Francis Ledwidge Rests Unquiet; Vera Prepares to Go Down, and Fields a Shocker; Edward Thomas Cycles Between Poet Friends and Life Choices; We Bid Farewell to Morgan Crofton

Francis Ledwidge will dream a troubled dream tonight. This is hardly surprising: things have not been going well for the young Irishman. His assumption that the difficult decision to fight for Britain would be rewarded by honorable service in a short war and better employment afterwards was looking increasingly foolish; he had lost the love of his life to another man; and his first book of poetry had been many months in the press.

With his battalion’s embarkation looming, Ledwidge now ran a very good chance of being killed or wounded fighting for the empire whose rule he repudiated. To make matters worse, his patron Lord Dunsany had recently been recalled. Dunsany–a wealthy lord and a fantasist to boot–had been too independent for the army the first time around, and he was proving to be so again. His men may have loved him: there is a tale of a mock battle that ended with his company provisionless and many miles from camp, and the exhausted men ordered to fall out along a village street; then, a few moments later, their Lord and captain appeared, heavy-laden, after having bought up all the bread and butter and stout in village. This sort of thing might win the loyalty of one’s soldiers, but it is highly unlikely that Dunsany’s Regular appreciated his idiosyncratic and individual style.

So Dunsany was sent back to the Inniskillings depot in Ireland to train the newer battalions, and Ledwidge was now without a sympathetic eye among the battalion officers. Ledwidge’s heart was in Ireland, his body was in England, and his fate seemed to be over the water as well–in France, or, worse, the Dardanelles. Tonight, a century back, he dreamed of white birds over the ocean–an Elvish dream.[1]

 

From an old world poetic relationship between a “peasant” poet and his lord and patron, then, to a brave new world of poetic friendship: Edward Thomas has finished the draft of the loathed Marlborough book and is catching up on his letter-writing–there are three today to three other poets. But it is Robert Frost he thinks of most… Frost who has gone back to America, with Thomas’s son. America, which promises a new start…

The yearning to be away, to be writing, to be free for a moment from uncertainty and financial pressure, is terribly acute. But still not enough to overcome Thomas’s mighty inertia, and an Englishman’s sense that something must be done.

Three days ago Thomas had written to Frost, his problems “endless:”

15 vi 15

My dear Robert

This is chiefly to tell you that I have been re reading ‘Mending Wall’, ‘The Hired Man’, The Mountain’, & ‘The 100 Collars’ & liking them–enjoying them–more than I ever did. Do you imagine this is to atone for what I said of ‘Two Roads’? It may be, but I don’t believe it is.

I have been talking to my mother about going to America. She does not really resist much, but pretends to assume I mean after the war…

There is a weak alternative too–if some branch of the army will take me in spite of my weak foot: I believe the Royal Garrison Artillery might. Frankly I do not want to go, but hardly a day passes without my thinking I should. With no call, the problem is endless…

It all comes of not believing. I will leave nothing to chance knowingly. But, there, I suppose the believers calculate to the best of their ability…

I have finished the book.[2]

“Nothing to chance?” Frost would have smiled: “ah, but that would mean making a decision, Edward.”

And today, a century back, Thomas wrote again to Frost, declaring himself closer:

18 vi 15 Steep, Petersfield

My dear Robert,

These last few days I have been looking at 2 alternatives, trying to enlist or coming to America. Helen points out that I could try America & then enlist if it failed, but not the other way round. Is it asking you to prophesy if I ask you to say what you think I might do in New York & Boston? You see I must not think of coming over to see you & cut down trees if I can’t persuade myself there are definite chances of coming back with a connection or getting connections…

Nothing happened in town. I lunched with my agent who had no luck with my proverbs & could only suggest an anthology of amiable things said in English about Russia… Not me. I ran into de la Mare & I am afraid we gave one another hardish looks. Then I saw Davies who has got an idea that de la Mare is to be provided with a pension to eke out his £400 a year or so, & I confess to being sore at the thought of the dispensation…

If you can write soon.

Yours ever, Edward Thomas[3]

The rumor is true: although Walter de la Mare is much more comfortable than Thomas (one did not “eke” on £400 in 1915), he has won a pension of a hundred pounds a year that that will leave him free to write–or more free that is. Thomas is a good friend, and generous (as the fact of his confession shows), but he cannot help but give in to jealousy, here… de la Mare is lucky, and he has not asserted himself on behalf of Thomas’s poetic endeavors, either.

In his letter of today to Eleanor Farjeon, Thomas seems to try the old procrastinator’s trick of announcing a deadline, even though there is none but himself to enforce it:

Tomorrow and Saturday I shall wind up at home and then if the weather holds start cycling on Sunday towards Gloster though not much in a holiday mood.

I have got myself to the point of thinking that America is a chance and that I see no other. Waiting for something to turn up is of course quite in my line, but I have done a good deal of it, and if nothing does turn up before the end of July I shall begin to decide how many days I ought to give to New York and how many to Boston.

Frost can give me some introductions, he being well on his way, with his book in a 3rd edition out there…[4]

It’s almost as if the plan evolves slightly each time Thomas takes out a new page and readdresses the issue. To Gordon Bottomley:

18 June 1915 Steep

My dear Gordon,

…Now I am going to cycle & think of man & nature & human life & decide between enlisting or going to America before I enlist. Those are the alternatives unless something turns up out of the dark.

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[5]

 

Vera Brittain‘s diary has dried up recently as she prepares for exams. But today she transcribes much of the latest letter from Roland Leighton, in the trenches. He rather ominously describes tinkering with a new sort of hand grenade and then tosses a different sort of bombshell into a post-script:

“It is possible that I may be able to get 6 days’ leave in the near future.’’ My mind suddenly felt confused & the approaching Plato paper went right out of it. Oh! when is “the near future’’? If it can only be soon–if it can only really happen. To look into those dark eyes, after all they have seen & I have felt–ah I no one can know what it would mean. Sometimes I have felt that I would forgive the future if it would only bring him to me once again– give me one hour to blot out wisdom. At other times I have thought I couldn’t bear to see him till the war is over, that though I am out for hard things there is just one I could not endure, & that is to live over again the early morning of March 19th on Buxton Station. But now that there is a chance I may have to do it, I know it is worthwhile. One is willing to pay the bitterness of death for the sweetness of life…

I went to Plato feeling that this paper could be what it liked. As it happened it was a splendid one. I absolutely dreaded Unseens this afternoon; but I could do nearly all the Greek one & the whole of the Latin.

After dinner came the Going-Down Play. It was as usual a sort of pantomime, representing expeditions of various Oxford celebrities to the Never-Never Land, & of course bringing in topical events. As Miss Rowe was stage-managing & Miss Sayers a leading light, I heard that it was unusually good even for a going-down play. The definite “take-offs” were simply excellent. Miss Sayers with her chorus became Dr Allen to the life…

I have learnt to love Oxford very dearly. Even if I do come back next October in the ordinary way, Oxford will
always mean more to me because I have felt about it as I have this term.[6]

 

So farewell to Oxford, and farewell today to another pillar of the first year on A Century Back. Morgan Crofton‘s opinions on the conduct of the war have grown quite acerbic over the past few months, and I’ve wondered whether the amount of time he seemed to spend away from his unit–he was often assigned to remain with the horses when the regiment was in the trenches–indicates that his attitude was perceived by the regimental authorities as less than excellent. Or perhaps the silences and similarities in his history and Dunsany’s are influencing my reading of each…

In any event, Crofton was reassigned today–back to England to train replacement troops. Later on he will be sent to Dar Es Salaam–not the hottest of the war’s hot spots. Today marks the final entry of the published diary, but let’s go back a few days and take a brief farewell tour of my favorite bluff baronet-ly diarist:

Tuesday June15

A topping day. Felt very like a schoolboy going home for his holidays. The leave papers were a very long time in coming…

At 11 o’clock the leave papers were still missing, so we decided to go ourselves to the office at Wardrecques to get them. Having said goodbyes all round we started at 12 o’clock…

The road was very dusty, the motor was very stuffy, and the day was sweltering, but none of us cared tuppence about such trivial irritations, and we hummed merrily along towards’ Boulogne and our boat. Halfway there a tyre burst with a terrific report. This was jolly and for half an hour we sat by the side of the road in the dust and glare waiting for repairs. Motor after motor rushed by covering us with a thick stifling powder…

We fetched up at Boulogne about 2.45, and at once boarded the packet Invicta. The sea was fairly calm…

We reached Folkestone about 5 o’clock, and at once boarded the London train which left at 5.30. Luxmoore, the padre Felling and myself shared a compartment and had an excellent dinner en route. Reached Victoria about 7.15.

 

Wednesday June 16

Got my hair cut, and had a general clean up….

 

Thursday June 17

Lunched with Torrie at the Cavalry Club, who said that he had fixed up my transfer to Windsor. He gave me a lot of instructions on the work which he wished done for the drafts.

