David Jones and Hedd Wyn Together on the Worst Night of All; Siegfried Sassoon and the Healing Rivers; Kate Luard Returns to No. 32; Llewelyn Wyn Griffith Wins his Way to Rhiw, on Llyn; Max Plowman on the Coming Generation; Will Harvey’s Comrades Tunnel Out; Isaac Rosenberg’s Immense Trust

This is one of those rewarding but vexing days of overabundance. A very big day for one of our central writers and what may be an unrecognized conjunction of two others are both busily trespassed upon by the smaller doings of several others. The three principals are all men of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, too: David Jones and Hedd Wyn can be found, tonight, a century back, in the same section of trench, only hours after Siegfried Sassoon arrived[1] at Craiglockhart War Hospital. Sassoon is, technically, a prisoner remanded to medical treatment, but since both Robert Graves and a second officer detailed to accompany him missed the train, he came to Edinburgh himself.

And thus, for his lightly fictionalized alter-ego George Sherston, ended the second volume of his autobiography. With his arrival at “Slateford War Hospital,” near Edinburgh, the third volume, Sherston’s Progress, begins.

But first, for us, that crowd of less momentous military-literary events…

 

Max Plowman, another shell-shocked infantry officer, another anti-war writer and poet and, by this evening, a century back, a man with whom Sassoon will have an important mutual connection–is in a slightly different place, vis a vis pacifism, than our Siegfried. And might we suggest that it is a more advanced stage?

…My view is that the war is a national calamity for which we are all responsible–either actively or passively or hereditarily–& that everyone really suffers it most where he is most alive. Clods almost purely in their skins & so upwards. And if anybody enjoys it he is to be pitied most of all…

But the damned nuisance about it is that after a certain age you can’t change your skin with the ease & frequency of a jolly young snake.–It’s useless to revile circumstances (unless they’re the direct result of one’s own behaviour). Even if we of this generation have to suffer life, I don’t doubt but that Life knows her way, & that the coming  generation will reap what we’ve sown…[2]

This is high-flown stuff, and beside it Sassoon’s quick capitulation from his campaign of attempted martyrdom, and of course it is disastrously prescient. But it doesn’t quite address the question that Sassoon tried–and failed–to address: yes, but what is one mere lieutenant to do about it?

 

Nor is this a question that Isaac Rosenberg–a mere private–can even dream of entertaining. There is no time or energy–no standing, really–to engage with questions more than a step or two from those of personal survival. But one of these, for a poet and artist like Rosenberg, is the question of artistic progress. He wrote, or perhaps posted, another letter to Gordon Bottomley today, a century back:

…I know my letters are not what they should be; but I must take any chance I get of writing for fear another chance does not come, so I write hastily and leave out most I should write about. I wished to say last time a lot about your poem, but I could think of nothing that would properly express my great pleasure in it; and I can think of nothing now… I wish I could get back and read your plays; and if my luck still continues, I shall. Leaves have commenced with us, but it may be a good while before I get mine. We are more busy now than when I last wrote, but I generally manage to knock something up if my brain means to, and I am sketching out a little play. My great fear is that I may lose what I’ve written, which can happen here so easily. I send home any bit I write, for safety, but that can easily get lost in transmission. However, I live in an immense trust that things will turn out well…

Do not write because you think you ought to answer, but write when you have nothing else to do & you wish to kill time, it is no trouble to me to write these empty letters, when I have a minute to spare, just to let you know that life & poetry are as fresh as ever in me…[3]

 

Meanwhile, yet another literary Royal Welch Fusilier–and a Welsh one, at that–headed home today, at least for a little while. Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, enjoying the perquisites of a staff officer, went on leave, and will shortly be in Rhiw, on the Llyn peninsula in North Wales. “In lovely summer weather… I linked up into the clan and enjoyed myself. Rhiw worked its magic on us both.[4]

 

Then there is Kate Luard, who has completed two short postings at two different hospitals–her unit’s departure from the Arras area after the battle did not mean leave for her. Today, a century back, she rejoined Casualty Clearing Station No. 32. Which is itself on the move: a hospital specializing in abdominal wounds needs to be near where men will be climbing out of trenches and exposing their abdomens… Within two days Sister Luard will be writing about taking the train to Poperinghe, already familiar to us as the last stop before Ypres.[5]

 

And in Holzminden, Lower Saxony, Will Harvey and his comrades are taking a great deal of satisfaction in their recent work. It hasn’t all been sing-songs and poetry–they were digging in shifts the whole time. During the night, a century back, twenty-nine officers escaped the prisoner of war camp through a long tunnel dug from under a cellar floor all the way outside the camp walls. Ten will evade capture and make it all the way back to England. Harvey was not among the escapees, but shared in the general delight at their bullying Commandant’s discomfiture.[6]

 

Penultimately–though this is the most exciting bit, from my point of view–we come to the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers. Strangely–and I do not know whether this means that I have missed blatant references to this fact or have in fact only been mildly obtuse about a conjunction which none of my sources have noticed either–I have only now realized that David Jones and Hedd Wyn are now marching into battle as part of the same battalion.[7] The 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers are the very same “1st London Welch,” which, as Jones will remind us, may have once been a Kitchener’s battalion with many Welsh-affiliated Londoners but is now a heterogeneous unit being replenished by conscripts from the hills of the old country.

Surely some scholars somewhere have noticed this proximity, but I had missed it entirely until a few days ago, and it is curious that in the recent biographies of Hedd Wyn and Jones (by Alan Llwyd and Thomas Dilworth, respectively) there is no mention of the fact that a chaired bard of Wales and the man who would one day work so hard to put the Welsh language and Welsh myth into the great British epic of the war went into battle side by side.

Or are about to go into battle, a century back. Tonight it is hard work and danger, merely. In any event, neither Jones nor Evans (the given name of the bard) were aware of the other. Had they been, Jones would have nothing to share of his own nascent writing, and he would not have been able to read Hedd Wyn’s. The true shepherd-poet Hedd Wyn, for his part, would not have known what to make of the little London artist with no Welsh and only a vague passion for the land of his fathers stimulated by brief childhood holidays…

And, of course, these were not the foremost elements of their identities tonight, a century back. It was a very bad night, and about the only thing that mattered, then, was that Jones, though a “parade’s despair,” was an experienced infantryman who had been through a terrible battle and many bombardments. Hedd Wyn has never yet been under fire. And it was no pro forma interdiction “hate” that fell on the laboring men of the 15/RWF: Jones will remember the night of the 23rd of July as ‘the worst of all.’

Sent up from reserve into trenches less than 200 yards from the Germans, the Welch were hard at work after dark digging new “assembly trenches” to hold the swell of troops before the coming assault. But gas shells were falling amongst the shrapnel and high explosive, so they had to work in suffocating gas masks. Nor were the masks enough, for some of the shells contained the new German blistering agent known as mustard gas…

Hedd Wyn would have seen a strange new sight, described by David Jones:

Colonel C. C. Norman… walked up and down in the open wearing no gas mask but ‘threatening blue murder on any man taking off his mask’, which they desperately wanted to do. Gas masks were ‘ghastly to wear for very long’, Jones recalled, ‘especially if one was exerting oneself–they became a filthy mess of condensation inside & you couldn’t see out of the misted-over talc of the eye-vents’. It was typical of Colonel Norman, who had already won the D.S.O., to stroll in the open amid falling shells. Like his predecessor, he was a man of‘outward calmness & immaculate attire as though he was paying an afternoon call in Belgravia’ –an attitude that was, for Jones, at once amusing, morale boosting, and ‘aesthetically right’. Among those digging

(And here we switch from quotation of Thomas Dilworth, Jones’s indispensable biographer, to his quotation of Jones himself.)

were new recruits who had come straight from Wales. One of them was a farmer’s boy; he couldn’t speak a word of English–when he’d dug his little hole he just got into it and snuggled up. You simply couldn’t budge him. The NCOs kicked his backside and so on but he just wouldn’t move. And it made it jolly difficult to dig the trench. The Germans. . . . must have known about the digging and got the range, but the shells were falling a few yards further on, on a hedge. But this chap was absolutely petrified. Then a nice chap. Sergeant Morgan, said ‘Lift him out and I’ll finish the trench and then you can put him back in.’ All this was in gasmasks. We dug all night. I thought this is the end…

This passage makes the new proximity of the two greatest Wales-minded poets of the war more striking. This, surely, was not Hedd Wyn himself–though why could it not have been? In any case it was one of his comrades, a boy he probably knew, a boy he had shared training with, and the long march to the front, and the shock and terror of this first miserable night under fire. Hedd Wyn has imagined much of what the war will be like, and written of it. But not this. What must he have imagined that night?

As for Jones, he may be mild-mannered, but in his heart he is a wild, thorough poet, able to admire the aesthetics of the old English tradition of exemplary leadership under fire (for which see, most of all, Horatio Nelson). It’s not surprising, perhaps that he was reminded, come morning, “as they covered the new trench with branches cut from the hedge behind it,” of Macbeth:

…The wood of Birnam

Let every soldier hew him down a bough.[8]

Side-by-side or separated by no more than a few hundred yards, Jones and Hedd Wyn both survived the night, and returned to the reserve line to labor and fight another day.

 

And so we come at last to “Slateford.”

In the train from Liverpool to Edinburgh I speculated continuously. The self-dramatizing element in my mind anticipated something sensational. After all, a mad-house would be only a few degrees less grim than a prison, and I was still inclined to regard myself in the role of a “ripe man of martyrdom.” But the unhistrionic part of my mind remembered that the neurologist member of my medical board had mentioned someone called Rivers… evidently some sort of a great man; anyhow his name had obvious free associations with pleasant landscapes and unruffled estuaries.

And we do not need to pull up short and wonder what the real name of “Sherston’s” doctor actually was: W. H. R. Rivers–uniquely in Sassoon’s memoirs–remains Rivers, whether he is treating Sassoon or Sherston.

