Robert Graves Informs Robert Nichols; Siegfried Sassoon Closes Another Loop; Ford Madox Hueffer Hymns the High-Life; Olaf Stapledon and Agnes Miller on a Live Wire and Mr. Britling; Richard Aldington Tells Off and Tells a Joke

February, it seems, will rival January as a cold and miserable month that nonetheless provides a great deal of interesting war writing. Poets writing to other poets! Poets reading original acenturyback sources! Tall tales of the troops that are actually funny! More Mr. Britling! Scabrous poets lashing out at all the other poets they can name!

The first piece of… several… today, comes from Robert Graves to his new friend Robert Nichols. Nichols is out of the war, we may recall, and has flatteringly asked Graves–with tongue-in-cheek preciousness–to inspire his poetry by “feeding my faun with cherries.”

2 February 1917

My dear Robert,

What a ripping letter! I wrote you one a day or two ago and though it’s a bad habit I must write another. You’re lucky, to be able to be so happy in England: I couldn’t while the war lasts…

A friendly letter, or a critical one? Mostly the former. With Graves it’s always possible that what might seem like a sharp reference to the experiential gulf–“you’re a civilian now, friend, oh-so-happy in England, while I’m a soldier”–is merely careless, and it certainly seems as if he is otherwise enthusiastic about this new relationship.

Next, Graves ups the ante by writing Nichols not prosy notes to inspire his poetry but rather a poem of his own. This is the revised version of the draft poem “To Robert Nichols” that made up much of today’s letter:

Here by a snowbound river
In scrapen holes we shiver,
And like old bitterns we
Boom to you plaintively:
Robert how can I rhyme
Verses for your desire—
Sleek fauns and cherry-time,
Vague music and green trees,
Hot sun and gentle breeze,
England in June attire,
And life born young again,
For your gay goatish brute
Drunk with warm melody
Singing on beds of thyme
With red and rolling eye,
All the Devonian plain,
Lips dark with juicy stain,
Ears hung with bobbing fruit?
Why should I keep him time?
Why in this cold and rime,
Where even to dream is pain?
No, Robert, there’s no reason:
Cherries are out of season,
Ice grips at branch and root,
And singing birds are mute.

Next, Graves presumes to preach to Nichols, affecting a frank, hale-fellow voice to knock (fairly, however) Nichols’s rather old-fashioned approach. We are Sorley‘s children, now, Robert!

Look here, Robert; I’ll risk your being annoyed, if you are you’d be no friend of mine, but nowadays one doesn’t ‘view the constellations quietly, quietly burning’, at least not after one’s left school. ‘Moral austerity’? Sorley talks of the spiky stars that shine: less luxuriant, sharper, more effective.

Call me a grandmother: I like being ragged. But oh, Robert, you’ve got all the qualities of a poet if you want, and it seems such a rotten stunt for you to sit in a kimono to view constellations quietly, quietly burning, and read Bridges. You want to get away from all that into a new method…

I don’t apologize for this. I mean it and I feel Somme trenches give me the right even to blasphemy of the Holy Spirit if I feel so inclined.

Yours affectionately

Robert[1]

Well, there you have it, quite openly in that last paragraph. There are many bases for asserting authority in poetry. But in war poetry, there is one only–experience. Having fought in “the Somme trenches,” Graves can criticize without restraint all poetry up to and including that which is divinely inspired… and his humorous hyperbole only half-covers the fact that he is less-than-half joking.

 

Siegfried Sassoon, left behind in Litherland Camp and not party to this new poetic friendship, is moping about and reading. ah, but who? One young but old-fashioned poet, and one fallen soldier–each of them one of our sources. Or, rather, one of them a source I came to late in his lie=fe and should have used more, and the other more of a source-to-come.

February 2

And now reading Charles Lister‘s letters in the hut and feeling deadly tired and depressed. I suppose I’ll worry along somehow in France. How, I don’t quite know.

Wilfrid Gibson’s new poems arrived today. He seems to be laying himself out to be a sort of Crabbe (modernised on Masefield Lines). Some of it is very good, but diffuse…

Charles Lister, another of the well-born young men who swarmed into the Royal Naval Division at the start of the war, was a friend of Patrick Shaw-Stewart and Rupert Brooke, and the third of the “Argonauts” to die. Lister’s father published his son’s letters, and while these will not have anything like the influence of Charles Sorley on the younger poets, it is another early case of a feedback loop.

Sassoon is reading one of the books we might read (and have read a bit of) in order to understand the experience of the war. His writing of his own life, therefore–not just in the memoir but in the near-“real-time” of his diary–is now influenced by Great War life-writing.

To reverse chronological course and restore our sense of future-mastery, I’ll note that it’s also interesting that he’s reading Wilfrid Gibson, who is most definitely a Georgian poet, but not–not yet–a war poet. But he will be. Although this project has seen numerous young men accepted despite severe vision problems, Gibson, already in his late thirties when the war broke out, was several times refused when he attempted to volunteer. But 1917 will bring increasing demands for men, and, accordingly, a loosening of such restrictions… so even as Sassoon reads the words of an Edwardian young man now long dead, he is reading the diffuse Georgian poetry of a poet who will soon know war.

 

Some weeks ago we dispatched the ailing Ford Madox Hueffer to the south of France. Another one of those hospital nightmares? Oh no, my friends!

…we had lived like gentlemen. A peeress of untellable wealth and inexhaustible benevolence had taken, for us alone, all the Hôtel Cap Martin [in Menton, on the French Riviera]–staff, kitchens, chef, wine-cellars. We sat at little tables in fantastically palmed and flowering rooms and looked, from the shadows of marble walls, over a Mediterranean that blazed in the winter sunlight. We ate Tournedos Meyerbeer and drank Château Pavie, 1906. We slept in royal suites… You looked round and remembered for a second that we were all being fattened for slaughter… But we had endless automobiles at our disposal and Monte Carlo was round the corner.

Yes, fattened for the slaughter–perhaps. But having pushed hard to see actual service in France, Ford is now hoping to escape the trenches, and one imagines that others who have gotten as far as the Riviera will as well. But surely not all.

There is so much to comment on, here–and letters to go before we sleep–but let’s try to register three critical touches.

First, it’s safe to say that Ford’s gambling in Monte Carlo–he won steadily using a mathematical system devised by a brilliant friend, then got bored and gambled it away again–alongside various eccentric aristocrats puts Sassoon’s fox hunting and golf to shame as an activity unbecoming an officer who is supposed to be disabled…

Second, a comparison to George Coppard‘s birthday memory is illuminating. For an enlisted man to land at an English aristocrat’s hospital where he will be pampered for a few weeks and given free cigarettes is “dead lucky;” but for an officer and high-liver like Hueffer/Ford to be moved to a similar admission–“untellable… inexhaustible… fantastically”–it takes Monte Carlo, succulent meats, fine Bordeaux, and endless automobiles…

Third, Ford is a bit of a genius. He will write the one and only High Modernist masterpiece dealing with the war, but that, in many ways, sprung fully-formed out of his possibly exaggerated shell shock and (other) modernist commitments. As this scrap of memoir makes clear, he might have been considered instead the forerunner of the realist-absurd World War Two style, or even of Post-Modernism in its beautiful chaos phase. By which I mean Heller, and then Pynchon–who else? If some of Ford’s descriptions recall the earnest efforts of Milo Minderbinder, this transition from French beachfront merriment to hard-edged despair is something that Tyrone Slothrop might have experienced (Ford would have added a trained octopus and mysterious femme fatale if he had known he could get away with it):

…On the 2nd of February, 1917 I had stood on that platform. There had been an icy wind and snow falling. I was going up the line again. If you have asked me then whether I felt despair I should have denied it–mildly. I had been conscious of being dull and numbed in a dull, numb station. All France up to Hazebrouck in Flanders was deep in snow. I was going to Hazebrouck in Flanders.[2]

 

But back to earth, now, with an unlikely pair: young lovers whose warrior half is not a warrior but a pacifist medic, firmly rooted in his dreams of the stars. Half a world away, today, a century back, Olaf Stapledon and Agnes Miller wrote to each other. I don’t often include much from Agnes’s letters–they tell of civilian life in Australia, and often engage Olaf in philosophical discussion–but today her question (ought America to join the war?) brings in the text-of-the-moment:

…there was a little paragraph in Wells’ book “Mr. Britling Sees It Through” which made me want America not to fight. It was where the young American explained that his country will betray her trust if she allowed herself to be drawn into war. He said America was the field for humanity to make a fresh start in, to turn over a new leaf, & it would be wrong got her to go back to the old lines. Do you think that?

Up until a few weeks ago. Oh, apologies–she was asking Olaf.

It would seem that although Olaf and Agnes are half a world away, they are on the same side of that generational gap, the biggest stumbling block on the approach to the experiential gulf. Never has Agnes Miller sounded so much like Vera Brittain (the Vera Brittain of 1914 and 1915).

Have you read “Mr. Britling” yet? I want to read it again to myself. We are going to discuss it at one of the Seekers meetings this year. Hugh’s letters made me cry. Dad said after reading one very harrowing one, “Well, it’s quite understandable that the men themselves wouldn’t see beyond their own trenches. They wouldn’t take a broad view.”–& I wanted to burst out indignantly, “No & why should they? Poor men! Why should anyone see beyond all the filth of it. They were not meant to, war is not the right way. It’s all a hideous madness.”–but I couldn’t have said anything without bursting into tears, so I said naught.

And Olaf, who will receive this letter in a month or two, is writing to Agnes about a book he is reading,

about feminism and marriage and love and the evolution of a nobler kind of society. The point of it all is really very simple, namely that women… must become free & independent economically and spiritually.

The world could do with more such. But he’s not here because he’s a good lad and a conscientious liberal–he’s here because he’s a good writer. Here’s a lovely metaphor:

Dear, you know how an electric wire conveys a current, and how if the current is too strong for it the wire fuses–goes white hot and breaks. Well, all this poor letter writing business is our electric wire, and it is too thin a wire for the current of understanding and sympathy and love that has to pass along it, that must pass along… When we meet, girl, there will be such a lot to learn of one another… The best thing I have learnt in these years of war is the sense of the supreme worth of sincerity in human thoughts and feelings…[3]

 

It’s been a long day and this is perhaps too much, but in guilt–or righteous concession–over the extent to which my dislike for Richard Aldington‘s personality and fiction informs my reading of his letters, I must include this one (to F.S. Flint, as usual). Aldington is certainly warming to the task:

My brave,

I fear my letter worried & annoyed you–but you must permit me a “grouch” occasionally. “The flesh is sad, alas”–& I have no books to read. Sometimes I wish you were here. One can “wag the beard” quite freely while working & we could discuss cadence & quantity & rhythm to the sound of pick and shovel…

So the weather is cold with you? Imagine! Here it is subtropical. We live on iced champagne & salads. The R.F.A. wear nothing but their trousers & socks. It is reported that the R.S.F. have abandoned all clothing except Japanese
umbrellas & fans.

The amazing thing is that in spite of the heat my shaving and tooth brushes are stiff with ice each morning. I have to thaw my towel before it will bend, the jam in tins is covered with a “crust” of ice &…but why continue? You think I
exaggerate? Come & see!

A yarn. Quidam barbarus–a certain Hun, taken prisoner at X on the 11th of Z was asked by a Tommy how long the
war would last. “Two years more,” quoth Fritz, “then we beat you with the bayonet. You’ll only need one ship to take your lot back then.” “Ho,” said our compatriot in wrath “and your blankety blank lot’ll go ’ome in a copulating perambulator.”

This was told me by one who vowed he’d seen it. No doubt the yarn appeared last June in the Journal & last
Saturday in The Evening Standard, but it’s new to me & maybe to you. I hope you’re edified.

See, that’s funny. And the joke requires three participants: the German stooge; the earthy lower-class Briton, profane but, on his best behavior, searching for euphemism; and the well-bred ear, there to appreciate the word-substitution (which was not a new necessity among those who frequently salted their speech with the earthy latrinogrammatic first-resorts represented by “copulating,” but seems to still give a frisson to the middle classes) as well as the metrical superabundance that makes “copulating perambulator” such a joy to find in a sentence that could have been, in a less eloquent age, “screw you, buddy.”

Finally, Aldington, for all that he is an enlisted laborer, now, is a very productive writer, and not only of letters. I’ve already excised about ten literary name-drops from this one, but it now becomes clear what Aldington is up to:

I wrote an article in malicious mood on modern English poetry in which I abused decisively & praised ironically some score of our villainous pundits of the pen. Still it was a poor affair–I lack verve & venom…

What do you think? A new Dunciad in prose with Abercrombie & Kipling & all that lousy crew round Monro elegantly dished and derided.

Perhaps this is what Aldington currently believes that his lowly stance in a copulating navvying unit might help him achieve: it’s a good crouch from which to chuck heavy objects at the marble busts atop the world of poetry. Kipling, popular master of the waning empire; Abercrombie, the reigning Georgian; and Harold Monro as the portfolio-holder for the rising-unmoderns.

