Phillip Maddison Follows a Coffin; Vera Brittain’s Adventure Abroad Begins; Bimbo Tennant’s Grave; Arthur Graeme West Against the War

London was waking up this morning to the aftermath one of the worst zeppelin raids of the war. Henry Williamson, omnivorous novelist of the war’s notable actions, made use of this event to secure an awkward rapprochement between Phillip Maddison and his father–and to kill off Lily Cornford, the girl who was not good enough for him (socially) and too good for him (morally).

This morning, a century back, Phillip saw the twenty-two coffins of the German air crew, accompanied by an RFC honor guard, and fell in behind, reflecting on what has become a touchstone text of the novel.

Last of all walked Phillip, feeling lost, wondering if the spirits of the dead men were lingering in the autumn air, looking down, faintly curious, at the poor little bodies below. Was Lily there, too? He felt that the dead would not be angry, nor would they know any more fear. If only he could write poetry in which his feelings, and the scenes he had known, would live forever, like Julian Grenfell’s poem.[1]

But he can’t, and, inasmuch as Williamson’s hard-driven and haphazardly-elaborated themes can be summarized, the death of Lily and Phillip’s segue away from a period of Grenfell-idealizing (in which, not coincidentally, he performs bravely under fire on the Somme after several early instances of experiencing panic under fire) into a more introspective mode. We’ll pick up Phillip’s story in the next volume, when he is in France once more.

 

In a truer but somewhat attenuated incidence of historical irony, the raid qualified as something like a near miss for Vera Brittain. Yesterday she had bid farewell to her mother and brother in Camberwell before setting off for her eponymous liner. As her brother Edward will write, bombs fell on the site of their goodbyes not twenty-four hours after she had left to brave the threat of German submarines for hazardous service abroad: “The windows of the White Horse were smashed–just where Mother and I passed that morning after saying good-bye to you.”

We have come as far as air raids and U-boats: Julian Grenfell and the heroic tradition be damned, there is no need to go “Into Battle–” modern war will come to you.

And yet, if War brings movement and new opportunity–combined with manageable levels of danger and deprivation–it is not going to shake entirely free of its long conceptual partnership with Romance. Today is also the beginning of an adventure for a young woman who, for all the misery of hospital service and the death of her beloved, has been sheltered from both the terrors and the freedoms that 20th century war can bring… Malta is very far from Buxton.

Sunday September 24th Britannic

First thing in the morning Gower & I wandered over the ship, exploring the lower wards. A hospital ship is a very wonderful thing, but when I saw the swinging iron cots & realised the stuffiness of the lower decks even when empty, I was thankful that fate had not ordered me to serve on a hospital ship. We heard during the morning that our voyage was going to be much longer than we had hitherto supposed, for the Britannic, being too large to put in at Malta, would go straight to Mudros…

I felt no especial pang when I saw England disappear; it was all part of the hard path which I have assigned to myself to tread. So that my chief sentiments were much those of Roland’s verse written from my point of view (how truly prophetic He did not know) & which came into my mind as I stood on the boat deck–

I walk alone, although the way is long,
And with gaunt briars & nettles overgrown;
Though little feet are frail, in purpose strong
I walk alone.

And again I had that very strong feeling that in spite of the long distance that there was to be between me & all the people I loved, I was not really going very far away, and that no separation, so long as those who were separated were still on earth, could be so very great.[2]

Ah, but she is being brave. Looking back, Brittain will admit to terror.

Now that the perils of the sea were really at hand, the terror that had hung over me since I volunteered for foreign service and for one grim second had gripped me by the throat when Betty told me that we were going to Malta, somehow seemed less imminent. The expensive equipment of our cabins was illogically reassuring; those polished tables and bevelled mirrors looked so inappropriate for the bottom of the sea… it was difficult on so warm and calm an evening to convince one’s self that at any moment might come a loud explosion, followed by a cold, choky death in the smooth black water…[3]

 

This is a young imagination, only–although the threat of submarines is all too real. But young Bim Tennant, as polished and bevelled a young man as any mother could wish for, is really dead.

Today, a century back, his hasty grave was consolidated by the survivors of his battalion. His commanding officer’s letter to the family is the first of many letters of condolence which Lady Glenconner will receive and later excerpt in her memoir:

… We all loved him, and his loss is terrible. Please accept my deepest sympathy. His Company was holding a sap occupied by Germans and ourselves, a block separated the two. Bim was sniping when he was killed absolutely instantaneously by a German sniper. His body is buried in a cemetery near Guillemont. The grave is close to that of Raymond Asquith, and we are placing a Cross upon it and railing it round to-day. Forgive this scribble, we are still in action, and attack again to-morrow morning. Bim was such a gallant boy.

Yours very sincerely,

Henry Seymour,

Lt.-Col., 4th Batt. Grenadier Guards.[4]

 

Perhaps, with Bimbo Tennant dead and buried and the Somme not yet behind us, this is a good time to turn to an officer-writer I’ve been neglecting. Arthur Graeme West is as near to the temperamental opposite of Bim as we are likely to find. A gentle, quiet, middle-class Public Schoolboy, West had gone to Balliol and taken an interest in modern philosophy and radical politics. After some soul-searching he had tried for a commission in 1914, but was turned down, like so many others, due to poor eyesight. But the Public Schools Battalion accepted him, and he saw the trenches in 1915, including hard fighting over the winter of 1915-16. Not much of his writing from this period, however, is available, and so we met him only briefly in the spring.

It was then that West was commissioned and trained as an officer, despite his increasingly strong feeling that the war was inexcusable murder. And so, ironically, he missed the slaughter of his old unit on the Somme. He arrived in France earlier this month, an unwilling subaltern of the 6th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and we will now begin to have somewhat regular reports on his feelings and doings.

West is hard to get a handle on–in part because of the vexed nature of the publication of his writing–but by now he is certainly firm in his central conviction: that war is wrong, its evils mitigated neither by heroism nor by the stoic virtues of sacrifice and endurance.

How can a man with such views lead other men? It’s hard to tell; for the time being he works through his problem as if it were his problem alone.

Sunday, Sept. 24th 1916. A Tent.

I am very unhappy. I wish to make clear to myself why, and to thrash out what my desires really tend to.

I am unhappier than I ever was last year, and this not only because I have been separated from my friends or because I am simply more tired of the war.

It is because my whole outlook towards the thing has altered. I endured what I did endure last year patiently, believing I was doing a right and reasonable thing. I had not thought out the position of the pacifist and the conscientious objector, I was always sympathetic to these people, but never considered whether my place ought not been rather among them than where I actually was. Then I came back to England feeling rather like the noble crusader or explorer who has given up much for his friend but who is not going to be sentimental or overbearing about it, though he regards himself as somehow different from and above those who have not endured as he has done…

“This war is trivial, for all its vastness,” says B. Russell, and so I feel. I am being pained, bored, and maddened—and to what end? It is the uselessness of it that annoys me. I had once regarded it as inevitable; now I don’t believe it was, and had I been in full possession of my reasoning powers when the war began, I would never have joined the Army. To have taken a stand against the whole thing, against the very conception of force, even when employed against force, would have really been my happier and truer course.

The war so filled up my perspective at first that I could not see anything close because of it: most people are still like that…

Most men fight, if not happily, at any rate patiently, sure of the necessity and usefulness of their work. So did I
once! Now it all looks to me so absurd and brutal that I can only force myself to continue in a kind of dream-state;
I hypnotise myself to undergo it…

Even granting it was necessary to resist Germany by arms at the beginning—and this I have yet most carefully to examine—why go on?

Can no peace be concluded?

Is it not known to both armies that each is utterly weary and heartsick?

Of course it is. Then why, in God’s name, go on?

…The argument drawn from the sufferings of the men in the trenches, from the almost universal sacrifices to duty, are not valid against this. Endurance is hard, but not meritorious simply because it is endurance. We are confronted with two sets of martyrs here–those of the trenches, and those of the tribunal and the civil prison, and not by any means are the former necessarily in the right.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Golden Virgin, 446.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 328-9.
  3. Testament of Youth, 295-6.
  4. Memoir, 238.
  5. Diary..., 109-11.

Tom Kettle Writes “To My Daughter Betty;” Raymond Asquith on Patrick Shaw-Stewart, Lady Desborough, and Notre Dame D’Amiens

I haven’t yet written of the Irish writer and politician (and “wit… scholar… orator,”[1] barrister, journalist, and economist) Tom Kettle–and I’m sorry for it. Like Francis Ledwidge, he was an Irish patriotic active in the drive for Home Rule who nonetheless saw it as his duty to fight for Britain against Germany. Unlike Ledwidge, Kettle was famous and influential, a friend of Joyce and a member of Parliament. Thirty-four at the outbreak of war, he chose nonetheless to serve as an infantry officer. Yesterday, a century back, knowing that his battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers was about to go into battle for the first time, he wrote a sort of political testament, explaining how his service–and possible death–in a British uniform should further the cause of Ireland. Today he addressed the possibility of his death in a more personal way while also placing it in the largest possible context: he wrote to his three-year-old daughter, and of salvation.

 

To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God

In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your Mother’s prime.
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
To die with death. And oh! they’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.

 In the field, before Guillemont, Somme
September 4th, 1916

 

And I should leave it there–and would, but for a crossing… not of paths, but of references. A century on, we wreak mischief on the mischievous. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, still far off in the East, wrote a letter today, a century back, in which he enclosed the citation for his Croix de Guerre. He has been honored for his courage and general usefulness as the liaison officer to the French 17th Colonial Division–which is no mean honor, unless of course it is more or less pro forma for a well-liked and well-connected officer…[2]

High praise from the far-flung French–but he is being cut down rather closer to home. Raymond Asquith, Shaw-Stewart’s less-than-intimate friend and pseudo-rival (Asquith may feel as if Shaw-Stewart is the newer, inferior model of the socially climbing Eton-Balliol society wit) is full of opinions today.

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
4 September 1916

. . . I’m glad you approved my contribution to Ettie’s book–an almost impossible thing to write even tolerably and probably, after she has doctored it, even less presentable than it originally was. She told me that she was going to cut out a bit in which I had said that Billy was insolent (as he most assuredly was) and as far as I recollect, the excision is bound to make nonsense of some of the least infelicitous paragraphs.

“Ettie” is, of course, Lady Desborough, mother of Julian and Billy Grenfell and society queen of the prior generation (she is to the Souls as Diana Manners is to the Coterie). Lady Desborough was always more than a bit much, and she is now assembling a memorial book for her sons, who were both killed last year. This trajectory–from hostess and symbol of society living to semi-public mourner and keeper of her sons’ flame–is now all too common.