And Crofton, who wrote a book on Waterloo during his hiatus from the army, leaves our centennial parade with a centennial flourish:

Friday June 18

The Centenary of Waterloo…

During the afternoon received at the Marlborough Club a telegram from the Adjutant General telling me to postpone my return to France.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 114-5.
  2. Elected Friends, 66-7.
  3. Elected Friends, 69.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 147-8.
  5. Letters from Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 249-50.
  6. Chronicle of Youth, 210.
  7. Massacre of the Innocents, 274-6.

Rosenberg is Thankful, but Desperate Enough for a Criminal Act; Pollard and Crofton on Ypres: “Invaluable” and “Pretty Warm,” or “Worthless… Murder Pure and Simple?”; Sorley Wryly Approaches the Line; Brittain Would Stay Her Hand From Murder; Lord Crawford Croaks of Boredom

We have a number of short bits of writing for today, a century back:

Isaac Rosenberg wrote a short note of thanks to Sidney Schiff, who just yesterday had taken a small step toward formal patronage of the nearly penniless young artist:

I am very glad you have taken the trouble to read my things and have found something you like in them–most people find them difficult and won’t be bothered to read into them.

Rosenberg, however, was not shy about the stakes involved. Without money, the army beckoned:

I am thinking of enlisting if they will have me, though it is against all my principles of justice–though I would be doing the most criminal thing a man can do–I am so sure that my mother would not stand the shock that I don’t know what to do.[1]

 

Vera Brittain, meanwhile, has two more letters to return. The second will make a most courtly request. But first, a challenge–hardly implicit, really quite direct–to a core belief.

Tuesday June 8th

Still more to my surprise & joy I received two more communications from Roland. He described a manhunt they had early that morning. trying to find a sniper who was lying just behind their lines…

“I wish we could have found him,” Roland wrote. “It would have given me much pleasure to have caught him red-handed & shot him on the spot.” It makes me feel nearly mad to think of him shooting like that at Roland, trying to destroy not only his poor body but the happiness of at least two people in the world–his mother’s & mine.

I too could have inflicted almost any punishment upon him—but not death. I should have felt that perhaps he too had a mother at home who was hiding an aching heart beneath a brave face, or some girl who loved him & shuddered & felt chilled whenever a particularly loud ring came at the door-bell.

Well done, Vera.

But I don’t think she’s seen the moral sniper working around behind. This is brave, good work–to keep one’s sensibility, one’s humanity, one’s awareness that the men opposite have mothers and lovers too. But will her ability to do so separate her too much from the trench soldier, the one being sniped at? And Roland, it seems, was not so far from danger even when out of the line… will she be able to maintain both the intensity of their relationship and her principled humanity, if the man she loves is always under fire?[2]

Vera then turned without further discussion to relate Roland’s practical but floridly worded request that he might return to her her own numerous letters–for safekeeping.

Oxford, 8 June 1915

Of course you may send me my–or rather your–letters… I am proud that you care so much for them, though I don’t see myself why you should; they have often made me angry by their inadequacy…

You won’t really be giving them back in a sense–you will only be returning the medium through which my spirit has to reach to yours, and the spirit itself you will keep when its outward form is in my possession. It will be queer getting my own letters back–I almost think it will hurt rather seeing them again… They cost so much more than paper & ink.[3]

 

Charles Sorley wrote to his father today, a century back, with a blasé take on the “approaching the line” narrative. It’s as if Sorley is calling attention to the self-centeredness of most such accounts, as well as their general implication of purposive and escalating action. Sorley will not be seduced into imagining himself as a particularly sparkling cog in an efficient machine.

8 June 1915

We have heard no more than the distant rumbling of the guns, but move slowly up in their direction to-morrow. So your plasticine has not been needed yet. Our future movements are very hazy. One is impressed by the immense casualness which seems existent everywhere: France full of troops, marching up and down, but not towards the firing line.

We live on the fat of the land here: a hamlet of four large farms, inhabited by D Company alone, in magnificent isolation from the rest of the battalion. The women work in the fields: largely aided for the present by our men…

The dogs still bark at the heavy cannonading: but otherwise the war does not trouble us. We may be sent on soon, i.e., we the officers, for a “course” in the trenches, attached to some other battalion preferably of the same regiment; but alas! our first and second battalions n’existent plus [no longer exist]. My French, by the way, is vigorous, savoured with a dash of German: but the language spoken here is scarcely Parisian: neither, for that, is mine.

It has been said that the soldier’s two worst plagues at the front are lice and duchesses. We have suffered from neither as yet. But from a third–Rumour. The Zeppelin raid on the suburbs came to us as having caused two hundred deaths and four hundred wounded: Petticoat Lane on fire; the British retreated twenty miles the other night; and Roumania still keeps joining in.

Nothing could have been smarter than the way we were crossed over. The first battalion of the Brigade left Aldershot at five one evening: the whole Brigade was in France by midnight![4]

 

While we’re at it, let’s check in with Private Lord Crawford:

Tuesday, 8 June 1915

Colonel Grech took Gray and me to see the hospital over the Gare Maritime d’Escale. We were shown all the sterilising plant, operating theatres etc. But when are we going to use our knowledge? The frogs begin to croak. The young bull frog has almost the note of a bullfinch. The araucaria at Les Rohcherolles, just outside our camp, shows its fruit pods already.[5]

 

It’s been quite a while since we heard from Alf Pollard, now our lone member of the Honorable Artillery Company. Not coincidentally, it’s been a while since we’ve seen deadly action in the Ypres Salient.

Pollard will go forward next week, and write about it at length–so please, dear reader, if you care for big-little assaults and the tactical side of this project, do clear out some reading time on the 16th. Today, however, Pollard gives us a fragment of a letter home:

We are in a very interesting part of the line, and I am looking forward to some fun in the sniper line. We are going to these trenches for the first time tonight…

He goes on in his officious fashion to gloss his own letter, and drown his own retrospective doubts:

The Ypres Salient was undoubtedly the most interesting part of the line in 1915… I have never been able to determine why we continued to hold it from a practical point of view…  But, from the angle of moral, its tenure was invaluable to us. Every time the Hun failed to capture the Salient his troops were reminded of the invincibility of British Infantry…

All the same it was a pretty warm spot for those who had to occupy it… The Hun could shell the trench with equal facility either from the back or front…[6]

 

Ah, moral (i.e. morale) value. Well–morale is unquestionably important. But is holding Ypres really “invaluable?”

Morgan Crofton comes down rather differently on this weighing of moral, tactics, and (un)strategic attrition. Just three days ago he fulminated to his diary on the uselessness of the British position at Ypres:

There is no doubt that the Salient at Ypres is simply an inferno. It is not war, but murder pure and simple. The massacre which has been going on there since April 22 is not realised at home. From May 1-16 we were losing men at the rate of 1,000 a night. Our casualties for May show we lost 3,600 officers and 26,346 men.

This is all the Ypres Salient. Why we don’t give it up now, God alone knows. As a strategic or tactical point Ypres is worthless. As a political centre it does not exist.

The town is a mere heap of rubble, cinders and rubbish. Not a cat lives there now, it is the abomination of desolation. The fields round the town are crammed with the graves of our dead. The smell is awful, and the hum of
myriads of awful-looking flies which have been holding orgies on the putrid bodies of countless dead along the trench lines, is unmistakable…

The surprising facts about Ypres are the wealth of colour from the flowers and shrubs in the unkempt gardens, and, in the occasional quiet from the cannonade, the beauty of the songs from the birds. How bird life must sneer at human culture. No pagan barbarism ever showed anything to touch this. And it is to preserve the sentiment of this muck heap that we lose nightly 1,000 men.

I have to break in here, just to stress how diametrically opposed the following statement is to Pollard’s hail-fellow retrospection, above:

We cannot conceive why the Salient is not straightened and given up…  why keep Ypres to impress people? We need not give it to the Germans, it can lie between the two lines and be made untenable by our guns. The effect on morale would be nil, in fact it would cheer up our Army, and be forgotten in a week…

Our men are pulverised, their trenches blown in, and not a shot in reply. If only Sir John French and all the sleek deadheads of the Headquarters Staff could spend an hour in the front line, when one of these bombardments is going on, they would return gibbering idiots.[7]

So the London clerk turned fire-eating infantry non-com and the professional cavalry officer come down in rather different places, both on the merits of the staff and the moral value of never-ending defense. “Invaluable” to morale, or “nil” and in fact negative? And yet Pollard implies that the “practical” calculations of the staff are off, and Crofton lets the “sleek deadheads” have it with both barrels.

The days of Sir John French, commander of the BEF, may be numbered, but will ceding the salient and refusing the toll of attrition ever be on the table?

Either these two soldiers are behind the times, or the General Staff is ahead–and headed toward a strategic cul de sac. How can enforcing a strategy of attrition for the sake of morale ever square with the fact that strategies are carried out, in the end, by actual individual human beings?

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 262-9.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 205-6.
  3. Letters from a Lost Generation, 121.
  4. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 270-1.
  5. Private Lord Crawford, 10.
  6. Fire-Eater, 76.
  7. Massacre of the Innocents, 264-5.

