The Master of Belhaven Has Great Fun; Rudyard Kipling Tries Out a Jest; Isaac Rosenberg in the Gloomiest Depths

We have a jarring triple contrast for today, a century back–a diary entry and two letters, each in a very different mood and aspect.

We begin, wrong-footedly, with the comic relief. The Master of Belhaven is nothing if not a sportsman. But those Germans, on the other hand, they really do put up a poor show…

I walked over to Welch’s detached section with him in the afternoon. He lent me a gun and we put up quite a lot of partridges. The birds are very wild now, and we did not get any. However, it was great fun. The Hun, who is no sportsman, amused himself by putting out shrapnel not far off, but they were too high to be at all dangerous.[1]

 

Then it’s an abrupt and painful transition from a colonel with the leisure to shoot (at) partridges on a lark–and the good breeding to forgive the birds of the battle zone their wildness–to a private with very much less in the way of time and sport and fun. Isaac Rosenberg, is less interested in the birds of No Man’s Land than most of our poets are–but he’s a dab hand with the rats.

Dear Mr Bottomley

I do not know when I begin a letter whether to plunge right to the depths into the gloomiest of Byronic misanthropy (as indeed, my inclination pushes me to,) or be nice and placid & acquiescent about things. I know if I didn’t explain myself properly Id only appear weak & stupid, & as the situation does not give me the chance to explain myself, it must be left unexplained just yet, at least…

I have been transfered… my own Batt is broken up & what was left of them mixed with other Battalions… Poetry has gone right out of me I get no chance to even think of it. My ‘Unicorn’ is dead, & it will need a powerful Messiah to breathe life into its nostrils. I could more easily draw than write but the weather is too cold for that, if I did get the time… Thank you for what you say about my ‘Kolue’ speech. If the war does not damage me completely Ill beat that yet.

Yours sincerely,

Isaac Rosenberg[2]8.

These sorts of bulletins–“it’s miserable, but let us hold onto hope”–are the best Rosenberg has been able to manage, of late. But if poetry really has been driven right out of him then he is, at least, still holding on to the last fragments he was able to produce before his transfer… we shall see them soon.

 

Speaking of production, here’s a strange one. Rudyard Kipling and several cronies have recently decided to begin the distinctly sui generis (and extremely English) project of composing a sham fifth book of Horatian odes. In this letter to C. R. L. Fletcher, then, we might expect to find Kipling in his mode of master yarn-spinner–and we do. He is excited by the game, there is a burst of creativity couched in hale-fellow encouragements… but it’s not all fun and games.

Bateman’s, Burwash, Sussex

Feb. 17.1918.

Dear Fletcher

…I think highly of any good “fake” and the idea of the original M.S.–of a decent rich brown tinct–is very fine indeed. Thus are Immortal Works built up! ‘Only hope we’ll have some paper left after the war! Facsimiles cost like sin: but I foresee an edition de luxe in the years to come!

And I think too the notion of fresh hands in the game is fun. We oughtn’t to keep the fun to ourselves…

All good luck be with you.

Ever

RK.

This selection of the letter more or less captures the tone. He is writing, again, about the project of composing odes in the style of Horace and rendering them in Latin. And that’s not all. He is thinking, too, about that collection of short ancient verses known to classicists (and well-educated 19th century Englishmen more generally) as the Greek Anthology. The anthology is rich in epitaphs, and Kipling has been mulling these over. There is a post-script–and it doesn’t sound like a joke.

P.S. How does this go into Greek. It’s out of the sepulchral unchristian epigrams of the missing parts of the Anthology:

On an R. A. Subaltern

Death fell upon my Son from out of the skies while
he was laughing, they tell me, at some jest. Would
I had known what it was. It would serve me through
the years when I shall not laugh.

The grammar is mixed I think.[3]

The striking thing is that this epigram–which Kipling proposes, perhaps jokingly, to render into Greek–is not at all lighthearted. It’s a suitably stoic ancient-style epigram, one that would fit well, perhaps, with what the mourners on the hither side of the generational gulf might want their public sentiments about their “fallen” sons to sound like. Which is why this epigram, published later in revised form, is often presented as if it is written by Kipling about his boy Jack. And, of course, how could his only son be entirely absent from his mind? But there is no mention of Jack, here–instead it is the classical heritage, on the one hand, and the Royal Artillery (Jack Kipling was an infantry officer) on the other…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 457.
  2. Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head, 117-
  3. Letters, IV, 483-4.

Edward Heron-Allen Bids the Boys Farewell; Ralph Hamilton Makes Ready for the Tanks

Edward Heron-Allen came under fire today, a century back, for the very first time.

When the firing begins the mud flies in all directions, and spatters back all over the marking shelters–sometimes a bullet comes skidding back, and men get hurt. We watched it for some time, and then had a mild experience of what it was to be ‘under fire.’

Yes, Heron-Allen is on the practice musketry course at Tunbridge Wells. Still, there is some intent behind this apparently merely blustering insistence that new officers expose themselves to slight chances of ricochet hits–they will have to begin to learn the deportment that will be expected of them.

We had been told to telephone back to the firing point when we were wanting to come back, but the range officer said this was ridiculous as the path was well to one side of the line of fire, and it wasn’t worth while to paralyse the British Army whilst we re-joined them. The only possible danger was a ricochet. “Did it often happen?’ ‘Well–only now and then…’

We made for the path quick, before we heard any more comforting reflections. We wouldn’t have hurried for the world!

 

Coincidentally, the only bit of action from one of our writers at the front today also concerns range-marking. Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, continues to prepare his position for the possibility of a German advance, and he is worried about tanks. Anti-tank shooting is the newest discipline of the artillery, and his men are uncertain how to proceed, or even how to judge such short ranges. Hamilton’s solution is to paint symbols on large boards and place them out between the lines.

The men were so stupid about where to put the boards that I galloped about placing them myself. It was quite safe, as there was too much fog for the Hun to see me…[1]

“Quite safe–” yet probably more dangerous than the butts at Tunbridge Wells.

 

But back now to Heron-Allen, who described another scene, today, that once again shows the belatedness of his introduction to the emotional stresses of the long war. In the evening, he wanders down to the train station where a number of recent trainees are departing for the front–it’s a scene right out of 1915.

