John Ronald Tolkien Works in a Sea Power; Ivor Gurney Writes of Sassoon and Hodgson, to Stave off the Shelling; Robert Graves Follows a Bandit Through the Welsh Countryside

Ivor Gurney‘s pen will not stay still, come “flary hell,” or high mud, trench living or German shells. In fact, it is the latter, and their effect on his mind, that drives him to keep on writing. Once more, then, to Marion Scott, his friend and editor and all-purpose patron. Their correspondence is spreading, now, beyond the practical matters of publication and the ordinary intercourse of friends. Not that there is any direct impropriety (Scott is some years older[1] and from a very different social milieu and the relationship was not openly romantic), but these letters in which Gurney discusses other writers with her are charged with more passion than his accounts of the war or his almost indifferent attention to refining his own work for publication.

August 31st 6 pm

My Dear Friend: Still moving along life’s weary road, not very pleased with the scenery of this section of it, and wishing the guns would give over; for these literally are never still…

Today I have been reading “The Bible in Spain”, that brilliant curious book. Indeed, but [George] Borrow is indispensable — “Lavengro”, “Wild Wales”, Rommany Rye and “The Bible in Spain”! A queer chap though, and often purposely queer…

When windy, “write letters,” and so — here you are.

For Fritz has been shelling and it has rattled me…

These letters, then, are in some sense artifacts of shell shock–but in what way does the fact of writing while jumpy and afraid, under constant neurological and physical assault, affect judgments such as these?

You are right about Sassoon; you are right about Hodgson. Sassoon is the half-poet, the borrower of magic. But as for the talk about poetry………. well, I think about that sometimes in this tittle concrete and steel emplacement holding 25 men, but O the crush! Slum conditions if you please…

As for the Imagists — I hate all attempts at exact definition of beauty, which is a half-caught thing, a glimpse. What the devil is a “cosmic poet”? Surely a better name would be cosmetic?

Hodgson is really the true thing, and so I would rather put off comment till later when I am better able to think of such things, and have read the “Song of Honour” in full…[2]


Robert Graves would no doubt be irked to be absent from the reading list of a war poet who is considering those other Somme poets Sassoon and Hodgson. Especially Sassoon–half-magic is better than no mention!

But Graves has other things on his mind today, a century back, as his nephew and biographer will attest. Working to train troops at Litherland, he is relatively close to the family’s country home on the Welsh coast.

It was to be a memorable long weekend. Robert heard that some of the Nicholsons were in Harlech; and on Friday evening, after an early supper, he walked over to Llys Bach to call on them. It was a pleasant walk along the country path which meandered from the gate at the back of Erinfa towards the village. The road was down to the right, but invisible beyond the trees; and to the left there was a little stretch of wooded ground, and then the hills. Robert had almost reached the outskirts of the village when he pushed open a gate to his right; and there, with views across the sea just as magnificent as those from Erinfa, stood Llys Bach.

This conjectural walk is, naturally, the prelude to a romance.

Ever since January, when he had last seen the Nicholsons, Robert had been curiously haunted by his last memory of Nancy in her black velvet dress; and now he found her transformed from a schoolgirl into a cheerful, rosy-cheeked and highly independent young woman, within a fortnight of her eighteenth birthday. Boyishly dressed as a bandit, Nancy was just about to set out for a fancy dress dance in a private house; and Robert, suddenly feeling that he wanted to stay with her, went along uninvited. That evening was the first occasion upon which Robert and Nancy spent much time talking to each other; and Robert was so elated by the experience that he stayed up half the night…[3]


And finally, today, J.R.R. Tolkien, safely married–he and Edith are expecting their first child–and safe on garrison duty in Humberside, has been taken ill again, with a recurrence of the fever that ended his Somme campaign last autumn. Once again hospitalized, he will spend the weekend redrafting his poem “Sea-Song of an Elder Day.” He did so with a particular end in mind, however: now subtitled “The Horns of Ulmo,” it was altered to fit “explicitly within his mythology.”[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. I wrote in the first version of this post that Marion Scott was married--a silly mistake. Gurney often asks after a Mr. Scott, so I merely assumed... sloppy! And ironic, given that Scott was a rare example of a single woman with an influential career in music and the arts, a century back. Apologies for the error! Marion Scott never married, yet was a great friend and patron to Gurney...
  2. War Letters, 193-4.
  3. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 182-3.
  4. Chronology, 101.

The Everlasting Terror Revisited; Robert Graves Fails to Smell a Rat, David Jones Draws a Brace of Them

Today we have a few notes for November, a revisited poem-of-the-month (with almost-apt month-dated illustrations), and then an amusing incident placed by its memoir-writer/protagonist back in the spring, but plausibly relocated by his nephew/biographer to today, a century back. Right, then.

First, Henry Williamson, who has done little this year but be ill and attend various training courses, was promoted to full lieutenant today, a century back. This was presumably on the basis of accumulating seniority or to balance out the ratio of ranks in a unit–a common practice–as he as not spent enoughactive time with the Machine Gun Corps to win himself a promotion on merit.[1] Williamson missed the Somme–although he will write Phillip Maddison into the thick of it–but for many, July 1st continues to overshadow November 1st.

Noel Hodgson‘s posthumous book Verse and Prose in Peace and War will be published this month and sell out almost immediately. Before Action, with its quiet, pious tone and dramatic biographical note–the poet asks God for courage just before the attack in which he and nearly twenty thousand others will be killed–will become one of the best-known poems of the war.

Also in the press this month, appearing in the Hueffer-founded English Review (alongside new work by Ford’s friend Joseph Conrad) is the first major poem by J.A. Ackerley. “The Everlasting Terror” was written literally on the eve of the Somme battle (follow the link for my earlier commentary) but it was then dedicated to Ackerley’s friend Bobby Soames, who died during the first minutes of the attack. Ackerley’s dramatic, iambic half-satire is worth reading again, now, long months into the battle it anticipated–once for the writing and again for the reading, as it were. But skipping it to get to the amusing Graves anecdote below is certainly permissible…


The Everlasting Terror

To Bobby

By J. R. Ackerley

For fourteen years since I began
I learnt to be a gentleman,
I learnt that two and two made four
And all the other college lore,
That all that’s good and right and fit
Was copied in the Holy Writ,
That rape was wrong and murder worse
Than stealing money from a purse,
That if your neighbour caused you pain
You turned the other cheek again,
And vaguely did I learn the rhyme
“Oh give us peace, Lord, in our time,
And grant us Peace in Heaven as well.
And save our souls from fire in Hell”;
So since the day that I began
I learnt to be a gentleman.


One of several sketches by David Jones dated November, 1916

But when I’d turned nineteen and more
I took my righteousness to War.
The one thing that I can’t recall
Is why I went to war at all;
I wasn’t brave, nor coward quite,
But still I went, and I was right.

But now I’m nearly twenty-two
And hale as any one of you;
I’ve killed more men than I can tell
And been through many forms of Hell,
And now I come to think of it
They tell you in the Holy Writ
That Hell’s a place of misery
Where Laughter stands in pillory
And Vice and Hunger walk abroad
And breed contagion ‘gainst the Lord.
Well, p’r’aps it is, but all the same,
It heals the halt, the blind, the lame,
It takes and tramples down your pride
And sin and vainness fall beside,
It turns you out a better fool
Than you were taught to be at school,
And, what the Bible does not tell.
It gives you gentleness as well.

Oh, God! I’ve heard the screams of men
In suffering beyond our ken.
And shuddered at the thought that I
Might scream as well if I should die.
I’ve seen them crushed or torn to bits, —
Oh, iron tears you where it hits!
And when the flag of Dawn unfurls
They cry — not God’s name, but their girls’.
Whose shades, perhaps, like Night’s cool breath,
Are present on that field of death.
And sit and weep and tend them there,
God’s halo blazing round their hair.
“Thou shalt not kill.” But in the grime
Of smoke and blood and smell of lime
Which creeping men have scattered round
A blood-disfigured piece of ground.
When Time weighs on you like a ton,
And Terror makes your water run,
And earth and sky are red with flame,
And Death is standing there to claim
His toll among you, when the hour
Arrives when you must show your power
And take your little fighting chance.
Get up and out and so advance,
When crimson swims before your eyes
And in your mouth strange oaths arise,
Then something in you seems to break
And thoughts you never dreamt of wake
Upon your brain and drive you on.
So that you stab till life is gone,
So that you throttle, shoot or stick,
A shrinking man and don’t feel sick
Nor feel one little jot of shame;
My God, but it’s a bloody game!

jones-11-16Oh yes, I’ve seen it all and more.
And felt the knocker on Death’s door;
I’ve been wherever Satan takes you,
And Hell is good, because it makes you.
As long as you’re a man, I say,
The “gentle” part will find its way
And catch you up like all the rest —
For love I give the Tommy best!
No need to learn of Christ’s Temptation
There’s gentleness in all creation.
It’s born in you like seeds in pears.
It ups and takes you unawares.
It’s Christ again, the real Lover
And not the corpse we languish over.
It makes us see, our vision clearer;
When Christ is in us He is dearer,
We love Him when we understand
That each of us may hold His hand.
May walk with Him by day or night
In meditation towards the light;
It’s better far than paying shillings
For paper books with rusty fillings
Which say eternal punishment
Is due to those poor men who’ve spent
Their lives in gambling, drinking, whoring,
As though there were some angel scoring
Black marks against you for your sins
And he who gets the least marks wins.
This was a word Christ never sent,
This talk of awful punishment;
You’re born into a world of sin
Which Jesus’ touch will guide you in,
And when you die your soul returns
To Christ again, with all its burns,
In all its little nakedness,
In tears, in sorrow, to confess
That it has failed as those before
To walk quite straight from door to door:
And Christ will sigh instead of kiss,
And Hell and punishment are this.

And so through all my life and days,
In all my walks, through all my ways.
The lasting terror of the war
Will live with me for evermore.
Of all the pals whom I have missed
There’s one, I know, whom Christ has kissed,
And in his memory I’ll find
The sweetness of the bitter rind —
Of lonely life in front of me
And terror’s sleepless memory.


Sweetness, terror, death, rats… perhaps it’s fortunate that R.P. Graves argues that one of the funnier set pieces in Good-Bye to All That actually took place today, a century back, and not at Eastertide. It may never have happened, of course–it’s a Graves anecdote–and it is probably exaggerated for effect. But this does seem to be a mostly-true story, supported as it is by a reference in the diary of A.P. Graves (Robert’s father, the biographer’s great-uncle).[2]

The tale takes place on Good Friday, when Graves was home on leave and suffering severely from toothache. Or so he remembers, but that pain may be the factor that encouraged the relocation of the story, since Graves is even now, in November, weakened by the chest wound he sustained in July. It might seem unlikely to move a memory by half a year–and to the other side of a very great trauma–just because one remembers that it involved church and some sort of physical pain, but then again I can’t see why Graves would have done so deliberately.

In any event, here is some good comedy, c. 1916: the generational conflict, the experiential gulf, the classics, and the sweating misery of the hapless youth.

So, whether it was Good Friday or All-Saints Day (on which A.P. Graves confessed to his diary that he was worried about his son’s exertions and his chest wound), young Captain Graves fell victim to a proper ambush, resulting in his last visit to church.[3] He was asked to come to an early church service but begged off, unaware that his parents were luring him forward into an untenable position. They then opened up a flanking fire of guilt on the distracted subaltern:

I smelt no rat, beyond a slight suspicion that they were anxious to show me off in church wearing my battle-stained officer’s uniform. But my toothache got the better of me and arguments arose at the breakfast-table, during which I said things that angered my father and grieved my mother.

As it so often happens, it’s the apparently-more-secure flank that suddenly gives in:

At last, on her account alone–because she took no active part in the argument, just looking sad and only officially siding with my father–I consented to come with them…

Then a ring came at the door. The proprietor of a neighboring bath-chair business was waiting with a bath-chair. He explained that, as he had previously told my mother, they could not spare a man to take it to church, being seriously under-staffed because of the War… For the moment I thought that it had been a very generous thought on my mother’s on my behalf but, ill as I felt, I could surely manage to reach the church, about half a mile away, without such a parade of infirmity.[4] I forgot my father’s gout and also forgot that passage in Herodotus about the two dutiful sons who yoked themselves to an ox-cart, pulled their mother, the priestess, to the Temple and were oddly used by Solon, in a conversation with King Croesus, as a symbol of ultimate human happiness.[5]

When I realized what I was in for, I could only laugh. Then down came my mother with her prayer-book, veil and deep religious look, and I could not spoil the day for her. I took hold of the beastly vehicle without a word; my father appeared in a top-hat and his better carpet-slippers and hoisted himself in; we set off. The bath-chair needed oiling badly; also, one tyre kept coming unstuck and winding itself around the axle…

Reader, they made it. It turned out to be a three-hour service led by an obnoxiously proud (to Graves, at least) priest. The grumpy captain beside his proud parents whiled away the long hours composing Latin epigrams in mockery of the prelate…[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 80.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 163.
  3. Other than weddings and military "church parades" he adds, perhaps to emphasize his veracity.
  4. This detail supports the chest-wound-not-toothache hypothesis.
  5. Would that we could delve into this myth, which Graves raises but does not seem to wield--these are proud and strong young men who are spared, in the logic of the gods, the pain that awaits them in life...
  6. Good-Bye to All That, 199-200.

Siegfried Sassoon Dwells on Yesterday’s “Dead in a Squalid, Miserable Ditch;” Lord Crawford on Sandbagging the Cathedral; A Letter for Stella Hodgson

Yesterday a seminal incident in the oft-told story of Siegfried Sassoon occurred.[1] I included both his diary and his “memoir,” yesterday, and the memoir version closed the day’s adventure in a mildly ironic vein.

Coming back from his one-man jaunt into Mametz Wood he idly expected some sort of praise, but was received angrily by his colonel–a barrage had been delayed for three hours because “British patrols”–i.e. Sassoon, alone–were still within the enemy lines. Chagrined and confused about whether he is a screw-up or a half-mad hero, Sassoon/Sherston goes off with a “sulky grin.”

And then the story shifts. For the first time we might notice that “Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man” implies no other people, really–the rest of the hunt, we might hope, is following several fields behind our galloping young self-discoverer. But “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer” really should include a close concern for infantrymen. And indeed, we now see Sassoon dwelling on the experience of others–others less fortunate. This turn in the story–from unrelentingly inward to tentatively outward–is most easily seen in the sudden change in Sassoon’s verse. But to get there, a bit more prose.