Or he just wants to heap invective on a major modernist who has criticized–and critically!–Aldington’s recent translations from the Greek:

…a propos, that fatted imbecile of destruction, Eliot… Slay me this imbecile with a note to ’Arriet. “The Greeks put intelligence on their tombstones” quotha. Many, and the Yanks cannot even get it into the periodicals of their intellectual élite. Consult H.D. and use information and indignation here supplied to expose this festering lunatic, this bunion on the souls of Pound, this comPound [sic], this insult to God!

If you need it borrow some money from H.D. She usually gets a “check” about the 10th” of the month. Call
then…

Cheer up! Why I may be blown to bits to-morrow. Then you can write my biography.

Thine
R.[4]

Well, he sounds like he’s having a good time…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 65-66.
  2. War Prose, 65-7.
  3. Talking Across the World, 203-4.
  4. Imagist Dialogues, 180-2.

Robert Graves Lectures Robert Nichols on His Filthy Habits; Rudyard Kipling’s Tale of the Prayerful Pole; Edward Thomas Cuts Church and Parades the Countryside; Siegfried Sassoon on Vague Immolations and Carrying On

Today, a century back, Robert Graves went to meet Robert Nichols for the first time.[1] Although it has been only two weeks since Nichols introduced himself to Graves, they both seemed prepared to become fast friends. This despite the sharp difference in their temperaments and trajectories: Nichols, shell-shocked and psychologically unsuited to his job in the artillery, was invalided home after only a few weeks of active service and then discharged, while Graves is about to go to France for the fourth time, having pushed a medical board to send him despite his bad lungs. And Graves remains a bit of a scold and a prude, while Nichols–in an amusing contrast to his high-toned poetry, has become dissolute. As Graves will report to Sassoon, he met Nichols in a hospital where he was being treated for syphilis, and treated him to “a hell of a lecture on his ways… it was the usual story–shellshock, friends all killed, too much champagne, sex, desperate fornication, syphilis.”[2]

 

Syphilis? Poetry? We need a dose of Rudyard Kipling to straighten us out. Another tale of the Irish Guards, this one not rousing but rather quietly affecting. This project dwells on the suffering of a few score Englishmen, with a smattering of Englishwomen, Welshmen, Irishmen, Scots, and Americans–only a handful of them poor, and all of them white and born in Britain, its colonies, dominions, or former colonies… and once in a while, at least, we should be reminded how much more widely the misery of this World War extends…

The heavies behind them used the morning of the 21st to register on their left and away to the north. By some accident (the Battalion did not conceive their sector involved) a big shell landed in the German trench opposite one of their posts, and some thirty Huns broke cover and fled back over the rise. One of them, lagging behind the covey, deliberately turned and trudged across the snow to give himself up to us. Outside one of our posts he as deliberately knelt down, covered his face with his hands and prayed for several minutes. Whereupon our men instead of shooting shouted that he should come in. He was a Pole from Posen and the East front; very, very sick of warfare. This gave one Russian, one Englishman and a Pole as salvage for six weeks. An attempt at a night-raid on our part over the crackling snow was spoiled because the Divisional Stores did not run to the necessary “six white night-shirts ” indented for, but only long canvas coats of a whity-brown which in the glare of Very lights showed up hideously.[3]

 

I wish that I had a firmer grasp on Edward Thomas and the many friendships that shaped his life. In that case, I might be able to do something clever (in the Fussellian mode, naturally) about his friendship with Henry Newbolt, author of “Vitai Lampada,” and thus a convenient distillation of everything that is silly, boyish, and–once we have got as far as machine guns and poison gas–accidentally murderous about Victorian England. Presumably, the man was more complicated–but geez, even polite internet capsule biographies describe him as “eminently respectable,” and there is no denying his prominent place in the long and wicked history of Celebrating Military Achievement Through Sporting Metaphor.

Edward Thomas’s nature is so completely at odds with the “breathless hush in the close” aesthetic–and his own poetry so estranged from brassy patriotism and exhortation–that it seems hard to imagine the two men seeing eye-to-eye. Yet Thomas is such a prolific maker of friends that perhaps he effortlessly overlooks such differences and sees some common English ground… I just don’t know.

But today’s diary is very pretty, and as usual it is England–the countryside–that matters more than the mere men and women scattered upon its face:

No church parade for me. 9.30-1.20 walked over Stockton Down, the Bake, and under Grovely Wood to Barford St Martin, Burcombe, and to lunch at Netherhampton House with Newbolts… Beautiful Downs, with one or two isolated thatched barns, ivied ash trees, and derelict threshing machine. Old milestones lichened as with battered gold and silver nails. Back by train at 5. Tea alone. guns in line out on parade square…[4]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, interestingly enough, is also musing about sacrifice. With Robert Graves heading back to France, he is left with his thoughts, his books, and the attractive but otherwise unstimulating Bobbie Hanmer. Sassoon would understand the breathless hush–he is a skilled and enthusiastic cricketer. But he is after bigger game, tonight.

January 21

A funny mixture—reading The Brook Kerith and talking to simple, white-souled Bobbie about ‘religion and the war’ in a rambling sort of monologue. (I don’t remember B. saying anything at all!) But it all came back to me—the anxious unsettled ideas of last spring and summer—desire of death—emotion at facing danger unafraid—repugnance at the commonplace grossness of the majority and their incessant chatter about ‘Blighty’ and ‘cushy wounds’—their little souls wanting nothing nobler than to creep safely home to—what? But Bobbie at least understands the feeling of self-sacrifice—immolation to some vague (aspiration—whether our cause be a just one or not. Yet I never could find anyone who really got any value out of the Christian theology—out there. It was all ‘Carry on’ and ‘Get there somehow…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See yesterday's post about relying upon R.P. Graves's chronology.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic, 167-8.
  3. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 114. Incidentally, Edmund Blunden tells exactly the same story of a raid that was probably this same week, a century back, failing for lack of white camouflage.
  4. War Diary (Childhood), 155.
  5. Diaries, 122.

Robert Graves, Meet Robert Nichols; Francis Ledwidge’s Rude Awakening; Wilfred Owen Within Sound of the Guns; Ford Madox Hueffer’s “One Day’s List”

The strange/glorious/dismal January efflorescence of war poetry continues, today, a century back: we have a long and soon-to-be-much-quoted war poem from Ford Madox Hueffer, another poem from Francis Ledwidge, and a letter recording Wilfred Owen‘s next step toward the line.

Today is also the day that two other war poets, having independently discovered each other, made contact. So I will put my faith in your patience (and your hunger for poetry) and first discuss the odd, chatty, many-connection-making letter in which Robert Graves replies to a letter of introduction from Robert Nichols.

Nichols, an early volunteer officer who was shell-shocked at Loos (also Graves’s first battle) has long been at home, and now discharged from the army–and he has attained a notable level of poetic success. His Invocation is, although both too early and too hopeful to fit with the verse now being written under the influence of Charles Sorley, far more widely read than the initial efforts of Sassoon or Graves. In fact, with Grenfell and Brooke dead, Nichols is, a century back, perhaps the most celebrated of the “soldier poets.” Yet Nichols has evidently read Graves’s Over the Brazier and found much there that is worthwhile: he wrote to Graves asking for permission to dedicate his next book of poems, in part, to him. Graves greets this rather grand gesture with both genuine enthusiasm and awkwardly emphatic reciprocal fealty.

S’addresser à
Captain Robert Graves
3rd R W Fus.
The Huts
Litherland
Liverpool

7 January 1917

Dear Robert Nichols,

…Of course you may: I’d simply love it. It’s hard to say how cheered I am: Orderly Room and battalion drill and company ledgers and the town of Liverpool and the enforced society of young gentlemen whose sole amusements are liqueur shifting and promiscuous fornication, had almost convinced me that there was no God in Heaven nor any bay trees on Parnassus. I feel tremendously honored.

Funny how things happen. As you may suspect, I’m a very very ardent Sorleian and when I saw your letter in the Westminster Gazette about him… I asked S. Sassoon (a poet of some note who funnily enough has strayed into this battalion and shares a hut with me) who you were because I felt sure you were a fellow of the right stuff. He reminded me of that Oxford Poetry book and I remembered that your things were far and away the best in the collection and that Eddie Marsh was very keen on them.

Eddie Marsh–of course. Despite his desirable status as a poet with a growing public (not to mention as a soldier whose “neurasthenia” has resulted in a not-dishonourable discharge from the army) Nichols has happened upon the Marsh zone rather late, but most profitably. After sending Invocation to Marsh, “almost instantly he had entered the small circle of Marsh’s closest friends.” With Brooke dead and Churchill out of power, this is not what it once was, perhaps–but Marsh is still very much the central node of the network of Georgian poets and their nascent band of assertive little brothers, the War Poets.

Somewhat awkwardly, of course, this younger generation is not looking up to Rupert Brooke at all–they have found another idol, the dead poet of 1915 whose legacy will be the poetry of 1917 and 1918, while 1914 (“and other poems”), while remaining broadly popular, will fall from poetic regard.

I’ve got a very bad memory, worse since I met an old shell last July, and I somehow didn’t connect the two. Did you know Sorley before his death? I met him at Oxford in 1913 when we were both up there for scholarships, but didn’t realize who he was–wasted opportunities, horrid to lack back on…

Graves has invented this memory of meeting Sorley–honestly, wishfully, invented, I believe, rather than duplicitously–and of course he forgets that “who he was” would have been a very clever, unusually mature and reserved potential scholar, not yet the author of Marlborough and Other Poems nor noticeably set in that direction. And now, with Sorley in mind, Graves presumes–these fits of grandiosity do not serve him well–to critique his older friend to his new one.

This fellow Sassoon, not exactly a prepossessing name for a poet, perhaps, was out in France with me in 1915 and is a most extraordinary good man… and says what he means very courageously. No Union Jack flapping or sword waving, but just a picture of France from the front trench, and our ‘brutal and licentious soldiery’. He’s not musical, always, but it’s good stuff; original too and not redolent of Masefield as is so common these days and contains no ode either to Kitchener or Rupert Brooke. Look out for his The Old Foxhunter and Other Poems[1] about February or March, with William Heinemann. I was to have brought out a second volume at the same time, but hitches occurred…

A bit of hemming and hawing follows, and then some preemptive self-criticism about his own published work–Graves evidently wants Nichols to approve of him as a fellow war poet.

Well, cheeroh, and best of luck and don’t recover from your shell-shock too soon. I’m rather stupidly going back to France this week with only one lung–having deceived the medical board. Chiefly because I want to hurry into hospital again and do a bit of writing for which soldiering provides no leisure.

Yours

Robert Graves

I hope to see you sometime when I come on leave, in London, say, or aprés-la-guerre[2] at any rate…[3]

Francis Ledwidge, is fired up, these days–and homesick and fairy-struck. He goes back to yesterday‘s theme–those fairies who lurk just at the edge of the fields we know, just at the edge of our dreams. But there is something of a shock at the end of this one.

 

The Dead Kings

All the dead kings came to me
At Rosnaree, where I was dreaming.
A few stars glimmered through the morn,
And down the thorn the dews were streaming.

And every dead king had a story
Of ancient glory, sweetly told.
It was too early for the lark,
But the starry dark had tints of gold.

I listened to the sorrows three
Of that Eire passed into song.
A cock crowed near a hazel croft,
And up aloft dim larks winged strong.

And I, too, told the kings a story
Of later glory, her fourth sorrow:
There was a sound like moving shields
In high green fields and the lowland furrow.

And one said: “We who yet are kings
Have heard these things lamenting inly.”
Sweet music flowed from many a bill
And on the hill the morn stood queenly.

And one said: “Over is the singing,
And bell bough ringing, whence we come;
With heavy hearts we’ll tread the shadows,
In honey meadows birds are dumb.”

And one said: “Since the poets perished
And all they cherished in the way.
Their thoughts unsung, like petal showers
Inflame the hours of blue and gray.”

And one said: “A loud tramp of men
We’ll hear again at Rosnaree.”
A bomb burst near me where I lay.
I woke, ’twas day in Picardy.

France,
January 7th, 1917

A deft reawakening to the reality of war.

 

Wilfred Owen, too will find his reality defined by the sound of explosions today, a century back. I promise to find time in the next few days to really dig into what Owen is experiencing, but suffice it to say that if his letters have suddenly sobered up, it’s because his initiation into combat has not been easy. The weather is terrible, and they are headed for a nasty section of the front.

Sunday, 7 January 1917

My dear dear Mother,

It is afternoon. We had an Inspection to make from 9 to 12 this morning. I have wandered into a village cafe where they gave me writing paper. We made a redoubtable March yesterday from the last Camp to this. The awful state of the roads and the enormous weight carried, was top much for scores of men. Officers also carried full packs, but I
had a horse part of the way.

It was beginning to freeze through the rain when we arrived at our tents. We were at the mercy of the cold, and, being in health, I never suffered so terribly as yesterday afternoon. I am really quite well, but have sensations kindred to being seriously ill.

