A Novel Premonition for Elinor Brooke; Edmund Blunden and Kate Luard Under German Bombs; Vera Brittain is at War at Last; Rudyard Kipling and the Efficacy of the Mob–and Charles Sorley Sees the Blindness

As the day dawns over Sussex today, a century back, Elinor Brooke reaches a crossroads in her war.

I was trudging uphill, feeling spikes of stubble jab my ankles, and then, just as I reached the top, the sun rose–huge, molten-red–and at that moment I knew–not thought, not feared, knew–that Toby wasn’t coming back.[1]

This is Elinor’s diary entry, in Pat Barker’s novel. Elinor is fictional, but her position–from the intuition, to the death of her brother, to the long struggle she will have to learn of its circumstances and make sense of it all–is very familiar.

 

And it still goes on. Edmund Blunden is fortunate to be in reserve today.

A fairly idle day… read Leigh Hunt… There was a big bombardment again this evening. Some of our party went over I suppose–God help them in the mud. Just as we were settling down for the night, Boche came over. Our knees knocked and teeth chattered, but nothing fell on us…[2]

 

Kate Luard, meanwhile, is closer to the action–and dodging bombs from the same German raiders. 1917, as Blunden recently observed, is not 1916. In some ways it feels as if in just two short years we have come from a 19th century world beginning to be troubled by machine guns to the cusp of mid-century schrecklichkeit. All we’ll need are stronger engines and bigger bombs.

We are so much in the thick of War up here that no one talks or thinks of anything else…shells screaming and bursting and bombs dropping. The last are much the worst. He dropped five at dinner-time about 70 yards away, and came over with some more about 10.30 to-night and some more later. There’s no sort of cover anywhere and it is purely beastly. Shelling is nothing to it. The Sisters are extraordinarily good in it.[3]

 

Nor is Vera Brittain far from the bombs–but then again she has felt the bombs land in London, too. She writes to her mother today, a century back, from her new assignment in the great British base complex in the Pas-de-Calais.

24th General Hospital, Étaples,
France, 5 August 1917

. . . I arrived here yesterday afternoon; the hospital is about a mile out of the town, on the side of a hill, in a large clearing surrounded on three sides by woods. It is all huts & tents; I am working in a hut & sleeping under canvas, only not in a tent but in a kind of canvas shanty, with boarded floor & corrugated iron roof.. .The hospital is frantically busy & we were very much welcomed. . .

Now the, er, bombshell drops:

You will be surprised to hear that at present I am nursing German prisoners. My ward is entirely reserved for the most acute German surgical cases… The majority are more or less dying; never, even at the 1st London during the Somme push, have I seen such dreadful wounds. Consequently they are all too ill to be aggressive, & one forgets that they are the enemy and can only remember that they are suffering human beings. My half-forgotten German comes in very useful, & the Sisters were so glad to know I understood it & could speak a little as half the time they don’t know what the poor things want. It gives one a chance to live up to our Motto Inter Arma Caritas, but anyhow one can hardly feel bitter towards dying men. It is incongruous, though, to think of Edward in one part of France trying to kill the same people whom in another part of France I am trying to save…

Well, Malta was an interesting experience of the world, but this is War.[4]

Rarely is the epistolary first draft–especially to Mother, rather than to one of her fellow members of the Lost Generation–better than the coming memoir, but I think that’s the case today. There is a swelling of strings as Vera finally reaches France–the place that killed Roland, Geoffrey, and Victor, and that still has Edward in its clutches–and there is an excellent evocation of the sounds of the bombardment, too, which works nicely amidst the others, here–but the effect of her description of France is less powerful than the simple antithesis she used in the letter:

The noise of the distant guns was a sense rather than a sound; sometimes a quiver shook the earth, a vibration trembled upon the wind, when I could actually hear nothing. But that sense made any feeling of complete peace impossible; in the atmosphere was always the tenseness, the restlessness, the slight rustling, that comes before an earthquake or with imminent thunder. The glamour of the place was even more compelling, though less delirious, than the enchantment of Malta’s beauty; it could not be banished though one feared and resisted it, knowing that it had to be bought at the cost of loss and frustration. France was the scene of titanic, illimitable death, and for this very reason it had become the heart of the fiercest living ever known to any generation. Nothing was permanent; everyone and everything was always on the move; friendships were temporary, appointments were temporary, life itself was the most temporary of all.[5]

 

Finally, there’s a remarkable letter of today, a century back, from one to another of two titans of the turn of the century: the bard of Imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, and one of its dashing New World practitioners, Theodore Roosevelt. If not for the fact that they are not 19th century men, and that they are discussing sons (the present Kermit Roosevelt and the ever-present-through-his-absence Jack Kipling) and geopolitics… and if I didn’t despise this newly ubiquitous (at least in American pop culture) term, then I would describe this letter as a founding document of “bro” culture. Kipling’s writing has rarely been so off-putting, so ingratiatingly chummy, so eager to be brutal.

I have come a long way–through reading the man’s fiction, history, and private letters–to understanding Kipling much better than as the facile, solemn Imperialist chest-thumper of the familiar caricature… but a few paragraphs of this letter bring that old idea back with a vengeance. Kipling is full of blustery, silly talk as he updates the former president on his son’s adventures in England (Kermit Roosevelt is about to go out to Mesopotamia attached to a British Machine Gun unit); then there is unsolicited “expert” military advice (Kipling worries that the new American generals are too eager, and will fruitlessly spend their first small forces instead of building up for a “big push”), and there are helpful suggestions such as these:

I fancy that before you’ve done, in the U.S.A., you will discover as we have that the really dangerous animal is the Hun in one’s own country no matter what he pretends to be. You hold a good many hostages for his good behaviour and I sometimes wonder whether, if the U.S.A. took toll from her own unnaturalized Germans for every Hun outrage committed on the U.S. and on France, it wouldn’t have a sedative effect…

Don’t worry: Kipling is not suggesting that German Americans be killed in retribution for U-boat sinkings, only that a few officially sponsored riots in German American neighborhoods (I believe one applicable analogy would be to the pogrom) might just do the trick.

…It’s what the Hun comprehends perfectly. We have bled him badly in men, and if we can use up a decent percentage of his 1919 class this winter by exposure in the trenches as well as direct killing, he will feel it more.

But of course I’m being squeamish: anti-German-American riots were quite within the realm of possibility. And I just passed Kipling’s casual assertion of the righteousness of retributive atrocity without comment. Why? Because that describes the activities of uniformed soldiers? Because that’s different than casually advocating violent demagoguery and mob violence as strategic tools to an ally which is, ostensibly, a multi-ethnic democracy? Because my century-late outrage would be better served by letting Kipling’s endorsement of such things stand on its own rather than surrounding it with fussy complaint? “Bettered the instruction” indeed.

Worst of all, Kipling’s strategic guesstimates are accurate:

What he seems to funk more than most things is the stringency of the new blockade now that the U.S.A. is imposing it and neutrals can’t feed him as much as they used to. We’ve got another twelvemonth of trouble ahead of us I expect but it won’t be all on one side.[6]

This is the sort of letter, from one figurehead of imperial warfare to another–and from one older man willing to sacrifice his son to another–that might have re-affirmed Siegfried Sassoon‘s faith in the righteousness of his protest…

 

But back to this treatment of “Huns:” not Germans who are armed and dangerous in the trenches opposite, but German emigrants, civilians living in America, posing no threat and powerless to defend themselves. The analogy to wounded prisoners is not precise, yet it seems a coincidence worth exploring that Vera Brittain’s first encounter with helpless Germans also began today, a century back.

…when I told the Matron of my work in Malta, she remarked with an amused, friendly smile that I was “quite an old
soldier…” but… I was hardly prepared for the shock of being posted… to the acute and alarming German
ward…

Although we still, I believe, congratulate ourselves on our impartial care of our prisoners, the marquees were often
damp, and the ward was under-staffed whenever there happened to be a push — which seemed to be always — and the number of badly wounded and captured Germans became in consequence excessive. One of the things I like best to remember about the War is the nonchalance with which the Sisters and V.A.D.s in the German ward took for granted that it was they who must be overworked, rather than the prisoners neglected. At the time that I went there the ward staff had passed a self-denying ordinance with regard to half days, and only took an hour or two off when the work temporarily slackened.

From the moral high ground Vera Brittain now wields a satirist’s sword with great skill:

Before the War I had never been in Germany and had hardly met any Germans apart from the succession of German mistresses at St. Monica’s, every one of whom I had hated with a provincial schoolgirl’s pitiless distaste for foreigners. So it was somewhat disconcerting to be pitch-forked, all alone — since V.A.D.S went on duty half an hour before Sisters — into the midst of thirty representatives of the nation which, as I had repeatedly been told, had crucified Canadians, cut off the hands of babies, and subjected pure and stainless females to unmentionable “atrocities.” I didn’t think I had really believed all those stories, but I wasn’t quite sure.[7] I half expected that one or two of the patients would get out of bed and try to rape me, but I soon discovered that none of them were in a position to rape anybody, or indeed to do anything but cling with stupendous exertion to a life in which the scales were already weighted heavily against them.

At least a third of the men were dying; their daily dressings were not a mere matter of changing huge wads of stained gauze and wool, but of stopping haemorrhages, replacing intestines and draining and re-inserting innumerable rubber tubes. Attached to the ward was a small theatre, in which acute operations were performed all day by a medical officer with a swarthy skin and a rolling brown eye; he could speak German, and before the War had been in charge, I was told, of a German hospital in some tropical region of South America. During the first two weeks, he and I and the easy-going Charge-Sister worked together pleasantly enough. I often wonder how we were able to drink tea and eat cake in the theatre — as we did all clay at frequent intervals — in that foetid stench, with the thermometer about 90 degrees in the shade, and the saturated dressings and yet more gruesome human remnants heaped on the floor. After the “light medicals” that I had nursed in Malta, the German ward might justly have been described as a regular baptism of blood and pus.

This is inhuman and horrible, but the point–Brittain’s point, and now mine–is that it is also deeply humane.

One tall, bearded captain would invariably stand to attention when I had re-bandaged his arm, click his spurred heels together, and bow with ceremonious gravity. Another badly wounded boy — a Prussian lieutenant who was being transferred to England — held out an emaciated hand to me as he lay on the stretcher waiting to go, and murmured: “I tank you, Sister.” After barely a second’s hesitation I took the pale fingers in mine, thinking how ridiculous it was that I should be holding this man’s hand in friendship when perhaps, only a week or two earlier, Edward up at Ypres had been doing his best to kill him. The world was mad and we were all victims — that was the only way to look at it. These shattered, dying boys and I were paying alike for a situation that none of us had desired or done anything to bring about.

And Kipling, to some degree, had. But we’ll leave today with another voice, one which has greater personal authority than anyone who has spoken yet. The wounded Germans may be dying in English hands, but Charles Sorley had studied in Germany, and fought Germans, and been killed by Germans. In the memoir, Vera Brittain enlists the young dead poet against the cruel masters of war:

Somewhere, I remembered, I had seen a poem called “To Germany,” which put into words this struggling new
idea; it was written, I discovered afterwards, by Charles Hamilton Sorley, who was killed in action in 1915 :

You only saw your future bigly planned,

And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,

And in each other’s dearest ways we stand,

And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Barker, Toby's Room, 85.
  2. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 78.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 137.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 268-9.
  5. Testament of Youth, 372-3.
  6. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 467-8.
  7. Which is about right. The British press ran with a great many entirely invented atrocity stories, and propaganda and myth made an ugly marriage of convenience with stories like the ones Brittain mentions. And yet there was a tendency after the war--an inevitable after-effect of government lies--to disbelieve all stories of German atrocity and assume a rough moral equivalence. There wasn't--which was at least in part due to the fact that Germany occupied enemy territory, and believed itself to be under existential threat; neither of these things were true in the same way of Britain. But German atrocities, especially during the invasion of Belgium, were very real. They should not bear on the claim to humane treatment of wounded soldiers, but even if pacifists between the wars emphasized the horror of war in general rather than of particular forms of armed aggression, it is bad history to discount the deliberate violence meted out by the German army to French and Belgian civilians.
  8. Testament of Youth, 372-77.

