Winston Churchill, Late to the Wake

Raymond Asquith has been dead for two and a half months. His friends were numerous–Winchester friends, Balliol friends, fellow members of the social set known as the Coterie–and many of them have written to his widow Katherine. But some haven’t yet been able to steel themselves to that task.

We’ll turn over today to Asquith’s… political friend Winston Churchill. Curiously, this former naval person (and recent desultory Western Front battalion commander) writes to the widow just as her father-in-law’s long-beleaguered government is finally collapsing.

I really could not bring myself to write to you before. The uselessness of anything I could say pressed so upon me that I thought I would wait till later on. But you will have to understand how profoundly and keenly I sympathise with you in your unspeakable sorrow, and how truly I grieve myself for the loss of my brilliant hero-friend.

I always had an intense admiration for Raymond, and also a warm affection for him; and both were old established ties… I remember so vividly the last time I saw him–at Montreuil in early May. We sat or strolled for two hours on the old ramparts in bright sunshine, and talked about the war, about the coming offensive, about his son, about all sorts of things. I like to dwell on these war-time memories. These gallant charming figures that flash and gleam amid the carnage–always so superior to it, masters of their souls, disdainful of death and suffering–are an inspiration and an example to all. And he was one of the very best. He did everything easily–I never remember anyone who seemed so independent of worldly or physical things: and yet he enjoyed everything and had an appreciation of life and letters and men and women, and manners and customs refined and subtle to the last degree. Oh how unbearable it must be for you to have lost him! How vain must these and all other words be to ease your grief.

Still you will be brave, you will try like him to smile at fate, and meet it on equal terms. You will remember how many friends you have, and think of the days to come when your little boy will revive his image and carry into the forefront of his country’s service the name that all will honour.[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Raymond Asquith, Life and Letters, 15.

The Prime Minister Grieves; Isaac Rosenberg and Edward Thomas Get On With Their Writing; Richard Aldington Goes for a Noncom; Bimbo Tennant’s Heart of Triple Bronze

A brief flurry of four letters, today, and several impending movements–some routine, others ominous.

First, the poets.

Isaac Rosenberg has been on the Somme front for much of the year. His battalion has not been in any of the attacks, but has seen a good deal of the war of attrition. In and out of trenches, working in salvage, Rosenberg has, by now, as great a claim to be a “poet of the trenches” as anyone. He has written much, but he has written well. And the tenuous connection to mainstream (i.e. Anglican, and wealthy or well-connected) poetry that Eddie Marsh has provided him is beginning to take hold. Gordon Bottomley has written to Rosenberg several times, now, with praise and advice, and reciprocal gifts are promised. In a letter postmarked today, a century back, Rosenberg thanks Bottomley and allows himself the luxury of dreaming for the future.

22311 A Coy 3 Platoon
11th KORL BEF

Dear Mr Bottomley

I have not had the chance till now of thanking you for your beautiful thought of me in your letter & book. It has been wet and mucky in the trenches for some time & the cold weather helping, we are teased by the elements as well as by the German fireworks, I don’t think Ive been dry yet these last few days… It gave me fine pleasure that you liked my drawing. I have not yet written home about that Adam & Eve drawing as I don’t remember where it is but I want you to have it when I get back if I am lucky…

I am most eager to read your early book but it would be far from safe to send it here, beside the little time there is for reading.

Yours Sincerely,

Isaac Rosenberg[1]

 

Back in London, Gordon Bottomley’s old friend Edward Thomas wrote once again to Eleanor Farjeon.[2] As artillery training and a commission approach, his poetic pen is once more drying up. But he did write several poems recently which we, dragged once more into death on the Somme, did not read here. Today he sends them–possibly “That Girl’s Clear Eyes” and “What Will They Do” (a poem we will return to)–to Farjeon, whom he recognizes as his best first reader. She’s the person he would prefer to send his draft verses to–rather, that is, than the powerful and distant Frost. It doesn’t hurt that she types them for him…

Wednesday

My dear Eleanor, I don’t know yet whether I am going. The exam was easy but I expect others found it so too. Of course if I don’t go to Trowbridge I shall see you before long. In case I don’t could you send me a copy of those last verses—the Blenheim Oranges—of mine? I can’t find one or the original. You will see I have written some more too—if you can see the faint type. Perhaps one of them is better than the others…

Yours ever
Edward Thomas[3]

 

And one more fairly dull London literary note: Richard Aldington, high-minded modernist and alternately strutting soldier and lamenting conscript, has been selected for training as a non-commissioned officer. This meant six days’ leave, and he and his wife, the poet H.D.–who had moved away to be near him in camp and was miserable there–“went straight to London to resume something resembling their former literary life.”

Aldington, H.D., F.S. Flint and several friends “dined together in Soho. Flint wrote to [Amy] Lowell that it was a ‘comprehensive gathering of the clan . . . the absent ones being yourself on the bay where the tea was spoiled and Lawrence on some little bay in Cornwall.’”[4] It’s worth noting that Aldington had not wanted to fight, waited nearly two years to be drafted, and then turned proud army man, writing sneeringly of people like Flint who were too physically infirm to be desirable to the draft boards. Meanwhile Flint seems to be casting aspersions on D.H. Lawrence, who has chosen a sort of internal exile on his “little bay,” in the hopes of weathering the storms of social backlash meted out to confirmed pacifists. Which is a difficult and uncompromised position…

 

Others, of course, who had no desire to go to war had promptly gone nonetheless. It seemed to many men to be, even in August 1914, an inevitable duty–which is to say that serving in the armed forces was both necessary and socially unavoidable, and therefore there was nothing to do but make the best of it.

Which is what Raymond Asquith did, preserving himself as a loving husband and father and a sharp-penned society wit, while also becoming a capable and widely-admired Guards officer. And he survived more than two years of war…

Today, a century back, a first letter from his father, the beleaguered prime minister, H.H. Asquith, reacting to his son’s death.

I can honestly say that in my own life he was the thing of which I was truly proud, and in him and his future I had invested all my stock of hope. That is all gone, and for the moment I feel bankrupt…

I drove from here yesterday to Mells, nearly 80 miles, to see Katherine who wanted me… I have never seen anyone so stunned and shattered: all she wants is to die. Only yesterday morning she had received a letter from him, written last Thursday:[5] she showed it to me–a delightful little love letter.[6]

Two things, at least, are needless to say: that a letter from beyond the grave, as it were, seems like a most sharp and perfect manifestation of the grim ironies of proximity; and that such a letter could hardly increase the real suffering of a bereaved wife. There’s little to be felt from a knife twisted in a such a gaping wound–but it hurts.

 

Asquith’s younger friend and fellow guardsman Bim Tennant (his polite acquaintance, really–the two were related by marriage and moved in the same circles, but they were not close, separated as they were by more than eighteen years and almost diametrically opposite temperaments) has avoided grieving for the many losses of September fifteenth. He has other matters to attend to: it will be his turn to go forward on the attack, soon.

20th September, 1916

“… To-night we go up to the last trenches we were in, and to-morrow we go over the top. Our Brigade has suffered less than either of the other two Brigades in Friday’s biff, so we shall be in the forefront of the battle. I am full of hope and trust, and pray that I may be worthy of my fighting ancestors. The one I know best is Sir Henry Wyndham, whose bust is in the hall at 44 Belgrave Square, and there is a picture of him on the stairs at 34 Queen Anne’s Gate. We shall probably attack over about 1200 yards, but we shall have such artillery support as will properly smash the Boche line we are going for. And even (which is unlikely) if the artillery doesn’t come up to our hopes the spirit of the Brigade of Guards will carry all resistance before it. The pride of being in such a great regiment! The thought that all the old men, ‘late Grenadier Guards,’who sit in the London Clubs, are thinking and hoping about what we are doing here! I have never been prouder of anything, except your love for me, than I am of being a Grenadier. To-day is a great day for me. That line of Harry’s rings through my mind, ‘High heart, high speech, high deeds, ‘mid honouring eyes[7] I went to a service on the side of a hill this morning, and took the Holy Communion afterwards, which always seems to help one along, doesn’t it? I slept like a top last night, and dreamed that someone I know very well (but I can’t remember who it was) came to me and told me how much I had grown. Three or four of my brother officers read my poems yesterday, and they all liked them very much which pleased me enormously. I feel rather like saying ‘If it be possible let this cup pass from me,’ but the triumphant finish ‘nevertheless not what I will but what Thou wiliest,’ steels my heart and sends me into this battle with a heart of triple bronze.[8]

I always carry four photies of you when we go into action, one is in my pocket-book, two in that little leather book, and one round my neck, and I have kept my little medal of the Blessed Virgin. Your love for me and my love for you, have made my whole life one of the happiest there has ever been; Brutus’ farewell to Cassius sounds in my heart: ‘If not farewell; and if we meet again, we shall smile.’ Now all my blessings go with you, and with all we love. God bless you, and give you Peace.

Eternal Love,

from BIM.”[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Liddiard, e.d, Poetry Out of My Head, 83-4.
  2. The letter is postmarked "21 September 1916," a Thursday.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 213.
  4. Whelpton, Richard Aldington, 137.
  5. This is either a truly "last" letter written on the 14th along with the last letter to Diana Manning that wasn't printed in the Life and Letters, or this one, written last Tuesday, the 12th.
  6. Webb, From Downing Street to the Trenches, 230.
  7. "Harry" Cust's Non Nobis.
  8. Congratulate me for recognizing this as Homeric--but Bimbo is probably taking it via Horace.
  9. Memoir, 234-5.

Bim Tennant’s Perpetual Smile Falters; Kate Luard Among the Mad and the Mangled; Rudyard Kipling Will not Yield; Francis Ledwidge Hymns a Patron’s Pen

Today, a century back, we have a strange and terrible quartet. We will end with the gentlest sort of prospective-farewell poem, and preface that with a survivor’s half-suppressed outburst of grief and relief. But first, the obscenity of war’s damage to young bodies, and then a clenched, wretched testament to the ongoing agonies of a bereaved parent.

Kate Luard‘s hospital was, once, a fairly orderly place where minor wounds were dealt with quickly so the staff could focus on abdominal wounds. It is now, like any medical facility on the Somme, a shambles and a madhouse. (And I’m letting loose with the rhetoric only as suppressing fire, really: because today’s second entry is, in its quiet, specific way, worse.)