Before I had been inside [Slateford] five minutes I was actually talking to Rivers, who was dressed as an R.A.M.C. captain. There was never any doubt about my liking him. He made me feel safe at one, and seemed to know all about me. What he didn’t know he soon found out.[9]

So begins the third book of “Sherston’s” Memoirs–the first in which the title contains not “Memoirs” but “Sherston.” Sherston’s Progress is a fairly predictable allusion to Bunyan, but it’s also a simply descriptive title. Today is the day that the muddled young man who has been a fox hunter and an infantry officer begins to grow up.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unless he arrived several days ago, but I am fairly certain that this must have been the day, despite the oddity of allowing such a lull to an allegedly mentally compromised prisoner. Many thanks to Anne Pedley for confirming that this date is recorded in Sassoon's personal military record.
  2. Bridge Into the Future, 71-2.
  3. Collected Works, 376. Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head and Heart, 96.
  4. Beyond Mametz, 154.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 129--with thanks to Caroline Stevens for more details on Luard's timeline.
  6. Boden, F.W. Harvey, 205.
  7. Many writers omit military details when they are uncertain (I am many times guilty of this myself), and I have written lately under the vague impression that Hedd Wyn was coming out as part of a new battalion of the Royal Welch, but that was a silly assumption--it is too late in the day for that. And, of course, once the battalion number is known it is very easy to note that that battalion has long been in France. But there are careless errors: on page 17 of the attractive new "Compact Cymru" edition of The Shepherd War Poet, we read that "Hedd Wyn's battalion, the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers sailed to France on June 9th, 1917." No; he came out from Litherland in a group of replacements--the very same North Welsh farmers whose meaningless deaths Sassoon has just failed to bring to the notice of the man responsible for training them. They may have all gone to the 15th, or they may have been distributed among several different battalions of the regiment now serving in France.
  8. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 159-61.
  9. Complete Memoirs, 517.

Siegfried Sassoon Urges Robert Graves Not to Answer; Duff Cooper Restored to Paradise; Thomas Hardy Passes on Jane Austen; Max Plowman is Soul-Sick but Accepting; Ivor Gurney on Sea Chanteys and Machine Guns; Hedd Wyn on the March

Siegfried Sassoon needs his friends. Alone in a hotel in Liverpool–where his Regiment has told him to stay while awaiting a decision about his protest–Sassoon is “in a state of mind which need not be described.”[1] Technically, that state of mind belonged to George Sherston, but Sassoon himself reached out to Robert Graves, as yet unaware that Graves is currently rigging his own medical board so that he can ride to Sassoon’s rescue. (Graves has already begun working, by letter, to thwart Sassoon’s hopes for a public showdown on the matter of the war’s conduct.)

Sunday night [15 July 1917] Exchange Hotel, Liverpool

Dearest Robert,

No doubt you are worrying about me. I came here on Friday, and walked into the Orderly Room feeling like nothing on earth, but probably looking fairly self-possessed. Found ‘Floods’ there (the C.O. away on holiday).

Of course I was prepared for the emergency (and Tony Pryce had also been told). F. was nicer than anything you could imagine, and made me feel an utter brute. But he has a kind heart. They have consulted the General, who is consulting God—or someone like that. Meanwhile I am staying at the Exchange, having sworn not to run away to the Caucasus.

Their friendship is now strained, as Sassoon must realize, for through all of Graves’s inconsistencies and caprices, he has been very proud to serve in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, and has had a hard climb toward acceptance by his fellow officers. There would be a bitter irony in this, perhaps lurking under the surface of his exasperated but loyal response: Sassoon, whose easygoing manners, social fitness (he rode and hunted), and obvious courage (Graves was brave too, but this came as a surprise to his comrades) had won him immediate popularity in the regiment, is throwing it away now, and might even harm Graves’s hard-won position through their association.

Sassoon does not guess just how much their relationship will be transformed by his protest, but he is working hard here both to connect and to reassure (himself as much as Graves). There is the note of kindness, the sharp humor (“God–or someone like that”) and, most of all, the rather touching (or artful? Surely both!) reference to Graves’s lilting, friend-besotted poem of last summer. No, their planned jaunt to foreign parts is as far away as ever–and no word on whether Sassoon has a acquired a piccolo.

Then the letter continues with a reaffirmation of purpose: it’s as if Sassoon changes his mind, mid-letter, about whether he hopes Graves will interfere–before, of course, in the final line, seeming to demand that he doesn’t.

No doubt I shall in time persuade them to be nasty about it. I don’t think they realise that my performances will soon be very well known. I hate the whole thing more than ever—and more than ever I know that I’m right, and shall never repent of it.

Things look better in Germany, but Lloyd George will probably say it’s ‘a plot’. These politicians seem incapable of behaving like human beings. Don’t answer this.

S.S.[2]

Siegfried doth protest too much. (Ha!)

It’s hard to read between the lines of century-old letters, and hard to resist the pull of ex post facto historical knowledge… but it’s still almost impossible not to see this as an indication of Sassoon’s continued willingness to have his course shaped–and now corrected–by his friends. Graves recently wondered if “S.S. will let them hush it up”–but this letter seems to be written from a just-subconscious instinct to, at the very least, entertain the motion…

 

Following in Sassoon’s turbulent wake, a hodgepodge of notes and updates. First, Max Plowman, on his own journey from trench-fighting toward anti-war activism (although in his case the pre-trench phrase was also pacifist, rather than fox hunting), writes to his friend Hugh de Selincourt.

…I have come to think the Army has had all the useful service it will ever get out of me. –I don’t quite know how it has happened–whether the biff on the head has had little or much to do with it–but I know I shall never be anymore use in the Army. I’m too tired of it–too entirely soul sick of it. And the physical weariness is merely a reflex. –I’m sorry, in a way, because I should like to have stuck it out to the bitter end & this sometimes seems to me the fruit of a kind of moral cowardice or at least vacillation[3]

Plowman, who has just had a course of conversation with Dr. Rivers, is convinced that the war is wrong and yet driven to “see it out” and to take his chances. So far so much like Sassoon. But Plowman is also willing, at this stage, to acknowledge the state of his health and he shows little interest in attempting to make a public show of his war-weariness. Just like Sassoon–except without the fashionable friends and grandiose gestures toward political poet-martyrdom. But neither is Plowman, even with the excellent medical care and his own steady good sense, able to shake the feeling that to be worn down and finished with war is a kind of defeat…

 

In a lighter vein, it would appear that one of the war’s lesser-known casualties was a Thomas Hardy essay on Jane Austen:

July 15, 1917

Dear Symons:

I am sorry to tell you that some jobs other than literary that I have in hand prevent my writing anything about Jane Austen, even if I could add to the good things that have been said about her by so many. However you can do well enough without me…

Sincerely yours,

Ths Hardy[4]

 

And Ivor Gurney, writing once again to Marion Scott, has music on his mind even though his mood is not as high as it usually is when he discusses his first artistic love. Today, a century back, he answers her request for a melody.

My Dear Friend:

…I am sorry you are sick again, but hope this will be the final lookback and a short one, on your journey toward health…

Tomorrow “The Old Bold Mate” will come to you. It has been a grind to write it, please excuse the writing so scrappy and obviously hurried. The whole thing was more distasteful to me as it might have been the writing of something I loved, and even then I find it hard to settle all the details, which is the real meaning of setting stuff on
paper.

A grind to write it out for Scott, perhaps–and there is something in Gurney’s tone which suggest that it is not the song but rather his spirits which are difficult to conquer–but the song itself was written long ago. Early in his time in the Gloucesters, Gurney had composed a melody for a short lyric of John Masefield’s (properly known as “Captain Stratton’s Fancy”). Even now, a century back, Gurney’s air is being sung in German prisoner of war camps, the tune taught to his fellow inmates by Will Harvey. It’s a lighthearted song, a latter-day sea chantey good for male fellowship and the clouding over of present tedium with imagined adventure. But like all good songs of high-living, it’s not without its regrets: the penultimate line of Masefield’s poem is “So I’m for drinking honestly, and dying in my boots.”

But this is one of those days where we can watch mood and melody change almost in “real time.” Gurney’s luck changes in a matter of minutes, and he picks up his pen once again:

My Dear Friend: They have attached me but 5 minutes agone to 184 MGC; that’s my address for a bit, probably permanently, unless I turn out a dud.

This is a far, far better thing than I have ev — er done, and when one thinks of the Winter . . . .

True, it is a pity to lose so many good friends, but I console myself by thinking how many of those would have jumped at the chance. Thank you for the papers, very much:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney

The hope, here, is that the work in the Machine Gun Company will be lighter–and survivable. Gurney will elaborate, soon, explaining that a machine-gun crewman is “better fed… does not do fatigues… usually gets a dug out in Winter; does not go into the front posts… as I have said or hinted, [the Machine Gun Corps] is a safer service, on the whole.”[5]

 

Which should remind us that sensations of comfort and discomfort are as relative as anything else in human history.

No sooner has Duff Cooper recounted his daily travails as a cadet–all that drill and army food hardly leaves a fellow with the energy to play tennis of an afternoon!–then he receives yet another leave. Having hied himself to London without delay, Cooper gets to spend today, a century back, amidst luxury and comfort, love and beauty.

Oh the joy of waking in soft sheets and turning over to sleep again. At 9:30 I was called with tea and toast, at 10 a man came to cut my hair and shave me after which I returned to bed and book. These details, once the regular routine of my life, now seem rich luxuries and noteworthy. I got up slowly and had finished by half past 12 very soon after which Diana came to me, fresh and lovely as the morning which just before her arrival has been freshened and cleaned by a short, sharp storm with thunder…[6]

 

And today, a century back, Hedd Wyn and the 15th R.W.F. left Fléchin, France and marched toward Flanders, where they will receive advanced assault training in camps closer to the front lines.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Complete Memoirs, 505.
  2. Diaries, 181.
  3. Bridge into the Future, 68-69.
  4. Collected Letters, V, 221.
  5. War Letters, 175-7.
  6. Diaries, 56-7.