As his battalion is withdrawn into into reserve, today, a century back, Sassoon is thinking of the men left behind. In the memoir, the emphasis is on the manifest unreadiness of the Kitchener’s Army men (by-blows of his very own Regiment, as it happens, but this battalion of newly-arrived, sketchily trained men belong to the unblooded Welsh Division) who took over the positions of the 2/RWF before Mametz Wood late yesterday:

The incoming Battalion numbered more than double our own strength (we were less than 400) and they were unseasoned New Army troops. Our little trench under the trees was inundated by a jostling company of exclamatory Welshmen. Kinjack would have called them a panicky rabble. They were mostly undersized men, and as I watched them arriving at the first stage of their battle experience I had a sense of their victimization. A little platoon officer was settling his men down with a valiant show of self-assurance. For the sake of appearances, orders of some kind had to be given, though in reality there was nothing to do except sit down and hope it wouldn’t rain. He spoke sharply to some of them, and I felt that they were like a lot of children. It was going to be a bad look-out for two such bewildered companies, huddled up in the Quadrangle, which had been over-garrisoned by our own comparatively small contingent. Visualizing that forlorn crowd of khaki figures under the twilight of the trees, I can believe that I saw then, for the first time, how blindly War destroys its victims. The sun had gone down on my own reckless brandishings, and I understood the doomed condition of these half-trained civilians who had been sent up to attack the Wood.[2]

Sassoon/Sherston has been the primary innocent of his own Progress–until now. But he has known loss and gone on patrols and been in no man’s land and sought out combat–and he has done it all with a battalion that still draws on a backbone of Regular Army experience and discipline. He is not only aged by his day of solitary adventuring, but deep-dyed by his months with a Regular battalion and so he realizes, suddenly, from and with experience, that these amateur battalions are neither sturdy soldiers nor foolhardy, death-or-glory unattached young men. They are victims.

But that much is the memoir-as-novel-in-history: we will see what becomes of the Welsh Division in the next two weeks. The second pivot-point of yesterday’s experience was Sassoon’s close encounter with a German corpse. In yesterday’s post we read both “Sherston’s” discovery of the corpse and his realization that his feeble efforts to “protect” the vanished beauty of the dead German had been in vain:

He was down in the mud again, and someone had trodden on his face. It disheartened me to see him, though his body had now lost all touch with life and was part of the wastage of the war.

Today, in the rear, Sassoon turned to verse to try to work out what had happened. First he sets the scene. This is the battalion at rest:

The rank stench of those bodies haunts me still
And I remember things I’d best forget.
For now we’ve marched to a green, trenchless land
Twelve miles from battering guns: along the grass
Brown lines of tents are hives for snoring men;
Wide, radiant water sways the floating sky
Below dark, shivering trees. And living-clean
Comes back with thoughts of home and hours of sleep.

To-night I smell the battle; miles away
Gun-thunder leaps and thuds along the ridge;
The spouting shells dig pits in fields of death,
And wounded men, are moaning in the woods.
If any friend be there whom I have loved,
God speed him safe to England with a gash.

It’s sundown in the camp; some youngster laughs,
Lifting his mug and drinking health to all
Who come unscathed from that unpitying waste:
(Terror and ruin lurk behind his gaze.)
Another sits with tranquil, musing face,
Puffing bis pipe and dreaming of the girl
Whose last scrawled letter lies upon his knee.

The sunlight falls, low-ruddy from the west,
Upon their heads. Last week they might have died
And now they stretch their limbs in tired content.
One says ‘The bloody Bosche has got the knock;
‘And soon they’ll crumple up and chuck their games.
‘We’ve got the beggars on the run at last!’

Peace then, and pleasant thoughts for girls at home and blighty ones. This is the happy-enough warrior after battle. Never mind the failures: now is rest, and carelessness, and the thrumming bare gratefulness for survival, for life. These are the feelings Sassoon would be having if yesterday hadn’t changed him. The “poem,” however, rushes on:

Then I remembered someone that I’d seen
Dead in a squalid, miserable ditch,
Heedless of toiling feet that trod him down.
He was a Prussian with a decent face,
Young, fresh, and pleasant, so I dare to say.
No doubt he loathed the war and longed for peace,
And cursed our souls because we’d killed his friends.

One night he yawned along a half-dug trench
Midnight; and then the British guns began
With heavy shrapnel bursting low, and ‘hows’
Whistling to cut the wire with blinding din.
He didn’t move; the digging still went on;
Men stooped and shovelled; someone gave a grunt,
And moaned and died with agony in the sludge.

Then the long hiss of shells lifted and stopped.
He stared into the gloom; a rocket curved,
And rifles rattled angrily on the left
Down by the wood, and there was noise of bombs.
Then the damned English loomed in scrambling haste
Out of the dark and struggled through the wire,
And there were shouts and curses; someone screamed
And men began to blunder down the trench
Without their rifles. It was time to go:
He grabbed his coat; stood up, gulping some bread;
Then clutched his head and fell.

I found him there
In the gray morning when the place was held.
His face was in the mud; one arm flung out
As when he crumpled up; his sturdy legs
Were bent beneath his trunk; heels to the sky.

Sassoon has never written “poetry” like this, and indeed, he will not consider this to be a finished poem.[3] Is it too ugly–or too true? Too personal? Too impersonal?

But of course it’s not a finished poem–it’s the very beginning of an entirely new literary effort.


And now, with this belated focus on the dead–the anonymous, rather than the poetry-writing dead–I regret leaving out the long tale of the major raid by the Second Royal Welch yesterday, a century back. In a way it is a perfect counterpoint to the high hopes of the Somme: where the Somme hoped for everything and achieved very little at an enormous cost, this raid seems really to have had no strategic purpose at all, and yet “[t]he expenditure of shells, mortar-bombs, and rifle-grenades ran into the thousands,” and there were nearly 50 casualties, including seven dead. And the raid was accounted a success.

Dr. Dunn’s chronicle makes no reference to any strategic goal: the point of the thing is to punish the Germans opposite, kill some of them, destroy their front line positions, and then return, having seized the upper hand once again on the Givenchy front. The Germans lost a few more men–probably not enough to “make up for” the disaster of Red Dragon Crater, but still–and the more than forty prisoners will add to the battalion’s reputation. Plus the Germans will have some work to do to get their front line in order once again.

But so, of course, will the British, for the German retaliatory fire is fierce and accurate:

Now comes the most awful part of the Show. A man of A Company had a brother in C Company. When he got back after the raid he said, “Pass the word to my brother, ‘I am all right.'” A few minutes later he was sitting with two others in the trench when a German shell landed plumb among them, killing them all. Shortly after daybreak I met his brother coming to see him; he asked me if I knew where his brother was. His body had been taken to Cambrin for burial, but I couldn’t tell him. When he did find out he nearly went out of his mind.[4]


So sometimes the gap between worry and reassurance and the worst blow of knowledge–between proof of life and overtaking death–is not channel-wide and a few days long, but a matter of minutes.

But we’ll turn again, from the anonymous soldiers, figured now as victims rather than a price paid for strategy, to the young officers–known to us, and well-loved, and mourned. Noel Hodgson‘s friend Frank Worrall, learning only today of his death, wrote immediately to Noel’s sister Stella:

I’m just fearfully sorry for you, and you all. “Bill” was everything to me and more that a fellow could wish a pal to be. Perhaps you knew, he was so fond of you, what friends we were. I just loved him and I am only a hard case man and am not effusive at any time but he was such a loveable old thing, such a straight liver but up to anything, that a real man would think right. Always keen, but never at the expenses of others, for his men. Always to me my “Smiler.”[5]


But life–and the oddly literary war–go on. So here’s what maybe a gently cruel way to bring in the “normalcy” of those not in battle or reeling from new loss. Lord Crawford has recently been prodded to take up once more his ordinary estate: no longer an enlisted medical orderly, he is on his way to become one of those intelligence officers involved in public relations. And, for the time being, he will be another observer of the battle. Today, a century back, he does well: he moved from two symbolic locations–Montreuil, where Haig has his headquarters (in, yes, a chateau) and Amiens, the cathedral city and rail-head for the Somme–and provides both literary and artistic points of reference.

Thursday, 6 July 1916

A beautiful drive from Montreuil to Amiens through magnificently cultivated land. General Charteris wants me to go to Paris forthwith, whereas Colonel Hutton Wilson would like to keep me here to help him and to get an insight into the press censorship. Later, I went to the cathedral. The porch and many internal monuments sandbagged, and they are now, notwithstanding our advance, engaged in sandbagging the choir. It occurs to me that the Hotel de France at Montreuil must be the inn at which the sentimental traveller engaged his French servant; was he called La Flache? I forget. Anyhow, this association endears Montreuil to my heart.[6]

This is Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, and it was not “La Flache” but ‘La Fleur”–who, incidentally, is a sort of marionette-mascot for the region of Picardie.


References and Footnotes

  1. I realize that this arm's-length, fiction-appropriate diction has become a tic: I could use historical terminology--e.g. "yesterday's events will weigh heavily..."--but even leaving aside fastidiousness about the difference between history and fictionalized autobiography it seems somehow inappropriate. Sassoon is experiencing his life not as a series of events but as an unfolding story. And yesterday the plot took a turn.
  2. Complete Memoirs, 337-8.
  3. Although Sassoon worked these verse over, but he will never seek to have them published.
  4. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 221.
  5. Zeepvat, Before Action, 206.
  6. Private Lord Crawford, 190.

A Joyful Reunion for Vera Brittain; A Telegram for the Hodgsons; Siegfried Sassoon in a One-Man Assault

Today, a century back, Noel Hodgson‘s family received this telegram.

Deeply regret to inform you that Lieut. W.N. Hodgson Devonshire Regiment was killed in action 1 July. The Army Council express their sympathy.

There’s no softening such a dreadful blow. But the survivors of the 9th Devonshires’ advance tried their best. These letters will start arriving in the days that follow:

“I can truthfully say that he is the greatest loss the Regiment has sustained… It is difficult to say who will miss him most in the Regiment, the officers or men, he was so popular with all.”

“I joined in the love & admiration which all who knew him felt for him. His sound common sense, his wonderful presence of mind, & his real courage made him an ideal officer. I don’t think there was anyone in the Battalion we could less have afforded to miss.”

“In losing your brother, I have lost my very best friend… He was beloved by everybody.”

Most touchingly, Noel’s mother, Penelope, will receive this note from one of her son’s men, asking for a picture of him:

“The Boys was all very fond of him & They told me how he got killed & I was so sorry to hear. . . . Mr Hodgson was my officer when I first enlisted & he was so very kind to us giving us sweets & smokes & we chaps thought the world of him.”[1]

I don’t know much about what Noel’s sister, Stella, thought or wrote after learning that her premonition had come true.


To set against her pain, here is another sister’s happiness. The heartless, opaque workings of the war machine seem to produce only cruel ironies–but not today. Today, an accident of medical evacuation provides Vera Brittain with unlooked-for joy.

July 5th

There was an early morning convoy of officers into J [ward], which had been got ready with frantic haste the day before. I Went on duty in 32 as usual, & had not been there many minutes when suddenly I saw Miss George, who ran up to me & said “Do you know your brother’s in J?” Edward in J! I scarcely knew where to turn–what to do & think. It was like some impossible novel that he should have come to my hospital. I had just told Miss Berkeley, who was very pleased & sympathetic but suggested that the work in that ward would have been very heavy & I had better wait a while before going, when Matron, kind for once, rang up to say my brother was in J & I could go to see him. Sister said I needn’t hurry back–busy though we were–& I went, in haste. . .

There was the dear, in bed, in blue pyjamas, struggling with a breakfast tray with one hand. The other sleeve was empty, & the arm below it stiff & bandaged. We could neither of us say much. . . but he smiled & seemed gayer & happier than he had been all through his leave. I think the splendid relief of having the great deed faced & over was uppermost in his mind then, rather than the memory of all he had been through on that day–hereafter to be regarded as one of the greatest dates in history. It was not till a little while afterwards that I,[2] & all who loved him realised that July 1st had changed him utterly & added ten years on to his life.

I learnt Edward’s story by degrees. His battalion took part in the main attack. As far as I remember, about 17 men & 2 officers came through unscathed. . . . Edward’s beloved Captain Harris was “missing” for ages; Edward thought he must have been blown up by a shell, but his body was found, long afterwards. He was wounded by shrapnel in the stomach, & when two of the attacking party stopped to pick him up & carry him in, he told them to “Go on & not bother about him.” At least one can be thankful that this episode of his heroism came to light. It is such things that help us to live through this War.

Edward himself had to lead the first wave of his company. They were not the very first to attack, and while they were waiting to go over the parapet, whole crowds of wounded began to come in & block up the trench, & not only this, but a certain battalion got into a panic & came running back. What with the blocked trench the sight of the wounded, the panic began to communicate itself to Edward’s men. Had it not been for him they would never have gone. Twice he had to go back to rally them. Finally he got them over the parapet. . . . He was wounded for the first time when about 90 yards along “No Man’s Land” by a bullet through his thigh; he tried to go on but could not; he fell, & crawled into a shell hole. Quite soon a shell burst very close to him & either a bit of this or a machine-gun bullet went through his left arm above the elbow. It seemed a far worse pain than the bullet in his thigh had been; he thought his arm had been blown off for the first time lost his nerve & cried out. He noticed when he had lain there about an hour a half that the hail of machine-gun bullets was getting less & thought he would try & crawl back. I think it was that crawl back among the dead which aged him more than anything; he says what made more impression on him than anything was seeing the dead hand of a man whose flesh was beginning to turn green & yellow, though he had only been killed that morning.[3]

This is not just a sister’s admiring account: Brittain will be one of a raft of officers who are awarded the Military Cross for courageous leadership during the debacle of July 1st.


And as Vera Brittain was hearing the first details of how her brother won his MC, Siegfried Sassoon was bidding for a bar to his own. A night attack on Mametz Wood was launched in the wee hours of this morning, a century back, but it ground to a halt amidst confusion. The Royal Welch, however, had seized Quadrangle Trench from the Germans, and Sassoon–who had once again been left behind with his depleted company, came up with supplies and ammunition. There was a German sniper firing on the Welch as they sought to deepen the trench, and Sassoon used this fact as an excuse to go forward without orders.

What happened next is a major part of his little legend, an experience that was both something like a pinnacle for the fox-hunting-man-become-infantry-officer and, perhaps, the start of the next chapter, in which he finds himself driven to query the war he sees before him.

Sassoon went forward alone, with a bag of bombs, looking for the sniper. He found instead a trench full of Germans–and they ran, probably assuming that they were being attacked by more than one man. Here is the earliest and most matter-of-fact description of his one-man charge, from his diary:

I went across from our bombing-post to where Wood Trench ended, as there was a Bosche sniper: the others fired at the parapet, so they didn’t see me coming. When I got there. I chucked four Mills bombs into their trench and to my surprise fifty or sixty (I counted eighty-five packs left on the firestep) ran away like hell into Mametz, Wood. Our Lewis-gun was on them all the way and I think they suffered. (Ask someone else about this show!)[4]

This is a tale that will grow in the telling–Robert Graves will have Sassoon clearing out the trench and then sitting down to read some poetry in the deserted German trench, a story that is “almost certainly apocryphal”–but it also seems to have begun strangely foreshortened. This was quite a deed, and Sassoon, despite having implicitly disobeyed orders (his assignment was to stay with his company and resupply the forward companies) was recommended for another decoration. (He didn’t get it–the trench, after all, was not held, and the overall attack was not a success).

