We begin today, a century back, with Bob Hermon–Lt. Col. Edward Hermon, C.O. of the 24th Northumberland Fusiliers–writing with somewhat mixed feelings about the coming battle.
I had a long walk round the trenches this morning, most unpleasant as the snow has made them very bad going indeed. Our old guns have been fairly pooping off today & the old Boche has got a bit angry about it too & the air hasn’t been very balmy in consequence…
There is such a damned din going on that one can hardly hear anyone speak. However, I am feeling very fit & there is something rather exhilarating about it all. The feeling that one [is] rising above all the clamour & sitting very tight on one’s natural inclination to rush out of the door & hare away into the back of beyond where one could sit down & be away & quiet for a time.
Anyhow, one does rise above this inclination alright & feels a better man for it…
This is hardly searingly confessional stuff, but within the context of Hermon’s loving, voluminous, easygoing correspondence with his wife, it’s pretty close. He’s a brave man, surely, but he’s also a conventional upper class Englishman who would be unwilling to discuss fear–or the fear of fear–with his friends. So to mention it here even in passing, even as, indisputably, the “natural reaction” to being asked to sit still while explosives rain down around you… is to acknowledge that the situation is serious, both in terms of how he is feeling and in terms of what may shortly be asked of him. And in the act of writing about it, of writing home, Hermon rises above it–or, at least, puts it behind him.
Edward Thomas was up at 4:30 today, and heard the blackbirds at 5:45. Forty-five minutes later his battery began shooting:
600 rounds. Nothing in return yet. Tired by 9.15 p.m. Moved to dugout in position. Letter from Helen. Artillery makes air flap all night long.
As it happens, we also have a letter that his wife Helen wrote today, a century back, to her friend Janet Hooton. This gives us a sense of what is so often missing from this project (since few men were able to save the letters they received at the front), namely the thoughts of the wives at the other end of these conversations, writing to their husbands in harm’s way.
This is an ordinary letter, but it’s a beautiful letter too, and a missing piece of a puzzle–a relationship–that we’ll never quite solve. And if it still seems to leave Helen in the background–a devoted wife, an ardent lover, struggling with motherhood and living alone in such anxiety–well, at least she has a chance to irrupt into print, here, exactly a century back.
4 April 1917 High Beech
My dear Janet,
How I should love to accept your invitation but just now it’s quite impossible and I’m most dreadfully disappointed…
I have left Bronwen for a few days to mother Merfyn and see him off at 6.45 (he has to have breakfast at 6.15 and he and I get up at 5.30) still I don’t like doing it and it’s never been more than a day or two at a time…
Sometimes I long to get away for a real rest and change and I’ll have to make some arrangements sometime for a little holiday…
Ever so many thanks all the same. Myfanwy and I would have loved it. I’m getting on all right tho’ this terrible winter will stand out in my memory as a sort of nightmare. The intense cold and the long dark days in this strange place, and then on January 11th that terrible parting, not knowing when we should see each other again; knowing nothing but that for each of us it was so terrible that I did not know one could live through such agony. But knowing so well our love for each other and the deep down happiness that nothing can disturb has made life possible, and tho’ in those first few lonely weeks I just existed from day to day doing my work and trying to keep fear from my heart, at last something more is possible, and our love for each other which has seen us through so many dark times and over rough places is making life possible now, real life I mean with happiness and laughter and hope.
I hear very often from Edward, splendid letters full of his work and his life and also of that absolute assurance that all is so well between us that that is all that really matters come what may. And I write long cheery letters to him, all about our little doings and interests, and the children and the country, and for both of us the post is the event of the day.
I will intrude here to point out something fairly obvious: Helen is in insisting. She is reading into the record, not testifying to what she has really seen; she is making an argument, she is claiming an interpretation that could easily be contested.
I should stand back and gently, condescendingly referee: there is scant evidence that his wife is best placed to know the true heart of Edward Thomas; and, besides, would we ever uncritically accept the interpretation of someone who has just admitted to being emotionally wrung out with love and agonized anxiety? True, yes.
But I agree with her wholeheartedly, on this next bit (for what that’s worth), and I think it goes to the heart of the matter.
I think he is just wonderful, doing his soldier’s work as well as ever he can, and yet still the poet too delighting in what beauty there is there, and he finds beauty where no one else would find it and it’s good for his soul and he needs it.
This is what we have seen, no? The poetry has paused, but the diary and the letters have bloomed–despite his caution, despite his care–with beautiful things.
