considered that I myself should be hit, Even in the this first attack I had the extraordinary feeling of being myself exempt….

Instead of a hail of machine-gun and rifle bullets, there was–nothing! Not a sign of life was to be seen anywhere around the enemy position. Overhead the shells still whined and screeched; behind us and in front great spouts of earth went up in bursts. The noise was deafening, but from the menacing line of earth works opposite, not so much as a puff of smoke.

Just ahead of me Captain Spooner ran in a steady jog-trot across No Man’s Land…

Four hundred yards to go! We ran steadily on. Springy and I had lengthened our stride until we were right at Captain Spooner’s heels. Still not a movement in the trench we were rapidly approaching.

What should we meet when we got there, I wondered?

Perhaps they were reserving their fire until the last moment. Perhaps a hidden machine-gin nest would seep us away like chaff before the wind. Or it might be that the infantry would rise to meet us with a yell in a counter bayonet charge. I clenched my teeth and gripped my rifle tighter.

Ten yards from the trench Springy and I both sprinted. Two minds with but a single thought. We both wanted to be first to engage the enemy. There was no wire to bother us…

What a shock met my eyes as I mounted the German parapet. The trench was full of men; men with sightless eyes and waxen faces… We were attacking a position held by corpses!

…when at length I realised what I was looking at, I felt suddenly sick with horror. This was unvarnished war; war with the gloves off… they aroused a feeling of pity. Death must have come to them so suddenly, without giving them a chance in their own defence.

The Lincolns swept past and on to the second line. Springy and I turned and ran back… our job was to report that the first German line was clear.

Pollard is writing later, and seems heavily influenced by rather old-fashioned styles of military adventure novels. Adrenaline-drenched memory, heavily re-written, will generally sound like fiction. And then the qualities of the experience are somewhat circumscribed by the quality of the writing.

Here’s Billy Congreve, writing just after the attack, on what he saw from his post near the ramparts of Ypres:

At this moment [5 a.m.], it seemed as if the attack had been completely successful.

Yes–and then the two inevitable things happened: the attacking troops ran out of grenades and were forced back down the trenches they had captured, and the German artillery began to respond, tearing into the supporting troops moving up over the open ground of what had recently been No Man’s Land.

The shelling was now very intense, and men began to fall back on Y Wood. This left us in possession of the 1st line German trenches… The casualties were now considerable, and the units much disorganised by the heavy shelling and heavy losses in officers…

Now, as at Neuve Chapelle, there was a long delay while messages went back and forth over the torn, heavily-shelled ground between the advanced units and the brigade and division staffs. Congreve’s notes elide long gaps of squandered opportunity and constant casualties:

12 noon  Orders to 9th Brigade to organise a new attack…

3:30 p.m.  GOC 9th Brigade ordered two battalions of 7th Brigade… to start attack; objective being the edge of the lake and Bellewaarde Farm. The attack was preceded by a twenty-minute bombardment.

In the meantime, Alf Pollard had come back to the jump-off point to fulfill his role as messenger. Then, without orders to do so, he again moved forward to join the Lincolnshires, part of the second phase of the successful initial assault. By mid-morning he was probably on the western edge of Chateau Wood, just in front of the Hooge/Bellewaarde lake, and significantly behind where the German lines had been that morning. There he saw a wounded German–still firing his pistol–bayoneted by a Tommy.

But, other than this close-in view of killing, Pollard has been frustrated in his desire–there is no hand-to-hand fighting to be had.

Instead, he moves about trying to aid the wounded and clear the trenches that now must be immediately made defensible:

At one place a Hun had fallen and jammed the communications trench with his body. I took him by the shoulders and another fellow by the feet with the intention of heaving him out of the way. We lifted him all right, but a shell had taken away the top of his head which fell forward and poured the whole of his brains over my tunic. I was red from chin to ankle. From my appearance I might have been in the bloodiest of bloody encounters. And yet my bayonet was virgin steel; not one round had been fired through my rifle.

Another of the common ironies of the attack. Pollard ends up running messages for the machine-gun section of his battalion, as the British dig in and the German artillery–having waited to determine which trenches had been lost–enters the battle.

We’re now back, more or less, to the middle of the afternoon when, after this painful delay, a new attack is finally organized. (The delay is to some extent inevitable: there are no radios, and, even when the trenches will become heavily wired for telephone communication between infantry and artillery, carrying wires forward on an attack through a bombardment will always remain a chancy proposition. Foot speed over broken country will still limit the reactions time of even an efficient commanding officer.) Pollard is somewhere near by, providentially safe from the interdiction bombardment, when the two battalions of the 7th Brigade mentioned by Congreve go forward on the attack.

One of these two battalions was John Lucy‘s 2/Royal Irish Rifles:

Our job was to consolidate the front line of captured trenches, but our men lost their heads, and two high-spirited companies went forward beyond the line… They were recalled with difficulty and set to the less warlike task of improving the captured first line, which they worked at all day under heavy shell-dire, until about half-past three in the afternoon, when the futile order reached them to resume the attack in daylight.

This description is confirmed by the battalion war diary–indeed, Lucy may be drawing on it:

Unfortunately, two companies, “C” and “D,” carried away by their enthusiasm, advanced to the third line, and had to be reorganized and brought back to their proper position. “B” Company never got up. As it moved forward it was very heavily shelled in enfilade, lost forty of its leading ranks, and had to be withdrawn, somewhat shaken.[3]

Back to Lucy’s less restrained account:

The Ballewarde Salient was now an inferno on which every British and German gun in the vicinity concentrated its fire. There was great confusion. The German front line occupied by us was filling with the dead and wounded of about eight regiments, and our men, weakened by casualties and hard manual labor, had to drop picks and shovels and go forward without direct artillery support, over muddy ground spurting shell explosions every few yards and raked by enemy machine-guns from an unprotected left flank. As their waves moved forward patiently and dauntlessly to death and mutilation our officers at battalion headquarters stiffened to pale despair. The companies had just been committed when the signal came through from brigade to postpone the attack. Horror seized every one. The attack petered out, and the survivors fell back to the German front line exhausted and defeated…

Actually, now I would wager that Lucy’s account is indeed drawing on the battalion diary:

While sorting out the various units, he [the brigade commander] received orders to launch a new attack to take the final objective at 3.30 p.m. He pointed out that it was impossible for commanding officers to reach their units, and that owing to the mist no detailed objectives for close support could be given to the artillery.

The orders for attack were repeated, and the assault was allotted to the 3rd Worcestershire and 2nd Royal Irish Rifles. At 3.35 p.m., five minutes after the hour fixed, there came a message postponing it till 3.50. This certainly never reached the troops, who had only the lifting of the bombardment, not easy to distinguish on the instant, to tell them when to advance.

This is where attention to genre is important. A private diary calling the generals murderers or a later memoir calling them knaves and fools is, in a way, less damning than an official regimental publication noting the reluctance of its men to be sentenced to such an attack.

Only those who have experienced it can realize how confusing and demoralizing are last-moment postponements of this nature. Men before an attack are taut-strung–strung to nigh breaking-point–and if the waiting period be unduly prolonged, a slackening is the lesser of two evils. A rupture is the more serious.

Nevertheless this attack was launched with the greatest dash and pressed with the greatest devotion… In this almost hopeless affair the men showed courage equaling their record in any of their actions before or afterwards. Pounded all day by heavy artillery, they had remained cool, steady and unshaken. Now they went forward with unimpaired vigour, after thirty hours without sleep and twelve under fire. But the odds were too great. They might have passed through the frontal fire; that from the flank, from the railway-line, swept away the advance, and the survivors, weary, dazed and angry, fell back to the German front trench.

Take a look at Congreve’s map, again: congreve, june 16The Royal Irish are trying to reach the trenches on the western edge of the lake, almost at the eastern extent of the map (the “B” of Bellewaarde” is just visible within the lake). The railway slants east-north-east away off the map, and from the entire non-shaded length of that line German riflemen and machine-gunners could fire from their slightly elevated positions across the front of the attack.

Lucy, horrified but safe in battalion headquarters, ends his account in the clipped tones of outrage:

Our smashed battalion was relieved. Comment was impossible. Bleary-eyed, loose-lipped, and muddied the battered men went back to rest.[2]

Congreve, two levels further back at division HQ, does not know–or chooses not to report–this dramatic tale of the order twice given and then countermanded too late. But he does not dispute the result:

No sooner had they left Y Wood [in the center of the map above], than they were swept away by shell and rifle fire. All the officers were almost instantly killed or wounded.

Alf Pollard had been ordered to stay in the vicinity of the German first line, which had been taken ages ago in the dawn light. He has nothing to say about the immolation of the Royal Irish in the mid-afternoon, but picks up the story not long after their withdrawal.

We had made a fairly easy capture; we were to be made to pay for our subsequent tenure…

The day slowly passed in a tornado of the worst shelling I was ever in during the whole War. Towards five o’clock Fritz made another counter-attack and we were able to let off some of our feelings towards him in the form of rifle and machine-gun fire. Any pity I had felt for any of them in the earlier part of the day was swallowed up in an intense hatred…[5]

june 16 1915 2, congreve

Congreve’s Photograph of German Shell Fire on the Cloth Hall in Ypres, Afternoon of June 16th, 1915

So passed Pollard’s first day on the attack. He wreaked no violence–unless we count the “we” of the machine guns he helped serve–but he saw much done; he worked from aggression through pity and on into hatred…and  late at night, having been relieved by fresh troops, he rejoined the his battalion as they filed back into Ypres, have bulged out the salient by a few hundred yards…

Billy Congreve will close today’s account of the battle:

The result was that an important part of the Bellewaarde position was left in our hands. Casualties were: officers, 25 killed, 109 wounded and 9 missing; other ranks, 341 killed, 1,907 wounded and 1,169 missing. Total 3,560.. The German losses must have been considerable… We took about 200 prisoners and some hundreds of dead were buried.[6]

These preliminary casualty statistics reflect the inevitable confusion–many of those missing were dead, and many of those wounded died.