As I was making my damp bed, I heard the Guns for the first time. It was a sound not without a certain sublimity. They woke me again at 4 o’clock…

But Owen withholds further comment there, which I am once again tempted to interpret as wisdom: there will be more of this, so let us wait until our experience is deeper…

The letter goes on in Owen’s new manner–one sentence paragraphs likes faits divers, which veer from matter-of-fact to comic to foreboding. He still wants to be deep, to write heavily… but now, at least, he doesn’t trust himself to. Owen is treading lightly into this new unknown, feinting toward serious statements and then pulling back…

I have had to censor letters by the hundred lately. They don’t make inspiring reading.

This morning I have been reading Trench Standing Orders to my Platoon. (Verb. Sap.)

Needless to say I show a cheerier face to them than I wear in writing this letter; but I must not disguise from you the fact that we are at one of the worst parts of the Line.

I have lost no possessions so far; but have acquired a pair of boots and a map case (presents). And of course my valise is heavier by much dirt…

I can’t tell you any more Facts. I have no Fancies and no Feelings.

Positively they went numb with my feet.

Love is not quenched, except the unenduring flickerings thereof. By your love, O Mother, O Home, I am protected from Fatigue of life and the keen spiritual Cold.

Your own W.E.O.[4]

 

And our last poem today is quite amazing. Just yesterday Ford Madox Hueffer, was writing a letter that was at once self-serving (the subtext being “I am a good writer, and would like a cushy job from you) and feeling towards both an honest appraisal of shell shock and a literary approach to writing seriously about fragmented experience. And he was complaining of his own stupidity, poor memory, and shaky sanity. Yet today he wrote a poem, fluidly an quickly, in a very different vein, which will not only turn up in many anthologies–which is to say that it is neither difficult nor offensive nor heavily “disillusioned” nor, as so many of Ford’s writings, unnecessarily provocative–but is also quite good. He has not made close friends in the 8th Welch, but he has made friends, and lost them.

I think it’s fair to say that “One Day’s List” is unique in his oeuvre; I’m certainly not sure how to comment on it. Modern? Yes. Traditional? In a way. A lament, a threnody, a war poem? Sure. Honest, true, and a new take on the ever-growing subject of loss, and coping with loss? I think so. Yesterday Sassoon imagined the German dead and the English dead in some underworld; today it’s the Germans and the Welsh in heaven…

 

One Day’s List

(Killed. — Second Lieutenants unless otherwise stated.
Arnott, E. E. — Welch Regt.
Jones, E. B. D. — Welch Regt.
Morris, J. H. — Welch Regt.[5]
And 270 other ranks, Welch Regt.

Died of Wounds.
Knapp, 0. R. — 2nd Lieut. Welch Regt.)

My dears . . .
The rain drips down on Rouen Town
The leaves drip down
And so the mud
Turns orange brown. . . .
A Zeppelin, we read, has been brought down.
And the obscure brown
Populace of London town
Make a shout of it,
Clamouring for blood
And reductions in the price of food . . .
But you — at least — are out of it. . . .

Poor little Arnott — poor little lad . . .
And poor old Knapp,
Of whom once I borrowed a map — and never returned it.
And Morris and Jones . . . and all the rest of  the Welch,
So many gone in the twenty-four hours of a day . . .
One wonders how one can stay . . .
One wonders. . . .
For the papers are full of Kelch,
Finding rubbishy news to make a shout of it,
But you at least are out of it.

One wonders how you died . . .
The mine thunders
Still where you stuck by Welch Alley and turned it. . . .
The mine thunders
Upwards — and branches of trees, mud, and stone,
Skulls, limbs, rats, thistles, the clips
Of cartridges, beef tins and wire
Belch
To the heavens in fire
From the lips
Of the craters where doubtless you died,
With the Cheshires and Wiltshires and Welch
Side by side.
One wonders why you died,
Why were we in it ? . . .
At home we were late on parades.
Seldom there to the minute,
When “B.” were out on Cathays
We didn’t get much of the lectures into the brain. . . .
We talked a good deal about girls.
We could all tell a story
At something past something, Ack Emma !

But why? why? Why were we there from the Aisne to Mametz,
Well — there’s a dilemma. . . .
For we never talked of glory,
We each thought a lot of one girl,
And waited most days for hours in the rain
Till she came:
But we never talked of Fame. . . .

It is very difficult to believe
You need never again
Put in for week-end leave,
Or get vouchers for the 1.10 train
From Cardiff to London. . . .
But so much has the Hun done
In the way of achievements.

And when I think of all the bereavements
Of your mothers and fathers and sweethearts and wives and homes in the West,
And the paths between the willows waiting for your tread,
And the white pillows
Waiting each for a head,
Well …. they may go to rest!

And, God help me, if you meet a Hun
In Heaven, I bet you will say, “Well done,
You fought like mad lions in nets
Down by Mametz.”

But we who remain shall grow old,
We shall know the cold
Of cheerless
Winter and the rain of Autumn and the sting
Of poverty, of love despised and of disgraces,
And mirrors showing stained and ageing faces,
And the long ranges of comfortless years
And the long gamut of human fears. . . .
But, for you, it shall be forever spring,
And only you shall be forever fearless,
And only you have white, straight, tireless limbs,
And only you, where the water-lily swims
Shall walk along the pathways, thro’ the willows
Of your west.
You who went West,
And only you on silvery twilight pillows
Shall take your rest
In the soft sweet glooms
Of twilight rooms. . . .

No. 2 Red Cross Hospital,
Rouen, 7/1/17

References and Footnotes

  1. Graves has got the title of the forthcoming The Old Huntsman wrong; the sort of hunting solecism which would drive Sassoon to distraction.
  2. Sic! There, I said it! Wrong accent...
  3. In Broken Images, 61-3. The end of the post-script mentions--disapprovingly, of course--Wheels, the modernist journal/anthology edited by Edith Sitwell. Its first issue, published in 1916 (and regrettably left all but unmentioned here) positioned it as an alternative to Marsh's anthologies and featured work by Edith's brother Osbert (and their younger brother Sacheverell) and his friend Bimbo Tennant. These, for now, are the rival cliques of poets...
  4. Collected Letters, 423-4.
  5. Morris and Arnott are listed in the C.W.G.C. records as being killed two days apart, on the 21st and 23rd September, 1916. Jones I have not found. Nevertheless, they may all well have appeared in the same newspaper casualty list.

Arthur Graeme West on the Futility of Training; Sherlock Holmes Gets a Tour; Olaf Stapledon Addresses a Heroine; Life and Death for Robert Nichols and Noel Hodgson

The 2/RWF are no ordinary battalion, but Dr. Dunn’s chronicle–nicely poised between a battalion history and a collective memoir–often provides excellent bits of day-to-day local color. (Appropriate, really, to get some pseudo-Celtic wit aboard on this 12th Bloomsday.)

In any event, it’s been a while since I’ve found a way to work in a reference to Arthur Conan Doyle:

A procession of “Cook’s tourists” are passing through the town these days: among others, Conan Doyle getting local colour for his new pot-boiler, and a Russian Prince, whose A.D.C., General Itchas, supplied the facetious with a topic…[1]

 

Yes, we seem to have hit an ominous mid-June lull–“these days” are filled with a tense false-calm, an expectancy. We have a few disparate updates.

First, George Coppard, after a pleasant interlude in Divisional training in the rear areas, marched up with his battalion to the rear areas of the Somme. From now on, Amiens is to be the most important railhead for the British army.

The company marched to Lillers and entrained for Amiens. It was strange passing through the city, with big solid buildings on either side of the streets. The shops were open and the market place was packed. One of the officers had returned from leave with four mouth organs, and ‘Tipperary’ was in full swing as we marched pas the great cathedral. Women and children waved flags and cheered as the column moved on….[2]

 

Robert Nichols is out of it, now. He is damaged, but physically intact. He has seen the war, and is setting himself now to write about it. His friends, of course, remain. But now they are one fewer: Harold Gough was killed today, a century back, in the Ypres Salient.[3]

 

Olaf Stapledon, meanwhile, continues his slow-developing intercontinental conversation with his intended, Agnes Miller. His tone, as it always is, is light, loving. Yet this is a question of the utmost seriousness to him: if she will remain conventionally patriotic and pro-war and he, though he is in the thick of it, will remain a committed pacifist, would society ever accept them? It’s a burning question… but, again, slow-burning. He is in Belgium, she is in Australia–duration first, then marriage.

Last night there was no end of a scrap. I was lying in bed in my car when it began. I was facing it and saw all the shrapnel flashes in the sky and the big shells far off landing with a dazzling blaze… All today there has been steady firing from the various batteries, shells going & coming, roaring and singing all over the place–crash–roarrrrrr-ban-bang-whewwww-crash, much tearing of calico & much humming-top song. Yet if one’s ears had been stopped up one would never have known there was war in this continent, save for a few puffs of smoke…

I have just been reading another dear letter that came from you today… Much of your letter was about patriotism and wanting to win. I don’t know, dear, but it all strikes me very differently. I won’t talk about it, for reasons censorial and others. You must judge for yourself, be loyal to your view of the truth; and I will be loyal to mine. Believe me, anyhow, England is no less to me than to you… I am not a crank nor an extremist, nor a little Englander even, but I fear you have gone and got engaged to a fellow whose views are not presentable in polite society, and I am deeply sorry for you… Can you really love with all your heart and soul one who does not even intend to live up to your ideal, but sticks to his own? If so you are a heroine, considering the relation of the two ideals.[4]

 

I introduced Arthur Graeme West two weeks ago as a noted cynic, a man angry at the army before he even got to France. Today he was exposed to one of the famous drill-lectures–not the famous bayonetin’ Scotsman, but a cavalry major–“a small man with an incredibly evil countenance… and… an inability to pronounce his R’s”–who lectures on physical drill more generally. West parodies his idiocy and–less unfairly–his failure to appreciate that discipline in the socially heterogeneous volunteer battalions of Kitchener’s army must be very different than in an old Regular battalion:

Story of officer whom nobody disobeyed twice. Someone disobeyed him once and he went to the hospital! Cheers!

This man babbled on about bayonet fighting and physical drill until 12.45, the C.O. simpering by, keeping a thousand men from their rest and their beer, and teaching them nothing.[5]

 

Grim. But I can close with good news, at least. Today, a century back, Noel Hodgson is an uncle. His sister gave birth, at their parents’ home in Ipswich, to a baby daughter. Mother and daughter are hale and healthy…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 206.
  2. With a Machine Gun, 77.
  3. Charlton, Putting Poetry First, 55.
  4. Talking Across the World, 156-7.
  5. Diary, 79-80.
  6. Zeepvat, Before Action, 185.

Noel Hodgson and the Master of Belhaven are Back; Robert Nichols Takes a Step forward; Siegfried Sassoon Marauding in No Man’s Land Once Again

Before we get to Siegfried Sassoon‘s deadly antics, three status updates:

Noel Hodgson is back from leave, today, and he joined his battalion of the Devonshires near Mametz Wood, in a section of trenches described as “unsuitable… They run up the side of a hill and are badly traversed, and in many places troops in them are entirely exposed to view from the high ground to the East.” There will be a great deal of difficult and unpleasant work to do over the next three months to prepare these trenches for the planned Somme offensive. One of Hodgson’s comrades described it as “very filthy work… below our duck boards, we came on old French boarding & indescribable filth below that.” That would probably mean trench burials, and there were French bodies, too, on the German wire across the way.[1]

The Master of Belhaven was also on his way back from leave. True to form, he gives his diary a precise accounting of the journey.

Dranoutre, 11th April, 1916

I arrived back here at midnight. Seven clear days in London is well worth having, although it goes very quickly. I had an immense amount of work to do, getting new clothes and various instruments for the battery.

I left Victoria at 9.30 a.m…a quick run to Folkestone… had to hang about for six hours… A calm crossing… We reached Bailleul at midnight, and I found the mess-cart waiting for me… A cold and wet night, but one feels depressed anyhow on returning from leave.[2]

 

And today was an important step, too, in a longer journey, namely Robert Nichols’s long road back from shell-shock. After three months at a rest home in Sussex and another two months in Torquay he had improved enough to face a Medical Board. Today, a century back, he was passed “fit for light duty at home.” But even this will prove, obscurely, to be a challenge, for only a few days after arriving at his regimental depot he will be given more leave. It’s difficult to say what exactly is going on, but it is worth repeating that Nichols has been fortunate. We don’t know much either about the details of what he suffered during the Battle of Loos or the nature of his symptoms, but many officers suffering psychological and neurological symptoms were suspected of malingering and handled roughly. Nichols, it seems, has not been.[3]

 

And so to Siegfried Sassoon. “Mad Jack” is happy to be back in the front lines, where he is able to resume his private war.

April 11

After three days of sun and shrewd north-wind down at 71 North—the Company in reserve—we came up to the front line yesterday.

