A Century Back

Writing the Great War, Day by Day

Vera Brittain’s Next Worst Day, or the Afterlife of Rupert Brooke, XVIII: Geoffrey Thurlow and Safety, Vera Brittain and The Dead, and the Maimed; Alfred Hale Appeals to the Recruiter; Isaac Rosenberg’s Dead Man’s Dump; Scott Moncrieff Adrift; Home Service for Tolkien

We’ll begin with a few May Day updates on our writers–none of them, today, in the bloom of health or fitness. Last will come Vera Brittain, who absorbs yet another blow. And with her writing we will move from the day to the month, and compare two very different poems about the new dead of this third wartime spring.

 

Alfred Hale has some tenuous connections to our regulars. He was an Oxford friend of Ralph Vaughan Williams (the idol of Ivor Gurney) and a very minor composer and arranger in the same style, and he attended Uppingham school, albeit years before Roland Leighton, Edward Brittain, and Victor Richardson. Now forty-one, his life of single, artistic, privileged pottering about is not unlike what some of our young men might have aged into, but for the war… and there’s the rub. Hale is most conspicuously different from our other informants in that he was immediately and completely horrified by the idea of going to war, and has done his best to avoid it. He was glad to have failed an early physical with the Navy, and he dodged the first draft by stalling and then ageing out–but the new rules are sweeping up even disinclined forty-something non-sporting country gentlemen. Today, a century back, he does his best not to impress.

‘As to my being over age, that had been settled against me by the recent Act… the rejection… was another matter. If I could bet a rejection certificate… from the Naval authorities, well and good…. But I was advised to act quickly.’ Thus the very courteous Recruiting Officer… A very nice old recruiting sergeant was also sympathetic. I was never likely to be much good as a soldier, that he saw with half his professional eye, and he hinted as much if he did not say so.

But Hale is caught in a predictable trap: the Navy has only to remark, with raised institutional eyebrow, that his failure to measure up to its high standards is no guarantee that the Army will likewise reject him. Hale leaves the matter in the hands of his solicitor, but little hope remains.[1]

 

Charles Scott Moncrieff, wounded at Arras, is still in hospital in France–and he is not well. His leg is mangled and, to judge from today’s letter, his spirit has been damaged as well.

No. 20 General Hospital, Camiers,
1st May, 1917.

In the evening I heard a great swell of hundreds of men’s voices singing some of the popular Catholic hymns—“Jesu my Lord, my God, my all”—and some others. Presently my priest came in, the one who wrote to you; he tells me they have Benediction every day of the week in one of the huts, but yesterday for a weekday must have been enormously attended. He agreed to bring me Holy Communion this morning, which I was very grateful for. At night I had not such a bad time, thinking rather than sleeping, but still feeling this awful inability to control or co-ordinate my thoughts, which is, I suppose, a result of the shell shock. I find it so hard to grasp that this great nocturnal space bounded by the four corners of my bed—and with so much always new and unknown in it—has just the one inhabitant. . . .[2]

 

Also today, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien went once more before a medical board. The verdict: “He is improving but requires hardening.” This will mean, in practice, an extended period of home service, in Yorkshire, with time to write and his wife nearby.[3]

 

Kate Luard‘s diary has shown hints of strain, of late–not surprising, given that she has helped to lead a hospital through several weeks of intense and emotionally draining work as the casualties of Arras passed through. But now that the most terribly wounded have died and most of the others have been moved to larger hospitals further in the rear, there is time for relaxation–and for psychological letdown.

May Day and a dazzling day and very little doing in this Hospital. G. and I celebrated the occasion by going to the woods in the morning, starry with anemones and never a leaf to be seen, but blue sky and fresh breezes and clear sunshine. It is all a tremendous help, physically and psychically…

Some of us and Capt. B. have been having a bad fit of pessimism over them all lately, wondering what is the good of operations, nursing, rescues, or anything, when so many have died in the end. But even a few miraculous recoveries buck one up to begin again.

A Suffolk farmer boy is dying to-night…

I had a letter from a brave Glasgow mother, full of gratitude and incoherence, ending up, ‘And don’t forget to let us know how you are keeping.”[4]

This string of ups and downs–one day’s record–is not very representative of her writing style (the daily diary entries are often composed as topical letters). But it is, I think, emotionally accurate. Sister Luard is–she must be–enormously mentally tough, but the enormous suffering and the constant loss takes its toll nonetheless. It’s striking that there is no answer suggested here–no invocation of religion or patriotism. Just the increasingly common question, but especially vivid coming from a nurse so close to the front lines: what is this all for? What is the good of continuing in a policy which reduces so many men to such a state?

A fair question. But there’s nothing for it but to go on–and take whatever solace one can from the lives that can be saved.

 

And so to Vera Brittain.

May 1st

Had two cables–one to say that Victor’s eyesight was hopelessly gone, the other–an hour later–that Geoffrey was killed in action on April 23rd…

Sat out on the rocks’ edge in front of Night Quarters & suddenly something seemed to tell me to go home. Nothing much doing in Malta–& chances of Salonika seemed further off than ever; decided to go home for Edward’s sake & Victor’s, & if he wishes it, to devote my life to the service of Victor, the only one (apart from Edward, who is different) left of the three men I loved. For I loved Geoffrey… I spent the rest of that day on the rocks, feeling all the time that I was not alone but that Geoffrey was there & if I looked up I should see him standing beside me. . . .

A letter from Geoffrey arrived the same day–“By one of those curious chances which occurred during the war with such poignant frequency,” as she will later write. Once could also see it as one more example of the war’s uncanny literariness–but perhaps we remember the cruelest ironies best.

His last letter to me–dated April 20th–arrived that evening. He told me they were going up “for a stunt” in two or three days, & said his only fear was that he should fail at the critical moment, & that he would like to do well for the School’s sake. Often, he said, he had watched the splendour of the sunset from the school-field. And then, perhaps seeing the end in sight, he turned as usual to his beloved Rupert Brooke for comfort & finished with

‘War knows no power safe shall be my going
Safe tho’ all safety’s lost, safe where men fall
And if these poor limbs die, safest of all’

My dear dear Geoffrey!

Vera is ready with an apt–and devastatingly sad–counter-quotation. Geoffrey, before battle, quoted “Safety;” she, drawing from the same sonnet sequence that has framed these middle years of the war, quotes “The Dead:”

He leaves a white
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.[5]

Looking back, Brittain will remember the hours of “suspended physical animation” on the rocks as a time of almost numinous intensity, but Geoffrey’s ghostly presence will prompt a memory that makes much more concrete how she now might “serve” her surviving friend:

And all at once, as I gazed out to sea the words of the “Agony Column” advertisement, that I had cut out and sent to Roland nearly two years before, struggled back into my mind.

“Lady, fiancé killed, will gladly marry officer totally blinded or otherwise incapacitated by the war.”

I even remembered vaguely the letter in which I had commented on this notice at the time.

Yes: a great deal has changed since she wrote that letter, to Roland, which scoffed at the quaintly Victorian self-sacrifice of certain old maids.

There is one small, terrible change in her quotation of her own letter in the later memoir.[6] In the letter, she writes of “a business arrangement, with an element of self-sacrifice which redeems it from utter sordidness. Quite an idea, isn’t it!”

In retrospect, the final exclamation point becomes a question mark.

“Quite an idea, isn’t it?” Was it, Geoffrey? wasn’t it? There was nothing left in life now but Edward and the wreckage of Victor–Victor who had stood by me so often in my blackest hours. If he wanted me, surely I could stand by him in his.

She decides to try to come home.

That night–quiet as all nights were now that so few sick and wounded were coming from Salonika–I tried to keep my mind from thoughts and my eyes from tears by assiduously pasting photographs of Malta into a cardboard album. The scent of a vase of sweet-peas on the ward table reminded me of Roland’s study on Speech Day, centuries ago.

And, a century on, I suppose we must be grateful, in some aesthetically presumptive and heartless way, for the terrible things that happened to good writers.

Surely, surely there must be somewhere in which the sweet intimacies begun here may be continued and the hearts broken by this War may be healed![7]

Vera Brittain will soon begin the poem that will serve us for a first “month poem” today:

 

In Memoriam G.R.Y.T.

(Killed in Action, April 23rd, 1917)

I spoke with you but seldom, yet there lay
Some nameless glamour in your written word,
And thoughts of you rose often—longings stirred
By dear remembrance of the sad blue-grey
That dwelt within your eyes, the even sway
Of your young god-like gait, the rarely heard
But frank bright laughter, hallowed by a Day
That made of Youth Right’s offering to the sword.
So now I ponder, since your day is done,
Ere dawn was past, on all you meant to me,
And all the more you might have come to be,
And wonder if some state, beyond the sun
And shadows here, may yet completion see
Of intimacy sweet though scarce begun.

Malta, May 1917.

 

This is a good poem; also, a traditional one. A poem about an individual, a dead man remembered not for his death or its horror or pain or futility but for his life. Which is right, and good, and we should all have friends like Vera Brittain to remember us, and to draw on hopeful traditions that see a possibility of love and friendship after death.

 

But there are other ways to see the dead, and to write them. Another poem written this month, a century back, is Isaac Rosenberg‘s Dead Man’s Dump. It’s neither a short poem nor a very long one, but it’s almost too harrowing to read in its entirety. It draws on Rosenberg’s experience working in a labor battalion in the aftermath of battle. A few stanzas, then:

The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
To stay the flood of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.
The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan.
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.
The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire,
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
Those dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called ‘An end!’
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.
Maniac Earth! howling and flying, your bowel
Seared by the jagged fire, the iron love,
The impetuous storm of savage love.
Dark Earth! dark Heavens! swinging in chemic smoke,
What dead are born when you kiss each soundless soul
With lightning and thunder from your mined heart,
Which man’s self dug, and his blind fingers loosed?
A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.
They left this dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred M. Hale, 37.
  2. Diary, 128-9.
  3. Chronology, 100.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 120-1.
  5. Chronicle of Youth, 340.
  6. I am relying, of course, on two different transcriptions of a hand-written letter I haven't seen...
  7. Testament of Youth, 342-46.

The Battle of Arras Resumes: Charles Scott Moncrieff, A.P. Herbert, Geoffrey Thurlow, Alf Pollard, Frank Richards, and Kate Luard; Vera Brittain Ponders Sacrifice and Glory; Siegfried Sassoon Addresses the Warmongers

Today is St. George’s Day, Shakespeare’s birthday, the second anniversary of the death of Rupert Brooke, and the day that Billy Prior, shell-shocked and mute, came to in a Casualty Clearing Station. But that is all more than a century back, or fiction.

Today is also the beginning of the second phase of the Battle of Arras. In what will become known as the Second Battle of the Scarpe, elements of eleven divisions attacked on a nine mile front just east of Arras, from Gavrelle in the north to Croisilles in the south.

Charles Scott Moncrieff was in the first wave, leading a company of the 1st Battalion, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who went over the top at 4:45, attacking toward Monchy-le-Preux. Scott Moncrieff was hit very shortly thereafter, and spent a harrowing day on the field and being carried back. But by this evening he will be able to write:

23rd April.

I was wounded about five o’clock this morning when leading my battalion in the attack. My left leg is broken in two places. I am now in a clearing station where I shall stay a few days. I shall be at the Base shortly and then home—and expect the leg will heal very quickly. The attack seems to have gone very well, as far as I could see and control it from the ground.[1]

What the letter does not make clear is that Moncrieff was not only leading the attack but leading it as close as possible to the “walking” barrage–and that a short-fall from this barrage–a British shell–was what nearly killed him. He is in grave danger of losing his leg.

Scott Moncrieff experienced his wound as something of a “transcendental” experience, and it will shortly push him further toward a vocation that combines his linguistic and literary talents. Drawing on Paul Claudel’s ‘Hymne à SS Agnès,’ he wrote a poem about his rescue that comes close to the once-popular angelic-intervention tales, albeit in an exalted religious-literary manner, rather than in close imitation of the popular ghost story style of Arthur Machen and others.

I, like a pailful of water thrown from a high window, fell. . . . Alone.

An hour or two I lay and dozed…

. . . . Ah, whose mind prayed
Through mine then? Whose quiet singing heard I from my stretcher, swinging
Sorry, weary, sick, Strongly, clearly, belated back to Arras? Who dictated
Strongly, clearly, till I sung these French words with my English tongue?[2]

In a neighboring division, also largely Scottish, Captain John Eugene Crombie of the Gordon Highlanders, who had so recently written  “Easter Day 1917, The Eve of Battle,” was wounded near Roeux. Less fortunate than Scott Moncrieff, he will die of his wounds by the end of the day.[3]

On the left of the attack, the 63rd Division–The Royal Naval Division–led the attack on the village of Gavrelle. Rupert Brooke‘s old comrades in the Hood Battalion came up too quickly from reserve, through a heavy German barrage, and then pushed on into house-by-house fighting. In the neighboring brigade was the Drake battalion, pressing through the same barrage. A.P. Herbert, whose meditations on courage, cowardice, and institutional brutality will be set in the recent past but informed by this experience of battle, led his platoon while equipped with certain supererogatory liquid courage. He was soon hit:

Sub-Lieutenant Rackham saw him fling up his arms and fall. ‘He seemed to me to be in a bad way–dangerously
wounded, I thought at first.’ At a field-dressing station, jagged bits of shrapnel and hip-flask were found to be embedded deep in his left buttock; ignominious wound, honourably sustained. It was serious enough for him to be sent home again. He believed that the brandy from his flask was an effective sterilizing agent…[4]

Kate Luard received many such wounded men, and some who had fared much worse:

Monday, April 23rd, 10 p.m. Just come up to lie down for an hour before the next take-in. We have filled up twice, and they are hard at it again over the road; we come next… the earth-shaking noise this morning did its work; the wounded Germans tell me here are a great many dead. We have a splendid six-foot officer boy lying silently on his face with a broken back, high up. I hope he won’t live long…[5]

 

Alf Pollard and the Honourable Artillery Company–who are, naturally, really, a London-based militia regiment of infantry serving in a “Naval” infantry division–were in reserve on the central section of the assault.[6]

The barrage was terrific and it seemed impossible that anything could stand up against it. Nevertheless, the wire was very tenacious and… They put up an obstinate resistance.

