It has been some time since we have heard from Vera Brittain–an oversight on my part, since her letter to her brother Edward on January 12th speaks to a central concern of hers, and ours. With the slow pace of epistolary conversations carried on between England, France, and Malta, she is still reacting to aspects of the anniversary of Roland‘s death.
Mother sent me out the ‘Times’ with Roland’s ‘In Memoriam’ notice in it; the Leightons sent it too. Though I would never say so to them, I am afraid I don’t like it very much, for I don’t think He would have liked it; I can’t exactly say why, unless I can express what I mean by saying He wouldn’t have cared for anything so adjectival. I always remember the night He spent with me in Buxton 2 years ago next March just before He first went to the front, & how He said to me ‘I do hope if I am killed no one will put that I was the “dearly beloved” son of anyone in the paper.’ If
I am alive next December it will be my turn & I will put one in myself ‘in proud & undying memory’ certainly, but more of the quieter kind I think He would have appreciated. What do you think yourself?
Given the intensity of Vera’s love for Roland and the very different but surely no less intense mother’s love of Marie Leighton,the surprising thing is that there has been no open break, yet, over the mourning of Roland. And hard as it is to question bereaved parents (and easy as it is to point to the generational gap and leave it at that) surely Vera is right: Roland would have squirmed to know that he has been subjected to such a public adjective-ing. But the dead don’t know their own publicity.
That was nearly two weeks ago, and by today, a century back, the concerns of the grieving near-widow have faded, and we hear the voice both of the old campaigner and of a woman grown circumspect about the rush of wartime emotions. Roland has been the love of her life, but there is at least one other soldier she loves.
Malta, 25 January 1917
You ask me how long I mean to stay in Malta; well, as you know, we sign on for 6 months at a time, & I think it more than likely that when Stella & I have done our first 6 months, which is in two months time, we shall sign on again for another 6. They are making it more & more difficult & disadvantageous for us to resign now, & one can only leave by resigning & joining up again, to be sent goodness knows where. I can’t possibly do anything else but nurse till the war is over; even if I meant to do nothing (which I certainly do not) I think it very unlikely under the present more energetic system of government that either I or anyone else would be able to do nothing for long. Since I am in for nursing I may as well do it not only in its highest form (which Foreign service is) but in a place where I am happy… I think if one has to be in hospital it is better to be far away from home; it is very unsettling to be able to go home or to friends’ houses & then have to go back on duty just as you are getting into the home atmosphere; it makes you hate hospital so much more, & then you never get interested in the hospital because you have so many interests outside.
…in the end I realise that the only person’! really mind about not seeing for a long time is yourself, & I am afraid that by coming back to England in April I shouldn’t be much nearer seeing you than I am here…
I feel sometimes that I don’t want to see you again until I know that you are safe & I can go on seeing you for a long time, comprenez-vous this feeling?
I imagine that Edward does, and will. But true though these sentiments no doubt are–or were, in the moment of writing–this gives rather short shrift to two other officers already in France, and likely to be there in April. What of “Tah” Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow?
Still, this letter is a precise evocation of the feeling I’ve been calling the “irony of proximity.” Vera Brittain has never served in France, but her brother, her lover, and her friends have, and she has worked in wartime London, and she knows now that one benefit of great distance is that it avoids the psychological wear of constant, incomplete dislocation. The stress and strain of war are difficult, but they are not eased by a false hope–or a hope that can never be fully realized–of relief, rest, and the soothing pleasures of ordinary life.
Vera Brittain at twenty-three can now claim the status of overseas veteran, while Robert Graves, all of twenty-one, is a true old soldier. In France now on his fourth tour of duty, he writes immediately to Siegfried Sassoon, left behind in Litherland Camp.
No. 5 IBD
25 January 1917
My dear old Sassons,
I have been posted to the 2nd Battalion and go up tomorrow: all the other fellows are going to various RWF Battalions–chiefly 38th Divisional… It’s most damnably cold here, especially in tents…
On the 48 hours leave I saw Peter and had a long talk with him: he was extraordinarily intelligent and seems now to have read about four times as much poetry as myself–makes me rather afraid of him.
Also I met Robert Nichols…
I spent today going round the Rouen churches and the Cathedral–by God, they are wonderful, almost persuade one to be a Christian.
With emphasis on the “almost,” one imagines. Graves goes on to advise Sassoon on what maneuvers to attempt in order to be sent back to the 1st Battalion, where he had been so happy in July. He then remarks that the first book he saw upon arriving in the base Orderly Room was his own first collection of poetry, Over the Brazier. Can that be true?
