This is another day to turn a page–a title page, to push the morbid analogy a bit farther.
I have quoted quite often from “Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell,” but the full title is Francis and Riversdale Grenfell: A Memoir. Buchan, a prolific writer on many subjects, is already, a century back, working on thrillers, journalism, and a history of the war. And now he will begin work on the joint memoir of the Grenfell twins. This has been my primary source on the lives of the twins, and I have been quoting occasionally from it since last spring.
Buchan today goes into the mode of a traditional military historian. He writes rousing prose, but with close attention to detail–when he can get it. When he can’t provide us with information on the doings in the very front, he writes in sweeping, broad-canvass fashion (cinematic prose, we would say). There is the brilliance of the day, the awesome misery of enduring the German attack, the heroic and bedraggled band of survivors… Buchan is always a good reminder for us: he is a a well-connected, serious-minded, militarily-knowledgeable historian who is–always–writing literature. Being a writer of ripping yarns doesn’t really make you a good or bad historian on the facts, but it surely puts you on the road to writing compelling, strongly-shaped history. Today, however, the historian is only the advance guard for the life-writer.
The dawn of Monday, 24th May, promised a perfect summer day with cloudless skies and a light north-easterly breeze. About three a.m. the cavalry in the trenches saw a thick yellow haze, thirty feet high, rolling down from the ridge a hundred yards before them, and the air was filled with a curious pungent smell. They had had no previous experience of gas, and in twenty seconds the cloud was upon them. Then came the German guns, making a barrage behind to keep back reinforcements. Though our respirators at the time were elementary the cavalry managed to weather the gas, and held their ground through the seventeen long hours of daylight that followed. It was the last phase of the battle, and the German assault broke for good on that splendid steadfastness.
But a high price was paid for victory. In the small hours of the 25th a little party of some forty men stumbled in the half light along the Menin road, through the crumbling streets of Ypres, and out into the open country towards Vlamertinghe. Those who passed them saw figures like spectres, clothes caked with dirt, faces yellow from the poison gas. They were all that remained of the 9th Lancers. Their Brigadier, General Mullens, met them on the road, but dared not trust himself to speak to them. “Tell them,” he told the Colonel, ” that no words of mine can express my reverence for the Ninth.” Next day General Byng, who commanded the Cavalry Corps, visited the remnant. ” Put anything in orders you like,” he said. ” Nothing you can say will be adequate to my feelings for the old Ninth. Of course I knew you would stick it, but that doesn’t lessen my unbounded admiration of you all.”
With them they brought the body of Francis Grenfell. When the attack opened and the infantry on the left fell back, he was busy converting a communication trench into a fire trench, and shouting out in his old cheery way, “Who’s afraid of a few dashed Huns?”‘ He stood on rising ground behind the trench when he was shot through the back. He managed to send a message to his squadron, the true testament of the regimental officer: “Tell them I died happy, loving them all.” Then he who had once lived cheerfully in the sun, but for months had been among the fogs and shadows, went back to the sunlight.
He was buried in the churchyard of Vlamertinghe, and beside him was laid Sergeant Hussey, one of the most gallant N.C.O.’s in the Ninth. Some one said at the graveside, “How happy old Hussey would have been to know he died with Francis.”
Neither Francis nor Riversdale were writers, really, although Buchan has quoted at times from their vivid letters. Nor were they intellectuals or unusual in their lives and opinions. I included them at first because they seemed to represent a certain type: the unreflective, self-assured aristocrats who have, however, the courage of their convictions–and more to spare. Orphaned, then done out of their money by an older brother’s financial mismanagement, the two–never mind their famous family, their costly educations, their lives of privilege–had come to seem like a strange sub-species of the innocent, blinkered-but-benign British boys who stumbled upon the war and embraced it as the answer to their problems.
Or does this story only resound so ringingly because Buchan–writing, with love, but also a good deal of condescension–made it that way? I don’t know his sources for today’s events, but he has taken what seems to be hearsay from combat-exhausted fellow soldiers and presented it without equivocation as Francis’s heroic last words. Is this too far for “history” to go? Can we be as confident as we would like that Francis died as he lived, a happy warrior to the end?
In any event it seems unfair to mark the death of the twins–Rivy was killed in September–by declaring them to be “types” who represent or “signify” some fundamental aspect of the early war experience. They were hardly ordinary officers–Francis, after all, won the Victoria Cross–and no one person’s experience (nor any pair of twins’) can be representative in any meaningful way. The point I want to make is about life-writing rather than historiography: these two will end up standing for the early war experience because that’s how their lives were written. By Buchan. Not that Buchan has traduced them, but he has shaped their stories as he chose–they, simply, did not get a chance to write their own lives. As the photo of his V.C. trading card at right vividly illustrates, one cannot control how one is remembered, nor can depth come from silence.