Max Plowman on Death and Memory; John Masefield on the Ruins of Martinpuich; Duff Cooper’s Bearings Shift

Max Plowman appears here infrequently, now that his memoir’s span is done, and generally as a letter-writer–and it’s his complex relationship with pacifism that holds our attention, rather than his modest skill as a poet. But today’s letter includes a threnody he wrote for the son of a family friend, recently killed in action, and I think it is worth our time. Plowman didn’t know this “boy” well, but he responds to his death as a challenge–as an example of the challenge that the immensity of the war’s carnage presents to the frailty of human emotional intention:

Amid so many dead
Why should I sing of you?
Or seek to crown your head
With wreath of rue
Who wear the immortal crown ordained for you?

Myriads are dead–are slain
And many thousands more
As votaries to Pain
Will touch the shore
Where Memory wanders, and is seen no more

But your name lives in me.
Your life for earth I keep.
You died for Liberty.
‘Tis she doth weep
And in her heart your dear remembrance keep.[1]

There is something to the rhythm of this, as Plowman remarks in his own self-deprecating comment on the verses. The middle stanza, I think, rises above the more familiar sentiments of the other two: he is not just pledging to remember a dead soldier, but doing so while noting that both the scale of the slaughter and the ways in which pain blanches memory will make such vows more difficult to keep than they might at first seem.

 

Most of Duff Cooper‘s school friends long ago joined the armed forces. Many of them have been killed. But this option was not open to him as a matter of course, because he held a post in the Foreign Office (although I have not read that he vigorously pursued an exception in order to go fight; others did). He has brooded on this fact intermittently, but his diary, as we have it, reads most of the time like the narrative of the thoughts of a feckless young man and eager wooer. The war is serious business, yes, but not nearly as all-consuming as the pursuit of Diana

And yet, now, opportunity knocks.

The government want more men for the army and we in the Foreign Office are all to be medically examined and I think they will have to let some of us go. If anyone is allowed to go I shall be as I am the youngest of the permanent staff, unmarried and I should think perfectly fit…

He has waited for events to approach him, and, suddenly, they have. Will he back away? Rush toward them? Or wait some more–wait, that is, to be asked to become a sort of conscript?

The thought fills we with exhilaration. I don’t own to it as people would believe it was bluff and I dare say too that I shall very soon wish myself back.

This is wisdom, surely: caution, as well as a highly-developed sense of social propriety. One might not have gone to war in the first rush (or second, or third), but to bluster about a safe job would be unforgivable.

What follows next is impressive: Cooper may seem callow and love-smitten, pursuing the beautiful and monumentally coy Diana to the exclusion of all war aims and most thoughts about the suffering troops… but he is honest. Or he is honest enough to be persuasive: if what follows is bluster, than I am taken in. Even the afterthought, suddenly, seems true. And cruel.

But I am eager for change. I always wished to go to the war though less now than I did at first. I envy the experience and adventure that everyone else has had. I am not afraid of death though I love life and should hate to lose it. I don’t think I should make a good officer. The only drawback is the terrible blow it would be to Mother. I don’t know how I should dare to tell her. I think Diana too would mind.[2]

Yes, I think she might.

 

Finally, today, a brief bit from the letters of John Masefield. Preparing a book on the Somme battle, he has been touring the devastated areas, and writing regularly to his wife. Masefield is not a combatant, but he is a war writer in his own way, and a very good one, as we will see. In addition, he is one of the most important contemporary references for several of our poets, and thus a useful point of comparison to their more intense and immediate forms of witness. He is good–necessarily–on ruins; and he too chooses the writer’s paradox of sharp description tempered by self-doubting agnosticism:

I was out yesterday at Morval, on the east of the battlefield, & today at Martinpuich; both busy places when I was here first & noisy with cannon & none too safe, but now as quiet as tombs, utterly deserted wrecks & ruins of pleasant little towns, Morval on a hill top, like a little Troy, & M’puich along a ravine, like (I suppose) Nineveh. It is not possible to describe either place. They are both collections of big holes, with shattered wood in them, & a sort of mound in each, where the church was. In M’puich there were a lot of the cure’s sermons, in script, lying in the mud, all about Jesus & the holy Marie, & a lot of rather blasted gardens, with currant bushes & May flowering tulips. But no man can describe them. They have to be seen. Once they must each have had 3 or 400 souls in them, with homes & smoke & fires & dinner times & beasts in the stable, & now, my God, they lie out in the blasted field, unvisited by man, & they look like the cities of the plain, & the corpses’ knees & hands & boots stick up out of the mud at one as one goes by, & the rats come out sick over one’s feet. No more news.

Bless you all & my dear love to all.

Your old lover
Jan.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge Into the Future, 68.
  2. The Duff Cooper Diaries, 53.
  3. Letters From France, 1917, 285.

Alf Pollard’s Finest Hour; Max Plowman Meets an Interesting Man; Siegfried Sassoon Between Cussedness and Martyrdom; Beauty and Ugliness From Olaf Stapledon; Edwin Vaughan in Amiens

For two days, now, Alf Pollard and the Honourable Artillery Company have been back in the line near Gavrelle, on the Arras front.

I was in support to the First Battalion Royal Marines and did not anticipate that I should have anything to do at all. Consequently I disposed the whole of my Company in dug-outs and, retiring to my own, relaxed into much needed slumber.

I slept right through the barrage and the initial onslaught…

Of course he did, and with good classical precedent! Alexander the Great and many other heroes demonstrated their perfect confidence by sleeping late on the day of battle. But Pollard is awoken with a message ordering him to form a flank defense:

It was obvious that something had gone wrong. I must act at once.

Pollard emerges into a “curious hush,”  like the calm before the storm. But–he is a natural warrior, you see–his heart is pounding and his instincts tell him that he is in danger. The Marines have advanced up ahead, but Pollard’s is the last company on the Division’s left, and it would seem that the next Division over had failed in its attack and now a German counter-attack is threatening the unnamed unit directly to Pollard’s left.

I was at the limit of my own trench, which was the extreme left of the Divisional front, wondering what I should do next. Suddenly a bombing attack started from the direction of Oppy Wood. Bang! Bang! Zunk! Zunk! I could see the smoke from the explosions nearly a mile away. Fritz was attacking down the trench.

A few minutes later, Pollard sees the British troops resisting the counter-attack suddenly break and run.

Panic! Sheer unaccountable panic! …The sort of thing the greatest psychologist in the world could not explain; a sudden terror which affected the whole force simultaneously. It was a sight I hope I never see again. For a brief moment it had its effect on me.

For “what seemed like some minutes,” Pollard relates, he remained “shaking” and indecisive. But it was really only a few seconds: the Germans could now turn the flank of his own division, and something must be done.

Then the curious feeling came to me… that I was no longer acting under my own volition. Something outside myself, greater than I, seemed to take charge of me. Already under this mysterious influence I ran forward.

Pollard takes control of the strange troops and orders them to spread out and fire their rifles, more to regain their confidence than to hit anything. Then, leaving both these leaderless and recently panicked troops (he is confident that “The British Tommy does not do that sort of thing twice in a morning”) and his own company–his own command–behind, he explores down the trench the Germans had been attacking, followed by his runner and one more man, an ad hoc volunteer. They push up the trench away from his defensive line, and are joined by one more man. Pollard’s orders are simply to hurl their few bombs around the next traverse whenever he fires his pistol. For two hundred yards the trench is empty.

Then suddenly, as I entered one end of a stretch of trench between two traverses, a big Hun entered the other, rifle and bayonet in his hand. I fired; he dropped his rifle and clapped both hands to his stomach. Almost instantaneously with my shot I heard the whizz of Reggie’s bomb as it passed over my head. A second man appeared behind the first. I fired again and he dropped like a stone. Bang! Bang! The two other bombs thrown by my followers exploded one after the other.

The third man saw the fate of his predecessors and turned to go back. Those behind, not knowing what had happened tried to come forward. I fired again. Bang!  Zunk! went the remaining bombs of our small store. That was enough. The next instant the Hun attack was in full retreat.

This is an excellent example of several things. First, of the importance of on-the-spot tactical leadership–even irresponsible, desperately chancy leadership, so long as it seizes the initiative. Second, of the continued importance, albeit in a (literally) narrow category of actions (fighting along a trench, rather than “over the top”) of old-fashioned reckless aggression, a.k.a valor. (The charging maniac routing a timid multitude in a narrow space is a tired trope of action movies, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.)

And if we examine those two points we realize that this action is important because it is exceptional–it’s a brave, reckless gamble, and very successful. But Pollard is not leading a storming party against a key gate or a forlorn hope against a breach; he is not inspiring the rest of the men who can see him as he charges across an open battlefield. He is winning a local action fought below ground level; at most he is stabilizing a front of a few hundred yards in a several-hundred-mile trench system. It’s a reminder that even exceptional valor can’t win wars anymore.

The valor is the same; it just doesn’t apply. Pollard isn’t just exceptionally good at fighting–he is also, necessarily, fortunate. In the good old days, half the potential Achilleses of the army weren’t killed by the artillery before they got into hand-weapon range. But Pollard has to first be lucky not to have been killed by weapons aimed in his general direction by calm men hundreds of yards or even a few miles away; only then can he begin being heroic in a convenient bit of trench.

Finally, this is an excellent example of what John Keegan will call “Zap-Blatt-BanzaiGott im Himmel-Bayonet in the Guts” history. Except Pollard’s Huns don’t even get to say that much.

In other words, this is an exciting tale, but I don’t think we can blithely accept its unspoken premise: that since the terms of the fight–kill or be killed, in essence–are set, we need give no further thought to the consequences of all this shooting and bomb-hurling. And what happens next–the four men press on without any bombs (grenades) but are able to collect enemy and grenades during a fortuitous lull in enemy action, then continue fighting by dodging around corners–is uncannily like a video game. Which is not to condemn video games for being violent: it’s to condemn true stories in which deadly violence goes completely unquestioned.

