The Death of a Slender Gallant; Edward Brittain Survives an Awful Time; Henry Williamson Breaks New Ground

We have seen Basil Blackwood–Lord Ian Basil Gawaine Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood–only once before… and I didn’t even mentioned his prewar work as an illustrator (for shame). It was near Messines, as it happens–but not recently. Way back in October of 1914, after being badly wounded during what was not yet known as “First Ypres,” we glimpsed Blackwood lying on the stretcher adjacent to Francis Grenfell, who had himself just been wounded.

If many of the “Kitchener” volunteers now see themselves as surrounded by the ghosts of 1915 and 1916, the few aristocrats of the 1914 army who have neither been killed nor promoted and transferred to safer jobs must have felt lonely indeed.

Blackwood needed years to recover from that wound, but he did, and recently transferred from the posh 9th Lancers to the posh Grenadier Guards, where he became a 46-year-old subaltern of infantry. Tonight, a century back, he was killed while leading a patrol near Boesinghe, a few miles across the salient from where he had been wounded.

Blackwood was a friend of John Buchan‘s, and from him he will receive a notable eulogy, an exemplar of fulsome Edwardian-style praise for the fallen “New Elizabethan.”

The phrase ‘Elizabethan…’ can be used with truth of Basil. He was of the same breed as the slender gallants who singed the beard of the King of Spain and, like Essex, tossed their plumed hats into the sea in joy of the enterprise, or who sold their swords to whatever cause had daylight and honour in it. His like had left their bones in farther spaces than any race on earth, and from their uncharted wanderings our empire was born. He did not seek to do things so much as to see them, to be among them and to live in the atmosphere of wonder and gay achievement…

If spirits return into human shape perhaps his once belonged to a young grandee of the Lisbon court who stormed with Albuquerque the citadels of the Indies and died in the quest for Prester John. He had the streak of Ariel in him, and his fancy had always wings… In a pedestrian world he held to the old cavalier grace, and wherever romance called he followed with careless gallantry.[1]

 

Happily, despite being thrown directly from England into the fighting line the night before a battle, Edward Brittain has escaped a similar fate. About the time that his sister Vera will be receiving his “last letter” proclaiming his love for her, he wrote this retraction:

Billets, France, 3 July 1917

It’s alright. I am so sorry to have worried you.

But this was no happy return.

All the same we have had an awful time. When I reported my arrival on Saturday night having only left Etaples in the morning, I was told that I was to go up with the company and that they were going to attack in the early morning.The whole thing was a complete fiasco; first of all the guide which was to lead us to our position went wrong and lost the way completely. I must tell you that the battalion had never been in the section before and nobody knew the way at all.

Then my company commander got lost and so there was only one other officer besides myself and he didn’t know the way. The organisation of the whole thing was shocking as of course the position ought to have been reconnoitred before and it is obviously impossible for anyone who has never even seen the ground before to attack in the dark. After wandering through interminable trenches I eventually found myself with only five men in an unknown place at the time when our barrage opened. It was clearly no use attempting to do anything and so I found a small bit of trench and waited there till it got light. Then I found one of our front posts (there was no proper front line) and there we had to stop till we were relieved last night. As you can imagine we had a pretty rotten time altogether. I don’t think that I and the other officer who reported with me ought to have been rushed into the show like that after a tiring 2 days travelling and not knowing the map etc etc. However we are likely to be out for a few days now and I may have an opportunity of getting to know the officers and men here.[2]

So “good staff work” has not, it would seem, become universal…

 

Henry Williamson is about as far from Ypres and Lens as a Briton can be. He is summering on the Cornish coast, recovering from exhaustion and illness–possibly exaggerated, unless he really has been close to a complete breakdown. In recovering, as if on a self-guided version of Wilfred Owen‘s ergotherapry, he will now be turning his hand to something new. Williamson’s many periods of leave, convalescence, and training have generally featured strenuous efforts to have fun–with motorcycles, with girls, even with his prewar pursuits of country walking. But today, a century back he wrote two words in his diary “began story.”

There were “no reasons given for this most dramatic step.” And yet wasn’t really all that dramatic: Williamson has been a fabulist and a story-teller for as long as we have known him. Now, it seems, he is thinking of his life in more conventional fictional terms. If this is indeed the day he began the novelization of his life–the day that Phillip Maddison was conceived–it would mark the biggest undertaking yet… undertaken… by any of our writers…[3]

 

And finally, today, a brief note. Let readers of Philip Ziegler’s biography of Osbert Sitwell beware: today, a century back, cannot have been the date of a certain letter from Sassoon to Sitwell…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Pilgrim's Way, 103-4.
  2. War Letters from a Lost Generation, 363.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 165-7. Henry Williamson's A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight will eventually run to fifteen volumes.
  4. The letter from Sassoon is cited in Ziegler, Osbert Sitwell, 76. The date of July 3rd is impossible, given the acquaintance between the two men which it mentions. Nor does it seem to refer to "his new book--presumably The Old Huntsman," but rather to subsequent poetry. Presumably, rather, the letter was misdated (by Sassoon, perhaps, but more likely by Sitwell or later scholars) and belongs to the autumn...

Robert Graves, Meet Robert Nichols; Francis Ledwidge’s Rude Awakening; Wilfred Owen Within Sound of the Guns; Ford Madox Hueffer’s “One Day’s List”

The strange/glorious/dismal January efflorescence of war poetry continues, today, a century back: we have a long and soon-to-be-much-quoted war poem from Ford Madox Hueffer, another poem from Francis Ledwidge, and a letter recording Wilfred Owen‘s next step toward the line.

Today is also the day that two other war poets, having independently discovered each other, made contact. So I will put my faith in your patience (and your hunger for poetry) and first discuss the odd, chatty, many-connection-making letter in which Robert Graves replies to a letter of introduction from Robert Nichols.

Nichols, an early volunteer officer who was shell-shocked at Loos (also Graves’s first battle) has long been at home, and now discharged from the army–and he has attained a notable level of poetic success. His Invocation is, although both too early and too hopeful to fit with the verse now being written under the influence of Charles Sorley, far more widely read than the initial efforts of Sassoon or Graves. In fact, with Grenfell and Brooke dead, Nichols is, a century back, perhaps the most celebrated of the “soldier poets.” Yet Nichols has evidently read Graves’s Over the Brazier and found much there that is worthwhile: he wrote to Graves asking for permission to dedicate his next book of poems, in part, to him. Graves greets this rather grand gesture with both genuine enthusiasm and awkwardly emphatic reciprocal fealty.

S’addresser à
Captain Robert Graves
3rd R W Fus.
The Huts
Litherland
Liverpool

7 January 1917

Dear Robert Nichols,

…Of course you may: I’d simply love it. It’s hard to say how cheered I am: Orderly Room and battalion drill and company ledgers and the town of Liverpool and the enforced society of young gentlemen whose sole amusements are liqueur shifting and promiscuous fornication, had almost convinced me that there was no God in Heaven nor any bay trees on Parnassus. I feel tremendously honored.

Funny how things happen. As you may suspect, I’m a very very ardent Sorleian and when I saw your letter in the Westminster Gazette about him… I asked S. Sassoon (a poet of some note who funnily enough has strayed into this battalion and shares a hut with me) who you were because I felt sure you were a fellow of the right stuff. He reminded me of that Oxford Poetry book and I remembered that your things were far and away the best in the collection and that Eddie Marsh was very keen on them.

Eddie Marsh–of course. Despite his desirable status as a poet with a growing public (not to mention as a soldier whose “neurasthenia” has resulted in a not-dishonourable discharge from the army) Nichols has happened upon the Marsh zone rather late, but most profitably. After sending Invocation to Marsh, “almost instantly he had entered the small circle of Marsh’s closest friends.” With Brooke dead and Churchill out of power, this is not what it once was, perhaps–but Marsh is still very much the central node of the network of Georgian poets and their nascent band of assertive little brothers, the War Poets.

Somewhat awkwardly, of course, this younger generation is not looking up to Rupert Brooke at all–they have found another idol, the dead poet of 1915 whose legacy will be the poetry of 1917 and 1918, while 1914 (“and other poems”), while remaining broadly popular, will fall from poetic regard.

I’ve got a very bad memory, worse since I met an old shell last July, and I somehow didn’t connect the two. Did you know Sorley before his death? I met him at Oxford in 1913 when we were both up there for scholarships, but didn’t realize who he was–wasted opportunities, horrid to lack back on…

Graves has invented this memory of meeting Sorley–honestly, wishfully, invented, I believe, rather than duplicitously–and of course he forgets that “who he was” would have been a very clever, unusually mature and reserved potential scholar, not yet the author of Marlborough and Other Poems nor noticeably set in that direction. And now, with Sorley in mind, Graves presumes–these fits of grandiosity do not serve him well–to critique his older friend to his new one.

This fellow Sassoon, not exactly a prepossessing name for a poet, perhaps, was out in France with me in 1915 and is a most extraordinary good man… and says what he means very courageously. No Union Jack flapping or sword waving, but just a picture of France from the front trench, and our ‘brutal and licentious soldiery’. He’s not musical, always, but it’s good stuff; original too and not redolent of Masefield as is so common these days and contains no ode either to Kitchener or Rupert Brooke. Look out for his The Old Foxhunter and Other Poems[1] about February or March, with William Heinemann. I was to have brought out a second volume at the same time, but hitches occurred…

A bit of hemming and hawing follows, and then some preemptive self-criticism about his own published work–Graves evidently wants Nichols to approve of him as a fellow war poet.

Well, cheeroh, and best of luck and don’t recover from your shell-shock too soon. I’m rather stupidly going back to France this week with only one lung–having deceived the medical board. Chiefly because I want to hurry into hospital again and do a bit of writing for which soldiering provides no leisure.

Yours

Robert Graves

I hope to see you sometime when I come on leave, in London, say, or aprés-la-guerre[2] at any rate…[3]

Francis Ledwidge, is fired up, these days–and homesick and fairy-struck. He goes back to yesterday‘s theme–those fairies who lurk just at the edge of the fields we know, just at the edge of our dreams. But there is something of a shock at the end of this one.

 

The Dead Kings

All the dead kings came to me
At Rosnaree, where I was dreaming.
A few stars glimmered through the morn,
And down the thorn the dews were streaming.

And every dead king had a story
Of ancient glory, sweetly told.
It was too early for the lark,
But the starry dark had tints of gold.

I listened to the sorrows three
Of that Eire passed into song.
A cock crowed near a hazel croft,
And up aloft dim larks winged strong.

And I, too, told the kings a story
Of later glory, her fourth sorrow:
There was a sound like moving shields
In high green fields and the lowland furrow.