Asquith is rude here, but hardly as rude as he could have been. He has submitted with near-grace to writing panegyric for two younger friends about whom he had a mixed sort of appreciation, to say the least. “Ettie’s” transmutation–from carefully eccentric inspiration for various pseudo-artistic men to full-time whitewasher of her sons’ memory–might be risible if it weren’t, in almost the correct classical sense, tragic. Asquith is much younger than Lady Desborough and positioned as an older friend of her sons rather than a younger admirer of her… but he has son of his own now. He is writing, after all, to the wife of a serving soldier and the mother of a boy who will have to go, if the war lasts into the mid-thirties…

So the fun-making, here, is in a minor key.

But there are other targets of opportunity in this mopping-up operation.

She also told me that she was going to put in Dunrobin and some of Bron’s houses as places where B and J and I had had fun together—which perhaps lends some colour to your charge of snobbery. As a matter of fact Ettie is a snob in the same simple harmless sense as Patrick [Shaw Stewart]. She meant to give her sons the best mise-en-scène from a worldly point of view which could be had and I suppose she wants people to know that she succeeded as she certainly did. She promised me the book but has not sent it–probably it is too big to travel.[3]

So our Shaw-Stewart, mailing home his citation, is only a harmless sort of snob. It’s an odd comparison–or, rather, Asquith is working with an odd definition of “snobbery.” He is citing Desborough–wife of a lord, lady in waiting, famous personality, wealthy landowner in her own right–with social climbing (or aesthetic scene-setting), and then declaring this to be a forgivable sin. It’s not that she looks down, but that, for her sons, she looks around, and arranges…

If that is snobbery, what, then, do we call a political scion hobnobbing with royalty?

I had a pleasant enough sojourn in A[miens]. Oliver and I and Sloper got the Prince to lend us his car. We went in on Saturday afternoon, got excellent rooms with soft beds and hot baths, and had several very well cooked meals and some drinkable champagne. The town was seething with other officers from the division and we rollicked about on Saturday night visiting the ladies of the town who provided a certain amount of amusement, but without (you will be glad to hear) any loss of chastity on my part or indeed on that of most of my companions.

amiens

Notre Dame D’Amiens in 1916, with sandbags (Imperial War Museum)

With Ettie Desborough and her sons and Patrick Shaw-Stewart thus taken care of–and a favor from the Prince of Wales to clear the palate[4]–the cantering rhythm of Asquith’s letters now resumes.

On Sunday night we drove back again and today in rain and wind have resumed the ordinary drudgery arid beastliness of life. It was pleasant to get back even for 24 hours to the decencies and indecencies of civilisation. The cathedral is very beautiful, but the first thing one instinctively looked at on seeing it was the sandbag barricade in front of the doors to see whether it was properly built according to the classical canons of trench architecture.

Tomorrow we have a Brigade Field Day. Yesterday there was a successful British attack on Ginchy and Guillemont[5] and if they capture Lenze-Wood (I don’t know yet whether they have done or not) comparatively open fighting may set in.

We have been put at 3 hours notice to move, but that happens so often that I don’t think it means anything.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chesterton, albeit via Wikipedia.
  2. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 173-4.
  3. It is--Google claims it is over 600 pages but, despite its being long out of copyright, does not reproduce it. Lady Desborough's "Pages from a Family Journal" was privately printed and seems to be quite rare.
  4. Which isn't snobbery, I realize. I fail to score a point on Asquith on the counter-riposte: for Asquith to pretend he were not acquainted with the prince and that borrowing his car would not be useful would be a truer sort of snobbery.
  5. There was, and the Master of Belhaven was firing in support--Blunden's battalion's failed attack was on a different portion of the front).
  6. Life and Letters, 291-2.

Vera Brittain on the Need to Nurse; Rowland Feilding in Rouen; A Raid on the Devonshires; Matters of Praise and Preference for Edward Thomas and Raymond Asquith

Vera Brittain brings her brother up to date, today, on her recent, momentous decision. Things sound a little less mystical, here, as she presents her internal deliberations for outside approval.

1st London General Hospital, 19 April 1916

You may be surprised still to see the same old address after all–for in the end I have not left here, and am not leaving. Although everything was so nicely arranged for me to leave, I changed my mind and like the erratic weathercock I may seem but really am not, almost at the last moment agreed, as they wished, to stay. The reasons for so doing are rather hard to give–but you yourself well understand, I think, motives of sentiment and conscience, which are difficult to explain but impossible to disobey and keep one’s self-respect and peace of mind. Roland was partly the cause–for I still seem to belong to Him just as much as when He was living, and though He is dead He still has more power over me than anyone who is alive. No sooner had I decided to leave here than the strong conviction came over me, quite against my reason, that somewhere He was living still, & knew and disapproved. The conviction grew stronger & stronger until I could not read His letters or quote His poems or favourite quotations, especially that one on Patriotism, without inwardly reproaching myself for leaving what was hard…

The first two people on this Hospital’s foreign service list have just been ordered to France, so it looks as if they are beginning to draw from here at last. That makes me all the more content that I am not going away from here, as though I don’t in the least imagine I should enjoy foreign service or underestimate its hardships, monotony & loneliness, I should have felt ashamed to think I had given up the work just when the  chance it holds of going abroad was emphasized. Unless anything unforeseen occurs my opportunity probably won’t come for some months–but if the present rather cheery estimates of the length of the War that one hears on all sides are at all correct, it is bound to come in the end.

Of course, when I go abroad from here, I am just as likely–perhaps more so–to go to the East as to France. I only wish that, if I am fated to be sent to the other side of Europe. I could first make a pilgrimage to His grave, as you have done. I feel that if only I could see that

‘Corner of a foreign field
Which is for ever England’[1]

for me, I should not mind what happened, and should be strengthened & inspired to face a lonely life–without interest or hope in itself. Do you think the Germans will ever get through to Louvencourt & ravage it before we have a chance to see His grave?

Next Sunday is Easter-Day. I think perhaps one may celebrate even more than one could last year, the Resurrection of England–an England purged of much pettiness through the closeness of her acquaintance in these days with Life and Death.[2]

It’s hard, for once, for even the most convinced cynic to scoff at the aptness of Brooke‘s pretty poetry. If we come to bury smooth and sentimental phrases that ease the swift conversion of promising young men into “sacrifices” for the national war aims, well… don’t we also hope to praise any words that give consolation to their bereaved? As for the ready application, by a convinced agnostic, of the core of Christian theology to social and political criticism, well, that’s a different matter.

 

Ten days after landing at Le Havre, Rowland Feilding continues his slow return to the trenches with a visit to one of the great cathedral towns of the rear areas. Nôtre-dame d’Amiens was the 1914 and 1915 favorite (and will remain so), and Nôtre-dame de Rheims is the tragic front-line shrine. But Rouen, beloved of Monet, is no slouch either. And Rouen has other delights for medieval-minded tourists.

April 19, 1916. Bois des Tallies (near Bray-sur-Somme)

Claude_Monet_-_Rouen_Cathedral,_Facade_(Sunset)

Monet, Rouen Cathedral at Sunset, 1893 (Wikipedia)

We left Rouen at half-past three yesterday afternoon with 1,400 troops on board. I was O.C. train, so had a reserved compartment, which I shared with one of my subalterns. I had never seen Rouen before and was greatly impressed by the Cathedral. I visited the “Place du vieux Marché,” where Joan of Arc was burned, the spot—a couple of yards or so from a butcher’s stall—being marked by a slab over which people walk;—no more.

I reached the Entrenching Battalion this afternoon, about forty-four hours after leaving Harfleur, after a wet and muddy march of 6 1/2 miles through comparatively treeless country of the dreariest variety. The day has
been horrible, and the cheerless aspect of the camp upon our arrival was most dispiriting. My servant describes it as a “wash-out,” and it is! Perhaps it will improve when the weather gets better. It is 3 1/2 to 4 miles behind the firing line, from the direction of which the rumble of the guns can be heard…

I hope my first jaundiced impression of the place will prove to have been influenced—more than I can bring myself to believe at present—by the disgusting weather and the long and tiring journey;—to say nothing of my disappointment at not having been sent straight back to the 1st Battalion, as I had hoped.[3]

 

Three brief literary notes to round us out.

First, today, a century back, was “an unnecessarily perfect day” for Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, now reunited and stationed behind the line in Bray–until a sudden German bombardment began tearing up the trenches around Mansel Copse, near dusk. Hodgson’s friend Harold Rayner was up in it, leading a working party which now had to defend itself against a German raid. The raiding party had crept into a hollow near the front line under cover of the barrage and then charged into the British trenches, killing or injuring sixty-five. Eight missing men were likely captured, a boon for German intelligence.

We’ll read the sketch describing the raid when Hodgson writes it, but the historical forerunner to the fiction will have real consequences. Between the physical damage to the trenches and the uproar caused by the German success, the Devonshires’ next turn in the trenches will be grueling… [4]

 

The last two short notes are each of little interest in and of themselves, but they nicely illustrate the web of recommendation and personal praise which connects so may of our writers. First we have Edward Thomas writing to Walter de la Mare with the first direct evidence of his, er, complicity in de la Mare’s belated attempts to win his friend some official patronage in the form of a government pension. And who would we guess that de la Mare hopes to enlist in this effort?

Hut 3
Hare Hall Camp
Romsford

19 April 1916

I have asked Jones & Evans to send you copies of Jefferies, Swinburne, Rest & Unrest, The South Country…  I take it you will send them to Marsh or wherever they are to go. I have got leave from tomorrow till Saturday. Just time to see the children.

E.T.[5]

Eddie Marsh again–and that won’t be the only familiar name with whom de la Mare will correspond.

 

Finally, Raymond Asquith has been asked for his help. Bad enough–but the task might involve bad writing, and that cannot be tolerated. He confides in his wife, Katherine:

Intelligence,
G.H.Q.
B.E.F.

19 April 1916

Today I had a letter from Ettie [Desborough] asking me to contribute an appreciation of Billy and Julian [Grenfell] for a book she is making about them. It was a charming letter but it is a terrible request. I suppose I must try to put something together, but I have such a bad memory for the individual incidents or characteristic sayings which alone can make memorial prose tolerable.[6]

Reader, he will manage it nonetheless.

Is this good writing? Yes. Is it honest? Well, then.

But it’s a nice reminder of the distinction between public and private prose:

It was easy to idealize Julian, because superficially he seemed to be built on very simple lines.  One might have set him up in a public place as a heroic or symbolic figure of Youth and Force.  In reality he was far too intelligent and interesting to be a symbolic figure of anything.  His appetite for action was immense, but it was a craving of his whole nature, mind no less than body.  His sheer physical vigour, as everyone knows, was prodigious.  Perfectly made and perpetually fit he flung himself upon life in a surge of restless and unconquerable energy.  Riding, or rowing, or boxing, or running with his greyhounds, or hunting the Boches in Flanders, he ‘tired the sun with action’ as others have with talk.  His will was persistent and pugnacious and constantly in motion.  His mind, no less, was full of fire and fibre; lively, independent, never for a moment stagnating, nor ever mantled with the scum of second-hand ideas, violent in its movements but always moving, intemperate perhaps in its habit but with ‘the brisk intemperance of youth’.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This is Rupert Brooke--but, dear reader, you recognized the quotation, from the 1914 sonnets, and already one of the most popular bits of English poetry.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 249-50.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 71-2.
  4. Zeepvat, Before Action, 170-2.
  5. Poet to Poet, 220.
  6. Life and Letters, 259.
  7. This is from, I believe, the "Memoir" that Lady Desborough published; I found it here--spoiler alert.

