Edward Hermon Fights Off Fear; Helen Thomas Describes Her Torment; Wilfred Owen Girds for Battle; Reggie Trench Goes Over the Top

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…[1]

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.[2]

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

 

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
Dearest Mother,

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[3]

 

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.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 348-9.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 174.
  3. Collected Letters, 448-9.
  4. Fletcher, Life, Death, and Growing Up, 140.

Wilfred Owen in the Mountains, Siegfried Sassoon’s Cricket Match Interrupted, a Plain, a Weekend Party, an Imagist Dinner, and a Dead Goat

So, readers, we near the end of the beginning: the Great Powers are mobilizing, and even Siegfried knows that war is coming. For the next week, then, this blog is going to be a busy mess–a mobilization less rigidly planned–as I try to give crucial updates on our “main characters,” introduce the soldiers who will first take us into combat, and fail to resist a plethora of interesting writerly tidbits. Bear with the madness, and in a week or so things will have settled down into regular daily posts of assimilable size.

Early in the morning of July 30th, 1914, Wilfred Owen left Bordeaux behind, taking a train south toward the little Pyrénéen town of Bagnères-de-Bigorre and the villa rented by the Léger family, whose daughter he was now to begin tutoring. By mid-morning, then, “for the first time in his life Wilfred saw real mountains.” By mid-afternoon he had also experienced an uphill ride in a donkey cart. As M. Léger was too old for service and there was no son to worry about, the rampant talk of war and mobilization seems hardly to have affected the isolated ménage.[1]

 

Meanwhile, in merrie olde England, Reggie Trench, no Orlando, but a rather sharp young accountant with a commission in the Territorial Army and an “ear to the ground,” wrote a letter to Clare Howard, his fiancée, as he prepared for the annual camp on Salisbury plain. Many other young Territorials and the even younger men and boys of the OTC had looked forward to these camps for weeks or months–they were good fun. But Trench was reading the papers, which had begun to acknowledge the gravity of the European crisis, and saw that the camp was likely to have a more serious air than usual, or even be rudely interrupted.

Of Germany, he wrote “If they come in we do inevitably I think, and one must remember that we would not then be fighting for any abstract “Serbian” reason but rather to prevent France being overwhelmed and to protect the neutrality of Belgium and Holland…” Already commissioned, Trench was ahead of the game (given his prophetic surname, he would be) in working out exactly why he should fight.[2]

 

That same afternoon, Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant, was reflecting on the success of his new cigarette company while motoring out through the suburbs of London behind the wheel of his shiny new cabriolet. Sales were climbing and, since “nothing could stop their automatic increase,” the future was rosy and his gambled capital would soon pay off. It was a good time–Thursday afternoon of the August Bank Holiday weekend–to take off early and get away to the house in the country.

Arriving in Wargrave (oh come ON!), Berkshire, at around tea-time, Jackson was met by his wife Patricia and his cousin Francis. The two cousins, fast friends since school days, had each inherited ownership in the family cigar business when their parents died young, but Francis was artsy and intellectual and lived a life of leisure while Peter, a tireless striver, had expanded the cigar business and gambled now on the new concern, Nirvana Cigarettes.

Bad news, upon arrival, however: Patricia’s brother, one Jack Baynet, had wired to say that he couldn’t make the weekend after all. Jack being an army officer, our hero assumes that his brother-in-law is being deployed to ever-restive Ireland.  But never mind: the cancellation is rather a beastly wrench in the works, given how much Peter had been looking forward to doubles tennis and bridge. The fact that a smarmy advertising fellow and his wife are coming instead is hardly a fair exchange. Well, a less than ideal situation–but even a rocky marriage and a half-spoilt weekend will hardly wreck the equilibrium of a conquering capitalist, cigar firmly between his teeth.

Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant, is too good to be true. Which makes sense, because he isn’t. Alas, Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant is also too trite to be tolerable–but I got this far and noted the dates, so we’ll give him his head and see how he plays. The novel, by Gilbert Frankau, is a bit dull and very self-serious–but it was a successful novel in its day and its protagonist shares so much in the way of personal experience with its author that it may prove to be a valuable addition to the project, in the category of “what certain of our war experiences look like when we freely fictionalize them.” Frankau was, like Peter Jackson, from a wealthy middle class merchant background (Peter had an easier time than his creator in moving his Jewish ancestry firmly into his personal past) and went straight from public school (Eton) into business. He had also over-extended himself with a risky expansion in 1914…  we’ll learn more about Frankau as we follow Jackson into the army, but for now let two facts stand: first, Wargave (no etymological relation!) really exists and is quite a reasonable place for a successful London bourgeois to take a summer cottage; second, I severely doubt that Frankau noticed the homophone or intended any irony. It’s not the subtle-perceptive sort of novel…

 

At about seven in the evening at Bovington Camp in Dorset a bugle sounded “Company sergeant-majors, at the double.” CSM Boreham duly doubled back to the Orderly Room, where he learned that the orders he had just received–concerning the movement 2nd Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers to Salisbury Plain for maneuvers–were entirely countermanded.

This time the Orders were very brief: “Pack up, we march back to Portland to-night.” Then the thought flashed through my mind–War. The men were jubilant, as is usual in such circumstances. I’m not afraid to place it on record that I was not ; the South African [i.e. Boer] War had taught me that there was nothing at all to get jubilant about. It is strange what thoughts pass through one’s mind in times of crisis. The very first thing that came to mine was the recollection of being verminous in South Africa, and the horror of being so again…

CSM Boreham is the first voice in a chorus-within-a-chorus: the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Welch (yes, that’s [their] preferred spelling) is, from our particular point of view, the most remarkable unit of the war. Several of the most interesting war poets–our central characters–passed through the battalion, and several other major poets and memoirists served in other battalions of the same parent regiment.

A brief word on regiments and battalions (skip ahead a bit, ye initiates): most British regiments at this time had two service battalions, called the 1st and 2nd–so we’re here with the 2/RWF–plus a “depot” formation and a number of territorial and/or special reserve battalions. The battalion was the very-roughly-a-thousand-strong basic operational unit, and battalions of various regiments were combined (moving up the scale of formation size) into brigades, divisions, corps, and armies. These were building blocks; but Britain being Britain, and old armies being old armies, each block was stamped with the special mark of the regiment that produced it. The army will soon expand, and battalion numbers will fly up into the twenties–but all battalions of the Royal Welch, be they ever so amateur and not so very Welsh, will get a little bit of regimental history and tradition, a little bit of esprit de corps, a little bit of a sense that, before they get to killing Germans, they might consider a fist-fight with a member of some inferior regiment, just to show who’s really part of the best old regiment in the army.

A lot to learn, here, but there are only two really important bits: first, “regimental” loyalty represents the old, traditional, conservative elements of military life–many of the things that soldiers value and have always valued–while the constant expansion and reshuffling of battalions represents the work of foolish or hard-hearted generals and governments producing and expending so much cannon fodder; second, in the opening months and years of the war, the first and second battalions of any regiment were the “regulars”–career officers and men who were hardened to military life and usefully trained, particularly in “musketry.”[3]

Now back to the 2/Royal Welch: not only did they host a number of poets (reasonably good poets among the actual professional army, as opposed to wartime volunteers, were much more limited in number–that number being approximately Julian Grenfell, himself a Royal Dragoon) but they also eventurally acquired a remarkable doctor, J.C. Dunn, who later engineered a collective history of the unit, a sort of human and polyvocal version of the usually staid and unprotesting battalion war diary.[4] So we will be seeing a lot of this battalion, and paying more than usual attention even to the other battalions of the RWF, which share traditions and, often enough, personnel with the second battalion.

And about those traditions: we will learn about the “flash” and St. David’s Day and Albuera in good time. For today, I only want to note that the Royal Welch, as a matter of ancient (some decades, to be sure) tradition, had a regimental goat. Not a pet mind you, but a Regimental Goat, born on the official strength of (at least the 2nd) battalion.

