The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XII: Siegfried Sassoon Goes Hun-Hunting with Poetry in Mind; An April Medieval Fantasy from Bimbo Tennant; Ralph Mottram’s Original Crime; Charles Scott Moncrieff on the Shelf

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.[1]

 

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”[2] 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.[3]

 

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…[4]

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.

April 1

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…[5]

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.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Available here, with spoilers nearby.
  2. Readers may remember that the army term embraces an extremely wide category of enlisted misdeeds, rather than merely actions that would be criminal in a civilian context.
  3. Spanish Farm Trilogy, 363, 677.
  4. Memories & Letters, 119-120.
  5. Diaries, 51-2.

St. David’s Day in Wales and France; A Turning Point for the New Armies, and a Starting Point for the Next; March Poetry from Bim Tennant, Richard Aldington, and Ronald Tolkien

It’s been a few months since I waxed historiographical and declared a turning point in the war, but with spring in the offing, taxonomic theories begin to poke their heads through the loam…

Verdun has begun, the archetypal battle of attrition–murderous and immobile. As such it makes a clunky crux, of course, and our Brit-centered view homes in anyway on the coming summer in the Somme, even though the strategic identity of that battle was to relieve the French resistance at Verdun. So it may be that we are at a moment of drawing breath, a pause just before that next turning point.

This is Ralph Mottram‘s view, anyway. Mottram, whose really-quite-good but difficult-to-use-here Spanish Farm Trilogy is now swinging into action, saw this March as “the moment at which the New, or Kitchener Armies had recovered from Loos and not succumbed to the Somme.” As he well knew, since he was an officer in one of the Kitchener battalions now training for the Somme.[1]

And March was the month that conscription began, a first for Great Britain. Today, a century back, all unmarried men under the age of forty became liable for the draft. For Alfred Hale and millions of others of the underrepresented unwilling, a battle against a different sort of post-box fear must now be waged, every day. Some of those who were summoned went willingly enough, but these non-volunteer armies were very differently motivated–and differently led–than Kitchener’s now familiar “New” armies.

March, that most military of months, produced a good deal of poetry as well, including this piece by Bim Tennant penned the following piece:

Home Thoughts in Laventie

by E. Wyndham Tennant
(Written in Belgium, March 1916)

Green gardens in Laventie!
Soldiers only know the street
Where the mud is churned and splashed about
By battle-wending feet;
And yet beside one stricken house there is a glimpse of grass.
Look for it when you pass.

Beyond the church whose pitted spire
Seems balanced on a strand
Of swaying stone and tottering brick
Two roofless ruins stand,
And here behind the wreckage where the back wall should have been
We found a garden green.

The grass was never trodden on,
The little path of gravel
Was overgrown with celandine,
No other folk did travel
Along its weedy surface, but the nimble-footed mouse
Running from house to house.

So all among the vivid blades
Of soft and tender grass
We lay, nor heard the limber wheels
That pass and ever pass,
In noisy continuity until their stony rattle
Seems in itself a battle.

At length we rose up from this ease
Of tranquil happy mind,
And searched the garden’s little length
Afresh pleasaunce to find;
And there, some yellow daffodils and jasmine hanging high
Did rest the tired eye.

The fairest and most fragrant
Of the many sweets we found,
Was a little bush of Daphne flower
Upon a grassy mound,
And so thick were the blossoms set and so divine the scent
That we were well content.

Hungry for spring, I bent my head,
The perfume fanned my face,
And all my soul was dancing
In that little lovely place,
Dancing with a measured step from wrecked and shattered towns
Away… upon the Downs.

I saw green banks of daffodil,
Slim poplars in the breeze,
Great tan-brown hares in gusty March
A-courting on the leas;
And meadows with their glittering streams, and silver scurrying dace,
Home – what a perfect place!

 

Unexceptional, unexceptionable, and very English. Can a young Englishman of middling talent write a good-ish poem about springtime in France? Sure–as long as it is really about longing for springtime in England. And then there is the following poem, also completed this month, a century back:

N·alalmino lalantila
Ne·súme lasser pínea
Ve sangar voro úmeai
Oïkta rámavoite malinai.

Ai lintulind(ov)a Lasselanta
Piliningwe súyer nallar qanta
Kuluvai ya karnevalinar
V’ematte sinqi Eldamar…

But you get the idea. And it is strange: a poem about fall–the rich colors of the falling leaves, the birds making ready to depart–written in March? Aha: but it was begun in November. And perhaps this is only a calendrical fallacy: if all English poems of spring are poems of English spring, are not all poems about the Elves of Middle Earth poems of (the) fall?