George Coppard Embarks; Francis Ledwidge Woos; Morgan Crofton Goes for a Ride

George Coppard of the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment is finally bound for the front. His battalion forms part of the 37th Brigade, 12th (Eastern) Division–one of the new units primarily composed of the volunteers of Kitchener’s Army.

Came 31 May 1915 and the battalion went on the binge, as it was our last night in Aldershot. The next day we left for Folkestone. A packet-boat called the Invicta sneaked out of the harbour at 9.45 am with the battalion on board, destination Boulogne.[1]

 

The war is changing. The New Army’s strength is rising and new writers with little or no connection to the world of our “fallen” aristocratic officers are heading for the trenches. These are the writers who will carry us forward through this year and into the next, and on through the war.

The wait is over as well for Charles Sorley, another member of the 12th Division. He landed in Boulogne yesterday, and will write his first letters tomorrow.

Francis Ledwidge‘s battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers are not as far along–but they are moving. Not, perhaps, as swiftly as Ledwidge. Although he had recently lost his great love, Ellie Vaughey, has found another young woman to write to. He’ll be off to war soon–it’s good to have a girl waiting behind, no?

[postmark] 31 May 1915

My dear own Lizzie,

It is too bad that I have been so long in answering your welcome letter, but since we came here we have been in a state of great unrest, one day here and three somewhere else, as Paddy can tell you. Basingstoke is a beautiful place in the middle of Hampshire. It is a town not as big as Drogheda but better populated. The country around is beautiful. I have even come across a bog of several acres, on which turf never was cut, full of heather and little pools, white at the bottom with shells. We had dinner there on Whit Monday and Lizzie, as true as God I left my dinner and with a couple of bars of chocolate went into a little copse to dream of the bog far away.

You are beautiful, Lizzie, and I must win you for I am lonely without you and always thinking of you in the land of good hearts. God bless and keep you until I return. I never will forget the night myself and Paddy spent in Wilkinstown. I thought then I would be home by now but I seem to be as far away from returning as when I first joined the colours.

We expect to be going away soon and are glad as we are tired of the monotony of camp. The weather is frightfully
warm here for a month now. Remember me to all. I am sure the bog is lovely now, how I wish I were, there! There’s the bugle.

He writes lovely light-ish verse too, wouldn’t you know. This letter seems to me like pointed flirtation rather than a true outpouring of a soldier’s heart, but I don’t yet know Ledwidge all that well, so I will let his biographer rule on this:

Was anyone ever so ingenuous, or so foolishly hopeful? …When he joined, he expected a commission and
clerical work only; he looked on the army as an avenue to adequately paid work when the war was over; he was completely deceived by the current propaganda that ‘the Germans will be finished off in a few months’. How wide of the mark were his confident forecasts… He lives in a world of happy illusion. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the poet did not even read the daily papers…[2]

Ah, who needs to the daily papers. He’s bound for where he’s bound for, and he’ll go when they send him. And his first book of poems, which we’ll discuss here tomorrow, is finally moving toward the press…

 

So the rough young volunteers are coming. But how are those aristocratic Regulars–you know, the horsey fellows who have held the line these last three seasons–getting on? Morgan Crofton informs us:

Monday May 31

A splendid day. What a pleasure to wake up in my nice room, after the bleak schoolrooms and draughty barns in which I have spent so many months. Menzies arrived back last night from England after his 3 days’ leave, bringing with him some news and my telegraphic instrument, on which I wanted to train some more signallers…  Menzies said that he had heard on very good authority, that the total number of men that the British Empire has under arms in England and on the Continent is now over 3,800,000. He seemed to think that the authorities in England were against conscription because of the difficulty of equipping and feeding more men at the Front.

Renescure_-_Église_Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption_-_2

Notre-Dame de L’Assomption, Renescure

We had news from the trenches this morning. They got in all right without any casualties, and were situated near the Hooge Chateau. We sent a ham, some eggs and letters and papers up to them today by a motor cyclist. We haven’t heard for certain when they return.

That sounds serious. What should the officers in reserve do?

Went for a ride in the afternoon to Renescure…  Renescure has the quaintest old church dating from about 1570, which now looks most picturesque in its setting of lilac and laburnum, with very green grass and millions of buttercups.

IMG_8866

The Chateau, Renescure

Close by is the chateau where General Briggs lives. Its main features are two unique turrets and a fine and very old sundial on the front of the house. The village square backed by the church tower is extremely pretty and old world…

A prettier little village would be hard to find anywhere.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 15-6.
  2. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 110-11.
  3. Massacre of the Innocents, 258-9.

C. E. Montague on the Beauty of Innocence, the Brim of Confidence, and the Glorious Camp Life of the New Armies; Kipling and Lister Write of Julian Grenfell; Morgan Crofton Stays at Peace

may 29 desborough diary

Lady Desborough’s Diary. Julian’s dying exclamation “Phoebus Apollo!” is at left. Today records a visit from Billy, training nearby with his battalion, and the lower right space is filled with a quotation from Hamlet, ending “the readiness is all.”

Rudyard Kipling, also father of a boy in uniform in France, wrote to Lord Desborough, Julian Grenfell‘s father, today, a century back:

Bateman’s / Burwash / Sussex / May 29, 1915

My dear Desborough
We saw the news yesterday–side by side with the poem that rounded out that splendid young life. No words can mean anything to you now, nor even the knowledge that we all lie under the shadow of a similar loss sooner or later: but we both send our love and our sorrow and our  sympathy to you two.

Ever most sincerely,

Rudyard Kipling

 

Charles Lister, wounded at Gallipoli and recovering on Malta, wrote to his father today, a century back. We’ve seen Lister as a companion of Rupert Brooke, but he had known Julian Grenfell longer–since Eton. It will take him another five days to find the words to write to Lady Desborough.

Blue Sisters Convent

May 29, 1915.

God! how sad it is about Julian. It’s the bitterest blow I have had since this war and am likely to have.

You must not make reservation about the “ultimately satisfactory issue.” [i.e. of the war.” I’d sooner spend my life in trenches than have any other issue…[1]

 

We’ll be hearing a bit from Morgan Crofton in the coming days, before the sweeping changes overtake him as well. So a brief status check today: and we find him once again exempted from the worst duty, although it seems that in his over-officered regiment he is hardly alone.

Saturday May 29

Another glorious day. It was lovely waking up in my nice room, and looking out of the windows across the park. The War seems miles away. For the first time for seven months I hardly hear any cannonading going on. What a relief. It is quite like staying in a nice country house at home. One feels one ought to get into tennis shoes and flannels instead of this shabby and dirty khaki.

Torrie gave me orders to stay behind and look after the horses while the Regiment was in the trenches. Only 3 Officers per squadron were to go up, and Gurney and l and about 10 others are to stay herd…

But at breakfast today, orders came that we were to relieve the 3rd Hussars in the front line trenches near Hooge, to the E of Ypres. We shall be anxious about them while they are up there, and anxiously watch the wind to see if it is favourable for gas.[2]

 

I’ve been making a big deal lately about how the end of May, 1915 seems to be a transition zone, a sort of geological boundary layer between the early days of the war–high hopes, aggressive tactics and more aggressive verse, the death of so many dashing aristocratic officers of the dashing but over-matched old Regular army–and the grim war of mass attrition (and strangely wonderful writing) that is to come.

Now, the very best book written about the collective experience of the war (i.e. one that takes a broader view than a typical memoir) by one of its participants is surely C.E. Montague‘s Disenchantment.[3] And there’s the spoiler right in the title. It’s a smart, precise, angry book,and one which dwells on the disasters and disappointments of the later phases of the war.

But bitter experience must be preceded by innocence, and old man Montague summons in the early pages of his masterwork a beautiful vision of the enchanted camp days of the volunteers. This is the essence of the early-war experience of the volunteers, the great days of fellowship before they went out to the horrors–and, well, yes, the disenchantments–of the trenches.

Last spring was England’s Last Spring. And so is this one.

Forgive me if I quote Montague at some length:

The mental peace, the physical joy, the divinely simplified sense of having one clear aim, the remoteness from all the rest of the world, all favoured a tropical growth of illusion. A man, says Tennyson, “imputes himself.” If he be decent he readily thinks other people are decent. Here were hundreds of thousands of quite commonplace persons
rendered, by comradeship in an enthusiasm, self-denying, cheerful, unexacting, sanely exalted, substantially good. To get the more fit to be quickly used men would give up even the little darling vices which are nearest to many simple hearts. Men who had entertained an almost reasoned passion for whisky, men who in civil life had messed up careers for it and left all and followed it, would cut off their whisky lest it should spoil their marching. Little white, prim clerks from Putney—men whose souls were saturated with the consciousness of class—would abdicate freely and wholeheartedly their sense of the wide, unplumbed, estranging seas that ought to roar between themselves and Covent Garden market porters. Many men who had never been dangerous rivals to St. Anthony kept an unwonted hold on themselves during the months when hundreds of reputable women and girls round every camp seemed to have been suddenly smitten with a Bacchantic frenzy. Real, constitutional lazy fellows would buy little cram-books of drill out of their pay and sweat them up at night…

Men warned for a guard next day would agree among themselves to get up an hour before the pre-dawn winter Reveille to practise among themselves the beautiful symbolic ritual of mounting guard in the hope of approaching the far-off, longed-for ideal of smartness, the passport to France… How could they not have the illusion that the whole nation’s sense of comradeship went as far as their own?