And one said: “We who yet are kings
Have heard these things lamenting inly.”
Sweet music flowed from many a bill
And on the hill the morn stood queenly.

And one said: “Over is the singing,
And bell bough ringing, whence we come;
With heavy hearts we’ll tread the shadows,
In honey meadows birds are dumb.”

And one said: “Since the poets perished
And all they cherished in the way.
Their thoughts unsung, like petal showers
Inflame the hours of blue and gray.”

And one said: “A loud tramp of men
We’ll hear again at Rosnaree.”
A bomb burst near me where I lay.
I woke, ’twas day in Picardy.

France,
January 7th, 1917

A deft reawakening to the reality of war.

 

Wilfred Owen, too will find his reality defined by the sound of explosions today, a century back. I promise to find time in the next few days to really dig into what Owen is experiencing, but suffice it to say that if his letters have suddenly sobered up, it’s because his initiation into combat has not been easy. The weather is terrible, and they are headed for a nasty section of the front.

Sunday, 7 January 1917

My dear dear Mother,

It is afternoon. We had an Inspection to make from 9 to 12 this morning. I have wandered into a village cafe where they gave me writing paper. We made a redoubtable March yesterday from the last Camp to this. The awful state of the roads and the enormous weight carried, was top much for scores of men. Officers also carried full packs, but I
had a horse part of the way.

It was beginning to freeze through the rain when we arrived at our tents. We were at the mercy of the cold, and, being in health, I never suffered so terribly as yesterday afternoon. I am really quite well, but have sensations kindred to being seriously ill.

As I was making my damp bed, I heard the Guns for the first time. It was a sound not without a certain sublimity. They woke me again at 4 o’clock…

But Owen withholds further comment there, which I am once again tempted to interpret as wisdom: there will be more of this, so let us wait until our experience is deeper…

The letter goes on in Owen’s new manner–one sentence paragraphs likes faits divers, which veer from matter-of-fact to comic to foreboding. He still wants to be deep, to write heavily… but now, at least, he doesn’t trust himself to. Owen is treading lightly into this new unknown, feinting toward serious statements and then pulling back…

I have had to censor letters by the hundred lately. They don’t make inspiring reading.

This morning I have been reading Trench Standing Orders to my Platoon. (Verb. Sap.)

Needless to say I show a cheerier face to them than I wear in writing this letter; but I must not disguise from you the fact that we are at one of the worst parts of the Line.

I have lost no possessions so far; but have acquired a pair of boots and a map case (presents). And of course my valise is heavier by much dirt…

I can’t tell you any more Facts. I have no Fancies and no Feelings.

Positively they went numb with my feet.

Love is not quenched, except the unenduring flickerings thereof. By your love, O Mother, O Home, I am protected from Fatigue of life and the keen spiritual Cold.

Your own W.E.O.[4]

 

And our last poem today is quite amazing. Just yesterday Ford Madox Hueffer, was writing a letter that was at once self-serving (the subtext being “I am a good writer, and would like a cushy job from you) and feeling towards both an honest appraisal of shell shock and a literary approach to writing seriously about fragmented experience. And he was complaining of his own stupidity, poor memory, and shaky sanity. Yet today he wrote a poem, fluidly an quickly, in a very different vein, which will not only turn up in many anthologies–which is to say that it is neither difficult nor offensive nor heavily “disillusioned” nor, as so many of Ford’s writings, unnecessarily provocative–but is also quite good. He has not made close friends in the 8th Welch, but he has made friends, and lost them.

I think it’s fair to say that “One Day’s List” is unique in his oeuvre; I’m certainly not sure how to comment on it. Modern? Yes. Traditional? In a way. A lament, a threnody, a war poem? Sure. Honest, true, and a new take on the ever-growing subject of loss, and coping with loss? I think so. Yesterday Sassoon imagined the German dead and the English dead in some underworld; today it’s the Germans and the Welsh in heaven…

 

One Day’s List

(Killed. — Second Lieutenants unless otherwise stated.
Arnott, E. E. — Welch Regt.
Jones, E. B. D. — Welch Regt.
Morris, J. H. — Welch Regt.[5]
And 270 other ranks, Welch Regt.

Died of Wounds.
Knapp, 0. R. — 2nd Lieut. Welch Regt.)

My dears . . .
The rain drips down on Rouen Town
The leaves drip down
And so the mud
Turns orange brown. . . .
A Zeppelin, we read, has been brought down.
And the obscure brown
Populace of London town
Make a shout of it,
Clamouring for blood
And reductions in the price of food . . .
But you — at least — are out of it. . . .

Poor little Arnott — poor little lad . . .
And poor old Knapp,
Of whom once I borrowed a map — and never returned it.
And Morris and Jones . . . and all the rest of  the Welch,
So many gone in the twenty-four hours of a day . . .
One wonders how one can stay . . .
One wonders. . . .
For the papers are full of Kelch,
Finding rubbishy news to make a shout of it,
But you at least are out of it.

One wonders how you died . . .
The mine thunders
Still where you stuck by Welch Alley and turned it. . . .
The mine thunders
Upwards — and branches of trees, mud, and stone,
Skulls, limbs, rats, thistles, the clips
Of cartridges, beef tins and wire
Belch
To the heavens in fire
From the lips
Of the craters where doubtless you died,
With the Cheshires and Wiltshires and Welch
Side by side.
One wonders why you died,
Why were we in it ? . . .
At home we were late on parades.
Seldom there to the minute,
When “B.” were out on Cathays
We didn’t get much of the lectures into the brain. . . .
We talked a good deal about girls.
We could all tell a story
At something past something, Ack Emma !

But why? why? Why were we there from the Aisne to Mametz,
Well — there’s a dilemma. . . .
For we never talked of glory,
We each thought a lot of one girl,
And waited most days for hours in the rain
Till she came:
But we never talked of Fame. . . .

It is very difficult to believe
You need never again
Put in for week-end leave,
Or get vouchers for the 1.10 train
From Cardiff to London. . . .
But so much has the Hun done
In the way of achievements.

And when I think of all the bereavements
Of your mothers and fathers and sweethearts and wives and homes in the West,
And the paths between the willows waiting for your tread,
And the white pillows
Waiting each for a head,
Well …. they may go to rest!

And, God help me, if you meet a Hun
In Heaven, I bet you will say, “Well done,
You fought like mad lions in nets
Down by Mametz.”

But we who remain shall grow old,
We shall know the cold
Of cheerless
Winter and the rain of Autumn and the sting
Of poverty, of love despised and of disgraces,
And mirrors showing stained and ageing faces,
And the long ranges of comfortless years
And the long gamut of human fears. . . .
But, for you, it shall be forever spring,
And only you shall be forever fearless,
And only you have white, straight, tireless limbs,
And only you, where the water-lily swims
Shall walk along the pathways, thro’ the willows
Of your west.
You who went West,
And only you on silvery twilight pillows
Shall take your rest
In the soft sweet glooms
Of twilight rooms. . . .

No. 2 Red Cross Hospital,
Rouen, 7/1/17

References and Footnotes

  1. Graves has got the title of the forthcoming The Old Huntsman wrong; the sort of hunting solecism which would drive Sassoon to distraction.
  2. Sic! There, I said it! Wrong accent...
  3. In Broken Images, 61-3. The end of the post-script mentions--disapprovingly, of course--Wheels, the modernist journal/anthology edited by Edith Sitwell. Its first issue, published in 1916 (and regrettably left all but unmentioned here) positioned it as an alternative to Marsh's anthologies and featured work by Edith's brother Osbert (and their younger brother Sacheverell) and his friend Bimbo Tennant. These, for now, are the rival cliques of poets...
  4. Collected Letters, 423-4.
  5. Morris and Arnott are listed in the C.W.G.C. records as being killed two days apart, on the 21st and 23rd September, 1916. Jones I have not found. Nevertheless, they may all well have appeared in the same newspaper casualty list.

Bimbo Tennant’s Shoot-Out in Gas Alley

gas-alleycrop

The scrap of nowhere, northeast of Delville Wood, where Bim Tennant died. “Gas Alley” is the trench that runs across the center of the map, from southwest (where the transition from blue to red marks the ownership of the trench as of a few days ago) to the northeast.

The Somme battle was in a lull between major attacks today, a century back. The 4th Grenadiers had been sent up yesterday to help prepare the way for the next stab at the third German line. North of Ginchy, between Longueval toward Flers, there was a tangle of trenches where an earlier push had entered the German lines and then been halted.

The Grenadiers did not go “over the top” yesterday as Bimbo Tennant had expected, but found more painstaking work before them. They had to fight sideways through a trench system, up communications trenches that had been blocked by the German defenders, who then withdrew and lay in ambush.

This was work for Grenadiers indeed. But when Tennant’s friend and company commander Captain Spencer-Churchill[1] went over to try to connect “Gas Alley” with the next bit of trench, he was hit by snipers and wounded.

Tennant, cropped

Edward Wyndham Tennant, by John Singer Sargent, 1915

 

Bim Tennant was less fortunate. Left behind in Gas Alley, he took it upon himself to respond to the short-range Germans sniping, and “occupied his time in shooting at the enemy. Apparently, there was some movement by the Germans which led him to shoot with his revolver, and a moment later he fell dead, shot through the head by one of the enemy’s snipers.”[2]

 

Lady Glenconner (née Pamela Wyndham), was a much-beloved mother. We have so many of Bim’s letters to her, with her loving commentary, and the two seem to have been the best of friends. If there was ever a cross word, it was not preserved.

It seems cruel, in any case, to speculate: Lady Glenconner is a mother of dead children. In the spring she lost an infant far too young to speak, and in the beginning of Autumn, now, she has lost her eldest, all of nineteen years old, the boy who always wrote so sweetly of his love for her.

She will publish his poems and his letters, a continuation of their joint effort, in life. And more: the Sargent drawing Bim had wanted for the frontispiece of a little volume of poems will now be the frontispiece of his mother’s Memoir of his brief life. Productive in grief, Lady Glenconner will also publish many of Bim’s earliest poems and letters to her–overpoweringly sentimental and desperately sad proof of a little boy’s love for his beautiful, loving mother.

I have written before about the difficulty of integrating the writing of grief-stricken parents into this polyphonic project–grief-stricken mothers, for the most part. Lady Glenconner, however, writes sparingly in her own voice, and says much of what she would say in quotation–of young Bim above all. She means to show not only his love of her, but his love of life–both not to be doubted–and also, with some of the poems, his claim to poetic talent.

I’m not sure what to do but include some of what she preserved, here and over the coming days. It’s heartbreaking and, I hope, raw. I’ll close with something of hers, of his (if that makes sense).