Monday, September 18th. We are all grappling with work all day now, some of it is wonderful, but much of it is nothing but black. There is a boy dying who has his Will in his Pay-book made out ‘to my beloved mother.’ He looks about 17…There is a mad boy who is very funny: when you feed him he says, ‘1,2,3 a cup of tea, bread and butter 4,5,6, it’s 238 now…’ All his thoughts are in numbers… The blind boy with both legs off is dying; he doesn’t know his legs are off, and is cheerfully delirious most of the time. He calls us ‘Teacher…’ He was murmuring ‘Such is life’ just now.[1]

 

Even the greatest writer with swiftest, strongest imagination can be brought to his knees by a form letter. Rudyard Kipling has carried on; it’s been nearly a year since his son John’s death, and he has continued to live, and to write. And he spared no effort in finding those of his son’s men and comrades who might shed light on his disappearance on the battlefield of Loos. And they, trying to be kind, may have been cruel–Kipling came away with hope, despite the fact that these witnesses saw his son shot down, fatally, in a failed attack. But maybe there was nothing else they could say.

Four days ago, a century back, the War Office generated a form letter stating that the younger Kipling must be officially considered dead “unless further information about his fate has been received.”

Bateman’s / Burwash / Sussex
18th September 1916.

The Secretary
War Office, Alexandra House

Sir,

In reply to your letter. No. 125146 /1 (C. 2 Casualties) of the 14th September, I should be glad if you would postpone taking the course you suggest in regard to my son Lieutenant John Kipling. All the information I have gathered is to the effect that he was wounded and left behind near Puits 14 at the Battle of Loos on September 27th 1915. I have interviewed a great many people and heard from many others, and can find no one who saw him killed, and his wound being a leg wound would be more disabling than fatal.

May I draw your attention to the fact that in your letter you state my son’s rank as 2nd Lieutenant, whereas he was Lieutenant. Also in the published casualty list, he was incorrectly report as “Missing” instead of “Wounded and
missing.”

Yours truly,
Rudyard Kipling.

But there isn’t any hope–his comrades know he was fatally shot, and other than desperate and melodramatic hopes about amnesiac survivals, there is no chance that a captured officer would not have been identified through neutral parties many months before. Even that second paragraph is desperately sad, a proud man cloaking desperation in simple fussy umbrage: John Kipling’s promotion was not formalized until after his death, so, in the present view of the bureaucracy, it cannot have taken place. He is missing, and he is dead, and forever a 2nd Lieutenant.[2]

 

The advance at Loos that killed Kipling was the last great action by the Guards in 1915. Three days ago, they suffered through their worst disaster of 1916. And Bimbo Tennant survived.

18th September

. . . Thank Heaven I have come safely out of this battle after two days and two nights of it. It started properly at 5 a.m. 15th, and the artillery fire was terrific. We were in support and went up about 7.45 and sat down again further up just the right side of the German barrage. Then I was sent across to the ——– Guards to go with them, find out where they proposed going, and lead the Battalion up beside it. Off I went, and joined the ——— Guards, and went forward with them. When we had skirted G, the further of the two G’s [Ginchy, not Guillemont?] and were going through a little dip in the ground, we were shot at by Boches on the high ground with rifles, there must have been about twenty shooting at us. I was walking in front with their C.O. and Adjutant, and felt sufficiently uncomfortable, but didn’t show it. Bullets scuffed up dust all around with a wicked little ‘zump,’ but they were nearly all short and none of us, at least who were in front, were hit. Thus we went on, and they took up their position between two of these huge steel tanks on the near side of the ridge. Then they lent me an orderly, and I started back to bring the Battalion along; it was an unpleasant journey of about half a mile over nothing but shell-holes full of dead and dying, with any amount of shells flying about: Several whizz-bangs landed very close to me, but I got back to the Battalion and explained the position to them and then we all went down there…

The C.O., the Adjutant, the Doctor, and I spent that afternoon, evening, and night in a large rocky shell-hole. We were severely shelled on and off the whole time, and about four men were done in in the very next shell-hole a couple of yards away. That night was one of the coldest and most uncomfortable it has ever been my fortune to spend–‘with the stars to see.’ Meanwhile most of the Battalion had gone up to support the ——– and ——– Brigade, who had done the attack at five that morning, and had lost heavily. At seven or eight next morning we moved our Batt. head-quarters to the line of trenches in front which had been dug the night before. This was safer than our shell-hole, and as we had the worst shelling I have ever experienced during that afternoon and evening, it was probably a very wise move.

An attack took place at 1.15 p.m. that day, and I will tell you more about it when I see you, D.V. My worst job was that of taking messages down the line of trenches to different captains. The trenches were full of men, so I had to go over the open. Several people who were in the trench say they expected every shell to blow me to bits. That night we were again shelled till about 8 p.m. and were relieved about midnight. We got in about 2.30. I was dog-tired, and Churchill,[3] who now commands No. 4 Company, was even more tired. Soup, meat, champagne, and cake, and I went to bed till about 2 p.m. That is the time one really does want champagne, when one comes in at 3 a.m. after no sleep for fifty hours. It gives one the strength to undress.

So far, so good–in the effort to write, as well as in the effort to survive the 15th. But young Bim makes an error here–he opens himself out to a somewhat irrational (if modest enough) hope, and this quickly brings down his facade of stoic endurance.

Now the great question is will leave start soon? They say it will. I wish my poems could come out soon. The lighter blue cover is sure to be charming. If there is any question of a photy in the papers please try and get my Sargent drawing in and not my other photographs, as most of them are bad…

Darling Moth’, I am so thankful to be alive; I suppose you have heard who are dead? Guy Baring, Raymond Asquith, Sloper Mackenzie, and many others. It is a terrible list. . . Poor Olive will be heart-broken–and so will Katherine. Death and decomposition strew the ground. . . . [4] I must tell you of other things.

I made a very pleasant discovery the other day. I had occasion to walk a few hundred yards with Corporal Jukes, one day, and he told me that his father was keeper at Clouds, and he remembers your wedding, and has a photy of it at home. He knows Willson as ‘Ernie,’ and remembers when Icke was footman! He is such a charming man. What is more, he has a sister, Polly Jukes (such a nice name), who was housemaid to Glen–Grandpapa at Glen, so he is altogether a great family friend. I was so glad he introduced himself. We had a very good talk about people like Mr. Mallet, Mrs. Vine, and suchlike hench-folk. Do write and tell me if you remember him? He was butler to some general in Cairo before the War, and is forty-one years old, very young-looking, and a perfect man. . . .[5]

I wouldn’t trade those last two paragraphs for a fat volume of careful trench-life description. Why does Bimbo write to his mother? Or rather, why–for his part–does he write to her? (Of course he writes to her to comfort her, to allay her worry for him, to interrupt the misery of a mother’s fear with his high-spirited hijinks… but this is, so far, selfless.) He writes, of course, to build the bridge from his end.

If goofy endearments wear on the reader, a century on, their purpose is revealed when he breaks here, and writes himself turning squarely from grief and loss and fear toward the sunlit uplands of the past. Was the past great and glorious because we have drunk deeply of the Soul-powdered kool-aid of aristocratic Panglossian self-celebration? Yes. Is this a voice of enormous privilege? Yes. But like many young men, he had a happy past, and now is heading into battle and sees… unhappy things ahead…

 

Finally–disparately, incongruously–today, Francis Ledwidge has written a poem, and dedicated it to his fellow-Irish-writer-and-Royal Inniskilling and patron Lord Dunsany. Or, rather, to one of his instruments. Ledwidge has been home from Gallipoli for months, but he will be going out again… eventually. There is some drama (and winking self-dramatizing) in this very poetic pose. The poet is not exactly on the brink of going forward with a forlorn hope, contemplating an object of significance before setting out for peril. But he has cause more than good enough to brood upon an awaiting Rubicon…

You have to like old-fashioned poetry to feel this sort of thing, I think. But if you do, then, crack a smile, please. Let the last of the singers lift your spirits.

 

To an Old Quill of Lord Dunsany’s

Before you leave my hands’ abuses
To lie where many odd things meet you,
Neglected darkling of the Muses,
I, the last of singers, greet you.

Snug in some white wing they found you,
On the Common bleak and muddy,
Noisy goslings gobbling round you
In the pools of sunset, ruddy.

Have you sighed in wings untravelled
For the heights where others view the
Bluer widths of heaven, and marvelled
At the utmost top of Beauty?

No! it cannot be; the soul you
Sigh with craves nor begs of us.
From such heights a poet stole you
From a wing of Pegasus.

You have been where gods were sleeping
In the dawn of new creations,
Ere they woke to woman’s weeping
At the broken thrones of nations.

You have seen this old world shattered
By old gods it disappointed,
Lying up in darkness, battered
By wild comets, unanointed.

But for Beauty unmolested
Have you still the sighing olden?
I know mountains healther-crested,
Waters white, and waters golden.

There I’d keep you, in the lowly
Beauty-haunts of bird and poet,
Sailing in a wing, the holy
Silences of lakes below it.

But I leave you by where no man
Finds you, when I too be gone
From the puddles on this common
Over the dark Rubicon.

Londonderry, September 18th, 1916.[6]

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 88-9.
  2. Collected Letters, IV, 402-3.
  3. No, not he--this is a Captain Spencer-Churchill.
  4. I'm not certain, but I do think this is Bim's ellipsis, a dip of his own mask at the thought of Asquith...
  5. Memoir, 231-4.
  6. Complete Poems, 231-3.

Raymond Asquith Mourned and Remembered; Ford Madox Hueffer in the Light of the Moon

It has been two days since the assault of the 15th, which we can now describe as the opening of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. C.E. Montague continues to roam the margins of the recent battlefield.

Sept. 17.–To outskirts of Martinpuich. Many of our dead on ridge. More Germans in sunken lane under trees. Millions of flies black on them. Blackened faces. Open eyes staring up at sky as if asking whether there is any god anywhere.[1]

Some, of course, asked this question from their living lips, or from their quick and nimble pens. But Raymond Asquith–or those who loved him, at least, were spared this after-fate. Asquith was buried in a British cemetery just behind the lines, the day he died, under a heavy German bombardment.

Rumor flew, once, to the wives and mothers of slain soldiers, but in modern war she makes her way slowly back through the ruinous aftermath of a battle, trudging down communications trenches into a day or two of bureaucratic limbo. Then after this first slow progress she bursts like a MIRV, speeding grief to all those who might feel it most.

