Alf Pollard and Frank Richards Hold On at Arras; Patrick Shaw Stewart Idle in France; Kate Luard and the Glorious Maimed

After a day of stiffly resisted attacks along the Hindenburg Tunnel, the Royal Welch are left holding an improvised line, in the face of likely counter-attacks. Frank Richards reminds us of every soldier’s plight on the day after an advance, when lines of supply have been disrupted.

The following day we were without food and water and during the night some of us were out searching the dead to see if they had been carrying any with them. I was lucky enough to discover a half-loaf of bread, some biscuits and two bottles of water, which I would not have sold for a thousand pounds.[1]

But Richards also reports an incident confirmed by Dunn: while bringing in the wounded in the early morning, they are hailed by a wounded man of another regiment who had been lying close to the German line and had seen them pulling back during the night. This intelligence was quickly confirmed, and the 2nd Royal Welch moved up and dug in around the abandoned positions, which included concrete strong-points built for machine guns–early examples of a new era in tactical defense. These “pill-boxes” are immune to all but the heaviest caliber artillery, but vulnerable to being rushed by small numbers of men using careful “stalking” tactics.

The dead of five battalions… lay in front of the abandoned German machine-gun position… and exposed the tragic ineptitude of just going on throwing men against it after such a futile artillery bombardment… Ours was the third bull-at-a-gate attack… one of the occasions innumerable when a company or a battalion was squandered on an attack seemingly planned by someone who, lacking either first or second hand knowledge of the ground, just relied on our maps of moderate scale… we were relieved at the end of the day.[2]

It’s the “or second hand” which is really the most damning thing. It’s a huge war, and even the best-intentioned Corps Commander can hardly tour the front lines–it would be impossible, even, for a divisional general to acquire first-hand knowledge of all the ground on their front. By they have staffs, and they could summon the battalion C.O.s only two levels below them in the chain of command. They could find out… but instead they read their maps, and make their orders.

 

Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. faced a long day’s counter-attack between Oppy Wood and the Chemical Works at Monchy.

Time after time long lines of men in field grey appeared over the crest of the ridge only to be swept away before they had descended half way down the slope… Never once did they get within a hundred yards…

We went back to the Black line on the evening of the 24th. What was to happen next? That was the question that filled our minds. We were so near to breaking through that we were all keyed up for the next move. It was impossible that the authorities would let things rest where they were.[3]

They will spend a few days in reserve, in a part of the line that is in danger of becoming a salient. But after that rest, the H.A.C. will most emphatically return to the front lines…

 

Patrick Shaw Stewart has been able to shake free of further duty in the Eastern Mediterranean. He hopes to get back to his battalion in France–but that, of course, is not how things work. If he had had his way, perhaps, he would have already been in the battalion, and seen far too much of the Battle of Arras. But he has been fortunate in this frustration, and finds himself on the coast, some 60 miles due west of the fighting:

I’m well embarked on the Course at the Depot here. I can’t honestly say I think it’s teaching me very much I haven’t known by heart these three years back, except, perhaps, a little about gas and bomb-throwing: but there is a terrible lot of indifferent lecturing out of books and old-fashioned sloping of arms, which I really thought I had undergone once for all at the Crystal Palace. No doubt it is extremely good for the soul of a veteran like me to be marched about in fours and told to be in by 9 p.m., but occasionally one is tempted to forget how comic it all is, and also how tolerable. For it really is exceedingly tolerable, if measured by the discomforts that are always possible; I have my bed, I have a tent to myself, a very respectable mess, and a great stand-by in the shape of the Sutherland
Hospital, which is at a reasonable distance. I have dined there twice, and do it again to-night.

This would be the hospital founded by Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland, and desirable perhaps more for the society of its staff than its patients.

The only drawback is that after being marched about and bored to death from 8.20 to 4.15, one is rather
inclined to sink into a chair and drop into a hoggish sleep, more than to brush one’s hair nicely and walk another mile to a tram—or, indeed, to write letters or any other elegant occupation.

Le Touquet, April 24, 1917.[4]

 

In another hospital considerably closer to the front, Kate Luard, continues to praise the stoic and uncomplaining heroism of the maimed and dying.

Tuesday Morning.  …A Captain of the Yorks had his leg off yesterday and makes less of it than some people with a toe-nail off. The glorious boy with the broken back is lying on his back now; he doesn’t know about it and says he’s all right, only his back is a little stiff an aching.

In general I find Sister Luard’s emotional instincts to be eminently reasonable, and her writing precise. But that’s the problem: since she is precise and thoughtful, it’s fair to focus on that one word “glorious,” and to question what exactly it means. To be stoic is perhaps a virtue, and the remarkable lack of complaint from these terribly wounded men is… remarkable. It is testimony to almost unbearable reserves of human moral strength…

And yet it’s not that simple. It never is. Can we praise the sufferers without examining what their suffering is for, without asking why it has come about? This is similar, in a way, to praising the brilliant elan of a small-unit leader in an assault without noting that the skill he is exhibiting is, essentially, excellence in leadership in state-sanctioned killing. And in each case the men killing and being maimed are sent to do and to suffer by other men, men who aren’t dirtying their hands or risking life and limb. What these soldiers have suffered is something more, and more complex, than mere accident or disaster. They are volunteers, most of them, and yet they are also victims not of mischance or acts of God but of organized human activity.

And so then there is society. Luard is well aware that, since female nurses almost never serve any closer to the line than a Casualty Clearing Station, her presence is in itself remarkable. The glorious boys who come into her care haven’t seen a woman in days or weeks or months–and they haven’t seen a respectable Englishwoman, properly addressed with a title borrowed from religious and family life, in longer still.

Isn’t her presence a strong inducement to act the part, to play the game? Isn’t she–more, in some ways, than superior officers, backed by the threat of court-martial and punishment–an enforcer of the social order that has made it so difficult for so many increasingly skeptical men to question the conduct of the war? Would a bitter, angry man, convinced he has been victimized by an unfeeling state and a burgeoning military-industrial complex, spit in the face of a nurse whose approval of stoicism must be obvious? It would be a difficult thing… and so here, too, in the terrible pain and amazing kindness of a field hospital, there is a sort of censorship in place.

Courage when in great pain is an estimable thing–and an inestimable thing. So is consideration for those around you, even when selfishness and self pity–not to mention stark terror or an urge to self-destruction–would be more than understandable.

But… “glorious?” The young officer will never walk again, but they haven’t told him. He must die soon, and they haven’t told him. His strength is remarkable–wonderful, valuable. But a desire to bear pain and loss uncomplainingly, a living-up to the expectation of good manners even in the worst of situations, is not a thing that we should praise without any reference to the context.

If he wanted to scream, and make everyone around him know that he was terrified to be destroyed, to die–that he was sure, now, that all this isn’t worth it–would she hear him?

This is too much to lay at the feet of Sister Luard, of course, in the middle of the post-assault rush of horror. And she is the farthest thing from a prim manipulator. She will record her own struggles with disillusionment, soon, and even today, a century back, she obliquely addresses the meaning of the war through her praise of another praiseworthy human behavior.

Some of the men say they were picked up and looked after by Germans, so we are being extra kind to the Germans this time. There is in Hospitals an understood arrangement that all Germans (except when their lives depend on immediate attention) should wait till the last British has been attended to… It is only kept up in a very half-hearted way and is generally broken by the M.O.’s, who are most emphatic about it in theory!

And later?

Tuesday, 10.30 p.m. It has been a pretty sad day, 12 funerals… The spine boy has found out what is the matter with him and is quite cheery about it…[5]

There’s a lot going on, but it will be interesting to keep looking in on Sister Luard to see how her credo of infinite empathy and praise for the selflessness of the wounded holds up as the battle drags on.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Old Soldiers Never Die, 230.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 338-9.
  3. Fire-Eater, 214.
  4. Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 194-5.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 116-7.

Raymond Asquith Attempts an Epic; An Update on Kate Luard’s Flyboy; Bim Tennant is Back with the Battalion

Bim Tennant, lately the recipient of a great deal of leave, is back with his battalion, and wishing he had had more leave, and left here a little further, as it were.

28th February, 1916

Darling Moth’,

After my abortive attempt to get home on leave from Calais, I have now rejoined the battalion at a place about 16 miles from the front. It is very cold, very wet, and the ground is covered with snow, but it is better than being in tents. After the battalion went from Calais I had two very comfortable nights, one at the Metropole at Calais, and the next night at the Sauvage at Cassel…  I have not lived so well since being in London, and we ordered nearly all our meals. It is rather dull being back here when I expected to be in England, but I don’t expect that leave will remain much longer. I hope not.

In other words, count Bimbo as one who still would very much like to see some action, not one of those who enthusiasm has dimmed to the point of private hopes–or letter-to-mum-hopes–of possibly doing his duty while missing the carnage of any “Big Show.”

