Wilfred Owen on “Militarian Subjects”–or Not; Olaf Stapledon Can’t Forget That There Are Trenches in the World

Wilfred Owen‘s letter of today, a century back, begins in a rather precious mode of poetic reverie but then quickly subsides back toward the plane of daily life. First, he tells his mother of plans to visit the school with which had been very involved during his “ergotherapy” at Edinburgh. This is a happy subject–a remembrance of good times, the pleasure and fulfillment he felt in teaching and in the admiration of the boys for the young officer come to instruct them. But while the mood stays jaunty–it almost always does, in these letters–the thread leads straight back to war. There is a shadow, even in a breezy letter from this sunny, undecorated, unheralded “major domo,” of the substance of Sassoon‘s protest–and of Owen’s determination (which may make his mother profoundly uncomfortable) to treat the suffering of the soldiers in Christian terms.

13 December 1917, Scarborough

Dearest Mother,

It is the quarter of an hour after lunch. The coffee has given me satisfaction and everybody else. (I serve coffee after lunch as well as dinner.) So I sit in the middle of my five-windowed turret, and look down upon the sea. The sun is valiant in its old age. I draw the Venetian blinds, so that the shadow of the lattices on the table gives an illusion of great heat…

Yesterday I was sent the Tynecastle School Magazine, very amusing. Mrs. Fullerton writes again this morning, reminding me how I promised to go up there for my first leave.

‘You can imagine our welcome better than I can write’ they say. Now, I find that Leave from Friday Night to Monday Night is granted every month! But Mrs. Fullerton is leaving the school for ever on the 21st. in order to be with her husband who will soon get sent out again.

There is much talk of Education for the ‘A 4’s’ of the Battalion, that is the tender younglings. I have been ‘approached’ on the subject, but I shall not consent to lecture on Militarian subjects. The scheme either comes of a desperate feeling that the race is going to perdition intellectually or else it is a Jesuitical movement to catch ’em young, & prepare them for the Eucharist of their own blood.

Dearest love from W.E.O.[1]

 

Interestingly, our other letter today is from Olaf Stapledon, the young pacifist whose entire war service has been a protest, as well as a “sacrifice” in the looser sense of something given (at great length and effort) where it might have been (selfishly) withheld. Stapledon, home on leave–in Merseyside, just across the island from Scarborough–is stewing, disgusted with the complacency and luxury which persist.

Stapledon and Owen are very different men in very different positions, but it’s tempting to consider some sort of equivalency. Stapledon, despite a period of crisis about the rights and wrongs of serving as an ambulance man (rather than as either a soldier or a pacifist abstainer, ready for the other martyrdom of prison and social ignominy) has been shielded from the full misery of the war: he has not had to fight, or sit for many hours under enemy shelling. He has been in danger and he has seen terrible things, but nothing so terrible as a long, muddy tour in front-line trenches. So is he, in late 1917, only now approaching the mild level of disgust of a 1915 or early 1916 infantryman, while Owen has gone through all that in a few short weeks at the front (and a few long months recovering) and moved beyond it, to happy forgetfulness pottering about in a base job, picking out furniture, visiting old friends, and not thinking about what comes next?

Tempting–but I should have resisted. What’s the point, after all, of a strict timeline (i.e. the whole war, day by day) if I don’t resist the temptation to validate it by twisting it in different directions? Suffice it to say that today, a century back, Stapledon–who has never doubted that fighting the war is wrong–is wondering about who and what those who are fighting are fighting for. Are those for whom the sacrifices are allegedly being made worthy of them? The logical next step is to question, again, whether taking any action that enables the continuation of the war is morally justifiable.

Annery

13 December 1917

. . . I am all adrift, all sixes and sevens and so bored, bored to tears with the war and my own stodgy self. This leave has been somehow unreal. It has largely consisted in going round talking platitudes to people about the war, and in slipping back comfortably into the artificial life that we all lead at home in our most excessive middle class luxury. Plates & dishes & knives & forks & furniture beyond the wildest need, & all so beautifully clean. Fires, hot baths, dainty food–& yet there are trenches in the world.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 516.
  2. Talking Across the World, 260.

Isaac Rosenberg on Walt Whitman; Olaf Stapledon Talks Pacifism and Wishes for Sweeter Music

We get a rare look into the mind of Isaac Rosenberg today, a century back, as a letter survives that he wrote from hospital–where he is still recovering from the flu–to his old friend Joseph Leftwich. And his mind is about where we would expect it to be: careful to acknowledge the good fortune of a bad illness, and otherwise dwelling on poetry.

Dear Leftwich,

I am in hosp and have been for here about 2 months—lucky for me—I fancy—as I got out of this late stunt by being here. My brother Dave on the Tanks got a bullet in his leg and is also in hosp—also my wilder brother in the S.A.H.A. is in hosp—And now your letter has been buffeted into hosp, and that it has reached me must be looked upon as one of the miracles of this war.

Rosenberg then goes on to discuss a contemporary poet, and the forefather that they both admire:

We never spoke about Whitman—Drum Taps stands unique as War Poetry in my mind. I have written a few war poems but when I think of Drum Taps mine are absurd.

Well, then, with such a towering forebear, what can we do but bank the fires of ambition, sweep out the cold ashes of the muse’s inadequate fires, and abandon the cold hearth of–wait? What’s that you said?

However I would get a pamphlet printed if I were sure of selling about 60 at 1s each as I think mine may give some new aspects to people at home—and then one never knows whether you’ll get a tap on the head or not: and if that happens—all you have written is lost, unless you have secured them by printing. Do you know when the Georgian B. will be out? I am only having about half a page in it and its only an extract from a poem…

I. Rosenberg[1]

It flew by there, but it’s worth noting. There are two stated reasons for writing: first, because even if your work is not as strong as that of your honored predecessor it may still contain something new; second, because if you are killed, it’s likely that only the published work will survive.

 

And as for our own Walt Whitman, the multitudinous Olaf Stapledon (true, he’s a different sort of writer-dreamer, and not primarily a poet, and ardently in love with his fiancée, so all the parallels aren’t quite there, but he is a passionately effusive and unbounded writer serving the war’s wounded), we have an interesting series of observations on the state of militarism.

Annery
Agnes, 8 December 1917

Home again! Cheers! And after such a quick journey. . . . Missed the connection for Liverpool, had an elegant light lunch at Euston, embarked for L’pool at 2.20… I travelled third. In the compartment were an R[oyal]F[lying]C[orps] man, an R[oyal]G[arrison]A[rtillery] man, two infantry men one of whom was a New Zealander, and two young civilians of whom one was a discharged soldier. Very soon we got talking, first about the British and French fronts, then about the war in general. And I was surprised at the outspoken pacifism of everyone present. There was first a whisper then a trickle of remarks, then I said I was F[riends]A[mbluance]U[nit] and then everyone began to grow voluble about the war and the fact that if only some people weren’t making a profit out of it, it would have been wound up long ago. The RFC man came from Preston. He was very bitter, in his broad Lancashire dialect. The discharged soldier talked a lot of palpably extravagant rubbish, but on the main points he agreed entirely with the rest. His extravagance was chiefly merely anti-monarchical. (Not that I am a monarchist; but I don’t think the matter is worth bothering about.) The New Zealander was a lad who had not yet been to France, and all he cared for was looking at the scenery. But the rest! I assured them that the average French poilu was every bit as “bad” as they were, and they said, “No wonder.” . . .

And so here am I home again, writing at my old desk in the red room to the girl I have written to so often from this place. . . . Annery is the same as ever, & Caldy is as lovely as ever. I have treadmilled the old pianola as usual. But somehow this time it does not satisfy me at all. I want handmade music again, and I want it made by your hands.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Works, 357-8.
  2. Talking Across the World, 258-9.

