Patrick Shaw Stewart on Command, Ivor Gurney on Mental Health and Martial Surroundings; Kate Luard on Satanic Powers and Grimmest Tales

After being very much present on the first day of Third Ypres–and reading both of its tactical success and the eventual failure, amidst the driving rain, to achieve a break through–the battle has slipped into the background here as the survivors of those first assaults are rotated into reserve and rest assignments or sent home on leave. And although scores of fresh battalions are being thrown into various efforts to force the line forward (or will be when there is a let up in the constant rain) of our writers are quite there yet. It’s a strange lull of happenstance… but others are coming, and the worst of the battle is still weeks away.

 

As for today, a century back, only Kate Luard writes from the Salient Which, in terms of providing readers with short-form descriptions of the unique horror of Passchendaele, is enough. Once more the supernatural direction of the weather is queried–and, at least for now–it forces the postponement of another viscous push:

The D.M.S. came to-day and told us to expect work to-morrow but the Satanic Power that presides over the weather in the war has decreed otherwise. Floods of rain dissolving the ground and a violent thunderstorm this evening must have put the lid on any sort of Attack for us.

Three men in the Dressing Hut were struck by lightning to-night…

Officers from the line tell the grimmest tales. The conditions are appalling: the men are drowning in shell-holes and the enemy artillery are so ‘active’ that the dead are heaping up. It’s no good worrying, nothing can he helped, and perhaps some day there will be Peace. And at least we don’t only look on, but are privileged to do something to help–however little.[1]

It’s an accident of language, of course, rather than a subtle authorial message, but nothing expresses the morass of 1917 netter than the proximity of “nothing can be helped” and “privileged to do something to help–however little.” It would have been good to contrast those excerpts with some sort of vapid patriotic writing from those still at leisure in England… but all I have today are two letters from soldiers as yet in quiet parts of the line.

 

Patrick Shaw Stewart wrote to his sister, reflecting on his short temporary command of the Hood Battalion.

It was a strange sensation to find myself commanding the old battalion—it just shows what we are all reduced to nowadays…[2]

It must have been, yes–but Shaw Stewart knows that when all the more experienced officers return from leave and other assignments, the battalion will be much more likely to move from its quiescent sector of the line in France to somewhere far nastier and more demanding.

 

And we have another long and fairly breezy letter from Ivor Gurney to Marion Scott, discussing her work editing his upcoming collection of verse. As so often, it is difficult to follow the many-headed conversation as Gurney replies to her letter (which, like almost every letter sent to a soldier in the trenches, was discarded rather than preserved), but one comment, meant to reassure, is disconcerting at the same time.

My Dear Friend:

…You are right about the state of my mind. So am I. It is a sickness caused by real surroundings now, not by imaginary. A great step as you say.[3]

So Gurney’s mental health is improving, perhaps, except for the fact that the war is–persistently, inevitably–eroding it…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 140.
  2. Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 200.
  3. War Letters, 183-4.

The Master of Belhaven Goes Back to the Front; Edwin Vaughan is On His Way As Well; Patrick Shaw Stewart in Command

There is a bit of a lull, today, in our preparations for Third Ypres, but the preliminary bombardment continues. Only Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, has a story for us today, and if he is away from the line it is not for pleasant purposes. Last night, a century back, a clumsy dentist treated an excruciating tooth by attempting to kill the nerve. It didn’t work. What follows is something like a sick parody of the war’s planning and execution.

A nightmare of a night. Instead of getting better, my toothache was much worse by the time I went to bed, and the M.O. gave me some morphia. Then, just as I was going to sleep, a Hun ‘plane came along and dropped bombs all round the camp… The next thing I remember is someone shaking me violently and shouting “Gas attack!” and pushing my gas-helmet into my hands. I woke up just enough to realise that the tent was full of phosgene, and by instinct at once put on the gas-mask, after which I promptly went to sleep again with the thing on.

Hamilton goes to another dentist, who determines that the first one had treated the wrong tooth. He then extracts the true offender, discovering an abscess beneath. After this lovely day in the rear, Hamilton returns to his battery, stumbling over the slippery duckboards to run into his servant, Bath, “very badly shaken.” In his brief absence the German batteries have found their range, and the captain he had left in charge has been wounded by shrapnel. It is too late to move, and they must now begin the battle knowing that the German batteries know where they are…[1]

 

Many others are coming to the Salient, now, in order to sustain the assaults that the current front-line battalions will launch whenever the weather is deemed favorable. Edwin Vaughan and his battalion had, up until three days ago, been enjoying a nice long rest. Then came the orders for the front, and it was packing, marching, and a train journey north.

July 29, Sunday. I was in a heavy sleep—probably owing to the champagne, when Crash! Crash! Crash! and something ripped through the roof of the carriage and smashed a window. In the pale light of dawn I saw Edgerton stooping to lace his boots.

‘What was that?’ I asked, following suit.

‘Shells or bombs,’ he replied. ‘We must be somewhere near Ypres.’ The train was at a standstill and as we climbed down on to the deserted siding, a dishevelled RTO hurried along the train.

We may have seen this fellow before.

‘Poperinghe’ he said in reply to our enquiries. ‘There’s a guide waiting for you on the road; get away as soon as you like, they have been shelling us all night.’ Nothing loath, we hurried our troops on to the cobbled road and marched away before any more shells fell.[2]

 

Lastly, today, a century back, we check in with Patrick Shaw Stewart, who wrote to Ronald Knox with some interesting career news:

In a great hustle because Oc. has gone on leave, and Mark Egerton is going to Artillery for three days and I have to command the Hood Battalion! Lord bless my soul! I hope there won’t be any crises.

This is not as shocking as it might sound: the Hood Battalion is in a quiet sector of France, far from the Ypres Salient. Still, Shaw Stewart–though an impressive intellect, a capable man, and a standout scholar–is not yet thirty years old, has less than two years in uniform, and has been with the battalion for only a few months. And yet he now commands a force of some five to eight hundred men…

Yesterday I arose (for the second time) from a bed of very little sickness, diagnosed as mild trench-fever—even the friendliest doctor couldn’t give me a temp, of more than 100.2 the second go, and now I have no more excuse for bed. We are going into reserve for a few days, which fulfils my military ideal of No Fighting and No Training… will write properly soon.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 353-55.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 182.
  3. Patrick Shaw Stewart, 199-200.

Siegfried Sassoon is Ordered Back to Base; Edward Brittain is Back After his Valise; Patrick Shaw Stewart not a Man for Modern Arms

The ways of man are strange–even if the ways of the soldier are becoming more familiar to us. Edward Brittain was sent from England to a boat to a train to a strange battalion and then straight into battle, where he got lost under fire. After all this he was rather understandably indignant. But now, having survived a pointless assault (which cost 400 casualties and caused even the staid official history of the regiment to rail against the intelligence work[1] that led to it) he returns to dwell on a problem that arose in transit.

France, 4 July 1917

We came back to a village about 7 miles behind the lines yesterday morning . . .I am in command of A company at present but I don’t expect I shall be for long. The C.O. said he was pleased with the way we carried on in the line.

It is an awful nuisance not having my valise: I do hope you will be able to do something to find it at your end because I can do nothing at all now I am here. Will you please send me a copy of the contents of the valise as soon as possible because, if I hear nothing of it in another week or so, I shall have to start claiming for it.

But Vera Brittain–who must still be in the middle of the journey from trepidation to terror to relief that her brother’s several letters over the last few days will have caused–is more familiar than most with the way in which discomforts and everyday frustrations can loom strangely large, emerging between the peaks of mortal danger to trouble the valleys of the war of attrition. The British Officer Class will go into a foolhardy battle with no preparation and show admirable sang froid–but it often finds it hard indeed to asked to do without a bagful of accustomed creature comforts…  On the other hand, lost luggage can’t seem to mean much to someone who feared losing her brother in another attack. I’m sure that Vera will do what she can, but once the fear of having lost her brother in this attack subsides, the underlying sadness of the situation will reassert itself: he is writing her a slew of worrisome short letters because he is friendless: he knows no one in the battalion, and all three of his closest friends are now dead.