Who of all those who were in camp at that time, and still are alive, will not remember until he dies the second boyhood that he had in the late frosts and then in the swiftly filling and bursting spring and early summer of 1915?

The awakening birdnotes of Reveille at dawn, the two-mile run through auroral mists breaking over a still inviolate England…  the long, intent morning parades under the gummy shine of chestnut buds in the deepening meadows; the peace of the tranquil hours on guard at some sequestered post, alone with the Sylvester midnight, the wheeling stars and the quiet breathing of the earth in its sleep…  and then jocund days of marching and digging trenches in the sun; the silly little songs on the road that seemed, then, to have tunes most human, pretty, and jolly…

When you think of the youth that you have lost, the times when it seems to you now that life was most poignantly good may not be the ones when everything seemed at the time to go well with your plans, and the world, as they say, to be at your feet; rather some few unaccountable moments when nothing took place that was out of the way and yet some word of a friend’s, or a look on the face of the sky, the taste of a glass of spring water, the plash of laughter and oars heard across midsummer meadows at night raised the soul of enjoyment within you to strangely higher powers of itself. That spirit bloweth and is still: it will not rise for our whistling nor keep a time-table…  for a moment some intervening darkness had thinned and we were seeing further than we can see now into the heart of life.

Montague, who famously dyed his hair upon enlistment and was now a happily vigorous non-commissioned officer, generally combines historical commentary with memoir. The reverie gets personal, now:

To one recollection at least it has seemed that the New Army’s spring-tide of faith and joyous illusion came to its height on a night late in the most beautiful May of 1915, in a hut where thirty men slept near a forest in Essex. Nothing particular happened; the night was like others. Yet in the times that came after, when half of the thirty were dead and most of the others jaded and soured, the feel of that night would come back with the strange distinctness of those picked, remembered mornings and evenings of boyhood when everything that there was became everlastingly memorable as though it had been the morning or evening of the first day. Ten o’clock came and Lights Out, but a kind of luminous bloom still on the air and a bugle blowing Last Post in some far-away camp that kept worse hours than we…

I’m not sure if this particular passage is particularly celebrated, but it oughta be. It strikes me now that this is like a prose “Adlestrop.”[4] “No one left and no one came–” “Nothing particular happened. And now the blackbird and the bugle:

I believe the whole hut held its breath to hear the notes better. Who wouldn’t, to listen to that most lovely and melancholy of calls, the noble death of each day’s life, a sound moving about hither and thither, like a veiled figure…

Poetry compresses, of course, and Edward Thomas made the brilliant decision to include the station’s name–only the name–thus hitting early upon the ways in which conventional lyric (and, indeed, most literary forms) will fail to describe the war and be forced to fall back upon “the concrete names of villages.”

But Montague is doing something different. Remember that he has already mentioned how strong the memories of these halcyon days must be–for those still living. Many are not, and Montague has written neither a lyric poem–individual and universal–nor a solipsistic memoir, but a moment of collective memoir, tinged with elegy. A whole platoon remembers, and with them the readers.

…among the dim thoughts that we have about death the approaching extinguisher—resignation and sadness and unfulfilment and triumph all coming back to the overbearing sense of extinction in those two recurrent notes of “Lights Out”? One listens as if with bowed mind, as though saying “Yes; out, out, brief candle.”

A moment’s silence to let it sink in and the chaffing and laughter broke out like a splash of cool water in summer again. That hut always went to bed laughing and chaffing all round…

That is where I should break off, if prose and memory were our only subject here. But history. But irony:

…It made life seem too wonderful to end; such were the untold reserves that we had in this nation of men with a hold on themselves, of hardly uprightness…  What, then, must be the unused stores of greedless and fearless straightness in others above us, generals and statesmen, men in whom, as in bank-porters, character is three parts of the trade! The world seemed clean that night; such a lovely unreason of optimist faith was astir in us all, We felt for that time ravish ‘d above earth And possess’d joys not promised at our birth.

It seemed hardly credible now, in this soured and quarrelsome country and time, that so many men of different classes and kinds, thrown together at random, should ever have been so simply and happily friendly, trustful, and keen. But they were, and they imagined that all their betters were too. That was the paradise that the bottom fell out of.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters and Recollections, 185-6.
  2. Massacre of the Innocents, 255-6.
  3. I do loathe the misuse of superlatives--I am carving out space for Disenchantment here while remaining able both to declare The Great War and Modern Memory to be the best book about the war, hands down (non-participant writer!), and also to lavish a spread of superlatives on one or another of the self-centered traditional memoirs...
  4. Find the poem here--but 'ware spoilers in the comments.
  5. Disenchantment, 7-14.

Robert Graves on Sausages, Lechery, and Bricks; Reactions to Julian Grenfell’s Death; Tolkien is Still a Scholar; Morgan Crofton Outs the Idiocy of Francis Grenfell’s Comrades

Robert Graves introduces us today to one of the landmarks of the British sector, and–drawing on his re-purposed novel of trench life–he provides us with a chatty-but-useful sketch of the ways, wherefores, and weapons of static trench warfare.

brickstacks

Not a Western Mesa, but the Cuinchy Brick-Stacks

May 28th.  In trenches among the Cuinchy brick-stacks. Not my idea of trenches. There has been a lot of fighting hereabouts. The trenches have made themselves rather than been made, and run inconsequently in and out of the big thirty-foot-high stacks of bricks; it is most confusing. The parapet of a trench which we don’t occupy is built up with ammunition-boxes and corpses. Everything here is wet and smelly. The Germans are very close: they have half the brick-stacks, we have the other half. Each side snipes down from the top of its brick-stacks into the other’s trenches. This is also a great place for German rifle-grenades and trench mortars. We can’t reply properly; we have only a meagre supply of rifle-grenades and nothing to equal the German sausage mortar-bomb.

Nothing to be suspicious of here–this is a modest general sketch of what the Cuinchy trenches were like at this time. Although one hopes that we hear so often of corpse-incorporated parapets because the few such instances were so memorably appalling rather than because the practice was so common. But now Graves gets specific about the whens and wheres, and he goes straight to that favorite trope of the new soldier–the near-miss.

This morning about breakfast time, just as I came out of my dug-out, a rifle-grenade landed within six feet of me. For some reason, instead of falling on its head and exploding, it landed with its stick in the wet clay and stood there looking at me… I can’t understand why this particular rifle-grenade fell as it did. the chances were impossibly against it.

‘Sausages’ are easy to see and dodge, but they make a terrible noise when they drop. We have had about ten casualties in our company today from them. I find that my reactions to danger are extraordinarily quick; but everyone gets like that. We can sort out all the different explosions and disregard whichever don’t concern us…

Last night a lot of German stuff was flying about, including shrapnel. I heard one shell whish-whishing toward me and dropped flat. It burst just over the trench where ‘Petticoat Lane’ runs into ‘Lowndes Square’. My ears sang as though there were gnats in them, and a bright scarlet light shone over everything . My shoulder got twisted in falling and I thought I had been hit, but I hadn’t been. The vibration made my chest sing, too,in a curious way, and I lost my sense of equilibrium. I was ashamed when the sergeant-major came along the trench and found me on all fours, still unable to stand up straight.

Graves next returns to the comic description of his platoon of Welsh miners which had occupied much of a previous chapter. After relating instances of their easy black humour around corpses–a useful carryover from their former jobs–he explains their moral code:

It’s moral, for instance, to rob anyone of anything, except a man in their own platoon. They treat every stranger as an enemy until he proves himself their friend, and the there’s nothing they won’t do for him. They are lecherous, the young ones at least, but without the false shame of the English lecher. I had a letter to censor the other day, written by a lance-corporal to his wife. He said that the French girls were nice to sleep with, so she mustn’t worry on his account, but that he far preferred sleeping with her and missed he a great deal.[1]

 

The reactions to the death of Julian Grenfell continue. Raymond Asquith learned the news a day after his father:

It is simply bloody about Julian. I quite thought that his strength and pugnacity would pull him through.[2]

 

And Ivo Grenfell, Julian and Billy’s younger brother, wrote to their sister Monica:

Darlingest Casie

Juju is in peace and happy for evermore, and no one could have died so bravely… The world will never be quite the same again, but God does everything for the best… Juju has so nobly done his duty, and has died as I am sure he wished to die, fighting for his country… we must all try and be like Juju. He has triumphed over all, and he would never wish us to feel sad but rather what a glorious thing death is…

Ivo is sixteen, so he will have to wait some time for his chance to be like his brothers.[3]

 

Morgan Crofton is nearing the end of his tether. And soon, too, he will be left once again holding the tethers of the tether-holders–detailed to stay in rest billets with the horses while his regiment takes its turn in the trenches. Crofton is a fighting soldier–at least in his own self-estimation–but it is a bit suspicious that he seems to draw this duty repeatedly. Perhaps he is not as keen as the other senior officers of the regiment: his reaction to the news of the upcoming spell of trench duty (he had not yet learned that he would be left behind) was to write “What a nuisance it all is. I had hoped that we should have had a quiet time in Racquinghem.”