This morning I rather made my name to the Brigadier by doing what he thought quite a good rear-guard action; it is refreshing to have a sham fight after a real one, and kudos is correspondingly cheaper! …Did I tell you that the cigarettes came the other day, 4000 of them? I think I did. They were much appreciated, and like the daughters of the horseleech we cry, Give! give!

Bimbo has been palling around with one of our 1914 informants, and, like other well-bred youth before him, he would like to share his opinion of various aristocratic beauties.

…I had a great success with my old stunts at the Millicent Sutherland hospital—and I went there four times. I like Rosemary Levesen-Gower, and Diana was very sweet to me. She seems very cheerful, but not very well. The young duchess is very handsome. The older one is the most beautiful, I think.

Any wildly inaccurate Verdun rumors to report?

We heard this morning that the French had lost 17,000 prisoners, and many more killed and wounded, but had killed nearly 250,000 Boches; if so, that is splendid. At any rate, they seem quite satisfied with the result so far…

I wish I could think of something to say, but my feet are rather wet and very cold, so I think I’ll go and change.
With litres of love from your devoted

Bimbo

Osbert sends his love.[1]

 

Two days ago, “the Flying boy,” a young lieutenant whose leg had been mangled by an anti-aircraft shell yet had managed to land his plane, was visited by Sir Charles Monro, the general commanding the First Army. The great man greeted our Kate Luard and talked with the patient, and he then let her know that he had submitted the “boy” for a Victoria Cross. But did not expect him to get it–although landing the plane was a “superhuman feat of endurance” it was not exactly the sort of valorous act under direct fire that usually won the V.C.

Today, a century back, there was an update.

Monday, February 28th. The Flying boy is not enjoying himself, it is a bad bit, and is not over yet: the rest of the leg is to come off on Wednesday, when Capt. R. comes back.

A wire came through to-day to his Corps, from the C. in Chief to say that ‘by authority of his Majesty the King the Distinguished Service Order had been awarded to Lt. H. of the R.F.C…’

The weather is still unmentionable, and the world carpeted with slush.[2]

 

Here’s something to cheer us up, then, if decorations for the maimed won’t do it. Raymond Asquith is making the most of a very idle day–in verse! He wrote to his wife Katherine today, a century back:

Intelligence,
G.H.Q.
B.E.F.
28 February 1916

I am having a very idle day here—no messages coming in–I have read through 2 numbers of the Spectator this afternoon and 2 of the Vie Parisienne and am no nearer the secret of happiness than before…

I’ve got through the cold snap without taking to bottles, though I confess I was reduced to sleeping in the woolley waistcoat you gave me. It is wet and horrible now but with a certain promise of spring…

Oh dear, the days here seem as long, as the nights used to seem in the trenches–more comfortable but if possible more dull. How I loathe the war: I can’t think of anything to do now except write an epic poem bringing in the names of all the railway stations in Belgium . . .[3]

And then, of course, he does. Or not exactly: he writes a wry, witty, extremely capable faux-epic. Instead of mimicking the dactylic hexameter of classical epic–which is wretched in English–he goes for the thumping trochaic tetrameter used in some 19th century epics-with-a-foreign-feel (including Longfellow’s Hiawatha). But he’s in it for the clever and oh-so-masculine end-rhymes, too, so he makes the stunt even harder and chooses a “catalectic” tetrameter: not only must he start on an emphasized syllable–difficult enough in English–he must end on one as well, allowing no easy two-syllable rhymes, and compacting the line to only seven syllables. (Shakespeare’s fairies talked this way, and Auden will address his lover in a perfect little catalectic trochaic tetreameter, but it is very rare.)

The published Life and Letters shies away from this amusing, pointless tour-de-force, but it appears, apparently in full, in one of my indispensable sources, a compendium by the redoubtable Anne Powell.[4]

Some highlights:

Surely conscience bids us use
(Since we’re fighting for the Right)
Every form of Schrecklichkeit.
Then, I ask you, why not try
The magic power of poesy?
After all the thing’s been done;
Goethe was a bloody hun.
Why not in the last resort
Versify the Train Report?
I know it’s going rather far,
But–anything to win the war.
Only insignificant
Traffic passed from Bruges to Ghent;
But the line from Ghent to Bruges
Is quite another pair of shoes.
Masses of marines (with guns)
Suspiciously resembling Huns…

They are moving troops from Ghent
To the Ypres Salient,
And I haven’t any doubt
We shall trace them to Thourout
And (when the returns come in)
Very likely to Menin…

Let me stop and emphasize: there’s more herein than meets the eyes. Asquith’s really very good, sneaking in a certain mood. Is this silly? Yes it is. Light amusement, schoolboy fizz–“What? A dare? To versify Belgium’s atlas? Oh–and try doing it against the grain. Use no iambs! Show no strain! Let us, also, start to sense dullness sap intelligence…”

Well, reader, he does it almost perfectly. It’s more than three times as long as these excerpts and really a wonderful example of being entertaining by being boring. It is very much light verse, but it has a point: the desk work of intelligence is so dull, such an incredible waste of intellectual esprit and linguistic skill, that it leaves time and energy for tricky exercises such as this.

But for the hard rhythm this would be Seussian–as it is, it makes one wish that Asquith had written the Madeline books rather than that he had attempted to preempt a mind as wildly different as Auden’s was from his. And the lightheartedness about the vicissitudes of war would almost make this fit as a lively entry in the canon of peppy pro-war verse… almost, but for the comic re-emphasis of the foolishness of intelligence work. Unlike in the Second World War, there can be no major operations that may be significantly improved by strategic surprise or spy work, so Asquith’s colleagues, amateurs like him for the most part, and safe as châteaux, are working hard to expose tactical spy-work, ferret out German movements that can’t really be countered, and chase down many wild geese.)

A lament, then, from the steampunk desk-spy:

By this line they seem to bring
Every kind of bloody thing.
Welkenraedt is just as bad:
Details always drive me mad..

What is this I find at Diest?
Quite an intellectual feast!
Hour after our, day after day,
Train after train runs every way…

The rest of the poem can be viewed here, but see the above footnote about “spoilers” and future history.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters, 115-7.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 44.
  3. Life and Letters, 244-5.
  4. A Deep Cry, 144-6. The entire book, however, is a "spoiler." Any movement away from the page view in the link below will reveal many destinies.

Julian Grenfell Goes for a Jaunt with Lady Feidling, but Praises the Duchess of Sutherland; The Nursing Sister is Useful and Vera Brittain Envious; Edward Thomas on Love and a Dirty Job

Julian Grenfell, still very much the frustrated and idle cavalryman–“I wish I were a footslogger” is a frequent refrain– wrote another strangely debonair letter home today, a century back.

Darling Mother

Thank you awfully for your letters…

We’ve had boiling hot weather lately, and no snow at all. In fact, it’s rather trying weather with winter trench-clothes and no outlet for one’s energy!

Well, not no outlet. Obviously, one could go to church, for Easter. Or one could have an outing with all of the best sort of people over in France.

Yesterday Alastair[1] & I went over to Dunkirk in Millie’s Motor, which she sent for us. It was great fun, after these dull billets; all the picture-postcard celebrities were there… Bend Or,[2] Millie,[3] Fitzgerald, Lady D Fielding [Julian’s misspelling!]…

So Julian Grenfell and Dorothie Feilding have crossed paths. Alas, Lady Dorothie makes no mention of this outing in her contemporary letters.

Millicent_Duches_of_Sutherland

Sargent’s portrait of the Duchess of Sutherland

More significant, at least in Julian’s mind, is the fact that this outing was arranged by Millicent Fitzgerald. We followed the good Dowager Duchess (as she was then–she remarried in October and so gave up the title) in August, when she was captured. She then escaped and wrote a quick memoir, the title of which (Six Weeks at the War) explains why, although she soon went back to hospital administration work in France, we haven’t seen any more of her here. But let’s look at what Julian has to write:

Millie looking too lovely, lovelier than anything I’ve ever seen; how much prettier she is than anything of the young generation.

This seems at first like lighthearted charm, a young man being knowingly complimentary to a woman of his mother’s generation. And she was certainly pretty–see the 1904 portrait at right. But Grenfell does goes on a bit about her charms. Given the strange nature of his relationship with his mother (the formidable Lady Desborough), it’s hard not to imagine that this might be a strange, twisted sort of sally.

Lady Desborough was the presiding spirit of “the Souls,” the tip-top social clique (of which Millicent Leveson-Gower was also a member) and a collector of young male admirers. She has long made a habit of these ostentatious flirtations, which became variously close friendships, melodramatic but chaste affairs, or affairs tout court. Lately her special friends have included several of Julian’s contemporaries, including his school-friend Patrick Shaw-Stewart.

