A busy day, today, as one of our subalterns leaves the Somme, another has just seen the front lines for the first time, and Siegfried Sassoon faces, albeit briefly, his own crisis of confidence in the meaning of the war.
First, Wilfred Owen, on the brink of his first tour in the front lines, and concerned to reassure his mother about two things: that he is where he should be, and that he will continue to tell her everything. He can reassure her, too, about his present safety, but lurking behind the entirety of the letter is the realization that, from now on, he cannot truthfully reassure her about his immediate future–which will have become, by the time she receives the letter, the present and immediate past.
He begins in the familiar mode of soldierly reassurance, in which military circumstance provides light comedy.
10 January 1917 [2nd Manchester Regt., B.E.F.]
My own Mother,
I was censoring letters all afternoon. After tea commenced a big commotion among my friendly neighbours the Howitzers; in the midst of which I wrote a distracted note to Leslie, but the concussion blew out my candle so many times that I lost heart…
But Wilfred shortly runs out of preamble. He makes now what amounts to a programmatic statement for what will be his letters from the trenches.
Yesterday I took a tour into the Line which we shall occupy. Our little party was shelled going up across the open country. It was not at all frightful and only one 4.7 got anywhere near, falling plump in the road, but quite a minute after we had passed the spot. I tell you these things because afterwards they will sound less exciting. If I leave all my exploits for recitation after the war without mentioning them now, they will be appearing bomb-shell-bastic.
Very well. The next few paragraphs are of little interest now, perhaps, but they build our sense of Owen’s company, and his duties.
Now I am not so uncomfortable as last week, for my new servant who has been a chemist’s assistant, has turned out not only clean & smart, but enterprising and inventive. He keeps a jolly fire going; and thieves me wood with much cunning.
My Company Commander (A Company) has been out here since the beginning: ’tis a gentleman and an original (!)
Next in command is Heydon, whom I greatly like, and once revered as the assistant Adjutant at Witley & Oswestry.
Then come I, for the remaining subalterns are junior. I chose no. 3 Platoon. I was posted to 2, but one day I took No. 3 in tow when its officer left, because I liked the look of the men.
Even as they prophesied in the Artists, I have to take a close interest in feet, and this very day I knelt down with a candle and watched each man perform his anointment with Whale Oil; praising the clean feet, but not reviling the unclean.
Owen is needling his mother, perhaps, or making slightly irreverent references to his childhood near-vocation (from altar boy and play-pretend priest to a stint as a vicar’s assistant). But he will make more of what must be, to a fastidious Edwardian youth, a strangely direct and unavoidably biblical form of intimacy with other men’s bodies.
But for now we’re in more of a punning mode…
As a matter of fact, my servant and one other, are the only non-verminous bodies in the platoon; not to say Lice-ntious.
Today’s letters were rather interesting. The Daddys’ letters’ are specially touching, and the number of xxx to sisters and mothers weigh more in heaven than Victoria Crosses. The Victoria Cross! I covet it not. Is it not Victorian? yah! pah!
I am not allowed to send a sketch, but you must know I am transformed now, wearing a steel helmet, buff jerkin of leather, rubber-waders up to the hips, & gauntlets. But for the rifle, we are exactly like Cromwellian Troopers.
This is pleasant to an aficionado of off-the-cuff historical comparisons. If the first battle-bowler-wearers of about a year ago were seen as uncannily like late medieval men-at-arms in their kettle helmets, we have progressed a couple of centuries in a mere year… but it is practical gear. No more redcoats or bearskins…
The waders are of course indispensable. In miles of trench which I waded yesterday there was not one inch of dry ground. There is a mean depth of 2 feet of water.
It seems an era since Christmas, Day, and Goose, Carols, Dickens & Mistletoe.
Assuming the war lasts another year I should get leave twice, or three times, for we get it, or should get it every 3 months.
Be sure to have no Chloride of Lime in the house. Our water is overdosed with it enough to poison us. But in the Mess we can get Perrier fortunately.
You need not ask where I am. I have told you as far as I can.
This is a reminder to Susan Owen–probably unnecessary–of a simple and fairly elegant censor-eluding code that they had agreed upon. Yes, Owen censors other men’s letters, and yes, he is supposed to be on his honor as an officer and gentleman not to circumvent regulations about communicating his location in writing. But his letters may perhaps be censored and he, like so many, have decided that divulging a place name is a worthwhile misdemeanor if it can give the folks at home some relief. At the very least, if the papers admit heavy fighting somewhere else, they may be able to feel a slightly spurious sense of relief and not have to suffer worse agonies at the approach of the postman or telegraph boy.
Owen’s biographer Dominic Hibberd explains the “code” as this: after the use of the word “mistletoe,” the first letters of the next lines will spell out a place-name. In this case, that place is “Serre,” and although the line-breaks are surely not the same in the printed version as in the holograph, I’m still not sure where that comes from. In any case, yes: the 2nd Manchesters are headed to the chewed-up hellscape between Beaumont Hamel and Serre.