An Invocation of Robert Nichols; Edward Thomas Enjoys His Shrunken Horizons; Vera Brittain on the Fruits of Labor and the Danger of Brooke; “Dads” Congreve is on the Attack

We shall soon have a new poet in France. Robert Nichols (Winchester, Trinity [Oxford]) is fairly typical of our New Army subalterns: twenty years old at the outset, gently bred, poetical–and certain that his destiny must bring him into the great combat of the age. Nichols is of the mildly Romantic/rebellious subset of Public School Boys, however–a self-styled pagan in the manner, perhaps, of Rupert Brooke–and he was not physically robust. But he was determined to join the army, so, like Siegfried Sassoon, he made good use of a horsey local major. The same retired officer who doubted his ability to march with the infantry gave him a crash course in horsemanship and then smoothed his way into the horse artillery, and by the end of August Nichols had been commissioned into the Royal Field Artillery, a member of Kitchener’s First Hundred Thousand.

New artillery units were equipped more slowly than infantry units, and required much more extensive training to get into fighting shape. Naturally, Nichols remembered this as an idyll:

That year of training is the happiest I have so far experienced. I had everything (save one) the heart could possibly desire–the sky over me, beautiful horses, loyal companions in the men, an officer whom I intensely admired as my major, a definite and, in its way, noble creed–for I never thought of killing: if ever I thought of the future I was merely certain that I should be killed.

A common certainty, and one born as much of childhood reading as from the increasingly dire news from the front. In a way, this is as good a one-sentence recapitulation of the New Army subaltern’s first-year mindset as we could ask for: happiness and horses and comradeship in the open air; hero-worship and tragic Romantic certainties.

Such a first year also provided a great deal of time for writing, and Nichols breaks a bit from the familiar mold of the poetickal subaltern in his early success–he has gotten himself published before getting himself into battle.[1]

 

Invocation

Courage born of Fire and Steel,
Thee I invoke, thee I desire
Who constant holdst the hearts that reel
Beneath the steel, beneath the fire.
Though in my mind no torment is.
Yet in my being’s hazard mesh
There run such threads of cowardice
That I must dread my untrue flesh.
Therefore possess me and so dower
The sword’s weak spot that the true blade
May not in least nor direst hour
Betray the spirit unafraid.

This poem appeared today, a century back, as something of a harbinger: The Times has seen fit to publish a special “War Poems Supplement,” which put Nichols among such famous names as Robert Bridges, the reigning Poet Laureate, and our two pole-star elders: Hardy (‘Song of the Soldiers’ [i.e. ‘Men Who March Away‘) and Kipling (‘For all we Have and Are’). There are younger men, too, names familiar (Walter de la Mare) and more familiar still: Julian Grenfell‘s Into Battle is, of course, re-published as part of the collection.

It can hardly stand out, this “Invocation,” among such august company. But it should. Older men–non-combatants–must cede much of their enormous literary authority when it comes to describing the feelings of the warrior. (And the glorious dead occupy an entirely different category of influence.) If there is a young man in uniform standing humbly in the rear of the literary horde, shouldn’t the stout men of the fore-front open up their ranks and permit him to advance?

Which is why it’s important that Nichols does not make the mistake that Brooke did (so say I, and Edward Thomas, and Charles Sorley, although pretty much everyone else still loved it…) and proceed directly from pre-martial introspection to the prettily-posed contemplation of death, with no real combat-questioning in between.[2]

 

Nichols considers his own death, but instead of indulging in an almost masochistic savoring of the prospects of  martyrdom, he squarely addresses the challenge that will be posed before death might come–the test of combat itself. It’s a formal poem in rather stilted diction, but it’s also honest and comprehensible: I want to be brave, and I intend to be, but I fear the weakness of the flesh.

 

Speaking of Brooke, and Brookeishness, Vera Brittain is indeed having second thoughts. But first–having committed much of herself to the tedium and unpleasantness of war work–she is pleased to report hard-won words of encouragement.

Monday August 9th

I was paid a little reward to-day for all the work I have done at the hospital. When Nurse Olive & I were doing Smith she said she had saved him up for me to help her because she likes me to help her best, she then  said “We do miss you when you go off, it’s just like one of us. No other V.A.D. has been much use to us before! In fact we could get on much better without the majority of those who have been here!” I was pleased, naturally, as I suppose it shows a certain amount of adaptability and is at any rate getting near a proof of my dictum that a person of real intellect can do anything he or she chooses.

It’s the turn from the emotional and physical demands of nursing to the thought of intellectual promise that does it, I think:

…I had been subconsciously hoping that Roland would not see or hear too much about the Rupert Brooke poems because I knew all that they would make him feel. He could do as good work himself–and though I would not draw him back now if I could, yet when I think of his abilities and possibilities and of how his wonderful youth and life and personality may be shot into nothingness any day, any hour, I get fiercely angry at the waste of it. It is true that this kind of machine war is a trade.[3]

This is passing strange, given that she has several times recommended the poems to Roland. Forgetfulness? Dawning realization and a guilty conscience? Odd.

And as for the idea that the war is a “trade” and thus unworthy of the sacrifice (that Brookean word) of the brightest of bright young things, well. Perhaps it’s true, but why should this, of all the terrible dawning realizations about the war, be a cause for despair? It could even be made light of: Charles Sorley has (mostly) shelved his poetry and hidden his intellectual lights under a bushel, but, as we have seen, he is quite capable both of making light of all this tedium and labor and of seeing Brooke’s achievement for what it is.

Oh you are clever, Roland and Vera, but young, perhaps. Younger than Sorley, although the same age. Looking backward, it is hard to understand why Vera would keep crying up Brooke only to worry that his fame would discourage Roland. And yet, their relationship has always been marked by a bit of sparring–flirtation through intellectual challenge. Can that be part of what is going on? Vera has seemed devoted, almost submissive in many of her recent letters. But she will neither surrender her right to intellectual enthusiasms nor her commitment to supporting–with tactical goading, if necessary–Roland’s future intellectual achievements.

 

And in London, today, Edward Thomas of the Artists’ Rifles catches up on his correspondence.

My dear Robert

I am a real soldier now, inoculated and all. My foot has come round & I am rather expecting to go right through my 3 or 4 months training & already wondering what regiment I shall get a commission in. It seems I am too old to get a commission for immediate foreign service. That is, at present. They are raising the age by degrees. As things are now I should spend at any rate some months with my regiment in England, perhaps even find myself in one only for home service. But I want to see what it is like out there.

That last sentence is a bracing reminder that this project is not–not yet, at least–utterly off course. Edward Thomas should have other things on his mind–and he does. Or did. The months-long agonizing at the turning of the two paths was harrowing, but, now that he is in uniform and under drill and discipline, the immediate worries about family and livelihood have faded, and–as we will read in a moment–the edge is off his new poet’s hunger to achieve recognition. In their place he recognizes (and, writing to Frost, is able to honestly admit) the same simple desire foregrounded in the writings of so many younger men. It’s war. It’s the great event of the age. It’s the stuff of… all my my boyhood reading, all my youthful self-questioning. I want to see what it’s like out there.

It has made a change. I have had 3 weeks of free evenings & haven’t been able to get my one surviving review written. The training makes the body insist on real leisure. All I am left fit for is to talk & cleaning my brass buttons & badge. Not much talk… The men are too young or the wrong kind, mostly…

I stand nearly as straight as a lamp post & apparently get smaller every week in the waist & have to get new holes punched in my belt. The only time now I can think of verses is on sleepless nights, but I don’t write them down. Say Thank you…

The letter turns to a discussion of mutual friends and literary acquaintances, and of what they are doing with their time now. It’s not so subtle, is it? Thomas is no braggart, and no pitiful measurer-by-other-mens’-reputations either. But now the means of measurement have changed. He respects other literary men based not on what they have recently written but on whether or not they have chosen to volunteer. Several men that he now mentions are overage, but others have simply chosen not to answer Kitchener’s call. There is only Masefield–like Thomas, he is married, well into his thirties, and supporting children–who has chosen full-time hospital work, and Hulme, the one soldier that Thomas mentions here. (Thomas knows that he has been to France, but not yet, apparently, that he was wounded and has returned.)

Excusable, certainly: the war has intruded upon life, and life choices are now lording it over mere writing. Thomas implies that he has let himself be swept along, once again, onto the easier path, the path now being travelled by thousands: “You are not going to tell me I ought to have had the courage not to do this.”

No. But I’m not best pleased that, in this very same letter, he is a bit snide about the loyal, loving, and ever-helpful Eleanor Farjeon, describing her as “distributing herself about the country–as usual”–even as he writes her the usual sort of breezy, confiding letter.[4]

In this, Thomas gives Farjeon much the same impression of his new state of physical and mental simplicity. The relief of service, or servitude?

My dear Eleanor

…I am now beginning to wonder what regiment I shall get a commission in. But I shall hardly get to camp in much less than a fortnight. So we ought to meet in town…

How can you walk in this weather? I never knew it so close and these patent-leather-lined caps don’t improve it… I have conspired with God (I suppose) not to think about walks and walking sticks or 6 months or 6 years hence. I just think about when I shall first go on guard etc. I simply can’t do my one review.

Yours ever Edward Thomas[5]

Thomas is not writing, and were he to scribble down those late-night verses, they would not discuss Fire and Steel and Death. For now he chooses simply to march–not walk–and to avoid all thought of what may come after.

 

We’ve been in England often enough, these past few weeks, and the Dardanelles as well. But, fatuous or not, the war of position grinds on in the bleakest bits of Belgium. The 6th Division launched a pre-dawn attack this morning, a century back. The objective was, once again, the Hooge crater, retaken by the Germans not two weeks before.

It’s no longer such a small army, but it can still feel like one. In operational command of the assault was “Dads”–Major General Sir Walter Congreve. Billy will be seeing him tomorrow, to discuss the family trade as it pertains to the mine-shattered, corpse-strewn wasteland of the southern salient. We will hear details of the assault then.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Charlton, Putting Poetry First, 39.
  2. I have no evidence that anyone reading this blog enjoys my Monty Python references, but it has just occurred to me that Rupert Brooke's poetic arrival might well be imagined, from an elevated critical viewpoint, as looking much like that of the Judean People's Front Crack Suicide Squad.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 231-2.
  4. Elected Friends, 88-9.
  5. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 154-5.

