Scott Moncrieff Returns to London; Alfred Hale Endures Parental Bluster; Wyn Griffith in Red Tabs with Royalty; Vera Brittain on “The Profound Freemasonry” of Those Dead Beyond the Gulf

Today, a century back, we have rather a potpourri of four updates–and none are from the trenches.

First, we witness Charles Scott Moncrieff, now back in London, returning to a familiar literary orbit.

14th June

. . . Broadway (a brother officer here) is very good and faithful to me. He comes down after breakfast in a dressing gown and again (for messages) before he goes out. He has got me this writing pad. Colin came this afternoon and brought a great armful of roses. . . . My friend Robert Ross was in before Colin—fresh from a week-end with the Asquiths—and gave me a novel and a promise of all the latest poetry and other books. I was glad to see him as I wanted an expert’s eye cast on the portraits in this room. . . . I expect a good many brother officers this week. Broadway finds them. He is more obliging than words can say. This place is doing me a lot of good and I feel better already. Our surgeon is like the young villain in Hardy’s Laodicean—he looks about 14 but is very able…[1]

Reading Hardy, depending on Ross’s taste, Asquiths at arm’s reach… and, though he doesn’t mention it in this letter, he is also being regularly visited by Ronald Knox. It’s a small world… which I believe I’ve noted before.

 

While Moncrieff is returning from the war seriously wounded, Alfred Hale is slowly headed toward France. So slowly that he is still in the adjusting-to-training-camp stage. And it turns out that even our Old Man of the Air Force has parents. Hale may live a solitary life of privilege–before conscription that is–and see camp as an ordeal rather than an adventure, but he’s only 41… and he still has parents who write him their worries, reminding us that the generational gulf is, in terms of years on this earth, relative, and not absolute…

14 June: A letter from my father. A cousin had come to see him on Draft leave. He seemed to be bored with the War, especially with the prospect of death before his time from bullets or exposure… all of which surprised and shocked my father. ‘It didn’t matter how long the War lasted, but we must have a military victory at all costs’. (This last the burden of all letters from home)…

Hale senior also tells his son that at least his work as a batman is “setting free an abler man.” But Hale isn’t so sure. “Was I really doing that? Unfortunately, I much doubted it…” Nor is Hale accepting the idea that his music “must gain” from experience. He is fairly certain, in fact, that innocence of certain things is highly preferable…[2]

 

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith has recovered, to some extent, from the overwhelming disillusionment and horror at the murderousness of war that he felt after the death of his brother. Or perhaps he has just become more practical… and honest in his balance of emotional reaction and natural self-interest. In any event, he was very happy to be reassigned to the divisional staff a few days ago, replacing a wounded officer in an intelligence job running “an advanced information centre.” Griffith puts on his red tabs “with delight… I felt proud and important in red. Besides, I would be drawing pay at the rate of £400 a year, a tremendous jump for me.” And today, a century back, his elevated status put him in the way of royalty:

… the King and the Prince of Wales visited the headquarters on 14 June. The King shook hands with all the senior members of the corps and divisional staffs…[3]

 

A wounded young man of letters returning to the literary world, a middle-aged musician learning further humiliations, and a one-time trench fighter content to be on the staff. The war brings many changes–until the changes stop.

Vera Brittain comes to the end of the road, today, with Victor Richardson.

Five days after [his death] Victor was buried at Hove. No place on earth could have been more ironically inappropriate for a military funeral than that secure, residential town, I reflected, as I listened with rebellious anger to the calm voice of the local clergyman intoning the prayers: “Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thine Eternal Rest to all those who have died for their country…”

Eternal Rest, I reflected, had been the last thing that Victor wanted; he had told me so himself. But if, thus prematurely, he had to take it, how much I wished that fate had allowed him to lie, with other winners of the Military Cross, in one of the simple graveyards of France. I felt relieved, as I listened to the plaintive sobbing of the “Last Post” rising incongruously from amid the conventional civilian tombstones, that Edward had not been able to come to the funeral. The uncomprehending remoteness of England from the tragic, profound freemasonry of those who accepted death together overseas would have intensified beyond endurance the incommunicable grief which had thrust us apart.

But when, back in Kensington, I re-read the letter that he had written in reply to mine telling him of Victor’s death, I knew that he had never really changed towards me, and that each of us represented to the other such consolation as the future still held.

Vera then gives her brother the final words of the present chapter of her memoir, ending Edward’s fervent assurance of true brotherly love

I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all, but yet, now that all are gone, it seems that whatever was of value in life has all tumbled down like a house of cards. Yet in Tah’s case I will not, I cannot say that I wished from the bottom of my heart that he should live…

Yes, I do say ‘Thank God he didn’t have to live it.’ We started alone, dear child, and here we are alone again… But we share a memory which is worth all the rest of the world, and the sun of that memory never sets. And you know that I love you, that I would do anything in the world in my power if you should ask it, and that I am your servant as well as your brother.

Edward[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 135-6.
  2. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 95.
  3. Up to Mametz and Beyond, 153.
  4. Testament of Youth, 359-61.

Siegfried Sassoon is Blighty Bound… and Eighteen Other Updates

Although I am almost as tired of writing extremely long posts as you are of reading them, so very many of our writers committed some sort of date-fixable act today, a century back, that I thought I should nod to the fates and survey everyone who showed up.[1]

After we wrap up with Siegfried Sassoon, withdrawn from the Hindenburg trench to the Hindenburg tunnel with a new “patriotic perforation” in his shoulder, and after we read the progress of Edward Hermon‘s widow, I will try to be judiciously brief with the others. Somehow, yesterday, Sassoon was not only seen and treated by the battalion Medical Officer, but was swiftly evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station. Within hours of being held back from an attempted one-man bombing war, he is tucked in and headed for Blighty.

April 17

After a blessed eight hours’ sleep (more than I’d had since last Wednesday) I waited till 5 o’clock reading Far from the Madding Crowd, when we got on board a Red Cross train of serpentine length. Five hundred men and thirty-two officers on board. Warlencourt is eighteen kilometres from Arras—quite near Saulty, where we stayed on April 7. We passed through Doullens about 6 p.m. and Abbeville at 8.30 and reached Camiferes at midnight.

An officer called Kerr is with me—one of the First Cameronians. He was hit in the bombing show about an hour before I got up there on Monday morning, so I’ve got some sidelights on what really happened.

At present I am still feeling warlike, and quite prepared to go back to the line in a few weeks. My wound is fairly comfortable, and will be healed in a fortnight, they say. I know it would be best for me not to go back to England, where I should probably be landed for at least three months, and return to the line in July or August, with all the hell and wrench of coming back and settling down to be gone through again. I think I’ve established a very strong position in the Second Battalion in the five weeks I was with them. My luck never deserts me; it seems inevitable
for me to be cast for the part of ‘leading hero!’

Things to remember

The dull red rainy dawn on Sunday April 15, when we had relieved the 15th Northumberland Fusiliers—our Company of eighty men taking over a frontage of nine hundred yards.

During the relief—stumbling along the trench in the dusk, dead men and living lying against the sides of the trench one never knew which were dead and which living. Dead and living were very nearly one, for death was in all our hearts. Kirkby shaking dead German[2] by the shoulder to ask him the way.

On April 14 the 19th Brigade attacked at 5.30 a.m. I looked across at the hill where a round red sun was coming up. The hill was deeply shadowed and grey-blue, and all the Country was full of shell-flashes and drifting smoke. A battle picture.

Scene in the Hénin Dressing Station. The two bad cases—abdomen (hopeless) and ankle. The pitiful parson. My walk with Mansfield.

Sergeant Baldwin (A. Company) his impassive demeanour—like a well-trained footman. ‘My officer’s been hit.’ He bound up my wound.[3]

As these notes suggest, there will be a good deal more to write about all this.

 

A few days after learning of her husband’s death, Ethel Hermon received the heartfelt letter from his long-time manservant Gordon Buxton.

Dear Buxton,

Your letter came this morning & I can never thank you enough for your loving care of him & your sympathy & prayers. I knew you would be heartbroken & that I should have all your sympathy as you probably knew as well as anyone could know how much we were to each other.

You will by now have had my other letter telling you that I have asked Gen. Trevor… to let you come home if it is possible as I simply long to talk to you… I seem to know all that pen & paper can tell, one just longs to talk to someone who was there…

I should leave it there, as we press on into this massively choral day. To summarize, Ethel also charges Buckin with seeing that her husband’s valuable and useful possessions are distributed to his friends, and that the items that had been personal, close to his body–“the old basin & cover & its contents”–be returned to her. She hopes, too, that he can care for her husband’s grave. Which he will do–and he will come home.

A British tank ditched in the German lines at Arras, IWM

Dear Mrs. Hermon,

I’m sending this note by Buxton who goes on leave today to report to you. He will bring the papers etc. found on your husband…

…a tank was caught up on the German front line… & the Boches were firing at it… there seems little doubt that one these rifle bullets hit your husband just below the heart… The medical officer tells me he thinks a big blood vessel below the heart was severed & that death was almost instantaneous.

Your husband’s horses are being sent to Div. Hd. Qrs with the groom…

I can only repeat how much I feel for you in your irreparable loss.

Yours very sincerely,

H.E. Trevor[4]

 

Kate Luard‘s parade of horrors (we’ve read but a little, lately) has abated, as the Arras push lags. So time for a stroll–and paperwork.

We have had a lull the last two days, and everybody has been off duty long enough to go for a walk in relays and pick Lent lilies, cowslips, and anemones…  I believe another stunt is expected tomorrow…

I got about 60 behind in Break-the-News letters the first few days of last week…[5]

 

Ivor Gurney, realizing perhaps that he is even more lucky to be wounded and out of it than he had thought, managed a post card today to Marion Scott:

Dear Friend: Still at the Base. No certain address. No certain tomorrow. No luck. No money. No damage to my arm, save a hole. Yet, had the boats been running, I might have got to Blighty…[6]

 

Let’s see: what else is happening with the Great War writers?

 

Christopher Wiseman arrived in Harrogate to visit John Ronald Tolkien, and to help him in compiling a memorial volume of their friend G.B. Smith’s work.[7]

 

In fiction, today is the key date in “The Colonel’s Shoes,” a curious supernatural shaggy-dog short story by Ford Madox Hueffer. It’s a tale told in retrospect that hinges on bitter, childish infighting among a few officers and plays out in the orderly room of their overworked battalion. Today, a century back, a vindictive captain writes up a Company-Sergeant-Major for perceived insubordination, and it will take a very, very minor miracle to set things right…[8]

 

And after the excitement of last night’s chaotic patrol, tonight’s action provided tension in a lower key for Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. Ordered to move forward under cover of darkness and entrench within 200 yards of the Germans, Pollard accidentally led his men all the way up to the German wire obstacles. But once again “Fritz was keeping a very bad watch” and Pollard and his men are able to withdraw to the proper distance and begin entrenching before they are discovered. Pollard being Pollard, he ascertains that the battalion on his left is in the wrong position and blusters back under fire to explain his prowess and sure grasp of the situation to the Brigadier, as well as the embarrassed colonel of that neighboring battalion…[9]

 

Rowland Feilding missed the first week of the battle, but it is now the lot of his battalion to hold trenches in the worst possible weather, and fight the same war of patrol and counter-patrol.

April 17, 1917. “‘Turnerstown Left” (Fierstraat Sector).

I think this year must be accursed. Never was a fouler day than to-day. After a wet night it is still raining this morning, and the wind is howling dismally, but overhead. There are points, after all, in being in a trench. The French seem to have made a spectacular re-entry into the arena yesterday, but they must have been greatly handicapped by the weather, like our men at Vimy.

Last night we captured two big Prussian Grenadiers (unwounded) on our wire. They were brought to my dugout at 2 a.m., looking frightened—with their hands still outstretched in the orthodox manner of the surrendered prisoner who desires to show that he is not armed; coated with mud; one bleeding from a tear from the wire; but neither seeming too unhappy. If one only knew German this would be the proper time to extract information. They are too scared to lie much. Later, when they find out how kindly is the British soldier, they become sly and independent.[10]

 

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, whose harrowing summer was followed by a long spell of peaceful staff work, was sent back to his battalion today, a century back, taking over C Company of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers. We hear time and again how officers pine for their comrades and their men when they are sent off to safe billets and cushy staff positions–not so Griffith, who “set off despondently” to return to the hardships of the line.[11]

 

And with another Kitchener battalion of the Royal Welch, David Jones is also heading back toward the front.

On the 17th, in wind and sleet, they left for divisional reserve at Roussel Farm–the cold mud so deep that it took hours to pass through 400 yards of communication trench. They arrived at 3.30 a.m.[12]

 

Henry Williamson “wrote a lot of letters” today, including one to his mother enclosing a piece of army propaganda about German demoralization and one to his father describing the roar of the big naval guns, the sight of a British tanker driven mad by the gunfire concentrated on his tank, and the recent transaction of parcels: cake and bullseyes to Henry in France, and souvenirs–including “2 tin boxes of bombs, etc., and 3 lovely helmets… & a saw bayonet”–sent home.[13]

 

Vera Brittain remains too far from the front, and full of worry. To her brother Edward, today, a century back:

I have to keep on writing letters, because the vague bits of news from France that filter through to us make me so anxious to receive them. From the long list of names that appear in the telegrams there seems to be a vast battle going on along the whole of our front & the French one too, but it is very difficult to make out at all what is happening. Is Geoffrey anywhere in the Bapaume direction? The longer the War goes on, the more one’s concern in the whole immense business seems to centre itself upon the few beings still left that one cares about, & the less upon the general issue of the struggle. One’s personal interest wears one’s patriotism rather threadbare by this time. After all, it is a garment one has had to wear for a very long time, so there’s not much wonder if it is beginning to get a little shabby![14]

Looking back on this night, she will add these thoughts:

Yet another night’s red moon, I thought, looking up after finishing Edward’s letter at the ominous glow in the unquiet sky. Another night, and still no news. Is Victor still alive? Is Geoffrey? Oh, God–it’s intolerable to be out here, knowing nothing till ages afterwards, but just wondering and wondering what has happened![15]

 

Jack Martin, in billets at Dickebusch, took today to write out fairly lengthy pen-portraits of some of his comrades… but I’m only human…[16]

 

Vivian de Sola Pinto, working for weeks now at the Bull Ring near Rouen, records today’s date–I would guess a scrap of his orders was preserved, for there are few dates and few such specifics in his book–as the occasion of a “huge fatigue party” that spent the entire day loading lorries. But it was also a memorable occasion because the station from which he was to supervise the loading contained a sergeant and two classes of furniture: a comfy chair and a biscuit tin.

