I want to begin what will be a very long entry with a bit of a round-up.
In Northern France, the fighting which had been a southerly complement to the First Battle of Ypres–often described as the Battle of La Bassée–is about to die down. A brutally apt turn of phrase, actually, since many of the battalions of II Corps had suffered so many casualties that they were no longer considered effective. One of these is the 2/Royal Irish Rifles, in which John Lucy now leads a section of only two men–they had begun with eight, a rate of casualties which approximates that of the battalion as a whole. Not far away, and holding trenches that had yet to face a concerted German attack, were Frank Richards and the 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers. We will see a last flurry of activity on their part of the line before it, too, grows quiet. The Irish Guards, however, as well as the BEF’s cavalry reserve–including both of our surviving Grenfells–will shortly be thrown into the fight around Ypres.
To the north, Lady Feilding and the other intrepid souls of Dr. Monro’s Ambulance Corps have withdrawn closer to the coast, the last little sliver of unoccupied Belgium. But they will soon be safe, the crisis survived, if at great cost. The Belgians today chose what would now surely be irritatingly termed the “nuclear option”–better, though, the “natural” option. Sluice gates were opened and the sea was allowed to flow back over many miles of low-lying land around Dixmude–the location of the newspaper-celebrated ambulance sortie of the 21st. As the waters spread over the next few days, the land around the inundated areas became too sodden to support artillery or permit entrenchment, and the German advance… well, it bogged down.
As for our not-yet-combatants, Alf Pollard and the Honourable Artillery Company will shortly appear in France, as will Henry Williamson’s London Rifles. The “Terriers” are badly needed, now, to bolster the shattered Regulars. Kitchener’s army is still in training, and notable among its subalterns is our Charles Sorley, training in Suffolk with its eponymous regiment. I will find a way to work in a few of his November letters, especially when he begins reading Thomas Hardy’s new book. Rupert Brooke, back in training with the semiprofessional naval infantry after the Antwerp debacle, has begun working on the sonnet sequence that will win him undue fame and inaccurate reputation.
I regret to report that we’ll be getting nothing anytime soon from the rest of the Most Famous Poets Brigade: Edmund Blunden is still in school, Robert Graves is languishing at the Royal Welch Depot, Siegfried Sassoon is mending a broken arm, Edward Thomas is still walking and writing, and Wilfred Owen is still teaching and dreamily scribbling in the south of France. There will be occasional letters from these last two over the next few weeks.
Then there is Oxford, where Tolkien and Brittain are settling in for their penultimate and inaugural terms. We will look in on Ronald occasionally–information is scarce–and on Vera with more frequency.
Finally, though, another word about Williamson. He is a fascinating case, and the combination of surviving letters and his extensive (and distantly post-war) fictionalizing of his entire life make him an inescapably central subject for this project… As I have mentioned before, though, he made an unusual choice: instead of fictionalizing his actual military exploits, he placed his alter ego in a different (Territorial) unit, and then carefully followed its historical experiences. So Williamson is in France, but still far from battle, while Philip Maddison will shortly experience the very worst of First Ypres.
And now for today’s action, a century back.
Driven out of Neuve Chapelle yesterday afternoon, the Royal Irish Rifles were back in possession by the wee hours of this morning, a century back. This was fortunate for corporal John Lucy, since he had been ordered by a newly-arrived officer to guide him and a hundred skittish, completely inexperienced men into the town and, fearing disorganization in the dark, he had simply marched them in a column down the road, risking disaster if they met German fire. The didn’t, having missed the night battle. But there was still plenty left to see and do in the ruined town.
Lucy’s writing is, as always, straightforward–which is good, given the places we are going. He gives us relatively unvarnished personal history, which today will be a good reminder that the insanity and horror of war are often seen as the necessary precursors to the more extreme madness-loving corners of 20th century art. Then again, even such a relatively bare account will, when written later on, reflect not only the author’s pure, independent memories but also many intervening literary influences. Lucy is no modernist, and modernism had not come as far as Vietnam. And yet the night scene in Neuve Chapelle is reminiscent nonetheless of something out of Apocalypse Now.
I saw a group of soldiers keeping well in to the wall of a house, with one man wandering about in the middle of the street. Burning houses fell down from time to time, and sent up brighter flames and sparks as they crashed….
‘That’s Corporal Ternaghan… He’s off his bloody nut. He just shot a German prisoner, and he’s wearing his cap.’ Ternaghan was wearing a soft field-grey cap, and there were tears in his eyes and a happy smile on his lips.
He had no difficulty in recognizing me, and said: ‘Hello chum. Only four of us left now. You and me, and Biganne, and Winters.’ He was referring to the four surviving corporals of the thirty-two who sailed with the battalion for France just over two months ago.
The mad corporal breaks into sobs, then “developed another mood” and forced Lucy to share an impromptu meal.
Lucy eventually broke away to look for his own company, which he found in the same unfinished communications trench behind their front line. Untraversed, the trench is a “shell-trap” and so they spend the night being trodden on by every runner who passes to and from the front line and fearing a resumption of the German bombardment.
When day breaks, Lucy and his men move up into the trenches they had held yesterday.
Bodies of British and German dead lay everywhere, and shattered rifles, blood-stained equipment, and other debris were scattered about. The smell of the unburied filled our nostrils, and mangled and soiled corpses presented unspeakable sights.
The Germans soon attack, and there are no longer enough riflemen to stop them. The company to the left gives way, and Lucy and his men see Germans moving on behind them. They are nearly cut off. Worse, the British artillery, assuming that the entire line has again been lost, begins an accurate fire on their trenches. Corporal Biganne is killed by a British shell, and the terrifying Sergeant Kelly is badly wounded. As German troops work toward them from the collapsed left flank, Kelly is bayoneted to death where he lies in the trench, telling his rosary.