I should mention, perhaps, that the poem is by Lieutenant Ronald Tolkien; that it is in an early form of Quenya, a language that borrows Finnish phonology but is nevertheless of his own devising; and that is situated in his world as the earliest and highest form of Elvish. And that a translation is available here.

 

Tolkien will also create a second Elvish language modeled on the phonology of Welsh. Segue! For the real Welsh, today is St. David’s Day, and so for the Royal Welch, it is a Regimental feast.

We awoke to St. David’s Day 1916 in Montmorency Barracks, Béthune. The Bugles sounded Long Réveillé, the drums played “Old Mother Riley” and, after Salute, marched round the Barrack Square, and through the adjoining streets where the officers were billeted, to the air of “The Staffordshire Knot.” Yates had a leek for everyone’s cap, and the Drums had gilded each officer’s leek–a compliment and an investment. As a move was to be made in the early afternoon the customary celebrations could not be held, but estaminets were the meeting-places of many informal gatherings…

By evening the second battalion was ensconced at Le Quesnoy, where B company

…entertained an invited company. No coherent account of the night was obtainable, but there was evidence that one celebrant reached his billet, a quarter-mile distant, on all fours. So the Saint had not much to grumble about although there was no Goat to take part in the ritual.[2]

Even officers on detached duty celebrated the great day. In the enormous training camp at Le Havre, the infant (temporary) captain Robert Graves (aged 20) was the senior of seven officers of the Regiment present, and solemnly took the chair at dinner. Graves loved regimental pride and pomp, but he was not one for traditional military levity. He hardly drank at all, and was spotted one night about this time reading Homer under a lamp-post.[3]

 

And the third issue of The Egoist also came out today, a century back, and included this poem by still-not-a-soldier Richard Aldington:

Sloane Street

I walk the streets and squares
Of this lampless war-time London,
Beautiful in its dusk.
On the right an orange moon;
On the left a searchlight,
A silver stream among the stars.

London was a rich young man
Burdened with great possessions—
Now, poor in light.
Menaced, and a little frightened.
At length he sees the stars.

 

We’ll end with a dateable non-sequitur. March, 1916, was also the month that Herbert Read was badly cut by barbed wire while on patrol, and sent home to recuperate… but chose not to write about the experience, or to give us dates with which we might conjure up some speculations…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Spanish Farm Trilogy, 238.
  2. The War the Infantry Knew, 183.
  3. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 143.

Thomas Hardy Hymns in the New Year–“More Tears… More Severance, More Shock!” Kipling Ponders the Simple Soul of England; Ralph Mottram and Vera Brittain Look Back on a Bad Year

A New Year’s Eve in War Time

Thomas Hardy

                          I
            Phantasmal fears,
            And the flap of the flame,
            And the throb of the clock,
            And a loosened slate,
            And the blind night’s drone,
Which tiredly the spectral pines intone!
                          II
            And the blood in my ears
            Strumming always the same,
            And the gable-cock
            With its fitful grate,
            And myself, alone.
                         III
            The twelfth hour nears
            Hand-hid, as in shame;
            I undo the lock,
            And listen, and wait
            For the Young Unknown.
                         IV
            In the dark there careers —
            As if Death astride came
            To numb all with his knock —
            A horse at mad rate
            Over rut and stone.
                         V
            No figure appears,
            No call of my name,
            No sound but ‘Tic-toc’
            Without check. Past the gate
            It clatters — is gone.
                         VI
            What rider it bears
            There is none to proclaim;
            And the Old Year has struck,
            And, scarce animate,
            The New makes moan.
                         VII
            Maybe that ‘More Tears! —
            More Famine and Flame —
            More Severance and Shock!’
            Is the order from Fate
            That the Rider speeds on
To pale Europe; and tiredly the pines intone.

For those familiar with Hardy’s novels but not his poetry… well, actually, this doesn’t give a very good idea of the sharpness of his bitterly ironic later verses. Other than the sharp–and sharp-edged–trimeter, it’s more like Hardy in Dynasts mode, when he could stuff a room full of enormous old-fashioned dramatic furniture and still have room for a thundering pantomime of world-historical significance.