But first, one mourner to begin the condoling: Osbert Sitwell, a friend and comrade who had made himself a family friend, is perhaps best positioned to call across the unfathomable gulf that now separates Bim and his mother,

I, though I only have known Bim for two years, feel a gap which can never be filled; I shall always feel the gratitude for his friendship. I am sure he faced death with the marvellous vitality, courage, and love of beautiful ideas and things that always actuated him. His only sorrow in death would be your sorrow, and that of those who loved him. You were always his one thought, and he would never even smoke, because he had promised you, once, not to. He was convinced of a future life. I am sure that a vitality such as his can never be wasted.

It was this same note–Christian, gentle, uplifting–that Lady Glenconner used when it came time for the abrupt transition from the letters of the living boy to the memorials of the dead officer.

The posthumous chapter begins with this epigraph:

“‘Out on thee, Death,’ Justice and Pity said,
‘Why take the young, and let the old go free?’
‘Religion is the worship of the dead,’
Death answered, ‘know ye not? more foolish ye.
How could Below look upward to Above
Did not these die, whom Gods and Mothers love?'”

F. W. Bain

Then there is a brief quotation from Tennyson–“That death whose truer nature is Onward. . . “–and Lady Glenconner’s brief confirmation of what every reader must already know:

On the 22nd September, 1916, Bim went on.[3]

But what could be as sad as this?bimbo-tennants-dedication-to-moth

References and Footnotes

  1. Edward George, I believe, a cousin at some distance to Winston.
  2. The Grenadier Guards in the Great War, II, 137.
  3. Memoir, 237-9.

The Master’s Guns in Action; Ben Keeling in a German Trench; Patrick Shaw-Stewart Wearily Under Canvas; Near Miss and Ham from Raymond Asquith

Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, has been neglected of late. In all honesty, I brought him on board, as it were, not for his literary merits but for his strenuous regularity–he’s always near the front, and he writes almost every day. This is useful for filling in the corners of a daily project but it makes it difficult–without much forethought and planning, that is–to transform such an assiduous diary into a shapely narrative. With the Somme raging and Belhaven off in Ypres, I had not had much need of his generally short and businesslike reports on the artillery war. But his battery has recently moved south, and today Hamilton describes a bombardment which covered an attack by Ben Keeling’s Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, among other battalions.[1]

This is a good time to note not merely the futility of this sort of slow, attritional advance–however much ground the Allies take, the Germans have ample time to reinforce their deeper defenses–but also recent British tactical adaptations. One of the worst problems on July 1st was the time gap between the end of the supporting barrage and the arrival of the infantry. It only took a minute–even less, really, for the German machine gunners came out of their deep shelters and mount their weapons. This was disastrous to attacking infantry. So now the artillery is trying to increase its precision, keeping the Germans defenders under fire until the first wave is almost literally at their parapets. With Belhaven, we have an insider’s account of the new tactics.

The programme of our bombardment is very complicated; there are at least twenty phases in it. We are doing what is known as a “creeping barrage”–that is to say, we “lift as the infantry advance. First there is a period of intense bombardment… During this time out infantry leave their trenches and charge across “No Man’s Land” right up close to our barrage. They know they will lose some men from our fire but they are prepared for that in order that we may keep down the German machine-guns till the last moment; after that we lift our shells 50 yards every minute till we reach the next barrage…

This is good, cold-hearted tactics. Artillery is an exact science, but manufacturing tolerances and the vagaries of wind prevent perfect accuracy. To be completely safe from friendly fire is to risk facing returning defenders. It should work–if all goes according to plan. But if something slows up the infantry there is no way to get word to the guns, across no man’s land, through the inevitable counter-barrage, and thousands of yards behind. (Remember Milne and his shock that his telephone actually worked–and that was only in the original front lines, and hours after the attack had begun.)

The ball opened at about a quarter to five this afternoon… Exactly to the second hell broke loose and thousands of guns went off at the same moment. Never have I heard anything like it, or could have imagined such noises possible. It is quite impossible to describe to people who have not experienced it.

Ah, but it is never incumbent upon a diarist to entirely bridge the gulf, to master the representation of any aspect of war. It is only necessary to begin the work. And Hamilton realizes this, and gives us a good slice of the gunner’s experience:

It actually hurt, and for a time I felt as if my head would burst… After a time I retired to my telephone-pit… There matters were almost worse, the noises were not so violent, but the vibration was so great that at first I thought my heart was going to stop, from being so jolted. If one could imagine the vibration of the screw of a ship intensified a thousand-fold, it might give some idea of my sensations. Hour after hour it went on without a second’s pause… My guns have already fired nearly a thousand rounds each and are red-hot. We have to keep swilling them out with our precious little stock of water.[2]

 

I came to Ben Keeling’s letters late, and now it is entirely too late. The thirty-year-old Keeling was an Oxford man who had chosen an unusual path. A socialist and writer on social matters, he had been prominent in the labor movement before the war. His political beliefs surely had something to do with his decision to enlist as a private and, having risen to the rank of Company Sergeant Major, to refuse a commission. In a display of politically-tinged idiosyncrasy, he also insisted on keeping a full beard. Without any transfer or officer training or much in the way of leave he has seen a great deal of the war. He went forward today, a century back, as the leader of the Bombing Company of the 6th D.C.L.I.

He has known of the attack, and of his likely assignment–bombing up German trenches in the teeth of a counter-attack even as British shells fall around him–for at least a few days. Sometimes presentiment is nothing more than foreknowledge and a likely guess.

In a few days’ time, his colonel will write to the friend who compiled Keeling’s letters:

Dear Madam,

Lieutenant Barrington-Ward has handed to me your letter and cuttings of the local papers’ reference to Sergeant- Major Keeling. Seeing that you were one of his oldest friends, I should like to tell you how every officer and man in the battalion felt his loss. Perhaps his two years in the Army were the happiest and most useful that he spent. From the moment he joined with two thousand or more other men, his influence and brilliance were felt throughout the battalion. He was an immense factor for good among the non-commissioned ranks, and a link between officers and them. I three times asked him to take a commission, but he always replied he thought he was doing more useful work where he was. I have no hesitation in saying he was one of the bravest men I have ever seen, and he died leading a desperate bombing attack at a most critical moment.[3]

And the same Lieutenant Robert Barrington-Ward, Keeling’s friend and fellow-editor of a battalion paper:

You will, I expect, have learnt by this time that Keeling has been killed in action. All of us in the regiment are most awfully distressed about it. Though many good fellows went on the day of the battle (18 August), none left behind him more widespread regrets. He was killed out along a German trench up which our bombers were working. I understand that there was a risk of our bombers bombing our own men in this trench. Keeling jumped up on the parapet to make sure that the Germans were ahead, and he was caught by a bullet and died at once. The officer with the party took his papers off him. It is a very sad business. He did magnificently in the fight, and the party he was leading did particularly valiant work, protecting at a ticklish moment our own flank and the flank of the battalion on our right. We were unable to hold, at the time, the position we had taken, and the vigorous bombing offensive which Keeling’s party undertook saved us and ensured the success of the battalion on our right. I need not expound Keeling’s merits to you. I think, however, you may be interested to know how he was appreciated as a soldier by the rest of us.

“Died at once” is always to be hoped for–and thus it arouses suspicion. But I have no other information to offer, only arguments from silence, and absence: there is no mention of victory in either letter, and therefore Keeling was surely wounded or killed in a German trench that was relinquished, and his body left behind. Barrington-Ward will go on to edit the Times; Keeling’s friend H.G. Wells will help see his letters into print. Keeling has no known grave, and is therefore commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, with 72,000 others.

 

From this grim silence now to two other Oxford Scholars: our scintillating classicists, our men of the upper crust.

Patrick Shaw-Stewart wrote to his sister, today, a century back. He is far from the action, and quite safe, as a liaison officer in the Balkan campaign. He does manage a clever biblical reference, but he can’t quite hide the wistful tone.

Here, as you will have seen from the papers, we have started a certain liveliness. What the idea is, what we think we are doing, or what the enemy and Rumania intend to do about it, is all Greek to me: my own part in the matter consists of getting up horribly early in the morning, being at the end of a telephone which works exceedingly badly, and is very trying to the nerves, doing a vast deal of office work without the most primitive office appliances such as ink, a table, or a clerk, driving about very dusty roads in a Ford car (distances are generally too great at present for my trusty steeds), and watching picturesque artillery actions from a safe and elegant mountain.

This, once again, I will persist in seeing as a learned reference to Lucretius’s view that a battle viewed from a safe distance is an excellent example of happiness. Shaw-Stewart does not disagree–he’s a carefree and debonair pawn:

In fact, quite a reasonable way of carrying on war compared with many others. Very interesting of course from the tactical and what you may call the minor diplomatic (intermilitary) point of view, but so confusing and incomprehensible from the strategic and political as to be sometimes rather irritating. However, I dare say I shall understand when the History of the War comes out. The temperature is very decent now, and we are “under canvas” (I in a tent made by a Spanish Jew of Salonica, named Calderon, a trade-successor of St Paul, which cost me 200 good drachmas, but is really quite fair) in a little wood on the edge of some hills, much frequented by hoopoes and (I believe they are) pied shrikes. I am now resigned to my third grouseless Autumn (I have already dreed my third English-strawberryless Summer), and can’t help thinking the war is getting rather long.[4]

 

Shaw-Stewart’s friend and exemplar Raymond Asquith has never had a grouseless autumn or a unploverovum’d spring, and I’m sure Fortnum and Mason manage something, strawberry-wise. But he is in France, and his meals are regularly enlivened by iron supplements, courtesy of the German Imperial Army. Ha!

We’ve had a number of tales of the near-miss, but they are usually told as a fait accompli–as they must be, really. There are no first-person tales of the ones that didn’t miss.

Asquith, however, is a master raconteur, and he manages to put us–or rather his wife, Katherine–amidst the unfolding experience:

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
18 August 1916

. . . We had just settled the men in and sat down to luncheon in a very nice green mess tent when the damnable sound of an approaching howitzer shell smote our ears. We looked at one another with sickly smiles each holding an oily sardine suspended half way between the cup and the lip while the thing came slowly through the air. One’s ear gets very delicate in these matters after a certain amount of practice and it was obvious to all that as far as direction was concerned the shell was coming straight for our tent; the only question was whether it would be short or over or just right. There were 4 tables in the tent; one for each company. Sloper and I were at the one nearest the enemy and at first I thought we were going to have the worst of it and then it became clear that there was just enough kick in the shell that would take it at least as far as the other side of the tent say 30 feet away, and then came the bang. The tent swayed about and rattled with mud and stones and the 4 officers at the far table threw themselves flat on the floor. There was no harm done. It had gone another 30 feet or so beyond the tent.