The Battle of Pilckem Ridge: Hedd Wyn and Francis Ledwidge; David Jones, Edmund Blunden, Phillip Maddison, Ralph Hamilton, and Kate Luard

After a difficult spring, it’s been a relatively quiet summer so far. But that’s over, today.

Looking a century back, we know that today’s attack begins the last of the truly enormous offensive disasters of the British war. After Third Ypres, that is, there is only one more disaster, and then one last offensive. But in 1917, of course, today wasn’t the last of anything, only the latest in the long series of “big pushes,” each of which has been very costly, and none of which has achieved a breakthrough into the German rear.

The reason I’m dwelling on our inevitable position of historical irony (i.e. knowing more than the writers knew then, a condition which this project usually seeks to obscure, due to the governing conceit that we are there, a century back, and know no more of the future) is that this may be the last of those days, before the end of the war, that seemingly everyone who was there (and some who weren’t) wrote about. It will be one of the last days, at least, that I will insist on exploring from many vantage points, and perhaps no day in the next fifteen months will produce so long a post. Even if the coming weeks will find the British army as miserably mired as it has ever been, for readers it may well be all downhill from here…

Which is all to say, please bear with me, today: there are several poems and several long prose extracts. It’s a terrible day.

 

We’ll begin, not entirely inappropriately, with melodramatic fiction. Henry Williamson‘s alter ego Philip Maddison never misses a battle, and there is a strange, fruitful tension between Maddison’s use as a tightly-grasped mirror onto the life-history of his creator and the plot contortions which deliver him to every major action of the British war to witness the “show.” It seems fitting to let him talk us into the opening of yet another battle, before we try to understand the experiences of the poets who were there.

Dragging clouds broke into rain on the night of July 31.[1] Some said it was due to the gunfire… Everything he had experienced in war so far was diminished by the sinister feeling all around him as he rode through the Grand Place [in Ypres], despite the almost furtive activity among the ruins, where were hidden masked batteries of guns, including a 15-inch howitzer known as ‘Clockwork Charlie’ for its regular bombardment of Passchendaele station thirteen thousand yards away.

…A psychical vacuum of lost life, old terror, and chronic hopelessness lingered in the crepuscular ruins… ahead lay nihilism… One of many hundreds of thousands who had passed that way, Phillip proceeded, nervous animation of flesh and bone on innocent horseflesh because there was no alternative, while he remained unbroken.[2]

But it will go easily with Phillip: he commands a Machine Gun Company’s transport unit[3] and will have no duties until it is time to bring ammunition up later in the day. He sleeps through the opening barrage.

 

This rose to a climax at around a quarter to 4:00 a.m., as dawn was breaking–or would have, if it were not so heavily overcast. At 3:50 the 15th Royal Welsh Fusiliers moved up and out. At the same time, their own 14th Battalion attcked from assembly trenches directly in front. To their left were other battalions of the 38th Division, then the Guards Division, and eventually a strong French force. To their right were the 51st and 39th Divisions, then divisions belonging to four other corps–including Canadians and Anzacs–arrayed further to the south.

A map of the area showing the precise expectations of advance. At four hours and five minutes after “Z”–7:55 A.M.–the 38th Division’s second wave should have arrived at a slight ridge line east of “Iron Cross,” often referred to as the “Green Line.”

The 15th RWF had been given the task of moving over the muddy wreckage of No Man’s Land and the German front lines, then “through” the 14th Battalion and its captured objectives near the village of Pilckem. This was accomplished with relative ease and few casualties: the enormous barrage had obliterated the lightly-held forward German positions (remember all those patrols into empty space) and it was not until the 15th were almost a mile into what had been German territory that they started taking direct fire.

The geography of Flanders favored the assault more than the Somme: the “ridge” that was the objective in this battle was only twelve or fifteen meters higher than the Yser Canal which the Royal Welch (and, just to the south, Edmund Blunden) have so frequently been crossing, so there would be no uphill advance into the muzzles of the enemy’s guns, as it were. Yet the flat terrain also meant that there would be very little cover for advancing infantry. (Worse, on the operational level, the geography of Flanders made resupply and consolidation miserable and difficult: unless there had been many days without rain, much of the area was waterlogged, and all resupply had to be through the open mud.)

At some time around 8:00, after resting briefly, the battalion launched its attack from near Pilckem village toward its own objectives to the east. They were now in the sights of the slightly elevated German machine guns, encased in concrete pillboxes, many of which had survived the opening barrage. The next few minutes are the sort of experience that defy description, and the Battalion War Diary perhaps wisely opts for simple elision.

Considerable opposition was met with at BATTERY COPSE & by this time there were but few officers remaining.

In other words, the battalion, though continuing to move forward, was met with murderous fire from nearby strong points, fell behind the carefully timed “walking” support barrage, and was stopped by that mysterious combination of moral failure, confusion, exhaustion, and physical depletion that leads to historians of battles using metaphors of physical force. They had done well, penetrating much further into the German lines than most of the units on the southern part of the assault, but still not quite as well as the ever-optimistic planners had hoped. And that planning was everything: there was no possibility of getting messages back over a mile of broken ground to the the telephones that could contact the artillery. There was no possibility of bringing up heavy weapons to address the German pill boxes. The ridge was held, by the German Third Guards, and when the barrage lifted they came up and fought. There was nothing for the Royal Welch to do but rush whatever German positions could be rushed, until they were… halted, pushed back, forced to a halt, and dug in.

The Diary remained matter-of-fact:

… the smoke barrage… tended to confuse the men… Lt. Col. C.C. Norman[4]… was wounded and ordered the Bn. to consolidate on the IRON CROSS ridge. As no officer remained, the Bn. was handed over to the R.S.M. Jones who saw to the consolidation which was being carried out some way in rear of the GREEN LINE giving a greater task to the 115 bde who were passing through us.

It is striking, even on such a day, that the battalion’s ranking member, only a few hours into the battle is the Regimental Sergeant Major: there should have been between twelve and twenty officers at the start, but all of those who went forward have been wounded or killed.

And many of the men, including Ellis Humphrey Evans, the Welsh shepherd and bard better known as Hedd Wyn.

Not long after the 15th Welsh began to advance from Pilckem he was hit, probably by a large piece of shrapnel from a German shell. The shell struck him in the stomach, or the back–a great wound would have been visible, in any case, on both sides of his body. He fell, somewhere near a crossroads on the road to Langemarck, and lay there for around three hours. Perhaps he was in shock at first, probably in terrible agony thereafter. At some time around midday, stretcher bearers found him, and struggled back through the thickening mud to an advanced dressing station.

Hedd Wyn–Private Ellis Humphrey Evans–died on a stretcher not long after arriving at the dressing station. There is a mention of his receiving morphia before the end (which we might fervently hope, even a century on, to be true) and unreliable accounts of last words.[5]

Evans–Hedd Wyn–will be buried nearby, with a chaplain reading the burial service in Welsh. His last letters and his last great poem–an ode written for the upcoming National Eisteddfod–will find their way slowly back to Britain over the next days and weeks. For many officers the telegram is sent within a day or two, but not to the far-off farming family of an enlisted man, living their lives in a language other than English. Hedd Wyn’s parents and siblings will have to wait through weeks of dire rumor before the War Office confirms his death.

 

This is one stanza from the ode that Hedd Wyn sent, only a few weeks ago, for adjudication at the National Eisteddfod:

Y macwy heulog, paham y ciliodd?                       Why did he depart, this radiant youngster?

Ba ryw hud anwel o’m bro a’i denodd?                  What drew him from me, what unseen power?

Ei oed a’i eiriau dorrodd, – ac o’i drig                Breaking his word and pledge together–then he

Ddiofal unig efe ddiflannodd                            In his carefree home was seen no longer.[6]

 

 

Onward. It seems that David Jones never met Hedd Wyn. He surely laid eyes on him, over the past two weeks, but I can find no record of anyone making Jones aware that he had “fought alongside,” however briefly, a true Welsh bard.[7] But he did not fight alongside him on his last day.

Yesterday, a century back, David Jones learned that he would be kept back from the attack along with a small cadre of officers[8] and men.

Jones was assigned to ‘battalion nuclear reserve’ — a group from which the already depleted battalion could be reconstituted if it were wiped out during the assault. Upon receiving his assignment, he asked the adjutant to be removed from the list so he could take part in the attack. Although he wanted merely to remain with his friends, he argued that he ought to trade places with a married man. The adjutant furiously berated him for ‘pretending to wish to be a bloody hero’ while knowing full well that men detailed had no choice in the matter. Simmering down, he told Jones that there would be plenty of other opportunities, that the nucleus was likely to be called upon anyway, and that he only wished he had been assigned to it. Feeling foolish, Jones tried to explain that he had not meant it that way. He was forced to endure the ignominy of relative safety…

Thomas Dilworth’s account of the battalion’s advance emphasizes their success in meeting and defeating German opposition between Pilckem village and the not-quite-obtained “Green Line,” even after the loss of so many officers.

Keeping in formation, the remainder struggled in deep mud past Pilckem village and concrete machine-gun emplacements, which they outflanked, compelling their garrisons to surrender. In reserve, listening to the gunfire, Jones worried about his friends and bitterly regretted his separation from them.[9]

Jones will nevertheless write their advance, presumably drawing on his comrades’ memories, in the thick description and black comic mood of the “Balaam’s Ass” section of The Sleeping Lord. The section about the openness of the advance, as the men contemplate their coming exposure to German machine guns, is frightening. Jones draws thorny little historical-personal sketches of the men of the unit, alternating several of these with sardonic and tragic descriptions of the landscape, or lack thereof:

It’s as level as Barking and as bare as your palm…

All the fine fiery waters in Headquarter’s larder won’t raise a mole-hill for Lieutenant Fairy on that open plain…

not a bush, no brick-bat, not any accidental & advantageous fold, no lie of dead ground the length of a body…

Not a rock to cleft for, not a spare drift of soil for the living pounds of all their poor bodies drowned in the dun sea…

Nor yet was there aid or covering wing, or upright, or linden hedge or agger or paraduct or mothering skirt for a frightened last-born, or gunnal for the evil swell; or anything drawn to mask or shadow…

The list of men, and the lack of cover that will kill them, goes on for pages before Jones, in an echo of the medieval Welsh “Triads,” names “the three who escaped.” And then the poem ends:

But for all the rest there was no help on that open plain.[10]

 

There were more than three survivors, in prose, and Jones will join them later on, where they hold their muddy positions near what had been the German second line and their “Black Line–“the penultimate line of intended advance. But the tone of tomorrow may be different than the tone of today: the survivors of the battalion took pride in its success, and celebrated it.

And so it is a curious fact that the one image I have found which links the material facts of this day to the work of one of our writers is about as traditionally triumphal as 1917 art could get: it is Jones’s sketch of a German howitzer–proof that they fought through the infantry and reached the artillery–captiured today, a century back, and drawn soon after.

 

By now it should be clear–to us if not to all the contemporary generals–that, as a matter of strategy, the front line positions on a Great War “battlefield” matter very little. They will change hands as counter-attacks and second efforts are launched, and the place where a battered battalion went to ground may not turn out to be defensible. What matters, really, is whether the newly occupied territory can be connected to the arteries of warfare in the rear. If reinforcements can be brought up quickly, if the cavalry can follow the infantry and the guns can get to new positions with vantage points over the enemy rear, then the offensive can be sustained.