 

And here’s how the same battle looks in Conan Doyle‘s romantic/patriotic history:

The advance still continued with great fury. It should have ended on the taking of the second line of trenches, but it was impossible to restrain the men, who yelled, “Remember the Lusitania!” to each other as they surged over the parapets and dashed once more at the enemy with bayonet and bomb. The third trench was carried, and even the fourth. But the assault had gone too far. The farther spray of stormers had got as far as the Bellewaarde Lake. It was impossible to hold these advanced positions. The assailants dropped sullenly back, and finally contented themselves by settling into the first line and consolidating their position there on a front of a thousand yards. The losses had been heavy, especially from the high-explosive shells, which, as usual, blew both trenches and occupants to pieces. Men died happy, however, with the knowledge that the days were past when no artillery answer could be made, and that now at least they had given the enemy the same intolerable experience which they had themselves so often endured.[7]

I doubt that there can be any greater sin, from the particular point of view of this project, than an older, non-combatant writer–someone writing “history,” no less–vouching for the dying emotions of the troops. And it’s such a tortured thought that one assumes he realized what he was doing: they are happy… that their guns have more shells? And that the enemy is suffering? So revenge? And the failed attack? Disgusting. And, if Roland Leighton or Alan Seeger are at all representative (they’re not, but on this count they may be close enough), anyone calling out “remember the Lusitania” was either a humorist or a bitter ironist.

I had what I had intended to use as a tension-breaking humorous last line. But it’s soured, somehow by Conan Doyle’s egregious pablum.

Anyway: so what became of the Bellewarde battlefield?

It’s now a theme park–Flanders’ largest family fun park.

 

Well then. Rowland Feilding was in battle today too, believe it or not–there was a diversionary attack mounted by the 1/Coldstream Guards on the southern end of the British line. But perhaps there has been enough bloodshed for today…

A few notes, instead, from writers still in England, or in dusty corners of forever-England abroad:

Ivor Gurney wrote today to his friend Marion Scott:

16 June 1915

Pte Gurney, B Company, 2nd 5th Glosters,
Chelmsford, Essex.

Dear Miss Scott:

Thank you for your letter, and the kind things; not to say flattery… Tomorrow we march to camp, somewhere near Epping; but your letter would be forwarded at once…

My health is still slowly improving; and as my mind clears, and as the need for self-expression grows less weak; the thought of leaving all I have to say unsaid, makes me cold. Could I only hand on my gift! Anyway, I have been rejected for second-reinforcements, and Territorial 3rd reinforcements will be late in going. The war however seems like lasting a year, and there is none of the exhilaration of battle in hot weather training.

Still, I chose this path, and do not regret it; do not see what else I could have done under the circumstances; and if the Lord God should have the bad taste to delete me:

“Deil anither word tae God from a gentleman like me”.[8]

But Gurney, though hitherto most active as a composer, is clearly thinking of how the poets he admires have answered the call, and reading everything about the war that he can get his hands on:

Masefield is with the Red Cross in France.

John Drinkwater’s new book seems to be good. Have you read any of Neil Munro’s books? …What a fine speech was Churchill’s, at Dundee. The man has pluck enough.

“Land and Water”, Belloc’s affair is optimistic but John Buchan thinks it highly probably that there will be another winter campaign…

One of the best signs of healthy taste at present, is the significant fact that though Rabinadrath Tagore has been knighted, the critics I read did not pretend to be transported by his work — Not so much, indeed, as before the war.

Yours very sincerely

Ivor Gurney.[9]

 

Finally, two brief publication notes for today, a century back:

Punch stalwart A. A. Milne had a piece in today’s number–but it will be his last for some time, as his duties as a New Army subaltern and communications instructor have become more pressing.

And the afterlife of Rupert Brooke was placed between boards, today, as 1914 and Other Poems was published.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Armageddon Road, 145-7.
  2. There's a Devil in the Drum, 332-4.
  3. See here, under "British Regiments" tab.
  4. There's a Devil in the Drum, 332-4.
  5. Fire-Eater, 79-91.
  6. Armageddon Road, 142-9.
  7. Conan Doyle, The British Campaign in France and Flanders, Vol. II, available here.
  8. I'm not sure of the quote, but the effect of "Devil, another word to God" being something like "well, if the good Lord sees fit I won't complain..."
  9. War Letters, 30-1.

Alf Pollard On the Eve Of Battle; Vera Brittain Longs to Be Among the Wounded

The 15th June, 1915, was a broiling hot summer’s day. There was scarcely a breath of wind as we set off on the eight mile march which would take us to our “jumping off” position. The Poperinghe-Ypres road was, as usual, crowded with traffic; troops in large and small parties, some in full equipment, some in light fatigue dress; limbers drawn by horses, limbers drawn by mules; endless ammunition columns; siege guns and howitzers; strings of lorries; motor cycle despatch riders; every conceivable branch of the Service was represented going about its business in orderly confusion. Even the cavalry, who, since the inception of trench warfare were rather out of fashion, has their part in the pageant. They sat their horses with the same erectness as in peace time, but their drab equipment was in sad contrast to the shining breast-plates, scarlet cloaks, and nodding plumes with which they entrance the nursemaids in the Mall…

We turned off short of Hell Fire Corner… a stray shell knocked the Adjutant off his horse, though luckily without killing him… our big adventure had commenced.

A student of psychology would notice a subtle difference between troops marching away from the line for a rest, and the same troops going up the line into action…

On this occasion there was a tenseness in the bearing of the battalion quite different from our normal visits to the trenches. We started off with a swing as if we were going for a route march. Everyone walked jauntily and one could sense the excitement in the air. Gradually this spirit faded, helped no doubt by the heat of the day and the sweat of marching. The wounding of the Adjutant was like the period at the end of a paragraph. After that first shell scarcely a word was spoken. We were going into something of which we had no experience. No man felt sure he would live through the coming ordeal…

At last we reached our position. It consisted of row after row of narrow shallow trenches, each row being intended to accommodate successive waves of attacking troops. We were herded into ours literally like sardines…

Sleep was out of the question…[1]

Reader, if you have been toiling over this blog for many months, trying to keep all the soldiers straight and wondering whether this synoptic, trench-level view of the war will ever reward your diligence with a stereoscopic view of an actual battle, well: I have good news. The above account is Alf Pollard‘s, describing how the 1st/Honourable Artillery Company moved up toward their jumping-off points to support tomorrow’s attack’s second wave. Just in front of the HAC were John Lucy‘s 2nd Royal Irish Rifles, recovered and reconstituted from their pummeling in the fall. And Billy Congreve, ADC to General Haldane of the 3rd Division, has been deeply involved in the planning of the attack for several days. So, tomorrow we will read the Battle of Bellewaarde from several perspectives and in several styles.

It will be a nasty little battle, ambiguously successful–a sort of Great War in miniature. The planners seemed hardly to be aware of how much their strategic horizons have shrunk. They are committing a division to conquer a few hundred yards of trenches. Looking back–or indeed, imagining ourselves back then, outside of the Corps staff and looking in–it seems obvious that the goal of the operation was so extremely limited that even total success could never reasonably be viewed as worth the loss of many hundreds of lives. Pace Pollard, with his vision of cavalry reserves riding up, there was no hope for a breakthrough here.

This was a battle which can only be understood by looking at a map–indeed, it could only have been conceived by looking at a map (we’ll have maps galore tomorrow). The goal was to retake a few acres of Belgium that had recently been lost to the Germans and now formed a tiny German within the British-held Ypres Salient. It’s the same bit of territory that the cavalry had recently held and which had been fought over in April by our Grenfells. In fact, the objective for Pollard’s brigade is within sight of the hill on which Julian Grenfell received his fatal wound, and less than a mile from where Colwyn Philipps died.

So, yes: men will die tomorrow to retake a bit of land that was recently conceded, and no one hopes, really, to do anything more than win local bragging rights, a slightly improved local tactical situation, and a neater set of lines on a map.

Having built up to the battle with Pollard’s purple prose–who knew that “literally” was already abused, a century back?–and knowing that we will be spending a good deal of time walking through it tomorrow, I might as well continue with the general foreshadowing, and get us well-dipped in historical-perspective-fueled irony before tomorrow’s heavy battering.

Yes, it will be an archetypical mid-war attack: there was meticulous planning which relied too much on complex coordination with the artillery; there were not enough of the right weapons (especially hand-grenades); there was a reasonable tactical objective (the new German positions on the [relative] high ground of Bellewarde Ridge) but no real strategic point to the exercise; there were reserves on the scene but no way for the staff to figure out where and how to commit them before the enemy artillery woke up and made their movement impossible; all successful attacks would end with exhausted men exposed to immediate counter-attacks; there would be a few trenches taken, each at the cost of hundreds of casualties.

And everyone will write it down differently.