It was not very long before we were required. A Company went first, but a few minutes later a call came for us and I moved forward. As we approached the position I could see the long lines of uncut wire with dead fusiliers hanging across it like pearls in a necklace where the Hun machine-guns had caught them. All the same some of them had penetrated through the gaps and the trench was captured. I had my usual luck and got my Company through the enemy’s counter-barrage without any casualties. My men were full of fight… There was no resistance; the few Huns we encountered surrendered instantly. At once I set about preparing the trench for the counter-attack which I knew would follow. The whole place was a shambles…

The town of Gavrelle was a few hundred yards on our right. The attacking troops had gone right through and our right consequently projected slightly beyond our left. We were the extreme left of the Divisional front. The Division on our left whose main attack was directed against Oppy Wood had failed with the result that the position was held in echelon…

The counter-attack was not launched until the following morning…[7]

A bit further south, the 10th Sherwood Foresters, part of the 17th Division, were in support of the assault just south of Monchy-le-Preux, near the town of Guémappe. Among the objectives on this front was the concentration of German artillery on the high ground in their rear. Perhaps, by the day’s end, the positions of the batteries that dueled with Edward Thomas‘s will be taken.

But not immediately; the leading battalions were held up and the 10th Sherwood Foresters were called forward, and took the first German trench. Geoffrey Thurlow, the last of Edward and Vera Brittain‘s close friends to remain unscathed, was there, and he had neither succumbed to the shell-shock that had afflicted him in 1916, nor to the fear of it. Safe in a German trench after the successful assault, he was asked once more to show his courage, and once again he didn’t let the school down. His commander will describe his actions in a letter he will write to Edward Brittain:

I sent a message to Geoffrey to push along the trench and find out if possible what was happening on the right. The trench was in a bad condition and rather congested, so he got out on the top. Unfortunately the Boche snipers were very active and he was soon hit through the lungs. Everything was done to make him as comfortable as possible, but he died lying on a stretcher about fifteen minutes later.[8]

So Geoffrey Thurlow, too, is dead.

Far away in Malta, Vera Brittain was just beginning to cope with the previous disaster to hit her tight-knit circle. In a letter which draws heavily on her diary of yesterday, she wrote to her brother:

Malta, 23 April 1917

My own dearest Edward

Your letter of the 8th has just arrived but contains no reference to the terrible news of the last day or two; it seems to be the only one that has come, so I suppose all my letters have missed the mail just when I wanted them most. It is dreadful to have to wait a week for details. That is the hardship of foreign service — not climate or distance so much as the separation by time & distance from anything that matters…

I am broken-hearted indeed about Victor. It is better to be anything than blind; I am not sure that it is not better to be dead.

This is not an idle question. Cruel as this is, it’s important to recognize that there is still no fundamental questioning of the meaning and the worth of all this suffering. She is not sure if Victor should wish to be dead, but she is confident that he will feel a sense of achievement at having matched his decorated school friends in military valor:

I suppose he is disfigured very much. His lovely eyes — I can’t bear to think they will never any more look ‘right into one’s soul’ as Mrs Leighton said they did. It is a terrible way to have bridged the gulf that lay between him & you — & Roland. I wish Roland were here to be with him & give him the strength he will so much need if he lives…

it is very hard to feel I can do nothing for him in return at the time of his greatest need. . . Anyhow. I know that you will make him understand, better than any letter could, my indescribable sorrow & regret–one can’t call it pity, as pity is not a sufficiently reverent feeling for one of those who ‘so marvellously overcame’. If there is anything I can do for him–anything at all–you will tell me, won’t you? It places all of us who cannot fight under a burden of debt almost more than we can bear–to feel that we owe our safety to the fives & sight & strength of such as you & Roland & him. I feel I could never repay it enough, even if trying to meant giving up practically all I ever meant to be or do. I feel as if Roland’s sad eyes were looking at me out of Eternity, imploring me to try to give Victor some of the comfort He would have given him if He had been here.[9]

 

We’re almost done, today, but here we have a different sort of irony of separation, of “sacrifice” and suffering and far-off emotion. Siegfried Sassoon is safely back, unaware that today is another spasm of intense violence, and that his battalion is caught up in it. It’s a particularly nasty irony that his reports from today are thus overshadowed by exactly what he now feels increasingly empowered too protest.

He has been working on another new poem, “To the Warmongers,” which begins:

I’m back again from hell
With loathsome thoughts to sell;
Secrets of death to tell;
And horrors from the abyss…

But the abyss is still there–and not yet taken. Two companies of the 2nd Royal Welch, in support of the 4th Suffolks, will once again move up from the Hindenburg Tunnel to attack along the Hindenburg Trench. A trench mortar barrage dropped neatly into the trench, clearing the German barricade and allowing the charging Suffolks to push back the defenders. The two companies of the 2/RWF came up and were at once employed in bringing up German prisoners from the deep dugouts. There is a long, detailed narrative of the intimate trench fighting in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle, growing grim as the two companies are held up and then located by the German trench mortar and rifle-grenade parties.

Sassoon’s friends “Binge” Owen and the pianist Ralph Greaves–both survivors of a late night in Amiens only three weeks ago–were now directing the fighting. One bomb hit a barricade and exploded next to Greaves’ right arm, mangling it. Owen was killed a few minutes later. Further attacks failed, although Captain N. H. Radford will remember hearing a Staff Captain give a fanciful heroic account of the “forcing of the barricade” only two weeks later, and remark that “that kind of myth outlives denial; it has appeared in print as fact.”[10]

The other two companies of the 2nd Royal Welch attacked later in the day, repeating a failed attack by another battalion, and with poorly coordinated artillery support. And in the open. They fared even worse. Frank Richards, a company signaler with B company, was in the assembly trench, and had a clear view of the attack:

From our parapet across to the objective our dead were laying thick, and for the first fifty yards it would have been impossible for a man to have walked three paces unless he stepped on a dead man. In the afternoon we attacked but were held up by machine-gun and rifle-fire the same as the previous battalions: not a man got further than halfway. The fortunate ones got back to their own trench, but the majority were laying where they fell… We brought our wounded in during the night, the enemy not firing a shot.[11]

 

We’ll end the day with Sassoon, in London, and trying somehow to move from personal experience to some reasonable appreciation of the “big picture:”

April 23 (In the Ward) —

Morning sunshine slants through tho many tall windows of the ward with its grey-green walls and forty white beds. Daffodils and primroses, red lilies and tulips make spots of colour…  Officers lie humped in beds smoking and reading morning papers; others drift about in dressing-gowns and slippers, going to and from the washing-room where they scrape the bristles from their contented faces. The raucous gramophone keeps grinding out popular airs…

Everyone is rather quiet. No one has the energy or the desire to begin talking war-shop till noon. Then one catches scraps of talk from round the fire-places.

‘barrage lifted at the first objective’
‘shelled us with heavy stuff’
‘couldn’t raise enough decent N.C.O.s’
‘our first wave got held up by machine-guns’
‘bombed them out of a sap’—etc etc.

There are no serious cases in this ward; only flesh-wounds and sick. No tragedies of gapped bodies and heavily bandaged faces; no groans at night, and nurses catching their breath while the surgeon deals with some ghastly gaping hole. These are the lucky ones, whom a few days of peace have washed clean of the squalor and misery and strain of ten days ago. They are lifting their faces to the sunlight: the nightmares have slunk away to haunt the sombre hearts of the maimed and shattered.[12]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 128.
  2. I've taken some supplementary information from Findlay, Chasing Lost Time, 127-130, but there are some military historical errors in her account, so it's possible that some of what I have quoted is off-base; if so, sincere apologies!
  3. Powell, A Deep Cry, 241.
  4. Pound, A. P. Herbert, 153.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 115.
  6. I have not unraveled the exact relative positions of these different units; despite the lack of major salients it is a difficult attack to visualize... and for most of our writers, it seems, Arras was a terribly quick battle. Although Alf Pollard, as it happens, will persist and more than persist.... in any event, apologies for the less-than-thorough military history here.
  7. Fire-Eater, 212-14.
  8. Letters From a Lost Generation; see also here.
  9. Letters From a Lost Generation, 341-2.
  10. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 330-38.
  11. Old Soldiers Never Die, 229-30. There is likely hyperbole here in terms of the number and the concentration of men killed.
  12. Diaries 159-60.

Edmund Blunden’s Very Secret Envelope; C.E. Montague’s Rules for Tours; Dorothie Feilding Deflects Another; The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XIII: ‘He Was a Rhetorician;’ David Jones is Pretty Sure It’s Worth It

The continued attrition of “our” writers by the violence of the Somme–some killed, others home on lengthy and poorly documented medical leaves–has meant fewer extraordinarily long posts of late. Or perhaps I have become weary… or, perhaps, sensitive to the preferences of the put-upon reader.

But not today… however many we have lost, we still get those days on which everybody seems to write something interesting…

First, and most important for the days that are to come, Edmund Blunden and his battalion have been having a pleasant time of it. No longer.

The next thing that befell us was sudden, and our smile would not obey orders. It came in an envelope, “Very Secret,” and stated that we should in two days capture and consolidate a place called Stuff Trench. The falling ancient sun shone on the wide and shallow Ancre by Aveluy, and the green fancy woodwork of the mill belonged to another century, as we crossed the long causeway leading from the pleasures of rest, and turned along the opposite hillside, with its chalky excavations, old trenches, and spaces of surviving meadow-like green. Then we found ourselves filing up a valley under the noses of howitzers standing black and burnished in the open, and loosing off with deadly clamour while the bare-chested gunners bawled and blasphemed — “Happy Valley” or “Blighty Valley,” which was it? Farther along stood Authuille Wood, and we went in along a tram line and a board walk whereon with sweating foreheads some Highland officers were numbering off some of the most exhausted men (just relieved) I had seen. Near here was the captured German work called Leipzig Redoubt, with its underworld comforts; the companies were accommodated there, while the battalion headquarters entered the greasy, damaged shanties of typical British sandbags and tinware in the Wood… and the night came on.

 

Next, an amusing juxtaposition tossed to us by the editor of the C.E. Montague memoir. First, an excerpt from a letter to his wife, explaining how he judges his job, which is to thrill but not terrify his V.I.P. guests:

Oct. 19, 1916

I always have several graduated degrees of exposure to which to treat guests according to what seem to be their desires or the needs of their souls for chastening, but of course I don’t let them show up in any place where they would individually be a mark for the enemy. I only let them see the conditions under which all the combatants are, the whole time, between the firing trench and the artillery lines.

Fair enough. The implication of giving the visitors only a quick view of what the actual soldiers endure “the whole time” is clear. Montague, with his experience–in the ranks, in the trenches, in journalism before the war–is surely an ideal guide; and yet it is interesting that with so many young lieutenants around, Intelligence chose a man pushing 60 for this tour guide job: most of his “guests” would be older than most soldiers, yet many must have been younger than him. He had been there, and they, with their fancy jobs, are quite safe…

And how close did today’s exalted guest get?

Oct. 19.—With Masefield to Longueval. Walk about Delville Wood. Most of the bodies cleared up, but the wood haggard and sinister.

Masefield, after all, is working on The Old Front Line, an authoritative poetic geography of the British position on July 1st.

 

Next, Dorothie Feilding must deal with yet another eruption of a chronic problem, a persistent irritation that is more or less unique here–although perhaps common among dashing, attractive, well-born women in nearly-all-male war zones.

19th Oct

Mother mine–I had rather an awful afternoon yesterday. Mr de Broqueville, the father, came up to see me at 14 & we had a long talk. It appears his son, Pierre, wants to marry me awfully, & spoke to his father about it many months ago, but was told to wait a little. I don’t think you ever met Pierre, he is the one in the 1st Guides Cavalire, the very tall, dark, good looking one, & was in the army before the war. He is an awfully nice boy but just a dear big baby. About 25 I think, but temperamentally a perfect child & I am afraid it could never be for that reason. I wouldn’t marry a foreigner unless I cared very very much. I think that is essential to the make up of the racial differences.

Pierre is a dear boy, but I really couldn’t ever marry him. There is not enough in him to satisfy me I’m afraid. But the Broquevilles have been such perfect dears to me, it is awful not being able to do it, as I am afraid the father was fearfully anxious for it to be & was thinking it would be ok. He wrote to his wife about it already in Brussels & got an answer saying if he was pleased she was too, & was apparently very nice about it, which makes it all worse. It was because he heard Father was coming out here that he came up to see me because he wanted to talk it over with him if I would. I told him that I was very fond of someone who had been killed…[1]

Ah, the old “implied killed fiancé” dodge…

 

This brings us to the “lengthy screed” portion of today’s program. For Edward Thomas, few things are more welcome than a letter from Robert Frost, his fast friend and the impetus behind his own turn to verse.

High Beech, nr Laughton, Essex.
19.x.16

My dear Robert,

This morning the postman brought your letter of September 28. I am at home helping to get things straight in our new cottage. It is right alone in the forest among beech trees & fern & deer, though it only costs 10d. to reach London. Luckily I had a week’s leave thrust on me just at the time when I could be of some use. We have had fine weather, too, luckily & have had some short walks, Helen, Bronwen & I—Mervyn being still in lodgings 6 miles off, & Baba with an aunt, waiting till the house is ready for them.

Since I wrote last I have been shifted to Trowbridge Artillery Barracks & have had 3 weeks hard work there. I am waiting for the result of my 2nd examination. If I pass, I shall be an officer in another month. My going out depends on whether they are in great need of men when I am ready, also on my passing the final medical test. If I go it seems likely it will be to a not very big gun, so that I shall be far enough up to see everything…

I have just written the 2nd thing since I left London a month ago.[2] If I can type the 2 you shall see them. I am wondering if any of these last few sets of verses have pleased you at all.—Haines liked some I showed him. I was there for 24 hours a fortnight ago & had a walk up Cooper’s Hill & picked blueberries. He was the same as ever, & relieved at his (apparently final) exemption. I think he was going to write to you then. He showed me ‘Hyla Brook’ & another piece of yours which I enjoyed very much. I like nearly everything of yours better at a 2nd reading & best after that. True.[3]

About my collection of verses, the publisher remains silent a month. I wrote off at once today to ask whether he could decide & if he will publish I will do my best to hunt up duplicates & send them out to you in good time for a possible American publisher. I shall be pleased if you succeed & not feel it a scrap if you don’t. As if I could refuse to give you a chance of doing me good!

We will hear more on this collection of verses anon. But before we look forward to a new poetic era, we should look back–fully a year and a half, now, to English poetry’s greatest Great War hour. Frost has asked, evidently, for Thomas’s appraisal of Rupert Brooke–a friend and associate before he was a celebrity and a martyr:

It would take me too long to be sure what I think of Rupert. I can tell you this—that I received £3 for his first ‘Poems’ the other day & £2 for ‘New Numbers’ (because of him). So I can’t think entirely ill of him. No, I don’t think ill of him. I think he succeeded in being youthful & yet intelligible & interesting (not only pathologically) more than most poets since Shelley. But thought gave him (and me) indigestion. He couldn’t mix his thought or the result of it with his feeling. He could only think about his feeling. Radically, I think he lacked power of expression. He was a rhetorician, dressing things up better than they needed.