I don’t know when, exactly, Katherine Asquith received the telegram, but today is likely. As for how she took this worst of news, we have the testimony of Diana Manners, her friend and her husband’s Coterie-mate. Asquith’s last letter, it seems, was to Diana rather than to Katherine. Written literally on the eve of battle, it did not overstate his chances in the coming attack. Perhaps Asquith needed to worry someone other than his wife, or perhaps a letter to Katherine is lost. Perhaps, too, he was just being realistic–seventeen officers in his battalion were killed or wounded on the 15th.[2]

But whatever his reasons, the dark tone of that last letter had left Diana Manners terrified.

She did not often pray, but she spent much of the next two days on her knees, once in church before a lighted candle. Her state was so desperate that it was almost a relief when the news arrived. The pain, she said, was physical: ‘a sensation never before felt… my brain is revolving so fast, screaming “Raymond killed, my divine Raymond killed” over and over again… I have lost with him my energy and hope and all that blinds one to life’s horror. I loved him a little better than any living soul and the near future seems unfaceable.’

But Raymond wasn’t her husband, and there were other bright and dashing men among her intimate friends. Manners immediately rushed to Mells, where she found her old friend Katherine Asquith “crouched in a dark room,” “too dead a thing to seek death, only craving to die from numbness.”[3]

There she cared for her friend as best she could, but with death as with life, rivalry. Soon the widow’s superior mourning rights would begin to chafe the never-exceeded Diana, and the two women separated. Manners had her work as a nurse and Katherine Asquith had her children, and despair had, eventually, to be turned aside.

A sampling, now, of the eulogies.

First, Maurice Baring, of the coterie and the Royal Flying Corps, who gives our grounding in today, a century back.

On the 17th, while I was showing a party of Russians round the Aerodrome, someone casually told me that Raymond Asquith had been killed.

εἶπέ τις, Ἡράκλειτε, τεὸν μόρον[4]

That is,

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.

Baring turns next to the implicit question that the death of a promising man raises:

What a waste people said, when they thought of his brilliant brain, his radiant wit, his mastery of language, his solid scholarship, and all his rare gifts. But it wasn’t a waste, and never for one moment did I think so.

Raymond’s service at the front was the crown and purpose of his life. A purpose fulfilled to a noble close. He loved being in the Army as much as he had hated being at the Bar. He went on with his life in the Army where he had left it off at Oxford, and he died in a second miraculous spring; and by being in the Army and being what he was, and doing what he did, in the way he did it, he made it a little easier for us to win the war.[5]

The epilogue to the Life and Letters volume includes passed-along praise from Asquith’s men. His batman, the unforenamed Needham,

added in a letter to Katharine that ‘such coolness under shell fire as Mr. Asquith displayed would be difficult to equal’. The tributes that were paid to his courage and sang-froid were by no means confined to the privileged circle in which so much of his life had been spent. Another private soldier in his platoon wrote home to an old schoolmaster at Walworth Vicarage in south London: ‘There is not one of us who would not have changed places with him if we had thought that he would have lived, for he was one of the finest men who ever wore the King’s uniform, and he did not know what fear was…’

 

One by one, their friends gathered themselves and wrote to Katherine:

Baring dared–I think that’s the right word–to argue at once for a meaningful death: “R. having gone will make it more difficult for everyone who knew him to bear the war—and yet, dearest Katharine, I feel his death to be the most triumphant of all his brilliant achievements . . . only there is no one who ever lived who will be so much missed.”

Winston Churchill took months to write–out of an excess of emotion, he claimed, rather than a refusal to face a difficult task. He walks the line between acknowledging loss and asserting consolation with a bit more grace:

I always had an intense admiration for Raymond, and also a warm affection for him; and both were old established ties… These gallant charming figures that flash and gleam amid the carnage–always so superior to it, masters of their souls, disdainful of death and suffering–are an inspiration and an example to all. And he was one of the very best.[6]

Aubrey Herbert managed a more human tone, and addressed not only the loss of Raymond–“A great bit of our life has gone with Raymond, the bit that was full of light”[7]–but also the coming and continuing suffering of his widow: “It is always best to be brave, and now there is nothing else, but who has had to give what you have given?”

Who else? Let’s see: John Buchan will break into his own memoir to write an extended eulogy for Asquith. It squeaks a bit on the highest notes–one imagines Asquith chortling in Elysion to hear himself compared to a Byzantine object stripped of ornament and revealed as a Phidias–but then comes back down to praise a man recognizable from his letters: “He disliked emotion, not because he felt lightly but because he felt deeply… War meant to him the shattering of every taste and interest, but he did not hesitate.”[8] Buchan goes on to praise his “perfect lucidity of mind and precision of phrase” and “pale grace.” “Our roll of honour is long, but it holds no nobler figure.[8]

But I think I will give the last word on Raymond Asquith to Diana Manners. In some ways, at least, each loved the other best. For her this was “…the worst of all our losses… By his death everything changed, except the war that ground its blind murderous treadmill round and round without retreat or advance, with no sign of the beginning of the end.”[10]

 

I have exhausted us with condolence, I think, and yet it feels, even a century on, like grim and unrewarding reading. In our pale, century-gone following-up, there is also nothing to do but be brave, in a small way, and keep reading. So it falls to Ford Madox Hueffer–a most unlikely candidate for the offering of oblique solace–to provide the “moving on” poem.

First, though, a quick note. There was too much, two days ago, to discuss the dated manuscript of an essay on war writing, which he called “A Day of Battle,” appropriately enough (although he was in the Salient, and knew nothing of the Guards at Flers-Courcelette). Which is a shame, because it is very much on point. Ford has been prolific of late, and in several genres, but I realized to my surprise that his essay’s opening claim is actually accurate: “I have asked myself continuously why I can write nothing… about the psychology of the Active Service of which I have seen my share. And why cannot I even evoke pictures of the Somme or the flat lands around Ploegsteert?…”

This is a problem for a novelist, naturally. Ford’s first attempt at a war novel, entitled “True Love & a GCM,” features a protagonist, Morton, who suffers from memory problems after being concussed by a shell and is stuck with the battalion transport when he would prefer either to be in the trenches or on the staff… a familiar-sounding chap. And today, a century back, in the novel’s chronology, Morton gets a whiff of gas from a German gas shell that lands nearby–I do not know if this is a “real” date or not.[11]

But if it was, it didn’t stop Ford from writing another strange and winsome poem which parlays the ironic contrast of trenches and conventional poetic effects into a wistful (but also somewhat ungainly–can poetry lumber and still be wistful?) love poem:

 

Clair de Lune

I

I should like to imagine
A moonlight in which there would be no machine-guns!
For, it is possible
To come out of a trench or a hut or a tent or a church all in ruins:
To see the black perspective of long avenues
All silent.
The white strips of sky
At the sides, cut by the poplar trunks:
The white strips of sky
Above, diminishing–
The silence and blackness of the avenue
Enclosed by immensities of space
Spreading away
Over No Man’s Land. . . .
For a minute . . .
For ten . . .
There will be no star shells
But the untroubled stars,
There will be no Very light
But the light of the quiet moon Like a swan. And silence. . . .

Then, far away to the right thro’ the moonbeams “Wukka Wukka” will go the machine-guns,
And, far away to the left
Wukka Wukka.
And sharply,
Wuk . . . Wuk. . . and then silence
For a space in the clear of the moon.

II

I should like to imagine
A moonlight in which the machine-guns of trouble
Will be silent. . . .

Do you remember, my dear,
Long ago, on the cliffs, in the moonlight,
Looking over to Flatholme
We sat. . . . Long ago! . . .
And the things that you told me . . . .
Little things in the clear of the moon,
The little, sad things of a life. . . .

We shall do it again
Full surely,
Sitting still, looking over at Flatholme.

Then, far away to the right
Shall sound the Machine Guns of trouble
Wukka-wukka!
And, far away to the left, under Flatholme,
Wukka-wuk! . . .

I wonder, my dear, can you stick it?
As we should say: “Stick it, the Welch!”
In the dark of the moon,
Going over. . . .

Nieppe, near Plugstreet, 17/9/16

References and Footnotes

  1. Elton, C.E. Montague, 143.
  2. I have depended for my Asquith narrative on the published Life and Letters, which mentions the last letter to Manners but does not include it. Which is very curious, but I do not know why.
  3. Ziegler, Diana Cooper, 78. This probably occurred a day or two hence, given that Ziegler allows two days after receiving Asquith's letter of the 14th before she heard the news. But surely Manners would have learned not long after the official telegram was sent to Mells--she was in London and knew many people with War Office or Grenadier Guards connections
  4. The epigram continues: ἐς δέ με δάκρυ ἤγαγεν, ἐμνήσθην δ᾽ ὁσσάκις ἀμφότεροι. Really, this is kind of an annoying move, because even in an ideal world of Asquiths and Shaw-Stewarts and shell-hole-Aeschylus-readers like Macmillan, pretty much everyone still had to look up Greek. Latin tags? Well, hey, maybe, because even the non-classicists had to absorb a few dozen in school. But not Greek. While this bit of Callimachus is very well known, it was surely very much better known to the vast majority of Baring and Asquith's contemporaries in its English translation. So I will break in with William Johnson Cory's chiming couplet.
  5. Baring, R.F.C.H.Q., 178-9.
  6. A Deep Cry, 151.
  7. Fitzherbert, The Man Who Was Greenmantle, 185.
  8. Pilgrim's Way, 58-60.
  9. Pilgrim's Way, 58-60.
  10. Autobiography, 149.
  11. War Prose, 36, 128.

The Last Day of the Old Guard and the First of the Tanks: Raymond Asquith Goes Forward; Harold Macmillan Reads Aeschylus, Downed; The Master of Belhaven on the Most Alarming Thing Imaginable

Today, a century back, a major attack was launched on the center of the Somme front. It will be a considerable success–except where two brigades of the Guards Division attacked from the outskirts of Ginchy towards Lesboeufs.

Through some accident, Zero had been a little mistimed, and the troops left their lairs, not under the roar and swish of their own barrage, but in a silence which lasted perhaps less than a minute, but which seemed endless… till, with a wrench that jerked the ground, our barrage opened, the enemy’s counter-barrage replied.[1]

Thus a great stylist. A blunter romancer condemns the tactics as succinctly as possible: “Their front of attack was too narrow, their objectives too far distant, and from the start their flanks were enfiladed.”[2]

For any and all of these reasons, the 3rd Grenadier Guards met heavy, direct fire as soon as they left their trenches–there were machine-guns on three sides, and unexpected rifle fire just in front.

Harold Macmillan, leading his platoon, was hit in the knee, and stumbled on.

raymond asquith, 1915

Raymond Asquith

Raymond Asquith, leading No. 4 Company, was hit in the chest, and couldn’t.