With wry approval de Sola Pinto notes the sergeant’s insistence–“a fine example of what I would call a manly spirit of volunteer subordination”–that the officer take the better chair, despite the fact that both of them “knew he was an infinitely better soldier than I should ever be.” de Sola Pinto insists on taking turns, but recognizes that the Sergeant’s principled, if nominal, subordination “actually enhanced” his dignity.[17]

 

George Coppard, recovered from the accidental shooting in the foot, arrived today at “Camiers, a reception base for drafts.”[18]

 

C.E. Montague wrote both a letter and a diary entry recording his view of the battle from close behind. Wise though he is, he still feels bereft that his old companions are in battle and he is not. And he shows what a man with the time for literary composition on his hands can do. This is a good mix of eyewitness reportage and refined “battle-piece” history.

April 17, 1917

…Behold me again in the midst of our long-drawn battles—-meet incidents of our long-drawn war.

I saw the beginning of this one, before daylight on the morning of the 9th, from a little height above our front, from which I could see all our guns flash off together at the second of starting, like a beaded line of electric lights all turned on from one switch, and then each of them turned on and off and on again as fast as possible by a switch of its own. At intervals beyond this line of flashes there were the big geysers of flame, and dark objects visible in the middle of it, spouting up from our mines under the German front trench; and then at every two or three hundred yards there went up signal rockets from the German trenches, that seemed like visible shrieks to their artillery and supports to protect them from our infantry, who, they knew, were then on their way across from our trenches. I could see all this going on along several miles of front, and it was strangely dramatic, though all expressed through lights in the darkness alone, until the day broke and we could see our infantry already beyond the second line of enemy trenches and sauntering across quietly to the third, with our barrage of smoke walking steadily in front of them like the pillar of smoke in the desert—only of course it cannot give complete safety; and now and then the line would have a gap made in it by a shell and would join up again across the gap, and go strolling, with the strange look of leisureliness that an infantry charge of the scientific kind has now, until the time comes to rush the last few yards and jump down into the enemy’s trench.

It is grievous to to think that my battalion has twice had this great moment since I left it last midsummer, and that I may never know any more thrilling contact with the enemy than mutual sniping and a little reconnoitring of ground between his trenches and ours. The only compensation, so far as it goes, is that I see much more of the war and of the front as a whole, and the battlefield of the moment in particular, than one sees when engaged in honest regimental labour.

And in his diary:

Miles and miles of our front begin to dance in the dark, with twinkling and shimmering flashes. Suggests a long keyboard on which notes of light are being swiftly played. Then, from points all along German front, signal red and white and green rockets go up. Also ‘golden rains’ of our liquid fire, and one or two mine volcanoes. Dawn breaks on this firework show. Then on to a huge earthwork, an outwork of Arras citadel and lie on safe side and look over with fieldglass. Our infantry visible advancing in successive waves to take the second German trench-line N.E. of
Arras. Disquieted flocks of rooks. Then to Divl. H.Q., to find good news.

 

Charles Carrington‘s writing is honest, balanced, and well-informed. But he generally takes pains to, as they say, accentuate the positive. His morale and that of his unit’s was generally good–they have not despaired, they are more grim and more devoted to each other when they have started, but they would not acknowledge any sea change in their motivations, etc. But some days–and some nights, like last night, a century back, as they pressed up through the wreckage of this second push at Arras–were enough to drive a man to madness, despair, and self-slaughter. Last night he huddled under trench mortars; today was worse.

…In the morning, when we advanced unopposed, I passed the corpse of a British sergeant, not of my regiment. He lay on his back holding a revolver in his hand, shot through the throat at such an angle that I wondered if it had been suicide. If I had been suicidally inclined that night would have driven me to it.[19]

 

Edwin Vaughan and his battalion have been following the attack as well, and he writes voluminously of these days. But given his sensitive nature and penchant for drama, I don’t think he would mind my making this the representative incident:

At the Epéhy crossroads, we found a huge cat squatting on the chest of a dead German, eating his face. It made us sick to see it, and I sent two men to chase it away. As they approached it sprang snarling at them, but they beat it down with their rifles and drove it into the ruined houses. Then we covered the body with a sack, and went on.[20]

 

But we’ll end in Britain, in safety, and in the boudoir, where Duff Cooper has also been engaged in dire combat. Patrick Shaw-Stewart has been called back to war, but Cooper’s worries about other adversaries have pushed him closer to total war. Or, at least, to warfare unbefitting a gentleman. During Diana Manners‘ temporary absence from their long house party in Scotland he had been “obliged”–this is four days ago, a century back–to take a bath in her room. Where he opened and read her locked diary.[21]

It was rather vile of me…

It was, and we’ll skip the justifications. Amazingly, Cooper is both moved by learning “how much she loved Raymond” and urged to take action against his living rivals for her affection, including one Wimborne and a Lt-Col. Wilson who, of course, is known as “Scatters.”

There is no reference to me in the diary that I could quarrel with but I do not think she loves me… I rose from the perusal of this intimate diary which I had no right to read, loving, liking, and admiring her more than before.

And somehow this added up to progress. Cooper confessed his deed and was not banished. In fact, by last night he was reading her pages of his diary, then listening in agony outside her door while she (scandalously) entertained “Scatters” in the wee hours of today, a century back, and then returning in before dawn to wake her up with recrimination.

She cried and reproached me bitterly with not trusting and spying on her. I felt in the wrong and implored forgiveness which only after long pleading she granted. Then we had a night of the most wild and perfect joy. The best perhaps we ever had.[22]

And somewhere, every dawn, some men attack, and many sighs are drained.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This may be--I joke here, almost completely, and with full apology for trespassing on the sanctity of life-or-death experience "from my armchair" (three words which I omitted from the Memoirs yesterday; but the armchair was only one possible destiny, for Sassoon)--the centennial blogger equivalent of Sassoon's mood at the very end of his escapade, yesterday, a century back...
  2. See Sassoon's "The Rear Guard," at the bottom of that post.
  3. Diaries, 156-7.
  4. For Love and Courage, 355, 358.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 114.
  6. War Letters, 155.
  7. Chronicle, 100.
  8. War Prose, 159-69.
  9. Fire-Eater, 209-11.
  10. War Letters to a Wife, 168.
  11. Griffith, Up to Mametz and Beyond, 138.
  12. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 153.
  13. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 119-20.
  14. Letters from a Lost Generation, 334-5.
  15. Testament of Youth, 339.
  16. Sapper Martin, 60-4.
  17. The City that Shone, 190.
  18. With a Machine Gun, 106.
  19. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 145.
  20. Some Desperate Glory, 95-6.
  21. What, I ask you, is the point of all of that fancy classical education if Cooper can pull up and manage some allusion to Actaeon, transformed into a deer and torn apart by his own hounds after seeing Artemis in the bath. Perhaps, as he considers leaving the Foreign Office for the Army, the vengeful hounds of his old hunting partners, become ravening ghosts, perhaps, are a bit too frightening to contemplate.
  22. Duff Cooper Diaries, 50-1.

Wyn Griffith on the Conquering Colors of Autumn; Rotting Flesh and Other Horrors from Kate Luard and George Coppard

A poem today–a poem of the season, for the month, and also written on this very day, a century back–from Llewelyn Wyn Griffith of the Royal Welch. Griffith is still a brigade staff officer, now serving in the Salient rather than on the Somme. And he is yet one of those traditionalists who do not put the horrors of the prosy present into their poetry. A cold and wet autumn is a bad time to be a soldier, and Griffith will describe his life this month under intermittent fire in a “wet, slimy, rat ridden” dugout as “just the plain routine of war…” but the autumn dawn still sounds pretty nice in verse:

 

Autumn 1916

Like some faint-coloured robe
My mistress weaves around her waist,
The truant mists of night so many-faced
With starry eyes, cling sadly to the trees
She in the joy of morn will don
The bright and happy garments of delight,
In winding pools will drown the memory of night.
The wak’ning leaves move slowly in the dance of dawn,
Lo, silently the grey mists creep away,
And leave the colours of the conquering day
Their victory to flaunt

Camp D
1 October 1916[1]

 

In the past week, Kate Luard‘s ward received two patients whose horrible wounds differed from the usual “abdominals” and serious gangrene cases: the survivor of a shot-down plane, who was “delirious from head and face injuries,” and a man blinded and disfigured by shrapnel. There is no good news, but Luard keeps up a grim sense of humor nonetheless.

October 1st. The man with no eyes and no nose mercifully died yesterday. My friend who says ‘Good-night, Mother’ to me is going on the train to-day, said this morning he ‘would think of me in terms of love till his dying day!’ and he looked as if that that day wasn’t very far off, poor old thing.

The Aeroplane man seems to be going to die. A baby Flying officer who came to see him to-night fainted gracefully into my arms at the foot of the bed…

We are trying to do a special rescue of a brave boy, H., hovering on the edge of gas gangrene… He dictated this afternoon, ‘Dear Mother, just a few lines to let you know I am in the pink of health, hoping it finds you the same.’ (‘Mustn’t let her worry, he explained.)[2]

 

A brief update to one of our strangest peripheral figures: Aubrey Herbert, worn out and discouraged by his failure to hold anyone to account for the dismal Mesopotamian campaign, is once more fed up with politics and ready for unusual foreign service. He crossed the channel today, a century back, with his cousin Bron, en route to Salonika…[3]

 

And finally, George Coppard, machine gunner, marched to Delville Wood, hot on the heels of Arthur Graeme West. His description of it is very similar:

The wood had been reduced to a vast mass of tree stumps and the shell-pocked ground was strewn with corpses…

So far we have a type-scene, almost a cliché of war-description. The next anecdote in Coppard’s memoir is more unusual, more memorably horrible–although, as he notes, even this was a well-known phenomenon:

That night, Snowy’s team and mine moved forward along a sunken road… full of British and German dead. In the darkness we kept stumbling over the bodies; when I fell heavily on one it gave out a deep grunt. The sudden weight of my body had compressed the corpse, forcing gases through the throat. I had heard of such a thing before but was a bit sceptical. Somebody laughed, but I felt far from laughter…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Beyond Mametz, 134-5.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 91.
  3. The Man Who Was Greenmantle, 185.
  4. With a Machine Gun, 97.

Wyn Griffith Leaves the Wood Behind; The Royal Welch Assemble; Donald Hankey Reassesses: “I Never Before Felt Such a Distaste for the Whole Business.”

Yesterday, a century back, Wyn Griffith killed his brother. He didn’t mean to, and he was just doing his job, and it was the enemy who fired the fatal shells–no one had blundered. Orders followed upon orders and the military hierarchy swung into action, and artillery tables and air currents took care of the rest. Or the fates, if you like.

But how could this be mere calamity, and not tragedy?

The orders Wyn Griffith wrote out had to be sent by runner, and his brother was a runner, and his brother, Watcyn Griffith, was sent, and he did not make it back through the barrage. Nothing simpler, nothing more terrible. This shock is the climax of Griffith’s memoir, and, as we read yesterday, he felt driven to write even to this very moment, to express something of his reeling mind–or, rather, as he has it, the stuck, spinning wheel of his thoughts:

So I had sent him to his death, bearing a message from my own hand, in an endeavour to save other men’s brothers; three thoughts that followed one another in unending sequence, a wheel revolving within my brain, expanding until it touched the boundaries of knowing and feeling. They did not gain in truth from repetition, nor did they reach the understanding. The swirl of mist refused to move.

He continues:

Within the unclouded portion of my being a host of small things took their place on the stage, drawing their share of attention, and passing on. More orders to draft, situation reports to send out, demands for more bombs, enemy trench-mortars to be shelled into silence, machine-guns wanted by everybody. The general put his hand on my shoulder. It began to grow dark. An order came from the Division to say that we would be relieved that night by a brigade from another Division… The wheel was still revolving, while the procession of mere events moved without a break.

I walked towards the large shell hole that served as a shelter for the signallers, carrying in my hand a sheaf of messages for delivery. From the background of bursting shells came a whistle, deepening into a menace, and I flung myself on my face. I remembered a momentary flash of regret that I was still two yards from the protection of the shell hole. A black noise covered everything. When my eyes opened I was lying on my back, further away from the hole. I got up on my hands and knees and crawled to the signallers, still clutching the crumpled messages, and spoke to them. There was no answer. The rim of another large shell hole nearly touched their shelter, and the three signallers were huddled together, dead, killed by the concussion, for there was no mark of a wound.

The wheel came to rest, and I do not remember much of what happened afterwards. The night came, within and without. I have a clear memory of walking up the ride toward the battalions, of tripping over a branch, and of a flash of anger because I hurt my shoulder when I fell… The night seemed to pass in a black film, broken only by the flashes of bursting shells. I am told that I found the battalion…

Prose describing such traumatic periods should be impervious to criticism, if any prose should be; but it shouldn’t, so it isn’t.

Griffith writes shock well. The confusion of tenses, the split between the several remembering selves, the writer, and the shocked mind of the officer knocked down by shells, all are sensible about the sensations of the insensible. It’s memory–or what survives of memory–coming to light via the pen.

It shouldn’t be shaped like a poem, like the monstrous whole of the battle In Parenthesis. But so much of it is: the beloved innocent is cut down; the body is shocked by enemy weapons; the mind reels, but finds purchase in carrying out the rehearsed, disciplined task. And amidst the slaughter, there is the bathetic trip–as John Ball trips on a wire, Wyn Griffith is felled by a branch.

We have now reached the early morning of today, a century back. Almost the last action of the book is no less terrible that what has gone before. Yet it seems almost as if Griffith intends it to provide a second chance–a terrible, painful second chance–to care for the young brother who is gone.