 

From this gloomy and correct prognostication, we move to a very different contribution from our other representative Great Late Victorian Writer. Rudyard Kipling has had a bad year. Where Hardy grieved at length over the loss of a promising young cousin, Kipling lost his only son–after having used his influence to win the boy a commission despite his disabling myopia. Kipling has not written much since Jack’s death, but he shows much less inclination than Hardy, so far, to modify the tone or content of his war writing.

Yet a strange letter today, a century back. Some of the awkwardness is explained by the fact that we’re reading a re-translation of something Kipling wrote in French, and yet this still seems like important work done in a fairly casual vain. After all, the allies must hang together! And here we have a “heart of England” piece presented for French consumption–it will be published in February in La Revue de Paris

31 December 1915

…There are days when I look at, or rather listen to, these people and say to myself: “If you people aren’t mad, then I’ve gone crazy.” But on looking closer at what they are accomplishing I find that they are saner than I had imagined.

Yesterday, for example, I met in one of my fields, where I have just had some dead trees cut down, the wife of one of my tenants who was gathering up rather heavy bundles of firewood: I helped her load them in her cart. I knew that she had lost a son, a soldier, this summer. Her indifference about the war was monumental. It was because she loved fish. She had written to her two other sons to send her some fish: they answered that it would not be worth the cost of shipping (all this, as you will imagine, slowly developed with infinite repetitions, while she collected her dead wood).

“So, you have sons who are fishermen?” I said to her. “Yes, fisherman, all their lives.” Finally, at the end of ten minutes, I find that she has two sons who serve on minesweepers, somewhere, between Ramsgate and Torquay–she doesn’t know exactly. One of her sons was on two boats that sank: one time the boat was able to be beached; the other time–I repeat her own words–“it was stopped in its course by something that I don’t understand.” The other son, with his captain and three other members of the crew, “was called to see the king and to receive a medal for something. I don’t know what, but it is supposed to be a medal for having saved lives from a boat that hit a mine some weeks ago.” But her main worry is about the fish that she wants in order to “change her diet” and the high price of shipment. She also has two sons in the army (she had three but I have said that one was killed last summer). She does not seem to be much upset: but she wondered about her fishermen: “They have all the time they need for fishing.”

Is this a parable, or an allegory? I don’t know at all: I tell you this so that you can understand from what a strange angle we approach things.

Now Kipling turns to discuss the political question of the moment:

There are at the moment in our village about six young men who haven’t enlisted. Our village does not talk about the 150 who have gone off, and whose names have been duly posted at the churchdoor–those of the dead enclosed in a neat little black border. All the talk turns on the shame and the sin of the six black sheep and on the punishments they’ll get when their comrades come back. Our ministry is undecided and unhappy over the question of compulsory service: it is still very political. Besides, it won’t accept the principle until every Englishman has been convinced that the government has said and done everything one could ask against the principle. Meantime, volunteers continue at the rate of 30,000 a week: people fear the dishonour of compulsion. People don’t make any noise on that little matter. For my part, I think they are wrong, but that’s not at all my affair. I share actively in the disapproval that falls on the six black sheep in our village…[1]

 

And with that grim foretaste of the less-thrillingly war-bound levée-en-masse–the 1916 law which will shape the armies of 1917 just as Kitchener’s appeal of 1914 was felt in 1915–let’s take a double change of pace to Ralph Mottram, a man who has not yet made his mark. A middle class provincial New Army man, he gave up his job at a bank and joined up in 1914, soon taking the appropriate commission. Mottram is decades younger than Kipling (not to mention Hardy) yet he seems decades older than our jaunty young subalterns–he is, in fact, thirty-two.

His story will be a calmer one, with all the more scope for calm assessment of the way a man moves only through the unfolding present and yet may still make some sense of history. I will get to his great, dateless novel whenever I can, but today I want him to some up 1915, the year of the Rise of the New Armies:

So let us sum up my memories of 1915:

In any completely strange environment, the moderately intelligent human being seeks to examine it by his senses. Mine record this. Semi-darkness. (We could seldom raise our heads from our shelters in daylight.) Illumination by green star shells, which the enemy fired unceasingly and by the sparks struck from every hard object by the rain of bullets fired at us on set lines. Noise. Explosions of all dimension and relative nearness, hissing and whispering; the whiplash crack and shrieking ricochet, stutter of machine gun and ponderous grating of heavy objects moved with difficulty. Odour; carrion and disinfectant, sewerage and chemicals. A sudden wicked sweetness. Gas! A soothing homely whiff of upturned earth. Touch: Wet, sticky, hard, cold, the desperate grip of numbed fingers on bolts and triggers. Wet feet, aching head.