Today the regiment moved up toward the reserve lines in preparation for the next move into the actual trenches. Crofton’s honesty–to his diary–is one of his most valuable features for us. Today, he turns his uncensored criticism–albeit indirectly–on Francis Grenfell, late of the 9th Lancers.,

Friday May 28

Cold, but fine day. Breakfast at 7.30…

Was not sorry on the whole to leave Wallon-Cappel. Although it was better latterly than it was when we first went there in April, it really is an unhealthy village, and we were not too comfortable in billets…

I believe that the 9th Lancers are to take our place at Wallon-Cappel. They suffered very heavily from the gas in the trenches last Wednesday, chiefly owing to laziness on the part of the officers and men in not taking the trouble to put on respirators.

Noel Edwards (the polo player who played in America, in the Polo Team taken over by Wimborne last year) never bothered to put either a respirator or mask on, with a result that he was badly gassed, and although he succeeded in walking back through Ypres, he died some hours afterwards.[4]

Can this debacle explain the apparently very gallant–and strangely aggressive, given that the British were on the defensive at Second Ypres–behavior of Francis Grenfell several days later? Francis was an international polo player as well, and the 9th Lancers were his regiment. Did he dash forward for reasons of revenge? Or, perhaps, because criticism of his regiment’s foolish laziness were widespread and needed to be expunged? It’s impossible to tell–but it’s a reminder that the panegyric letters written after an officer’s death may stray very far indeed from the truth.

Crofton is no bureaucrat of the New Armies, but his grumpiness about the inefficient use of the cavalry and the swaggering disregard of the old-school sportsmen for the realities of modern warfare is more confirmation that the war is changing. Another gently born cavalryman goes bravely–and in this case, unquestionably stupidly–down into the dark, and the rough-and-ready infantry of the New Armies must come up to fill the gaps.

 

And John Ronald Tolkien, in his last weeks at Oxford, gave a paper today to The Psittakoi, a student literary society, reviewing The Quest of Beauty and Other Poems by H.R. Freston, a recent graduate. Several letters of advice from his friends and former classmates–of practical advice about the inevitable next step–are already in the post.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 111-113.
  2. Raymond Asquith, Life and Letters, 200.
  3. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 314.
  4. Massacre of the Innocents, 254.

Happy Birthday Alf Pollard; Dorothie Feilding Dreams of Dismemberment; Morgan Crofton and Julian Grenfell on the Withdrawal; Wilfred Owen is in Paris

Alfred Pollard, writing a lively memoir from memory, doesn’t include many dates. But today’s is naturally memorable, and thus we can join the celebrations in a timely fashion:

We were still in the line on the fourth of May, my birthday. Owing to the transport being engaged in bringing up extra sandbags and barbed wire to strengthen the new position, our parcels were hung up for over a fortnight, although we received our letters regularly. I knew a birthday cake and other delicacies were on the way and was on tenter-hooks in case they got spoiled. To add to my tantalization a pal of mine in the transport reported that a monstrous parcel was waiting for me a the battalion post office.

Something had to be done about it. The question was, what? For two nights I argued and implored. At last he promised to see what he could do. My birthday arrived and slowly passed. Shortly after dusk the ration carts came creaking into the wood. With a great air of mystery my transport friend turned back the tarpaulin of his limber. The marvellous parcel as there. He had found the post office temporarily deserted and had slipped in and carried it off. That night Number Eight Section had a glorious feed. I was the only man in the battalion with a parcel and the envy of all outside my immediate circle. No birthday cake ever tasted more delicious.[1]

 

zpage260

The Shrinking of the Ypres Salient

Two of our Regulars, Crofton and (Julian) Grenfell, comment on the strategic withdrawal that followed the loss of territory in the north of the salient after the German gas attack of April 22nd:

The loss of the ground North of our Ypres line on April 23 by the French, owing to asphyxiating gases, had caused a very serious situation, forcing us to retire in order to conform to the new French line. The result was that the Ypres Salient as held by us now became almost untenable, owing to the opportunity given to shell it from all quarters.

It soon became evident that the extreme apex would have to be given up, and it was decided to evacuate the area Grafenstafel-St Julien-Gheluvelt. This movement was carried out last night with complete success, and it was to act as a support during the operation that our Cavalry Division had been required.[2]

 

Tuesday, 4 May: Staff work. Drew rations about 3.30 am… At 5 am we were told that the line had been successfully withdrawn & we walked back to the horses… Breakfast in farm… Nightingales singing all way back (first time heard). Nearly went to sleep on my horse.[3]

 

Yes, the nightingales, those indispensable poetic birds, are now being heard everywhere on the Western Front.

So Second Ypres has cost the lives of thousands, but done nothing to alter the strategic situation–the salient has shrunk, and that’s all. The British withdrawal was strategically correct, but the reduced salient will still be extremely vulnerable to German artillery from several directions.

Similar intelligent withdrawals will now tend to occur only on the German side–the British can act with a free hand in Belgium, more or less, but in France it will come to seem morally (and politically) impermissible to abandon even the most over-shadowed and enfiladed scrap of French earth. The Germans will feel free togive up a few yards here, a mile there, the better to maintain the tactical advantage–with ruinous consequences for the allies.

 

And then there are the moral costs of Second Ypres. Dorothie Feilding, continuing a letter begun in the wee hours of Sunday morning, does not sound like her usual self:

Tuesday

…I am fed up with the war & very weary, we really have been very rushed lately & so many late nights make one rather tired, more so mentally than Physically, and I find myself getting very peevish & stuffy.

It must be 3 weeks now since we got to bed before 2 or 3 in the morning & many nights later. Yesterday we were at Steenstraade until 5 AM…

Last night we got to bed at 12 till 3.30 am & then had to climb out because there was a call for a car & then turned in from 6 to 10am again. I got so bored dressing & undressing I shall economise labour tonight & go to sleep with my clothes & false teeth all ready on for an emergency exit. It’s so nice in the sun here & the sea & so peaceful except for some Godforsaken soldiers that will shoot at a floating target. I never saw such putrid shots…

…One Zouave was given the VC [surely the equivalent Belgian or French decoration?] & made a corporal lately for doing fine things & he told his colonel he was afraid he wouldn’t be much use as a corporal as he could neither read or write. His Col told him not to fret as it was fighting was wanted.

Hely d’Oissel saw this same Tommy [i.e. Zouave?] in hospital yesterday, he had been shot through both eyes ‘stone blind’ in the attack at Lizeme & in awful pain but he never complained but said ‘My General–you should tell the Colonel that he was right and that it doesn’t matter now that I know not how to read nor write’ [Translated from the French] I think it’s so sad, perhaps all these little things don’t interest you, but it’s little trifles of pluck & all the millions of individual efforts that count in this war.

But here’s a quick turn. From the inspirational horror story to horror fantasies of her own:

The things that do one so much good too & make up for any nights up is the extraordinary gratitude of these men one helps. There are so many of them that think of such pathetic ways to thank you that it gives you a lump in your throat & makes one see red & want to put all these beastly Germans in a pit & chop them up with spades like the boys used to do with jellyfish at Colwyn Bay…

God bless you Mother dear so much love DoDo[4]

Yikes.

 

Wilfred Owen, still a civilian, had recently taken a leave from his teaching job in Bordeaux. He will soon travel to London and home, but today, a century back, he arrived in Paris, where he saw the sights and was entertained by the old poet Tailhade.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Fire-Eater, 67-8.
  2. Massacre of the Innocents, 22.
  3. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 295.
  4. Lady Under Fire, 66-7.
  5. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 156.

Morgan Crofton is Under Fire Near Ypres; Tolkien Writes of Lands Farther West

Two very different sorts today, as we move away from the height of Second Ypres and the dramatic death of Rupert Brooke, back toward the rhythm of trench warfare and the young writers’ approach to the line that will be basic rhythm of this project until September’s major battle.

John Ronald Tolkien is at work, these days, on two poems. Both may well be the sort of thing that a mature author would be embarrassed by–and yet both are true to the boy who is father to the man. Behold the collegiate versifier who is father to the fantasist. (Tolkien, by the by, will become an important exemplar of one minority position: that the horrors of the war might have little effect, in the end, on the writerly trajectory of some.)

The first, Goblin Feet, is unquestionable juvenilia–very silly, highly Victorian. All those happy Goblin feet must be regarded as little missteps for a man who will mount the world’s greatest literary objection to the idea of elves/faeries/goblins as diminutive, precious, or cute. And yet it’s a story of enchantment and loss–which is also a good six word description of Tolkien’s life’s work.