 

Elsewhere in France, Patrick Shaw Stewart provides comic relief in combat training while on a Lewis Gun (light machine gun) course:

I need hardly say that I provide many hearty laughs for my school-fellows, as always occurs when poor Paddy has to deal with the tiresome mechanics incidental to modern war; I wish I had lived in the flint-head-arrow period; I could have instructed a company much better in them.’[2]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, meanwhile, is pursuing a more unusual course. He has begun his rebellion by writing a fierce statement of dissent… and then going home and puttering about his mother’s house in the country, instead of returning to duty. Today, at least, the bureaucracy has discovered the missing subaltern.

Adjutant Third R.W.F. wires, me ‘Join at Litherland immediately’. (I have now over stayed my leave a week. This is
the first step.)[3]

Before taking the second step, however, Sassoon will find that he can manage to stretch the sense of “immediately” (and his promise to be an obedient rebel) for two further days of country lolling before bestirring himself to respond.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See here.
  2. Knox, Prick Shaw Stewart, 194.
  3. Diaries, 177.

Edward Brittain on Victor Richardson, and What Remains; Ivor Gurney on Food and Fatalism; Patrick Shaw Stewart Lolls and Reads

First, today, a letter from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera, his first to her since the death of Victor Richardson. There is something still clinging to this letter of the Romantic idealism that has always marked this group of friends–but not much. Edward is not in a mood to be sentimental about cruel wounds, or to fool himself about pain.

Roker, Sunderland, 11 June 1917

Dearest Vera —

I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all, but yet, now that all are gone it seems that whatever was of value in life has all tumbled down like a house of cards. Yet in Tah’s case I will not, I cannot say that I wished from the bottom of my heart that he should live; I have a horror of blindness, and if I were blinded myself I think I should wish to die. The idea of long years without the light of the sun and the glory of its setting and without the immortal lamp of life is so abhorrent to me — and the thought of that has been hanging over me these 2 months — that I cannot altogether deplore the opening of the gates of eternal rest to that Unconquerable Soul, although I loved him in a way that few men can love one another. I am so very glad that you were near and saw him so nearly at the end; in a way too I am glad not to have been there; it is good to remember the cheerfulness with which he faced the living of a new life fettered by the greatest misfortune known to men.

Yes, I do say Thank God he didn’t have to live it. We started alone, dear child, and here we are alone again: you find me changed, I expect, more than I find you; that is perhaps the way of Life. But we share a memory which is worth all the rest of the world, and the sun of that memory never sets. And you know that I love you, that I would do anything in the world in my power if you should ask it, and that I am your servant as well as your brother

Edward[1]

 

So life goes on, even if there is nothing but love to get down behind in the mud and push.

Ivor Gurney, today, is thinking of life–and food… and poetry… and food again… and ends.

11 June 1917

My Dear Friend: Out of the line once more, but for once, not hungry, for the Lord and the ASC have been kind to us, and liberal gentlemen have bestowed cake upon me…

Yes, the College Mag. and the TLS have arrived. I am sorry I forgot to thank you. If there are any complementary copies please send them to Mrs Chapman and Mrs Hunt…

Today there are orgies of cleaning, and men brush and polish frantically at brass and leather. The weather is beautiful, and there is plenty of water to wash with, so we are not unhappy. Also there is plenty to eat…

Gurney is writing to Marion Scott, of course, and he includes several rondels in a similarly light-hearted vein. But see the last lines–light-heartedness is a passing mood, in the trenches, and never the note of resolution.

Rondels

1. Letters

“Mail’s up”! the vast of night is over
And love of friends fills all one’s mind
(His wife, his sister, or his lover.)
Mail’s up, the vast of night is over.
The grey-faced heaven Joy does cover
With love, and God once more seems kind.
“Mail’s up”! The vast of night is over
And love of friends fills all one’s mind.

2. Shortage

God God! No Jam! No Bread!!
No Butter!!!
Whatever are we coming to?
O desolation, anguish utter —
Good God! No jam, no bread, no butter.
I hear the brutal soldiers mutter.
And strong men weep as children do.
Good God! No jam, no bread,
No butter!
Whatever are we coming to?

3. Paean

There’s half a loaf per man today?
O Sergeant, is it really true?
Now biscuits can be given away.
There’s half a loaf per man today;
And Peace is ever so near they say.
With tons of grub and nothing to do.
There’s Half a Loaf Per Man today!
O Sergeant is it Really True?

4. Strafe (1)

I strafe my shirt most regularly.
And frighten all the population.
Wonderful is my strategy!
I strafe my shirt most regularly;
(It sounds like distant musketry.)
And still I itch like red damnation!
I strafe my shirt most regularly
And — frighten all the population………….

5. Strafe (2)

The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute.
We crouch and wait the end of it, — or us
Just behind the trench, before, and in it.
The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute;
(O Framilode! O Maisemore’s laughing linnet!)
Here comes a monster like a motor bus.
The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute;
We crouch and wait the end of it — or us

I wonder if the proofs are with Sidgwick and Jackson yet. That will interest me, and also (when the time comes) to know what Gloucester people think. Last night I read some to a friend of mine, and was surprised to find how little I cared for them, and how remote they seemed. As for Spring 1917, it is as I thought long dull, and unvaried…

With best wishes; Yours sincerely Ivor Gurney[2]

 

Finally, today, an update from Patrick Shaw Stewart, now with the Royal Naval Division in France. It’s a discursive letter, and I’ll make some cuts to get us to the good parts… who could he be reading, now that he’s reached the Western Front at last?

…The battery commander is out, so I am lying flat on my tummy in the grass outside his habitat in the amiable sun, waiting till he comes in; one of the pleasanter phases of war. When I have written to you, and X, and Y, and Z, I will
go on with Tom Jones, which I am in the middle of and which is far and away the best book I ever read. Messrs Meredith and James are simply silly beside it, and as for the Victorians ——–. I got through Sense and Sensibility the other day, by the way, not bad, but not half as good as Pride and Prejudice, or Emma.

I did tell you about our time up the line? It was quite agreeable, good weather (though a lot of mud), and a quiet time, very few casualties. I had rather luck having a chain of posts very much advanced in a rather well-known place, so far advanced as to be clear of mud and also clear of shelling. The only trial was that I hardly got a wink of sleep—one has to re-acquire the habit of sleeping in a sitting-position on a petrol tin in the later half of the morning…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 355.
  2. War Letters, 168-70.
  3. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 198-99.

Rowland Fielding on the Guns of Rest; Ivor Gurney on Chance and Chess; Kate Luard’s Mindful Picnic; George Coppard and Patrick Shaw Stewart are Back

We have another pause in the action, today: five writers writing, and all are resting, refitting, or recuperating. Which isn’t to say they aren’t in danger, as Rowland Feilding makes clear:

May 9, 1917. Butterfly Farm (near Locre).

The Germans persist in aggravating mood, and we have just passed through a third night in succession of disturbed slumber.

At six o’clock this morning I was woken up by some “crumps” falling rather close, and, as I lay ruminating whether it was worth while getting out of bed, the question was decided for me by a covey of splinters crashing against the wooden wall of my hut.

Then the five-point-nines began to come thick and fast, obviously aimed at two 12-inch howitzers which periodically heckle the enemy from a hollow, less than a hundred yards from this camp.

Why they will persist in placing heavy guns so near infantry rest camps, or vice versa, it is difficult to understand, but the infantry have come to accept these things as they do the other vicissitudes of the war. Anyhow, the situation was so unhealthy this morning that I decided to move the battalion.

It is interesting to watch the self-possessed and almost leisurely fashion in which such a movement is conducted
nowadays. This comes from the familiarity of the troops with shell-fire. The sections were scattered in the fields around, and by this means we escaped without casualties, though two or more shells fell actually into the camp. The bombardment went on for over an hour, some three hundred shells falling. Then the battalion returned to its tents and huts, and shaved, and had breakfast…[1]

 

Even further back is Ivor Gurney, recently wounded. But his time without the reach of the guns will shortly come to an end.