A burdened procession of figures staggering through it all. One crashes to the ground and there arises the cry “stretcher-bearer!” But a little further on, in some improbable shelter, there is singing. Some blatant music-hall tune, and a crackle of laughter. It is so real that I can hardly believe that it is over, these forty years. But it did exist, and we withstood it.[2]

 

And just two more type-scenes before we close the second year–which was easily the least bloody, I believe. First, Dr. Dunn of the Royal Welch:

December 31st.–At 11 p.m.–midnight in Germany–for five minutes, and again at midnight for two minutes, the German artillery fired a New Year Greeting: we had one man wounded. On our left the second shoot was preceded by a shout from a German, “Keep down, you bastards, we’re going to strafe you.” We retaliated on their front line with rifles and Lewis guns…[3]

 

Lastly, loss. Vera Brittain will close the terrible year writing, as best she can:

New Year’s Eve 11.55

This time last year He was seeing me off on Charing Cross Station after David Copperfield–and I had just begun to realise I loved Him. To-day He is lying in the military cemetery at Louvencourt–because a week ago He was wounded in action, and had just 24 hours of consciousness more and then went “to sleep in France”. And I, who in impatience felt a fortnight ago that I could not wait another minute to see Him, must wait till all Eternity. All has been given me, and all taken away again–in one year.

So I wonder where we shall be–what we shall all be doing–if we all still shall be–this time next year.[4]

 

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters, IV, 351.
  2. Mottram, The Window Seat, 230-1.
  3. Dunn, the War the Infantry Knew, 174-175.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 296-7.

Phillip Maddison Goes Once More Into the Breach; Robert Nichols: The Strain Tells on You and Saps Your Strength; Robert Graves and Frank Richards on the Aftermath; Osbert Sitwell and the Guards Reach the Battlefield; Milne is Spared; Tolkien and Mottram Prepare

Yesterday the Battle of Loos began. British troops surged forward, except where they didn’t. In some parts of the line thousands of yards were gained, in others the first two waves were shot down before uncut wire and the survivors ended where they began. The biggest gains were lost when the Germans counter-attacked the depleted British assault troops and drove them back into their reserves, who had stumbled up to the line exhausted and far too late to effect a relief. (“Drove them back” means something like “shot and shelled them until mental exhaustion and the fear of being killed or captured caused them to retreat.”) Nowhere did the British advance come close to breaking all the way through the numerous layers of deeply-delved trenches.

Yesterday’s themes, then–as the battle came to be written–were courage and futility, the willingness of the infantry and the failure of the Staff. Henry Williamson hammered these themes like a toddler with a glockenspiel, and even gave the starring role in one small local success–the improvised flanking assault at Lone Tree–to Phillip Maddison, the alter-ego at the center of his enormous sequence of novels. Today, Maddison continues to rove around the battlefield and witness the historically “characteristic” events of the day. This is fiction retro-fitted to comment on the main themes of the written history. (Williamson was not there, and his heavy reading in the sources is obvious in the novel. Maddison today is less an alter-ego than a time-traveler, sent back into history to be the reader’s roving eye–this might be termed the hidden-camera approach to historical fiction).[1]

And what does he see? First, the slow and blundering advance of the British reserves. Yesterday, the Staff were the villains with their clunky plans and the simple improvised outflanking maneuver was something any boy scout should have recognized. Today it is the scout-ish behavior of the New Armies that embarrasses Phillip: he comes upon none other than the snobbish, Public School-rife New Army battalion of the Gaultshires that he had trained with over the summer, and finds the colonel, the self-regarding old Cambridge don who had presided over the bullying and shallow mess, now fumbling about, trying to get his battalion to its jump-off position by using a compass and aninsufficiently detailed map. So young Phillip takes it upon himself to lecture the elderly colonel, the young old soldier speaking to the elderly neophyte:

and not wait for useless orders. Obviously we ought to go on and fill the gap. We ought to push on, the quicker the better. It’s common sense!

vermelles to loos Phillip leads the battalion back up through no man’s land–still littered with yesterday’s wounded–and over the old German line near Lone Tree. Then he goes up to La Rutoire (the isolated farm, center top, at right) to try to find the battalion’s transport, then back to the battalion where, unaccountably, he chooses to stay with them as they make their futile attack into a “gap” that has long since been closed by newly emplaced machine guns.