Then other shells began bursting…  It was 4 o’clock as a matter of fact before we were again sitting down to our sardines.

At 6.30 I was ordered to take out a dozen N.C.O.s to reconnoitre various ways out of the village up to the trenches. Just as we had finished our job and begun getting back the shelling began again with greater vigour than before. It
was rather disagreeable having to march back in the sunset into the middle of the cannonade. The shells were falling all about the camp and the houses and the hollow in which the village lay was full of dust and fumes and rolling clouds of smoke. When we got to the camp we found that everyone had left it for shelter in the fields…

We had just time for a hasty dinner off an excellent ham which Frances had sent and which arrived most felicitously…

I have made rather a story out of all this as I always do. There was nothing much in it really, except the damnable inconvenience of the noise beginning twice exactly at meal times, and as usually happens when there is shelling we were all more frightened than hurt…[5]

 

And just one more officer of the Guards. Or, rather, two: Bimbo Tennant seems to do little, these days, but prepare his poems. But not all of them, perhaps, should be destined for the volume his mother is editing. A family-produced book is all right, really… but perhaps the future lies with one’s friends?

I shall like to have some of my ‘pomes’ in the Anthology Osbert and his sister are bringing out, is it all right to send some of those that are to appear in my little book? About the dedication, I want to dedicate it to you and Uncle George and will send it as soon as I have framed it in suitable words…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Battle of the Somme is grinding on, and to ease the task of military historians (or to help them impute good sense to bygone operational decisions) it was later subdivided, and certain periods of particular intensity were assigned dates and the name of a wood or town. We are moving, now, from the segment subsequently declared to be the Battle of Delville Wood toward the segment known as the Battle of Guillemont.
  2. War Diary, 232-3.
  3. Keeling Letters, 312-13.
  4. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 173-4.
  5. Life and Letters, 285-6.
  6. Memoir, 217.

Osbert Sitwell’s Babel; Noel Hodgson’s Daily Round

Osbert Sitwell has been very quiet. Although the budding man of letters and pseudo-enfant terrible should be among the most fascinatingly unlikely of military figures–he was not just an officer, but a just-pre-war officer of the old, conservative Grenadier Guards, even as he embraced the cutting edge of continental Modernism–he has figured here largely as Bimbo‘s good buddy. This is friendship, but also a certain sort of social climbing: Sitwell was a baronet’s son, but there was scandal and not a great deal of money; he was hardly in with the cream of London society as the Tennants were. There have been mutual professions of great affection, yet very little in the way of like-mindedness on display. Bimbo blithely trips about wining, dining, writing light verse and prolific letters, and treading the boards of divisional entertainments. Osbert has been… very quiet.

Until a few days ago, when Sitwell suddenly found himself in a state of energetic concentration:

…now some instinct, and a combination of feelings not hitherto experienced, united to drive me to paper, this time to compose a poem: and never has anything astonished me more than to find how entirely I lost myself in the process, and yet was able to concentrate. Next, pride and ambition swelled in me…[1]

And so strings were pulled, with the result that Sitwell’s first poem–or, as Philip Ziegler notes, “the first poem by which he wished to be remembered”–was published today, a century back, in The Times.[2]

It’s neither brilliant nor a truly modern shocker, but it is both pretty good and pretty dark:

Babel

And still we stood and stared far down
Into that ember-glowing town
Which every shaft and shock of fate
Had shorn into its base.  Too late
Came carelessly Serenity.

Now torn and broken houses gaze
On the rat-infested maze
That once sent up rose-silver haze
To mingle through eternity.

The outlines, once so strongly wrought,
Of city walls, are now a thought
Or jest unto the dead who fought…
Foundation for futurity.

The shimmering sands where once there played
Children with painted pail and spade
Are drearly desolate,–afraid
To meet Night’s dark humanity,

Whose silver cool remakes the dead,
And lays no blame on any head
For all the havoc, fire, and lead,
That fell upon us suddenly.

When all we came to know as good
Gave ways to Evil’s fiery flood,
And monstrous myths of iron and blood
Seem to obscure God’s clarity.

Deep sunk in sin, this tragic star
Sinks deeper still, and wages war
Against itself; strewn all the seas
With victims of a world disease.
–And we are left to drink the lees
Of Babel’s direful prophecy

 

Sitwell is, needless to say, writing not from deep religious conviction, but rather cultural convenience. Caught between innovation and tradition, he mobilizes an easy biblical trope and an army of rats, and comes out rather well, for a rookie. There are some facile, chiming rhymes, but then again there are some arresting phrases to go with the foreboding imagery. It’s worth remembering, once again, that as hackneyed as rats and ruins might seem to us now, a century on, they were once newcomers to poetry, especially in the Times.

 

Also today, Noel Hodgson–a “Smiler” rather than a shocker–contributes another little “slice of trench life,” suitable for perusal by the folks at home.

 

The Daily Round

The rain and the gunfire—which had hitherto been a menacing suggestion rather than an actual sound—met them almost together, making it seem as if they had crossed an invisible boundary between peace and war. With the departure of the sun had come the atmosphere of gloom and suffering like a cloud over the country.

An hour’s run in the jolting car brought them to a half-ruined village, where the driver stopped and said, “This is as far as we go, sir.”

The officer and his servant climbed down on to the muddy road, and watched the car drive away. A party
of men returning from a trench fatigue came wearily down the street, in the silence that means exhaustion,
mud coating them to the waist.

“You will wait here till our transport come up, and hand my kit over to them,” said the officer to his servant. “I’m going straight up.” And settling his equipment on his shoulders he trudged away up the street.

Among the miscellaneous groups that cover any trenchward route, he recognised a fellow-officer in a muddied trench-coat and hailed him. The friend hurried across and greetings were exchanged: “I’ve been down to the Brigade Office for the adjutant,” he explained, “didn’t expect to see you; you all right?”

“Pretty fit, thanks—any news?”

“You heard about Holland, of course—yes—they got another chap last night in the same place, bad corner
that. Any leave going?”

“Not yet. Storey got five days’ special leave because his guvnor died.”

“What the trenches like?”

“Pretty rotten. Awful lot of men going sick. The C.O.’s not been very fit lately.”

At this moment a man was carried by on a sling, his feet wrapped in dry sandbags and swinging limply. At
every jolt his face twisted.

“Much of that sort of thing?” asked the man from hospital, nodding his head towards the sufferer.

“One case this week; we’re being frightfully careful now, greasing feet and changing socks every day; the melting snow about ten days ago did most damage. It isn’t the water so much as the mud. It makes carrying rations or stores such an awful sweat.”

They walked on in silence, passing a stretcher-party with their motionless burden. As they drew level the bearers halted to change places. A shrill scream came from the stretcher, and a cry, “For Gawd’s love don’t shift, it’s ’urtin’ me to death.”

“Carn’t ’elp it, cocky,” said one of the bearers, spitting on his palms, “not much longer now.”

The wounded man whimpered and was silent.

Nearer the trenches the road was deserted, as it was not yet dark enough for safety, and the lull that frequently occurs in the late afternoon was in progress. But presently the whistle of shells passing overhead was heard, followed by a series of explosions in the gathering dusk behind them.

“Tickle up our transport,” said the younger officer, glancing at his watch.

The elder nodded in silence and drove his hands deeper into his pockets. A clump of trees and a crucifix appeared in front, marking a cross-road; they turned to the right through a small forest of wooden crosses, and came to the mouth of a trench.

“Here we are again,” said the younger, stepping with a splash into the mud and water.

May 11th, 1916[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Laughter in the Next Room, 128.
  2. Ziegler, Osbert Sitwell, 64-5.
  3. Verse and Prose in Peace and War, 79-81.

Osbert Sitwell Sees a Ghost; Good News from Roland Leighton; Francis Ledwidge Marched into the Ground; Bim Tennant Checks His Privilege

Sometimes the best letters are the short ones. Roland Leighton, evidently rather pressed for time, sent Vera Brittain a single line today, a century back, scrawled on a page torn from his field notebook.

France, 13 December 1915

Shall be home on leave for week from 24th Dec-31st. Land Christmas Day.

[R.][1]

 

Farther away and much more miserable is Francis Ledwidge. For six days the Royal Inniskillings have been retreating in the face of a Bulgarian advance. Ledwidge kept his spirits up on the march in part by composing a poem, writing it down during stops. “The Cobbler of Sari Gueul” is a rolling lyric ballad–an Irish pastoralist on holiday in Serbia. (A reading of the poem–a spoiler warning, as always, applies to any outside link–is available here.)

Sari Gueul “is quaint and very beautiful,” Ledwidge wrote, “seen even in the worst conditions of weather as I have seen it. We stood there two days on our retreat, waiting for a train which never came.” But there is some depth here, behind the quaint verse about the “queer” old town: the cobbler’s hammering at first seems a homely detail, until an old cow enters, trudging slowly along under the sound of the hammer.

Ledwidge explained the end of the piece in a letter to Lord Dunsany:

I wonder if people will understand the line: ‘Slow steps come fast to the knife and rule.’ Of course an old cow walks very slowly and as it grows older it goes the slower and therefore the faster to the tan-yard.

The sentimental poet had also, apparently, impulsively given his greatcoat away during the retreat to “a Serbian girl who was shivering violently,” and many of the British soldiers exchanged their run-down boots for pairs taken from dead Serbian soldiers. By the end of the march Ledwidge was little better off than the cow. He collapsed outside of the camp, where he was picked up by an ambulance and taken to a hospital near Salonika, the first step in what will be an evacuation to Egypt.[2]

 

From the misery of the Salonika force, far from aid or respite, we go back to France and the Grenadier Guards, who (like many units) have taken the opportunity of the early winter lull to send their officers home on leave. Osbert Sitwell had had his turn first, then Bimbo Tennant. Tonight, he too is back–and writing to his father, for a change:

Monday, 13th December, 1915

Darling Daddy,

I am back with the Company now, quite cheerful and comfortable and we shan’t go into trenches for a week… I want to thank you for making my leave the perfect time it was. The post has just this moment come and a letter from you. Yes, we did enjoy ourselves, and I am looking forward to my next leave (D.V.) much as I used to long for leave-outdays at Winchester…

There is a somewhat hilarious request–and more thanks–in order:

I am very glad to see Osbert again. Will you please send me some pheasants?

Darling Daddy, thank you a thousand times for paying my bills for me, and doing all you have for me. I will always try and deserve your love.