Some time later, a heavy storm of shellfire drove me into a little trench where I crouched with some men to shelter. We talked in Welsh, for they were Anglesey folk; one was a young boy, and after a thunderous crash in our ears he began to cry out for his mother, in a thin boyish voice, ‘mam, mam….’ I woke up and pushed my way to him, fumbling in my pockets for my torch, and pulled him down to the bottom of the trench…

He had not been hit, but he was frightened, still crying quietly. Suddenly he started again, screaming for his mother, with a wail that seemed older than the world, in the darkness of that night. The men began to mutter uneasily. We shook him, cursed at him, threatening even to kill him if he did not stop. He did not understand our words, but the shaking brought him back. He demanded his rifle and his steel helmet, and sat in the bottom of the trench to wait for the relief, talking rationally but slowly… Our time was drawing to an end.

Dawn was breaking when I reached the clearing. The General has been waiting for me; another wave had passed over our brigade, and all the men of our battalions who were destined to leave the Wood were now on their way down to the bivouacs… We picked our way over the fallen timber and round the corpses, some sprawling stiffly, some huddled against the splintered tree-trunks, until we were clear of the Wood. I was afraid to look closely at them, lest I should recognize one of them.

The entire 115th Brigade–indeed, the entire 38th Division–has been relieved, and no soon do they clear the wood and have their first food in twenty-four hours (old biscuits), then they are ordered to march for the rear, to clear the way for the troops coming up.

The day passed in getting ready for the march, and in trying to write a letter to my father and mother to tell them what had happened. When at last I succeeded, I felt in some queer way that an episode was ended, that all feeling had been crushed out of existence within me. Night came, but I could not sleep. At two in the morning we set out to join the battalions, and as dawn was breaking over Bazentin, I turned towards the green shape of Mametz Wood and shuddered in a farewell to one, and to many. I had not even buried him, nor was his grave ever found.[1]

 

 

The battle of Mametz Wood is more or less over, but all that means is that the Battle of the Somme still goes on, a few hundred yards away. Over, but not past: the field, the wood, will be passed by many times in the next few days. Even as Jones is taken to blighty and the shattered Griffith goes into reserve, fresh battalions of the Royal Welch Fusiliers will be coming into the line. The 2nd Battalion, chronicled by Dr. Dunn, and now joined by Robert Graves,[2] had been holding the line in the North (combatively, of course), but has lately been sent into the South. The battalion chronicle records their arrival today on the Somme, and amongst the remnants of the wars, of battles centuries back and only a day gone by. The master of the blending of the medieval and the modern is David Jones, but he doesn’t roam that wood alone:

July 12th–At the beginning of an afternoon march of 8 miles up the right bank of the Ancre we saw Corbie across the Somme. It cold-shouldered Henry V when he marched along its ridge, to turn at Agincourt on the host that beset him. Its church looked as if it would repay a visit… On the road we passed the transport of the Welsh Division coming out after the mauling at Mametz Wood. Arrived at Buire… The battle-front is only 7 1/2 miles away…we are now in XV corps… We are the reserve battalion of the reserve brigade of its present reserve division.[3]

 

As Griffith goes out, and the 2/RWF prepare to go in, Donald Hankey is already in a position to reflect on the carnage of the battle’s first days. He watched those first terrible assaults and dealt with the aftermath. Swiftly whisked away to Fourth Army School (where Sassoon, too, has been), he has used the spare time to put together a “diary” of what he has seen. This is eyewitness testimony much more direct and raw than his “A Student in Arms” pieces. Neither is the “real war” surrounded with generally uplifting religious and philosophical commentary. He has decided to send the diary to England by four different routes, hoping that his sister can assemble it and get it published.

Hankey has much to say. If Griffith has struggled mightily with memory to bring onto the page something of the awful disorder of his mind on this day, a century back, Hankey is working in another corner of the great house of autobiography: he examines himself closely, weighing the present state of his mind, and the changes wrought by his experience of battle.

July 12, 1916

Dear Hilda,

I am wondering very much whether you will receive “A Diary” in four parts. It is very much founded on fact, though slightly altered in parts. You will probably be surprised at a certain change in tone; but remember that my previous articles were written in English, while this was written on the spot, and also that although I have once before seen a battle, I have never before seen the day after a battle. At the same time, thinking it over, I am not at all sure that my argument was not quite wrong. “It is a sweet and honourable thing to die for one’s country,” and even if one is mangled and mutilated in the process, one does not know much about it. It is, however, not “sweet” nor can it ever be a source of satisfaction, to have experienced the blood lust, to have killed for one’s country and gloried in it.

Yet that is an experience which; comes to almost every survivor at one time or other. I can imagine nothing more horrible than suddenly to feel the primitive passion for slaughter let loose in one, and to know that one was more than at liberty to give it full rein. Yet that is what makes the good soldier in a charge. It is that, more than anything, perhaps, which brings home what an abominable thing war is. I am not and never shall be a good soldier. I am too subjective and too slow to be either daring or resourceful. At the same time I am not more afraid than other men and in some ways my nerves are better.

I confess, however, that though I am not afraid, I never before felt such a distaste for the whole business.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Up to Mametz, 223-7.
  2. Graves had served in the First Battalion before his return to England for nasal surgery, so this is his first time with the other of the two pre-war Regular battalions.
  3. The War the Infantry Knew, 224.
  4. Letters, 339-40.

Bullets for John Ball and Private Watcyn: One More Day in Mametz Wood with David Jones and Wyn Griffith

In-Parenthesis-frontispiece

The frontispiece: John Ball, crucified in the wood, and wounded in the leg

In the early morning hours today, a century back, in tangled, shell-swept thickets of Mametz Wood, Private David Jones of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers was shot in the lower leg. So too is Private John Ball, the figure at the center of Jones’s In Parenthesis.

And to Private Ball it came as if a rigid beam of great weight
flailed about his calves, caught from behind by ballista-baulk
let fly or aft-beam slewed to clout gunnel-walker
below below below.
When golden vanities make about,
you’ve got no legs to stand on.
He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering
the fragility of us.
The warm fluid percolates between his toes and his left boot
fills, as when you tread in a puddle–he crawled away in the
opposite direction.

 

Alone amidst the chaos, his training reasserts itself, and John Ball worries about abandoning his weapon as he limps toward the rear. But Jones interweaves his thoughts–the dictates and hearty bon mots of the R.S.M.[1] involuntarily replay in his mind–with a wide array of eternal-soldier resonances.

It’s difficult with the weight of the rifle.
Leave it–under the oak.
Leave it for a salvage-bloke
let it lie bruised for a monument
dispense the authenticated fragments to the faithful.
It’s the thunder-besom for us
it’s the bright bough borne
it’s the tensioned yew for a Genoese jammed arbalest and a
scarlet square for a mounted mareschal, it’s that county-mob
back to back. Majuba mountain and Mons Cherubim and
spreaded mats for Sydney Street East, and come to Bisley
for a Silver Dish. It’s R.S.M. O’Grady says, it’s the soldier’s
best friend…

Picture 053

Jones’s Map of Mametz Wood

Coax it man coax it–it’s delicately and ingeniously made
–it’s an instrument of precision–it costs us tax-payers,
money–I want you men to remember that.
Fondle it like a granny–talk to it–consider it as you would
a friend–and when you ground these arms she’s not a rooky’s
gas-pipe for greenhorns to tarnish.
You’ve known her hot and cold.
You would choose her from among many.
You know her by her bias, and by her exact error at 300, and
by the deep scar at the small, by the fair flaw in the grain,
above the lower sling-swivel–
but leave it under the oak.

Slung so, it swings its full weight. With you going blindly on
all paws, it slews its whole length, to hang at your bowed neck
like the Mariner’s white oblation.
You drag past the four bright stones at the turn of Wood
Support.

“Wood Support” is the trench marked in red at the center of the map at right, nearly even with the first (i.e. southern) of the cross rides. Ball/Jones is now halfway back through the wood.

But halfway is another way to say “in the very midst of.” And here we reach the mythical climax of the poem as John Ball comes upon the Queen of the Woods, adorning her new subjects, the freshly dead:

6425

David Jones

The Queen of the Woods has cut bright boughs of various
flowering.
These knew her influential eyes. Her awarding hands can
pluck for each their fragile prize.
She speaks to them according to precedence. She knows
what’s due to this elect society. She can choose twelve
gentle-men. She knows who is most lord between the high
trees and on the open down.
Some she gives white berries
some she gives brown
Emil has a curious crown it’s
made of gold saxifrage.
Fatty wears sweet-briar,
he will reign with her for a thousand years.
For Balder she reaches to fetch his.
Ulrich smiles for his myrtle wand.
That swine Lillywhite has daisies to his chain–you’d hardly credit it.
She plaits torques of equal splendour for Mr Jenkins and
Billy Crower.
Hansel with Gronwy share dog-violets for a palm, where
they lie in serious embrace beneath the twisted tripod.

Men and myths, Germans and English Welsh, plaited, plighted together in death. But John Ball, and David Jones, are allowed to pass through. He has dragged his rifle–his arbalest, his albatross, his sword, his cross–this far.

At the gate of the wood you try a last adjustment, but slung
so, it’s an impediment, it’s of detriment to your hopes, you
had best be rid of it–the sagging webbing and all and what’s
left of your two fifty–but it were wise to hold on to your
mask.

You’re clumsy in your feebleness, you implicate your tin-hat
rim with the slack sling of it.
Let it lie for the dews to rust it, or ought you to decently
cover the working parts.
Its dark barrel, where you leave it under the oak, reflects
the solemn star that rises urgently from Cliff Trench.
It’s a beautiful doll for us
it’s the Last Reputable Arm.
But leave it–under the oak.
Leave it for a Cook’s tourist to the Devastated Areas and crawl
as far as you can and wait for the bearers.

This is epic, I suppose (it’s its own thing, really) but it’s also on that sweeping edge of Modernism that toys with something “post:”[2] this is kitchen-sink, practically encyclopedic poetry, and even David Jones can’t resist that characteristic point of view of the soldier of the Great War, namely a quiet, rueful irony. Leave the helmet, leave the rifle–leave them for the tourists soon to come.[3]

Tailispiece-DJb

The last illustration from the book: the biblical scapegoat, caught in the barbed wire of the war-torn wood

And soon he is free of the wood, and we are at epic’s end. The last words of the poem proper reference the Song of Roland, putting us both back in the middle ages and right in the center of the problem of Modern War Literature.

The geste says this and the man who was on the field… and who wrote the book… the man
who does not know this has not understood anything

Has the author any authority? Only if he was there. We must read, but we may not understand.

At the very end of the poem Jones places one of his paintings–an image, that seems to echo Picasso even as it ties the book back into its most ancient ruminations–opposite a last flurry of biblical quotation. This is the scapegoat of the Hebrew Bible, innocent, unknowing, heaped with the sins of the people. And, here, pierced with a spear that recalls Greece, and the Middle Ages, and the wounds of Christ, the goat is caught up in the barbed wire wood. If John Ball–and David Jones–escaped, many remained. And they left something of themselves as well.

 

And David Jones, free of the wood, fell back into the arms of the state, the army, the structure that had almost killed him, and now rescued him. He is found by stretcher-bearers, the bullet still in his leg, and carried back toward Mametz village during the morning.

Where, at some point, he crossed paths with Llewelyn Wyn Griffith. Griffith is now serving as Staff Captain to General Evans of the 115th Brigade which has been ordered up to take over the defense of Mametz Wood. Before dawn, the general and his brigade major headed into the wood, leaving Griffith to coordinate between the brigade and the larger elements (i.e. the 38th Division hierarchy) in the rear. But very soon the Brigade Major is wounded and evacuated, and Griffith is sent for.

As Griffith enters the wood, David Jones is leaving the battlefield. Loaded into a motor ambulance, Jones was driven through Mametz Wood, where he once more saw the roller amidst the ruins. Jones slept most of the day and awoke to “the nicest thing in the world,” the voice of a cultivated Englishwoman, a nurse at the dressing station. Among the many things we have not really had time to discuss is the strange place of the feminine in David Jones’s poetry (but “strange” describes so much of it). This nurse is a real woman, but she cannot but recall to us the mothers’ arms evoked at the very beginning of Part 7, or the many references to the Virgin.

She is, too, the real-world doppelganger of the fevered fantasy of the Queen of the Woods, who did not claim him. Jones has emerged from the woods at this early crucible of his life. He has escaped death–and he has a blighty one.[4]

 

39019_orig

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith

Wyn Griffith, meanwhile, now must make the harrowing journey up into the wood, to assume a position of fairly great responsibility.

A month ago, my military horizon was bounded by the limits of a company of infantry; now I was to be both Brigade Major and Staff Captain to a Brigadier-General in the middle of a battle…

Griffith’s journey across the open ground between the trenches and the wood is harrowing–but at least the German machine guns have been eliminated since yesterday. The artillery, however, is located behind the German Second Line and is still firing accurately.

I passed through two barrages before I reached the Wood, one aimed at the body, and the other at the mind. The enemy was shelling the approach from the South with some determination, but I was fortunate enough to escape injury and to pass on to an ordeal ever greater. Men of my old battalion were lying dead on the ground in great profusion. They wore a yellow badge on their sleeves, and without this distinguishing mark, it would have been impossible to recognize the remains of many of them. I felt that I had run away.

Griffith’s old battalion is David Jones’s, the 15th Royal Welch Fusililers. These, then, are the fallen comrades of John Ball: Aneirin Lewis, Mr. Jenkins, and the rest.

I borrowed from Griffith’s description of the wood yesterday, although it is proper to today, a century back.

My first acquaintance with the stubborn nature of the undergrowth came when I attempted to leave the main ride to escape a heavy shelling. I could not push through it, and had to return to the ride. Years of neglect had turned the wood into a formidable barrier, a mile deep. Heavy shelling of the southern end had beaten down some of the young growth, but it had also thrown trees and large branches into a barricade. Equipment, ammunition, rolls of barbed wire, tins of food, gas-helmets and rifles were lying about everywhere. There were more corpses than men, but there were worse sights than corpses.