These are deep battles, therefore, and when attacking waves of infantry face little in the way of enemy shellfire it is both because they are being left for the machine guns to deal with and because the artillery may also have “lifted” in order to focus on the interdiction of reserves. The infantry in the immediate rear, whether working or moving up in support, are the most vulnerable targets of shrapnel, gas, and high explosive as the day wears on.

The 1st Royal Inniskillings, therefore, had drawn a less dangerous assignment than leading the attack, but it is now far from a safe job. A few miles south-east of the Royal Welch, they have detailed to build the forward-area infrastructure that the offensive would depend upon.

Francis Ledwidge‘s biographer puts us with the men of his battalion, in support, questioning the only British soldiers they see who are likely to have some sense of how the battle is progressing.

All during the morning… the tide of wounded flowed back from the front line. Once again the stretcher-bearers had to raise their burdens shoulder-high as they sloshed along. Questioned how the day went, there was not much they could tell… All they could say was that the German front line of shell-craters was quickly taken, as it was manned by only scattered outposts. But immediately they found themselves in an inferno of gunfire as wave after wave of Germans came out against them, fighting like tigers.

Francis Ledwidge

Ledwidge and his comrades in reserve had been toiling since early morning at road-making…

There was a violent rainstorm in the afternoon, shrouding the region in a grey monochrome… Road-work could not be suspended, however, as the tracks were in use as fast as they were laid down. Tea was issued to the men and, drenched to the skin, they stopped to swallow it. A shell exploded beside Ledwidge and he was instantly killed.

There is no doubt about Ledwidge’s fate; the shell killed six other men and wounded many more. The battalion chaplain, Father Devas, was nearby, but still far too far away for last rites. He performed the burial service soon afterwards, and will write in his diary, tonight:

Ledwidge killed, blown to bits; at Confession yesterday and Mass and Holy Communion this morning. R.I.P.[11]

 

It was a battlefield burial, and not much like the one Ledwidge had described in “A Soldier’s Grave.”

Then in the lull of midnight, gentle arms
Lifted him slowly down the slopes of death,
Lest he should hear again the mad alarms
Of battle, dying moans, and painful breath.

And where the earth was soft for flowers we made
A grave for him that he might better rest.
So, Spring shall come and leave it sweet arrayed,
And there the lark shall turn her dewy nest.

 

Within a few miles and a few hours, Wales and Ireland lost their foremost war poets. Hedd Wyn was 30; Ledwidge, born half a year later, would have turned 30 in August. Both came from Celtic “peasant stock” and humble circumstances: Evans was one of nine children who survived infancy and left school at around the age of fourteen; Ledwidge, too, was one of nine children and left school perhaps a year earlier. Hedd Wyn stayed at home until conscription, but Ledwidge traveled–and only he crossed over into the language of the conquerors and received a lord‘s patronage and wide publication while he lived.

Each worked with their hands while working on their verse, and each will receive a posthumous epithet which confines their work even as it helps hold their place in collective memory: they were the Shepherd Poet and the Poet of the Blackbirds.

Each was looking forward to the reception of his latest work–Ledwidge’s second book, Hedd Wyn’s awdl for the Eisteddfod. Ledwidge, who had lost Ellie, wrote a last letter to Lizzie; Hedd Wyn, who had lost Lizzie, wrote a last letter to Jini. Both are buried, now, in Artillery Wood Cemetery.

Francis Ledwidge, who did not turn his poet’s pen toward the worst of the war, wrote these verses in February:

The silence of maternal hills
Is round me in my evening dreams;
And round me music-making bills
And mingling waves of pastoral streams.

Whatever way I turn I find
The path is old unto me still.
The hills of home are in my mind.
And there I wander as I will.

 

And Hedd Wyn wrote these lines about one of his friends who had gone before him to the war. It could have been for Ledwidge, almost, or, now, for himself:

Ceraist ti grwydro gwlwdydd pellenig,—             You loved to roam the distant lands
Y gwlwdydd sy ‘mhell tros y don;                           The countries beyond the sea,
Weithiau dychwelit i’th gartre mynyddig              Sometimes you’d return to your highland home,
A’th galon yn ysgafn a llon.                                    And so light of heart you’d be.

Gwelsom di ennyd cyn dychwel ohonot              We saw you awhile before you returned
I’r rhyfel sy’n crynu y byd;                                       To the war that makes the world quake,
Nodau y gwlatgar a’r beiddgar oedd ynot,           Bearing the marks so dearly bought
Y nodau sy’n costio mor ddrud.                              For your country and bravery’s sake.

Fe chwyth y corwynt tros fryniau Trawsfynydd    The storm rages over Trawsfynydd’s hills
O’th ôl fel yn athrist ei gainc;                                   After you, as if it would weep;
Tithau yng nghymni’r fataliwn ddi-hysbydd          You, who with numberless battalions in France
Sy’n cysgu’n ddi‑freuddwyd yn Ffrainc                   Lie there in a dreamless sleep.[12]

 

 

Does this strange practice of following a number of lives faithfully through their day-to-day progress, even to their deaths, help us see a perhaps-too-familiar war in a new light? Sometimes it doesn’t quite seem worth the effort. But on other days, even on sad days like this one, it does seem to intensify historical experience. And, yes, often in that familiar, bitterly ironic way.

What is to be done? Why are thoughtful young men from the green and pleasant hills of England’s first colonies (to say nothing of the thousands who came from England’s more recent and farther-flung colonies, essentially invisible in this project, or the English boys themselves) dying in Flanders? What good is it doing?

In England, the same papers that carried the news of the opening of the offensive at Pilckem Ridge carried news of yesterday‘s parliamentary questions about a certain unruly officer. Sassoon’s protest has fallen entirely between two battles. Inspired by Arras, it has lapsed during a quiet summer, and only the wake’s last mild ripple laps up against Passchendaele.

Robert Graves, now back at the Royal Welsh depot at Litherland, seems somewhat jealous of his friend’s publicity, however negative it is. (Only two newspapers will come out in support of Sassoon; others will mock him, dismiss him, or publish would-be exposés of his family history.)

My dear Sassons

…Well you are notorious throughout England now you silly old thing! Everybody here who’s been to France agrees with your point of view, but those that don’t know you think it was not quite a gentlemanly course to take: the ‘quixotic-English-sportsman’ class especially.’ But you have accomplished something I suppose… What a ridiculous business! I hope it won’t injure your poetry: and that old Gosse won’t think better of celebrating his protégé in the Edinburgh Review. I’m longing to get my Sorley back. Hurry up with it…

Poor devils at Pilkem![13]

 

Yes, the poor devils. Hedd Wyn and Francis Ledwidge would perhaps have written verse about the battle, if they had lived. Hedd Wyn surely would have; his war verse was very strong even before he had seen the war. But what could they have written about the attack itself? This war is beginning to produce great literature–small recompense for the suffering, but there is no way out of that moral-aesthetic fact–but it has yet to produce many good accounts of a major offensive. This is not surprising: it has always been very difficult first to make any sense of a battle and then represent it in words, let alone in verse. And it’s not getting any easier.

But Edmund Blunden, who is here and who will survive the day, will try. He wrote a poem (“Third Ypres”), a story (“Over the Sacks”), and he addressed the ongoing battle in the most harrowing chapter of his memoirs.

The story we will pass over (a page of the manuscript is at right, and it can be read in full at the First World War Poetry Digital Archive). And the poem is none of his best, not least because Blunden tries to describe the progress of the war, blow by blow. This is no wartime lyric, but an attempt, as it were, at a fragment of descriptive epic, something to fall between Vergil and Lucan.

It begins with the realization among the men of the writer’s battalion that the early stages of the attack are going well.

Triumph! How strange, how strong had triumph come
On weary hate of foul and endless war
When from its grey gravecloths awoke anew
The summer day. Among the tumbled wreck
Of fascined lines and mounds the light was peering,
Half-smiling upon us, and our newfound pride;
The terror of the waiting night outlived,
The time too crowded for the heart to count
All the sharp cost in friends killed on the assault.
No hook of all the octopus had held us,[14]
Here stood we trampling down the ancient tyrant.
So shouting dug we among the monstrous pits.

Amazing quiet fell upon the waste,
Quiet intolerable to those who felt
The hurrying batteries beyond the masking hills…

The War would end, the Line was on the move,
And at a bound the impassable was passed.
We lay and waited with extravagant joy.

This is verse, but it’s also historical witness. This is how the day went, for many of the battalions involved. The first waves did well, but the effort was impossible to sustain.

Now dulls the day and chills; comes there no word
From those who swept through our new lines to flood
The lines beyond? but little comes, and so
Sure as a runner time himself’s accosted.
And the slow moments shake their heavy heads,
And croak, “They’re done, they’ll none of them get through,
They’re done, they’ve all died on the entanglements,
The wire stood up like an unplashed hedge and thorned
With giant spikes — and there they’ve paid the bill.”

Then comes the black assurance, then the sky’s
Mute misery lapses into trickling rain,
That wreathes and swims and soon shuts in our world.

The rain happened that way too. Although the attack had been held back in the hopes that August would be drier than July, it began raining this afternoon and rained almost steadily for most of the next week. This rain was more than symbolic, but less than strategically decisive: the attack had failed to break through, so no matter how many Germans were killed, no matter how many guns were captured, it was already doomed to failure on the strategic level. The only remaining question is not strategic or tactical but attritional: there will be no breakthrough, but will one army or the other break?

Neither will collapse, yet, but no one could have known that for certain. Nevertheless, they could have guessed with more intelligence, or good sense, or pity. Instead, Haig and his staff will long press the question, on into an autumn of mud and misery and death.

Blunden’s account of today in Undertones of War begins with the Staff–but those who command the battle have already become irrelevant to its progress by the time it begins; another familiar irony. He improves on the poem in many ways, not least in allowing the generalized vision of battle to focus briefly–if distantly–on actual people. The runner is joined by captains and churls; the Thersites of the Royal Sussex and some of the far-off Captains of Contingents.

The hour of attack had been fixed by the staff much earlier than the infantry wanted or thought suitable. The night had passed as such nights often do, shelling being less than was anticipated, silent altogether at times. I suppose it was about 3:00 when I shook hands with Colonel Millward, mounted the black-oozing steps of battle headquarters in the burrows below Bilge Street, and got into the assembly ditch (Hornby Trench) with my signallers. It was thick darkness and slippery going, but we used an old road part of the way. Where we lay, there were in the darkness several tall tree stumps above, and it felt like a friendly ghost that watched the proceedings.

At 3:50, if I am right, shortly after Vidler had passed me growling epigrams at some recent shellburst which had covered him with mud, the British guns began; a flooded Amazon of steel flowed roaring, immensely fast, over our heads, and the machine-gun bullets made a pattern of sharper sound and maniac language against that diluvian rush. Flaring lights, small ones, great ones, went spinning sideways in the cloud of night; one’s eyes seemed not quick enough; one heard nothing from one’s shouting neighbour, and only by the quality of the noise and flame did I know that the German shells crashing among the tree stumpswere big ones and practically on top of us. We moved ahead, found No Man’s Land a comparatively good  surface, were amazed at the puny tags and rags of once multiplicative German wire, and blundered over the once-feared trench behind them without seeing it. Good men as they were, my party were almost all half-stunned by the unearthliness of our own barrage, and when two were wounded it was left to me to bandage them in my ineffective way. The dark began to be diluted with day, and as we went on we saw concrete emplacements, apparently unattended to as yet, which had to be treated with care and suspicion; I was well satisfied to find them empty. And indeed the whole area seemed to be deserted. German dead, so obvious at every yard of a 1916 battlefield, were not to be seen. We still went ahead, and the mist whitened into dawn; through it came running a number of Germans — a momentary doubt; no — “Prisoners!” shouted my batman. A minute more, and my advanced guard of signallers had come into touch with the companies, digging in along their captured objective. Meanwhile, I went ahead to see all the mist allowed; there were troops of our brigade advancing through the lines of men consolidating shell holes, and with map before me I could recognize some of the places which we had certainly captured. It seemed marvellous, for the moment! All ours — all these German trenches. Caliban Support, Calf Avenue, Calf Reserve. But, stay — even now a pity looks one in the face, for these trenches are mostlymere hedges of brushwood, hurdles, work for a sheep-fold, with a shallow ditch behind; and they have been taking our weeks of gunfire in these!