This is right on the money, as an American reader might put it.

Thomas starts in with the slightly rude joke about Brooke’s fame benefiting those less fortunate writers he was connected with, but he backs off quickly. In fact, he pulls the nose of his mean-spirited assessment steadily up toward fairness: “succeeded in being youthful” is insulting, and apt. But soon we are back at Shelley–a reasonable point of comparison and, perhaps, a more-than-fair comparandum. We’re balanced, at least, or swinging up–so when he stoops once again upon his helpless target the killing stroke seems only fair: Brooke was a lightweight. He thought prettily and wrote well, but there wasn’t much there, there.

If this still seems unfair, well: I think Thomas is correct on this next point too:

And I suspect he knew too well both what he was after & what he achieves.

Yes–seduced as he was by the romance of war and the sudden spurt of fame that came upon him in his last weeks, Brooke knew, deep down, that his poetry was superficial. And his good-looking corpse lies a-moulderin’ in his grave.

Then Thomas turns a neat trick: in prose, in a letter, in which he has previously been generously modest, he pivots skillfully on a metaphor and lands in a rather poetic position.

I think perhaps a man ought to be capable of always being surprised on being confronted with what he really is—as I am nowadays when I confront a full size mirror in a good light instead of a cracked bit of one in a dark barrack room. Scores of men, by the way, shave outside the window, just looking at the glass with the dawn behind them. My disguises increase, what with spurs on my heels & hair on my upper lip.

Bronwen is at my elbow reading ‘A Girl of the Limberlost’. Garnett, whom I saw yesterday, for the first time since I enlisted, was praising ‘The Spoon River Anthology’. Can he be right? I only glanced at it once, & I concluded that it must be liked for the things written about in it, not for what it expressed. Isn’t it done too much on purpose?

…You would like one of our sergeant-major instructors who asked a man coiling a rope the wrong way—from right to left— ‘Were you a snake-charmer before you joined’. We have some ripe regular specimens at the barracks…

Now I will try to type those verses. Goodbye. Helen & Bronwen & I send you all our love…

Yours ever
Edward Thomas[4]

 

Finally, today, we have an awkward first writing from David Jones. Wounded in the cautery of Mametz Wood, he has recovered, recuperated, and had leave at home in London. Jones–so very young (twenty) and unevenly educated, was not much of a writer at this stage of his life–he did not really even aspire to be one. He was an artist. But he sat down nonetheless to write an essay on the war, suitable for publication in The Christian Herald (which passed). But Jones’s father–a proud and political London Welshman–typed it up, edited it (there were many minor errors) and sent it, today, a century back, to David Lloyd George, political pride of Wales and one of Brittain’s most powerful politicians. This is “his earliest surviving writing and the only contemporary written record of his thoughts and feelings about his early combat experience…” so it’s one of those things that is of unusual interest despite its fairly pedestrian appearance…

 

A French Vision

(By a one-time Art Student, now in the R.W.F.)

IS IT WORTH IT?

How often this question comes with ever-increasing persistency to the intelligent fighting-man in France.

The Battalion is new to the line–just come from England; it is the first night of going into the trenches. At last, after months of training, face to face with the actualities of war. In single file, one finds oneself trudging along a desolate road–broken ruins stand grim and piteous against the dim light of the evening. One had seen numerous pictures–photos–ever since one was a child of the desolation caused by war–here at last was the actual thing. These grim ruins–these smashed, wrecked homesteads–were once, only a few months back, comfortable ‘homes’–contented and happy peasants loving every corner of them.

IS IT WORTH IT?

At this moment the man in front–your chum with whom you have shared company since enlistment–drops without a sound. One had never seen a man die before, perhaps. There is a momentary halt, and the Sergeant mutters, ‘Only a stray’. Again there comes the voice: ‘Is it worth it?

This is a dangerous thought–it suggests ‘giving up’, it suggests something ‘un-British’. But the trench is knee-deep in mud and slush–the wind is biting cold–overcoat, tunic, shirt, are soaked through–very little to eat. The man carrying the rum was shot in the communication trench, and that warming spirit has helped to strengthen, and perhaps in some measure to disinfect, the water of the trench drain. Hands are frozen; eyes are craving for rest, and weary with watching. There is sandbagging to be done, parapets to be built; enemy artillery is active and accurate. ‘Is it worth it?’

A young lieutenant passes, new from Woolwich Royal Academy. He looks cold and ‘fed up’, probably thinking of that charming little enchantress safely ensconced in a warm drawing-room in the suburbs. As he passes he mutters half audibly, ‘Damn this war! Why the____did I join the Army?’ ‘Is it worth while?’ Then down the trench comes E___ , of L____, of______ ‘Varsity fame: ‘Hallo, old fellow! Awful bore, this war; what! I was in the middle of a volume entitled ‘War is the necessary Forerunner of Peace and Civilization in All Ages’ by Professor _____, that talked a lot of drivel about the ‘Purifying Fire’ of war etc. I’ll know what to do with that wretched collection of piffle when I get back, providing the ‘Purifying Fire’ lets me!’

Evidently, one thinks, both these chaps think it is NOT worth while! It is an awful business, this wretched devastation, this wholesale butchery. If one had lived in the old days, war was so different then! And one mentally pictures a sunlit valley, massed squadrons of emblazoned chivalry with lances couched; and behind, bowmen armed ‘cap-a-pie’ with short sword and buckler. Suddenly the bowmen, with a fierce and mighty cry, charge madly to the valley, and the arrows fly thick and fast! The imagination carries one away, it is so fine. How grand to have lived then, to have heard the stirring fanfare of the heralds’ trumpets, to have seen the pennons dancing in the sunlight!

So now we see where this is going. Jones’s burlesque of front-line states of mind lacks both the sharpness and the gentleness of his mature work, the densely allusive yet strangely immediate prose-poetry of In Parenthesis. And this essay approaches historical allusion from a very different angle–these illusions do not disillusion, but are meant to inspire.

And now the vision passes. Night falls, and another, and far different scene presents itself. The same valley lit by the pale moon; the groans of the wounded and dying break the silence.

‘Was it worth while for these men’,

five centuries, maybe, ago. By their fierce conflict, and their outpoured blood, they freed the land from the tyrant’s yoke!

Jones will never completely deny this connection–allusion, in his poetry, is not cleverness, but rather a search for roots and for common lifeblood. Here, Agincourt, the local battlefield of English national renown, is neither an inert ancient thing nor a soldier’s link to the continuous present of war, but more simply a point of patriotic appeal:

Worth while? Perchance Europe in thraldom still would be, but for that battle on that sunlit day. And but for the holding of that trench–but for the blood spilt–the ruined homes–the stricken hearts of thousands–but that one stood in that muddy trench in cold and misery–but that the young lieutenant, ‘so bored’, had left the vision in the drawing-room to cry her eyes out, perhaps–but that the ‘Varsity man had left his books–Europe to-day might lie prostrate ‘neath the iron heel of the Teuton terror. Yes, it was worth while, after all. One wakes from the dream with the sudden command of a cockney Sergeant: ‘Now then, you! relieve that man on sentry-go. Ye’re late orlready!’ And one goes to his post to watch for marauding Huns–goes with the smile of contentment. The trench is still cold and wet; eyes still ache, and hands freeze. But it’s worth it!’

I’ll let Jones’s biographer Thomas Dilworth get in the last comment:

Earnest, immature, lacking historical sophistication and political  perspective, he writes as though trying to convince himself… he was young for his age and… believed ‘the old lie.’ But Private Jones is doing what soldiers have always done in time of war, anesthetising himself through euphemism, limited vocabulary, and comforting cliche…[5]

Yes, but the young artist has decided to wield pen as well as pencil and brush, and that it itself will be a major step on the road to maturity. For now the prose is still heated and damp, and the eyes freeze in reading it… but for those enamored of history and the effort to write modern war, it’s worth it…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 173.
  2. Editor's note:" Probably “The Child in the Orchard.” The other poem, after leaving London, may have been “The Trumpet.”
  3. Selected Letters has "truce" rather than "true;" I assume the former to be a misprint.
  4. Elected Friends, 152-4.
  5. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 126-9.

Henry Williamson and the Rumble of Jutland; Noel Hodgson Renounces, T.P. Cameron Wilson Writes a Soldier, and Bimbo Tennant Worples Fey-ward; then Friendships, Farewells, Transfers, and Wedding Bells

A strange day, today, a century back. For a good two centuries, Britain’s security was guaranteed by its navy. For the last 22 months, that navy has had little to do, and all eyes were on the enormous expansion of the unloved younger son of the military family. There were a few famous chases and cruiser actions, and there was the submarine war, but confidence was high that should the German fleet–and the rapid expansion of that previously negligible body had been one of the most important catalysts of Brittain’s alliance with France and Russia–ever venture out into the North Sea the Royal Navy would treat it much as it had treated the Spanish Armada.

Yesterday, a century back, the battleships and battle cruisers of the German navy came out at last. The complicated plan involved separating the two major elements of the British fleet and using a screen of submarines to torpedo the slow capital ships. It failed almost immediately, since the British battle cruisers steamed through the submarine line before it was fully prepared, but the beginning of the battle nevertheless went Germany’s way. I do not have a good grasp of naval warfare, and this battle–the only truly big steel-ships-and-guns battle in European history–is quite complicated, but, hopefully, a brief summary should suffice to prepare us for the responses of various Britons.

Despite the superior gunnery of the British fleet–and, once combined, its greater size–the initial engagement revealed a major design flaw that resulted in the swift sinking of three battle cruisers. Reading up on the battle after some years is shocking, even after–in fact because of–my many-months-long immersion in trench warfare. The British ships were well armored against broadsides, but when a few German shells hit at long range, they plunged through the thinner armor over deck and turrets. Exploding below decks, their blasts rushed through the open hatchways that connected the British guns with their magazines deep below decks. Naval combat, too, has its special horrors: flash fires spread through steel rooms; ships are saved only by flooding burning areas before ordinance is ignited, drowning the men who remain below to save those stationed higher up; if the fires are not contained, the chain explosion of shells tears the ship apart; concussed and burned men who are thrown clear are likely to drown.

The Queen Mary was struck twice and rent by internal explosions, capsizing and sinking within minutes. Twenty men were rescued, 1,266 died.

The Invincible may have been hit only once, but this shell too plunged through and ignited a magazine. Invincible broke in half and sunk in ninety seconds. 1,026 men died, and six–blown through the air from their positions in a turret and a fire-control mast–lived.

The Indefatigable was hit several times and also blew up, settling quickly as internal explosions tore out its keel. Although more men may have been blown clear, they would have been sucked under by the displacement of the sinking ship. 1,017 men died, and only two survived long enough to be rescued.

 

The news of yesterday’s disaster be absorbed by our writers over the next few days, but the battle continued overnight and into today, a century back. The British fleets drew together, and a running battle was fought as the Germans, their plan negated despite the destruction of the three battle cruisers, withdrew toward their bases. Although they mostly eluded the British Grand Fleet, one modern German battleship was sunk, along with ten smaller ships, while the Royal Navy lost eleven more (smaller) ships.

In the wake of this sudden carnage, the debates began–and they continue. But for our purposes another simple summary will do: Jutland is a very good example of a tactical victory that is also a strategic defeat (for Germany, that is). Britain, when the number, tonnage, and quality of the ships are factored in, had lost roughly twice as heavily. And let’s not forget human lives: more than 6,000 British sailors died in the two days, and “only” some 2,500 Germans. That is very much a “battlefield,” or tactical, defeat. But the German Imperial Navy and gambled on a sortie and been stopped–it returned to its bases and there would be no more serious attempts to destroy the British Grand Fleet, ergo something of an “operational” draw and a strategic defeat.

As tactics gives way to strategy, so strategy yields to Grand Strategy (which seems like it should be capitalized). If the Royal Navy could not be defeated, then Britain could not be assaulted/invaded. It could, however, be besieged/ blockaded. Therefore, in order to starve Britain, Germany would keep its battleships in port, turning instead to its submarines in a broadcast campaign against merchant shipping. So in the failure of the German fleet to defeat the British today, a century back, there originates a straight line which leads to the decision to wage “unrestricted” submarine warfare, and thus to the significant U.S. presence in Europe in 1918, at the time of the breaking of the European armies.

 

After all that blood and steel, it feels curious to return to our usual matter of little movements among writerly soldiers. But Henry Williamson, never able to resist putting his Gumpish alter ego on the outskirts of all the war’s most famous actions, provides the link.

Phillip Maddison, having been trained as a machine gun officer (this much following Williamson’s own experience), now headed back to France, recalled from a home leave to arrive in time for the “big push.” There has been drama, culminating in a nasty quarrel with his old friend Desmond over the woman they both… admire. This is the appallingly thin (character of) Lily: a wan, unfortunate girl, ill-used, and now rising toward nineteenth century middlebrow novel sainthood through her improbable and steadfast love for Phillip…

Her first, partial martyrdom was to an abusive older man. Her second is to her creator’s thematic imperatives. The events of spring 1916 are chronicled in a chapter entitled, amazingly, “Lily and the Nightingale.” After the quickening of love and the noble decision to resist desire and wait, Phillip is packed off to France (while Williamson was in fact on convalescent leave). He arrives today, a century back, and Williamson allows us, surely, to date his arrival:[1]

Phillip tottered off the gangway at Boulogne having, as he said to his companion from Victoria, catted up his heart, despite the fact that the crossing from Folkestone had been made in sunshine on a blue and waveless channel. Fear had taken the heart out of him: fear of being sick: fear of the idea of having to face machine-guns again. The apparition of death from the back of his mind had come forward to share his living thoughts, so the voyage had been a semi-conscious froth of nausea, of endurance despite abandon.

While the transport had been crossing, with its destroyer escort, there had been a constant heavy thudding of guns. Either the Big Push had started, along the coast towards Ostend, or there had been a naval battle. When the ship docked, they heard: the German fleet had come out, and there had been a tremendous battle in the North Sea…[2]

 

Once again I have failed in my resolution to streamline this project. But we march from great battle to great battle, and we mark the last month before the Somme with not one but rather three or four “month poems.”

First, I want to suggest reading an excellent and spectacularly a propos prose piece by Hector Munro (a.k.a. the prominent prewar satirist Saki: Birds on the Western Front is of a feather with much of our reading.