He continues:

Limbs and mutilated trunks and here and there a detached head, forming splashes of red against the green leaves, and, as in advertisement of the horror of our way of life and death, and of our crucifixion of youth, one tree held in its branches a leg, with its torn flesh hanging down over a spray of leaf…

It would seem that David Jones’s poem, whatever its interpenetretations of myth and chronicle, had no need of conventional poetical “license” to depict the horror of this battle. Griffith, too, in his memoir, is of mindful of the lines connecting simple battlefield slaughter to the rest of human existence–and of the mind’s inability to assimilate what the senses witness:

A message was now on its way to some quiet village in Wales, to a grey farmhouse on the slope of a hill running down to Cardigan Bay, or to a miner’s cottage in a South Wales valley, a word of death…

That the sun could shine on this mad cruelty and on the quiet peace of an upland tarn near Snowdon, at what we call the same instant of Time, threw a doubt upon all meaning in words. Death was warped from a thing of sadness into a screaming horror, not content with stealing life from its shell, but trampling in lunatic fury upon the rifled cabinet we call a corpse.

Brigadier General Evans, commanding the 115th Brigade and responsible for the Wood, has made a personal reconnaissance. He found the line not so far advanced as he had been led to believe: the enemy was still holding the northern section of the wood, and his men were exhausted. To put it in the mild words of the Regimental History, “the moral of some of the units was shaken.”

But first, the personal journey of Wyn Griffith, now in the greatest danger of his life:

There are times when fear drops below the threshold of the mind; never beyond recall, but far enough from the instant to become a background. Moments of great exaltation, of tremendous physical exertion, when activity can dominate over all rivals in the mind, the times of exhaustion that follow these great moments; these are, as I knew from the teachings of the months gone by, occasions of release from the governance of fear…

It was life rather than death that faded away into the distance as I grew into a state of not-thinking, not-feeling, not-seeing. I moved past trees, past other things… it seemed a little matter whether I were destined to go forward to death or to come back to life…

I reached a cross-ride in the wood where four lanes broadened into a confused patch of destruction. Fallen trees, shell holes, a hurriedly dug trench beginning and ending in an uncertain manner, abandoned rifles, broken branches with their sagging leaves, an unopened box of ammunition, sandbags half-filled with bombs, a derelict machine gun propping up the head of an immobile figure in uniform, with a belt of ammunition drooping from the breech into a pile of red-stained earth–this is the livery of war. Shells were falling, over and short, near and wide, to show that somewhere over the hill a gunner was playing the part of blind fate for all who walked past this well-marked spot. Here, in the struggle between bursting iron and growing timber, iron had triumphed and trampled over an uneven circle some forty yards in diameter. Against the surrounding wall of thick greenery the earth showed red and fresh, lit by the clean sunlight, and the splintered tree trunks shone with a damp whiteness, but the green curtains beyond could reveal nothing of greater horror than the disorder revealed in this clearing.
 
 …Near the edge of this ring I saw a group of officers. The Brigadier was talking to one of his battalion commanders, and Taylor, the Signals officer, was arguing with the Intelligence officer about the position on the map of two German machine-guns.Mametz Wood from RWF history The map itself was a sign of the shrinking of our world into a small compass: a sheet of foolscap paper bearing nothing but a large scale plan of Mametz Wood, with capital letters to identify its many corners, was chart enough for our adventure that day…

The map at right, from the Regimental history of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, is either this same specially-prepared battle map or a very similar one.

Griffith asks his brigadier what they intend to do.

‘Get your notebook and take down the position of affairs at the moment. We have been sent here to take over the line and to make secure against counter-attacks….’

‘Are we supposed to attack and clear the Wood?’

‘No…. I’ve told the battalion commanders to reconnoitre and to push out where they can…

‘If we have to attack later on, how do you propose to do it?’

‘By surprise,’ answered the General. ‘With the bayonet only. That’s the only way to get through the Wood. If the artillery will keep quiet, we can do it.’

Griffith writes a report of their intentions for the Divisional Staff and finds his friend Taylor, the brigade signals officer.

‘How can I get this to Division?’

‘Give it to me: that’s my job. I’ve got a telephone down at Queen’s Nullah, and if a runner can get out of the Wood and through the barrage, the message gets through.’

‘Are the runners getting through?’

‘Some don’t… Don’t give me any messages that are not absolutely essential and urgent. I’m getting short of men…’

It is at this moment that a runner reaches them with a message from Division, telling them that “it is quite impossible” that the enemy is holding the Wood, and that they should take the rest of it without delay. The general–yes, astute readers, Major General Blackader–is confident that he understands the situation better than the men on the ground, and there is no avoiding the order.

Next, a young staff officer–perhaps one of the “tunicled” men who legged it, yesterday, in the poem, but possibly a man from on-even-higher, an officer from Corps or Army–arrives with his own orders to attack.

The Brigadier listened to him with the patience of an older man coldly assessing the enthusiasm of youth. When the Staff Officer finished, the General spoke.

‘I’ve just had orders from the Division to attack and clear the rest of the Wood, and to do it at once. The defence is incomplete, the units are disorganized, and I did not propose to attack until we were in a better position. My patrols report that the Northern edge is strongly held. I haven’t a fresh battalion, and no one can say what is the strength of any unit.’

‘What do you propose to do?’ asked the Staff Officer.

This, at least, is a concession. We know nothing of the staff officer’s mind. Has he come to sight-see, or to help? But he is no help, because his knowledge is out-of-date by the term of his journey forward: he knows nothing about the artillery program. The staff-wallah is content, then, to be sent back with the information that Brigadier-General Evans plans to attack–with the bayonet, and no artillery–at 3:00.

This would be foolhardy, if there were open ground (as there usually is, as there had been, at the eaves of the wood). But in this wood, with the flanking machine guns eliminated, the only danger–until his men are at close quarters with the German defenders at the wood’s northern edge–is German artillery. Which will only fire if forewarned of the attack.

So it is a good plan, perhaps.

At a quarter to three, with Evans’s orders irrevocably given to the battalions ahead in the wood, the British artillery–far behind and linked by no wires to the wood–starts up.

‘Good God,’ said the General. ‘That’s our artillery putting a barrage right on top of our battalion! How can we stop this? Send a runner down at once… send two or three by different routes… write the message down.’

Griffith springs into action and passes three messages to the Signals Officers. Three runners are sent, by different ways, while the German Artillery, alerted by the barrage, comes to life.

The Brigadier sat on a tree-trunk, head on hand, to all appearances neither seeing nor hearing the shells.

‘This is the end of everything… sheer stupidity…’

That this was both a tactical blunder and a deadly friendly-fire incident is confirmed by the Regimental History. If it were anything else than a debacle visited upon several battalions of the Royal Welch by Regimental outsiders among the higher-ups, there would be reticence. There is not, only the irony of cold understatement:

Orders were given to the infantry to advance as soon as the unwelcome barrage ceased–which was about 3.30 p.m. It was then found that although the artillery had effectively stopped our advance, it had failed to drive the enemy out of the wood.[5]

There is some panic, now, among the attacking troops, and more confusion. Most of the Wood is taken–but not all.

The entire 38th Division will be relieved tonight. It has accomplished much and suffered something like 25% casualties, but the emphasis in contemporary reports will be on how poorly it performed, rather than on its achievement in the face of unrealistic expectations.

 

For Wyn Griffith, too, this dire battle was the most terrible cautery of his war. It will become the focus and goal of his remembering, and of his memoir.

I can only call it a kind of emotional explosion inside me, and under its impetus I wrote on and on until I came towards a kind of climax, the Battle of Mametz  Wood… There I stopped, because I was afraid of my own memories and dreaded their coming to life… I found that there was no peace within me until I had faced and recorded this high point of the war where for me and so many other Welshmen the tragedy reached its culmination. The words had to be torn out of me, hurt as it must.[6]

There is one more reason–one more worst thing–that made this so.

Eerily, there is a Private Watcyn lost in the midst of the Wood in In Parenthesis. And in the real wood as well there was Private Watcyn Griffith, a runner for the 115th Brigade Signals Officer, Captain Taylor.

It was nearing dusk when Taylor came up to me.

‘I want to have a word with you,’ he said, drawing me away. I’ve got bad news for you…’

‘What’s happened to my young brother… is he hit?’

‘You know the last message you sent out to try and stop the barrage… well, he was one of the runners that took it. He hasn’t come back… He got his message through all right, and on his way back through the barrage he was hit… he’s gone.’

Griffith did his duty in passing the message, Taylor in sending runners, young Griffith in carrying it and in trying to return to his post. But it can never feel so simple.

So I had sent him to his death, bearing a message from my own hand, in an endeavour to save other men’s brothers; three thoughts that followed one another in unending sequence, a wheel revolving within my brain, expanding until it touched the boundaries of knowing and feeling. They did not gain in truth from repetition, nor did they reach the understanding. The swirl of mist refused to move.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Regimental Sergeant Major, in this circumstance the exact analogue of the stereotypical American Army/Marine drill sergeant.
  2. "Pre," really; Jones looks backwards and spreads to the eternal, rather than looking ahead and fragmenting for effect, like a true post-Modernist
  3. Jones provides many notes to the poem, and there is one here which defends this thought as contemporary. We might think, Jones says, that this is anachronism, that this is a thought from the latter days of disillusionment, but no--he remembers joking with a friend even in the midst of the carnage that soon, soon, the battlefield tourists will come. As indeed they have, in great droves. But many are better read than he might have thought...
  4. See especially, Dilworth, Reading David Jones, 107-118.
  5. Ward, Regimental Records, 209.
  6. From "The Pattern of One Man's Remembering," quoted in Gliddon, Battlefield Companion, 319.
  7. Up to Mametz, 208-223.

Mametz Wood “In Parenthesis:” David Jones’s Masterpiece and the Martyrdom of the Welsh

Mametz Wood from RWF history

Mametz Wood, in a contemporary map reproduced in the Regimental History of the Royal Welsh

Yesterday, a century back, the 38th Division was once again marshaled for an attack on Mametz Wood. This thick little forest, the largest wood on the Somme front, was now nearly a salient in the British line, and the higher-ups on the General Staff considered its capture to be essential to the next phase of the Somme battle, namely the assault on the second German defensive system (or “German 2nd Line,” as it is marked at right).

This time the 115th Brigade–with Llewelyn Wyn Griffith on brigade staff–was in reserve, while the 113th and 114th Brigades attacked.

The 113th Brigade, made up of four Kitchener’s Army battalions of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, would have the left flank of the attack, coming north from the bottom center of the map at right.

David Jones’s 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers will be in support, while the 16th and 14th battalions lead the way. The plan is much the same as it was during the disastrous attack on the seventh, the primary difference being that more troops are concentrated on a narrower frontage. The Germans will be better prepared, too, and the Welsh will have to attack across several hundred yards of open ground–ground that still slants uphill into the guns of the wood is and now strewn with the bodies of their countrymen. There is some hope that the artillery coordination will be better.

awm-h08372

Mametz, July 1916; the metal roller is at bottom left

Around noon, yesterday, the 15th RWF marched up through the ruined village of Mametz, where Jones was struck by the sight of a huge metal roller sitting amidst the rubble (see the photograph at right).

For some two hours they had waited in the recently-German-held Dantzig Trench, before learning that the attack had been called off. Griffith, back at headquarters with the reserve brigade, knew at once that this was a mere twelve-hours’ postponement, but this information does not seem to have gotten to Jones’s battalion. Shouldering their eighty pounds of kit, the fifteenth marched back again to the rear, through clogged communications trenches, a process that took the rest of the day and lasted into the night. Then, before they could sleep, they were ordered back up, and back up they marched. And so

it was not until dawn on the 10th July that the flower of young Wales stood up to the machine-guns, with a success that astonished all who knew the ground.[1]

The attack began at 4.15 a.m. Leading the brigade’s assault on the southern tip of the wood (the 114th Brigade was to the right) was Lieutenant-Colonel Carden of the 16th Royal Welch, a man whom even the straight-laced Regimental history describes as “a gifted leader with a touch of fanaticism.” Waving a handkerchief on the end of his walking stick so as to be visible to his men, he walked forward from their assembly trenches, down into the gully (or “nullah,” a British Indian Army term) and up the gentle slope toward the woods. He was shot, fell, got up, continued, and was shot again and killed on the edge of the wood. Yet some of the men of the 16th reached the wood, now being pounded by the carefully-prepared artillery program. The surviving German defenders of a trench at the front of the wood surrendered, but many machine guns continued to fire from both flanks.

Meanwhile, the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers had moved up into their assembly positions.

 

I believe that I once intended to hash out In Parenthesis day by day, to make something of the most difficult, most unusual, and most rewarding poem of the war.

Youthful folly. In Parenthesis is a masterpiece–a minor great work, or a great minor work, or some such thing. It’s also a terrible thicket of concentrated strangeness, intense mental experience, and deep allusion, intertwined–to bring us to the point–with precise details pertaining to David Jones’s experiences as an infantryman. And by tomorrow the poem will be over. So now or never.

The difficulty of the poem is, in a sense, easiest to deal with today. The fragmented Modernist narrative (“stream of consciousness” is a familiar term, but not quite right here–these are freshets, sinkholes, torrents and and sudden splashes, rather than a continuous stream) doesn’t need to be placed in its literary context because its lived context fits the form so well: fragmentation is, here, now, the chaos of battle. Battle is always experienced as a series of actions rather than a continuous state, and memory makes of it a number of searing fragments, often with the order jumbled and gaps of uncertain size between. There is no “better” way for the mind, in mortal terror, and the body, desperately aroused, to record it.

So we’ll leave aside the question of whether In Parenthesis doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and only coincidentally shares with its climactic Part 7 the senseless confusion of not just any battle but a crowded battle in a dense wood, or whether Jones has shaped his artistic choices to the nature of this most intense of his wartime experiences. It doesn’t matter. I’ll try to do what I generally do here: present the writing–be it straightforward memoir or Modernist Epic–link it to other histories of the day’s events, and comment where it might be useful.

Part 7 begins–and here is Jones in a nutshell–with a subtitle that references both the Passion and Lewis Carroll, an epigram from a medieval Welsh elegy, and three biblical allusions, two of them in Latin.