Penultimately, of course, the parcel request.
These things I need
(1) small pair nail scissors
(2) celluloid hair-pin box from Boots (9d.) with tightfitting lid, & containing boracic powder.
(3) Players Navy Cut
(4) Ink pellets
(5) Sweets (!!) (We shall not be in touch with Supplies by day)
Have no anxiety. I cannot do a better thing or be in a righter place…
This letter is almost a trench letter omnibus; it covers so much, in so many different registers. And it leaves the writer changed (or, at least, it leaves the reader sensible of a change). That last line, with its touch of a very different Dickens than A Christmas Carol, would have seemed eye-rollingly grandiose just a few weeks ago. But now, well, it’s good to know that young Wilfred can write that, as he heads into the trenches for the first time… It’s a good sentiment.
Or a dark joke. If this is indeed an echo of Sydney Carton’s last words, surely there is some chance that Susan Owen will catch the echo and be reminded that the man who did a “far better thing” was about to lose his head?
We have, then, today, an interesting mirror-moment, a pre-crossing of mental paths. Even as Owen’s writing is changing–poetry and ambition momentarily forgotten as he faces hardship, danger, and the never-absent question of how he will fare when put to the test–Siegfried Sassoon is finding himself rather more changed by his long absence from the war than he would ideally like to be.
In fact, the jotted notes in this one day’s diary entry touch on several of the central questions that are beginning to torment Sassoon, as they do any young officer invested in his own military self-worth, more invested in hopes for a heroically meaningful future after the war, and committed throughout to poetry…
And it’s awkward timing, so soon after Graves was a bit dismissive of his friend in a letter to Robert Nichols, but Sassoon has high praise for Robert Graves today, a century back. Wait for it: it comes just after Sassoon raises questions of decorations and their worth, motivation, death, and poetry’s eternal (or ephemeral) achievements…and, yes, after he lays on a familiarly negative (though pretty-much-everywhere-ratified) description of Graves’s social skills.
A typical Wednesday night (Guest night; the only guest being Captain Moody on leave from the Second Battalion, with two years’ trench service and M.C. and bar). A little nonentity with a pudding face and black hair, but a stout soldier and worthy of his laurels. I left them singing any old drivel to the strains of the tin-kettle piano, and the rain pattering on the roof. Why should a little silver rosette on an M.C. ribbon make one want to go back to hell? If I had a crimson ribbon [i.e. a V.C.] I should be no better soldier, no worse. It is blood and brains that tell; blood in the mud, and brains smashed up by bullets. Where’s all the poetry gone then? But my book will be in print next month.
Robert was very excited and portwineish. Shouting catches louder than any of them. And yet he’s hundreds of aeons in front of most of them, and a magical name for young poets in 1980, if only he survives this carnage.
So that’s some good epistolary crossing of paths: Wilfed Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, unbeknownst to each other and writing from opposite sides of their first combat experiences both, today, disparage the Victoria Cross. Owen, one imagines, in the apotropaic willingness to trade glory for mere survival and proof that he is at least a competently brave officer, Sassoon in order to force down his jealousy of an unprepossessing fellow who is one decoration ahead of him (a “bar” indicates a second instance of the same “level” of decoration).
Graves knows that he is brave, Sassoon knows that he is not only brave but a good aggressive fighter; and they both have books coming out… What will Owen do?
And we have one more major literary event today, a century back (or as near as I can figure it). Max Plowman–writing as “Mark VII”–has now seen six hard months as “A Subaltern on the Somme.” The last few days, since returning to his battalion from a course to find most of the friendly faces gone and a miserable, freezing section of the line to be held, have been none of the easiest. The real mark of an old soldier–be he nineteen or sixty–is having been at the front long enough to miss his absent friends and despise their replacements. Plowman is hardly snobbish by the standards of his fellow subaltern-writers… but that’s hardly not snobbish, even given the animus that naturally descends upon those one views as usurpers…
Hardy has gone on a month’s course to Paris. For the first time I am so companionless I wish myself in any other battalion. Just now the hut contains two of the new officers posted to D Company. They are loud, swaggering, insensitive hulks, very proud of their belts after their apprenticeship as commercial travellers. Preferring the company of gentlefolk, I should be happier living with the men…
Yes, but to do that would be impossible; officers don’t live with their men, and all statements of brotherhood or mutual admiration do stop short of crossing the barrier between those empowered to order and those constrained to obey… So Plowman’s statement is more a petulant complaint about these ill-bred types in his own mess than true praise of the inherent gentility of the British soldier…
In the days that follow his battalion take up difficult forward trenches, the front line hardly merely linked shell holes rather than proper trenches at all. It snows, then it rains, and Plowman can’t stop himself from asking his colonel about his chances for leave…
Which is about when the attack opens.