 

And Vera Brittain writes to Roland Leighton today, with an update on doings in the Brittain family and a noble second effort to succeed where she had recently caught herself failing, namely in expressing the serial griefs of this new kind of war in words that do not ring entirely hollow:

Oxford, 15 June 1915

I begin nursing almost at once after going down–on Sunday June 27th. It is getting very near now… It simply makes me feel that I want to start this minute. I should get just to love the men, I know. I am told they nearly all want to talk to you, & tell you all about it; some nurses haven’t the patience to listen but it wouldn’t be a question of patience with me; I should love to hear…

Vera next updates Roland on her brother’s efforts to transfer to the artillery. It is unclear exactly why Edward Brittain is so unhappy in his battalion, but Vera assumes that Roland–his best friend–understands.

…of course he doesn’t like his battalion, but doubtless you know why & all about it. I expect he will go out towards the autumn… A few weeks one way or the other doesn’t seem to make much difference now–the war will be so long that the last people who go to the front will have as much of it as they care about. At least that is how I feel just now. I don’t see what can end anything so tremendous…

Yesterday I saw the name of a man among the killed with whom I have done a considerable amount of amateur acting–& there was another the other day with whom I have often played tennis, & met out. I feel as if I shall soon have no acquaintances left, to say nothing of friends… I feel as if I were standing on a lonely & dismal shore, watching the tide gradually surround & cut me off, & I am almost sure that it will not turn before it has reached me.[2]

A noble effort, and better than boilerplate classical quotation. But neither is this a bold new form of self-expression, or entirely clear of cliché.

Vera plays it slightly cool with Roland, but her enthusiasm for the next step of her life–and her involvement with the war–is clearly very high, however low the prospect. A good illustration of finding happiness in (anticipated) action even when reflection can bring nothing but gloom–and we could hardly ask for a better illustration of the status of our “Oxford or War” question here at the end of the last term of the first year:

Tuesday June 15th

I went over Somerville Hospital this afternoon. It is really splendid–much better as a Hospital than a College… it is all so sweet & clean & fresh that it must be quite a joy to be convalescent here. Nearly everyone was in the garden. One poor man lay in a tent some little distance apart from the others; the Matron said they were afraid he would not recover. Most of those in bed were asleep. Others were lying about in chairs or on their beds, & all looked very pathetic. The ones suffering from shock go into the little rooms, where there are only two people & sometimes only one…

Under the circumstances, preserving some odd sense of the romance of war–or, perhaps, if we strain for the Victorian “female equivalent,” for the romance of sacrificing oneself to the infinitely tender nursing of heroes–through first contact with badly wounded and shell-shocked men is probably a good thing.

Oh! they are all so, so pathetic! Seeing them filled me with a longing to begin nursing right away. I know I shall get to love them, & like to hear them telling me all about it.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Pollard, Fire-Eater, 79-81.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 123-4.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 208.

Roland Leighton Departs; Hardy Breaks with the Jingoists and Evokes Pity; Dorothie Feilding Damns the War; Updates on John Lucy and Ralph Mottram

Many poems come dated to a month, but not a particular day, and it seems a sensible custom to bring them in on the first of the month, even if their writing may have been days or weeks later. So, today, a significant new poem from Thomas Hardy.

If one had been forced into an assessment of his 1914 work, one might have been tempted to assert that the old man had lost it. Charles Sorley, who loved Hardy’s writing, had expressed something like such doubts. Was the great sage really going to follow his fellow eminent writers into propaganda? Would the grim determination to face all the unpleasantness of the hard world wither into the half-thought-through patriotism of “Men Who March Away?”

Not so fast. This month, Hardy will write The Pity of It. It simply makes the point that it’s a pity–a great, disastrous pity–that two peoples who, after all, are cousins in language and culture, should now seek to destroy each other. Not so radical–but in a time when “pro-Germans” were being harassed and even jailed, certainly a departure from Hun-hating, Tommy-praising jingoism.

from feilding2_2 with notes, Lady Feilding in April 1915

Lady Dorothie Feilding in April 1915. In addition to her Red Cross armband, she wears the badge of the Coldstream Guards, the regiment to which her brother and many other Feildings belonged.

 

Lady Feilding is not above railing against the perfidious Germans, and yet she too is coming to dwell more and more on the simple ugliness of war, whatever its justifications.

April 1st, Furnes

Father dear,

Here are some photographs to see. Would you send them later on to Mother to keep for me please?

…Such a gorgeous night last night. Magnificent moon, like day & we went blessé [wounded] hunting down near Dixmude. It was very ghostly & ghouly there in moonlight. I do resent having the Germans right up to the bridge there.They are just the other side of the river, 25 yds across & it doesn’t look like being able to move them…

Goodbye Mr Da dear, this is a damnable war. I wish I had been invented last generation.

God bless you

Diddles[1]

 

From Roland Leighton, today, a century back, we have the briefest of significant telegrams. Vera will reply immediately, and at greater length. Their correspondence will continue to loom large, here, over the next few weeks.

Just on point of crossing

Roland

Buxton, 1 April 1915

…It was just like you to think of sending me a telegram notwithstanding all the hurry & responsibility in which you were involved.

…How I look forward–with eagerness & yet fear too–to the first of your ‘scrappy letters’. You will tell me all you have to go through, won’t you—at any rate as much as Censorship will allow. Please don’t keep things back with a vague idea of sparing my feelings; I am not so weak that I fear to face in imagination what you have to endure in reality. I have just been reading a letter of yours which you wrote me at the beginning of the war; you said you felt you were meant to take an active part in it, that it fascinated you because in spite of its horrors much of it was very ennobling & beautiful, & there was something elemental in it which raised it above the reach of of cold theorising.

First there is the naked fear–nakedly expressed, at least (kudos, repressed Edwardian youth!)–that the divergence now in the nature of their experiences will mean an estrangement of their sensibilities. Of course. But then see what Brittain does: she returns to the past for comfort–this is nostalgia–but then she reads it like a historian. The past letters are used to contextualize the present, although surely she also resorts to this sort of analysis to blunt the sharpness of the emotion into which she would be tempted to wallow. Roll on, the battle of romanticism and rationalism.

I suppose it is that ‘something elemental’ which you are finding now, and that war makes plainly manifest the very heights & depths of human nature. I know how you will conquer the terror of these things, how your keen soul will discern the beauty & glory of them shining through the gloom in which they are shrouded, how fearlessly you will look down into the depths & up into the heights.

And then, again, and wisely, she confronts her fear of the experiential gulf that will open between veterans of the trenches and non-combatants, those well-intentioned thinkers now abed in England.

Why should you hesitate to tell me of these things? I can after all read about them in the papers, only without that personal element of yours which will make them specially mine. I shall not be afraid to know and confront the real; the imagined has far greater terror for me. Let me share your hardships–perhaps your sufferings–in the only way I can.[2]

This is a heartfelt plea, and a terrible hope to have. Will it be possible?

After playing up as bravely as she can, Vera turned to her diary to write the heart of the matter:

So he has really gone. I cannot lull my fears to sleep any longer with the hope that he may be in safety after all—his path now will be from one danger to another, with the Shadow of Death beside him every hour.[3]

 

John Lucy, our stalwart Irish Regular of the fall battles, has been of less use to this project ever since, not because his narrative lacks interest but because without memorable battles he has been unable to re-attach dates to his memories. And even now, with the Spring battles having arrived, the chronology is a bit dubious–some bits of “April” appear before Neuve Chapelle, others after. But I do want to update his story, and give us a first look at an enlisted man on leave. So, taking advantage of the first-of-the-month convention:

I was offered ninety-six hours’ leave from the front in April, and I went home to Cork, complete with arms and equipment.

We should remember that he had refused an earlier offer for home leave because he could not face home without his brother, killed in September.

The attitude of the English people [as he traveled through England] astonished me. I met with tender and sympathetic glances everywhere. My weather-stained, ill-fitting uniform and the dried mud on my unpolished boots showed that I was home from the front. Men and women made way for me, and they talked to me affectionately, as the English public never before talked to their soldiers…

I forgot the English when I landed at Rosslare, and I devoured every Irish field from there to Cork.

When he reaches the home of his relatives,

…their studied cheerful greetings collapsed into surreptitious tear-wiping behind doors and in other rooms. The ghost of my dead brother had come home with me.

Lucy discovers other difficulties in adjustment, problems which will become very familiar as the war (and the 20th century, and the 21st century) unfold: good food upsets his army-hardened stomach, and he crawls from comfortable beds at night to sleep on the floor.

And, of course, he finds solace in nature:

For a brief spell I drank in the stillness of Ireland under blue sky and white standing clouds. I escaped back into my boyhood by going bird-nesting in these few days of spring. I fondled the startling blue eggs of the thrush and the speckled olive eggs of early blackbirds. I found anchorage in the undisturbed activities of the birds, and came to regard the non-singers with affection–the pies, rooks, and sparrows.

And one more thing: Lucy ratifies his rejection of Kipling, replacing him with the fervid verses of Francis Thompson:

Kipling had faded out because romance and glory has but little to do with war. Only one line of his came hammering back unsought: ‘You can’t get away from the guns.'[4]

 

Finally, an update on Ralph Mottram, author of the most important Great War novel we have yet to discuss. Mottram had enlisted with many of his fellow Norwich bank clerks in the 2/4th (Territorial) battalion of the Norfolk Regiment in August. Now, after three serio-comic seasons with that unit–the “real” Territorials kept getting drafted to the front, and the ill-equipped remnant, essentially a New Army unit, were haphazardly drilled, marched to the coast for German invasion scares, and generally left in a semi-professional lurch–he had decided, like so many other middle class men, to try for a commission. He was “thunderstruck” to learn that his request had been granted, and today, “(ominous date),” a century back, he struck out for the depot in Essex, where his training as an officer would begin.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 57.
  2. Letters from a Lost Generation, 65-66.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 170.
  4. There's a Devil in the Drum, 317-9.
  5. The Window Seat, 218.