Attempting nonchalance–perhaps to calm his men–Asquith lit a cigarette. He was quickly found by stretcher bearers and given morphia.

But he died on the stretcher on the way to the aid post. His soldier-servant, Needham, accompanied the body to burial.[3]

 

What else can we add? Not much. Asquith’s contribution here has been wit, and a special sort of provocation–to take him lightly, to miss the context of his letters just because he dares us to. He’s been whistling into the hurricane, fiddling all the harder because his naughty, beloved, decadent Rome is being fired on from all sides. It looks like cynicism, and it tastes, sometimes, almost like nihilism–but it was, really, a tough, contrary, formidable love of life and love and beauty.

Now he’s gone, and his legacy–for his friends, but especially for his wife and three young children–is loss.

 

Is it too sentimental to claim that, although much wonderful writing is to come (we are not yet halfway through this ordeal) we will not see his like again? I hope not, because, really, we won’t. It’s September, and this death, surely, is the last fallen leaf of the Last Summer.

 

Onward, anyway. What happened? How did he die? There is not much more to know, since he was shot down so early on this chaotic day. There’s not much of a story, in the end. And the rest of the day is terrible chaos.

For form’s sake I will link my battle-piece-agnosticism to a narrator of unquestioned bravado:

ginchy-flers-road

German dead along the Ginchy-Flers sunken road

There naturally cannot be any definite or accurate record of the day’s work. Even had maps been issued to the officers a week, instead of a day or so, before the attack; even had those maps marked all known danger-points — such as the Ginchy-Flers sunk road; even had the kaleidoscopic instructions about the Brown and Yellow lines been more intelligible, or had the village of Ginchy been distinguishable from a map of the pitted moon — once the affair was launched there was little chance of seeing far or living long.[4]

 

If there cannot be a definite or accurate record–if there cannot be pre-historical chronicle, let alone “history”–there can still be impressions. C.E. Montague, who, now that he is an intelligence officer, has begun to keep a brief diary of his movements, was a witness in the rear, where all great hopes reside.

Sept. 15.–To point between Maricourt and Hardécourt (close by Nameless Copse) to see battle begin. Start 5 A.M., moonlight. Cavalry on silent road by Querriers. Lances bristling against dawn–twilight sky in fields beside road.[5]

The cavalry will not advance. But other beasts will. Were it not for the loss of one of our very finest, here, this day’s story of battle would have to begin with the great surprise weapon. Of our writers, Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, may have had the best view–even if, at day’s end, he did not have the most accurate perspective.

Guillemont, 15th September, 1916

To-day there has been another great battle, which seems to have been nothing less than a victory for us.

mark_i_series_tank_in_action

Mark I tank

I cannot talk about the “tanks,” as our new armoured caterpillars are called. These astounding machines… are huge armoured forts, weighting over thirty tons… they can go over any ground, however broken up… they are the most alarming things imaginable and are so heavily armoured that they are impervious to rifle or machine-gun fire; nothing but a direct hit from a gun can stop them…

Would that that were so. Kipling, laying about him with characteristic precision but unusual mercilessness, dwells not on the promise of the tanks but on the uselessness in such a deep attack over such ground of a mere handful of fragile new machines:

There had been instructions in Brigade Orders, as to the co-operation of nine tanks that were to assist the Guards Division that day and would, probably, “start from each successive line well in advance of the attacking troops.” Infantry were warned, however, that their work “would be carried out whether the Tanks are held up or not.” It was. The Tanks were not much more in evidence on that sector than the Cavalry which, cantering gaily across the shell-holes, should have captured Bapaume…[6]

But that is bitter hindsight. Today, a century back, the cavalry were an old familiar hope and the tanks were an impressive novelty.

Charles Carrington, who often styles himself a retrospective voice of reason, notes, for his part, that he “flatly refused to believe” that “we possessed armoured cards that could cross trenches and wire… The secret was wonderfully well kept… And the lesson to be learned from the battle of 15th September was that the Mark I tank has almost no value except for the lift given to our morale and the shock to the German morale by the rumours about our secret weapon… Haig… believed, and for what it is worth I and my friends believed, that there was still a chance of fighting the decisive battle before the autumn and for such a prize everything must be stake…[7]

Back now to the Master of Belhaven, writing this evening, a century back, and sanguine:

As it became lighter we could see four of the new monsters on the Guinchy ridge just in front of us…. They were rolling and pitching on the rough ground like ships at sea, but kept steadily on at about a mile an hour, till they reached the German parapet, hoisted themselves over and were lost to sight on the other side. Accounts vary very much so far, as to how they did…

We could see our infantry attacking, line after line, especially the Guards on our left. They went forward in perfect order at a walk, breaking into a run when they go near the German position…[8]

But as Kipling will write, “no man saw anything coherently.” Belhaven was wrong. Quick progress was made on the flanks, but the Guards walked into machine-gun fire, and were mauled from the beginning. Soon they discovered that a scratch trench–or series of shell holes–that had not even been accounted for in their extremely ambitious orders was still being held by Germans.[9] This was the source of the accurate rifle fire that was added to the traversing machine guns. And the artillery did not lag far behind.

 

Which brings us back to Harold Macmillan, who lived to tell this tale. Those of his platoon of the 3rd Grenadier Guards who made it through the first wave of machine-gun fire discovered that the tanks had failed–Macmillan saw one of “these strange objects” stranded in a shell-hole–and the barrage had moved on with its brisk, foreordained optimism. They had to scrape together some sort of improvisational attack, or die where they lay. Macmillan will write that

the German artillery barrage was very heavy,  but we got through the worst of it after the first half-hour. I was wounded slightly in the right knee. I bound up the wound at the first halt, and was able to go on. . . . About 8.20 we halted again. We found that we were being held up on the left by Germans in about 500 yards of uncleared trench. We attempted to bomb and rush down the trench. I was taking a party across to the left with a Lewis gun, to try and get in to the trench, when I was wounded by a bullet in the left thigh [apparently at close range]. It was a severe wound, and I was quite helpless. I dropped into a shell-hole, shouted to Sgt. Robinson to take command of my party and go on with the attack. Sgt. Sambil helped me tie up the wound. I had no water, as the bullet had previously gone thro’ my water bottle. . .

I don’t believe that Macmillan and Asquith knew each other well, but they were both Balliol men, and readers, and Asquith, minutes or hours dead, would have approved of how Macmillan spent his morning:

He lay in the shell-hole all morning, while the tide of battle flowed back and forth around him–lying ‘doggo’ and pretending to be dead when any Germans came near, lest they be tempted to ‘despatch’ him. Though realising that he had been seriously wounded, he was surprised to discover that–unlike the far less dangerous wound through his hand at Loos–‘which was excruciatingly painful, this body blow knocked me out but did not hurt’. Remembering that he had in his pocket a copy of Aeschylus’s Prometheus (in Greek), which Nellie had sent him, he fell to reading it intermittently; ‘It was a play I knew well, and seemed not inappropriate to my position.’

The great classical wit is dead, but long live classical wit. Prometheus Bound (no longer unanimously attributed to Aeschylus, but we live in a fallen world) features a number of long speeches made to and by the titan Prometheus, as he is chained in place and tortured. “Violence” and “Authority” appear as characters, and there is a matter of giving fire to mankind…

After a morphia-aided nap, Macmillan was found:

Company Sergeant-Major Norton, a splendid man, I can see him now . . . bottom of shell-hole, sloped rifle: “Thank you, sir, for leave to carry you away,” as if he’d been on a parade ground!

But Macmillan’s grim adventure was not over. After dark he and another wounded officer were carried to Ginchy, where confusion reigned and ambulances could not be found. They sent their bearers back to the battalion, then tried to limp back on their own. They became separated, and Macmillan, wounded and alone, felt fear catch up with him at last. He will look back on today, and comment that

bravery is not really vanity, but a kind of concealed pride, because everybody is watching you. Then I was safe, but alone, and absolutely terrified because there was no need to show off any more, no need to pretend . . . there was nobody for whom you were responsible, not even the stretcher bearers. Then I was very frightened. . . . I do remember the sudden feeling–you went through a whole battle for two days . . . suddenly there was nobody there   . . . you could cry if you wanted to. . .[10]

After passing out in a ditch, Macmillan was found by a passing officer and taken at last to an ambulance.

 

There are tales of heroism that go with this attack, of course. Macmillan’s friend Oliver Lyttleton, who as adjutant did not go forward with the attacking companies, went forward later to gather in the remnants of several battalions and defend the few trenches they had taken. He was driven out by German counterattacks, throwing his empty revolver at the Germans like a grenade as a last ruse to cover the last retreat.

But for the most part it is only death. So we’ll close with two concise tales of death, framed as tragedies. A few days ago, Rowland Feilding had marched back with his new, shattered, battalion past his former battalion of the Coldstream Guards. He will remember this chance meeting when he next writes to his wife:

I stopped for lunch. The young officers crowded round me afterwards to hear my news, joking and laughing about it all, and asking what it was like “up there.” Poor little Dilberoglue, who commanded one of the Companies, clung to the boy next to him, and pretended to shiver with fear at the prospect of what was before him. And the Fates have taken his joke seriously, for to-day he is dead. He was a very competent young officer.[11]

 

Finally, I want to end with a new turn, a twist away from the death of Raymond Asquith that nonetheless shows how the war’s thread runs through so many lives, linking even where it does not entangle. Carroll Carstairs, a writer we have heard nothing from yet, is an American volunteer. By now he has taken a commission and made his way into the Grenadier Guards, completing training at one of their depot camps. He has only been awaiting a gap to fill–so he will be moving up to the line shortly, now. He remembers another American Guardsman, and the dreams and strange paths of eager young volunteers.

While on short leave in Amiens I heard about Dill Star. He wanted to go into the Flying Corps, but thought it would take too long to get to the front. Walter Oakman, who had joined the Coldstream, persuaded him to transfer into that Regiment.

Dill went to France about September 1st, and was killed on the 15th of that month.

“You knew him?” asked the young officer in the Coldstream with whom I was having a drink.

“Yes.”

“He went over in fine style . . .”

And then I thought of the story told me once about Dill. Whenever he had had a bit too much drink in his club at Harvard he could be found sitting in front of a certain picture. It was an old coloured print and represented a charge by a regiment in the Brigade of Guards.[12]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I, 158-9.
  2. Buchan, Pilgrim's Way, 58-60.
  3. Life and Letters, 296.
  4. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I, 159.
  5. Elton, C.E. Montague, 143.
  6. Kipling, The Irish Guards, II, 94.
  7. Carrington, Soldier From the Wars Returning, 123-4.
  8. War Diary, 251-3.
  9. This may refer to the sunken road, pictured above.
  10. Horne, Macmillan, 44-6.
  11. Feilding, War Letters to a Wife, 119.
  12. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 66-7.