Inferno at Hooge: Donald Hankey Takes One for the Honor of the Brigade and Billy Grenfell Leads the Charge; Congreve and Conan Doyle on the Aftermath of the German Assault; Lady Feilding Abandons the Afterlife; Ford Madox Hueffer Is Changing His Tune

Before we get to an overflowing daily cup of horror and death at Hooge, a brief note and a surprising letter.

First, in an echo of Henry James’s recent bureaucratic vote of allegiance, Ford Hermann Hueffer took a patriotic legal action today, a century back. He’s already English, despite the continental affinities and German ancestry and libels to the contrary. But his name sure ain’t. So,today, he changed it by deed poll. And no: not to the name under which he later became known and under which his great war novel is published. That would be too convenient! Unwilling, as of yet, to remove his surname, he instead swapped out his German middle name for that of his eminently English (what could be more eminently English than a pre-Raphaelite?) grandfather Ford Madox Brown. He had been using it for years anyway, but this officious change presages other official action. Almost there![1]

Next, Lady Feilding. Dorothie Feilding is often cast here as the gay socialite, an occasionally charming, occasionally wretched combination of flightiness and fearlessness. (Largely by dint of her own self-presentation, I hope it’s fair to say.) But, as several of her letters to her father have shown, she is far from mindless or shallow. And–as today’s letter to her mother demonstrates–she has not refused the challenge of matching the faith of childhood–Catholicism, in her case–with the present horrors of war.

Friday for sure July 29th I think
(30th really) [30 July]
Mother dear–

I got your long dear letter last night for which many thanks it was a help too because one’s poor mind & judgement is rather inclined to get lost in the dark & inclined to chuck it up at times.

What I mean is, that although the war brings one closer to prayers, doesn’t diminish one’s faith as a Catholic in the smallest degree, it makes one rocky over the root principle of any after life at all, or rather seeing the suddenness & completeness of death so often & so very close to one, somehow does away with the whole theory of a future of any kind. Why should there be one? There isn’t any need for one for us any more than for any other animal. But I do believe the need of religion in a race because it brings out alt the noblest & the best morally & incidentally stands for betterment & continuance of the whole race generally doesn’t it?

This, it seems, is–however friendly and polite–a wholesale apostasy. There is no future, so let us now give religion practical praise for it humanitarian effects.

Therefore I think that even if there is no future existence at all, one has no right to squander one’s life or let things slide, or humanity as a whole would go to pot.

See what I mean? It’s seeing Death in such numbers & such simplicity that makes me think this. Because somehow the fact of Death in the abstract has no ‘fear’ now like it used when one thought about it in the old days. But although still wanting to do the square thing on earth it doesn’t seem to not. It just doesn’t matter anymore somehow. I think people just live & do their best & then die & there’s an end of it–it seems so easy to believe in God but no need for heaven!

This is quite something. To write this to her mother–the mother of a full handful of children serving in danger zones–is to gently propose a complete break. Does Dorothie Feilding have it in her to be a rebel?

Dear me how complicated it’s all getting–I’d better leave it! Because after all I am one in many millions & I don’t really count or matter what I finks.

Have had a quiet day today–haven’t been shot at once & haven’t seen an obus nearer than 500 yds or found more than one ‘malade’ [patient] to conduct..

Much love

DoDo[2]

 

So Lady Feilding has lost her faith–at least the specific Christian faith in a tangible afterlife–because of her long experience with sudden death.

Now, reading is not living, and the traumas it conveys are impersonal (an uncrossable divide) and many orders of magnitude less intense. Reading here on a daily basis (bully for you!) is supposed to deepen your understanding of the past and increase your sensitivity to the literature of this period. Which, in turn, might make one more sensitive to the varieties of human experience.

Does literature humanize? Well, I suppose we’ve turned the flank of the very question I was going to get to (and will now permit to retreat, though Lady Feilding has helped us put it in enfilade): does all this miserable suffering, this pointless killing, challenge one’s faith? In god, in religion, in the afterlife, in political processes, in truth, in humanity?

 

A new devilry today, and a horrifying post-script to the efforts of the 3rd Division at Hooge. More than a week after he was on hand near the crater when a minenwerfer hit the bomb store, Billy Congreve is in reserve when the bad news comes in.

Early this morning the Germans attacked the 14th Division in Hooge, and have apparently captured the whole place. It’s too sickening. I heard the 8th R[ifle] B[rigade] are the people who lost it… We have no news at present of what actually happened, but there is a rumour that the Germans used Flammenwerfer–liquid fire.

This time the rumors were true. Today was the first time flamethrowers–a weapon of which it is especially hard to write–were used on British troops. Death is death, but there is something particularly fearful about men being engulfed in liquid flame. As a technology, flamethrowers are in their infancy, and will, mercifully, never really grow up,  never prove to be a broadly useful means of murder. The ammunition is enormously heavy, the range of the weapon is limited, and it is very dangerous to its users. But it is terrifying, more resistant than other weapons to measured and careful historical prose.

So, despite the reality of the Flammenwerfer‘s deployment today, a century back, and the very real death of scores of men as the German forces stormed the crater’s lip behind the flames, I’m going to turn the describing over to one of our highly colorful “historians,” Arthur Conan Doyle.

It is clear that the Germans mustered great forces, both human and mechanical, before letting go their attack. For ten days before the onset they kept up a continuous fire, which blew down the parapets and caused great losses to the defenders. On July 29 the 7th King’s Royal Rifles and the 8th Rifle Brigade manned the front and supporting trenches, taking the place of their exhausted comrades. They were just in time for the fatal assault. At 3:20 in the morning of July 30 a mine exploded under the British parapet, and a moment afterwards huge jets of flame, sprayed from their diabolical machines, rose suddenly from the line of German trenches and fell in a sheet of fire into the front British position.

congreve july 19 1915crop

Billy Congreve’s sketch showing the British positions (shaded) around Hooge. The German assault today focused on the crater, but then pushed south of the road.

The distance was only twenty yards, and the effect was complete and appalling. Only one man is known to have escaped from this section of trench. The fire was accompanied by a shower of aerial torpedoes from the Minenwerfer, which were in themselves sufficient to destroy the garrison. The Germans instantly assaulted and occupied the defenceless trench, but were held up for a time by the reserve companies in the supporting trenches. Finally these were driven out by the weight of the German attack, and fell back about two hundred yards, throwing themselves down along the edges of Zouave and Sanctuary Woods, in the immediate rear of the old position…

Congreve, Hooge

An earlier sketch, showing the relative position of Hooge, Zouave Wood, and Sanctuary Wood

The position gained by the Germans put them behind the line of trenches held upon the British right by two companies of the 8th Rifle Brigade. These brave men, shot at from all sides and unable to say which was their parapet and which their parados, held on during the whole interminable July day, until after dusk the remains of them drew off into the shelter of the prophetically-named Sanctuary Wood. [bottom right of Congreve’s sketch, at right.]

Another aggressive movement was made by the German stormers down the communication trenches, which enabled them to advance while avoiding direct fire; but this, after hard fighting, was stopped by the bombers of the Riflemen.

Conan Doyle now describes the attempts at a quick local counter-attack, always tactically advantageous due to the difficulty of consolidating new positions under artillery fire.

The two battalions of the 41st Brigade, which had just been relieved and were already on their way to a place of rest, were halted and brought back. They were the 8th King’s Royal Rifles and the 7th Rifle Brigade. These two battalions had been eight days under incessant fire in the trenches, with insufficient food, water, and sleep. They were now hurried back into a hellish fire, jaded and weary, but full of zeal at the thought that they were taking some of the pressure on their comrades…

 

We have a man in the 7/Rifle Brigade. Donald Hankey had missed the Flammenwerfers by a matter of hours, and he and his battalion had just reached their billets near Vlamertinghe–at around 3:45 AM–when the orders came to return and prepare a counter-attack.[3]

This would be their first attack, and Hankey will soon write about it in a newspaper piece entitled “The Honour of the Brigade.”[4]

The battalion had had a fortnight of it, a fortnight of hard work and short rations, of sleepless vigil and continual danger. They had been holding trenches newly won from the Germans. When they took them over they were utterly unsafe. They had been battered to pieces by artillery; they were choked with burst sandbags and dead men; there was no barbed wire; they faced the wrong way; there were still communication trenches leading straight to the enemy. The battalion had had to remake the trenches under fire. They had had to push out barbed wire and build barriers across the communication trenches. All the time they had had to be on the watch. The Germans were sore at having lost the trenches, and had given them no rest. Their mortars had rained bombs night and day. Parties of bombers had made continual rushes down the old communication trenches, or crept silently up through the long grass, and dropped bombs among the workers. Sleep had been impossible. All night the men had had to stand to their arms ready to repel an attack, or to work at the more dangerous jobs such as the barbed wire, which could only be attempted under cover of darkness. All day they had been dodging bombs, and doing the safer work of making latrines, filling sandbags for the night, thickening the parapet, burying the dead, and building dug-outs…

They had not grumbled. They had realized that it was inevitable, and that the post was a post of honor. They had set their teeth and toiled grimly, doggedly, sucking the pebble which alone can help to keep at bay the demon Thirst. They had done well, and they knew it. The colonel had said as much, and he was not a man to waste words. They had left the trench as safe as it could be made. And now they had been relieved.

Well, I’ve already told you what happens next:

At last they reached the field where they were to bivouac… Away in the distance could be heard the incessant rattle of musketry, mingled with the roar of the big guns. No one heeded it. A motor-cycle appeared at express speed. The colonel was roused, the company commanders sent for. The men were wakened up. Down the lines the message passed: “Stack valises by platoons, and get ready to march off in fighting order; the Germans have broken through.’ The men were too dazed to talk. Mechanically they packed their greatcoats into their valises, and stacked them. The Germans broken through! All their work wasted! It was incredible. Water bottles were filled, extra ammunition served out, in silence. The battalion fell in, and marched off along the same weary road by which they had come. Two hours’ sleep, no breakfast, no wash, no drink.

Here’s where “patriotic propaganda” may intrude on what has been a fairly reserved “spirit of the battalion”/no rest for the weary piece. Or is it wrong to be so skeptical?

A captain said a few words to his men during a halt. Some trenches had been lost. It was their brigade that had lost them. For the honor of the brigade, of the New Army, they must try to retake them. The men listened in silence; but their faces were set. They were content. The honor of the brigade demanded it. The captain had said so, and they trusted him.