9 May 1917

My Dear Friend…

All this week I have been down for training at the Bull-ring, as they call it — Napoleons parade ground, a bare white sand and shingle space set among hills and surrounded by pines. It is a fine place, but a nasty job. Perhaps I may be here for another week yet, and then up to the chance of Glory and another Blighty, a real one this time. My arm is quite well now, curse it…

…I have been reading Conrad’s “Chance”, only to get tired of all that analysis, and not being able to get to the end. “The Mirror of the Seas” is Conrad’s best, as far as I know. Otherwise Kipling infinitely surpasses him. Conrad is a good artist, but to me seems not to have much original genius. (But our acquaintance is not extensive.)

Now I am about to steer off for my chess-pupil, who has beaten me in one game — the first! On Saturday I satisfied my vanity by flummoxing him completely, may it be so again…

Your sincere friendIvor Gurney

Please keep on writing[2]

So Gurney’s mood is very good, despite the not-quite-blighty blighty. This is not an original observation, but it would seem that these sorts of high spirits are evidence of one of the most merciful limitations of the human emotional imagination: we know on an intellectual level that more pain is coming, but the absence of recent pain is nevertheless experienced as an almost unreserved joy.

 

It’s much the same with the succorers as the sufferers. Remembering Aubers Ridge, and the labors of two years past, Kate Luard wrote today, a century back, as a study in contrast over two years of the the war’s lengthening life. But it is the last month of hard work amidst the wreckage of Arras that forms the immediate backdrop for this scene.

Wednesday, May 9th (of 1915 brave and black memory). And what do you think we’ve been busy doing this morning, 9th of  May, 1917? A large and festive Picnic in the woods, far removed from gas gangrene and amputations. We bought some chocolate biscuits and some sawdusty cakes and some potted meat in the Canteen, and asked the C.O. and six M.M.’s and seven of us; we had an Ambulance and two batmen to bring the tea in urns to my chosen spot–on a slope in the wood, above the babbling brook, literally carpeted with periwinkles, oxlips and anemones. It was a great success…

When we got back at 5.30 we found the Divisional Band about to play outside the Y.M.C.A. hut… My dear man was dying. At the exact moment that he took his first breath in Heaven at 7.30, the Band was playing ‘There will be such wonderful things to do’ to that particularly plaintive little tune.[3]

 

Further back still is Siegfried Sassoon, lunching once again with the literary lights.

May 9

Lunched with Bennett and J. C. Squirt… Bennett’s mannerisms very marked. A trick of pausing in the middle of a remark and finishing it quickly.[4]

 

And then there are those whose long loop away from danger has closed once again. Two very different writers are back with their pals, today, just behind the front lines near Arras.

After two years spent mostly in the East, Patrick Shaw Stewart rejoined the Hood Battalion, so badly cut up during Arras. He is reunited with a very thin remnant of his original band of socially and intellectually elevated officer-comrades, Argonauts now long ashore, more Nestors, now, than starry-eyed adventurers. These include his Brigadier, Bernard Freyberg, and his battalion C.O., “Oc” Asquith–despite promotion and a staff appointment, Shaw Stewart has fallen behind in military accomplishment by being so far away from attrition’s vacuum. These are, moreover, new surroundings for him. Shaw Stewart has known Gallipoli and Salonika and long weekends in great houses, but tonight he will sleep in a former German dugout in what is now the British reserve line, deep beneath the soil of Northern France.[5]

And finally, George Coppard, teenage machine gunner, was shot in the foot in October–accidentally–by his best mate. Yesterday, a century back, he rejoined his company. Two “old pals” had been killed since he left, but “Snowy” was still there: “he never mentioned the accident in which we had both been so closely involved. I gathered he was a bit touchy about the subject, and I was glad enough to let sleeping dogs lie.” Coppard was promptly sent up to reinforce another gun team holding a position on the Scarpe, site of the recent, costly advance near Arras. He has begun keeping a diary, but it is very brief: “very fine day and plenty of air fights.”[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 173-4.
  2. War Letters, 161-2.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 122-3.
  4. Diaries, 163.
  5. Edwardian Meteor, 226.
  6. With a Machine Gun, 106.

Alf Pollard’s Enthusiasm for the Game; Isaac Rosenberg’s Aching Feet; Patrick Shaw Stewart is Summoned; Wilfred Own Describes His Longest Tour

We have four letters today, in more or less a representative distribution: two to mother, one to a patron, and one to a comrade.

But the first letter-to-mum is an unusual one, from an unusual (here, at least) writer. Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. have a lull in the action today, and he is able to fill mater in on his latest doings.

Dearest Ladybird,

Here we are again, out once more. I have had some most interesting and exciting times since last writing, including going over the top again. I am once more in charge of the Company as the man senior to me got laid out with a bullet. I shall probably be a Captain again in a day or two but one never knows as somebody else senior may be sent along. You see, the present arrangement of the government is that all promotions are by seniority irrespective of fighting qualities. So really one has no chance of being more than a Second Lieutenant whatever one does. However I don’t care a bit what rank I am.

I had a most exciting adventure in a Hun trench the other day. I cut through their wire and got into their trench thinking it was unoccupied, but soon discovered it was full of Huns and consequently had to beat a hasty retreat. I got out all right fortunately. I heard a rumour that the Brigadier has recommended me for a bar to my M.C. in consequence of this little business so if you keep your eyes glued on the paper you may shortly see my name in it. Don’t think I have been taking any unnecessary risks because I have not. I have merely done what I have been asked to do.

Well, dear old lady…

Best of spirits and having a good time. By the way, I gave killed another Hun. Hurrah!

Well, cheerioh!

This letter is one of the few Pollard takes the trouble to preserve, and he does so with an explanatory comment, namely

…because it throws such a clear light on my attitude towards war… I thoroughly enjoyed going into action… People tell me I must have a kink in my nature; that my zest to be in the forefront of the battle was unnatural. I do not agree with them…[1]

No, he assures us, he is merely very highly motivated to win the war, and believes that the British Army can, and soon. If this is a gambit to convince those horrified by enthusiasm for killing into accepting what we might term the “realism” of his statements, it’s not a very good one.

Yes, it’s a war, and it is much more deeply illogical to believe that your side is in the right and yet still hope to bring about a satisfying conclusion without violence. But this is a pacifist’s dilemma, and it doesn’t explain the enthusiasm for personal violence. Invoking the common terminology of war and sport–“keen to win”–does nothing to show that there is some moral through-line from the young officer excited to get his name in the paper for killing people and the responsible adult who seeks to defeat German militarism and liberate France and Belgium, accepting that there will be a price to pay for this, in blood.

Then there is the question of the “kink.” I don’t think a discursus into human evolutionary biology and the sociology of violence is necessary here, but it’s tempting… Briefly (and sloppily), this is indeed a “kink…” and yet it is quite natural. Most of us are by nature (as well as nurture) horrified by direct physical violence unless driven to it by some extreme emotion–terror, jealousy, even rage have some clear evolutionary benefits. But we don’t generally kill without passion–we could hardly have evolved in small, cooperative groups otherwise. And yet, some people lack this inhibition… some of them may become violent sociopaths or psychopaths, others may lead normal lives unless they are at some point given a handful of weapons and asked to go and hunt down other people, for God and for Country. Presumably their sang froid during hunting for food over the thousands of generations of Prehistory preserved their genes despite their danger to the group–after all, they win decorations and bounties get their names preserved among the valorous…

Apologies for the fast-and-loose “science” without careful hypothesis or actual evidence, which is , of course, not science at all. But I do think a glance at the animal and the “early man” beneath the recently-civilized human being yields plausible explanations… What put me in mind of this, actually, was Pollard’s choice of the phrase “forefront of the battle.” This was probably borrowed, perhaps at some remove, from translations of ancient epic: nothing could be more Homeric than the idea that the best men–those who are the leaders of contingents, those who earn fame and glory and prizes–fight literally before (i.e. “in front of”) the rest of the men in the battle, those lesser men who prefer less direct, less deadly, missile-weapon-oriented conflict.