About 8.30 in the evening went out with two bombers, Grainger and Leigh, and O’Brien, to fetch in a supposed German body who was reputed shot the previous night when they came across cutting our wire. It was bright moonshine and very still. When we had got out about fifty yards and were up against our wire, we observed four Germans crawling over towards us. Withdrew fifteen yards to a big shell-hole and when they came to our wire we chucked twelve bombs at them and I pursued them, hoping to collar a wounded one. Most unlucky, they all cleared off. Then we got to the boots which had been seen from our trench and found a very old (French) body, at least six months old. Brought in the boots—one of them with half a leg attached (and sent it down to Battalion Headquarters).

To-day the weather has changed to wet. They sent over a canister at us last night when we were bombing, but it went over us and landed in our trenches, killing one good lad and wounding two others.

I will break in here mainly because I won’t want to comment after the last paragraph of Sassoon’s diary entry, below. The little paragraph above has a fair amount going on. It’s interesting, really, that Sassoon is so terse: suddenly the diary is just a diary, and not a brimming record of his impressions, halfway to prose-poemhood.

Why? Well, because Sassoon has stumbled upon something horrible and gross and not-at-all-uplifting. Something utterly incompatible with Brookean poetic beauty. But also, perhaps, because this raid was utilitarian: this is not Achilles out to fight all comers, human and divine, to punish the world for the absence of Patroklos. This is Odysseus and Diomedes (and two bombers!) out hoping to capture a Trojan knave and learn everything they can from him.

Ah, but if it’s in the Iliad, even in that sketchy Book Ten, couldn’t Sassoon wring some poetry from it? Well, I’m not sure he would be willing to, yet. These are the notes for something that sounds more like a conventional war story than a poem or memoir. Fifty yards, four Germans, twelve bombs… and one sixth-month-old boot, with half a leg still attached. What to make of that?

Even after the fact, very little: this section of the Memoirs hews closely to the diary–O’Brien, a mere enlisted man, actually keeps his own last name–and “George Sherston” makes it clear that the fetching of the boot is done in part to satisfy the requirements of Stockwell/”Kinjack,” the hard-driving new colonel.

He confirms, too, both that he was afraid and that he was actively interested in killing Germans: “It was my idea of getting a bit of my own back.” Sassoon ironizes this violence of intention by noting, in the memoir, that Easter will be late–therefore it is now Lent. So fear and bravado and the intent to kill, yes. But death? And sacrifice?

Sassoon resists ruling upon the final question.

The sense of spring in England is very strong in me lately, and I dream of nice things and get rather weary of being out here. They say I am trying to get myself killed. Am I? I don’t know.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Zeepvat, Before Action, 167-8.
  2. War Diary, 168.
  3. Charlton, Putting Poetry First, 52.
  4. Diaries, 54.

Robert Nichols Faces a Medical Board; Siegfried Sassoon on the Waning Charms of Field Maneuvers

An update today on the case of Robert Nichols. He (along with Noel Hodgson) was the first of the important war poets to see major action in France and live to tell the tale: where Julian Grenfell‘s reputation-making poem was published just as he “fell” and Charles Sorley‘s was found on his fallen body, Nichols will have the chance to slowly build a reputation that moves beyond his pre-combat Invocation of 1915. His next collection, which he will title Ardours and Endurances, is the poetry of one who fought and lived.

But he is not living well. While he fought effectively during the early hours of the Battle of Loos, Nichols collapsed after a bombardment. He was fortunate to have a commanding officer who recognized that the sudden loss of “nerve” in a brave man who had been heavily shelled indicated a physiological reaction rather than a failure of “moral fiber.” Nichols was sent home, and he has spent most of the last three months in hospital in London. The treatment of “shell shock” will vary tremendously at different times and under different auspices, but Nichols is again fortunate today, a century back: a medical board awarded him three more months of sick leave, and sent him to convalesce at a country house in Sussex.[1]

 

rqg3-1This strays a bit from our brief, but it’s a nice image. Rob Gilson, fast friend of J.R.R. Tolkien (one of the T.C.B.S.) has made it to France. He posted a letter today which bears the censor’s stamp–and, unusually (perhaps because the destination was neutral Holland), a counter-signature on the last page of the letter itself. The images are courtesy of Trinity College, Cambridge, and can be found here.

 

 

rqg3-5

Gilson’s letter of today, a century back, to Estelle King. Trinity College Library, Cambridge.

And Siegfried Sassoon will write another long reverie in his diary tomorrow. He is still honing his military pastoralist’s pen, and writing fairly regularly of the sites that greet him during lone rides and training marches. Tomorrow, a century back, he will begin with a description of today’s dawn:

Yesterday was a long Brigade field-day between Lincheux and Fricourt. We started at 7.10, with a lovely winter dawn coming up behind the woods; the sun appeared like a large orange, half-way to Camps, on our left. The charm of the day soon wore off, and the operations lasted until 1.45. Then we marched home and got there at 4.45, very tired.[2]

Is the bloom off the Picard rose? Not just yet. But soon.

 

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Charlton, Putting Poetry First, 52.
  2. Diaries, 32-3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

The Battle of Loos Begins: Robert Graves, Frank Richards, Henry Williamson, Noel Hodgson, Robert Nichols, and Others on the Bloody Balls-Up

Today, a century back, the battle of Loos began. As an action on the left flank of a larger French assault, it is slightly hyperbolic to refer to it (though many have recently done so) as the greatest action of the war, or the largest battle in human history. But it’s the biggest push yet, a great effort that many on the allied side–although not General Haig, commander of First Army–believe may lead to breakthrough and victory.

So great an effort, in fact that, instead of moving simply from one writer to the next, I will use chronological sub-headings, moving through the stages of the attack and occasionally returning to the same writer later in the day. In this way I hope to give some sense of the overall picture while also recounting the experiences of the assault troops of the first wave, of Phillip Maddison with the gas troops and the (fictional) Gaultshires, of the Royal Welch in the second line against uncut wire, and of the Guards in reserve hastening forward–and to include a little of the fiction and poetry generated by observers and artillery officers.

Gas in the Half Light

A grey, watery dawn broke at last behind the German lines; the bombardment, surprisingly slack all night, brisked up a little. “Why the devil don’t they send them over quicker?” The Actor complained. This isn’t my idea of a bombardment. We’re getting nothing opposite us. What little there seems to be is going into the Hohenzollern.”

“Shell shortage. Expected it,” was Thomas’ laconic reply.[1]

This is Robert Graves, watching with D company of the second battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers from the second line trenches. “The Actor,” by the way, is the officer described by Frank Richards as “Deadwood Dick,” former sidekick to “Buffalo Bill.” Richards describes his view of the attack:

Dawn broke at last and we were anxiously waiting for the time when the Grand Slam commenced. The assembly trenches were about seven hundred yards behind our front line. Dann and I were closely watching to see our gas going over, which we were told would kill every German for over a mile in front of us and which none of us believed in… At last we saw the gas going over in two or three places: it looked like small clouds rolling along close to the ground. The white clouds hadn’t travelled far before they seemed to stop and melt away. I found out later that the wind that should have taken it across no-man’s-land hadn’t put in an appearance and the gas had spread back into our trenches…

We were now told to hold ourselves in readiness to proceed to the front line. I told Dann we wouldn’t carry that rabbit wire any further, so we dumped it in a shell hole…

So much for the worst overburden of the signaller. Back to Graves:

The events of the next few minutes are difficult for me now to sort out. I found it more difficult still at the time.[2] All we heard back there in the sidings was a distant cheer, confused crackle of rifle fire, yells, heavy shelling booming on our front line, more shouts, yells and cries, and a continuous rapid rattle of machine-guns. After a few minutes, lightly wounded men of the Middlesex came stumbling down Maison Rouge Alley to the dressing-station. I stood at the junction of the siding and the Alley.

‘What’s happened? What’s happened?’ I asked.

‘Bloody balls-up,’ was the most detailed answer I could get.

Among the wounded were a number of men yellow-faced and choking, their buttons tarnished green–gas cases. Then came the badly wounded. Maison Rouge Alley being narrow, the stretchers had difficulty in getting down. The Germans started shelling it with five-point-nines.

Thomas went back to battalion headquarters through the shelling to ask for orders. It was the same place that I had visited on my first night in the trenches. This cluster of dugouts in the reserve line showed very plainly from the air as battalion headquarters, and never should have been occupied during a battle. Just before Thomas arrived, the Germans put five shells into it. The adjutant jumped one way, the colonel the other, the RSM a third. One shell went into the signals dugout, killed some signallers and destroyed the telephone. The colonel, slightly cut on the hand, joined the stream of wounded and was carried back as far as the base with it. The adjutant took command.

It’s interesting to note the different accounts of the wound that incapacitated “the colonel,” Lt. Col. Williams, the commander of the battalion. In the regimental history he is wounded over the eye “from which blood streamed down his face.”[3] Dunn’s account–and Dunn was the doctor that day–has the similar but more clinical “a wound over his eye, from which the blood ran down his face.” Graves, obviously, is implying something rather shameful…

Meanwhile ‘A’ company had been waiting in the siding for the rum to arrive; the tradition being a double tot of rum beforehand. all the other companies got theirs. The Actor began cursing: “where the bloody hell’s that storeman gone?” We fixed bayonets in readiness to go up and attack as soon as Captain Thomas returned with orders. Hundreds of wounded streamed by. At last Thomas’ orderly appeared. “Captain’s orders, sir: ‘A’ company to move up to the front line.” At that moment the storeman arrived, without rifle or equipment, hugging the rum bottle, red-faced and retching. He staggered up to The Actor and said, “there you are, sir!”, then fell on his face in the thick mud of a sump-pit at the junction of the trench and the siding. The stopper of the bottle flew out and what remained of the three gallons bubbled on the ground. The Actor made no reply. This was a crime that deserved the death penalty. He put one foot on the storeman’s neck, the other in the small of his back, and trod him into the mud. Then he gave the order “Company Forward!” The company advanced with a clatter of steel, and this was the last I ever heard of the storeman.

The black comedy lurches on. In the front line, a disaster is unfolding.

 

The First Attack

It seems that at half-past four an R[oyal] E[ngineer] captain commanding the gas-company in the front line phoned through to divisional headquarters: “Dead calm. Impossible discharge accessory.” The answer he got was: “Accessory to be discharged at all costs.” Thomas had not over-estimated the gas-company’s efficiency. The spanners for unscrewing the cocks of the cylinders proved, with two or three exceptions, to be misfits. The gas-men rushed about shouting for the adjustable spanner. They managed to discharge one or two cylinders; the gas went whistling out, formed a thick cloud a few yards off in no man’s land, and then gradually spread back into our trenches. The Germans, who had been expecting gas, immediately put on their gas helmets: semi-rigid ones, better than ours. Bundles of oily cotton-waste were strewn along the German parapet and set alight as a barrier to the gas. Then their batteries opened on our lines. The confusion in the front trench must have been horrible; direct hits broke several of the gas-cylinders, the trench filled with gas, the gas-company stampeded.

There is a good mix of witness, fact, exaggeration, and fiction in that paragraph. Sober histories claim that not a single gas cylinder was actually hit and exploded in the front line, but none dispute the basic problem: a wind so feeble as to useless, and in some cases counter-productive. And, of course,the wrong spanners–here is the flip side of British amateurism and ingenuity and all the rest. Half-trained motley units are hurried together and given none of the best men, then expected to function with little preparation.

Is it irony, then, that the right (southern) flank of the attack was initially quite successful? Somehow, the German wire was cut, and the bombardment was well-timed, and the first wave of troops pushed through the German lines and took the town of Loos.

loos--hulluch

The center of the German positions (trenches in red, the British front line marked by a single dotted line on the left) assaulted today, with the town of Hulluch in the upper right.

There would seem to be an opportunity, there, for fiction. But Henry Williamson is not primarily interested in either irony or tragedy. The long Loos section of A Fox Under My Coat is historical gourmandising, an all-you-can-eat feast in which Phillip Maddison is alternately a raw soul tossed on the eddies of history, a reader’s eye at the center of the storm, and a paragon of historical fiction, transformed into a man of action at the right place and in the right time.

Williamson positions Maddison where he can witness–and play a role in–both general disaster and local triumph.

First, the gas. The hapless Phillip is tucked under the wing of the mercurial, scenery-chewing Captain West:

“God’s teeth, that blasted light stabs my eyeballs… This tea is cold, dammit.” Then, “What’s the time?”

“Four minutes to go, skipper.”

That would make it 5:46 a.m., a century back.

Captain West sprang off the bed, and touching Phillip on the shoulder said quietly, “Come with me.”

Phillip followed… out past men standing up in a sickly light, ominous with rain that hung everywhere in threat above the dead-white parapet. Some were smoking; a few were talking; but all were silent as they watched the two officers climbing two scaling ladders, placed side by side, to look out over the dreaded top.

“No wind,” said Captain West. “Do you agree?”

“Yes, I do.”

West makes Phillip phone through to brigade–the lines still work, before the German interdiction shelling has begun–and tell them that he–West–has, in the absence of the expected westerly (i.e. west-to-east) wind, countermanded the order to release the gas.