Ever your devoted Son,

Bimbo[3]

 

Speaking of Osbert, the fact that he and Bim are reunited now gives me an opportunity to work in an undated but very interesting memory of Sitwell’s. Perhaps it was this very night that the 4th Grenadier Guards were called unexpectedly to the front:

It was one evening in December 1915 that I saw, and spoke to, a ghost. We had marched up at an hour’s notice into the front line, to replace a Scottish regiment which was so badly and unexpectedly mauled that the Staff had been compelled to withdraw it. It must be borne in mind that as a result we had been deprived of the usual few days’ rest between spells of duty. It was, of course, dusk when I took over my portion of the trench, and after I had ordered the posting of the men, I entered my dugout. On leaving it, a few minutes later, the evening had become already much blacker. In the corner of the bay opposite, I saw a private soldier, with his hands in his pockets, and noticed that his rifle was by his side, although it had long been an order that all the men should stand to, with their rifles on the parapet at dawn and at dusk. I could not see his face very distinctly owing to the growing darkness: but I swore at him for his carelessness, asking him what he meant by it. As I finished, with the words “I’m tired of having to tell you…” he was, suddenly, no longer there in front of me, and I was talking to nothingness… I took up the abandoned rifle, and carried it with me to the dugout. It belonged to the regiment we had just relieved.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 199.
  2. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 140.
  3. Letters, 92-3.
  4. Laughter in the Next Room, 116.

Alan Seeger is Alive and Well and Writing Poetry; Olaf Stapledon on Satisfying the Soul; Asquith, Tennant, and Sitwell: a Three Guard Dinner? Music and Loneliness for Vera Brittain

A great hodgepodge of letters, today, on many different topics:

Just a few days ago Alan Seeger was writing a lengthy, suitable-for-publication description of the late September battle. There were rumors that Americans in the Foreign Legion had been killed (one had), which he, for his part, denied. But he has now learned that “he had been reported in the American newspapers as missing or killed in the Battle of Champagne.” He will not be the last survivor erroneously reported dead. Nevertheless, his mother is now suffering through one of the cruelest of the simple ironies, born of confusion and distance.

October 30, 1915

I am navré [sorry] to think of your having suffered so. I had just as soon aim my rifle at the fool who played that trick as at any German. But you know what American journalists are. . . Very soon a week’s permission in Paris. I shall be interested to see my poem in print. But I found a glaring grammatical error after sending it. I am usually more careful. Blame it to the trenches. I am writing you in a little café amid the best of comrades. You must take heart thinking of me as always content and really happy as I have never been before and as perhaps I will never be after.[1]

The poem? I’m not sure which it was, but my best guess is Champagne, 1914-15, which was written in July. In a mild play on the region’s namesake beverage, there is a good deal of Brookean “Sweet Wine,” as well as some older, rather sour notes, such as the invitations to drink up to those that “marched to that heroic martyrdom.” The poem concludes with more or less the precise opposite of Charles Sorley‘s posthumous admonishment:

Honor them not so much with tears and flowers,
    But you with whom the sweet fulfilment lies,
Where in the anguish of atrocious hours
    Turned their last thoughts and closed their dying eyes,
Rather when music on bright gatherings lays
    Its tender spell, and joy is uppermost,
Be mindful of the men they were, and raise
    Your glasses to them in one silent toast.
Drink to them—amorous of dear Earth as well,
    They asked no tribute lovelier than this—
And in the wine that ripened where they fell,
    Oh, frame your lips as though it were a kiss.

This is the poetry of 1870, or 1780, or some other bygone time–it’s nowhere near the cutting edge of even proto-modern verse. It is, rather, on the thick part of the blade: this is what most of the popular poetry of 1915 sounded like.

To which I can only say that they are troops who fade, not flowers, for poets’ tearful fooling…

 

But if it’s time yet for the poetry of suffering, then let’s get back to the Guards and their social life:

Darling Moth’,

The gloves arrived and are very welcome. They came on the 27th and several splendid boxes, some from Glen[2] and some from Fortnum & Mason…

It is very nice and comfortable here, and I hope that Raymond Asquith may come to dinner with us to-night. He is with the 3rd Battalion…

Osbert is going to be made a Captain in a day or two and will probably go on leave before me. He’ll come and see you and tell you about me. I am in the very best of spirits and find a lot to laugh at…

Raymond can’t come to-night. I hope he’ll come some other day…

Now must stop.

Ever your devoted Son,

Bimbo[3]

Raymond! What happened?!? What could have prevented the joy of two such well-connected letter writers crossing paths and crossing forks? Raymond?

I had a note from Sitwell asking me over to dinner with his Battn. which is quartered about 6 miles off but I did not fancy a ride on the pavé in dark and wet, so dined instead at Brigade H.Q…[4]

 

A few days after Wilfred Owen, Vera Brittain, another provincial whom the war has now drawn to London, visited Westminster Abbey. For her–and in this letter to Roland–the spiritual leads directly to the personal:

Vera to Roland

1st London General Hospital, 30 October 1915

I went into Westminster Abbey for a few minutes. The evening service (which is now held in the afternoon because of Zeppelins) was going on. The music seemed to swell & thrill & lose itself in the great arches of the roof, and everything beneath the window was shadow, dimly lit by dusky gleams of sun. I thought of the last time I was in London–when you were here, & to my great astonishment found tears in my eyes when the dream faded. After all, it must be a great inspiration to be you–and such as you. I felt this afternoon that I would gladly work & fight & die, if I could only do one little bit towards saving this beauty from destruction. And that is what You are doing–& have been doing for seven long & weary months. If only you could have been there today–if anything could, it might have made you feel strong to face the dreary, dreary winter that has already begun.[5]

Music, then, is not balm enough for loneliness, with the long winter ahead. And she will need all the energy she can muster, to deal with the winter’s casualties.

Yet few scenes (‘ware the clumsy segue!), by the time the wounded have reached London, will be as raw as the one witnessed today, a century back, by Kathleen Luard:

Saturday, October 30th

A boy came in at 6 p.m. with his right arm blown clean off in his sleeve. He was very collapsed when he came in but revived a bit later.  ‘Mustn’t make a fuss about trifles,’ he explained. ‘We got to stick it.’ What a trifle! He ran from the first to the second trench unaided. The boy who threw his brains on the floor died yesterday, and another is dying.[6]

 

With Vera faltering and Kathleen Luard reporting nothing but traumas, our sole (soul?) successful stargazer in the medical corps is Olaf Stapledon. But even this committed dreamer and young lover is finding that the war is impinging on his thoughts–still, he writes about a philosophical consideration, rather than a physical one, and that perhaps affords us some relief. Today, a century back, Stapledon wrote to his beloved, Agnes, halfway across the world, and weighed the various choices a young man must make:

Friends Ambulance Unit
30 October 1915

 …All but four of us have gone off to HQ to celebrate the anniversary of the Unit’s work in France. I celebrate the anniversary of our last meeting by writing to you in peace and quiet at last… I am sitting at our American cloth dining table with your last letters, and (as a great treat) your photo. The fire is burning merrily, the clock ticks, the dogs are both asleep and the rats are scuttering and squeaking… Your last letter came via America. How I bless that mail, and the extra letters it brings. You tell me about Jack A’s project of munition making. He will be well satisfied to be “doing something,” and I wish him luck and contentment. I confess I cannot see how anyone who “couldn’t kill” can make munitions.

To be a pacifist and stay at home quietly needs great courage: to be a pacifist and do Red Cross work is satisfying: to be a pacifist and yet fight must be torture: to approve of war and stay at home quietly is unthinkable: to approve and fight is honest and unselfish: to approve and make munitions, while you are fit to fight, cannot surely satisfy the soul. Personally I would not make munitions, I would fight. Whatever one thinks about the morality of war, many soldiers are saints. These old French territorials, for instance, “vieux papas” as they are called, are patiently sacrificing all they care for, and smiling all the while…

After further discussing the “gentle” heroism of these sorts of “old daddies,” Stapledon returns to the subject of the acquaintance who professes pacifism but has turned his “mechanical” talents to munitions making.

There is a good history lesson here: Stapledon is mature, thoughtful, and moral; he is a Quaker and a considered pacifist, and, as we can read in the above paragraph, he avoids the pitfall of pride in his own decision to risk life and limb and see terrible things in the Ambulance Corps. And then–perhaps with a hint of irony, but I can’t be sure–he returns to the language and personal code of a typical Oxford man of his time and place:

When a torpille[7] goes off and lands well, it knocks in a trench, buries a few men, tears up a few more, and chucks others head over heels. One big shell has been known to kill fifty men. If one approves, better let the other fellows get a whack at one, it’s only sporting.[8]

“It’s only sporting”–and the “whack” as well–sounds poorly in our ears, this medieval-seeming idea that embraces the logic of the duel or the judicial combat. And we have learned to read “sporting” as a link to that crazed Newboltian congeries of ideas–empire, amateurism, Christianity, racism, competition, etc. Stapledon is using it, if not ironically, than as a simple, handy phrase standing in for a very serious idea–and one that goes more swiftly to the heart of this war than the old idea of battle as a noble trial, whack for well-bred whack.

His point is simply that believing that killing is wrong does not excuse one from that necessary concomitant of killing, namely dying. Stapledon is not making bombs. But if he were, and not suffering their effects, he would have no claim to righteousness.

Yes. And, as he need not point out, he is driving an ambulance well within the range of German artillery. He is not merely ministering to the wounded, but he is suffering the deprivations and risks of war. Pacifism, and courage.

And yet, not a perfect pacifism. He could sit out, wait for the coming draft, and become a conscientious objector. By saving allied lives he aids their war effort. His hands are clean, but his thumb nevertheless rests upon the great scales…

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters and Diary, 174.
  2. A family estate, I think--Glenconner being a family title.
  3. Letters, 77-8.
  4. Life and Letters, 208.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 181.
  6. Unknown Warriors, 28.
  7. French for torpedo, and probably meaning one of the "aerial torpedoes" or very large trench mortars like the German Minenwerfer.
  8. Talking Across the World, 106-7.

Wilfred Owen on Inoculations and Readings; Osbert Sitwell and Bimbo Tennant on Fevers and Traumas; Horror on Sister Luard’s Station

Today marks the first official letter from the soldier Wilfred Owen to his beloved mother.

Thursday Mng. [21 October 1915]

Dearest of Mothers,

I [several words illegible] attacked the day by going straight to Headquarters. It was found that the Doctor had not given his signature to my papers so I was examined again—and passed. Three others at the same time were refused. One was mad about it and insisted on knowing why. ‘I don’t think you look a strong man’ was the first reply. (But he did!) More expostulation.

Dr. ‘I shouldn’t like to risk you—with those teeth in your head.’

Recruit.‘They can come out.’

