A Gathering at Mrs. Colefax’s: Nichols, the Sitwells, Graves, Sassoon, and Sorley; Eliot and Huxley too; and Cynthia Asquith is Very Glad She Went

At precisely 5 o’clock in the afternoon of today, a century back, a reading–to benefit charity, as well as, naturally, the stature of the participants–began in Mrs. Colefax’s drawing room, in Argyll House, King’s Road, Chelsea. The eminent Edmund Gosse presided, insisted on speed, and then immediately launched into a rambling introduction memorable only for the fact that he broke off to scold a late arrival–T.S. Eliot, coming straight from work. Gosse then read a poem or two by the absent Robert Graves, and, after ceding the limelight, kept the attention of the crowd by “snapping” at the other poets throughout the night.[1]

Next came Robert Nichols, opening with a poem of Gosse’s (yes, that sort of thing flattered Gosse) and following with several of his own. Nichols was either a compellingly dramatic reader and performer, or he made an ass of himself by screaming and capering. It depends on whose account you favor–Sassoon’s opinion of his friend seems to state the former sort of opinion, but the language rather implies the latter. Nichols also read two poems by Charles Sorley, who has now been dead for twenty-six months. These didn’t, alas, make much of an impression–When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead was evidently not on the bill.

Other performers included all three Sitwells–Osbert (still an unwounded and inexplicably free-and-easy-in-London subaltern of the Guards), Edith, and Sacheverell–as well as the actress Viola Tree, Irene Rutherford Mcleod, and Aldous Huxley. Irene Macleod impressed several of the onlookers, if more with her performance–“fierce, rapt”–than her work. It’s not clear what she read, but her next volume of poems will be dedicated to Aubrey de Sélincourt, classicist and fighter pilot, now languishing in a German P.O.W. camp.[2] Huxley had been rejected for military service because of his eyesight, spent some time at a desk job in the Air Ministry, and was now a young teacher at Eton and tending toward pacifism. He was probably thrilled to be there, but he did not take kindly to Gosse, whom he described as “the bloodiest little old man I have ever seen.” And while we’re at it we’d better get Huxley’s other much-quoted mot out of the way: it’s a description of Nichols, who, Huxley wrote, “raved and screamed and hooted and moaned… like a Lyceum Villain who hasn’t learnt how to act.” Which sounds like a hatchet job–or just a broad-for-effect version of Sassoon’s opinion. Nichols, however, had been previously put down by Vita Sackville West, and with much deadlier efficiency.

As for the Sitwells, only Sacheverell’s poetry impressed, but Edith’s work with the Wheels anthologies had forged an all-important link between “society” and Modernism. This, “the first recorded sighting of the three Sitwells operating publicly as a team,” was something of a coming out party for the artistically ambitious siblings.[3]

Among the literary lights in the audience was Arnold Bennett, who enjoyed the occasion and found Eliot’s choice of light verse–The Hippopotamus (which is indeed charming and light, for a half-realized and possibly self-deceiving satire on the Church of England)–to be the “best thing” about the evening. And of course it would be, as well, in any account that looked back on the day in the fullness of time and literary-consensual retrospect. T.S. Eliot! Months after “Prufrock!” Reading a satire as second-fiddle to a syphilitic third-rater and some absent “Georgian” war poets! Come on!

But Eliot wasn’t Eliot yet–he was an American of indeterminate talent whom no one, really, had read. His strange ascent had barely begun, while Robert Nichols was selling a ton and had surely achieved peak Robert Nichols. It was his show: he would have seemed the one to bet on. Not schoolboyish Huxley, who would soon give up poetry, and probably not the three slightly freakish Sitwells, at once too outré and suspiciously like aristocratic enthusiasts rather than major talents. And certainly not the amusing American banker, either: despite the English affinity for light satiric verse, it has hardly been a typical route to poetic world-conquest.