The sympathy actually occurred to me, but was soon obliterated by the day’s work and an increase in the German gunfire upon us. The passage of the tanks through our position was thought to be the reason, for as these machines wheeled aside from the pits where our men were digging, heavy shells came down with formidable accuracy. Besides, the enemy must have captured our operation maps with all the stages of advance displayed. I remember that I was talking with somebody about one “Charlie” Aston, an officer’s servant, who had been running here and there to collect watches from German dead. He had just returned to his chosen shell hole, with several
fine specimens, when a huge shell burst in the very place. But not much notice was taken, or elegy uttered, for everywhere the same destruction threatened. And Tice and Collyer were already killed—news as yet failing to have its full painfulness in the thick of things.

The battalion headquarters soon advanced from the old British front line, still conspicuous with the tall tree stumps, and crushed itself into a little concrete dugout with a cupola over it, formerly used for a perfect survey of the British defences. Road-making parties had lost no time and, strung out among the shellbursts, were shovelling and pummelling tracks across old No Man’s Land.

These men might be Ledwidge and his companions–except that they are in a neighboring division. The road they’ve made allow the staff–not the Olympian General Staff but its least august and most local branch office–to see the battle.

And then the brigade headquarters came, beautiful to look upon, and their red tabs glowed out of several shell holes. This was more than the German observers could endure, and in a short time there was such a shower of high explosive on that small area that the brains of the brigade withdrew, a trifle disillusioned, to the old British trenches. Another shower, and a more serious and incontestable one, was now creeping on miserably over the whole field. It was one of the many which caused the legend, not altogether dismissed even by junior officers, that the Germans could make it rain when they wanted to. Now, too, we were half aware that the attack had failed farther on, and one more brilliant hope, expressed a few hours before in shouts of joy, sank into the mud.[15]

This is life-history, or personal prose–but it seems to fit the battle. Or, at least, what the battle will become.

 

But that too is taking liberties with historiography. It was not raining in the morning, and the Germans did not make it rain–nor were all the staff’s objectives impossible to obtain. Can one attempt more traditional battlefield historiography, on a day like today?

Just to the left of the Royal Welch Fusiliers’ 38th Division were the Guards, including the Second Irish Guards, whose official historian, already on the job a century back, was Rudyard Kipling.

July 31st opened, at 3.30 a. m., with a barrage of full diapason along the army front, followed on the Guards sector by three minutes of “a carefully prepared hate,” during which two special companies projected oil-drums throwing flame a hundred yards around, with thermit that burned everything it touched. The enemy had first shown us how to employ these scientific aids, and we had bettered the instruction.

His barrage in reply fell for nearly an hour on the east bank of the canal. Our creeping barrage was supposed to lift at 4 a. m. and let the two leading battalions (2nd Irish Guards and 1st Scots Guards) get away; but it was not till nearly a quarter of an hour later that the attack moved forward in waves behind it. Twelve minutes later, Nos. 1 and 2 Companies of the Battalion had reached the first objective (Cariboo and Cannon trenches) “with only one dead
German encountered”; for the enemy’s withdrawal to his selected line had been thorough. The remaining companies followed, and behind them came the 1st Coldstream, all according to schedule; till by 5.20 a. m. the whole of the first objective had been taken and was being consolidated, with very small loss…

About half-past five, Colonel Greer, while standing outside advanced Battalion Headquarters dug-out in the first objective line, was killed instantly by shrapnel or bullet. It was his devoted work, his arrangement and foresight that had brought every man to his proper place so far without waste of time or direction. He had literally made the Battalion for this battle as a steeple-chaser is made for a given line of country. Men and officers together adored him for his justice, which was exemplary and swift; for the human natural fun of the man; for his knowledge of war and the material under his hand, and for his gift of making hard life a thing delightful. He fell on the threshold of the
day ere he could see how amply his work had been rewarded…

No Greek heroes here, but a Moses out of the grimmer warfare of the Hebrew Bible–they did it first, and we will do it more ruthlessly and competently. And he falls within sight of the promised land.

And here’s a strange if superficial coincidence: on a day when the Sassoon family is being dragged through the tabloids (Siegfried, though he was baptized and raised as an Anglican and identified with his maternal family–the eminently English Thornycrofts–descended from a prominent Sephardic Jewish mercantile clan) in search of their scion’s wretched anti-militarism, a half second cousin, Reginald Ellice Sassoon, is credited with speeding an important advance.

Lieutenant Sassoon, commanding No. 3, got his Lewis-gun to cover a flank attack on the machine-gun that was doing the damage, took it with seven German dead and five wounded prisoners, and so freed the advance for the Scots Guards and his own company. As the latter moved forward they caught it in the rear from another machine-gun which had been overlooked, or hidden itself in the cleaning-up of Hey Wood.

Sassoon sent back a couple of sections to put this thing out of action (which they did) and pushed on No. 4 Company, which was getting much the same allowance from concrete emplacements covering machine-guns outside Artillery Wood…

All in all, the Irish Guards had been quite successful.

Indeed, they admitted among themselves — which is where criticism is fiercest — that they had pulled the scheme off rather neatly, in spite of their own barrages, and that the map and model study had done the trick. By ten o’clock of the morning their work was substantially complete. They had made and occupied the strong points linking up between their advanced companies and the final objectives, which it was the business of the other brigades to secure. As they put it, “everything had clicked…”

Successful, yet still costly:

…At three o’clock Father Knapp appeared at Battalion Headquarters — that most insanitary place — and proposed to stay there. It was pointed out to him that the shelling was heavy, accommodation, as he could see, limited, and he had better go to the safer advanced dressing-station outside Boesinghe and deal with the spiritual needs of his wounded as they were sent in. The request had to be changed to a reasonably direct order ere he managed to catch it; for, where his office was concerned, the good Father lacked something of that obedience he preached. And a few hours after he had gone down to what, with any other man, would have been reasonable security, news arrived that he had been mortally wounded while tending cases “as they came out” of the dressing-station. He must have noticed that the accommodation there was cramped, too, and have exposed himself to make shelter for others…

The toll is taken: three officers, including the C.O. (but not the chaplain) killed, and three wounded. More paths cross here: Lady Dorothie Feilding‘s brother “Peter” (Henry) was a captain in the Coldstream Guards, and she will spend much of the rest of her honeymoon seeking news of him before finally learning that he is safe, for the moment–his battalion was in reserve. But as they use “their contacts in Flanders” to try to get news by letter and telegraph, her new husband, late of the Irish Guards, will learn that “his 3 best friends” were all killed today, a century back–Sir John Dyer, Col. Greer, and “Father Knapps who was to have married us.”[16]

Casualties in other ranks came to 280, a large part due to machine-gun fire. It was a steadying balance-sheet and, after an undecided action, would have been fair excuse for a little pause and reconstruction. But a clean-cut all-
out affair, such as Boesinghe, was different, though it had been saddened by the loss of an unselfish priest who feared nothing created, and a commanding officer as unselfish and as fearless as he…

Greer’s insistence that the men should know the model of the ground, and their officers the aeroplane maps of it, and his arrangements whereby all units could report lucidly at any moment where they were, had brought them success. So, with 50 per cent, of their strength gone, and the dismal wet soaking the stiff survivors to the bone, they hobbled about, saying, “If he were only here now to see how he has pulled this off!”[17]

Pilckem ridge, a bloody, partial success–or at least a qualified failure–is over. But the larger monstrosity known as Third Ypres has only begun; Passchendaele is coming…

 

We’ll close today with two more participants–our two most assiduous diarists–both in the British rear. Kate Luard, ready and waiting for the first torn bodies, wrote in her diary at the beginning and the end of the day.

4.15 a.m. …We crept out on to the duckboards and saw. It was more wonderful and stupendous than horrible…

6.30 a.m. We have just begun taking in the first cases…

Same day, 11 p.m. We have been working in the roar of battle every minute since I last wrote… Soon after 10 o’clock this morning he began putting over high explosive. Everyone had to put on tin-hats and carry on… no direct hits but streams of shrapnel, which were quite hot when you picked them up… we were so frantically busy that it was easier to pay less attention to it.

It doesn’t look as if we should ever sleep again…[18]

Luard’s forward hospital dealt with hundreds of abdominal wounds, saving many, perhaps, who would have died on the way to the usual Casualty Clearing Stations. If Hedd Wyn’s wound had only been a little less severe, if it had only been possible for the overburdened stretcher bearers to go farther and faster…

 

But just as Luard worked all day to save the broken bodies, the Master of Belhaven worked all day to break more. That’s in the nature of artillery work.

We… have fired without stopping all day… we have not got as far as was intended just here, I have only seen about a couple of hundred German prisoners, but I believe a great many have been taken. They have no doubt gone back by a different route. On the other hand, I believe we have done very well up to the North…

This is true–both the French advance and the near-achievement of the “Green Line” goal by the Guards and the 38th Division were accounted successes. But ground gained still must be weighed against the flesh and blood it cost. Hamilton summarizes the reports filtering back from the wounded infantry: “I am afraid our casualties have been very heavy.” As for his own batteries, it will not be a one-sided battle for long.

Very few shells have come over us to-day as we expected. During the actual attack the hostile artillery devote themselves to the infantry. Our hard time will come to-morrow.[19]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. By which he means the night of July 30-31st; and he's jumping the gun just a bit on the rain...
  2. Love and the Loveless, 218-19.
  3. As Williamson did, until he went sick and was sent to Cornwall to recuperate.
  4. The cool old officer whom David Jones had so recently glimpsed striding the parapet.
  5. Llwyd, The Story of Hedd Wyn, 93-115. Alan Llwyd has weighed the various testimonies about Hedd Wyn's death, and I follow his reconstruction of the most probable sequence of events.
  6. Trans. Howard Huws.
  7. It's more than possible that I have just missed this. If not--if no one figured this out during Jones's long life and told him about it--then it's a striking and somewhat sad slipped stitch in the patchwork of Great War literature. Jones worked for years to learn enough Welsh to integrate its myths and history into his war epic, and even if he would not, perhaps, have been unduly impressed by the mere coincidence of proximity in space and time, he might, if he had known that a chaired bard had been killed in his own battalion, have thought more about contemporary Welsh poetry and its place in a British accounting of France and Flanders. Or not--there are many things I do not understand about Welsh-language culture a century back--and now--and about the political and cultural complexities of translation. Do Welsh poets claim David Jones--or, rather, do they honor his application for honorary membership in their ranks--for his ancestry, artistry, and benign intent? Does the resurgence of Welsh culture after devolution mean that Hedd Wyn has been annexed, to some degree, away from some more pure bardic/local identity and flattened into a "heritage" figure, half Welsh Rupert Brooke and half Welsh Wilfred Owen? I wish I had started on this particular thread a bit earlier...
  8. This also accounts for all officers becoming casualties--a disproportionate number would have been held back. but still...
  9. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 159-63.
  10. The Sleeping Lord, 100-111.
  11. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 188.
  12. Trans. Howard Huws
  13. In Broken Images, 80.
  14. This line recalls--or rather foreshadows--the closing lines of Undertones of War.
  15. Undertones of War, chapter 21.
  16. Lady Under Fire, 219. The misspelling--"Knapps"--is presumably Lady Dorothie's.
  17. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 193-8.
  18. Unknown Warriors, 133-4.
  19. War Diary, 356-7.