The scene on the platform beggars description. There were about 50 of them, and good God! how young they were. Some older men going out perhaps for the second time, but the average was nineteen. There were about 20 officers, and the band grouped at the end of the platform and played gay tunes. The boys… shouted, they sang, some danced, one or two, the youngest, were slightly drunk. The officers among them were talking and chaffing, and helping them with tips about the equipment. Our padre was there of course, and was charming with them, especially the few who stood still with an expression in their eyes which I never saw before and hope never to see again…

…when one boy whom I have drilled and lectured to went up and kissed the glass against which his girl’s face was pressed white, I frankly had to go away and pull myself together…

The guards got fussy, the band played ‘Auld Lang Syne’–it was a moment in which one lives at treble speed. On the last note the train moved –the officers all at the saluted (morituros vos salutamur) and the band struck up the regimental march as this cargo of glorious creatures disappeared into the night. We officers stood rigidly to attention till the march was over, and then dispersed into the dark. Many of us were glad it was dark. I met the delicate and educated Brothers, and said with a sickly attempt at conversation ‘Very interesting.’ He replied ‘Very terrible, look at my hands’. He was shaking like a man with ague…

Back to the inn at 10.45pm, and to bed a sadder and wiser man.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 455.
  2. Journal, 156-60.

Siegfried Sassoon Ships Out; The Master of Belhaven on Anticipation and Artillery

Siegfried Sassoon left London on a noon train, accompanied to the station not by his mother and aunt but rather by Robbie Ross and Roderick Meiklejohn. He dined at Southampton and boarded a ship for France–but not for France. This time France is only a way station to the east…[1]

 

 

We should catch up with Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven. On the 7th, he spent “six solid hours… on the type-writer” devising a plan to withdraw his batteries in the event of a successful German advance.

it was a most complicated business, but with all the “wind” there is blowing, we cannot afford to leave anything to chance…

Indeed not. So even as the army is drawing down its infantry manpower it is devising plans of retreat in the face of the expected German offensive…

The next day brought rumors among the battery officers of all leave being stopped, while the 9th saw Hamilton comparing his headquarters with those of a neighboring artillery brigade and deciding that he much preferred his own, despite its discomfort–it was cramped, yes, but that was because it was tucked away in a quarry, safe from all but the most unfortunate of high-angle direct hits.

Then, yesterday, a sudden bombardment opened up, the infantry sent up the S.O.S. signal by flare, and Hamilton’s batteries all responded at their top rate of fire. But nothing happened–this was not the German attack, which must wait for weather both warmer and drier if it is to break through.

Once again, Hamilton investigates the source of the costly error…

Templeux, 11th February, 1918

I have been trying to find out what really happened last night. It seems that the Germans began by bombarding our frontline trenches, and then sent up ______ and ______ rockets, which happens also to be our S.O.S. signal… we wasted over seventeen hundred shells, and the Hun now knows where our barrage comes down.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 211; Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 441.
  2. War Diary, 450-4.

Ralph Hamilton on a Flurry of Deadly Folly; Elizabeth Bishop In the Waiting Room

Just one brief note from the war, today, and then a very strange centennial… the most powerful straight-back-to-a-particular-moment-in-time poem I’ve ever read. It has nothing to do with this project except its date…  and also consciousness of the war and a deep binary (i.e. in the sense of an older writer looking back upon an incident as recorded by her younger mind) contemplation of the the mystery of the human condition. So, upon reflection, it has everything to do with this project, albeit in a distant sense. I’ve been really looking forward to this bit…

 

But first, Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven is here to steady us on an excitable morning. His diary reminds us of the confusion and deadly silliness of the war of attrition as he analyzes a sudden artillery duel on his sector of the line. He tosses off his conclusion, but one imagines that it probably took some extensive detective work to figure out what actually took place…

As far as I can make out this morning, nothing really happened, except that both sides lost their heads. The Germans started the excitement by seeing spooks. They bombed their own wire and put up their S.O.S., whereupon our people thought they were going to be attacked and sent up our S.O.S. Both artilleries promptly replied, and for the next half-hour there was hell in the front lines. I fancy it was fairly expensive for both sides, as I imagine there were a lot of casualties.[1]

“Expensive,” that is not just in the financial cost of huge amounts of ammunition fired to no strategic effect, but in terms of blood and suffering.

 

Humanity: confused, frightened, driven mad with fear and the strangeness of the other–yet beginning to see, perhaps, in glimpses of insight, that though we are all utterly alone, we are also all utterly alone together. We are human beings, clotted into tribes of strange and foolish other human beings, and we may (or may not) have long lives to live among them…

 

Now, I’ve read a lot of Great War literature and history and poetry and memoir over the past twenty years, especially during the last four. (I’m pounding through two mediocre novels set this March, as we speak!) But, happily, I do find some time to read some other things as well. One of this past year’s projects was Elizabeth Bishop (born 1911) who produced a smallish oeuvre of poetry in a variety of forms and moods. This smallish oeuvre is richly studded, however, with tremendous, unforgettable poems. I had read some of her brilliant descriptive poems of people and animals, I knew the perfect villanelle about losing things, but I had never read In the Waiting Room. There must be other brilliant poems of remembered childhood experience, but if I knew of any even approaching this one I have long forgotten them…

I don’t like to post entire long poems here, for several reasons, so please follow the link above and read the whole thing (it’s only a few pages). Or read below: I will excerpt a few large sections, perforating her meditative brilliance with my eager interjections.

 

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist’s appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist’s waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.

 

Young Elizabeth then picks up the February 1918 National Geographic and reads. Something about the dramatic presentation of human difference that the magazine offers–there are Brave White Explorers, there is man killed in tribal fighting, there are African women, with their breasts hanging low, horrifying the proper American girl–stirs her sense of self, and then, as overhead sound merges with the thoughts bred from words, an epiphany strikes.

 

Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
–Aunt Consuelo’s voice–
not very loud or long.
I wasn’t at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn’t. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I–we–were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days
and you’ll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
–I couldn’t look any higher–
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

 

No, nothing could. To be at once aware of the full force of self-hood, of the boundaries that separate your own little body from the shuffling, yelping others around you, and of your full membership in a species so familiar and yet so terrible and strange…

And it’s three days before her seventh birthday. (The poem itself was written many decades later, when Bishop was belatedly being recognized as one of the century’s great poets.)

Worcester, MA, is far from Templeux, where those two panicky barrages are falling on two sets of trenches despite the fact that neither gallant infantry officers nor wicked staff brass hats actually harbored any murderous raid plans for this morning, a century back.

But I haven’t bent the rules of this project as far as it might seem. At the very end of this childish/timeless/rivetingly powerful poem, we will have the date as well as the reminder of the war. National Geographic may point to a different way of seeing the world (with all its own problems), but looming over this day, a century back–and over young Elizabeth’s new perception of her humanity and her Elizabeth-ness in all its strangeness–is the fact that humanity is conducting one of its most destructive experiments yet.

 

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 451.

Max Plowman Supported; Olaf Stapledon Stays the Course; the Master of Belhaven Mastered by Paperwork

Max Plowman, embarked, now, on his own odyssey of protest, is mustering support. Or, rather, he is thanking some of those who have already offered their support–in this case, Janet Upcott.