Eliot, however, enjoyed himself. After having written a purposefully obscene and nevertheless nasty letter to Ezra Pound about his invitation (“Shitwells,” etc.) he will soon manage a faintly preening letter to his mother.

I assisted in a poetry reading last week at the house of some rich person for the benefit of something. A hundred and fifty people were induced to pay 10/6 each, so it was rather a rich audience… It was rather amusing, as the audience and most of the poets were very solemn, and I read some light satirical stuff, and some of them didn’t know what to make of it…[4]

 

Which brings us to another attendee, whose judgment in most things I’ve recently come to trust. Cynthia Asquith gives us the most balanced–and most thorough–review of the evening:

Wednesday, 12th December

…Went with Mamma to the Poets’ Reading at Mrs Colefax’s. Somehow it was ever so much better than Elizabeth’s Parnassuses—smaller, more intime, and above all shorter. All the poets were young and most of them had fought in the war. It was very moving. I liked Nichols enormously, with his bright, intensely alive, rather stoat-like face. He read again in the same intensely passionate dramatic way: I like it, but a great many people don’t. As well as his own, he read two—as I thought—very beautiful poems by Sorley who was killed at twenty years of age. Gosse was in the chair and acquitted himself quite well. Three Sitwells, all looking very German—Osbert, Sacheverell, and Edith—all read from their works. The author of ‘Prufrock’ read quite a funny poem comparing the Church to a hippopotamus. There was a young man called Huxley, and a very remarkable, fierce, rapt girl called McLeod who read her own clever poems beautifully. Siegfried Sassoon didn’t appear, but his poems were read by this girl. Mamma was very much moved by the war poems. I was very, very glad I went. Dined with Freyberg at the  Trocadero again and we went on to play poker at Ruby’s—I won £3 2s. Freyberg took me home and found his way into the hall with me.[5]

All very interesting, not least in the sincerity of emotion in Asquith’s reaction to the reading. Jaded as I am by the years on this project, it’s hard not to see a society charity reading as something of a hollow performance (especially when, as we know, but Asquith didn’t, that the young poets present had seen very little of the worst of the war, compared to those who were absent). But Cynthia Asquith, who actually went to this and many other charity-literary events, know of what she writes, and was moved.

So much for the famous evening at Mrs. Colefax’s. And afterwards? It doesn’t seem, judging from Asquith’s diary, that Freyberg attended the reading, although at least one later writer assumes that he did.  It would have been interesting, certainly, to have him and his V.C. lording it over the doubly-absent M.C. of Sassoon. Regardless, Freyberg’s pursuit of the hesitating Asquith will shortly encounter Sassoon as something of an intellectual obstacle. If Freyberg wasn’t there, then Asquith surely discussed the reading with him at dinner, and Freyberg knows the poetry well enough to have at least have an opinion (which is not to say, of course, that he knows it well). Remarkably, even as flirtation (and/or unwanted advances) continues between the two, their disagreement on the whys and wherefores of Sassoon’s position will soon come between them, and his anti-war war-hero literary cachet will turn Sassoon into a shadow rival to Freyberg and his  muscular/dashing appeal.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. It should be noted here at the outset that this gathering is crying out to be the focal point of a trendy (if minor-key) potted literary history... but as far as I know its only wholly-owned chapter, even, is the one in Ricketts's book. The problem is that for all the writers, celebrities, and diarists present, no one wrote a very full account, or recorded much about what was actually read. No program survives, and so the evening remains only half-imaginable.
  2. Mcleod and de Sélincourt will marry after the war; her poetry seems to stop as his career (Herodotus, Livy, etc.) takes off; they will have two daughters, and become, naturally, the in-laws of Christopher Robin.
  3. Ziegler, Osbert Sitwell, 78.
  4. The Letters of T.S. Eliot, 241.
  5. Diary, 379-80.