The rich are different, those self-consciously decadent aristocrats play by different rules, etc. But it simply cannot not have been mortifying: his mother had more-or-less-publicly displayed her special intimacy with a man his own age–a scholar and a banker and an officer now, sure, but once a schoolboy running about with her own sons. Julian seems to have been expected to shrug this off as one of his mother’s Queen Bee mannerisms, but to post this riposte about “Millie” he must be doing one of two things. Either the signal is “I don’t care, I am as cold as you are, I’ll make a naughty little comment”–which I doubt–or it’s “you know, generally I just take myself away–into the army, to Africa, to the war; but I could launch my own inappropriate affair…” I really don’t know. Perhaps it’s just a mischievous compliment… but it seems more like a shot across her bow.

It is unquestionably bizarre, at least, to see this fraught family romance flitting across the pages of these breezy letters from billets. How much more subtext am I missing? Creating?

Anyway, let’s get back to the letter, and the outing that puts the son of Lord and Lady Desborough in the same car as the ex-Dowager Duchess of Sutherland, the daughter of the Earl of Denbigh, etc. Julian, in any event, sees himself as not quite ready to run with this crowd:

We all motored up–it was quite funny to see trenches again. Apparently they go anywhere and do anything; which I suppose is possible when anybody has got that absolutely natural and unconscious amount of nerve, cheek, & face as all of them.

Surely true–and yet Lady Feilding and “Millie” are doing much more useful work at this stage than the cavalry…

 

Speaking of useful work, here’s the Nursing Sister:

Easter Monday.—It is a pouring wet day, and the mud is Flanderish. Never was there such mud anywhere else. A gunner-major has just been telling me you get a fine view of the German positions from the Cathedral tower here, and can see shells bursting like the pictures in ‘The Sphere.’ He said his guns had the job of peppering La Bassée the last time they shelled this place, and they gave it such a dusting that this place has been let severely alone since. He thinks they’ll have another go at this when we begin to get hold of La Bassée, but the latter is a very strong position. It begins to be “unhealthy” to get into any of the villages about three miles from here, which are all heaps of bricks now.

I’m leaving my billet to-morrow, as they want us to be in one house. And our house is the Maire’s Château, the palatial one, so we shall live in the lap of luxury as never before in this country! And have hot baths with eau-de-Cologne every night, or cold every morning. And the woman is going to faire our cuisine there for us, so we shan’t have to wait hours in the café for our meals. There is only one waiter at the café, who is a beautiful, composed, wrapt, silent girl of 16, who will soon be dead of overwork. She is not merely pretty, but beautiful, with the manners of a princess!

…An officer was brought in during the night with a compound-fractured arm. He stuck a very painful dressing like a brick to-day, and said to me afterwards, “I’ve got three kids at home; they’ll be awfully bucked over this!” He had said it was “nothing to write home about.”

Another, who is chaffing everybody all day long, was awfully impressed because a man in his company—I mean platoon—who had half his leg blown off, said when they came to pick him up, “Never mind me—take so-and-so first”—”just like those chaps you read of in books, you know.” It was decided that he meant Sir Philip Sidney…[4]

 

And you, Vera Brittain, would you like to tell Roland (and us), how you feel about such opportunities?

Buxton, 5 April 1915

…How I envy the women whom circumstances & opportunity have enabled to go. But these are the fortunate minority; the majority of us are all waiting, which is hardest of all, & not knowing where people are or what they are doing. I can’t deny that I have been very sad since I knew you had really gone—I cannot help thinking always how precious the life is you are risking, and of the time you are giving up, which people often forget to reckon in their estimate of the country’s debt to such as you, but which, as I know, means so much to anyone with intellect & aspiration. Yet I cannot help feeling glad you were ready to give them up too—I suppose the stuff of which heroes are made is hardly likely to be acquired by living only so as to escape reproach, & doing just what is strictly necessary & no more. After all no experience however terrible can be counted as loss, if one is not overcome by the experience, but is stronger than it, as I know you will be…

I will be content to wait, but I win be able to do it better if every moment is crowded with work…

Vera goes on to relay her modest volunteering success of yesterday–“Strange to say that [darning] one of the things I can do—you would hardly connect the art of darning with me, would you! But I can–even Mother says so!”–and then explains how this breakthrough may change her future plans:

I have also been thinking about the Long Vacation, which is more than 3 months. Of course I can still work at the Hospital—& there may, alas, be more need for workers there than ever then. But just lately an appeal has been made to all women who are willing & able to register themselves at Labour Exchanges as being ready either to train for skilled labour or undertake unskilled labour so as to take the places of men who have gone & set others free. It provides thus for the contingency of a long war.[5]

 

Edward Thomas wrote another poem today, Lovers, which is unusual in putting sex, however obliquely, into the landscape and leaving it there without either anxiety or deep exploration. And then he wrote to Eleanor Farjeon, with thanks for an Easter gift and news of dire writing to come. (No, he wasn’t thinking of sex and then of Eleanor–if there is a traceable chain of thought here it is that he was still thinking of the real Lob,”Dad” Uzzel, who had long ago allowed the young Edward and Helen to tryst in his cottage.)

5 April 1915, Monday

My dear Eleanor

Baba and I thank you for the egg… Now I have got to work. I have practically accepted the filthy job–a book on the Duke of Marlborough to be done in haste. I am coming up at once to the Museum. One day I will have tea with you if you will have tea with me, say on Thursday at 4.30. I could meet you anywhere between the Reading Room door and the nearest Express Dairy. This seems to knock all travel on the head this spring…

Yours ever,

Edward Thomas[6]

Thomas will remain consistent in his appraisal of this Duke of Marlborough project. He’ll hate it, but it will pay, and therefore he will pound it out–and not think throughout weeks of hard work about joining the army in order to provide for his family. One more poem tomorrow, and then a gap as he throws himself into the book. It will be the sort of quick, less-than-original prose work that many writers might yet be reasonably proud of… but Thomas the liberated poet now finds it onerous, hateful, draining–and poisonous to his poetry.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Alastair St. Clair Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, a fellow officer.
  2. Hugh Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster, now an officer in France, and generally the very ideal of the bigoted conservative nobleman.
  3. The former Dowager Duchess of Sutherland, Alastair's mother.
  4. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.
  5. Letters from a Lost Generation, 71-3.
  6. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 128.

Elsie Knocker Speaks, but Sarah Macnaughtan Testifies; the Modernists Open Fire on the Old Guard

The first reviews of war poetry are in! Today’s Egoist, a new and soon-to-be influential modernist journal, published a review of the first major war anthology, Poems of the Great War. This had been knocked together largely from the from the early newspaper poems of the Edwardian grandees, with proceeds to benefit the National Relief Fund. The review, by the American Imagist John Gould Fletcher, is scathing.

You’d think that a Modern journal would use a modern poems of the great war coverweapon on an army of fools and knaves, but no: it’s a hatchet job. Fletcher begins by mocking the cover illustration (right), which is, admittedly, pretty horrible, mixing the old “pitiable rape (of Belgium)” imagery with the sickly sight of a young boy trying to draw his father’s sword. I do hope the war lasts long enough for that likely lad to grow up and skewer himself a Hun!

Fletcher continues by hacking off a rich harvest of low-hanging fruit–the lackluster laureate Bridges and the egregious Newbolt both use the same tub-thumping and theologically problematic half-line “and God defend the right!”–and taking other mediocre poets to task for improbable rhymes and intensely myopic sentiments. The review concludes with a very contemporary “buy it anyway, support the troops” line, which then morphs into a final strained joke: and then mail it to the Germans so the war can end in laughter! It’s a bad-accurate review of a bad collection.

 

 

In Boulogne, where Dr. Monro’s Ambulance Corps now worked, the wounded of were arriving in their thousands. We can strengthen our largest chorus even further, here, with Elsie Knocker–a trained nurse, an apparently omnicompetent motorist and mechanic, but not, as yet, aristocratic and/or famous.[1]

Although she has seen much action in Belgium, this is Knocker’s first glimpse of the industrial scale of the hospital operations in the rear areas.

I went on duty at the station at two o’clock and found the whole place simply swarming with wounded… We got back here at 9.40 having fed 2,300 with soup, cocoa and tea and bread and dressed the wounds of perhaps 150. It was an extraordinary sight, particularly when it got dark and the station lights were lit. Everywhere there were men, sitting on trucks and barrows and the few chairs we could offer them, standing about with heads, arms, shoulders tied up, limping about and even lying on the platforms just as they were. One man I saw lying flat with his head pillowed on a loaf of bread. They had come straight down from Ypres where they say a terrific battle, worse even than Mons and Le Cateau is raging…

One poor man died in the station, one or two were off their heads, all had more or less severe wounds though the majority could get about with assistance.The hospitals here are so full that they could only take in the very worst cases and the rest had to go on. Of course we could not possibly change all or anything like all the dressings, although three nurses and two doctors were fetched during the pm. It was however working under awful difficulties; first the swarms of people through whom you had to push your way; then the shortage of hot water in sufficient quantity (such masses were required for the feeding as well as the dressings, the water here is so bad that we are not allowed to use it unless boiled for dressings or even for cleaning our teeth!); then the almost complete absence of instruments – very few of us had thought of bringing anything down as this had never happened before; then the fact that every lot of dirty water or lotion or blood or anything had to be carried down to a drain and emptied.

