Rowland Feilding Belatedly Locates the Machine Guns of the Somme; John Ronald Tolkien Still Suffers from its Fevers; Ivor Gurney on the Courage of Women

Rowland Feilding has been mixing light letters about life in reserve with accounts of how he is spending his own free time (which, as a battalion commander, can be considerable), namely walking the old battlefield of the Somme and remembering what he and his men endured during the Battle of Ginchy last September 9th.

You will remember what a terrific fire we encountered when we attacked at this place. I have ever since been curious to know where that fire came from, and how so powerful a concentration of machine-guns could have complete escaped our artillery. Now I know. A well-concealed and winding trench, branching into two, and worked in conjunction with nests of shell-holes adapted as machine-gun positions! That is what we ran into, and it was a hopeless task we undertook that day…[1]

 

One of the casualties of the Somme–of its infectious diseases rather than its bullets, shrapnel, or gas–was John Ronald Tolkien. He has yet to return to full health, and, after a severe relapse which put him in the hospital for nine weeks, he went before a Medical Board today in Hull. The report was middling:

He has still not recovered his strength; he suffers from debility and pain in his arms and shins, and he looks delicate

Declared “30 per cent disabled,” Tolkien was sent back to the 3rd Lancashire Fusiliers at Thirtle Bridge, for light duty. The board’s decision may be changed later, but for now Tolkien has some reason to hope that he has seen the last of the trenches.[2]

 

Alas for Ivor Gurney that this is not true. He remains in hospital, but with a wink and a nod: his lungs are more or less fine–it is his talented fingers which keep him there, accompanying all the would-be singers in their own recoveries.

16 October 1917

My Dear Friend: This is a most lovely morning, and I ought to be out on the hills somewhere instead of writing letters, even to you. For letter writing is work of a sort, though I like it not badly here, and in France it is often a pleasure.

There is not much to tell you, there is no masterpiece of chiselled and exquisite verse…

Is it wise of me to play music? Well, I do, but know only too well that the effort to forget will be an extra difficulty against the little serenity I shall have in France. Unless I grow stronger of soul of course, and so much stronger is unlikely. The things I should most like to write are things of beauty with a vinegary ending, something after “The Fire Kindled”. Heine I believe is famous for that sort of thing. It is best to be Shakespeare but good to be Heine — though not Thersites.

Gurney is almost always etceterative–and occasionally tremendous. What an idea–to write beautiful, vinegary things, like Heine. And Thersites is a rare reference, but an excellent one: Gurney perhaps remembers him as the one common soldier who makes a role for himself in the Iliad, where Thersites is an ugly, misshapen grumbler amongst the gleaming heroes and handsome demigods who lead the Greek army, a would be mutineer who is scorned and battered into silence by his betters. But he is, nevertheless, a common man with a voice in the great poem.

Gurney is, as usual, writing to Marion Scott, and he segues now from his own classically-cast ambition (and muted grumbling) to a consideration of women at war. It is typical of his intelligence that he takes an observation (and one which runs against the grain of all-too-typical prejudices) and proceeds without much fanfare to a sensitive (and sensible) reconsideration of a Big Concept–courage, in this case  .

…Nurses are really wonderful people to do so many things distasteful and still to smile. There is a very nice set of nurses here (have I told you?) that could hardly be better. They call this the “Ragtime Ward”, a name of envy given by men oppressed in places of female dragons and discipline. The courage of women is certainly not less than that of men. To my mind, that is. The serene performance of hateful duties, and the refusal to be depressed by them is the finest form of courage. The more sensational are the wilder forms — no higher. There are a few soldiers who go on till they are knocked out, not heeding wounds, most of these comparative few have supported their nerves only too freely beforehand. The rest may be the flower of earth, but the man who can be brotherly and crack a joke on a winter night in a shell hole has undoubted undeniable unsupported courage, which is not always certain of the spectacular gentlemen, who may be Berserk or drunk. But there! It is only my preference perhaps for serene and quiet strength rather than for the violent kind. Violence is waste of energy.

Here endeth the umptieth lesson…

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 215.
  2. Chronology, 102.
  3. War Letters, 222-4.

Rowland Feilding on Cleanliness and a Brilliant Corporal; David Jones (Re-)Draws Leave

Just two days ago, a century back, Rowland Feilding wrote to his wife about the new procedures for enlisted men going on leave. There is more attention now to cleanliness–which could be seen both as a sensible public health measure and a sort of propaganda of the body, a way to censor the physical condition of the men at the front as well as their words:

They are cleaned up and fitted with good clothes before they leave, so that they do not arrive at Victoria covered with the mud of the trenches. Each man, too, has to have a certificate that he is free from vermin; so I hope they arrive sufficiently pure and spick and span, though I am sure they cannot give half so much satisfaction in the streets of London as they would if they arrived muddy.

Today’s letter is what we might call a “reserve piece,” a pleasant discourse on the pleasures of life in the rear. And yet it’s of a piece with several of our recent posts from the Passchendaele trenches that emphasized the sanity-saving effects of humor. Feilding has discovered that a bombing corporal–“and a good one too”–is  also “a buffoon of a high order.” Lance-Corporal Pierpont is a clown and a contortionist, and, on this day of battalion sports, a goalkeeper of great repute (though notable more for his incessant working of the referee than for any particular skill on the goal line) but these skills seem to shade into something of a sorcerer’s powers:

Amongst other facilities which he possesses, or is believed to possess… is that of being able to judge exactly where a trench-mortar bomb is going to fall. His friends in his platoon collect around him when the German “rum-jars” are flying about, and he advises them what to do to dodge each one as he sees it coming through the air–signalling with his arms whether to move right or left along the trench, or to stand still.[1]

There is something remarkable about this combination of abilities: the magical corporal is a prodigy of body, wit, and will, and his influence over the minds of men–the referee, the laughing comrades–may extend even to missiles. But then again interpreting the sights and sounds of those terribly slow incoming mortar bombs can in fact be an art and a science rather than a more purely mystical art–it’s a very different claim than that of the charmed man who may be immune to bullets or whizz-bangs.

 

But back, now, to the lice…

Today, a century back, saw another of our enlisted poets go on leave. David Jones had actually been granted leave ten days ago, but he had refused it, knowing that his parents were just then moving house and not wanting “to spend his leave helping with unpacking and advising on the placement of furniture and the hanging the family pictures.” An “incredulous adjutant” and a helpful orderly-room sergeant arranged for Jones to swap places with one of the men in the next leave rotation, remarking that begging to have leave moved back was rather rare–and bad luck, in a superstitious world. But Jones survived his ten days of supererogatory duty and is now on his way to London. And, despite the precautions taken in Feilding’s battalion (not that the Royal Welch don’t also make efforts to fumigate their men) he is teeming with lice…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 213-4.
  2. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 167.

Rowland Feilding Pays His Respects on the Somme; Siegfried Sassoon Reads Its Subaltern; Charles Carrington’s Subaltern’s War in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Today, a century back, is another one of those days when everyone is a-doing or a-writing, or both, and more than once. In order to keep things under 5,000 words, we will catch up with Edmund Blunden‘s battalion in rest in a few days’ time, and with Ivor Gurney too, hospitalized and hypergraphic.

Moving selectively, then, through a few updates and wandering letters too interesting to postpone, we will shortly arrive at Charles Carrington‘s intense and intensely written experience of the new phase of the Passchendaele battle.

But what better way (in a measure-the-real-reach-of-memory project), to approach a new apex of intense and traumatic combat than to visit last year’s crucible of suffering and destruction?

So, before we even approach today’s battle in the Salient, we will read just a few atmospheric bits of Rowland Feilding‘s remarkable letter to his wife. Feilding had been on leave and now, returned to his regiment, has transferred to the Somme, quiet now, where–very much like Ralph Hamilton only two weeks ago–he picks over the gruesome and unsettling remains of the battlefield.

…it has been a wonderfully interesting though a melancholy day.

The notorious villages–Guillemont and Ginchy–are conspicuous by their absence. I can truthfully say I have never seen a whole brick…

Miles of devastation and deserted ruined villages and shell-holes–all grown over with weed and grass. Not a living creature but the magpies…[1]

The ground is just as it was left, thickly littered with the debris of battle. Rifles with the bayonets fixed lie as they were dropped… perforated shrapnel helmets…

A land whose loneliness is so great that it is almost frightening. A land of wooden crosses, of which, wherever you stands, you can count numbers dotted about…

After miles of this I came upon the first living human beings–parties of the Salvage Corps, working forwards from the old battle line… These are mostly coloured men, who have come from all parts of the world. The first party I saw was composed of Burmans from Mandalay, and, dressed as they were, with woolen Balaclava helmets pulled down over their heads and shoulders, cringing from the wet and cold, they looked like the ghosts of the dead.

Further back, I came upon the work of the Graves Registration Unit… Its job is to “prospect” for the dead, and, so skillful have its members become at detecting the position of a buried soldier, that their “cuttings” seldom draw blank.

After visiting one of the minor miraculous Virgins of the battle–this statue is since toppled and beheaded–Feilding searches out his comrades:

I then wandered through one of our cemeteries at Guillemont, and saw Raymond Asquith‘s grave, and those of one or two Coldstreamers I knew.[2]

 

Siegfried Sassoon is also dwelling on the Somme–specifically, on a Subaltern on the Somme–in a letter, this time to Robert Graves, that covers  rather similar to yesterday’s (which was also to Robbie Ross).

4 October

My dear Robert,

Thanks for photograph. It is like you, except the forehead, which looks so flat and receding. I believe you
washed your face before being taken! Hope you didn’t catch cold. You might write to me when you aren’t too busy. I am reading Bill Adams’s book. If you and I had re-written and added.to it it would have been a classic; as it is it is just Bill Adams—and a very good book—expressing bis quiet kindliness to perfection. He saw a lot through those spectacles of his.

Note to self, and to writerly comrade: “Royal Welch War Memoir: promising project.” Or not–all Siegfried’s attention is to verse:

The Nation quoted my ‘syphilitic’ poem in an article on ‘Venus and Mars’ last Saturday.

I am on the way to doing a good, long poem in blank verse—sort of reminiscent of the wars, with stress on the heroism of Private Morgan-Hughes-Davies-Evans-Parry. But I can’t get a room alone, and 8-11 p.m. is my brainy time, so I am rather hung up at present. Rivers returns on Friday, I hope. He has been rather ill.

I have been playing golf every day with a chattering R.A.M.C. man who is a very fine, player—partly to try and become immensely healthy, but mainly to escape from the truly awful atmosphere of this place of wash-outs and shattered heroes. Result: go to bed every night tired and irritable, and write querulous peace-poems.

Love from S.S.[3]

There’s an answer here to a question we may not have asked yet. How does the suffering of war change the sufferer? Does he become more sympathetic to the sufferings of others?