February Updates; The King of the Belgians Honors Two British Women; Henry Farnsworth Tunes His Lyre; Vera Brittain Receives a Disturbing Letter

In recognition of the new month (don’t worry, no “February” poetry–is there a less poetical month?) I will be providing general updates on some of our neglected writers.

But first, let us set our scene, a visto of honor, a pageant of noble courage, etc.: two women in re-purposed soldiers’ clothes joined a group of Belgian officers today, a century back, in the Belgian town of Wulverghem.

The wind blew straight from the sea, bringing with it a tang that bit pink cheeks and made noses unbecomingly red. They were clad in weatherstained khaki knickers, long leather coats, and high boots, with khaki wool caps bearing in brass letters the number of the army division to which they were attached. They stood ranged in rank at the end of a long line of officers for about three hours. Mairi is much the fairer of the two, and her clear blue eyes have something in them of the glint seen in the eyes of a man who knows not fear. They are so limpid and candid, no one could dream of the horrid experiences and revolting sights which have bitten deep into the life of this brave little Scot…Mrs. Knocker’s eyes are hazel, or, as someone has called them, “khaki-colour”!

All the hastily acquired ideas concerning etiquette fled from their minds when the immensely tall King towered above them, his sad, deep-blue eyes looking down upon them as he pinned the Cross on their tunics. He talked with them a long time in English, and asked many questions about Pervyse, expressing his personal gratitude for their work among his beloved soldiers; and when he had passed on to decorate others, they realized with something like dismay that he had so completely enthralled them they had quite forgotten to curtsey…[1]

 

Next, Henry Farnsworth, updating his sister on his progress in the Foreign Legion. Farnsworth has evolved what we might recognize as a strong third category of family letter. Several of our young soldiers write tough or preening or hostile letters to their fathers, and most write letters to their mothers that make plain their needed for affective connections with home–or assurance, or pity, or simply an intimacy that they have not yet learned how to find among their comrades. Farnsworth has written both sorts, and he has also made his sister into something like Euterpe’s handmaiden, Calliope’s recording secretary, or perhaps simply one of Clio’s outriders. Limpid! Candid!

What I mean is: he tells his father how brave he is, he assures himself through his mother of how safe he will be, and he tells Ellen of the wonderful books he will write

Paris, February 1, 1915

Dear Ellen,

At last the final delay that according to my experience is inevitable in all army movements is over, and to-morrow we start forward. We were supposed to go Thursday, but this time it is a sure thing… Even the cartridges have been served out, ninety-six of them per man, and they add considerably to the weight of the equipment. You, with what you consider more vital things in mind, will turn up your nose at this last item, but if you stand in the ranks for one hour and ten minutes with the sort of pack necessary for an inspection, your back and shoulders will tell you that it is of the utmost importance. I know you get used to it in a few weeks, but even that is unnecessary. I have made up my actual campaign kit and Pere Uhlin has gone over it thoroughly and pronounced it quite sufficient. He has also taught me to make it up in such a workmanlike way that a captain who happened up in the barracks asked me where I had seen service before…

At the last minute another legionary, a man who says he does not remember what country he came from, but whom I suspect of being a German (Bavarian or Bohemian), has dropped in and is to be our Sergeant. He has completed his fifteen years and is coming along because he wants to have his pension in his son’s name. Although that is what he says, I think his real reason is the joy of it. I could write you ten pages about the doings of this one and Uhlin during the last few days, on how to pass the guard at the barrack gate, and generally defy all the rules of military life, but I shall not inflict them. In all affection, it would be wasted. Hereafter, it shall be written, but by an unworthy hand.

Uhlin’s song of packing the sack would need a Rabelais and a Kipling to expound to the public. There is an official string provided to tie the tent pegs to the outside of the sack. He gave at least twenty-seven uses to which it might be put, all in his slow Alsatian legionary argot. Before the end Campbell and myself were rolling on the floor in an agony of laughter. The scene in the dirty whitewashed barrack room, lighted by one guttering lamp, with the black shadows cast by the rifles in the rack, old Uhlin with his little desert-bleached eyes snapping and his freshly waxed moustache bristling like a cat’s, and Campbell with his genial, ineffaceably Bohemian air,—it will always remain, it is one of the pearls without price that many a worthless rolling-stone may carry in his memory, but which, alas! he can only share in part and that a faint one, and with a world of Pharisees who turn up their noses to criticise aesthetically the method of presentation, understand nothing at all about any of it, and sub-consciously pity the man who in turn pities them back.

So this is why he needs Ellen. Here he can overdo the dramatics and the teenaged self-abasement and count on an encouraging response. Ellen, presumably, understands that existential reassurance and challenge should come from her parents, while she must tell Henry that, no, no–he writes well indeed. (Although it’s hard, not knowing her, not to imagine Ellen pronouncing ‘Raaaaabelais’ like the matrons in The Music Man.)

All this, however, is of no great matter. The one thing of any importance is that we leave for the front to-morrow morning at 12:35 and go to actual active service…

To be more serious, the more I learn of French and France, the more I am glad to have a chance to do my little best for her. For Heaven’s sake, try to give your boys a chance to travel and for a while to live in Paris. What they lose in worldly effects they will gain tenfold in inward joy, which those less fortunate can never dream of.,,

I will write to you when I have the chance, but it may not be very often. In the meantime I send you my best love.

Henry[2]

 

One can only imagine the joy and fear this studied nonchalance will provoke when it reaches Ellen, presumably in a few weeks. Vera Brittain, only a day or two away, by Royal Mail, was on the receiving end of a broadly similar letter today, a century back:

Monday February 1st

There was a letter from Roland which disturbed me somewhat. He has found out that the 4th Suffolk Regt. want three more officers for the front at once. He is going–or rather has offered himself to-day–as one of them. He is so obviously anxious to go that I do not know what to think or wish.

For his sake & in consideration of what I might feel if he did not want to go I am glad, but for my own sake, which is regulated by what it wants rather than by what it ought to want, I would like him to stay. Somehow I feel he may succeed this time in his attempts…[3]

 

And now a few updates on a few neglected, forthcomingly forthcoming, and recently silent members of our coterie of writers:

I have mentioned Alfred Hale once or twice as one of the truly fascinating memoirists of the war–and thus a most excellent reason to keep checking in here for the next thousand days or so and be very well reward for your faith when bizarre and wonderful new hands take up the pen.

Hale was a sensitive soul: a pianist and amateur composer living on inherited wealth; clumsy, hesitant, elderly and frail (although only in his late 30s), at once a “crock” and a “genuine if slightly absurd gentleman.”[4] He was mostly concerned with keeping his head down and staying out of a war he had no doubt would be both generally horrible and personally humiliating.

There is very little in his memoir describing the war before he was compelled to participate, but here’s a bit:

In the beginning of [1915] I lay awake one wonderful February night listening to the wind sounding a gigantic E flat in the telegraph wires on the main road nearby and I can swear that the sound of far-distant, huge, advancing armies came to me borne on the night wind…[5]

 

John Lucy, whos we leaned throughout the early autumn as he described the later stages of open warfare and digging in on the Aisne, remains in trenches with the Royal Irish Rifles. As a non-com with much combat service, he will be offered home leave later this month. He refused it: he can’t face the idea of going home without his brother.

 

And for many of our future stalwarts, the dregs of this first frozen winter will bring little change to their situation: Robert Graves is still friendless and despised at the Royal Welch depot in Wrexham, his tailoring and manners so unmilitary that his requests to be sent out as a replacement officer are ignored; Siegfried Sassoon is still recovering from an arm broken in a training accident; Edmund Blunden remains a Senior Grecian in his last year of school; John Ronald Tolkien is piling his interests in Finnish mythology on top of his English work in his penultimate term at Oxford; Wyndham Lewis and Ford Hueffer have just collaborated on the propagandistic illustrated poem “Antwerp,” but neither has yet committed himself to volunteer…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Cellar-House of Pervyse, 209-10. See also Atkinson, Elsie and Mairi at War, 88-90. As I noted yesterday, I will move away from Elsie and Mairi for a bit because Elsie Knocker's diary now goes silent... and because The Cellar-House, a later fix-up book is, while very good on eye color details, otherwise pretty terrible reading. It's cloying, novelistic in the worst way, and, since it is vague on dates, comes without the recommendation of dated immediacy that its sources (letters as well as the two women's diaries) have possessed.
  2. The Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 115-19.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 150-1.
  4. The characterization is Paul Fussell's--Fussell discovered Hale's manuscript and shepherded it to publication.
  5. Fussell, ed., The Ordeal of Alfred M. Hale, 2, 33.

Lady Feilding Checks In; Henry Williamson May Not Be Able To; John Lucy Confronts a Terrible Toll; Morgan Crofton’s ‘Dick Deadeye’ Takes Another Victim

On the 19th of November we were again in the line, because a battalion that had suffered worse than ours had to be given a rest, but that evening the London Territorial Regiment, fresh and strong, came to relieve us; a relief that was to take us away from that battlefield of Ypres, right back to Westoutre,

This time only forty men of my regiment were able to march away. The rest were killed or wounded.

Forty… forty left out of two hundred and fifty, forty-six left out of an entire battalion. I searched my mind for total figures and roughly reckoned that in three months ninety-six men out of every hundred had been killed or wounded. I was too weary to appreciate my own luck. I was so completely dazed that I lingered in the front line, while a London Territorial congratulated my regiment… He was a cultured man in the uniform of a private soldier…

The Londoner looked for praise, He liked talking to me, a Regular corporal of the line. He asked if I thought his regiment would, any day, be as good as those of the old army.