It was really wonderful the way our store of wool gauze and antiseptics held out, but it taxed them very severely and we have got to lay in heaps more. I made and applied a jaw bandage out of another one and the nurse was quite surprised to find that I knew how![2]

Strangely, Dr. Monro’s corps provides its own ironic juxtaposition–almost a trench-to-London-club-level (or overwhelmed-dressing-station-to-Oxford-quad-level) split circumstance. Sarah Macnaughtan has been taking a few days off, and gives her diary a squadron’s worth of name-dropping:

2 November–I have been spending a couple of nights in Dunkirk…

Dunkirk is full of people, and one meets friends at every turn. I had tea at the Consulate one afternoon, and was rather glad to get away from the talk of shells and wounds, which is what one hears most of at Furnes. I saw Lord Kitchener in the town one day; he had come to confer with Joffre, Sir John French, Monsieur Poincaré, and Mr. Churchill, at a meeting held at the Chapeau Rouge Hotel. Rather too many valuable men in one room, I thought–especially with so many spies about! Three men in English officers’ uniforms were found to be Germans the other day and taken out and shot. The Duchess of Sutherland has a hospital at our old Casino at Malo les Bains, and has made it very nice…

She reverts to form, however, in the same entry, and again records the heroism of the younger women of her corps. This anecdote, though written today, must belong to a few days previously:

Mrs. Knocker came into Dunkirk for a night’s rest while I was staying there. She had been out all the previous day in a storm of wind and rain driving an ambulance. It was heavy with wounded, and shells were dropping very near. She–the most courageous woman that ever lived–was quite unnerved at last. The glass of the car she was driving was dim with rain and she could carry no lights, and with this swaying load of injured men behind her on the rutty road she had to stick to her wheel and go on.

Some one said to her, “There is a doctor in such-and-such a farmhouse, and he has no dressings. You must take him these.”

She demurred (a most unusual thing for her), but men do not protect women in this war, and they said she had to take them. She asked one of the least wounded of the men to get down and see what was in front of her, and he disappeared altogether. The dark mass she had seen in the road was a huge hole made by a shell! After steering into dead horses and going over awful roads Mrs. Knocker came bumping into the yard, steering so badly that they ran to see what was wrong, and they found her fainting, and she was carried into the house. At Dunkirk she got a good dinner and a night’s rest.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A pretty bad spoiler, aristocracy-wise, but if you want to learn more about Elsie Knocker, do also search for the Baroness T'Serclaes.
  2. Women in the War Zone, 80.
  3. Macnaughtan's published diary can be found here.

The Duchess of Sutherland is in German Hands; Vera Bandages Badly in Buxton; John Lucy Bandages Hastily at Le Cateau; Frank Richards Fires Two Friendly Rounds; We Meet George Coppard

In German-occupied Namur, the Duchess of Sutherland negotiates her status.

The Padre came in at last and said that the flames would not reach us. In the afternoon we ventured into the smoky street. It was like walking through a dense fog. All the buildings were smouldering… A German officer told me that the town was burnt because some of the civilian inhabitants had been shooting at the soldiers from dark windows.

The Germans has arrived in Belgium primed to treat any resistance to their occupation by anything other than a formal military unit as serious crime. Perhaps there were a number of Belgian civilians who took pot shots at Germans, or scattered members of overrun Belgian army units who fought on, but the German army tended to treat any rear-area firing as evidence of an “illegal” guerrilla resistance, and respond with brutal punitive violence.

The Doctor and I thought we had better visit the Commander, General von Bülow…

General von Bülow said he was sure he had met me at Hamburg, and that he would arrange with one of the diplomats to get a telegram through to Berlin, which he trusted would be copied in the London papers, announcing the safety of our Ambulance.

‘Accept my admiration for your work. Duchess,’ he said. He spoke perfect English. To accept the favours of my country’s foe was a bad moment for me, but the Germans were in possession of Namur and I had to consider my hospital from every point of view. Also those who are of the Red Cross and who care for suffering humanity and for the relief of pain and sickness should strive to remember nothing but the heartache of the world and the pity of it.[1]

General von Bülow ‘did me the honour’ to call the next morning at our Ambulance. He was accompanied by Baron Kessler, his aide-de-camp, who composed the scenario of La Legende de Josephe. He had been much connected with Russian opera in London during the past season. It was exceedingly odd to meet him under such circumstances.after having so often discussed ‘art’ with him in London.[2]

It’s the forgettable ballet that keeps being remembered. Harry Graf Kessler, one of the last of the great Europeans, was culturally and linguistically fluent in French, German, and English; he was diplomat and a soldier, yes–and latterly famous for his diaries–but he was primarily an artist and patron of art. He had written the book for La Légende de Josephe, a collaboration with Strauss and the Ballets Russes, and he had recently been in England to oversee the first London production, which was seen, on the same night, by Siegfried Sasson, Edward Thomas, and Osbert Sitwell, all unbeknownst to each other.

That was back on June 23rd. In July–on the 19th, in fact–Kessler had dined with the Duchess of Sutherland at Lady Ripon’s. Now the society lady and art world insider faced each other again as staff officer and civilian volunteer nurse. A small world, and still, here, just barely a civilized one–a polite conversation among friends who happened to be enemies.

Like the good international gentlemen they were, the count and the general would make sure that the Duchess got home safely. Were they aware that she had sought them out only after seeing apparent evidence of punitive arson by the occupiers?

Namur was far from the worst of the arson. As they chatted politely, forty miles away in Louvain the University Library was a still-smoking ruin. Tends of thousands of rare and unique manuscripts were gone. The library had been fired late the night before as another act of nihilistic reprisal after unexplained shots were blamed on non-uniformed snipers, or “francs tireurs,”and German troops had prevented Belgian fire fighters from saving the medieval buildings and their treasures.

Nor was arson the worst of it. More than 200 civilians died in Louvain, and, elsewhere in Belgium, German officers were responding to similar incidents of “illegal resistance,” real or imagined, by ordering the execution of dozens or even hundreds of innocent civilians, with few apparent qualms about the massive disparity in scale between the casualties they may have suffered and the retribution they took or the morality of collective punishment.[3]

So not such a civilized world, after all. And we begin today to see the horrors of battle, too.

 

John Lucy began the 26th of August, a century back, “sleeping soundly on the stone floor” of a kitchen in the town of Caudry. The 2/Royal Irish Rifles had marched about 75 miles in five days, during which they had fought the Battle of Mons and interrupted their retreat several times to deploy against German cavalry (which never did charge–“they feared our rifle fire”). Lucy was again detached from his battalion, and so it was that when German shells began to crash into the town he and his section of eight men were part of a scratch force of several units that fell out to mount a defense. This was the beginning of the battle of Le Cateau (a town a few miles south and east of Caudry), a real 20th century battle: no cavalry charges, little close-in action, and a great deal of accurate artillery fire.

Then we got it… A heavy shell exploded just over our heads, and we were all knocked flat on the pavement, where bricks and pieces of mortar rained on us. I rose slowly and waited for the others to get up. I was dazed slightly. A sergeant went off at the double, leading those who were not injured. All my section except two went with him. He beckoned to me. I thought a moment and looked hard at the scattered khaki forms, dead and dying, from which little streams of blood flowed across the pavement into the gutter, and I turned away too.

I had only gone a few yards when a voice dried in anguish: ‘For God’s sake, Corporal!’

One of his men was dead, but another was alive, and, once Lucy had inexpertly bound his numerous shrapnel wounds, able to walk. Lucy was stumbling through the town with the wounded man on his arm when he came upon a number of corpses in the street–other men of his regiment.

The sight of the badges and buttons of those dead men if my own corps had a queer effect on me. I became angry with the Germans for the fist time. Then my anger turned to anxiety, Was my brother among the slain?

After leading the wounded man to a hospital, Lucy “fled” Caudry and was able to find the body of his battalion, reforming to the south. His brother was there, unhurt.[4]

 

The Royal Welch had reached Le Cateau yesterday afternoon. They had yet to fire a shot in anger or suffer any casualties, other than a single slight wound from a spent bullet. As Frank Richards told us yesterday, confusion abounded, yet it was clear that a general retreat was in progress, and that it was wearing down the men.

As they assembled, before dawn, several officers (including Major Geiger, commander of Richards’ A company) decided to order their men to leave their packs behind, pretending that they would be picked up later. This fooled no one, but it was deemed better to stack packs and march off than to permit the men to discard them, and allow a retreat to become a rout.

After several wrong turns, after which “one humourist started singing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary'”–solid exceptional-rule-proving evidence that this regular battalion, unlike the Royal Irish Rifles, was too cool to sing the song except for satirical effect–the battalion marched south and west out of town, moving through several villages without seeing any Germans. Artillery fire was accurate, and one officer spent several hours galloping up and down a nearby Roman Road under shell fire trying to obtain clear orders from the tangled command structure. The battalion was eventually told to form a rear-guard for the rest of the infantry.