Second, Noel Hodgson‘s “Renunciation” doesn’t quite qualify as a “month poem” because it was published on this very day, a century back, in The New Witness:

Take my love that died to-day.
Lay him on a roseleafbed,–
He so gallant was and gay,–
Let them hide his tumbled head,
Roses passionate and red
That so swiftly fade away.
Let the little grave be set
Where my eyes shall never see;
Raise no stone, make no regret
Lest my sad heart break,–and yet
For my weakness, let there be
Sprigs of rue and rosemary.

Brookeish, and sentimental, but not bad for all that. And can we read toward the turning of the poetic tide just a bit? I don’t think so, really: this a beautiful death for a gallant soldier, beautifully mourned. But if we imagine how a head might “tumble” or why else a grave might be unmarked… but no.

In addition, Hodgson will shortly write a prose sketch set today, a century back. June 1st 1916 was Ascension Day, and for Hodgson it brought back memories of a school days’ ramble one Ascension morning, an expedition with a friend, after birds’ nests, in the early morning light.

And I remembered the chill of the water round our middles as we forded the river, where the mist still hung in wreaths, and the heavy dew on the grass. We took a grebe’s nest, I remembered, and a reed-warbler’s…

I remembered, too, how, as we sat in a cottage and ate lemon-curd and bread, a clock struck eight; and how we girded ourselves and ran, and were in time for callover at nine, whereby was great renown to us for many days; and how I slept, in my oaken seat at matins.

But his companion that day was Nowell Oxland, killed at Gallipoli. It must have been a day of melancholy thoughts for the often high-spirited Hodgson. He is young, full of life, a believer in divine Providence and a patriot, and yet he is unwilling to leave thoughts of despair unexpressed, unwilling to betray memory, denying its pain by sentimentalizing the past or putting loss to utilitarian (not to say militarist) purpose. What else would we ask, really?[3]

 

Third, then, Bim Tennant, gallant and gay, wrote a rather lengthy fairy tale fantasia in verse at some point during this month. He thought highly of the strange-but-charming “Worple Flit.” But I shall content us with an excerpt. And no follow-up questions, please: though I love this unquiet-ghost-of-William-Morris sort of stuff in principle, just today I have no idea what is going on in Bimbo’s little world:

And as we jogged along the road, the night grew wondrous fine,
And out of the Hills the Hill-folk came, and the Down-men, all in a line,
Their packs right full of their elfin gear, and their flasks of their trollish wine…

And their talk was soft as a cony’s back, and swift as a whippet hound.
‘By the puckered cheek of my barbary ape! ’tis an ill sight we see,
The glamour of England fades this day with the folk of the South Countree.’

The good folk passed and silence fell, save where among the trees
Their elfin jargon echoed back and sighed upon the breeze,
Like channeling mice in barley shocks, or humming honey bees.
‘Now by my chin and span-long beard,’ I heard the beldame cry,
‘I wot we ha’ missed the Dairy Thief ‘mid the good folk flitting by.’

But scarcely had the word been said, when down a lapin track,
Behold the goblin slowly come, bent double beneath his pack,
And slow and mournful was his stride, for ever a-glancing back.
‘Give ye the luck,’ the beldame cried: ‘give ye the luck,’ quo’ she,
And the Dairy Thief he doffed his cap, but never a word spake he.

Then over a knoll and under a stile, until my eyes were sore,
I watched him go; so sad an elf I never did see before…

Silent I stood and thought to hear across the open Down,
Some lingering lilt of a goblin song from pixie squat and brown,
Or perchance to spy some faerie dame in her dewy cobweb gown.
I search’d and found ne witch ne folk, but as I stood forlorn,
Three green leaves flickered to the ground, of oak and ash and thorn.

Poperinghe, June, 1916.

It is very strange indeed, to read a poem like this–there’s an ode to a Nightingale, too, this month, borrowed from Boccaccio–with such a place and date affixed.Such verse should be the text for some winsome Pre-Raphaelite woodcut, and yet it comes from an ante-room of hell on earth…

 

Fourth, then, T.P. Cameron Wilson weighs in. I have been slow to pick him up–and I still, given the low volume of writing that I have in hand, resist making him a “Category” all his own–but he elbows in rather nicely. Who is he writing to, today, and with a poem? Why, Harold Monro, of The Poetry Bookshop, of course.

But this is no professional letter–it’s a chilling, tale well-told, ready for a Great War memoir or some latter-day omnibus of the short-form uncanny. Memory, and death, it seems, are the themes for June the First:

1.6.16

I wish you were here, with your sympathy and your power of laughing at the same things as the man you’re with — laughing and weeping, almost, it would be here.

Here’s a thing that happened. When I first “joined” out here I noticed a man — a boy, really, his age was just 19 — who had those very calm blue eyes one sees in sailors sometimes, and a skin burnt to a sort of golden brown. I said to him, “When did you leave the Navy?” and he regarded this as the most exquisite joke! Every time I met him he used to show his very white teeth in a huge smile of amusement, and we got very pally when it came to real bullets — as men do get pally, the elect, at any rate.

Well, the other day there was a wiring party out in front of our parapet — putting up barbed wire (rusted to a sort of Titian red). It is wonderful going out into ‘No Man’s Land.’ I’ll tell you about it one day — stars and wet grass, and nothing between you and the enemy, and every now and then a very soft and beautiful blue-white light from a Very pistol — bright as day, yet extraordinarily unreal. You have to keep still as a statue in whatever position you happen to be in, till it dies down, as movement gives you away.

Well, that night they turned a machine gun on the wiring party, and the ‘sailor boy’ got seven bullets, and died almost at once. All his poor body was riddled with them, and one went through his brown throat. When I went over his papers I found a post-card addressed to his mother. It was an embroidered affair, on white silk. They buy them out here for 40 centimes each, and it had simply “remember me” on it.

And they say “don’t get sentimental!” I wanted you then, to — oh! just to be human.

We had to collect what had been a man the other day and put it into a sandbag and bury it, and less than two minutes before he had been laughing and talking and thinking. . . .[4]

A Soldier

He laughed.
His blue eyes searched the morning,
Found the unceasing song of the lark
In a brown twinkle of wings, far out.
Great clouds, like galleons, sailed the distance.
The young spring day had slipped the cloak of dark
And stood up straight and naked with a shout.
Through the green wheat, like laughing schoolboys,
Tumbled the yellow mustard flowers, uncheck’d.
The wet earth reeked and smoked in the sun . . .
He thought of the waking farm in England.
The deep thatch of the roof — all shadow-fleck’d
The clank of pails at the pump . . . the day begun.
“After the war . . . ” he thought.
His heart beat faster With a new love for things familiar and plain.
The Spring leaned down and whispered to him low
Of a slim, brown-throated woman he had kissed . . .
He saw, in sons that were himself again,
The only immortality that man may know.

And then a sound grew out of the morning,
And a shell came, moving a destined way,
Thin and swift and lustful, making its moan.
A moment his brave white body knew the Spring,
The next, it lay
In a red ruin of blood and guts and bone.

Oh! nothing was tortured there! Nothing could know
How death blasphemed all men and their high birth
With his obscenities. Already moved,
Within those shattered tissues, that dim force,
Which is the ancient alchemy of Earth,
Changing him to the very flowers he loved.

“Nothing was tortured there!” Oh, pretty thought!
When God Himself might well bow down His head
And hide His haunted eyes before the dead.

Is this the sailor-boy himself, mildly alchemized to verse, and a victim of shell rather than machine gun? It hardly matters, and today’s assemblage of dated found-object-writing seems both more numinous and more depressing than usual.

 

So nothing more in the way of commentary. But still, on this busy but less-than-Glorious First, we have a few updates for the month:

 

John Buchan, an invalid at the beginning of the war and no spring chicken, has become an all-but-official propagandist on the (prop-a-) grandest scale: between his voluminous quick-fire histories for Nelson’s and teh very popular Greenmantle, he must be one of the most-read war writers going. But this month he finally went: like C.E. Montague, Buchan has been absorbed into the expanding bureaucracy of the Intelligence branch. He makes his first visit to France early this month–just missing his friend Raymond Asquith at G.H.Q.–and will begin touring and writing from within the military-journalistic complex.

 

Billy Congreve, recently awarded the DSO for his conspicuous gallantry in April in the Salient, is home in London on leave. An active leave: today, a century back, he was married to Pamela Maude at St Martin-in-the-Fields, with the Bishop of London presiding. The honeymoon will last a few days only, for the young brigade major is needed back on duty.[5]

 

And Herbert Read, whose sporadically preserved writing about his experiences as an officer of the Green Howards has been of little use here yet , will return to the front this month, after recuperating from a barbed-wire-related injury.

 

Then there is Isaac Rosenberg, warned to be ready to depart for France at a few hours’ notice. He has just mustered up the courage to tell his devoted sister, Annie, that he is bound for the front.

I asked my boss for the day off and went to Aldershot. It was bleak. I didn’t see a soul except Isaac coming towards me from the other side of the high fence. Talking to him through the wire I said, “But Isaac you’re not fit.” He said, “I’ve been examined, and passed.” I asked him to let me go and see the medical officer. He wouldn’t let me do it. I asked him how much money he had, and he replied “One shilling.” I didn’t know whether he needed anything, but had ten shillings with me, which I gave him. I wasn’t with him more than an hour. I stood there begging him not to go. He said goodbye and disappeared into the distance…[6]

This is a sister’s anguish at the coming suffering and agony of suspense, but it’s also hard not to see the poet reflected in his poem. Moses had much to say about slavery and oppression, about violence and the potential human heroic response…

 

Finally, then, Siegfried Sassoon, in a brown study. The problem is, once you’ve left, where is home?

June 1

I can’t read or enjoy poetry at all since I came back here. Two new officers in C Company since Stansfield
went–G. Williams, who was hit a year ago; and Morris–Sandhurst one. Neither of them at all interesting. Heard from Robert Graves, now at Litherland; he says he ‘wants to come home—to France’. I only wish he would.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Yes, it could be yesterday as well, but the knowledge that the sound is naval gunnery would point more toward today.
  2. The Golden Virgin, 205.
  3. Zeepvat, Before Action, 178-82.
  4. Housman, War Letters, 299-300.
  5. Armageddon Road, 190.
  6. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 136.
  7. Diaries, 70.

Olaf Stapledon is Back Amongst the… Buttercups; Robert Frost and Edward Thomas Rekindle a Friendly Poetic Rivalry; Noel Hodgson and the Limit of Incongruity

Olaf Stapledon is back on the continent after a leave of several weeks.

Friends’ Ambulance Unit
21 May 1916

 Agnes,

I am in my car in a green field among the buttercups… The grass is all mottled sun and shadow. Three red cows sit patiently munching, with eyes half closed and ears flicking. There is a blackbird singing, a wood pigeon cooing… This is war!

The mottling recalls his recent letter from home. Or no, actually: it doesn’t specifically “recall” that letter unless he is writing in the same way that we are reading, namely with close attention to literary effect. And who does that? The previous letter is long gone, at sea for Agnes in Australia.

No–Stapledon uses “mottled” again because it’s the right word, or because it’s a favorite word, or both. And when I point out that the mottling always seems to be sinister–there was a furnace, last time, by night, and now, by day, the mottling helps to camouflage his ambulance unit–I am reading cleverly and intrusively, making more than what was there at the moment historical pen touched historical paper.

Which is fine! Why do otherwise? Just as there is no perfect recording of historical event–it is all filtered through mind, through memory–there is no perfect reading, no pure “reception” of the written word.

But anyway, back to Olaf. He goes on a bit with the pastoral–they sleep “on the bosom of Mother Earth” and watch “searchlights feeling about all over the sky, and Venus steadfastly shining through it all.” And then he turns to what remains the question of the hour for his unit: whether they must object to their new status as semi-objecting pacifists (in a Quaker unit under French jurisdiction) now that their fellow English pacifists are going to jail rather than submit to conscription.

When I got back from England I found that things had considerably developed. A–

And that’s where the censor breaks in. Olaf had apparently included the names of, or other pertinent details about, specific men–“many whom I greatly respect” who have left the unit. It seems that there is a bit of a crackdown, and Stapledon writes that in order to stay in the army–even in the FAU–one must now “tow the line”[1] and cease behaving as a noble objector:

…attain military smartness, refrain from expressing opinions on dangerous subjects, and obey the authorities, or else resign. Well all that is quite reasonable… But it goes to make one feel that one might as well be in the army honestly working for victory. I have made up my mind not to leave except to go to other definite work… At present we are really not doing enough here to justify our somewhat shady position. It is all “betwixt the shine & the shade,” and smacks too much of evasion and the line of least resistance.[2]

Stapledon, then, seems to be feeling the same pressure that drove Max Plowman from the ambulances to the infantry. But Olaf can tolerate the half-light, as yet.

 

Letters about letters just received are generally of limited interest. Try as we might, it is hard to be invested in the subtle alterations of a close relationship that occur when a marriage, a courtship, a sibling relationship, or a mother-and-child-disunion are mediated at postal distance.

But rare letters can strike great sparks, and such was this one, from Robert Frost and recently received by Edward Thomas. Frost not only wrote after a long hiatus, and with great praise for Thomas–he also included a tough poem about a soldier and his future. Thomas is… with another man we might use the word “elated.”

May 21 1916

My dear Robert,

This last letter of your[s] (dated May 1) with the poem ‘Not to Keep’ mends all, though it was opened (& untouched) by the censor. I hadn’t been able to write to you for some weeks simply because I didn’t know where to join on…

‘Not to keep’ is all right. It is no disadvantage to you to be 40. Of course one would prefer to be able to run a mile in 5 minutes & jump a spiked fence, but actually I find less to grumble at out loud than 10 years ago: I suppose I am more bent on making the best of what I have got instead of airing the fact that I deserve so much more. Yet I feel old—I felt old seeing Bottomley’s ‘Lear’, Gibson’s ‘Hoops,’ & Rupert Brooke’s ‘Lithuania’, yesterday afternoon. Bottomley’s play, for example…

Thomas reflects slightingly now on the dramatic works of several of his friends and contemporaries. There’s no nastiness in the criticism, rather a frank confidence, for Frost’s ears alone, in the fruits of Thomas’s own age: wisdom, and a dawning artistic maturity.

I quite admired the simple souls who couldn’t help laughing.—I mean I felt old because I believed I saw how it was done though I don’t suppose I could do it myself as well or better if at all.

But the trip to the theater brought another irony. The soldier was back in his old milieu, but incognito: not only the uniform but a recent loss of weight (Thomas believed that he suffered from diabetes, and he may have been right–this was before insulin and he seems to have made little effort to control his diet) made him unrecognizable.