It really does seem as if Sassoon was thrilled with the adventure but didn’t quite decide to cast it in heroic terms until a little later. He was exploring, he was angry at the sniper… but he did indeed clear out an enemy trench, single-handedly. When he came to write a letter to Eddie Marsh, he sounds very much the happy–nay, the exultant–warrior:

Eddie, I chased 40 Bosches out of a trench by Mametz Wood all by myself. Wasn’t that a joyous moment for me? They ran like hell and I chucked bombs and made hunting noises.[5]

And here–at some length–is how the exploit came to be written when Sassoon produced the “Memoirs” of “George Sherston.” The hunting noises remain–and were there, perhaps, from the start. But hindsight makes something very different of this innocent’s violent adventure.

There wasn’t much wire in front of Quadrangle Trench. I entered it at a strong point on the extreme left and found three officers sitting on the fire-step with hunched shoulders and glum unenterprising faces. Two others had gone away wounded. I was told that Edmunds, the Battalion Observation Officer, had gone down to explain the situation to Kinjack; we were in touch with the Northumberland Fusiliers on our left. Nevertheless I felt that there must be something to be done. Exploring to the right I found young Fernby, whose demeanor was a contrast to the apathetic trio in the sandbagged strong-point. Fernby had only been out from England a few weeks but he appeared quite at home in his new surroundings. His face showed that he was exulting in the fact that he didn’t feel afraid. He told me that no one knew what had happened on our right; the Royal Irish were believed to have failed. We went along the trench which was less than waist deep. The Germans had evidently been digging when we attacked, and had left their packs and other equipment ranged along the reverse edge of the trench. I stared about me; the smoke-drifted twilight was alive with intense movement, and there was a wild strangeness in the scene which somehow excited me. Our men seemed a, bit out of hand and I couldn’t see any of the responsible N.C.O.’s; some of the troops were firing excitedly at the Wood; others were rummaging in the German packs. Fernby said that we were being sniped from the trees on both sides. Mametz Wood was a menacing wall of gloom, and now an outburst of rapid thudding explosions began from that direction. There was a sap from the Quadrangle to the Wood, and along this the Germans were bombing. In all this confusion I formed the obvious notion that we ought to be deepening the trench. Daylight would be on us at once, and we were along a slope exposed to enfilade fire from the Wood. I told Fernby to make the men dig for all they were worth, and went to the right with Kendle. The Germans had left a lot of shovels, but we were making no use of them. Two tough-looking privates were disputing the ownership of a pair of field-glasses, so I pulled out my pistol and urged them, with ferocious abjurations, to chuck all that fooling and dig. I seem to be getting pretty handy with my pistol, I thought, for the conditions in Quadrangle Trench were giving me a sort of angry impetus. In some places it was only a foot deep, and already men were lying wounded and killed by sniping. There were high-booted German bodies, too, and in the blear beginning of daylight they seemed as much the victims of a catastrophe as the men who had attacked them. As I stepped over one of the Germans an impulse made me lift him up from the miserable ditch. Propped against the bank, his blond face was undisfigured, except by the mud which I wiped from his eyes and mouth with my coat sleeve. He’d evidently been killed while digging, for his tunic was knotted loosely about his shoulders. He didn’t look to be more than eighteen. Hoisting him a little higher, I thought what a gentle face he had, and remembered that this was the first time I’d ever touched one of our enemies with my hands. Perhaps I had some dim sense of the futility which had put an end to this good-looking youth. Anyhow I hadn’t expected the Battle of the Somme to be quite like this. . . . Kendle, who had been trying to do something for a badly wounded man, now rejoined me, and we continued, mostly on all fours, along the dwindling trench. We passed no one until we came to a bombing post-three serious-minded men who said that no one had been further than that yet. Being in an exploring frame of mind, I took a bag of bombs and crawled another sixty or seventy yards with Kendle close behind me. The trench became a shallow groove and ended where the ground overlooked a little valley along which there was a light railway line. We stared across at the Wood. From the other side of the valley came an occasional rifle-shot, and a helmet bobbed up for a moment. Kendle remarked that from that point any one could see into the whole of our trench on the slope behind us. I said we must have our strong-post here and told him to go back for the bombers and a Lewis gun. I felt adventurous and it seemed as if Kendle and I were having great fun together. Kendle thought so too. The helmet bobbed up again. “I’ll just have a shot at him,” he said, wriggling away from the crumbling bank which gave us cover. At this moment Fernby appeared with two men and a Lewis gun. Kendle was half kneeling against some broken ground; I remember seeing him push his tin hat back from his forehead and then raise himself a few inches to take aim. After firing once he looked at us with a lively smile; a second later he fell sideways. A blotchy mark showed where the bullet had hit him just above the eyes.

The circumstances being what they were, I had no justification for feeling either shocked or astonished by the sudden extinction of Lance-Corporal Kendle. But after blank awareness that he was killed, all feelings tightened and contracted to a single intention — to “settle that sniper” on the other side of the valley. If I had stopped to think, I shouldn’t have gone at all. As it was, I discarded my tin hat and equipment, slung a bag of bombs across my shoulder, abruptly informed Fernby that I was going to find out who was there, and set off at a downhill double. While I was running I pulled the safety-pin out of a Mills bomb; my right hand being loaded, I did the same for my left. I mention this because I was obliged to extract the second safety-pin with my teeth, and the grating sensation reminded me that I was half way across and not so reckless as I had been when I started. I was even a little out of breath as I trotted up the opposite slope. Just before I arrived at the top I slowed up and threw my two bombs. Then I rushed at the bank, vaguely expecting some sort of scuffle with my imagined enemy. I had lost my temper with the man who had shot Kendle; quite unexpectedly, I found myself looking down into a well-conducted trench with a great many Germans in it. Fortunately for me, they were already retreating. It had not occurred to them that they were being attacked by a single fool; and Fernby, with presence of mind which probably saved me, had covered my advance by traversing the top of the trench with his Lewis gun. I slung a few more bombs, but they fell short of the clumsy field-gray figures, some of whom half turned to fire their rifles over the left shoulder as they ran across the open toward the wood, while a crowd of jostling helmets vanished along the trench. Idiotically elated, I stood there with my finger in my right ear and emitted a series of “view-holloas” ( a gesture which ought to win the approval of people who still regard war as a form of outdoor sport). Having thus failed to commit suicide, I proceeded to occupy the trench — that is to say I sat down on the fire-step, very much out of breath, and hoped to God the Germans wouldn’t come back again.

The trench was deep and roomy, with a fine view of our men in the Quadrangle, but I had no idea what to do now I had got possession of it. The word “consolidation” passed through my mind; but I couldn’t consolidate by myself. Naturally, I didn’t underestimate the magnitude of my achievement in capturing the trench on which the Royal Irish had made a frontal attack in the dark. Nevertheless, although still unable to see that my success was only a lucky accident, I felt a bit queer in my solitude, so I reinforced my courage by counting the sets of equipment which had been left behind. There were between forty and fifty packs, tidily arranged in a row — a fact which I often mentioned (quite casually) when describing my exploit afterwards. There was the doorway of a dug-out, but I only peered in at it, feeling safer above ground. Then, with apprehensive caution, I explored about half way to the Wood without finding any dead bodies. Apparently no one was any the worse for my little bombing demonstration. Perhaps I was disappointed by this, though the discovery of a dead or wounded enemy might have caused a revival of humane emotion. Returning to the sniping post at the end of the trench I meditated for a few minutes, somewhat like a boy who has caught a fish too big to carry home (if such an improbable event has ever happened). Finally I took a-deep breath and ran headlong back by the way I’d come.

Little Fernby’s anxious face awaited me, and I flopped down beside him with an outburst of hysterical laughter. When he’d heard my story he asked whether we oughtn’t to send a party across to occupy the trench, but I said that the Germans would be bound to come back quite soon. Moreover my rapid return had attracted the attention of a machine-gun which was now firing angrily, along the valley from a position in front of the Wood. In my excitement I had forgotten about Kendle. The sight of his body gave me a bit of a shock. His face had gone a bluish color; I told one of the bombers to cover it with something. Then I put on my web-equipment and its attachments, took a pull at my water-bottle, for my mouth had suddenly become intolerably dry, and set off on my return journey, leaving Fernby to look after the bombing post. It was now six o’clock in the morning, and a weary business it is, to be remembering and writing it down….

Alternately crouching and crawling, I worked my way back. I passed the young German whose body I had rescued from disfigurement a couple of hours before. He was down in the mud again, and someone had trodden on his face. It disheartened me to see him, though his body had now lost all touch with life and was part of the wastage of the war. He and Kendle had canceled one another out in the process called “attrition of manpower”. Further along I found one of our men dying slowly with a hole in his forehead. His eyes were open and he breathed with a horrible snoring sound. Close by him knelt two of his former mates; one of them was hacking at the ground with an entrenching tool while the other scooped the earth out of the trench with his hands. They weren’t worrying about souvenirs now.

Disregarding a written order from Burton, telling me to return, I remained up in Quadrangle Trench all the morning. The enemy made a few attempts to bomb their way up the sap from the Wood and in that restricted area I continued to expend energy which was a result of strained nerves. I mention this because, as the day went on, I definitely wanted to kill someone at close quarters. If this meant that I was really becoming a good “fighting man”, I can only suggest that, as a human being, I was both exhausted and exasperated. My courage was of the cock-fighting kind. Cock-fighting is illegal in England, but in July 1916 the man who could boast that he’d killed a German in the Battle of the Somme would have been patted on the back by a bishop in a hospital ward.[6]

It bears emphasizing, perhaps, that Sassoon seems to have killed no one, and also that he frames the episode not with killing or dying, but with the degradation of the already dead. If today, a century back, was the pinnacle for the innocent, aggressive, foolish fox-hunting boy who wanted to have reap glorious experience from war, it was also the day he saw–and decided to write a poem about–a corpse trampled into the mud.


Remarkably, today also featured a major action by the other Regular battalion of the Royal Welch. The Second Battalion–chronicled by Dr. Dunn, with Frank Richards in the ranks and Robert Graves about to join–is holding trenches near Givenchy. The raid, an elaborately-planned full-battalion action, was intended to avenge the destruction of nearly an entire company of the 2/RWF in the explosion of the mine that became Red Dragon Crater. Both Dunn and Richards describe the raid at length–43 prisoners were taken, including one whom Richards himself brought in, while seven Royal Welch Fusiliers were killed and forty wounded–but since this is an isolated action away from our main sources on the Somme, and since it has been quite a day already, I won’t include it here…[7]


References and Footnotes

  1. Zeepvat, Before Action, 205-7.
  2. This is one of those points where Vera's diary hints that she fills up a bit some days afterwards--since the diary now lapses until August, it seems likely that the following sentences reflect a point of view some days or weeks on. But hey, when convenient, I'll ingenuously accept the heading date...
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 326-8.
  4. Diary, 89.
  5. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 269.
  6. Complete Memoirs, 341-6.
  7. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 218-221. Richards, Old Soldiers, 171-9.

Noel Hodgson Laid to Epigrammatic Rest; A Merciful Post for Vera Brittain; Siegfried Sassoon Goes Up to the Line; Alan Seeger’s Rendezvous with Death; The First Battlefield Tourists Report

First, today, the good news, from Vera Brittain‘s diary:

July 4th

When I went to the letter-rack at lunch-time there was–of all things on earth I least expected & most desired to see–a little pencil-scrawled envelope from Edward. I tore it open–it said “July 1st. I was wounded in the action this morning, in left arm & right thigh not seriously. Hope to come to England. Don’t worry. Edward.” It was written, I learnt later, from the Casualty Clearing Station. Heaven at least has had some measure of mercy on me–for this once.[1]


But mercy is unevenly distributed. It has been fashionable–and it remains good critical practice–to seek to separate the life from the art, the writer from the suspiciously writer-like character. This can be impossible in the case of fictionalized memoirs, inaccurate autobiographies, and highly personal first novels–i.e. the work of Siegfried Sassoon (who we’ll hear from below), Robert Graves, and Frederic Manning–but then again that is part of the challenge, part of the fun.

Highly personal poetry is a different beast. The lyric poet is supposed to speak personally, and yet we somehow feel that even if they address a specific moment they must do so, somehow, out of time; that they should rise above the detail-rich roughage of daily life and speak to eternal things. That should be the right way to read poetry, surely–but why is it, then, that there is such a strong overlap–a codependency, really–between poetry and the lives of poets? More specifically, why do the dramatic, too-often-tragic lives of good-looking young poets come to seem completely consonant with their poetic afterlife?

Are privileged young men with talent–and, often enough, charm and beauty–more likely to be poets, or just the sorts of poets we remember as poets?

Of course–and this is not their fault, but ours. Perhaps we can manage to remember the very greatest writers for the complexity of their achievement (and it helps, of course, if they leave us as little of their lives as their second-best bed), but with most of these guys, well, we’ll only remember them if we can keep the life and the work together, as it were: vatic bards going predictably down in drink or flames, poetic voluptuaries dying scandalous deaths…

And if it boosts one’s posthumous fame to live fast and burn out while still on an upward trajectory, then it helps all the more so if one appears to have written one’s own death. Rupert Brooke wrote a sort of aspirationally heroic repose, and his own bathetic death–not at the hands of the Huns but at the proboscis of a mosquito–tends to be half-forgotten. Instead, The Soldier claims the corner of the foreign field in which we remember him.

Julian Grenfell came closer. He was not charging the German trenches, exactly: he was killed at long range while observing. But he had gone Into Battle, fought bravely and aggressively, and been killed by the enemy, just as he wished, much as he had written.

And then there is Charles Sorley, who went with unfailing courage and unflinching intelligence to an early death. His poetry was sharp and uncompromising, and he died unheralded, with an unpublished sonnet about the fruitlessness of turning to the mouthless dead for wisdom or consolation literally in his pocket. He was the first to choose ghostly silence as a form of refused memorial–but that of course is a necessary irony.

And now Noel Hodgson has joined this company, this representative pantheon of poets whose deaths seem to be found in their late–youthful, yet still late–poetry. Hodgson was something like the ultimate nice English boy. He was studious and kind, quietly religious, loving to his family and loyal to his friends. He didn’t write himself Into Battle–instead he politely begged divine aid Before Action. And if he should be remembered for one more thing–Charlotte Zeepvat’s biography stresses this heavily–it was for the strong spirit of camaraderie among the young officers of his battalion. They were fast friends, and we can imagine, perhaps, that the enlisted men of the battalion were unusually close as well. (I’m straining here, in order to get to the famous end to this chapter of the story.)

Today, a century back, Ernest Crosse, the young chaplain of the 8th and 9th Devonshires and Hodgson’s friend, held a funeral for the men of the regiment killed on July 1st. 163 men were buried in what had been their front-line trench in Mansel Copse. The little cemetery will become famous for an inscription that echoes–appropriately enough, given the schooling and temperament of the Greek-reading Hodgson–a well-known section of Herodotus.

The Devonshires held this trench, the Devonshires hold it still.[2]

The Devonshires, though they were attacking a stronghold rather than defending a narrow place, are figured here as Spartans, resisting the invader to the last. The echo is of the famous elegiac couplet, attributed to Simonides, that was once (and is again) inscribed on the site of the Spartan last stand at Thermopylae.

Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

This, in a familiar English version, runs:

Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.



So Noel Hodgson is dead, and whether he received the help he asked for is not a thing we can know. But he is buried in a fashion we might imagine he would approve: faithful and apt, alongside his comrades forevermore.

A warrior-poet archetype of a very different sort went into action today as well. Alan Seeger of the French Foreign Legion has styled himself as a seize-the-day poet of action, a fiery spirit bent on experience. For us he is the American edition of the 19th century French early-modern: dramatically hard-living (but still privileged, with a safety net back home), and vociferously self-creating–the intellectual bad boy whose confusion of life and art may not be quite as intentional as he perceives it to be.

But I’m muddying the waters, which are foul enough. Today is another death-day. Seeger was eager to see battle, and sought it out years before his nation. He chose the hard life of the Foreign Legion and didn’t complain and–in his published writings at least–his interest in experiencing the glory and thrill of destructive warfare never waned, not even after he had accrued many months of experience in the trenches. He has been very confident, lately, that his part in the Battle of the Somme will be glorious, that the battle will be a great thing, and that victory will follow. And he has warned against trying to capture the greatness of battle in mere words.

And, he has written this:

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear…
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Nor did he. Today, a century back, he was killed during the attack on Belloy-en-Santerre. In the conclusion to the volume of Diary and Letters soon to be published by his family, an account of his final days is given by one of his comrades.

After passing the night at Fontaine-les-Cappy we moved in the morning toward what had been the German first lines. I passed almost all the day with Alan. He was perfectly happy. “My dream is coming true,” he said to me…

The field of battle was relatively calm, a few shells fell, fired by the enemy in retreat, and our troops were advancing on all sides. The Colonials had taken Assevillers and the next day we were to take their place in first line. On July 3rd about noon we moved toward Assevillers to relieve the Colonials at nightfall. Alan and I visited Assevillers, the next morning, picking up souvenirs, postcards, letters, soldiers’ notebooks, and chatting all the time, when suddenly a voice called out: “The company will fall in to go to the first line.”

About 4 o’clock the order came to get ready for the attack. None could help thinking of what the next few hours would bring. One minute’s anguish and then, once in the ranks, faces became calm and serene, a kind of gravity falling upon them, while on each could be read the determination and expectation of victory. Two battalions were to attack Belloy-en-Santerre, our company being the reserve of battalion. The companies forming the first wave were deployed on the plain. Bayonets glittered in the air above the corn, already quite tall.


Alan Seeger

The first section (Alan’s section) formed the right and vanguard of the company and mine formed the left wing. After the first bound forward, we lay flat on the ground, and I saw the first section advancing beyond us and making toward the extreme right of the village of Belloy-en-Santerre. I caught sight of Seeger and called to him, making a sign with my hand.

He answered with a smile. How pale he was! His tall silhouette stood out on the green of the cornfield. He was the tallest man in his section. His head erect, and pride in his eye, I saw him running forward, with bayonet fixed. Soon he disappeared and that was the last time I saw my friend…

The account continues, based, apparently, on other sources:

One of the first to fall was Alan Seeger. Mortally wounded, it was his fate to see his comrades pass him in their splendid charge and to forego the supreme moment of victory to which he had looked forward through so many months of bitterest hardship and trial. Together with those other generous wounded of the Legion fallen, he cheered on the fresh files as they came up to the attack and listened anxiously for the cries of triumph which should tell of their success.

It was no moment for rescue. In that zone of deadly cross-fire there could be but one thought,—to get beyond it alive, if possible. So it was not until the next day that his body was found and buried, with scores of his comrades, on the battle-field of Belloy-en-Santerre.[3]


It’s not inappropriate, I think, to follow Seeger’s death with the slow build-up to Siegfried Sassoon‘s first battle. There is something of Hodgson’s charming politeness in Sassoon, and something of Seeger’s willfully dashing adventurism. Sassoon’s diary, more than any other source just now, combines our two central interests: how soldiers write their experiences of the war, and how writers record what they see.

July 4, 4.50 a.m.

The Battalion started at 9.15 p.m. yesterday and after messing about for over four hours, got going with tools, wire,
etc and went through Mametz, up a long communication trench with three very badly mangled corpses lying in it: a man, short, plump, with turned-up moustaches, lying face downward and half sideways with one arm flung up as if defending his head, and bullet through his forehead. A doll-like figure. Another hunched and mangled, twisted and scorched with many days’ dark growth on his face, teeth clenched and grinning lips.

Came down across the open hillside looking across to Mametz Wood, and out at the end of Bright Alley. Found that the Royal Irish were being bombed and machine-gunned by Bosches in the wood and had fifteen wounded. A still grey morning; red east; everyone very tired.

12.30 p.m. These dead are terrible and undignified carcases, stiff and contorted. There were thirty of our own laid in two ranks by the Mametz-Carnoy road, some side by side on their backs with bloody-clotted fingers mingled as if they were hand-shaking in the companionship of death. And the stench undefinable. And rags and shreds of blood-stained cloth, bloody boots riddled and torn. This morning the facts were: R.W.F. and Royal Irish were sent up to consolidate trenches close to the south-east end of Mametz Wood and to clear the wood outskirts… Our A Company… were sniped on the road, and got into a quarry where they lost four wounded and one killed. The
Irish meanwhile had tried to bomb the Bosches in the wood, failed entirely, and suffered sixty casualties (one officer killed and one wounded). Our guns then chucked a lot of heavy shrapnel over the wood and the Irish got away. The whole thing seems to have been caused by bad staff-work (of the Division). We were out eleven hours and got back to our field about 8.30 a.m… Great fun these last two days.

9.15 p.m. The Battalion just moving off for the attack on Quadrangle Trench, by Mametz Wood, The XV Corps attack at 12.30 a.m. It rained in sheets from 1 to 4.30, but everyone has recovered, though all got soaked. The attack-scheme was sprung on us very much at the last moment.

C. Company can muster only twenty-six men, so we are carrying R[oyal].E[ngineers]. stuff. B. and D, attack. A. are-in reserve. We attack from Bottom Wood on a six-hundred-yard front.[4]

One more day’s postponement, then.


So… perhaps we should stop there. Perhaps we should have stopped with Seeger’s death. And yet it’s only been three days since the disastrous First of July. So, spared by the delay in the attack of the Royal Welch of any new tale of courage and carnage on the British section of the front, we can look back. Here is something ancient, and persistent: battlefield tourism.

Rowland Feilding is a serving officer, of course, but he has been free to roam of late, and to see what he can see. His letter is both a testament to what did go right for the British–he is on the southern flank of the assault, where the artillery did a better job and the objective were captured–and what didn’t. Those deep German dugouts…

His letter to his wife is a bridge to us, from the battle through the contemporary “tourist” and across the experiential gulf…

July 4, 1916.

…In the afternoon, with three of my officers, I visited the battlefield of three days ago. We lorry-jumped to Bray.
From there we struck off on foot along the road towards Mametz, one of the villages captured by our troops. The
fighting was still continuing in front, but in the ruined village itself all was quiet. Our heavy guns were firing over
our heads as we walked, but beyond an occasional shrapnel burst in the distance, the German artillery was quiescent, and we were able to explore the surface in safety. After proceeding 3 1/2 miles we reached what last Saturday was the British front line. It was very battered, and scarcely recognizable as a fire-trench. Then we crossed Noman’s Land, where we found infantry at work, salving equipment, and collecting the dead. Of the latter I
counted a hundred in one group—a pitiful sight! Then we came to what had been the German wire entanglements. Here our guns had certainly done their work well. The wire was completely demolished. Not one square yard had escaped the shells. Then we came to the German fire-trench. It is difficult to understand how any living creature could have survived such bombardment.

The trench was entirely wrecked, and so flattened that it could have given little if any cover at the end. Leigh
Bennett, who was with me and who has been fighting in Gallipoli, when he saw this—his first view of a French
battlefield—said: “I see now that what we thought was real shelling in Gallipoli was mere child’s play.”
Fifty yards beyond the German fire-trench was their support trench, and about the same distance further on, their
Reserve trench. Both had suffered severely. The ground is strewn with unexploded shells of ours, mostly of heavy

I went into some of the dug-outs, but, as I had neither electric torch nor matches, it was not possible to see much.
They are of varying depths, some being quite 20 feet below the surface, and are well made, the sides and roofs being strongly supported by timber. I saw only one that had more than one entrance, and it was on fire. After exploring these remains of the German trenches we went on into Mametz village where living man was represented by the Salvage folk and a few infantry making their way up to the new front line. Scarcely a wall stands, and of the  trees nothing remains but mangled twisted stumps. The ruins present an appalling and most gruesome picture of the havoc of war, seen fresh, which no pen or picture can describe. You must see it, and smell it, and hear the sounds, to understand. It brings a sort of sickening feeling to me even now, though I consider myself hardened to such sights. To give an idea of the long period of time through which the line at this point has remained stationary, I may say that in Noman’s Land I saw two skeletons, one in German uniform, and the other in the long since discarded red infantry breeches of the French.[5]

These sights will become more common.


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 326.
  2. Zeepvat, Before Action, 203.
  3. Letters and Diary, 212-16.
  4. Diaries, 87-8.
  5. War Letters to a Wife, 85-6.

The Day After: Barbed Wire and the Dead, Prisoners and the Wounded; Noel Hodgson’s Favorite Tobacco

In the chaos and carnage of yesterday’s attack we heard relatively little about the wire. The great shock yesterday was the effect of well-positioned machine guns on infantry advancing slowly in the open. That was new, and terrible. While the artillery certainly failed to destroy the deep German dugouts and supporting artillery batteries–especially in the central and northern sectors of the front–these were only able to wreak such havoc on the attacking British because the attacking waves took so long to cross the few hundred yards of no man’s land. The slow advance was a result of several factors: the huge loads they carried, the fear that the amateur soldiers of Kitchener’s Army might become disordered in a quick advance, the difficult nature of the ground itself.

But there was also the barbed wire: although gaps had been cut in the deep barriers before the British trenches, the attacking troops in most places still needed to file through these gaps before once more spreading out. Many died there. And if they survived the walk across no man’s land, there was then the German wire. In some places this had been “cut” by artillery–ground bursts uprooting the stakes and throwing the thick tangled barriers aside. But in many places it had not. If this was little discussed yesterday it was both because wire–unlike facing machine guns in the open–was familiar to the attacking soldiers and because few of our writers got as far as the German wire.

George Coppard, himself a machine gunner, observed the latter stages of the subsidiary northern attack, when the battlefield was wreathed in smoke. Today, the battlefield can be seen more clearly.

The next morning we gunners surveyed the dreadful scene in front of our trench… Hundreds of dead, many belonging to the 37th Brigade, were strung out like wreckage washed up to a high-water mark. Quite as many had died on the enemy wire as on the ground, like fish caught in a net. They hung there in grotesque postures. Some looked as though they were praying: they had died on their knees and the wire prevented their fall…

Someone had blundered about the wire…

And then there’s the German artillery.

Snowy and I had a narrow squeak when a coal-box landed between the front legs of the gun tripod, but failed to explode. Although it was flung into the air, the gun wasn’t damaged.. Thank heavens the shell was a dud…

Coppard and his mate then shelter in a dugout, and the shells follow:

…a coal-box struck the top of the dugout and the timber supports below collapsed on three of the team. Two were dug free quickly, but Snowy, who had been stretched out, was pinned down by earth and corrugated iron, with just his face clear… it took two hours to free him. Trapped and helpless though he was, Snowy was joking most of the time… An officer was present, and witnessed this example of cool courage. Sometime later Snowy was awarded the Military Medal…[1]


But from where Siegfried Sassoon sits, yesterday seems like a victory. Or, at least, the beginnings of one.

July 2 11.15 a.m.

A quiet night. Fine sunny morning. Nothing happening at present. Fricourt and Rose Trench to be attacked again to-day…

2.50 p.m. Adjutant just been up here, excited, optimistic and unshaven. Fricourt and Rose Trench have been occupied without resistance (there was no bombardment). Over two thousand prisoners taken by Seventh Division alone… Germans have gone back to their second line.

This, of course, is not the case. But Sassoon we do not read for his strategic surmises–his diary is a poet’s diary (which is to say the personal record of a self-regarding young man).

I am lying out in front of our trench in the long grass, basking in sunshine where yesterday morning one couldn’t show a finger.

Nevertheless, the reality–some progress, many failures, heavy losses–becomes clearer as the day goes on, and Sassoon, though confident, is no fool.

The Germans are shelling our new front line. Fricourt is full of British soldiers seeking souvenirs. The place was a
ruin before; now it is a dust-heap. Everywhere the news seems good: I only hope it will last…

Next thing is to hang on to the country we’ve taken. We move up to-night. Seventh Division has at any rate done all that was ‘asked’ of it and reached the ground just short of Mametz Wood…[2]

We will read a great deal, here, about Mametz Wood in the next few days.

When Sassoon returned to these diaries in order to transmute them into “George Sherston’s” memoir, he inserted a strange little sentence, which may pass either for an assertion by the older Sassoon of what he might have been feeling then, but not written. Or, simply, fiction.

Queer feeling, seeing people moving about freely between here and Fricourt… Feel a bit of a fraud.[3]

Is this the secret feeling of the author, revealed in the memoir/novel, or is it a set up: dashing “Mad Jack” Sassoon/Sherston was out of action in the biggest action of them all. Soon, though, he will be able to really prove himself.


Elsewhere, the focus is on the wounded. Donald Hankey‘s platoon spent the day trying to help the few who could be reached without getting would-be rescuers killed. At dusk they went out in force, searching for wounded men who had lain between the lines for two full days, carrying the survivors back in blankets.[4]


Kate Luard‘s hospital is busy, of course, but assessments of the battle dominate conversation. A victory! But of what sort? And at what cost?

Sunday, 11.30 p.m. This has been a strenuous day, all the wards packed. Only four have died to-day, the others have got the feel of ‘Advance’ in them and don’t seem to mind how much wounded they are. So it has been a rather happy day really.

The number of German prisoners taken on the Somme varies with the reporter; if an orderly, it is 47,000, and they are all at the Station here; if the colonel, it is 6,000…[5]


Rowland Feilding was free to “joy ride” yesterday and described the panorama of the battle with some elation. Today, the grim reality is beginning to sink in. Narrative and numbers will begin to collide: those who reckon with the number of casualties–either by seeing them or, later, by reading the printed notices–will find their confidence eroded. First one might worry that the mental surfacing of the adjective “Pyrrhic” implied disloyalty. Before long, its accompanying noun may be cast into doubt, if never completely abandoned.

July 2, 1916 (Sunday). Corbie.

The wounded are still pouring into Corbie by ambulance, in French peasant carts whose owners have picked them up on the road, and on foot. The last arrive, straggling along the road, white with dust, and generally bareheaded. The town is beginning to reek of iodoform and carbolic acid.[6]


The wounded are the primary concern now. But soon the wave of carnage will sweep back from the battlefield, and the wounded will be back “up the line,” and headed to England. And behind, at the front, care will be taken instead for the dead.