It was now twilight. Deploying into two lines, the battalion eventually saw a body of cavalry passing across their front at extreme rifle range, and, when a cavalry officer rode up and demanded that they fire, the order “was given.” Firing independently, the marksmen of the Royal Welch emptied a few saddles. These shortly proved to belong to their countrymen, a troop of the 19th Hussars. This small disaster passes with comment in Dunn’s unofficial unit history.[5]

Frank Richards goes into a little more detail about this incident:

I was the extreme left-hand man of the Battalion, Billy and Stephens being on my right. Our Colonel was speaking to our Company Commander just behind us when… a staff-officer came along and informed our Colonel that all our cavalry patrols were in and that any cavalry or troops who now appeared on our front would be the enemy. He had hardly finished speaking when over a ridge in front of us appeared a body of horsemen galloping toward us. We… opened out with rapid fire at six hundred yards. I had only fired two rounds when a bugle blew the cease-fire. This I may say, was the only time during the whole of the War… [with one future exception] that I head a bugle in action. The light was very bad, and the majority of the bullets had been falling short because we couldn’t clearly see the sights of our rifles, but several horses fell. The horsemen stopped and waved their arms. We had been firing on our own cavalry who, I was told later, belonged to the 19th Hussars: I never heard whether any of them had been killed.

I don’t know whether Dunn’s account of emptied saddles or Richards’ account of fallen horses best describes the friendly-fire casualties of the 19th Hussars–perhaps both horses and men were hit.

Soon after, the 2/Royal Welch were again marching south, so exhausted that some of Richards’ buddies were dreaming (or hallucinating) as they marched–a fact which will have some considerable relevance once certain fantastic stories of the retreat from Mons begin to be told.[6]

 

Earlier in the day, Francis Grenfell had left Le Cateau

in a cattle truck with five other wounded. A very amusing thing happened in the railway station. About 500 refugees were there, all in a great state of distress and alarm, and a few gendarmes and soldiers. Suddenly a German aeroplane came over. You would have roared with laughter as all the refugees started yelling and rushing about the station. Every gendarme or stray soldier who possessed any sort of firearm loosed it off into the air, which made the women yell all the more. A very fat officer seized a rifle and rushed forward to shoot the aeroplane, which was about five miles away. The bolt jammed, so he put it on the ground, gave it a kick, and it went off through the roof.[7]

 

Francis would eventually reach England, and receive a hero’s welcome. Vera Brittain, however, is still stuck in Buxton, sweating out her Oxford exam results. What better way to pass the time waiting for test results than to take more tests?

Wednesday August 26th

To-day took place the dreadful First Aid Exam., on account of which I was not at all nervous, but at which I nevertheless did not acquit myself magnificently. The doctor was a tall fine man, with a kind manner, but plenty of sarcasm and disdainful criticism at his command. He asked me what I should do for a fish hook embedded in the skin. I answered promptly & I think correctly, but he gave me no indication, & told me to bandage Mrs Gibbons for a broken forearm. I received a small criticism for turning my back on the patient, but remembered how to do the arm, improvising with handkerchiefs as I had not sufficient bandages. Then he told me to treat another woman for a cut throat, at which I made three bad mistakes, by not finding the artery at once, forgetting to make the patient sit down, & saying a tourniquet should be put on above & below when I really knew perfectly well that no tourniquet could be applied. However he seemed better pleased when I said I would send for an assistant at once to relieve me in digital pressure.

I thought I did not care whether I passed or not, but I do very much now I have been in for the exam., not because I think I shall ever go in much for that type of study, but because of the general principle such an exam, as this involves. One of my greatest aspirations is to succeed in whatever I undertake, So to undertake nothing unless I do it well. I seem of late to be falling below this personal ideal, since I do not imagine for a moment I shall be passed in this one, & am expecting every post to hear that I have failed badly in the Oxford Senior, that therefore my Exhibition is rendered void, & my chance of Oxford postponed. I must again arise, & set up my inexhaustible fount of enthusiasm, energy, & will once more.[8]

 

In Gloucestershire, Edward Thomas took a long walk with Robert Frost, so long that it ended by moonlight. The moon led his thoughts in a direction that he had hitherto resisted:

“a 1/3 moon bright and almost orange low down clear of cloud and I thought of men east-ward seeing it at the same moment. It seems foolish to have loved England up to now without knowing it could perhaps be ravaged and I could and perhaps would do nothing to prevent it.”[9]

 

In Croydon, “an ordinary boy of elementary education and slender prospects” named George Coppard tried to enlist at Mitcham Road Barracks. Upon confessing that he was just sixteen years old, the recruiting sergeant replied “Clear off son. Come back tomorrow and see if you’re nineteen, eh?” He would.[10]

 

And one more note from the home front, a fait divers on the sorrows of a minor writer. Arthur Conan Doyle might get his unit of bustling and self-serious middle-aged volunteers recognized, but not every such effort would find favor. Victorian polymath and scholar/translator Edward Heron-Allen organized today a meeting in the very same county with the very same purpose, but either he was too little or it was too late: in short order “a letter from the military authorities told them that this was not desirable.”[11]

References and Footnotes

  1. Pity is a common word and a broad concept--there's neither influence nor anticipation here. Yet it's striking how close this formulation is to a future poetic statement of purpose, namely Owen's "my subject is... the pity of war."
  2. From Women in the War Zone, 40-1.
  3. Easton, ed., Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918, 648; Hastings, Catastrophe 1914, 191.
  4. Lucy, There's a Devil in the Drum, 128-140.
  5. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 24-9.
  6. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 18-19.
  7. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 199.
  8. Chronicle of Youth, 96-7.
  9. Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France, 157.
  10. Coppard, With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 1.
  11. See his entry on the Fantastic Writers and the Great War site.

Battle: John Lucy is in the Thick of It, the Grenfell Twins are Confused, and Conan Doyle Overdoes It; The Duchess of Sutherland Endures a Heavier Bombardment

Today, a century back, being the British Army’s first day of real combat,[1] we should have a brief word about military history, specifically that breed of military history known as the “Battle Piece.”

Actually, a very brief word: I am not going to try to write the battles from a strategic or grand tactical perspective, or to give the generals’ point of view and assess their actions in detail. There is plenty of that, by good writers and careful writers and traditionalists and revisionists… and in such a big battle nothing on that scale is terribly relevant to the experience of the men on the ground.

The Battle of Mons was not atypical, either, in that the British, French, and German commanders were all gravely mistaken about the numbers and intent of their enemy, that each was pursuing strategies ranging from poor to suicidally disastrous, and that the side that made the worst decisions (the Allies) probably came out of it best. So please do read up elsewhere on the Schlieffen Plan and Von Kluck’s mistake and Lanrezac’s run for the rear and the impeccable incompetence of Sir John French (commander, confusingly, of the British Expeditionary Force–but don’t worry, the Germans also had a General von François).

Here we need only the broadest picture: some twenty miles of East-West frontage for the BEF, along the Mons-Condé canal, with an unlovely view into the industrial towns and mining district away north, where German armies were massing, their spotter planes droning overhead.[2]

Now, how to describe an aircraft overhead, in the first fledgling weeks of motorized military air-power? J.F. Lucy, in yesterday’s post, was matter-of-fact–a tiny bit poetical, but, really, a plane was little more than a novelty. Aircraft, in this war, rarely posed a significant threat to men on the ground. Primitive bombers and effective strafing lay in the future.

A lone Taube was a scout, a spotter, a lone horseman who might summon the enemy hosts or, worse, call down the long-range guns–or trundle slowly on, its purposes inscrutable. So, hey–a plane!

Here’s another way to do it:

High in the van a Taube aeroplane, like an embodiment of that black eagle which is the fitting emblem of a warlike and rapacious race, pointed the path for the German hordes.

Or:

But now an ill-omened bird flew over the British lines. Far aloft across the deep blue sky skimmed the dark Taube, curved, turned, and sail northwards again. It had marked the shells bursting beyond the trenches. In an instant, by some devilish cantrip of signal or wireless, it had set the range right. A rain of shells roared and crashed along the lines of the shallow trenches. The injuries were not yet numerous, but they were inexpressibly ghastly…[3]

These small purple apocalypses have spilled from the pen of Arthur Conan Doyle, once a writer of admirable precision. He spent much of the war working on installments of an easy-bake history, based on many conversations with participants and wide reading of the utterly unreliable newspaper reports and produced rather too quickly. Ah, there’s was a writer’s market in those days, there was!

I thought I would drop Conan Doyle in here not just to give a vivid example of the “older guy who hasn’t seen battle renders it more dramatically than no-nonsense serving soldier” truism but also to sound an early warning on the genesis of the most dramatic/least accurate of “battle pieces.” They come from this sort of writing, where stray facts–especially highly visible ones–take on massive payloads of strategic and symbolic meaning before they are located in any tactical matrix or pinpointed in any chain of causation.