Nobody recognises me now. Sturge Moore, E. Marsh, & R. C. Trevelyan stood a yard off & I didn’t trouble to awake them to stupid recognition. Bottomley & his wife I just had a word with.

Needless to say, there could be no more powerful symbol of Thomas’s unjust position within the English literary world than the idea of a corporal-and-wonderful-poet standing, unrecognized, within a yard of Eddie Marsh.

A long letter to Frost–Thomas’s best friend and most trusted reader–presents a good example of the problem of historical sampling: is he happier these days, or only happy right now, as he writes to Frost in the afterglow of receiving a letter and poem?

Well, as Thomas explains, he has other reasons to be content to let old acquaintance be forgot:

I was with a young artist named Paul Nash who has just joined us as a map reader. He is a change from the 2 schoolmasters I see most of. He is wonderful at finding birds’ nests. There is another artist, too, aged 24, a Welshman, absolutely a perfect Welshman, kind, simple, yet all extremes & rather unreal & incredible except in his admirations—he admires his wife & Rembrandt for example. I am really lucky to have such a crowd of people always round & these 2 or 3 nearer: you might guess from “Home” how much nearer.

Here’s another lovely thing:

…Shall I copy out the speech our captain made to the men who were leaving us to go to be finished at the cadet school?[3] ‘Pay attention. Stand easy. I just want to say a few words to you men who are going to the school. I wish you all success. I hope you won’t get into any trouble at all. Take care to mind your Ps & Qs, & do everything top-hole.’ He is a kind huge man with no memory, very fond of the country. The other day in the fields he said ‘Company, attention! Oh, look at that rabbit.’

Alas, this mini-memoir of camp life turns too soon to practical matters:

I wish we could win a little sooner. Then I could come & see you barn-storming. Also I could perhaps begin to earn money…  Don’t you worry though, about money. Something may happen. A pension or grant is still just possible, tho de la Mare says improbable:—I am not old enough is his explanation. Also I may possibly get a job which will take me out into the fighting line yet not into the worst risks & give me more money—as an officer. Off course anything may happen now. Things are continually being shaken up & one drops through a hole or not…

Yours ever
Edward Thomas

And an amusing parting post-scriptural shot at Harold Monro, proprietor of the Poetry Bookshop and recent reader of Thomas’s camp-mate, Wilfred Owen.

You should have seen Monro in the vestibule of the theatre selling Bottomley’s ‘Lear’, standing up straight & just pursuing the women with the whites of his eyes[.][4]

Tomorrow the spark will catch the tinder, and Edward Thomas will produce a major poem…

 

Two days ago, Noel Hodgson received a less momentous letter. Hodgson has, we may remember, been larking about since his return from hospital, and, as his battalion is out of the line, he has been indulging in sport. Battalion rugby is martial enough, perhaps, and the reality of static trench warfare strange beyond compare. But a letter proposing an Old School cricket match in France restored to Hodgson a proper sense of the deeper ridiculousness of what some in England believed the war to be. Hodgson wrote to a friend, today, a century back:

Two days ago I received a letter from Dutton, an invitation to play for his eleven v. the School on the 29th of June! Think of it; white flannels, drinks, and delightful smooth-haired children with brown faces; what an irony…

How are all at Herrington? It is a long time since any correspondence passed between myself and any of your family. But not long ago, one evening when I & another had accomplished a very terrible ride, and were enlarging on it to others, I told them all of the matter of CRAGGS, and filled their hollow hearts with fear. Truly that night was among the greatest of nights, only to be linked with the night when the Gunner was sick on the level-crossing before the Paris express.

Do you know that in a few weeks I expect to be an uncle–my sister is introducing a Turret into the world; rather interesting, though unpleasant for her at the moment. Other news I have none.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This would seem to be a homophonic mistake, although it occurs to me that "tow" would make sense as an idiom here too: one must pull (the barge, let's say, at the other end of a "line") along with everyone else, now... But lacking any quick internet verification of my tenuous theory... probably a mistake.
  2. Talking Across the World, 150-1.
  3. This group would include Wilfred Owen.
  4. Elected Friends, 131-4.
  5. Zeepvat, Before Action, 178-9.

Siegfried Sassoon Scans the Brutal Faces, and Faces Sacrifice; Roland Leighton on Toffees and Ideal Love; A Mud Piece from Kathleen Luard

The 1/Royal Welch Fusiliers are on the move. The entire 7th division–taking advantage of both the expected winter lull in the line and of the arrival of more New Army units–will be spending several weeks refitting and training significantly behind the lines. But first they have to get there.

December 3

Started 10.30 and had a dreary three hours’ march to Bourecq (two miles beyond Lillers) through the usual flat lands, along liquid-mud-roads. It was raining and a mist hid the country. We met an Infantry Brigade, Kitchener’s army… Men marching by, four after four, hideous, brutal faces, sullen, wretched. Some wore their steel basin-helmets, giving them a Chinese look. Strange to see, among those hundreds of faces I scanned, suddenly a vivid red-haired youth with green eyes looking far away, sidelong–one clean face, among all the others brutalised.

Siegfried Sassoon‘s diary today is an anticipation both of poetry he will write and poetry he will read–the “scanning” of a mass of marching men is eerily like Charles Sorley‘s most powerful poem, while the sudden interest in the brutalization of a tenderly appreciated male subject will be one of his avenues into emotionally engaged war poetry. The “poet’s notebook” effect continues, although there is no reason to refract the different angles of his gaze–as a poet, a conscientious officer, and a gay man:

But their hearts are gold, I doubt not. The heavy transport-horses plodding through the sludge, straining at their weary loads; the stolid drivers munching, smoking, grinning, yelling coarse gibes; worried-looking officers on horses; young-looking subalterns in new rain-proofs. And the infantrymen, the foot-sloggers, loaded with packs, sweating under their water-proof capes, the men that do the dirty work and keep us safe.

So he looks on, and writes, but how does he feel? The diary turns inward, and suddenly seems to stray very far from the nascent war poet into a strange little cul de sac of personal psychology:

…Everything out here goes past me like a waking dream. My inner life is far more real than the hideous realism of this land of the war-zone. I never thought to find such peace. If it were not for Mother and friends I would pray for a speedy death. I want a genuine taste of the horrors, and then–peace. I don’t want to go back to the old inane life which always seemed like a prison. I want freedom, not comfort.

Whoa! This is not Sassoon as a writing poet, breaking through convention and forging his own way ahead–this is Sassoon the Younger-than-his-years, Sassoon the Belated Romantic, the “poet” for whom poetry remains as much pose as product. How can a man who was more or less content (or at least never very miserable) in his easy “inane” life of cricket and hunting and literary amateurism, long for a “taste of horrors,” and for death?

I don’t know. It doesn’t make a lot of sense–but in that it has company, a century back. There is a reminiscence here–without the misery of deep depression, without the pressure of supporting a family–of Edward Thomas‘s struggle with the unlooked-for contentment of life under discipline. But without, too, the same unflinching, self-lacerating poetic gaze.

No, this is a quick look from a younger sort of man, a man who is confused by his happiness, uncertain of his talents (recall yesterday’s strong reaction to reading Robert Graves‘s early work) and under the baleful influence (one must assume) of that embodiment of human sacrifice to poetic sentiment with whom he had once breakfasted.

It’s very strange, yet it’s not unusual: Sassoon, like so many others, is ready for dramatic “sacrifice” (or ready, at least, to make dramatic statements to that effect) but unprepared to figure out the complex emotions and responsibilities of real soldiering. He is ready and willing to be a good company officer, but he has not yet realized that this may be not a gesture or a moment or a glorious culmination but rather a job of work: a long, difficult, compromised, rewarding, draining job.

And there is one more thing–he has yet to confront (“process,” we would, in our effortful banality, put it) the death of his brother.

I have seen beauty in life, in men and in things; but I can never be a great poet, or a great lover. The last fifteen months have unsealed my eyes. I have lived well and truly since the war began, and have made my sacrifices; now I ask that the price be required of me. I must pay my debt. Hamo went: I must follow him. I will.[1]

 

Roland Leighton, once more looking forward to leave, and love, and life, seems quite the old soldier, in comparison. Yesterday, he had a bath.

In Billets, France, 2 December 1915
6.20 p.m.

Am just about to have a bath, & am writing this while my servant heats the water in a large biscuit tin. I am sitting surrounded by five tins of toffee, each of a different variety, which I have just bought at the canteen. I have a childish love of toffee and thought I would lay in a good stock.

I spent all the morning at a Court Martial as prosecutor. Not a very nice job, as it was a capital crime and the two men concerned were only damned fools after all. But the president seemed an indulgent sort of person, and I think they will escape being shot. They really quite deserve it, though, from the point of view of cold justice…

…….The bath is ready now. (Quite an event in its way; though it does sound silly to make a fuss about a bath, doesn’t it?)

Very much love, dear child.

Today, while Vera wrote to him of her worries over her brother Edward’s continual disappointment in being left out of reinforcement drafts for France, he replies to a letter of hers received in the interim. She has been visiting his family and teasing him about her intimacy with his mother, a fact which he greets with a muted sigh–much better than the lashing out of last month.

France, 3 December 1915

You seem to have spent most of your time at Lowestoft discussing me & my general goings on. I should very much like to know what conclusions you & Mother did come to. You say that I should have been ‘mystified and a little astonished’ if I had overheard you. I wonder whether you ultimately decided that I was a somewhat fickle and superficial person. I shouldn’t be at all surprised, you know………

So Roland will not take offense–but neither will he forbear from riposting. He reminds Vera now of an aspect of their relationship that has become, of late, much more palpable to him than to her–the very small amount of actual time spent together, compared to the reading and writing which they have applied to their affair. All these letters. But also, Roland points out, the First Book, The Story of an African Farm, which has served them almost as a prompter’s script.

Well, after all, your real love was just a character in a book, n’est-ce pas? And She whom you took to Lowestoft the first time was simply a flesh and blood approximation to Lyndall? Is this true—or, rather, do you think it is true? It is quite possible to love an ideal crystallised in a person, and the person because of the ideal: and who shall say whether it is not perhaps better in the end? Though it must be very trying to be the incarnation of an ideal—very trying…

[Good night. Phantom.][2]

 

There is an obvious answer to this question–“and why, pray tell, is Roland more aware of the distance between ideal and literary love and the slender chances of reality?” “Because of the war.” He may be having a bath and toffees today, but soon he will be back in the front lines. Kathleen Luard gives us, today, at short-range second-hand, the worst of the mud stories yet:

Friday, December 3rd. Captain D. is a scrap better to-day, able to emerge from bromides, and talk a little. He told me that when they were holding the Hohenzollern trenches in the worst weather, when they stood up waist-high in liquid mud, two of his men slipped under it when asleep and their bodies were dug out the next day. Their food was sodden, the men kept themselves alive on rum, and the officers on whisky…

A nearby trench is worse:

three men were sitting in it nearly to their arm-pits, huddled together, moaning in their sleep. He went later, in the early morning, with three sound men and found them sunk a little deeper, and woke them and got them out, and set a man to each, to shake them and rub them and put them up in the dry, outside the trench, till the morning mists had cleared, and they had to get into it again.

He met some young boys getting about in their socks with black swollen feet that couldn’t be got into boots, saying ‘They were going to stick it, they weren’t going to report sick!’ Of course he sent them down. They lost very few sick because they made the men rub their feet every day…[3]

“And they had to get into it again.”

 

The winter war of attrition makes for grim reading. Which is why fiction is nice too: Richard Hannay sailed today, a century back, from Liverpool, “in a boat bound for the Argentine that was due to put in at Lisbon.” Lisbon, that “rendezvous of scallywags from most parts of Africa,” will be the place where he ceases to be an officer of the British Army and becomes something else entirely…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 22-23.
  2. Letters from a Lost Generation, 194-5.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 35.
  4. Greenmantle, 47.

Francis Ledwidge is a Published Poet, but the Best Has to Come Yet; Bimbo Tennant, Osbert Sitwell, and Raymond Asquith: All the Grenadiers Talk Tough Chickens, Leave, and Photies; Vera Brittain on the Sacrifice of Nursing; Scandal on Lord Crawford’s Ward!

We last saw Francis Ledwidge being evacuated from Gallipoli. But–alas for the increasingly homesick Inniskillings–the battalion was kept in the area, and it was on a barren mountain ridge near the Greek-Serbian border that Ledwidge learned that his first book of poems, Songs of the Fields, had been published at last. He had recently received an advance copy as well as a parcel from his patron–and Inniskillings officer–Lord Dunsany, who was acting more or less as Ledwidge’s unofficial literary agent. Today Ledwidge wrote back in a mixed mood of bravado, hopeful self-disparagement, and gratefulness:

Thanks very much for your two letters received a couple of days ago. Yes, I received your cigarettes all right. We had a busy day with the Turks when they came, but that didn’t prevent us from smoking them.

So ‘Songs of the Fields’ are out at last. I suppose the critics are blowing warm and cold over them with the same mouth, like the charcoal burner in Aesop’s fable! Jenkins sent me a copy. It is a lovely book and quite a decent size, but my best is not in it. That has to come yet. I feel something great struggling in my soul but it can’t come until I return; if I don’t return it will never come.

I wish the damn war would end; we are all so sick for the old countries. Still, our hearts are great and we are always ready for anything which may be required of us.

I am writing a poem which I will send you when finished; meanwhile I hope my book sells by thousands! I won’t try to thank you for all you have done for me and are doing. You know how grateful I am.

The book was well reviewed, provided one takes the social and national condescensions in stride–and Ledwidge was certainly used to it. There was praise for the poetry, but too often in backhanded reference to his status as a working class Irishman. Even Dunsany described him as a “peasant”[1] while reviewers lauded him as a “scavenger” and an appropriately rural and lyrical voice for the new sort of ranker. But the songs–of the fields, and the birds and the flowers–were still very much what the public wanted, and the first edition quickly sold out.

If he comes home, Francis Ledwidge will come home an established poet.[2]

 

Bimbo Tennant loves his mother very much, and he seems determined to keep her close, and closely informed. And yet he is flighty, writing in the moment, mind to hand to paper, without much care for context. Imagine receiving this letter, written yesterday, and wondering what has become of the boy since he sent it:

Darling Moth’,

…We expect to go into action on Sunday, on which day you may get this card. I shall probably command the Company (D.V.). The sweets and chocolate came this morning…

He expects, that is, for Osbert Sitwell to go on leave and thus to command the company in some “minor” attack. It is exactly like writing mother from school to tell her that a friend is sick and that, consequently, I might get a chance to play with the First XI! Except for the likelihood of death.