It was dear of you to write Janet & very kind of you to copy out Sassoon‘s letter for me. I’m very glad to have it… as Dorothy will tell you things have begun just as you prophesied….

Can it really be that Plowman has not read the famous letter of protest? I don’t know–it’s possible, but it seems likely that Upcott copied it out for him to refer to, and that his lack of reference to reading it for the first time indicates that he has in fact done so. Does he know, then, the manner of Sassoon’s subsequent apostasy?

The letter goes on to show how different Plowman’s situation is from Sassoon, and how different his motivations:

You & Mary are like Fairy Godmothers straight out of a Fairy Tale to us… And then you heap coals of fire on my head by saying that we lift you out of the world of material considerations & policies of caution. Dear Jane! You make me laugh!  …Passion & love, you can’t ultimately divide them I think. Is anybody’s consciousness utterly destroyed? That’s what it comes to. I don’t think so. I don’t think I believe in total damnation, though it may be so.

My love to you dear Janet.[1]

 

Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, has had his raid. And when it was his show he didn’t mind cranking the mimeograph–or even doing his own colored-ink touch-ups. But when it’s a matter of bumff come down from up the chain of command…

I have turned into a Babu–I spend my whole time writing reports and organising things. It seems to get worse and worse. I have increased my office staff, and still we hardly get through the paper that comes by one despatch rider before another arrives…[2]

 

Finally, today, another charming letter from Olaf Stapledon to Agnes Miller. It shows many sides to Stapledon’s personality, not least a strong-to-the-point-of-foolishness liberal idealism, or the inability of a gentle soul to imagine the depravity of others. But who rates a perfect score in predicting political futures?

20 January 1918

. . . The most thrilling subject now is the slow but steady evolution of the various nations & parties toward peace. One feels that there is now quite a new air about it all. Personally I greatly admire the Bolsheviks in spite of their oppression of their enemies. The hope of the future is with them. It is they that seem to have the courage and the faith. . . Peace is really coming at last. Then comes the beginning of real work at last. It will perhaps be an age of starvation and disorder and terror and misunderstanding and revolution, but it will be the age of the beginning of the new alignment of life, at least if we all try hard enough. . . .

Alas.

Would that he, too, had protested a bit more? But Stapledon now turns to the subject of his own writing, and what he hopes will be his first major work:

Lately I have been thinking with little content about “In a Glass Darkly” and planning out considerable additions to it, & alterations If I can get the additions adequately written the whole will be a far bigger thing than before, & actually a book. Was there ever a book that took so much re-writing? Indeed it has not been written, it has grown of its own accord & very spasmodically. I don’t know if I am doing right or wrong in giving so much time & thought to this one effort. I don’t know that I even care whether it is right or wrong. All I care is that the book when it is completed shall be sound. If in years to come the world (!) asks me “What did you do in the great war?” and I have to say, “I wrote a book” I don’t care for the world’s condemnation, nor for anybody’s…

But hope remains…

…the Idea is all that matters. And faith, I did not try to avoid the war so as to write a book. I did my best to get into the war while not betraying the Idea; and since the war would not have me on those terms more than as an ambulance driver— tant pis, and all the more obligation to serve directly the Idea by laborious thought & writing. . . .

The other evening we read “Twelfth Night” and I took Sir Toby Belch with much relish. We have some rather good readers amongst us, especially one [Frederick] Jeffrey who is called Amelia because (oh horrid pun!) when he first came to us he was sent as an orderly to an outstation where the drivers reported that he greatly “ameliorated” their lot! Amelia took Portia in “The Merchant of Venice,” and did it with much spirit and delicacy. He is a nice lad, but generally asleep. At present we are having an epidemic of slight illness, due probably to some bad food or other, or possibly to the rather foul atmosphere of the stable over which we live. In the evenings, what with the stable, tobacco, acetylene lamps, the stove, and forty or more men, and the necessity for keeping the two wee windows shut because of the light, we get up a fearsome fug.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge into the Future, 92-3.
  2. War Diary, 442.
  3. Talking Across the World, 273-4.

The Master of Belhaven’s Raid Comes Off; Wilfred Owen Puts in for Leave; Pretty Much All of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End

If there has been a big build up to the Master of Belhaven‘s raid, well, that’s only to be expected, since we were working from his diaries, a century back, and not from any forgone conclusions. It was a big project for him, and a source of much anxiety. (And I trod relatively lightly, in any case: I could have included several pages of detailed fire plans, as he did.)

But sometimes let-downs are reliefs…

Last night’s raid went off very successfully. We got one live Hun, who turns out to be a Bavarian, a Bavarian Ersatz Division having just arrived. I have not yet had details of his examination, but imagine they have lately arrived from Russia… he was in such a hurry to get safely over to our lines that he showed our man the easiest and quickest way to get through the German wire.

…they got back without any losses.

The raid was supposed to take forty minutes, but they were out an hour and forty minutes, so we began to wonder if they had all been captured… I “stood to” with all batteries till 6 o’clock, but nothing happened.[1]

In the end, for the artillery commander of a planned raid, no news is good news.

 

This letter from Wilfred Owen requires little in the way of glossing…

17 January 1918 IScarborough]

My own dear Mother,

Just had your lovely letter, together with an invitation to Robt. Graves’s Wedding at St. James’ Piccadilly, and afterwards at 11 Apple-Tree Yard, St. James’s Square, on Jan. 23rd.

Suppose I got leave for this, would you be very sad? Nichols will no doubt be there, and a host of others. Graves is marrying Miss Nicholson, daughter of the Painter.

I send you the Coal Poem—don’t want it back. Yes, I got the Georgian Anthology while in London.

I suppose you saw how Subalterns are now getting 10/6 a day. I should soon be getting 11/6.

Foot’s better.

Love to all.

Your W.E.O.[2]

I’ve tried to tiptoe around the well-worn theme of The Poet With the Close Relationship With His Mother, but this is a funny one, showing the rapidly maturing poet in a decidedly young-mannish light. What does he think will come of asking his mother if it’s o.k. with her that he plans to use a rare leave to visit his fancy new friends in London and not his old mum in Shrewsbury?

 

But let us not linger too long on these workaday letters and successful raids: we have a Modernist doorstop to do today as well. Ford Madox Hueffermort Ford Madox Ford (but not for a while)–comes up here often enough: he wrote a “patriotic poem” rather recently, and can be counted upon to pen strange and sometimes ridiculous letters at irregular intervals. But he is already, a century back, a major novelist, even if his 1915 novel The Good Soldier, in a flurry of little ironies, has yet to be recognized for the great, if essentially pre-war (despite its title), Modernist novel that it is.