Pollard is not insane, nor is his happy warrior pose “unnatural,” but he is very unusual: he has the mentality of a Homeric hero, someone who values glory–“winning”–so highly that the taking of lives doesn’t really enter into the moral calculus, even though they recognize that in other contexts killing is wrong. Although Pollard is capable of recognizing the brutality and sadness of war, he is also more than capable of forgetting it. He does not see the unavailing suffering of other men as detracting from the meaningfulness of glory or the positive valence of skillful, violent action–and this, now, is beginning to put him at odds with several writers more prominent in this project.[2]

But we can continue to explore this attitude in subsequent posts. Pollard’s letter is also included in the memoir at this point because he wishes to connect his realistic “attitude towards war” with his exceptional talent for it. He can’t really claim to be modest, but he can argue that what he does next is all in the service of winning (which he could have phrased as “ending”) the war…

 

We followed several units-with-writers during the attack of the 23rd, and of course failed to discuss many others. One of these was the Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division, badly mauled during the advance. Two of the remaining “Argonauts” of the Gallipoli expedition are still with the Division–Bernard Freyberg now commands a brigade, while Arthur “Oc” Asquith, Raymond‘s younger brother, commanded the Hood battalion in the assault, leading it close behind the British barrage in the assault on Gavrelle. The attack was successful, but at the cost of nearly 200 casualties, including seven officers killed outright. Today, a century back, Asquith wrote to his old comrade Patrick Shaw Stewart. Shaw Stewart had schemed successfully to leave his cushy post in the East to return to the battalion, and danger. But there has been rather a long interlude, spent largely in futile pursuit of the divine Diana, followed by a stint on a refresher course at Le Touquet. Now he is summoned directly.

My dear Patsy,

Come as soon as you can. I lost 3 Company C.O.s the day before yesterday.

Love, yrs Oc.[3]

 

Also today, a century back, Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother. It was his first letter in a long while, and in it he describes the longest, hardest time of his service in France (we have drawn on this letter already). The 2nd Manchesters, down on the southern part of the British line, made an assault more than two weeks ago, before Owen had rejoined from hospital. Since then they have not been in an attack, but–no doubt due to the concentration of force for the Battle of Arras–they have remained an awfully long time in front-line trenches.

25 April 1917  A. Coy., My Cellar

My own dearest Mother,

Immediately after I sent my last letter, more than a fortnight ago, we were rushed up into the Line. Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our objectives. Our A Company led the Attack, and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells & bullets. Fortunately there was no bayonet work, since the Hun ran before we got up to his trench…

The reward we got for all this was to remain in the Line 12 days. For twelve days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep. For twelve days we lay in holes, where at any moment a shell might put us out. I think the worst incident was one wet night when we lay up against a railway embankment. A big shell lit on the top of the bank, just 2 yards from my head. Before I awoke, I was blown in the air right away from the bank! I passed most of the following days in a railway cutting, in a hole just big enough to lie in, and covered with corrugated iron. My brother officer of B Coy, 2/lt Gaukroger lay opposite in a similar hole…

This we have already read–but it is worth re-reading, as Owen will be dealing with the after-effects for a long time to come.[4]

 

And finally, today, and we get a rare update from Isaac Rosenberg, writing to Eddie Marsh:

My Dear Marsh,

My sister wrote me you have been getting more of my ‘Moses’. It is hardy of you, indeed, to spread it about; and I certainly would be distressed if I were the cause of a war in England; seeing what warfare means here. But it greatly pleases me, none the less, that this child of my brain, should be seen and perhaps his beauties be discovered. His creator is in sadder plight; the harsh and unlovely times have made his mistress, the flighty Muse, abscond and elope with luckier rivals, but surely I shall hunt her and chase her somewhere into the summer and sweeter times. Anyway this is a strong hope; Lately I have not been very happy, being in torture with my feet again. The coldness of the weather and the weight of my boots have put my feet in a rotten state. My address is different now

Pte I R 22311
7 Platoon
120th Brigade Works Coy
B.E.F.

There is more excitement now, but though I enjoy this, my feet cause me great suffering and my strength is hardly equal to what is required.

I hear pretty often from G Bottomley and his letters are like a handshake: and passages are splendid pieces of  writing. Have you seen Trevellyans ‘Annual’ which G.B. writes me of.

Rosenberg is a strange bird, and this is a strange letter. He writes to thank Marsh for any efforts he might be making on behalf of his poetry–“Moses” is conceived of as a major work. But the affectation of ease and middle class bonhomie and faux-classicism sits oddly alongside of the infantryman’s complaints about his feet… although surely Rosenberg knows this. So what is he up to?

Perhaps not much, other than making clear a fairly obvious fact: privates in labor battalions can’t do much to improve their large-scale literary undertakings, but hope to keep up their tenuous connections to the world of literary patronage nonetheless. Alas, too, that his connection to Gordon Bottomley came so recently–the “Annual” which Rosenberg is rather obviously hoping to have sent to him is the same publication for which Eleanor Farjeon edited eighteen poems by “Edward Eastaway.”

Do write me when you can.

Yours sincerely

Isaac Rosenberg[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Fire-Eater, 199-200.
  2. Which is not to say that Pollard wouldn't have held the more popular belief in 1917--he would have, by far. War heroes are popular; they always have been, and even if 1916 and 1917 and the Western Front were, to mangle some metaphors, the cradle of the grave of that illusion--even if skepticism about the virtues of violence will grow in the aftermath of this war, and remain higher than before it--the idea that talented warriors should be praised was many times more popular than the idea that they should protest the pointless murder they were involved in both perpetuating and risking. (And then, of course, there is Siegfried Sassoon, who wants to win a medal for just the sort of stunt Pollard describes, and also thinks that the war is pointless murder...
  3. Jebb, Edwardian Meteor, 226.
  4. Collected Letters, 452-3.
  5. Collected Works, 315-6.

Alf Pollard and Frank Richards Hold On at Arras; Patrick Shaw Stewart Idle in France; Kate Luard and the Glorious Maimed

After a day of stiffly resisted attacks along the Hindenburg Tunnel, the Royal Welch are left holding an improvised line, in the face of likely counter-attacks. Frank Richards reminds us of every soldier’s plight on the day after an advance, when lines of supply have been disrupted.

The following day we were without food and water and during the night some of us were out searching the dead to see if they had been carrying any with them. I was lucky enough to discover a half-loaf of bread, some biscuits and two bottles of water, which I would not have sold for a thousand pounds.[1]

But Richards also reports an incident confirmed by Dunn: while bringing in the wounded in the early morning, they are hailed by a wounded man of another regiment who had been lying close to the German line and had seen them pulling back during the night. This intelligence was quickly confirmed, and the 2nd Royal Welch moved up and dug in around the abandoned positions, which included concrete strong-points built for machine guns–early examples of a new era in tactical defense. These “pill-boxes” are immune to all but the heaviest caliber artillery, but vulnerable to being rushed by small numbers of men using careful “stalking” tactics.

The dead of five battalions… lay in front of the abandoned German machine-gun position… and exposed the tragic ineptitude of just going on throwing men against it after such a futile artillery bombardment… Ours was the third bull-at-a-gate attack… one of the occasions innumerable when a company or a battalion was squandered on an attack seemingly planned by someone who, lacking either first or second hand knowledge of the ground, just relied on our maps of moderate scale… we were relieved at the end of the day.[2]

It’s the “or second hand” which is really the most damning thing. It’s a huge war, and even the best-intentioned Corps Commander can hardly tour the front lines–it would be impossible, even, for a divisional general to acquire first-hand knowledge of all the ground on their front. By they have staffs, and they could summon the battalion C.O.s only two levels below them in the chain of command. They could find out… but instead they read their maps, and make their orders.

 

Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. faced a long day’s counter-attack between Oppy Wood and the Chemical Works at Monchy.