Then, today, no mention at all of combat. No “sorry if you were worried that I am dead or lying wounded,” just picking up from her most recent letter to him, and with practical concerns for Sitwell’s upcoming London leave.

31st October, 1915.

My darling Moth’,

I hope that you are having a good time at 34.[3] I am longing to come home, and hope to in ten days’ time (D.V.) but not much before. Osbert will be coming in a very few days now, in two or three days’ time I expect. Could he live at 34 for the week that he will be in London? He would be out to most meals I expect, and would not be in the way…  You see he has nowhere to stay but hotels in London, and they are very expensive, aren’t they? I have told him that I expect it’ll be all right, but he’ll quite understand if it isn’t convenient.

For Sitwell, remember, is not merely the son of a baronet but the son of a remarkably miserly baronet, with a mother in prison and a family estate he would be loath to visit… Bimbo is a good friend, but, yikes–a fickle correspondent.

I rode into Bethune, yesterday evening and back in the dark, after ordering a pair of riding breeches. It is a twelve mile ride altogether, along the road, pavé most of the way, and covered with very well directed traffic of every sort…

That reads like a rebuke, for our benefit, of the languid Raymond Asquith, who couldn’t be bothered to make a similar ride. And speaking of that fickle non-dinner date:

It would be a much pleasanter life, if one had one’s friends in the regiment; though I must say I have been lucky in my company and like both my captain and my ensign.

Today we have been digging trenches or rather watching the men dig which was rather boring, and last night we had a concert which was worse…[4]

So you could have gone to dinner with the young pups in the 4th Battalion, no?

He would, however, have missed a repast like the one today’s Bimbo-to-Moth’ letter goes on to describe:

…I haven’t eaten such a nasty dinner for a long time. The “piece de resistance” was a very large and horribly tough chicken, which earlier in the year might have been called a string-chicken. This was followed by a sort of batter-pudding made of runny junket and toast (the latter very hard) and the meal drew to a close with fossilised dates and wizened grapes, together with some octopus saliva that was called coffee. But we were quite good company, about seven of us, and I enjoyed the evening.

Now I must stop, with my best love to Daddy and Clare.

Ever your very devoted Son,

Bimbo[5]

The men, we should recall–the chaps who were being watched doing the digging–are eating tepid greasy soup out of communal pots, with muddy bread and sweet tea.

Amusingly, and to continue this reconstructed non-conversation, Asquith will write tomorrow to his wife about the possibility of quitting the army to run for parliament. So, even though he “did not fancy a ride on the pavé in dark and wet”–again, not doing for a convivial dinner with his (younger) brother officers what Bimbo did for a pair of breeches–he still rejects the idea of the safe and comfortable life of a parliamentarian:

I would far rather sit down to a lean chicken with a couple of gentlemen, than see old Fletcher waving his mutilated hand over the plumpest turkey ever bred on the Trent and am honestly less bored at the prospect of going into the trenches than I should be by a week of meetings and speeches on the Insurance Act and such like skimble-skamble stuff. No doubt when I have had more experience I may revise my values…

A circumspect last word, there.

Asquith is, however, taking care of business. This little note to his wife Katherine–written yesterday, a century back–may well be the best-ever example of a picture being worth a thousand-word “if I should die” letter:

. . . But when can you be going to send me the Trench photograph of yourself which was promised before I left? I have got a dinky little picture of Dilly and if that is found on my corpse instead of a picture of you I know you will give me a wigging in the next world. . .

diana manners cooper 1914

Diana Manner, 1914; posing as the Princess (Leia) of the Coterie

Yes, “Dilly” is Diana Manners, doyenne of the Coterie, and Not His Wife. It’s a pretty nice photo, though.

Finally–from Asquith, at least–two more now-familiar symptoms of the return of Trench Normalcy: frequent leaves and routine duties. Asquith is thirty-six while Bimbo is nineteen, but then again Asquith has less than a fortnight’s active service.

Our C.O. has gone off on leave today for a week and my company Commander is taking his place pro tern, so I find myself in command of the Company which is funny enough if one comes to think of it.

In the meantime, he censors the letters.

It was no secret that officers read some or all of their men’s letters, so this may be an amusing jibe by the man in question rather than (just) a creepy invasion of his privacy by his officer:

…a soldier whose letter I censored… alluding to the fact of my joining the Battn. wrote “He seems a very decent officer as yet. If his military style is as good as his classics he will do well.”

He closes then, sweetly–or with tongue in cheek?–with classical pronouncements of affection:

I have determined to devote 5 minutes a day to serious reading and began this morning on the Odes of Horace, pleasantly surprised as I always am to find how astonishingly good they are. It was wonderfully clever of you, my sweet, to find that minute Horace for me. I can see it will be a great resource and a constant reminder of my angel Fawn.[6]

If these odd, witty socialites and their interweaving letters leave something of a muddle, well, then that’s half my fault, since I interwove them. But only half! There is just a lot going on when the Guards are in reserve…

 

Far from the flirtations of the Coterie, however, an old-school Lord has uncovered the oldest sort of scandal imaginable. This is Private Lord Crawford–who, I remind my readers, does not approve of gossipy women:

Sunday, 31 October 1915

First day of our hospital crisis. At 6am I found an officer from the HQ staff in bed in ward No. 2. He came in latish last night without any kit, without any warning to staff, and he wasn’t entered in the A and D book. This was the climax. The officer has already misbehaved himself in a scandalous fashion and I reported the affair to Sergeant Nunn, who reports to the S[ergeant] M[ajor]–who reports to the colonel, and I was cross-examined. The colonel was greatly shocked and surprised. He interviewed some of our men and was confirmed in the shock he had received from myself. There will be developments. We owe something to ourselves at No. 2 station. Many of us could not afford to be associated with any public scandal. We have long been living on the edge of a volcano. Drink, gambling, disregard of hospital rules, and other things as well–all this was giving us our evil reputation and the time has at last come when we should assert ourselves.

He is dead serious. Crawford worries that this one ambulance unit will become a matter to be mocked in the press, to be pursued by Parliamentary Committees. This, I think, is further evidence that there is some sort of suppressed egomania in his sui generis decision to serve in the ranks. And tell us, milord, whose fault is it?

I had hoped that the new matron would have improved matters. She has contented herself with changing un-essentials. Her mind turns to green flower pots, shining brass and bees waxed floors. Of fundamentals, she is totally ignorant. She is hopeless as a reformer, too blind and too tactless also. A crisis, therefore, has to be brought about and I am glad that it should have been directly owing to somebody not belonging to our own unit.[7]

While it is of course terribly unlucky that the very first instance of illicit sex in the BEF should take place in Crawford’s unit, I think we have all been warned–and should have known, really, without any such warning–that when a man has fallen so low as to come and carouse in a hospital, we must ask ourselves which–or, rather, how many–of the women who are at fault should have already been done away with.

Tomorrow will–in the same fussy, oblique language–tell.

 

It has been a very long post. But, when Vera Brittain is writing to Roland Leighton and once again quoting Rupert Brooke, not yet long enough…

1st London General Hospital, 31 October 1915

I seem to mind nothing now in the way of work. This morning, as I was sweeping our immense ward (one has to do a good deal of housemaid’s work in the early morning before the actual nursing begins because of the usual incompetence of orderlies) I wondered to myself if I should ever be–what I have never yet been–really happy. But I wondered it more from force of habit than anything else. It certainly was not an expression of discontent. any more than it was the result of pleasure in my work. It is always so strange that when you are working you never think of all the inspiring thoughts that made you take up the work in the first instance. Before I was in hospital at all I thought that because I suffered myself I should feel it a grand thing to relieve the sufferings of other people. But now, when I am actually doing something which I know relieves someone’s pain it is nothing but a matter of business. I may think lofty thoughts about the whole thing before or after but never at the time. At least, almost never. Sometimes some quite little thing makes me stop short all of a sudden and I feel a fierce desire to cry in the middle of whatever it is I am doing. I felt like it when a man asked me to wash him to-night & then told me I reminded him so much of a sister of his, only she was fair. It is always some absurd little thing like that. And those lines of Rupert Brooke’s are always coming into my head as I look at the rows of poor permanently shattered people on either side of the long ward–

‘These cast the world away, poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth, gave up the years to be
Of work and joy'[8]

See? Everyone is supposed to despise Brooke and embrace the coming poets of protest, the apt describers of horror and disillusionment and the worst of war, and then–revision!–we are supposed to feel bad for the historical error of failing to appreciate the extent to which Brooke remained the favorite far into the long entrenched misery…

That’s a lot of historical responsibility. So isn’t this the easier path? All you have to do is read the war’s writers day by day. Some will always love Brooke, some never liked him. And Vera Brittain–young, clever, passionate, still relatively inexperienced–well: she likes him very very well, so far…

References and Footnotes

  1. Or perhaps not "even." If the 17th Baron Dunsany has not earned the habit of referring to clients as peasants, then certainly middle class reviewers should not dwell on a poet's humble origins.
  2. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 135-6.
  3. Evidently the address of their London house.
  4. Asquith, Life and Letters, 207.
  5. Letters, 80-3.
  6. Life and Letters, 207-9.
  7. Private Lord Crawford, 75-6.
  8. Letters From a Lost Generation, 181-2.

The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XI: America Praises the Great Gift of War to English Literature; Tolkien Journeys to Aryador; Thomas Hardy Still Mourns; Henry Farnsworth Hopes for Better Things; Donald Hankey Regrets His Commission

We have a poem from Tolkien to get to today, as well as a trio of letters from Hardy and two letters from soldiers at the front. But first, an oblique crossing of paths, as Rupert Brooke is reviewed in the New York Times by none other than Joyce Kilmer, the Catholic public intellectual, critic, and recent author of “Trees.” This poem holds–or once held–a position relative to general perceptions of poetic taste much like the one Brooke’s “1914” sequence will hold in terms of war poetry: love it or despise it, but it does force one to pick a side. But the comparison is inexact. Kilmer’s ditty is the original “widely-beloved but critically-derided.” (Perhaps the politic thing is to declare it intentionally simple–it’s a sweet religious sentiment, pleasantly rhymed, suitable for Sunday school. Another way to put it would be “this is a cloying, awful poem.”) But Brooke’s sonnets are now nearly universally beloved (although we have heard some dissenting voices[1]) and will only later become the target of a major critical counter-attack.

Kilmer’s review, available here, is part of the first wave of high praise. He makes a booming–and very flawed–case not only for Brooke’s poetry but for the effect of war on soldier-writers. It kicks off with a rather definitive judgment:

Critics tell us, until they and we are tired, just what will be the war’s effect on literature. War stops literature, says one. War purifies and strengthens literature, says another. Rupert Brooke has proved them both right.

Kilmer goes on to declare Brooke, following his most fervent English admirers, to be a “genius” who, due to the war, is “certain of literary immortality.” But this is not, Kilmer argues, just because of his “romantic and noble death.” (Again, it feels churlish to point this out, but Brooke “sleeps under a little wooden cross on an island of olive trees” not because he fell in battle with the enemy but because of a mosquito bite, and subsequent questionable doctoring. Kilmer elides this fact, and lets the incautious reader assume that Brooke died gloriously.)

No–Kilmer’s claim is that Brooke was elevated by the war, from “a clever and whimsical rhymester” to a “great poet.” Brooke was older than Keats was when he died, and Kilmer quotes the entirety of “The Dead” as representative of Brooke’s Keatsian transformation. Alas, the sonnet he quotes is the fourth in the “1914” sequence, not the third (they have the same title), which Roland Leighton has just railed against–that would be too perfect a juxtaposition.

Still on the fence? Kilmer may be voicing a popular opinion, he may doing it on his own, and he may have some short-range critical justificaiton for praising portions of the “1914” poems. But now he really puts his foot in the bucket. Before Brooke “became a soldier… he had been writing cynical little songs, like those of Thomas Hardy.”

Whoa there, little fellah! The battle lines are now drawn. It’s possible that we’re seeing the effect of a religious/cultural divide, as opposition to Hardy often coalesced around the idea that his brutal tragedies of fate (not to mention his “Satires of Circumstance“) are essentially atheist.

Perhaps. But the “Satires” are ironic, not cynical. And such a judgment would require Kilmer to be unaware of Brooke’s own flirtations with atheism (not to mention bohemianism, bisexuality, and general petulant raunchiness). Which is possible–he seems to have fallen for the anodyne biographical note included in the forthcoming edition of his poems, which goes as far as mentioning Brooke’s socialism and vegetarianism but omits the more shocking alliegiances.

So let’s keep it critical… except we can’t. The rest of Kilmer’s review is just as circumstantial, and not so much ad hominem as pro homine ad homines: Brooke is held up as the great cleanser of English poetry, the man who beheld “Signor Marinetti and his Futurists, Ezra Pound and his Imagistes, Wyndham Lewis and his Vorticists” and rebelled–because “he was too much of a man and too much of a poet.”

I do miss Rupert Brooke, and it would have been painful fun to read this review over his shoulder: this is precisely the fame and glory he was aiming for with the 1914 sonnets, precisely the facile immortality he desperately desired. And, of course, in the eternal internal strife between his self-love and self-loathing, this is also a perfect proof of his own half-conscious betrayal of his significant poetic gifts.

He could have been a contender, a good, solid poet–but he made himself a hollow bronze god, suitable for mounting in a public square. And thereafter collecting pigeon shit.

And therefore this is precisely the critical misreading, the false career trajectory that he knew he was setting up as he sailed into the Aegean dawn, writing prettily accessible sentimental verses at last.

The war didn’t elevate Brooke by enabling his escape from “shoddy Bohemianism” and naughtily direct poetry. As we know, it enabled his escape from neurosis, self-doubt and intractable personal problems. It is sad that Brooke embraced war–and the hope of his own extinction–as something of an escape from his own mind, his own personality. Very sad.

But that he chose–once buoyed not by the spirit of the war per se (as Kilmer assumes) but rather by the sense of escape that the uniform allowed him–that he chose to write very different poetry is not a tragedy or a beautiful sad story. It was, in the classic American phrase of the last half-century, a sell-out.

Kilmer’s conclusion is that, while the loss is great, “English literature has gained by the thing that caused his death”–note the refusal there, as in later American executive actions, to avoid naming “war.” In fact, sins of omission for constitutional convenience are rather like critical smoke screens–dodging the word does no good, and can do evil. Silence can be cant, too.

But back to Kilmer’s argument: Brooke’s good death elevates his questionable life, and the poetry conveniently followed the same trajectory. Rupert Brooke is, apparently, to be seen as Sydney Carton, redeemed of a wasted life/talent in doing one great thing as history carted him off to slaughter.