One of the most difficult things to write about is the grief and despair of survivors. More specifically, I find it hard to write about the many supernatural or paranormal experiences that the families and loved ones–grief-stricken parents, especially–of dead soldiers report. (There will be a major flowering of “spiritualism” in the last years of the war and after.) It seems churlish to retail these experiences with the accompanying implication of disbelief, which made shade into condescension. Yet the latter shouldn’t follow inevitably from the former: the place of reason (or science, or rationality) in cultural history should be that of the discrete security detail–ever-present, watchful, receiving self-assuring glances but intervening only in extremities.

So. Given the news in the papers, many, many people in Britain had reason to suspect that today, a century back, their young soldier might be dead.

Noel Hodgson left behind his parents, his sister Stella, and his newborn niece.

On the night of 2 July, when the bodies still lay out on the battlefield, Henry and Penelope Hodgson and Stella were together in the Bishop’s House in Ipswich when the baby’s nurse came to them. She was worried because she could smell tobacco smoke in the nursery and could not tell where it was coming from. So they followed her and they could also smell it, especially near the cradle. But they looked round and could find no explanation. The room was secure, the baby sleeping peacefully, and everything was just as it should be; they reassured the nurse and returned downstairs. Stella had recognised the smell as Noel’s favourite tobacco but she thought no more about it; it was only days later when the telegram came announcing his death that she remembered, and wondered. “I hope I may not be long before I see her myself,” he had written. For the rest of her life she believed that Noel had come back that night for a glimpse of the baby whose birth delighted him so.[7]


References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 82-4.
  2. Diaries, 85.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 334.
  4. Davies, A Student in Arms, 177.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 72.
  6. War Letters to a Wife, 84-5.
  7. Zeepvat, Before Action, 205.

Zero Hour

[This is the second post for today, a century back–if you have not yet read the first, you may wish to scroll down…]

7:30 A.M., July 1st 1916 was the climactic moment of Britain’s war. This dramatic historic statement is actually fairly close to an objective claim. Since 1914, enormous social engineering and strategic planning had been devoted toward this year, this attack, this day, this very minute. So if there is ever a moment in the midst of this century-on reading/examination/commemoration of the war to take a moment to pause and reflect, this is it.

At 7:30 the barrage did not cease but rather “lifted,” moving off of the German front-line trenches and on to supporting positions. The first waves–variously arrayed in front-line trenches, newly-dug assembly trenches, support trenches that had become makeshift assembly points when German fire made the forward positions untenable, or lying out in no man’s land with their own artillery bursting just in front of them (and sometimes short)–now stood up under their ponderous burdens of arms, ammunition, tools, and supplies, and began to move forward. Most of the men were instructed–a fact made very familiar through retelling–to walk slowly, keeping their spacing, and not run. They must stay behind their own barrage and, after all, the German guns will have been silenced…

A very great moment in history…


But then of course the moment, like an archaeological artifact that cannot bear handling, crumbles apart as we try to comprehend it. Even the biggest, most sharply defined chunk of history shifts its shape once its moment is past and its place in the chronicle becomes subject to interpretation. So we will shrink from the size of it, and give way–at least for a little while–to some of the prevailing interpretative “meanings” of the First Day on the Somme.

As it happens, there was a writer not far from the epicenter. Not of the attack, per se, but of its future as vignette, stereotype, and historical parable. The moment when thousands of men came out of their trenches–expecting a walkover (though we have seen that many doubted this) but greeted instead with withering fire–has come to be viewed as the epitome of either the courageous and spirited innocence of the New Armies or the shocking ignorance and blithe wastefulness of their generals. Or both. And, while we’re at it, this moment was a necessary part of allied strategy: however badly the attack was executed, it was incumbent upon the British army to contribute, to try–before France buckled at Verdun or Russia collapsed–to break the German lines in a new section of the front.

But there is a great deal to read today–too much for us to dwell on strategy or the battle for the historiography of military strategy. And I promised a writer at an epicenter.



A True Relic of the Somme

A few days ago, Captain Billie Nevill came home from leave, bringing with him two footballs (some stories have four). He kept one himself and gave one to Bobby Soames, the best friend of J.R. Ackerley, another platoon commander of the 8th East Surreys. The balls were emblazoned with slogans–“The Great European Cup… East Surreys vs. Bavarians, Kick Off at Zero!” and brought forward when the battalion assembled for the attack.[1]

The idea was something like this: Nevill’s company had seen a good deal of trench warfare, but they had never walked across a battlefield before. Perhaps following a football–or competing in the race to kick multiple footballs, as the story is usually told–would help overcome the strangeness of the moment and get them across 300 yards of No Man’s Land.

This is the sort of thing that inspires both incredulous disgust and enthusiastic celebration, even emulation. In the ten-second course of locating the above image (courtesy of the National Football Museum), I stumbled upon reports of re-enactments and even of a commemorative football tournament. How thrilling to treat war like a great game! But men died while this ball was in the air!

J.R. Ackerley followed one of those balls as his platoon attempted to advance over what John Masefield will call a “bare and hideous field” from which “little could be seen but the slope up to the enemy line.” Since he was there, he gets the last word:

The air, when we at last went over the top in broad daylight, positively hummed, buzzed, and whined with what sounded like hordes of wasps and hornets but were, of course, bullets. Far from being crushed, the Germans were in full possession of senses better than our own; their smartest snipers and machine-gunners were coolly waiting for us. G.H.Q., as was afterwards realized, had handed the battle to them by snobbishly distinguishing us officers from the men, giving us revolvers instead of rifles and marking our rank plainly upon our cuffs… [The German defenders] were thus enabled to pick off the officers first, which they had been carefully instructed to do, leaving our army almost without leadership.[2]

Many of the officers in my battalion were struck down the moment they emerged into view. My company commander was shot through the heart before he had advanced a step. Neville, the battalion buffoon, who had a football for his men to dribble over to the “flattened and deserted” German lines and was then going to finish off any “gibbering imbecile” he might meet with the shock of his famous grin (he had loose dentures and could make a skull-like grimace when he smiled), was also instantly killed, and so was fat Bobby Soames, my best friend…

How far I myself got I don’t remember; not more than a couple of hundred yards is my guess. I flew over the top like a greyhound and dashed across through the wasps, bent double. Squeamish always about blood, mutilations and death, averting my gaze, so far as I could, from the litter of corpses left lying about… my special private terror was a bullet in the balls, which accounts psychologically… for the crouched up attitude in which I hurled myself at the enemy. The realization that I was making an ass of myself soon dawned; looking back I saw that my platoon was still scrambling out of the trench, and had to wait until they caught up with me. My young Norfolk servant, Willimot, who then walked at my side, fell to the ground. “I’m paralyzed, sir,” he whimpered, his face paperwhite, his large blue ox-like eyes terrified. A bullet, perhaps aimed at me with my revolver and badges, had severed his spine…

Then I felt a smack on my left upper arm. Looking down I saw a hole in the sleeve and felt the trickling of blood. Then my cap flew off. I picked it up and put it on again; there was a hole in the crown. Then there was an explosion at my side, which sent me reeling to the ground. I lay there motionless. Griffin and one of the men picked me up and put me in a deep shell-hole. Griffin then tried to unbutton my tunic to examined and perhaps dress my wound. I was not unconscious, only dazed, and I had by now a notion of what had happened. It was another instance of the credulity of the time–my company commander’s contribution–that we officers had been told to carry a bottle of whisky or tum in our haversacks for the celebration of our victory after the “walk-over.” Some missile had struck my bottle of whisky and it had exploded…

I remember perfectly well… resisting Griffin’s attempts to examine me. I lay with my eyes closed and my wounded arm clamped firmly to my wounded side so that he could not explore beneath my tunic. I did not want to know, and I did not want him to know, what had happened to me. I did not feel ill, only frightened and dazed. I could easily have got up, and if I could have got up I should have got up. But I was down and down I stayed. Though my thoughts did not formulate themselves so clearly or so crudely at the time, I had a “Blighty” one… my platoon, in which I had taken much pride, could now look after itself.

My injuries where indeed of shamefully trivial nature, a bullet had gone through the flesh of my upper arm, missing the bone, and a piece of shrapnel or bottle… had lodged beneath the skin of my side above the ribs…[3]

There are two nearly separate things to consider here. First, the bitter brilliance of Ackerley’s account of himself. Given his frankness (and the not inconsiderable fame of the book) there is little use holding to our “no spoilers” policy: this description is written later, at a time when publishers welcomed greater psychological acuity and anatomical precision. But leaving that aside (or not), Ackerley is significant for what he is willing to admit he was: terrified, human, flawed–and, again, terrified. I often refer to Paul Fussell here, and talk about how accurate war writing requires throwing over the old “elevated” diction. It does, but it also requires a willingness to dig beneath the surface: men don’t “fall,” they die; and they are not wounded and plunged into a terrible but uncomplicated physical anguish–they may also be horrified into irrationality by the sudden violation of their body.

Second, there is Ackerley’s version of what had already become a leading Story of the Somme. Other accounts differ, to say the least, but the more heroic tale told by Lt. Charles Alcock–which has Nevill reaching the German lines and beginning a grenade fight before being shot through the head–is suspect as well. Alcock included this detail in a letter to Nevill’s sister, and we know by now that this quintessentially painless death appears far too often in letters to survivors. So too do the details that a man “fell” either immediately or in glorious proximity to the enemy. Most were hit in “No Man’s Land,” that wasteland which seems by its name and nature to renounce purposeful heroism and cry out for modernism and meaninglessness.

Most of the Surreys, however, advanced through it. Although Ackerley, Soames, and Nevill never reached the German trenches, the following companies did.[4]


somme positions 3This happened near Carnoy (see the map at left for the relative location of the writers discussed today). Ackerley and the East Surreys were part of the 18th Division’s assault on the southernmost of the line of low ridges which dominated the center of the battlefield. They were, in a sense, at the turning point of the battle, at least as it played out. They had gentle slopes ahead of them, instead of the nasty, banked little hills and narrow valley to the north, and as the day went on it became clear that the German artillery behind that sector had been mostly eliminated by the British bombardment. The machine-gunners still shot down their hundreds, but the ruins of Mametz village were taken. On the East Surrey’s right, the 30th division swept forward and took the village of Montauban, their first day’s objective (the dotted-and-dashed line shown at right).

In fact, the entire assault of XIII Corps–commanded by Major General W.N. Congreve, Billy Congreve‘s father–was notably successful. If most of the rest of today’s account dwells on death and disaster, this part of the assault is perhaps a more accurate foreshadowing of the war to come. A line of German trenches could indeed be taken, but the assault troops will find themselves staring across open country toward a second complete trench system, with a third under construction behind. And the day’s successes had come at the cost of 6,000 casualties to the two victorious divisions.


But we get ahead of ourselves. We must move a few thousand yards to the left, where Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devonshires faced that spur of the sinuous hill which held the village of Mametz.


This photograph from Masefield’s “The Old Front Line” shows Mametz in 1916 or 1917. The white lumps of chalk show where trenches have been dug; the photograph makes it difficult to appreciate the tactical importance of the gradual rise in the ground.

John Masefield’s description of this section of the line is worth quoting:

All the way of the hill, the enemy had the stronger position. It was above us almost invisible and unguessable, except from the air, at the top of a steep climb up a clay bank, which in wet weather makes bad going even for the Somme; and though the lie of the ground made it impossible for him to see much of our position, it was impossible for us to see anything or his or to assault him. The hill is a big steep chalk hill, with contours so laid upon it that not much of it can be seen from below. By looking to the left from our trenches on its western lower slopes one can see nothing of Fricourt, for the bulge of the hill’s snout covers it. One has a fair view of the old English line on the smoothish big slope between Fricourt and Becourt, but nothing of the enemy stronghold. One might have lived in those trenches for nearly two years without seeing any enemy except the rain and mud and lice.

The Devonshires had two terrible disadvantages. The first was that they were attacking from further back, and had to go over the top on the reverse slope behind their own front line. Thus they were only just reaching their own side of the shallow valley between the lines when the German machine-gunners were recovering. The second was that the village, however thoroughly its housing stock had been destroyed, had been converted into a fortress by the German defenders, with linked cellars and fortified machine gun nests. Captain Martin had studied the lay of the land, and to him the result was far from unguessable.

…as the Devons topped the rise and moved downhill, they were in full view of any enemy who might have survived the bombardment.

mansel copse to mametz

Mansel Copse is at the center, along the blue line which indicates the British Line. Due north is the “shrine” which housed a machine gun.

A single machine-gun, built into the base of the crucifix at the edge of the village, exactly where Capt. Martin had forecast, was only 400 yards away–easy range for a competent machine gunner… scores of men went down, among them Capt. Martin, killed at the exact spot by Mansel Copse that he had predicted from his model would be where his company would be doomed.[5]

All the accounts do not match up perfectly, but the basic facts of the martyrdom of the Devonshires is not in any real dispute.

Charlotte Zeepvat adds a third factor that spelled disaster:

If the War Diary of 2nd Gordon Highlanders is correct in saying that their own advance did not begin until 7.30am, then for three minutes the 9th Devons were the only moving target near the road. They came under heavy fire
immediately from the open ground to the right…

As they drew nearer no man’s land they also came into view of the German lines just ahead and the firing increased, both from there, and in the distance from Fricourt Wood. According to the Adjutant, Lieutenant Hearse, there was also an intense artillery barrage…

But the machine guns were the worst:

…the combined effect of machine-gun fire from several directions was devastating. The Official History estimated that half of the battalion’s casualties occurred before they reached Mansel Copse.

Before, that is, they crossed their own front line. If the exact details of who saw Captain Martin’s model and who failed to act upon it may be in doubt, the details of his death are fairly secure. Private Jack Owen, a member of Hodgson’s bombing unit, remembered that

Capt. Martin was the first to fall. He had gone 15 yards when he was shot through the head above the right temple. He turned his head to the left, flung out his right arm and fell dead on his back.

Zeepvat comments that Martin was probably killed by a sniper rather than a machine gun. “Even allowing a margin of error, [this] leaves no possibility that Martin could have reached no man’s land.”

The battalion’s chaplain, Ernest Crosse, who had befriended the tight group of young subalterns and given them communion yesterday, had volunteered to come forward instead of remaining with Divisional headquarters. He watched the assault alongside the medical officer and came forward immediately to aid the wounded. In his diary, he “described finding Martin’s body on the little track road, which was invisible from the shrine but a horribly easy target from Mametz Trench.”

Martin’s death thus rises toward the classical definition of the overused and meaning-sapped “tragedy:” the prophetic warner, unheeded, is struck down by implacable fate before he can complete–or even begin–his work.

The Devonshires advanced nonetheless, but so many men went down so quickly that their commander committed his reserve company only a few minutes into the battle. Some of them penetrated all three trench lines (of the German front line trench system–no one came near the “German Second Line,” which was another multi-trench system a few miles further back) and reached Hidden Wood and their day’s objective. But not enough.