There’s another impressionistic scene, now, of the bewildering horror of a floundering attack. Phillip stumbles along as the battalion is riddled with bullets, wondering why he has come. Men fall all around him and don’t get up, and then he falls too–mysteriously, for he is not hit. And then once again, improbably, he comes face to face with the Germans, who come forward to capture the wounded remnants of the Gaultshires… and immediately let them go: they would rather the British deal with their casualties.

This is not all that improbable in and of itself: cold hearts had already figured out that wounding the enemy in many ways slowed him down more than simply killing him. Dead men drain no resources, while the evacuation of the wounded is very difficult–remember all those men yesterday clogging up the communications trenches as the second wave went forward.[2] The Germans have their own wounded to deal with–and things have not quite yet come to such a pass that European armies will murder their foes in cold blood. Yet the cumulative effect is quite bizarre–more Germans, more surviving at the front of an assault?–and perhaps it’s time we left Phillip and his thematic tour of Everything That Happened at Loos, and looked to the non-fictional experiences.

 

On the northern end of the battlefront, where the men of the Middlesex and the Royal Welch had died in a futile attempt to distract the German counterattacks from Loos itself, last night was a mixed operation of rescue and salvage.

We… spent the day after the attack carrying the dead down for burial and cleaning the trench up as best we could. That night the Middlesex held the line, while the Royal Welch carried all the unbroken gas-cylinders along to a position on the left flank of the Brigade, where they were to be use on the following night…

This was worse than carrying the dead; the cylinders were cast-iron, heavy and hateful. The men cursed and sulked. The officers alone knew of the proposed attack; the men must not be told until just beforehand. I felt like screaming.[3]

Robert Graves had also complained, yesterday, of published slights about the Welch’s slow advance, made by a writer from a Scottish New Army battalion to the south that had made good progress. He returns the insult today–the enfant terrible is nevertheless terribly proud of his regiment, you see–thus following in the footsteps of the officers who continued the futile attack because of their loyalty to the Middlesex, another “English”[4] battalion in a unit dominated by Scots. If the Welch failed to advance against insuperable obstacles, well, Graves informs us, the Highland Light Infantry attacked but then fell back, and utterly lost cohesion. The old knock on the Highland regiments seems to be connected (somewhat amazingly) to their tribal past: they are indisciplined savages who “charge like hell–both ways.” Today, after the attack and retreat, they are sleeping, wounded, unvigilant; their officers absent. Graves tells us that he “walked nearly a quarter of a mile without seeing either a sentry or an officer… The trench had been used as a latrine.”

For Graves this is a source for wry humor–“I reported to the Actor that we might have our flank in the air.” But Frank Richards, an old soldier of the regiment, is more deeply offended–and more opportunistic.

In the Royal Welch, if every officer and N.C.O has been casualties the oldest soldier that was left would have posted his sentries and seen for himself that they were keeping a sharp look-out.

But, as it was, he leaves his own battalion to have a “scrounge,” a traditional but hardly respectable activity. Richards finds the “Old Soldier” and two others carrying a rum jar, presumably one belonging to the Highland Light Infantry.

During the next forty-eight hours there were no more cheerier men in France than some of the old hands of my platoon and more brews of tea were made than what had been known for some time.[5]

 

As was mentioned briefly yesterday–perhaps you missed it, it was a bit of a run-on, that post–the fury of the bombardment has also caused the first clear case of psychological injury among our writers. Today, a century back, Robert Nichols left his unit and entered the peristaltic process of army medical treatment today. A letter to his father, perhaps begun yesterday, was continued today or tomorrow:

I’m in hospital for a few days–after a rather thick time. They found me done up utterly in a road after looking for a place and I still feel rather done in–having been knocked down twice, once by the blast of a gun and once by a spent bullet…

Although my nerves have played me false do not think that I disgraced myself–as a matter of fact I think I did all right in that way. But the strain tells on you and saps your strength–for where I was although we were marvellously lucky any moment might have been one’s last–for we were close up and had whizz-bangs, heavy guns, rifles and machine guns against us–I mean where we, the officers, were observing.

Nichols was fortunate to belong to an evidently humane unit, or to come under the care of understanding doctors. The infantry had it worse, in most ways, and officers of the old Regular Army, worried about discipline and fighting spirit in a beleaguered army, did not always take the time to distinguish between emotional collapse and simple cowardice. (Actually, I don’t believe in “simple” cowardice, but the point is not worth arguing. Suffice it to say that it is cruel to punish men for breaking down after being “blown up”–traumatized and often suffering brain injuries–and yet, if the war is to continue, men who are faltering because they are afraid to die must be kept to the task. A perfect delineation of the two will be impossible, which is cruel–but there are many cruelties here.)