Ford has still a greater novel in store, however: the greatest (but who needs superlatives?) baggy monster written that will ever be written about the war by one of its participants. The Tietjens tetralogy–four books about the shambling, distracted genius Christopher Tietjens, who shares too many characteristics with his creator for his other characteristics (e.g. heroism, ineffable moral courage, and extreme attractiveness to younger, attractive women) not to be worth a few winces–is one of the really Big Important Modern novels. Which is to say that it is fascinating, confusing, difficult to read, and probably rewarding–although there’s not much actual combat in the book, and a mere few hundred pages are set in France.

One lives in the mind of Tietjens for a very long time, which can be enthralling but also perplexing. The chief problem (for me, at least), is the character of his adversary and wife, who is modeled to some extent on Hueffer’s own wife but, I believe, even more closely resembling a paranoid view of his pseudo-second-wife Viola Hunt. She is such an outlandish monster that she introduces several new levels of complexity for readers: what of Tietjens’ impressions of her are mistaken? And if they aren’t, how much of this character’s portrayal is driven either by misogyny or excessive personal hatred on the part of Ford? And if this strange and powerful novel is driven to some extent by a monstrously one-sided settling of personal scores, to what extent does that hamstring its considerable contribution to literature’s advancing struggle to depict and explain the human condition?

So, anyway, if you like that sort of thing–go for it![3]

The tetralogy is, sadly, also a four-volume work set during the war that contains hardly any dates or precisely dateable events at all. I can’t even remember if I’ve been able to make a reference to it since August 1914. Alas! Virginia Woolf drops in a date or two, and Ulysses is very precisely dated (though a bit crowded, in that way), so you’d think Ford could have done better by me…

In any event, I find in my notes that on page 498 of my paperback omnibus edition (near the end of the second volume, No More Parades), there is a conversation between Tietjens and General Campion securely dated to today, a century back. It brings to a head the action of the novel, in which, over the past few days, Tietjens’ evil wife Sylvia appears (improbably) in France and (laboriously) entraps Tietjens between her lover, his enemies, his own contorted sense of honor, and the professional and personal concerns of several more powerful officers. The result is this dramatic “judgment” scene–very Joycean (or sub-Joycean–but very, very high on the potentially abyssal scale of the sub-Joycean scene)–in which the General offers Tietjens a choice between a court-martial which would clear him of military wrongdoing but expose his wife’s infidelities, or being sent back to the trenches. Reader, you too might divine his choice, and all in barely 500 pages of high literary footslogging…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 440-1.
  2. Collected Letters, 527.
  3. NB: I have steered clear of the recent miniseries, entitled, as the four books sometimes are, "Parade's End." On principle, and also on the "Ford/Tietjens looked nothing like Benedict Cumberbatch" corollary to the general principle of literary-adaptation avoidance.

The Master of Belhaven Readies a Raid; Ivor Gurney in Love

Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, makes his final preparations for the artillery support for a local raid on the German lines. He has himself had quite an adventure as a forward observer not that long ago, but it is his duty, now, to restrain his subordinates from similar acts of derring-do.

The thaw has come with a vengeance now, and the country is in an awful state. The roads are three inches thick with mud… After lunch I went to B Battery and met the special liaison officer for the raid–Walsh–from C Battery. I gave him his final orders in writing and forbade him to go over the top with the raiders. I can’t afford to have good officers killed in joy riding. The raid is tonight…[1]

 

Meanwhile, there is an affair of a different sort brewing in Scotland. Ivor Gurney‘s role here has been that of the neurasthenic poet or the febrile, forgetful composer–an attenuated artist, living for his art, in any case. And that picture is incomplete, of course. He has also been a soldier and, in a salvage company, a sort of professional scavenger, writing intermittently of some of the war’s most dispiriting scenes. And since most of the letters we read are to Marion Scott, there are still layers of reserve that we might forget to notice amidst the impassioned poetic utterances. She is a friend as well as a patron, but there is still propriety, and the fear of provoking new and unpleasant emotional responses… so we have heard nothing, yet, of Annie Drummond.

Annie Nelson Drummond was a twenty-nine-year-old Scottish V.A.D. nurse at the Edinburgh War Hospital where Gurney spent much of October and November. Of all the people he met in his time there, she “made the most dramatic and lasting impression on him. She touched his heart and captured his imagination in a way that no other woman had been able to do.” She also, clearly, captured his esteem as well as his imagination, his bodily love as well as his metaphorical heart. Gurney has been reticent about the relationship not only because it was improper–nurses were not supposed to enter into relationships with patients–but also because, to be frank and/or craven, he had every reason to suspect that news of the affair might cause Scott to break with him, and both her friendship and her aid to his career (she singlehandedly produced his book, Severn and Somme, and saw several of his compositions to performance) were too valuable to risk.[2]

But Gurney has been away from Edinburgh for nearly two months now, and he misses Drummond badly. It seems that a letter or two reached him, and that they were able to plan to spend a weekend together. It is this combination of longing and expectation that seems to have prompted Gurney to write of Drummond to his friend Herbert Howells.

Fittingly, the first clear reference to Drummond (she has appeared–I did not notice–in previous letters under code-names of one sort or another) is in a letter from some time over the last few weeks, the date of which is lost.[3]

My Dear Howells…

…[ ] Nelson Drummond is older than I thought — born sooner I mean. She is 30 years old and most perfectly enchanting. She has a pretty figure, pretty hair, fine eyes, pretty hands and arms and walk. A charming voice, pretty ears, a resolute little mouth. With a great love in her she is glad to give when the time comes. In Hospital, the first thing that would strike you is “her guarded flame”. There was a mask on her face more impenetrable than on any other woman I have ever seen. (But that has gone for me.) In fact (at a guess) I think it will disappear now she has found someone whom she thinks worthy.

A not unimportant fact was revealed by one of the patients at hospital — a fine chap — I believe she has money. Just think of it!

Pure good luck, if it is true (as I believe it is). But she is more charming and tender and deep than you will believe till you see her….

I forgot my body walking with her; a thing that has not happened since……………when? I really dont know.

Drummond would probably not be offended by this reference to her money. (Although, of course, if they are intimate and she would not be offended, then why would he not have asked?) A sensible Scotswoman (although not so sensible as not to become involved with a patient under her care, and one with an “artist’s temperament,” not to say mental health issues past and present, and a penchant for parentheticals), Drummond hailed from the upper reaches of the working class, a descendant of several female businesswomen. But she can’t have much money–she does not seemed to have worked (outside the home: she ran much of the household and raised her younger siblings while her parents worked) until she began nursing after the outbreak of war.

Two more letters to Howells, the latest dated today, a century back, follow in turn:

Going North to Edinburgh

My Dear Howells: I have just written you a letter telling you of my coming up here. Please dont say anything about it to anyone but the Taylors. It will need explanation I am not ready to give yet, and of course my people will want to know why I did not go home — but a week-end leave is so short…

It is amusing to see Gurney walking the same balance as Wilfred Owen: leaves are few (far fewer for a soldier like Gurney than an officer like Owen), and the demands of family and friends must both be weifhed–or, rather, the demands of family must be set against a personal preference for seeing particular friends…

16 January 1918, Wednesday

My Dear Howells: Enclosed with this you will find a letter enclosed written just before I was hastening North to Edinburgh.