Too broad a question, of course, and even a general affirmative answer must come with a large caveat: war traumatizes and brutalizes many of those it damages, turning them into abusers or themselves or others; in a small minority of men it seems to unleash psychopathologies that might have otherwise lain dormant. But a qualified affirmative also might be usefully clarified thus: it does make men more sympathetic to suffering, but other aspects of their personality determine how far–and to whom–they are willing to extend that sympathy. Left-leaning thinkers who pass through the war might become radiant pacifists; buttoned-up scholars might find themselves able to write movingly of love and loyalty among men from different stations; and a guarded, solipsistic man like Sassoon might find himself moved to write passionately on behalf of a class of men he would otherwise have more or less ignored–but not to extend that sympathy much further than comrades and the men under his own command.

 

And now to Ypres. C. E. Montague witnessed the battle, and wrote–desultorily, but not heartlessly–of a battle piece seen on a ridge. This can serve us as a very brief starter for today’s main course:

Oct. 4–Third Flanders push; battle of Broodseinde.

Up at five, drizzling rain. No breakfast. Out with Gibbs to near Wieltje to see battle. Fine battle-piece on S. part of Passchendaele Ridge. Our guns thick—needs care to thread way between them. Germans dropping fair number of H.E. shells our way, but no gas. Great trains of wounded and prisoners coming in, and a track of bloodstains all along the road. Some of wounded have evidently died on the way.[4]

 

This would be the “Battle of Broodseinde,” which plays a major part in Charles Carrington‘s memoirs, of which there are two. One describes his mental state as he began the battle thusly:

Always a little schizophrenic… I had now withdrawn myself altogether, leaving a Zombie in command of ‘B’ Company, the 1/5th Royal Warwickshire Regiment. I knew that my luck had turned. I felt sure that I should not survive the next battle… Meanwhile… the Zombie was a quite good company commander…[5]

But that is further retrospect. Nearer to the battle, “Charles Edmonds” described today’s action over many pages, and depicts himself as neither a zombie nor an entirely living man. The account begins, as all attacks now must, with the massing of troops and the approach to the line on the night before:

Towards dusk we marched out by platoons. Men going into action support themselves by a sort of enforced hysterical cheerfulness, but no one could be cheerful in the Third Battle of Ypres…

As always, when anticipation at last gave way to action, I found my mind clearing. The mental numbness of the last few days had given place to a numbness in the pit of the stomach. I was not now afraid, though I had a growing presentiment that I should be wounded.

The next bit of pilgrim’s progress is a review of the past two months: out through Ypres, over the canal, and toward the Steenbeck (Or Steenbeek):

As we approached St. Julien there was some confusion when platoons lost touch; mules and men and wagons crowded in the narrow way, until where the culvert passed over the Steenbeek the traffic jammed, shoulder to wheel. This was a windy moment, for on this line the Boche guns were laid and here from time to time they dropped hurricane barrages of shell-fire. Indeed, a few shells had already fallen to our right, and massacre might come at any minute; but we got through in safety. Beyond the Steenbeek there were no roads: guides led us by marked tracks among the shell-holes…

To find the way in the dark was a task worthy of Bunyan’s’ pilgrim: ‘ the pathway was here also exceeding narrow, and therefore good Christian was the more put to it; for when he sought in the dark, to shun the ditch on the one hand, he was ready to tip over into the mire on the other.’

The quotation continues for some time, as well it might. We are in the heart of what Paul Fussell called “the one book everybody knew:”

Front-line experience seemed to become available for interpretation when it was seen how closely parts of it resemble the action of Pilgrim’s Progress.

John Bunyan’s Protestant religious “Romance” had soaked into the British cultural atmosphere long before, and it has been used as a paradigm, a crutch, and a point of entry by many war writers since at least 1915. But now it is becoming inescapable, and I find, in going back to Fussell, that he featured the above quotation, letting it run on to give a sense of why this “Romance” is so applicable: its “scenes of hazardous journeying” go on and on with no decent respect for “plot” (i.e. strategy) or the limits of human endurance such as familiarity with the novel would lead us to expect.[6]

 

And for “Edmonds” and his company, the day’s journey hasn’t even begun. They wait nervously for Zero Hour, but the wait is made terrible by the fact that a German barrage opens up on their position. It’s unclear if this is coincidence or evidence that the Germans have precisely intuited the timing of the British attack. Soon the German barrage is answered, and Carrington launches into a present-tense battle piece that aims to catch something of the ferocity and insanity of close-combat.

It is no coincidence that describing not only death but morally questionable killing in the present tense allows it to seem to slide pace the cold judgment we might wish to pass on something stated in the perfect or simple past. This war was, but it wasn’t, exactly: it is, its violence happened in an ongoing, unstoppable present that nevertheless feels faster than ordinary experience::

Suddenly the sky behind us threw up a stab of flame! A roll of thunder like the last trump itself opened with some few single blows and steadied into a throbbing roar. The shells screamed overhead so thick and fast they seemed to eclipse the sky as with an invisible roof, rumbling like earthquakes behind, crashing like a thousand cymbals before us, a pillar of fire against, the dark sky, a pillar of cloud against the dawning east—leading us on!

It was zero hour and our barrage had fallen, blotting out the German bombardment with a drumfire forty times as great; there was no more thought or feeling, no more fear or doubt; only an endless blast of sound; a flicker of flame in the sky, a roaring and howling of shells over our heads, and a smoky pall of shrapnel.

My brain cleared though my ears were singing; the plan stood in my mind like a picture: I wondered how many men were left to carry it out. We must follow hard on the barrage and be on the enemy before they had recovered from
the first shock of it. I jumped out of the trench, shouting to my little group, and together we stumbled forward towards the enemy. Behind me came Serjeant Walker, my servant Stanley, three runners, Lewis, Campbell and Greenwood, and then the signallers struggling with their gear and quickly falling behind. Looking round I can see no one else, no sign of human life or activity; but who cares? Skirting round shell-holes, and straggling over rough ground in half darkness, our group loses all order and trails after me in single file. There looms up in front a bank undercut by a row of dug-outs, familiar enough by the map. I draw my revolver, but they are smashed and empty. Over and on behind the thunder and lightning of the barrage. (Like cannon balls rolled down sheets of iron over our heads.) One is thankful for a steel helmet.

Through the tumult I isolate a distinct noise, a spitting, a crackling, like children’s fireworks. Rifle bullets! Phut! Phut! Small arms indeed! We look about vaguely. It seems to have grown already a little lighter, so that lumps loom up irregularly in front thirty yards away—half left. Heads! Three or four heads of Boches in a shell-hole shooting at us! We see them together. Stanley shouts and brandishes his bayonet. Then I see Campbell lying curled up and grey-faced at my feet. Why, he’s dead!

And by God, they’ve hit ‘Tiny’ Greenwood. He is staggering about and bellowing, his hand on his chest. Stanley catches and lowers him to the ground behind the stunted ruins of a hedgerow which gives a little cover. Crack, crack, crack, come the bullets at thirty yards’ range, aimed more distinctly every moment as the light grows and the barrage lifts ahead. The enemy are even near enough to throw a bomb, Stanley and I fumble with field-dressings. There are now only three of us and three or four Boches shooting at us from cover. At least let’s quiet this poor lad’s confounded roaring and then make a plan. Poor ‘ Tiny ’ Greenwood, the smallest man in the company and the willingest. I remember my morphine tablets and give him one, two and three till he is silent. Stanley rises and shouts again, “Come on, sir, let’s go for the swine.”

“No,” I say, “get down in this shellhole,” and I am right. There is no chance for three men to charge three over the mud and pitfalls. Stanley plucks me by the sleeve and says plaintively. “Aw, come on, sir.” Walker and I get down in the hole and begin to shoot though Stanley stands and calls us once more. “Come down, you fool,” I order him. Then he comes down, slithering on the edge of the shell-hole, dropping his rifle with a clatter. A bullet has hit him in the eye, smashing his left brow and cheek-bone into a ghastly hole. I am dumbfounded with rage and horror. They have got Stanley, best of friends and loyallest of servants, and my last orderly. Walker and I are pent up in this hole and dare not move. Stanley is dead, who has always supported me, Stanley who gave me confidence in myself.

I sat stupidly in the half-light, not looking at my servant’s body, and then vaguely imitated Walker, who was firing on the Boches when they showed their heads. I must have emptied my revolver before this time, and now picked up
Stanley’s rifle, coated with mud from fixed bayonet to stock. With difficulty I fired a round or two, wrenching at the clogged mechanism after each shot. Walker gave a cry of joy as he got one Boche through the head, but one or two more ran up from neighbouring shell-holes and made the odds still heavier against us. Still our own guns thundered overhead, and now, the German guns began to reassert themselves, dropping a few shells experimentally in their own lines, which they guessed had fallen into our hands.

The stubborn group confronting us still held their place under fire of their own artillery. Ceasing to fire at us except when we showed our heads, they sent up signal rockets to give their position to their own observers. But for the roaring of our own shrapnel two hundred yards away, there was no sign of English activity. No other Englishman could be seen or heard, and, fatal event, we had ‘lost the barrage.’ In the midst of a great battle ours was an independent duel. Down in a shell-hole where the view was restricted by towering ridges and ramps of thrown-up earth, we had the limited vision of the mole. There must have been ten thousand men hidden in the landscape, though we had not seen ten.

I began to wonder whether our attack had been destroyed and was to be the tragedy of to-morrow’s communique in the German Press. “Yesterday after intense drumfire the English attacked east of Ypres and were driven back to their lines by our gallant ‘field greys’.” Perhaps, even, my own group was the only one which had advanced, in which case we might be able to hide here all day and creep back at dusk, to the remnants of the shattered battalion. How could the day be not lost now that the shrapnel banged so far ahead and no one seemed to be advancing? As we waited in the broadening light time passed—seconds or hours, we had no conception, till we heard voices behind us, a Lewis-gun rattling, and a reserve platoon at hand. I shouted to them to support us by outflanking this group of Germans, and as we opened fire again, invisible Lewis-gunners crept closer over the mountainous shell-holes. The Boches ceased fire.

At that moment Walker leaped up with a shout and began to shoot in a new direction. Following his aim I saw straight to the front and a hundred yards away a crowd of men running towards us in grey uniforms. Picking up another rifle I joined him in pouring rapid fire into this counterattack. We saw one at least drop, to Walker’s rifle I think, then noticed that they were running with their hands held up. Laughing, we emptied our magazines at them in spite of that, but at this point one of my favourite N.C.O.s, Corporal Fell, came tumbling into the shell-hole, hit through both thighs and bearing the pain with no more than a grunt or two. While I was trying to bandage his four wounds with one field dressing, and he to explain how his Lewis-gun had appeared to save us, I forgot the crowd of ‘ Kamerads.’ Just as I was telling him to crawl home as best he could, twenty or thirty Germans came running up with that shambling gait and bucolic manner I had always noticed in them, emphasised by the awkward gesture of their raised hands. The nearest had not seen me in the shell-hole, and as he approached, noticing a red cross on his arm I reached up and pulled him up short by the skirt of his greatcoat with a jerk that frightened him out of his wits.