George Coppard’s Machine Guns to Cambrai; Rowland Feilding’s Rangers at Bullecourt; Robert Graves Sets the Record Straight; Agnes Miller as Lizzie Bennet, Olaf Stapledon as Mr. Darcy

Today, a century back, was the first day of the battle of Cambrai. There shouldn’t have been any real hope for a breakthrough, especially so near to the beginning of winter. But the ground in front of Cambrai–between the Arras battlefield and the Somme battlefield–was relatively unspoiled, and it was conceivable that the British could take the town and the Bourlon Ridge and thus threaten to cut off the Hindenberg Line. It is also conceivable that since the Third Army hadn’t suffered horribly, lately, its restive commanders simply wanted to experiment with massed tanks and new artillery tactics, and so an intelligent commitment to holding the line gave way to an experimental local attack that grew out of scale as the planning continued.

But I’m not capable of giving an intelligent precis of the strategy here, nor do we really need one. Six divisions of infantry and over 400 tanks were massed for the traditional dawn assault, and there was some hope that the Germans, expecting a long barrage, would be unprepared for the sudden attack after a short, furious bombardment by over a thousand guns, most of which had been “silently” registered on their targets. The new tactics worked well, but they will not be enough to sustain initial successes against the heavily built-up Hindenberg Line.

Among the thousands lying out between the British front lines in the early morning hours were George Coppard and his two machine gun teams, part of the 37th Brigade, 12th Division.

There we were, a brigade of men, shivering on a cold November night, without a smoke, and suffering like drug addicts… we were only allowed to communicate in whispers. It was the queerest sensation being packed with a vast crowd of warriors, within 400 yards of our front line, and out in the open, after living like rabbits in burrows for many months. It was a spooky business, and we kept as quiet as mice…

Like all the rest I was excited at the prospect of going into battle behind these new-fangled Wellsian monsters. I felt they were really going to exact retribution, on behalf of all of us, for the countless miseries and privations that we poor blighters had suffered at Jerry’s hands.This was to be the reckoning…

Zero was at 6.30 am on that memorable day, 20 November. We heard the sound of tank engines warming up. The first glimpse of dawn was beginning to show as we stood waiting for the big bang that would erupt behind us at the end of the countdown. Lieutenant Garbutt and Sergeant Critcher were standing near me. At last the officer began to count. He was bang on, and in a flash the black sky at our backs was ablaze with stabbing shafts of light. A vast drum of terrible thunder swept along the eight-mile front and a chorus of shells screamed over to the east. The need for silence was over, and we exploded in a babble of excitement. That concentration of artillery was surely one of the greatest ever known. The tanks, looking like giant toads, became visible against the skyline as they approached the top of the slope. Some of the leading tanks carried huge bundles of tightly-bound brushwood, which they dropped when a wide trench was encountered, thus providing a firm base to cross over. Suddenly, the bombardment ceased. By now the tanks were near the German lines and shooting it out where resistance was met…

We went forward into enemy country in a manner never possible without the aid of tanks. ‘A’ section fell in behind the Queen’s, my two guns being on the right flank. No enemy fire of any sort impeded us until we passed Gonnelieu on our left… It was broad daylight as we crossed No Man’s Land and the German front line. I saw very few wounded coming back, and only a handful of prisoners. The tanks appeared to have busted through any resistance. The enemy wire had been dragged about like old curtains, though it was not comparable in density to the terrible wire at the beginning of the Somme battle.

As we moved forward… I could see several tanks rolling forward steadily. There did not appear to be any organised defence against them. Some changed directions to meet isolated spots of resistance, mostly from machine guns. One or two had come to a stand-still, probably with engine trouble…

From the general situation it seemed to me that the German infantry had either fled at the apparition of the tanks or had pulled out deliberately, leaving their machine guns to do what they could…

Whatever the reason for the feeble resistance, it suited my gun team very nicely, and we moved forward steadily with guns and gear. Officialdom had designated tanks sex-wise, i.e. those with light cannon were males and those with machine guns were females. This caused the lads to think up some bright expressions when viewing the lumbering monsters, such as, “Here’s an old bitch,’ or, ‘There goes a bloody great bull.’

Advancing along captured communications trenches, Coppard and his men eventually discovered that not all German resistance had been overcome. His wide-ranging memories of the day[1] narrow, now, as he comes under direct fire.

We reached a point where it cut through the banks of a sunken road. We had to cross the road, but pulled up sharp at the sight of three dead Tommies lying on it. I dashed across the road to where the trench continued–a matter of about ten feet. From a concealed position on my right a Jerry machine guns opened fire. My hair stood on end as the bullets hissed past my back. The gunner was just a trifle late to get me.

There was a tank nearby beginning to move after a stop. I told one of the crew about the enemy machine gun, ‘We’ll fix the bastard,’ he replied, and slowly the tank shuffled round on its tracks and rolled off in the direction of the hostile gun. Then came a fiery burst as the hapless weapon tried to beat off the tank, the bullets clanging and ricocheting. The teams crossed the road safely, well-bucked at this practical demonstration of a tank in action.

Other than this adventure, Coppard saw little action–most of the German artillery seems to have withdrawn before the attack–evidence, perhaps, that they were not in fact strategically surprised. The 37th Brigade advances seven kilometres, just as planned, and without finding targets along the way. After his two teams dig in for the night–and for the expected counter-attack–Coppard explored their immediate area, finding a German command dugout with a body at the bottom. Nauseated–and fearing booby traps–he and his hungry men forgo taking any of the food in the dugout…[2]

 

Rowland Feilding‘s battalion was part of the 16th (Irish) Division, and attacked not as part of the main effort at Cambrai but with the subsidiary attack several miles to the west, at Bullecourt. They held the right flank of their brigade attack, which would prove to be a difficult situation.

Shortly before Zero I headed for the front to wish the assaulting Companies good luck before they went over, but I was delayed, and found myself still in the fire-trench when, bursting out of almost perfect silence, our barrage started…

As a precautionary measure I had had the direction of the objective marked out with tape the night before, having learned, from previous experience, the difficulty of keeping direction in the dark.

Absolutely to the tick I watched the men scaling the ladders… and scrambling over the parapet, the signallers under their sergeant struggling with the coils of telephone wire that was to keep me in touch with the assaulting troops once they had established themselves in the German trench. Those are sights that are very inspiring, and which engrave themselves upon the memory, but I prefer to turn away from them…

By this time the usual inferno… had worked up to its full fury.

It is very clear, at least, that British synchronization has reached a high level of efficiency. Feilding describes the barrage, and his attempt to control the attack from a forward position, but the small dugout soon becomes crammed with wounded men and German prisoners, so he headed back to his “proper Headquarters.”

At this moment poor Brett came stumbling back, crimson with blood, having been shot through the face, bringing further confirmation of the news which I already had from him by runner, that the enemy was furiously counter-attacking our exposed right flank.

The two bunkers are visible in the upper left of the map segment, below, just to the left of the hatched vertical line. Both are marked, appropriately enough, with a symbol much like the conventional “mars” symbol, but in this case indicating a “mebus” machine gun emplacement.

In his next letter, Feilding will explain the tactical situation. The primary objectives of his two companies were two huge reinforced concrete bunkers (“Mebus” was then the term) known as “Mars” and “Jove.” Both were swiftly outflanked under a precise barrage and smoke-screen–“the advance to the attack across Noman’s Land had been carried out precisely as rehearsed”–and surrendered after brief resistance. Eventually, 152 prisoners were collected, but the engineers accompanying the infantry, focused on clearing mines and booby-traps, were unable to block all of the tunnels connecting the German network of defensive positions.

When the counter-attack came, less than an hour after zero, it was both over the open ground to their right and through tunnels that led to the bunker.

You will appreciate its severity when I tell you that the Commander and twenty-six out of twenty-eight other ranks of the right flank platoon became casualties. The officers and men fought with the most heroic determination in spite of a failing and finally disappearing supply of bombs…

At a critical moment one of the men, Private K. White, rushed close up to a traverse from behind which the enemy was bombing, and actually catching some of their bombs in the air, threw them back before they had exploded.