The second, too, is uncharacteristic–it’s a love poem about two real people, Tolkien himself and his intended, Edith Bratt. And yet You and Me and the Cottage of Lost Play too aims for the as-yet-un-(sub)created ground of a fantasy world. The basic idea–showing the (acknowledged) influence of J.M. Barrie–is that Edith and John Ronald have always known each other, in dreams prior to reality. There is a land far away, but nearer than you might think, a place of happiness and romantic fulfillment and higher beauty…

So a boyish love poem, pretty and slight. But always, for the orphaned Tolkien–or, for those of you allergic to biographical criticism, the man who would create a world of surpassing beauty and then write until it was broken, drowned, twisted, and battered, age after age–there is that undercurrent of loss:

And why it was Tomorrow came
And with his grey hand led us back;
And why we never found the same
Old cottage, or the magic track
That leads between a silver sea
And those old shores and gardens fair
Where all things are, that ever were–
We know not, You and Me.

He will never get around to seeking publication for love poems about himself or Edith–or for anything openly biographical. So Edith and the poet will withdraw from this land indeed… but he will return to the Cottage of Lost Play.

 

Sir Morgan Crofton, on the fringes of battle for days now, would probably like to get a word in, even beneath the moonings of an undergraduate still months away from taking a commission. “Second Ypres” is still playing out, and his regiment, the 2nd Life Guards, have marched all night to reach the outskirts of Vlamertinghe, in what had recently been a rear area of the British section of the salient. Here, then, is a very long day under fire–fruitless and confused at the battalion level, surely, and yet part of a larger effort that succeeded in preventing a German breakthrough.

Tuesday April 27

We had considerable difficulty in finding the point where we were to meet the staff officer who was to give us our billets. It was by a railway crossing just through the village. The street of the village was hill of French and Canadian ambulance motors. Every house seemed to be used as a hospital. A ceaseless flow of wounded kept coming back from the district N and NE of the road, where the firing showed that considerable fighting was still going on…

We were all dog tired, so we crowded in [to a handful of tiny huts], put down our blankets on the floor and dropped into a heavy unrefreshing sleep. We received orders the last moment before we bedded down to say that we were to remain ready to move at a moment’s notice, and that on the following day we should probably have to go into the trenches.

We woke about 7 o’clock and at once set about getting some food. We discovered in a neighbouring field four Canadian Cookers, and from the NCO in charge we managed to get some hot coffee. We felt better after that, but we still felt very stiff and sore from the effects of our plank bed. We couldn’t get much news…

We had a scratch lunch at 12.30 of tinned tongue and the foulest tasting tea.

About 4 o’clock the first shell arrived. It came with a whoof and a crash bang into Vlamertinghe. This was followed by a regular shower of them. We all crowded out to watch. About 50 per cent didn’t burst, but those that did, threw up tall columns of dust and bricks. They seemed to fall right amongst the hospitals in the village. The Germans soon began to lengthen their fuzes. We could see the shells coming nearer and nearer, pitching and
bursting on the field and road which lay between us and the village.

We had just decided that the shelling wasn’t going to amount to much, when there was a roar and a crash. Hut No. 29, which was three from ours and which was occupied by the 1st Life Guards, flew into the air, in the midst of a column of black greasy smoke. There was no mistaking this portent. We were being shelled with high-explosive shells fired by an eleven-inch howitzer. Considerable confusion ensued, increased by the arrival of
two more of these tokens of regard. Hut 29 had entirely disappeared. In its place lay two dead men and another with both his legs blown off.

The order was given to fall in at once and march to a point previously fixed (a tree with a bushy top) where we were to lie down in extended order. Torrie told me to go on and act as a directing point. There was a great rush
to collect kits, belts, glasses, etc., and in the rush many went out without bothering to collect anything.

The shells now began to fall fairly fast all over the whole camp. Two or three pitched into Vlamertinghe, blowing up huge pillars of dust, black smoke and pink fluff from the pulverised bricks. Outside amongst the waggons and the men of the ammunition and supply columns, the panic was considerable. This was natural owing to the fact that most of these men were very young and hadn’t been under shellfire before. The fields were covered with loose horses galloping in all directions and dozens of little parties of men riding half-saddled or harnessed horses, all galloping.

As always, Crofton’s calm observation and forthright private description gives an excellent picture of combat–even, as so often, combat in which only the enemy’s guns are effective, or even engaged. But Crofton now shows how much simple calm and physical courage matter in confused situations. The situation is close to tragedy and close to farce:

I proceeded over the fields to the S, to take a position where I could be seen so that the Regiment could march on me. When I reached the rising ground which I had selected for my point, I turned to watch the excitement.
A shell burst with a terrific report about 10 yards behind two men who were running towards me; they both fell like dead men, and remained motionless. Then they started rolling away like mad, to what they considered a safe
distance before they resumed their upright flight.

There was a four-wheeled waggon, packed very high with chairs, tables and cooking pots. This was drawn at full gallop by four horses which were urged to greater efforts by their drivers. By way of taking a short cut, it dashed across a field in front of me. About half way across the intrepid drivers were confronted by a gully, five feet deep and nine across. In they plunged, the waggon rocking and clattering, over it went as it attempted to ascend the opposite side. Off the drivers flung themselves, unhooked the team, mounted and disappeared towards the setting sun in clouds of dust. A field-kitchen, belching smoke like a fire engine, and streams of soup pouring from it in cascades, rumbled past, also ventre à terre, [“belly to the ground, i.e. “flat-out”] the driver applying his whip like a threshing flail. Into the gully it plunged like its confrere of the four wheels, over went the kitchen, the mingled fumes of wood fire and soup rising into the evening air. Off sprang the driver, the horses were unhooked and off quicker than I can write this.

About 50 shells in all were put into the hutments, surrounding fields, and onto the Poperinghe-Vlamertinghe road. Every road leading from this area was now packed with long straggling columns of marching men, ambulances,
and supply waggons moving back. Shortly after 5.30 the shelling ceased. We took up our position about a mile and a half to the south and lay down in extended order in the fields round a large farm, in which, later in the
evening, we fixed our headquarters. Towards 7 o’clock parties were sent back to the hutments to remove any kit or belongings left behind in the haste of the departure. The evening was delightful, very clear and cool, after a blazing day.

About 10 o clock we heard the ominous sound of a motor cycle approaching us. Our worst fears were realised when its cessation was followed by a cry of Turn Out. We collected in the field outside, and heard that the Turcos [French colonials] were falling back in some disorder on Brielen, and we were ordered to go in as supports, and fill any gap which they might leave.

The moon was most brilliant, the night was as bright as day. We sat, awaiting the order to move. I was very tired, and dozed pleasantly off. At about 11.30 I was awoken and told that counter orders had arrived. We were to stay where we were for the night.[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Massacre of the Innocents, 214-7.

Roland Leighton Writes from his Dugout; F.W. Harvey Hobbles Nearby; Morgan Crofton on the Charms of the Locals; Aubrey Herbert Heads for Gallipoli

Not two weeks ago Chelmsford bid farewell to the 1/5th Gloucesters, among them the poet F.W. Harvey. By now Will Harvey and the rest of the battalion had experienced their first spell in the nasty trenches of northwestern Ploegsteert Wood, a part of the Ypres Salient that we will soon get to know all too well.

While the battalion was taking its first casualties in the line, the first issue of the 5th Gloucester Gazette was published, with a humorous rhyming acrostic by Harvey. A selection:

P. is the pack and the pick that we carry/ With hurdle and sandbag the foeman to harry.

Q. is the query ‘What will he do,/ Should he also pick up a comrade or two?’

R. is the French road well studded with cobbles/ O’er which the perspiring warrior hobbles.[1]

 

No more than a mile or two away from Harvey was Roland Leighton–his 1/7th Worcestershire battalion was part of the same new Territorial Division, the 48th, or South Midland, Division.

France, 12 April 1915
In the Trenches
12.30 p.m.

I am writing this sitting on the edge of my bunk in the dug-out that I am sharing with an officer of the —s. One company of this regiment and half a company of our own men are occupying part of a line of trenches running parallel to the German and varying from 70 to 180 yards from them. At the moment there is practically no rifle fire on either side except for a German sniper or two who is having a few chance shots at a traverse two or three yards to the right of this hut.Two bullets have just skimmed along the roof, but as this is well covered with sandbags there is no danger inside.

Our heavy artillery has been shelling a large disused brewery behind the German lines all the morning. The shells come straight over the trenches, and you hear first the dull boom as they leave the muzzle of the gun, & then the scream of the shell passing overhead, ending in a crash as it bursts.This is going on as I write now. I have just been outside in the trench watching it all…

they have just ordered us by telephone to keep under cover, because of the danger from the fragments blown back from our own bursting shells.This is why I am in the dug-out now. It is a wooden hut built into the rear part of the trench, about 7 feet square and 5 feet high at the highest point. It has two low bunks for sleeping, some shelves, a small table & two wooden chairs. There is a window of sorts in the rear wall and the whole is covered all round with earth and sandbags. Its name–nearly all these dug-outs have names–is Le Chateau Germaine (why, I haven’t any idea). On top is a small weathercock of wood and tin stuck there out of bravado by a former inhabitant.