…Your criticisms are true. As to similarity — well, perhaps I wont admit anything but similarity in method. As to linking them up more tightly, that may come; but as to setting the things I do in an orthodox fashion — well it could be done; but I live attempting difficult things, and this is my way.

Wait till I am out of this though.

But enough about the criticism of his book:

Well I have just been up to Edinburgh, about that magnificent place, and in and out to Bangour.

Herbert Howells, it is just perfectly and radiantly All Right. I have reach Port, and am safe. I only wish and wish you could see her and know her at once. You and Harvey.

My Goodness, but it was a hot pain leaving her. We had a glorious Saturday afternoon and evening together. A glorious but bitterly cold Sunday evening. A snowy but intimate Monday evening. For the first time for ages I felt Joy in me; a clear fountain of music and light. By God, I forgot I had a body — and you know what height of living that meant to me. Well I’ll say no more.

Being in the Army is worse and better for me filled with memories and anticipations and being where I am — in surroundings that mock all beautiful dreams.

But to get her and settle down would make a solid rock foundation for me to build on — a home and tower of light.

Like you I see in her first of all a beautiful simplicity — her very first characteristic, — As you see in Dorothy. The kind of fundamental sweet first-thing one gets in Bach; not to be described, only treasured.

Well, well; why bore you? You know what I think and how it is with me.

May good luck be with you in this thing and all things:

Yours ever

I.B.G.[4]

Gurney is far from the most precise of poets, but it is nevertheless amusing to read that in the throes of this new love he both “forgot my body” and “forgot I had a body.” Many-splendoured thing indeed.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 440.
  2. See Blevins, Song of Pain and Beauty, 137.
  3. The printed text is marked--delightfully or creepily, take your pick--"[Mouse-eaten and incomplete]."
  4. War Letters, 240-2.

Ralph Hamilton Worries the Finer Points; Cynthia Asquith on Lady Desborough and Charles Dickens

Ralph Hamilton stayed up until two in the morning last night, a century back, first slaving over the duplicating machine and then touching up his colored maps by hand, with a paintbrush. A raid has been ordered on his sector and he has been charged with devising and executing the artillery plan. He is “very anxious the thing should go off well for everyone’s sake, and particularly as it is the first little battle that I have entirely arranged by myself.” Then, with all the planning done but for the smaller details, he went to a Casualty Clearing Session to have a rotten tooth pulled.[1]

 

While we await developments, then, let’s to London and, beginning with yesterday’s entry, reacquaint ourselves with Cynthia Asquith’s diary. Her husband’s surprise leave from his own artillery command lends a festive atmosphere to… scenes that may have had a different festive atmosphere had “Beb” not been there.

The list of friends to be mourned has grown longer, but her life is still filled with visitors, amusements, and sharp commentary on familiar figures–Lady Desborough, for one, whom we most recently saw mourning the death of Patrick Shaw Stewart.

Monday, 14th January

Lady Desborough, long before the war, with her two eldest sons, Julian and Billy Grenfell

Ettie and I were deep in conversation about Gosta Berling, and for what sum we would ‘give ourselves’, when Michael rushed up with a small silver egg-cup and peremptorily shouted, ‘Take that, and be sick in it!’ His power of suggestion was so great that Ettie began to feel sick and even she lay down before dinner.

Professor Walter Raleigh (University of Glasgow)

The beloved Professor arrived before dinner, looking more like a Blake drawing than ever. I love the way his eyes signal the thought which his tongue is shortly going to voice ‘coming over’, and he has such a delicious giggle in his eye.

This would be the formidably named Professor Walter Raleigh, one of the first and most influential professors of (contemporary) English Literature. But it is not to be a night, merely, of learned discussion.

After dinner really brilliantly amusing games were played. First Ettie unveiled me as a Renaissance statue; her float voice in pointing out the ‘lascivious contours of my cheek’ was admirable. Then Beb unveiled Evan as a ceramic of Helen of Troy—far the best thing of the kind I have ever seen. He really was brilliant, reaching his climax when he bared Evan’s shirt-front as Helen’s famous breast, delicately pointing out the curious and uncommon formation grotesquely represented by Evan’s two studs ( : instead of . .  )!

Cynthia Asquith (Bassano, whole-plate glass negative, 1912)

Just in case no one else is as pleased with the timelessness of Asquith’s writing as I am, I will note for the record that the above typographical representation–of what I take to be vertically-arrayed (rather than traditional horizontally-arrayed) nipples–is a pioneering use of whatever those ASCII smiley faces we used to use in emails are called…

We rocked with laughter. The Professor and Letty then did an excellent Hamlet and Ophelia to Beb’s judge.

 

That was yesterday, a century back. To today, then:

Tuesday, 15th January

Ettie had to go up by early train and so Evan was carried off bound to her chariot wheels—I wonder if he wouldn’t have loved to stay and talk to the Professor. Pages and pages of Barriesque sentiment from John’s governess, comparing John to Peter Pan and me to Wendy.

Which is a bit odd. But then again Asquith is a close friend of Barrie’s, and has worked as his assistant.

I got up late and took the Professor for a short walk before lunch. He wore a rug instead of a coat, and it looked just like a Sir Walter Raleigh cloak. I told him about Sylvia Strayte and he promised to write a scenario with the right part for her. After luncheon… my question, ‘Do you miss Ettie?’ led to the most interesting discussion on her.

‘Miss her? No,’ he replied, ‘I never miss her—I’m glad to see her, but I never miss her—because you see she’s never a rest.’ I said I thought she was just one of the people one might miss in absence more than one enjoyed in presence; Ettie being such a tuning-fork, one might feel in the dark—as if the electric light had been turned out—and when it was turned on it might make one blink. He said he didn’t need a ‘tonic’, and that his quarrel with her was her constant ‘battling’ against life, her swimming against the current—precisely the ‘steel’ qualities in her which Letty and I had been admiring and enjoying. I had even thought I must make an effort to emulate her and I must say it was honey to hear the Professor’s disapproving dissection of her. How she would have minded what he said!

I said that I thought, before the war and its weight of personal suffering had fallen on her, One might have been irritated by her stubborn gospel of joy and attributed it largely to health and personal immunity. But that, now she had earned the right to preach and practise, her determination to go on fighting with broken tools and to save what was still worth keeping was wholly admirable and most valuable. This he admitted, but when I said I envied her capacity for intimacy, he strenuously denied it and said that her deliberate activity made her mechanical, and prohibited any real friendship or the finest companionship—his great point being that she never ‘blossomed’, and that that was what he valued. When, in his comparison of us, I denied the dewdrop that I was natural he said, ‘No, you’re not natural—you’re Nature.’