Because this project cleaves to the idea of being always exactly one century back, I rarely talk about the sources I’m using, not wanting to draw attention to a very likely presumption: that those who have published their stories must have survived the war (spoiler!), and those who are being written about by others (or who appear here only in contemporary documents) do not. This is a flaw in the plan, here–but worth, I hope, preserving the strange historical sensation of reading the war “in real time,” a century back. It’s true, too, that the presumption will not always be correct: some memoirs are written in the midst of the war, and do not guarantee their author’s survival; and some survivors published not a memoir but collections of letters or poems written during the war, with dates that I can seize upon.
Enough explanation. Francis Grenfell is dead, and John Buchan tells us that he lived joyfully and died, despite the cloud of his fortunes and the death of his twin, happily, in the end. His war story ends now, and his silence is absolute.
His cousin Julian, meanwhile, is still clinging to life. Lady Desborough’s diary is faintly upbeat today:
24 May Home at 6:30. Lay down for an hour. Back to Hosp. Lister. Sargent at 11 gave us one thread of hope. We had quite given up hope. Ca & W stayed there. I slept till 2. With him whole aft. Shade better. Slept there. he had fair night.’
Julian’s sister Monica wrote to his friend in hunting-and-innuendo Flossie Garth today, with greater medical detail–and additional positive reporting. She explains that the second operation had involved trepanning to remove pressure building up around the site of the first operation, and praises her brother’s fortitude:
He has been so wonderful and good and brave though it all–and he had been conscious almost all the time. He was talking today about you & Mr Hubert and of the happy hunting days…
Conscious, but beginning to lose feeling in his extremities. According to Nicholas Mosley, who is probably drawing on Lady Desborough’s memoir,
One or other of his family were always with him… they told him of how well he had fought, and how they would cake him to get well in the forests by the sea in Normandy. They talked to him of old holidays, in Scotland or
at Panshanger; of an enormous fish he had once caught. He once clasped his mother’s hand and she said to him ‘That is what you do when you are asleep and you think I am going away’ and he said ‘No, it is only affection’. He said to his father when one of his arms began to be paralysed ‘Take my hand in your two strong hands and rub my poor arm’; and when his father did this and he groaned, he explained–‘It is only contentment’. He liked to have poetry read to him, and sometimes said poetry to himself. Of his own poems he liked to say ‘The Fighting Boar’. He also said his favourite speech from Euripides’ Hippolytus, in which Phaedra laments that she cannot be like her stepson. He prayed, mostly childhood prayers–those about which he had sometimes been ironical.
Here, too, it is hard to separate reality from the stricken mother’s version–never mind the biographer’s point of view. Mosley, with that last phrase, is clearly signaling a polite disbelief of this beautiful, sad, symbolic family tableau. He is at pains to explain throughout the biography–which at times is almost a dual biography of Julian Grenfell and Ettie Fane/Grenfell/Desborough–that Lady Desborough’s most remarkable charismatic feat was to rewrite reality at her pleasure and compel others to conform to her view of the world. For many years Julian had violently and completely rejected his mother’s cult–but his letters usually show only affection. And now, paralyzed and silenced, his narrative–of their relationship and of everything else–is completely in her hands.
This isn’t history–this is a family story, and a very sad one.
There is sunlight and shadow in England today, too, but the shadow falls not yet on young Siegfried Sassoon–apologies, on “George Sherston”–living the heady life of a good regiment’s training camp.
Life in the officers’ mess was outwardly light-hearted. Only when news came from our two battalions in France were we vividly reminded of the future. Then for a brief while the War came quite close; mitigated by our inexperience of what it was like, it laid a wiry finger on the heart. There was the battle of Festubert in the middle of May. That made us think a bit. The first battalion had been in it and had lost many officers. Those who were due for the next draft were slightly more cheerful than was natural.