I’ll paraphrase the rest of the tale. Pollard and his three-man army press on into German territory though he proudly confesses that “discretion had gone to the winds”–a pointed word-choice given discretion’s proverbial counterpart. Why this recklessness?

…my blood was up. I felt a thrill only comparable to running through the opposition at Rugger to score a try.

He leaves one man with a collection of rifles by a barricade–this reminds him of Robinson Crusoe’s fantasy of solo defense–and, with the other two, makes ready to defend their gains with bombs. They do; soon “the air was thick with bombs” and though they throw nearly all they have, Pollard will not retreat. Then, providentially, the German attack breaks off, when one of Pollard’s friends–“Sammy,” a junior officer who seems to have figured out, without orders, that he should go up in support of his vanished company commander–arrives with the company and a large supply of bombs and ammunition. A more determined German attack is driven off, there are short digressions on different sorts of grenades and on Sammy’s coolness under fire (connected, surprisingly, to his descent from “the fighting tribes of Israel”), and then that’s that–Pollard has saved the day. He is eventually ordered to assume command of the position, then relieved after nightfall.

Pollard’s memoir is self-serving and self-aggrandizing–but that’s obvious, and so the notes of humility are, well, worth noting. They are either little nods to convention–“I should take the occasional breath while blowing my own horn,” “I wouldn’t want to court nemesis through hubris”–or, just possibly, symptoms of a much larger madness. We have seen Pollard note that “his blood was up,” admit that to press on was illogical, and mention in passing that he left his own command without clear orders in order to push on alone, to be followed by only three willing men.

That all seems plausible–but it read very differently when Siegfried Sassoon did a very similar thing. Why? Perhaps if Sassoon were to have been given a high military honor (he wasn’t, in part because the Royal Welch tried not to ask for honors for non-professional soldiers, in part because no high-level officers were near the spot, and in part because the position wasn’t held after he left it) he would have written a more heroic account. (Or perhaps not; Sassoon has been disillusioned for some time; Pollard, never.)

But that’s not the real difference. Pollard ends the chapter by noting that he has “often wondered what would have happened had Fritz come over the top instead of sticking to the trench.” It’s obvious: “Fritz” would have killed or captured him, and he would hen have been blamed for abandoning his men to go gallivanting into enemy territory. But though Pollard “wonders,” I don’t think he really believes it might have happened: just as he portrays his courage, modestly, as a force that overtakes him without his volition (after a humanizing, but brief, struggle with fear he becomes a “natural” or “inspired” warrior), he seems to trust completely in Providence. He can humbly acknowledge that he was fortunate to get the opportunity for heroism that he did–because he does not doubt that, on some level, he deserved it.[1]

 

And I too trust in provvy–that lesser Tyche that attends the scriveners of Clio. What I mean is: Pollard is a war hero, and I don’t mean to suggest that there is any point in denying or protesting that. But I don’t like the way he chose to write about the war, the way he elides death and suffering. So I would hope that reading and research would provide some apt rejoinders from today, a century back. And we are indeed fortunate–all two and a half of our regular pacifists have shown up for duty.

 

Max Plowman wrote to his friend Janet Upcott today, a century back, from the Bowhill Auxiliary Hospital for Officers. He is physically sound… but the after-effects of shell-shock may linger. At least, he feels healthy enough, yet he has been in one hospital or another for three months, now.

…Tell me Jane–honest, candid, sober, true… what your idea of this place is–or rather was before you got this? Did you think it was a sort of private lunatic asylum? My only reason for thinking it may be is that from asylums, I believe, the question that recurs to me is heard more often than from anywhere else. “Why do they still keep me?” –As a matter of fact I asked that so long ago that I’ve got tired of asking it, & now I’m beginning to get settled here for the duration I suppose I really shall soon be turfed out. I think the Doctor here has decided that normally I should have the hide of a rhinoceros & the nerves of a hauser, so if I’m really going to wait for that unhappy state to transpire, I’m sure the next time I leave here will be about 1947 in a long black box.

Still of course I don’t complain so far. The Ducal Mansion is perhaps preferable to snow on Vimy Ridge & I have no doubt that I have missed a good deal worth missing when I see that all my old company officers are now back or dead.

The letter continues, rambling and ruminating about the conduct of the war, the cynical way in which the vested interests seem disinterested in peace, and the foolish criticisms of military operations by those who have never fought in the trenches. Like other experienced officers with pacifist or anti-war opinions, Plowman is at once aghast at the waste of the war and the complacency of the high command and yet keenly interested in the new tactics that had showed promise at Arras. And like other experienced officers with pacifist or anti-war opinions, Plowman is working on his first collection of poetry–in that endeavor he’s a bit behind, but in another matter he takes precedence.

I met one rather interesting man up here. a Dr ______ who’s a professor of Psychology at Cambridge. He’s at Craiglockhart Edinburgh from which this place is an offshoot. I was talking to him about Freud’s book on dreams & he lent me Hart’s Psychology of Insanity as an introduction to it…

This would be Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, and thus our second prefiguring of Pat Barker’s Regeneration. Rivers is real, and he’s a remarkable man, combining in his modest person the Victorian adventurism of the heroic age of science, 20th century psychoanalytic healing, and timeless humanity and courage. Those who are interested in learning a bit more about this man–Cambridge professor, Freudian, South Pacific anthropologist, pioneering neurologist, and shell-shock-doctor-to-the-writers–can seek out more information easily enough, or read Barker’s historical fiction trilogy.

Amusingly, even though Plowman is our first writer to meet Rivers and be struck by his unique charisma (after all, he is the only person Plowman wants to discuss), and although he will be far from the best poet to do so, his initial reaction to the good doctor is to take offense at Rivers’s disinterest in poetry:

But I gave him up when he said he could no longer read poetry; not, really, because I wanted to inflict mine on him, but because now & from henceforth & for evermore I will not trust a mind which has become so divorced from nature it cannot appreciate poetry. The more you think either of words or the amoeba–either of material, mind, matter or Mumbo Jumbo the more amazing it becomes to here a confessedly learned man admit & say: “You know I can’t appreciate poetry now–my appreciation of the exact use of words is too great…” The sight of an exact word is the worst nightmare I can think of so far…

Yours ever

Max.[2]

 

Another officer with experience bombing more or less alone up an enemy trench, with pacifist or anti-war opinions (he would he the “half-pacifist,” in my dubious math, above), and with a future in medical care for a condition… let’s say “associated with” shell shock is, of course, Siegfried Sassoon, now recovering in London after being shot through the shoulder.

April 29

A lovely morning after a sleepless night. The trees outside have become misty with green since last night. I am just emerging from the usual beautiful dream about ‘not going back’–‘war over in the autumn’—‘getting a job in England’, etc. These ideas always emanate from one’s friends in:England, and one’s own feeble state of mind when ill, and fed up, arid amazed at being back in comfort and safety.

Things must take their course; and I know I shall be sent out again to go through it all over again with added refinements of torture. I am no good anywhere else: all I can do is to go there and set an example. Thank heaven I’ve got something to live up to. But surely they’ll manage to kill me next time! Something in me keeps driving me on: I must go on till I am killed. Is it cussedness (because so many people want me to survive the war)–or is it the old spirit of martyrdom—’ripe men of martyrdom’, as Crashaw says?[3]

This question–or this tangled skein of questions–will occupy us quite a bit over the coming months…

 

It’s been a long day, but I still feel that reading Olaf Stapledon is well worthwhile. This is a young man who rowed with Julian Grenfell, who could easily have spent much of the last few years enthusiastically killing Germans until they killed him–but he had chosen only to risk the latter, while trying instead to save the wounded victims of the war.

A few ago, a century back, he had appended to a previous letter a description of “a pretty dance with three cars that got stuck in a badly shelled spot.” This may be Olaf’s most explicit description of personal danger in his letters to Agnes, and it underscores how infrequently–though he agonizes about different types of pacifist commitment and often discusses the political and philosophical underpinnings of his actions–he mentions the mortal risks ambulance crews take.

One of them had to repairs done to it before it could be moved. We were four hours at it, alternately working & seeking cover as the bombardment varied in seriousness. All the cars were badly peppered by we got them all away without serious harm to them & no damage to ourselves, though we had some quite narrow escapes. The convoy has been “cited,” which means that we paint the croix de guerre on each car.

Then, today, there is the happier news that the ambulance unit is in rest–or, rather, “repos–” their first full-unit rest in eight months.

Our last day at the front was rather eventful because they bombarded our village with some success and the main street was literally strewn with dead and wounded… One shell accounted for about twenty men… It was an ugly business…

Next day we left with our division for repos, and just after we had cleared out a shell fell in the yard where we kept most of our cars. It would have done much damage had we been there, and probably would have killed a good number of us. So our departure was lucky…

Our present spot is very peaceful and the spring weather has come. Yesterday in memory of ancient days with you I wore a celandine in my buttonhole. That is a little spring rite with me…

There is no sound of war at all, but much singing of birds and bleating of sheep. And yesterday we heard the cuckoo and saw him lazily flap across a little glade. Oh  Agnes, there is such a lovely lovers’ walk down a little narrow valley…

There are cowslips and periwinkles, violets and wood anemones. We revel in all such things after months of winter, and after a surfeit of war…[4]

 

Finally, today, I would be courting Nemesis myself if I omitted a visit to the cathedral. With his battalion still in rest billets, Edwin Vaughan has been taking his ease in Amiens, still close to the front lines on the now quiescent Somme. Yesterday it was a bath at the Hôtel Belfort and lunch at the Hôtel du Rhin; today, breakfast in bed and late mass in the Cathedral… and nothing to say about it. Lunch at ‘L’Universe,’ ices, “luxurious haircuts and shampoos,” dinner at the Hôtel du France, and a late night–not a bad little war, altogether.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Fire-Eater, 217-24.
  2. Bridge into the Future, 63-5.
  3. Diaries, 162. Richard Crashaw is a metaphysical poet of the 17th century.
  4. Talking Across the World, 221-3.
  5. Some Desperate Glory, 105.