A compliment produced with the skill of an Elizabethan courtier. But Asquith–high-born and well-married though she is–would rather Raleigh pass another test. She is a serious reader, unashamed of having popular taste (of the best sort), and requires some of this taste to be shared by her intimates:

The Professor has just re-discovered Dickens—having not touched him for years and approached him critically, he has now found himself caught up in a flame of love and admiration. At dinner he said no one should read him between childhood and thirty or forty—certainly not in college days. The discussion led to his reading us heavenly bits out of Our Mutual Friend, chiefly those-relating to those masterpieces the ‘Wilfers’. Beb’s sick, dainty face led to a fierce discussion between me and him, which inducted the Professor into some very good talk about beloved Dickens. I said he was my principal touchstone about people, and that I should never have married Beb had I fully realised this dreadful lacuna. Beb said, with a sort of pride, that at Oxford they had considered Dickens something scarcely to be mentioned, and he accused us of being on the wave of the counter reaction. This annoyed me—as at every age I have read and revelled in him from pure hedonism—I maintained that no one would feel obliged to admire him from literary snobbishness, as they would Keats. He gaped at me when I said that, whatever his faults of style, I ranked him with the real giants—with Shakespeare, in fact, because he had above all the quality of wealth, and love, and sympathy—and I also claimed the Homeric quality for him.

Shakespeare and Dickens again!

To my joy, the Professor was an eloquent ally and said Dickens was a ‘howling swell’: that he had suffered from mispraise—which had produced the reaction against him—that by his contemporaries he had been liked for the comic and the sentimental, and that now the tide of true appreciation had thrown him right up amongst the giants. He spoke of his ‘heavenly homeliness’, his exuberance and amazing richness, and proved how false and superficial the charge of ‘unreality’ was. To Beb’s inquiry he maintained that Sterne was ‘thin’ beside him, Meredith nowhere, and Thackeray pour rire. In fact he said he had ‘eternity’. He considers Great Expectations the masterpiece and that, even from the point of view of ‘style’, the description of the marshes was as good as anything.

It was interesting talk and I wish I could record it. I enjoyed getting heated, and Mamma told me to ‘put two bits of Beb on the fire’—meaning coal. I made the Professor promise to ‘testify’ his conversion to Dickens. I think he might write something delicious about him.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 436-7.
  2. Diaries, 395-7.

The Master of Belhaven Toasts Qualified Success; Alf Pollard Dumps the Americans; Duff Cooper Rededicated; The Winter Scene by Carroll Carstairs; Max Plowman’s Protest Begins with Home Service

We’ll begin the year with a cold-eyed appraisal from the Master of Belhaven:

To-day we start the fifth year of war, and I am convinced it will still be going on next New Year. The question is how many of us will be alive to see it? Some, at any rate, will survive. We saw the New Year in properly and at exactly midnight by the signal officer’s watch I gave the toast: “Success to ourselves and damnation to the  ——— Hun.”[1]

 

A New Year’s Card for 1918, designed by David Jones

And this we’ll follow with a hopeful (or bizarrely oblivious, or refreshingly oblivious, or weirdly-non-despairing, or eternally young and silly–it’s up to you, as the reception theorists say) bit of horseplay, interrupted by the stroke of midnight, last night, a century back. Alf Pollard and other English machine-gun instructors have planned a treacherous assault on their allies.

Close on one o’clock in the morning, I and three other fellows entered quietly by one door. Working in pairs we rapidly turned over all the beds with their occupants enveloped in their blankets and flea-bags. The pandemonium was terrific. Irate sons of the United States were hitting out at one another in their desire for retaliation. By the time the first light went on we were clear at the opposite end of the hut.[2]

 

Elsewhere, we have what amounts to a New Year’s resolution from Duff Cooper. He has dallied–or considered dalliance–lately, but no more: he will be true to the woman he loves best.

I get a letter from Diana every day and write to her. It is my chief occupation.[3]

 

But it’s not all hijinks and resolutions: we do have one piece of actual business. The Chelmsford Medical Board observes no holiday, today, and it is hearing the case of Max Plowman, among others. Plowman has had a long, slow recovery from shell shock–there seem to have been temporary cognitive effects as well as basic neurological (and,  of course, psychological) damage. But he is physically whole, now, and psychologically stable–and unwilling to fight any more. Plowman, who wrote poetry, memoir, and essays on the subject of war and its horrors, will explain how his return to his pacifist principles came about:

I was sitting in an Army tent at Chelmsford, reading Tagore on Nationalism, considering the argument quite objectively, when suddenly I knew that I had no right to be in the Army. The conviction was immediate, and seemingly spontaneous. But it was ludicrous, absurd, impossible, beyond entertainment: there I was, very definitely in the British Army. It was futile to think I had no right to be. Then it was as if a voice added “And now you have to come out of it.” The decree was flat and so peremptory I could have laughed. But it was true, and I knew it. So there was simply nothing for It but to assent. A confounded nuisance, but there wasn’t any option about it.

“Right,” I said to myself, “and that’s that”. Whereupon I had a sense of extraordinary elation, and with it an immense feeling of good-will. This was hardly due to a sense of release from personal danger, for I thought at the time I might be asking to be shot, but at that moment I knew what the sailor feels when he comes to port, what Bunyan’s pilgrim felt when the burden rolled off his back, what we all feel when we cease to live from our wills I felt as if I had received a free pardon from spiritual death.

If this experience provided a sense of philosophical relief, Plowman still needed to register his political change of direction–and then deal with the personal consequences. His essay “the right to live” stated the case (or asked the obvious and unanswerable questions) rather firmly. Of the men of the infantry–neither heroes nor stoic Tommies, here, but, as in Sassoon’s writing, helpless and abject victims, he wrote:

And for liberty they have suffered the torments of the damned. They have been shot and stabbed to death. They have been blown to pieces. They have been driven mad. They have been burned with liquid fire. They have been poisoned with phosgene. They have been mutilated beyond description. They have slowly drowned in mud. They have endured modern war. To what end?[4]

Plowman, however, cannot undo his own decision, long ago, to leave the ambulances and join the infantry. His own right to live is very much a vexed question. But, unlike Sassoon, his medical care and his public position against the war have not compromised each other: he went before the board today and took his chances.