Dr. ‘Well, if you must know, your heart murmurs sometimes.’ And so on with other apparently robust fellows! I still did not ‘swear in’; but spent the afternoon hunting for Rooms…

In the middle of this letter I was called to lunch; and then went to ‘swear in’. This time it is done: I am [in][1] the British Army! Three of us had to read the Oath together; the others were horribly nervous and read the wrong Paragraph until the Captain stopped them! ‘Kiss the Book!’ says Captain. One gives it a tender little kiss; the other a loud smacking one!!

After that we had to be inoculated for Typhoid. And that is why I am in bed since four o clock! The delightfully kind, confidence-inspiring doctor gave us full instructions. There were scores of Tommies taking the ordeal before me, and believe me some were as nervous as only fine, healthy animals can be before doctors. One fainted before his turn came, merely as a result of the Doctor’s description of possible symptoms!

You will be glad to hear, that though it is three hours ago, I have no constitutional symptoms whatever! Merely a local soreness… I feel so physically happy that it might have been Morphine injected! We have sick leave until Monday morning. The hours are 9:30 to 5! Jolly reasonable!

The Poetry Bookshop is about 7 mins, walk! There is a Reading this very night…

Fondest Love to Father, Mary and the Dearest of Boys,

From your lovingest of Boys Wilfred[2]

It’s a jolly, profusely exlcamatory holiday for our Wilfred, so far. And–even though I have been testing out my portentous historian’s gong, threatening to ring out the short second year of the war and usher in the third year early with a winter of undeniable, steel-helmeted stalemate–nothing quite says “the beginning of a Great War experience” like an enlistment letter written in the highest of spirits and culminating in the rapturous expectation of a poetry reading…

 

Speaking of high spirits, Bimbo Tennant is maintaining his, even in the face of trench fever.

21st October, Trafalgar Day.
My darling Moth’,

This is just to tell you that I have got a slight sore throat, and am in a comfortable hospital at Béthune. I expect
(D.V.) I shall be out to-morrow or the next day, and I shall not join the Battalion in the trenches this time…

My temperature was 99’4 yesterday morning, 99’2 last night, and 99’4 again this morning. It has gone down a bit since then I think. There are 15 beds in this ward, about 6 occupied. I feel like a cave man who has discovered how to be warm. This bed with sheets and a “swish,” [hot-water bottle] is celestial. When the Battalion comes out of these trenches they are going into tomorrow, the Guards Division is to have a well-earned fortnight’s rest. During which there will be some leave, but I don’t know whether I shall get any or not. It has made the whole difference to Osbert and I having each other’s company, and I hope I go back to him soon, for of course I am not nearly bad enough to be sent to the base. The quiet here seems quite unusual and I sometimes think that motors approaching are shells coming.

Because of his ingenuous and affectionate letter-writing style, or in spite of it? In any case, it seems clear that Bim is now in the early stages of a post-traumatic stress reaction.

I am still very unhappy about Ivo and will write to Aunt Mary to-night.

God bless you, darling Moth’. I am longing to see you soon (D.V.). My little cross disappeared mysteriously from off my neck, please send me another. I still treasure three photies of you, a St. Christopher Medal, a four-leaved clover, and a little Paschal Lamb…

That would be seven good luck charms–a lot, but not an atypical lot–of juju.

Now I must stop, darling Mummie.
Ever your devoted Son,

Bimbo.

P.S.—There was a young lady called Ryan,
Who went for a ride on a lion.
Of remains there are some.
In the lion’s tum-tum.
But the rest is an Angel in Sion.

Osbert told me this the other day and it amused me.

Loving Bimbo

 

What can’t Osbert Sitwell do? Competently command a company of Grenadier Guards? Spirit an unwilling subordinate to the hospital? Spread cheer in Limerick form?

He also wrote a letter, yesterday, to Lady Glenconner, none other than Bimbo’s darling Moth’. Which explains Bimbo’s condition in somewhat different terms. Aristocratic privilege, it would seem, trumps company commander-subordinate privilege… No, that’s not quite right. It’s more that one is bound to feel a bit silly when one realizes that that “best friend” the slightly older camp counselor has a crush on your mother, and is glossing your own letters home behind your back…

I have just taken Bimbo round to see the doctor (we are out of the trenches for three days), who has put him to bed, and given him aspirin and a gargle, as he is not very well. He has a slight temperature. It is the first time I have ever seen him depressed.

I think Ivo’s death and the terrific shelling we had have shaken him rather: but he is a bit better to-day.

I am afraid all this is rather like a letter from a doctor, but I feel it is what you want to know!

We are living in a ruin in Vermelles. But it seems like England after the last five or six days of trench-work.
I cannot see any possibility of this war ending within ten years.

And Bimbo is “depressed?” No–Bimbo is shell shocked, traumatized, on edge. Osbert is–apparently–fine, and indulging in dangerous mixtures of maternal reportage and Soul-imitating (Coterie coveting?) deadpan defeatism.

Do write and tell us if there is any cheery news in England.

Vermelles is certainly a curiously interesting city. There is not one stone left upon another. We all live in dark, deep cellars. I cannot think what crime can have been perpetrated by the former inhabitants, in order to bring down the fulfilment of a Biblical curse. It must have been very uninteresting. Perhaps that was its crime. At any rate, it has a fierce charm of its own now…

Bimbo says will you send him some gloves (for himself) and some cigarettes for the men? His singing, meanwhile, is very popular out here.

This letter now stops automatically for want of anything to say.

Yours ever,

Osbert[3]

 

If the war (or the war writing) will continue to evolve toward an adversary proceeding that pits traumatized combatants against fat and satisfied, noisily Hun-hating home-front jingos, then those non-combatants who see (and work with) the worst of war are in a special, liminal category. For the most part, the most obvious effect this middle position has on their writing is to strip it of the confounding complexity that Bimbo and Osbert have just muddled through.

Combatants struggle to express horror, to explain trauma, and to accurately describe their evolving feelings, all while maintaining the expected demeanor of confidence and good humor. Kathleen Luard, newly returned to the front lines of nursing, writes as a sympathetic observer. She sees more pain and suffering than most soldiers will, but it is not her pain, nor is she under ressure to drag every hardship and horror toward an uplifting ending.

A boy is lying smiling all day with his head, right hand and both legs wounded, and his left arm off. When asked ‘Are you happy?’ he said with a beam ‘Tryin’ to be.’

I happened to go into the Infant School [where one section of her Casualty Clearing Station is located] this morning, just in time to see a delirious boy, with a bad head-wound, with a large brain hernia, tear off all his dressings and throw a handful of his brains on to the floor. This is literally true, and he was talking all the time we re-dressed the hole in his head. Then we picked up the handful of brains, and the boy was quiet for a little while. He is very delirious and will not get better.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The editor of Owen's letters suggests that the omission of "in" might have been intentional--I'm not sure why.
  2. Letters, 259-60.
  3. Letters, 63-7.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 27.

Bimbo Tennant, Osbert Sitwell, and Rowland on the Life and Death of Ivo Charteris; Rowland Feilding Paints a War Picture of the Most Frightful Description; Edward Hermon on the Immortality of the Soul; Vera Brittain Prepares; Siegfried Sassoon Meets Robbie Ross

We begin today with a letter from tomorrow, a century back. Edward “Bimbo” Tennant has bad news. Since he is an ostentatiously loving and attentive son, we can chalk up the way he works around to it to sheer exhaustion:

18th October, 1915
Darling Moth’,

I am so sorry I haven’t written to you for some days, but we have been having such a restless and nerve-racking time since Thursday night…

I have not had four hours’ sleep on end since Thursday, but I manage to seize 20 minutes or sometimes 1 hour at odd times in even odder places, so I really manage very well and am as happy as can be expected seeing that dear Ivo was killed yesterday or the day before.

So this, perhaps, is how Lady Glenconner learned of the death of her nephew, Ivo Charteris, son of her sister (and fellow Sargent “Grace“) Lady Wemyss. Charteris, yet another nineteen-year-old Lieutenant, was killed today, a century back, in “a great bombing attack… by several Battalions of different Guards Brigades.”

Osbert and I are miserable about it, for no more lovable person ever stepped. I am terribly sorry for Aunt Mary and Mary, for she loved him very dearly. It is not yet officially stated that he is gone, but I fear it is too much to hope that the rumour is untrue…

How many times now have I declared Loos over “but for” some horrible little anatomic or natural metaphor? Spasms, contractions, ripples, aftershocks…

Well, it is still deadly, and the fighting around the Hohenzollern redoubt continues to be nasty. Little hills loom large, now.

It was fairly successful but we lost fairly heavily, even my battalion which sent its bombers up had over 40 casualties. Yesterday between 10 and 1 we were subjected to a terrific shell-fire, and as our artillery weren’t replying we heard only the awful sound of the approaching high explosive shells  and as they burst, belching black smoke, the earth shook and a shower of small stones and earth descended on us with an occasional piece of shell that whirs like a muffled factory engine and finishes with a thud as it strikes the top of the trench.

There’s no need, really, to connect the news of the death of his cousin to a new susceptibility to the sound of shells, to make this quick segue to his own impressions of deadly experiences a way to express inexpressible loss: Bim has been in action several weeks, now–and that’s about as long as most men can stand it unaffected…

I used to think I was fairly impervious to noise, but the crash upon crash, and their accompanying pillar of black smoke simply upset me, as they pitched repeatedly within 30 or 40 yards, and some even nearer. I don’t think I shewed I was any more frightened than any one else, perhaps I wasn’t.

What made it so racking was that there was nothing to do all the time but sit still waiting for the next, and the next. The strain was awful…

He is tired, strained–and although his close friend and first cousin is dead, life must go on, so it’s to the necessities that he goes next:

Now I must seize a little sleep. Moth’ darling. God bless you, and I trust we may be relieved to-morrow.  Could you send me a box of fairly substantial food?

Ever your devoted Son,
Bimbo[1]

I mentioned a few days ago that I had stumbled upon the letters of the chaplain John Ayscough. He had gone shopping on behalf of Lady Glenconner–for steel helmets. In a few weeks he will answer his own mother’s queries about whether this gift reached its recipient in time:

…poor young Yvo Charteris was already killed when I sent him the helmet. I fear it will make Lady Glenconner terrified for Bim. The officers of our Guards have suffered fearful losses from the very beginning of the war.[2]

Another of these officers–Osbert Sitwell again, Bim Tennant’s friend and company commander–is concerned for Lady Glenconner. Though only a few years older than Bim, he has appointed himself to be the special younger friend of the lady in question, and her son’s protector. And he too, will write of death and the sustenance of life.