The next thing I knew about them was that they had gone—half a dozen of them. I went on afternoon parade, and
when I returned to the hut my fellow occupant had vanished with all his tackle. But my turn was months away yet… [Sassoon’s ellipsis]
The following day was a Sunday, and I was detailed to take a party to church. They were Baptists and there were
seven of them. I marched them to the Baptist Chapel in Bootle, wondering what on earth to do when I got them to the door. Ought I to say, “Up the aisle; quick march”? As far as I can remember we reverted to civilian methods and shuffled into the Chapel in our own time. At the end of the service the bearded minister came and conversed with me very cordially and I concealed the fact that it was my first experience of his religion. Sunday morning in the Baptist Chapel made the trenches seem very remote. What possible connection was there?
This, it hardly bears pointing out, is the “novelistic” prerogative of the memoir writer in all its glory. He foreshadows. He gives us, that is, a prospective irony of proximity that he had not yet, a century back, himself earned. We smile sadly with him, knowing, as he did not, that the trenches are very close indeed.
Sassoon will give us a carefully “factual” account of his past. The names are changed, sure, but the fiction is stretched so close to the skeleton of his own experiences that the real threat to the historically-minded reader’s sensibilities is not that he writes of “Sherston” and not “Sassoon” or that the dates might be wrong, but rather that his greatest concern as a writer is with the nature of time and memory. This is Sassoon’s “binary vision–” but one eye is always dominant. He writes what he sees in retrospect, after ruminations and reconsideration of the vanished years between. He is not trying to recapture what he saw then, or perhaps what he saw–but not how he saw it. The Sassoon of 1915 is a reporter become a character in a future report–and he doesn’t get the final edit.
We arrive now at today–a Monday, a century back:
Next day some new officers arrived, and one of them took the place of the silent civil engineer in my room. We had the use of the local cricket ground; I came in that evening feeling peaceful after batting and bowling at the nets for an hour. It seemed something to be grateful for—that the War hadn’t killed cricket yet, and already it was a relief to be in flannels and out of uniform. Coming cheerfully into the hut I saw my new companion for the first
time. He had unpacked and arranged his belongings, and was sitting on his camp-bed polishing a perfectly new pipe. He looked up at me. Twilight was falling and there was only one small window, but even in the half-light his face surprised me by its candour and freshness. He had the obvious good looks which go with fair hair and firm
features, but it was the radiant integrity of his expression which astonished me. While I was getting ready for dinner we exchanged a few remarks. His tone of voice was simple and reassuring, like his appearance. How does he manage to look like that? I thought; and for the moment I felt all my age, though the world had taught me little enough, as I knew then, and know even better now. His was the bright countenance of truth; ignorant and undoubting; incapable of concealment but strong in reticence and modesty. In fact, he was as good as gold, and everyone knew it as soon as they knew him.
Such was Dick Tiltwood, who had left school six months before and had since passed through Sandhurst. He was the son of a parson with a good family living. Generations of upright country gentlemen had made Dick Tiltwood what he was, and he had arrived at manhood in the nick of time to serve his country in what he naturally assumed to be a just and glorious war. Everyone told him so; and when he came to Clitherland Camp he was a shining epitome of his unembittered generation which gladly gave itself to the German shells and machine-guns—more gladly, perhaps, than the generation which knew how much (or how little, some would say) it had to lose. Dick made all the difference to my life at Clitherland. Apart from his cheerful companionship, which was like perpetual fine weather, his Sandhurst training enabled him to help me in mine. Patiently he heard me while I went through my repetitions of the mechanism of the rifle. And in company drill, which I was slow in learning, he was equally helpful.
“Dick Tiltwood” is David Cuthbert Thomas, a young Welsh officer impossible to dislike, and easy to love. “Sherston” has found a friend and model–never mind the fact that “Tiltwood” is eight years younger–a practical teacher and a comrade gifted with the sort of peaceful sunny strength that will both draw others to him and serve them all in good stead when they go together into the violent dark…
And Sassoon the memoir writer has found a symbol, an epitome, a focal point, an embodiment of a nation and a class and a generation, with no idea how much he might lose…
References and Footnotes
- Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 233-5. ↩
- I.e. Willy, Lord Desborough, and Monica, "Casie," their daughter. ↩
- Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 299. ↩
- Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 332. ↩
- Mosley, Julian Grenfell, 263. ↩
- For my American readers, perhaps, especially, this name will seem to be a remarkably blatant bad joke, as both "dick" and "wood" are common slang terms for the penis. Given Sassoon's quondam homosexuality and his love for Thomas on the one hand and his memoir's sad seriousness on the other, it might seem to be a bizarre choice... but it is a linguistic coincidence. This is not a "dick joke." ↩
- Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man, 240-1. (I will use page numbers from the one-volume Complete memoirs of George Sherston throughout.) ↩