“Ambulance,” I said, pointing to the wounded corporal. Then hardly stopping to see more. Walker and I rose, collected the Lewis-gun and its team and continued our advance. The surrendering Germans carried back our wounded men and we barely noticed in the excitement that the four snipers who had held us up so long slipped into the crowd of captives and went away with them. We should certainly not have given them quarter if we had thought of it in time…

Carrington’s honesty is not, I think, tinged with either shame or braggadocio. Shortly thereafter–this is the part of the battle-day, now, which involves memorable incidents rather than unforgettable, intensities crowded into swift, endless minutes after Z Hour–this curious reunion takes place:

I halted to write a report and mark up a situation map; then leaving my Lewis-gun with the serjeants I continued to advance with Serjeant Walker and two or three men. On our right were Colonial troops attacking in much greater strength than ours, so that my own front looked empty but theirs crowded with men, and before long one of their platoons came straying across my front. It suddenly struck me that the platoon commander was a friend whom I had not seen since I was a child; I seized him by the hand and introduced myself. As we exchanged civilities I became aware that we were under machine-gun fire. I was explaining that he had gone astray when this diversion occurred in his proper direction, and hastily clapping him on the back, I sent him off with his men to strafe the machine-gun, an order which he willingly obeyed. This odd incident, evidence of the unreal state of mind engendered by the excitement of battle, passed from my memory, to drift up again into my consciousness a few days later, blurred like the remembrance of a dream so that I have never been able to recall my old friend’s face and do not know who he was. At least the machine-gun shortly ceased to fire.

Carrington’s company now moves onto this section of the map, from the lower left toward the upper right, across the line of the Steenbeek. The most striking thing about Carrington’s tale of terror and death is, perhaps, that it is describing a tactical success:

Crossing the bridge we deployed half left and advanced up a slope towards some wreckage which we took to be Albatross or Wellington Farm. Under heavy shell-fire and some distant machine-gun fire we skirmished up the slope from hole to hole, till Flint reached the ruin and dugout that we thought was Wellington; but to our surprise it was already in English hands. It had been taken by a platoon of A.Co. who were delighted at having captured a German anti-tank gun. For the last few minutes the battle had really been proceeding according to plan. Still like a man in a dream I had been commanding and even manoeuvring considerable bodies of men, mostly, it must be admitted, of neighbouring companies. The advance was orderly and regular, and recorded in formal written messages which I sent back at intervals to headquarters; and we were near our objective…

We selected a large shell-hole under the lee of the broken pill-box of Winchester for my few men and those of the 16th, and settled down to resist the probable counter-attack. Soon Hesketh, an officer of the 16th, arrived with a Reserve platoon and my handful became an insignificant detail of the defence…

There was very little for me to do except to send even Serjeant Walker away to look for any more of my company. We were disappointed to find that a large party of men moving up in artillery formation was not our second wave but D company, all of whose officers were hit and who were now lost. Then a trench mortar battery came forward to take up a position near us; but no third wave passed through to follow the barrage which now fell three hundred yards ahead.

The morning wore on. Attackers and defenders at this point had spent their force. We had got our objective and were too ludicrously weak to move again. A few shells were coming over and a persistent sniper fired occasionally, his bullets crashing into the ruins of the pill-box beside us…

Towards midday, the enemy shelling really began. Black shrapnels crashed overhead and huge crumps burst round us among the ruins. We all crouched down in our one huge shellhole, which I began to regret, as a single shell in it would kill us all. One or two men were hit; especially, I remember, one who was standing up with his sleeves rolled up, when a shrapnel burst right above us. A sliver of steel came down and hit him lengthwise, on the bare forearm, making a clean cut three inches long between the two bones, as if his arm had been slit with a knife. To my horror the wound gaped open like a freshly cut shoulder of mutton. Though this was as ‘cushy’ a wound as man could desire, the sight of it cured me of hoping for a ‘blighty one.’ The victim agreed with me, for he danced and cried out with the pain.

My Lewis-gunners were now in position close by, and it seemed that the best way to reduce the crowd in the shell-hole was to go away myself. Hesketh didn’t want me and showed it; goodness knows, I didn’t want to stay there; so, by agreement with the major who passed that way again, I decided to leave my Lewis Gun section with Hesketh while Serjeant Walker and I withdrew to Stroppe Farm to pick up stragglers, and reorganise. So Walker, Bridgwater and I turned back down the hill through very heavy shell-fire, across the Stroombeek, and over the plain, now scattered with grey drifting clouds of smoke from high-explosive shells. Hardly out of the swamp we ran into Lance-Corporal Reese of No. 7 platoon with a few men and another gun. They were all that was left of the platoon, and had dug in, satisfied that they had reached their objective.

At last we got back to Stanley’s body, where I stopped not without a shudder to remove my glasses, all spattered with brains and blood, from his shoulder; I had to leave the strap, which was too gruesome to carry. Then we found our company stretcher-bearers performing prodigies of work, in spite, they were convinced, of being under deliberate German shell-fire, and using the little trench where I had visited one of my platoons last night as a rendezvous…

After taking stock of his company, Carrington decides to report in person to Battalion Headquarters.

Always very nervous when alone under shellfire, and badly shaken after the day’s experiences and the bombardment at Winchester, I found the walk of two or three hundred yards to Victoria Farm terrifying. Shells seemed to pursue me up the slope, and catch me when no deep shellhole was near. I floundered in oceans of kneedeep mud and flung myself flat, when one shell fell close, on what looked like fairly solid ground, but turned out to be as thin as half-cooked porridge. So the whole front of me from the chest down was soaked through and coated with slime. At last I struggled up to the little half-broken pill-box called Victoria and went in. The Colonel and Adjutant were plainly very pleased to see me. From their account I was able at last to get some sort of general picture of the battle. All our objectives had been reached and a hundred and fifty Germans taken prisoner, but at a cost in casualties which had shattered the battalion. All the severest fighting had been in the first few minutes, which had seen a score of petty duels like my own, group against group among the shell-holes. Most of our officers and N.C.O.s were hit, and until I came they had counted me too a casualty, all the messages which I had proudly composed in such careful military form having gone astray.

They gave me the good news that Thorburn, my reserve officer, had been sent for and would join me to-night, and the bad news, too, that, casualties or no casualties, we were not to be relieved for three days. The Colonel suggested that when Thorburn arrived I should come and join them in the dugout to get some sleep. Then he came out with me and we returned to the remnants of my company.

More tragedies! While I was away Whitworth had been sitting above the trench talking. In the dusk he was suddenly silent. No one had noticed a shell splinter from some far-away burst fly over and hit him in the head. He was breathing when we arrived, but, the stretcher-bearers said, as good as dead already. Nevertheless, they took him down to the dressing-station. The poor devils were beat after saving lives all day.

Then I settled down in the little trench, about twelve feet long and six feet deep and wonderfully dry, to wait for Thorburn who arrived with a runner about eight o’clock very cheery…  We agreed that our conversation a week before had proved prophetic: the battalion had taken a  nasty knock this time. Leaving him in charge I returned to Victoria, where the C.O. shared a tin of hot food with me, my first square meal that day.

The day ends with another tale of death. Carrington has lost friends, and he has seen scores of men killed, deliberately and by the great impersonal scythe of the artillery. But this strange and terrible story, hung all the way at the end, is deeply unsettling, like a reminder that even those who survive will have come too close to madness:

Armstrong, the intelligence officer, took me in hand with an endless story about himself, the C.O. and a wounded Boche.

“When I was going round with the C.O. this morning after you’d gone over we found a wounded Boche lying in the mud—down there by the Stroombeek where you couldn’t get him out. He was dying, I should think.”

“Yes,” said I sleepily, “there were hundreds.”

“Well, this one,” Armstrong continued, “he was done for, squirming, the poor devil was, and anyhow there was no chance of getting him down to a dressing-station from there. Best to put him out of his misery, you’d say, wouldn’t
you, Edmonds?”

“Yes, I suppose so; let’s get some sleep.”

“Oh, well,” said Armstrong, “just wait. Damn funny it was. We found this Boche; there was the C.O. and me and a runner; and the C.O. said to the runner, ‘You’d best shoot the poor fellow,’ and the Boche just lay there and groaned. He knew. But, you know, the runner couldn’t do it. He unslung his rifle and fingered the trigger and just couldn’t do it. So the C.O. turned to me and when it came to the point no more could I: so the C.O. drew his gun himself and went up to the Boche and looked fierce, and the Boche squirmed and I’m damned if the C.O. didn’t weaken too. Damn funny, wasn’t it? And we just left him there, so I suppose he’ll die in the mud to-night.”

But by this time I was asleep, having found a quiet corner. It was luxury for five of us to lie down on a concrete floor in a cellar only fifteen feet square and with no door, that chilly autumn evening.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. So few are our references to birds, these days!
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 208-10.
  3. Diaries, 188-9.
  4. C.E. Montague, 191.
  5. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 191.
  6. The Great War and Modern Memory, 135-41.
  7. "Edmonds" (Carrington), A Subaltern's War, 132-55.

A Horse Does for Rowland Feilding and a Bunny for Edwin Vaughan; Wilfred Owen Lies Uneasily at Craiglockhart

First today, a painful irony–and yet, considering the circumstances, a cosmically gentle one.

Many writers remark on how it seems strange that illness and accident continue their quiet culling of human hopes even amidst the actuarial storms of battle. And it does seem that way…  Anyway, Rowland Feilding will be missing the next battle. He will describe, tomorrow, today’s lucky misfortune:

July 3, 1917

No. 10 Stationary Hospital, St. Omer.

To-day I should be one of a party with General Plumer, making a presentation of the bell of Wytschaete Church (which has been dug out of the ruins) to the King of the Belgians; but, instead, I am in bed in the hospital at St. Omer, enduring the torments of the damned each time I am obliged to make the smallest movement.

Briefly, I turned a somersault with my mare over the sandbag wall at the Royal Munster Sports yesterday, at Zeggers Cappel, straining or tearing some muscles in my back, and breaking a bone or two in my left hand. The
Iast I remember was crawling away from the course, and the soldiers clapping as I picked myself up from the ground. They are always like that.