More Bad News for Diana Manners; Wilfred Owen is Perfectly Aware; Isaac Rosenberg Keeps Up His Correspondence

Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother once again, today, a century back, still dwelling on the momentous meeting-of-the-poets five days before. I have remarked many times in the last few months on Owen’s growing confidence and rapidly burgeoning poetic skill, but this letter makes something else clear: he is also rising to the challenge of being befriended by men with loftier social backgrounds and much more experience with professional literary friendships. He is very grateful to Sassoon, but he has no wild illusions about Sassoon’s somewhat condescending view of him. And now, it seems, he has Robert Graves figured out as well.

Thursday, 18 October, 1917 Craiglockhart

My own Mother,

I think I described to you my meeting with Robert Graves, and how S.S. said of him: he is a man one likes better after he has been with one.

So it turns out with my case. You will be amused with his letter. He carried away a Poem, or was carried away with it, without my knowledge. It was only in a Draft State, & I was perfectly aware of all the solecisms…

Always your W.E.O. x[1]

“Perfectly aware…” This could be defensive–petty, even, since Sassoon and Graves both believe that Graves can help improve Owen’s work. Or it can simply be confident: “I can handle these guys, and accept their criticism on certain points without yielding entirely to their influence…”

 

Diana Manners has been a regular witness to the drumbeat of loss among the socially fashionable Eton-Oxford-Grenadier Guards set. Today marks another such loss, and it’s also the occasion of a rare (and terrifically drawn) appearance by one of our original contributors

Arlington Street 18 October 1917

Jack Pixley has been killed. It upsets me a lot. My endurance is weakening. Osbert told me as he often does — a great ill-omened bird — in the middle of the opera, and I have come home and cried and been beastly to Mother on the subject of my lovers, which O shame! comforted me. I must try and be better. At what?

It’s an oblique connection, but these losses and this way of handling them suggests something that Manners hasn’t really explained: why, after the loss of so many friends and lovers, she has decided to commit herself to Duff Cooper. More on that anon, of course, but I don’t want to let this Osbert Sitwell sighting to pass by unnoticed.[2]

Sitwell is such a strange figure, here: “great ill-omened bird” so nicely captures his preening and his selfish ghoulishness (as well as something of the Sitwell physiognomy), but it doesn’t explain anything of his military career or his artistic merits. He straddles the divide between “important writer” and”important player in the art world,” mooving in the highest circles but also affecting a hard-charging Modernism and a willingness to find poetic talent off the beaten path. His wartime military career, which he barely touches on in his autobiographies, is something of a cipher. Without disgrace or disablement, very few young officers have seen as little action in recent years as he has… but it’s hard to tell just what sort of privilege or good fortune has kept him from the war’s grind.  More on Sitwell too, in coming months…

 

Finally, today, Isaac Rosenberg–someone who could profit from the notice of an Osbert Sitwell–is working whatever connections he has. Much like Ivor Gurney he is making the most of his time in bed, which in Rosenberg’s case is in the influenza ward of a field hospital in France. He is writing poetry, but he also sees the necessity of maintaining the few tenuous relationships he has with possible patrons, in this case, G.M. Trevelyan:

My sister sent your letter on to me here. I liked your letter and very much your little boys verses. ‘And the wind
blows so violent’ takes me most; I hope he will always go direct to nature like that and not get too mixed up with artifice when he has more to say about nature, I brought your play back with me but Im afraid its lost now. I lent it to a friend in the Batt but that day I fell sick and was sent down here to hospital…

Rosenberg is always careful to make the effort to read whoever it is he is corresponding with, no matter how different their style from his own. Getting away with not doing the reading is, alas, another privilege he can’t risk…

Your play was all I read at home—I read it in bed—the rest of my time I spent very restlessly—going from one place to another and seeing and talking to as many people as I could. G. Bottomley sent me nearly all the poems in the annual before so I knew them. ‘Atlantis’ is an immense poem—and as good as anything else he has done…

Yours sincerely

Isaac Rosenberg[3]

We will read one of Rosenberg’s own efforts in a few days’ time.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 500-1.
  2. Autobiography, 157.
  3. Collected Works, 356.

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.