Time after time long lines of men in field grey appeared over the crest of the ridge only to be swept away before they had descended half way down the slope… Never once did they get within a hundred yards…

We went back to the Black line on the evening of the 24th. What was to happen next? That was the question that filled our minds. We were so near to breaking through that we were all keyed up for the next move. It was impossible that the authorities would let things rest where they were.[3]

They will spend a few days in reserve, in a part of the line that is in danger of becoming a salient. But after that rest, the H.A.C. will most emphatically return to the front lines…

 

Patrick Shaw Stewart has been able to shake free of further duty in the Eastern Mediterranean. He hopes to get back to his battalion in France–but that, of course, is not how things work. If he had had his way, perhaps, he would have already been in the battalion, and seen far too much of the Battle of Arras. But he has been fortunate in this frustration, and finds himself on the coast, some 60 miles due west of the fighting:

I’m well embarked on the Course at the Depot here. I can’t honestly say I think it’s teaching me very much I haven’t known by heart these three years back, except, perhaps, a little about gas and bomb-throwing: but there is a terrible lot of indifferent lecturing out of books and old-fashioned sloping of arms, which I really thought I had undergone once for all at the Crystal Palace. No doubt it is extremely good for the soul of a veteran like me to be marched about in fours and told to be in by 9 p.m., but occasionally one is tempted to forget how comic it all is, and also how tolerable. For it really is exceedingly tolerable, if measured by the discomforts that are always possible; I have my bed, I have a tent to myself, a very respectable mess, and a great stand-by in the shape of the Sutherland
Hospital, which is at a reasonable distance. I have dined there twice, and do it again to-night.

This would be the hospital founded by Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland, and desirable perhaps more for the society of its staff than its patients.

The only drawback is that after being marched about and bored to death from 8.20 to 4.15, one is rather
inclined to sink into a chair and drop into a hoggish sleep, more than to brush one’s hair nicely and walk another mile to a tram—or, indeed, to write letters or any other elegant occupation.

Le Touquet, April 24, 1917.[4]

 

In another hospital considerably closer to the front, Kate Luard, continues to praise the stoic and uncomplaining heroism of the maimed and dying.

Tuesday Morning.  …A Captain of the Yorks had his leg off yesterday and makes less of it than some people with a toe-nail off. The glorious boy with the broken back is lying on his back now; he doesn’t know about it and says he’s all right, only his back is a little stiff an aching.

In general I find Sister Luard’s emotional instincts to be eminently reasonable, and her writing precise. But that’s the problem: since she is precise and thoughtful, it’s fair to focus on that one word “glorious,” and to question what exactly it means. To be stoic is perhaps a virtue, and the remarkable lack of complaint from these terribly wounded men is… remarkable. It is testimony to almost unbearable reserves of human moral strength…

And yet it’s not that simple. It never is. Can we praise the sufferers without examining what their suffering is for, without asking why it has come about? This is similar, in a way, to praising the brilliant elan of a small-unit leader in an assault without noting that the skill he is exhibiting is, essentially, excellence in leadership in state-sanctioned killing. And in each case the men killing and being maimed are sent to do and to suffer by other men, men who aren’t dirtying their hands or risking life and limb. What these soldiers have suffered is something more, and more complex, than mere accident or disaster. They are volunteers, most of them, and yet they are also victims not of mischance or acts of God but of organized human activity.

And so then there is society. Luard is well aware that, since female nurses almost never serve any closer to the line than a Casualty Clearing Station, her presence is in itself remarkable. The glorious boys who come into her care haven’t seen a woman in days or weeks or months–and they haven’t seen a respectable Englishwoman, properly addressed with a title borrowed from religious and family life, in longer still.

Isn’t her presence a strong inducement to act the part, to play the game? Isn’t she–more, in some ways, than superior officers, backed by the threat of court-martial and punishment–an enforcer of the social order that has made it so difficult for so many increasingly skeptical men to question the conduct of the war? Would a bitter, angry man, convinced he has been victimized by an unfeeling state and a burgeoning military-industrial complex, spit in the face of a nurse whose approval of stoicism must be obvious? It would be a difficult thing… and so here, too, in the terrible pain and amazing kindness of a field hospital, there is a sort of censorship in place.

Courage when in great pain is an estimable thing–and an inestimable thing. So is consideration for those around you, even when selfishness and self pity–not to mention stark terror or an urge to self-destruction–would be more than understandable.

But… “glorious?” The young officer will never walk again, but they haven’t told him. He must die soon, and they haven’t told him. His strength is remarkable–wonderful, valuable. But a desire to bear pain and loss uncomplainingly, a living-up to the expectation of good manners even in the worst of situations, is not a thing that we should praise without any reference to the context.

If he wanted to scream, and make everyone around him know that he was terrified to be destroyed, to die–that he was sure, now, that all this isn’t worth it–would she hear him?

This is too much to lay at the feet of Sister Luard, of course, in the middle of the post-assault rush of horror. And she is the farthest thing from a prim manipulator. She will record her own struggles with disillusionment, soon, and even today, a century back, she obliquely addresses the meaning of the war through her praise of another praiseworthy human behavior.

Some of the men say they were picked up and looked after by Germans, so we are being extra kind to the Germans this time. There is in Hospitals an understood arrangement that all Germans (except when their lives depend on immediate attention) should wait till the last British has been attended to… It is only kept up in a very half-hearted way and is generally broken by the M.O.’s, who are most emphatic about it in theory!

And later?

Tuesday, 10.30 p.m. It has been a pretty sad day, 12 funerals… The spine boy has found out what is the matter with him and is quite cheery about it…[5]

There’s a lot going on, but it will be interesting to keep looking in on Sister Luard to see how her credo of infinite empathy and praise for the selflessness of the wounded holds up as the battle drags on.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Old Soldiers Never Die, 230.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 338-9.
  3. Fire-Eater, 214.
  4. Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 194-5.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 116-7.

Ethel Hermon Writes to Her Laddie; The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke, XVII: Re-Read by Read; Duff Cooper and Patrick Shaw Stewart and the Huntress Hunted; Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Alf Pollard All Draw Near to Battle

We have a full complement of disparate subjects today: grief on the home front, idle high society, and a new wave of soldier-writers going forward in France.

 

We’ll begin in England, where the toll of April 9th is still being felt–except where it has yet to become known.

In 2008, Anne Nason published a book of letters written by her Grandather, Edward “Robert” Hermon, to her grandmother Ethel. Nearly 600 letters tucked away in a desk drawer had remained there for almost a century, until after the death of her mother, the Hermons’ second daughter, Mairy. For Love and Courage contains most of those letters, but the even greater number of letters that Ethel sent to Robert did not survive–letters to serving soldiers are hard to store away in desk drawers, and few made it out of the war even when their recipients survived. All of Ethel Hermon’s letters to Robert were lost except for one, written today, a century back, in ignorance of the fact that the man to whom she writes has been dead for three days.

Laddie my own,

I got a lovely letter this morning, 52, written on the 7th & doubly appreciated as you must have been feeling far more like going to bed that writing to me. You must be having a desperate, strenuous time, so laddie, do spend your spare minutes in a bit of rest & not in writing.

I know, of course, now that you must have been in the front line when the show started on Monday… All surmise is quite useless, I know, & yet one simply can’t help thinking & picturing things…

I could read so easily between the lines that you knew big & strenuous things were in front of you & I do so hope & pray you’ll come thro’ them safely laddie my own…

My best of everything to you dear, dear laddie.

Yours ever,

Ethel[1]

This letter will be returned to Ethel Hermon in the coming days, the envelope marked “Killed in Action.” When his effects reach her, they will include a card she wrote for her “laddie” this summer, enclosing a lucky clover. The double hole made by the bullet passing through is visible on either side of the center fold.

 

In London, Eleanor Farjeon waits to find out where Helen Thomas has gone, so that they can mourn together the man they both loved.

I went back home, to wait for the next news. It came in the morning, in Helen’s letter forwarded from the
Billingshurst post-office. She did not say much, only that she had had the telegram, was coming to her sister Mary’s in Chiswick, and would be returning almost at once to High Beech, and wanted me to go with her. I got in touch with Mary and was told the train Helen would take to Loughton next day.[2]

One thing her sister Mary seems to have helped Helen with is mailing some of the letters she had composed a few days earlier, informing their friends of Edward‘s death:

Post Mark: Battersea S.W. 11.15p.m. 12 April 1917

High Beech, nr. Loughton, Essex

My dear Emily & Gordon,

I wanted to be the one to tell you that Edward was killed on Easter Monday.

You will know how desolate I feel, in spite of the perfect union of our souls which death only completes. He lives on.