I said: ‘Yes. Every bit as good.’

My eyes weakened, wandered, and rested on the half-hidden corpses of men and youths. Near and far they looked calm, and even handsome, in death. Their strong young bodies thickly garlanded the edge of a wood in rear, a wood called sanctuary…

A silence more pregnant than the loudest bombardment stole over the country, the evening silence of the battlefield. A robin sat in the broken bush on the parapet and burst into song.

The Londoner said quietly: ‘You’d better hurry up, corporal. The Irish are falling in on the left.[1]

If John Lucy–our best source on the day-to-day fighting on the Aisne, an engaging chronicler of one of the war’s least well-memoired campaigns, a regular soldier who can wield a respectable pen–has never quite won my heart, well, this is why.

This is heavy-handed stuff, and, while over-writing is a venial sin in a non-professional writer looking back on a harrowing experience, this is over-writing heavily informed by retrospect, a graver transgression. Lucy-in-the-moment I would trust–if not to the specifics of dialogue then to the emotional character of the scene. But here the dialogue sounds hollow, and the country silence, the robin, the cardboard territorial speaking the innocently ominous words are all… a bit too much.

Strong young bodies seen as garlands is not only bad poetry but also very bad personal history, memory (col)lapsing under the influence of the bad poetry consumed in the interval.

We will see the pastoral themes, the elegiac tone, and the use of nature to highlight the magnitude of the human destruction deployed to better effect by better writers–but that, again, is not the historical “problem.” The problem is that I don’t quite believe he noticed these things at the time they occurred, or, at least, that he then imbued them with this significance. There is always a fine, invisible line (out somewhere in a muddy no man’s land) between writing one’s own experience and re-writing it. Re-writing in the sense of transforming it into something else.

This crosses that line, or so say I: these are the flowers and robins and symbolic amateur soldiers of later literature, not 1914 experience.

Now, I hope that all readers will recognize my how courageous I am to criticize the mere literary form of a man who has witnessed the destruction of his battalion twice over. But so it goes.

Seriously, though: it will become increasingly important, while reading the Great War, to separate the terrible facts from their literary treatment. Lucy is an important witness to the gallant holding action of Britain’s little professional army. Even setting that context aside, it is certainly bad form on my part to disbelieve the testimony of a man whose brother and many friends were killed in a brutal few months of near-constant combat. But there’s facts and there’s facts, and the authority of a witness does not extend to the literary liberties they choose. There–though cognizant of what Lucy, the Royal Irish, and the rest of the Old Contemptibles accomplished, and minding the extremity of their loss–we (the self-important critical/scholarly l “we”) still have a duty to read skeptically and critically.

 

But speaking of amateurs taking over from the destroyed professional battalions, here’s our lad with the London Territorials, writing his last letter home to mother for a few weeks:

November 19th 1914

Dear Mother,

I received several letters from you lately. We have moved about a lot since last writing, and we are now in a little village in the country we visited two years ago with Uncle Percy and Grandfather. You remember?

This would be Thildonck, Belgium, where Henry Williamson’s older sister Kathie had entered a convent. The family had visited her not long before the war.

As I explained last time we have to give no information in letters, as, if they fell into the wrong hands it might be useful to our enemies.

Yes, right. Thildonck! Wink.

All day & most of the night huge detonations shake the air around us, and the sounds are rather awe-inspiring at first… You may not hear from me by letter (but you will by the printed regulation postcard) because we shall have no time to for reasons that you may possibly guess. So don’t worry if you dont hear from me except by card for several weeks perhaps. We saw Taube aeroplanes being shelled…  It is rather exciting out here…

Goodbye now, & love to all & mind you dont worry, your loving son, Harry.[2]

 

By Henry’s standards, a reasonable and un-self-dramatizing letter. The quiet before the storm, then. Moving up to the front lines, we find Morgan Crofton and the 2nd Life Guards still troubled by German snipers.

‘Dick Deadeye’ was at it again. About 1 pm they hit one Blue [i.e. a soldier of The Blues, a regiment of the Household Cavalry] through the left eye, and out of the back of his head. He was led past me bleeding very much. The cold was beastly and my feet were like ice. The bottom of the Trench was very wet, so I had no chance to keep my Boots dry. They were soaking and I hadn’t had them off for over 48 hours. I walked along and had a long talk with George Meyrick… As we were talking a shell knocked in the side of the trench and nearly buried us. The Snow came down more and more and by 4 o’clock the country was under a thick white cover.

About 4.15 the Sniper from the ruined emplacement hit another Blue bang through the forehead. The Body was dragged past me with great difficulty as it was very heavy. Dead Household Cavalrymen are not easy to get out of a narrow trench. His friend covered his head with a macintosh sheet, but as he was being pulled along it fell off, and I have never seen such a look of surprised horror as the poor dead man’s face had as he passed me. While talking to Meyrick I stood up, and had just moved when phut a bullet went into the sandbag behind my head. The Sniper nearly had me.

Several Humorists in The Blues entertained themselves in putting their Caps on the end of their Rifles and holding them up in the Air, where they were at once hit by the watchful Sniper. This at first caused some hilarity but it became very unpopular, since the bullet after piercing the Cap often went ricocheting down some other trench some distance off, causing some dismay amongst those who were not taking part in the game. So eventually an order was passed down ‘that this practice will cease forthwith’![3]

Crofton provides, certainly, a sort of general character witness for the upper class career cavalryman–a witness that can be set to rebut my damning of Julian Grenfell. Sniping is fair game, and the fair game can show their high spirits by treating murder at medium distances as a sort of party game. In the same spirit of black comedy and cacophonous repetition, allow me to note that it was still treated as fun and games even after someone took a bullet through the eye.

But Crofton is a machine gun officer (at this point), and he is either in the front line trench or with his guns in a support trench. Stalking is still something different. It’s chilling… and yet think how welcome Grenfell would be here, among the men who cannot move safely about their trenches because of the as-yet-un-murdered sniper.

 

Finally, a brief note today from Lady Feilding:

Nov 19th, Thursday,

Mother dear,

Just a little line to tell you I am as fit and well as a flea. It’s damned wet though these days & no fun for the poor souls in the trenches as they never get a chance to get dry. Not only the rain but the inundations that have been turned loose down here, fill the trenches with water.

Thank you ever so much for the choc & the toffee & all sorts. I loved it.

If anyone near home sends me cigarettes & socks etc for the soldiers I’d love it…

Much love – a real letter anon…

DoDo[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. There's a Devil in the Drum, 284-6.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson, 40.
  3. Massacre of the Innocents, 34.
  4. Lady Under Fire, 32.

John Lucy Begrudges the Terriers; Henry Williamson Nears the Front

Here’s John Lucy on the arrival of the Territorial Army, two days after a hard day in the Ypres salient:

We stayed in the line for two more days, [i.e. until today, a century back] easily checking weaker attempts to drive us back, and then once more we went out to reserve. We then ceased to fight as a battalion. We were too weak. We were told off to be ready to relieve the regiments in the line at a moment’s notice. A Scottish Territorial regiment with a similar duty twice went up, and twice recaptured trenches and reinstated another battalion. They were unbelievably cheerful.

One young Highlander going back a second time called out: ‘Give us a shout if you want us again.’

The Terriers had arrived. The supposed Saturday-night soldiers. Another regiment of them from London did great work.

We Regulars got just a bit bored at reading their recorded deeds in every newspaper we managed to scrounge.[1]

 

Henry Williamson–the real Williamson and not his “Highlander” doppelganger Phillip Morrison–is now in France with the London Rifles. He began a letter to his mother two days ago, and today added the following:

13.11.14 The enclosed letter has been soaked through with rain as all day Friday we were digging trenches in the pouring rain. Please send plenty of chocolate at once, as very shortly we may be thrashing Germans & then it is much needed when cramped & cold… I have a fearful cough thro the rain & wind. Tell Auntie Mary that she is quite right about where we are. I don’t think I shall meet Captn Parry Jones of the Welch Fusiliers, as they are at the actual firing line & we are not. I must close now, with love–Harry. PS Please send chocolate well packed & 2 pairs thick best socks at once.[2]

Well, the first few days in France haven’t changed our Henry. He had managed a “don’t worry about me, and if I should fall” sentence in the first section of the letter, but now he’s back to worrying about a cough, chocolate, and socks. Looks like you needed more socks after all, Harry.

I’m hopeful that this sort of letter/memoir crossfire will continue to mount: Lucy has food words for a London Territorial regiment; Williamson, in another London Territorial regiment, has an aunt who wants him to look up a Welch Fusilier’s officer, etc.

Other than that, I will only mention that the real-time foreshadowing here is unusually accurate. Boys like Williamson do not really know anything about what the war will be like, during this first winter. They are ill-prepared on many levels… and yet the strangely boyish, summer-camp-ish, letter-from-floundering-freshman-ish requests for goodies and necessaries will soon become anything but strange.  A lonely camper might want new socks and sweets, but so does an experienced soldier.

It still seems like a colossal inefficiency (couldn’t the army provide better food and clothing if it just focused on that and didn’t transmit thousands of tons of mail and packages to the trenches?) but the ease with which parcels were requested and received by soldiers on the now-static front lines will become one of the crucial props of their morale, as well as their material comfort. And, of course, of the growing sense of the irony of their plight: able to smell and taste the comforts of home a few days after writing to request them–but unable to escape the lingering threat of death, or to enjoy those comforts anywhere other than a muddy, freezing trench or a miserable billet well within range of the enemy’s guns.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. There's a Devil in the Drum, 283.
  2. Williamson, Henry Williamson, 39.