And also because I can’t help but have some sympathy with the quick-response popular writer willing to triple-load his metaphorical riffs. Is the plane a bird of ill-omened Prussian expansionism, or a reminder of the evil magic (“devilish cantrip”) that seems, to soldiers, to work the Death Unseen that so often strikes them down. Or is it a spotter plane that makes effective use of nascent technology to direct artillery fire supporting the German advance? Sure!

 

But back to business. J.F. Lucy was in one of those shallow trenches. He had had a long night, awakened at midnight to escort an ammunition resupply. He and his men remained on their feet through the morning, when they moved forward into a village that had just been raided by German cavalry. By the early afternoon they had moved forward another mile and dug a shallow “kneeling trench” as a temporary firing position, the idea being to attack once the enemy was located. Now they awaited contact.

Lucy was unaware that his battalion was now holding part of a suspected “weak point,” just behind where the canal’s course changed as it reached Mons. Tacticians always like to go after angles. He and the rest of the 2/Royal Irish realized that they were involved in a real battle only when the German shells began to fall.

Lucy’s account, written years later by a man who experienced much of the worst of trench warfare, notices several age-old elements of the experience of battle that will soon become obsolete and strange. They realize that the German infantry are attacking when they hear the “conch-like sounds” of their bugles, and they meet the densely-packed advancing troops with rifle volleys directed by officers’ whistles. Massed advances met by drill-quickened rifle fire resulted in terrible casualties.

Our rapid fire was appalling even to us, and the worst marksman could not miss, as he had only to fire into the ‘brown’ of the masses of the unfortunate enemy, who on the fronts of two of our companies were continually and uselessly reinforced at the short range of three hundred yards. Such tactics amazed us…[4]

 

Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, were, with the rest of the 9th Lancers, behind the center of the British line, near the village of Thulin. Alas, the prospect of battle in one of Northern Europe’s most industrial districts was a bit of a disappointment:

Francis and Rivy were much perplexed by this strange kind of battlefield. As cavalrymen they had hoped for the wide rolling downs which had been predicted as the terrain of any continental war. Instead they found themselves in a land full of little smoky villages, coal mines, railway embankments, endless wire, and a population that seemed as dense as that of a London suburb. They were puzzled to know how cavalry could operate, and they were still more puzzled to understand what was the plan of campaign an uncertainty they shared with a million or so other soldiers. On that hot Sunday morning firing began early to the north-east and grew heavier as the day advanced. In the afternoon the Colonel sent for the squadron leaders and told them that six German cavalry and three infantry divisions were advancing, and that their business was to retire slowly, fighting a rearguard action. The rest of the day was spent in deep mystification, with no knowledge of the fall of Namur, or of Lanrezac’s defeat at Charleroi, or the other calamities which were to compel Sir John French to retreat. But at 11.30 came definite orders. They were instructed to entrench at the railway station south of Thulin for an attack at dawn. Spades were procured with difficulty, and they were about to begin when another order came not to entrench but to barricade, and to hold Thulin station and the road to the south of it. This was done, and the position was occupied during the darkness, while the wretched inhabitants straggled down the south road, and the guns in the north grew steadily nearer.[5]

So no death or glory charges today, although, with more than a few rolling downs and wide-open fields behind them, there would be a chance, upon retirement. John Buchan, author of the above paragraph, is surely trying to give us a strong sense of just how confusing it is to be behind a battle which even its participants and presiding officers have failed to understand.

And yet: there are more than a few ways, amidst all of the very bright young things and precocious writers we will be studying, to indicate that these particular brave boys are dim bulbs. “Perplexed… puzzled… still more puzzled… deep mystification:” all fair in war, but there does seem to be a literary running of the colors here, between the fog of war and the unrealistic expectations and stolidity of two young officers.

In any event, confusion. And withdrawal. This was a good-sized battle, and although the excellent musketry of the British regulars (and their excellent rifles) caused thousands of German casualties, several British battalions were hard hit as well. It is notoriously difficult to withdraw in the face of an undefeated enemy, and, as this is is next on the menu for the BEF, the Grenfells will soon see more action.

 

The Duchess of Sutherland, however, was fifty miles further east in besieged and overrun Namur:

Sunday 23 August.

There is a dreadful bombardment going on. Some of our wounded who can walk wrap themselves in blankets and go to the cellars. Luckily we are in a new fire-proof building, and I must stay with my sick men who cannot move.The shells sing over the convent from the deep booming German guns–a long singing scream and then an explosion which seems only a stone’s throw away. The man who received extreme unction the night before is mad with terror. I do not believe that he is after all so badly wounded. He has a bullet in his shoulder, and it is not serious. He has lost all power of speech, but I believe that he is an example of what I have read of and what I had never seen–a man dying of sheer fright.

Two things, here. Yes, this sounds like our first case of shell-shock, brutal neanderthal ancestor of modern PTSD. It would be recognized later in the war and, famously, treated with widely varying understanding, and with methods both brutal and humane.

Second, there is another looming rabbit hole for any comparative study of war prose, namely the danger of trying to re-translate language into some sort of objective measure of suffering (or other emotional response).

Descriptions of enduring bombardment are a primary example of this. Many soldiers (and nurses) will write of how terrible a first bombardment seemed, and how laughable that terror seemed in retrospect, once they had acclimated to the constant presence of artillery and learned what the big guns did.

The big point here is that we have to read each experience for what it tells us of the author’s state of mind, not to ascertain the “actual” (i.e. historical) weight and effectiveness of that bombardment. That said, the guns at the Battle of Mons were probably all field guns or medium howitzers; Namur was being shelled by some of the largest guns ever built, crane-loaded monstrosities whose thousand-pound shells brought down entire buildings at a time, and pounded the new forts into rubble. The cellar would not have been much safer, if these guns reached their part of the town.

The nurses and one or two of the nuns are most courageous and refuse to take shelter in the cellars, which are full of novices and schoolchildren. The electric and gas supplies have been cut off. The only lights we have to use are a few hand lanterns and night-lights…

There is some rapid fusilading through the streets and two frightened old Belgian officers ran into the Convent to ask for Red Cross bands, throwing down their arms and maps. In a few minutes, however, they regained self control and went out in the streets without the Red Cross bands.

Now the German troops are fairly marching in. I hear them singing as they march. It seems almost cowardly to write this, but for a few minutes there was relief to see them coming and to feel that this awful firing would soon cease. On they march! Fine well-set-up men with grey uniforms.They have stopped shooting now… I see them streaming into the market-place. A lot of stampeding artillery horses gallop by with Belgian guns. On one of the limbers still lay all that was left of a man. It is too terrible.

What can these brave little people do against this mighty force? Some of the Germans have fallen out and are talking to the people in the streets. These are so utterly relieved at the cessation of the bombardment that in their fear they are actually welcoming the Germans. I saw some women press forward and wave their handkerchiefs.

Suddenly upon this scene the most fearful shelling begins again…We rush back into the convent, and there are fifteen minutes of intense and fearful excitement while the shells are crashing into the market-place. We see German soldiers running for dear life … Women half fainting, and wounded, old men and boys are struggling in.Their screams are dreadful. They had all gone into the Grande Place to watch the German soldiers marching, and were caught in this sudden firing. A civilian wounded by a shell in the stomach was brought into the Ambulance. He died in 20 minutes. We can only gather incoherent accounts from these people as to what had happened.The Germans sounded the retreat and the shelling seemed to stop. At last it leaks out that the German troops on the other side of the town did not know that their own troops had crossed the Meuse on the opposite side…  It seems a horrible story, but absolutely true.

Now it is quiet again, save for the sighs of the suffering. All night long we hear the tramp, cramp, tramp of German infantry in the streets, their words of command, their perpetual deep-throated songs.They are full of swagger, and they are very anxious to make an impression upon the Belgians…

Where are the English and the big French troops? That is what I am wondering.[6]

 

This has been a long post, and so I will postpone an uncertainty: One Sunday in late August–either today, a century back, or a week hence, The Dymock poets, and Edward Thomas and Eleanor Farjeon, dined together in the farmhouse of a rustic, nineteenth century couple. It was a merry, literary occasion, with little or no mention of the war–could it possibly have been the same day as Mons? I don’t know, and two letters that might mention it and fix it on the 23rd I can’t get my hands on just now–so let’s say it was on the 30th, and wait a week for the end of August 1914, and a final bit of Last Summer literary pastoralism…

References and Footnotes

  1. There were two skirmishes between cavalry patrols the day before, and scout aircraft had been in action.
  2. Douglas Haig, then commanding I Corps, was on the right, in and beyond Mons, and thus more aware of the crucial strategic problem: that the French armies on the British right, east of Mons, were withdrawing, so that further heroic holding actions would only result in the British being cut off and destroyed,
  3. Conan Doyle, A History of the Great War, Vol. I, 65-66.
  4. Lucy, There's a Devil in the Drum, 103-115.
  5. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 191-2.
  6. From Women in the War Zone, 38-39.