Helen[3]

 

 

Herbert Read is a fascinating case–a fierce intellect and by now an experienced infantry officer, but he is a young northerner in a northern regiment, and seems far from the turmoil stirring among London-based artists. But it’s hard to tell just where he is: he has been difficult to include here, too hard to pin down to particular dates. A slew of recent letters have been, essentially, philosophy-addled love letters, and I am to be praised for omitting them despite my eagerness to discuss him…

But today’s letter–also to the young woman he admires–goes a long way toward demonstrating both that he will eventually be very interesting to compare with Siegfried Sassoon and that he is not “there,” yet. It’s 1917, and Read has served in the trenches before (his first tour came to a premature end after he was injured by barbed wire, and it’s been a slow path back), and he’s a fiercely independent skeptic and cutting edge modernist… in theory. But look whom he’s quoting…

12.iv.17

Three weary days have passed, waiting rather impatiently for orders to proceed up the line. I was inoculated this morning–and now umteen million germs are disporting themselves in my blood, making me somewhat stiff–and cross.

But I really feel extraordinarily calm and happy–very different sensations from those that accompanied my former ‘coming out’. Then I felt reckless with the rest–and rather bacchanalian. Didn’t care a hang what happened. And, in a way, I don’t care a hang this time, but it’s a different way, a glad way. And it rather troubles my soul to know why? Because, as you may know, I’m not exactly a warrior by instinct–I don’t glory in fighting for fighting’s sake. Nor can I say that I’m wildly enthusiastic for ‘the Cause’. Its ideals are a bit too commercial and imperialistic for my liking. And I don’t really hate the Hun–the commonest inspiration among my comrades. I know there are a lot of nasty Huns–but what a lot of nasty Englishmen there are too. But I think my gladness may be akin to that Rupert Brooke expressed in one of his sonnets:

Now, God be thanked who has matched us with his hour,
      And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping!
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
      To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary;
      Leave the sick hearts that honor could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
      And all the little emptiness of love.

But the real surprise is still to come: Read sees himself as less disillusioned than Brooke. And it’s a fair reading–at least of the last four lines. But, in the context of the last two years’ celebration of Brooke, an odd one. Which Read may belatedly realizes, as he glosses the verses:

Though I must say I’m not yet so ‘fed up’ with the world as the sonnet implies. I haven’t yet proved ‘the little emptiness of love.’

A good point to make, since he’s writing to a girl.

The half-men I still have with me in goodly numbers. And I’ve still faith that there are hearts that can be moved by honour and ideals. But England of these last few years has been rather cold and weary, and one finds little left standing amid the wreckage of one’s hopes. So one is glad to leap into the clean sea of danger and self sacrifice.

So, then, he’s half-rejecting the fastidious and hypocritically extroverted self-loathing that informs Brooke’s casting of the 1914 world as “dirty?” And despite the fact that he can substitute two more brutal years of war for Brooke’s hatred of peacetime England, he is still eager to die for his king and country?

But don’t think that I am laying claim to a halo. I don’t want to die for king and country, If I do die, it’s for the salvation of my own soul, cleansing it of all its little egotisms by one last supreme egotistic act.

All this is rather melodramatic; and forgive me if it is morbid. It is only a mood and has more to do with inoculation than anything else…[4]

Well that’s a nice way to wiggle out at the end. He quotes Brooke, but he doesn’t want to die; he isn’t fed up with love and doesn’t hate the small men of little England enough to seek sacrifice… but nor does he like England, either, though he might die for it, except not for it but for himself in some neo-Romantic sacrificial mode. Except it’s just the germs talking.

 

Will not any member of the old Coterie stand up for the glamorous, cynical, privileged, pre-war social-aesthetic staus quo?

Well, as it happens, I have been waiting for a good opportunity to introduce here a new acquisition, namely the diaries of Duff Cooper, who is essentially the last of the men of the “Coterie” not in his grave or in uniform. I didn’t get the book initially because, well, he’s not in uniform. (Cooper has a job at the Foreign Office.) He’s not a bad writer, but he comes off, in his diary, as a bit of a rake (pretty accurate) and a bit of a dope (not entirely accurate). In retrospect, I should have consulted him on the loss of so many of his friends, especially in the Royal Naval Division and the Grenadier Guards. But today, in the midst of tracking the grief caused by the attack at Arras, he is here for painful counterpoint only. Society–like strategy–being drawn into our trench narrative largely for the purpose of dark ironic comparison.

Diana Manners is the muse of the wits of the Coterie, the Queen of the clique, the shining light, just as Raymond Asquith, probably her only equal in social skill, had been (despite his marriage to Katherine Horner) the “king” of their circle. But Asquith is dead, along with many of their friends. Katherine’s brother Edward is with the cavalry in France, and only Duff Cooper and Patrick Shaw-Stewart, back in England after his long sojourn in the East, remain as intra-Coterie suitors for the elusive Diana.

This weekend–life goes on–they are all at a house party in Scotland. Don’t worry–in a few days I will attempt an even more gruesome juxtaposition of the romantic high jinks of the idle rich and what is going on in the trenches.

April 12, 1917

We spent the morning in Diana’s room reading The Egoist.[5] It was delightful–while Patrick and I enjoyed the contemplation of Diana–but he watched both our faces all the time. He had a cryptic telegram this morning to say his orders had arrived and he will probably have to go back to London tomorrow and to France on Monday. I am so sorry. I am very fond of him. I do hope that his luck will not desert him. His death now would matter to me more than anyone’s and would be a terrible blow to our small diminishing society.

Which is to say that the leading contender can afford to be magnanimous to the man on the outside looking in… but the campaign is not won yet.[6]

 

It is once again Siegfried Sassoon‘s turn to look for a solution to his confusion in the direct and deadly challenge of battle. Well, almost his turn. Today, a century back, the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers draw within sight of the battle front.

April 12 10 p.m.

Moved to St Martin-Cojeul, a demolished village about four kilometres north-west of Croisilles, three kilometres south-east of Wancourt where the Germans counter-attacked to-day. We take over an old German third-line trench from the 17th Manchesters. Arrived about 3 o’clock in wet weather after a fine morning. The snow has gone and left bad mud. The British line is about a mile in front of us. A dead English soldier lying by the road as we came to the village, his head hideously battered. I visited the underground Dressing Station this evening, and got my hands seen to.[7] Several wounded in there—one groaning with broken leg. A few five-nines dropped in the village, which is the usual heap of bricks. Absolute desolation—and the very strong line of German wire which they left. They have cut down even the pollard willows by the river.

Writing this in a tiny dug-out, but luckily it has a stove. Just room for Kirkby and self to sit. He is asleep. Rations getting very short. Only one meal to-day, and that scrappy to a degree. Casson and I finished our last orange to-night but feeling fairly fresh (just the usual trench-mouth). A fair amount of grumbling going on all round… Quite impossible to sleep as it is bitter-cold, and nowhere to lie down.[8]

 

Lastly, today, as Sassoon leads an inexperienced platoon toward the Hundenburg line, two other officers–one battle tested, one tried only in the ordinary cauteries of trench-holding–are rejoining their old units, each of which has lately seen action.

 

Wilfred Owen missed his battalion’s last action in hospital with a concussion, but he will not miss its next. With the recovered Owen marching at the head of his platoon, the 2nd Manchesters moved back up to the line today, a century back, in support of recent gains before the Hindenburg Line on the southern end of the British sector.[9]

 

And, near Arras, Alf Pollard hopped from one train to another, rushing to bring his draft of replacements back to the Honourable Artillery Company before the rumored supporting attack could begin without him. However, he hopped too quickly, and the men he was supposed to be leading missed the train.

This is only a comic mishap: the important thing is that he is there, and cannot be accused of missing an attack, as he once missed an assault in order to visit his mother. The draft? No big deal…

“Where are they?”

“I’ve lost them,” I said innocently.

The Adjutant was horrified… I laughed. What did I care about the draft now that I was back with my beloved battalion.”