Peace Under the Stars for Ivor Gurney; A Box Barrage for the Irish Guards

The recent protagonists are all quiet today. Instead we have two brief and sharply contrasting bits: a moment of peace and the worst of the war’s “hate.”

Ivor Gurney will write, tomorrow to Marion Scott, describing an evening of quiet beauty:

Last night there was a pure colourless October Sunlight, and I could smell apples in the Minsterworth orchards and feel for a moment that soon we should go in and company with Bach, to talk of books and things of peace. How later I should go swiftly under the night towards Orion, home; there to smoke and read myself sleepy, and not to go upstairs till just this side of unconsciousness.[1]

 

The Irish Guards had a different sort of evening, and their Regimental historian–Rudyard Kipling–makes it stand in for all the nastiest experiences of the war of attrition, in this its late phase of intense and highly accurate artillery fire.

On the 14th of July there was a German raid, preceded by an hour’s “box” barrage of trench mortars, .77’s, and machine-guns, on two platoons of No. 4 Company then in the front line behind the canal. A shrapnel-barrage fell also on the supports. A “box” barrage is a square horror of descending fire cutting off all help, and ranks high among demoralising experiences. Luckily, the line was lightly held, and the men had more or less of cover in dug-outs and tunnels in the canal bank. A Lewis-gun post in a covered emplacement, almost on the bed of the canal itself, was first aware, through the infernal racket, of Germans crossing the canal, and fired at them straight down the line of its bed. They broke and disappeared in the rank weed-growth, but there was another rush over the parapet of the line between two sentry groups in the firing bays. The trenches were alive by then with scattered parties stumbling through the black dark, and mistaking each other for friends or enemies, and the ruin of the works added to the confusion. As far as can be made out, one officer, Lieutenant H. J. B. Eyre, coming along what was left of a trench, ran literally into a party of the enemy. His steel helmet and revolver, all chambers fired, were found afterwards near the wreck of a firing-bay, but there was no other trace. It was learned later that he had been mortally wounded and died that evening. In trench-raids, when life, death, or capture often turn on a step to the left or the right, the marvel was that such accidents were not more frequent.

A wounded German was captured. He had no marks of identification, but said he belonged to a Schleswig regiment, and that the strength of the raid was intended to be two hundred. It did not, as the men said, “feel” anything like so many, though the wild lights of explosion that lit the scene showed large enemy parties waiting either in the bed of the canal or on the opposite bank. These, too, vanished into the dark after their comrades in the trenches had been turned out. Probably, it was but an identification fray backed by a far-reaching artillery “hate” that troubled all the back-areas even up to Elverdinghe.

Our front-line casualties in the affair were but one officer and one man missing and one wounded. Yet the barrage blew the men about like withered leaves, covered them with mud, plastered them with bits of sand-bags, and gapped, as it seemed, fathoms of trench at a stroke, while enemy machine-guns scissored back and forth over each gap. The companies in the support-line who watched the affair and expected very few to come out of it alive, suffered much more severely from the shrapnel-barrage which fell to their share.[2]

So only a few men died, or were torn by all this airborne metal. But Kipling makes it clear that helpless terror takes a heavy toll even on those who are physically untouched.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 175.
  2. The Irish Guards in the Great War, I, 198-9.

Siegfried Sassoon is Signed and Sealed; Duff Cooper is Beside Himself; The Irish Guards in a Doll House Garden

Topographical models are becoming something of a theme, as well as an irresistible literary device. They might stand for the increasing professionalism and preparation of the British staff, or–just as well–for the monstrously perverse allocation of time and skill that this war of attrition has demanded: pilots, photographers, surveyors, cartographers, and skilled artisans and artists devote themselves to producing detailed simulacra so that they next costly and non-war-winning assault can be rehearsed in precise detail.

But will the models actually help? We seen some of our officers ratifying the idea, and others doubting it. And how about Rudyard Kipling‘s Irish chorus?

His Majesty the King came on the 6th July to watch a brigade attack in the new formation. It was a perfect success, but the next week saw them sweated through it again and again in every detail, till “as far as the Battalion was concerned the drill of the attack was reduced almost to perfection.” In their rare leisure came conferences, map- and aeroplane-study, and, most vital of all, “explaining things to the N.C.O.’s and men.” They wound up with a model of a foot to a hundred yards, giving all the features in the Battalion’s battle area. The men naturally under-
stood this better than a map, but it was too small. (“‘Twas like a doll’s-house garden, and it looked you would be across and over it all in five minutes. But we was not! We was not!”)[1]

The follow-up question would be, then, whether the models helped less by making the visualization of tactical detail possible than by increasing confidence. But every false inflation of morale is a double or nothing gamble…

 

Duff Cooper, meanwhile, remains mired in misery.

July 6, 1917

…This morning I had a telegram from Diana saying ‘Be brave darling, already I feel derelict’. I had indeed need of her exhortation. Never have I felt so miserable as this morning… There were really moments when I could have cried. The strangeness, roughness, and degradation of it all appalled me. I wrote to Diana and told her how unhappy I was. The worst of all was to think that these lovely summer months which I ought to be spending with her are being wasted.[2]

Now that does sound horrifically spoiled, privileged… even weak. Which is to say that I am grateful for the publication of diaries (intrusive? perhaps, but remember how Duff behaved with Diana’s diary!) as an antidote to too many well-managed memoirs. This is how he felt, privately–and precisely today–a century back. It’s something quite close to emotional history…

So let Duff write exultantly of sexual farces at house parties, idealistically about love, frankly about the allure of war, and despondently about the lumpy beds and sad loneliness of training camp… it will be interesting reading.

 

Lastly, today, the continuing story of Siegfried Sassoon. There is no diary entry today–in fact he will be abandoning his diary for some time. Which is, frankly, quite a blow. We will now have no way of keeping tabs on him except through the letters of his many friends, the letters of the new friends he will shortly make, the letters of his literary frenemies, the memoirs of his many friends, his doctor’s notes, his several appearances in major newspapers and journals, an insightful later novel, his own memoir, and his other memoir.

But I digest.

Sassoon did write something in his diary today, a century back: he copied into it a letter that he has just posted.

If it has been a meandering journey from decorated officer to military rebel, this, today, was much the most firm of several hesitantly fateful recent steps.

Copy of letter to the C.O of the Third R.W.F. Sent off July 6th.

I am writing you this private letter with the greatest possible regret. I must inform you that it is my intention to refuse to perform any further military duties. I am doing this as a protest against the policy of the Government in prolonging the War by failing to state their conditions of peace.

I have written a statement of my reasons, of which I enclose a copy. This statement is being circulated. I would have spared you this unpleasantness had it been possible.

My only desire is to make things as easy as possible for you in dealing with my case, I will come to Litherland immediately I hear from you, if that is your wish.

I am fully aware of what I am letting myself in for.[3]

There are several unlikely statements in that letter–but the last sentence stands out among them in its naiveté.

Sassoon will now also begin informing his eminent friends, but not as swiftly, and not all at once…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Kipling, the Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 129.
  2. Diaries, 55.
  3. Diaries, 177.

Edward Thomas Can’t Stay to Tea; Kate Luard Plates her Moss; Bob Hermon Admires the New Knights; Covering the Retreat with Rudyard Kipling and Charles Carrington; St. Patrick’s Day in France and Revolution in England

The bad nights are spreading, a century back. From the Somme north to Arras, where Edward Thomas is roiled by nightmares.

A horrible night of bombardment, and the only time I slept I dreamt I was at home and couldn’t stay to tea… Then the most glorious bright high clear morning… A beautiful day, sunny with pale cloudless sky and W. wind, but cold in O.P. Clear nightfall with curled, cinerous cloud and then a cloudless night with pale stains in sky over where Bosh is burning a village or something…[1]

 

No, that’s not right–nightmares aren’t the real story. Most of our hardy souls are doing what they can to treat late winter as if it might be early spring. Kate Luard likes nothing better than wildflowers (especially if she can take a long walk and gather them herself), but an experienced Nursing Sister makes do.

Saturday, March 17th, and no sign of any buds out anywhere in these parts. I’ve got a plate of moss with a celandine plant in the middle, and a few sprouting twigs of honeysuckle that you generally find in January, and also a bluebell bulb in a jam tin…[2]

 

No, no, that’s not quite right either. Actually, many of our writers who are not yet engaged in combat are able to appreciate all that is traditional and right with the war. No need for winter or spring when chivalry abides! Any guesses whom Bob Hermon has just laid eyes on?

There’s been some wonderful air fights here today. There is a Hun who flies a bright scarlet machine & is real hot stuff. He seems to be a sort of star flyer & does most of the fighting. He is a real gallant fellow & we all admire him.[3]

The Red Baron himself.

 

But there is, of course, a ground war on. One of the reasons that Richtofen has been released to roam is that the German aircraft are getting their first crack at what will become a crucial task of tactical air power: covering the movement of infantry. Let’s step back two days (and south to the Somme) to see how the Guards are getting on with following up the German withdrawal:

Captain Alexander took our two forward companies… the German shelling was intense. They used 5.9’s and larger, as they were firing from a long way back. The trouble for the 2nd Irish Guards companies developed almost at once on their left, where their patrol was fired at by machine-guns from a German trench on the edge of the wood. Their own 1st Battalion, trying to push out of Sailly-Saillisel, was hung up, too — they heard and saw it — for the same reason. The Division could have driven through at the cost of fairly heavy casualties, but nothing was to be gained by wasting men in rushes on hidden machine-guns that can lay out thirty good lives in two minutes. The Scots Guards got on into the wood without much trouble at first, till they, too, ran on snipers between tree-stumps and up and down the defaced trenches, or opened some single machine-gun slinking from cover to cover. It was all slow “feeling,” with alternating advances at walking pace, and long checks — “something like drawing a gorse for wolves instead of foxes…”

As they worked their way more into St. Pierre Vaast Wood came the sensation, which there was no mistaking, that they were being played with by the Hun, and losing touch as he intended them to do. Certain vital trenches would be controlled by a few snipers and machine-guns; a sunk road offering shelter would be plastered with heavies, and a full company would be held in it, digging for more cover, by dead accurate long-range fire; while far and far behind the orderly German withdrawal of the main body continued in peace.

On the 17th March, for example, “we were never really in touch with the enemy’s rear-guard during the day except for one or two snipers…”

Which brings this narrative-of-a-period to today. But a little analysis of the general effectiveness of the German withdrawal is worth our while, too:

Here is the comment of the time and the place on our advance: “The German retreat was conducted very skilfully. One cannot say that we caused them to leave one position an hour before they intended. They inflicted upon us a considerable number of casualties (twenty in this battalion, while on our left the 1st Battalion lost considerably more). On the other hand, we saw no evidence that in the actual retirement we had even damaged one German. They left little or nothing behind.”

And the professional judgment is equally fair. “But of course it must be remembered that the task of the (German) regimental officers was an easy one, however difficult it may have been for the Staff. Given time, there is no difficulty in withdrawing battalions from trenches by night, for a few snipers and machine-gunners, knowing the ground, and retreating from trench to trench, can hang up an advance indefinitely unless the troops advancing have strong reserves and are prepared for heavy losses.”

This last was not our situation… things had to be done as cheaply as possible…

We are generally in sure hands when Rudyard Kipling takes up the military narrative–this is a work of memorial devotion, remember, and he suppresses his polemical opinions unless he feels that they are an echo of the those of the officer corps he is writing about. But we are in excellent hands when the worst of the war must be invoked on the scale of the battalion history–neither pointillistically subordinated to a grand narrative nor awash in the subjectivities of the personal.