The Welsh poem, Y Gododdin, is referenced throughout In Parenthesis, and serves (this will be the first of dozens of oversimplifications today, for which I will apologize just this once) both to make the Welsh soldiers of the poem more Welsh–many of the 15th, and Jones himself, were London born and bred, of Welsh descent, but not steeped in the Welsh language or its folklore–and to open up their experience to other times. This project is in chronological lockstep with the past–one hundred years to the day–but Jones was determined both to include the specificities of his experience–numbers, map references, minutes, minute parts of complex machines and organizations–and to write this experience as if it were fully consubstantial with the experiences of the distant past, especially that of other soldiers. Jones’s project is both catholic and Catholic, and more than any other writing of the war it demands both that the instant of experience be recognized and that, in the eye of God, at least, it cannot exist: this experience is eternally and completely shared.

(Some of this garbled paean will, I hope, be borne out by the quotations below.)

And that subtitle? If Jones sounds over-serious then I have done a bad job explaining him. There is nothing more serious than war and death and religion–which is why no frame of reference is denied to the poem. “The Five Unmistakeable Marks” of Part 7 identify both Lewis Carroll’s Snark and the stigmata of Christ. Metaphorically, at least, this will be a sacrifice of the innocent.

And the quotations?

Picture 156

The Manuscript of the beginning of Part VII, from The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford

Invenimus eam in campus silvae–“We have come up on it in the fields of the woods.” Simple scene-setting, and gentle irony, for in the Psalms (131.6), what they have found is the tabernacle of the lord, not bloody battle.

The next line takes care of that: “and under every green tree.” This, again, means nothing without vast reading or studious legwork (or, yes, the internet–although there are many good secondary sources, several of which I will cite below). It references II Kings 12:10, where the Israelites sacrifice their children to foreign gods. Five little words, slid in at the beginning here, which align Jones’s work with the poetry of protest that has, a century back, hardly begun to be written. This is no jaunty “someone had blundered,” but a swift blow with all the driving power of both Testaments behind it: you are killing your children in vain.

The third quotation is from Lamentations (2.12, also part of the Good Friday service) and is even more devastating: although Jones draws it from the arid Latin, the ruthlessly keening old Hebrew poem describes children dying “like soldiers” in their mothers’ arms.

And so we have come five lines into a thirty-five page section of the poem. I will have to pick up the pace just a bit.

There is another prefatory section, an acknowledgement of the role of memory in artistic creation–“spilled bitterness, unmeasured, poured-out… demoniac-pouring.” This is fair warning and fertile ground, but not something that we, tied to the day, a century back, can deal with here.

Picture 053

David Jones’s handwritten map, with annotations

Finally, then, the subjects: “In the Little Hours they sing the Song of Degrees.” So “they”–the eternal/mythic/epic soldiers who are also the men of Number 6 Platoon, B Company, 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers–begin both the liturgical day and July 10th, 1916. They are in Queen’s Nullah, across from the southwestern edge of the Wood. Jones, an artist before he was a poet, drew the map at right, using the trench maps (the reference numbers can be seen at the top), with the Nullah at the bottom.

The horror begins immediately: this assembly-place is obvious, and has been used before. German shells are dropping all around, and a man is hit:

He found him all gone to pieces and not pulling himself together nor making the best of things.

The first “he” would seem to be Private John Ball, our protagonist, our David-Jones-in-the-Poem. The “him” is Aneirin Leiws “spilled there… who sleeps in Arthur’s lap” and will soon draw a brief spurt of allusive elegy.

Other men come upon the shattered corpse and weep “for the pity of it all.”

Ball/Jones eventually gets “his stuff reasonably assembled” and joined “the rest of the platoon belly-hugged the high embankment going up steep into thin mist at past four o’clock of a fine summer morning.”

So, then, fifteen minutes to go.

While “Private 25201 Ball pressed his body into the earth and the white chalk womb to mother him,” The colonel, J.C. Bell in life, Colonel Dell in the book (how like Sassoon this rhymed fictionalization of Royal Welch officers is), chats coolly with another officer.

But they already look at their watches and it is zero minus seven minutes.

Alright. I think I’ve demonstrated what can be done with interspersing commentary, matching the minutiae of battle-chronicle to the intimate twistings of Jones’s poem. But chronology will bend and shatter when they go forward (it is reasserted much later on), and I don’t think there are any arguments that can be made for the greatness–or even the necessity-to-any-certain-subject–of certain poems that can’t be nullified, defeated, or improved upon by lengthy quotation. So, here is an infantryman’s terror before the assault:[2]

Racked out to another turn of the screw
the acceleration heightens;
the sensibility of these instruments to register,
fails;
needle dithers disorientate.
The responsive mercury plays laggard to such fevers—you
simply can’t take any more in.
And the surfeit of fear steadies to dumb incognition, so that
when they give the order to move upward to align with ‘A’,
hugged already just under the lip of the acclivity inches below
where his traversing machine-guns perforate to powder
white—
white creatures of chalk pounded
and the world crumbled away
and get ready to advance.

Two minutes, one minute–and then the advance. For a few pages we float amidst the disordered thoughts of John Ball and his comrades, and in and out of history and legend and myth.

But in amongst it all are Jones’s memories: As the 14th Battalion advanced, directly ahead of him, they sang “Jesu Lover of My Soul.”

And if the more literal/less literary-minded reader might begin to object to the poetical smearing of fact into impression, here is how the Regimental History describes the advance:

The approach to the wood was a ghastly affair… there was a general state of pandemonium… the most terrible “mix-up” I have ever seen.

Soon, the 15th are ordered to advance. Here, in the poem, Malory’s knightly host and Kitchener’s army advance together:

Tunicled functionaries signify and clear-voiced heralds cry
and leg it to a safe distance:
leave fairway for the Paladins, and Roland throws a kiss–
they’ve nabbed his batty for the moppers-up
                     and Mr. Jenkins takes them over
and don’t bunch on the left
for Christ’s sake.

“Batty” is one of the many Cockney slang expressions for a friend (or, in American military parlance, “buddy”). Roland is the hero of the Chanson de Roland, the Medieval French epic. Mr. Jenkins is the kind, decent platoon commander. And the “tunicled” higher-ups, it seems, will not be coming forward–at least not yet.

Mr. Jenkins leads them out of the trench in the hollow and down into the unbelievably long (at least 400 yards) open-field advance to the woods:

Every one of these, stood, separate, upright, above ground,
blinkt to the broad light
risen dry mouthed from the chalk…
moved in open order and keeping admirable formation
and at the high-port position
walking in the morning on the flat roof of the world

There remains hope, in each man’s mind, that somehow they will be spared. After all, death is always around, but rarely strikes–has never yet struck the mind that thinks the thought. Jones wrenches the ancient personification of death as a battle goddess through the language of St. Francis and into something new and harrowing:

But sweet sister death has gone debauched today and stalks on this high ground with strumpet confidence, makes no coy veiling of her appetite but leers from you to me with all her parts discovered.
By one and one the line gaps, where her fancy will–howsoever they may howl for their virginity
she holds them–who impinge less on space
sink limply to a heap
nourish a lesser category of being
like those other who fructify the land
like Tristram…

or all of them in shaft-shade
at straight Thermopylae…

    Jonathan my lovely one…

                        –Oliver…

So the Royal Welch are joined by the battle heroes of the mythic Middle Ages, and the Bible, and Greek History.

But how intolerably bright the morning is where we who are alive and remain, walk lifted up, carried forward by an effective word.

And, after several more pages of intensely envisioned movement, they have crossed the open ground and almost reached the now-taken German trench at the edge of the wood.

Mr Jenkins half inclined his head to them – he walked just
barely in advance of his platoon and immediately to the left of
Private Ball.

He makes the conventional sign
and there is the deeply inward effort of spent men who would
make response for him,
and take it at the double.
He sinks on one knee
and now on the other,
his upper body tilts in rigid inclination
this way and back;
weighted lanyard runs out to full tether,
swings like a pendulum
and the clock run down.
Lurched over, jerked iron saucer over tilted brow,
clampt unkindly over lip and chin
nor no ventaille to this darkening
and masked face lifts to grope the air
and so disconsolate;
enfeebled fingering at a paltry strap—
buckle holds,
holds him blind against the morning.
Then stretch still where weeds pattern the chalk predella
–where it rises to his wire—and Sergeant T. Quilter takes
over.

And so Mr Jenkins–Oliver, the beloved companion of Roland, but also Lieutenant R.G. Rees, son of Cordelia Rees, of 21, Woodland Way, Mitcham, Surrey, and the late Rev. William Rees, aged 25[3]–is killed.

post-5284-0-82208500-1299435589

A composite map from one of the stalwarts in the Great War Forum, with the modern memorial site indicated in the lower right.

Now they enter the trench at the edge of the wood.

The southern part of Mametz Wood–as far as the first “ride,” or cleared path (see the map at right, where the dashed lines of the rides are clear)–was now held by elements of several jumbled battalions.

Mametz Wood was a real wood. A hunting preserve before the war, it had not been cleared of underbrush for more than two years, nor–lying until recently between the German first and second lines–had it been shelled into oblivion. Instead, shelling had brought down a large number of trees, which became entangled with the thick underbrush and proliferating brambles.

Again, the Regimental Records vouch for the chaos, here:

All went into the wood, and naturally enough, once the troops reached the thick tangle, control became extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Wyn Griffith will describe the wood, too, giving us a middle ground between reportage and poetry:

My first acquaintance with the stubborn nature of the undergrowth came when I attempted to leave the main ride to escape a heavy shelling. I could not push through it, and had to return to the ride. Years of neglect had turned the wood into a formidable barrier, a mile deep. Heavy shelling of the southern end had beaten down some of the young growth, but it had also thrown trees and large branches into a barricade. Equipment, ammunition, rolls of barbed wire, tins of food, gas-helmets and rifles were lying about everywhere. There were more corpses than men, but there were worse sights than corpses.[4]

In-Parenthesis-frontispiece

Jones’s Frontispiece for In Parenthesis

Back in the poem–and in the German trench–we see some these worse sights:

the sun-lit chalk is everywhere absorbing fresh stains.
Dark gobbets stiffen skewered to revetment-hurdles and dyed garments strung-up for a sign; but the sun shines also
on the living
and on Private Watcyn, who wears a strange look under his iron brim, like a small child caught at some bravado in a garden…

 

Mametz Wood itself beckons. Sergeant Quilter gathers the jumbled survivors of the platoon and leads them forward:

So these nineteen deploy
between the rowan and the hazel,
go forward to the deeper shades.

Again, historical precision anchors us to this time and place even as the boundaries of time and place grow hazy:

It was largely his machine guns in Acid Copse that did it, and our own heavies firing by map reference, with all lines phut and no reliable liaison.[5]

Much happens as the day draws on. The Regimental History records that the 15th Battalion was withdrawn, then sent in again, as more senior officers arrived on the scene and tried to makes sense of the battle in the wood. Nothing quite so clear happens in the poem. There are glimpses of German prisoners coming back; Sgt. Quilter is mortally wounded in the belly; another man–possibly Dai Greatcoat, who earlier in the poem makes a prodigious epic boast–is hit lower down (the bullet would seem to destroy his groin, or castrate him); the number of men still holding some semblance of the line, firing at invisible Germans, dwindles. Pages and pages.

Mametz Wood from RWF history, croppedThe careening literary references are interspersed with map references: a captain arrives and has the survivors dig in on the line of V, Y, O, and K (see the map at right, again): the 15th RWF now hold the second ride and the left flank of the wood, and have bombed the Germans out of the trenches on the left, but the northern extremities are still in enemy hands.

Throughout this last phase of the poem there is a widening of the mythic scope. Where else would men ancient and medieval enter, in their mortal terror, but a perilous wood?

But we will end with details that overlap precisely with Jones’s experience. Night begins to fall. The Royal Welch are ordered to dig in, to hold the line. Then, after dark, the orders come once more to advance:

At 21.35 hrs units concerned will move forward and clear his area of his personnel. There will be adequate artillery support.

And now no view of him whether he makes a sally, no possibility of informed action nor certain knowing whether he gives or turns to stand…grope in extended line of platoon through nether glooms … warily circumambulate malignant miraged obstacles, walk confidently into hard junk. Solid things dissolve, and vapours ape substantiality.

A flare goes up, and more horrors:

And the severed head of ’72 Morgan
its visage grins like the Cheshire cat
and full grimly.

And midnight passes…

 

We will pick up the end of the poem tomorrow, but we touch wood now with the history:

But night fell on the most bewildering state of affairs. No one could either see or move… There was… a great deal of wild firing through the night, and the relief of troops by the 115th Brigade was not possible until the morning.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Up to Mametz, 207.
  2. Apologies for ineptitude, but I don't know how to get the poem formatted correctly. I've preserved line breaks, but have not figured out how to preserve the indents that help shape of this closer to conventional verse-form...
  3. CWGC
  4. Up to Mametz, 209-210.
  5. We will have more on this "friendly fire" problem tomorrow.
  6. Ward, Regimental Records, 204-9. In addition to In Parenthesis, easily available thanks to an NYRB Classics reissue, I have drawn on Thomas Dilworth's work, particularly Reading David Jones, 80ff, and David Jones in the Great War. See also Remembering the Battle of Mametz Wood and this.

Phillip Maddison Writes, but not to Father; Rowland Feilding on Deep Dugouts, Glistening Seals, and the Hell of Mametz Wood; Donald Hankey Neat as a Pin

Phillip Maddison, wounded on the First of July, reached England a few days ago. He has endured the agony of early treatments for large flesh wounds–scraping, probing, tweezers. And he is in shock, it would seem–or despair. He has written only a brief note, telling his family that he is alive and wounded, and then a field postcard to the keeper of his local pub.

Today, a century back, chided by a nurse, he brings himself to write to his mother. Still, he pretends that only two visitors are allowed, and asks her to bring his sister with her. The scene immediately shifts to his father, near their suburban London home.

On the Saturday afternoon of July 8, Richard Maddison was working in his allotment, with a satisfaction based on two thoughts that gave him a calm feeling: one, that his son was at least out of the battle, with wounds that were not so severe as to lead the authorities, in whom he had implicit trust, to send for his mother and himself; two, that the benefit of sub-soiling he had done upon his rods of land was to be seen in the healthy appearance of the growing crops.

This minor reverie is then interrupted by Lily Cornford, the troubled, winsome, soft-focus girl who loves Phillip. She registers as merely an intrusion for Richard Maddison until she reveals that she is now a hospital volunteer. Then her inquiry is acceptable, and, when she blushes, and becomes a “Vision.” Lily has heard that Phillip is wounded, and is reassured by his father’s bland confidence.