The firing has stopped now & it is lunch time.

4 p.m. Same Day.
The guns have been at it again this afternoon and the Germans have been shelling our communication trenches behind in return. The continued noise is trying and has given me a headache…

Despite the headache, Roland seems to be adjusting nicely. It’s a luxury to be able to make small complaints to an eagerly sympathetic reader back home. But I think he also protests a bit in order to show what he does not need to complain about: he is not, so far, terrified. He is in the war now, and the first gnawing self-doubts have been laid to rest.

Stray bullets are always flying overhead, especially at night… Two men got hit last night just after they had got out–neither of them very seriously. We met them being carried off on stretchers as we were coming in. A cheerful introduction to life in the trenches, n’est-ce pas?

None of our men have been touched yet, though a bullet whizzed uncomfortably near my head on the way in last night. I myself cannot yet realise that each little singing thing that flies near me holds latent in it the power of death for someone. Soon perhaps I may see death come to someone near and realise it and be afraid.

I have not yet been afraid.

Well, putting it out there like that; does this not tempt fate?

After Tea…

We came in last night and are relieved again tomorrow night. I am learning a great deal here. The whole place is like a small town, honeycombed with passages and dug-outs (called by the men here ‘bug-hutches’).These have some most amusing names written up over them e.g. Westminster Bridge,The Bridge of Size and Tiers, Ludgate Hill, Marble Arch, Dean’s Yard, Southend Pier, The Junior Carlton, The Pulpit, Buckingham Palace, etc. At present the weather is very good, but when it rains the trenches become ditches full of mud. The British have held this line since the beginning of November when they turned the Germans out.

There are three German graves a little further down along the trench. There is no name on them, but merely a piece of board with ‘German Grave — R.I.P.’ scrawled on it. And yet somebody once loved the man lying there.

On the way here we passed a clump of about thirty graves by the roadside–all of men of one regiment killed lately in these trenches. Such is war!

So it is now clear that Roland will not to be pulling all his punches. So far the boy is doing well–a confident young officer. And he seems to be willing to hold–so far, which is not yet so very far–to the pact of honesty and openness in his letters to his beloved. Or is there just a touch of the pride–he knows he’s doing well, and that some new men falter at the first shells, the first singing bullets–and a lighthearted indulgence in the easy drama of romance?

It is just getting dusk and the ration parties will be coming in to take back letters with them. This letter will have been carried under fire by the time it reaches you.

Good night, dear, and do not worry on my account. Good night and much love. I have just been kissing your photograph.

R.[2]

 

We haven’t heard from Morgan Crofton, recently–there’s been a lot of interesting stuff from several of our regulars, and he is growing frustrated with the inactivity of the cavalry, so his diary entries tend to short complaints or long analyses of the war. Today however he has a rather amusing vignette, though it’s more than a little rude.

Monday April 12th

We spent the morning finding new quarters. We soon found two nice rooms in a house at the corner of the street, which had been occupied by the ambulance people. The house is kept by an old lady of about 75 and slightly balmy. It’s a funny thing that every woman in Wallon-Cappel varies from 70-80 years of age, and looks exactly like a gargoyle. She has the most beautiful tiled kitchen which she keeps like a jeweller’s shop. Everything shines like silver and gold. She is terrified that we shall want to use this model place, but we explained that it would not be required for the purposes
of war.

She has now become as playful as a kitten. She asked if we were married, and said that we ought to be. She thinks that she would do for one of us. She goes to bed every day at 5 o’clock, I think in her clothes, for she appears looking exactly the same the following morning at about 7.30, generally when Walker is having his bath. I think she does it on purpose.[3]

 

You may recall the unlikely tale of Aubrey Herbert–“gentle, whimsical, utterly courageous” in the words of John Buchan[4]–who, though short-sighted to the point of near-blindness, simply dressed up as an officer and went to France to pitch in. He had been shot in the stomach and captured during the retreat from Mons, and was then freed when French troops overrun the German field hospital in which he was held.

If this adventure was the epitome of the spirit of British amateurism in 1914, well, then, alas, the routinzation of the army during the first winter has caught up with Aubrey Herbert. It was now clear that he would not be given a military commission and sent into combat, but, since he was a very talented linguist who had traveled extensively in the Near East, he was sent to Egypt. There he eventually found his way onto the staff of the general commanding the New Zealand troops now massing for the Gallipolli landings–this was the sort of general (not as common as you might think) who realized that having a man fluent in Turkish on his staff, even if he was a civilian toff, might be a rather good idea.

So, after several pleasant weeks in Alexandria–you may also recall that he accompanied Brooke, Shaw-Stewart, and Oc Asquith on their tour of the Pyramids–Herbert departed today for Lemnos, and the buildup to another campaign. His biographer notes that “In September he had gone an amateur to war, full of zest… This time he went without enthusiasm to fight an enemy he liked in a campaign he judged ill-conceived.”[5]

 

And far away in misty Hampshire, Edward Thomas jotted this down in a notebook:

Evening of misty stillness after drizzly day–last thrushes on oaks–then man goes by a dark white cottage front to thatched wood lodge and presently began sawing and birds are all still.[6]

In five days’ time he will convert the captured moment into poetry.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Boden, F. W. Harvey, 67.
  2. Letters from a Lost Generation, 77.
  3. Massacre of the Innocents, 195.
  4. Pilgrim's Way, 49.
  5. Fitzherbert, The Man Who Was Greenmantle, 151.
  6. See Longley, Annotated Collected Poems, 226.

Rupert Brooke Gets a General Offer; The Nursing Sister is Transferred–Closer to Luxury and Closer to Misery; Vera Brittain Muses on the Year to Come; Saki is all Fun and Games

Brooke last photo

A photograph of Brooke, ill and recumbent, taken today, a century back, by Denis Browne

Yesterday Rupert Brooke was ill, with a high fever and diarrhea–the result, it was assumed, of sunstroke, after their jaunt to the pyramids two days before. Patrick Shaw-Stewart was ill as well, but no one was unduly concerned.

Yet it was a bit embarrassing–the new commander of the Gallipoli force, Sir Ian Hamilton, had recently arrived, and today he paid Brooke a personal call. Hamilton, who wrote poetry himself and knew Brooke’s reputation as the foremost young Georgian, was there to tempt Brooke with safety.

Perhaps on the suggestion of Churchill or the Asquiths, Hamilton offered the humble platoon officer a posting on his staff. This would mean staying on board a capital ship instead of landing under fire and charging uphill at the head of his platoon. Brooke, bedridden, declined. Nepotistic staff appointments were common enough (although much more common for professional officers, to whom they represented career advancement as well as safety) and to accept one would not be… shockingly inappropriate or dishonorable. But it would mean abandoning his men, his friends and fellow officers, his commitment to do the very most to experience the war, and his melodramatic obsession with sacrifice (or, seen through a clearer lens, his suicidal pathology.)

General Hamilton later wrote in his diary that

He looked extraordinarily handsome… quite a knightly presence stretched out there on the sand with the only world that counts at his feet.[1]

 

The Nursing Sister is dreading reassignment–the powers that be could move her anywhere, and soon. Just to be very clear, though: the towns she mentions, below–the ones she dreads being sent to–are railheads and ports, the places with big hospitals that are further away from the fighting, from personal danger and from the most acute medical care. She doesn’t seem to have any choice in the matter, but her wish is for hardship, commitment, the hard end of experience, and the slow self-sacrifice of caring for the ruined and traumatized. She will not frequently be in grave danger closer to the line, but some danger is very different from the very slight chance of death in an air raid which will soon extend to the base hospitals (and London, and, soon enough, the wide world).

She wants to be where the work is harder and–if a nurse’s primary duty is to alleviate misery–where the misery is greater. But I should let her speak for herself.

Good Friday, April 2nd.—We got into Boulogne on Wednesday from Sotteville at 5 p.m., and as soon as the train pulled up a new Sister turned up “to replace Sister ——,” so I prepared for the worst and fully expected to be sent to Havre or Êtretat or Rouen, and began to tackle my six and a half months’ accumulation of belongings. In the middle of this Miss —— from the Matron-in-Chief arrived with my Movement Orders “to proceed forthwith to report to the O.C. of No.— Field Ambulance for duty,” so hell became heaven, and here I am at railhead waiting for a motor ambulance to take me and my baggage to No.— F.A. wherever it is to be found…

So “hell”–duty back at the base hospitals, where her trains have been taking the wounded–becomes “heaven:” duty with the Field Ambulances, which collect the wounded from just behind the front lines and bring them to field hospitals and ambulance trains.