Brigade has already been informed of the lack of wind, but ordered by Division Headquarters–far enough behind to ignore the wind, we must suppose–to carry on as planned. There is a timetable, after all. This did happen, yet the tone of this detail seems to be borrowed from Graves’s memoir.

Williamson has placed the “Gaultshires” opposite the town of Hulluch, with the “Lone Tree”–a much-scarred cherry tree–marking the German front line (visible in the center-left, above, in square 17c). From here he and West will watch the attack.

The German first line… lay just behind the turn-over of the imperceptible slope, marked by a stark and solitary tree near the wire-belt concealed by the grass. This front line, on the reverse slope, was connected laterally with the Loos Road Redoubt on Hill 69… one of three dominating the British positions, with the Hohenzollern to the north and Hill 70 to the south. There were many steel cupolas, with splayed slits for machine-gun fire…  The Loos Road Redoubt was the objective of the brigade of which the Gaultshires was the leading battalion.

The Gaultshires take the place, then, of the real 2/Bedfordshires, who were in the 21st Brigade of the 7th Division. Their first wave–the first,[4] in a way, of the long line of doomed British advances that will stalk through the history, literature, and popular mythology of the Grear War–is cut down by German machine guns and rifles. The survivors shelter in shell-holes or lie flat in the sparse grass under the German guns. Nearly every account of Loos quotes the German regimental diary which describes how the German gunners, sickened by the slaughter, spontaneously held their fire once the British began to fall back.

The crackle of rifle-fire came undiminished from over the grassy battlefield pocked by white craters of chalk, and strewn with figures in khaki…

Phillip stood up. Unknown to him, the effect of his presence upon “Spectre” West was calming. Phillip felt no fear. He was a mere spectator; he had no part in what was happening. He was free.

For a moment it is almost as if Phillip is a time-traveler, rather than a favorite of the special fortune of historical fiction. In any event, his freedom is now subsumed in a strange sort of pseudo-adoption, a literary move clunky almost to ridiculousness, yet also moving in the manner of earnest, angry, bluff fiction. West has been ordered to stay behind, presumably in order to command the reserves.[5] Now he reads the situation and sees that any further assaults into uncut wire would be pointless–the Germans are not destroyed; they are simply waiting. Yet there has been an advance to the south, and the German positions behind Lone Tree are outflanked–they don’t need to be attacked from the front.

He calls the higher-ups asking for permission to do this. No: there must be a frontal assault. It has been ordered already–it has been determined. Young Phillip Maddison wonders what they should do, and the apoplectic “Westy”/”Spectre” treats us to another map-exposition scene:

“God’s teeth, I thought you had brains!” went on Captain West, contemptuously…  He flung open his map, knelt down to spread it on the ground, and pressed it with a finger as he cried, “Here is Lone Tree. And here… is where the First Brigade us now, just about to outflank Lone Tree to the north. And here… is where the Jocks on our right have got to. Yet here”–driving his finger through the map into the loamy clay underneath–“is where we are ordered to attack the same uncut wire frontally! And this in modern war–not in the Crimea!”

Not subtle. Nor is Maddison’s sudden transformation. He wanders off, but only far enough for a whizz-bang ex machina to come crashing down and hit Captain West. “Spectre” is gruesomely and mortally wounded. His loyal batman summons Phillip, then supplies his master with a fatal dose of morphine–an acceleration of his previous role as the gentle poisoner-with-whiskey. Now a death-bed scene in a muddy trench bottom:

The jaws worked; the slow, partial swallow; the struggle to articulate. The batman said, “All right, sir, don’t you worry yourself no more. Mr Maddison ‘eard you, sir. ‘Get round the flank.’ Didn’t you, sir?”

“Yes, Westy, I heard. I”ll carry on. Leave it to me. We’ll get round the flank.”

phillip's flanking movement

The scene of Phillip Maddison’s flanking action. German trenches marked in red; each square is 500 yards to the side.

And so he does. Maddison becomes the adopted son of West (oh, Freshman English!) and carries on the flame. Somehow the old regular’s tenacity and courage mystically pass on to Phillip, who at other times is fearful to the point of punishable cowardice.

He will lead the Gaultshires on! And in doing so he seems to depart from fictionalized history and into historical fiction, taking the leading role in a bit of ripped-from-the-headlines heroic initiative, a blow not only for Britain against Germany, but for the infantry in “Westy’s” war against the staff.

The action itself is borrowed from the 2/Welch regiment, who outflanked the Lone Tree today, a century back. In the novel, our haplessly heroic hero takes command of the remnants of the Gaultshires and suddenly inhabits his own boyhood fantasy of himself.

We are meant to think either that “Westy” has inspired him or that his enormous capacity for headlong improvisation and socially catastrophic playacting finally serves him in good stead. Or both–inspiration tips his character flaws into a battlefield asset. Phillip, the quondam coward, misfit, and would-be passive observer now plays the unflappable upper class subaltern, and it works. He simply leads the reserves of the Gaultshires over the top, down along the Hulluch Road (see above), and then, just like in boy scout exercises or training camp, he gives the few commands that swing his scratch battalion to the right. They advance in open order through the wood and find themselves suddenly within the German positions.

And there, heroism and success meet, naturally, with anticlimax. The Germans behind Lone Tree, knowing full well that they are nearly surrounded, and completely out of ammunition, promptly surrender.

Phillip manages a wan joke in German (their English is, naturally, much better than his German) and accepts the surrender. Other troops come up, including an officer who has disliked him in the past and is suspicious of his presence with the Gaultshires. So just like that, Phillip turns over command of the battalion he was not even a member of, and wanders back toward the rear, his inherited quest fulfilled.

He is apparently unaware that he has been very brave and that, in following Westy’s dying injunction to disobey orders, he has helped to secure a large section of German trenches that otherwise would have been lost. There might be grander irony in this if Williamson were, like Graves, always interested in irony and bathos. He is not–this was one good thing that happened on a bad day, and it is given as a sort of mystical reward to Phillip. And now, less like a temporary gas officer resuming an unlikely independence than like an ordinary Joe in the aftermath of a quantum leap, he resumes his role as a sort of choral observer.

He wanted to see his [gas] emplacements, not from a sense of duty (which he did not as yet possess) but out of curiosity. His mind, formed in ancient terrors,[6] brooded romantically on the war: not the war of waves breaking, and dying, upon the foreshore of terror: not the war of each actual laborious moment, but War, an extended dream, the jetsam of combat become quiescent under ceased movement and lost hope. He wanted to walk about and stand and stare and let his feelings possess him, so that he could lose himself in a dream that was beyond nightmare–the romance of war, the visual echoes of tragic action. Gas brassard on arm, he was free; no-one would question him if he appeared to be going about his job. He must visit the Lone Tree, imagine the barbed-wire as it was when holding up the assault…

In the rear he will come upon another battalion of the Gaultshires–the very unit that he had trained with, antagonized, been bullied by, and ignominiously left. They are part of the delayed reserve–the Kitchener’s Army troops who should have been there to exploit successes like the capture of Lone Tree and Loos, but were too far back. Phillip’s road tomorrow will lie with them, as the whole creaking structure of the novel–Williamson’s own story given a sidewise smack with a sledgehammer–contrives to get him back into the battle.[7]

 

For every other character in this battle–especially those who were actually there, sunk in the stew of social pressures and ambitions that keep units from giving in to the sum of the ordinary fears of their members–this was a period of real tension. Yet once the plan broke down and the artillery timetables were out of sync there was sudden leeway. No matter how rigid the army hierarchy was or how explicit orders were it always seems that there was one way for battalion officers to play for time, whether out of circumspection or a simple unwillingness to be slaughtered. They could ask for orders. Even for clarifications to existing orders. With a counter-barrage underway and troops clogging the communications trenches, there was every likelihood that decisions would be delayed for many long minutes, or–if brigade headquarters felt the need to communicate with division, division with corps, etc.–for hours.

 

Attack: The Second Wave

Let’s turn back to the Royal Welch, whose officers now have some decisions to make. They were supposed to be the second wave of the initial assault, but the attack of the Middlesex Regiment, in front of them, has failed–for many reasons. The first is the gas–not only did it not reach the Germans (who were in any case well-prepared for it) but much of it wafted back into the trench, so the Middlesex, rather than choke on their own gas, had attacked piecemeal and unsupported by the timed bombardment.

To all this Graves adds a colorful story of how the brigade trench mortars–operated by one efficient Royal Welch officer and a pathetically incompetent teenage officer of the Middlesex, known as “Jamaica”–had knocked out all but one German machine gun opposite. But that one gun, left undamaged because Jamaica had abandoned his post to care for a wounded sergeant, now pinned down the survivors of the Middlesex attack in the shell craters of No-Man’s Land, where they discovered that their grenades didn’t work. The 2nd Division had apparently not been issued the new Mills Bombs, but been fobbed off with grenades that actually needed to be lit by matches–and it had, of course, rained all night.

maison rouge 26-27

Maison Rouge Alley–not shown on the map for security reasons–was a British communications trench running roughly from the bottom-left-most “B” east through the next “A” and into the British front line. The German positions they will assault are shown in red.

Those of the rest of the Middlesex who had actually left their trenches to attack had either been hit by German artillery–which after all had long ago registered the exact position of the British trenches–or shot down by rifles. Because there was no supporting bombardment the Germans could stand up on their fire steps, head and shoulders above ground level, and take aim. “At this point,” Graves writes, “the Royal Welch Fusiliers came up Maison Rouge Alley.”

The Germans were shelling it [Maison Rouge] with five-nines (called ‘Jack Johnsons’ because of their black smoke) and lachrymatory shells. This caused a continual scramble backwards and forwards, to cries of: ‘Come on!’ ‘Get back, you bastards!’ ‘Gas turning on us!’ ‘Keep your heads, you men!’ ‘Back like hell, boys!’ ‘Whose orders?’ ‘What’s happening?’ ‘Gas!’ ‘Back!’ ‘Come on!’ ‘Gas!’ ”Back’.

In all this confusion, Childe-Freeman loses half his company–B Company–by the time they reach the front line.

Frank Richards, following with A company, paints a very similar picture of these minutes. Meeting some of the walking wounded from the first wave, he asks how the attack is proceeding:

“A bloody balls-up” was the reply.[8]

One man said that as soon as Old Jerrie commenced to shell the front line the gas-wallahs vanished. The trench was soon full of gas, and that was the reason they [the Middlesex of the first wave] went over the top before the bombardment commenced.

So–a bloody balls-up. Everyone agrees. The Middlesex have been cut down, and there can be no hope of success for an attack in daylight against well-fortified, fully alert troops. The very overconfidence of the battle plan gives the Welch something of an out: the first objectives have not been met, and there is no provision for failure, so what do we do?

Leadership problems might provide another excuse: not only are the colonel and his deputy wounded, but now Childe-Freeman collapses and dies, apparently a victim of heart failure.

Nevertheless, the Welch, commanded by their adjutant, Captain Owen, decide to press on.

Two different contributors to Dunn’s history now use a phrase that could be drawn from another century or two back in the regiment’s annals: they call the two companies of the Royal Welch slated to continue the attack a “Forlorn Hope.” This is not technically correct: a Forlorn Hope–the term derives from early modern siege warfare–was a unit of volunteers who led the initial assault against a breached fortress. They were not expected to survive. They were not “forlorn” in the sense of being displeased with their fate but rather verloren–lost. Their job was to draw the fire from the defenders’ cannon and muskets, allowing a second storming party to reach the wall while they reloaded.

But it’s 1915, and the enemy are not a hundred yards away; nor are they armed with slow-loading muskets. They are several hundred yards away, behind thickets of barbed wire, and they have bolt-action rifles and machine guns–“machine” in that they load themselves, using the kickback of the last round too chamber the next, in a tiny fraction of a second. And a forlorn hope sacrifices itself explicitly in order to allow another unit to succeed in its wake. So this is (tragically) inexact. Perhaps the idea is that by keeping up their “diversionary” attack the German decision-makers will divert reserves away from the south, thus allowing that assault to succeed. But I think rather that the loose use of the term reflects the core of its meaning: a courageous willingness to be shot to pieces as part of a larger plan.

We are very far, here, from Rupert Brooke‘s pretty nuzzlings of the idea of wartime self-sacrifice. This is the real thing: self-sacrifice not for England, but for the Regiment and the army. Death preferred to discretion in loyalty to an obscure but powerful sort of professional pride.

So then, here are tactics that have utterly failed, in service to a bad strategy chosen for reasons of allied grand strategy. And here are other, older, considerations, less rational but no less real, which cluster together to form that stout but unyielding concept, honor. The Welch officers consider it unacceptable to choose not to attack when other troops have done so.

Never mind the tactics: this attack will not help the wounded and trapped members of the Middlesex. In fact, it will bring down more fire upon them. Nor will disjointed attacks possible succeed in reaching a German trench. Nevertheless, the remainder of B company attacks. The descriptions of this are succinct: “About 8 o’clock the officers blew their whistles and over we went…  Half of B Company fell in 30 yards.”[9]

pope's nose at 97

The “Pope’s Nose” is in the upper right corner of square 27B, above. The machine gun likely would have been in the second or third line, perhaps in the circled redoubt to the northeast, marked with a blue “22.”