I came here on an ambulance—19 miles—and arrived after eleven o’clock, last night. I am glad I have had the experience. I think I understand now in a small degree how the wounded must suffer when they are carried back over the bumpy roads.[1]

It will be some time before Col Feilding is fit to write the war again–or far enough away from his wife to need to…

 

 

But Wilfred Owen  is in a very different frame of mind. Beginning his “ergotherapy” in Scotland, he wrote to his cousin and quondam fellow literary aspirant Leslie Gunston yesterday, a century back. I’ll skip through all but the end of the lighthearted Scots travesty which begins the letter:

1 July 1917 Craiglockhart

…A pleasaunte streme of letters is flowing in to me: but it must be fed by my own showres swoote.

My Ballad is going strong, finished Fytte 1 at the Second sitting. Late last night I very hastily draughted a Fate sonnet. I had an Idea—which is almost my Gospel. Can you get it from this?

The draft of the sonnet is dated today, a century back.[2] Of the ballad more anon:

The Fates. (2nd Draught.)

They watch me, shadowing, to inform the Fates,
Those constables called Fortune, Chance, and Death;
Time, in disguise as one who serves and waits.
Eternity, as women that have breath:

I know them. Men and boys are in their pay.
And those I hold my perfect friends may prove
Agent of theirs, to take me if I stray
From Fatal ordnance. If I move, they move . . .

Escape? There is one unwatched way: your eyes,
O Beauty! Keep me good that secret gate.
And when the cordon tightens of the spies.
Let the clear iris of your eyes grow great!
So I’ll evade the press-gang raid of age[3]
And miss the march of lifetime, stage by stage.

Your W.E.O.

The letter to Gunston was swiftly followed by one to Wilfred’s mother

Sunday [2 July 1917] Craiglockhart

My dearest Mother,

…I can’t even tell you how long I shall be kept here. I feel pretty sure of another fortnight; but in any case it would be of no interest for you to come just before I am able to get home…

He raises a host of other objections and suggestions an (unlikely) joint parental journey before turning to his own feelings.

…I feel a kind of reservation about all pleasant things I do here. I have made no friends in this place, and the impulse is not in me to walk abroad and find them…

If any of you should just look me up out of friendliness—just a fren’ly aft’noon call—when there’s nothin’ much doin’ at home—please bring plenty of room in your baggage for taking back my surplus stuff…

Really I am looking so well as to cause remarks to be made as I pass the guid wives in the town. I want you to see me now.

Oh Mother!

x W.E.O.[4]

 

We’ll end this offbeat day with Edwin Vaughan, a cold sweat, and a tinned rabbit:

July 2

It rained heavily all day so that several more shelters fell in. Dunham and I sat in my dripping cubby-hole and tried to whistle. We were not very successful, so I wrote a cheery letter home and went to sleep. I had a ghastly dream about the tinned rabbit that had come up in the rations. I woke, bathed in perspiration. Seeing that I was awake, Dunham asked me if I was ready for my rabbit, whereupon I swore at him and crawled out into the rain to wander round the trench until dusk.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 197.
  2. Actually, it's dated "June 2," but that slip is common.
  3. This line, appropriately enough, is marginally marked "bad," while lines and 14 earn a "G."
  4. Collected Letters, 473-5.
  5. Some Desperate Glory, 172.

Edward Brittain Faces Another July First; Rowland Feilding and La Belle France; Robert Graves on the Isle of Wight–and What is Siegfried Sassoon Up To?

Now that Edward Hermon is dead, Rowland Feilding is probably our most consistently uxorious writer. He writes faithfully and fully, concealing nothing of his feelings or–once the demands of military secrecy are met–of the danger that he is (or has recently been) in. But today, a century back, he is safely in the rear… and he has something else to confess, namely a raging crush on a local girl.

June 30, 1917. Bollezeele (near Zeggers Cappel).

I am getting rather bitten with agriculture. No wonder these peasants get rich;—or, if they do not (and I really do
not know), I should say there must be something radically wrong with the whole system of land tenure in this country. They are the most industrious and the thriftiest people I have ever seen…

I am sure it must be impossille for those who have not seen it to realize what cultivation means in France and Belgium, or to picture the seas of corn and potatoes and roots, extending as far as the eye can reach and further; the forests of hops, weedless; without a barren patch or a neglected spot anywhere. In the farm where I am billeted there is a farm-hand—a girl of about eighteen. She sleeps on the straw, on the floor of a stable. She is up, bursting with life and spirits, each morning at five o’clock; and she works, at top pressure, without ceasing, till dark. Then she returns to her straw. She is slim, but has the strength of an average man. She handles the farm horses with a single rein (attached to one ring of the bit only), and by word of mouth. Apparently, she neither eats nor drinks.

It is the “manure” season. That is to say, it is the time of year when they carry out the loathsome liquid accumulation of the past twelve months and spread it over the fields, and so wrapt up is this girl in the work, that you would think she revelled in it.

She moves always at the double—whether through the chicken run, whence every bird flies scared and panic-stricken at her wild approach, or through the manure heap (for she never goes round it). Each time I pass her she
looks up with full face and a cheery grin. I don’t suppose she ever washes, and she must reek of manure, but she fascinates me because of her extraordinary vitality. It is quite exciting to watch her at her work.

But, as I look upon her, I despair of the English as an agricultural nation.[1]

 

Before returning to France we need to visit the Isle of Wight, where Robert Graves has recently been ensconced in a Victorian palace (it was one of Queen Victoria’s retreats) to convalesce at his leisure. His ailments are quite real–exhaustion, damaged lungs, and semi-undiagnosed shell shock–but, as he tells the story, he is still eager to enjoy himself.

Along with several new compatriots, Graves founded “The Albert Edward Society,” a college-style faux secret society in “mock honour” of the prince consort. They ate strawberries and drank wine, “sang bawdy songs” and otherwise celebrated their being alive to celebrate bygone days–Graves, after all, is impetuous, irrepressible, creative, and twenty-one years old.

In Good-Bye to All That he calls the society the “Royal Albert Society” and gives several more examples of concurrent high jinks and clevernesses, including changing the labels on the paintings in the gallery, dressing up a piece of driftwood as a drowned sailor, and defending the society from boorish intrusion by outdoing all the efforts of the intruders at telling filthy stories. Which makes a lousy anecdote, since Graves is not at liberty to repeat the story he told to win the day… his point, however, is that he is no longer quite the prude he once was.

In keeping with the guiding principle of his memoir, Graves also throws in entertaining stories that chime with perceived reading-public interests and drops whatever names he can. Therefore he mentions A.A. Milne (slightingly) and he tells of his interactions with a curious colony of French Benedictines in exile on the island who strike him as urbane and humane, despite not keeping poetry in their library. Graves has the sad task of describing to one of these monks what his native Béthune looks like now. And, as if in an echo of the several young Anglican officers who have become Catholics or are moving in that direction, Graves claims that these interactions–and his general esteem, pace the skill with filthy stories, for the monastic life–brought him some way in a similar direction: “Catholicism ceased to repel me.” Which is vintage Graves, whether or not the self-centeredness and backhanded snark are intended…[2]

Graves’s letters from this period, however, mostly concern his efforts to advance his poetry and that of his friends.

30 June 1917
Osborne, Isle of Wight

Dear old Sassons,

Without doubt a great poem: poor little Orme, he’d have been awfully pleased with it. The simple effect would be strengthened by a more regular sweep in the first half of each verse: as it stands it would worry people who didn’t know much about poetry: it breaks the flow of sense.

Trusting to your good nature I’ve pencilled in some tentative suggestions…

Mindful of my constant impositions on the patience of others, I will not excerpt from the individual word-queries and quibbles of scansion that Graves then lists…

…I know you’ll forgive these remarks, because you’ve patched up poems for me before now. And without my corrections it is a great poem, so you needn’t notice them…

Robbie has my Fairies and Fusiliers manuscript if you happen to be in town and want to see what I’ve been at.

Best love

Robert

And then–this very same day, a century back–Graves received a letter from Sassoon which seems to have given a general sketch of his intention to protest against the war. Graves will spend a good deal of time in his memoir emphasizing Sassoon’s poor health–exhaustion, shell shock, general malaise. But this sounds like how he has been feeling at this time. Sassoon himself has hardly made any physical complaints, and sees himself as aggravated and motivated rather than ill. The two men may, of course, have reasons to differ about the etiology of Sassoon’s intent to protest…. but I would not be surprised if the (lost) letter to Graves read something like Sassoon’s fictionalized account of this period:

Back at Butley, I had fully a fortnight in which to take life easily before tackling ‘wilful defiance of military authority’. I was, of course, compelled to lead a double life, and the longer it lasted the less I liked it… it wasn’t easy to sustain the evangelistic individuality which I’d worked myself up to in London. Outwardly those last days of June progressed with nostalgic serenity. I say nostalgic, because in my weaker moods I longed for the peace of mind which could have allowed me to enjoy having tea out in the garden on fine afternoons. But it was no use trying to dope my disquiet with Trollope’s novels or any of my favourite books. The purgatory I’d let myself in for always came between me and the pages; there was no escape for me now…[3]

No, no escape. But he was only passive north-by-northwest, as the warning-shot letter to Graves demonstrates.

Graves wrote back, clearly alarmed, but neither aware that Sassoon has actually written his protest and set the wheels in motion to have it read out in the House of Commons, nor that he had not yet actually published it.

It is only too much like Sassoon to do what he has in fact done: taken several steps toward dramatic action, then wandered off with the act uncompleted, the rebellion hanging fire but liable to set itself off at any time. Graves seems to suspect something like this:

I have just posted a letter I wrote this morning but your new one has come. Look here, why don’t you come and see me down here…

I want to know what characteristic devilment this is. Are you standing as a pacifist MP? That’s the most characteristic thing I can think of next to your bombing Lloyd George.

Yours,

R

But the alarm has only begun to ring, as Graves’s post-script–as usual, critical of a mutual friend–shows:

I’ve also written on Sorley. Bob Nichols of course is not Sorley but he’s next best, a devout admirer.

I’ve a copy of my new poems here.[4]

So Graves is alerted… but has not not yet leapt into action. He will act, and soon–as a loyal friend, if not always a true one.

 

The idea of the protest, remember, is to stop the madness. Edward Brittain has just returned to it. And he too writes two letters, today, both to his sister Vera.

France, 30 June 1917

I have arrived at the transport lines and shall be starting for the trenches in half an hour or so. The battalion is apparently just at the place where one would wish it wasn’t, as the papers have not failed to mention the place every day for the last week or so…

Opposite Lens, in other words, where the British staff is convinced that a hasty offensive might unseat “demoralised” the German defenders.

And not only is Brittain’s new battalion in the area of contemplated operations–it is slated to attack. An entire year–less about ten hours–after his wounding, after months and months of rehabilitation, and waiting, and training, he is suddenly thrust back into the very forefront of the war.

France, 30 June 1917
A dug-out

8.45 p.m.