Noel Hodgson

And not Noel Hodgson. The brave young bombing lieutenant, already decorated; the loving brother and new uncle who had yet to meet his niece; the erstwhile scholar who had been working through the epics in his spare hours; and the promising poet who had so recently appealed to God for help today, was shot and killed.

In one story, “he is said to have reached as far as the third German line, keeping his men supplied with bombs, ‘and was then mortally wounded, a bullet passing through his throat. His last words, addressed to his sergeant, were: “Carry on; you know what to do.'”

But that is a third-hand account, tinged with the hopeful sort of heroism that tends to dominate survivors’ accounts to grieving families. It describes Hodgson as he was during Loos, and as he should have been during a successful assault. Charlotte Zeepvat writes that

It was even comforting to think he played his part and died in the thick of battle, but other evidence tells against it. Lieutenant Colonel Storey’s initial report to brigade, hastily hand-written on 2 July, names Noel Hodgson as one of three officers to be killed right at the start in the initial barrage of machine-gun fire, with Duncan Martin and William Riddell.

Is this somehow more cruel? It seems so. Yet we can make another story of it, and one that fits better with the testimony of Hodgson’s brother officers, and of Chaplain Crosse:

‘I found his body together with that of his faithful servant, Weston, in the afternoon of the battle in what was the hottest comer of the battlefield. He was hit in the neck & leg by bullets, probably from a machine gun.’

This suggests that Noel was hit first in the leg and went down, then, as Private Weston tried to help him, a second round of bullets firing at the same height took them both. This was the account his mother, Penelope, accepted:

‘He was shot in the morning charging across with his bombers & his faithful servant was found by his side, also shot, with a half-opened bandage in his hand.’

This, as Zeepvat reminds us, is Alfred Frederick Weston, alias ‘Pearson’, who had been the subject of one of Hodgson’s sketches: “He is my servant, and if he were Commander-in-Chief the war would be over in a week. But I should get no baths, so I’m glad he isn’t.”

Noel Hodgson was certainly brave, and some of the Devonshires gained their objective this morning. But Hodgson died within minutes of “Zero,” “within the area bounded by the two arms of Mansel Copse, before he could reach the British front line, never mind the German third.”[6]

You never can know which letter–and which hot bath–will be the last. And sometimes Frodo and Sam are ridden down even before they make it out of the Shire.

I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this; –
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.[7]



Rob Gilson, who with Ronald Tolkien and other school friends had founded the TCBS, a youthful “society” devoted to supporting each other’s creative efforts, left the trenches at 2 and a half minutes after zero–7:32:30, give or take–in his battalion’s third wave. This was a few miles to the north-northwest, where the low hills were indented by those steep, narrow little valleys.

Having watched the enormous mine go up at the Schwaben Höhe redoubt on their left, the Cambridgeshires (11th Suffolks) were to advance up “Sausage” valley, across several hundred yards of No Man’s Land, to take the German lines on the spur at the top. This was very bad ground, and the plan depended upon German defensive fire having been eliminated. It wasn’t.

sausage valley

Sausage Valley. This map–which like all similar “screen shot” detail maps that I include, comes from the invaluable archive at McMaster University–shows the July 1st trench positions, but was later in the possession of a Lt. Hayter of the Royal Engineers, who added the notes about water sources.


Private W. J. Senescall, one of the men on the spot interviewed years later for Martin Middlebrook’s collective chronicle, recalled the scene:

The long line of men came forward, rifles at the port as ordered. Now Gerry started. His machine guns let fly. Down they all went. I could see them dropping one after another as the gun swept along them. The officer went down at exactly the same time as the man behind him.[8]

But this officer was not Gilson. Rob Gilson survived this first advance over no man’s land, leading his men “perfectly calmly and confidently.”

Such reports and recollections, as we have seen, are impossible to correlate; their sum–or, rather, their common ground–impossible to comprehend. But both, surely, are as honest and as accurate as they can be. This sort of confusion is the nature of battle, especially this sort of battle. Timing is especially difficult to harmonize between different accounts, but the devastation of the German defensive fire, once the gunners returned to their firing positions, is not.

After some minutes–a handful, or twenty, or ninety–Gilson’s company was deep into no man’s land, probably sheltering, now, and moving forward bit by bit when possible. Machine guns, firing from the heights on both sides of the valley, trench mortars (the “sausages” of Sausage Valley), and the reawakened German artillery had brought down scores of men in the Cambridgeshires alone, and some thousands throughout the twelve battalions of the closely packed 34th division.


Robert Quilter Gilson (Cambridge University Library)

They may have penetrated the German front line, and their advance may have stretched out over something like an hour and a half–the accounts differ. But sometime around nine o’clock, if not long before (the minutes proverbially stretching into experiential hours), Gilson’s batman was hit, and wounded. Then the C.O. of the company too was hit, and Gilson took over, leading the next stage of the advance.

Then, finally, Rob Gilson was hit by a shell-burst, and killed alongside the company sergeant-major. Or he was terribly wounded by the shrapnel, and managed to drag himself back toward the lines before he died. Recollections differ.

Six of the Cambridgeshires’ sixteen officers were killed; nine were wounded–over 500 men were casualties. The 34th division had one of the worst positions and took the heaviest casualties of any today, a century back–6,380.

Gilson’s last letter and his Field Service Postcard–proclaiming him to be “quite well” as of June 30th–will arrive shortly at his home in Birmingham. There, this morning, a century back, his family is now preparing for Sports Day at King Edward’s School, where the TCBS had come together and where Gilson’s father is headmaster. Gilson, like Ackerley, had chosen not to send a formal “last letter.” He told a friend that “[i]t is no use harrowing people with farewell letters… Those who survive can write all that is necessary.”

Instead, then, the letter-that-turned-out-to-be-last had talked of the beauty of gardens and of gunfire. But it did not obscure the truth of war with patriotic bromides: “It would be wonderful to be a hundred miles from the firing line once again.”

A telegram from the Army will follow that letter within the next few days.


Tolkien, whose own battalion is marching up now to relieve the assault troops, will have the good fortune to cross paths with his friend G.B. Smith in the coming days. Smith, too, was in the battle today, and his battalion had been mauled as it tried to hold a paltry advance some two miles to the north-east of Gilson’s battalion, in the Leipzig Salient. Smith was lucky to come through unscathed. The two will, of course, wonder about the fate of their fellow member of the Tea Club, Barrovian Society. Although Gilson’s body would be almost in sight of their positions, it will be two weeks before the news of his death filters back to them, through the printed casualty lists.[9]


Siegfried Sassoon, whose battalion will support the attack with carrying parties, has been hunkered down in his dugout, an advertising slogan running in his head:

…Then the bombardment lifted and lessened, our vertigo abated, and we looked at one another in dazed relief. Two Brigades of our Division were now going over the top on our right. Our Brigade was to attack ‘when the main assault had reached its final objective’. In our fortunate rôle of privileged spectators[10] Barton and I went up the stairs to see what we could from Kingston Road Trench. We left Jenkins crouching in a corner, where he remained most of the day. His haggard blinking face haunts my memory. He was an example of the paralysing effect which such an experience could produce on a nervous system sensitive to noise, for he was a good officer both before and afterwards. I felt no sympathy for him at the time, but I do now. From the support-trench, which Barton called ‘our opera box’, I observed as much of the battle as the formation of the country allowed, the rising ground on the right making it impossible to see anything of the attack towards Mametz. A small shiny black note-book contains my pencilled particulars, and nothing will be gained by embroidering them with afterthoughts. I cannot turn my field-glasses on to the past.

Perhaps not, but he does peer down through his binocular bifocals and clean up the diary a bit. I’ll quote from the memoir[11] and correct from the original diary when necessary…

First, the diary:

July 1st, 7.30 a.m.

…The air vibrates with the incessant din—the whole earth shakes and reeks and throbs–it is one continuous roar…  Attack should be starting now, but one can’t look our, as the machine-gun bullets are skimming.


And, from the memoir, a version of the battle’s first few minutes, as witnessed from a trench opposite Fricourt:

7 45. The barrage is now working to the right of Fricourt and beyond. I can see the 21st Division advancing
about three-quarters of a mile away on the left and a few Germans coming to meet them, apparently surrendering. Our men in small parties (not extended in line) go steadily on to the German front line.

Brilliant sunshine and a haze of smoke drifting along the landscape. Some Yorkshires a little way below on the left, watching the show and cheering as if at a football match. The noise almost as bad as ever.[12]


Sassoon was able to see some of the small successes in this part of the line, but further to the north few of the British troops made progress. Those who entered the German lines were in most cases soon driven out again. Had he been a bit higher or further back he would have been able to see Rob Gilson and the Cambridgeshires in their futile run up Sausage Valley. Further to the north was the spur of La Boisselle, and beyond it “Mash Valley”–the natural complement to Sausage. Beyond that, the spur of Ovillers and Nab Valley (latterly “Blighty Valley”).

Nab Valley was assaulted by troops of the 70th Brigade. The 9th York and Lancs, who had moved forward into recently-dug assembly trenches, would be the first wave, while the 11th Sherwood Foresters would attack as a second wave later in the morning, moving through the German front lines and on toward Mouquet Farm.

But the German artillery had not been destroyed, and it had the new trenches accurately mapped and measured. By the time the 11th Sherwood Foresters–one of their platoons led by Edward Brittain–moved forward, they had to pass many dead and many wounded screaming and crying out in the assembly trenches. They could have had few doubts about what would await them as they went over the top.


Will Streets, of the 12th York and Lancs–in the 94th Brigade, the 31st Division, and the 8th Corps, on the left, or northern, flank of the 4th Army’s assault–faced a similar situation, but even worse. The first two companies of the battalion went over at Zero Hour, 7:30, and were immediately raked by massed machine gun and artillery fire. His D Company was slated to move up and through the first wave at Zero plus twenty, or 7:50. But the first wave had already been destroyed. Another member of the battalion remembered:

The first line all lay down and I thought they’d had different orders because we’d all been told to walk… They were just mown down like corn. Our line simply went forward and the same thing happened…. a lot of the first line were stuck on the wire, trying to get through. We didn’t get to the German wire, I didn’t get as far as our wire. Nobody did, except just a few odd ones… Only a few crept along. I lay down. We weren’t getting any orders at all; there was nobody to give any orders, because the officers were shot down.[13]


Charles Carrington had a very good view of this disastrous attack, aimed at Serre–until he didn’t. We’ll close this post with his description of the scene at 7:30, which illustrates both the necessity of taking a strategic view of the huge battle, and the impossibility of making any sense of it from afar:

Let us narrow our gaze to Hunter-Weston’s 8th Corps…. Twenty-nine infantry battalions, ‘went over the top’ on this narrow frontage, which is to say that the action of this corps alone was comparable to the British share of the Battle of Waterloo….  Wellington… won a decisive victory for a loss of 7,000 British killed and wounded; Hunter-Weston…. lost 15,000 men in a day, without securing a foothold in the German front at any point; and his was one of six British corps–six battles of Waterloo in a row, and four of them massive defeats.On the left, the two attacking divisions of the Third Army (56th and 46th) failed in their attempts to pinch out Gommecourt Wood, since only the right-hand claw of the pincer got a hold. It was this episode that I witnessed.

The morning of Saturday, 1st July, broke clear and fine… We stood to at 6.30 and as I left the village for our forward trench–wildly excited at actually being in the centre of a great battle–the air quivered with bombardment of a new intensity, to which the Germans gave the name of drum-fire. Gusts of shrapnel were stripping the trees of their leaves, which lay in a carpet on the ground as if it were autumn…

Ten minutes before zero I sent the code-message by landline to brigade and, half an hour after zero, reported again that the poisonous smoke-cloud was blowing steadily away. No need for us to put on gas-masks. At 7.30 someone said: “There they go!” and on our left we had glimpses of a few men of the London Scottish in their hodden-grey kilts, running forward into the smoke. That was all. That and a growing hullaballoo of noise. On the right towards Serre, no visibility. You could hear the battle but you couldn’t see it.[14]


Finally, here is John Masefield’s collective evocation of Zero Hour. He will write it next year, but it seems almost post-war–mournful and elegiac, if still proud. But 7:30 AM on July the First, 1916 is not a moment that a future Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom can overlook.

Our men felt that now, in a few minutes, they would see the enemy and know what lay beyond those parapets and probe the heart of that mystery. So, for the last half-hour, they watched and held themselves ready, while the screaming of the shells grew wilder and the roar of the bursts quickened into a drumming. Then as the time drew near, they looked a last look at that unknown country, now almost blotted in the fog of war, and saw the flash of our shells, breaking a little further off as the gunners “lifted,” and knew that the moment had come. Then for one wild confused moment they knew that they were running towards that unknown land, which they could still see in the dust ahead. For a moment, they saw the parapet with the wire in front of it, and began, as they ran,[15] to pick out in their minds a path through that wire. Then, too often, to many of them, the grass that they were crossing flew up in shards and sods and gleams of fire from the enemy shells, and those runners never reached the wire, but saw, perhaps, a flash, and the earth rushing nearer, and grasses against the sky, and then saw nothing more at all, for ever and for ever and for ever.[16]


The next post, scheduled for noon, will track several of our writers into the later morning as the battle unfolds.


References and Footnotes

  1. This is silly, but: had group play turned out slightly differently--up the Welsh!--and had Iceland not played giant-killer, then the Eurocup might have produced an England-Germany match-up on the centennial...
  2. This fact, as well as several other elements of Ackerley's account (which was written much later) may not be accurate. Other sources report that some officers were specifically instructed to dress like their men. Nevertheless, proportional casualties among subalterns were, as throughout the war, considerably higher than among enlisted men.
  3. My Father and Myself, 76-80.
  4. See Hart, The Somme, 187.
  5. Middlebrook, The First Day, 125.
  6. Zeepvat, Before Action, 194-201.
  7. This is the last verse of Hodgson's last poem, Before Action.
  8. The First Day on the Somme, 125.
  9. Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 151-6.
  10. The Epicurean perspective once again!
  11. Purely, I must admit, exhausted at this point, because I have a better-scanned copy of it...
  12. Diaries, 85; Complete Memoirs, 331-2. Amusingly, the diary lacks the "almost." Judicious...
  13. Hart, The Somme, 137-8.
  14. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 113-4.
  15. This is a romanticizing generalization: the attacking troops were told to walk, and they were too heavily laden in any case to run, over broken ground, for more than a few steps.
  16. Masefield, The Old Front Line, 25-6.

The Somme: The Calm and the Storm

Today is the worst day. The First Day on the Somme, more than any other day of the war, strains the limits of chronicle. It’s a day unlike any other–it has its own books,[1] it has a secure place as historical symbol or shorthand–the concentrated essence of the bloody futility of trench warfare–and it has its own legend. This is the day that stands both for British sacrifice–that noble, Brookean ideal of patriotic sacrifice beloved of so many of the men who will die today–and for the horrific toll that bad generalship will take on infantry.