Robert Graves takes up the tale:

A few minutes later, Captain Sampson, with ‘C’ Company and the remainder of ‘B,” reached our front line. Finding the the gas-cylinders still whistling and the trench full of dying men, he decided to go over too–he could not have it said that the Royal Welch had let down the Middlesex.

Reputation–honor–is sometimes more important than survival, especially when victory does not seem like it can be gained in either case. This is the stuff of epic, but Graves–a mischievous and controversy-courting author, but one who we now must never forget has seen dozens of men he knew and worked with gunned down before his eyes–is committed to dark comedy,

One of ‘C’ officers told me later what happened. It had been agreed to advance by platoon rushes with supporting fire. When his platoon had gone about twenty yards, he signalled them to lie down and open covering fire. The din was tremendous. He saw the platoon on his left flopping down too, so he whistled the advance again. Nobody seemed to hear. He jumped up from his shell-hole, waved, and signalled ‘Forward!’

Nobody stirred.

He shouted: ‘You bloody cowards, are you leaving me to go on alone?’

His platoon-sergeant, groaning with a broken shoulder, gasped: ‘Not cowards, sir. Willing enough. But they’re all f—ing dead.’

The Pope’s Nose machine-gun, traversing, had caught them as they rose to the whistle.

 

Graves may be guilty of hyperbole–all dead? But not much. Halve the carnage, and remember that roughly half of those shot are not mortally wounded, and you find consistent reports in the sober regimental accounts: “C Company may have gone 40 yards and then the line just fell down;” “Half [of A] company fell in the first thirty yards… the remainder dropped in their tracks and stayed where they were.”[10]

Frank Richards, too, was watching:

Not a man in either company got more than thirty yards… Major Sampson [Captain Sampson of C company] was laying out in front mortally wounded: three men, one after the other, sprung over the parapet and made a rush towards him with the intention of bringing him in but they were bowled over by rifle-fire.

For three hours the survivors–and several died during the interval–waited to see whether the rest of the battalion would come out. The waited in shell holes or scratched shallow shelters with their entrenching tools, and hunkered down.

And as for Graves and D company, well–Jamaica’s soft-hearted damage isn’t done yet. He is found in a communications trench trying to minister to the wounds of the sergeant who had taught and protected him. He is blocking the advance of the Welch, and so The Actor orders the dying sergeant’s stretcher thrown over the top in order to make the trench passable. Jamaica is a pathetic figure–he gets the line “I do think you’re the most heartless beast I’ve ever met”–but he does not win Graves’s sympathy. The dying man gets thrown out into the open so that healthy men–for the moment–can do their jobs with less risk.

Good-Bye to All That wobbles, here: Graves is an innovator, a skilled fabulist, a dire dark comedian. But he hasn’t made the leap to absurdity–Joseph Heller is not in this trench, and Jamaica ministering to the sergeant is not Yossarian crouched over Snowden. Graves is there, in that trench, and not about to expose himself to shell fire before the attack, just for sentiment, or to approve it in retrospect.

Besides, he’s writing a conventional comedy. Everyone has their roles.

And so, horror and bathos:

We went up to the corpse-strewn front line. The captain of the gas-company, who was keeping his head and wore a special oxygen respirator, had by now turned off the gas-cocks. Vermorel-sprayers had cleared out most of the gas, but we were still warned to wear our masks. We climbed up and crouched on the fire-step, where the gas was not so thick–gas, being heavy stuff, kept low. Then Thomas brought up the remainder of ‘A’ Company and, with ‘D’, we waited for the whistle to follow the other two companies over. Fortunately at this moment the adjutant appeared. He was now left in command of the battalion, and told Thomas that he didn’t care a damn about orders; he was going to cut his losses and not send ‘A’ and ‘D’ over to their deaths until he got definite orders from brigade. He had sent a runner back, and we must wait…

While waiting, Graves watches more short-falls from their own bombardment land amidst the remnants of B and C companies, lying in the open between the lines.

My mouth was dry, my eyes out of focus, and my legs quaking under me. I found a water-bottle full of rum and drank about half a pint; it quieted me, and my head remained clear. Sampson lay groaning about twenty yards beyond the front trench. Several attempts were made to rescue him. He was badly hit. Three men got killed in these attempts: two officers and two men, wounded. In the end his own orderly managed to crawl out to him. Sampson waved him back, saying he was riddled through and not worth rescuing; he sent his apologies to the company for making such a noise.

We waited a couple of hours for the order to charge. The men were silent and depressed … Finally a runner arrived with a message that the attack had been postponed…

 

phillip's flanking movement

The Attack of the Devonshires, along Hulluch Road, upper left.

Not every second wave attack met with such a disaster. A few miles south of the Welch were the 8th and 9th Devonshires, in the 20th Brigade of the 7th Division, not far to the north of the “Gaultshires” (note the chapel in the upper left of the map, which also shows the Lone Tree).

The 9th Devons had watched the 8th battalion of their Regiment (it’s unusual to find to battalions of the same regiment in the same brigade, but not unheard of) bunch up before the wire and take heavy casualties. Or, rather, they had struggled forward, much like the 2/Royal Welch, while the massacre was going on:

…as they drew nearer the front the trenches became increasingly choked with wounded from the battalions that had already gone over. There were other hazards too. C Company was held up for an agonising 15 minutes when their machine guns became entangled with the telephone wires. The decision to give up on the congested trenches altogether and move forward in the open seems to have been made piecemeal. Noel Hodgson and the rest of D Company climbed out of Chapel Alley at the chapel of Notre Dame de Consolation, close to the Hulluch Road, at 7.45am…

Almost immediately they began taking heavy casualties. Charlotte Zeepvalt’s composite account continues:

Captain Mockridge was wounded in the thigh, Alan Hinshelwood’s arm was broken by a rifle bullet and Bertram Glossop was shot in the leg. His last sighting of the survivors, Noel Hodgson and Mervyn, ‘the Bart’ Davies, still leading D Company and the bombers forward, was passed on in ‘Pussy’ Martin’s letter:

I got the latest report from him to the effect that Mervyn with an evil leer on his face and his bandy legs twinkling in and out among the bullets was still going strong. Smiler with his bombers was doing great execution against a M.G. [machine gun] in the Breslau redoubt. When last seen Rayner was rushing along at the head of his men somewhere by the German first line, waving a pistol and shouting wildly!

Hodgson and his bombers had been called away to the left to help deal with a strongpoint in the German line, where they and bombers from the 2nd Borders took 150 prisoners.

Noel Hodgson left two accounts of his experiences in the German lines: the Battalion War Diary, which is in his handwriting from 21 to 27 September, and a twenty-two page account on odd sheets of paper, written in the third person, as the grenade officer. But it matches Rayner’s account and others precisely, and presents an uncompromising picture of the conditions they endured. At one point he finds six men killed in their sleep by a single shell, a shortfall from their own artillery. He sees ‘a white hand with a ring on the little finger, ’ and, ‘thinking of some girl or wife at home, bends down to recover the ring, and finds that the hand ends abruptly at the wrist. There is no sign of the owner about.’[11]

Hodgson and grenades

Noel Hodgson and his grenades, before the Battle of Loos

A surfeit of horror, on a long day. But two things here must not be overlooked. First, even when an attack has faltered against barbed wire and machine guns, it can still go forward. Massed assaults of infantry sometimes present nothing more than unmissable targets, where small groups of “bombers” working with whatever cover is available can dislodge defenders.

Second, we have our first decorated New Army poet. “Smiler” Hodgson–the diffident Bombing Officer–will win the Military Cross for his day’s work.

 

After the Reprieve

We return to the Royal Welch, and Robert Graves’s account of the aftermath of the aborted attack.

My memory of that day is hazy. We spent it getting the wounded down to the dressing-station, spraying the trenches and dug-outs to get rid of the gas, and clearing away the earth where the trenches were blocked. The trenches stank of a gas-blood-lyddite-latrine smell. Late in the afternoon we watched through our field-glasses the advance of reserves under heavy shell-fire toward Loos and Hill 70; it looked like a real break-through.

It was–for a little while.  Due in part to French’s refusal to release his reserves to Haig before the battle–nearly every history mentions at this point the flabbergasting fact that there was no telephone linkup between Army and BEF headquarters, so Haig had to send an officer there and back in a car to get permission–and in part to the fact that it is always difficult to hold captured ground when the enemy has had ample warning to assemble a counter-attack force, most of the gains were lost during the afternoon.

At dusk we all went out to get the wounded, leaving only sentries in the line. The first dead body I came across was Sampson. He had been hit in seventeen places. I found that he had forced his knuckles into his mouth to stop himself crying out and attracting any more men to their death…

This awful image was tidier–slightly–in a contemporary poem that goes a long way toward showing where Graves is as a writer now, rather than when looking back, recomposing, and bidding “Good-Bye” in his memoir. The typescript, at right, is held in the First World War Poetry Digital Archive.

dead fox hunter

The Dead Fox Hunter, courtesy of the First World War Poetry Digital Archive

The elegy is mostly traditional and very firmly of a place and class–fox hunting is not the sport of Graves the awkward intellectual, but rather of the old school Regulars (and country gentlemen like Sassoon). We can find a hint of mischief-making, perhaps, in Graves’s hope that heavenly choirs will be shoved aside for celestial blood sports, but, really, this is a straightforward elegy to a brave soldier who did his duty, and died. And it doesn’t much wonder why.

Frank Richards:

During the whole of the night the Company were employed in bringing in the wounded and dead and the enemy didn’t fire a shot during the whole of the night… Young Mr. Graves worked like a Trojan in this work and when I saw him late in the night he looked thoroughly exhausted…

He told a few of us outside the signaller’s dugout how bravely Major Sampson had died. He had found him with his two thumbs in his mouth which he had very nearly bitten through to save himself crying out in his agony, and so as not to attract enemy fire on some of the lightly-wounded men that were laying around him…[12]

The Germans behaved generously. I do not remember hearing a shot fired that night, though we kept in until it was nearly dawn and we could see plainly; then they fired a few warning shots, and we gave it up.

Robert Graves is now in command of B company, one of only five or six officers in the battalion yet unwounded. Thomas, the brave adjutant, will be killed early tomorrow after carelessly exposing himself to a sniper.

Thomas need not have been killed; but everything had gone so wrong that he seemed not to care one way or the other.[13]

 

The Reinforcements

Most writing about major battles in the Great War–including most of what’s above, today–emphasizes the enormous casualties suffered in the frontal assaults of the first wave. And yet most of these were successful. The failure to deal with the barbed wire was a serious problem (that will recur), but no matter how strongly defended a trench system is, the very fact that it is a static defensive system means that massive firepower can be brought to bear against it. If there is enough artillery, well-enough coordinated, then the infantry will be able to advance, and take a trench, or several trenches, full of dead, wounded, or shocked defenders. A more insoluble problem is keeping this advance going while the second and third lines of defense awaken and artillery in the rear begins firing to “interdict” supporting troops moving up toward the front lines and across the former no-man’s land.

Despite the terrible descriptions of men trapped in front of uncut wire andcut down by un-bombarded machine guns, it was this failure–coordinating the exploitation of the gains on the southern flank of the assault–that doomed the assault. The New Army divisions that were to have pushed ahead will be delayed until tomorrow. And the Guards–the vaunted new division of elites–will not be available until the third day of the battle. Kipling’s description of their march evokes the frustration of coming upon a great effort already withering:

At noon on the 25th September the position stood thus: The First Army Corps held up between the Béthune–La Bassée Canal and the Hohenzollern redoubt; the Seventh Division hard pressed among the quarries and houses by Hulluch; the Ninth in little better case as regarded Pit 8 and the redoubt itself; the Highland Division pushed forward in the right centre holding on precariously in the shambles round Loos and being already forced back for lack of supports.

All along the line the attack had spent itself among uncut wire and unsubdued machine-gun positions. There were no more troops to follow at once on the heels of the first, nor was there time to dig in before the counter-attacks were delivered by the Germans, to whom every minute of delay meant the certainty of more available reserves fresh from the rail. A little after noon their pressure began to take effect, and ground won during the first rush of the advance was blasted out of our possession by gunfire, bombing, and floods of enemy troops arriving throughout the night.[14]

 

Rowland Feilding is with the Coldstream Guards, and writes to prepare his wife for the coming assault of the reserves.

September 25, 1915, Houchin

By the time you get this you will have heard that a great combined French and British attack was launched to-day. The weather yesterday was fine, but during the night a drizzle set in which continued till the morning…

Our bombardment of the German trenches continued through the night, reaching its climax in the morning as the moment of assault approached. Then did the fire become so violent that even at Rely, where we slept, though 18 miles behind the line, the ground shook, and my iron bedstead at the “Mairie” rattled at the heavier bursts.

We expected to march shortly after midnight, but this order was cancelled, and we fell in instead at 5.45 in the morning…  and arrived here, very wet, after many halts, at 9 p.m.