But it was not enough–after an hour, Captain Brett, shot through the face, led a retreat onto the other pillbox. This held, and after another hour, Feilding himself crossed No Man’s land with his orderly in order to visit the position.

I talked to the men as I passed along the line, and found them in good spirits, and confident in the knowledge of the splendid part they had played that morning…

They have done well–and still suffered heavy casualties.

The familiar scene of desolation confronted me. Each time I see this kind of thing I think it is worse than the last time, and indeed, on this occasion, so churned up was the surface that, but for the line of tunnel entrances and the trodden ground between them, there was little left to indicate where the trench had been. It was just a sea of overlapping craters of huge dimensions–a dismal chaos of fresh-turned earth.

Feilding, with little to do now that the counter-attack has petered out, explores the new position, coming upon the dead, the dying, and the wounded. Even though he is so close to the action–he was in command of the men who stormed the two pillboxes and took the tunnels with hand-grenades, he writes almost as an observer. He sees the horrible aftermath, promises aid to the wounded, and collects souvenirs…[3]

 

Back down in the main battle, Edward Horner (one of the last of the Coterie, and a great friend of both Diana Manners and Duff Cooper) moved up with his 18th Hussars as the battle began. We have read Coppard’s and Feilding’s tales of heavy machine guns, precise artillery coordination, and tank exploits against pillboxes, and the battlefield was overflown by hundreds of aircraft–1917 as a foreshadowing of 1939. But there were only a few hundred tanks to be had and, as we shall see, they were mechanically unreliable, and so the plan for exploiting any breakthroughs was essentially the same as it had been in 1915 and 1916, and behind the attacking tanks and infantry trotted three entire divisions of cavalry–Hussars, Dragoons, and Lancers no longer dressed in their flashing Napoleonic finery, but still booted, spurred, helmeted, and mounted. Cambrai was, in the words of one of our writers who was not there but will study the subject, “a harum-scarum affair, ill-planned and feebly directed.” It was a raid that got out of hand, in terms of its scale, and could only do what raids do: snatch a bit of ground which cannot be held. The tactical coordination may yet be a model for future operations, but they have not solved the operational problem of continuing the advance.

So, as the German counter-attack gathers, Horner’s Hussars, part of the 1st Cavalry Division, passed through the infantry and attacked the village of Noyelles, south-east of Cambrai. But too slowly: although in some places all three major layers of the Hindenberg Line were pierced to a distance of nearly five miles (a fourth line was incomplete), by the time the heavily-laden horses had picked their way through, the German defense had had time to organize. The cavalry were in it, at last, but they were not cantering through the open fields toward Berlin. They were fighting a confused battle on a torn up field, against undisturbed reserves who had easier access to heavy weapons.

 

Back to the infantry, now. E. A. Mackintosh’s 4th Seaforth Highlanders were in reserve, although they probably assumed that they would be called in when the attack bogged down. But they were not–and if the cavalry were both elated and disappointed to be involved in heavy fighting, the infantry were very pleased to have a short march forward into the captured area. So, despite yesterday’s note, Mackintosh saw no fighting today. During the night they will take over for the first waves, victorious but exhausted.[4]

 

Also in the battle were both of Isaac Rosenberg‘s recent units–the company of Royal Engineers with whom he had served as a laborer and the 11th King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster). As with Mackintosh’s Seaforths, their easy first day will turn out to be only be a brief reprieve: the German counter-attack will come soon, and it will be as devastating as the British assault was successful. And so Rosenberg will come to know that he has been very fortunate to be very ill, and in hospital, and not in Bourlon Wood.[5]

 

It might make sense to end here, or to spend more time fleshing out these scattered notices of a large battle–but that, of course, is not how today, a century back, was experienced. It was all in bits in pieces, and only later would it be the beginning of a strategic story of ambition, success, and cruel but predictable reversal. In England the evening papers will have some news of the attack, but for most people, most of the day, their thoughts were elsewhere.

Robert Graves, for instance, is writing from his garrison job in Wales to Robert Nichols. The letter happily discusses their recent literary successes–“My God, Robert, we have lit such a candle as by God’s grace will set the whole barn alight”–and proposes various projects, before it works around to Graves’s real business–clearing the air of any lingering questions about his sexuality.

It’s only fair to tell you that since the cataclysm of my friend Peter, my affections are running in the more normal channels and I correspond regularly and warmly with Nancy Nicholson, who is great fun. I only tell you this so that you should get out of your head any misconceptions about my temperament. I should hate you to think I was a confirmed homosexual even if it were only in my thought and went no further.

Fair enough, perhaps. It is testimony to both Graves’s enthusiasm and his obliviousness that it might only recently have occurred to him that his habit of being honest about his (chaste) passion for a younger schoolboy might lead some to think that he was “a confirmed homosexual.” The topic may be on his mind, too, because Nichols–his heterosexuality confirmed by syphilis apparently contracted from prostitutes–has recently spent time with Siegfried Sassoon and Robbie Ross. And then there is one more poet whose affections run in less “normal” channels… and whom Graves, after connecting Nichols and Sassoon (though Ross was there to do the real work) will try to take credit for discovering, even though, of course, it was Sassoon who introduced them.

I think I have found a few poet as yet unfledged. One Owen, subaltern in the 2nd Manchester Regiment.[6]

Owen, meanwhile, left home this morning, a century back, his leave up, for garrison duty in Scarborough.[7]

 

Finally today, we’ll take a perversely wide view of “war literature” and swing from the tanks at Cambrai to the nineteenth century novel inspiring in Australia.

Agnes Miller–together with a score of other wives and sweethearts–suffers the compounded insult, here, of once again waiting quietly in the background while men’s words take center stage. The excuse, of course, is that we are interested, a century on, in the experience of the war and the problems of writing about it, and therefore the letters of those at the front naturally take precedence over those written from home to the soldiers (and ambulance drivers). Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s still a shame that this echoes the general devaluing of women’s voices, a century back. Although sometimes any fault is mine–I choose to omit the letters, that is–another reasonable excuse is that there is often no possibility of including the other half of the conversation: letters from the front could be bundled and laid lovingly away in drawers and trunks, while letters to the front were very often lost or simply thrown away, since a bundle of letters would become a burden to a front-line soldier.

But some recipients were able to keep at least some of their letters, and, while I often skip Agnes Miller’s tales of daily life in wartime Australia, today’s letter, though ill-timed to coincide with a major tank battle and the climax of one machine-gunner’s memoir, is impossible to resist. In fact, it’s about as excellent a letter from a lover as one could hope to receive… which is also to say that I approve of its subject and position, a century on. Moreover, after he will have received her long-delayed doubts on the strength of their relationship to survive these years apart, this letter will surely overwhelm Olaf Stapledon with love for his beloved–and with gratitude for the timely wisdom of that “lady novelist” then dead a century and four months.

20 November 1917

I wonder if perhaps you are at home now on leave—perhaps at this very minute waking up one morning at Annery. I have a habit of always thinking of you eight weeks ago, sort of. I don’t realise that you are really there keeping pace with me at every fresh minute of the day. It is nice to think that. It makes you more real. I have read two books in the past three days. That is my record! I kept thinking how much you would have enjoyed them if we had been reading them aloud to each other. Of course you must have read them—“Pride & Prejudice” & “Northanger Abbey.” You do like Jane Austen, don’t you? I simply love her. Such really artistic delightful writing. Such books make me think of diamonds, small diamonds but perfect in workmanship. Absolutely genuine—clean cut, perfectly smooth & sparkling. Full of such delicious humour & such sound good sense, & although the ways & the language that day are so very different from ours yet the characters are just such as we meet everywhere. I should like to have been friends with Jane & Elizabeth Bennett. . . . I should so like to be as bright & intelligent & sprightly as Elizabeth! No wonder Mr. Darcy “got it badly” when he did get it! I like to picture you in the characters of all the nice lovers— my
Mr. Darcy!