The unexpected has happened again and I am in for another July 1st. If it should be that ‘Ere the sun swings his noonday sword’ I must say goodbye to all of this — then good-bye. You know that, as I promised, I will try to come back if I am killed.

It is all very sudden and it is bad luck that I am here in time, but still it must be. All the love there is in life or death to you, dear child.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 197-8. This, too, must put one in mind of The Spanish Farm Trilogy--but there, it being a (good) novel, the "girl" is a woman with a spirit to match her physical energy, and a full life half-hidden from (and imagined by) the decorous English officer...
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 175; Good-Bye to All That, 250-4.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 488-9.
  4. In Broken Images, 71-2.
  5. War Letters from a Lost Generation, 362-3.

David Jones and Rowland Feilding Live to Fight On; Charles Scott Moncrieff Regrets Siegfried Sassoon

With Messines behind us and the next, far more horrible (from the British point of view) battle still a month away, things are relatively quiet. Which, in a war of attrition, hardly precludes terror and misery.

 

David Jones and the 15th Royal Welch have just endured “four days of especially heavy shelling” which they now will escape only for a safer but ominous stretch of assault training.[1]

 

And Rowland Feilding, writing to his wife with his usual strict honesty, reflects on the chances of a man surviving so many of these bombardments (not to mention the occasional major attacks) and yet remaining with a front-line infantry battalion:

June 28, 1917. Bollezeele (near Zeggers Cappel).

To show you how shifting is the officer population of a present-day battalion, I may remark that to-day, though I have about forty officers, I am the only one who was present at the battle at Ginchy last September.[2]

 

So it goes on the Western front. But our attention will also be in London–and near Edinburgh–this summer. It’s a small world, this world of British litterateurs, and it can shrink even smaller with each sudden collision among its eager young satellites. It seems like C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Siegfried Sassoon should know each other… but they don’t. Yet.

Today, a century back, Moncrieff’s review of The Old Huntsman and Other Poems appeared in The New Witness. And it was not a rave: Moncrieff, hewing to an earlier Brookean line on the nature of proper war poetry, called Sassoon’s war poems “regrettable.” Nor was the review a thorough pan: Moncrieff also–like Virginia Woolf before him–reserved his higher praise for the earlier poems, especially the lyrics and the sonnets, “the brave poems… [in which] he touches perfection.”[3]

Well, opinions such as these are subject to change, aren’t they…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Dilworth, David Jones and the First World War, 159.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 197.
  3. See Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 361.

Vera Brittain and Siegfried Sassoon Under Bombardment, in London; Olaf Stapledon on Mr. Britling; Rowland Feilding on the Things they Carry; The Master of Belhaven Has a Near Miss

Today, a century back, Siegfried Sassoon–keeping his options well open–went to Cambridge for the day to interview for a job in a cadet battalion.[1] He may have left without a degree, but Cambridge is different now, and he has come back with an MC. He seems a prime candidate for what would be a respectable and conventionally honorable “safe job”–but the trip from London to Cambridge, ironically, was less than safe. Sassoon describes the day in the wry retrospective voice of George Sherston. Or, rather, the wry retrospective way in which he puffs apart Sherston and his experience by blowing a thin layer of warm ironic air in between the first-person description of experience and the world around that half-oblivious subject:

Supervising a platoon of Cadet Officers at Cambridge would have been a snug alternative to ‘general service abroad’ (provided that I could have bluffed the cadets into believing that I knew something about soldiering). I was going there to be interviewed by the Colonel and clinch my illusory appointment; but I was only doing this because I considered it needful for what I called ‘strengthening my position’ I hadn’t looked ahead much, but when I did so it was with an eye to safeguarding myself against ‘what people would say’…

Anyhow, on a glaring hot morning I started to catch a train to Cambridge. I was intending to stay a night there, for it would be nice to have a quiet look round and perhaps go up to Grantchester in a canoe. Admittedly, next month was bound to be ghastly; but it was no good worrying about that. . . . Had I enough money on me! Probably not; so I decided to stop and change a cheque at my bank in Old Broad Street. Changing a cheque was always a comforting performance. ‘Queer thing, having private means,’ I thought. ‘They just hand you out the money as if it was a present from the Bank Manager.’ It was funny, too, to think that I was still drawing my Army pay.

But it was the wrong moment for such humdrum cogitations, for when my taxi stopped in that narrow thoroughfare, Old Broad Street, the people on the pavement were standing still, staring up at the hot white sky. Loud bangings had begun in the near neighbourhood, and it was obvious that an air-raid was in full swing. This event could not be ignored; but I needed money and wished to catch my train, so I decided to disregard it. The crashings continued, and while I was handing my cheque to the cashier a crowd of women clerks came wildly down a winding stairway with vociferations of not unnatural alarm. Despite this commotion the cashier handed me five one-pound notes with the stoical politeness of a man who had made up his mind to go down with the ship. Probably he felt as I did—more indignant than afraid; there seemed no sense in the idea of being blown to bits in one’s own bank. I emerged from the building with an air of soldierly unconcern; my taxi-driver, like the cashier, was commendably calm, although another stupendous crash sounded as though very near Old Broad street (as indeed it was). I suppose we may as well go on to the station/ I remarked, adding, ‘it seems a bit steep that one can’t even cash a cheque in comfort!’ The man grinned and drove on. It was impossible to deny that the War was being brought home to me.

But is it? No, I think it is, but with that special, rueful emphasis on the last two words–“to me.” The air raid here appears first in the context of absurdity and a classic evocation of British character: “Sherston” carefully contrasts it with his very English position as a man with “private means” who might ride to hounds or ride off to war but doesn’t expect to earn a living or face violence during the ordinary course of his privileged day. This is about, in our terms, an irruption across the experiential gulf. But it’s treated as a dastardly blow, some piece of bad form, a punch after the bell, and not as the beginning of the end of any notion of war as a reliably distant event, the early days of “total war.”

At Liverpool Street there had occurred what, under normal conditions, would be described as an appalling catastrophe. Bombs had been dropped on the station and one of them had hit the front carriage of the noon express to Cambridge. Horrified travellers were hurrying away. The hands of the clock indicated 11.50; but railway-time had been interrupted; for once in its career, the imperative clock was a passive spectator. While I stood wondering what to do, a luggage trolley was trundled past me; on it lay an elderly man, shabbily dressed, and apparently dead. The sight of blood caused me to feel quite queer. This sort of danger seemed to demand a quality of courage dissimilar to front line fortitude. In a trench one was acclimatized to the notion of being exterminated and there was a sense of organized retaliation. But here one was helpless; an invisible enemy sent destruction spinning down from a fine weather sky; poor old men bought a railway ticket and were trundled away again dead on a barrow; wounded women lay about in the station groaning. And one’s train didn’t start. . . . Nobody could say for certain when it would start, a phlegmatic porter informed me; so I migrated to St. Pancras and made the journey to Cambridge in a train which halted good-naturedly at every station. Gazing at sleepy green landscapes, I found difficulty in connecting them (by the railway line) with the air-raid…

 

Vera Brittain had less trouble finding emotional context for the same bombing raid, coming as it did in the desolation following Victor Richardson’s miserable and lonely death. But her experience–and her initial reaction, as an overseas veteran of sorts who would rather be heading toward the war than held helpless underneath it–is quite similar to Sassoon’s:

Although three out of the four persons were gone who had made all the world that I knew, the War seemed no nearer a conclusion than it had been in 1914. It was everywhere now; even before Victor was buried, the daylight air-raid of June 13th “brought it home,” as the newspapers remarked, with such force that I perceived danger to be infinitely preferable when I went after it, instead of waiting for it to come after me.

She hasn’t been in combat, but she has been to the wars; but then again she hasn’t been under fire… In any event, membership in the categories of alienated veteran or older civilian are not a sure guide to one’s reaction to a sudden irruption of violence into a London spring day.

I was just reaching home after a morning’s shopping in Kensington High Street when the uproar began, and, looking immediately at the sky, I saw the sinister group of giant mosquitoes sweeping in close formation over London. My mother, whose temperamental fatalism had always enabled her to sleep peacefully through the usual night-time raids, was anxious to watch the show from the roof of the flats, but when I reached the doorway my father had just succeeded in hurrying her down to the basement; he did not share her belief that destiny remained unaffected by caution, and himself derived moral support in air-raids from putting on his collar and patrolling the passages. The three of us listened glumly to the shrapnel raining down like a thunder-shower upon the trees in the park — those quiet trees which on the night of my return from Malta had made death and horror seem so unbelievably remote. As soon as the banging and crashing had given way to the breathless, apprehensive silence which always followed a big raid, I made a complicated journey to the City to see if my uncle had been added to the family’s growing collection of casualties.

In a grimly amusing coincidence, this uncle is a banker, and so Vera too finds herself making small talk in a bank in the aftermath of the raid.

The streets round the Bank were terrifyingly quiet, and in some places so thickly covered with broken glass that I seemed to be wading ankle-deep in huge unmelted hailstones. I saw no dead nor wounded, though numerous police-supervised barricades concealed a variety of gruesome probabilities. Others were only too clearly suggested by a crimson-splashed horse lying indifferently on its side, and by several derelict tradesman’s carts bloodily denuded of their drivers. These things, I concluded, seemed less inappropriate when they happened in France, though no doubt the French thought otherwise.[2]

And that gives us rather a strong clue as to where Vera Brittain will turn her thoughts, now that her sacrifice of her nursing career for the love of Victor Richardson has come to nothing. Somewhere where mangled bodies and enormous suffering might seem more… appropriate.

 

But to return to Sassoon is to escape the bombs and their bad memories and head for Cambridge, where George Sherston can think of “war” in 1914 terms, when it was healthy outdoor tin-soldiering for overgrown boy scouts, and before it came to connote the indiscriminate bombing of cities.

But here was Cambridge, looking contented enough in the afternoon sunshine, as though the Long Vacation were on. The Colleges appeared to have forgotten their copious contributions to the Roll of Honour. The streets were empty, for the Cadets were out on their afternoon parades — probably learning how to take compass-bearings, or pretending to shoot at an enemy who was supposedly advancing from a wood nine hundred yards away. I knew all about that type of training. ‘Half-right; haystack; three fingers left of haystack; copse; nine hundred; AT THE COPSE, ten rounds rapid, FIRE!’

There wasn’t going to be any musketry-exercise instructing for me, however. I was only ‘going through the motions’ of applying for a job with the Cadet Battalion. The orderly room was on the ground floor of a college. In happier times it had been a library (the books were still there) and the Colonel had been a History Don with a keen interest in the Territorials. Playing the part of respectful young applicant for instructorsliip in the Arts of War, I found myself doing it so convincingly that the existence of my ‘statement’ became, for the moment, an improbability…

Sherston, concealing his combustibly mixed feelings by dint of instinct or good breeding, gets the job: the colonel “shook my hand rather as if I’d won a History Scholarship” and sends him on his way. But Sherston lingers in the groves of Academe.