They lay down behind a bank in a wood. Before them raged a storm. Bullets fell like hail. Shells shrieked through the air, and burst in all directions. The storm raged without any abatement. The whistle would blow, then the first platoon would advance, in extended order. Half a minute later the second would go forward, followed at the same interval by the third and fourth. A man went into hysterics, a pitiable object. His neighbor regarded him with a sort of uncomprehending wonder. He was perfectly, fatuously cool. Some- thing had stopped inside him. A whistle blew. The first platoon scrambled to their feet and advanced at the double. What happened no one could see. They disappeared. The second line followed, and the third and fourth. Surely no one could live in that hell. No one hesitated. They went forward mechanically, as men in a dream. It was so mad, so unreal. Soon they would awake…

It appeared that there was a trench at the edge of the wood. It had been unoccupied. A couple of hundred yards in front, across the open ground, was the trench which they were/ attacking. Half a dozen men found themselves alone in the open ground before the German wire. They lay down. No one was coming on. Where was everyone? They crawled cautiously back to the trench at the edge of the wood, and climbed in… The storm raged on; but the attack was over. These were what was left of two companies. All stain on the honor of the brigade had been wiped out—in blood.

There were three men in a bay of the trench. One was hit in the leg, and sat on the floor cutting away his trousers so as to apply a field dressing. One knelt down behind the parapet with a look of dumb stupor on his face. The third, a boy of about seventeen from a London slum, peered over the parapet at intervals. Suddenly he disappeared over the top. He had discovered two wounded men in a shell hole just in front, and was hoisting them into the shelter of the trench. By a miracle not one of the three was hit. A message was passed up the trench: “Hold on at all costs till relieved.” A council of war was held. Should they fire or lie low? Better lie low, and only fire in case of attack. They were safe from attack as long as the Bosches kept on firing. Someone produced a tin of meat, some biscuits, and a full water-bottle. The food was divided up, and a shell bursting just in rear covered everything with dirt and made it uneatable. The water was reserved for the wounded. The rest sucked their pebbles in stoical silence.

The survivors of 7/Rifle Brigade held these trenches for the rest of an interminable, hot day. Stretcher bearers appeared

and took away one man, an officer. The rest waited in vain. An hour passed, and no one else came. Two were mortally hit, and began to despair. They would die before help came. For Christ’s sake get some water. There was none to be had.

After night fell, the survivors limped, or crawled back to their own lines, the honor of the brigade–if not quite the line itself–restored

So, now: what is this piece, “The Honour of the Brigade?” Does it belong here, today? Is it fiction? Personal history?

Well, the author has an opinion, which he tells us rather directly:

Note.—The action described in the above article has been identified by correspondents at the front, and so it is necessary to state that although based in the main on an actual experience, features have been freely borrowed from other occasions, and the writer has no authority for placing the construction that he has on the main event.

So we have permission, essentially, to use these descriptions as historical evidence–but only loosely.

This is too modest, however. I think Hankey is refusing to vouch for his stylistic choices more than he is denying his own reliability. It doesn’t read like history, so it can’t possibly be history…  but this idea we can firmly reject, with our very superior post-modern understanding of the genre.

As for the “features,” well, we would err in using specific events in the piece as battalion history. But why would we? And what are these pieces of evidence? Hankey prefers the impressionistic style, and exact events are hard to come by. Which, again, may lead to his demurral but sounds to us, a century on, like a fairly strong recommendation: if you want to know what flank was where on the map, read the battalion history, or Doyle’s quickie, or ask Billy Congreve–but if you want to know what the terror of that confused attack was like. Well.

So it doesn’t feel like a violation of historical principle to announce that the man wounded in the leg “is”–“was,” “represents”–Hankey himself. He has written a scrupulously modest “battle piece” in order both to express “what it was like” and to praise “the spirit of the battalion.” (By all accounts they fought well, despite their failure in an impossible assault.)

Writing in propria persona, after recovering from his wound, Hankey is again unduly modest:

As a matter of fact I wasn’t much good out at the front. I grumbled horribly. I had one good asset, which was that when things became dangerous my nerves (such is my perverse nature) stood quite still. But I had no aggressive valour. The day we charged I had no frantic desire to get at ’em! The whole thing seemed so absurd, and I started off knowing quite well that I should get hit, and not minding very much. The week before we had been under very heavy shell fire and lost a good many men; but that time I knew perfectly well I should not be hit! It was very odd. I felt absolutely certain about it, and wouldn’t have minded going anywhere.

Accounts by other survivors place more emphasis on Hankey’s valor:

Corporal Hankey was splendid. He was badly wounded early in the fight, and was advised to go to a dressing station. He stuck to his post, although the serious wound in the leg must have given him great pain. While he could hold his rifle he remained, and it was only when darkness fell that he would consent to go back. Many others were wounded two or even three times before they would give in.[5]

So Hankey is now a writer who has survived a long day in s scratch trench, bleeding copiously, desperately thirsty, and keeping his head down. This is the stuff of manly virtue and grim pride in the corporate achievements of the company, the battalion, and the brigade. It’s also the stuff of a long war of attrition.

 

Next to the immediacy of this experience, even history of the stirring-strains variety is pale stuff. Back to Conan Doyle:

There had been three-quarters of an hour of intense bombardment before the attack, but it was not successful in breaking down the German resistance. At 2:45 P.M. the infantry advance began from the wood, all four units of the 41st Brigade taking part in it. It is difficult to imagine any greater trial for troops, since half of them had already been grievously reduced and the other half were greatly exhausted, while they were now asked to advance several hundred yards without a shadow of cover, in the face of a fire which was shaving the very grass from the ground. “The men behaved very well,” says an observer, “and the officers with a gallantry no words can adequately describe. As they came out of the woods the German machine-gun fire met them and literally swept them away, line after line. The men struggled forward, only to fall in heaps along the edge of the woods.” The Riflemen did all that men could do, but there comes a time when perseverance means annihilation. The remains of the four battalions were compelled to take shelter once more at the edge of the wood. Fifty officers out of 90 had fallen. By 4 P.M. the counter-attack had definitely failed.[6]

 

We have one more man, however, in the 41st brigade, and he was among those fifty officers. The Hon. Gerald William Grenfell–Julian‘s little brother Billy–led a platoon of the 8th Rifle brigade on that doomed counterattack.

Julian and Billy as pages, 1897

Julian and Billy, dressed as pages for a fancy dress ball, 1897

Billy was killed in a charge to take trenches near the Hooge crater. Leading his platoon, he attempted to cross the 250 yards of open ground under terrific machine-gun fire. He had gone 70 or 80 yards when he pitched forward dead.

So Billy is dead too, now, in his first severe action. I know of only a few of his letters, and he had no defining production like Julian’s Into Battle. It’s almost as if the deaths now are coming too quickly to be properly registered–who is Billy? Who was Billy? He was an athlete and he had been a leading light in his class; he was a handsome, popular young man. Many of their mutual, friends found Billy at once more approachable and more brilliant than Julian (others, naturally, disagreed). But I really have no place to “put” him. He’s Julian’s little brother, dead in his first assault, no more than two months into his war.

So forgive a desperate and rather maudlin connection, a weird attempt to grasp at chords of memory: Billy, like so many boys of his age, had seen and read Peter Pan.

He was a public school boy, a scion of the aristocracy, a confident and cheerful young elite. He promised to be an excellent officer as well. Earlier this month he had written that “Darling Julian is so constantly beside me, and laughs so debonairly at my qualms and hesitations. I pray for one-tenth of his courage.” He seems to have received it, and more.

As his platoon assembled in a sjallow trench, preparing to assault strong, uphill positions over an old battlefield well marked for the artillery and machine guns, he might have had a moment of pause. A moment of fear. It’s one thing to act up to the expectation of fearlessness on the playing fields, and even in the trenches. But to realize that you are about to charge into the open is to be alone. What did he feel?

Back to Peter Pan.

Peter Parker, in The Old Lie, his book on “The Great War and the Public School Ethos,” brings two scenes into play. One puts Billy Grenfell in company with Wendy, mother to the Lost Boys. Both exhort their troops as they stare into the face of death. Grenfell, before today’s charge, is reported to have said “Remember you are Englishmen. Do nothing to dishonour that name.” And Wendy, with the boys about to walk the plank:

These are my last words. Dear boys, I feel that I have a message for you from your real mothers, and it is this, “We hope our sons will die like English gentlemen.”

Close, but then again Admiral Nelson gave similar advice another century back. More striking, perhaps, than the similarity in these (reported) exhortations, are Peter Pan’s thoughts at the moment he has grown up enough to lead by sacrifice. Stranded on a rock, buying time for Wendy’s escape, he experiences his first moment of fear. And masters it, with words that–maudlin, maudlin, but what can I do–will echo through this war:

To die will be an awfully big adventure.[7]

So a children’s play seems awfully prophetic–but the juxtaposition relies heavily on an uncertain foundation. The report of Billy Grenfell’s last words is second or third hand, and I have yet to see it securely sourced. So too the description of his gallant charge, which I have taken from Viola Meynell’s book on Julian Grenfell.[8] I’m not sure that it isn’t more or less imaginary, based, in all likelihood, on the posthumous praise of brother officers, whose letters to next-of-kin tended to portray even hopeless actions as meaningfully infused with valor and dash and certainty. But, then again, there is no reason to suspect that he did not say something quite like Wendy, or think like Peter, or lead from the front and die in the commission of an act of gallantry, like his big brother.

But Billy is dead, and with him die the details, as well as the subjectivities of his experience. The writer who survives can write a waist-high pile of memoirs, while the man who is wounded–like Donald Hankey–can tell the story of that day, one way or another (or both). But–and here’s the strange perspective that this project grants–death is not only the extinguishing of a life and the beginning of new misery for those who loved the dead: it’s also an event horizon for war writing.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Saunders, Ford Madox Ford, 486.
  2. Lady Under Fire, 97-8.
  3. Kissane, Without Parade, 150-2.
  4. "The Honour of the Brigade" is available here, in what must be an American edition, its honor bereft of its "u."
  5. See The Letters of Donald Hankey, available here.
  6. Conan Doyle, The British Campaign in France and Flanders, Vol. II; available here.
  7. See Parker, The Old Lie, 91.
  8. Meynell, Julian Grenfell, available here.

Roland Leighton Heads South, and Vera Brittain Hears From–Not Of–Him; Grenfell the Younger on Brooke; Dorothie and Rowland Feilding Each Witness Sudden Death From the Blue

First, relief.

Tuesday July 20th

I had a short letter from Roland at last this morning, written in a great hurry. He says he is at present leading ‘‘too peripatetic an existence” for letter-writing.[1]

And that’s it. Vera Brittain‘s relief swamps any backwash of anger at being left in a state of desperate worry… what can you do? How should we–amidst the dark puzzle of front line movements, the mysterious morass of home front anxiety, and the unknowable enigma of others’ intimate relationships–come to decide the right of this?

What should she say? “Write more often! Never mind the danger, exhaustion, and endless responsibility–I have been desperate with worry!”

And, of course, he has been writing. Forgetting, perhaps, how terrifying a lack of news might be, Roland made the unfortunate decision to save up fragments until they amount to a decent letter.