Some Fraternal Advice from Max Plowman; Siegfried Sassoon Cleared for Combat at Last; Missteps on the Brink of Departure for Edward Thomas

We have three writers writing today, and, as so often, they seem to harmonize. One has come back in one piece and is eager to keep his family out of harm’s way; another is dealing with the difficulties of going out for the first time, and leaving his family behind; the third, putting the occasional thought of his suffering mother from his mind, is bitterly conflicted, yet determined to return…

 

Max Plowman has survived the Somme–barely. He is now home in blighty, recovering in a London hospital from the concussion caused by a near-miss from an artillery shell. Writing to his younger brother, he has some rather pointed suggestions:

Dear J.

…I shall certainly hope to see you before you do anything. Meantime two words of advice.

  1. Don’t go into the ranks of anything.
  2. Go into anything but Infantry.

… I hope to get to Brondesbury by Monday to wait for a Medical Board… I’m nearly fit again & only hope I can squeeze a month’s leave out of them.

I most sincerely hope the damned fools don’t want you to join the Army, but I can see what is happening quite clearly. They’ve gone mad on getting everybody into Khaki & as soon as they’ve done it they’ll find they can’t afford it & tons of men will have to be fished out to keep things going… I wish to God they’d shove Northcliffe & all his rag writers & merchants into my platoon…[1]

I’ve generally gone light on politics, here–H.H. Asquith figured more as Raymond‘s father than as the prime minister or even as the symbol of the failure of an old-fashioned liberal coalition, and we only noted the downfall of his government in passing. But the new mood under Lloyd George has led several of our writers to assume either a grim redoubling of efforts or a clenched acceptance of the realities of what will soon be called (still inaccurately, at this stage, which is a mercy) “total war.”

As winter grips the war, this month, more and more of our writers assume that total conscription will eventually direct every British adult’s activities toward the war effort. Such predictions will prove to be only partly correct, and Plowman is both too sanguine and not cynical enough to think that those who are economically essential (or privileged) will be mistakenly sent into khaki… His sentiments toward the press, however, would be very widely shared among infantrymen in France…

 

Edward Thomas has had too much walking. Not only route marches with his men and additional walks to test equipment, but long cross-country tramps to get away… and all in new boots. Two days ago, he was “resting my sore ankles” and testing gun sights. Then orders came: the guns would ship out today, a century back–the men will follow two days later–and so yesterday was a miserable slog of packing, loading, and “standing out in dusty icy East wind doing nothing but getting cold and dirty.” Other complaints–yesterday was Thomas’s longest “War Diary” entry so far–included an annoying fellow officer, the sore ankles, a cold, the cold, and poor sleep. But in the end, the job was done.

Today, a century back, the guns seem to have embarked early for France without trouble, and so Thomas was at liberty. But he was not gone yet, and his home life suddenly intruded.

It would seem that Helen Thomas is struggling in her husband’s absence. He has been absent often before–and she has struggled before, relying on family and friends for financial support and childcare–but although things have been much better of late, his going with the army to France is a different sort of separation, and she is surely anxious and bereft. She may also be finding the burdens of everyday life too much to bear.

Edward Thomas received a telegram this morning, a century back, from his friends the Arthur and Ivy Ransome letting him know that Helen has sent their youngest child, Myfanwy (‘Baba’), to stay with them.[2]

27. A clear windy frost dawn, the sun like a bright coin between the knuckles of opposite hills seen from sidelong. A fox. A little office work. Telegram to say Baba was at Ransome’s so I walked over Downs by Chicklade Bottom and the Fonthills to Hatch, and blistered both feet badly. House full of ice and big fires. Sat up with Ivy till 12…[3]

Before leaving, Thomas wrote briefly to Helen, an ordinary letter in their copious correspondence–quotidian details, discussion of supplies and packing, best wishes–except for the line explaining that “I am now [unclear] to see Baba at Hatch.” (The bracketed bit might be an abbreviation of “on the way to.”)[4]

Off he went. But that hasty letter had one more passing line that shows–more clearly even than this painful tramp to see his youngest child one last time–that his mind is on the fact of departure. Will he remember? Will he write, afterwards? He asks Helen, in a non-sequitur near the end of the letter, to “Please keep these letters in my drawer.” He is leaving, yes, but he has also determined both to keep writing across the gulf that will now open and to store up written experience so that he can take up his poet’s pen when he returns.

 

We’ll finish, today, with a grim little anticlimax of a red-letter day in the military career of Siegfried Sassoon. Taken seriously ill during the summer, it would seem that his return to duty has certainly not been unduly hastened by the several medical boards that have met and kept him on leave or home service, despite his being well enough to golf and hunt all fall and winter. But Sassoon is unquestionably healthy, now, and he feels differently, too. He will go to war, on his own terms… but, inevitably, also on theirs.

As so often with Sassoon, there are two accounts of today, a century back. The diary and the memoir harmonize so closely that we might see simply unison… unless those tiny intervals between signal a dissonance more complex than any simple harmony…

First, the diary:

January 27

There were two silver-haired men in khaki uniforms sitting at a table; they peered at blue and white sheets of paper, the one with waxed moustaches half-turned as the door opened for the twentieth time that morning, and a young man came into the dreary office. ‘Feel fit to go out?’ ‘Yes, quite well, thank you.’ The pen began to move on a blue sheet: ‘Has been passed fit for General Ser… Don’t shake the table!’ (The young officer was tapping his fingers nervously.) The other colonel looked mildly up over his pince-nez. All the shaking in the world wouldn’t stop that War. Waxed-moustache had signed another death-warrant. Mine. As I went out into the grey street and the bitter east wind I felt as if a load had been lifted from my sullen heart. I’d got another chance given me to die a decent death. And a damned uncomfortable one, probably. But I can’t leave at once; it will be three or four weeks before I go away.

So the outdoor Sassoon will be out there once more. And what of his indoor pursuits? Here’s a bit of serendipitous timing:

Got the first lot of proof-sheets of my book this morning. ‘The Old Huntsman’ looks first-class in print.

Fierce and fatalistic, and then pleased as punch. And then Sassoon closes the diary not with new verse of his own but with quotation:

EPITAPH

If I should ever be in England’s thought
After I die.
Say, ‘There were many things he might have bought.
And did not buy.
Unhonoured by his fellows, he grew old.
And trod the path to hell.
But there were many things he might have sold.
And did not sell.’

(T. W. H. Crosland)

It was a dark freezing day, and all the officers in the waiting-room looked as if they wanted to feel their worst for the occasion…[5]

A strange reversal, or perhaps a gentle irony: reworking today’s scene for his novelized memoirs, Sassoon adapts his diary nearly word for word, but translates the third person voice (seldom used in his diary) into first person in order to refer to “George Sherston’s” experience… but that hair stays silver, and those mustaches most definitely stay waxed. Never mind that he misses war and wants to go back–these old men are going to send him…

There were two silver-haired Army doctors sitting at a table, poring over blue and white documents. One, with a waxed moustache, eyed me wearily when I came into the office. With a jerk of the head he indicated a chair by the table. “Feel fit to go out again?” “Yes; quite well, thank you.” His pen began to move across the blue paper. “Has been passed fit for General Ser…” He looked up irritably. “Don’t shake the table!” (I was tapping it with my fingers.) The other Colonel gazed mildly at me over his pince-nez. Waxed moustache grunted and went on writing. Shaking the table wouldn’t stop that pen of his![6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge into the Future, 62.
  2. The fact of the telegram, rather than a letter, indicates that this is a surprise to Edward, and surely prompted his decision to visit. It's difficult to figure out exactly what is going on, but I'm following Hollis (p314) in assuming that sending Myfanwy away at such time is a signal that Helen is under distress. Arthur Ransome, a good friend of Edward Thomas, will go on to write the Swallows and Amazons series.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 157.
  4. Hollis, Now All Roads, 314, errs in asserting about the visit to Myfanwy that "he mentioned nothing of it to Helen in his letters."
  5. Diaries, 127.
  6. Complete Memoirs, 395.

Wilfred Owen in Agony; Max Plowman in the Clear; Edwin Vaughan in Limbo; Rudyard Kipling on the Irish Homemaker

Two days ago, a century back–it was a Friday–Wilfred Owen reached the front line for the first time. This was one of the bleak, backwards, unimproved sections of the recent Somme battlefield. The German dugouts were deep, at least, and could perhaps have been made strong with good weather and good work. But their doorways face the wrong way–directly at the German guns, which know exactly where they are–and depth is not an absolute good when the wet and broken land thaws. Owen’s letter to his mother describing his past two days holding the line is intense:

The Germans knew we were staying there and decided we shouldn’t.

Those fifty hours were the agony of my happy life.

Every ten minutes on Sunday afternoon seemed an hour.

I nearly broke down and let myself drown in the water that was now slowly rising over my knees.

Towards 6 o’clock, when, I suppose, you would be going to church, the shelling grew less intense and less accurate: so that I was mercifully helped to do my duty and crawl, wade, climb and flounder over No Man’s Land to visit my other post. It took me half an hour to move about 150 yards.

I was chiefly annoyed by our own machine guns from behind. The seeng-seeng-seeng of the bullets reminded me of Mary’s canary. On the whole I can support the canary better.

In the Platoon on my left the sentries over the dug-out were blown to nothing. One of these poor fellows was my first servant whom I rejected. If I had kept him he would have lived, for servants don’t do Sentry Duty. I kept my own sentries half way down the stairs during the more terrific bombardment. In spite of this one lad was blown down and, I am afraid, blinded.

This was my only casualty.[1]

It’s impossible to judge the decisions of combat officers, and almost all who experience their first real bombardment as “terrific” will later realize that it could be very much worse. But Owen has done well–he has kept calm, he has issued orders that seem wise and probably saved lives. Of course, if the bombardment had masked a German attack, he would have been guilty of a terrible misjudgment and perhaps a violation of his orders. But it was a safe bet that there would be no attack in such weather.