The advance of the Second Irish Guards

…led them into a stale hell which had once been soil of France but was now beyond grace, hope, or redemption. Most of the larger trees in St. Pierre Vaast were cut down, and the smaller ones split by shell or tooth-brushed by machine-gun fire. The ground was bog, studded with a few island-like formations of fire-trench, unrevetted, unboarded, with little dug-outs ten or twelve feet deep, all wet and filthy. There were no regular latrines. Numberless steel helmets and heaps of stick-bombs lay about under foot. The garrisons must have been deadly uncomfortable, and there was good evidence that the enemy had economised men beyond anything that we dared. The ground had been cut to bits by our fire, and in one place yawned what had been a battery position wiped out, unseeing and unseen, weeks ago, as the dead teams round it testified. Very few booby-traps were left behind. The Battalion lost only five men in all through this cause.[4]

 

After several nights in No Man’s Land as patrols pushed into the old German lines, Charles Carrington too learned, today, how successful the German withdrawal had been:

This time, the morning of the 17th March, they really had gone. My captain went forward for orders and presently sent me back word to bring the company over the top, by daylight… to the German front line.

I cannot explain the consternation caused by this order. For two years no one had raised a hand over the parapet by daylight unless in the stress of battle and covered by an artillery barrage. Tired as we were… we were exhilarated. Open fighting had come…

It had not, of course, but Carrington remembers the high mood of the next few days as they pursued the Germans east toward the new line of defenses–which the British officers all knew of, of course, even if they could not realize its strength. There was the thrill of moving and of seeing cavalry units trotting about over open country. But this was not a victory:

The main German forces had gone when we moved forward, having burnt every house, blown up every church, public building and ancient monument, broken every bridge and culvert, mined every crossroads, polluted every well. They had carried away all the able-bodied men and women into captivity, leaving the old and feeble concentrated in one or two villages; and–which seemed to distress the French most–they had even found time to ring-bark the apple-trees in the cider orchards. The country was dead, laid waste with a destructive fervour worse than anything in the Thirty Years War… When we marched into Peronne… we saw a huge notice erected on the town hall: ‘NICHT ARGERN NUR WUNDERN’, ‘Don’t be angry, only wonder!’ Indeed it puzzled us a good deal. We were not angry but delighted that so large a region of France should be liberated and if we had any astonishment left it was at the ingenuities of German barbarity. What they had not destroyed they had defiled…

The sequel is not prettier, and it is a good deal bloodier than Kipling’s account of the Irish Guards:

On the first day we lost two officers from my mess, one shot by a German sniper when leading the advance guard, the other caught by a booby trap. In a German dugout he had sat down in a chair and had drawn it up to the table, thus igniting the fuse of a concealed bomb…[5]

 

So it goes. In the strangeness of this advance, many things are forgotten. What was missing from Kipling’s account of the Irish Guards today? (Other than deadly booby traps, which surely varied by location).

It says something about the English perspective of the officers that St. Patrick’s Day went unmentioned in the history of an Irish unit. Not so with the First Inniskillings, out of the line resting near Corbie after several days of following the German withdrawal, and counting among their number the poet Francis Ledwidge:

In the morning there was an issue of shamrock to all the Irishmen. The Australians, who happened to be going into action that day, also asked for shamrock and wore it in their caps. Most of the forenoon was taken-up with a church
parade…  In the afternoon, the Inniskilling fife and drum band played in the village to the great delight of the French children, who crowded around them. The men got up a concert for themselves in the afternoon. The officers went into Corbie, that night for dinner. The rations were greatly stepped up in honour of the feast and there was a good dinner too, in the mess, after which most of the men also went into town to sample the estaminets. These kept
open very late, as they did on Christmas Day. Despite the army concessions, however, commemorating their patron saint in such a setting inevitably made the Irishmen melancholy.[6]

 

And here’s a good example of why I hardly mention (or don’t cover at all, really) grand strategy and international affairs, despite their enormous influence on the war: their immediate effects are almost never felt by fighting soldiers. But here’s a strange example, in a tale told by the officer currently narrating in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle of the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers. He began a long-awaited leave today, a century back, taking a train to the coast and then a boat for England:

We had a fine crossing–to what? On debarking we were ordered to report at once to our local police, and be in readiness for any emergency.

Uniquely, the officers on leave found themselves marshaled to deal with expected unrest, as the government feared a rising in sympathy with the early stages of the Russian Revolution. There is sympathy, at first, in the officer’s voice–“the political air was sharpened” by privation and the wealth of war profiteers, by “the slaughter of the Somme.” And then much less sympathy: the conclusion, looking back from a later point in time, is that a wicked alliance of convenience has formed between armchair theorist liberals and trade unionists that will pressure the government into foolish concessions “to the serious hurt of the Army.”[7]

 

That is surely enough for today–unless you would prefer to close the day with Edward Thomas, in a quiet mood, writing a long letter to his wife Helen, and reflecting in relative tranquility on last night’s anxieties.

17 March 1917 Arras

Dearest

This has been quite a good day at the O.P. [Observation Post] and after a bad night of heavy shelling. The morning was bright and clear and all day long the sun shone and the sky has been pale and without a cloud. I have been drawing little panoramas.

Those I had done last time are more interesting now because the Old Hun has been destroying many of the buildings on the skyline. Tonight he is burning something away in that direction. The sky is lit up with two big glows beyond the crest. It hasn’t been tedious at all, and now we are installed in our dug out which hardly anything could penetrate. It is so small that if one moves the other five have to.

I am wondering if a letter has come for me at last. I think in any case I will keep this till I do hear, though Bronwen’s letter implied that there was nothing abnormal.

To cram this little room still more the men insisted on dragging in one of the box spring mattresses from the other place. They had to cut it to fit it in at all, and now three of us are sitting on it; we have a door up, a fire going, one candle alight and can only hear the rustle of a Daily Mail.

Now it is 11 p.m. I have to be awake till 12. Then I sleep until 6 unless I am wanted which I shall be unless the night is quite quiet. So far there has only been a distant roll now and then as I sat reading ‘Julius Ceasar’, warm in front because of the fire, cold behind because of a door leading up into the street.

I dreamt (almost for the first time since I left home) last night — a very feeble dream, that I was at home but did not stay to tea.

I don’t know who was there. I was a sort of visitor and I could not stay to tea. I think Baba asked if I wouldn’t stay to tea.

Every hour the telephonist tests the line to see if it is O.K. He has just done it and there is another hour to go before I begin to lie on those very bouncy springs…[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 170.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 101.
  3. For Love and Courage, 338.
  4. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 120-1.
  5. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 138-42. Carrington, writing later, is careful--I think that's an appropriate qualification--to represent the innocence/confidence that still obtained, in his experience, in 1917, and only a few paragraphs after the booby traps he is making claims once again for the effectiveness (and gloriousness) of cavalry...
  6. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 173-4.
  7. The War the Infantry Knew, 304-5.
  8. Letters to Helen, 84-7.

Edwin Vaughan Completes a Horrible Task; Probing the German Withdrawal with Henry Williamson, Charles Carrington, and Kipling’s Irish; Kate Luard’s Combat Boots

As last night turned to today, a century back, Edwin Vaughan and his men worked to exhume the bodies of the four men entombed in their dugout, including Sergeant Bennett, brother of the Corporal Bennett who had been killed the day before. It was a gruesome task, and slow, and under intermittent German trench mortar fire.

…it was early morning when we got them all out… we buried them in shell-holes and walled in the dugouts with earth and sandbags,…

As we left the cellar and climbed out on to the top I was forced to pause and moralize, gazing over the vaguely visible line of trench: to think of the mad fate which dragged simple, kind-hearted men into these nights of terror and destruction. Mostly my mind was occupied with the third Bennett who was by now waiting at our transport lines. I pictured him returning with messages from home fro his two brothers… From where I stood I could faintly see the roughness of the ground which marked where they were lying a hundred yards apart.

But life goes on. The battalion is relieved today–in both the military and the psychological senses–and by the time dawn broke, they “were safe.”

We were out of the mud and muck, away from the bombs and shells, the rain and darkness, the blood and smells. Out in the free air where we could walk erect and talk aloud. The wonderful freedom drove away our weariness and our hunger; with our heavy packs we ran and jumped over shell-holes, laughed and sang and drawing our revolvers potted at birds which shrugged their shoulders and flew off. When a GS waggon met us and the driver said that he had been sent to carry us back, we laughed merrily, telling him to go on and pick up our troops and we would be at Eclusier two hours before him.[1]

 

Charles Carrington‘s memoirs are excellent–a prominent member of the second team of Great War all-stars–but very short on dates. This winter his 1/5th Warwickshires have been holding trenches near the southern end of the British line, on the River Somme itself, and Carrington provides undated descriptions of cold in the trenches and tense patrols over the ice of No Man’s Land. His battalion has lately been in reserve, but today, a century back, they are going up to attend to a new task: probing the recent German withdrawal. Carrington is notably level-headed, which makes him a good source to prove a point that comes up several times this week, namely the relative importance, to our writers, of grand strategic/political events on the one hand and local affairs on the other:

On 14th March, when we paraded to move up from Eclusier to the front line of Biaches, a communiqué from G.H.Q. was read out on parade. There had been a Revolution in Russia and the Liberals had seized power. The news was applauded, since we supposed that Russia would now have a constitution like our own with the consequence that their war effort would be better managed. World politics faded out of our consciousness as we applied ourselves to the questions whether, and how the Boches would retire. The only way to find out was to send an officer to look. If they shot him dead we should know they were still there.[2]

We’ll pick that up tomorrow–the method of probing forward, that is, rather than the political news–but the signs are good: just a few miles to the north, the Guards Division had sent out just such an officer’s patrol, and it was reported that the German front line was abandoned. At dusk the 2nd Irish Guards were taking over the German trenches they had lately been facing…[3]

 

Henry Williamson is a few miles to the north, working to supply his Machine Gun Company as they push forward in support of infantry units like Carrington’s.

Dear Mother

I am pipped a bit in left arm otherwise OK, am not going to hospital, all right in a week. Sures we’ve had an awful time. We have pushed the Ger back some…

What happened to the wise boy of a few weeks ago, who warned his mother against believing that the withdrawal constituted a victory? For that matter, why is there no mention of this tiny wound in his diary?

Williamson’s only constant is a nervous toggling between various incompatible states of mind. This letter, for instance, goes on to exaggerate the German bombardment and then to chide his mother for her epistolary shortcomings: “All your letters are the same try & vary them old thing.”

But I will give young Henry credit for a positive change: his last letter featured some really terrible pseudo-Romantic verse. This one included a sheet of pleasantly peppy doggerel:

Mid the thunder of the cannon, as the dusk of evening falls,
And the star shells hang and glitter thro’ the broken shell-scarred walls.
In the corner by the brazier, on an empty biscuit case
Sits a lonely English soldier with the firelight on his face…

There are eight more verses describing the beloved face that the soldier imagines in the fire… which are made awkward by the romantic style of address and the fact that an accompanying sketch seems to indicate that they are directed at his mother…[4]

 

It’s a little prim, I suppose, to follow Williamson with a more trustworthy local source… I didn’t really intend it that way! Luck of the daily draw, etc.. Nevertheless, Kate Luard–who would be tenderly amused by a vulnerable young officer like Williamson, but not so far as to stand for his self-serving disingenuousness–can at least confirm the mud:

Wednesday, March 14th. Pouring cats and dogs all night and most of the day; quagmires everywhere. I have got officer’s gumboots now from Ordnance, big enough for me to wear two pairs of men’s socks over my stockings, and therefore possible to wear all day without getting trench feet…

The other five sisters arrived to-day… They are good children and are only amused at the mud, and the ration butter, and lamps instead of fires, and no baths…[5]

 

And finally, today, a meta-war note: we’re not quite at the thousandth day of the war, but, due to the handful of run-up posts in the spring and early summer of 2014 this is, according to the little tally on my “dashboard” screen, the 1,000th post on A Century Back… and I am free to imagine that somewhere some brave soul is up on a ladder putting the cross-stroke into their two-hundredth cluster of tally marks…

I really should have provided, at the very least, some sort of merit badge template to be downloaded, printed, and colored in by any readers who have read all thousand… apologies. But then again not preparing for what lurks in the future is an important principle, here. Nevertheless, whenever you began reading, thank you for doing so, and I do hope you’ll stay on for the duration…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 48-50.
  2. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 137-8.
  3. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 119.
  4. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 95-6.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 100-1.