. . . I can understand Elizabeth very well. I can understand her resentment at such a sudden & unexpected declaration. I can understand her disapproval amounting to positive dislike on that occasion. I think she would understand my despair & sorrow—almost shame at having won a love that I could never hope to return. If she had understood my feeling she would not have been surprised to find me weeping upstairs in the darkened drawing room. . . .

Then next I see the beginnings of changes in both of us—changes which make us feel how far away we both were before from the real thing & at last “my Mr. Darcy” comes to me—or rather I write to him from the other end of the world & say, “Dear Mr. Darcy—Once, a long time ago, you asked me to be your wife & I said no & I was very cross & horrible & now I am sorry. Everything is different now & I am different too & I understand & if you will only ask me once again I will not say no—indeed I will not.”

And she did not.

Mr. & Mrs. Darcy were very happy after their stormy courtship & Mr. & Mrs. Stapledon will surely be even more so to make up for all the long time they have had to wait. . . . Jane Austen really is a tonic as well as an artist.[8]

We are to be grateful, however, that Agnes didn’t happen upon Persuasion, first, which might have romantically inclined her toward a long sharp wartime separation and a preference, after all, for brave, dashing, and fortunate officers, rather than principled and dreamy pacifists…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Which read a little bit too much, in a few places, as if they had been influenced by the style of later popular summary.
  2. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 122-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 228-34.
  4. Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man With a Cold, 204-5.
  5. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 375.
  6. In Broken Images, 88-89. There is no date on the letter, but it is dated to today, a century back, by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 425.
  7. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 283.
  8. Talking Across the World, 257-8.

Olaf Stapledon Goes to Mass; Rowland Feilding Praises Courage Under Fire

There is a special pathos in following the conversation of Olaf Stapeldon and Agnes Miller, separated as it is by half the world, the long weeks it takes letters to traverse the distance, and the vagaries of wartime mail. Agnes has been having her doubts, recently, that their love can survive the long loneliness, but Olaf hasn’t learned of them yet. And before he does, her doubts have turned back to questions, which he will then have to answer.

It’s been hard (of course!) being separated for long years, with only letters to sustain them. And when Agnes sees young men going off to fight–or bright, brave young men like Olaf taking high-status roles as officers–her faith in his faith that a pacifist’s place is in the hard, humble duty of the Ambulance Corps wavers.

You see, conscription did not come here, so there was no need for him to go to prison. But just put yourself in his place in a free country like Australia. You need not go to war & you need not go to prison, but I don’t think you would be content if you lived here to go on with your daily work just as usual. I think you would have been drawn away to do Red Cross or relief work just as you have been doing. Would you not? If so I think you must be right in being there now. If you would not have gone, do you think it would have been more worthwhile to stick to your own work or to have joined the English C.O.s in their protest? Which?

This is a difficult hypothetical, and we must point out on Olaf’s behalf that he never had to make such a choice because he committed to the Friends’ Ambulance Unit long before conscription came to England, when his old classmates were joining the army in droves. And he has thought all this through, carefully, too…

But the conversation is months in arrears, and Olaf’s letter of the same day, a century back, is a colorful slice-of-life letter. And yet, like any wartime letter, it can hardly fail to address these questions of duty, suffering, principle, and motivation.

6 November 1917

It is a foggy, muddy November Sunday, and in our great rugger match this afternoon we shall get well plastered. These matches are a great institution; they give us something to talk about for a fortnight before the event and a fortnight afterwards. We discuss rugger as seriously as if it was the war. We estimate people’s respective merits. We tragically whisper that so and so is no use, you know.” We exclaim, with eyes round with adoration, that so and so is glorious. We rearrange the whole program of our work so as to enable The Team to be all off duty on the Day. In fact it is just like school…

Stapledon then tells us about a recent service at the local church. There is some condescension, here, from the well-bred English Quaker, about the ceremonies of rural French Catholicism… but as always with Stapledon, sympathy trumps whatever stiffness holds him back, and he is drawn in:

The other day was the French “Jour des Morts.” Some of us dressed up and went to church to represent the convoy. It was a little old church… packed with pale blue soldiers, and in the background were about four women in deep black. The service began in the ordinary way, and seemed lamentably unreal, insincere. The priest muttered and rang bells and waved his hands & did genuflexions, the intoning was very bad. Then came a solemn solo on some sort of hautbois, rather an improvement. Then, after more scampered chants, the band in the gallery began playing some fine stately piece or other. We all sat and listened and were rather strung up by it. Then came the sermon, a rather oratorical affair, and yet somehow sincere. He spoke very clearly, slowly, and with much gesture. He pictured the supreme sacrifice of Christ, the similar sacrifice of any man who dies avec les armes a la main, en se battant pour la France [in arms, fighting for France], or words to that effect. He described sympathetically the mud & misery of the trenches; and then urged men, if they ever felt inclined to give up the struggle, to remember devastated France who needed their help. He pictured the souls of the glorious dead enjoying heaven. And his last words were a moving summary of all the sufferings of France since the war began…

One felt as if the little church were some ship in a great storm, sweeping toward a fierce coast. One felt that the blue mariners, instead of pulling at ropes and sailing the ship, were praying to imaginary gods of the tempest. I don’t know. It was somehow terrible. One felt the awful fatal power of the world, and the littleness of men. Finally the band played Chopin’s dead march as people slowly moved out with wreaths for their friends’ graves. That nearly reduced some of us to tears, very much against our will. I can’t explain. There was something more than the obvious tragedy of human death about it, though indeed that is more than enough in itself, our blue soldiers, with their short-cropped black hair, and their matter-of-fact French faces. They had such a strange shamefaced way of crossing themselves, rather as if they suspected it was a foolish superstition but were determined to be on the safe side. They had seen hell all right but they did not know at all what heaven is…[1]

 

The only other piece today is almost a flash-forward. Rowland Feilding is neither a dreamer nor a pacifist, but he is, in another sense, what Olaf Stapledon hopes to be, namely an older married man, doing his duty, and keeping his beloved wife Edith as close as he can. Feilding has done more than any of our writers to hold to the plan of writing scrupulously honest and open letters to his wife, sparing her nothing.

But today there is a painful reversal, a vertigo at the edge of the experiential gulf: Feilding is safe in reserve, and his wife and children are in danger, in London. It’s a short letter, but it packs in love, a sort of befuddled proto-feminism, and the awkward tone of a husband/commander exhorting and commending his wife/subordinate from far away, in relative safety.[2]

I got your letter to-day, describing the air-raid, which interested me enormously and filled me with pride to think of you all joking at the bottom of the kitchen stairs.

I cannot tell you how much I admire the way in which you have handled this problem, forcing the children to look upon the air-raids as a game. It is splendid. The others will inevitably take their cue from you. Had you been a man you would have made an ideal soldier. Above all, I admire the way in which you have never woken the children till, in your opinion, the danger has become imminent. You are becoming a veteran now, and I have every faith in your leadership, and that it will carry you and the household through…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 254-6. Of all things--and allowing for the ten thousand miles separating the lovers--this scene recalls (or anticipates, rather) the Advent Evensong scene in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.
  2. He is probably not in "relative" safety; London was a big place and the raids did not kill very many compared to the constant bombardment even on quiet sectors of the rear areas in France and Belgium. Nevertheless, the thought that on some nights, at least, his family is in danger and he is not is strange and destabilizing...
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 223-4.

E.A. Mackintosh to Sylvia, Diana Manners to Duff, Olaf Stapledon to Agnes

We have a strange trio, today: three pieces each addressed to objects of affection, but otherwise most unlike each other in both form and content.

We don’t hear from E.A. Mackintosh all that often, and he has been for many months now living a quiet life training cadets in Cambridge. But today, a century back, he bridges recent poems we’ve seen from Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon, writing of–and to–a young woman he met in Cambridge, and also of the dead men he left behind.

 

To Sylvia

Two months ago the skies were blue,
The fields were fresh and green,
And green the willow tree stood up,
With the lazy stream between.Two months ago we sat and watched
The river drifting by–
And now—you’re back at your work again
And here in a ditch I lie.