Richard Maddison is distracted, pleased by the pretty young woman’s attentions. We are left for a moment watching him savor the expansive feeling that these attentions bring–watching, if we’ve been reading, with something of the snide derision that his son (or, rather, the author) might feel. Only a foolish old Victorian Polonius would have “implicit trust” in the authorities that sent waves of half-trained soldiers into intact wire and machine guns…

The puncturing of this mood is, by Williamsonian standards, fairly subtle. Lily moves on and, a few minutes later, one of Richard Maddison’s fellow special constables (these middle aged men were tasked with enforcing blackout restrictions and watching for Zeppelins) brings home the meaning of the encounter: the whole neighborhood knows more about Phillip’s condition than his father does.[1]

Henry Williamson‘s fiction is usually even more obvious: he’s the ham-handed man-child caught axe-grinding once again… really! It can be very heavy going indeed. He aims to comment on every aspect of the war, borrowing from his own war experience only when it’s conventionally exciting and otherwise throwing Phillip into every possible battle and using the public record for the details. At the same time he bears down, for thousands of pages, in exhaustive scrutiny of the salient facts of his actual personal life. These are, essentially, twofold: his fickle, immature, and changeable character (“Phillip” is always high-minded, but alternately clownish and noble, courageous and cowardly), and his father’s responsibility for molding that character.

Which is why it is good to read Williamson, here. Going into the details of why we have what writing we do have from these century-back soldiers breaks the fourth wall of the project, as it were: suffice it to say that few nasty or whingeing letters from serving soldiers are preserved, and fewer published. And we don’t have much in the way of complaint about one’s parents. I often make reference to one Philip Larkin poem, here, but there’s another one that serves just as well as a reminder of what British writing c. 1916 (or 1930, by which time almost all of the seminal novels and memoirs had come out) is too polite to encompass. And mum and dad–dad especially–did a number on Henry Williamson.

So, thanks to fiction, we are reminded here of a sobering fact: some wounded soldiers were miserable and depressed. Some blamed their parents for their predicament–fairly or no. Williamson/Maddison is in the army because the Territorials, just before the war, seemed an easy way to find the social acceptance and manly aura that he craved–and this craving stemmed from his father openly despising him as a weakling and Mama’s boy. It’s fiction, but, hey–it’s plausible. Today, a century back, somewhere, a young officer was suffering not only the misery of his wounds but the wounds of his unhappy childhood. And a father–a stiff, unpleasant father–was suffering the wound of his son’s skilfully nasty flanking fire: that postcard to a publican, that pretty girl who knows more, who cares more than he does…

 

Back to the front, now, with Rowland Feilding, who reports to his wife on the aftermath of the Somme.

July 8, 1916. Bois des Tallies.

Yesterday I went off alone to visit Fricourt, which our troops captured last Monday. There was a picture of the village two or three days ago in the Daily Mirror, which I saw yesterday. The picture showed a church and a street
of battered houses. It was not the Fricourt of to-day, which has no church, nor even a house standing. There remain just fragments of walls: that is all.

As you enter the village from this side you pass the cemetery. The tombstones—practically all—have been shattered and scattered broadcast. Scarcely a grave could be recognized by its nearest and dearest, save through its position. In one case, near the roadside, a shell has fallen upon one of those elaborate and rather pretentious family vaults so much in vogue in France, pulverizing the great black granite slab which covered it, and exposing the coffin shelves below. What a sudden and rude awakening for those sleeping bodies, and how undreamed of when they were laid in their highly respectable bourgeois tomb!

Heavy rain began to fall at midday, and continued in torrents at intervals throughout the afternoon, and all last
night. I had gone to Fricourt to look for Percy Clive, but when I reached the place I found that heavy fighting was in
progress before Mametz Wood, about a mile in front, and that his battalion was in it. So I had to postpone my visit.
The wounded were being carried back in streams, all covered from head to foot with the mud in which they had
been fighting, slimy and glistening like seals. It looks more and more as if Hell cannot be much worse than what our
infantry is going through at the present moment.

I should break in here, for a moment–Feilding has gone to report on aftermath, to do some prompt battlefield tourism, and he has found instead a fierce battle in progress. Percy Clive, a liberal MP and fellow Grenadier Guardsman, is now with (and, I believe, commanding) the 7th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment, part of the 17th Division. It has fallen to that unit–“The Northern Division”–together with the 38th or “Welsh” Division to drive the Germans from the steep, still-in-fact-wooded Mametz Wood.

Mametz Wood, before

Mametz Wood, which awkwardly straddles a dividing line in the trench map system

This attack will be one of the worst–the bloodiest, the most futile. Overly-complex plans, delays both avoidable and inevitable, and staunch German resistance to attacks that could not be less surprising led to several bloody repulses, yesterday and today.

This is an area that concerns our literary war very closely: in the map at right we can see “The Quadrangle,” in which one trench was single-handedly captured, and then relinquished, by a buccaneering Siegfried Sassoon. That area has been taken now, but the over-matched soldiers of the Northern and Welsh divisions had to attack from there and positions further east up the steep hillsides (note the contour lines) into the Wood.

David Jones and the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers were in the area but missed the attacks–today and tomorrow they will be in brigade reserve, just behind the lines. The day after tomorrow, they will go forward. And yes, it will be “hell,” but with Jones writing, it will be a far stranger, more rich, and more terrible place than that stock comparison suggests.

And in what may be my single greatest sin of omission, I did not discuss Wyn Griffith‘s memoir yesterday.[2] Griffith is another Welshman (in both senses–he was bilingual and more firmly fixed to Wales than many of the 15th RWF or “London Welsh”) and another very good writer. Although he had been an officer in Jones’s battalion (the two may never have interacted directly) he was now on the Brigade staff of the 115th Brigade, 38th Division.[3]

mametz wood, east

Mametz Wood, eastern half, showing Caterpillar Wood

Griffith watched yesterday’s disastrous attack from a position of relative safety and terrible helplessness. No detached observer, like Feilding, he was part of the chain of command that should have been able to adapt the battle to changing circumstances. But not at this point of this war: “brigade” was close enough to the battle to see what needed to be done, but not high enough in the chain of command to make it happen. Telephone and telegraph wires were cut, artillery plans were not to be trifled with, and ill-conceived attacks ground on…

Griffith was in Pommiers Redoubt (just to the south of the positions shown in the map at right–this attack occurred over the junction of four different maps), which had an excellent view of the futile advance down and up the little valley between Caterpillar Wood and Mametz Wood. The Welshmen were raked by enfilading machine-gun fire from the right as well as stiff defensive fire from the wood itself. There was no supporting barrage, no smoke screen… but this was yesterday, a century back, and I omitted it because the only way to do it justice would be to include an entire chapter of Griffith’s book.

Up to Mametz is one of the best memoirs (I know I write this a great deal), but, as the title suggests it falls in between those whose scale approach autobiography and those which describe only a few days or weeks of particular intensity–it is the story of his war, up to Mametz Wood. I very much recommend reading it, but little is to be gained right now from a mid-sized excerpt, so I will just bring us up to date and include one short but representative comment.

The climax of the book–emotionally and operationally, as it were–will come in two days’ time. Yesterday, however, Griffith was the right-hand man to a quiet hero of the war. This was the brigadier, Horatio Evans, who felt he had no choice but to go along with the foolish staff plan of attack. But after a morning of senseless slaughter (another cliche, but merited here), in which scores of men had been killed in order “to prove to our command that machine guns can defend a bare slope,” Evans sacrificed his career to save the remainder of his attacking battalions.

A further advance was being ordered by staff officers–located six miles back–and the brigadier decided to refuse. But his lines were cut, and so it was Griffith who remembered seeing an artillery observation officer with a separate telephone line, ran and found him, brought his Brigadier to verbally refuse the order, and then ran back up to the assembly trenches, through shell-fire, with the written order to stand down, all the while “feeling perfectly safe in the hands of Destiny.”

Hundreds of men were saved, and Brigadier Evans was soon sent home, as he had predicted to Griffith–“they want butchers, not brigadiers.”[4]

He had saved the Brigade from annihilation. That the rescue, in terms of men, was no more than a respite of days was no fault of his, for there is no saving of life in war until the eleventh hour of the last day is drawing to an end.[5]

 

So today, while Rowland Feilding looks for his friend, that friend’s 17th Division is facing machine-gun fire in “knee-deep mud.” Griffith’s brigade has been sent back–he is filling in for a wounded Staff Captain, and spends the day on the phone “parrying all demands from Division”–but other elements of the 38th division are struggling forward at the same time. They will miss their timing for a planned night attack–another intervention of providence or destiny, and likewise temporary.

Tomorrow, in a farther-off echo of the 38th Division getting rid of Brigadier Evans, Haig will fire the divisional commander of the 17th (although he was responsible neither for the German defense, the weather, nor the British plan of attack, which originated either with Haig’s staff or at the Corps or Army level) for this delay.

Ironically, the delay caused by replacing the general who was sacked will put off the assault by another day, giving the German defense more time to prepare.[6]

 

Cutting back to Feilding makes him seem cold-hearted, but there it is. His “hell” may be unimaginative, but the image of wounded, beslimed infantry “glistening like seals” certainly isn’t, and this is an experienced soldier at war: he can do nothing to relieve the sufferings of other men even in a hell so proximate, so he gets on with his day. He continues to tour the recently-captured German front lines around Fricourt and gives us an excellent closing-of-the-circle on a subject of much discussion these last few weeks: the German dugouts that were responsible for the survival of so many of their gunners on July 1st.

I mentioned to a machine-gun officer, whom I met, that I might be going on leave in a day or two, and should like a
souvenir from Fricourt. Said he, “I think I can help you then,” and took me to a place his men had just discovered.

british-troops-at-an-entrance-to-a-german-dugout-in-dantzig-alley-fricourt-july-1916-from-somme-1916

British Troops in a German dugout-entrance, Fricourt, July 1916

I have seen many dug-outs, but this beat them all. It might almost be described as an underground house, where instead of going upstairs you went down, by one flight after another, to the different stories. There were three floors, the deepest being 60 feet or more from the door by which I entered. The entrance hall—so to speak—was the brick cellar of a former house. There were two entrances, one of which, however, could only be recognized from the inside, since the doorway had been blown in. The other door, by which we entered, had been partly closed by a shell, a hole being left just big enough to crawl through on hands and knees.

The German occupants had evidently abandoned the place in a hurry, in the fear—entirely justified—that they might be buried alive if they stayed there. They had left everything behind. The floors were littered with every kind of thing, from heavy trench mortar bombs to grenades, the size of an egg, and from steel helmets to underclothing.

10362-14

An unusual souvenir

Many rifles hung from the wooden walls of the first flight of stairs. The nooks and corners of the rooms were occupied by sleeping-bunks, and from one of these I picked up the French Alphabet de Mademoiselle Lili, par “un papa,” delightfully illustrated, which I will send home to the children.

As I returned to camp I passed many fresh troops on their way up to the line. What a bad start for them in these
deluges of rain! One meets nowadays on the roads many wagons returning from the direction of the line, loaded with “swab” equipment. The troops of the new army wear pieces of cloth of different colours to distinguish their Divisions and Brigades. A battalion—I think of Royal Fusiliers—which I saw marching up, fresh and clean and full of life and vigour, a day or two before July 1, had pieces of pink flannel over their haversacks, displayed in such a way as to be recognizable in battle by our aeroplanes.

A few days later I passed a wagonload of salved equipment returning from the line. It was interleaved with the same pink flannel, now no longer fluttering gaily, but sodden and bedraggled, and caked with sticky clay.[7]

 

Here’s a pretty comparison. Rowland Feilding writes to his wife; Donald Hankey–who has been in the fighting, and buried many men in the days following–writes to his young niece. Hankey has escaped the slaughter once again and, apparently, been sent on a course. See, then, what of the war can be written to a young lady, and how it can be safely garbed in familiar lineaments–the horror story, the religious lesson–without either quite meeting the scale of wartime killing head-on or, otherwise, abandoning some form of truth for utter falsehood:

July 8, 1916

My Dear Eileen,

Thank you for your letter, and please thank Kathleen for hers. When I got your letter I was living in a “dug-out,”  which was a horrid dark place without any windows, which was full of rats. The rats used to eat my breakfast and my candle, and even my clean socks! But now I have gone to school again. Fancy an old fellow like me going to school! But to school I have gone, and it is very nice too! The school is called the 24th Army School, and if you want to write to me you must put on the envelope

2nd LIEUT. HANKEY, 1st R. War. Rgt.
No. 2 Mess, 4th Army School,
B. E. F., France.

There are about 200 students at this school, and some of them are even older than me! We learn all there is to know about killing Huns without getting killed ourselves, and this is very important because a lot of people were killed the other day. Only one must remember that as they died doing their duty, God took care of them, and took them home with Him.

Well, I am sitting in a great big garden, with a great big house just near, and yesterday I went to a funny old French town to get my hair cut and buy some trousers, because when I came here I was covered with mud, and all my clothes had holes in them. And I had lost my walking stick, but now I am as neat as a new pin. But whether wet or dry, ragged or neat, I am always

Your affectionate uncle and godpapa[8]

 

One final note: for the past three days, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien, now with his battalion’s headquarters at Bouzincourt, has been near the battle, but not in it. Two companies of his battalion have gone forward to hold trenches near Usna Hill, but Tolkien, as the signals officer, stayed back. And in Bouzincourt he crossed paths, rather providentially, with his friend and fellow TCBS-ite G.B. Smith. The three “talk as often as they can, ‘discussing poetry, the war, and the future. Once they walked in a field where poppies still waved in the wind despite the battle that was turning the countryside into a featureless desert of mud’.”[9] The two know nothing, yet, of the fate of Rob Gilson.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Golden Virgin, 319-21.
  2. I also missed, yesterday, the first attack of the 13th Royal Fusiliers--Guy Chapman's battalion--on La Boisselle. It's described in A  Passionate Prodigality, 95-100. Chapman himself was left out of the attack, but he includes disturbing second-hand evidence of the murder of German prisoners. The Somme is overwhelming...
  3. To review: there are four battalions to a brigade, three brigades to a division. Thus the 38th Division had twelve battalions--each a New Army formation created by one of three different regiments.
  4. Evans was slightly wounded yet stayed at his post for the next several days--he seems to have guessed that the wound would be used as an excuse to send him permanently away from the battalion.
  5. Up To Mametz, 206.
  6. In a detail impossible to miss--and perhaps not coincidental--the Welsh Division was at this time commanded by Major General C. G. Blackader.
  7. War Letters to a Wife, 88-90.
  8. Letters of Donald Hankey, 338-9.
  9. Chronology, 83, quoting Carpenter's Biography, 83.