Owen is a changed man, and a changing writer. There is no false pride or swagger in the possessive–“my” only casualty–and the idea that he has caused the death of the man who would have been his servant is, despite its illogic, almost inescapable in the fortune-haunted necromancy that pervades an infantryman’s thinking about fate and fatality.

Nor is there unwieldy literary armature in his recognition of what it means to be a front-fighter. Looking back, he reassess the breadth of the experiential gulf by simply noting that as his mother was going to church–no doubt she would be asking God to spare her son–he was thankful for the small mercy of a lessening of the bombardment that let him “crawl, wade, climb and flounder” through thick, corpse-strewn mud to do his duty.

And then there is that one casualty. It will be some time before Owen writes “The Sentry,” which begins

We’d found an old Boche dug-out, and he knew,
And gave us hell, for shell on frantic shell
Hammered on top, but never quite burst through…

But it is a poem of this moment. A later section of the poem describes the further events of today, a century back, and intensifies the horror with the uncanny power of rhyme and rhythm:

There we herded from the blast
Of whizz-bangs, but one found our door at last.
Buffeting eyes and breath, snuffing the candles.
And thud! flump! thud! down the steep steps came thumping
And splashing in the flood, deluging muck —
The sentry’s body; then his rifle, handles
Of old Boche bombs, and mud in ruck on ruck.
We dredged him up, for killed, until he whined
“O sir, my eyes — I’m blind — I’m blind, I’m blind!”
Coaxing, I held a flame against his lids
And said if he could see the least blurred light
He was not blind; in time he’d get all right.
“I can’t,” he sobbed. Eyeballs, huge-bulged like squids
Watch my dreams still; but I forgot him there
In posting next for duty, and sending a scout
To beg a stretcher somewhere, and floundering about
To other posts under the shrieking air.

So there is good news for the wounded, then–the sentry will recover his eyesight. But then, of course, there is the invisible damage of the day, which the letter only begins to express.

Those other wretches, how they bled and spewed,
And one who would have drowned himself for good, —
I try not to remember these things now.
Let dread hark back for one word only: how
Half-listening to that sentry’s moans and jumps,
And the wild chattering of his broken teeth,
Renewed most horribly whenever crumps
Pummelled the roof and slogged the air beneath —
Through the dense din, I say, we heard him shout
“I see your lights!” But ours had long died out

 

As Owen’s agony on the Somme deepens, Max Plowman has escaped. The best sort of near-miss is the one that leaves one not ominously unscathed but hurt in such a way that escape is not only possible but mandatory. The stereotypical “blighty one” is a nice, safe flesh wound (which may always turn out to be infected by organic matter blown into the wound, and then will have a nice, small chance of turning “septic” and leading to amputation or death). But Plowman has, in a way, been even luckier–he was only concussed, and temporarily amnesiac.

Rouen

I am in bed at Rouen No. 4 General Hospital feeling rather a fraud, for I’ve every limb intact and only a dull headache and a thick ear. I slept for two days at Bray. Then I was so stiff they carted me out and brought me here on a stretcher. There’s a colonel of the Gordon’s opposite. He is sick. We are a mixed crowd of sick and wounded.

The doctor comes round and I tell him all I know.

“People who lose their memories go home,” he replies, as if he were uttering a threat.

Home! My God! I am going home![2]

He will be here for a week, and then Le Havre, and the transport, and home… and the end of the book I wish I could’ve done more with…

 

No more than a few miles from Plowman, Edwin Vaughan has been wandering about, in something like a mirror image of Plowman’s position: inactive and uncertain, but stirred by restless energy. And headed in the opposite direction.

Assigned to the battalion he desires he is nevertheless stuck at camp outside of Rouen awaiting orders to join it. He visits a priest he knows, strolls in the city chatting up “French and Belgian officers and soldiers, English girls and French actresses and demimondaines, padres and police” and soaking up the wartime atmosphere. To Vaughan it seems remarkably carefree, but that is because he is filled with dread about his first experience of combat, and many of those he interacts with are chatting, drinking, and making love to forget what they have seen and known.

Yesterday, a century back, he “cut parade and walked about the forest in the pouring rain,” then went into Rouen and dined with a friend before bumping into–quite literally–an officer of the Gloucesters. Amusingly, since Vaughan has been in France for only a week and the same day’s entry dwells on his own inexperience (“…hard to imagine it… ‘going up’ is treated like going into mess or on parade”) Vaughan then plays the old soldier and jokes with the flustered newcomer. But it turns out that the man is in Vaughan’s brother Frank’s battalion, and a few hours later the brothers are reunited.

They arranged to meet today in camp and attend mass together, but Frank turned out to be on duty. Edwin Vaughan is certain, then, to miss his brother, as he spent the rest of today, a century back, drawing equipment for his imminent move up the line.[3]

 

Finally, today, a wry update on the doings of the Second Irish Guards from their recently-appointed historian, Rudyard Kipling. This paragraph shows him at his best–seeming to write with the troops rather than about them, and acknowledging privation and the difficulty of a war often mismanaged largely as a sort of impudent challenge to the moral, efficiency, and resourcefulness of the battalion. But many others, too, affirm the connections between morale, performance in actual battle, and taking pride in the management of “housemaking” during the quieter periods of trench warfare. Also, socks!

By the time that the 1st Coldstream relieved them on the 14th January, the Battalion had fenced their private No Man’s Land and about six hundred yards of the line outside the posts, all under the come-and-go of shell-fire; had duckboarded tracks connecting some of the posts; systematised their ration- and water-supply, and captured a multitude of army socks whereby companies coming down from their turn could change and be dry. Dull as all such detail sounds, it is beyond question that the arrangement and prevision of domestic works appeals to certain temperaments, not only among the officers but men. They positively relish the handling and disposition of stores, the fitting of one job into the next, the race against time, the devising of tricks and gadgets for their own poor comforts, and all the mixture of housemaking and keeping (in which, whatever may be said, the male animal excels) on the edge of war.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 425-7. See also Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 212-215.
  2. A Subaltern on the Somme, 227-8.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 5-6.
  4. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 112-3.

Wilfred Owen’s Lay of the Land; Siegfried Sassoon on Decorations and the Future of Poets; Max Plowman Dazed and Confused

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.[1] 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…

W.E.O. xxx[2]

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.

January 10

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.[3]

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…

Uncongenial society

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.[4]

 

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.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I.e. all second lieutenants, junior by date of rank. This is an indication both that Owen has held his rank for a fairly long time, due to the vagaries of training, but also that the 2nd Manchesters suffered heavily on the Somme, and have many new replacement officers. They are, then, technically still a Regular battalion, but there will be precious few "originals"--i.e. 1914 soldiers--in the ranks, and the company commander must be one of the very few officers in the battalion of 1914 vintage.
  2. Collected Letters, 425-7. See also Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 209.
  3. Diaries, 117.
  4. A Subaltern on the Somme, 218-227.
  5. Findlay, Chasing Lost Time, 124.

Max Plowman’s Men Want to Go Home; Rowland Feilding’s Endure Heroically

Sometimes these writers really do cooperate. What better time for a two-pronged assault on the question of morale–of psychological endurance–than at the beginning of a long, cold winter?

First, today, a letter from Max Plowman to Janet Upcott addresses the Christmas season–and war’s constraints thereupon–as well as a grimmer seasonal matter: in early winter death feels final and the war’s grip eternal. When and how will it end?

 

10th Bn West Yorkshire Regt., B.E.F.
14th December, 1916

My Dear Janet,

This is to bring you seasonable wishes… alas! we’re short of officers & the overdue “leave” will have to wait. I hope you’ll have a very merry time wherever you are–meet the right people upon whose chests the war does not sit too heavily & have enough nice food & good presents to feel it was worth while hanging up your stocking. –I don’t know a bit where I shall be. Very likely in the trenches where if I hang mine up it will be to dry!

Yesterday I heard a rather interesting lecture… he went on to tell us how we had to keep the pot boiling all through the winter substituting “minor offensives” for the major ones so that we might still find ourselves “top-dog” when the spring comes. And then he expressed the old view I heard when I first took to a “Sam Browne.” That our main object in life was to kill as many “pure-blooded Huns” as possible & that was the only way to win the war. Somehow that seems to me a most childish idea, characteristically English. Personally I feel if that is our only hope–well we haven’t one at all because the ruling German has so much business sense that whatever happens he will always see–his instinct for autocratic government will enure that–that the governing military class is the best protected.

This musing on Grand Strategy circles back from the official enemy–those German militarists–to the adversary closer to the English infantryman’s heart–the staff.

I wonder whether “the Red Hats” really believe all they appear to. For instance, that it’s certain that the ultimate decision of the wear will come in the west… More & more I feel the war will end as I hoped–in the sort of stale mate which leaves both nations so disgusted with the whole business they’ll recognize its supreme futility…

This is orthodox pacifism and historical wisdom–and something awfully close to treason in a serving officer.

Meantime I feel consistently like the man our soldiers constantly sing about whose view of the whole business was:–

“Oh my! I don’t want to die
I want to go home.”

I always feel it infinitely pathetic that they should sing that.

I’ve really no news Janet so you must forgive a dull Xmas letter…

Shall I ever see the end of this “innings” Janet? Do say “yes.” I seem to have been out here a whole lifetime & though I’ve done nothing yet it gets monotonous. The feeling of never being free of the army day nor night is tireing & did you know I had the reputation of being a “hardworking subaltern”!! I begin to feel it an unenviable one…

Yours ever

Max[1]

 

We have one more letter today, a century back, from Rowland Feilding to his wife. It begins with a tragedy in miniature, but not one that leads toward disillusionment. Feilding has been in a mood of high regard for his men, lately, but he is also simply a responsible officer determined not to miss the larger picture, however terrible individual fates can be.

This is not quite the same as the reflexively loyal positive thinking of Edward Hermon: this is an observation of the importance–and the great strength–of morale, in winter, in the trenches. Call it esprit de corps, call it unit cohesion, but the importance of psychological maintenance work–draining the sumps, shoring up the crumbling walls–is enormous.