Sitting in King’s Chapel I tried to recover my conviction of the nobility of my enterprise and to believe that the pen which wrote my statement had ‘dropped from an angel’s wing’. I also reminded myself that Cambridge had dismissed Tyrrell from his lectureship because he disbelieved in the War. ‘Intolerant old blighters!’ I inwardly ex- claimed. ‘One can’t possibly side with people like that. All they care about is keeping up with the other colleges in the casualty lists.’ Thus refortified, I went down to the river and hired a canoe.

 

And after those two very closely aligned bits of memoir, we have three short but disparate chunks, interludes of labor, love, and near death from around the front.

 

Rowland Feilding will not shy from criticism of his superiors any more than he would speak out openly against their conduct. But like any perceptive correspondent from the front, he will mark out, from time to time, how the lot of the infantryman grows ever grimmer.

June 14, 1917  Oultersteene.

Yesterday, we marched back here—to safety—in grilling heat. What with their box respirators with extensions, steel helmets, P.H. gas helmets, rifles, ammunition, packs, etc., there is little doubt but that the infantry soldier is getting
over-loaded for marching. His equipment grows as the inventions for killing grow.

Already, he must carry between 70 lbs. and 80 lbs. And after a long bout of inactivity in the trenches (I refer only to the lack of exercise), you can well understand that he is not in condition for weight-carrying. Moreover, he does not improve matters by lapping water out of his water-bottle at every halt, as is his habit if not carefully watched. However, the authorities are beginning to appreciate these difficulties, and to provide motor-lorries for carrying the
packs, when such are available.[3]

Is this progress, or is this only maintaining misery by adjusting impossible burdens back down to the barely tolerable?

 

As for Olaf Stapledon, although treacherous mails have lately lengthened the lag between Agnes Miller and himself (some of their letters were lost at sea to German submarines), he is still faithfully following Agnes Miller’s suggestions. Which makes him rather late to the literary bandwagon of late 1916:

…I have begun to read “Mr. Britling,” on your recommendation. It promises well…

We are very indignant because the other two FAU convoys, which were in successful bits of offensive, have had croix-de-guerre rewards… [even though] under the circumstances our work was much more arduous than theirs. It’s bad luck…  However… we ought not to bother about such things. Moderate pacifists tend to bother about such things just as tokens that they are not mere shirkers.[4]

 

The Master of Belhaven has been hard at work behind Messines all week, and today, a century back, he attended a conference at which new forward firing positions were assigned. On the way back, he had a close call very similar to one experienced by Edward Thomas.

I… got back without incident, beyond being nearly killed by an 18-pounder that was firing across the road I was on. I did not see it till I was almost in front of the muzzle and about ten yards in front; at that moment it fired. I was knocked backwards by the blast of the gun and nearly had the drums of my ears broken. People ought to lookout before firing and see that the place is clear…[5]

We’ve seen friendly fire kill the infantry, but artillery officers who are not careful run the risk of a more shocking sort of accidental demise when passing by camouflaged batteries.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 377.
  2. Testament of Youth, 365-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 195.
  4. Talking Across the World, 230-1.
  5. War Diary, 316.

Rowland Feilding on the Success of Messines; Jack Martin Does Not Rest Assured

Over the past three days–since the great Messines assault–Jack Martin has grabbed a few minutes’ sleep with his hat for a pillow, eaten moldy bread while literally on the run, sent numerous telegraph messages while surrounded by German corpses, and flinched at thousands of shells. Yesterday, out of the line at last, he slept most of the day; but his nerves will not recover that quickly.

My hand still shakes too much to permit of letter writing without causing people to wonder what is the matter with me. This afternoon Davidson and I went up as far as the old no-man’s-land and had a look at two of the new mine craters. One solid concrete dugout had been blown up and rolled over bodily. The dead body of a German was still inside…

The official reports issued to the English press state that all the objectives were captured early in the morning of the 7th, but we know that the 47th Div. is still held up some distance from its final objective and it is quite likely that some of the Divisions on our right have failed to get as far as they were supposed to.[1]

 

However Rowland Feilding, who observed the attack with something approaching glee, remains sanguine. Or at least he is not yet willing to contradict official new in a letter to his wife. The letter does little to confirm or question the strategic benefit of the attack, but it does continue to confirm the high quality of the planning for the attack, which will in due time become a major emphasis of subsequent historiography and thus influence Henry Williamson‘s account of the days before

June 10, 1917 (Sunday). Kemmel Shelters.

I see from the papers that the battle of the 7th is considered to have been the most successful of the war to date. Of course, I could not even hint this to you, but, while we were behind “resting”—so-called, we were in reality practising the attack over fascinating “dummy” representations of the Petit Bois, etc., and the German trenches beyond
the Wytschaete-Messines Ridge. Nothing was left to chance. We even had a large-scale model, covering about an acre, which represented, to scale, Wytschaete, the woods, and the villages beyond. This latter—which I believe was
made by the engineers—was a triumph of skill. It looked like a huge toy village, and would have delighted the children.

We came out yesterday…

Willie Redmond is buried in the nuns’ garden, on almost the very spot I had chosen for myself.

A large number of the men of the battalion are now the proud possessors of wrist watches—trophies of war. We are refitting.[2]

It’s interesting that Feilding makes a relatively rare reference to his children during a discussion of a “breakthrough” military success. Except it wasn’t a breakthrough: Martin and Feilding, the private and the colonel, make a good pair of bookends around the newspapers of the day. Feilding is no fool, yet he is inclined to accept their interpretation–he saw the success with his own eyes, after all. Martin, however, disbelieves the complete success on the basis of hearsay.

And neither is wrong: it was a successful attack, but not as successful as the papers made it seem. “Most successful of the war to date?” Yes, but it was only a breakthrough in operational terms–on the strategic level, little has changed but the ownership of a few ruined miles of Belgium…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 78.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 192-3.

Messines: The Master of Belhaven, C.E. Montague, Phillip Maddison, and Rowland Feilding are Eyewitnesses to Armageddon; Jack Martin Goes Forward; Robert Graves is Laid Low and Siegfried Sassoon Takes a Pacific Step; Paul Fussell Looks to the Future

The Ypres Salient is a crowded place, and the assault on Messines Ridge of early this morning, a century back, was one of the great spectacles of the war. We have quite a few men on the scene who witnessed what was at once an unprecedented stroke of operational surprise (preceded as it was by all of the bloody, unimaginative attacks that we have read about), a significant immediate victory for the British Army (but not enough to “break through” the German lines), and a staggering calamity in human terms. For over a year British miners have been working in terribly dangerous and difficult conditions. Many died, but they have won the day, today. The fruits of their labor involved the entombing of some 10,000 Germans–but this was not foremost on the mind of the British observers. Each is overwhelmed by the enormity of the explosions, and struggles to describe them.

First, the Master of Belhaven:

At exactly 3.10 a.m. Armageddon began. The timing of all batteries in the area was wonderful, and to a second every gun roared in one awful salvo. At the same moment the two greatest mines in history were blown up — Hill 60 and one immediately to the south of it. I cleared everyone out of the dug-outs and was watching for it. Never could I have imagined such a sight. First, there was a double shock that shook the earth here 15,000 yards away like a gigantic earthquake. I was nearly flung off my feet. Then an immense wall of fire that seemed to go half-way up to heaven. The whole country was lit with a red light like in a photographic dark-room. At the same moment all the guns spoke and the battle began on this part of the line. The noise surpasses even the Somme; it is terrific, magnificent, overwhelming. It makes one almost drunk with exhilaration, and one simply does not care about the fact that we are under the concentrated fire of all the Hun batteries. Their shells are bursting round now as I write, at 6.10 a.m., but it makes one laugh to think of their feeble little efforts compared to the “ausgezeichnete Ausstellung” that we are providing. We are getting our revenge for 1914 with a vengeance. It is now beginning to get light, but the whole world is wrapped in a grey haze of acrid fumes and dust.

 

Jack Martin, signaler with the 122nd brigade, had been sent to lie out in No Man’s Land just before 3:00.

It was an impressive time–the gunfire ceased altogether with the exception of an occasional shell here and there–a thick mist was over the land and we had to lie full length…  There was a strange groaning and rumbling from behind us and presently, looming out of the mist, came a tank, moving straight towards us…

Out of the silence came the sound of blackbirds from a clump of battered trees a little way back only to be rudely silenced at 3.10 a.m…

For several minutes the earth rocked to and fro oscillating quite twelve inches. It was an experience which I shall remember vividly for the rest of my life–all the phases of the preliminary bombardment, the calm silence that succeeded them suddenly broken by a most terrific uproar, the weird sights of moving men and things in the semi-darkness, the rolling clouds of smoke picked out every now and then with shooting tongues of flame, all formed a tremendously wonderful sight. It was stupendous beyond the imagination.

 

Henry Williamson‘s Phillip Maddison has, of course, gone strolling off to see the battle, as he does for every major assault that he is not himself participating in. The fictional alter-ego walks through a landscape that both he and his creator had fought over in 1914, and he struggles with his fear. But soon it is 3:00, and, as the preliminary bombardment tails off, time for the birds–but nothing so unresonant as blackbirds.

It was so quiet that he could hear nightingales singing far away. They were surely very late in singing, the eggs must have hatched by now, and normally the cockbird ceased to sing when the hen began to sit. Perhaps the unnatural noise of the guns had strained their nervous systems. Some birds, notably wrens, uttered nervous little trilling bursts of song when alarmed at night. Perhaps all beauty, whether or sound or colour or shape, came out of pain, or suppression of life, as poetry came from suffering…

He felt the being-drawn feeling between his legs and his mouth was dry–he looked at his watch–nine minutes past three.

Before he was ready for it a great tongue of deep yellow flame arose slowly into the moonlight. It went up silently and was followed by another and another…

 

Rowland Feilding was there as well, almost entirely free of responsibility for his scattered battalion.

I got up and went out at three o’clock. The exact moment of the assault… had been disclosed to us as 3.10 a.m. I climbed on to the bank of the communication trench, known as Rossignol Avenue, and waited. Dawn had not yet broken. The night was very still. Our artillery was lobbing over an occasional shell; the enemy—oblivious of the doom descending upon him—was leisurely putting back gas shells, which burst in and around my wood with little dull pops, adding to the smell but doing no injury.

The minute hand of my watch crept on to the fatal moment. Then followed a “tableau” so sudden and dramatic that I cannot hope to describe it. Out of the silence and the darkness, along the front, twenty mines—some of them having waited two years and more for this occasion—containing hundreds of tons of high explosive, almost simultaneously, and with a roar to wake the dead, burst into the sky in great sheets of flame, developing into mountainous clouds of dust and earth and stones and trees.