The Guards Clear the Decks: Bimbo Tennant and Raymond Asquith Write Home

Today, a century back, Bimbo Tennant writes to his mother with what seems to be boyish good cheer and youthful bravado… twisted into a somewhat bloody-minded, Grenfellite enthusiasm.

12 September, 1916.

“… We were safely relieved last night and are now going back for a day or two. We have had all the kicks and none of the ha’pence in this show, as other batts. had the fun of repulsing attacks and killing hundreds, while we had to just sit and be shelled. No doubt we shall have a better chance soon. The C.O. is very envious of what he calls the ‘other chaps’ hellish good shoot.’ We are delighted to be out, and should be in comfortable quarters by midnight to-night. I have not changed my clothes yet, so shall be glad.[1]

They will have another chance soon indeed.

 

Raymond Asquith keeps up a brave front in his letters home. He does so, generally, with exaggerated complaint, wicked humor, and witty diversions. Today, with the Guards due to make a major attack–Tennant must know this too–the mask slips just a bit, and Asquith’s weariness and worries show. The letter begins, however, in an ordinary tone of conversation:

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
12 September 1916

After a long interval I have 3 letters from you today–one sweeter than another…

Thank you very much for the Ford plays which also came today. Then I have got a nice parcel of food. Lux, tinned grapes, honey etc. Diana tells me she sent some–don’t know if this lot is hers or yours. Anyhow very good.

My client in the Court Martial was an unfortunate fellow . . . He was convicted on 4 out of the 5 charges and sentenced not only to be cashiered but to serve one year’s imprisonment–most barbarous I call it. His buttons were cut off in the Orderly room yesterday and he was taken off to Rouen by the military police, poor devil. His father was killed earlier in the war and he is the 6th consecutive generation of his family to hold a commission in the Grenadiers.[2]

Your suggestion about leave to Paris may turn out to be feasible later on, but not till this push is over. A few lucky ones managed to get there last week, Sloper among them–but it is stopped for the present. I believe it is not difficult for women to go, but rather uncomfortable as I think they have to go round by Havre. It would be great fun if we could bring it off. Don’t worry, my pretty, about money and never mind if you don’t succeed in letting Bed. Sq. I have several hundred pounds worth of Exchequer bonds which I can sell at any moment for their full value if we get really short.

I liked your ironical passage about the mosquitoes. As a matter of fact I have been exceptionally lucky this season with the harvest bugs and hardly suffered at all. The flies here are what they call ‘a caution’. Nothing seems to have any effect on them.

Asquith has a great deal of a curious sort of courage–but he has now delayed now as long as he can with his thank-yous and updates. His wife Katherine has asked him to seek once more a (safe) position on the staff:

As to the staff, you must see my pretty, that this is hardly the moment for. seeking shelter. I don’t think I shall have the least difficulty in getting a job whenever I want one. Probably they will keep this place on the division open for me a reasonable time, and anyhow my general at G.H.Q. told me he would always find a billet for me if I wanted one.

It would be not altogether disagreeable to come back and do something at the War Office during the winter months. I am getting terribly tired of not being at home, and not seeing my sweetest Fawnia. But I must see out the fighting season. Tomorrow we shall move forward again, probably into the line.

Angel, I send you all my love. Remember me to Trim.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Memoir, 230.
  2. It would seem to be possible, given this information, to find out the identity of this gay officer whom Asquith defended in private word as well as, more reluctantly, by public deed. I haven't done so, nor do I know if some scholar of the war, the Guards, or Gay History, has done so. Probably?
  3. Life and Letters, 294-5.

Tom Kettle, Rowland Feilding, and the Irish Division Move Up for the Attack; Raymond Asquith, Bimbo Tennant, and the Guards are Not Far Behind

The assault on Ginchy has hitherto failed. But it will continue. The Guards Division have been warned to move, and they have practiced attacking their objectives under cover of a rolling barrage. Other units, however, will be in for it first.

Today it was the Irish Division–already badly bloodied in the taking of Guillemont a few days before, that moved once more into the front lines. A New Army Division largely made up of Irishmen, the 16th Division had formed in 1915, and this late phase of the Somme was the first great test both of their fighting ability and their loyalty, in troubled times, to Britain.

With the division were Tom Kettle, lieutenant in the 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and Rowland Feilding, the new commanding officer of the 6th Connaught Rangers. We’ll begin with Feilding’s account of today’s action, but I want to leave room now for a large image of a map. This one is up-to-date, with the German trenches corrected up to the observations of September 3rd. It not only gives us a view of the places to be assaulted but also a clear representation of the progress of the battle: Mametz Wood, the paramount hell of mid-July, falls on the western border of this map; Ginchy, today’s target, is near the center right of the excerpt.

ginchy, 9-3-16

 

 

 

 

But it’s easy, these days, to zoom in and snap just the right area (thanks to McMaster University).

Picking the map excerpt is the strategic equivalent of “emplotting” a narrative by choosing particular aspects on which to focus. But time is really subjective; distance, less so, and the map scales do not lie. Each of those larger numbered boxes is one thousand yards across–Ginchy is two months of fighting away from Mametz Wood, but less than four miles. In between are the little forests of the Bazentin ridge and its southern slopes–Trones Wood and Delville Wood, each called “hell” in their turn–and, just left of the upper edge of the excerpt, a red ribbon shows a German trench still running through High Wood. The British are within sight of the fabled German Third Line, but the approaches are still not clear. Some of these places were objectives for the first day of the battle, July 1st. Even if they are taken now, the Germans have had more than two months to strengthen that third line and build newer defenses further back. It’s not a good situation.

 

Now to Feilding’s letter to his wife. It begins with a grim tour of the battlefields show on the map above.

September 8, 1916. In Trenches, facing Ginchy.

At 5.50 last evening I paraded my 250 Irishmen, who, before moving off, were addressed by the Senior Chaplain of the Division. Then, kneeling down in the ranks, all received General Absolution:—after which we started to move forward, timing our arrival at Bernafay Wood for 8.20, when it would be dark.

At Bernafay Wood we were met by a guide, who led us through Trones Wood—that evil place of which doubtless you have formed your own conception from the newspaper descriptions of the past two months. Thence, to what once was Guillemont.

All former bombardments are eclipsed by the scene here. Last year, in the villages that had been most heavily bombarded, a few shattered houses still stood, as a rule: last month, occasionally, a wall survived. But to-day, at Guillemont, it is almost literally true to say that not a brick or stone remains intact. Indeed, not a brick or stone is to
be seen, except it has been churned up by a bursting shell. Not a tree stands. Not a square foot of surface has escaped mutilation. There is nothing but the mud and the gaping shell-holes;—a chaotic wilderness of shell-holes, rim  overlapping rim; and, in the bottom of many, the bodies of the dead. Having reached this melancholy spot, we left the cover of a battered trench which we had followed since leaving Trones Wood, and took to the open.

The guide was leading. I came next, and was followed by the rest of the party in single file. The moon shone brightly, and, as the enemy kept sending up flares from his trenches at intervals of a minute or less, our surroundings were constantly illuminated, and the meandering line of steel helmets flickered, rather too conspicuously, as it bobbed up and down in crossing the shell-holes.

I do not know if the Germans saw it or not. They soon started shelling, but as the ground we were passing over is commonly being shelled, there was nothing peculiar in that. We plodded on.

The guide soon began to show signs of uncertainty. I asked him if he had lost his bearings—a not uncommon thing on these occasions. He admitted that he had. I crawled past the body of a dead German soldier into the doorway of a shattered dug-out, and with an electric torch studied the map.

As we started off again the shelling increased, and once I was hit by a small splinter on the chest, which stung. The men began to bunch in the shell-holes. They are brave enough, but they are untrained; and 91 of my 200 fighting men were from a new draft, which had only just joined the battalion.

I shall not forget the hours which followed. Remember, I had only the slightest acquaintance with the officers, and as for the rank and file I did not know them at all;—nor they me.

The shells were now dropping very close. One fell into a group of my men, killing seven and wounding about the same number. My guide was hit and dropped a yard or two in front of me. I told him to lie there, and I would have a stretcher sent for him: but he pulled himself together, saying, “ It’s all right, sir,” and struggled on.

About 10.30 p.m. we reached our destination—only to find the rear Company detached and missing, as well as the medical officer and my servant. However, they turned up just before daybreak, having spent the night wandering
among the shell-holes.

At the position of assembly, which was at the junction between the Guillemont-Combles road (known officially as Mount Street) and the sunken road leading to Ginchy, we found things in a state, of considerable confusion. The battalion we had come to relieve had apparently thought it unnecessary to await our arrival, and as, consequently, there was no one to allot the few shallow trenches that were available, a sort of general scramble was going on, each officer being naturally anxious to get his own men under cover, before the daylight of the morning should reveal them to the enemy.

Luckily, the enemy was now quiet, and before it was light enough to see, the troops were disposed more or less in their “jumping off” positions, where they were to wait some forty hours or more for “Zero”—the moment of attack.

During the night a wounded Saxon crept into the trench close by me and I sent him to the rear.[1]

Feilding’s main concern here is to record, as simply as possible, what has happened to him–for his wife’s benefit and for his own. But he can’t avoid some commentary, and more-than-faint damning by implication. He has come from an elite, intact Division to one that is being thrown back in for its second action in days. Things, again, are not good.

Or is it the entire army that is breaking down? These small scale forward assaults against extremely predictable targets are murderous. Where is the tactical innovation? (Well, there is the creeping barrage, and something new is this way clanking.)

Worse, what has happened to command and control? What sort of brigade sends up a half-reconstituted battalion with a new O.C., a single guide, and no assurance that the battalion they are relieving will stay put? Feilding could note, too (but he wouldn’t–he is both reasonably trusting in the good offices of his fellow men and averse to complaining) that he–a temporary officer and a Catholic–has been ejected from the Guards to take command of an Irish battalion that is being used as cannon fodder. He might be right, too–being the odd Catholic officer on hand when an Irish battalion commander is killed surely has more to do with his promotion than any connections or merit. But we would be at least mostly wrong to suggest a nefarious use of the Irish Division. It seems awful that battered battalions are thrown back into an attack with so little respite, but many are, this late summer. And the Guards are only being held back, now, in order to be thrown in at what the generals hope will be a more decisive moment.

This is the Somme from bad to worse, declining from tragedy toward the sickening farce of a slasher film.