God knows—my dear—I did not want
To rise and leave you so,
But the dead men’s hands were beckoning
And I knew that I must go.

The dead men’s eyes were watching, lass,
Their lips were asking too,
We faced it out and payed the price–
Are we betrayed by you?

The days are long between, dear lass,
Before we meet again,
Long days of mud and work for me,
For you long care and pain.

But you’ll forgive me yet, my dear,
Because of what you know,
I can look my dead friends in the face
As I couldn’t two months ago.

October 20th, 1917

There are plenty of poetic contexts in which the dead speak–the ancient epics would be incomplete without their ghost scenes, and Paul Fussell reminds us that Thomas Hardy’s Satires of Circumstance anticipated this sort of war writing with many poems in which the dead pose ironic questions of the living–but this is still uncannily close to Sassoon’s most recent poem. It’s a literary device, sure, but it’s also something like a collective hallucination–a repressed, British, literary version of trauma-induced mass hysteria. I overstate for effect, of course, but after all, so do the poems: neither Mackintosh nor Sassoon are literally hearing voices, but they dwell on the thoughts of dead men, and seem compelled to write about them, and to be drawn back to danger by an impossible wish for fellowship with the dead.

 

Diana Manners is also thinking of dead men, and of another man who is not far now from going out and discovering “Death’s plans.” She writes to Duff Cooper, still training in England:

Arlington Street 20 October

I am so sad about poor “Lucky Pixley” and for the first time in my life a little remorseful that I wasn’t nicer and didn’t come up from Chirk two days earlier though he begged me to. If only one happened to know Death’s plans…

For the time being she will simply have to continue defying them by demonstrating sang froid during air raid warnings:

Last night just as I was starting for Edwin and Alan’s farewell (they leave tomorrow for India) and Maud Cunard was in the hall to fetch me, the raid warning was given. Till 9.30 I argued with Her Grace. I had no case save that the guns had not begun — a poor one for they didn’t begin even when Piccadilly Circus was demolished and a knot of the proletariat killed, not even when the élite, represented by General Lowther, had his hat blown off.

Amusing–as she intends it to be. But Manners drops any mask in the next bit of the letter, writing openly of the grim psychological state of two of their mutual friends.

I got away in the end and found myself between Alan and Edwin, the latter divine, in the mood of the doomed, speaking bravely enough of his thankfulness for two Heaven-given years with his wife, of his reliance on me to look after her widowhood, and of several significant omens that signalled his approaching death. His fear has been quelled by complete resignation. Alan was little better — ashy-white with an unshakeable belief that he would be left to die at Aden. . . . After dinner I talked to Winston a great deal about you.[1]

 

Finally, today, a sort of frozen omen, in the shape of a very different letter-from-a-fiancé. Olaf Stapledon, separated from her by half the world, will not know for weeks that his beloved Agnes has been writing letters that hint at growing despair that their long engagement will ever come to anything. Olaf, all unknowing, writes to her of the earnest educational activities he is undertaking whenever his ambulance work allows him free time.

SSA 13
20 October 1917

. . . I am busy at present, what with the ordinary run of work plus various educational enterprises on the convoy, plus a sudden keen literary fever, plus the building of a new shell-proof dugout (great fun) plus a football match this afternoon, plus a car that has got some indeterminable disease that gives me a lot of trouble. The educational enterprises are Tindle’s occasional essays (the last on “Past & Present”), & a small industrial history class consisting of “Sparrow,” the quaint old bird, “Gertie,” the second cook and formerly a printer, and one Evans, a rather pharisaical but genial young journalist who was once second cook but is now our orderly. That little class is great fun. We talk about the Roman bath, the British village and the Saxon homestead, from which you may gather that we have only just begun. I draw wildly inaccurate maps & charts for them, and illustrate with sketches of ancient British coins etc., and they comment, question, and are made to expound what they have read; also they write essays & we criticise them all together…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Autobiography, 158.
  2. Talking Across the World, 253.

Isaac Rosenberg in London; Eddie Marsh Sees the Sights; Agnes Miller Cries in the Dark

After two days in transit, Isaac Rosenberg reached London today, a century back, on his first leave since his service in the B.E.F. began. Before he even reached home he was among friends, and in high spirits: on the bus from Victoria Station he saw Joseph Leftwich and jumped off to greet him looking “well and fit… more boisterously happy than I had ever seen him.”

Isaac Rosenberg (seated) with his younger brother Elkon

Over the next ten days Rosenberg will spend much time with his family, but he will also go in search of art and literature, revisiting old haunts such as the Slade and heading to the Café Royal, his poems in his pockets. but he will miss his two most important patrons–Sidney Schiff and Eddie Marsh (on whom see below)–but he probably saw both Anetta Raphael and Sonia Cohen, whom he had painted most memorably (and probably loved, unrequitedly, before losing her to a doomed relationship with John Rodker).

In any case Rosenberg’s poetry will reflect both a surge in personal confidence and a reconsideration of past loves. Strikingly, for a sickly and fragile man who had gone for a soldier more out of poverty than out of any Romantic belief in war’s exalting or transformative powers, he has been, if not exalted, than at least positively transformed by some aspects of his experience. He might hate the war, but being in London he feels empowered in some way: the war may be awful, but it is still intense, and returning to the scene of his prior life probably made that life seem “‘pallid’… and unexciting” by contrast.

It is difficult to track Rosenberg’s next few days, but at some point he and his brother Elkon went to sit for a photograph. Elkon is nine years younger and a newly minted soldier rather than a veteran of the trenches, but here he looks the hale and protective elder brother.[1]

 

It seems typical of Rosenberg’s luck that the one patron best positioned to help him in matters literary, artistic, and military had been in London for years–and now is touring Belgium and France. Eddie Marsh’s diary for today, a century back, begins with a clever allusion suitable for dutiful tourism.

These V.I.P.s can really get their sight-seeing done quickly, especially when they begin their tour from the right spot, namely Amiens, the capital of behind-the-lines-of-the-British-Sector-of-the-Somme:

Saturday Sept. 16th

Like Mrs. Micawber, I felt that ‘having come so far, it would be rash not to see the Cathedral’—so I rushed round before breakfast. I had only 5 minutes there, but in a sense it was enough. I hadn’t for a long time seen anything of that kind—of that majestic and overwhelming beauty—and it was ‘a bit much.’

We started at 10.15 for Arras. There was nothing much to notice (except German prisoners working by the roadside—and farther on some native labour contingents) till we got to Albert—but from the moment I caught sight of the Virgin in her arrested fall, the day was a succession of thrills. The Virgin is curiously moving. She’s nothing in herself, the battered church is a hideous and vulgar building, and she gives the tower the shape of a fool’s cockscomb. Yet her position is so evidently a miracle—the edge of her pedestal has somehow just caught in the parapet, and there she stays month in and month out in the very act of her headlong dive—one feels it must be an omen.

Here is an experienced and not-easily-impressed man greatly impressed by ominous coincidence–by strange chance amidst the drama of war.

Next, with Marsh’s fresh eyes we see once again the road to the front.