Rupert Brooke Is of Two Minds; John Lucy Faces the Prussian Guard, and Horrible Casualties; Morgan Crofton Visits a Monument; Tolkien Hits the Books

Attention Readers: This Blog Will Be Closing In Exactly Four Years. Please Begin Moving Toward the Check-Out Counter.

 

Before we get to yet another determined attack near Ypres, we have another entry in the already familiar formal progress from the halcyon green fields of England toward the muddy realities of first combat. Captain Crofton is at Rouen, where he follows in the footsteps of several of our non(yet)-combatants by taking a moment to see the sights–including one grimly appropriate monument.

WEDNESDAY NOVEMBER 11

No Orders up to 11.30. Send Mathey and Goodliffe up to Camp to see our Horses, and warn our Servants to be ready. At 12 o’clock we went round the Town to see the places of interest. The Cathedral is beautiful, but very finicky, the tall spire, 500 feet high of wrought iron, was added to the building in 1842. The Glass in the Windows is old and very good, and the Organ is magnificent. The Interior of the Building itself is not unlike Salisbury. The Doors are poor. The Best Church was Saint Maclou, the carving and stone work being very fine, but the Interior decoration is rather tawdry. There is however a beautiful Louis XV wood carving over the Altar.

All the Churches and the Cathedral here date from the 14th-15th Centuries. We next taxied to see where Jeanne d’Arc was burnt. This spot is now occupied by the Halles which are not unlike the Covent Garden Market on a very small scale.

There is a simple stone let into the pavement which says

Jeanne d’Arc
30 Mai 1431

and on the wall above a tablet which says

Here stood the Stake at which Jeanne d’Arc was burnt

It adds the information that her ashes were thrown into the Seine. This being the case, we did not search for her Tomb which we had otherwise decided to do.[1]. Returned to Hotel and lunched at 1.30 at the Restaurant de la Cathédrale.

At 3.30 went up to the Camp and found Goodliffe’s Servant in the Guard Tent drunk. Got him another Groom.

At 6.30 we were told that we should probably go up to the front by the 9.15 Train tomorrow. Dined at the Hôtel de la Poste. Very wet returning to our Hotel.

I fear that I shall find many of my friends missing from the Regiment when I get to it. It has had a very gruelling month’s fighting, and the situation at Ypres is still very shaky. However, we shall soon see now.[2]

 

Shaky–yes. Reader discretion, if you’re really very interested in war, is ill-advised. But it is going to get gory, now.

We went forward into the front line, out of reserve, on the 10th of November…  Next morning we stood to in the wet shell holes and crumbling trenches under the thunder and blasting flashes of German high explosives. There is no need to describe the bombardment, except to say that it was the worst in my experience.

This was the last great assault of the year, yet another final thrust at Ypres. (I realize that I keep promising a diminuendo toward winter–I had not previously realized how many last gasps the German offensive managed to produce.)

True to his word, Instead, John Lucy does not describe the bombardment. Instead, he describes its victims. One man “entirely lost his head” and ran out of the trench to be killed; another was hit in the head by a piece of shrapnel and lingered unconscious and murmuring throughout the day.

Another soldier had his belly ripped open, and sat supporting his back against the trench, while he gazed with fascinated eyes at large coils of his own guts, which he held in both hands. This was almost the ghastliest sight I saw. Its sequel was better. The man’s entrails had not been penetrated. He got safe out of the trench, was washed, tucked in, and mended well in hospital.

Maimed men passed crouching and crawling behind me, leaving trails of blood on the ground, on their way to a ditch which led back into the woods behind…

Lucy, as you may remember, has already confessed to an overwhelming sense of fatigue and discouragement.

His brother was killed on the Aisne, but at least he had the fellowship of his battalion.

Until the battle of La Bassée. After this, the Royal Irish Rifles were so battered that their identity as a proud professional unit seemed impossibly altered. Hundreds of reservists and militiamen now filled the places of the killed and wounded, and Lucy can’t bring himself to embrace them as true comrades.

He will recognize–the day after tomorrow–the bravery of Territorial units flung now into the battle, but of the replacements sent to his unit he can only see their inferior training and the other ways in which they do not measure up to the men he has spent several years with, and then seen killed.

(Interestingly, Lucy both admits the bias and sticks with the assessment, a good example of the way in which even the altered perspective of a man looking back on the early war with knowledge of its later development does not easily break entirely free of the judgments made in the intense emotional environment of combat.)

In his shattered and poorly-mended unit, there is “one young militiaman” who “came by roaring, and seeking sympathy for a broken arm from every one he met.” It falls to the old army NCOs to enforce the stoic code that they prefer, and even Lucy-looking-back cuts a newly arrived man no slack for the suddenness of his wounding.

The bombardment continues, and Lucy is concussed by a near miss; one eardrum is perforated. Soon after, the order comes to stand to, as “the enemy is massing just in front.”

…our rifles lined our broken parapets. The man of my section on my immediate left kept his head down. I grasped his arm and shook hum savagely: ‘For Christ’s sake, get up, you bloody fool. The Germans are coming.’

He fell over sideways and on to his face when I released him, and exposed a pack covered with blood. He was dead, and my eyes came off him to my shoulder, which was spattered with his brains and tiny slivers of iridescent bone.

‘A butcher’s shop,’ I said to myself. ‘A butcher’s shop. A bloody butcher’s shop.’ I took my left hand from the fore-end of my ready rifle and hit myself hard on the face, telling myself to be something of a man.

This is horrifying, and terrible. As bad an experience under fire as a man can have. And yet, in these strange and uneven later chapters of Lucy’s book, this primal horror segues to another section written without the same personal immediacy. It’s more like imitation Kipling, as a matter of fact.

Two nameless and vague characters suddenly join Lucy in the story–an odd choice, given that he is covered with pieces of another human being and hitting himself to maintain control. And such characters are representative of these sections of the book: he has told us that he no longer cares about his unit in the old way, and it seems natural to drop the practice of giving (pseudonymous) names and character sketches to the men in his section.

So we get, first, a trembling newcomer, who cries out “Mother of God! This is terrible,” and then an old soldier who shouts in grim exultation “Ha-ha, me bhoys. Now we’re for it.” These are stock characters–and at the moment of the great assault, too.

The magnificent Prussian Guards made a review of it. They executed their famous goose-step in the sight of their foe, and the field-grey waves came on… We stopped the Germans on our front, and they were the finest troops of Germany…[3]

 

Billy Congreve–who, although he keeps getting bumped from lengthy posts by more vivid correspondents, has been seeing a good deal of action of late–wrote of the same assault in similar terms, but with as-yet-undiminished Regular Army jauntiness:

11th November

A proper day this has been, beastly wet and cold, and the fiercest fighting we have yet had.  The Guards Corps (Bill’s Own) arrived… brought up ‘to finish us off’. The result has been desperate fighting…

Before they attacked they gave our trenches and supports and guns the most terrific bombardment. I have never seen the like before.

Although the attack failed, and Congreve remained jaunty, casualties were heavy and several hundred yards of trenches were lost on his brigade front alone.[4]

For a little more length and breadth of perspective on this assault, here is John Buchan‘s hard-on-the-heels history, first published in 1915:

Once more came a period of ominous quietness. It lasted through the 8th, 9th, and 10th, when nothing happened but a little shelling. Then on Wednesday, the 11th, came the supreme effort. As Napoleon had used his Guards for the final attack at Waterloo, so the Emperor used his for the culminating stroke at Ypres. The 1st and 4th Brigades of the Prussian Guard were launched on both sides of the Menin road. At first they used their parade march, and our men, rubbing their eyes in the darkness of the small hours, could scarcely credit the portent. Long before they reached the shock our fire had taken toll of them, but so mighty is discipline that their impact told…[5]

A good example of a propagandistic rule of thumb, here. You may admit a virtue of your opponent’s if it is necessary to the main interest of the tale, subordinated to a greater weakness, and part and parcel of his defeat. Therefore the “mighty” discipline of the Prussian Guards, who multiple witnesses have goose-stepping (yes, they did that then) within sight of the (witnessing) enemy. Wunderbar–aber Krieg ist das nicht! Their discipline only makes them a better target…  the German generals, too, will have to rethink their tactics.

With the failure of the Prussian Guard the enemy seemed to have exhausted his vitality. His tide of men had failed to swamp the thin Allied lines, and, wearied out, and with terrible losses, he slackened his efforts and fell back upon the routine of trench warfare.[6]

 

Writing to the American scholar and poet Leonard Bacon, Rupert Brooke struck some familiar notes, today, a century back. And also a few notes quieter and more wistful than his usual bluster/mock bluster/double-mock sincere bluster.

Anson Battalion, R.N.D.

11 November, 1914

Dear Bacon,

It was a pleasure to get your letter… The muses have fled to America, and are to be interned in that (technically) neutral country, I’m told, for the period of the war. Don’t keep them forever…

All my friends, but a few, are training or serving… The best Greek scholar of the younger generation at Cambridge, [F.M.] Cornford, is a musketry instructor at Aldershot… Gilbert Murray gets up every morning to line a hedgerow, gun in hand, before dawn. What a world! Yet I’m still half ashamed of England, when I hear of the holocaust[7] of the young poets, painters and scholars of France and Belgium–and Germany.

It hurts me, this war. Because I was fond of Germany. There are such good things in her, and I’d always hoped she’d get away from Prussia and the oligarchy in time. If it had been a mere war between us and them I’d have hated fighting. But I’m glad to be doing it for Belgium…

Brooke goes on to recall–as he had in previous letters–the “Dantesque hell” of Antwerp burning and the “truer hell” of the Belgian refugees. He writes movingly about their plight before returning to his favorite subject:

It’s queer to think that one has been a witness of one of the greatest crimes in history.