Nichols, again, was lucky. His battery commander, writing a few weeks hence, both admits to Nichols’ “suffering from a slight nervous breakdown” and commends his performance:

We did some very hard fighting during his stay in the Battery which he did not mind a bit, also whatever duty he had to perform in action or out he did splendidly and again [I] must say how sorry I was to lose him. So blessed hard for a fellow to be full of fight but his health fails him.

This humane commander–a Captain J. Richards,–will also write to Nichols:

We had a rough time here and most trying, a terrible strain to the strongest and at the time you wasn’t one of the strongest, so you must get thoroughly well this time. I felt awfully sorry for you, poor kid, you did me so well, it’s one thing, although your nerves had gone there wasn’t anything you would not do let it be never so dangerous, and you must admit things were very hot. I reported to the colonel your heart was as big as a lion’s but no one can go against bad health which means rotten bad luck.[6]

I wish I could report more on Richards, or on the details of Nichols’ symptoms and condition. He is the first, but there will be others.

 

Now, the show must go on. Much of the blame for yesterday’s failure should fall to whomever we should consider responsible for the insufficient artillery preparation–the government or the general staff, going back months and even years. But much of the rest–there were initial local successes, and both Loos and Hill 70 were swiftly taken–goes to Sir John French himself, who was slow in allowing Haig, the actual battlefield commander, to take command of the reserves. A few hours of delay there is directly traceable to the retreats of yesterday afternoon.

And today the Guards Division, which Bimbo Tennant had hoped would be promptly “popped” into a gap in the German lines, is still marching to the battlefield. Osbert Sitwell, whose memories are vivid but hazy on the dates, evokes the scene when they first reached it.

…at the earliest hour, we reached the battlefield… For many weeks the Germans had, of course, observed our preparations to attack them. They had been ready. Now the bodies of friends and enemies lay, curious crumpled shapes, swollen and stiff in the long yellow grass under chicory flowers. A dry, rather acrid smell of death, just tinctured with tear gas, hung over the brown Rubens-like landscape…[7]

The attack will resume in full force tomorrow, with the Guards in the fore-front.

 

In many ways  the second day of Loos was something of a lull, which is the most damning evidence of “poor staff work” in preparing for the battle. Fittingly, then, I have a few notes to share about writers still enjoying the peace and plenty of England, there own lulls lasting a little longer yet.

It seems funny to mention A.A. Milne in a context such as this, but his battalion of the Warwickshires was roughly handled yesterday–every officer (I have read this, but not verified it) who entered the fight became a casualty. But Milne was safe, far away from the battle, having qualified for training as a signals instructor.

And Ralph Mottram, who will in many ways write the only successful “major” nineteenth-century-style British novel of the war,[8]got his mobilization orders for France today, a century back.

On the second day of the Loos offensive, I opened a telegram ordering reinforcement officers to prepare to proceed overseas. My own name was among them. It was an error, I knew, for Morton of the Suffolks, but with correct military manners I handed over my job, and took my two days’ embarkation leave.

I was now at grips with stark reality and very grim it was. I had hardly been home all that happy, busy summer. I found Mother, pathetically worn and courageous, nursing Father in what, I tried not to admit, was his last illness. He hardly knew me, and could not find the words he wanted. I do not think he realized in the least that I was just going into the heart of that, to him, unimaginable thing, a European war. I got rid of some superfluous kit and left for France. The old Scots Embarkation Officer verified my papers and said: “God bless you”, surprisingly. We crossed at night, all lights covered and no smoking on deck.

So the staff in France may have blundered, but the War Office is hurrying on the next batch of replacement officers, and they are coming–taking mistakes like a typographical accident of fate in stride. And art will imitate life in this. Mottram’s fictional protagonist Geoffrey Skene, who shares much of his war experience with his creator (although less than Maddison with Williamson), also started for France on this date. Alas–for we will need his keen eye–dates are thin on the ground in traditional novels…[9]

 

And finally, today, J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Wiseman, G.B. Smith, and Rob Gilson assembled today, a century back. At least three of them had met yesterday in the town of Lichfield, and today–if they kept to the plans recorded in their correspondance–the four had lunch together at the Gilsons’ in Marston Green. The Tea Club and Barrovian Society had moved if not heaven and earth then at least family, school, army, and the British rail system to maintain their friendship after school. But these gatherings have been rare.