For our part, well–sure, we would like see whole thoughts and decent prose. But Vera… has felt differently. Letters can be many things, the act of writing can encompass so many different forms of communication–including, most simply, proof of life. That was all, at this point, that Vera wanted. Roland, living danger in real time, was thinking of something else:

France, 18-21 July 1915

Your letters to me are like an interrupted conversation; and I remember afterwards in odd moments what you said, and wonder sometimes if you get tired of talking to a phantom in the void who does not answer or show that he has understood.

Yes, I too thought about Speech Day… so much… This letter is bound to be scrappy, I am afraid, as it has to be written at odd moments. We are back again now at B[urbure] where we were for some little time a week ago or more… We were down farther to the South for 4 days (when I last wrote you an inadequate epistle with the postcard) just at the junction of the French & British fines. I went up to the trenches and through our lines to the French, passing a sentry in khaki on one side of a small traverse and another in sky-blue two yards further on. There is no dividing fine except just the change of uniform.

I went along some of the French trenches just for curiosity and found everybody very enthusiastic and loquacious and unshaven. I had quite a long talk with two or three of the men. They seemed less inclined to grumble than ours, more resigned to the inevitable perhaps, as men who had well counted the cost of such a war, conscious that they were fighting on French soil still for their national existence.

Monday 19th

Am writing this in the train. We left Burbure this morning and the battalion is going South again — but much more so, to a district where no British troops have yet been. There are French soldiers at all the stations, who cheer us as we pass. It is a glorious day & very hot…

I’ll elbow in with historical context, here: as Kitchener’s Army comes to France, the British are–as they had promised their allies they would–gradually taking additional portions of the line from the French. In time the British sector will spread all the way to Picardy, and the banks of the Somme…

Roland, unaware that his contemplative silence is causing “agony” in Buxton, now manages a little traveling lyricism:

Very picturesque country round here. The sky was wonderful as we came along an hour ago — deep blue with mackerel spots of light gold clouds in the west meshed like gold chain-armour on a blue ground, and below on the horizon a long bar of cloud so dark as to look purple against the sun. Why are sunsets more beautiful usually than sunrise?[2]

He’ll wrap it up tomorrow…

 

Billy Grenfell, younger brother of Julian, wrote to his parents today, a century back. He may be young and relatively new to the trenches, but his parcel-requesting and trench reading habits have come quickly up to speed:

St. Jean la Bièye, July 20th, 1915

We are for the reserve trenches on the ramparts of Y[pres] to-morrow, quite comfortable, I believe, though full of insects. There is fine bathing, one general shop, and unique opportunities to study the ruins. You cannot imagine how tawdry unvenerable ruins are, fragments of chests of drawers and house-maids’ cupboards, instead of skeleton oriel windows. It looks like a spring uncleaning…

The Tiptree jam is awfully good. I like the strawberry and blackberry best. Do send a few good novels… send some of Thomas Hardy‘s that I have not read. I adored ‘Bealby,’ and Rupert Brooke‘s poems. What a fiery poignant spirit, and how unassuaged by this life; I do not remember anything so nakedly personal since Catullus. It don’t appear he was ever in love, but had drained ‘love’s sad satiety’ to the dregs. His sonnet to the Dead is lovely…  God, he he felt...[3]

Billy, here, seems willing to spread it on broadly–anything sort of jam, and anything from Hardy’s tragic novels to Brooke’s “fiery” poems of sacrifice. Julian admired Brooke too–but after Julian’s “sacrifice” it means something more, perhaps, that Billy is so admiring of Brooke’s glassy-eyed sonnets. Which are written less to “The Dead” than to–and by–the lustfully, nearly dead.

 

And for Lady Feilding, today, another close call.

Tuesday 20th about

Mother dear–

Today, our usual & almost uncanny luck held good again. It was at Pervyse & the old house with the cellar that you saw up near the station, well the cellar is all stove in now & full of water, with no roof & a child’s cradle & a red cotton umbrella floating mournfully in the dirty water. It all looked so disconsolate I wanted to photograph it for you as it now is & you must thank that photograph when you get it for saving our lives.

We had just stopped inside the doorway to do the photo when a clutch of four shells fell at intervals of 10 yds apart up the road we had just been standing on. Half a minute sooner & we simply couldn’t have helped being hit. A sentry who was standing there was killed, poor soul. Dr Jelly was there & did what he could for him at once, but the artery in his neck was cut & he died in a few minutes. If only he had had the tiniest chance of life, we might have made the whole difference being there, as our car was a 100 yds off & we could have taken him right away.

One woman’s near miss is another soldier’s death. And since Lady Feilding is our only medical services writer who is generally close enough to witness shells arriving, we get a new species of the near-miss: the near-survival. Men are killed outright–or given immediately fatal wounds–all the time, but many die, too, in the long minutes it takes to get them to the aid post. Another centimeter and this would be a story of unmitigated providence, with Lady Feilding and Dr. Jellet on the spot. Another centimeter.

As it was it was all very gruesome. It’s hard to get accustomed out here to the extraordinary swiftness of death. It takes someone like that a few yards from you & then perhaps in a few minutes you are right away, in a new atmosphere & perfect safety & in different surroundings with people laughing & talking & it seems a century since one stood alongside death.

But somehow out here the thought of it doesn’t frighten me an atom as it would have in the old days. It just seems natural & one never thinks about it. But it makes it very hard to realise the existence of a future life, or rather the need for one. After all, people are alive one moment & cease to be the next & why should there be any kind of future? When one sees Death in ones & two in every day life, there seems some sort of necessity for something further, but now that Death deals in hundreds & thousands one thinks of people as being the same of any of God’s other creatures, & why we should have anything more than any of the other animals is hard to understand & honestly I don’t understand.

You’ll think I’m barmy but I’m not–I am just writing what I think at the moment.

Yr DoDo[4]

Au contraire. These letters home are unguarded, unliterary, far less “intended for publication” than any other we have read. Somehow or another our self-fashioned ditzy aristocrat has become our most authentic old soldier, showing us a series of thoughts that any soldier who finds himself caught in the strange (historically speaking, since war once had predictable rhythm) non-cycle of open-ended attrition will eventually have. First, death is everywhere and begins to seem inevitable. Next, it begins to seem as if “The future”–a normal subject of speculation for young people–is too fantastic to really be considered. It will begin to float away. The question is: just allow it to float away, and chase it down après la guerre, or fight to keep those old dreams in view?

 

Finally today, and still, alas, on the subject of truncated futures, Dorothie’s second cousin Rowland Feilding saw something much worse:

July 20, 1915. Bethune

At ten last night we were relieved and marched to Bethune, where, at 2.30 a.m., I got into an exceedingly comfortable bed in a house with a lovely garden…

The Germans have been shelling Bethune daily of late, and heavily. No doubt they would argue that the women and children ought to have been evacuated long ago, and perhaps they ought: but the fact remains that they have not, and it makes my blood boil to see this useless and vindictive shelling of the towns that the enemy has initiated.

This morning, as I looked out of the window, some fifty children were playing on an open space outside. Suddenly, the shells began to fall. There was immediately a general scuttle of the children to their mothers and their homes, but two little ones were killed, so I have since been told. It is dreadful to think that men can drop shells callously on such surroundings.

This afternoon, the shelling was repeated. My host’s old wife was out shopping at the time, which naturally made him anxious. I went down and talked to him in the garden, and he took me and showed me a shell crater just over his garden wall, made the day before yesterday.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 222.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 131-2.
  3. Housman, Letters, 116-7.
  4. Lady Under Fire, 92-3.
  5. War Letters to a Wife, 26-7.

Edward Thomas Chooses His Road; Billy Grenfell is Jaunty about Horror; Lady Feilding Yearns for Relief from Beastliness & Sorrow; Lord Crawford’s First Crisis; Edward Hermon Has a Present for the Kiddies

Sunday 11 vii 15

My dear Robert,

You have got me again over the Path not taken & no mistake.  I can only plead that if you now speak the truth then I had good cause for being in two minds at the start. If only there weren’t so may causes for not saying exactly what one thinks. And then comes the difficulty of saying it when one knows. But as to this can I doubt if you can get anybody to see the fun of the thing without showing them & advising them which kind of laugh they are to turn on…

Edward Thomas is writing to Robert Frost once again, and he is very happy to concede the truth of their recent disagreement over The Road Not Taken. It had been almost entirely of his own neurotic manufacturing anyway. But dear me is it thematically appropriate: Edward Thomas was the man in the yellow wood, and he has hesitated to the very last. But no longer.

Last week I had screwed myself up to the point of believing I should come out to America & lecture if anyone wanted me to. But I have altered my mind.

I am going to enlist on Wednesday if the doctor will pass me. I am aiming at the ‘Artists Rifles’, a Territorial battalion, chiefly for training officers. So I must let them make an officer of me if they can.

This is easier to do than to come out to you & see what turns up. But it will train me for the greater step.–I wish I could explain how it came about. But I don’t quite know. Also a long explanation would be very superfluous if I got refused. I shall write again at he end of the week, as far as I can see. If I am rejected, then I shall still perhaps come out in September…

No explanation–and I can offer no help here. Thomas the critic, the prolific letter writer, the autobiographer, the intensely inward poet, is vociferously silent on this, offering several different friends version of this demurral. The hesitating, despairing wanderer–in this middle of his life–through so many dark woods–wrote nothing more explicit about how exactly he finally chose his path. Such analysis is probably impossible for him. To act is all, and the wave of relief afterwards might wash away the fact that there was no decisive intellectual movement behind it.

The fact that he temporizes so immediately also indicates that he didn’t really experience any sudden movement of his soul. In the end he seems to think that he has chosen the less foreboding path. (It’s certainly the one currently more traveled by.)

Which seems a little nuts–joining the army during a war of attrition is easier than going to stay with a friend in America and pursue the same hardscrabble literary life?

But it isn’t mad, really. To go to America and make no money and have no impact would be to accept that he had failed completely in his attempt to be a writer on his own terms. And it would mean that he would have to beg, essentially, to support his family–a frightening prospect, and one that loomed in the foreground.

Thomas is averting his gaze from the realities of the war: there is little chance of being sniped or bombed or blown to bits in New York or New England. But in the short term he is choosing–fairly rationally–the less frightening prospect.

You won’t mind this kind of scrap under the circumstances. I am clearing things up preparatory. What it will mean is a couple of months in England, a couple of months or more in France & then if I am fit, a commission: if not probably no more than guard duty at headquarters in France. So I am told. I don’t believe everything I am told (except buy you). The English camp is Richmond Park near London, where you may remember in my autobiography–where I fished & got herons’ eggs.[1]

Rational–to a point. To think back to his autobiography of roaming childhood because of the coincidence is… natural. But this is war, Edward. Sure, some training, a commission, some more training… but it will not end soon, and avoiding danger will be difficult. However much he thinks of England, he is still going to France.