Edward Thomas Writes Wearily to Robert Frost; Siegfried Sassoon Is Happily Alone; Kipling’s Irish Guards Blaze Away

Applying the idle speculations of sports fans to any non-sporting (or any not-actually-suitable-for-direct-competition) field of human expression is an activity to be looked upon with deep suspicion and only tentative toleration. List and lineups and grudge matches between thinkers and artists have been done well. But anyone who shares this interest in the hundreds of writers packed into this war-describing scrum has probably found him or herself arraying a skirmish line of the most effective poets or nominating winners for Best Ode, Pithiest Mud Piece, etc… so I will say that I am pleased when such arrangements fall neatly together out of my date-oriented dragnet.

Today we have three of the greatest of our two-way writers (each a poet and a master of at least one sort of prose) each struggling with the central relationship in his war writing. Which shall prove to be the master of his own deepest influence, and closest foe?

For Edward Thomas, this is Robert Frost, his great friend and the friendly goad to his muse. Thomas’s diary for the day is uneventful–except for the larks. And those other, noisy, ground-nesting dawn-climbers…

Bright and clear early and all day and warm at 1. Walked over to 244’s position with Colonel… listened to larks and watched aeroplane fights. 2 planes down, one in flames, a Hun. Sometimes 10 of our planes together very high. Shells into Arras in afternoon.[1]

Such a day left time for another letter. Thomas has long been hoping to hear from Frost, but, mired in what seems to be a depression of mild to middling severity, the sweetness of expectation has drained away. Will Frost’s state of mind seem bombastic and detached, now that Thomas is a fighting officer, a gunner on the front? Will Frost have succeeded in helping place “Edward Eastaway”‘s poems with an American publisher? Will he ever write?

Arras            6 March 1917

My dear Robert,

I still don’t hear from you, but I had better write when I can. One never knows. I have now been living 2 weeks in a city that is only 2400 yds from the enemy, is shelled every day and night and is likely to be heavily bombarded some day. Of course the number of shells that fall is larger than the number of casualties although the place is crowded and falling masonry helps the shells, but this does not really appeal to anything but the brains that may be knocked out by them. Nor is it consoling to know that the enemy has put shells into the orchard where the battery is and all round it without injuring anybody. However it may console those who are not out here…

Ouch. Did he mean it? If so, he is sorry, and lunges for a beautiful report from the front. Visiting observation posts has given him

a view of No Man’s Land like a broad river very clear and close…

We wept out yesterday morning to see the Gordons cross to raid the enemy but it was snowing and we only saw snow and something moving and countless shell bursts beyond. Our artillery made a roof over our heads of shells singing and shuffling along in shoals.—I return to the battery, a mile away, very soon now.

But why hide his mood? Or, rather, can he?

I have not a great deal to do as a rule. Long hours of waiting, nothing that has to be done and yet not free to do what I want, in fact not consciously wanting anything except, I suppose, the end.

Wisdom perhaps trickles in, perhaps not. There is nobody I like much, that is the worst of it. I don’t want friends. I don’t think I should like to have friends out here. I am sure I shouldn’t. But I want companions and I hardly expect to find them…

I have time to spare but I can’t talk. You don’t answer, and I am inhibiting introspection except when I wake up and hear the shelling and wonder whether I ought to move my bed away from the window to the inner side where there is more, masonry—more to resist and more to fall on me. But it is no use thinking like this. I am half awake when I do…

I hear my book is coming out soon. Did the duplicate verses ever reach you? You have never said so. But don’t think I mind. I should like to be a poet, just as I should like to live, but I know as much about my chances in either case, and I don’t really trouble about either. Only I want to come back more or less complete.

Goodbye. My dearest love to you all.,

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[2]

 

I have nothing to add to that harrowing last paragraph… except that I regret my flippant introduction to this post. And that I hope companionship awaits Thomas when he returns to his battery.

 

Siegfried Sassoon‘s most important relationship? Well, there was David Thomas; there’s Robert Graves, and there are other brother officers and a handful of older literary friends. He is lucky in his profusion of friends and admirers. But his most intense literary relationship is, of course, with himself. He is the master of binary vision, at once poet and life-writer, indoor Siegfried and outdoor Siegfried, effortlessly popular hale-fellow fighter and cynical loner, pacifist and mad jack, literary Sassoon and the carefully refracted, horsey “Sherston.” No one else in the war spends as much time writing about themselves from a position slightly to the side, and yet within, themselves.

Today, a century back, Sassoon watches himself watching the trees, contemplating the rain.

March 6th

It was raining to-night. I went out about 10, leaving the bridge-playing officers in their smoky hut—oh such a dreary lot of people! The pine-trees stood up dark and peaceful, looming against the pale sky where the moon was hid by clouds. The rain (that Sorley loved) was dripping quietly down, and there was the endless murmur of the wood like surf miles away. And the guns still rumbling at their damned bombardment. There’s a line of beeches by the path to the camp. They are silent, they’ve no night-music like the pines. They’re waiting to sing their April lyric of young leaves. Waiting to dress, themselves in their glory of green and luminous yellow. Trees are friendly things.

And I am very lucky to be able to find happiness so quickly. A few hundred yards and I am alone with the trees and the rain. So all is well. It is my evening prayer. And the war is of no importance as long as there are some trees left standing upright, with a clean wind to shake their branches. Beside these things, how grotesque and dull and licentious human nature appears. That mysterious life of growing things doesn’t seem to have any significance for it. A few slang phrases, war-shop, a woman, a plate of food, a glass of beer and a smoke, is that really all? I
can’t believe it.[3]

 

And for Rudyard Kipling that one driving relationship is with his boy Jack, dead, now, for well over a year, but fiercely, if tacitly, remembered through the work of writing his regiment’s history. Kipling is fine on the big battles, sure, but he is better on the daily life of proud men doing dangerous work.

On the 6th March, in snow and frost, they took over from the 1st Coldstream a new and unappetizing piece of front… It consisted of a line of “about twelve so-called posts which were practically little more than shell-holes.” The Coldstream had worked like beavers to get them into some sort of shape, but their predecessors had given the local snipers far too much their head; and the long flat-topped ridge where, under an almost full moon, every moving man offended the sky-line, was as unwholesome as could be desired. The Coldstream had lost six men sniped the night before their relief, and it was impossible to reach two of the posts at all. Another post was practically untenable, as the enemy had direct observation on to it, and one sniper who specialized in this neighbourhood had accounted for fourteen men in one tour. The Battalion settled down, therefore, to fire generously at anything that fired. It was noisy and, maybe, wasteful, but it kept the snipers’ heads down.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 168.
  2. Selected Letters, 145-6.
  3. Diaries, 142-3.
  4. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 118.

People Watching with Edward Thomas and Ivor Gurney

February never really dawns prettily, does it? It is perhaps not war’s cruelest month, but it may be the bleakest. As the month begins, Northern France and Belgium are in the midst of a long, hard cold snap. And if it were December or January there might be a reasonable hope, at least, for some mild weather and a period of relatively quiet winter duty. But it’s February, and any thaw might signal not just the exchange of ice for cold mud, but the possibility that the mud will give way, in only weeks, to major operations.

I don’t have a good “month poem” for February–most of our our poets are either poetically quiescent (which usually means they are on active duty) or doing an admirable job of dating their work, so there poems can be read on the day they were inspired or composed. But here, instead, is a suitably atmospheric sketch by David Jones, of a mill near the Scherpenberg, south of the Ypres Salient.[1]

But cruel accident keeps no monthly calendar, and we wouldn’t want to miss a grenade accident. This one is from Kipling‘s chronicle of the Irish Guards:

From the close of the month till the 19th of February they were in divisional reserve, all together at Ville in unbroken frost. While there (February 1), Lieutenant F. St. L. Greer, one of the best of officers and the most popular of comrades, was wounded in a bombing accident and died the next day.[2]

 

Edward Thomas will give us several new perspectives on the war in France. For one thing, he’s in the artillery; for another, he is poor. It must be difficult to be an officer who knows that any expenses he incurs will weigh on his children’s comfort, at home. But then again an officer’s mess provides a reasonably warm and inexpensive venue for one of the penniless writer’s great consolations–observing others in society.

Freezing and overcast… Battery on route march. I arrange to eat midday ration in tent to save lunch in Mess (2f.50). Guns and stores not here yet. Other officers mostly in Havre but my ankle prevents me. Down in lorry to Ordnance Store for field boots. Snow. Route march, but not for me. I write and censor letters. No fire in the mess till 3 p.m. Guns are coming today. Detachments reorganized.–Mess fills up.–Cockney rankers with two stars come in and drink standing and talk of Singapore and Pekin and duration officers look up. Some rapacious and sneering, some gentle. Read Sonnets.[3]

“Cockney rankers:” that is, pre-war enlisted men, from London, whose accents and references betray their origins. But they have two stars–they are full lieutenants–and thus outrank any new officers (ensigns or second-lieutenants), who have nearly all come from higher social classes and have been only a year or two in the army…  and let’s take “Read Sonnets” as a present imperative, not an abbreviated past statement…

 

We’ll close today with another letter from Ivor Gurney to Marion Scott.

1 February 1917

My Dear Miss Scott: Yes, back with the Batt; and doing the old dreary work, purposely designed to the breaking of hearts that the mud could not break. God reward the old sweats who run Army training in some suitable fashion of agony!

…this is a permanent stay, I think, for some weeks. The Black Prince did some stunt not far away, but one is too fed up in the Batt: to take walks for historys sake. By Jingo but it is cold! The cocoa dregs freeze in the messtins in
this old house, and most of us sleep almost in full kit…

But we know it’s cold! Something more writerly, please, Ivor. Ah yes, good: here’s a sketch of the men in his unit.

…There are six Gloucester-or-near and one Northerner, and on the whole despite the appalling language things go very smoothly with the crowd of us.

There is Ozzy, who has the sweetness of an angel, the Stretcherbearer corporal; certainly of Welsh blood, and certainly one of the nicest of men.

There is Don, never depressed, a corporal who mocks at all things military, and keeps his place because of his pluck, and would certainly have no stripes in the first B E F (Old Sweats Gang.)

Ac Emma, who is Brigade Bomb Store keeper — a lance corporal of extremely great powers of profanity.

Jem — who is really a nut. An old schoolmate of mine. Rather like Dick Swiveller in talk, and most india-rubbery as to feature. There is always laughter where Jem is, and usually at the Army.

Joe who is a lance corporal and Military Medallist. Also a bore, and the cleanest, most willing burnisher and brusher up in all the Company. (Curse him!) but a good sort.

And Dicky, a small Northern corporal of terrific energy and pluck, with the most wonderful eyes. His face shines with courage and chivalry, but as an old pit hand, his language. . . . is not to be taken seriously.

O, a good lot. And it will be nice to meet them in the after days, and talk over our past miseries together.