He gets little time for depression, and so do I. That awful fear is always clutching at my heart, but I put it away time after time, and keep at my work and think of his homecoming… nearly every night I dream he has come and we are together once again. But I can wait easily enough if only my beloved will come to me at last. If I knew he would come how easy would be this, interval! Oh Janet how lucky you and Mary and, all the other women I know are who have got their men safe and sound…
My dear love to Harry and the children and your dear old self from
Helen Thomas is having a difficult time; with her son Merfyn so near enlistment age it might yet grow more difficult still. But a kindly son, no matter how self-involved, sends entertainments along with his reassurances, as Wilfred Owen does to his mother, Susan.
4 April 1917
Know that I have cut my forefinger with a tin of Lobster, and that is why I write shaky. I have been 4 days caravanning from the CCS, & have just found our H.Q. Journeying over the new ground has been most frightfully interesting. The Batt. has just done something great which will find its way into the Communique. I am going up to join them in an hour’s time. They have lost one officer, & many are wounded, Heydon among them. I shall no doubt be in time for the Counter Attack. I have bought an automatic pistol in the town (from which I sent a P.P.C.) By the time you get this we’ll be out of the line again. Tonight will be over. . . .
My long rest has shaken my nerve. But after all I hate old age, and there is only one way to avoid it!
But I promised an entertainment, and this, surely, would be terrifying to read. There is no comfort in the logic that, having just missed some action by his battalion (Owen was hospitalized with a concussion after falling into a hole) he is likely to be safe for a few days–to still be safe, when the letter will be read. We might know that the counter-attack, if there was one, would have already taken place…
But still. The pistol, the hints of action, the very phrase “counter attack”… where are the pleasant details of a soldier’s daily life?
Last night I bedded down with a family of refugees, 3 boys, 2 tiny girls: a good class socially, and of great charm personally. I was treated as a god, and indeed begin to suspect I have a heart as comprehensive as Victor Hugo’s, Shakspere’s, or your own. In 24 hours I never took so many hugs & kisses in my life… They took reliefs at it. It would have astounded the English mind.—While, just the night before I was in blues as deep as the Prussian Blue—not having heard an affectionate spoken word since I left you—or rather since I left A. I am now in the Pink.
But this, too, is not comforting. Owen overdoes the assurances of love, the emphasis on the uniqueness of their mother-son bond… he is worried.
No need to tell you where I am going up to fight. It is the town on which the hopes of all England are now turned.
Happily for the distressingly high-spirited Owen, he is mistaken. Out of the loop in the CCS, he has heard of his battalion’s advance towards Saint-Quentin. Which is to say that they fought their way bravely up after the withdrawing Germans on the southern end of the British sector and then participated in a small (brigade-level) attack near Selency, suffering 73 casualties to little strategic purpose.
The main effort will be at Arras, in the north. That is is where all England will shortly be turning its hopes and its prayers, and the 2nd Manchesters will not be in it–pray that Mrs. Owen puzzles this out.
Which is not to say that Owen is otherwise incorrect. He is headed into battle–but an ordinary sort of battle, with it’s ordinary sort of mortal peril, desperate fear, and constant hardship.
I must now dress up in Battle Order.
Your own W.E.O. xxxxx
I find no letters here. Your parcels’ did not take part in the advance—Too heavy!
Without your Letters I should give in. What to I know not, but I ‘sorter’ feel I should ‘give up the unequal contest!’—without a definite object for carrying on. And that object is not my Motherland, which is a good land, nor my Mother tongue, which is a dear language, but for my Mother, of whom I am not worthy to be called
The Son xxx
Finally, today, another sin of omission: blogging with the best of intentions, I have nonetheless not always fulfilled the promises made with youthful high spirits in the salad days of ’14. Exactly one post–a post dating from before the war, no less–mentions Reggie Trench, and promises to check in on him “regularly.” I have not. But Reggie Trench’s path has been a winding one, and although he joined up early, he didn’t reach France until March of 1916, and the 2/5th Sherwood Foresters have never yet been in heavy combat.
Until today, a century back, when the 2/5th Sherwoods attacked one of the new positions of the Hindenberg Line near Le Verguier, only a few miles to the north of Owen’s 2nd Manchesters. The new line was everywhere well-sited, which meant that the attack was uphill, into the wind, and into the guns. It failed, and dozens of corpses lay on the slope to be covered by the falling snow. Trench’s sorrow was counterbalanced, however, by pride in the obedience and aggression of his men–he is confident that they will follow him in the next attack.