For a few minutes beyond Albert the country is still country—I saw an untouched bend of the Ancre, flowing through grass meadows among poplars and willows. Then comes a sudden change—the land becomes featureless and unmeaning, like the face of a leper—(a leper with smallpox as well, for it’s all pitted with shell-holes). Coarse grass and weeds have sprung up everywhere, so the unimaginable desolation one used to read about has passed off—but there are still the fines of bare tree trunks with their stumps of boughs—and everywhere the tiny nameless white crosses, single or in clusters, ‘like snowdrops’ as Winston said—and here and there a regular cemetery with larger named crosses. Of the smaller villages, such as Pozières, not a trace remains (just a fragment of wall, 4 feet high, which was once the Chateau de Pozieres). We passed the crater of La Boisselle, where the German fines began—and the white mound of the Butte de Warlencourt—and then came to Bapaume, which looks as if some one had crumpled it up and torn it into little bits, meaning to throw it into the waste-paper-basket…

Then, near Lens, Marsh comes upon the truly empty battlefield:

The whole countryside is covered with red towns, Liévin, Salournies, etc.—as thickly almost as the parts round Manchester (Loos was just hidden by Hill 70). Nowhere a trace of humanity, except one or two Tommies walking
about in the Bois des Hirondelles round a battery which the Boches were trying to shell…

After about half an hour Neville and I went back to H.Q., where we found Winston lunching with the Generals, in a tunnel-shaped tin hut. W. then started on foot to visit his old Regiment, the R.S.F., who were close by, and Neville and I motored into Arras. The Cathedral there makes a fine ruin no doubt it’s better now than before, as it was an uninteresting classical building, but the broken masses are fine…

The sightseeing will exceed its allotted time–or, rather, time will tarry long enough for Churchill’s party to try and get themselves into a bombardment.

We went back to H.Q., where Winston joined us at 4.15, so we were already about two hours late in starting. And
we hadn’t gone far before he was attracted by the sight of shells bursting in the distance. This, we were told, was a
daylight raid on Chérizy—irresistible!—out we got, put on our steel helmets, hung our gas-masks round our necks, and walked for half an hour towards the firing—there was a great noise, shells whistling over our heads, and some fine bursts in the distance—but we seemed to get no nearer, and the firing died down, so we went back after another hour’s delay. W.’s disregard of time, when there is anything he wants to do, is sublime—he firmly believes that it waits for him.

We drove back on the same road as far as Bapaume, and then straight on through Le Transloy, Sailly-Saillisel (of
which not a trace remains)—to Péronne, which must have been a lovely little place. The sunset light, when we got there soon after six, was the loveliest I’ve ever seen and the ruins, softened and glowing in its warmth and sweetness, were unutterably pathetic…[2]

 

Finally, today, as a counterpoint to the military gourmandise of Churchill-amidst-the-ruins, we have a faint sigh escaping from halfway across the world. Agnes Miller pines–nobly, and demurely–for Olaf Stapledon. What good would it do to complain about her fate, as she waits for him, in Australia, to complete a service that is arduous and dangerous, but not, in the eyes of her friends and family, glorious? No good at all… their marriage will have to wait for duration.

But sometimes it’s hard–especially when a friend and her beau plan to tie the knot. In a letter of today, a century back, Agnes allows herself a confession of low spirits, a brief reversal of the frequent soldier’s decision to put the principle of honesty-across-the-gulf before that of adding nothing unnecessary to the loved one’s worries:

Do you know their engagement was just about as different from ours as it could possibly have been. We discussed ours for about 2 1/2 years & then became engaged. They discussed theirs for about 2 1/2 hours & became engaged there & then…

They told me about it that Sunday night [9 September] when I first began this letter. I was dead tired, & it was after 10. They were boiling eggs hard for a picnic breakfast for the morrow. I sat on one table swinging my legs & they sat together opposite me on the other table swinging their long legs. They told me in answer to my question that until that famous night, a week ago, they had never said anything to each other which the world might not have heard! So evidently they had been going along their ways & had drawn nearer & nearer together without saying a word until suddenly they found they were both on the same path. How lovely that must have been, must it not? No wonder the dear kids are happy with their so newly found treasure. I disgraced myself that evening. I was so tired. We stopped talking & mused. Lionel took Rosie’s hand & they looked so comfy & happy. I thought of you away there & me here on the kitchen table & the tears would not be kept back & I had to make a dive for my bedroom & have a good old cry in the dark.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 169-71; Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 371.
  2. A Number of People, 257-9.
  3. Talking Across the World, 249.

No Blighty for Vivian de Sola Pinto–but Blighters; Olaf Stapledon Measures the Years of Love; Edwin Vaughan Keeps His Head, Surrounded by Shell-Shock

Vivian de Sola Pinto has had a long slow war of it so far–but a persistent one. After Gallipoli and Egypt he was at last sent to France, where he was wounded by a German grenade in July. From there Pinto was–unusually–sent to recuperate at a hospital near Dieppe. So his “blighty one” never got him any further than a cross-channel prospect of Blighty itself… and today, a century back, he is once more in the line.

But on the way back–during a period of training and idling in the infamous “Bull Ring” camp–he happened to read a review of a new volume of poems called The Old Huntsman. The review included, in full, the poem ‘Blighters,’ the “burning sincerity” of which “made every other ‘war’ poem that I had read pale into insignificance.” So, today, a century back, as he takes up once again with C Company of the 19th R.W.F. (now in the line near Gouzeaucourt) Pinto is fortified by this poem, which he has learned by heart–and he does not yet know that it was written by a fellow officer of the Royal Welch Fusiliers.[1]

 

Sometimes I feel as if one of this project’s central conceits–the “real time” experience of history–is, to put it plainly, more trouble than it is worth. Three years and counting, and what do I remember of this experience of experiencing the war a few years ago? It’s a slog, if not a slough… and my life has been rooted and steady when these writers have all experienced great change and trauma, and long separation from their lives before…

Just think of Olaf Stapledon and Agnes Miller:

SSA 13
25 August I917

. . . Supposing we were never to meet again ever at all, in this life or another. It is too strange to conceive, like the world suddenly breaking in two. When you get this it will be about three years since we were together. What will you be doing then, I wonder; and where shall I be? Wars and revolutions and new social orders and new bright ideals are all very well, but I love a girl with all my soul, and she is far off by thousands of miles and three long divergent years. Social orders and ideals! What are they? The sun will shine no better for them. The west wind will be no more refreshing. . . . Is this a very silly letter? Ought I to be always stoical and calm? I don’t think so, dear. But all expression seems so poor and cheap and false. Tell me that you still love me very much. Tell me that you don’t love me less for my present work, nor for the three years’ absence. Do you? Now I must go to bed. About a thousand bedtimes since we were both at Annery, and I used to lay in wait for you to catch and kiss you in the passage when you were going into your room, deshabille and very sweet to see.

Your lover            Olaf Stapledon[2]

 

There’s no way to smoothly re-enter the war from such a reverie, so we’ll just lower our shoulder and take it. Edwin Vaughan learned today, a century back, that there will be another attack, and soon. His company–and it is his company, now–will be in support, however. But this means that they have work to do, tonight:

August 25

Having dressed in my Tommy’s uniform and made personal preparations for the attack, I led ‘C’ Company out at dusk… We had a very nerve-racking journey…

Buffs Road was a pandemonium of shelling, with bodies of men and horses everywhere; the misty rain kept the reek of shells and decay hanging about the ground. I had only one officer in the Company—a quiet fellow named Wood. We had several casualties along this stretch.

At Admiral’s Crossroads there was nothing but a churned area of shell-holes where limbers and tanks were shattered and abandoned. The battery of 60-pounders which Ewing and I had visited two days earlier had been blown up and now there remained only the yawning holes, with burst guns, twisted ironwork and bodies. It was in sickly terror that I led the Company off to the left towards St Julien.

They reach their next base of operations without further loss, and Vaughan reports to the officer in command.

Major Bloomer… was a ripping fellow, so chummy and utterly unruffled that it was difficult to believe that he had been sitting under Ypres conditions for four days. I sent Sergeant Woodright with a couple of other fellows on to the road to intercept the limbers bringing camouflage, and then I went out into the open to look round. This was a foolish move, for as I gazed into the inky darkness, rain pouring off my tin hat, shells crashing on to the road and screaming overhead to the batteries, with the filthy stench of bodies fouling the air, an absolute panic seized me. There was nothing but death and terror, and the fitful flicker of guns and bright flashes of bursting shells filled the night with maddening menace.

