Our poem for April is a salutary reminder that literature neither moves in a straight line nor in unison. Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon, for instance, have lately been pushing toward new ways of writing about the war.
And Bimbo Tennant? Less new. Here’s a poem he composed this month, a century back.
The Knight and the Russet Palmer
“Give you good day, Sir Knight,
And whither may you be bound?
Methinks I could read your hand,
Sir Knight, As sure as the world is round.”
“What do you lack, you Palmer old?
And what would you have wi’ me?
Will you give me word of my true-love
That sails across the sea?”
Skip a bit, brother! It goes on like this for many a stanza, and the pseudo-Medievalism (the influences, I suppose, are Tennyson and Morris) gets thicker.
“And where was my love when the storm was high,
You palsied heavy-eyed Sage?”
“I wot she brewed a draught, Sir Knight,
And conned a runic page…”
Long story short, the good Sir Knight oughtn’t to have put his faith in that lady. The poem is signed “Poperinghe, April, 1916,” and is adequate proof on its own that an inclination to verse may be completely distinct from an inclination to writing about the real experiences war.
But better and more forward-looking writers await.
April 1916 was the cruelest month, at least when it came to the off-handed desecration of an outdoor shrine in the rear areas of the British sector in Flanders. The plot of Ralph Mottram‘s Spanish Farm Trilogy, which is probably the best long novel by an officer about the war (rather than the sharper, narrower experience of fighting in the trenches), turns on the fictional (or fictionalized) “crime” that was committed this month. A soldier with the transport section of a battalion in reserve broke into the shrine, in the corner of a pasture of a large farm, in order to shelter his mules from the elements. The farm family–led by the formidable Madeleine Vanderlynden, who also played host to the officers billeted in the farmhouse–complained, and forms were filed.
The rest was history–or, rather, bureaucracy. Mottram’s three novels, which are difficult to discuss here owing to the absence of precise dates, circle around this event in several different ways. There is a sort of 19th century French novel involving Madeleine’s dramatic affair with an aristocratic French officer; there is another novel centered on Skene, a very Mottram-like New Army officer billeted in the farmhouse and later involved with its inhabitants and the seminal “crime;” and the whole thing takes on–with remarkable success–a time and place in which an enormous-yet-piddling bureaucracy worthy of Heller or Pynchon (or Kafka or Welles) coexists with a little world of stubborn, unchanging peasants… all of whom were brought together by the casual vandalism of a tired muleteer of Kitchener’s army, this month, a century back.
Changing gears now, we have two bits of writing dated specifically to today, a century back. Charles Scott Moncrieff is something of an old soldier, a reservist with 1914 experience and many months in a Regular regiment. He is relatively rare, then, in being both a highly educated, literary sort of chap and an officer who has come by his old army prejudices honestly. He’s not impressed with the New Army:
1st April, 1916
…I am homesick here to be back with my company, or at least with our own 13th Field Ambulance, where I
should have Father Evans to talk to me. I can’t be bothered to beat up a Kitchener’s Army atmosphere among these people, and their different standards annoy me, e.g., their genuine keenness to get away from their regiments in the field. Also I left my company on the verge of a crisis, as my Sergeant-major is at last getting a commission, and my Quartermaster Sergeant came down here with pleurisy a few days before me, so that an extra responsibility devolves on the young shoulders of Machin, who only came back last Sunday from a fortnight in command of another company…
Scott-Moncrieff, though young, is one of many whose constitution will prove unequal to the damp, cold, pestilential trenches. This fever will stay with him and soon send him home for a months-long spell of sick leave, light duty or home duty (i.e. training new troops). I’ve enjoyed bringing his chatty style and keen literary eye into the discussion, but like so many of our writers his letters cease when he’s near home, and so it will be quite a while before we hear from him again.
And finally, today, Siegfried Sassoon is taking matters into his own hands once again. Today he casts aside the coy passive voice: he has decided to go looking for Germans to kill, and he is not shy about writing it.