The old-fashioned tendency to attribute perceived differences in group temperament to “national characteristics” has not worn well, and for good reason. But then again even slightly different cultures can manifest differently, creating sharply different in moods in different groups undergoing similar experiences. Perhaps the Irish are wonderfully tough and uncomplaining, and perhaps this is a good battalion formed from a Regiment (and a local area) with a strong sense of the value of stoic endurance and mutual aid.

And then we have the position and disposition of our observers: from a subaltern in a Yorkshire company (Plowman) to the English commander of an Irish battalion, we see a very different appreciation of morale. But whether they are smiling cheerfully at a passing Lt. Col. or singing songs of frank war weariness in the hearing of their company officers, they all endure.

December 14, 1916. Curragh Camp

I have for many weeks past been working to get some good company sergeant-majors out from home. One in particular I have been trying for—a Sergeant-major McGrath, reputed to have been the best at Kinsale. His Commanding Officer very kindly agreed to send him to me, although he wrote that he regretted parting with him. McGrath arrived the day after I returned from leave, and within half an hour of his reaching the fire-trench was lying dead, a heavy trench-mortar bomb having fallen upon him, killing him and two others, and wounding two more. Now, is not that a case of hard luck “chasing” a man, when you consider how long others of us last? I never
even saw him alive.

I visited the fire-trench just after the bomb had fallen. It had dropped into the trench, and the sight was not a pleasant one. It was moreover aggravated by the figure of one of the dead, who had been blown out of the trench on to the parapet, and was silhouetted grotesquely against the then darkening sky.

But what I saw was inspiring, nevertheless. The sentries stood like statues. At the spot where the bomb had burst—within 40 yards of the Germans—officers and men were already hard at work in the rain, quietly repairing
the damage done to our trench, and clearing away the remains of the dead; all—to outward appearance—oblivious
to the possibility—indeed the probability—of further trouble from the trench-mortar, trained upon this special bit of trench, that had fired the fatal round.

What wonderful people are our infantry! And what a joy it is to be with them! When I am here I feel—well,
I can hardly describe it. I feel, if it were possible, that one should never go away from them: and I contrast that scene which I have described (at 1s. 1d. a day) with what I see and hear in England when I go on leave. My God! I can only say: “May the others be forgiven!” How it can be possible that these magnificent fellows, going home for a few days after ten months of this (and practically none get home in less), should be waylaid at Victoria Station, as they are, and exploited, and done out of the hard-earned money they have saved through being in the trenches, and with which they are so lavish, baffles my comprehension…

I can never express in writing what I feel about the men in the trenches; and nobody who has not seen them can ever understand.[2] According to the present routine, we stay in the front line eight days and nights; then go out for the same period. Each Company spends four days and four nights in the fire-trench before being relieved. The men are practically without rest. They are wet through much of the time. They are shelled and trench-mortared. They may not be hit, but they are kept in a perpetual state of unrest and strain. They work all night and every night, and a good part of each day, digging and filling sandbags, and repairing the breaches in the breastworks;—that is when they are not on sentry. The temperature is icy. They have not even a blanket. The last two days it has been snowing. They cannot move more than a few feet from their posts: therefore, except when they are actually digging, they cannot keep themselves warm by exercise; and, when they try to sleep, they freeze. At present, they are getting a tablespoon of rum to console them, once in three days.

So far morale. But, as so often, the very strong feeling of corporate identity–“us”–finds its opposition–“them”–not across No Man’s Land but rather far behind the lines. Farther, even, then Montreuil, where the Staff is ensconced. Feilding, with his Guards association and past service as a regular, is less likely than most to rail at bad planning (though he is honest and critical when he encounters it). But his time with the infantry seems to be changing–or at least amplifying–his political commitments.

Think of these things, and compare them with what are considered serious hardships in normal life! Yet these men
play their part uncomplainingly. That is to say, they never complain seriously. Freezing, or snowing, or drenching rain; always smothered with mud; you may ask any one of them, any moment of the day or night, “Are you cold?” or “Are you wet?”—and you will get but one answer. The Irishman will reply—always with a smile—“Not too cold, sir,” or “Not too wet, sir.” It makes me feel sick. It makes me think I never want to see the British Isles again so long as the war lasts. It makes one feel ashamed for those Irishmen; and also of those fellow countrymen of our own, earning huge wages, yet for ever clamouring for more; striking, or threatening to strike; while the country is engaged upon this murderous struggle.

Why, we ask here, has not the whole nation, civil as well as military, been conscripted?

The curious thing is that all seem so much more contented here than the people at home. The poor Tommy,
shivering in the trenches, is happier than the beast who makes capital out of the war. Everybody laughs at everything, here. It is the only way.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge Into the Future, 60-1.
  2. A fairly common sentiment. But if it is strictly interpreted then we are engaged in an exercise either essentially futile or, I would hope, valuable but asymptotically impossible to complete. Since Feilding took the trouble to write hundreds of pages of careful reporting on his experiences to his wife, we might hope that he believes some measure of understanding is possible...
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 133-6.

Song Time is Over for Francis Ledwidge; Thomas Hardy on Low Spirits, and Spiritualism; A Punch-Up for Milne; Max Plowman on the War of Attrition, the Morale of Aggression, and the Atrophy of Humanity

We have several literary cameos today, a century back, but let’s begin with a double stroke of Max Plowman-related good fortune. First, it seems that we can date a section of his memoir, A Subaltern on the Somme, to precisely today, a century back.[1] Second, he is addressing a subject that was of sharp relevance only a few days ago–the idea of maintaining the “moral” ascendancy in No Man’s Land even when no offensive was in the works, generally by means of raids on the opposing trenches.

The Staff-Captain’s lecture

At the Town-hall we attend a lecture by a divisional staff-captain in a room which is used in the daytime as a school. The staff-captain is a tall fair man of aristocratic bearing, keen eyes and a genial manner. He is talking about the necessity for keeping the initiative, and pointing out the many ways in which troops holding the line may show themselves masters of the situation, even though the time for an advance over the German lines be delayed till the Spring. Our one object should be to prevent the enemy from ever feeling comfortable, and to this end we should keep patrols going and raid the enemy trenches whenever there is a chance. Morale is the great factor, and by keeping the initiative we shall help to destroy the German morale and so make the work of advance ten times easier than it would be if, through slackness, we allowed the other side to feel themselves “top-dog.”

He is tremendously keen, not in the least ominiscient, and adding to his keenness humour, and being himself obviously fearless, his words catch on. One sees the force of his argument, and the incitement to hold the advantage only seems like the encouragement of a good trainer who wants rugger forwards to use all their weight in the scrum and is able to show them how to do it.

It is not until the lecture is over that one reflects on his advice in terms of actuality. Then one sees a raid as a foul, mean, bloody, murderous orgy which no human being who retains a grain of moral sense can take part in without the atrophy of every human instinct.

I’ve a desire to go back and tell this gallant gentleman that unless he can infuse into my blood hatred such as I seem psychologically incapable of feeling towards an unknown enemy, much as I should like to be able to help keep the initiative, and quite ready as I am to sacrifice my life for this end, I honestly don’t see how it’s to be done.[2]

Thus Plowman–or rather the anonymous subaltern, who does not share his past as a pacifist who first chose the ambulances before opting for the infantry–mounts an effective challenge to militarism, and the moral degradation caused both by war in general and by the static grind of trench warfare in particular. The rugby analogy is apt–especially when discarded, since sporting metaphors inevitably palliate the nastiness of war.

This lecturer is not without his attractions–he is even admirable, in his proper place. Nor is he necessarily wrong to suggest that bloody-mindedness–and, more to the point, a red hand in the foray–is an important piece of any holistic (that is to say, not only strategic but moral, in the restricted sense of “pertaining to military psychology”) approach to winning the war. (I think he is wrong, but there is certainly a great deal of evidence that can lead one to conclude that the awful cost of constantly raiding, of prodding the sleeping dogs opposite into shooting or blowing up a portion of your own men, can be justified if it demoralizes the enemy and staves off the demoralization of your own infantry.)

But Plowman makes two good points, here.

First, even if raiding, with all its grim attritional “sacrifice,” is necessary to stave off defeat, how in God’s name will it bring about victory? He’s justified in asking this, and there is a harsh irony in the fact that readers of the main post-1930 line of Great War Literature will “know” that he is correct, while military historians–especially those of the post-war years and the revisionist schools of recent decades but, really, any historian who pays attention to the actual course of the war–will point out that it did work, more or less. There was little in the way of mutiny on the British side, and spectacular failures on the defensive were limited to the period of the one great German offensive–which so exhausted Germany that it lost the war.

That’s how it will “play” out, but none of the staff officers have foreseen this, and our subaltern is not wrong to wonder.

His second point, even if it is perhaps overstated, holds: how do you go out at night, every once in a while, looking for sleeping men to kill, just to demonstrate to yourself–and to them–that you are a killer to be feared, “without the atrophy of every human instinct?”

 

 

Francis Ledwidge, injured, ill and exhausted after the deprivations of the “Macedonian” campaign, has been recuperating, writing, and otherwise cooling his heels in barracks in County Derry. His latest poem will not make his second collection–already headed for the press, with an introduction written by Lord Dunsany–but it is timely nonetheless:

 

Song-Time is Over

I will come no more awhile,
Song-time is over.
A fire is burning in my heart,
I was ever a rover.
You will hear me no more awhile,
The birds are dumb,
And a voice in the distance calls
“Come,” and “Come.”

December 13th, 1916.

At the risk of reductive reading, “Song-Time is Over” was written right around the time that Ledwidge learned that several months of convalescence and training-camp duties were about to end. At some point in the next few days Ledwidge will be granted leave, pending embarkation. He will come home, and get to see his family in Slane for a few days, but by Christmastime he will bound for England, en route to France or Belgium, the origins of all foreboding distant voices, these days.