Well, I went through the inquisition this morning. “one month’s Home Service” with an intimation that they were quite sure it would be the last–advice to take no notice of a dilated heart–& a hint that it was simply ‘up to me’ to be well by the next board. –So that’s that. Had they known they might have spared themselves the pains. As it is I think it is all to the good…[5]

In other words, the result is convenient, as regards his protest: Plowman can attempt to resign his commission in protest of the war’s prolongation while he himself is marked “Home Service.” Even though he decided upon this course weeks ago, and even though he believes that he will shortly be sent back to “the torments of the damned,” his opponents will not be able to accuse him of returning to pacifism at the very moment that the war will begin to directly threaten his own safety once again. And then, should he in fact be sent back to the front, the Army’s motivations might well seem suspect. (Though Plowman is happy to admit that their callousness in sending him back is not personal, but rather part of the general acceleration of the meat grinder, at least as far as it concerns those already fed into its maw.) It’s 1918, and idealism and cynicism are shadowboxing…

 

And finally, today–New Year’s Day itself has occasioned far less forward-looking meditation than the eve stimulated retrospect (which is natural enough, at this point in the war)–we have Carroll Carstairs, doing the foreboding winter scene in proper painterly fashion:

The first day of the new year came pale as death. The trees looked very black against the snow. The ruts in the roads were frozen hard. In the process of shaving, one’s fingers became so cold that one had to dip them in the hot water to be able to go on. We bought a tree from a farmer to use as kindling wood. The men tore off every loose plank in their huts for the same purpose. Very much against regulations, but who could have stopped them?[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 431.
  2. Fire-Eater, 241-2.
  3. Diaries, 63.
  4. The Right to Live, 33, 75-6; see Pittock, "Max Plowman and the Literature of the First World War.
  5. Bridge into the Future, 89.
  6. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 147.

Christmas 1917: Melancholy Milestone, Vicarious Joy, and Less Unhappy Than I Thought

It’s a complicated Christmas, 1917. Several of our writers–including Cynthia Asquith, with whom we’ll start, and Vera Brittain, whose long, sad day will come last–will dwell on the same themes of unsettled traditions and mixed memories.

It’s not simply the quandary of being caught between an instinct for celebration and the need to use a family occasion to grieve and lament for those who have been lost, but also a problem that has grown with this long, static war: if Christmas used to be a trigger for happy memories and the balm of reenacting old joys, there are now three Christmases for which the boys have not been home; three Christmases tinged with that same sickly feeling of mixed emotions, and the fear that absent loved ones may at any moment turn out to be permanently absent. For those who have lost brothers, lovers, sons, or husbands, Christmas may now provoke sharp memories of painful and bereft Christmases past.

 

It’s a very complicated Christmas at the Asquiths. Cynthia Asquith learned last night from her father-in-law, the former Prime Minister, that his son “Oc”–her husband’s sole surviving brother–has been dangerously wounded.

What bad luck! And it sounds bad, too—compound fracture of both bones above the ankle: P.M. wrote, ‘However, they hope to be able to save his foot’. I do hope he won’t lose it.

I packed up parcels after tea, and after dinner we had the usual bedroom marauding parties, but none of us had the heart for any of the time-honoured stocking jokes . . . once the old passage seemed so impregnated with darling Ego and Yvo.

Yes, if she sounds less than horrified about the serious wound to her brother-in-law, that might be because she is in her mother’s house, and both her brothers are dead.

Christmas has become a melancholy milestone for us, but luckily the men of this house-party (who are all under six years) take a glorious joy in all the old rites. Michael was the most satisfactory Christmas child imaginable: he refused to have the fire in his bedroom lit because he was afraid Father Christmas might bum his toes coming down the chimney. Bibs was wonderful with her presents—one for every servant and all beautifully done up in fancy paper and labelled. She kept putting the wrong parcels in the various stockings, so our labours lasted far into the night. I had a sad little hair-combing with Letty. She has been so valiant this year—no breakdown like last Christmas Eve and energising all day over the house decorations. My heart aches for my little John: one turns for salvation to the nursery and that is ‘the most unkindest cut of all’.

And this morning?

Tuesday, 25th December

Nurse called me at 7.30 to see Michael opening his parcels: the vicarious enjoyment was very great. Most of the family went to early service. I joined them at a late breakfast. Found a gorgeous enamel fountain pen from Freyberg. Great excitement over an anonymous present to Bibs—a lovely, and very costly-looking star-sapphire Grenadier badge brooch…[1]

And where is papa? With the artillery in Flanders:

The Major asked what the men would like for their Christmas dinner: we had expected that they would choose either geese or turkeys, but we were completely wrong; our sergeant-major reported that there was a very strong feeling in favour of sucking pigs, and a party was sent out from the wagon line to search the farms of Flanders for a sufficient supply of these delectable animals.[2]

 

Let’s take a quick tour of some of our main characters, now:

 

Robert Graves took a short leave for Christmas, and was able to be with his intended: the Nicholsons were at their house in Wales, near Harlech, and only a few hours’ journey from Rhyl. The wedding is now planned for about a month hence…[3]

 

Rowland Feilding is home, with Edith and their four daughters, aged about one to thirteen–there will be no need to write a war letter to his wife today.

And a very blurry picture of Blunden at the signal school at Mont des Cats

 

 

Edmund Blunden is away from his beloved battalion, a home away from home. He is on a less-than-thrilling signal course, tramping around in the snow and learning about German wireless procedures.

 

 

Wilfred Owen, quite busy with a hotel-full of reserve officers, will tell his sister–while thanking her for her gift and apologizing for not yet sending one to her–that he had

a very mopish Christmas. The C.O. held an orderly Room for punishments in the morning—a thing forbidden in King’s Regulations on Christmas Day—and strafed right & left, above & below…[4]

 

As for Siegfried Sassoon, he has been mopish for a while now, but he enjoys moping more than most. At least, he doesn’t sound too displeased with his Christmas:

Christmas Day (Litherland)

Alone in the hut, after a day of golf at Formby, in fine, cold weather; dine to-night with Colonel Jones Williams and family at Crosby.[5]

 

Back, then, to the front, where the Master of Belhaven is (tremendously) better prepared than he was yesterday:

Our fourth War Christmas, and a typical Christmas Day, snow everywhere…  The men on my H.Q. had a tremendous dinner with six turkeys and a bottle of stout a man, which I provided… We had a tremendous dinner with five French officers; it was really overpowering, as I had only four of my own… the doctor and I had to do all the talking…[6]

 

Carroll Carstairs will recall a similar scene in the mess of the 3rd Grenadier Guards:

Christmas night. Champagne was drunk by the Battalion Headquarters mess. We became flushed and merry—purely artificially so—all very jolly.[7]

 

Kate Luard‘s diary-in-letters has lapsed during her posting to a new hospital, but a Christmas letter to her father survives:

My darling father,

The Division is busy giving concerts in our big theatre this week. Each Battalion has its own troupe and the rivalry is keen. We three sisters are the solitary and distinguished females in a pack of 600 men and inspire occasional witty & polite sallies from the Performers. We sit in the front row between Colonels of the 3[rd] D[ragoon] G[uard]s and 2nd Black Watch & others. Each concert party has its ‘Star Girl’ marvellously got up as in a London Music Hall. Some sing falsetto & some roar their songs in a deep bass coming from a low neck & chiffon dress, lovely stockings & high heels![8]

 

As for Jack Martin, Christmas came early, and so today, in the line, he was grateful for a faint echo of the famous truce of yesteryear:

Today has been beautiful and very quiet. Our guns have fired a few rounds but the Italians and Austrians have religiously abstained from any act of warfare…[9]

 

Olaf Stapledon surely wrote something to Agnes Miller, but the letter seems not to have survived. But Agnes herself isn’t pulling any punches: it may be Christmas, but it’s still only a few days after the vote on conscription.