This is a disgusting sentiment, really, a sort of Providentialist nihilism. Unforgivable and, given the events of the past century, lamentable.

But, first of all, Brooke was asking for it. And, second, my objection to Kilmer’s review is a gauntlet in my own face. If we don’t believe that the war–despite its horrors and destruction–elevated the writing of its participants, then what exactly are we doing here? Am I protesting too much, because Brooke is a secretly (even to himself) cynical patriot, and because I prefer the verses that will be written by other tortured souls, young men who didn’t really get a chance to “sell out” and pour the mold for their own fame?

 

Awkwardly–for Mr. Kilmer, for at least–Thomas Hardy‘s writing is about to take its own war-driven turn. It won’t be much less “cynical,” perhaps, and nothing like Brooke’s pleasant appreciation of his own demise, but it will be poetry touched by war nonetheless–and an improvement upon his dutifully pro-war 1914 work. But not yet. Over the last two weeks Hardy has been writing and writing again of the death of his young cousin at Gallipoli. Shouldn’t that death  be preceded by an adjective? “Senseless death?” “Tragic death?” “Useless death?” These short letters are something like drafts of the poetry to come.

Max Gate, Sept 4, 1915

Dear Mr Phillpotts:

My best thanks for your note… He was so much more to us than a cousin, & the most promising member of my family. I  wish he were not lying mangled in that shambles of the Gallipoli Peninsula, where we ought never to have gone. However, nothing can touch him further.

 

Max Gate 7 Sept, 1915

Dear Shorter:

Just a line to thank you for your letter. Please do not trouble about putting in that portrait till quite convenient. It is really for the sake of his poor mother. When he told us he was going to that shambles Gallipoli we thought he was doomed.

But Hardy is not immune to recognizing another sort of merit, distinct from the canceled “promise” of his future life:

Max Gate, Dorchester,  Sept 12, 1915

Dear Sir Evelyn Wood,

You may be interested in hearing of the end of my cousin young Frank George, whom you so kindly recommended for a commission in the 5th Dorsets. He was in that frightful night attack in Suvla Bay Aug 21-22, & was killed just as his company was leaving the trenches.

His colonel—(now Brig. General Hannay) tells me that he had done splendidly since they started fighting out there on the 7th August. On the 17th he distinguished himself particularly, & brought great credit to the 5th by rushing a Turkish trench with his platoon, for which his name was sent forward for reward. He bayonetted some 8 or 10 Turks & brought
back 14 prisoners.[2]

I called on his mother last week. Poor woman; she is a widow, but bears up as well as she can…

Sincerely yours
Thomas Hardy[3]

 

Reaching back to Kilmer-on-Brooke, here’s another sort of juxtaposition: a young writer as yet far from fame, who will one day achieve enormous popularity amidst vociferously mixed critical reviews. But his poetry…

Anyway, young lieutenant Tolkien is finding time while training at Whittington Heath camp to work on his evolving mythos. After again revising The Happy Mariners a few days ago–a work that lies near the heart of his imaginative leap from an English past to an Elven sub-creation–today he wrote ‘A Song of Aryador.'[4]

This poem envisions human beings dwelling in a green and pleasant land, knowing somehow that “Shadow Folk” are passing through. On the face of it, a typical example of 19th century fairy poetry, and nothing to get excited about. And yet the scene depicted in this poem will, with many changes in the conception and the context, take up a very minor but very firm place within the History of Middle Earth. Aryador is–or is in–Hisilómë, one of the regions of Beleriand. And the Shadow Folk are not 19th century fairies tripping mischievously or numinously along–they will become the High Elves, people of the Noldor or Teleri taking the long journey at last into the West–the slow movement of loss which runs through Tolkien’s work from beginning to end.

A Song of Aryador

In the vales of Aryador
By the wooded inland shore
Green the lakeward bents and meads
Sloping down to murmorous reeds
That whisper in the dusk o’er Aryador;

Do you hear the many bells
Of goats upon the fells
Where the valley tumbles downward from the pines?
Do you hear the blue woods moan
When the Sun has gone alone
To hunt the mountain-shadows in the pines?

She is lost among the hills
And the upland slowly fills
With the shadow-folk that murmur in the fern;
And still there are bells
And the voices on the fells
While Eastward a few stars begin to burn.

Men are kindling tiny gleams
Far below by mountain-streams
Where they dwell among the beechwoods near the shore,
But the great woods on the height
Watch the waning western light
And whisper to the wind of things of yore,

When valley was unknown,
And the waters roared alone,
And the shadow-folk danced downward all the night,
When the Sun had fared abroad
Through great forests unexplored
And the woods were full of wandering beams of light.

Then were voices on the fells
And a sound of ghostly bells
And a march of shadow-people o’er the height.
In the mountains by the shore
In forgotten Aryador
There was dancing and was ringing;
There were shadow-people singing
Ancient songs of olden gods in Aryador.

 

Donald Hankey has the most unusual, most conflicted relationship to military authority of any of our writers. An ex-cadet and ex-officer, he insisted on serving in the ranks, among the sort of men he intended to minister to after the war. He accepted promotion to sergeant, returned to the rank of private to avoid serving under an officer who didn’t measure up to his “beloved captain,” and then–as the army has been scouring its rolls for suitable officer material amidst all the enthusiastic enlistees of 1914–accepted persistent suggestions that he needed, for the nation’s state, to take a commission. And now he regrets it.

Sept. 12, 1915

Dear Grandmamma,

Thanks awfully for your encouraging letter. I still think that it was a mistake for me to apply for a commission, and that if I had waited another ten days I shouldn’t have done it. But it is no good crying over spilt milk, and I must try and make the best of existing circumstances…

I am going up to town to-morrow for the day, to see my dentist, banker, brother, tailor, boot-maker, publisher, etc.! It is promotion. I am getting very bored here, and I am afraid my sister finds me very grumpy! It is very interesting to be a rolling stone while one is rolling; but there is an indefiniteness of aim which is rather disquieting when one is made to stop and think. I don’t quite know what I want, and I don’t feel as if my personality was knit together sufficiently to find out. I suppose it is the old war of the spirit and the flesh!

Aha–one more of our not-quite-lost, not-quite-found souls who took some peace of mind from the lack of initiative and responsibility that military discipline imposed. But Hankey will not let himself off that easy. He segues quickly from his military career to his writing:

Sometimes I can write things which I don’t really feel at all, though I would like to be able to, and then other people take it for granted that I do feel like it, and I feel rather a humbug, and understand why it is that so many people write under noms de plume. However, I hope soon to be busy, and then I shall no longer be introspective, and anyhow it is a shame to worry you with my imaginations.

An excellent line. And yet, for Hankey–a serious Christian thinker–there is more to peace of mind than the avoidance of personal choice.

I agree with you that presentiments are a great argument for God’s fatherly government of life. My favorite cousin, D. G., has the most extraordinarily accurate ones quite often. Some of them, of course, are sheer telepathy, but others relate quite definitely to events in the immediate future. I am very sceptical on such subjects; but I admit that in her case I find it very hard not to believe some of the instances she has told me…

Your affec.,

Grandson[5]

 

Finally, today, Henry Farnsworth writes home to update his family on the confusing evolution of the Foreign Legion.

September 12,1915

Dear Mamma:

Your letters, two of which arrived this morning, are a great blessing. A little sympathy is a very grateful thing when one is bored to death and exasperated by every one else in the world.

I always try to write of the most interesting events in these surroundings, and the fact that you seem to look at them in something the same way makes it all seem a little less futile.

As for your glorious French Army—I beg to differ… Our old 3 de marche was never considered as a very remarkable outfit, but it is significant that all of the three secteurs we occupied, strengthened, fortified, and turned over to French regiments are now in the hands of the Germans—the last one, Tilloloy, what with the barbed-wire, sixty feet thereof, in front of the trenches, and heavily embanked loopholes, was untakable as long as the defenders stuck to their guns. That the thing was done by surprise makes it all the more inexcusable.

To-morrow, so they say, we leave at 3 a.m. for Division Headquarters and Poincaré presents the regiment with a flag. I suppose the ceremony will be impressive, but do not look forward to it very much. Marching orders are all I ask of Heaven, and there seems no sign of them.

Why we were rushed back from the trench-digging in Alsace and all our hopes raised is a question I suppose only the Chiefs can answer. The thought that they had their reasons gives one no comfort.

I wish you could or would read “War and Peace” again. Tolstoi, even more than Stendahl, arrives at complete expression of military life. Incidentally, his conception of family life is no less utterly true to nature, at least as I see and experience it…

Henry[6]

Tolstoy! Well, yes indeed. It’s interesting that War and Peace doesn’t come up all that much–the English are more likely to go to The Dynasts when looking for epic treatment of the great war of a century (further) back, so perhaps that explains it. There can be no complaining about the judgment for Tolstoy as the great military writer (although the “Sevastopol Sketches” come much closer to the atmosphere of the trenches), especially over Stendahl. But, really, the only thing these young Francophiles should be reading is Zola’s La Débâcle.

But, here at the end of a mammoth post, I digress. Tomorrow we will hear from Alan Seeger, who is now in the same unit as Farnsworth, and similarly doomed to reorganization, similarly hoping for a more violent future. But there the similarities end: Farnsworth, though the callower of the callow, remains proud of his unit–like the Guards or the Royal Welch, they pride themselves on having improved their section of the line and see evidence of their own elite status when another regiment loses the position. And with a sigh and some heavy reading he hopes for greater things–not that he is looking forward to the intervening parade.

Seeger, as we will see, has more or less given up on the Legion (he enlisted several months earlier, however, and in an older regiment, one with a unique set of pre-war problems) and yet is pleased by the prospect of military ceremonial. They both want action, but only one is consistent in identifying “glory,” rather than pride, experience, or service, as the foremost motivation.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In the numerous previous "Afterlife" posts, especially from Edward Thomas and Charles Sorley.
  2. This is possible, but unlikely--I do not believe there was a posthumous decoration. Then again, Gallipoli was a lost cause at this point. but exaggeration, at least, is likely in this letter to the bereaved (and famous) relative.
  3. Letters, V, 122-3.
  4. Chronology 73.
  5. Letters of Donald Hankey, 312-13.
  6. Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 200-1.

Social Snobbery and Romantic Attachments: Robert Graves and Alf Pollard Have New Motivations for Taking the War to the Hun; Vera Brittain Bids Farewell to Her Only Brother

Robert Graves has arrived–again. A few days ago he returned to his own regiment, joining the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers near Laventie. As Graves tells it in Good-Bye to All That, he and a comrade who was also transferring took their time about it, intentionally missing a train and spending a night in Béthune, where, the following morning, Graves bathed alongside the Prince of Wales.

Dressed in nothing at all, he graciously remarked how bloody cold the water was, and I loyally assented that he was too bloody right. We were very pink and white and did exercises on the horizontal bar afterwards.

Amusing–and possibly true, but you know our Robbie.[1] He does allow himself to be one-upped by another comrade, who claims the distinction of having sat side by side with the Prince in an army latrine.

Graves and his comrade managed to waste two more days, and, upon their eventual arrival, were received coldly by the adjutant of the Second Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers. The reception had nothing to do with their foot-dragging, however. Graves makes another subaltern–unhappily on loan to the battalion from a regiment which the Welch conceive to be of inferior social status–supply what amounts to plot exposition for the next few chapters of the memoir:

They’re all like that here. You must realize that this is one of the only four regular infantry battalions in France that has remained still more or less its old self… All our company commanders are regulars, and so are all our N.C.O’s. The peacetime custom of taking no notice of newly-joined officers is still more or less kept up…

They treat us like dirt; but it will be worse for you than for me because you’re a full lieutenant. They’ll resent that with your short service…

Graves should be well-prepared for social snobbery. Nevertheless, his account of his first weeks in combat with his own regiment is a mixture of exasperation and admiration. For the men, it’s largely the latter: the Welch are “magnificent-looking fellows. Their uniforms were spotless, their equipment khaki-blancoed, their buttons and cap-badges twinkled.” This is in the trenches, mind you. His first task being to censor a pile of letters, Graves discovers that they are “more literate than the Welsh Regiment… but duller.”

But the officers are a different matter. We will hear quite a bit more from Graves on the old habits of the Welch regular officers–they still play polo when in reserve and force new officers to improve their riding skills (this is an infantry regiment in a machine-gun war, mind you) and they have “childish” (or, rather, Public School-ish) rules and hierarchies governing life in the mess. Which Graves will of course immediately upset by touching the gramophone…[2],

But, although he foregrounds the social silliness in the memoir, one much more important fact was immediately apparent to Graves. The Royal Welch  had the tactical/territorial pride of an old Regular battalion, and their policy of “an eye or two” meant that things were, suddenly, very much more dangerous. Accordingly, the only way for a new “wart” to prove himself to the snooty Regulars was to demonstrate physical courage.

So today, a century back, Graves wrote an “if I should die” letter. Not to his parents, but to the boy at school he had loved best, whatever the rumors. To “Peter” Johnstone, the “Dick” of Good-Bye to All That, he wrote:

Dearest Peter,

This is case I die. If I do, it’ll be young & happy & in splendid company, without any fears of Hell or anxious hopes for Heaven: I leave all that to God: no good building on doubts.

Graves has just turned twenty, and sounds still very much the schoolboy.

I should have liked to write something fine & lasting by which nice people hereafter might remember my name but childlessness loses its sting when I think that you who mean infinitely more to me than myself are going to be a greater poet than I could ever be & that perhaps I have sometimes helped you to understand & love, & so in a sense may live in you when my body is broken up, & have a share in all your doings.

“Romantic friendship” indeed! And the very strange reference–in such a young man, writing to a boy, to the idea of facing death without the consolation of having fathered children… even if he is using it to set up the conventional connection between children of the body and books-as-children.

I leave you all my friends & my books & wish you all the happiness from them that I have had. God bless you always. My favourite hope is to be remembered by the future as your friend–Really, old thing!–,

Robert Graves

Give my best love to Dev. George Mallory & Eddie Marsh if you can.[3]

Odd, and over the top, and touching. Needless to say, we will not be catching Robert Graves doing too much more self-effacing placing-of-hopes-in-others. The letter is dramatic, but the need is there. This young “wart” will soon see the necessity of seeking distinction in the field. At night. In No Man’s Land.

