Before our inevitable return to the slogging battle of Third Ypres, we will take a moment to read a letter of today, a century back, from Isaac Rosenberg–on leave in London–to Gordon Bottomley:
The greatest thing of my leave after seeing my mother was your letter which has just arrived… I wish I could have seen you, but now I must go on and hope that things will tum out well, and some happy day will give me the chance of meeting you. … I am afraid I can do no writing or reading; I feel so restless here and un-anchored. We have lived in such an elemental way so long, things here don’t look quite right to me somehow; or it may be the consciousness of my so limited time here for freedom—so little time to do so many things bewilders me… One never knows whether one gets the chance again of writing. It happens my younger brother is on leave as well now, & my brother-in-law, & all my people are pretty lively & won’t let me isolate myself to write…
The happiness and confidence that we remarked upon are there–but also, clearly, both frustration and trepidation. Rosenberg has been doing some of his best work, of late, but in the trenches there is little time and much uncertainty, and even at home there is a more pleasant form of obstruction…
But we left Carroll Carstairs hunkering down under fire, as the battle flared up again not far away. Today begins with an archetypal tale of multiple confusions in the featureless gloom of the Salient… although given Carstairs’ writing style it’s hard not to imagine him as somehow debonair even as he follows a muddy tape through the shell-lit night.
At about 1 a.m. a shadowy form stood above me. It was Knollys with a message. A German prisoner had volunteered the information that an enemy counter-attack was to take place at dawn. As there was danger of its developing on our right flank, No. 3 Company had been warned to be ready to support No. 1. With a guide, my platoon sergeant and an orderly, I proceeded to No. 1 to make arrangements with Craigie in case the attack should include his company’s front.
Enemy shelling had begun again and through it we passed on our way to No. 1 Company Headquarters. It was something to be on the move, however, with an object in view. It was the road that the enemy was shelling, and down this we had to go or get completely lost in a maze of shell holes. After a certain distance we struck a point
from which a white tape led directly to Company Headquarters. This we followed with some difficulty, for it was cut at certain points and stained with mud. After a walk that seemed longer than it actually was we reached Company Headquarters. It was a relief to get under cover and linger there while I listened to instructions from Craigie. Three Verey lights fired along the ground was to be the signal that support was needed.
I finished my cigarette. I tucked the strap of my “tin” helmet under my chin, and then out again into a dark and dangerous world.
After a few minutes the guide suddenly announced that he had lost the tape. Where were we? We did not know. In vain we stared into the darkness. What could it reveal since the day itself could show nothing. How long had we been on the way? We stood irresolute. The air fanned our cheeks. Skyline and middle distance to left and right, before and behind, flashed and winked to gun and star-shell. We were completely lost. Oh, yes, the stars. Tricky though—this front was pretty ragged. Tentatively we stepped out, very slowly—a super blind man’s buff—we walked and walked, every now and then looking down to find no tape. A shadow loomed. What was it? It turned out to be No. 1 Company Headquarters. We had made a complete circle in No Man’s Land. How near to the German lines had we come?
We kept the blessed tape in view the next time, and finally reached the road, which was being thumped as heavily as ever. With great good luck we got safely back to our slit.
Day broke, with no signal from No. 1 Company and no enemy attack.
The morning passed quietly. An enemy aeroplane flying overhead was shelled; our “archies,” bursting in the sky with a snuffed sound, looked like jellyfish.
At noon we were heavily shelled for twenty minutes or so with 5.9’s, one shell following another at about ten seconds’ interval and bursting ten to twenty yards beyond. We crouched in the bottom of the slit waiting for the shell that would land on top of us. A splinter struck softly into the mud next to me and I had missed a “blighty” by an inch…
The Salient is now unquestionably the worst battlefield, as so many different writers are currently attesting. But what of the other, older, first worst battlefield?
Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven has recently been pulled from the Salient and sent to the Somme sector with his artillery unit. It has been quiet there for nearly a year, and to return from battle to this stagnant battlefield is “weird in the extreme.”
Not given to wide-angle reflection, Belhaven nevertheless finds himself looking both backward and forward. In yesterday’s diary entry he had marveled (and been quietly outraged) at the brutal efficiency of the German efforts to destroy the rear areas before their famed withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line–a matter of well-placed charges and pancaked churches.
Today brings a different sort of ruin, and Hamilton’s pondering of both the speed with which a violent past can be erased and the persistence of its scars needs no commentary:
After lunch, Mortimer and I started off to the see the battlefields of the Somme; we reached Le Transloy in half an hour, and turned off the main road towards Les Boeufs. Both of these places have been completely obliterated by shell fire, and the cheering thing to think about is that it was all done by British guns. Other places like Ypres and Arras were destroyed by the German guns, but now we were able to see that our own fire is quite as bad as theirs…The moment the main road to Peronne is left behind, one enters the scene of utter desolation. One battle-field is like another so it is not worth describing it, except that this differs from all others in being now completely covered by a dense tropical growth of weeds. Never have I seen anything like it. The whole area for miles in every direction is covered with a uniform green growth, which is from 3 to 4 feet high. The shell-holes are still there, but they are all hidden, and woe betide the person who attempts to leave the road. It is impossible to walk one yard in any direction without falling into a deep pit… Every few yards there is a cemetery beside the road, varying from half a dozen to a hundred graves. In addition, one can see hundreds of white crosses sticking their heads out of the long grass. The must be thousands and thousands of these isolated graves all over the district. In many cases, the rifles stuck in the ground by the bayonet and with a steel helmet on top, are still standing besides the graves…. there must be many thousands who were never found. Also, what has happened to the countless German dead, as I did not see any German graves?
…I went along the sunken road till I came to the Quarry, but found it hard to believe it was the same dreadful place that I knew exactly a year ago. Gone were the thousands of empty shell-cases and the many hundreds of dead–both British and German. Instead, there was a sea of rank vegetation waist deep, through which it was almost impossible to force one’s way…
The absolute silence and absence of all movement was uncanny, and at the same time one felt like thousands of ghosts were in the air, and that any moment the barrage might break out. I found myself keeping instinctively close to the trenches, ready to drop in if a shell came…
What will the French do with the place after the war? It does not seem possible that the ground can ever be cultivated again. It would take years of work and cost millions to restore it to a level surface, to say nothing of the redraining everywhere. It certainly appears to be a rich soil, judging by the crop of weeds, and well it ought to be, considering that it has been watered by the blood of innumerable men; at the lowest estimate, I suppose a million, French, English, and Germans were killed or wounded on this particular tract of land.The belt of utter desolation is from ten to fifteen miles across and must extend for thirty miles north and south, and then on the flanks it only joins up with other battle-fields–Arras, Vimy, and finally, the more awful place by far–Messines and Ypres.