Perhaps they talked about the first reports of the growing battle. Perhaps they discussed their hopes and fears as their own marching orders loomed. Or perhaps they just did what they always did–read each other’s stories and poems, and talked about their grand plans for literary success and creative fulfillment. Which now must come, of course, after the war…[10]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Spoiler, in terms of writing context, ahead: I don't want to spend the time today discussing this at length, but I've realized that Williamson is reading along with us. He quotes the Official History at length and has certainly read Graves, and probably Richards too. And into today's strange experiences--Maddison speaks with Germans in no man's land for the third time in the war--he inserts an anecdote that seems to come directly from Rowland Feilding's letters. Williamson's Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight is sometimes a challenging, flawed, interesting novel, a baggy monster making a fair bid to represent the experience of a time and place; and sometimes, as in the description of Loos, it's more like an anthology yoked to a ham-handed historical fiction.
  2. The same sort of evil genius designed the many types of land mines which maim more than they kill.
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 161-2.
  4. Few of the Welch officers are actually Welsh, though many of the men are.
  5. Old Soldiers Never Die, 130.
  6. Putting Poetry First, 51-2.
  7. Laughter in the Next Room, 106.
  8. You like that? I got five qualifiers onto "novel," and even forgot to specify "by a veteran," which might be necessary as well. I rule out Williamson ("successful," and "nineteenth-century") and Ford (Parade's End is decidedly Modern), and several other slim one-volume efforts that don't address the behind-the-lines aspect of the war as well as Mottram does.
  9. Window Seat, 220, 227; Spanish Farm Trilogy, 255.
  10. Chronology, 73-4.

Roland Leighton Departs; Hardy Breaks with the Jingoists and Evokes Pity; Dorothie Feilding Damns the War; Updates on John Lucy and Ralph Mottram

Many poems come dated to a month, but not a particular day, and it seems a sensible custom to bring them in on the first of the month, even if their writing may have been days or weeks later. So, today, a significant new poem from Thomas Hardy.

If one had been forced into an assessment of his 1914 work, one might have been tempted to assert that the old man had lost it. Charles Sorley, who loved Hardy’s writing, had expressed something like such doubts. Was the great sage really going to follow his fellow eminent writers into propaganda? Would the grim determination to face all the unpleasantness of the hard world wither into the half-thought-through patriotism of “Men Who March Away?”

Not so fast. This month, Hardy will write The Pity of It. It simply makes the point that it’s a pity–a great, disastrous pity–that two peoples who, after all, are cousins in language and culture, should now seek to destroy each other. Not so radical–but in a time when “pro-Germans” were being harassed and even jailed, certainly a departure from Hun-hating, Tommy-praising jingoism.

from feilding2_2 with notes, Lady Feilding in April 1915

Lady Dorothie Feilding in April 1915. In addition to her Red Cross armband, she wears the badge of the Coldstream Guards, the regiment to which her brother and many other Feildings belonged.

 

Lady Feilding is not above railing against the perfidious Germans, and yet she too is coming to dwell more and more on the simple ugliness of war, whatever its justifications.

April 1st, Furnes

Father dear,

Here are some photographs to see. Would you send them later on to Mother to keep for me please?

…Such a gorgeous night last night. Magnificent moon, like day & we went blessé [wounded] hunting down near Dixmude. It was very ghostly & ghouly there in moonlight. I do resent having the Germans right up to the bridge there.They are just the other side of the river, 25 yds across & it doesn’t look like being able to move them…

Goodbye Mr Da dear, this is a damnable war. I wish I had been invented last generation.

God bless you

Diddles[1]

 

From Roland Leighton, today, a century back, we have the briefest of significant telegrams. Vera will reply immediately, and at greater length. Their correspondence will continue to loom large, here, over the next few weeks.

Just on point of crossing

Roland

Buxton, 1 April 1915

…It was just like you to think of sending me a telegram notwithstanding all the hurry & responsibility in which you were involved.

…How I look forward–with eagerness & yet fear too–to the first of your ‘scrappy letters’. You will tell me all you have to go through, won’t you—at any rate as much as Censorship will allow. Please don’t keep things back with a vague idea of sparing my feelings; I am not so weak that I fear to face in imagination what you have to endure in reality. I have just been reading a letter of yours which you wrote me at the beginning of the war; you said you felt you were meant to take an active part in it, that it fascinated you because in spite of its horrors much of it was very ennobling & beautiful, & there was something elemental in it which raised it above the reach of of cold theorising.