 

Tom Kettle’s 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers were moving across the same map tonight, a century back. Before leaving the reserve lines Kettle wrote home. Kettle aspires to write–among many things–the history of his regiment. But now there is no time for anything other than provisional farewells. The first of these potential “last letters” was to his wife:

The long-expected is now close to hand. I was at Mass and Communion this morning at 6 o.c., the camp is broken up, and the column is about to move. It is no longer indiscreet to say that we are to take part in one of the biggest attacks of the war. Many will not come back.

Should that be God’s design for me you will not receive this letter until afterwards. I want to thank you for the love and kindness you spent and all but wasted on me. There was never in all the world a dearer woman or a more perfect wife and adorable mother. My heart cries for you and Betty whom I may never see again…

God bless and keep you! If the last sacrifice is ordained think that in the end I wiped out all the old stains. Tell Betty her daddy was a soldier and died as one.

Kettle struck a different note in letters to a friend and to his brother. There are few better descriptions of a soldier’s mind on the eve of battle–the dread and the keen anticipation, the beatific calm and the desperate anxiety, the sense of a barrier falling behind that these last letters must just slip beneath, and a swelling of fellow-feeling for the men who will share the coming cautery. And affirmation of faith and a wry uncanny reach for pagan mysticism…

I passed through, as everybody of sense does, a sharp agony of separation… Now it is almost over and I feel calm. I hope to come back.. If I live I mean to spend the rest of my life working for perpetual peace. I have seen war and faced modern artillery, and know what an outrage it is against simple men…

We are moving up to-night into the battle of the Somme… I have had two chances of leaving [his battalion]–one on sick leave and one to take a staff job. I have chosen to stay with my comrades… I am calm and happy, but desperately anxious to live…

The big guns are coughing and smacking their shells, which sound for all the world like over-head express trains, at anything from 10 to 100 per minute on this sector; the men are grubbing and an odd one is writing home. Somewhere the Choosers of the Slain are touching, as in our Norse story they used to touch, with invisible wands those who are to die. . . .[2]

 

Under orders, but not yet ducking under the wands of the Valkyries, is the Guards Division. With any luck they will be the ones to punch through the German third line and open up a gap…

3rd Grenadier Guards
B.E.F.
8 September 1916

. . . We move either tomorrow or the day after. Probably tomorrow. We are only allowed 50 lbs. of kit, which is a bore. It would be awful to arrive in Berlin looking a perfect scarecrow. The noise of the bombardment makes me feel quite sick. I am so sorry for the wretched Hun .,. .[3]

That, of course, was Raymond Asquith to his wife Katherine. Bimbo Tennant, ironically, is still reassuring his mother that a recent illness was not serious. And then–this is unwisdom rather than irony–he gives her an epistolary tour of the ruins of the battle he is about to enter.

8th September, 1916.

. . . I received your wire last night, but as I have been feeling perfectly well for several days, I took no action about it. You must not be anxious like this… It is unfortunately impossible to be given sick leave out here; I promise you that, now, I am absolutely all right…

I rose at 5.40 and went up to last night’s place with [his battalion C.O.], only we went much further. It was awfully interesting, and I would not have missed it, though it is horribly grisly in places. The wastage of material all the way is something terrific. I saw a lot of machine-gun magazines lying about, still wrapped up in brown paper, as they came from the makers. We got back to breakfast, and I have seized about four hours’ sleep through the day since.

There are big guns all round us as I write, but none near enough to be unpleasant, as they were at Vermelles last year. We have nothing to do here, and it is quite fine, though wind-swept. I now hear that we shall probably take over the most newly won line to-morrow night, which will probably not be a very quiet locality. However, I trust implicitly in God, and am in very high spirits…

Now I must stop. My eternal love to you; I think of you every moment, and love you more than I can say. I hope there may be leave when we go into a quieter part of the line. . . .[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 112-14.
  2. A Deep Cry, 136-7; Housman, War Letters, 168.
  3. Life and Letters, 294.
  4. Memoir, 226-8.

Ford Madox Hueffer Imagines Peace, with “No Shrapnel and No Huns/And No Nuns or Four-point-ones;” Rowland Feilding Hits the Ground Running; Two Asquiths at the Crossroads; Bim Tennant Prepares for Action

Ford Madox Hueffer. is still scribbling gallantly through the barrage, today. Evidently up early, he has another classically dawn-themed poem for us today… Or not, actually. As soon as we pass the title we find not a hymn but a chilling, charming nursery rhyme:

Albade

The little girls are singing, “Rin! Ron! Rin!”
The matin bell is ringing “Din! Don! Din!”
Thirty little girls, while it rains and shrapnel skirls
By the playground where the chapel bells are ringing.

The stout old nuns are walking,
Dance, little girls, beneath the din!
The four-point-ones are talking,
Form up, little girls, the school is in!
Seven stout old nuns and fourteen naval guns
All around the playground go on talking.

And, my darling, you are getting out of bed
Where the seven angels watched around your head,
With no shrapnel and no Huns
And no nuns or four-point-ones. . .

Getting up to catch the train,
Coming back to tea again
When the Angelus is sounding to the plain
And the statue shells are coming from the plain
And the little girls have trotted home again
In the rain . . .

Darling, darling, say one funny prayer again
For your true love who is waking in the rain.

The Salient, 7/9/16

 

This rhyme is one of the best surprises this project has recently provided. How very charming! Hueffer really is very good. He can do more or less anything, it seems, except those genres requiring modesty. Is he thinking of Violet Hunt, his would-be wife, with this rhyme, when all his letters of this vintage only complain of her? Or is there another? Well, presumably shortly after drafting the poem, he turned to another task at hand. He is to provide a preface for Hunt’s latest novel, Their Lives. Naturally, Hueffer, having worked out the lyric impulse with his Albade, now subsumes his own persona and place in order to better support Hunt’s work:

I took the proofs of this books up the hill to read. From there I could see the gas shells bursting on Poperinghe; it was a very great view…[1]

And while I was looking at that great view, perceiving the little white mushrooms of our own shells suddenly existing in the dark line under [Wytschaete]–miles and miles away–and then turning down my eyes and reading… it occurred to me that violet Hunt’s characters… were Prussians. Their cold materialism, their absence of any shading, their direct methods of wanting a thing… these are characteristic of… l’Ennemi.

Is this the most openhanded way to pseudo-blurb one’s pseudo-wife’s book? “But I was just making a comparison….” Hmm. Hueffer continues, less as a loyal Janeite than as a blunderous Great White Male attempting gallantry toward lady novelists:

This attempt to apply the method of Jane Austen… gives to Their Lives the character of a work of history. It is history–and it makes it plain. For that horrible family of this author’s recording explains to me why today, millions of us, as it were, on a raft of far-reaching land, are enduring torture it is not fit that human beings should endure, in order that–outside that raft–other eloquent human beings should proclaim that they will go on fighting to the last drop of our blood.

I have never accused Hueffer/Ford of simple self-centeredness–this is complex self-absorption, dating back to his childhood influences and manifold anxieties:

This may sound a little obscure: but if the somnolescent reader will awaken to the fact that selfishness does create misery he may make a further effort of the imagination and , and see that the selfishness of the Eighties–of the Victorian and Albert era–is the direct Ancestor of… Armageddon. Those fathers, and particularly those mothers, ate the vines of Carlyle, Ruskin, and Self-help Smiles; our mouths are filled –are burned–by minenwerfer.

Yes, that is a bit obscure. Somehow we’re reviewing a novel of manners (apparently) and have gotten to a sentence that combines Ruskin, high priest of 19th century British aesthetics, and the feared German trench mortar. Together at last!

But this is very Fordian. He has roped in his celebrated past (and his extreme Englishness, always an odd facet his character, considering his German roots, fluency in French and German, and otherwise extreme Continental-ness) and his precious present. Ford now borrows more directly from the experiences recounted yesterday, a borrowing which reminds us of a through-theme in all of these different writings of yesterday and today: they are all very different, but they are all firmly situated on his side–the Somme side–of the experiential gulf. As a writer of light verse, or letters, or literature, or a preface to a novel, he is writing always as a soldier. I have been there–I am “there” now–and you, reader, are not.

Most of the great books of the world are unpleasant books. And whilst I write, the Boches are shelling out of existence the rather ugly little church close at hand. ‘C… r … r… ump!’ go the 4.[2] shells into the mediocre but sacred edifice… Then, in the silence after the shell has burst, whilst you are saying ‘Thank God!’ because it has not hit you, you hear the thin, sifting sounds of the stained glass dropping down the aisles. There is no reason why the Boche should object to our having a church in our village. They are just destroying it… Truly, Our Lord and Saviour Christ dies every day–as he does on every page of this book, and in every second of this 7-9-16.[2]

That task accomplished in inimitable fashion, Hueffer continues his string of letters to Conrad. I hazarded yesterday that he is using Conrad as a sort of writer’s notebook, in much the same way that other writers have written sequentially to their family and counted it as a diary. Today this sense deepens, as Hueffer/Ford turns to the question of memory, memoir, and the urge to record.

Attd. 9/Wclch
19th Div, B. E. F.
7/9/16

Dear Conrad,

I wrote these rather hurried notes yesterday because we were being shelled to hell and I did not expect to get thro’ the night.

I wonder if it is just vanity that in these cataclysmic moments makes one desire to record. I hope it is, rather, the annalist’s wish to help the historian—or, in a humble sort of way, my desire to help you, cher maitre!—if you ever wanted to do anything in “this line.”

Bully for my intuition of yesterday, then, but this is something better: Hueffer, who after all knows a great deal about a great deal and has written a series of historical fictions (how perfect for a man we are investigating, as it were, for dramatizing the facts of his own experience), is very much aware both that date-marked impressions (“the annalist’s” work) are already “creative” rather than perfectly factual and that they are the raw stuff from which a historian constructs narratives further removed from immediate experience.

Or, to return to a modest mode, these “annals” of a war might help a novelist with the little details of his trade. And, again, remind him of what his friend has experienced and he has not.

Of course you wd. not ever want to do anything in this line,—but a pocketful of coins of a foreign country may sometimes come in handy. You might want to put a phrase into the mouth of someone in Bangkok who had been, say, to Bécourt
There you wd. be! And I, to that extent, shd. once more have collaborated.

Next, another perfect observation. We may try–nobly!–to produce a Great War “battle piece.” But that’s overwhelming–only a meandering, intense, fractured four-volume novel could really capture this war… It’s a matter for the accretion of daily detail.