For some seconds the earth trembled and swayed. Then the guns and howitzers in their thousands spoke: the
machine-gun barrage opened; and the infantry on a 10-mile front left the trenches and advanced behind the barrage against the enemy.

 

And C.E. Montague, with new freedom (and responsibility) to conduct war correspondents near the front, came up late last night with his charges, promptly fell into a deep sleep–and nearly missed it. His diary recorded the view from the Scherpenberg.

Next thing I am aware of, through a film of sleep, is a light whimper of shrapnel bursting somewhere near. Just after, I am fully awakened by the rocking of the hill under me. I jump up, sagely thinking it must be an earthquake, and then see seven huge mines still exploding — geysers of flame with black objects in it, leaving huge palm-trees of smoke drifting away in file. Bombardment begins at same time (3.10 A.M.). Rather far off—more than three miles—it sounds like an extremely long, various piece played on a piano full of rather far-off thunder. Many great fires caused in woods, etc., by our drums of oil and phosphorus (I believe). The bombardment more, intense than that of April 9 at Arras. As the light comes we see a great number of our aeroplanes everywhere, very little shelled. No infantry fighting visible.[1]

 

At 5:00 Jack Martin moves forward. His brigade is initially in support but soon enters what is now the British front line in the Damstrasse, more than a half-mile from the jumping-off point. There, Martin’s signalling party took casualties from both German fire and British “shorts.” Tanks move through, and the infantry follows, settling eventually into the German rserve positions.

The Signal Office was small, and with two wounded men in it and one end under water, there was only room for one operator at a time, yet at certain periods it was necessary to have two instruments working, so I took a buzzer outside and rigged it up on a mound where the trench had been blown in. The dirt gradually wore away and disclosed the bare buttocks of a dead man so I moved into the Damstrasse where the only comparatively dry spot was alongside a dead German but he was not badly mutilated. An infantryman close by me was hit in the face by a quantity of shrapnel dust and his tears trickled down his cheeks. He cried out, ‘Oh my eyes, my eyes! My God, I am blind!’ The sudden realisation of his blindness seemed a greater agony than the pain of his wounds. I shall never forge that terrible cry of anguish…[2]

 

Meanwhile, the Master of Belhaven, with little to do as his batteries fire by plan, tries to assess the progress of the battle:

(6 a.m.) It is as noisy as ever. The wounded have been streaming past for the last two hours… [they] say that the wire on my zone is thoroughly well cut, both on the front and support German lines–that is a relief to know. We have been firing something like 4,000 shells a day into it for the last week…

 

Rowland Feilding, too, is eager for news.

The battle once launched, all was oblivion. No news came through for several hours: there was just the roar of the artillery; such a roar and such a barrage has never been before. Our men advanced almost without a check. The enemy–such of them as were not killed—were paralysed, and surrendered. In Wytschaete Village they rushed forward with their hands up, waving handkerchiefs and things. And no one can blame them. The ordeal through which they have been passing the last fortnight must have surpassed the torments of hell itself…

Writing tomorrow, Feilding’s enthusiasm for this unprecedented-in-the-present-war success carries him as far as some preliminary conclusions on the preparations. He seems very much in accord with the ex post facto and fictionalized account of Henry Williamson.

… the South Irish Division and the Ulster Division went forward side by side… I have been thinking to-day of the saying—that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton. That remark wants revision now. You must for the “playing fields of Eton” substitute the “offices of the Empire.” From the offices have been introduced business methods which are essential to the complicated operations of nowadays. The Staff work yesterday was perfect. What a contrast to the time of Loos!

We were inundated with paper beforehand on this win this war we certainly shall win it” ; but no contingency, so far as I know, was unforeseen, and within six hours of the first assault parties were already at work, making roads across the mutilated zone and even laying water-pipes…

There will soon be checks to the more sanguine British hopes, but so far the preparation has been very good indeed. Instead of the usual failure to supply the attacking troops in their new positions, by 10 a.m. the war machine is dragging itself efficiently forward.

Already our Field Artillery was on the move forward—a stirring sight which always fascinates me. As I watch them, though I have nothing to do with them, I feel a kind of pride in them. I, as everybody else was doing, walked freely over the surface; past and over the old front line, where we have spent so many bitter months. How miserable and frail our wretched breastworks looked! When viewed—as for the first time I now saw them—from the parapet instead of from inside—the parapet only a sandbag thick in many places—what death-traps they seemed!

Then over Noman’s Land. As we stepped out there, my orderly, O’Rourke, remarked: “This is the first time for two years that anyone has had the privilege of walking over this ground in daylight, sir.” We visited some of the mine craters made at the Zero hour, and huge indeed they are. Then we explored Petit Bois and Wytschaete Wood—blown into space by our fire and non-existent—the, scene of our raid of the night of June 4. We found the bodies of an officer and a man of ours, missing since that night, which I have since had fetched out and buried among many of their comrades.

Our Tanks were now advancing—a dozen or more of them—going forward to take part in the capture of the fifth and sixth objectives. Their duty is to reduce local opposition, when it is encountered, and there they were, lumbering along, picking their way through the honeycomb of shellholes and craters, getting into difficulties, getting out again, sometimes defeated, but generally in the end winning their way through this area of devastation, where nothing has been left alive, not even a blade of grass.

I cannot hope to describe to you all the details of a battle on this scale. The outstanding feature, I think, was the
astounding smallness of our casualties. The contrast in this respect with Loos and the Somme was most  remarkable…

But, as is always the way, we lost some of our best. A single shell and a small one at that—knocked out twelve, killing three outright and wounding nine—two of the latter mortally…

But as Feilding concludes his account of the day with attentions to the dead, it is Ireland and Germany which come to the fore. The ground is Belgian, and a ridge and some village have been taken swiftly. But the war will still only be won through attrition, and it is the state of the will to fight on of the two rival empires which matters most.

Willie Redmond also is dead. Aged fifty-four, he asked to be allowed to go over with his regiment. He should not have been there at all. His duties latterly were far from the fighting line. But, as I say, he asked and was allowed to go—on the condition that he came back directly the first objective was reached; and Fate has decreed that he should come back on a stretcher.

How one’s ideas change! And how war makes one loathe the party politics that condone and even approve when his opponents revile such a man as this! I classify him with Stephen Gwynn and Harrison—all three, men—Irish Nationalists, too, whom you and I, in our Tory schooling, have been brought up to regard as anathema! What effect will his death have in Ireland? I wonder. Will he be a saint or a traitor? I hope and pray it may teach all—North as well as South—something of the larger side of their duty to the Empire.

P.S. My men found a dead German machine-gunner chained to his gun. This is authentic. We have the gun, and the fact is vouched for by my men who took the gun, and is confirmed by their officer, who saw it. I do not understand the meaning of this:—whether it was done under orders, or was a voluntary act on the part of the gunner to insure his sticking to his gun. If the latter, it is a thing to be admired greatly…[3]

“Authentic” in Feilding’s trust in his men, but then again he does not claim eyewitness, or give precise details…

 

The master of Belhaven ends his account on a note of triumph similar to Feilding’s assessment:

(9 p.m.) The battle is over, and the victory is with us. We have gained the whole of our objective…[4]

 

But Phillip Maddison, a mercurial sort (not to mention a fictional product of retrospection and history-reading) already has an eye to the inevitable return of the pendulum. After several trips leading mule trains of ammunition he goes on another of his “Cook’s Tours” to see the ridge that the British have now taken. He is impressed with the panorama, but, walking among the infantry as the long day draws to a close, he hears rumors of German counter-attacks retaking ground…[5]

 

And where are our old stand-byes on this day of days, the petulantly yoked terrible twins at the heart of the war poetry revolt, who fought at Loos and on the Somme? Will they praise the sudden victory?

 

Robert Graves, home for months and putatively recovered, was nevertheless in need of a rest, and has just been detailed to head to a convalescent home on the Isle of Wight. The precipitating cause was a head wound sustained when he fell down a staircase in the dark. But this was not an isolated incident so much as a symptom of a fundamental exhaustion. Not only will his lungs never be right, but his nerves are from from settled–it seems likely that “some kind of nervous collapse” led to the reassignment… and no, he will not have much to say about Messines.[6]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, however, was in London, taking a break from portrait-sitting by lunching with H.W. Massingham, the editor of the influential radical weekly The Nation. As George Sherston, Sassoon looks back on the irony that the full picture affords:

At daybreak on June 7th the British began the Battle of Messines by exploding nineteen full-sized mines. For me the day was made made memorable by the fact that I lunched with the editor of the Unconservative Weekly at his club. By the time I entered that imposing edifice our troops had advanced more than two miles on a ten-mile front and a great many Germans had been blown sky-high. To-morrow this news would pervade clubland on a wave of optimism and elderly men would glow with satisfaction.

Sherston has written to “Markington” to offer to write something, as “a mouthpiece for the troops in the trenches.” He is nervous of the great man at first, but he warms to Markington when he finds him even more pessimistic about the war and eager to hear uncensored humorous anecdotes from the front. The diffident Sherston stretches his legs, ever so slightly:

He listened with gloomy satisfaction to my rather vague remarks about incompetent Staff work. I told him that our Second Battalion had been almost wiped out ten days ago because the Divisional General had ordered an impossible attack on a local objective. The phrase ‘local objective’ sounded good, and made me feel that I knew a hell of a lot about it. . . .

But this leads, with more twisting irony, to the detailing of his own deeply conflicted behavior, and to a confession which might not be as welcome to this leading critic of the war:

‘As a matter of fact I’m almost sure that the War doesn’t seem nearly such a bloody rotten show when one’s out there as it does when one’s back in England. You see as soon as one gets across the Channel one sort of feels as if it’s no good worrying any more — you know what I mean — like being part of the Machine again, with nothing to be done except take one’s chance. After that one can’t bother about anything except the Battalion one’s with…

I must say I’ve often felt extraordinarily happy even in the trenches. Out there it’s just one thing after another…

It’s only when one gets away from it that one begins to realize how stupid and wasteful it all is. What I feel now is that if it’s got to go on there ought to be a jolly sound reason for it, and I can’t help thinking that the troops are being done in the eye by the people in control.’ I qualified these temperate remarks by explaining that I was only telling him how it had affected me personally; I had been comparatively lucky, and could now see the War as it affected infantry soldiers who were having an infinitely worse time than I’d ever had — particularly the privates.

The account continues, and it’s rich with interest: Massingham suggests reading Tolstoy, and then he awakens the privileged “Sherston” to the political realities of the budding military-industrial complex, censorship, and the fact that Great Brittain has added “acquisitive” war aims to the professed cause of liberating France and Belgium… there is some matter of Mesopotamian oil wells, apparently, if one takes that point of view...[7]

 

Lest one object that giving the last word on a day of successful battle to a pair of half-pacifists lunching in comfort, I will give it instead to an academic yet unborn, a century back, and more than a quarter-century short of his own bitter disillusionment with war.