There’s no question mark in the text. The H.A.C. will go up to the line tomorrow–not for an attack, but to hold trenches, for a few days, at least…[10]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 351.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, The Last Four Years, 261.
  3. Letters of Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 283.
  4. The Contrary Experience, 89-90.
  5. Meredith's novel, not the modernist periodical!
  6. Duff Cooper Diaries, 50.
  7. Sassoon has some infected scratches; he has not been wounded.
  8. Diaries, 153.
  9. Collected Letters, 452.
  10. Fire-Eater, 202-3.

Poets in Peril: Edward Thomas Gets Dressed Early, and Wilfred Owen is Aimed At; Patrick Shaw Stewart Works the System

Edward Thomas is not the sort for dry self-deprecation, exactly. But he isn’t the sort for harrowing self-reflection, either. This is, I think, just plain description of what other writers might gin up into a stark tale of terror in the pre-dawn darkness.

Shelling heavy from about 5 a.m. I only dressed because I thought it would be better to have my clothes on… our artillery really made most of the noise, and I being just wakened and also inexperienced mistook it.[1]

Over breakfast, Thomas continues yesterday’s letter to his wife Helen:

2 March. 6.30 a.m.

We are still being bombarded. But the Colonel and I have to go out to a village to see a man about a dog, you know, so I am having breakfast. I dressed soon after 5 because I thought it would be better if anything happened, to have my clothes on, and lying in bed warm one merely wondered which way It would come, whether through the ceiling or through which window or wall. Nothing fell on the house, though fragments were whistling over all the time and the house shook. However I heard men whistling in the street. Also when I got up and decided I would change my shirt etc. and shave and clean my teeth and eat my apple and drink my glass of water etc., these things sent the time along. The whistling outside of course made me certain the attack wasn’t with gas shell. It is still going on, but more intermittently. At present it is very misty and I can see nothing but the garden tree and the stone dog on the wall.

There is another break in the narrative as he goes about his business:

I’ve been to — and back. From what the others say I gather that the bombardment was not so bad, as a lot of the noise was From us and not To us. I am new, you see. Well anyhow I was not upset.

A small statement, again, signifying much: “I am, happily, proving to be considerably brave.”

It was quite nice to be going out in the misty frosty morning and picking a place to put a gun in a hurry.

Now I must try to see 244 today and get a letter from you which is probably waiting.

It is now 11 and I am having a second breakfast — (the first having been at 6.15) of marvellous good thick hard shortbread that Herrington has had sent him.

I hope you are all well, all of you, and enjoying many things. This goes off on March 2.

All and always yours Edwy[2]

In the afternoon Thomas viewed the rubble of the Faubourg Ronville, which looks very different–more ruinous, somehow–in his sparse notes-for-future-consideration than it will in the relatively crowded vignettes of his letters:

…its whistling deserted ruined streets, deserted roadway, pavement with single files of men. Cellars as dugouts, trenches behind and across road. Dead dry calf in stables. Rubble, rubbish, filth and old plush chair…[3]

 

Also today, a century back, Wilfred Owen is back from his transport course–he arrived yesterday, to be precise. March will be a month of the rejoining of units, a mustering in preparation for the Spring Offensive. But Wilfred has not been in a battle before, and he is happy with his new surroundings. His battalion, the 2nd Manchesters, are in trenches north of the Somme, near Fresnoy–part of the long section of the line that has just been relinquished in favor of the Siegfried Stellung. What could go wrong?

Nothing, for the moment. But we do have, from yesterday, an amusing parcel-post vignette:

1 March [1917] My Dug-Out

Dearest Mother,

Have just reported at B.H.Q. Dug Out. Find myself posted to B. Coy… this is a glorious part of the Line, new to us, and indeed, to the English (sh!) Most comfortable dug-outs, grass fields, woods, sunshine, quiet. True we are in reserve today, but I hear the very front line is a line, and a quiet one.

…It was in an astonishing way I had your parcel. A man rose up from a hole in a field holding it above his head. It was a fine moment. I soon rushed down & tore it open. Socks most specially valuable, as my servant forgot to put any spare in my Trench Kit. Likewise, I took no Cigarettes, hoping to find 50 in the Parcel. Lo! here are thousands! How good of you all…

I shall not touch the goodies until the very front line is reached…

Yours as ever, but slightly happier than usual. W.E.O.

So all things are sunny but–as the fact that socks are once again welcome would indicate–not really expected to remain so. But irony abounds, of course. Owen’s letter of today, a century back, begs for details of what battle looks like from one who had seen it: mother has been to the “Somme” pictures.

2 March 1917          B Coy’s Dug-Out

My dearest Mother,

I am in a good warm Dug-Out, decorated with French postcards, picturing embraces, medals, roses and mistletoe!

Is it possible I was living civilly no more than 2 days ago? From letter of last night I hear you have seen the illusory War Films. However, they must hint at the truth, and if done anywhere on this Front, would not be quite devoid of realism. But, as you know, a just idea of the First Place could best be got by a tour around Purgatorio.

Did you see any Shell-bursts?

And did they bang tins or whack drums?

Did you see any Red X at the front?

Under no circumstance do we! A good half of their work is done by S. Bearers of our own Coys.

But that’s as far as that joke will go. Owen is back in the line, and, battle or no, there are risks. Which he doesn’t hide from his mother, though he softens them into epistolary chuckles.

You don’t mention Dug-Outs snipers. I was marked by one of the Pests yesterday. His ‘Direction’ was good, only his ‘Elevation’ slightly high. A curious thing was who first hissed ‘Get down. Sir!’?

One of my old Fleetwood Musketry Party! Quite a few are with me…

‘Colin’s’ socks are splendid things…

Ever your fondest Wilfred

 

But a letter of the same day (written to his younger brother Colin, evidently before the letter to mother) makes a different sort of tale out of the near-miss; it also paints a generally more warlike picture of this section of the front:

2 March 1917     B Coy Dug-Out

My dearest Colin,

This is the first time I have written from a Dug-Out. I am in a French one now. We have straw to sleep on, but it is pretty lousy—after the poilus!

There is a gas-alarm on just now, but I don’t really expect it. The air is too still. Just this moment, and since I sat down, a tremendous artillery strafe has opened up. We all remark to each other that it seems there is a war on. I went up to the Front Line with a Fatigue Party for digging. Let me tell you in confidence that I was for the first time a Target.* I ran over the top to get to the head of the Party in the Trench, & stood a moment to shout an order, when a bullet went Ping, a good 3 ft. over my silly head.

Owen–a good big brother, an excitable correspondent, or perhaps just a very diligent writer of personal history–will gloss that asterisk tomorrow. It’s as close as we’ll come to a real point in time, a century back:

Next day. Where you see the * I left off because the order came ‘Stand to Arms!’ What a commotion! We half expected an attack, but nothing happened. I have no paper to write more, but this letter should be interesting circumstantially.

Dearest love to you, sweet my Brother. W.E.O.[4]

 

While we’re in the habit of flagrant rule-breaking, we’ll look ahead to a letter of tomorrow–describing, therefore, today–by  Patrick Shaw-Stewart:

I have had my Board yesterday morning, and they passed me for General Service with the recommendation that I should not be sent back to the East. That was my own suggestion: they would quite certainly have passed me for anything I jolly well liked. That being so, I shall in a day or two probably be informed of it officially by the W.O., whereupon I will communicate with Freyberg, who will apply for me. It will all take some time probably: nothing is done in a hurry in the British Army.

Please don’t be perturbed about my inside. It is very well indeed, and in this country (and presumably in France), I should never give it a thought. In Gallipoli, and places like that, of course it has been occasionally dickey with little goes of “dysentery” and jaundice and what not, but nothing to what most people have out here, and nothing which would have been worth mentioning, except with an ulterior object. I feel more and more that I have been right to play my last card to get out of Salonica and back to France. In fact, I think I have conducted the personal problem of this war with exceptional felicity, and made the best of both worlds. Please try and agree with me…[5]

Well, it’s hard not to. This will not be the last rigged medical board we shall see, but it’s hard to believe that Shaw Stewart is cheating His Majesty out of too much when he emphasizes his stomach troubles to escape further French Liaison duty on the Salonika front–and hard to doubt his character (in this matter) when the result of the rigged exam is to get him sent to a much more dangerous assignment, under the command of more or less the last of his original comrades, those Argonauts of 1914. Shaw Stewart saw Gallipoli, but he has seen little else in the last two years, while Bernard Freyburg has become a hero with a V.C. The future–even of the over-educated officers of the Royal Naval Division–is in France.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 166-7. This description is under the heading for yesterday, a century back, but in light of the letter, below, clearly refers to today.
  2. Letters to Helen, 83-84.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 167.
  4. Collected Letters, 439-442.
  5. Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 193-4.