This is a rather more accidenté [uneven; perhaps something like “messed up”] portion of the world: things in every sense “stick out” more in the September sunlight. The Big Push was too overwhelming for one to notice details; it was like an immense wave full of debris…

It is curious—but, in the evenings here, I always feel myself happier than I have ever felt in my life.—Indeed, except for worries, I am really very happy—but I don’t get on with my superior officers here & that means that they can worry me a good deal in details… However, these things, except in moments of irritation, are quite superficial…[3]

 

So Ford. He will not be able to maintain this level of productivity, which is good, as our attentions are needed elsewhere. Back on the Somme, the Guards Division is beginning to move, and we have several officers to keep tabs on. First, Rowland Feilding, even though he has moved away from the Guards, as expected. I’ll let his rapid-fire letters to his wife tell the story of the beginning of his first command:

September 6, 1916. Morlancourt.

There was Brigade Battle training to-day, and on my return to billets I found my orders. I am to assume temporary command of the 6th Connaught Rangers, belonging to the 47th Brigade, 16th (South Irish) Division, who, I find, are not far from here, at Carnoy…  I am to join it this afternoon. I will write again to-morrow, if I get the chance, and tell you how things are going.

 

September 7, 1916. Carnoy.

I reported to my new Brigadier (47th Brigade) last evening. He is General George Pereira, Grenadier Guards… I had tea and dinner with him, and found that he knows many of the family well. He has told me to put up a Major’s crowns. I am of course on probation, and I have not an easy task before me; therefore, I shall require all your prayers. What would I not give for the opportunity of a few words with you! I have hated having to make this great change without consulting you, and even without your knowledge.

My new battalion is one of the two which captured Guillemont four days ago:—as hard a nut to crack as there has been in this battle, so far. It was the battalion’s first attack, so it has not done badly; though the casualties have been heavy, both the Colonel and Second in Command having been killed.

I think we shall very soon be going out for a long rest, which I understand is overdue.

 

September 7, 1916 (Evening). Carnoy.

My new battalion, or rather the remnant of it, was bivouacking when I joined it, on a slope alongside the ruins of Carnoy, amid a plague of flies, reduced (apart from officers) to 365 other ranks, and very tired after the capture of Guillemont, in which it had taken a prominent and successful part, though the toll had been so heavy.

Since General John Ponsonby had first suggested the possibility of my being appointed to the command of a New Army battalion, I had hoped that I should perhaps be allowed a week or two with the officers and men, to get to know something of them before taking them into action: and certainly, in ordinary times, one would not expect a battalion straight out of one exhausting attack, and so punished as was this one, to be ordered back, without rest, into another. Yet such is the case.

To-day, within twenty-four hours of assuming command, I am to move up in front of Ginchy, preparatory to attacking that village the day after to-morrow…[4]

There’s not much to add, really. Feilding didn’t have a chance to consult with his wife, but at least he could reassure her that he would be safer in a new command. Now he is replacing a colonel who has been killed, and leading exhausted men back into battle…

 

But it wouldn’t be much safer with the Guards Division. Raymond Asquith gives us some detail on the purpose of the Guards field day that Feilding, understandably, glossed over. But then his story, like most of his stories, takes a quick twist:

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
7 September 1916

Our 5 minutes notice to move has been cancelled again, as one guessed it would be, and we are continuing our strenuous training. Yesterday we had a Brigade Field Day under John Ponsonby illustrating all the newest and most elaborate methods of capturing German trenches with the minimum of casualties. It involved getting up at 5 a.m. but in other respects was funny enough. The “creeping barrage” i.e. the curtain of shell fire which moves on about 50 yards in front of the advancing infantry, was represented by drummers. The spectacle of the whole four battalions moving in lines across the cornfields at a funeral pace headed by a line of rolling drums, produced the effect of some absurd religious ceremony conducted by a tribe of Maoris rather than a brigade of Guards in the attack. After it had gone on for an hour or two I was called up by the Brigadier and thought at first that I must have committed some ghastly military blunder (I was commanding the Company in Sloper’s absence) but was relieved to find that it was only a telegram from the corps saying “Lieut. Asquith will meet his father at cross roads K.6d at 10:45 a.m.”

fricourt crossroads

The fateful crossroads. Or not–it’s a bit too far from the front line to make sense, but it’s the right map reference, I think…

So I vaulted into the saddle and bumped off to Fricourt where I arrived exactly at the appointed time. I waited for an hour on a very muddy road congested with troops and lorries and surrounded by barking guns. Then 2 handsome motors from G.H.Q. arrived, the P.M. in one of them with 2 staff officers, and in the other Bongie, Hankey,[5] and one or two of those moth-eaten nondescripts who hang about the corridors of Downing Street in the twilight region between the civil and domestic service.

We went to see some of the captured German dug-outs and just as we were arriving at our first objective the Boches began putting over a few 4.2 shells from their field howitzer. The P.M. was not discomposed by this, but the G.H.Q. chauffeur to whom I had handed over my horse to hold, flung the reins into the air and himself flat on his belly in the mud. It was funny enough.

The shells fell about 200 yards behind us I should think. Luckily the dug-out we were approaching was one of the best and deepest I have ever seen–as safe as the bottom of the sea, wood-lined, 3 storeys and electric light, and perfect ventilation. We were shown round by several generals who kept us there for 1/2 an hour or so to let the shelling die down, and then the P.M. drove off to luncheon with the G.O.C. 4th Army and I rode back to my billets.

In the morning I went to an improvised exhibition of the Somme films–really quite excellent. If you haven’t seen them in London I advise you to take the earliest opportunity. They don’t give you much idea of a bombardment, but casual scenes in and on the way to the trenches are well-chosen and amazingly like what happens.

This morning we did some battalion training. It is certainly much easier and pleasanter commanding a Company than a platoon. You tell your subordinates what to do and then canter about the country damning them for not doing it.

Tonight we do some operations in the dark and tomorrow another brigade field day. The books and food you speak of have not yet arrived, but I have received 3 cakes of “Violette’ soap which smells very good.

The weather has become lovely again—bright sun with a touch of autumnal crispness in the air . . .[6]

 

Finally, Bimbo Tennant writes home with slightly forced good cheer. That is, his good cheer always seems to come from the heart, but here it trips up among the competing needs to inform, to be quick about it, and to reassure.

Sept. 7th, 1916.

… We are expecting to leave this place to-day and go off somewhere to make a road; but we have just got the message to ‘ stand-by,’ that is, wait in readiness, so whether we go or not, we don’t know. The news is universally good, the Brigadier said two days ago the 5th September was the most successful day of the war, so everyone is very bucked at the outlook. If there is an attack the C.O. has ordered me to be at Battalion Head-quarters, helping him and the Adjutant. This can lessen your anxiety considerably, darling Moth’; we are just going to march off after all, so good-bye–from Devoted Son[7]

This is good news, but headquarters units remain vulnerable to counter-barrages during an attack and often suffer casualties when trying to move forward to restore order or press the attack. In other words, this is hardly unalloyed reassurance, with an attack in the offing.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Can we count this as another Lucretian moment of Epicurean contentment? Probably not.
  2. War Prose, 189-90.
  3. Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 75-6.
  4. War Letters to a Wife, 110-12.
  5. Maurice Hankey, elder brother of Donald Hankey.
  6. Life and Letters, 293-4.
  7. Memoir, 226.

Raymond Asquith Casts His Coy Diana as Niobe; Rowland Feilding Misses Charlie Chaplin and Catches a Battle Instead

We read yesterday that Raymond Asquith had been to Amiens. Today, for the benefit of Diana Manners, he tarts up the more restrained version of the trip he had written to his wife. But first he responds to a letter[1] in which Manners mourns the recent loss of another acquaintance. I know this is lightly done–Asquith’s letters are the prose equivalent of occasional light verse–but it is lightly done so well. Manners, the young queen of the coterie, is likened now to the beautiful mother figure in one of ancient Greece’s cruelest myths.

5 September 1916

Your lyric moan about Basil gave me an excuse for thinking of you even more tenderly than is my wont. One after another your loves are stricken by the shafts of fate, as the children of Niobe by the arrows of Apollo because they were fairer than the children of God . . . As for me, I suppose that if ever I get another chance I shall remind you, as you suggest, of the ‘proximity of the grave’–

The grave’s a fine and private place
But few I think do there embrace.[2]

–always one of my favourite couplets. And yet I half hope that I shan’t. A caress loses much (though not all) of its value when it is no more than the conclusion of a syllogism. You should kiss people because you want to, not because if you don’t do it today there may be no time tomorrow. Though I agree, that if the impulse is there the arguments may irrefutably reinforce it.

It is not surprising, really, that Asquith quotes from Andrew Marvell, a sometime politician, satirist and poet who lived in troubled times. In my extensive research on the poem (i.e. Wikipedia), I find that T.S. Eliot described Marvell’s style as showing “a tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace.” This description would do well for Asquith’s prose, too, as he negotiates these letters to his wife and his brilliant woman-friend, and between the deaths that have taken place and those that might.

You have always to remember that after all there may be any amount of time tomorrow, unless like Cleopatra, you take damned good care that there shan’t be…

Asquith’s letter now breaks across the tide of building intensity to bring Manners up to date on the just-concluded court-martial. He then turns to the Amiens trip, offering his usual brand of stylishly oblique (i.e. naughty) but pointed compliments:

However, as a reward for my services I was given 24 hours’ leave to Amiens and whipped off there with 2 or 3 others, in young Wales’ excellent Daimler on Saturday afternoon. We ate and drank a great deal of the best, slept in downy beds, bathed in hot perfumed water, and had a certain amount of restrained fun with the very much once occupied ladies of the town. I took a particular fancy to a perfect femme du monde, with a voice as hoarse as the late Lady Westmoreland’s, and a skin distinctly less exhausted who entertained a dozenof us for an hour or more with talk and sweet champagne and all manner of lingeries . . .[3]

Now who’s being coy…

 

Rowland Feilding wrote to his wife again, yesterday, with an update on his job prospects. The news is good: the grapevine of Guards officers has let him know that he will shortly be offered not only the Trench Mortar job for their Division but command of a battalion of a New Army regiment. There is even a name–unofficially, of course: the Connaught Rangers. Everyone Feilding speaks to is of the same opinion, namely

that I shall do right to accept. Being only a Special Reserve officer, you see, and an amateur soldier at that, I can never rise higher than a Company Commander here.