Wyn Griffith and David Jones: The Royal Welch Raid Seen From Two Angles; A Near Miss for Harold MacMillan

Two brief paroxysms of trench violence today, a century back. First, with the Grenadier Guards, young Harold Macmillan described an overnight German bombardment of British positions in the ever-restive Ypres Salient.

Sunday–noon

Last night was a rather exciting night. I was having dinner with Parnell in the dug-out about 8 o’clock, when the enemy suddenly began a very violent bombardment. All round our dug-out was heavily shelled; a barrage was put on the road… It was midnight before I could venture out to go over to the other post. Even then it was a hazardous journey… I took an orderly with me, of course, as it was a rule that no one is ever to walk anywhere alone. This is a sound rule, as a man might be wounded and lie unnoticed for days and perhaps bleed to death…

We ran round the cross-road, which was naturally the hottest spot; just after we had passed the cross-road an enormous H.E. shell pitched right on the road. But we reached our destination in safety…[1]

Nothing to worry about, mum! It’s that little detail about the buddy system that catches the eye: this is a jaunty letter home to mother, for the most part, but that is one of those choice details that tend to turn up in the “sketches,” written most often for dad or the armchair reader of every paper’s war news.

Here we wonder: does the orderly’s presence draw attention to the fact that the young officer may be torn apart at any time, or does it reassure him that his shrapnel wounds–surely to occur in a mentionable place not overly prone to sepsis–will be swiftly dressed on his way to a wound stripe and blighty?

 

And second, the raid of the Fifteenth Royal Welch Fusiliers. We have many Royal Welch to keep tabs on–Dr. Dunn and Frank Richards in the 2nd Battalion, Siegfried Sassoon and John Bernard Adams with the 1st, Robert Graves soon ready to return to duty and with Vivian de Sola Pinto in Egypt–and, having just added Wyn Griffith, we now have two in the 15th.[2] So my habit of working straight from the memoirs and literary secondary sources and only going to battalion records when in doubt (and when they are remotely accessible!) almost tripped us up: Griffith returns to a raid on the 6th, while Thomas Dilworth, a biographer of David Jones, describes the battalion’s first raid as occurring on the 7th.

Griffith may be mistaken, although he gives few dates and therefore the impression that memorable ones are correct. Our approach to the socially retiring and imaginatively enormous Jones is always, necessarily, tentative: there is no letter about tonight, his diary will be mostly destroyed, and there is no incident in In Parenthesis that matches the raid precisely (not that this would provide a date). But he recalled the raid and Dilworth dates it to today, a century back.

Let’s assume that we have a simple problem of dating overnight operations, then, and drop back to tell the story again, from Jones’s point of view.[3]

The 15th are a Kitchener’s Army battalion, many of its men, like Jones himself, Londoners of Welsh extraction–the battalion was also known as the “1st London Welsh.” They have been in and out of the line since early winter, learning the ropes before the big push. This was the first planned raid, which may well have been evidence of the spendthrift folly of the staff and the pointless misery of war, as Griffith has it, but it was also evidence that the higher command now considers the battalion to be competent–and ready for a challenge.

Where Griffith considered his auxiliary assignment as a wire cutter to be a reprieve, at least, from leading the raid, Jones–our gentle artist–showed what was probably still a very common urge: to prove himself, to experience combat–or, at least, to express the desire for such an experience. So, a few days ago, when Griffith was still in England, David Jones volunteered for the raid.

But Jones was small and quiet and there were many volunteers:

So he was assigned, instead, to the covering party and at 11.30 [last night, that would be] slipped into no man’s land with the raiders in order to fire on the flanking sections of the enemy line. As on other such occasions, someone commented, ‘Bloody dark, mate’, and was answered, ‘Christ, mate, it’s a gift.’[4]

Dilworth’s account of the raid, based on battalion records and other sources–but not, it would seem, Griffith’s memoir–continues:

Advancing silently through no man’s land, the raiders came upon a German wiring party finishing its work and followed it into their trench. There they attacked, hurling over 200 grenades and killing most of the enemy, unarmed and crowded together, struggling frantically to get grenades out of a store. The raiders waded into the carnage with bludgeons and revolvers. They withdrew at 2.30 a.m., Jones’s party covering their rear, and were swept by machine-gun fire that killed the young officers leading the raiding party.

So Jones is with the covering party, and Wyn Griffith is back in the trench. Let’s pick up his memoir, now, where we left it yesterday:

Various coloured lights were sent up from neighbouring sectors of the enemy trenches, and his machine-guns were enfilading No Man’s Land. We could, however, hear the bursting of bombs thrown by our men, and we took heart at the sounds; they must now be in conflict hand to hand. Then we knew that the enemy artillery had started his barrage, and for the next ten minutes we knew little else. It did not seem possible that any of us could survive this thunderstorm of bursting shells, but strangely enough we suffered little. The barrages and the machine-gun fire died down to spasmodic outbursts, and our men began to trickle back to our line–some of them, for many never came back.

Dilworth records Jones’s more distant memory of more immediate terror:

When he scurried back into the trench, Jones saw the few prisoners taken in the raid literally shaking with fear. His sergeant-major, who had not been involved in the action, grabbed one of them, twisted his arm up behind his back and began frog-marching him down the trench. Jones and his companions protested, ‘You can’t do that, sir’ and stopped him…[5]

This is a major discrepancy, then: is Jones misremembering the raid, grafting a later memory of the mistreatment of prisoners onto this day, or is Wyn Griffith omitting a fact that would go a long way toward mitigating his account of the raid as an abject failure?

We could get no coherent account of what had happened, but it was clear that their visit was not unexpected… we sent our patrols to scour No Man’s Land in search of our wounded and dead. The searched lasted all night, with diminishing success…

It became evident that we had paid dearly for the assault–no prisoner, dead or alive, came into our hands. Sadness fell upon us all, officers and men, for there were many friends we would never see again, and the reactions from the excitement of the night brooded over the whispering groups, assessing the ultimate value of the enterprise and finding it not worth the cost.[6]

Not an omission then: “no prisoner, dead or alive.” If there were indeed prisoners taken on this raid then Griffith would be committing a graver sort of sin, namely asserting, on the strength of his memory, an incorrect fact. I don’t see why he would do this–it may be an error given undue emphasis by his retrospective shaping of the account of the raid into a story of the uselessness of raids in general… but now it seems more likely that it is Jones who is misremembering the details.

Ah well, I would be more excited by such a discrepancy if both writers actually wrote the raid–but we are dealing here with a reconstruction of Jones’s experience rather than a true sword-crossing of memoirs. Also, this issue wis probably resolvable by a little bit of research that I haven’t done: somewhere in Wales there is a more or less authoritative report that would specify whether or not German prisoners were taken on this raid…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. From Downing Street to the Trenches, 178-9.
  2. They are not, however, in the same company, and an officer would be unlikely to personally know a private soldier not under his command.
  3. It's possible that the night of the 7th is intended by Dilworth, in which case we have a discrepancy... and I'd blindly pick the latter-day researcher over the memory of the memoirist, especially since Dilworth uses Griffith and could check him against the records. Apologies, then, if I have indeed fumbled the date and put today/tomorrow's activity yesterday/today. I must plead the finite nature of time and effort (the Battalion Diary of the 15th Royal Welch is not yet, to my knowledge, scanned and available online) even here, at a crossing of paths in the Royal Welch...
  4. Jones had received a good schooling before art school, but he had not been reared, like the Public School officers of the First and Second battalions, in the shadow of the Western Canon--particularly its oldest and highest caliber works. Jones was more of an autodidact, in terms of literature, than almost any of our other poets (Will Streets being a notable exception) and he first wrote of his experiences without having coming first through Homer and Vergil. He will be delighted, Thomas Dilworth writes, when he learns that darkness is also "a gift" for the soldiers of the Aeneid. The problem is that Jones (and/or Dilworth) does not provide chapter and verse, and I'm not sure what the reference is to. The Aeneid is capacious and notoriously susceptible to different translations and interpretations, so the reference to darkness may well be in there, but any similar reference that I can remember (or swiftly re-locate) is about darkness coming and sleep being a gift...
  5. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 94-5. Dilworth is also drawing on Colin Hughes, but I have not been able yet to acquire either of Hughes's books on Jones and his division's fighting on the Somme...
  6. Wyn Griffith, Up to Mametz, 110-18.

Wyn Griffith Comes Down to Earth with a Thud–From Leave in London Straight to No Man’s Land, and a Raid; Donald Hankey on Plots and Bombs; Olaf Stapledon Heads for Blighty, and Contemplates a Blighty One

First, today, Donald Hankey enlightens his publisher as to the progress of his next project:

Parkhurst, I. W., May 6, 1916.

Dear Mr. Melrose,

I got my cheque this afternoon, and think that the moment is opportune for me to thank you for treating me so fairly, and to express the hope that the success of the book will justify your generous treatment of the author. I have begun a story! But now that I am a bombing instructor I don’t get much time. So far it has neither a plot nor a heroine; but it amuses me enormously, and is probably good practice. Leave is now harder to get than ever, and I despair of making your acquaintance in the flesh till after the war. I haven’t had leave since Christmas, except that curtailed week-end.

Another letter, also of today, a century back, to his friend John Barker, explains these novel-delaying activities in a bit more detail.

Dear Prester John,

I have been contemplating a letter to you for quite a long time; but you have such a lot of addresses that I could never make up my mind which to write to. No, I haven’t done any writing for a couple of months; but my collected writings of the past six months are now coming out in book form, and I have just got a cheque as an advance in Royalties, what ho! I have already stood innumerable drinks, and written for a cigar list! I shall send you some cigars when they come, to cheer you up. So you are impecunious, grimy, industrious, and externally respectable on the Sabbath! That sounds all right. I am over-fed, spasmodically overworked and underworked by fits, over-paid, over-charged, etc., etc. not too content! Still wish I was back in the ranks.

An interesting segue from ironic-repurposing-of-Cohan-anticipating-clichés to that odd lament: “I wish that my status and powers of self-determination were lower!”

But Hankey we can trust on this. It’s no whim, but close to the core of his religious sense of self: he should be among the men, not over them. Nevertheless, he is now an officer, and an instructor:

However, I am now bombing, which is really quite amusing, and quite strenuous. I lecture and instruct, instead of walking about with a stick under my arm watching a sgt. It is really quite amusing. To-day we had a great time, blowing up trenches, etc. Some day we will meet, if God wills, but it will be after the war. What shall we be then? God knows! No longer what we are! But perhaps (sketch) or wot? I don’t know. But we must meet somewhere Meanwhile, believe me

Yours vy. s.,

Donald Hankey[1]

It’s hard to avoid the fear that Hankey is in far great danger as a bombing instructor than he would be in the front lines…

 

Olaf Stapledon has gone on leave, and today he gives Agnes Miller a delightful tour of the journey home…

6 May 1916

…The day before yesterday I had a joy ride in the front seat of someone’s car from our place of “repos” [rest], Rexpoede, through smiling country…  The driver of the car was the fellow whose command I took in his absence up at the front. He is about 21, a farmer, a Friend, a young man of character; and when he and I are together we rag like children. That joy ride was the first step in my journey home, so I was gay. I played tricks on him all the way, switched off his current, pressed out his clutch, punched him in the ribs as he was turning corners, and had a free fight over the steering wheel, much to the amusement of the malades.

Yes–they are driving an ambulance, with patients, and larking about in such a manner. Life is cheap, and they are young… and speaking of larks:

Disgraceful conduct for two of the leading lights of a Friends’ convoy, but what of that. The larks sang, the sun shone, and the world was green below & blue above…

Well, well, at Malo (HQ) I had a bath, the first for six weeks… We dined in Calais and slept in the FAU’s hotel quarters at Boulogne, having reached that centre of British red tape at one in the morning. Next day we went through all the formalities and embarked…

But Stapledon is both ever-high-spirited and scrupulous in acknowledging the emotional challenges of war. And so, zig-zagging across the channel, he changes course. The light-hearted katabasis–his glorious journey down from the danger zone toward home and rest–first shifts to become a description of the war’s multitudes: there are rough-and-tumble Canadians, hail-fellow Australians, countrymen of his beloved, etc. But then, as they arrive in England, Stapledon realizes that he is once more a man in the middle: a pacifist, serving in uniform. An objector, uncomfortably celebrated. He is not so much a master of gentle irony, now, as a gentle man in a genuinely difficult position.

Our voyage was fair, & interesting. At Folkestone we had a desperate battle to get into the fourth train… All the way up to town we were cheered, cheered on end, by the inhabitants of England. Houses and streets were full of women and children waving & shouting & wildly blowing kisses; and old men ploughing would stop as we passed and wave their hats. We of the FAU have need to think much, for behold us conscientious noncombatants, yet dressed much like British officers; feeling fully (surely) the love of England that others felt, yet anxious to prove that our work was not meant to bring victory to England…

But, girl, that journey over made one long to be a soldier and deserve those ecstatic cheers, and feel entirely at one with all those patient khaki hosts. It would be far the easiest course, believe me. We are all discontented on our convoy…. sometimes one positively wants that great attack on our front which is always coming & never comes. Many of us have long ago decided that the most fortunate fate would be to get substantially wounded in a real action. Seriously we think so… We would do anything, in fact, that would enable us to sacrifice without fighting.[2]

The serious young men of the Friends’ Ambulance Corps often seen saner (driver-punching hijinks aside) than the trench-bound subalterns, but now we see that, caught between conscription and a more complete rejection of war, they too find themselves torn toward the emotional illogic of the love of sacrifice. They will not fight, but they cannot bear to be thought to bear less than those who do. Even the pacifists are longing for a flesh wound, a blighty one, stigmata to stave off stigma…

 

And Llewelyn Wyn Griffith‘s return to the front is only beginning. After parting from his wife in the morning, he had arrived last night, depressed, in France:

In a waking dream I reached Boulogne and unhurriedly searched for my train, almost praying that it had gone. If I had failed to see beauty walking the fields of England that morning, there was little danger of the eye meeting pleasure in France… I have forgotten where I slept. My mind was far away.