On the one hand, then, this is a day of days for this project. On the other hand, the disastrous First of July overwhelms it. There is the nagging sense that this day “means” too much, or that it’s not really a matter of a day but a matter of hours, even of minutes–those horrible minutes when the first waves climbed out of their trenches and were mowed down in the open. But more than that there is the sense that this day overwhelms the sort of individual experiences that this blog seeks to stitch together. If we didn’t feel that the sufferings of individual men on specific days mattered, we wouldn’t read history. But when more than nineteen thousand men die and nearly twice as many are wounded, can “experience” still stretch out and keep contact with “history?”

So much happens today that it feels necessary not only to do some (relatively) careful geography but to examine the century-back war hour by hour, rather than taking the day in one glance.[2]

I’ve prepared a simple map (see below), showing the approximate position of ten of our writers (or their friends and loved ones), and I’ve decided to break up the day into four sections and follow each soldier’s story through the day, as far as it goes.

I’ve done one post each day since the start of the war, and I plan to do the same until the end. But today there will be four sequential posts. This one will go on to describe the last hours of preparation and bombardment while the next three will cover the initial attack at 7:30, the development of the battle, and the aftermath of the afternoon and evening. I usually time the posts for the British morning, but I’ve set this one to go early, the next to be posted at the moment of the assault,[3] and the following two at noon and six in the evening.[4]


First, let’s take stock: many of ‘our’ central writers were not in the battle: Edward Thomas spent the morning clearing out his study, reclaimed by his landlady;[5] Wilfred Owen was in barracks, still adjusting to officerhood; Robert Graves is en route to the battle, but has not yet rejoined a combat battalion in the wake of nasal surgery; Isaac Rosenberg and Ivor Gurney two poets in the ranks, are both in new battalions still being held in reserve; and the entire Guards Division–including Bim Tennant, Harold Macmillan, and Raymond Asquith–will remain in Belgium throughout the early stages of the Somme battle. Some of these men were relatively carefree today, others freighted with worry: J.R.R. Tolkien, whose 11th Lancashire Fusiliers were also in reserve, will be safe, but he had recently received what amounted to “last letters” from two of his old school friends.

somme positions 3

A map of the main assault, from Hart, “The Somme,” with authorial intrusions

Others will find themselves in direct supporting roles and witness the attack, while five young men who have appeared here before will go over the top with the first waves.

Let’s begin with Charles Carrington, teenage adjutant of the 1/5th Royal Warwickshires. Most of an adjutant’s work is clerical, and so he will have few specific duties during the battle, serving instead as his colonel’s aide. The 5th Warwickshires, part of the 48th Division, have been assigned a supporting role at one of the hinge-points of the attack, the junction of the Third and Fourth Armies (see the map, at right, top. The attack of the Third Army is intended as a diversion, and hence is omitted from most maps, including this one.)

Carrington will not himself assault the German lines, but he will have a good view of one section of the battle, and he thus chooses to take up the role of on-the-ground tactical commentator rather than personal memoir-writer. With him we can follow the progress, and regress, of the most northerly thrust of the main effort.

The colonel and I had a command post, obligingly constructed for us and ‘camouflaged’ (a new word in those days) by the divisional engineers. No sooner was it ready than the Germans scored a direct hit on it with a rather large shell at a time when, fortunately, we were not at home. Whereupon we decided to fix our battle position in an open trench behind a hedgerow from which there was a long view across country towards Serre and Bucquoy. I was much concerned with the state of the Serre road which ran through the lines, since I should have to organize the movement of our transport along it when the general advance should begin–not, we thought on the first or second day of the battle. The senior major teased me for my anxiety, assuring me that all we needed would be the officers’ mess-cart, since he had a case of champagne in store for celebrating the coming victory….

We and the 7th Battalion were to hold the line in front of Hebuterne and were to discharge a cloud of smoke and poison gas… On our right the main attack would be delivered by the Fourth Army…

Ours was thus the left-hand battalion of Hunter-Weston’s 8th corps and Rawlinson’s Fourth Army… at this difficult key-point in the battle I never received a visit from any staff officer from either army of from either corps headquarters. They stood odd at a distance and discharged preemptory orders at us.

My notebook is full of detailed instructions, largely relating to intricate traffic plans…[6]


Siegfried Sassoon, convinced that he will not survive the summer, has known for some days now that he will surely survive the initial attack: the first battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, too, are to be in support only. Yet Sassoon, like Carrington, will have an excellent view of an important junction: he is within view of the fortified village of Mametz, at the hinge between the eastward and northward sections of the attack.

Sassoon set the scene in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer:

On July the first the weather, after an early morning mist, was of the kind commonly called heavenly. Down in our frowsty cellar we breakfasted at six, unwashed and apprehensive. Our table, appropriately enough, was an empty ammunition box. At six-forty-five the final bombardment began, and there was nothing for us to do except sit round our candle until the tornado ended. For more than forty minutes the air vibrated and the earth rocked and shuddered. Through the sustained uproar the tap and rattle of machine-guns could be identified; but except for the whistle of bullets no retaliation came our way until a few 5 9 shells shook the roof of our dug-out. Barton and I sat speechless, deafened and stupefied by the seismic state of affairs, and when he lit a cigarette the match flame staggered crazily. Afterwards I asked him what he had been thinking about. His reply was “Carpet slippers and Kettle-holders”. My own mind had been working in much the same style, for during that cannonading cataclysm the following refrain was running in my head:

They come as a boon and a blessing to men,
The Something, the Owl, and the Waverley Pen.

For the life of me I couldn’t remember what the first one was called. Was it the Shakespeare? Was it the Dickens? Anyhow it was an advertisement which I’d often seen in smoky, railway stations.[7]

It was “the Pickwick,” a brand of steel nib–but then again the point is that the minds of men tense with expectation and bruised by long bombardment are neither here nor there, neither sensible nor complete.


Sassoon, at least, had to be primed to lead his men in various support missions–they were detailed to bring up materiel in support of the attack. Other battalions had done their work, and were entirely out of today’s fighting. This is all we’ll hear from Guy Chapman, whose 13th Royal Fusiliers were behind the lines, near Adinfer Wood.

The morning of July 1st dawned in its usual heat haze. We stood down about half-past three. I had been on duty since six o’clock on the previous evening, and going to my shelter fell asleep at once. Presently there crept over me the sensation of being rocked to and fro by someone with no sense of rhythm…[8]


As the bombardment built toward its conclusion, several of our writers were still hours away, including Donald Hankey, his battalion scheduled to attack in a mid-morning support wave; George Coppard, detailed to support the northern subsidiary attack; and Alan Seeger, who will go forward with the French Army, far to the south, in the afternoon.


But Rob Gilson, J.R. Ackerley, Will Streets, Edward Brittain, and Noel Hodgson will either leave their trenches during the last minutes of the bombardment or go “over the top” when it ceases. Streets, now a sergeant with the 12th Yorks and Lancs, will attack in a second wave, at “zero plus twenty.” In preparation, he and his men crawled out into no man’s land during the final minute of the barrage.

We’ll let Charlotte Zeepvat’s reconstruction of the experience of Hodgson and his battalion–the 9th Battalion, Devonshire Regiment–stand for what the tens of thousands of first-wave troops were now feeling.

At 6.25am the bombardment became intense. The air vibrated with the sound and the ground shook.

Rowand Freeman, a platoon commander in B Company of the 9th Devons, described the last few minutes:

…we were in assembly trenches waiting to “go over”. [Hodgson] and Capt. Martin and I were watching the bombardment of Mametz village. Then we sat on the fire step and ate some sandwiches. We were all very cheery & I don’t hesitate in saying that dear old “Uncle” was the cheeriest of the lot.

Hodgson, in command of the battalion’s specialist bombing section, was apparently moved up at the last minute from one of the supporting waves to the second. He hurried off to get the rum ration issued to his bombers…

All along the British front line, zero hour was 7.30am, but the 9th Devons and 2nd Borders, with extra ground to cover, went over the top three minutes before the barrage lifted. At 7.27am, Captain Martin with two platoons of A Company and Captain Pridham with two platoons of B Company, one of which was led by Rowan Freeland, climbed out of their trenches and began to move forward. Behind them, in the second line, the other two platoons of both companies and the first of the bombing sections; in the third line, Harold Rayner leading C Company, probably flanked by the remaining bombers, all three lines going over the top and moving forward simultaneously towards Mansel Copse, across the lower slope of the hill.[9]


Two literary bits, now, before this post closes. The next will begin with the assault.


The First Day on The Somme seems to have overawed most of the writers of Great War combat fiction. It seems to generally play a subsidiary or background role, a historical crater (or, thematically, a looming peak) around which historical-fictional protagonists gingerly edge. It’s too big, too much, and, perhaps, too deadly.

But Henry Williamson climbs every mountain, and he sloshes across every mud-filled crater. His fictional alter-ego Phillip Maddison has arrived back at the front in time to set the stage for the battle’s disasters, and to join the first waves of the assault. His (fictional) battalion will attack from an assembly trench between Ovilliers and La Boiselle, apparently as part of the 8th division, and thus not far from where Edward Brittain will do the same. With admirable economy, he provides for us the inevitable symbolic prelude:

The steely light above the north-west horizon, beyond the valley of the Ancre and Athuille wood, had scarcely began to fade when a new light, as of an electrified and glowing energy, began to rise in the north-east, over the Bapaume Road and the fortress of La Boiselle. Soon larks were rising above no-man’s-land, eager to see the sun.

With the lark-song came the hot soup containers, each slung on a pole borne on the shoulders of two men. Phillip saw his sergeant, and told him to dish it out at 6 a.m.[10]


Lastly, to represent poetry and to see us off to the attack, Ivor Gurney. His entire division, the 61st, was in reserve, but evidently well-positioned to watch the troops assemble.


To England — A Note

I watched the boys of England where they went
Through mud and mire to do appointed things.
See one a stake, and one wire-netting brings.
And one comes slowly under a burden bent
Of ammunition. Though the strength be spent
They “carry on” under the shadowing wings
Of Death the ever present. And hark, one sings
Although no joy from the grey skies be lent.
Are these the heroes — these? have kept from you
The flood of German beastliness so long?
Shall break the devil’s legions? These they are,
Who do in silence what they might boast to do.
In the height of battle tell the world in Song
How they do hate and fear the face of War.

Ivor Gurney[11]

References and Footnotes

  1. Martin Middlebrook's The First Day on the Somme is an important work of collective oral history (though not without its flaws) upon which I will draw below. More recently, there is Joe Sacco's The Great War, which is in fact a sort of mute graphic novel, an "illustrated panorama" of the today's attack--it's a strange and fascinating work, not least for the fact that it shows so much detail and yet somehow seems to leave the actual mechanisms of destruction unexplained. There are also, of course, several histories of the entire battle, each with long chapters on the first day, and many studies of different angles and subjects of the war which dilate on today, a century back.
  2. This may be a mistake: just as these hours are the most exhaustively studied by British historians and enthusiasts, these few miles of ground are the most carefully curated, and many historians and battlefield guides know the lay of this land very well. I visited the battlefield once, years ago, and must depend, as always, on secondary descriptions to supplement our witness-writers. But it is more in the spirit of the thing, anyway, to do what I've been trying to do over the last few days, namely to get to know the land from the contemporary maps, and from literature: John Masefield wrote a short book--The Old Front Line--that memorializes the physical locations from which the British attacked, describing them as they appeared in the year after the battle. I had planned to use him more, but have run out of time--a few brief selections, below, will show how the book works to supplement a map (which was included as a foldout in the 1917 edition, for those who would scour the used booksellers rather than settling for the facsimile versions or the scanned version online!)
  3. Unless I have misunderstood British War Time (very possible!), the 7:30 of the attack should be British Summer Time 7:30, or GMT 6:30.
  4. Apologies to those of you who have the posts forwarded via text or twitter or some such service if this puts off the timing. Management is not responsible for third-party delivery systems...
  5. Hollis, Now All Roads, 292.
  6. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 111-112.
  7. Complete Memoirs, 331-2.
  8. A Passionate Prodigality, 89.
  9. Zeepvat, Before Action, 194-5.
  10. Williamson, The Golden Virgin, 276-7.
  11. War Letters, 79-80.

The Day Before: Siegfried Sassoon, Noel Hodgson, J.R. Ackerley, George Coppard and Others Await the Attack; Edmund Blunden on the Battle of the Boar’s Head; Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson Addresses His People Before the Great Offensive

Today, a century back, was the last day before the storm broke. The bombardment that had begun on the 24th continued, and many of the German defenders in their positions on the Somme front had been killed, wounded, or driven mad by the incessant pounding. Many–but not nearly enough: these were well-wired, deep-dug, many-layered positions that generally stood on higher ground than the British lines, commanding No Man’s Land with interlocking fields of fire. Many of the men who sheltered in them were sheltered well: in deep fortified dug-outs they waited for the barrage to lift, for their first chance to fire back.

If the Germans waited, uncertain of the battle’s timing, most of the British officers knew that the next morning would bring the decisive minutes of the campaign–even, perhaps, of the entire war.

And here, tomorrow will bring, well, a lot of stuff. So, faithful readers, be forewarned: I’ve decided to break up tomorrow into four separate (but still lengthy) posts; the first will go up over night, the second at 7:30, etc.


The 9th Devons “spent the last day resting in the wood.” They took communion from the battalion chaplain, Ernest Crosse; then the officers sat around a fire singing and swapping stories.

Before they left for the line the men were issued with sandwiches and told to make sure their water bottles were full, but they were strictly forbidden to eat the sandwiches or drink the water on the way to the line. Watering points were provided along the route and the sandwiches would be their breakfast: a long day lay ahead of them, and it was something to do in the final hours.

They left the wood at 10.30pm, 22 officers and 753 men, leaving the rest in reserve. Noel Hodgson was with his bombers. It would be their task to ‘mop up’ after the first lines of the attack, dealing with pockets of resistance and strongpoints, and countering enemy bombers and machine guns. Hodgson, as bombing officer, answered directly to Lieutenant Colonel Storey and had his own copy of battalion orders.

…The front line trench had been badly damaged by enemy shelling in the last few days, forcing a late change of plan. Instead of using it, the 9th Devons and 2nd Borders on their left, further up on the hill, would advance from new forming-up positions in the reserve trenches. This possibility had always been envisaged. It was safer, given the accurate fire the Germans regularly directed into the front line. The disadvantage was that the two battalions now had 250 yards of extra ground to cross.

The change also caused some confusion and delay as the carefully planned timings and routes through the trenches no longer applied, but by 2.35am everyone was in place with a few hours ahead to snatch whatever sleep they could. Gaps had been cut in the wire over the previous three nights, and once the men were in position, bridges and trench ladders were put in place.[1]


But we get ahead of ourselves. Back to the morning before–today, a century back, and Siegfried Sassoon, whose battalion is going back instead of forward.