11 a.m.—Had an interesting drive here in the M[otor]. A[mbulance]. through a village packed with men billeted in barns and empty houses—the usual aeroplane buzzing overhead, and a large motor ambulance convoy by the wayside.

We are in the town itself, and the building is labelled No.— F.A. Dressing Station for Officers… There are forty-seven beds here (all officers). One Army Sister in charge, myself next, and two staff nurses—one on night duty. There are two floors; I shall have charge of the top floor…

Ah–only now do we find out that this is clearly a promotion from the ambulance train.

The surgical outfit is much more primitive even than on the train, as F.A.’s may carry so little. The operating theatre is at the other hospital.

As far as I can see at present we don’t have the worst cases here, except in a rush like Neuve Chapelle…

Still Good Friday, 10 p.m.—Who said Active Service? I am writing this in a wonderful mahogany bed, with a red satin quilt, in a panelled room, with the sort of furniture drawing-rooms have on the stage, and electric light, and medallions and bronzes, and oil-paintings and old engravings, and blue china and mirrors all about. It is a huge house like a Château, on the Place, where Generals and officers are usually billeted. The fat and smiling caretaker says she’s had two hundred since the war. She insisted on pouring eau-de-Cologne into my hot bath. It is really a lovely house, with polished floors and huge tapestry pictures up the staircase. And all this well within range of the German guns…

So she’s at the staff level, amusingly enough: within range of the great guns, but also in the lap of luxury, the archetypical château-behind-the-lines, where the army staff plans dismal attacks, and the medical staff waits to deal with the human wreckage.

One more thing: Christmas a century back wasn’t quite the juggernaut it has become, although perhaps the fame of the Christmas Truce had something to do with its future hegemony, come to think of it. But “The Truce” loomed large in all accounts of 1914, and it will overshadow Easter, that theologically central but culturally secondary observance.

Overshadow–but not not completely. How could it? Today, as the sister reminded us, is Good Friday, the day of the drawn-out death of Jesus. This is a holiday of death and doubt and pain and resurrection–it can’t be ignored. Although a cynic might add that this spring’s most prominent resurrection is the rebirth of offensive operations that has come with the thaw.

I am not to start work till to-morrow, as the wards are very light… so at 6 p.m. I went to the Bishop of London’s mission service in the theatre. A staff officer on the steps told me to go to the left of the front row (where all the red hats and gold hats sit), but I funked that and sat modestly in the last row of officers. There were about a hundred officers there, and a huge solid pack of men; no other woman at all.

The Bishop, looking very white and tired but very happy, took the service on the stage, where a Padre was thumping the hymns on the harmonium (which shuts up into a sort of matchbox). It was a voluntary service, and you know the nearer they are to the firing line the more they go to church. It was extraordinarily moving. The Padre read a sort of liturgy for the war taken from the Russians, far finer than any of ours; we had printed papers, and the response was “Lord, have mercy,” or “Grant this, O Lord.” It came each time like bass clockwork.

Troops are just marching by in the dark. Hundreds passed the hospital this afternoon. I must go to sleep.[2]

 

(Morgan Crofton, by the way, had attended a service led by the same hard-charging Bishop of London the day before, at Ebblinghem. Today he played football and went for a ride–he being the cavalryman, not the prelate, who maintained a very active schedule.)

 

But here is another easy contrast: from a Sister–older, wiser, and thoroughly professional–who has found peace and even joy in gruesome and essential war work, to the young woman mired still in provincial young-ladyhood, dreaming.

Friday April 2nd

When Daddy opened The Times to-day he said “I wonder what we would give for a glance at The Times of April and 1916.” I don’t think I would look at it even if I had the chance. But I wonder what next April and will bring. I wonder if my hopes will be approaching some glorious fulfilment, or still be in their present state of anxious uncertainty, or be lying crushed & broken, buried with the dead in the fields of France.

Perhaps even now Roland is in the trenches–perhaps under fire. All day long, although somehow or other I got through a good deal of Plato, I have dreamed, both about what will happen if he lives, & what will happen if he dies.[3]

It’s funny: this entry seems a bit forced (this judgment coming from another self-serious provincial who tries to write every day). Vera Brittain had a much more original thought on the nature of history and futurity back on the 31st. So Daddy’s prompt is not really a very interesting one–but it does seem clear that Roland’s departure has left Vera thinking backwards and forwards and, to shoehorn in one of Paul Fussell’s themes, she’s thinking in a consistently binary way. Her future awaits the war’s decision–will Roland live, or will he die? More on the different modes of historical writing she may choose from–romantic, tragic, etc.–in due time.

 

And finally, a chance to check in with Hector Munro, a.k.a Saki, the society satirist turned trooper, who wrote another lighthearted letter to his sister today, a century back.

April 2nd, 15

….We have a lot of fun in our hut and never seem too tired to indulge in sport or ragging; the work is hard some days but it is not incessant like it was in the K.E.H. I was O.C.’s orderly on a field-day on Wednesday and was jumping brooks and scrambling up slippery banks and through thickets with a pack on my back that I should scarcely have thought myself capable of carrying at all a few months ago, and I came home quite fit.[4]

Such letters are testaments more to the gap that opens between men and women, soldiers and civilians–even before combat–than they are good historical evidence of the experience of training camps. We can assume there are no fierce and innocent promises of total truthfulness here, like those between Roland and Vera, and that big sis gets a rosy and carefree vision… and yet we can’t conclude but that Munro is probably happy in his new life.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Jones, Rupert Brooke, 416.
  2. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 170.
  4. The Square Egg, 85.

Vera Brittain on Body and Soul; Lady Feilding on the Active Life; Morgan Crofton Anticipates a Scolding for the Village Cat

We’ve had a lot of Vera Brittain‘s febrile meditations, lately, and I was going to skip this one–mankind, soul, aspiration, idealism, the shadow of death on all sides, the soul’s impulse of growth, Eternal Life, etc.–but there is new element which enters now, with surprising frankness (and an unsurprising lack of actual impact on the Elevated Spiritual Tone).

…So, searching for Truth with Truth, that vast complex Being I call my soul will grow, & be strong, supreme over circumstance & suffering & Time & Age & Death–& by it the whole Universe shall rise.

I wonder if I have really learnt something, by these thoughts which the great new element in my life has stirred in me. If I have learnt anything it is love of Roland Leighton that has taught it to me. Strange–what it may be, this sexual love, of which–in its highest forms–the physical element is only the external sign of that which runs through soul & spirit too–part of the Everlasting Truth itself. I must learn to love more & more–I can never love enough.[1]

 

Well, that provokes another easy juxtaposition between the young woman at Oxford (fine–Buxton, for the Easter holiday) and the young woman in Belgium. Lady Dorothie Feilding:

Monday Fumes [29 March]
Father dear

Dr Munro is going back to England & I am asking him to post this scrawl. I had started writing you a real letter only they started shelling us with fat ones simultaneously, luckily not much damage.

Two days ago we, had a ghastly morning here. People just blown to smithereens & lots of wounded.

The Corps is going on just the same without Munro & the Belgians & the Mission both say we may go on just the same as ever. That is to say the women.

Thank God for that anyway. I just don’t know what I should have done just now if I had had to chuck the active-job & go & sit at home & twiddle one’s thumbs & think. I honestly don’t think I could bear it & ever so grateful that for the present at any rate the English Mission will sanction my working on the ambulances…

Oh Father when is this devilish war going on? It’s so awful.

Munro is going now. I wish I could write you a real letter. I am smothered in oil having been under the car greasing it all the afternoon.

God bless you–do write me please

Yr loving Diddles[2]

 

Sir Morgan Crofton, so far our most valuable humorist-at-the-front, has a nice acerbic take, today, a century back, on the foolishness of old-fashioned regular army inspections and the ponderous inanity of the chain of command, which resembles the nervous system of a gargantuan but primitive animal, sending back responses to its most distant limbs long after the stimulus has become irrelevant.

At 9.30 the Regiment paraded and marched to an outlying field formed up en masse for an inspection by General Kavanagh. After shivering in the icy blast for about 2 hours we returned to billets, somewhat warmed by the heated comments which were showered on us by the irate brigadier. His chief complaint was about the horses. But it is impossible to get the appearance customary in England, where warm stables, easy work and plenty of food are the conditions which prevail. Here the horses have been standing in draughty barns for over four months, surviving despite insufficient food.

However, the rebuke will filter down through the Regiment, everyone damning the next person junior to him, so in the end the village cat will certainly get it in the neck as being entirely responsible for this deplorable state of affairs.[3]

 

Lastly, the 1/5th Gloucestershires (Territorial) marched away from their training base at Chelmsford today, entraining for Folkstone and embarking the same evening for France. Among them was the ex-lawyer and poet F.W. Harvey, who had joined up, along with two of his brothers, on August 8th. His best friend Ivor Gurney, lately enlisted in the 2/5th Gloucestershires, will arrive in Chelmsford in a few days, just too late to bid Harvey farewell.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 168.
  2. Lady Under Fire, 56.
  3. Massacre of the Innocents, 183.