Got back to Morlancourt by 1 o’clock on a bright day—east wind, glare and dust. Got through last night all right. About 9.30 I started creeping along the old sap which leads out to the crater where they put a fresh mine up in the afternoon; about forty yards from our parapet (it didn’t explode properly). Our sentry had seen two men go down into the crater at dusk—covering-party, I expect—while the others worked on the lip. After crawling about forty yards I got to the edge of the crater and could hear them working about twenty-five yards away. Couldn’t make out where the covering-party were, and was in mortal funk lest someone would shoot me. Crept back, and returned with Private Gwynne and four Mills bombs; we threw the bombs, I think with effect; a flare went up and I could see someone about five yards away, below me; fired six shots out of the revolver; and fled.
Gwynne was very steady, but I wish it had been O’Brien. Crawling out the first time was very jumpy work. Went out again at 8.30 this morning, and had a look, but could see no signs of work (or slaughtered Bosches).
I used to say I couldn’t kill anyone in this war; but since they shot Tommy I would gladly stick a bayonet into a German by daylight. Someone told me a year ago that love, sorrow, and hate were things I had never known (things which every poet should know!). Now I’ve known love for Bobbie and Tommy, and grief for Hamo and Tommy, and hate has come also, and the lust to kill. Rupert Brooke was miraculously right when he said ‘Safe shall be my going. Secretly armed against all death’s endeavour; Safe though all safety’s lost’. He described the true soldier-spirit…
I don’t think much need be added to this, although it is sorely tempting to go into heavy analytical mode. It’s clear, anyway, that Sassoon is now “on a mission,” although but more in the hackneyed war movie sense than the literal. Are there any orders to go and chuck grenades at the German working party? Not really–it’s too early for his little actions to be construed as preparation for the coming offensive. It would seem, rather, that there is some sort of tacit, standing permission from the fire-eating Colonel Stockwell to mix things up, to display to the Germans opposite the bloody-minded confidence of the Royal Welch. Whether there are practical benefits to this approach is very doubtful, but it also seems clear that the Colonel is willing to use the aroused and angry sentiments of his grieving subaltern to serve this (questionable) military end. It would be good to hinder German works on their trenches–but won’t such actions just bring down artillery retribution or attract more German attention to their own work?
It’s hard to say…and the tactical debate will not be definitively decided. (My prejudices toward “live and let live” are, I think, honestly drawn from a wide reading of trench memoirs. Which can always be riposted by a careful explanation of the tactical and moral benefits of “dominating no-man’s land”–in this little debate, as in so many other Great War controversies, one’s position is probably more a matter of prior commitments–to the hard logic of military necessity or to the experience of war by men suffering in fear–than a priori reasoning about the situation presented.)
Leaving tactics aside, the question at hand, then, is not whether this sort of aggression works, but rather how one should describe it, at both first and second hand. Summary risks collapsing into cliché: Sassoon seems to be raging like Achilles after the death of Patroklos, crawling forward with murder in his mind to hurl grenades at unsuspecting German workers (or, perhaps, Germans even then tunneling toward him with evil intention). “It’s personal now,” Sassoon must be muttering… so, yes, cliché.
But Sassoon gives us something different, doesn’t he? He does an excellent job of pegging this night’s action to the general spirit of the war by citing Rupert Brooke‘s “miraculous” poetry. It’s strange–and yet not that strange–that a new-ish subaltern newly come to killing adopts the tone of Brooke’s last months. Whatever we think about Brooke’s poetry, it was a remarkably accurate guess–a very sensitive poetic anticipation–of what new soldiers steeped in old poetry would want to be thinking as they headed into combat. Brooke, who never saw real combat, had the wit to write a step ahead of his own experience.
But two steps? After that soldier’s spirit has been been worn away by unyielding attrition?
There will be changes, and changes again. But for now, the poet kills.