Vaughan has been capable and calm of late–for the most part. But whether it is the nature of his personality or the cumulative effects of all of his time under fire (and, of course, it is both, with a heavy emphasis on the latter) he seems to become cyclically jumpy. As so often it is not the simple, overpowering fear of one’s own death or even being confronted with the facts of the death of so many others which stimulates sudden terror: it’s when the two arrive together in some unusual configuration. One strange corpse will sometimes shake a soldier’s spirit when a hundred all together would not.

I found myself staggering from hole to hole towards the Boilerhouse. As I dragged myself through the mud of the
Steenbeck, I saw dimly the figure of a corpse which terrified me. I could just see the outline with a startlingly white chest on to which the rain beat, and a horror seized me of being hit and falling across it. I simply hurled myself  away from it, and reached the Boilerhouse in a fever heat. There, in comparative safety, I calmed down. A couple of candles were burning and I smoked a cigarette as I explained to the men the scheme of attack and the digging job we had to carry out. When I left them I was too terrified of the white corpse to go straight back, but chose the shell-swept road. In St Julien I found Sergeant Woodwright and one of his companions, gibbering like monkeys. They had been blown up and shell-shocked…

Vaughan is a survivor, now, having experienced more trauma in the last eight months–and in the last few weeks–than many more blustering officers saw in the entire war. Horrified though he is, he keeps on.

I had just settled down in my cubicle with Wood when shells began to fall about us; the fourth one hit the wall outside our door with a mighty crash. Our candle went out and chips of concrete flew across the room. Then there came a strange spitting and crackling and the darkness flared into horrid red and green flame. We dashed out into the corridor and followed the escaping troops, for the dump of pyrotechnics in the next room had caught fire. For 20 minutes we cowered from the shelling amongst the dead bodies in lee of the pillbox…

Wood, who had appeared to me all along to be very windy, was now absolutely helpless; he could not walk or even talk but lay shuddering on a wire bed. I gave him whacking doses of rum until he went to sleep. Then I went in to Major Bloomer and taught him how to play patience at a franc a card. We played until 2 a.m., when he paid me 30 francs. I told him to keep it and play it off after the attack, but he replied grimly that it would be better to settle up then…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The City That Shone, 205-6.
  2. Talking Across the World, 246.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 217-9.

Either Siegfried Sassoon’s MC Goes, or Robert Graves Arrives: A Showdown for Sassoon’s Protest; the Royal Welch at the Horse Show; Olaf Stapledon on Blood and Ribbons

Siegfried Sassoon‘s lightly fictionalized (or not-really-novelized) memoirs are smoothly written. The narrative performs what the author seeks to present as his somewhat changeable and peripatetic youthful self: reading along, we seem to float through days and weeks without accumulating any detail on the sort of specific events that shape a life. But that, of course, is how memory sometimes works–until the remembering writer comes to a series of tense and unusual days.

Sassoon’s account of this week anticipates The Very Hungry Caterpillar in both its structure and its ironic narrative omnipotence: this is a silly young thing on an inevitable journey toward a resolution that he does not appear to expect, however obvious it appears to others.

Yesterday he described being summoned to a Medical Board, the first indication that the Army will use the excuse of shell shock–more irony, this–as a way to avoid confrontation.

On Tuesday my one-legged friend… handed me an official document which instructed me to proceed to Crewe next day for a Special Medical Board…

He tore it up–and he was still hungry! But today?

On Wednesday I tried to feel glad that I was cutting the Medical Board, and applied my mind to Palgrave’s Golden
Treasury of Songs and Lyrics. I was learning by heart as many poems as possible, my idea being that they would be a help to me in prison, where, I imagined, no books would be allowed…[1]

The problem with this little journey is that it would seem that Sassoon is off on his dates. In this account of Sherston’s progress all the factual details are correct but the dates–to go by the days of the week which he presents to us–are four days off. Today was a Wednesday, a century back, but it was also July 18th, the day Robert Graves arrived in Liverpool to more or less take charge of his friend. [2]

Graves’s account is, as usual, breezy and self-serving, but for once it seems to hew more closely to both the facts and the feeling of the matter than Sassoon’s–not least because the wording relies heavily on the letter Sassoon sent to him.

The general consulted not God but the War Office… and the War Office was persuaded not to press the matter as a disciplinary case…

This may have been due to the influence of Robbie Ross, or, as Graves claims, to his own appeal to Evan Morgan, a ministerial secretary he had recently met.

I next set myself somehow to get Siegfried in front of the medical board. I rejoined the battalion and met him at Liverpool. He looked very ill; he told me that he had just been down to the Formby links and thrown his Military Cross into the sea.

Not the cross itself, likely in a box in a drawer somewhere, but the ribbon worn on the uniform tunic. Sassoon’s account of this in the fictionalized memoir is excellent, although in his chronology it will not take place until Saturday the 21st:

[As he waited for news] my mind groped and worried around the same purgatorial limbo so incessantly that the whole business began to seem unreal and distorted…

So on Saturday afternoon I decided that I really must go and get some fresh air, and I took the electric train to Formby. How much longer would this ghastly show go on, I wondered, as the train pulled up at Clitherland Station. All I wanted now was that the thing should be taken out of my own control, as well as the Colonel’s. I didn’t care how they treated me as long as I wasn’t forced to argue about it any more…

I wanted something to smash and trample on, and in a paroxysm of exasperation I performed the time-honoured gesture of shaking my clenched fists at the sky. Feeling no better for that, I ripped the M.C. ribbon off my tunic and threw it into the mouth of the Mersey. Weighted with significance though this action was, it would have felt more conclusive had the ribbon been heavier. As it was, the poor little thing fell weakly onto the water and floated away as though aware of its own futility. One of my point-to-point cups would have served my purpose more satisfyingly, and they’d meant much the same to me as my Military Cross.

Surely not–or perhaps we must take the pluperfect carefully here. Once, George Sherston–who, we must remember, is essentially Sassoon shorn of his writing life–cared very much about sports, and a few of his victories in country horse races are loving described in Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man. That young rider became the soldier Sherston… but surely by now the pre-war memento has nothing of the same symbolism as the coveted Military Cross?

Watching a big boat which was steaming along the horizon, I realized that protesting against the prolongation of the War was about as much use as shouting at the people on board that ship.[3]

True, but slightly disingenuous. When Sassoon allows himself to be persuaded to give up his protest (we will read this, falling between two chronological stools, tomorrow) the emphasis is not on the effectiveness of the protest but rather on the level of personal drama it will entail. There was never much hope of effective protest, but there had been a lingering hope for symbolic martyrdom and great publicity. But if there will be no dramatic trial, no harsh punishment for dereliction of duty…

Graves describes their meeting:

We discussed the political situation; I took the line that everyone was mad except ourselves and one or two others, and that no good could come of offering common sense to the insane. Our only possible course would be to keep on going out until we got killed. I expected myself to go back soon, for the fourth time. Besides, what would the First and Second Battalions think of him?[4]

Well, Graves is pretty much safe, given the severity of his lung wound. But the rest of the appeal is spot on: this action will cut Sassoon off from the officers and men of the actual fighting battalions. He will make a gesture to men he once led by example–not gesture–and remain physically safe. And he will violate the code of gentlemanly “good form,” thus letting the side down.

Should these arguments be persuasive?

Eh, who are we to say?

 

Instead of tail-chasing analysis–never a strength, here–we’ll go for ironic juxtaposition. Yes… what would the Second Battalion, huddled in its trenches–and missing one of the few officers who could be counted upon to be a popular comrade, a considerate platoon leader, and a brave fighter–think of all this?

Well, they were distracted today–there were the horses to saddle, the goat to groom, the fifes to polish…

A Divisional Horse Show was the G.O.C.’s own stunt. He meant it to be the success that forethought and two weeks of painstaking preparation could make it, and he had his reward…

Imperial War Museum

 

This is one of those situations–rare, in my humble, carpal tunnel vision of internet sharing–where a picture is worth a battalion of words.

It wasn’t merely a horse show, for the Royal Welch… it was a fife and drum and goat show.