First there is the naked fear–nakedly expressed, at least (kudos, repressed Edwardian youth!)–that the divergence now in the nature of their experiences will mean an estrangement of their sensibilities. Of course. But then see what Brittain does: she returns to the past for comfort–this is nostalgia–but then she reads it like a historian. The past letters are used to contextualize the present, although surely she also resorts to this sort of analysis to blunt the sharpness of the emotion into which she would be tempted to wallow. Roll on, the battle of romanticism and rationalism.

I suppose it is that ‘something elemental’ which you are finding now, and that war makes plainly manifest the very heights & depths of human nature. I know how you will conquer the terror of these things, how your keen soul will discern the beauty & glory of them shining through the gloom in which they are shrouded, how fearlessly you will look down into the depths & up into the heights.

And then, again, and wisely, she confronts her fear of the experiential gulf that will open between veterans of the trenches and non-combatants, those well-intentioned thinkers now abed in England.

Why should you hesitate to tell me of these things? I can after all read about them in the papers, only without that personal element of yours which will make them specially mine. I shall not be afraid to know and confront the real; the imagined has far greater terror for me. Let me share your hardships–perhaps your sufferings–in the only way I can.[2]

This is a heartfelt plea, and a terrible hope to have. Will it be possible?

After playing up as bravely as she can, Vera turned to her diary to write the heart of the matter:

So he has really gone. I cannot lull my fears to sleep any longer with the hope that he may be in safety after all—his path now will be from one danger to another, with the Shadow of Death beside him every hour.[3]

 

John Lucy, our stalwart Irish Regular of the fall battles, has been of less use to this project ever since, not because his narrative lacks interest but because without memorable battles he has been unable to re-attach dates to his memories. And even now, with the Spring battles having arrived, the chronology is a bit dubious–some bits of “April” appear before Neuve Chapelle, others after. But I do want to update his story, and give us a first look at an enlisted man on leave. So, taking advantage of the first-of-the-month convention:

I was offered ninety-six hours’ leave from the front in April, and I went home to Cork, complete with arms and equipment.

We should remember that he had refused an earlier offer for home leave because he could not face home without his brother, killed in September.

The attitude of the English people [as he traveled through England] astonished me. I met with tender and sympathetic glances everywhere. My weather-stained, ill-fitting uniform and the dried mud on my unpolished boots showed that I was home from the front. Men and women made way for me, and they talked to me affectionately, as the English public never before talked to their soldiers…

I forgot the English when I landed at Rosslare, and I devoured every Irish field from there to Cork.

When he reaches the home of his relatives,

…their studied cheerful greetings collapsed into surreptitious tear-wiping behind doors and in other rooms. The ghost of my dead brother had come home with me.

Lucy discovers other difficulties in adjustment, problems which will become very familiar as the war (and the 20th century, and the 21st century) unfold: good food upsets his army-hardened stomach, and he crawls from comfortable beds at night to sleep on the floor.

And, of course, he finds solace in nature:

For a brief spell I drank in the stillness of Ireland under blue sky and white standing clouds. I escaped back into my boyhood by going bird-nesting in these few days of spring. I fondled the startling blue eggs of the thrush and the speckled olive eggs of early blackbirds. I found anchorage in the undisturbed activities of the birds, and came to regard the non-singers with affection–the pies, rooks, and sparrows.

And one more thing: Lucy ratifies his rejection of Kipling, replacing him with the fervid verses of Francis Thompson:

Kipling had faded out because romance and glory has but little to do with war. Only one line of his came hammering back unsought: ‘You can’t get away from the guns.'[4]

 

Finally, an update on Ralph Mottram, author of the most important Great War novel we have yet to discuss. Mottram had enlisted with many of his fellow Norwich bank clerks in the 2/4th (Territorial) battalion of the Norfolk Regiment in August. Now, after three serio-comic seasons with that unit–the “real” Territorials kept getting drafted to the front, and the ill-equipped remnant, essentially a New Army unit, were haphazardly drilled, marched to the coast for German invasion scares, and generally left in a semi-professional lurch–he had decided, like so many other middle class men, to try for a commission. He was “thunderstruck” to learn that his request had been granted, and today, “(ominous date),” a century back, he struck out for the depot in Essex, where his training as an officer would begin.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 57.
  2. Letters from a Lost Generation, 65-66.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 170.
  4. There's a Devil in the Drum, 317-9.
  5. The Window Seat, 218.