I don’t hear any irony here–neither in the reversion of subject from the miserable thousands to the thoughtful, posing witness, nor in the fact that he had been sent over hoping to be the savior of Antwerp rather than the witness of its destruction.

And thence to the charming coda:

Well, we’re doing our best. Give us what prayers or cheers you can. It’s a great life, fighting, while it lasts. The eye grows clearer and the heart. But it’s a bloody thing, half the youth of Europe blown through pain to nothingness, in the incessant mechanical slaughter of these modern battles. I can only marvel at human endurance. Come and see us all when it’s all over. Love to the Wells’ and yo you both.

Ever

Rupert Brooke[8]

Now there’s a thing. Brooke is even now working on the sonnets–very Georgian, very pretty, prettily patriotic and utterly undisillusioned–that will fix his poetic star in its course. And yet here, recalling his few useless days at the front in a few tossed-off lines of prose, he prefigures much of the subject matter of the later war poets. “Half the youth of Europe” will come down like a hammer in the last line of another man’s poem, a few years hence (almost unaltered, though the resemblance is general and coincidental–the iambs are presumably accidental in the prose letter). And, over the same interval, pain, the endurance of incessant suffering, and mechanical slaughter will all become subjects of poetry much stronger than Brooke’s.

It’s all here–but is it the raw reaping before the winnowing, or is it a contradiction that he should have explored?

Does Brooke not realize that he should be writing directly about the slaughter? Evidently not.

And yet he is also of two minds. This letter contains not only the “it’s a great life, fighting,” comment, but also this terrible and almost-Julian Grenfell-like anticipation of his next stint of foreign service: “Anyway, it’ll be good work, I hope: and (with the horror) fun.”

The parenthesis makes it too easy here to point out that Brooke has the literary significance of war experience inside out: he thinks the story is the glory and the honorable service, with the horror to be compartmentalized away from the bold and uplifting narrative. But we need to go into the parenthesis, too, if we are to understand the war.

And in fairness, it’s early: he saw Belgium’s misery, and the German invasion–with its very real atrocities, whatever the other inventions and exaggerations of propaganda–has only just occurred. Britain has had no chance to do anything but throw its small army into hasty defensive measures. There have been no set-piece attacks, no chance for British generals to develop any war-winning strategy, let alone one that clearly wastes the lives of volunteer soldiers while providing no tangible benefit to the allied cause… it’s early yet, early. But it is interesting to see Brooke of two minds–two distinct and unmingled minds.

 

And, finally, in the Datable Ephemera From Meticulously Studied Authors category, a note that today, a century back, Ronald Tolkien checked out C.N.E. Eliot’s A Finnish Grammar from the Exeter College library for the second time! He’s working on something, and he’ll Finnish it up by the 22nd.[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Alas, alack, and god rest the unborn souls of Monty Python, but I can find no reason to suppose that this is intended to be humorous
  2. Massacre of the Innocents, 10-12.
  3. Lucy, There's a Devil in the Drum, 278-82.
  4. Armageddon Road, 78-9.
  5. Here's the discipline point being driven home by another close contemporary report/"history:" "In spite of lack of officers, in spite of inexperience, boys of 16 and 17 have faced our guns, marched steadily up to the muzzles of our rifles, and have met death in droves, without flinching. Such is the effect of a century of national disciphne. That the men subjected to it are the victims of an autocratic military caste does not alter the fact that they have accepted that system as necessary to the attainment of national ideals." This Eyewitness's Narrative, an anonymous reissue of the reports of Major Ernest Swinton, the first British war correspondent, is available here, pages 101-3. Also ratified by his account are the seriousness of the bombardment and the desperate character of the fighting: it "was probably the most furious artillery fire that they have yet employed against us," and the adjective "desperate" is used on four consecutive pages.
  6. Buchan, A History of the Great War, I, 365.
  7. It's very important to recall that, in 1914, this word retained its original, classical sense of a voluntary sacrifice--a burnt offering devoted to one or more of the gods.
  8. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 631-3.
  9. Actually, he will never finish anything, but still, he's working on a paper. So stay tuned.

Phillip Maddison Is Tested, And Fails; John Lucy Has a Confession to Make and An Army Of Mercenaries to Bury; Kipling Tells a Tale

Yesterday the “London Highlanders” made their fictional advance in the footsteps of the London Scottish. After twice being stopped by German fire, they were sent up again, under a low Hallowe’en moon, to join the 6th Dragoon Guards in their trenches.

Then the Germans attacked, their movements starting a flight of quail from the fields of no man’s land just as the Highlanders had earlier driven a hare, maddened by the guns, before them. (Henry Williamson, even then an avid birder and amateur naturalist, is a big fan of the juxtaposition-of-mechanical-war-and-nature trope that will become a staple of all genres of war writing.)

Firing next to the cool, professional dragoons Phillip helps drive off the inevitable German night assault, shooting so long and so often that his wrist blisters from the heat of the barrel.[1]

Williamson tracks time by the moon,[2] and a nearly full moon high in the sky should indicate midnight, more or less–the point at which last night, a century back, became today.[3]

Prone to precipitous mood swings at the best of times, it’s hardly surprising that Phillip goes from feeling “wildly exalted,” wanting “to laugh, to sing” at the defeat of the German attack, to shivering under the high moon and high explosive shell fire, “exposed to his own frail aloneness.”

Perhaps because he is getting “windy” under the bombardment, he is sent back for ammunition. This becomes a different sort of ordeal, since his only companion is Martin, a man so frightened that he is, apparently, shamming injury. Phillip is, without quite realizing it, buoyed by this sight–every coward fears he is the worst coward of all.

When Martin collapses on the way back to the front with the ammunition, Phillip is forced to fend for himself, with two heavy ammunition boxes.

It’s hard not to think here of Francis Grenfell’s calm, brave, shrug-and-leap quandary-resolving of yesterday.  Introspection is a terrible burden when one is forced to make decisions under fire.

Phillip is between the support line and the front line, effectively alone, heaving bandoliers onto his shoulders to carry forward, when the next attack comes.

[S]houting had spread across the whole of the front, from Messines on the right to Wytschaete on the left. As he listened, the thin wire drawn tight within, the shouting took on an ominous note: a deeper, roaring sound, overcoming the thudding of the rifle-fire at ground-level from the ground in front. There were glints in the moonlight; there were noises of running feet: isolated yells; and then a deep growling aa-aa-ah, like the back-wash of a wave rolling shingle down a beach.

Phillip is paralyzed, then he recovers himself enough to try to bring the injured/overwhelmed man with him. He won’t move, even when Phillip hits him. Phillip breaks:

…he ran, mouth open, blindly the way he had come. Behind the farmhouse, between retching attempts to get his voice, “They’ve broken through! Bayonet charge!”

He is guessing, but he’s not wrong–the “Highlanders” are now, as were the London Scottish, driven back from their trenches, with great loss of life.

When daylight comes, Phillip wanders about among the survivors, checking on his acquaintances. It’s here that the size and scope of Williamson’s novel both deepens our sense of the losses and becomes something of a hindrance. Phillips comes upon news of several characters who are not just quickly-sketched army buddies, but prominent in previous volumes, men who were the boys against whom Phillip had measured himself. And so now he is able to measure his own failure of nerve against long-familiar standards.

He learns that Cousin Bertie voluntarily went forward from the transport to join his company in the line, then led a counter-attack–he is presumed dead. So too is Phillip’s school-friend Peter, last seen in hand-to-hand combat after going to the rescue of a wounded man.

There was no doubt of his own cowardice… If he had not been sent back for ammunition, he would have been bayoneted with the others in the trench. He had slipped away…

The whirl of thoughts continues. Williamson shows us the changeable, selfish habits of mind we have come to know over several novels, distorted even further by the terrible pressure of having survived–but failed–the long-awaited “test” of battle. Phillip will have more trouble than ever escaping a strain of self-hatred.

But then comes another revelation: recalling the sounds of the the wounded Germans lying before their trenches.

[T]he cries of Mutter-Mutter-Mutter among the wounded were the same as Mother-Mother-Mother heard from the Iron Colonel’s grey lips… It was a terrible though, that the Germans were like themselves: a thought that he could not bear to think of, at all, even to himself.[4]

This thought will become something of a rope thrown to a drowning boy. His cowardice he will still need to face, even if it might destroy him. But this other piece of hard, real soldier’s knowledge–that the infantryman is a victim, no matter which side he is on–comes early enough to give him another source of authority, a truth with which he can shore up his self-esteem and assert himself, against the Hun-haters at home, as a man in the know.

 

And it was really like this. An officer who saw a group of the survivors of the London Scottish mustering for a meager role call, this morning, a century back, described them as looking “like sailors being photographed on a shore within sight of their wreck.”[5]

 

And from John Lucy a sad coda and a historiographically disturbing confession:

We marched again on 1st November to Locre. Two hundred more men had now joined us. We did not know most of them, and we were not greatly interested…

In the reorganization following the arrival of these fresh men we lost to a great degree our quality of being old regulars, though the spirit and the tradition of the regiment never died… [His new men] had not the smartness of the Regulars, and I could not take them rapidly to my heart. Their habits were unsoldierly, and repellent to me.