The Eve of Battle

John Lucy and the 2/Royal Irish Rifles had, by today, a century back, marched as far as a village only a few miles south of Mons, Belgium. The German army was believed (correctly) to be only a few miles away, and soon a single Taube biplane was seen. “It looked sinister as it passed slowly over us at a good height, and more like a hawk than a dove.” This is Lucy’s style: far from elaborate, yet attentive to the infantryman’s emotional response–and a curt nod toward metaphor. As we will see tomorrow, there is more than one way to feather such a bird.

Lucy’s Platoon then received an exceptionally diffident harangue from their Lieutenant:

‘I rather think it is, ahem, incumbent on me. Yes, that is to say, a duty, to inform you fellahs that an action with the enemy is imminent. Yes, rather. Rapidly approaching, I mean to sat, and naturally, yes, let me see, quite naturally, you will be expected to conduct yourselves with valour, by gad, I mean to say courage.

‘I might add that you are bound to be successful, but do not forget that when blooding your bayonets, yes rather, blooding your bayonets, do not on any account bury then too deeply. Damn nuisance, you know, endeavouring to withdraw an unnecessarily deep bayonet…

‘I think that’s about all. No. No, by Jove, you might also know that our cavalry is already in touch with the Boche. Yes rather, quite in touch, and we are all to be prepared to move at short notice, any moment I mean to say…’

Lucy and his men appreciated this friendly sort of address, but the mood was spoiled when another officer summoned the non-commissioned officers in order to remind them that malingerers would be punished, a nearly explicit expression of doubt in their ability to do their jobs well. This fit of terrible leadership–the light mood weighted down, thoughts of heroic nonchalance submerged as the fear of cowardice or a failure of nerve is dredged up–may well have been just what Lucy presents it to be, namely one officer’s failure to contain his own fear or low opinion of his men.

Or just maybe it was a nice trick, a flourish of the rhetorical stick that addressed the potential problem of fearful men even as the popular captain’s halting exhortation helped to calm and inspire the more confident. They went away angry at the officer who doubted them, but they resolved to turn that anger upon the Boche…

When the battalion went to its billets, a company was posted in advanced outposts to the north. This was “the first warlike act of the battalion, and from now on until the armistice there was no peace for those of use who survived.”[1]

 

Back down the lines of communication at the crucial port of Le Havre, the anonymous nursing sister (believed to be Kathleen Luard) is frustrated that her hospital unit will be remaining so far from the fray.

Saturday, August 22nd

The news from the Front looks bad to-day. Namur under heavy fire, and the Germans pressing on Antwerp, and the French chased out of Lorraine.

Everybody is hoping it doesn’t mean staying here permanently, but you never know your luck. It all depends what happens farther up, and of course one might have the luck to be added to a hospital farther up to fill up casualties among Sisters or if more were wanted.

The base hospitals, of course, are always filling up from up country with men who may be able to return to duty, and acute or hopeless cases who have to be got well enough for a hospital ship for home.

There is to be a Requiem Mass to-morrow at Notre Dame for those who have been killed in the war, and the whole nave and choir is reserved for officials and Red Cross people. It is a most beautiful church, now hung all over with the four flags of the Allies. An old woman in the church this morning asked us if we were going to the Blessés [wounded] and clasped our hands and blessed us and wept. She must have had some sons in the army.

We are simply longing to get to work, whether here or anywhere else; it is 100 per cent better in this interesting old town doing for ourselves in the Convent than waiting in the stuffy hotel at Dublin. There is any amount to see — miles of our Transport going through the town with burly old shaggy English farm-horses, taken straight from the harvest, pulling the carts; French Artillery Reservists being taught to work the guns; French soldiers passing through; and our R.E. Motor-cyclists scudding about…[2]

The nursing sister is more practical than most of our writers, but it’s nice to see her going in for just a hint of the pastoral. Those drafted draught horses–straight from the harvest–are a nice image. We’re teetering on the brink here: in one sense, it’s the very last day of the Last Summer, and if the horses still pleasantly “burly”  and “shaggy” are no longer in the fields we know, then at least they have not yet become symbols of helpless dumb suffering under indiscriminate bombardment…

 

Already under the guns, today, and among the wounded was Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland, with her small private ambulance unit in Namur:

Never shall I forget the afternoon of 22 August. The shelling of the past hours having suddenly ceased, I went to my dormitory. I had had practically no rest for two nights, and after the emotions of the morning I was falling asleep when Sister Kirby rushed into my room, calling out,’Sister Millicent! The wounded!’I rushed down the stone stairs. Six motor cars and as many wagons were at the door, and they were carrying in those unhappy fellows. Some were on stretchers, others were supported by willing Red Cross men. One or two of the stragglers fell up the steps from fatigue and lay there. Many of these men had been for three days without food or sleep in the trenches.

In less than 20 minutes we had 45 wounded on our hands. A number had been wounded by shrapnel, a few by bullet wounds, but luckily some were only wounded by pieces of shell. These inflict awful gashes, but if they are taken in time the wounds rarely prove mortal.

The wounded were all Belgian — Flemish and Walloon — or French. Many were Reservists. Our young surgeon, Mr Morgan, was perfectly cool and so were our nurses. What I thought would be for me an impossible task became absolutely natural: to wash wounds, to drag off rags and clothing soaked in blood, to hold basins equally full of blood, to soothe a soldier’s groans, to raise a wounded man while he was receiving extreme unction, hemmed in by nuns and a priest, so near he seemed to death; these actions seemed suddenly to become an insistent duty, perfectly easy to carry out.

All the evening the wounded and the worn out were being rushed in. If they had come in tens one would not have minded, but the pressure of cases to attend to was exhausting. One could not refuse to take them, for they said there were 700 in the military hospital already, while all the smaller Red Cross ambulances were full.

So many of the men were in a state of prostration bordering almost on dementia, that I seemed instantly enveloped in the blight of war. I felt stunned — as if I were passing through an endless nightmare. Cut off as we were from all communication with the outer world, I realised what a blessing our ambulance was to Namur. I do not know what the nuns would have done without our nurses at such a moment. No one, until these awful things happen, can conceive the untold value of fully-trained and disciplined British nurses.The nuns were of great use to us, for they helped in every possible tender way, and provided food for the patients.The men had been lying in the trenches outside the forts. Hundreds of wounded were still waiting to be brought in, and owing to the German cannonading it was impossible to get near them. I kept on thinking and hoping that the allied armies must be coming to rescue Namur.

The guns never cease…[3]

 

So we are about to not-taste the full measure of the obsession with the British experience, as tomorrow begins the battle of Mons, a not-terribly-glorious action which kicks off  the legendary/pseudo-historiographical tale of the plucky little BEF. So a brief note to connect all that to the rest of the war.

Fifty-two battalions of British troops were now deployed near the battlefields of Belgium and France, to 120 for the Belgians… and over 1,000 battalions for both Germany and France.

Today, on 22 August 1914, in the debatable lands to the East, the French suffered the worst casualties of any single day in the war. At least 27,000 men were killed, and tens of thousands more wounded, as they advanced across open ground against massed German armies further to the East. For all the slaughter of the trench assaults to come, nothing was as profligate of lives as open warfare in the Napoleonic tradition, fought with 20th century weapons.[4]

References and Footnotes

  1. Lucy, There's a Devil in the Drum, 98-102.
  2. Diary of a Nursing Sister, 9-12.
  3. Powell, Women in the War Zone, 36-8. The Duchess also made her own century back acknowledgment today: "One of the strangest parts of all was the fact that we were nursing in the Convent of Les Soeurs de Notre Dame de Namur. Exactly 100 years ago the Venerable Foundress, Mother Julie Bilhart, who called herself Sister Ignatius, wrote her experiences of the Napoleonic War in the same Convent.
  4. Hastings, Catastrophe 1914, 181, 201.

Roland Leighton has Weighty News; We Meet the Duchess of Sutherland

Heather Cliff, Lowestoft, 21 August 1914

[Roland to Vera]

I am feeling very chagrined and disappointed at present. I expect Edward has told you that I have been trying for a temporary commission in the Regulars. Everything looked quite promising, and the Colonel of the Norfolk Regiment whom I had to go and interview volunteered some most flattering remarks in his report on “the suitability of the candidate”. On Tuesday it only remained for me to go up for my Medical Exam. I got on very well until they stuck up a board at the end of the room and told me to read off the letters on it. I had to be able to read at least half, but found I could not see more than the first line of large letters.The Medical Officer was extremely nice about it, and tried his best to let me through by being as lenient as he could: but it was of no use, I am afraid…

I had set my heart so much on getting that commission that I am most depressed at being thwarted at the last moment. I had almost settled that after the war if all went well, I should remain in the Army professionally. That of course is quite out of the question now. (Do you think that a military career would have suited me, I wonder? Possibly not.)