Still: in the mean time there is no pressure to publish, a salary that can go almost entirely to Helen and the children, and an identity that, however little it might be worth to him, will be instantly satisfying to the vast majority of the English public. He will go for a soldier…

 

Julian Grenfell is dead, and he has become a name to conjure and categorize with, here–the polite but bloodthirsty warrior. His younger brother Billy is of the same mold, and has now gained some experience in the trenches. We’ll keep an eye on him when we can, and there is a letter today to his parents, Lord and Lady Desborough, which shows much of his brother’s fascination with the “truths” of violence, as well as a sharp eye for anecdote:

Do you know, I had not seen a corpus vile since I was fifteen, at the Morgue, and dreamed of it for weeks afterwards. I guess you could not show me much new now in that line. I had to bury five K.R.R.’s [King’s Royal Rifles] one afternoon in a shell-hole in full view of the Germans. I longed to signal that we were making a sepulchre and not a fort. However, we got it done somehow, and read the burial service. That same evening we collected 28 British rifles in a little wood in front of my trenches, mostly tightly clasped by their late owners…

My servant is ex-footman to Lady Beecham. The other day he was getting me some afternoon tea, when a “crump” crumped most effectually the dug-out in which he reposes 18 hours out of the 24. I have forbidden him to mention his ‘providential escape’ to me again, under pain of being returned to duty…

Darling Julian is so constantly beside me, and laughs so debonairly at my qualms and hesitations. I pray for one tenth of his courage. All love to everyone.[2]

 

Lady Feilding has been out many long months longer.

July 11th, Fumes

Father Dear–

I was feeling very gloomy just now & wishing I was dead, when I got such a nice long letter from you & full of interesting enclosures. Thank you so very much…

Life here is much the same & the old line never changes. There is only Dr Jellett With me & the faithful Helene, our minion, in the Fumes house now. He is rather cantankerous & tiring at times but a good old thing. He’s got an awful Irish temper though & is very ‘rough’ which is rather ‘enervant’ [irritating] at times. We do a lot of night work these days, now it’s not dark till 10 or later, it’s seldom we turn in before lam at earliest.

I went to see Peter 2 days ago which was nice & found him happy & scabby. Also relieved to find he had a nice ‘safe’ job at present always something to thank the Almighty for.[3]

Now Dorothie, writing to her soldier father, rather turns the tables on mother, who had been drawn by Dr. Jellett into a conspiracy to worry about Dorothie’s health. Dorothie Feilding has three brothers, and all are, like their father, serving in the armed forces: “Rollo” in trenches in France, “Hughie” in the navy, and “Peter” now recovering from his accidental wounding by Edward Hermon.

She also has SIX sisters. Although Dorothie has been driving ambulances and working as a nurse/orderly since the early fall, several of them are now seeking similar employment, including her sister Clare (“Squeaker”), who is set to join the Red Cross.

When home the other day I thought Mother was looking rather worn out, she will do too much & sits writing endless letters till 3 or 4 in the morning. I am so sorry really to hear Squeaker is going to do a Red X job, it made a big difference to Mother having her there & stopped her being too lonely. If Squeaks goes to London it will be ghastly for Mother all alone…

This is positional pleading, embroiled in large-family dynamics that I can’t pretend to understand. But Dorothie, who is relentlessly cheerful with her mother–indeed, she writes a short, chipper note to mum today as well[4]–quickly gives up the complaint/concern and, once again, opens her heart to her father:

Oh Father dear, I wish this ghastly business was over. Even when it is over, God knows what will be left to us, it’s almost simpler for those that get blown up, I think it’s easier than for those that are left with just a heartache.

This is an idea that, perforce, we will revisit again and again. Suffice it to say that the infantry and the civilians disagree–with less and less cordiality–on this question. But there is no one in our little galaxy of war writers better positioned to comment on the idea from a middle ground, a no man’s land between suffering and abandoned anxiety: Lady Feilding shares some of the danger of the front line troops, but nothing like a full measure of it; she is close enough to tend their filthy, shattered bodies, and she stands to lose friends, comrades, and brothers. It’s a lot.

It’s so late & I must go to bed I suppose.

I do wish I could come & see you for a little bit & get away from all this beastliness & sorrow.

It’s the endlessness & futility of it that is so despairing.

Good night dear & God bless you & keep you safe.

Yr loving Diddles
Such a big hug[5]

 

Another bit of irony, then, that this decorated veteran volunteer orderly struggles with despair on the very day that another aristocratic volunteer–who has scorned the work of women volunteers–experiences his first rush of casualties. It’s Private Lord Crawford‘s first rush at the Casualty Clearing Station:

Sunday, 11 July 1915

Two hundred cases arrived today. I was in the theatre all day–five cases under anaesthetics, two of amputation of fingers, two on one man, three from another–also a terrific bullet wound entering the back of the thigh and issuing above the knee after travelling round thigh bone. This operation was conducted with promptitude and skill by Dawson, but it is still likely that the man will lose his leg.

What sights, what horrors, what a continuous nightmare these convoys of wounded men pouring in, batches of fifteen, twenty and thirty –weary fellows stumbling down our entrance passage on the verge of collapse then shown to a stretcher where they subside in complete coma. Their clothes are taken off and washed, often destroyed in the incinerator. They are given hot beef tea, and, as far as circumstances permit, the orderlies wash them where they lie.

Then there is the stretcher case–the man who can’t walk and has to be carried from the car to the stretcher allotted to him in our ward, one doesn’t see the tragedy so markedly in these cases–something like a corpse passes–it is anonymous and too passive to make an impact on the imagination. Those, on the other hand who can walk, have the wan haggard features of paralysis–a curious stiffness of countenance as though the mobile features of the face, particularly the mouth, had been frozen, eyes likewise are glazed.

This is good writing for a man who has just spent his first day among war’s horrors. What he doesn’t add–although perhaps he could–is that his stomach (as well as the rest of him) seems to have stood the first test. Not that coping with the traumas of others is the same as facing the death and dismemberment of one’s self–but for some it is more difficult indeed.

Tomorrow he will describe the strain of this day’s “tremendous effort:”

I am afraid there are signs of excessive hilarity which mark our reaction from stress… my opposite number, who has been doing the work of ten men, has imbibed too freely—some of the NCOs are too often the worse for liquor. I confess I laughed like a fool when a merry man from the next tent tied Pte B…….. by his braces to the tent.[6]

 

Finally, Edward Hermon wrote home today, a century back,  as he does so regularly. Mostly to complain about having to polish up for a drive-by parade for Lord Kitchener. But, oh yes–he should explain about this little present for his son Bob:

What a capital letter from old ‘Bet’. I sent her a cheque for a birthday present and old Bob a French bayonet, taken by one of my men from the body of a dead man lying between the two front-line trenches when they went out on patrol the other night. Rather gruesome, especially as it is some months since he fell. However it is a memento. I hope he will like it, but I would suggest it being firmly nailed to the nursery wall.[7]

Bet and Bob are about ten and nine, far too young to pry gory bayonets from the nursery wall and chase each other howling around the house…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Elected Friends, 78-9.
  2. Housman, 116.
  3. Some irony there, but a man can't be blown up at bomb school twice, can he?
  4. There is evidence, however, that she later did away with angry or petulant letters.
  5. Lady Under Fire, 88-9.
  6. Private Lord Crawford, 20-21.
  7. For Love and Courage, 63.

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.

Charles Sorley Writes Two Sonnets, Taking On Brooke and Death; Wilfred Owen Finds Beauty in the City

I heap praise upon Charles Sorley here for the sharpness and precocious wisdom of his letters. Ah, but he writes verse as well. He had been bound for Oxford on a scholar’s course–his father was a professor–and perhaps poetry would have become, as it does for so many, a hobby of late childhood, gradually abandoned. But while the business of training and preparing for war as a subaltern in a New Army battalion precluded serious scholarship and long-form writing, it didn’t prevent him from writing the occasional verse. And these verses–while not as smooth and musical as those of some of our professionals–convey Sorley’s uncompromising intellectual power. Today he writes to his mother about this writing–and to tell her that he has just completed another poem.

13 June 1915

Many thanks for your letter. I’m afraid I think your proposal undesirable for many reasons. The proposal is premature: also I have at present neither the opportunity nor inclination for a careful revision and selection. Besides, this is no time for oliveyards and vineyards; more especially of the small-holdings type. For three years or the duration of the war, let be. Nevertheless I send further contributions.

So–Mrs. Sorley has proposed a slim volume of her son’s poems. Charles demurs, for reasons good and less good. True–he can hardly be sending proofs back and forth from the trenches. But the smallness of his poetic demesne is a debatable excuse. Sorley is no major poet, yet, but though always judicious he is not incapable of modesty. And he is being less than honest with his “oliveards and vineyards” remark. His poetry is adapting to the war–as these “further contributions” (on which see below) will attest.

…Could you get me and send out to me Richard Jefferies’ Life of the Fields: it kept me company at Jena eleven months ago…

Before parting with it, I advise you to read the first two: “The Pageant of Summer,” and “Field Play.” And could you send me my little red copy of Faust: some baccy for me and some more Woodbines pour les hommes? [i.e. for the men in his platoon.]The Franco-Flems of this district are a nice lot: and wash one’s clothes daily: and darn one’s socks: and improve one’s French.[1]

Richard Jeffries–a Victorian nature writer and champion of the English countryside–is avidly read by several of our poets. But perhaps Sorley wishes to return to Jeffries to clear the palate, as it were, for he has not been writing pastoral. Here is yesterday’s poem, untitled and so known simply as “Two Sonnets:”

I.

Saints have adored the lofty soul of you.
Poets have whitened at your high renown.
We stand among the many millions who
Do hourly wait to pass your pathway down.

You, so familiar, once were strange: we tried
To live as of your presence unaware.
But now in every road on every side
We see your straight and steadfast signpost there.

I think it like that signpost in my land
Hoary and tall, which pointed me to go
Upward, into the hills, on the right hand,
Where the mists swim and the winds shriek and blow,
A homeless land and friendless, but a land
I did not know and that I wished to know.

If we imagine our new cohort–the New Army subalterns who, a short year ago, had no thought of a military career–to be developing a distinctive voice, this would be a very good example. Sorley sees death, but he does not flinch at the sight. He and death will be intimate, one way or another, but he is determined to keep calm, to keep his considerable wits about him.

See, there, I’ve done it again–Sorley is not the voice of his generation, or even the voice of the brightest and most forward-thinking young temporary lieutenants. He’s his own voice, and this sonnet is a wary one, not a stab at the spotlight. Religion and poetry are placed firmly to one side, right from the beginning. The civilian’s yawning church service is no good now, nor the fevered pallor of the poets–and I think we know whose the “intertext” is, here.