In other words, although Feilding–with his prior service and proper name and general position–is generally acceptable, he will never be considered a true member of the Guards. Since they are a desirable cluster of regiments (only in the rush of expansion, in 1915, did they receive an influx of non-professional officers, and many of these were Etonian, titled, or otherwise Soul-ful) now grouped into one elite Division, some of the professionals will never leave to circulate among other units as they rise above field grade rank–a normal practice elsewhere in this army, despite the strength of Regimental identity.

And to be a trench mortar officer is to command a new and strange fiefdom within–but hardly integrated with–the division. Feilding craves his wife’s advice, but has to make do with his commander, and roommate.

I then returned to the mess, where I found “Bing” Hopwood, who, in Baring’s absence, is commanding the battalion. I told him also what I had heard, and he and I went for an hour’s walk, and talked things over. He is an extraordinarily silent fellow, and in the early days of our acquaintanceship I confess I never understood him. But the last fortnight, living with him, I have got to know him, and have acquired great confidence in him, like every one else. He was very congratulatory and said a command was miles better than to be Divisional Trench Mortar Officer (which—he said—is a difficult and rather unsatisfactory job).

As I have said, I do so wish I could have talked it over with you, and got your opinion. It would have been such a help to me could I have done so. As it is, I feel very diffident as to whether I can command a battalion efficiently—let alone a battalion of Irishmen, of whose characteristics I am completely ignorant. You must continue to pray hard for me, and that whatever I may have to do I do it well;—and all will come right, I am sure. It will be a strange feeling, jumping up to find myself a Colonel.

All this is quite unofficial, of course, but I will write again immediately I hear anything definite.

We have, since last night, been under three hours’ notice to move.

So Feilding’s course seems set, even if he shows the quiet trepidation of a child about to be sent to a new school.

Today, though, something very different fills his letter home–a notice of a fascinating “first:” Feilding is our first writer to see Britain’s first war movie. The Battle of the Somme was filmed in June and July and included documentary recordings of pre-battle bombardment and exhortation as well as battle footage both “real” and re-enacted–the cumbersome cameras, of course, could not go forward with attacking troops. This was a propaganda effort, and by most measures it was terrifically successful, with millions of people–perhaps 20 million–seeing the film in British cinemas between mid-August and the end of September.

September 5 1916. Morlancourt.

To-night I have been with others to see an exhibition of the “Somme film,” which was shown upon a screen, erected in a muddy field under the open sky. Presumably by way of contrast Charlie Chaplin was also to have appeared, and I confess it was chiefly him I went to see. However, I came too late, and saw only the more harrowing part of the entertainment.

This battle film is really a wonderful and most realistic production, but must of necessity be wanting in that the battle is fought in silence, and, moreover, that the most unpleasant part—the machine-gun and rifle fire—is entirely eliminated. Of the actual “frightfulness” of war all that one sees is the bursting shells; and perhaps it is as well. I have said that the battle is fought in silence; but no, on this occasion the roar of real battle was loudly audible in the distance.

That, for an experience of war art entangled with war experience, is hard to beat. Feilding has insightful comments, too, not only on the realism of the experience, but on its place in the military order or things. Rowland Feilding is a man who–somewhat unusually, here–misses not only his wife’s presence but her counsel, and it’s touching to watch him watch the movie and realize that he is confronting the experiential gulf once more.

I must say that at first the wisdom of showing such a film to soldiers on the brink of a battle in which they are to play the part of attackers struck me as questionable. However on my way home, my mind was set at rest upon this point by a conversation I overheard between two recruits who were walking behind me.

Said one, “As to reality, now you knows what you’ve got to fice. If it was left to the imagination you might think all sorts of silly b—— things”

I wonder where his imagination would have led him had he not seen the Cinema. Would it, do you think, have gone beyond the reality? Hell itself could hardly do so. I think sometimes that people who have not seen must find it difficult to comprehend how undisturbed life in the trenches can be on occasion: equally, how terrible can be the battle.[4]

In the context of another carefully detailed letter to his wife–and these are rarely reticent about horror–this must be read as a quietly tough reassertion of a husband (and a writer’s) duty, in war time: to keep up the work on the bridge that connects the experience of war to the life and the loved ones left behind, no matter that this work cannot ever be finished.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Probably lost, although I am not certain of this.
  2. This is from Andrew Marvell's To His Coy Mistress, one of the classic seduction poems in English. I do think that Asquith would be disdainfully amused of recent attempts to read the poem as ironically undermining its own argument.
  3. Life and Letters, 291-3.
  4. War Letters to a Wife, 108-110.

Tom Kettle Writes “To My Daughter Betty;” Raymond Asquith on Patrick Shaw-Stewart, Lady Desborough, and Notre Dame D’Amiens

I haven’t yet written of the Irish writer and politician (and “wit… scholar… orator,”[1] barrister, journalist, and economist) Tom Kettle–and I’m sorry for it. Like Francis Ledwidge, he was an Irish patriotic active in the drive for Home Rule who nonetheless saw it as his duty to fight for Britain against Germany. Unlike Ledwidge, Kettle was famous and influential, a friend of Joyce and a member of Parliament. Thirty-four at the outbreak of war, he chose nonetheless to serve as an infantry officer. Yesterday, a century back, knowing that his battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers was about to go into battle for the first time, he wrote a sort of political testament, explaining how his service–and possible death–in a British uniform should further the cause of Ireland. Today he addressed the possibility of his death in a more personal way while also placing it in the largest possible context: he wrote to his three-year-old daughter, and of salvation.

 

To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God

In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your Mother’s prime.
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
To die with death. And oh! they’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.

 In the field, before Guillemont, Somme
September 4th, 1916

 

And I should leave it there–and would, but for a crossing… not of paths, but of references. A century on, we wreak mischief on the mischievous. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, still far off in the East, wrote a letter today, a century back, in which he enclosed the citation for his Croix de Guerre. He has been honored for his courage and general usefulness as the liaison officer to the French 17th Colonial Division–which is no mean honor, unless of course it is more or less pro forma for a well-liked and well-connected officer…[2]

High praise from the far-flung French–but he is being cut down rather closer to home. Raymond Asquith, Shaw-Stewart’s less-than-intimate friend and pseudo-rival (Asquith may feel as if Shaw-Stewart is the newer, inferior model of the socially climbing Eton-Balliol society wit) is full of opinions today.

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
4 September 1916

. . . I’m glad you approved my contribution to Ettie’s book–an almost impossible thing to write even tolerably and probably, after she has doctored it, even less presentable than it originally was. She told me that she was going to cut out a bit in which I had said that Billy was insolent (as he most assuredly was) and as far as I recollect, the excision is bound to make nonsense of some of the least infelicitous paragraphs.

“Ettie” is, of course, Lady Desborough, mother of Julian and Billy Grenfell and society queen of the prior generation (she is to the Souls as Diana Manners is to the Coterie). Lady Desborough was always more than a bit much, and she is now assembling a memorial book for her sons, who were both killed last year. This trajectory–from hostess and symbol of society living to semi-public mourner and keeper of her sons’ flame–is now all too common.

Asquith is rude here, but hardly as rude as he could have been. He has submitted with near-grace to writing panegyric for two younger friends about whom he had a mixed sort of appreciation, to say the least. “Ettie’s” transmutation–from carefully eccentric inspiration for various pseudo-artistic men to full-time whitewasher of her sons’ memory–might be risible if it weren’t, in almost the correct classical sense, tragic. Asquith is much younger than Lady Desborough and positioned as an older friend of her sons rather than a younger admirer of her… but he has son of his own now. He is writing, after all, to the wife of a serving soldier and the mother of a boy who will have to go, if the war lasts into the mid-thirties…

So the fun-making, here, is in a minor key.

But there are other targets of opportunity in this mopping-up operation.

She also told me that she was going to put in Dunrobin and some of Bron’s houses as places where B and J and I had had fun together—which perhaps lends some colour to your charge of snobbery. As a matter of fact Ettie is a snob in the same simple harmless sense as Patrick [Shaw Stewart]. She meant to give her sons the best mise-en-scène from a worldly point of view which could be had and I suppose she wants people to know that she succeeded as she certainly did. She promised me the book but has not sent it–probably it is too big to travel.[3]

So our Shaw-Stewart, mailing home his citation, is only a harmless sort of snob. It’s an odd comparison–or, rather, Asquith is working with an odd definition of “snobbery.” He is citing Desborough–wife of a lord, lady in waiting, famous personality, wealthy landowner in her own right–with social climbing (or aesthetic scene-setting), and then declaring this to be a forgivable sin. It’s not that she looks down, but that, for her sons, she looks around, and arranges…

If that is snobbery, what, then, do we call a political scion hobnobbing with royalty?

I had a pleasant enough sojourn in A[miens]. Oliver and I and Sloper got the Prince to lend us his car. We went in on Saturday afternoon, got excellent rooms with soft beds and hot baths, and had several very well cooked meals and some drinkable champagne. The town was seething with other officers from the division and we rollicked about on Saturday night visiting the ladies of the town who provided a certain amount of amusement, but without (you will be glad to hear) any loss of chastity on my part or indeed on that of most of my companions.

amiens

Notre Dame D’Amiens in 1916, with sandbags (Imperial War Museum)

With Ettie Desborough and her sons and Patrick Shaw-Stewart thus taken care of–and a favor from the Prince of Wales to clear the palate[4]–the cantering rhythm of Asquith’s letters now resumes.

On Sunday night we drove back again and today in rain and wind have resumed the ordinary drudgery arid beastliness of life. It was pleasant to get back even for 24 hours to the decencies and indecencies of civilisation. The cathedral is very beautiful, but the first thing one instinctively looked at on seeing it was the sandbag barricade in front of the doors to see whether it was properly built according to the classical canons of trench architecture.

Tomorrow we have a Brigade Field Day. Yesterday there was a successful British attack on Ginchy and Guillemont[5] and if they capture Lenze-Wood (I don’t know yet whether they have done or not) comparatively open fighting may set in.

We have been put at 3 hours notice to move, but that happens so often that I don’t think it means anything.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chesterton, albeit via Wikipedia.
  2. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 173-4.
  3. It is--Google claims it is over 600 pages but, despite its being long out of copyright, does not reproduce it. Lady Desborough's "Pages from a Family Journal" was privately printed and seems to be quite rare.
  4. Which isn't snobbery, I realize. I fail to score a point on Asquith on the counter-riposte: for Asquith to pretend he were not acquainted with the prince and that borrowing his car would not be useful would be a truer sort of snobbery.
  5. There was, and the Master of Belhaven was firing in support--Blunden's battalion's failed attack was on a different portion of the front).
  6. Life and Letters, 291-2.