There is no Literary Supplement this week. Too much cleaning has dessicated my poetic vein…

Ah, but this sunlight, this cold, and these elms remind me so vividly of Minsterworth, and are so sharply different to the present business that I cannot get used to them. They and I are out of place.

Goodbye and all good wishes: Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This sentence was changed after a reader pointed out an egregious error on my part! Wrong Scherpenberg!
  2. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 115.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 158.
  4. War Letters, 124-5.

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

January 21

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Isaac Rosenberg is Feeling Poorly; Siegfried Sassoon Posts Robert Graves; Ivor Gurney on Severn and Somme; Olaf Stapledon on a Pleasure-Loving Prophet; The Irish Guards Break a Truce

All the poets are busy as bees, today. First, Isaac Rosenberg got a rare letter into the mail–to Eddie Marsh, of course. Each man is different, and Rosenberg may be both sickly and hypochondriac… yet it’s hard to see the predicaments of the soldier–as opposed to the officer–in Rosernberg’s worries. There is no question of leave, or of getting books published… Rosenberg has written a tremendous poem and learned that it has been published in a reputable periodical–but that news goes by in a line, and his lungs take up an entire paragraph… can Marsh get him away from the army?

[Postmarked January 18, 1917]
My Dear Marsh

My sister wrote me she would be writing to you. She’d got the idea of my being in vile health from you’re letter addressed to Dempsey St, and naturally they at home exaggerated things in their minds. Perhaps though it is not so exaggerated. That my health is undermined I feel sure of; but I have only lately been medically examined, and absolute fitness was the verdict. My being transfered may be the consequence of my reporting sick or not; I don’t know for certain. But though this work does not entail half the hardships of the trenches, the winter and the conditions naturally tells on me, having once suffered from weak lungs, as you know. I have been in the trenches most of the 8 months Ive been here, and the continual damp and exposure is whispering to my old friend consumption, and he may hear the words they say in time. I have nothing outwardly to show, yet, but I feel it inwardly. I don’t know what you could do in a case like this; perhaps I could be made use of as a draughtsman at home; or something else in my own line, or perhaps on munitions. My new address is

Pte I R 22311
7 Platoon F. Coy
40th Division
Works Battallion
B.E.F.

I wrote a poem some while ago which Bottomley liked so, and I want you to see it, but Im writing in most awkward conditions and can’t copy it now. ‘Poetry’ of Chicago printed a couple of my things and are paying me. I should think you find the Colonial Office interesting particularly after the war.

I hope however it leaves you leisure for literature; for me its the great thing.

Yours sincerely

Isaac Rosenberg[1]

 

So there we have some sharp contrast for another friend-of-Eddie, a man whose illness has brought him six months of hunting, writing, and semi-military idleness, with no objections from bureaucracies or medical boards. Siegfried Sassoon, today, is playing friend and writer, poet and patron. First the observation, then the work:

January 18

Gulls were flapping and calling; the tide was low; the sea level; ships—one full-rigged—and steamers and a liner slipped along, grey ghosts across the water, and the houses ashore were grey ghosts too—only they did not move. So I stood on the sandflats between the two with a quiet cloudy hazy sky overhead and a little frosty wind blowing the smoke from the north. Then the sun began to come out, as I stood on the huge, green-stained sewer-pipes, and the mud-flats were beaten-silver with level water creeping in as level as a sheet, and across the Mersey mouth the sea was shining pale coppery-gold. Then the sun went in again, and the arena of sand and sea was drab. And some soldiers flapped and wagged their signal-flags—tiny figures hundreds of yards away along the shore; crusted with melting ice.

This afternoon I sent Robert’s new poems to the Chiswick Press. Only nine of them—but the best work he has done, or will do for some time, I am afraid.

A Captain from the Second Battalion, on leave, was here last night. He said the soldiers in France regard the end of the war in the summer as certain. It will be a successful Push and victory, or else—failure and a patched-up peace![2]

This will be Goliath and David, a small private edition of Graves’s recent poems, and this will not be Sassoon’s last about-face on the likely outcomes of the war.

 

I suppose we might also have had updates on Edward Thomas or Wilfred Owen, but nothing much is going on with either of them. It’s only all the rest of the major war poets will all be represented today. I need Chrissie Hynde to ask the crowd if they can handle another guitar hero…

In this case, the next poet up is Ivor Gurney, writing once again to Marion Scott. The letter begins with a long, rambling discussion of poetry good and bad, dropping many familiar names. But then come two poems, sandwiched (pun intended) around the inevitable discussion of parcels, which are so much more important to enlisted men of limited means than they are to officers. But many war poets actually in the combat zone are more likely to think of home than the dangers and vicissitudes of their days. Poetry isn’t “escape,” but it is an act of meaningful remembering… and Gurney on the Somme resides in an intensely idyllic Gloucestershire.

 

Song

Only the wanderer
Knows Englands graces
Or can anew see clear
Familiar faces

And who loves Joy as he (Who loves fair joy as he?)
That dwells in-shadows?
Do not forget me quite,
O Severn meadows.

Your brown bread parcel came three days ago on the 7th. It was tres bon. Bread and biscuits first rate and most acceptable; particularly as the rations did not turn up one day. How good it was to get bread not dust dry to eat.  What is in the stuff to keep it grateful to eat?

 

West Country

Spring comes soon to Maisemore
And Spring comes sweet.
With bird-songs and blue skies,
On gay dancing feet
But she is such a shy lady
I fear we’ll never meet.

Some day round a comer
Where the hedge foams white
I’ll find Spring a-sleeping
In the young-crescent night
And seize her and make her
Yield all her delight.

But theres a glad story
That’s yet to be told.
Here’s grey Winters bareness
And no-shadowed cold

O Spring, with your music
Your blue, green, and gold!
Come shame this grey wisdom
With laughter and gold.

All these lispings of childhood do not prevent terrific strafing on the left, where Hell is apparently combined with the angry gods to make things thoroughly uncomfortable.

With Sassoon and Thomas it usually seems as if the poetry comes from an entirely different part of the brain, even when poetry and prose share the same notebook sheet. But Gurney’s poems-in-letters are remarkable documents. It’s true, of course, that no written work is historically “immediate:” everything is filtered as it is written down, even if only seconds elapse. But rarely do we get poetry explicitly written during a bombardment, and Gurney’s letter seems to present military experience and poetic desire as a sort of experiment in counterpoint. Dreams of Severn meadows, and thundering death along the Somme…

But Gurney is thinking of his poetry, now. He is focused, and he has direct questions for Scott, asking to be compared to his friend Will Harvey, languishing in a POW camp. And not his immediate heroes, the Georgians? Perhaps not yet.

Would you mind telling me candidly sincerely as possible, what you think of my things were they collected in a book and compared to F W Hs? Personally, I think there is nothing of mine so good as “Flanders”. And also, perhaps, “If we return”, but outside those, I think my things are better on the whole and more poetical. Do you think there is too much regret in mine? His book has a fine spirit, is mine too much the confession of being unwillingly a soldier? Is there too much of a whine? I would not be out of it — right out of it — for anything: this gives me a right to talk and walk with braver men than myself and an insight into thousands of characters and a greater Power over Life, and more Love. But if I get knocked out—with the conviction sometimes of being able to write the finest sort of songs — then “deevil a ceevil word to God frae a gentleman like me.” But it is not good to let this appear since the forfeit of Life is paid by the noblest so often. After all (I take pride in it) there are not many chronic dyspeptics writing verse at the —. I think this is a title of Pride, and gives me excuse to be a little selfish…[3]

 

Even the non-poets are deep in poetry today, a century back. Olaf Stapledon, idle with his ambulances in Belgium, is spurred by poetry to write perhaps his most effusive and sensual letter yet.

… I have been sitting in front of the fire reading Walt Whitman, that astounding boisterous pleasure-loving prophet! I have hardly read him at all till now, & now it is a time to do so… His stuff seems haphazard and undisciplined, but it is fine vigorous stuff whether one likes it or not. He seems rather obsessed by sex… Yet the tone is as pure as the blue sky. And his obsession only consists in reading sex into rocks, atoms & stars…

This, actually, is an influence on Stapledon’s writing that now seems obvious. Whitman! Of course. But as far as today, a century back, Whitman seems less a shaper of his worldview and prose style than a goad and a license to write deliriously to Agnes of such topics as “your outstretched bare arm,” many repetitions of the word “beautiful,” and a full physical accounting of himself. Oh, the body electric!

 

Enough of poets and their hesitant pride, dreamers and their passions. Shall we close with humor, and history?

Alan Milne is thirty-five, today, and still recovering from trench fever. But he had a nice birthday present in the form of a note from none other than J.M. Barrie, informing the Punch contributor and sidelined signal officer that would be willing to arrange the production of one of his plays. Wurzel-Flummery will appear on a double-bill with news plays by Barrie in April, a first professional production for Milne.[4]

 

But let’s not forget that there is a war on–more or less. So goes another one of the brilliant bits of historical close-focus in Kipling’s History of the Irish Guards. He takes a notable incident and draws it out, implying that it might stand (ah but how could it? It is an incident…) for an entire period in the life of the battalion. Shall we live and let live, or shall we get on with it? And shall we keep up with the sporting metaphors, even now, in the midst of the war’s third winter?

For the moment, things were absurdly peaceful on their little front, and when they came back to work after three still days at Maurepas, infantry “fighting” had become a farce. The opposing big guns hammered away zealously at camps and back-areas, but along that line facing the desolate woods of St. Pierre Vaast there was mutual toleration, due to the fact that no post could be relieved on either side except by the courtesy of their opponents who lay, naked as themselves, from two hundred to thirty yards away. Thus men walked about, and worked in flagrant violation of all the rules of warfare, beneath the arch of the droning shells overhead. The Irish realized this state of affairs gradually — their trenches were not so close to the enemy; but on the right Battalion’s front, where both sides lived in each other’s pockets, men reported “life in the most advanced posts was a perfect idyll.”

So it was decided, now that every one might be presumed to know the ground, and be ready for play, that the weary game should begin again. But observe the procedure! “It was obvious it would be unfair, after availing ourselves of an unwritten agreement, to start killing people without warning.” Accordingly, notices were issued by the Brigade — in English — which read: “Warning. Any German who exposes himself after daylight to-morrow January 19 will be shot. By order.” Battalions were told to get these into the enemy lines, if possible, between 5 and 7 a.m.

They anticipated a little difficulty in communicating their kind intentions, but two heralds, with three rifles to cover them, were sent out and told to stick the warnings up on the German wire in the dusk of the dawn. Now, one of these men was No. 10609 Private King, who, in civil life, had once been policeman in the Straits Settlements. He saw a German looking over the parapet while the notice was being affixed, and, policeman-like, waved to him to come out. The German beckoned to King to come in, but did not quit the trench. King then warned the other men to stand by him, and entered into genial talk. Other Germans gathered round the first, who, after hesitating somewhat, walked to his side of the wire. He could talk no English, and King, though he tried his best, in Chinese and the kitchen-Malay of Singapore, could not convey the situation to him either. At last he handed the German the notice and told him to give it to his officer. The man seemed to understand. He was an elderly person, with his regimental number in plain sight on his collar. He saw King looking at this, and desired King to lift the edge of his leather jerkin so that he in turn might get our number. King naturally refused and, to emphasize what was in store for careless enemies, repeated with proper pantomime: “Shoot! Shoot! Pom! Pom!” This ended the palaver. They let him get back quite unmolested, and when the mirth had ceased. King reported that they all seemed to be “oldish men, over yonder, and thoroughly fed up.” Next dawn saw no more unbuttoned ease or “idyllic” promenades along that line.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Works, 313-4.
  2. Diaries, 120-1.
  3. War Letters, 118-120.
  4. Thwaite, Milne, 180.
  5. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 113-14