My own morale, by this time not high, ebbed further. I was lonely for many missing friends. Cheerful faces now gone, and the memory of deeds of rough kindness haunted me. In a brief fit of renunciation and despair I burned my diary, the writing of which, though destroyed, helped me to remember most of what I have recorded here. A certain loss of interest dogged me from this time. I offer this in excuse for any errors in dates, or other lapses in the concluding part of my story.[6]

Does this read as a shocking revelation? It should and shouldn’t be. The keeping of diaries was against military regulations, and while many still did so, a large proportion of these were lost or destroyed.

Lucy is not entirely clear here: he can’t be asserting that, years after the war, he remembers the exact date of many actions, and may only have made a mistake here or there. Can he? It seems more likely that he used some official sources of factual information as a framework for his memory. A later editor/introducer of the book complains about discrepancies between official records and Lucy’s dates in the pre-war sections of the narrative–but perhaps this bolsters the idea that, when it came to his participation in famous incidents such as the Battle of La Bassée,[7] he checked his dates, and only didn’t bother to do so when it came to pre-war soldiering.

In any case, two things are true: his account fits well enough with the facts, but must be believed or mistrusted on its own merits–all the names are pseudonyms and there are no other platoon-level accounts from his battalion. And there is certainly something to the claim that writing something down once fixes an otherwise ephemeral memory, allowing it to be better retrieved even if the writing is destroyed…

Also worth noting is the way in which Lucy connects–in the act and in its recording–the destruction of the old battalion and of his diary. Something is gone forever. Not just his brother, but, in a way, the fellowship that they had aspired to when they joined the army in the first place. However disappointing life in the ignorant brutality of the pre-war army might have turned out to be, now that it has been destroyed it feels–to one or both of the John Lucy’s in question (the one burning his diary a century back and the older one writing his memoir)–like a vanished fellowship, a society that, all at once and suddenly, has vanished.

Lucy tries to show something of this world, to capture something of its spirit. But, while he while he tries to reflect the life of the men around him (which is why I have referred to the book as a sort of precursor of the squad- or platoon- focused war movie) it’s clear that he is only really confident about relaying his own feelings. These he places against the background of the unfolding campaign, and the other characters are essentially extras, grouped around the edges of the frame.

And so w have arrived at one of the major historical themes of 1914, at least for the British: the small, tough, aristocrats-and-street-rats army (an exaggeration rather than a fantasy) they went to war with has been spent. The Territorials will help fill the gaps, and then the New Army will shoulder the weight of the rest of the war. The professionals will never be more than a bit of leavening mixed into an entirely new sort of force. We will come back to this transformation and view it from a number of angles, but–happily for our other purposes–it is best encapsulated in a well-known poem by A.E. Housman.

Housman, a formidable and influential classical scholar, is most important to the generation of war poets as the author of A Shropshire Lad, the index fossil of wistful Late Victorian pastoral poetry. We will come back to this book often, but I mention it now because Lucy chooses from it the epigraph for his book:

I sought them far and found them,
The sure, the straight, the brave,
The hearts I lost my own to,
The souls I could not save.
They braced their belts about them,
They crossed in ships the sea,
They sought and found six feet of ground,
And there they died for me.

Appropriate. But not really. Lucy does not include the first stanza or the title–“When I Would Muse In Boyhood”–which complicate, shall we say, the application of the poem to real, grown men who have died for, with, and around him in France.

Lucy might not have wanted to revise or complicate this account of boyhood musing–it works well enough for the purpose–but Housman did. A Shropshire Lad is a Victorian document. When he read of the carnage at First Ypres Housman wrote a 20th century poem:

“Epitaph on Army of Mercenaries”

These, in the days when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and the earth’s foundations stay;
When God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

 

Would you be surprised to learn that Kipling, in his capacity as battalion historian to the Irish Guards, gives voice to one of those very “mercenaries” on this very day? This was their last great day, the “disastrous” day in which the Guards were shelled all day and then driven from their trenches by a German attack, falling back to the last reserve trench, where they were joined by “every cook, orderly and man who could stand.” And held on.

Kipling finds room, actually,both for the praise of their brigadier–“those of them that were left made history… and showed that the Irish Guards must be reckoned with, however hard hit”–and for the wistful reminiscence of an unidentified enlisted man: “Twas like a football scrum. Every one was somebody, ye’ll understand. If he dropped there was no one to take his place. Great days!”

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A self-appointed mentor-for-the-moment, a tough lower-class soldier bemused to be beside a politely-spoken, incompetent middle class youth, had given Phillip a carbine from a dead comrade, a weapon which was compatible with the ammunition they had been issued.
  2. Wrist watches were to become a trench fashion that then caught on more widely. The best sort, though, had both luminous dials and a cover.
  3. This project, of course, is synched to the solar anniversary, so daylight time measurements will be more accurate. Alas. For those of you keeping track, something like 1,237 moons have spun by since Phillip saw this one, but, naturally we're still a few days off, and Halloween assaults only had a quarter moon.
  4. How Dear is Life, 272-79.
  5. The officer was Paul Maze; quoted in Hastings, Catastrophe, 486.
  6. There's a Devil in the Drum, 267.
  7. And Ypres--through which he marched today, a century back. Despite the finality of the quotation above, the book will continue.

Frank Richards and the Royal Welch Face a Night Assault; John Lucy and the Royal Irish Face Their Losses

The 29th October, 1914, was a miserable rainy day. one young soldier remarked that he did not believe anyone was in support or reserve to us. But Duffy said “What the hell does it matter about supports or reserves? We have plenty of small-arm ammunition, and as long as our rifles hold out we can stop any attack, especially if they make it during the day.”

Frank Richards knows his foreshadowing, at least at point-blank range. He tells us that, overnight, a party of engineers had set up a barbed wire obstacle in front of their trench: a single strand.

The Old Soldier of the platoon remarked that the British government must be terribly hard up, what with short rations, no rifle-oil, no shells, and now sending Engineers up to the front line to stretch one single bloody strand of barbed wire out, which he had no doubt was the only single bloody strand in the whole of France, and which a bloody giraffe could rise up and walk under. It was enough to make good soldiers weep tears of blood…

Well, it was still raining on the night of the 19th when heavy rifle-fire broke out on the extreme right of our front. At the same time out listening-post [men stationed at the end of a sap driven forward from the firing trench into no man’s land] sent back to say that the enemy was getting out of their trenches… and presently we could see dim forms in front of us. Then our right platoon opened out with rapid fire. We opened out with rapid fire too.

One of the most useful aspects of Richards’ narrative is that he gives us this staggered, staccato sense of combat–the experience of battle as it was waged on the platoon level. With Lucy at Neuve Chapelle we had the overwhelming immediacy of battle and the man-by-man, section-level narrative of fear and trembling in a single fire-bay. Richards enjoys his sang-froid, and, a proper old soldier himself, gives us instead unfolding small-unit tactics.

We were firing as fast as we could pull the trigger: no man can take a sight in the dark so we were firing directly in front of us. One of our eighteen-pounders fired a star shell which enabled us to see the enemy dropping down on their stomachs. Five or six ordinary shells were fired too, and one of them set fire to the straw-rick on our right front which was soon burning merrily. The enemy in front of us were held up for the time being, so we opened fire on our right front where we could see some more of them quite clearly by the light of the burning rick…

One of our chaps, in turning to get another bandolier of ammunition out of the box, noticed three men coming towards our trench from the back. “Halt! Hands up! Who are you?” he challenged. We turned around, We knew it was quite possible for some of the enemy to have got through the gap between us and our left platoon and come around the back of us. Instead of answering the challenge two of the men dropped on their stomachs and the other mumbled something which we did not understand. Two men opened fire on him and he dropped; then one of the men on the ground shouted: “You bloody fools! We’re artillery signallers and you’ve shot our officer.”

…He was the young officer who used to visit us: one bullet had gone through his jaw and the other through his right side. The two men carried him back and we all hoped that he would recover from his wounds; but we never heard any more news of him.[1]

The men of Richards’ company kept firing all night, as the German attackers continued to move on their front. One by one their rifles–over-heated, inadequately oiled, and now picking up mud and grit from where they were rested on the dirt parapet to aim and fire–jammed. Tomorrow’s dawn will bring a renewed attack…

 

Francis Grenfell, too, will soon be seeing serious action:

On the 29th the 9th Lancers were back at Neuve Eglise, behind the Messines position. That experience gave Francis his first notion of the real seriousness of the German attack. Before, he had been confident, and had credited every optimistic rumour ; now he saw that the enemy was indeed flinging the dice for victory, and that the scanty British forces were faced with preposterous odds. On 29th October, as we know, began the critical stage of the First Battle of Ypres. The chief danger points were at the apex of the salient around Gheluvelt and on its southern flank about Zillebeke. But there was also an attack at the southern re-entrant, and heavy fighting along the whole Messines Ridge.[2]

 

From two units about to be tested to one that has been tested and persevered–and nearly been destroyed in the process:

Our little party moved back to La Couture on 29th October, arriving there in twilight: La Couture where this grim battle of La Bassée has begun seventeen days ago, or was it seventeen years? The battalion transport and riderless chargers, large out of all proportion to our numbers, came behind us. We looked more like its escort than its established unit of one battalion.

On one cart a bundle of swords testified to our missing officers, and to the uselessness of a form of weapon already out of date.

John Lucy will struggle to rally a bit from this sombre state. Tonight there will mild comic tales of their billets behind the lines–smothering feather beds and cross-dressing with stolen civilian underclothing–and an effort to signal to his readers that, if the battalion could have gone on in the same manner as it always had, despite its losses, so too would his narrative. But, as he will report in a few days’ time, it can’t.

References and Footnotes

  1. Old Soldiers Never Die, 44-46.
  2. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 215.