Next morning I walked towards the line in search of my battalion, hoping to find it in reserve; anywhere but in the trenches. I met the transport officer who told me that we were in the trenches in front of Laventie, and that I had arrived just in time for a ‘show’ that very night. I had come down to earth with a thud, and I was seized with a wild rebellious fear… It was at such times as thus that I pondered grimly on the strange fever that drove me to wrest from an unwilling Government Department permission to enlist in the army.

If any man says that he went into the trenches with indifference, you may brand him a liar. I hated the journey always, but never more than now. Coming straight from the ways of peace, it seemed that I had more to lose, for the deadening power of months of trench habit had been lifted from my mind, leaving my fibre bare to the weakest blast of war. I skulked along a quiet road leading to a few cottages still occupied by peasants, and there I met one of our company commanders. From him I heard the full tale of the coming night…

These sorts of raids have become a familiar feature of the war, and it appears as if they are going to more or less take over this project for the month of may. Winter is gone, and the offensive is still more than a month away: there is intelligence to be gained, morale to be stiffened, Germans to intimidate…

But there is none of this context for Wyn Griffith–he cares nothing for our knowledge that similar raids are being prepared up and down the British line. He has only his own experience, and the bizarre knowledge that yesterday morning he was in his wife’s arms and tonight he will be shot at.

Fortunately, the raid was planned in his absence, and so volunteers–“picked” men, “adventurers,” he calls them–will carry out the actual raid. Griffith’s task will be to go out first and cut lanes through the British wire obstacles.

It is under a black cloud, then, that he completes his second approach of the line.

My mental equilibrium thoroughly upset by the prospect of a night of excitement, I took the road once again, steadily descending the scale of civilization from inhabited cottages to isolated ruins… to a straight arrow of road, to all appearances untrodden by  man, and all but conquered by the grass advancing from its verges… Although I had not walked this way before, I knew well enough that my path would sink in a visible degradation from high road to ditch, and from ditch to an inconspicuous entrance into a communication trench. So it happened. In a few seconds my foot was on a duckboard… there rose the unforgettable smell of Flanders mud. It struck chill into the heart…

I realize now that I should have noted the emphasis in his earlier chapter on scent–a cream he had purchased in France, a bottle of scent he gave to his wife as a gift. Griffith is a good writer, and there is no particular call here for subtlety in this descent of the senses from bliss to misery, life and love to the specter of death. Few have sketched the second “approach” as strongly.

We come now, then, all the way down. From yesterday’s apotheosis of purposeful and joyful living to that far off country, the antipodes of the good life, and all too well discovered. .

If ever war was meaningless, it was on this sunny afternoon in May, as I walked slowly on my winding way towards the line… War’s cruelty, its hideousness and its powers of destruction were to-day overshadowed by its irredeemable idiocy.

Although “sullen,” Griffith begins to re-immerse himself in trench life. He shares some tea, then a laugh over “bumff,” (i.e. the usual bureaucratic nonsense), and he learns the operational plan for the raid. Nothing for it.

It grew dark, and it was time to begin cutting lanes in our wire in front of the point of departure of the raiding party. Our artillery had been engaged during the day in cutting the enemy’s wire, lest he should have any doubt where we proposed to attack him…

Soon there began a trickle of men into the trench, with blackened faces and hands, carrying weird weapons…[3] In desperate silence they climbed over the parapet…

Interestingly, a “field telephone”–which seems to be a simple buzzer–is brought out by the raiding party and used to signal their readiness to the trenches and on to the artillery. A good system, if the wire holds up.

Zero, a buzz, and then a wild tornado of shell fire. They were off on their journey, inside this three-walled screen of flame…[4]

There is more to this story, of course, but it is proper, really, to tomorrow–these middle-of-the-night raids are hard on the date-obsessed!–and we will pick it up then…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters, 333-5.
  2. Talking Across the World, 145-7.
  3. Sassoon will fill us in on these, shortly.
  4. Wyn Griffith, Up to Mametz, 110-18.

May Morning Again for Vera Brittain; Richard Aldington Churns Through the French; We Meet Wyn Griffith: Leave, Reunion, Parting, and the Lessons of Poetry

A this project (not to mention the war) nears the end of its second year, we have a chance to do what more and more of our writers–especially those who have loved, and lost–now have occasion to do, namely observe anniversaries of their own. Let us then observe May Day (only slightly belatedly) with a poem by Vera Brittain, as described in her memoir.

After the first few days at the Fever Hospital I felt perfectly well… during those noisy, monotonous weeks, I had at last time to read the newspapers, with their perturbing accounts of the Easter Rebellion in Ireland, and Townshend’s surrender at Kut, and the first stages of Roger Casement’s progress towards his execution… there was still more than enough opportunity for thoughts about the past. At the beginning of May a Times paragraph describing the ceremony on Magdalen Bridge brought back to me the cool, sweet ride through Marston just after dawn a year ago, and all at once the impulse to put what I felt into verse–a new impulse which had recently begun both to fascinate and torment me–sprang up with overwhelming compulsion. Seizing my note-book and a pencil, I retired to the beetle-infested bathroom, which, owing to the persistent loquacity of the V.A.D. who shared my room, was the only place in the building where I could be certain of peace.

Later I polished up the poem, “May Morning,” and sent it to the Oxford Magazine.[1]

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Courtesy of the First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford

The Oxford Magazine published the poem today, a century back (efficient!), and so we find ourselves, with Vera Brittain, looking back a century, and a year, and four more days. “May Morning,” by the way, is a venerable Oxford tradition involving a segue (very appropriate, in a medieval university town) from hymns to parades to general partying.

The rising sun shone warmly on the tower;
Into the clear pure heaven the hymn aspired,
Piercingly sweet. This was the morning hour
When life awoke with spring’s creative power,
And the old city’s grey to gold was fired.

Silently reverent stood the noisy throng;
Under the bridge the boats in long array
Lay motionless. The choristers’ far song
Faded upon the breeze in echoes long.
Swiftly I left the bridge and rode away.

Straight to a little wood’s green heart I sped,
Where cowslips grew, beneath whose gold withdrawn
The fragrant earth peeped warm and richly red;
All trace of winter’s chilling touch had fled,
And song-birds ushered in the year’s bright morn.

I had met Love not many days before,
And as in blissful mood I listening lay
None ever had of joy so full a store.
I thought that spring must last for evermore,
For I was young and loved, and it was May.

Now it is May again, and sweetly clear
Perhaps once more aspires the Latin hymn
From Magdalen tower, but not for me to hear.
I toil far distant, for a darker year
Shadows the century with menace grim.

I walk in ways where pain and sorrow dwell,
And ruin such as only War can bring,
Where each lives through his individual hell,
Fraught with remembered horror none can tell,
And no more is there glory in the spring.

And I am worn with tears, for he I loved
Lies cold beneath the stricken sod of France;
Hope has forsaken me, by death removed,
And Love that seemed so strong and gay has proved
A poor crushed thing, the toy of cruel chance.

Often I wonder, as I grieve in vain,
If when the long, long future years creep slow,
And War and tears alike have ceased to reign,
I ever shall recapture, once again,
The mood of that May Morning, long ago.

This is not a bad poem, per se–except in those regions where the words their order are with constancy rearrabged–but it is apprentice work. The verse is diligent and, despite the poet’s willingness to voice the reality of the war’s losses, still very traditional. This is decorous public grief–the voice of the poet as a grieving woman need not be arraigned on charges of conduct undermining of national morale. Post-Victorian culture has room for overstuffed rooms full of weeping females, as long as their keening is decently restrained.

And if, knowing Vera’s travails, we might read depression and misery into “the long, long future years” and anger into “the toy of cruel chance” we must know that this was not the obvious contemporary reading. Yet it’s what is not in the poem that matters: I don’t think the editors of the Oxford Magazine–or its readers–noticed the absence of notes of vengeance or righteousness or Brookean beautiful sacrifice. They weren’t forced to, and Vera Brittain, inexperienced poet but sharp-eyed reader, must know that, if you want your poem to strike at the reader’s heart, you will need diction pointed enough to prick her awake.

Nevertheless, Vera Brittain’s “new impulse” will bear fruit: she has written about the war, and seen her work in print. This marks both the beginning of a new identity and the resurrection of an old yearning.

 

A bit of a shift in tone, now, but a strange harmony nonetheless. Richard Aldington, a very different sort of chap than Roland or Vera, is nonetheless hastening to complete a work of scholarship before the war claims him. Writing again to F.S. Flint–en Français, naturalement–Aldington praises Bouvard et Pécuchet, Flaubert’s heroically cluttered satire of 19th century confidence. He then harasses his friend for more fodder:

MAIS ENVOIE-MOI DES LIVRES!

Tout a toi, sale cochon, et presque mon seui ami,

R.
[BUT SEND ME SOME BOOKS! All the best to you, you swine, and almost my only friend, R.[2]

 

Finally today, regret. I have failed, friends, in my advance-reading. For it would have been very good to know Llewelyn Wyn Griffith already–alas for my mistaken note that his memoir only picks up this summer! Griffith, as his name indicates, is Welsh–and he is also Welch, a subaltern in the 15th (Service, i.e. Kitchener’s Army) battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Twenty-five, with writerly aspirations and a civil service career on hold, Griffith had gone out in the early winter and served time in trenches both decent and awful (Givenchy) and found that he was able to put up a decent charade of being a competent officer.

His memoir includes the usual stories–but beautifully rendered, and much more concisely than many of our writers–of “prentice days” in the frigid trenches: learning to fear the different German guns, to fight the ever-encroaching mud, and, when suddenly assigned to teach a course in field cookery, to perform an officer’s most important duty and swiftly locate a competent sergeant to do the job for him.

But all is not lost, for the first bit of Griffith’s experience that is strongly distinct from that of so many others has only just begun. In medias res, then!

Griffith is married (confusingly, his wife’s name is “Wyn,” while he himself is usually called “Wyn Griffith”) and in mid-April his wife’s father died. Griffith, at the front since December, applied for leave, and it was granted him. We have relatively few married men, here, and Griffith does not dwell on the enforced absence in his early chapters–but it is always there, nonetheless. A sharp example of the challenges to maintaining a Vera-and-Roland-like sympathy at a distances has just come: After enjoying a splendid four days on a course–clean linen in an unspoiled town!–and writing to his wife about it, Griffith discovers, when his mail catches up with him, that he has been writing beatific letters to a woman just bereaved.

Griffith, then, is a man longing for his wife after months of misery and discomfort as well as a husband eager to comfort her in a time of grieving. He is also, curiously, a sort of guilty survivor: he recognizes, in a flash, the “plight of women” that we discussed here more than once.

In the line, in support, or in billets, a soldier quickly learns to calculate his degree of danger. There is terrible, acute, unmanning fear–and bliss, and many stages in between. But for a loved one waiting at home there is never any real relief from anxiety: anything might happen during that gap of a few crucial days as the letter makes its way across the channel.

So when the leave comes through, Griffith literally runs straight from the trenches for home, slipping on muddy duckboards, then risking frost-bite in his sodden uniform in a cattle-car on the last train for Boulogne. It was “the longest journey I have ever known.” After an agonizing thaw in front of a guard’s oil-lamp and an aggravating delay on the boat, Griffith sails for England:

As we neared Folkestone, England came in sight, and I realized why poets have sung of those white cliffs; years of my life had slipped away for ever in the five months I had spent in France, and I saw a new country; the train carried us past orchards in blossom; hedges had taken on a new beauty after my sojourn in the pollarded fens of Flanders. The country sang of peace, and every moment was bringing me nearer to Wyn; it would be strange if that journey were not stamped indelibly on my memory. It has now sunk deeper than memory; it has become a part of my being and of my way of thinking.

This was a century back, and another ten days. We elide, then, the longed-for reunion with his wife, in a London hotel, just as Griffith does: with “And so, with this meeting, I had reached my ‘journey’s end’,” the third chapter of his book closes.

Today, a century back, chapter four begins. The title? “Mud.”

It was on the 5th May, 1916, that this ten days of delight was destined to end…

This next bit I like very much: we are awash with poets here, but now I have a wise old ally in criticism. How might a soldier who is a devoted reader of poetry arm himself against loss and gird his love from despair?

Love grows rapidly in the forcing-house of war, and the dull ache of absence fosters a sensitivity and quickens response. The poets have taught us that to mortals endowed with their own delicacy of emotional structure, parting can become an agony of a death, but war, with its rude barbarian violence, had made even of use ordinary creatures, a regiment of sufferers. Common clay we were, and far enough removed as we thought ourselves from the spun glass of the poet’s imagining, we found ourselves betrayed into the very emotions they had sung. That the prose of war should prove the truth of poetry’s tale of men’s feeling–that it should now be easy to believe that some of those magic lines were indeed a reflection of the real thoughts of real men and women–that was an astonishing discovery. I had read a quantity of poetry, and had even tried to write it, but all with a sense of projecting my personality into an adjacent field of life. Here and now I was treading, at some remove, the very paths the poets had walked before me.

From his poetry-sharpened sensibility he goes directly–and without any of the commentarial fuss I am now making–to a demonstration of his negative capability. This is a soldier’s story that is–like all soldiers’ stories–self-involved. But not to solipsism: Griffith recognizes the stories that he cannot tell.

Shortly before eight o’clock in the morning the boat train steamed out of Victoria station, leaving Wyn standing on the platform, one of many women fighting each a lonely battle against a distant peril. Some were to know defeat, others triumph, but none was to escape the rack of doubt and suspense.  I cannot tell her tale of that day: the return to an empty room, the quiet packing of a bag, and the cruel sight of other women looking into their husbands’ eyes. I saw no beauty in the Kentish orchards that had delighted my eyes but ten days ago, and the flowering hedges were a mockery…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 268.
  2. Imagist Dialogues, 112-3.
  3. Wyn Griffith, Up to Mametz, 97-110.