Today, a century back, the regimental goat died. “He must have known something.”[5]

 

At around the same time, at the Berkeley hotel in London, Amy Lowell was making some important connections over dinner.[6] The influential American poet and critic is only two days removed from hating on/heckling poor young Rupert Brooke, but tonight she dines with her own people. These are the “imagists,” self-declared vanguard of the Modernist movement, roaring poetic engines primed to race screaming down the highway of the literary future, hauling the twentieth century willy nilly into their slipstream and leaving the Georgian poets wandering dazedly amid the roadside wildflowers, coughing dazedly in the dust. We have yet to meet Richard Aldington, whose acid Death of a Hero is one of the most important (and least Roman-a-Clef-y) angry novels of the war, but we mention him today because he and his wife–the probably-more-significant modernist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)–were introduced, at this dinner, to the much-more-significant-indeed novelist D.H. Lawrence.

Lawrence owed his first break to none other than Ford Hermann Hueffer (a.k.a Ford Madox Ford) and was influenced by T.E. Hulme (the Modernist poet and philosopher we keep mentioning, but have yet to really meet) will exercise a huge influence on Aldington. He would never completely throw in his lot with the angry/radical Modernists or Vorticists (recall Blast) and was published in both Lowell’s Imagist anthologies and Eddie Marsh’s Georgian anthologies. But Lawrence never served–he was a committed anti-militarist and spent the war being harassed by the English authorities for his supposed pro-Germanism. So, despite his eminence, he is for us a great crumping blast from a big gun–but an “over,” a near-miss behind and away somewhere else. The Vorticist Wyndham Lewis, and the angry modernists Aldington and Ford, will reach the trenches, and we will see more of them…  Ah, I remember when I reassured myself that, even if the project seemed to be getting out of hand, at least I wouldn’t bother dealing with the Modernists… never such innocence…

 

Finally, in a lovely old house in rural Kent, after an afternoon on the cricket pitch, doing “quite a decent bit of defensive batting” for the Blue Mantles, a future subaltern of the 2/RWF struggled–awkwardly as ever–with a new complex of feelings. The cricket match had broken up as several players with military affiliations learned that they had been recalled to their stations. “That evening I played Prince Igor with more expressiveness than ever, while Mrs. Anely sat on the sofa by the window, appreciative of my performance, but unable to conceal her opinion that God alone knew what we should all be doing in a month’s time. My mother, whose courage was unshakeable, did her best to ‘change the subject’; but she couldn’t change the look in her own face.”[7]

 

And really finally, for today, Sometime earlier, in both absolute and solar-relative time, also at about tea-time–although presumably and despite his fondness for cousin George, he was not thinking of it as such–Tsar Nicholas signed Russia’s mobilization order. This was to take effect the next morning, although some troops in Moscow began immediately entraining for the West. A general war is now (even more) inevitable.

References and Footnotes

  1. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 126-7.
  2. Reggie Trench's letters are drawn upon by his grandson Anthony Fletcher in Life, Death, and Growing Up on the Western Front, a book with much the same approach to telling the story of the war as I've taken up here. I'm reading along with Fletcher now, and will be checking in on Reggie Trench regularly--I would urge any fanatical readers to get the book, which is an admirable hybrid of social history and personal history/group biography, although of course you would then find out what happens to Trench and the other subjects of the book before the century progresses in its due time. You'd find out much, in fact, from the cover. The quotation above is found on page 9.
  3. Change came slow enough to weapons, but even slower to words: musketry is shooting with a bolt-action rifle.
  4. Dunn's The War the Infantry Knew is the best--or possibly the only--book of its kind, and, although it's necessarily patchy and dependent on the memories of survivors, it's the only really compelling contemporary unit history. I would recommend it unreservedly were it not for the fact that I plan to steal and post all of the best parts.
  5. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 1-2.
  6. See Kinkead-Weekes, D.H. Lawrence: Triumph to Exile, 136.
  7. The Weald of Youth, 270.