Very early in his cranky masterpiece, Paul Fussell makes one concession to the otherwise unalleviated chronicle of murderous failure.

The attack at Messines… had been brilliantly planned by General Sir Herbert Plumer, who emerges as a sort of intellectual’s hero of the British Great War… he had imagination. His mines totally surprised the Germans, ten thousand of whom were permanently entombed immediately.

This, it is worth mentioning, is half the British toll from the first day of the Somme. I want to write at greater length about what it means to celebrate a battle in which local victory kills so many and yet doesn’t really budge the war… but since none of the men on the spot do, it would be an imposition. So, instead, just this next bit, as a way of working in the subject of modern war’s resilience.

The most memorable detail in Fussell’s account of the battle, however, is one that none of our writers can know, since it reaches more than a generation into the future, and then a century again, and more:

…British miners had been tunneling for a year under the German front lines, and by early June they had dug twenty-one horizontal mineshafts stuffed with a million pounds of high explosive… Nineteen of them went up, and the shock wave jolted Lloyd George in Downing Street 130 miles away. Two failed to explode. One of these went off in July, 1955… The other, somewhere deep underground near Ploegsteert Wood, has not gone off yet.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. C.E. Montague, 189.
  2. Sapper Martin, 71-4.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 188-92.
  4. War Diary, 302-6.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 153-160.
  6. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic,173.
  7. Complete Memoirs, 471-5.
  8. Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 14-15.

Rowland Feilding Before Messines; Jack Martin Goes up the Line; Phillip Maddison to Test his Courage; A New Brief and a Fine Old Book for C.E. Montague; A Short Life of Francis Ledwidge

Early tomorrow morning will see one of the most dramatic “shows” of the war, and the most successful British opening to date. Rowland Feilding, has been heavily involved in the preparations for the battle, organizing a last-minute raid–a “success” despite the losses involved, as a number of Germans were captured–and nearly being blinded himself when a heavy-caliber German shell fell nearby during the retaliatory bombardment. Last night, a century back, Feilding’s battalion was relieved, and will spend the battle in a supporting role, giving him time to describe much of the action in a long letter to his wife. He sets the scene for her, and for us:

The village [Wytschaete] tops the crest of the Messines Ridge, and the breastworks, which we have occupied since we came from the Somme, last September, run across the swampy fields to the west of and below it, with the hospice (or convent)—represented by a heap of bricks—standing out prominently against the skyline, beyond the Petit Bois…

That evening (June 6) we tea’d in the open, about half a mile behind the fire-trench, our artillery shooting hard over our heads all the time, but eliciting no reply from the enemy. The Brigadier called and congratulated us on the success of the raid. He was in the best of form, and indeed everybody was very cheerful and full of confidence. It was very edifying to see the almost exhilarated state every one was in, both officers and men, seeing what a colossal business lay immediately before them. Later, we had dinner in the open… The 6th Connaught Rangers were to be broken up for the battle in order to provide “mopping up” and carrying parties for the attacking battalions, thus leaving me personally with very little to do, and after dinner I moved to my Battle Headquarters—a deep mined dug-out in Rossignol Wood, above which I am now writing this letter. The wood reeked of gas shells, to which the enemy further contributed during the night.[1]

 

Jack Martin, a signaler with the 122nd brigade, will be going forward soon after midnight.

This afternoon we were all ordered to pack everything in our valises, except fighting kit, and hand them to the care of the QM… I joined the Forward Party and moved up the line.

…It was a wretched night–the strain of waiting was great–our guns were going continually–Fritz was ‘nervy’…

Crowded into a forward trench, the men now have to endure bombardment from the German artillery which, although the extent of the underground preparations seem not to have been guessed, must realize that some sort of attack is in the offing.

I was crouched down in the trench with my back to Jerry when a small shell landed almost on the parapet a matter of only inches from my head. The trench came in on top of me, and, but for the fact that it was strongly revetted, I should have been completely buried. When the smoke and dirt had cleared away, the other fellows were surprised to see me pick myself up unhurt. Aitken said, ‘That one had got your name on it, Joe,’ ‘Yes,’ I replied,’ but it was the wrong number.’ It gave me a terrible shaking but it might have been worse.[2]

 

Henry Williamson is safe behind the lines on the now-quiet Somme front, but he has sent his alter ego north, and placed him behind the lines at Messines. The talk in the transport section of Phillip Maddison’s turned somewhat morbid. Never mind that thousands of Germans were about to die and thousands of British infantry go over the top–the transport men, though currently fairly safe, have to bring up ammunition through an interdiction barrage. They too are frightened, and they begin to talk of their mothers. Phillip, even though he is so close to the place his courage failed in 1914, decides that he feels confident–because “he himself had broken away” from his mother and because he has the love of the faithful Lily: “if he hadn’t the thought of Lily to keep him going, he would be windy himself.”

With nothing to do as midnight passes and with his confidence buoyed both by the love of Lily and by his assessment–rather perceptive, this–that the German counter-barrage will be enfeebled and directed elsewhere, Phillip begins to contemplate a walk toward the front…[3]

 

One of the wonders of this project, in a small way, is the realization that even when great and terrible events are in the offing, “ordinary” life goes on for the soldiers even as it does across the experiential gulf. C.E. Montague has just received a welcome reassignment: instead of being a glorified assistant propagandist and minder of journalists (many of whom were far less skilled than he, not to mention his unusual moral and physical courage), he “was now to hold a position of some authority… better than showman-work however variegated.” He is now an ‘assistant press officer,’ and will have more freedom to choose his own course and no direct involvement in the dissemination of propaganda.

So late tonight, Montague will pack several well-known journalists into cars and head for Messines. But first he sits down to write a letter to his wife. To whom, of course, he cannot mention the coming battle, even at this late hour. Instead, he discusses what any good literary soldier does in his spare time–in this case his reading of the master of malign fate (and of brave human resistance against it) is at once exasperated and grateful:

June 6, 1917

I have gone on with The Return of the Native, admiring it more than ever. . . . I had forgotten how directly Hardy’s pessimism is declared in the description of Clym Yeobright, where he says that mankind’s enjoyment of life must decline, and the view of life as ‘a thing to be put up with’ prevail, and that we shall all cease to admire beauty of face as distinct from full expression of experiences mainly painful and disillusioning. What perversity it is. Life only seems to me to be more of a wonder and glory and ecstasy, the more I see of it, and I feel it specially when reading Hardy’s own descriptions of beautiful-natured people like his faithful lovers, and of lovely places.[4]

 

Finally, today, Francis Ledwidge is in France, far enough from Messines and surely in ignorance of tomorrow’s huge attack. But even if he knew he would still use an infantryman’s rare hours of leisure to attend to his growing poetic reputation. He wrote today an extremely long letter to Professor Lewis Chase, from which I will excerpt a few choice rambles:

B.E.F
France, 6th June 1917

Dear Sir,

Your letter of May 15th reached me this afternoon. I have to thank you for introducing my books into your University library and for the interest which you take in my poems and will endeavour to supply you with what details you require of myself and my work for the composition of your proposed lecture. You will, of course, understand that I am writing this under the most inept circumstances between my watches, for I am in the firing line and may be busy at any moment in the horrible work of war.

I am on active service since the spring of 1915, having served in the Dardanelles and the First British Expeditionary Force to Serbia… Some of the people who know me least imagine that I joined the Army because I knew men were struggling for higher ideals and great empires, and I could not sit idle to watch them make for me a more beautiful world. They are mistaken. I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilization, and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions…

I am of a family who were ever soldiers and poets… I have heard my mother say many times that the Ledwidges were once a great people in the land, and she has shown me with a sweep of her hand green hills and wide valleys where sheep are folded which still bear the marks of dead industry and, once, this was all ours.

These stories, told at my mother’s doorstep in the owl’s light, are the first things I remember except, perhaps, the old songs which she sang to me, so full of romance, love and sacrifice. She taught me to listen and appreciate the blackbird’s song, and when I grew to love it beyond all others she said it was because I was born in a blackbird’s nest and had its blood in my veins. My father died when I was two…

The “Poet of the Blackbirds” goes on to describe his family and his early life.

There were four brothers of us and three sisters. I am the second youngest. For these my mother laboured night and day, as none of us were strong enough to provide for our own wants…

I was seven years of age when my eldest brother died, and though I had only been to school on occasional days I was able to read the tomb-stones in a neighbouring grave-yard and had written in secret several verses which still survive. About this time I was one day punished in school for crying and that punishment ever afterwards haunted the master like an evil dream, for I was only crying over Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village,” which an advanced class had been reading aloud.

It was in this same class that I wrote my first poem, in order to win for the school a half holiday…

Much as I would like to use the sheer bulk of the letter to enhance the slight irony of writing one’s life story on the brink of a major attack, patience dictates that we must skip the tale of Ledwidge’s early literary development. After a short and unhappy apprenticeship to a Dublin grocer, Ledwidge returns home.

I took up any old job at all with the local farmers and was happy. I set myself certain studies and these I pursued at night when I should be resting from a laborious day. I took a certificate of one hundred and twenty words a minute at Pitman’s shorthand, and soon knew Euclid as well as a man of Trinity College…  I read and studied the poets of England from the age of Chaucer to Swinburne, turning especially to the Elizabethans and the ballads that came before the great Renaissance. I thirsted for travel and adventure, and longed to see the Italy of Shelley and the Greece of Byron. But the poems of Keats and his sad life appealed to me most.

The young poet, in his own estimation at least, begins to mature:

I began to pick faults with Longfellow and Tennyson…

I burned many copybooks which contained fugitive pieces of my own because I thought it were better for them to die young and be happy than live to be reviled.

Georgian Poetry” (with my three excluded) contains, I think, the best poems of the century…

The letter continues in high good spirits, but it’s an open question whether the late switch to a torrent of unrelated anecdotes and quirks is produced because the poet is flattered to be the subject of academic interest, or because he knows that a fighting soldier who might wish to be remembered should give potential biographers as much, and as quickly, as he can.

I get more pleasure from a good line than from a big cheque. Though I love music I cannot write within earshot of any instrument. I cannot carry a watch on account of the tick, real or imaginary, and might as well try to sleep under the Bell of Bruges as in a room where a clock stands… I have written many short stories and one play which is declared a success by eminent playwrights who have read it…

The letter closes with several poems, including “Rainy Day in April,” “The Wife of Llew,” and Pan. Ledwidge assures the professor that the best is yet to come…

 

Tomorrow, the mines go up.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 183-88.
  2. Sapper Martin, 70-1.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 153.
  4. C.E. Montague, 161-2, 172-3