My dear Lady Glenconner,

Please forgive me for not having written to thank you for the delightful food you sent me; but we have been so busy fighting. It was very kind of you. Bimbo and I are dreadfully sad over Ivo…

He was such a delightful and promising person. The only thing I can say is that I know he was quite unafraid
of death, having the real understanding of its inevitability, which seems extraordinarily uncommon.[3]

Later, looking back, Sitwell fleshes out this portrait considerably:

I can see Ivo now… Although so recently from school, he was, without any appearance of precocity, detached and ironic, nonchalant, in spite of decided opinions, and manifested in everything about him, even in the way he wore his top hat, innate style… his breeding showed in his whole appearance. He came plainly of a family long used to influence, and to the government of others… he would tell me of Stanway, the Elizabethan mansion that was his family home in Goucestershire, and which he loved so passionately… he would talk with such understanding of the countryside… But though he exhibited this deep, and rather unexpected feeling for nature, yet in all other respects a kind of eighteenth-century reasonableness, or love of reason, governed his outlook and conduct… he did not yield to impulse.[4]

Everyone is getting well practiced at writing eulogies.

 

So there is the microcosm: another bright young boy, another beloved son, another well-remembered scion of the aristocracy dead. And buried?

Probably not yet. Rowland Feilding is also on the scene of this assault, and in two days he will describe, in a letter to his wife, what is becoming one of the most thoroughly destroyed sectors of the front:

About 2 a.m. I visited Charles Noel in the Redoubt, and spent some time with him.

This shambles (you can call it nothing else) is about 200 yards in front of our old fire-trench. The part of it which we hold and the communication trench leading to it have been so shelled that, at the time we took them over, they were no longer trenches but ditches, very wide and shallow, with frequent upheavals in the floor, indicating the positions of dead men, now wholly or partly covered with earth splashed over them by the bursting shells and the passage of troops.

It would, I suppose, be an exaggeration to say that the parapets at this place are built up with dead bodies, but it is true to say that they are dovetailed with them, and everywhere arms and legs and heads protrude.

This is really an essential piece of writing. If it’s hard to capture the impact of the horrors of war in verse, it can also be very difficult to record them in prose. Almost everyone, when coming to write of their experiences, seems to permit the extension of the worst of what they saw: An hour of shelling punctuated by a few very close or very deadly bursts can read more like an hour entirely composed of closely packed explosions, an “inferno” that would really be impossible to survive; a stumbling attack into machine gun fire reads as if half the battalion was killed, but the statistics tell us that only a quarter (only!) were hit by the bullets.

This isn’t falsification so much as a misrepresentation of the quality of the lived-through past. We’re bad at that, as a species. (And, on the larger scale of months and years of war, rather than the minutes and hours of battle, one of the serious goals of this project is to attempt a reassessment of the qualities of passing historical time.) The extension of the worst, the crowding out of the less-memorable less-horrible, happens first unconsciously (i.e. the horrors loom large in their memory, while the moments of more ordinary terror evaporate) but is usually boiled down further with literary/historical intent.

History, if it does not purport (impossibly) to be chronicle–everything (but never everything) recorded in its place on the timeline–usually ends up being synecdoche: here are the few described events to stand for the period. Ir’s natural that a writer of war letters or a war memoir dwells upon the worst of war–and natural too, if rather more problematic, when historians follow suit.

Kudos to Rowland Feilding, then, for realizing (even at this early date) that he is about to record a cliché of trench horror, and–further kudos–for grasping that such clichés, coming straight from the front lines and on into the archives, not only do damage to “truth” but also tend to minimize the horrors. No trench can be built largely out of corpses,but a much-fought-over trench can be “dovetailed” with them: arms and legs, here and there, tucked in, like joined beams in a wall or roof.

Even without the staggering linguistic irony–probably not intended by Feilding–of the bird of peace alighting, through this carpentry term, upon war’s worst work yet–this is a wonderful example of fine, precise description of terrible, terrible things.

Interesting, too, is how Feilding goes now straight from horror to regimental spirit–good evidence again (quiet evidence, indirect evidence) of how much one’s pride in one’s unit can sustain the shattered spirit in conditions of fear and frightfulness.

At one place an arm and hand stuck out and dangled across the trench. On one of the fingers was a solid-looking gold ring, and in spite of the fact that, owing to the narrowness of the passage, each man that passed it had to brush the hand aside, it spoke well for the battalion, I thought, that to my knowledge the ring still remained untouched for more than twenty-four hours; and though in the end it disappeared I am convinced it was not taken by any Coldstreamer.

And then there is the soldier’s dawning realization that the constant reports of success do not match with the evidence of his eyes:

The artillery certainly did its work well here. The surface of the ground over a large area has been reduced to a shapeless jumble of earth mounds and shell-holes. The formidable wire entanglements have gone. On all sides lie the dead. It is a war picture of the most frightful description; and the fact that the dead are, practically speaking, all our dead, arouses in me a wild craving for revenge. Where are the enemy’s dead? We hear much of them, but we do not see them. During this fighting I have seen thousands almost count upon my fingers…

I am glad to have found so much excellent reportage in today’s letter. This has been an unexpected bonus, as it were, because I first went to Feilding: he, too, was part of the attack that cost Ivo Charteris his life:

At 5 a.m., while we were standing to, the Commanding Officer (Guy Baring) came hurrying along my trench. He said the plans had been changed, that we had just been detailed to take the place of the 3rd Grenadiers, and that we were to attack immediately. I asked for instructions. He replied: “There is no time for instructions. You must use your discretion.” Thus, as at the Chalk Pit, we had only a few minutes in which to organize our arrangements. Charles Noel’s bombers (No. 3 Coy.) and mine (No. 4) made the assault. I immediately reinforced Noel by sending one platoon under Jackson into the Redoubt, another to the communication trench leading to the Redoubt, and my remaining two platoons, under Daniell, to the first support trench. I myself, having seen the men into position, went into the Redoubt…

The bombers went in with dash, and to start with made good progress. They rushed the barricade separating us from the enemy, and bombed their way for a considerable distance beyond it. The trenches were, however, so flattened by shell-fire that they gave very little protection. At this spot they are, moreover, a regular tangle. There came a point where the party should have taken an insignificant-looking turning to the left, but in the darkness they bombed straight on. The trench they followed became so shallow that presently it ceased to give any cover at all. The Germans, who are always quick to spot a weakness of this kind, lost no time in making good their opportunity. They brought a machine-gun into position; and that ends the story.Our losses were not severe, but bad enough. I do not know what the casualties amounted to in the battalion.

Those in my Company, since we came up this time, are twenty-four, all told. These things begin to tell. I have lost, I suppose, ninety men, or half the Company, since we left Lumbres, and Nos. 1 and 2 Companies have lost considerably more, though the gaps have already been almost, if not entirely, filled by drafts from home.

I remained some hours in the Redoubt, which, at the time, was a very lively spot to be in. Fortunately for us, though the German shelling was very severe, it was a little wide of the ground we were fighting upon,—possibly owing to the proximity of many Germans, whose lives would have been jeopardized by closer shooting…

So the mixed attack of Grenadiers and Coldstreams has failed. Now, then, the retribution we have heard described above by Bimbo Tennant:

Our bombing attack brought on the heaviest bombardment I have yet sat under. It was at about its zenith at a
quarter to ten a.m. It lasted for over nine hours, and was intense during a great part of that time. The stream of German shells was continuous. They came in “coveys,” whistling through the air like a storm at sea. As I heard one of the men say—they came “in close column of platoons.” Often they were falling at the rate of quite a hundred a minute.

But our trenches here are like network: they are repeated—parallel after parallel; till not only by their very number are they confusing to the German gunners, but the area over which the fire is distributed is fortunately extended, and therein lies our chance of safety.

It is of course bewildering to be shelled like that. There is no denying that when such shelling happens to be concentrated on the particular bit of trench you are in, as it often is for an hour or more together, it is extremely disagreeable; but, on the whole, the damage done by these huge bombardments is out of all proportion to their cost, and they do not produce the moral effect—or rather the demoralizing effect —which is their sole object.

Once it is over you shake yourself and recover, and if you are healthily minded you soon have forgotten it, just as you forget the other disturbances of life. Yet, to tell the truth, I marvel myself sometimes how human nerves can stand the strain of our existence; day after day, night after night, hour after hour, being shelled; sometimes, for hours at a time, a heavy shell falling every few minutes within a few yards of you, shaking the ground beneath you, half stunning you with the crash of the explosion, and covering you with earth.[5]

 

We’ve had several records of the heavy bombardment today, now, and Edward Hermon, coming up to cope with the aftermath, closes this hard little chapter by turning to bigger questions. He too wrote–today–to his wife of what he had seen:

Well, I got back at 3 a.m. this morning alright after a very unpleasant night. Clearing a battlefield is not an amusement I can recommend except that it has the effect of making one perfectly callous to everything connected with life and death.

I cannot believe that this is the end of life. After what I saw last night I am convinced that the soul of man must be so to speak ‘detachable’. It is impossible that if there is a Divine will ruling all life, I cannot believe that this is the finish. The soul must leave to body to go elsewhere. I saw it last night as clearly as if it was written in capital letters. I buried 41 poor fellows…[6]

 

Lastly, two significant developments today for our writers in England. Although it has been a harrowing day, I want to include Vera Brittain‘s diary. She is starting a new chapter, now, preparing to travel to London, to embark upon a course of “real nursing” among the men shattered by Loos. There will be a few letters, but this is her last diary entry for a month.

Sunday October 17th

I mostly packed all day the things I have to take, and arranged for the disposal, since Mother & Father really are leaving Buxton, of what I did not want to take. I visited the spot where Roland & I sat and talked the first time he came here, and bade it farewell, for even if he & I remain after the War is over, it is not very likely we shall come back to Buxton again. This evening the leaves were falling fast, and the dusk enveloped all the glorious tints of autumn in a sad neutral shade.[7]

 

And, back in England, Siegfried Sassoon, still-in-reserve Lieutenant of the Royal Welch, once again attended a party at the house of Edmund Gosse. Today he met another important member of the literary establishment, Robbie Ross. Ross was famous–infamous to some–as the friend and posthumous defender of Oscar Wilde. He was obviously–if not exactly “openly”–gay, despite the dangers, but he was tolerated in official circles, working as an art critic and journalist and advising the government in several capacities. He was significantly older than Sassoon (who was himself much younger than his twenty-nine years, but the two apparently shared not only artistic interests but a sense of humor and soon became fast friends, with Ross in an avuncular and advisory role.