 

So we have a silence of the birds and an ominous summons for our Irish nature poet, and we have the opinion of Max Plowman, subaltern in France, on how the war might–or won’t–end.

What about an éminence grise, at home and plied for charitable contributions? Thomas Hardy wrote today, a century back, to Edmund Gosse (eminent man of letters and one of several points of contact between Hardy and Siegfried Sassoon), with his feelings on such matters.[3]

Max Gate, Dorchester. Dec 13, 1916

My dear Gosse:

Of course, if the slightest good is likely to be done by putting down my name as before, please do so, though my working powers will be nil. You will quite understand why it is that I shall be such a dead-head, for I am getting on in years, & far away. I have not been in London this year an unprecedented thing for one who was once half a Londoner.

However, if people should grumble at my figuring in your excellent work without working at it, I may be excused saying that I have been doing things down here for the same Cause. You may have seen in the papers about our dramatic efforts…  So I feel in the Red Cross business as it were, like the rest of you.

…Barrie, by the way, came to our performance, & Granville Barker was coming, but prevented by his military duties. Barrie has I think mellowed into a very nice fellow…

I am not in the best of spirits about the issue of the war; & a book my wife has been reading to me does not help me—Sir Oliver Lodge’s Raymond. Poor dear amiable man.

And thus Hardy corners me into discussing a book I had hoped to omit. No–that would be silly, and unfair. Rather, a book that I have no idea how to properly use, and so chose, in the earliest days of the project, to avoid.

Oliver Lodge’s son, Raymond, was killed early in the war, and the book–published in November and already heading toward its fifth printing–has a familiar opening section: there is a memoir of Raymond’s life, and extracts from his letters. And then–with perfect confidence that many or most among his readers, especially “other bereaved persons,” will not question this transition–Sir Oliver continues to pass along Raymond’s communications, detailing and explaining the messages from his spirit, after his death. The third section of the book mounts a defense of spiritualism against its skeptics. Poor man indeed, and poor millions of other bereaved parents. There are deep, forbidden pools of grief pocketed throughout Europe, now, and a tidal movement of spiritualism will link many of them into a wide, shallow, and dismal fen.

 I suppose you are never coming into Dorset any more, but if you do “after the war” you will know where to find us. I hope Mrs Gosse is well, & we send her best Christmas wishes—if it is not too dangerously near satire to send such messages in these ferocious times.

Always yrs sincerely
Thomas HardyThe Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 190-1." id="return-note-12729-4" href="#note-12729-4">[4]

 

Is there no cheering news, no reason to laugh? Always–it’s not all dark yet, even if it’s getting there. A.A. Milne, invalided home a month ago with “trench fever,” is not only out of the hospital but also “well enough… to attend the Punch Table dinnertonight, a century back.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A letter written tomorrow mentions a lecture "yesterday" which would seem to be the one related below. There are some differences in the accounts, but these can probably be chalked up to the vagaries of memory rather than either intentional fictionalization or a major confusion of events.
  2. A Subaltern on the Somme, 204-5.
  3. Which is good, because it would be hard to pass up on the chance to record a mental crossing of paths with the creator of Peter Pan, and get J.M. Barrie cross-referenced with Milne, Sassoon, and Plowman...
  4. The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 190-1.
  5. Thwaite, A. A. Milne, 180.

May Cannan’s Lamplight; Max Plowman on an Unostentatious Hero and his Just Reward

For poem of the month, this month, we have a choice between one of the most powerful single poems of the war–Isaac Rosenberg‘s “Break of Day in the Trenches”–published this month but written this summer–or the elegiac and somewhat trite “Lamplight,” by May Wedderburn Cannan. Well, it’s December–I’ll include Cannan’s poem of regret. (But we looked at Rosenberg’s poem when it was written.)

 

Lamplight

We planned to shake the world together, you and I
Being young, and very wise;
Now in the light of the green shaded lamp
Almost I see your eyes
Light with the old gay laughter; you and I
Dreamed greatly of an Empire in those days,
Setting our feet upon laborious ways,
And all you asked of fame
Was crossed swords in the Army List,
My Dear, against your name.

We planned a great Empire together, you and I,
Bound only by the sea;
Now in the quiet of a chill Winter’s night
Your voice comes hushed to me
Full of forgotten memories: you and I
Dreamed great dreams of our future in those days,
Setting our feet on undiscovered ways,
And all I asked of fame
A scarlet cross on my breast, my Dear,
For the swords by your name.

We shall never shake the world together, you and I,
For you gave your life away;
And I think my heart was broken by the war,
Since on a summer day
You took the road we never spoke of: you and I
Dreamed greatly of an Empire in those days;
You set your feet upon the Western ways
And have no need of fame –
There’s a scarlet cross on my breast, my Dear,
And a torn cross with your name.

It will be the task of Max Plowman, then, to return us to prose. One of my biggest regrets about the way in which we read through the Somme battle, here, was how little of Plowman’s memoir I was able to include–Subaltern on the Somme is only dated by the month, and I was not able to obtain the battalion diary and link more incidents to dates.

But today’s letter, at least, allows us to drop anchor and consider one of the most considerable minor characters of the memoir.

On Active Service
Friday. 1st December. 1916.

My Dear Janet,

Forgive me–though it looks as if I were a ‘base’ hare I’m not really–I’m a ‘forward’ hare. And a very grateful one too–ever so glad to get your letters, quietly blessing you too for thinking of things like food for mind body & estate. I’m keeping the cocoa rations & mittens. Some day (when you feel a current of warm air) you’ll know it’s a prayer for his patron saint (St Jeanne) wafted over to you from some nose-biting trench. I always try & make a small collection before I go into trenches nowadays & though it usually means finding oneself an unholy beast of burden…

For instance, when we went up last, about a month ago, I took a packet of raisins D. had sent me, two tins of cigarettes, some oxo cubes & a sack full of Shell Dressings. Oh & 8 pairs of socks. As a result I’m still here. Whether that’s a blessing or not I’m not quite so sure, but since one didn’t enlist to go sick I suppose ‘the answer is in the affirmative’…

We were only “in the line” actually 8 days (two spells of 4 each) but about a dozen officers got “trench feet” & I don’t know how many men. I gave about half my socks away to men but the other half saved me…

The place was a nightmare of mud & deep shell-holes full of water…

We will go back a few days into the “November” section of Plowman’s memoir and read about this tour in just a moment. But first, Plowman has a curious writerly note to make.

If only I could get decently wounded now I should be most awfully glad I’d been out here. Sum it all up & I think nothing has surprised me except the way in which some of the men “stick it.” And that will always be a romance in my mind. I’ve a little corporal I’m thinking of at the moment. He’s a wisp of a man with a groggy knee which sent him home after Ypres last year & has never really got well, & a faint treble voice…

I’d willingly have given him a V.C. if it had been mine to give it, just for “carrying on” & helping & encouraging men to do likewise when he himself was dead-beat. It was a wonderful show. Unfortunately he’ll get nothing beyond an extra stripe just because our regiment’s not in good odour… But I never shall forget fellows like him & if I ever get the chance I’d sooner write about them than any other side of the war…[1]

“Romance?” There’s a hardy word, a concept that carries on doing what good it can do despite the obviously adverse circumstances. Well, reader, Plowman followed through:

Corporal Jackson… Odd the way that man always seems to be the first in the trenches and the last out. I noticed, too, that directly we get into the trenches his nonchalant air disappears and he becomes keen on whatever job falls to him. When I went to see him just now, he told me in his piping, far-away voice exactly how he was holding the post and what he should do if there was any trouble, showing clearly that he had worked the whole situation out for himself. He is my best N.C.O.

And his value only increases as Plowman’s men become more exhausted and demoralized.

It is early morning before we find the camp on the hill. As we enter wearily, ominous shoutings and groanings come from all directions. These sounds tell the tale. The men are crying out with the pain in their feet. But there is nothing to be done now and, dog-tired, I am on the point of dropping into a tarpaulin-covered hole, when I remember my platoon. What can I do for them? Well, at least I ought to see how they are. Wandering round alone I come on a coke-fire burning at the end of one of the shelters. A dark figure stands by tending it. It is Jackson.

“Hullo! What are you doing?”

“Only looking to this fire, sir. I thought if I kept it going on this side, the wind ‘d blow the heat through.”

“Where are they?”

“They’re all in there. There’s only Collins and Roberts bad. The sergeant’s pretty fair. He’s inside. Shall I fetch him?”

“No. That’s all right. How about yourself? Where are you going to sleep? Is there any room there?”

“No, sir, but I shall be all right. There’s several of them want looking to. I’d as soon be here. I’m getting dry.”

I bid him good night, and go back to the officers’ shelter, thinking of heroism and wherein it consists. This is the unostentatious kind. Here’s a wisp of a man with a permanently troublesome knee. He has just come from trenches, said to be worse than Ypres in 1914, where he has done two men’s work, besides helping crocks out of the mud, supporting them and carrying their rifles. Under the foulest conditions his spirits have never November flagged. I have heard him whistling when no other bird on earth would sing; and now, when by all the laws of Nature he ought to have dropped half-dead, he has appointed himself to the role of Florence Nightingale, and has not even left himself room to lie down. I cannot sleep for thinking of him. The Lady of the Lamp. The Gentleman of the Brazier.

An unostentatious hero, a corporal beyond price, a man to compare with Sidney Rogerson’s similarly fire-starting Corporal Robinson. But this is a war story–a Great War story–and as such it must be ironic.

Later, Max Plowman, our conscientious, left-leaning friend-of-the-working-man saunters up to tell Jackson that he has done him a good deed. Or tried to. Will Jackson get a medal? No, because the battalion is out of favor, regardless of the merits of its men. But still, it’s a nice gesture, right?

When I told Jackson this morning I had put his name up, but no recommendations were to be forwarded, he looked bored and unconcerned; rather as if I had betrayed his confidence to fools. I had.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge Into the Future, 58-9.
  2. Subaltern on the Somme, 88, 140, 170-3, 186.