 

A big day for Alf Pollard today as well. His first home leave has come to an end, and he is on his way back to the trenches. It went more or less as planned–some drinking, some awkwardness, a joyful reunion with his beloved mother. But there is another beloved in Pollard’s life, or rather a Beloved, a woman he always describes in fulsome, awkwardly elevated terms. And today this dazzling star has set him on a new course. He is already back in France, but yesterday, he was with his Lady:

Something had happened to me whilst I was home and I had to get my new bearings. I knew now what I wanted; for the first time in my life I began to think of marriage. Of course she was ever so much too good for me. I recognised that from the start. She was the most divine, glorious creature that ever breathed. Try how I would, I knew I could never reach her standard. But I must do my best. She could never be expected to fall in love with a common soldier…

She herself had suggested a commission. She had even laughed at me because I had not already applied for one…

What could go wrong with this relationship, I ask you? But it will have an immediate impact on Pollard’s career.

Anyway, her words, lightly uttered, bore fruit. Ambition was born within me. I would apply for a commission. I would also take every chance that came my way to earn distinction. Her knight would win his spurs.

The following day I filled in my application form.[4]

 

Finally, today, Vera Brittain bids farewell to her brother Edward, whose pre-embarkation leave is concluding.

I said one goodbye to him at the bathroom door; he seemed cheerful enough but his eyes looked very sad. But I managed to get 10 minutes’ respite from the Hospital a little later to see him off by the 9.50. We all assembled there on the station, Edward & I, soldier & nurse, & Mother & Daddy. Fortunately we had not long to wait. We were all calm & cheerful and talked of nothing in particular. I looked long & carefully at Edward as he stood there, tall & sunburnt, the typical soldier; I was committing his image to my mind. I wish I had done the same with Roland; but I felt too half-crazed the morning he went away to have presence of mind for any such thing.

As the train went out I stood & waved to him, with a sick sense that it was perhaps for the last time in these our short years. So we have seen him off–to France, the Dardanelles, the Persian Gulf? What matter which. In all these stricken countries there are thousands of British graves, and there is so little reason to hope that what one loves best may not make one more. Fortunately the station had not the desolate look it wore when Roland departed. There was no icy stillness, no snowy roofs, no pitiless gleaming fails, to make matters worse. Edward just went, that was all. And I said “Au Revoir,” but he said “Goodbye.”

There was no time for grief. I went back to the Hospital straightaway…

But there was some well-timed postal reassurance later today, when Vera was at home between two shifts at the hospital.

I received a letter from him just before I went back to the Hospital… “Thank you so much for the Rupert Brooke…”

“Him,” of course, is Roland Leighton. And I must note, in stern-historian-mode, that Vera included no immediate reflection in her diary on the potential unwisdom of sending Brooke’s sonnets to an aspiring poet in grave danger. Was she too overwhelmed by the emotions of the day to write about her doubts, or is the report in the later memoir, Testament of Youth, less an accurate recreation of this time’s feelings than an imposition of later doubts onto the sincere belief in the inspirational power of Brooke’s poetry?

It has been an elevated day: The Old Regiment, the chivalric Lady, the rending of a family and the bonds of poetry. What humble garment could restore us to the day to day concerns of the war? Back to Vera’s summary of Roland’s letter.

He adds a p.s. asking for socks if Mother is making any, and says he is “still trying to get leave but with no result.” I feel inclined to say with the Psalmist “Lord, how long?”[5]

I do like socks. But no–the tone will stay elevated, do what we might. We end not with mothers and socks but with Rupert Brooke and windswept moors, as Vera wrote swiftly back to Roland:

Buxton, 5 August 1915

Do you remember the hilly road over the moorland, where we went along during a walk one Sunday, the first time you came here? Yesterday evening about 9.0 Edward & I went a long way up that road…

We talked for a long time and very seriously; a good deal of it was about you. I don’t think I shall ever forget it. I don’t know why, but somehow I think that Edward in his heart has a kind of haunting feeling he will not come back…

My mind is in a turmoil; I only know I feel very alone; He wanted Rupert Brooke’s poems to take out with him, so I gave him the book…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Graves later admitted to consciously emphasizing--not to say adding in--certain elements of his experience in order to crank up sales of his memoir. Royalty-spotting was prominent among these...
  2. Good-Bye to All That, 122-7.
  3. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 130-1.
  4. Fire-Eater, 100.
  5. Chronicle of Youth, 228-9.
  6. Letters From a Lost Generation, 139-40.

All Hands on Deck for Poetry, or The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke IX: Gurney and Leighton Beg to Differ, and Gurney Brookes a Sonnet of His Own

Ivor Gurney sat down tonight, a century back, to write another rambling letter to Marion Scott:

3 August 1915 (tomorrow to be)

Pte Gurney, B company, 2nd/5th Glosters, Chelmsford, Essex

Dear Miss Scott:

…Indeed England has been poorly off for musicians, or at least (I believe) for musical output… Our young men must write on a diet largely composed of Folk Song and Shakespeare.

The Sonnet of R.B. you sent me, I do not like. It seems to me that Rupert Brooke would not have improved with age, would not have broadened; his manner has become a mannerism, both in rhythm and diction. I do not like it. This is the kind of work which his older lesser inspiration would have produced. Great poets, great creators are not much influenced by immediate events; those must sink in to the very foundations and be absorbed. Rupert Brooke soaked it in quickly and gave it out with as great ease. For all that we have very much to be grateful for; but what of 1920? What of the counterpart to “The Dynasts” which may still lie within another Hardy’s brain a hundred years today?

How perspicacious of Ivor. This anticipates the later knock on Brooke, which few others have yet voiced, namely that his fame-making 1914 sonnets were weaker work than his earlier poems, some of which were notably frank, mischievous, even unsettling. And then there is the more deeply damning suggestion–which became more or less incontestable once the patriotic swell of the war subsided–that those famous sonnets were opportunistic. Brooke responded not so much as a poet digging deeply into himself as a versifying propagandist into uniform leaping.

But that’s not all, folks. Gurney has named Thomas Hardy as the poet who has stood the test of time–and who has answered the call by ruminating on the Great Deeds of the past and creating a (dramatic) epic, a full-scale attempt to transmute history into poetry. What of 1920, indeed, and 1929? and 2015? Alas, The Dynasts is now hardly more than a century old, and its subject matter just last month hit its climactic bicentennial. And nobody reads The Dynasts anymore: I’m writing this ridiculous project every day, positioning Hardy as the Guiding Seer of the Great War Poets, and I still haven’t read it all the way through.

Nevertheless, Hardy is the right name to invoke. He wrote unflinching, uncompromising poetry. Sometimes it was untimely and unpopular and uninspiring poetry. His mood as a writer of novels might have been the eternal/tragic, but his poetry took on History and Irony, often in explicit capitals.

I forget if I have even discussed this before, but the title of this project is his, from At Lulworth Cove a Century Back. In that poem Hardy reaches back a century to imagine–in his best ironic/omniscient whispering poetic narrator fashion–being present at the departure of Keats:

That man goes to Rome — to death, despair;
And no one notes him now but you and I:
A hundred years, and the world will follow him there,
And bend with reverence where his ashes lie.

So the two poets are linked, over a century.The poem had something to do, too, with research into the precise details of Keats’s movements.[1] So, very like our project, and yet unlike: History, in Hardy, is subordinate to Poetry. I’m not quite sure, but I–and Gurney–might be asking a different question. Both could be phrased as follows: “how will we remember the great unrecognized poets, gone untimely to their deaths, a century hence?” But his emphasis falls on remember: with proper reverence? Ours falls on how: in what world-historical context? Keats does not appear in The Dynasts, just as he did not go to Waterloo.

Must today’s aspiring poet of the ages be in uniform? No one will say so, but even the unwarlike and ambitious are going: of that laggard cohort Owen and Thomas now foremost. But Gurney is assuming one more thing. It takes time, yes, to assimilate history into art–but Rupert Brooke didn’t get to 1920.

Back to Gurney’s letter, and his intuition that Brooke’s quickie war poems will not stand the test of time as well as Hardy’s. The criticism–Brooke’s odes to beautiful sacrifice are, essentially, topical and ephemeral, artifacts of an already dated popular culture–is one thing, and the hope–whence shall the true poets of these times be found?–is another. If we were talking prose, we might almost guess that Gurney anticipated Pat Barker, or perhaps Henry Williamson‘s interminable “novel.” But poetry? Has the historical epic of the war been written?[2] We don’t write–or read–many big poems, these days.

It’s somewhat amusing, then, that Gurney’s letter, after a move back into good-natured carping about the soldier’s lot, includes a traditionalist sonnet of his own.

Thank God we leave camp tomorrow! In it we have suffered all the horrors of slum life. They have driven us to distraction with parades and unexpected unnecessary swoops on our (supposedly) free time. Rainy weather was our only respite, and that on clayey soil how appalling! Shackles and over and underdone roast.  Execrable tea, margarine crying to Heaven and the Sanitary inspector for deracination. Bread often fit for museums. Bacon virginal—unspoiled pig. The Canteen was a bright spot, but a bright spot cherished and administered by swindlers and rogues of nameless birth.

From this we go to billets—not to grumble; not to grumble, but to make sacrifices before the altar of the Goddess of Home, that estimable female who, like all her sex, is not allowed in camp…

(This is a queer letter. Once more it is taken up and perhaps may be completed this time.) What do you say, for an ending, to an original

To the Poet before Battle

Sonnet

Now, Youth, the hour of thy dread passion comes;
Thy lovely things must all be laid away.
And thou, as others, must face the riven day
Unstirred by the tattle and rattle of rolling drums
Or bugles strident cry. When mere noise numbs
The sense of being, the fearsick soul doth sway,
Remember thy great crafts honour, that they may say
Nothing in shame of Poets. Then the crumbs
Of praise the little versemen joyed to take
Shall be forgotten: then they must know we are.
For all our skill in words, equal in might
And strong of mettle, as those we honoured. Make
The name of Poet terrible in just War;
And like a crown of honour upon the fight.

Please criticise this very frankly…

Yours very sincerely

Ivor Gurney

Happy to. The diction is fussy, fusty, and frowsy. We know that–we must know that, since we have been praising the “Grantchester”-era Brooke over 1914. But that’s not the problem, really. Gurney has been primarily a musician, and only now turns his attentions more fully to poetry (which is a bit easier to pursue, for an infantry private, than full scale composition). Nevertheless, he is talented: the rhythm is easy, the enjambement more natural and more frequent than most of his peers can manage.

And the idea is clear, but terribly unsatisfying: As he tentatively takes up the poet’s mantle, he clears his throat and asks permission, more or less, to hope for great things. But what things? Traditional things, only. To knock Rupert Brooke for “mannerism” and diction and then to take the justice of England’s cause as read and roll the poet into the justice and honor of war is to don the poet’s mantle without even giving it a good shake or a long searching glance. Gurney–you shall do better. Is it more writing you need, or the shock of the terrifying new?

One more thing: there’s a (minor) poet that Gurney would prefer:

Oh, what do you think of the Ballade to Beelzebub? Barring one line, it is worthy of anyone. It was written by my best friend for the 5th Gloster Magazine, a trench paper. Have I not right to be proud of him? Is it not gorgeously meaty?[3]

That friend, Will Harvey, went to the front with another regiment of the battalion, where he has kept up his publication of light verse (however meaty) in the battalion newspaper. Tomorrow night he will be doing other than writing.

 

Finally, today, Roland Leighton‘s brief sojourn on the staff is over–“interesting, though short lived.” Leighton, amazingly, was recalled to his company because of his seniority and experience (he’s twenty, an officer only since the fall). As he explained to Vera Brittain in a letter of the 30th, “two of the officers in my Company are away—one with a badly sprained ankle and the other, I am afraid, dying of appendicitis in a military hospital a few miles away. The other subalterns left were all new & inexperienced so that the assistance of myself was much needed. I am at present acting junior captain and second in command of the company.”

He also reported–with no little pride–that, even though “I didn’t have any real Staff work to do,” he had made enough of an impression to be told that he might be given a permanent position on the Corps staff in the future. His immediate future is with his battalion, but Roland is clearly attracted to the idea of a staff job:

I enjoyed myself very much, and found all the officers there very nice indeed and not so wooden by a long way as one is inclined to picture the Staff as being.

And even a temporary staff appointment affords some freedom of movement:

I got a glimpse of civilisation one afternoon by motoring in to Amiens to do some shopping. It was filled with French officers and very gay and unwarlike. The sight of English officers, hitherto a rarity, interested them very much. I went to look at the cathedral, but found it all banked up outside with sandbags.

Today, however, a very different Roland is on offer. It’s Brooke again! But Vera’s soul-soothing application of contemporary poetry has not had its intended effect.

Two problems: Roland is a far less talented and far less accomplished poet; and he is a far more experienced warrior. Brooke, as Gurney more or less pointed out above, wrote swiftly en plein air to the early war mood, and then was carried off on the sun god’s flaming chariot long before the shallowness of his production could be recognized…

France, 2 August 1915

Dear Child–I have always liked this name for you, though I ought not to call you ‘child’, ought I?—thank you so much for Rupert Brooke. It came this morning, and I have just read it straight through. It makes me feel as if I want to sit down and write things myself instead of doing what I have to do here. It stirs up the old forgotten things, and makes me so, so angry and impatient with most of the soul-less nonentities one finds around one here.

I used to talk of the Beauty of War; but it is only War in the abstract that is beautiful. Modern warfare is merely a trade, and it is only a matter of taste whether one is a soldier or a greengrocer, as far as I can see. Sometimes by dint of an opportunity a single man may rise from the sordidness to a deed of beauty: but that is all.[4]

High praise, high Romanticism. But, clearly, a spasm of jealousy, too. Worse, jealousy smothered toward despair. There’s a twist in this paragraph, and it’s away from honesty. No, not from honesty, but from plain speech. Roland concedes that his girlfriend’s new favorite poet did well. But then he changes the terms, asserting, as he does so, his own much deeper experience of war. Brooke “rose”–past tense, even if Leighton keeps it general and subjunctive–and can’t now go any deeper.

Roland won’t compare his own gifts against Brooke’s–but he will compare the state of the real war, Summer 1915, with the imagined war, winter 1914.

Writing later, in Testament of Youth, Vera remembers Roland’s romantic-adolescent pre-war poetry and has second thoughts:

Would he ever write any more such poems, I wondered, a little uncertain whether it had not been cruel of me to send him the volume of Rupert Brooke on which he now commented with so bitter a sense of achievement postponed…

Anxiously I endeavoured to restore his confidence in the ultimate survival of the “old forgotten things.”[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See here.
  2. Perhaps, but David Jones has hardly begun.
  3. War Letters, 33-5.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 137-8.
  5. Testament of Youth, 172.