…A Happy Christmas to you, dear, in your far away village or barns or car, wherever you are.

If only you were here! …this is the fourth Christmas… without you… It surely must be the last…

It seems that everything works up all through the year towards Christmas & one counts the waiting of all the past year at Christmas & the sum of it is very great. . . .

The result of the Referendum has left many a tear of desperation in train. I forget the figures, but the main fact is that there is a very much larger majority for no than there was last year. I feel a terrible outsider because I cannot take it to heart like all my friends…

The sad part about it is that those gaps will be filled by men who are not the right ones to go—married men, & boys & families who have already done their bit—the willing ones. That is the wicked part about not having conscription. They may bring it in compulsorily yet—but then the fat will be in the fire!

…You would have voted against it, would you not? Your ‘no’ would have been the outcome of very different thinkings to the no of 99 per cent of the Victors in our Referendum, but the result is the same. There is the pity of it. The Quakers stuck to their no. Mother is one of their black sheep.[10]

 

Finally, today, Vera Brittain. There is an evocative and deeply sad section of her memoir, Testament of Youth, set at Christmas, 1917. But after reading it over several times, it seems a bit fishy, in terms of the exact timing. I’m not alleging any malfeasance greater than the “telescoping” that many memoir writers indulge in, but if it’s done for effect, and if we care about the day-to-day timing of “history,” then we might well ask–and why, then, are these changes made? And for what effect?

Except for the weather it didn’t seem much like Christmas, with no Roland or Victor or Geoffrey to buy presents for, and Edward so far away that the chance of anything reaching him within a week of the proper time was discouragingly remote. Wartime Christmases anyhow had long lost their novelty, but Mary and I got up early all the same and made shopping expeditions to the village, walking back in pitch darkness through the frozen mud laden with fruit and sweets and gaudy decorations. Christmas Day itself was less unhappy than I had expected, for after a tea-party with the men in my ward, I spent the evening warmly and sleepily at a concert given by the convalescents from the two next-door huts, of which Hope Milroy was now in charge by day.

My own tea-party had to be brief because of another Corporal Smith — though of a type very different from that of the first mortally ill man that I had seen at the Devonshire Hospital — who was rapidly dying of phthisis.

Thus the transition from a melancholy but warm Christmas day to a dismal night of suffering and death. But note the lack of chronological specificity in the transition. That is, she doesn’t say that her own tea party was also to take place Christmas night, but rather implies it… does she telescope all the way to New Year’s Day?

Soon, in any case, Corporal Smith will die:

The traditional only son of a widow, who had been sent for from England, he was one of those grateful, sweet-tempered patients whom it was torture to be unable to save. As he and 1917 ebbed away together, I couldn’t rest even though the surviving gassed cases had gone to England and the convoys had suddenly ceased, but hovered ail night between the stove and the foot of his bed, waiting for the inevitable dawn which would steal greyly around the folded screens. Only once, for ten minutes, did I forsake the self-imposed futility of watching the losing struggle, when Edward’s Christmas letter, written on December 22nd, came out of a snowstorm to remind me that love still existed, quick and warm, in a world dominated by winter and death.

So here is the real Christmas gift. And yet it can hardly have arrived on Christmas. Three days would be good time–but quite reasonable–for a letter from the trenches in France to England. But from the new Italian front to a hospital in France? And she has just commented that she would expect it to take a week for her letter to get to him…

But here in her chronology–whether she remembers it as Christmas or she knows that it must have been a few days later and she is merely prolonging the “scene” for effect–comes Edward’s fond, but distant greetings…

“To-night I owe you a long letter… I am so thankful for your letters — they are now as before the greatest help in the whole world. . . . I don’t know whether I am glad to be here or not — it sounds strange but it’s quite true; I was glad to leave the unpleasant region we were in not far from you and the novelty was good for a time but yet in a way it is all the same because there is no known future and the end is not yet, though, on the face of things at present, there is perhaps more chance of return…

“It seems so much more than two years ago since Roland was killed — to-morrow and Monday I will think of you whenever I can and our love of him may lessen the miles between us.”

And that is how the strange, syncopated blow falls on the reader. I almost missed it: it has been two years since Roland died–two years and two days, for us–but the reader of the memoir would pass from then to there in an hour, or else in a few days of casual reading. Vera Brittain has seen fit to let the anniversary of the worst Christmas pass by unremembered, until she reads the letter.

She includes one more line from her brother’s letter, before bringing us back to the here and now (whenever, precisely, that is):

“What a long war this is! It seems wonderful to have lived so long through it when everyone else is dead.

“Good night, dear dear child.”

It must have been very soon afterwards that Corporal Smith died. His mother, a little woman in rusty black, wept quietly and controlledly beside him when the final struggle for breath began; she gave us no trouble even when Mary replied “Yes, quite sure,” to her final piteous inquiry. After I had taken her through the bitter, snowy darkness to the night superintendent’s bunk, Mary and I laid out the boy’s wasted body. His rapid death had been due, we were told, to an over-conscientious determination to endure; he had refused to complain until too late.

There, and none too subtle, is the message: another year, another day, another death–and why do we not complain, why do we not protest? Whence (and wherefore) any help for our plight?

And then, softly, Brittain turns back to a much more traditional Christmas, a moment out of Dickens, with a slight uncanny tinge of Rilke.

When the orderlies had carried him away, we sat shivering over the stove and discussed in whispers the prospect of a future life; that old discussion, the answer to which three of the four with whom I had most often shared it had now discovered for themselves — or not, as the case might be. But on night-duty many things appeared possible which were quite improbable by day; there seemed, that midnight, to be strange whispers in the snow-laden silence, and the beating of invisible wings about us in the dimly lighted ward.[11]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 384.
  2. Moments of Memory, 310.
  3. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 190.
  4. Collected Letters, 519.
  5. Diaries, 198.
  6. War Diary, 422-7.
  7. A Generation Missing, 146-7.
  8. Unknown Warriors, 205.
  9. Sapper Martin, 156.
  10. Talking Across the World, 263-4.
  11. Testament of Youth, 396-9.