Ivor Gurney on Ledwidge and the Poor Folk; Patrick Shaw Stewart is Foiled by Diana; Wilfred Owen on England, and the Abode of Madness

Patrick Shaw Stewart has been too long in Limbo. Or, more accurately, in Macedonia, which is no one’s idea of either a glamorous or a crucial theater of war. His society there is limited mostly to French career officers. It could be worse, one would think, but Shaw Stewart has different standards: his ambition is to scale the heights of English society… and today, a century back, at long last, he arrived back in England. Instead of staying in London or going to visit his family he went straight for Belvoir, where Diana Manners was ensconced. Sometimes, brilliant or beautiful people–brilliant, beautiful, and frequently not-so-nice people–get what they deserve. Manners is or was the muse to many men, and many of these have been killed–Raymond Asquith was the greatest loss. But just because the suitors are being winnowed by war does not mean that Diana is ready to give up bow, quiver, and pack.

One assumes that Shaw Stewart was invited, but Manners was not looking forward to the visit, and “feared he was going to propose to her.” A telegram to another beau, Duff Cooper, joked “Pray God with me to face this great ordeal and to let me triumph.” But she was evidently more than a match for a single gallivanting officer.  Without having proposed, Shaw Stewart will move on tomorrow from Belvoir to Panshanger, where Lady Desborough is throwing the third of four consecutive weekend parties. Shaw Stewart will get to mix with lords, politicians, society belles, and the ghostly absence of her two elder sons, his friends Julian and Billy.[1]

 

Just a brief note on Edward Thomas‘s war diary for today, a century back. He merely jotted a few lines, but these nevertheless convey the strange ways in which officers in a different sort of Limbo–Codford is a staging camp, and orders for France may appear at any point, now–spend their days scattered among disparate activities. Thomas inspected latrines, issued pay to the men of the battery, wrote letters, learned to ride a motorcycle, and received, with a letter from his wife Helen, an edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets.[2]

 

Ivor Gurney has been writing prolifically to Marion Scott, of late, and today another of our poets crosses his pen:

O tis cold! but this barn is pretty strawy, and my oil-sheet is over my legs, and I go straight on. Merely through boredom I have turned out another masterpiece today. Also having seen the Observers appreciation of Ledwidge’s description of the robins note as being like tiny cymbals, I looked for a robin, found one, heard it — and dont agree, altogether. He must have thought a lot to have written that description — it being too out of the way to be spontaneously observed. Now please turn back to the back of page one, where further grace will flow from my pen.

Interesting, both in the critique and the unusually confident note of humorous self-deprecation. It feels like Gurney has put his finger upon one more way that the poetry of 1917 is betwixt and between: we cannot get by without robins (not to mention larks and nightingales)–but are we really listening to them anymore?

But Gurney is unique among our poets in the quality of his ear. He is–we shouldn’t for a moment forget this–a trained musician and a composer, and sounds are his province. His mood is light today, as he trips from the usual parcel-thank-yous to joking about the dearth of local musical facilities… and yet we could almost read this as a most grave lament.

I think everything you have sent me has arrived now. There are no stragglers left. Binyons verses, for which I thank you are here also, but — O I need a piano; though two verses are pretty well settled in me. For the sum of one franc I got an hour on a faint toned piano yesterday; but that was not good enough, and there was no Bach, my fingers were stiff and my mind wandering allways . . .

I should leave it there… it’s beautiful and sad, and not altogether crazy–there must be many officers in safe jobs behind the lines with regular access to pianos… But Gurney is a private, and isolated, here: Marion Scott is a faithful friend and a great help in his work, but her connections are relatively humble and run through the musical world. Gurney is far from the seething centers of war poetry–Clitherland Camp, Eddie Marsh’s office, the Poetry Bookshop–and his craft is still happily Georgian. But his opinions are, naturally, beginning to show a certain disenchantment. His latest poems have sung the scenery of his beloved Gloucester, but today he turns to the people:

 

Poor Folk

We wonder how the poor get on in England,
Who wonder how the troops get on in France.
We’re better off than many folks in England,
Although we’ve got to face the Great Advance…

Oh when at last there comes the Judgement Day,
I’ll ask of God some questions that he must
Answer me well. Or I’ll choose rather to be
Some free spirit of Hell, or merely dust.

As how the poor who fight so well in France,
Die with a smile for England in some ditch.
Seem never really to get a proper chance —
Their wars and justice made for them by the rich.[3]

 

And finally, today, Wilfred Owen. His last letter described his first, intense experience of the front line, and it marked a major watershed in his writing. But history too can tense and slacken as experience distends and relaxes (the emotional rhythm, too, of regular trench service) and today’s letter, although still that of a changed man, moves back toward a more familiar register.

Friday, 19 January 1917 [2nd Manchester Regt., B.E.F.]

We are now a long way back in a ruined village, all huddled together in a farm. We all sleep in the same room where we eat and try to live. My bed is a hammock of rabbit-wire stuck up beside a great shell hole in the wall. Snow is deep about, and melts through the gaping roof, on to my blanket. We are wretched beyond my previous imagination—but safe.

Last night indeed I had to ‘go up’ with a party. We got lost in the snow. I went on ahead to scout—foolishly alone—and when, half a mile away from the party, got overtaken by

G A S

It was only tear-gas from a shell, and I got safely back (to the party) in my helmet, with nothing worse than a severe fright! And, a few tears, some natural, some unnatural.

Here is an Addition to my List of Wants:

Safety Razor (in my drawer) & Blades
Socks (2 pairs)
6 Handkerchiefs
Celluloid Soap Box (Boots)
Cigarette Holder (Bone, Sd. or 6d.)
Paraffin for Hair.

(I can’t wash hair and have taken to washing my face with snow.)

Coal, water, candles, accommodation, everything is scarce. We have not always air! When I took my helmet off last night—O Air it was a heavenly thing!

…I scattered abroad some 50 Field Post Cards from the Base, which should bring forth a good harvest of letters. But nothing but a daily one from you will keep me up…

Owen moves now to a brief but telling self-survey of how a combatant’s attitudes might change. There is too much here to even begin to unpack. Better to let the writer unburden himself and see what still troubles his mind in the next letter…

We have a Gramophone, and so musical does it seem now that I shall never more disparage one. Indeed I can never disparage anything in Blighty again for a long time except certain parvenus living in a street of the same name as you take to go to the Abbey.

They want to call No Man’s Land ‘England’ because we keep supremacy there.

It is like the eternal place of gnashing of teeth; the Slough of Despond; could be contained in one of its crater-holes; the fires of Sodom and Gomorrah could not light a candle to it—to find the way to Babylon the Fallen.

It is pock-marked like a body of foulest disease and its odour is the breath of cancer.[4]

I have not seen any dead. I have done worse. In the dank air I have perceived it, and in the darkness, felt.

Those ‘Somme Pictures’ are the laughing stock of the army—like the trenches on exhibition in Kensington.

No Man’s Land under snow is like the face of the moon chaotic, crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness.

To call it ‘England’!

I would as soon call my House (!) Krupp Villa, or my child Chlorina-Phosgena.

Now I have let myself tell you more facts than I should, in the exuberance of having already done ‘a Bit.’ It is done, and we are all going still farther back for a long time. A long time. The people of England needn’t hope. They must agitate. But they are not yet agitated even. Let them imagine 50 strong men trembling as with ague for 50 hours!

Dearer & stronger love than ever. W.E.O.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Edwardian Meteor, 221.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 155.
  3. War Letters, 122-3.
  4. This letter, too, will be the basis for--or shows the first metaphorical feeling toward--a later poem.
  5. Collected Letters, 428-9.