Rarely has a parenthesis served its purpose so well. Roland thinks of Vera–his attraction to her seems, like hers to him, to have a lot to do with her willingness to call him on his polite sense of superiority–and he is suddenly aware of how much the excitement of the war has knocked him off his previous course, how much it has swept him half-aware onto a different, ill-plotted course. And then he’s back again, into this collective young gentleman’s experience of serial military petitioning…

I have since tried the Field Artillery and Army Service Corps, but find that they are just as particular about eyesight as the Infantry are. To make matters worse all the Territorial battalions – where wearing eye-glasses would have been permissible – have already many more officers than they want, so that I cannot get a commission of any kind now. I do not think I could go as far as trying the Légion Étrangère in the French Army, although someone did suggest it…

All these external interests conspire to prevent me from doing any work–any of my work for Merton [College, Oxford] I mean. Whether I shall get to Oxford after all depends on the state of the family finances, which the war is far from improving. If I do, I shall still hope to see you there. You will soon hear for certain, n’est-ce pas?

…A dreary and egotistical letter, I am afraid Good-night. It is getting on for 1 a.m.

Yours ever sincerely,

Roland Leighton

P.S. You may be amused to hear that I am engaged in cultivating a moustache–as an experiment.[1]

So Roland can’t see well enough to fight without spectacles–yet Jack Kipling has got his commission. Note also the reference to the French Foreign Legion. This would be the truly romantic/desperate/idiotic/bizarre choice of last resort for an English gentleman. We can, of course, focus on the unhinged outliers: a (real) colonel who will shortly disgrace himself in France later won medals as a middle-aged private in the Foreign Legion, an American boy who misses his chance to get into the British army during the early-war chaos will sign up there too, and (fictional) Christopher Tietjens considers it to be his escape (from his terrible marriage) of last resort.

There are other outliers, too; Fussell gives prominent place to the short Times notice of August 9, 1914, which told of a 49-year-old former Rifle Corps major who had thrown himself under a van. The coroner ruled it suicide motivated by “worry caused by the fear that he was not going to be accepted for service.”[2] This is a stunning example of the extent to which certain British men desired to see combat–to win honor, or glory, or not to miss the chance of their career, the great event of their seventy years.

Or it is an isolated example, of very little historical weight, of what one unhappy or completely unhinged man did.

Remember, instead, that hundreds of thousands of young unmarried British men wanted nothing to do with war, or thought that they couldn’t really take part in any case, or decided that they and their families would be better off if they kept the jobs they had…  we are very narrowly focused, for the most part, on the very narrow upper middle and upper classes–the University Classes–and, for these lads, Roland’s dilemma is representative. Oxford, and a promising career, or perhaps the army, for a career? (This would have been a highly unusual choice for a literary young man from a non-military family, but never mind.) Or, no, perhaps a continuing struggle to find a way in to the New Army, despite his disability…

Vera, of course, is grateful for the news, which she had received through her brother the same day that Roland wrote his letter to her. Bizarrely–or perhaps absolutely ordinarily–she is still dallying with her oafishly obnoxious rejected suitor of the year before. You go to the tennis courts with the boy that you have, I suppose.

Friday August 21st

After lunch I bandaged hard, and after tea had some tennis practice with Bertram Spafford. He really reminds me more every day of Gregory Rose in The Story of an African Farm, especially of Gregory when he first enters the story. Certainly he plays Gregory to my Lyndall. His assumption of undeniable superiority & right of criticism over any qualifications of mine would once have annoyed but now merely amuses me.

The assumption is of course due to the fact that I am a girl & therefore naturally inferior in all respects, & especially in intellectual respects! I heard this morning, to my joy, that Roland Leighton, owing to his
defective eyesight, has not passed the necessary exam, for serving in the army, & therefore cannot go. I am glad because I did not want that brilliant intellect to be wasted, & that most promising career to be spoilt at its outset.[3]

You couldn’t do better, really, to gently mock these last weeks of provincial young-ladyhood than to imagine an appointments diary reading “lunch, bandaging practice (hard!), tea, tennis with tiresome Bertram, supper, write about Roland in diary.”

And–I realize that I have remarked on this before–there still seems to be a revealingly atypical blindness on Vera’s part: her duty is to spend a few hours knitting or bandaging and otherwise live her life; many boys are going to go for a soldier and perhaps get themselves hurt or killed (gloriously), but Roland, who is so “promising,” is better out of it. That will surely work out fine for everyone.

 

And, recalling yesterday’s impromptu volunteer despatch rally, we meet today another ad hoc super-volunteer, Millicent Leveson-Gower, Duchess of Sutherland. Like Osbert Sitwell, she was of the Sargent portait classes, although considerably higher up. Born an Earl’s daughter, she married a marquess who shortly blossomed into a duke, and she was soon hobnobbing with royalty. She is inevitably described as a “society hostess”–she was associated with the Souls, naturally–but she had also published novels and seen her dramas staged, and she was an active social and educational reformer.

Forty-six at the outset of the war, her children grown, “Millie” wanted to get involved.[4] The war levied few absolute expectations on noblewomen: their husbands and fathers could not ignore the thing entirely to “carry on,” but must at least form committees or put on a uniform of some kind and gallop about making speeches. Yet for those women who wanted to serve their country or express their social leadership in a useful way, or simply seek adventure, the chaos surrounding all attempts at medical and humanitarian aid offered an unusually open opportunity. Women’s lives were circumscribed, but nursing was undeniably “their” sphere, and so for a wealthy and courageous woman there war was a sudden breach in the walls,[5] an opening toward (service and) wide-ranging experience.

The Duchess of Sutherland dashed through. She was in Brussels before the war’s first week was out. The Belgian Red Cross didn’t need her there but, incredibly, a doctor suggested that she gather her own private medical team and take it north, toward Namur, which was of course an absolutely impregnable fortress city and would be quite safe.

It took barely a week for the duchess to assemble an ambulance unit, consisting of herself as Commandant, a surgeon, eight trained nurses, and a stretcher-bearer. When they arrived in Namur they were north of the entire BEF and, more significantly, right under the guns of the German army.

On 21 August there was almost a panic in Namur. All night long the guns had been firing from the forts, and all the morning there was hurrying and scurrying into groups of weeping hatless women and of little children. The great secrecy as to all events that were passing filled them with untold fear.

It was evidently the beginning of a terrible experience. The Germans had been massing on the left bank of the Meuse and had come as close to Namur as circumstances would permit. They had passed through the country carrying off the cattle, burning the villages, cutting the telegraph and telephone wires, and attacking the railway stations. The closeness of the atmosphere had made Namur almost impossible to breathe in, that day. Tired Belgian soldiers came in. They seemed to have so much to wear and to carry. A regiment of Congolais, a Foreign Legion which had been in service in the Congo, marched through with their guns drawn by dogs.

The place was full of refugees who had been brought in from the country in carts. The Germans had burnt the villages of Ramillies and Petit Rosière.The inhabitants had been driven for shelter to Namur with a few poor bundles. They could not be kept at Namur for fear of shortage of food, so they were sent to Charleroi.

In the morning at 7.30 a bomb had been dropped from an aeroplane a few streets from our Convent. It was intended to fall in the Jesuit College, which was temporarily used as Artillery barracks, but it missed the college and dropped near the Academy of Music, breaking all the windows, ploughing a hole in the ground, and badly wounding four artillerymen.

We went over to the Cafe des Quatre Fils d’Aymond for our two franc dinner. We heard the explosion of another bomb in the next street. People were rushing hither and thither in a distracted manner, but no one could say who had been killed. At the door of the cafe we looked up, and I saw the Hornet of Hell, as I call the German ‘Taube’ which had dropped the bomb, floating slowly away. I thought it better to get my nurses to the shelter of the Convent, as German shells directed upon the station were beginning to fly over the town. We heard the long screaming whistle as they rushed through the air like some stupendous firework, and the distant explosion.[6]

 

And John Lucy weighs in on the Great Tipperary Controversy. Corporal Lucy and the rest of the 2/Royal Irish Rifles had landed in Rouen on the 13th, only two days after the 2/RWF, and they had been making slow progress north ever since, by train and then on foot, billeting most recently at St. Hilaire.

On the 21st of August our brigade resumed its march toward the Belgian frontier, moving directly north over the Sambre, which we crossed at Maubeuge.

The woods and mellow fields resounded with our songs. Tipperary was a great favourite…[7]

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters from a Lost Generation, 25-6.
  2. Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 19.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 94.
  4. A painful fork of post-feminist nomenclature: her friends called her "Millie," and I like to be informal with all the boys and girls we discuss repeatedly (not least since the site alphabetizes them by first name)--yet it smacks of disrespect. And yet, and yet referring to her constantly as "the Duchess" or "Her Grace Lady Leveson-Gower" seems so campy as to be rather more disrespectful...
  5. The metaphor mixes, but I feared describing their lives as "circumvallated."
  6. Powell, Women in the War Zone, 36. We'll hold any literary analysis of the Duchess of Sutherland's memoir(s) until we've seen a bit more, but doesn't her sentence structure recall that of Vinz Clortho?
  7. Lucy, The The Devil in the Drum, 96.