Did I promise a cessation of hostilities on the Somme? Well, yes, you see, but we have had nearly two months to bring units up to strength, build new roads, stockpile ammunition… and while there are no more plans to break through this haggard battlefield–a fool’s hope of a fool’s hope, now–there are little unpleasantnesses of map and contour which must be dealt with. So an offensive was launched today, a century back, neither a “big push” nor an entirely “local effort,” but rather a mid-sized action to seize some of the as-yet-unclaimed high ground on the northern end of original Somme battlefield. In the village of Serre, German machine guns which had massacred the pals battalions on July 1st were still in place.
This resumption of hostilities makes it very likely that the following section of Plowman’s memoir refers to today, a century back:
Noon. The “show” has begun. Our artillery is making rare good shooting. Boards go up in the air and there’s a regular strafe on our right. But the usual retaliation has also begun, and heavy shells are beginning to drop about. We have a tiny corrugated-iron shelter here, made for the signallers. There are two of them and three other men beside myself in the shelter. I think we had better move out of this. Crack! Hullo! What’s that? Looking up we see a hole in the iron just over the place where I had been sitting. Something must have come through there. Going back I find a hole in the clay seat on which I had been sitting ten seconds before, and putting my arm a foot into the wet clay draw out the great jagged rim of a shell. It is still warm.
“Get out of this, you fellows, and spread your- selves down the trench. — That’s it! — Get some distance between you. Look there, Burt, you’ve water-boots on. You can go through the water down to . . .
Here Plowman leaves a line of five asterisks across the page. What follows is one of the better first-person descriptions of concussion and its aftereffects:
What’s happened? I am lying on a duck-board looking up at the sky. Dusk is falling. There’s a young lance-corporal looking down at me as if I were a curiosity. I ask him what has happened.
“You bin knocked out,” he replies smiling. “We thought you was dead.”
Something has happened, but I can’t remember what. There’s been a great nothingness, and I cannot remember what happened before it. I seem to have been dead, and death apparently is nothingness. Why can’t that fool stop grinning and tell me just what’s happened?
He says I’ve got the company. I don’t know what the devil he means. I never had a company in the line. Oh! I know. This is Hébuterne. ‘Fall’ : ‘Fame’ : ‘Fate.’
“Where’s Mr. Hill?”
The boy grins.
“Gone back home long since.”
“Where’s Mr. Smalley?” He grins again.
“Gone back to Blighty, sir. He went weeks ago.”
This is maddening. I tell him to go to blazes and find somebody who can tell me what has happened.
My head is like a furnace: yet it feels as if it were made of jelly, and hullo! my ears are bleeding. Gradually I begin to remember.
I get up and find there are three wounded men here. They say a shell came over and dropped right in the parapet in front of me, wounding those in either side and flattening me out against the back of the trench. There’s a great hole just over there, so I suppose that’s what happened. The shelter has clean gone.
Darkness begins to come on. The wounded men go back; luckily they can all walk. I am all right now, except that I can’t keep awake. What I wonder is, whether the colonel will let me have leave right away, as soon as we come out.
Mallow returns, and I tell him I shall be all right after I have had a sleep. I follow him back to his dug-out, slowly because something’s happened to my right leg and I am frightfully stiff.
He gives me a drink of cocoa and I fall asleep. Now he wants me to go back to the dug-out in the second line. Why should I? I only want a good sleep. No, I will sleep. He wakes me again, saying I’d better see the doctor. Reluctantly I try to get out of the dug-out; but it’s dark outside and I can’t see the way. I come back and, telling him I’ll go when the moon gets up, fall asleep again. Again he wakes me and this time I go in company with a runner. Jog, jog, jog. My head aches; but I should have been quite all right. I could have waited till to-morrow.
Here’s the second-line dug-out. I crawl down the steps, and some ministering angel gives me another drink.
Now I can go to sleep. No. The colonel passes overhead and sends down word to me to go back to the doctor.
Trudge, trudge, trudge: every step is one less to be taken. And here at last is the old dug-out. The doctor’s asleep. Then let him sleep; only give me somewhere to lie down. The M.O.’s orderly comes worrying. The doctor wants to see me now. I pick myself up again. He plasters up my ears and then tells me I had better go to the dressing-station. They will probably put me into hospital to rest for a few days.
Rest? I want no rest in hospital. I want to go home on leave. Damn it! They can’t cut out my leave for hospital.
The medical-officer at the dressing-station wants to know what has happened. I tell him all I know and then beg him to let me have just a week’s home-leave. He is very sympathetic, but says he can only send me on to the base hospital at Bray.
Now in an ambulance, rattling along. This is comparative comfort. Now a large marquee with beds, and there’s a nurse. She tells me to get into that one. God! The comfort and ease! I sleep at last for twenty-four hours straight off.
Finally, today, a century back, Charles Scott Moncrieff set out for France, leaving Victoria Station with a number of other officers of his regiment, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. During a long convalescence from “trench fever” he has spent time at home, training troops, and sharpening his skills as a satirist and literary critic, notably for G.K. Chesterton’s The New Witness. That apprenticeship is suspended now, as he takes up his other work once again.