Sorley has not been shy about his opinion of Brooke, and the second line, above, is surely best read as a swift and silent put-down. Brooke stands accused of “whitening”–prettily, to be sure–at death’s “high renown.” Sorley is not a skilled verbal innovator, but I’d still wager that those two words are intended to be part of the dismissal of Brooke–fine old words that retain, after long use, more sonority than sense.

As for Sorley’s own view, it’s the last words here that are the key, the turn: “and that I wished to know.” It could be that the poet is still confessing naivete–are you sure, now that you are within the sound of the guns, that you wish to know death better? Perhaps, but it’s also the natural continuation of his quiet certainty that knowledge–truth–is what he’s after. We’re in the land of death–let’s not be ignorant about it.

II.

Such, such is Death: no triumph: no defeat:
Only an empty pail, a slate rubbed clean,
A merciful putting away of what has been.

And this we know: Death is not Life effete,
Life crushed, the broken pail. We who have seen
So marvellous things know well the end not yet.

Victor and vanquished are a-one in death:
Coward and brave: friend, foe. Ghosts do not say,
“Come, what was your record when you drew breath?”
But a big blot has hid each yesterday
So poor, so manifestly incomplete.
And your bright Promise, withered long and sped,
Is touched; stirs, rises, opens and grows sweet
And blossoms and is you, when you are dead.

There are very good lines here–“A merciful putting away of what has been” is wonderful and seems to look ahead to Owen‘s slow drawing blinds–and some awkward ones, too. Sorley is not a-one with natural poetic rhythms. But before we move from prosody to argument it’s worth noting that, well, this is poetry–the two can’t be separated.

If this is a good poem (and it is), then the sound of the thing affects the sense. The trotting iambs may be flaws, but if “high renown” is a jab at Brooke’s diction, then “big blot” is a conscious stroke against mellifluousness in favor of an older/harsher/truer sort of music. John Johnston, a major early critic of war poetry–whose reading of these sonnets I generally like–sees this line as an emulation of Hardy, or (less plausibly) Masefield. This is probably the case… and yet it also smacks of biographically-biased criticism. If we didn’t know that Sorley loved Hardy, wouldn’t we see this as an Edward Thomas-like innovation, another disparate first step toward a new post-“Georgian” poetry of plain speech?

In any case the line is anti-Georgian. Or, again, anti-Georgian-if-Georgian-Poetry-Had-Its-Apotheosis-In-The-1914-Sonnets. Sorley rejects sun-dappled fields and incantatory verse and high diction for broken pails and scrubbed slates. Brooke was writing of ordinary things in direction diction a few years back, but never mind–he gave that up for war and fame. Style is the issue, but only conjoined with substance. And the stuff of this poem is war, and death.

Sorley wants to stare death in the face, and to let us see him staring. There are no brilliant flashes of poetic pleasure to dazzle and distract us. And, although at the cost of some clunky lines and at the risk of didacticism, he insists that we see the truth behind Brooke’s lie. There is no flirting with immortality here, only “bright Promise” blossoming into a corpse–a corpse not decently buried by grieving friends in some corner of forever England, but left to rot in “A homeless land and friendless.” Sorley rejects sentimentality and other easy paths. He has, as yet, had even less combat experience than Brooke (who, at least, marched around the outskirts of burning Antwerp). But he has taken a slow and sober path toward the trenches, his eyes open all the time.

I don’t think we know if Sorley has read Julian Grenfell‘s Into Battle, but this generally immortality-denying poem also dips a toe into the afterlife to take on, if not that poem itself, then at least that general sort of battle-loving verse. We might imagine Grenfell’s afterlife as a sort of Valhalla, where the great warriors smugly feast and the lesser spirits whisper about their deeds when they strut by. Sorley instead pokes fun at the idea that ghosts query one another about “your record when you drew breath.” Perhaps he’s getting himself into a tangle here, in refusing immortality yet dragging in the afterlife for wry amusement, but Sorley clearly wants to pack a great many objections to conventional war poetry into a few brief lines. He has the classics on his side, too (there’s a reason I had to reach for a Norse analogy. The Greek heroes take no joy after death, and even Achilles can be found, in “Homer’s” second epic, sorrowfully wishing that he could trade all his glory for a return to life, even as the meanest sort of slave. I don’t think we could expect that sort of postmortem clarity of mind from Grenfell.

But I digress–Sorley is not writing at Grenfell, but at Brooke. And in refusing Brooke’s wildly popular “consolatory elegaic sentiments” he is declaring what might be a major new poetic project. It’s more, certainly, than a modest little vineyard. He hasn’t seen battle yet, but he is girding himself against what it might do to his mind–blunting its hard edges, weakening its tenacious search for truth, tempting its fear-sapped will with cheap consolations.[2]

 

Yesterday’s thoughts may have given birth to another poem as well. Wilfred Owen’s English interlude ended this morning, a century back, as he left London for Paris. He had spent some time at home in Shrewsbury between two London stints on his French employers’ business, and in the last days he had run out of funds. He decided, therefore, to spend much of his last evening wandering the streets of Whitechapel, expecting “ugliness” but finding instead “so much beauty” in the sabbath routines of Jewish neighborhoods. This experience seems to have produced–or at least prompted–a poem, “A Palinode.”

It seems, initially, as if our erstwhile Keatsian has taken a dramatic turn here, writing that

The City now/Holds all my passions; these my soul most feels.

But, as many commentators point out, the Romantics were inclined to praise cities too. And Owen is not simply exchanging the pastoral for the urban: although the image does not appear in “A Palinode,” Owen’s reveries might have been stimulated by his admiration of a handsome youth, a youth of whom he will later write, remembering him as a sort of Adonis of Whitechapel.

“A Palinode” may have been written immediately, or later in the summer, a century back. In any case it is not indicative of a major change of direction. Owen’s verse has never lacked for driving enthusiasm–it’s direction and focus that he needs. The city–and beautiful young men–may in fact be a step closer to his poetic heart than conventional nature imagery or hazy decadence, but it’s not his poetry that has suddenly changed. No: his weeks in England have, naturally, entirely altered his feelings about the war, and about a young English would-be-gentleman’s place in it. He’ll begin writing home again soon…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 273.
  2. See Johnston, English Poetry of the First World War, 64-9. As we can see by following Sorley's letters, Johnston errs in dating this poem to after Sorley's "introduction to the realities of trench warfare." So it's just Sorely's intuition about the coming experience--but perhaps you help "make your own luck" by keeping your foresight(s) clear of misty sentimentality...
  3. See Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 159.

Afterlives Conjoined: Reading Grenfell with Brooke; Roland Leighton Hunts for Snipers and a Place to Put Some Letters; Henri Gaudier-Brzeska is Dead

The Spectator[1] of today, a century back, may have been the first publication to made a certain not unexpected comparison. The article discussed the now-much-bruited Rupert Brooke, and then went on to say that

We find the same thing again in the remarkably beautiful lines which were written by the late Captain Julian Grenfell and were published in the Times last Saturday.[2] Deep feeling and art–something of the art of Chaucerian simplicity–are joined in these lines. Like Brooke, Julian Grenfell did not make death seem preternaturally glorious by contrasting it with hollow life and cruel Nature. He saw life full of companionship and Nature full of smiles and beauty.

That last line is not really a defensible reading of the poem. True, Grenfell did not contrast death with nature and life. But that’s because he was unwilling to take the usual, tacitly hypocritical line that valued death for God and country and right but avoided the inseparable subject of killing. Grenfell saw killing as a joyful and affirming activity, and both killing and dying as natural culminations of life. Which is Homeric, predatory, and not at all amenable to the conventional English morality of a century back, even with its myopic focus on the smiles and beauty…

 

But the Grenfell mood–however misread by fine uplifting journalists back home–has now spread to the sober middle classes. Roland Leighton is, of course, under a pledge of total honesty–but while telling Vera Brittain about a “man-hunt” is therefore necessary, did he really need to show such relish?

Flanders, 5 June 1915

We had a man-hunt late last night or rather early this morning, trying to find a sniper who was firing somewhere just behind our lines. Probably a civilian from one of these pro-German farms, I should think. He had six shots at an artillery officer in the morning, & two at our signalling officer, three at me, and several at odd ration parties during the evening. We sent out search parties to poke around in the ditches and long grass where the report of the rifle seemed to come from, but we had to give it up at 2.0 a.m. as it was getting light already. I wish we could have found him. It would have given me much pleasure to have caught him red-handed and shot him on the spot…

These allegations–of francs-tireurs, yet pro-German–are widespread. Implausibly so. It’s possible, of course, that traitorous pro-Germans were still skulking around, ten months into the war, risking their lives to harass the British… but it would seem more likely that this was a German army sniper either infiltrating British lines or firing at long range from some salient or forward post. It’s impossible to tell… but it’s disconcerting that Roland goes from “probably a civilian” to blood-thirsty dreams of summary execution. Especially considering the subject of the next section of today’s letter:

I have been looking through all your letters this morning. I don’t think I can carry them all about with me, as apart from any question of room there is always a good risk of their getting lost, which I could never forgive myself. There is only one person to whom I could trust them. May I send them to you to keep for me until you can give them back to me again yourself some day… They have meant so very much to me that I do not like to give them up–even to you.[3]

 

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, French Modernist painter and sculptor and friend of several members of the British Vorticist circle, was killed today. Gaudier-Brzeska had hurried home from London at the start of the war and seen a great deal of action, earning two promotions and praise for his gallantry. The report was that he died leading his platoon in a charge…

T.E. Hulme, largely recovered from the bullet wound that had sent him home in April, was once again a figure on the avant-garde scene at the Café Royal in London–an advantage of returning to light duty in a London regiment, the Honourable Artillery Company. Hulme had reveled in the role of pugnacious philosopher-critic and enfant terrible before the war, and he had briefly taken to the animal satisfactions of the life of an infantryman, subsuming his querulous personality and brute strength in physical servitude to war. But he had soured on that life–on, not least, the indignities of powerlessness–before the wound, and he was now seeking a promotion out of the ranks into something more like his social class.

The death of Gaudier-Brzeska was surely a blow, but it was the aftermath that may have influenced Hulme more. It was ugly: Gaudier-Brzeska’s wife Sophie Brzeska (he had taken her name but they had not formalized their marriage in France–how’s that for modernism?) was understandably distraught, and prevailed upon Hulme and Ezra Pound to help assemble her husband’s scattered works. But this task became more difficult when it was realized that the valorous young artist’s death was causing the price of his works to rise. Fame and death are more immediately marketable for the artist than the poet, and every work counted. And when Sophie Brzeska’s grief begins to give way to paranoia and mental illness, the futility and wretchedness of a man’s sudden death will be driven home, the effects of serving one’s country in battle perhaps begin to overshadow the cause…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Cited in Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 318.
  2. There's some confusion, but Saturday the 29th was certainly not the date of the initial publication of "Into Battle".
  3. Letters from a Lost Generation, 119-20.