As we came within sight of the drifting battle smoke and looked upon the familiar flat landscape and the great cone-shaped spoil-heaps of the coal-mines which stand up like the Pyramids against the sky, a message from Lord Cavan was passed round. It said “that we were on the eve of the greatest battle in history”—“that future generations depended on the result of it”—and “that great things are expected from the Guards Division.” Later, we received the splendid news that our troops had broken through the German line and taken Hulloch, Loos, and Cite de St. Elie; all places that we have looked towards so long from the trenches in front of Vermelles…[15]

Would that it were true.

 

Poetry of Combat: The Second Step

Robert Nichols witnessed the fighting today from a few miles back–but he was no safer. Working the guns, Nichols’ battery was subjected to accurate German counter-battery fire, and although he was not visibly injured, he suffered from concussion and what was beginning to be recognized as “shell-shock,” or the neurological/emotional after-effects of shelling.

But when he wrote of the battle, it was the infantry he strove to make the subject of his poetry. Strove mightily–but awkwardly. This “misdirected attempt at realism” attempts to solve the problem of representing modern war by simply throwing a lot of words at it:

Gather, heart, all thoughts that drift;
Be steel, soul, Compress thyself
Into a round, bright whole. I cannot speak.
Time. Time!
I hear my whistle shriek…
It goes on:

On, on. Lead. Lead. Hail.
Spatter. Whirr! Whirr!
“Toward that patch of brown;
Direction left.” Bullets a stream.
Devouring thought crying in a dream.
Men, crumpled, going down. . . .
Go on. Go.
Deafness. Numbness.The loudening tornado.
Bullets. Mud. Stumbling and skating.

My voice’s strangled shout:
Steady pace, boys!
The still light: gladness.
Look, sir. Look out!
Ha! ha! Bunched figures waiting.
Revolver levelled quick!
Flick! Flick! Red as blood.
Germans. Germans. Good!
O good! Cool madness.[16]

Nichols will improve. The problem, I think, is that this is neither testimony nor insight nor music: he is not recording his own actions for posterity; there is no poetic compression, no cracking open of some kernel of experience; and it’s not, er, much in the way of verse. And although the effect of the staccato, impressionistic lines is modern, the attempt to convey a sort of exhilarating madness as the essence of battle is more Romantic than anything else. None of our prose writers who were there in the front lines today, a century back, were much interested in their own bayonets or revolvers, or in drawing German blood.

 

Writers and Fictions on a Memorable Day

I’ve tried to sketch something of what the battle was like, both as a major offensive and as a minor watershed in British war writing. But it was also the biggest day of the year, a red-letter date that would stick in many memories. So let’s have just one example of how Loos could stand, in fiction, for one sort of experience.

John Buchan has been busy. His propagandistic quick-fire histories have been selling well, although not as well as his popular thriller, The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was serialized over the summer and will released as a book in October. He has already been sent to report on the second battle of Ypres, and now he is back at the front, an official unofficial war reporter. A man like Buchan can be relied upon to tell the story properly. And he is no fool–or at least he considers himself to be no fool.

Yet just yesterday he wrote home parroting the blithe confidence he had picked up from various generals about the extraordinary success of the coming attack. Nothing of Haig’s pessimism seems to have reached him. Tomorrow, then, Buchan will be writing with evident surprise that the “victory” may have been terribly costly. But he was there nonetheless, to see the great day, the first day in action for so many New Army battalions. And so, in his next fiction, he used Loos as an opportunity to cross his own paths: in Greenmantle, the sequel to The Thirty-Nine Steps, today’s battle will lurk behind all of the derring-do and strangely conceived spycraft as the day that Britain’s New Army was tested and proved its mettle. It reads a little like a later cinematic convention, namely the traumatic preamble to an action movie which must be revisited several times in flashback in order for the hero to overcome a failure and accomplish a new heroic feat…

For more than a year I had been a busy battalion officer, with no other thought than to hammer a lot of raw stuff into good soldiers. I had succeeded pretty well, and there was no prouder man on earth than Richard Hannay when he took his Lennox Highlanders over the parapets on that glorious and bloody 25th of September. Loos was no picnic…[17]

No picnic, but time to escape to the romancers. This is war writing, too. It’s funny: this war will not produce an epic, and although it produced many good novels, it did not produce the kind of novels that vie for the status once accorded to epic. Joyce is hopping about the periphery, slipping back to pre-war Dublin; Tolstoy is gone; Hardy has no more monster projects in him. The first flowerings of novels that don’t so much record personal experience of the war as seek to use it or address it for grand literary purposes are not heading epic-ward, but heliotroping off instead after very different stars. The historians, like Buchan, are bungling their impossible task of combining the accurate history of a “bloody balls-up” with the sturdy narrative confidence in ultimate victory which they must project.

That leaves the romancers–as Buchan is aware. As he will write, next year, in a foreword to the book, “Some day, when the full history is written–sober history with ample documents–the poor romancer will give up his business and fall to reading Miss Austen in a hermitage.”[18]

This, at times, seems like a very good idea. For the history has now been written, most ways, and time and again. And romance has surely retreated–in fact, most “romance,” in the classic sense of “adventure story,” that gets published these days follows in the footsteps of Tolkien and Stapledon: fantasy and science fiction must vastly outnumber military or geopolitical adventure stories. And there are even the thirty-nine footsteps of Buchan to follow too, since his second novel ran away with a new art form and became an excellent cinematic thriller.

In any event, three more years of history and writing–then Miss Austen and the hermitage.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 150-1.
  2. These two sentences, I should note, could be a locus classicus for the challenges of building history--especially the history of confusing events, like battles--from accounts written after. Graves innocently cops, here, to a pre-sorting of his jumbled memories, a messing-with-the-stuff-of-history that is necessarily prior to any decisions to fictionalize what he remembers, and any historian's decision to use or discount his memoir.
  3. Regimental Records, 150.
  4. Or the second, after Neuve Chapelle.
  5. It was also common practice to hold certain officers back so that they could--this is about as horrible as it gets--serve as a cadre to train replacements once their unit had been destroyed in an attack; but in such a case they would be kept far back in reserve, not in danger in the front line.
  6. I.E. his neurotic upbringing under a cold and cruel father.
  7. A Fox Under My Cloak, 300-42.
  8. This is one of the spots at which its easy to see Richards's account being influenced by Graves--or by Graves's. One or both surely influenced Williamson.
  9. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 155-7.
  10. Regimental Records, 151.
  11. Zeepvalt, Before Action, 122-7.
  12. Old Soldiers Never Die, 121-134. Richards may be loyally passing on Graves's account of Sampson, since it doesn't make a huge amount of sense to describe Sampson's gruesome heroic act exactly as Graves does, and then go on to emphasize the lack of German fire at the wounded men.
  13. Good-Bye to All That, 150-161.
  14. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I 115.
  15. War Letters to a Wife, 38-9.
  16. Ardours and Endurances, 36-41.
  17. Greenmantle, 10.
  18. Greenmantle, v.

The Eve of Battle: Sublime Moments from Alan Seeger; Acute Anxiety for Phillip Maddison; Three Welch Fusiliers on Rainbows, Brothels, and S’nice S’mince Pie; Bimbo Tennant and Osbert Sitwell Proclaim and Decry Immortality

First today, three from the Second Royal Welch, who spent most of the day marching back from their front line trenches to Béthune–about ten miles, each way, much of it in clogged communications trenches or around detours–all, essentially to check their bags and coats. On the eve of a battle.

Messing tonight, a century back, together with a New Army divisional staff, Robert Graves overheard a drunken aide of the Divisional general–an old comrade of one of the senior officers of the Welch–confide both that the divisional commander is an utter incompetent and that the attack is going to be a “glorious balls-up.” But what of the Welch themselves?

Doctor Dunn, the battalion doctor and self-appointed historian of the battalion, places the emphasis on the weather and the news, both overly pleasant in their aspect and disturbing in their details.

September 24th–The morning sky was grey. There was more rain; after breakfast it became only a drizzle. Later in the day there was a beautiful and complete rainbow against a louring sky behind the Germans… The wind, what there is of it, is unfavourable to us; very disquieting.

Dunn generally begins each day’s entry by quoting at length from the battalion diary, and he now includes a summary of the overconfident plan of attack (with which Robert Graves regaled us yesterday). Frank Richards, a battalion signaller, was today assigned to B company and assembled with them this morning to hear the plan of attack (before the day’s exhausting march). He remembers being told that they will breakfast, tomorrow, in Haisnes, a town several miles away, through many lines of defenses. This may be simple overconfidence, but it sounds like swagger, a reference to the four musketeers breakfasting in besieged at La Rochelle.

The way the Company Commander was speaking anyone would think we were going to have a cake walk, and when we were dismissed off parade one old hand remarked that if the Captain had said we would breakfast in Hell he would have believed him just the same, or better.

Richards is not shy of giving his own opinion, but he likes to stand off in his memoir and let other salty old soldiers, dimly defined, speak as a chorus. Dr. Dunn, writing unit history, does the opposite, and inserts himself into the narrative. But to the same purpose: injecting some wry humor in anticipation of disaster.

Where will my dressing station be? “Where it is to-night,” I said, “unless the wind change, and I see no promise of a change.” Then we had words, but parted on an understanding. The happy-go-lucky tone of our infantry programme jarred on me in the circumstances.”[1]

Dunn, in other words, will not need to move forward to treat tomorrow’s casualties. This is not a historian’s abuse of his superior knowledge of the day to come–not historical irony but the grim irony of the infantryman, who knows his fate better than the brass. Virtually everyone in the front line battalions, as we will see, saw the lay of the land: the obvious German preparedness for the coming assault, the clumsy deployment of the new, fickle, sinister weapon.

You don’t need a military historian to know which way the wind blows.

Richards and Graves, however, remain committed to giving the earthier details of this last night. Tomorrow the storm, but tonight, humanity with its quirks and urges.

On the march back, after dinner, the men sang, including a popular song which sounds very irritating indeed: “I do like a S’nice S’mince Pie.” It would stick in his head all the following week.

And Richards gives us a scene we haven’t had yet. On the eve of battle, he and his three pals go to meet women in a nearby village. On the way they pass the Red Lamp–the officially sanctioned brothel–in the big town of Béthune.

We saw stretching from the Red Lamp and down the street toward the rue de Aire about three hundred men in a queue, all waiting their turns to go in the Red Lamp.

The Old Soldier berates these men for letting down the side with their unseemly lust, and then he, Richards, and their two pals proceed on their own errand.

Afterwards, they march back to their battalion, to begin the overnight march to their assembly trenches. But Richards is a real infantryman, and Graves is determined to represent such men, and so their last details are true details–the arming scene, old as Homer, but overburdened now, with less beauty and more utility. All the men carry a rifle and bayonet, but also

Two hundred rounds of ammunition…
Heavy tools carried in sling by the strongest men.
Waterproof sheet in belt.
Sandbag in right tunic-pocket.
Field-dressing and iodine.
Emergency ration, including biscuit.
One tube-helmet [a primitive gas mask]…
One smoke-helmet…
Wire-cutters…[2]

And that’s not all. Richards, as a specialist signaller, has more:

During the twenty-four hours we were back in Bethune either the Division or Brigade Signalling Officer had received a brainwave and orders were issued that all company signallers taking part in the attack would, in addition to their D3 telephone, carry one reel of wire, one large and one small signalling flag, also signalling blinds; and each company to also carry a roll of rabbit-hutching wire which with our full fighting order made each of us look like Father Christmas. We were wondering how the hell we were going to get over the top with all of it.

The idea here is that the rabbit-wire will serve as a lattice protecting and carrying the signal of the telephone wire. But of course it is incredibly bulky and still subject to being cut or disconnected–it’s just one of many “signalling stunts” of questionable utility that are pressed onto combat troops after a trial period in non-combat positions.

The truth was that we were very lucky if Battalion Headquarters could keep up communication with Brigade.

And that was during ordinary trench conditions. During an attack it was almost always the case that telephone connections broke down and runners had to be sent from any captured position to battalion HQ, then back to brigade. Any change to prearranged tactical plans were thus delayed for hours, as at Neuve Chapelle.

There is, however, one significant piece of good news:

We were now told that the Argyles and Middlesex were going over first… and we supporting the Middlesex.

The Royal Welch will not be the first men “over the top” in the morning.[3]

 

Nor will the guards. Osbert Sitwell, with the second Grenadier Guards further to the south, behind what will be the main thrust of the attack, remembers the day with a bitterer irony.

Never shall I forget the day before the attack; which was launched on a Monday. In the morning we had to attend Morning Service, with a long, meandering sermon on the immortality of the soul; and, after luncheon, while an air of deathly imported English Sunday still darkened the air, we were given an address by an enthusiastic general, who explained how secret was our plan (“The Germans haven’t begun to get an idea of it!”) and how novel it would seem to the enemy. (Taken together, the talks of morning and afternoon were like lectures, delivered, surely, in the wrong order, on effect and cause.)[4]

He also remembers it incorrectly: the 25th was a Saturday. In all likelihood, Sitwell, writing later and without either diaries or any effort at research, is conflating the news of the overall plan of attack and the atmosphere before the day the Guards themselves attacked–they are, we must remember, an elite division being held in reserve, and will launch their own attack on the third day of the battle.