This morning warm and breezy. We go down to Kingston Road. Jordan and self out cutting, wire from 10.30 to 11.30. No one noticed us. Pleasant trenches; mustard, charlock and white weeds growing across the trenches. Another dead man lying on the firing-step. News of M.C. before lunch… Battle begins tomorrow. C. Company dispersed on carrying-parties etc. Gibson’s face in the first grey of dawn when he found me alone at wire-cutting. Brow and eyes good: rest of face weak: Jaunty-fag-smoking demeanour under fire.[2]

“News of M.C.:” Sassoon has been awarded the Military Cross for his courage and initiative in the aftermath of the failed raid of May 25th.


rqg1-4Noel Hodgson and his friends had written “last letters” a few days before, when the attack had been planned for the 29th. So too had Rob Gilson, whose 11th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment (The Cambridge Regiment) will go forward in the morning. But Gilson found time, today, to send one of the famous Field Service Post Cards–seen at right[3]–as a last reassurance. Today, a century back, he is “quite well.”

J.R. Ackerley, whose battalion–the 8th East Surreys–was also slated to attack in the first waves, chose not to write home. One of his friends and fellow-subalterns wrote a letter proclaiming himself well, and post-dated it to July 2nd.

This, surely, was to tempt Nemesis, and Ackerley questioned the point of a “last letter:” the gap, the lag, would always be there, and no letter could really prove its writer to be still alive. Why try so sincerely to allay small measures of worry when it would do nothing to change the bare fact of life or death, and when any such efforts would be drowned in the accompanying infinities of grief.

Instead of writing, Ackerley “read Conrad’s Lord Jim for the fifth time.”[4]


George Coppard has already assured us that he and his battalion weren’t much for writing. But he remembered the night’s march very well:

On the night of 30 June the 37th Machine Gun Company rested in a field near Albert. A fierce bombardment of the German lines was going on. We were in the area of the big guns… They were underneath camouflage nets and looked huge, bigger than anything we’d seen before…[5]

And Edmund Blunden, to his frustration, has only a back seat to a sideshow. North of the Somme, there was a large diversionary attack on the Boar’s Head salient. Would this serve to confuse the German staff tomorrow, when the movement of reserves and ammunition supplies must be decided upon?

June 30, 1916

At the moment of the attack my platoon was in a familiar strong point on the La Bassee Road, called Port Arthur, two hundred yards in rear of our foremost breastwork. Sergeant Garton and myself obliged the men to withdraw into the cellars, and waited ourselves on the fire step in the failing darkness. Mad ideas of British supremacy flared in me as the quiet sky behind us awoke in a crescent of baying flashes, a half-moon of avenging fires; but those ideas sank instantly, for the sky before us awoke in like fashion, and another equal half-moon of punishing lightnings burst, with the innumerable high voices of machine guns like the spirits of madness in alarm shrilling above the tempest blast of explosion. A minute more, and a torrent of shells was screeching into Port Arthur; we had been in no doubt about this attention, for the place was an obvious “immediate reserve”; we (it was our good fortune) went below. The brickwork of the cellar cracked under one or two direct hits, but stood. Presently the gunners switched away, and we went out again into the summer morning, with an airplane or two arriving on bright wings.

There was not much shelling now, but machine guns continued to fire in a ragged way; no news came. My expectation was that we should be called up to reenforce, but no news came. At last a small straggling group of those unfortunate selected soldiers blundered dazedly round the trench corner into Port Arthur, and lay down in the first shelter available, among them Sergeant Compton, a brave and brilliant young fellow. All too eagerly I asked him, as I brought out to the sweating and twitching wretches whatever refreshment my dugout held, “What things were like”; in a great and angry groan he broke out,”Don’t ask me — it’s terrible, O God ” Then, after a moment, talking loud and fast: “We were in the third line. I came to a traverse, got out of the trench, and peeped; there was a Fritz creeping round the next traverse. I threw a bomb in; it hit the trench side and rolled just under his head; he looked down to see what it was . . .” He presently said that the attack had failed. Of his party, none had returned without bullet holes in their caps, uniforms, or equipment; one Single was already exhibiting his twice-perforated mess tin with his usual dejected wit. In No Man’s Land a deep wide dike had been met with, not previously observed or considered as an obstacle, which had given the German machine guns hideously simple targets; of those who crossed, most died against the uncut wire, including our colonel’s brother. A trench had been dug across No Man’s Land at heavy cost. So the attack on Boar’s Head closed, and so closed the admirable life of many a Sussex worthy.

Even now, we apprehended that a fresh forlorn hope might be demanded of the brigade.

At the risk–nay, the utter certainty–of sidetracking an excellent writer with an unnecessary learned digression, I want to point out how apt this reference is. A “forlorn hope” is not a “foolish expectation” or “sadly mistaken wish” but a corrption of the Dutch for a “lost troop.” As a technical term of Early Modern siege warfare, it refers to a unit–usually volunteers–who lead the attack on a fortress, usually by storming a breach. They are not expected to survive, since they will draw the fire of the prepared defenders. But in doing so, they will open the way for another storming party which may succeed while the defenders reload…

What the brigade felt was summed up by some sentry who, asked by the General next morning what he thought of the attack, answered in the roundest fashion, “Like a butcher’s shop.” Our own trenches had been knocked silly, and all the area of attack had been turned into an Aceldama. Every prominent point behind, Factory Trench, Chocolate Menier Corner, and so on, was now unkindly ploughed up with heavy shells. Roads and tracks were blocked and exposed. The communique that morning, when in the far and as yet strange-seeming south a holocaust was roaring, like our own extended for mile upon mile, referred to the Boar’s Head massacre somehow thus:

“East of Richebourg a strong raiding party penetrated the enemy’s third line.”

Perhaps, too, it claimed prisoners; for we were told that three Germans had found their way “to the Divisional Cage.”

Explanations followed. Our affair had been a cat’s-paw, a “holding attack” to keep German guns and troops from the Somme. This purpose, previously concealed from us with success, was unachieved, for just as our main artillery pulled out southward after the battle, so did the German; and only a battalion or two of reserve infantry was needed by them to secure their harmless little salient. The explanations were almost as infuriating to the troops as the attack itself… and deep down in the survivors there grew a bitterness of waste…

But in the spirit of the thing, we should sweep this direct testimony of the failed “cat’s paw” under the rug. However disillusioning, the Battle of the Boar’s Head can’t escape its destiny: from conception to execution–and even in its literary re-purposing, though to different effect–it was always a diversion, a feint, a flam-tap of history before the great crash of cymbals. “The bitterness of waste” is retrospection, which is out of bounds.[6] Today, a century back, is about tomorrow.


So back then to fiction: Phillip Maddison will be in the thick of it tomorrow–being fictional makes it easier to experience (and survive) several of the great British assaults in succession. On battle’s eve, he marches up…

The night of 30 June was fine in the valley of the Ancre, and fairly quiet. Cries of water-fowl came through the darkness as the column halted in the traffic congestion.

The last hues of sunset were congealed upon the north-west rim of the earth above which arose a steely haze of light. Phillip wondered, as he leaned on his rifle, if this was the glow of the midnight sun, the distant rays in space rising millions of miles beyond the horizon of the battlefield. How small it must all seem to the sun, which had looked upon so much life and death on the planet. Everything was vast to one human brain, but to the sun, how small…

Where was God in the actual scheme of things? His Son had failed to alter the scheme… It was all right for Father Aloysius to talk; but it was a fairy story.

He quivered with terror of death, waiting to enter the dead town of Albert…

The platoon marched straight on, passing under the red-brick mass of high walls and shattered roof above which the Golden Virgin leaned down from the campanile, high over the street, gleaming in every gun-flash…

“With so much stuff going over, it will be a cake-walk,” said the Adjutant to Phillip…[7]


From skepticism and foreshadowing, then, we will go back to the Traditional Voice, on what in some ways is its last day of unquestioned ascendancy.[8]

Lieutenant Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson, MC does not, in verse at least, entertain any of the same doubts. His 8th West Yorkshires moved up tonight to assault trenches opposite Thiepval, and today, a century back, he wrote this “last letter” in verse:

To My People Before The Great Offensive

Dark with uncertainty of doubtful doom
The future looms across the path we tread;
Yet, undismayed we gaze athwart the gloom,
Prophetically tinged with hectic red.
The mutterings of conflict, sullen, deep,
Surge over homes where hopeless tears are shed,
And ravens their ill-omened vigils keep
O’er legions dead.

But louder, deeper, fiercer still shall be
The turmoil and the rush of furious feet,
The roar of war shall roll from sea to sea,
And on the sea, where fleet engages fleet.
The fortunate who can, unharmed, depart
From that last field where Right and Wrong shall meet.
If then, amidst some millions more, this heart
Should cease to beat,—

Mourn not for me too sadly; I have been,
For months of an exalted life, a King;
Peer for these months of those whose graves grow green
Where’er the borders of our empire fling
Their mighty arms. And if the crown is death,
Death while I’m fighting for my home and king,
Thank God the son who drew from you his breath
To death could bring

A not entirely worthless sacrifice,
Because of those brief months when life meant more
Than selfish pleasures. Grudge not then the price,
But say, “Our country in the storm of war
Has found him fit to fight and die for her,”
And lift your heads in pride for evermore.
But when the leaves the evening breezes stir
Close not the door.

For if there’s any consciousness to follow
The deep, deep slumber that we know as Death,
If Death and Life are not all vain and hollow,
If Life is more than so much indrawn breath,
Then in the hush of twilight I shall come—
One with immortal Life, that knows not Death
But ever changes form—I shall come home;
Although, beneath

A wooden cross the clay that once was I
Has ta’en its ancient earthy form anew.
But listen to the wind that hurries by,
To all the Song of Life for tones you knew.
For in the voice of birds, the scent of flowers,
The evening silence and the falling dew,
Through every throbbing pulse of nature’s powers
I’ll speak to you.


References and Footnotes

  1. Zeepvat, Before Action, 193-4.
  2. Diaries, 82.
  3. From the Trinity College Cambridge Library (spoilers abound).
  4. Parker, Ackerley, 23.
  5. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 79.
  6. I am trying, you see, to work through all my most egregious mixed metaphors, in preparation for the grim task of writing up the Big Push...
  7. The Golden Virgin, 271-3.
  8. But not really. I am compelled to remind everyone that, even as the tide of disillusionment and disenchantment will begin to rise sharply, here, as the Somme attack founders, the public face of "poetry" and "war literature" will remain largely positive, patriotic, and traditional for more than a decade to come.

Siegfried Sassoon Invokes the Spirit of the Years; Edmund Blunden Will Be Left Behind; Noel Hodgson’s “Before Action.”

The Battle of the Somme was scheduled to begin this morning, a century back, but it has been postponed for two days. July 1st–a date to remember, a date to compress history with–will be the day the Big Push begins.

Three poets today, then, in the quiet of what was to have been the storm–two memories in prose and then an archetypal poem.

Siegfried Sassoon, who was to have rotated into support, is still holding trenches with the 1st Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Under fire, he reads–yesterday, it was one of Hardy‘s great tragic novels. Today, he quotes the Spirit of Dramatic History:

June 29

Steady bombardment. Enemy quiet (up to 1.50 p.m.), weather cool and cloudy–no rain.


What of the Immanent Will and Its designs?


It works unconsciously, as heretofore,
Eternal artistries in Circumstance,
Whose patterns, wrought by rapt aesthetic rote,
Seen[1] in themselves Its single listless aim,
And not their consequence.


Yet but one flimsy riband of Its web
Have we here watched in weaving—web Enorm,
Whose furthest hem and selvage may extend
To where the roars and plashings of the flames
Of earth-invisible suns swell noisily,
And onwards into ghastly gulfs of sky,
Where hideous presences churn through the dark—
Monsters of magnitude without a shape,
Hanging amid deep wells of nothingness.

(from Hardy, The Dynasts)[2]

Dodgy stuff, this cherry-picking from a vast reading to suit the circumstances of the day….  But, yes, these lines, written by Hardy to dramatize the Europe-ravaging, world-convulsing wars of just over a century back (i.e. the Napoleonic wars) fit very well for the century-back now. Battle looms, and Siegfried Sassoon is simultaneously grief-stricken, fairly happy, and engaging in battle-and-glory-tinged suicidal ideation.


Always unruffled and unassuming, Edmund Blunden is on the verge of what will be his first battle. He is near Richebourg-Saint-Vaast, north of the Somme, where a diversionary attack–which is intended to confuse the Germans and/or draw their reserves–is about to be launched.

Before long “secret” attack orders came, which everyone had to know. The phrase was that “The following officers and men have been carefully selected to participate,” or some such honorific proscription; however, our battalion was supplying only various detached parties, the real offensive falling to the share of the other three in the brigade. My name was not among the selected, and in that moment, so absurdly dominant is the desire to be talked about, disappointment was among my feelings.

Put this beside Sassoon’s voluntary heroics–not to mention Robert Graves‘s bellowing praise of them–and we have a good short-hand for the personalities of these three major war poets. Blunden, brave as the rest and considerably newer, is gentle and quiet. But, it would seem, even if he is too wise (or too retiring) to be “eager to go,” he is not master enough of his independent self-hood to escape disappointment. Ah, but then he recognizes the “absurdity…”

A further irony, of course, is built into the concept of the diversionary attack:

But what was the attack? This: The German line ran out in a small sharp cape here, called The Boar’s Head. This was to be “bitten off,” no doubt to render the maps in the chateaux of the mighty more symmetrical. The other battalions were being hurriedly exercised a mile or two behind through wheatfields, where the Pioneers had run up a canvas model of the enemy lines, and instead of some weeks, some days only were left; the day of decision came swooping upon the brigade. Over the way the Bois du Biez, with many trees still black and scowling amid the greenness of June, and empty houses along its verges, stood in our common gaze, nor was the legend that, when Neuve Chapelle (also close at hand, in sight) was assaulted, battalions went into the wood to be heard of never again, separable from its gaunt omnipresence. I explored some of the derelict trenches built for assembling infantry in the offensive of a year before, and found them terribly punished and shapeless, full of warnings, sown with jagged iron.

 And yet, these strong, cheerful, clean, determined men? these accumulations of trench-mortar bombs, hand grenades, bright blue wire, small-arms ammunition? these cruelly gleaming machine guns in hitherto unrevealed emplacements of our trenches, neat as office safes? On the afternoon before the attack, Penruddock (now away from us on some special duty) came up to give our selected ones the latest instructions, and also lanyards wherewith to bind numbers of prisoners. On that same afternoon our heavy artillery thundered away for hours at the German line; no answer came. How could we lose?


This question, of course, needs no answer from me. Nor does the following poem demand commentary. Noel Hodgson is somewhat akin to Blunden–gentle, countryish, classically trained. “Smiler,” though, is outgoing, while “Rabbit” is more of an alert watcher. Both go in for quietly effective poetry, but while Blunden’s will have depths to be explored, Hodgson tends to lay plain his meaning.

And that, in this case at least, is no criticism. Hodgson sat down, recently, to write what was on his mind as he prepared himself for battle–he may have completed “Before Action” as recently as a few days ago, but it was published today, a century back, in The New Witness.


Before Action

By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening’s benison,
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received.
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a soldier, Lord.

By all of all man’s hopes and fears,
And all the wonders poets sing.
The laughter of unclouded years.
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his.
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.

I, that on my familiar hill.
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice.
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this;–
By all delights that I shall miss
Help me to die, O Lord.



References and Footnotes

  1. Sassoon's mistake, I think--it should be "Seem."
  2. Diaries, 81.