This was good for morale, perhaps, even though the 2nd RWF did not cover itself in glory in the officers-on-horses section of the competition…[5]

 

And to circle back, we’ll close today with Olaf Stapledon, a pacifist in harm’s way, but eligible for little honor.

We hear a lot about the grim reality of war. That’s all true enough as far as it goes, but if you go deeper it’s all intricate pretence and lies. The other day a very big person who happened to be visiting our village came in specially to see us privately and congratulated our decorated fellows and said (of course) we all deserved the croix, but he had only got a certain number to dispense; and he hoped to have another opportunity of giving us more later on. It was nice, because it was informal & he need not have come, so obviously he meant it all. But—ugh, what is a bit of red and green ribbon! Blood on French clothes is red on blue not red on green. The other night one of our fellows, lucky devil, got a bit of high explosive in his hand, such a tiny business, but by Jove he has got sick leave in England for it!! Now we are all praying for bits like that, but also the same bit in the eye would be less satisfactory! And poor old Harry Locke who got a bit through him in April is still languishing in French hospital. And a ridiculous little doll of a man who always dragged a toy dog about with him even in hot places (an officer in the army) got his leg blown off it seems just after I saw him last and behaved like a brick. Human nature is odd! Eh bien, nous verrons, mais je suis ennuyé. [Well, we’ll see, but I’m annoyed.][6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Complete Memoirs, 505.
  2. Then again, I'm not completely sure who to trust here, the citations go in circles, and seem to depend on a letter that Graves will write tomorrow. If that is misdated, and no one is citing Army records, I'm not sure it's clear that Sassoon is wrong about the dates. In any case, amidst the confusion, they seem to have omitted to observe the centennial of Jane Austen's death...
  3. Complete Memoirs, 508-9.
  4. Good-Bye to All That, 198.
  5. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 367.
  6. Talking Across the World, 237.

Wilfred Owen Arrives at Craiglockhart; Olaf Stapledon Contemplates Heroism

Wilfred Owen has arrived in Scotland, where he will be treated for the after-effects of shell shock. Feeling a bit guilty that he has had no chance at home leave, he writes a long letter to his mother describing yesterday–London, the Royal Academy Exhibition at Burlington House, the journey north–and his new surroundings.

26 June 1917
Craiglockhart War Hospital, Slateford, Midlothian

My dearest Mother,

We left Netley at 11 on Monday Morning, & I separated from Captain Robertson at King’s Cross about 3 p.m…

Then I made for Burlington House. This year’s show is nothing so good as the last; and I didn’t spend very long there. I had tea at the Shamrock Tea Rooms, perhaps the most eminently respectable exclusive and secluded in Town. There was the usual deaf old lady and her Companion holding forth upon the new curate. I happen to know that a few stories higher in the same building is an Opium Den. I have not investigated. But I know. That’s London. I met few faces I knew. But strolling down New Bond Street, I ran into the last person on earth or under the earth that I wished to meet: Major, now Colonel, Dempster, of the 2nd Battalion. We stopped, of course, and he pretended to be very affable and cordial. Yet I know a more thorough-bred Snob does not exist—even in the imagination of Thackeray. To meet him in my first hour in town. Alas! This, also, is London! . . .

I had time to get measured for new Slacks at Pope and Bradley’s.

A cheap dinner, and so to King’s Cross an hour early to get a Comer Seat.

I read some Israel Zangwill as far as the Midlands. Then wondering how few miles I was from You, slept. I woke up as we were rounding the Coast by Dunbar. I saw nothing waiting to meet me at the Waverley Station, so I went into the Hotel and breakfasted hugely. I then walked the lovely length of Princes Street. The Castle looked more than ever a Hallucination, with the morning sun behind it. Or again it had the appearance of a huge canvas scenic device such as surrounds Earls Court…

There is nothing very attractive about the place, it is a decayed Hydro, far too full of officers, some of whom I know.

I shall not see the M.O. till Tomorrow. I am going out now to lake the lie of the land…

Always your lovingest of all,

Wilfred x[1]

 

 

And with gentle irony, Olaf Stapledon–who will not receive yesterday’s ringing insistence on the strength and fullness of their epistolary relationship for several weeks–writes to Agnes Miller with only good news. Oddly, for him, it’s suddenly a war of ribbons and praise and courage well recognized…

Agnes,

Hooray!  Five of our fellows have got the croix de guerre…  They are corps citations, not merely divisional. The wording of the document is very fine. (Things sound so fine in French.) I must copy it out for you when I get the chance. We are all immensely pleased and proud. We only expected a general citation of the convoy. This is better in some ways, though we should like the convoy to be cited as well. All those people richly deserved their crosses. The official account is that they were rewards for work on two days of the offensive, but really they are rewards for long tireless service in the convoy. On those two days they only did what everyone else was doing, but they set the example, and always have set the example. I, being only OC’s driver and no candidate, had a wee bit to do with the settling who was to get the thing, only a wee bit. I am most pleased about Julian, who is rather sensitive about being thought a shirker from military service. It will take a weight off his mind. . . . I think it’s up to me to get a croix de guerre, or to earn one anyhow. But when the time comes one forgets about such things and thinks only of the amazing facts of war. In fact in an offensive it seems almost sacrilege to think of little metal crosses and ribbons. Anyhow perhaps we shall not have another spell. No one wants the vile job, that’s sure.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 471-2.
  2. Talking Across the World, 233.

Olaf Stapledon Has a Friend Who Won’t be Spared; Edward Brittain’s Unhappy Landing; Wilfred Owen’s Nerves Qualify for Treatment

We don’t often hear from Agnes Miller, who stands at the other end of the experiential gulf–not to mention two oceans–from Olaf Stapledon. But she seems to be a worthy young woman, and he a fortunate young man.

I have had two more letters from you today… & oh such letters! the 21st & 29th April. How thankful indeed I am that you are safe out of that dreadful battered village… I am so glad you tell me things, dear. They stir me up & make me stern & quiet & wild & envious, but I would not be kept in a glass case & have you tell me like most boys would, “The old Bosche made us sit up the other day for a few hours but it’s all over now etc.”

I want to see with you & feel with you (as much as I can). I’m your friend, your mate, your wife…  don’t spare me… I don’t want to be spared….[1]

 

Reading a letter like that must remind us of Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton, and what they had. But Roland is long dead, now, and she and her brother have lost the other two young men who meant most to them. When Edward Brittain returned to France nearly a year after his wounding on the Somme, she couldn’t bring herself to see him off at the station. And indeed, his return to active service will begin with the quotidian frustration familiar to veterans, and not the high drama of the innocent’s first immersion.

France, 25 June 1917

My valise is still lost but I thought I had better come on here yesterday so I left Boulogne about midday. As I have for the moment got a good servant I am quite alright as he was able to get me some blankets without any fleas and I managed to borrow a towel and such other things as I lack from other officers. That valise is an absolute mystery…

Then, later today, worse news:

Owing apparently to some foolish mistake of the War Office I am going to be sent to the 2nd Bn. instead of the 11th.

Toujours
Edward[2]

No valise and no friends or familiar men–comforts will be thin, this time out.

 

Also today, a century back, in a movement that seems to counterbalance Edward Brittain’s in several symbolic ways, Wilfred Owen at long last went before a Medical Board. The board drew no strong conclusions but sketched a character that will seem, if perhaps a little presumptuous given an acquaintance of minutes, not far wrong: “little abnormality to be observed but he seems to be of a highly strung temperament.”

With considerable wisdom, it would seem, the Board–which must conclude one way or the other about the legitimacy of his post-concussion symptoms–erred on the side of safety and therapeutic possibility. Owen was sent immediately to Craiglockahart hospital, near Edinburgh, which specialized in treating officers with “war neuroses.” While certainly relieved to have his condition given official medical recognition, Owen was initially quite annoyed that he was ordered to Scotland without any home leave. He made the best of it by stopping in London to see the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and then caught the night train to Edinburgh, for whatever might await him in the North…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 231-2.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 361.
  3. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 250.