In any case, it signals a transition, in this brief letter, to matters poetical. But only Sassoon is expecting full publication of a new collection, and Graves must acknowledge this.
I’m looking forward like anything to the Old Huntsman: it’s going to be a hell of a book…
The letter closes with what seems like a superstitiously oblique reference to his own next book, which is being printed in a sort of vanity edition; Sassoon is in charge of overseeing the printing, and Graves asks him to send on the bill–an awkward inequality…
The post-script to the letter, I believe, is proper to tomorrow…
So Graves has reached the base camps, which means that the line awaits. It will not be pleasant.
Edmund Blunden, his battalion holding a frozen bit of the line in the Ypres Salient, is learning hard lessons about the brutality of winter warfare. He has been ordered, with a select group from his battalion, to plan and rehearse a raid of the German trenches opposite, a directive which “sent more than that winter’s ugly cold down our spines.” But the raid was canceled, and shortly thereafter–early this morning, a century back–his battalion was raided by the Germans instead. Blunden is currently stationed in the support lines, with the small headquarters unit that assists his C.O., Colonel Harrison.
I had had a heavy day, and the patrol was dreary and laborious; so that afterward I went down to the battalion headquarters and there, in my small sandbag house (not then to be exchanged with any other), “got down to it.” Two or three hours afterward the most brutal bombardment began on the right of our line, and, as I hurried out and watched, it seemed to be falling on the battalion there neighbouring us — but this was wrong. Harrison, who had been in the middle of his nightly tour, came panting down the road and along the duckboards to his headquarters; the cruel and shattering concentration went on, and no news came through from the right company, though the telephones were busy. Presently the bombardment ended, and it was the general conviction that it had fallen on the flanking battalion’s line in Railway Wood.
I went back to my blanket, and at nine or so was out ready for the day; meeting Harrison, I was surprised at his looks of reproach and disappointment. “A nasty bit of bombardment on the 12th, sir.” “Not on the 12th, on us. We have lost ten men killed and prisoners. Clark took his company over the top to reinforce. You’d better go up and see what you can see.” This bad news surprised me, and I knew that I ought to have gone up at the time of the bombardment; but I had given in to the customary feeling, “business as usual,” and the usual illusion that we were the lucky ones. It was a sparkling, frost-clad morning, and the guns were still. As I went along that lonely little trench by Gully Farm I found that there were many new details of landscape, great holes and hunks and jags of timber; one had to hurry over mounds that had been excavations; the raided bombing post soon after appeared, trampled, pulverized, blood-stained, its edges slurred into the level of the general wilderness. An unexploded shell lay in it, and many scraps of iron. Like fragments of dismantled masonry here and there, ponderous frozen clods had been hurled out by the minenwerfers, which had blown enormous pits in the stony ground. Our own dead had been carried away, but just ahead were stretched two or three of the raiders. One was an officer of forty, sullen-faced, pig-nosed, scarred, and still seeming hostile. In his coat pocket were thirty or forty whistles which evidently he had meant to issue to his party before the raid. Another corpse was of a youth, perhaps eighteen years old, fair-haired, rough-chinned. He was lying in the snow on his back, staring at the blue day with eyes as blue and icy; his feet were toward the German lines, and his right hand clutched the wooden handle of a bomb.
The raiders had approached the British line on the blind side of the railway embankment which marked our battalion boundary; then they had turned in at a little culvert, and waited for their guns and mortars to hurl over the barrage which had so completely shut in our unfortunate bombing post. That culvert, hitherto unnoticed, although only twenty yards ahead of our trench, now appeared painfully obvious. Some few details of the fighting came to light: one of the Lewis gunners had carried his gun forward and fired it, it seemed, from the shoulder at the coming raiders. He was found dead among the hummocks with his hand to his gun.
References and Footnotes
- Letters From a Lost Generation, 311-5. ↩
- This, we may recall, is the "Welsh Division," composed largely of "Welsh" regiments that actually did draw many of their men from Wales. The Division had been terribly battered in the early weeks of the Somme, and for David Jones and Wyn Griffith, both Royal Welch Fusiliers of Kitchener battalions, Mametz Wood was the center of their harrowing Somme experience. Graves, because of his early volunteering via the side-door of the Special Reserve, is assigned to the Second (Regular) Battalion once again rather than to one of the war-raised battalions in the 38th Division. ↩
- In Broken Images, 63-4. ↩
- He tells stories of the "Bull-Ring" at this point in Good-Bye to All That; but, as R.P. Graves points out, he was at Rouen, not Harfleur, and is either fudging his location since the "Bull Ring" there was better known or accidentally transposing elements from a previous trip up the line. ↩
- Undertones of War, 140-2. ↩