 

Sitwell’s close friend Bimbo Tennant, in a different battalion of the Grenadiers but still in the same division, gives a more accurate account of the day’s activities–and a very different take on the question of immortality as seen on the eve of battle.

24th Friday, September.

Darling Moth’,

We arrived here at 9 last night after a 21 hours’ march. It rained the whole time, but we got comfortable billets on arriving…  I thought we should stay here a few days but it seems that we march again to-night, though I know not how far. We only came 8 miles last night, the sky was continually lit up by the big guns in the distance and the men, who thought, I believe, they were going into action last night, were somewhat subdued: but brightened on being shown into barns knee deep in straw and having hot tea served out within a few minutes of arriving…

I am in high explosive good spirits and there is not much I fail to raise a laugh about! The “great biff” seems to have gone forward quicker than expected, as we are being shoved forward thus. Now I must stop, I’ll try and write every day, but my letters may only reach you two or three at a time after rather a gap…

I am longing to see you again soon (D.V.) and I have the feeling of Immortality very strongly. I think of Death with a light heart and as a friend whom there is no need to fear.

God bless you, darling Moth’.

Your devoted Son,
BIMBO.[5]

Are the truly vivacious immune to parody? “High explosive good spirits” is a nice bit of levity, and not incompatible with a sincere belief in the immortality of the soul. But death as a friend? It doesn’t seem to be quite Bimbo’s personality…

 

Henry Williamson would probably put it differently, but his Phillip Maddison is a bit of a schlemiel. Or, historically speaking, a schlimazel: his own bumbling is too insignificant to cause much trouble, yet there he is, trembling, just as history’s soup spills in his lap. The first, greatest instance of this haplessness he shares with his creator: both enlisted in a Territorial regiment before the war, more or less on a whim, and in the hopes that weekend soldiering would improve his position with the cool crowd at work. But by putting Maddison into the battle of Loos (while he himself was in England) Williamson has doubled down on the notion that “he” is a helpless satellite, drawn by their tremendous gravity close to the face of history’s great events.

And Today Phillip reaches his first crisis of the battle, before it has even begun. He has spent the day essentially wandering around behind the British front lines. As a temporary gas officer on “secret” duty, wearing a colored brassard on his arm, he can pass through checkpoints and roam by himself–a most novelistic activity, but virtually impossible in a war zone under normal circumstances. (Williamson takes it a bit far–surely the sergeants and privates whom he continually abandons in lonely emplacements with their gas canisters would eventually report his absence.) He has no better reason for his perambulations than to see the preparations for the attack and to acquire a new pistol from a quartermaster by claiming that he has lost his own. He makes no preparations for his own role in tomorrow’s attack.

Which is why he doesn’t realize until the middle of the night, tonight, a century back, that neither of the spanners (wrenches) issued along with the gas canisters fit. Immediately, the trench flâneur reverts to a hapless and terrified child:

What should he do? He was in a state of fear and acute anxiety, afraid to telephone to brigade lest he be reprimanded; afraid to go back to the R[oyal].E[ngineers]. dump, lest he be reported absent from his post.

And wouldn’t you know it, the very company of the “Gaultshires” commanded by his new friend “Westy” now file down the trench. Phillip gets neither help nor punishment, but fulmination. West is annoyed by Maddison’s helplessness, but offended more, it would seem, by his complacency, his assumption that no one will have blundered.

How dare you… stand there and talk to me as though you had not already sized up the whole bloody war, the real war, the only war, which is between the infantry and the staff, who sit on their bottoms and collect all the gongs with their hampers from Fortnum and Mason’s before issuing reams and reams of bumff… thus making a complete balls-up of every battle…[6]

When I began this project, I knew a good bit about 1916 and 1917, when the best of the memoir writers and poets saw the most action. But I remembered that Loos was the one that everyone called a “balls-up.” And so it has proven to be.[7] Williamson, straying from the particular tortured memories of his own experience, goes in for a good deal of cliche in his depictions of the Battle of Loos–Fortnum and Mason’s, for instance, as symbolic of staff luxury, even though their hampers can, believe it or not, make their way up to the support trenches by the regular post.

Phillip Maddison, exhorted and abused by Westy, stumbles over to find that a sergeant of the engineers has already learned of the problem from a colleague serving under a more responsible officer. A corporal has been sent–over the top of the trenches and exposed to enemy fire, because of the crowding of assault troops–to find adjustable wrenches before the night is through.

 

Antepenultimately, we have another occasional poem by Robert Nichols, now very busy with his own part in the bombardment. Unfortunately, it is “evidence” both of what the infantry looked like on this night, to a nearby observer, and of why dialect balladry is not the best way to write the war:

EVE OF ASSAULT: INFANTRY GOING
DOWN TO TRENCHES
Downward slopes the wild red sun.
We lie around a waiting gun;
Soon we shall load and fire and load.
But, hark! a sound beats down the road.
“‘Ello! wot’s up?” “Let’s ‘ave a look!”
“Come on, Ginger, drop that book!”
“Wot an ‘ell of bloody noise!”
“It’s the Yorks and Lancs, meboys!”
Alack–there’s more of this, a leaden effort to transmute lived experience into prose. This process, such as it is, also produces a large yield of cliche.
“‘Ip ‘urrah!” “Give Fritz the chuck.”
“Good ol’ bloody Yorks!” “Good-luck!”
“Cheer!” I cannot cheer or speak
Lest my voice, my heart must break.
Yes, well, Nichols was there–and he wrote this after. The poetry will improve, but this is still a good reminder for one of our basic assumptions, namely that the most searing and effective war writing wrestles directly with the writer’s own traumatic experiences.[8]

 

Alan Seeger, too, has been hearing the guns–for several days. The British attack at Loos, we also must remember (lots to remember, folks), was undertaken because the French insisted that their allies aid them by distracting the Germans during their own grand pair of assaults, near the British at Arras, and away to the south and east in Champagne. Seeger, though a private soldier, has also been told of the great and infallibly glorious plans for a breakthrough. No cynicism here, and no sweetness, but rather swelling, Grenfellite violent Romanticism. The legion will punch through, and then, as he wrote several days ago, a century back,

the entire 8th Corps, including numerous cavalry, will pass through the breach we have made. These will be sublime  moments; there are good chances of success and even of success without serious losses.

And then, the eve-of-battle entry.

September 24

We are to attack tomorrow morning. Gave in our blankets this morning; they are to be carried on the wagons. Also made bundles, in order to lighten the sack of all un necessary articles, including the second pair of shoes. We are admirably equipped, and if we do not succeed it will not be the fault of those responsible for supplying us. A terrific cannonade has been going on all night and is continuing. It will grow in violence until the attack is launched, when we ought to find at least the first enemy line completely demolished. What have they got up their sleeves for us? Where shall we find the strongest resistance?

I am very confident and sanguine about the result and expect to march right up to the Aisne, borne on in an irresistible élan. I have been waiting for this moment for more than a year. It will be the greatest moment in my life. I shall take good care to live up to it.[9]

 

And finally, incongruously, the newly commissioned Lieutenant Ford Madox Hueffer met up with his “Imagist” pal Ezra Pound today, a century back. Pound found Hueffer “looking twenty years younger and enjoying his work.”[10] It’s a big war.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 151-2.
  2. Good-Bye to All That, 147-8.
  3. Old Soldiers Never Die, 114-22.
  4. Laughter in the Next Room, 105.
  5. Letters, 28-9.
  6. There's a Fox Under My Cloak, 283-4.
  7. Unless, of course, Williamson is unduly influenced in his choice of language by Graves, Richards, et al... which, after writing the next few days' posts, I now believe to be the case.
  8. Ardours and Endurances, 35-6.
  9. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 159-62. This diary entry is significant also because of an ensuing accident. The little book was now finished, with a note to the effect that "This diary continued in another that I will carry in the pocket of my capote." But this continuation has been lost. So, alas--and as with Billy Congreve--we ware without his description of the battle itself, except for brief bits in later letters.
  10. Saunders, Ford, I, 485.

Kipling on the Lay of the Land at Loos; Frank Richards on German Intelligence; A Poem of the Big Guns from Robert Nichols

Frank Richards, private of the 2/Royal Welsh, has another story of German intelligence (or allied failures of discretion) very similar to the one concocted by Henry Williamson:

On the night of the 22nd I was conversing with some old hands: there was a lull in our bombardment and it was pretty quiet at the time. Suddenly a German from the trench opposite shouted across in English: “You can come over on the 25th, you English swine, and send your gas over: but we’ll smarten you up!”

The next morning Richards will tell two pals the news, and one of them–a colorful character whom Richards refers to as “The Old Soldier”–asks where he got the information from:

“From the Germans,” I said…

“Then it’s bound to be true, man” said Duffy, “the Jerries always gets to know things before we do.”[1]

 

So do old soldiers presage disaster when they tell the story. The skeptic must assert, of course, that, were the coming battle to be a glorious victory, they would give less prominence to these signs of German preparedness. The historian, however–and the lyrical, part-time historian of Empire all the more–must draw from a different bag of tricks.

Kipling, writing as the official historian of the Irish Guards, goes all in for the pathetic fallacy, taking the point of view of the nervous, fearful troops, peering through periscopes or loopholes at the sinister landscape over which they will assault.

It was a jagged, scarred, and mutilated sweep of mining-villages, factories, quarries, slag-dumps, pitheads, chalk-pits, and railway embankments—all the plant of an elaborate mechanical civilization connected above ground and below by every means that ingenuity and labour could devise to the uses of war. The ground was trenched and tunnelled with cemented and floored works of terrifying permanency that linked together fortified redoubts, observation-posts, concealed batteries, rallying-points, and impregnable shelters for waiting reserves. So it ran along our front from Grenay north of the plateau of Notre Dame de Lorette, where two huge slag-heaps known as the Double Crassier bristled with machine-guns, across the bare interlude of crop land between Loos and Hulluch, where a high German redoubt crowned the slopes to the village of Haisnes with the low and dangerous Hohenzollern redoubt south of it. Triple lines of barbed wire protected a system of triple trenches, concrete-faced, holding dug-outs twenty feet deep, with lifts for machine-guns which could appear and disappear in emplacements of concrete over iron rails; and the observation-posts were capped with steel cupolas. In the background ample railways and a multitude of roads lay ready to launch fresh troops to any point that might by any chance be forced in the face of these obstacles…

This is a marked departure, of course, from the strictures of formal history, which claims to present the past as it was, without foreshadowing. Kipling is writing history pre-emplotted as tragedy. (And I have surrendered to the same impulse, here, under much pressure from the sources: all of the writers look back and claim to have seen disaster looming. Even Haig was pessimistic, so the “revisionist”–who would be doing nothing more than striving for good history untinctured by our knowledge of the future–has precious little material to work with.) They did not know, then, just how sturdy the German works were, how completely they had accepted the tactical defensive in planning permanent fortifications.

Better, then, to work with the stuff of tragedy rather than the unborn ironies of history. Now, what would be the most predictable of ill-omens? We’ve had Robert Graves on suicide, but that’s Graves–wild, melodramatic. This attack is not suicidal, it’s half-baked. Half-prepared and ill-considered, over-confident. So–the omen?

By a piece of ill-luck, that might have been taken as an omen, the day before they moved from Thiembronne to the front, a bombing accident at practice caused the death of Lance-Sergeant R. Matthews and three men, which few casualties, on the eve of tens of thousands to come, were due subjects of a court of inquiry and a full report to Headquarters…[2]

 

We have another artilleryman whose descriptions of the battle will be invaluable–the young poet Robert Nichols, whose battery was now coming into action.

BATTERY MOVING UP TO A NEW POSITION
FROM REST CAMP: DAWN
Not a sign of life we rouse
In any square close-shuttered house
That flanks the road we amble down
Toward far trenches through the town.

 

The dark, snow-slushy, empty street….
Tingle of frost in brow and feet….
Horse-breath goes dimly up like smoke.
No sound but the smacking stroke

 

Of a sergeant flings each arm
Out and across to keep him warm,
And the sudden splashing crack
Of ice-pools broken by our track.

 

More dark houses, yet no sign Of life….
An axle’s creak and whine….
The splash of hooves, the strain of trace….
Clatter: we cross the market place.
It goes on for quite some time, but the crucial action is this: the battery passes a church, where the mass is being celebrated. The speaker imagines the scene within, and the beseeches the congregation:
O people who bow down to see
The Miracle of Calvary,
The bitter and the glorious,
Bow down, bow down and pray for us.
The march then resumes:
The town is left, the road leads on,
Bluely glaring in the sun,
Toward where in the sunrise gate
Death, honour, and fierce battle wait.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. Old Soldiers Never Die, 114-5.
  2. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I, 113-5.
  3. Ardours and Endurances, 32-5.