This will be a crucial friendship for Sassoon. The exact extent to which their shared homosexuality animated their relationship is impossible to gauge, given the need then for discretion, but Sassoon was clearly drawn to Ross’s freedom, strength of character, and loyalty. He, at the very least, showed a way forward for what had surely been troubling, suppressed feelings. And Ross will eventually become an important influence on Sassoon’s poetry–but not yet.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters, 60-3.
  2. John Ayscough's Letters to His Mother, 262.
  3. (Tennant) Letters, 63-5.
  4. Laughter in the Next Room, 106-7.
  5. War Letters to a Wife, 57-63.
  6. For Love and Courage, 117-18.
  7. Chronicle of Youth, 289.
  8. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 203-5.

John Kipling is Hopefully Alive, and Believed Killed; Osbert Sitwell Takes Good Care of Bim Tennant, and Finds a Mother Worth Writing To; John Bernard Adams Approaches the Line

Today, a century back, the apparent death of John Kipling became public. More public–and more definite–than his family would wish. The Morning Post carried the following notice:

THE DEATH OF MR. JOHN KIPLING

We have the heavy burden of announcing that Mr. John Kipling, of the Irish Guards, is reported “missing, believed killed.” John Kipling was the child for whom his father wrote the Just So Stories, the boy for whom Puck told immortal tales of the beloved land, for which this supreme sacrifice has now been made. Mr. John Kipling was barely eighteen, a boy of delicate health but indomitable zeal and resolution. He had been nominated for the Irish Guards by Lord Roberts, and was determined to take his share in the war. In assenting to his urgent pleas the father–and the mother also–offered the dearest of all possible sacrifices on the altar of their country–an only son, whose youth and health might have given them a good reason for evading the ordeal. The sympathy of the whole Empire will go out to Mr. and Mrs. Rudyard Kipling in their sorrow.

Although well-meant–the author was a friend of the Kiplings’–this notice would cause both pain and quotidian bother. Kipling wrote a letter today to R. D. Blumenfeld in which irritation almost completely screens the pain of loss:

Bateman’s, Burwash, Sussex Oct 6, 1915

Dear Blumenfeld,

Ever so many thanks for holding your hand about John. I don’t suppose one straw more or less much matters at such a time but–Taffy has really excelled himself.

As far as I can make out his wife picked up some rumour at a dinner-party; told Gwynne; who forthwith telephoned to the biggest ass in the Battn who seems to have given him another casualty (“wounded believed killed”) instead of (“wounded; missing”: which John was.)

The rest, including the remarks about his “youth” and his “delicacy” (John was a Gym Instructor among other things and as hard as nails) was fabricated in the M. P.! Result is, a congested mail and unlimited weeping willow and dithyrambic correspondence for us. We were hoping for a few days’ peace before the news got out but–there’s nothing like journalistic enterprize.

The worst is that it was all so damn kindly intended (specially the obituary notice) and the best is that one is only one atom in this ten-million man power welter, and so one sticks it accordingly. Good luck to you and yours.

Ever sincerely
Rudyard Kipling.

John Kipling had often, in fact, been ill, to say nothing of what should have been disqualifying myopia–but who can fail to forgive a father remembering his only son as “hard as nails,” or to respect the effort to disavow the uniqueness of his pain, and take a place as just one more suffering “atom?”

He is dead, but his father and mother have reason to believe he might possibly live, and will not yet take up the language of “sacrifice” that his been deployed on their behalf. (There is a cruel conservatism of the military bureaucracy in listing a man “missing,” but to collect all the testimony of survivors in each such case would be a huge undertaking, a drain on military resources.) But because the news has gotten out, the Kiplings now must face being treated as mourners while striving to live in hope.

Just yesterday, Kipling had written to the American ambassador:

May I ask you to communicate with the American ambassador in Berlin to ask if he can discover any trace of my son:

He is reported to have been wounded late in the afternoon of Sep. 27th, on the outskirts of a wood near Loos (LOOS) and to have crawled into a shed or building which was almost immediately afterwards occupied by the Germans…

He is dark with strongly marked eyebrows, small moustache, thick brown hair (straight) dark brown eyes with long lashes.

Height about 5. 7 1/2. Small white scar on forehead and one front tooth slightly discoloured.

He is short-sighted and is most probably wearing gold spectacles.

He wears a small gold signet-ring with monogram J.K. All his clothes are marked.[1]

These are not quite the concrete names of villages that will come to replace war’s exhausted abstractions, but in a way they are something worse: the physical specifications of a vanished body, the merest qualifying marks of a life entirely, irrevocably lost.

 

Osbert Sitwell cannot be trusted to remember dates, looking back. But Lady Glenconner, the Sargent-enshrined mother of Bim Tennant, evidently keeps her letters.

October 6th, 1915
4th Battalion Grenadier Guards.

My dear Lady Glenconner,

I thought you might like to hear about Bimbo; though probably the letter will end by being about myself. I arrived out here to the 2nd Battalion on the 13th of last month; and on Sunday (three days ago) I was moved, greatly to my joy, to this battalion, where I am temporarily in charge of Bimbo’s Company. He and I are at present the only officers in a very reduced Company. We came out of the trenches last night, after forty-eight hours, having been relieved at 2.30 a.m. by a very cringing crew, who I suppose had lost their way.

Bimbo looks very well, and is almost too cheerful; it is delightful being with him, as there has been a real scarcity of people to whom it was possible to talk. Indeed most of them seem to have no means of communication at all…

In the 2nd Battalion last week I had a dreadful time. We were in reserve, and our duty was to clear up the tragic battlefields. There were tragic groups of dead men in living positions, left by the gas. Men bayoneting one another, and in the most awful attitudes. Others were apparently in the act of cutting barbed wire, but were really dead. The battlefield itself is one large brown plain, with scattered, broken trees, which this year have refused to throw out new leaves. (This seems a kindly act), and the only relieving colour consisted in masses of blue cornflowers, and the white lines of deserted chalk trenches. The battle seemed to have centred specially round one place, known by our men as the “Lone Tree” An enormous dead tree, standing right by itself. Here the whole ground was covered by these living dead who were gassed, and by the remnants of others, left by the high explosives.

Things round here are a bit more quiet, but there are still lots of shells and snipers galore.

I think both Bimbo and myself would be glad to return to England soon, but I suppose that now the war will last another ten years or so. All the officers are now living in Vermelles in a ruined house. I lay last night on some straw, at the bottom of a staircase, and every time a shell went over, pieces of cement and glass bumped down the stairs on to me!

Please forgive this depressing scrawl.

Yours ever,

OSBERT[2]

I don’t know what to make of Sitwell. He is not alone–not nearly alone!–in the habit of writing intimate letters to the glamorous mothers of his friends (I’m looking at you, Patrick Shaw-Stewart). Nor is he alone in writing memoirs that barely touch upon the worst of his war–but, at least in this context, he’s pretty damn close. And he joins a crowd of witnesses to the carnage around Lone Tree. But perhaps that’s it: an older Sitwell will be less tolerant of his own ordinariness in trying to represent the war in a letter. Better, later, to withdraw, and leave that field uncontested.

One fact, though, explains this letter more than any other. Sitwell does not come from happy home. His father, whom he intermittently explains and lampoons, was monumentally strange and intermittently cruel to his progeny (except in the case of Osbert’s sister Edith, to whom he was consistent in his cruelty), and their family estate was constantly in the grips of some architectural or gardening improvement scheme. His mother, a victim-perpetrator of a notorious financial fraud, had recently been jailed.

So when Sitwell tells us that he was welcomed into Lady Glenconner’s fashionable home, that his assiduously modern and au courant self-presentation earned him the affectionate condescension of a glamorous society woman, it’s hard not to see this as compensatory attention from a glamorous mother figure. Not a source of scandal married to an eccentric agrarian lord, but a very fashionable London lady.

So, if she is a mother figure, does that explain the dissonance of his writing to promise care for her son, and then launching into a description of the horrors of Loos? Perhaps. Then again dissonance is sweet music to the Modernist…

 

Finally, today was another important day for the hero of Nothing of Importance. John Bernard Adams had landed at Boulogne with eleven other replacement officers, and then begun one of those interminable French train journeys. He is one of our first writers to describe what will soon become perhaps the most familiar stop on the collective progress toward the trenches, namely the huge base camp of Étaples (inevitably, “Eat-apples,” or “Eatables”), the new bureaucratic and training center of the British Expeditionary Force in France.

I remember sitting tired and dazed on the top of a valise and asking Barrett what the time was. “Three forty-five!”

“What a time to arrive!” I replied. But in war three forty-five is as good a time as any other, I was soon to discover.

We walked to a camp a mile distant from the station; our arrival seemed quite unlooked for, and a quartermaster-sergeant had to be procured, by the officer who was our guide, in order to gain access to the tent that contained the blanket stores. Wearily, at close on five o’clock, we fell asleep on the boarded bottom of a bell-tent.

It must have been about 10 a.m. on the 6th when we turned out and found ourselves in a sandy country; behind us was a small ridge, crowned by a belt of fir trees; the sun was well up and shone warm on the face as we washed and shaved in the open.

The feeling of camp was exhilarating, and I was in good spirits. But two blows immediately damped my ardour most effectively. When I learned that I was posted to our first battalion, and I alone of all of us twelve, the thought of my arrival among the regulars, with no experience, and not even an acquaintance, far less a friend, was distinctly chilling! To add to my discomfiture there befell a second misfortune: my valise was nowhere to be seen!

Indeed, the rest of the day was chiefly occupied in searching for my valise, but to no purpose whatever. I did not see it until ten days later, when by some miracle it appeared again! I can hardly convey the sense of depression these two facts cast over me the next few days; the interest and novelty of my experiences made me forget for short periods, but always there would return the thought of my arrival alone into a line regiment, and with the humiliating necessity of borrowing at once. Unknown and inexperienced I could not help being; but as a fool who lost all his property the first day, I should not cut a brilliant figure![3]

A little free with his exclamation points, it’s true. But Adams will be as sure-footed a guide as he is a hapless, unfriended, and bumbling new officer. This, I suppose, is the point of the passage: it’s not the first year any more–in fact, the climax of the short second year (Loos) has come and gone. We’ve reached a time when the “approaching the line” narrative can be neither pure anabasis nor predictable early chapter in the young soldier’s Bildung.

No: now it’s likely to be ironized. The innocents possess knowledge, but they discover that their veterans’ gnosis is counterfeit (we’ll have to send for those Sam Brownes!); at least the new warts are going out together, but then they are separated. There is much new expertise to be displayed, but instead Adams discovers that he will be arriving like a lost child, his book bag and lunch box left on the bus…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters, IV, 336-9.
  2. (Tennant) Letters, 44-6.
  3. Nothing of Importance, 6-7. Available here.