When his company finally gets the order to withdraw, they find that the unfinished end of the communications trench is now covered by a German machine gun on the collapsed flank. Their only way to safety is to try to outwit the machine gunner by running in short and unpredictable bursts.
Lucy admits to us here that he now lost track of the few men he still commanded. Military structure erodes under this sort of stress, and the machine gun across their route of escape is not a tactical problem anyway. It is individual, sub-tactical: there can be no plan, but only foot-speed, and luck, and a personal fate.
Just before his own turn to dash for the rear, Lucy sees the body of Sergeant Benson, killed two days ago, still lying next to the German he had sought to save. The German, with his two bullet wounds, is still alive.
Lucy escapes, sprinting through the machine gun fire in short bursts until he reaches Neuve Chapelle. There he finds Corporal Ternaghan, recovered from his madness. Lucy’s section is now reduced to a single man, and the battalion is soon withdrawn.
They kept us on the battlefield, and we fell out on the side of the road for a rest, while waiting further orders.
During this rest the roll of the battalion was called over, and we found that only forty-six of us survived to answer our names. We still had two officers.
This was the end of the Royal Irish Rifles. The end, at least, of its effectiveness as a fighting unit for the current campaign, and of its identity as a proud unit of the old regular army.
Resisting elegy, Lucy ends his closely-narrated tale of a battalion (but really a company, and a section) with a bitter reference to the greater war: “It was rumoured that our generals were not satisfied, but thought that we might have done better.”
From his position near Zandvoorde, a few miles southeast of Ypres, Julian Grenfell took up the letter he had begun writing to his mother three days previously.
Oct 27–We’ve been in the trenches for 2 days and nights since I started this; but no excitements, except a good dose of shrapnel 3 times a day, which does one no harm , and rather relieves the monotony…
The men are splendid, and as happy as schoolboys. We’ve got plenty of straw at the bottom of the trench, which is better than any feather-bed…
Our first day’s real close-up fighting was Monday 19th… We got into a village… Firing came from a farm in front of us, & then a man came out of it and waved a white flag. I yelled “200–white flag–rapid fire”; but Hardwick stopped me shooting. Then the squadron advanced across root fields towards the farm (dismounted, in open order)–and they opened a sharp fire on us from the farm and the next fields. We took 3 prisoners in the roots, and retired to the horses again. That was our first experience of them–the white flag dodge. We lost 2, and 1 wounded. Then I got leave to make a dash across a field for another farm, where they were sniping at us. I could only get half way. My sergeant was killed, & my corporal hit.
Grenfell and his squadron are pinned down for a half an hour and then manage to retreat. The dead sergeant must be J.H. Measures–dead as a result of Grenfell’s initiative. But then that is how battles are–or used to be–won.
Julian is sober about all this, at first:
I longed to be able to say that I liked it, after all one has heard of being under fire the first time. But it’s bloody. I pretended to myself for a bit that I liked it; but it was no good; it only made one careless and unwatchful and self-absorbed. But when one acknowledged to oneself that it was bloody, one became alright again, and cool.
A strong German advance then saw the Royal Dragoons pushed back once, and again. We hear again of the poor quality of German shooting, and no further casualties were taken–twenty horses were hit, however.
Since then we have been doing infantry work in the trenches… Someone described this war as “Months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror”. It is sad that it is such an impossible place for cavalry… It is horrible having to leave one’s horses; it feels like leaving half oneself behind, and one feels the dual responsibility all the time…
And a few lines later, another swerve in direction. Oh, but this is a famous bit:
I adore War. It is like a big picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic. I have never been so well or so happy. Nobody grumbles at one for being dirty. I have only had my boots off once in the last 10 days, and only washed twice. We are up and standing to our rifles by 5 a.m. when doing this infantry work, and saddled up by 4.30 a.m. when with our horses. Our poor horses do not get their saddles off when we are in the trenches.
The wretched inhabitants here have got practically no food left. It is miserable to see them leaving their houses, and tracking away, with great bundles and children in their hands. And the dogs and cats left in the deserted villages are piteous.
First thing: it’s unlikely that he’s kidding. If it weren’t for the horses (horses are no laughing matter for an Englishman of this class), we might suspect that the juxtaposition of “war is fun because no one makes me wash behind my ears” and “the refugees are starving” is tongue in cheek. It’s not just that his other letters–not to mention the verses that are percolating–confirm his love for war, it’s that the whole of this letter is immediate and direct: he means what he says as he says it, and, only a moment/line later, his thoughts/pen are headed somewhere else.
Battle is bloody; war is boring and terrifying (the familiar phrase he quotes above was a new apercu in 1914); war is fun and purposeful, but also piteous. None of these things are false, in the moment of writing. It’s not paradox, then, but only agonized complexity artificially stratified by the fact that letter writing takes time.
Anyway. There it is: Julian Grenfell is not an idiot, but he thinks war is fun. Somehow he is able to forget the fear that he feels in battle and the pity that he feels for war’s victims (both bipedal and quadrupedal) and, taking stock of the rest, finds himself well pleased. “Objectlessness” is interesting: this is a man who disdained social life for its own sake and had long ago declared a precocious hatred for pretense. Too much of his privileged life has been objectless. Like many of his peers he enjoys outdoor sport–“picnic” is only a bit of a joke–and so he is happy (at least now, barely a few weeks into his war) to stay out, without having to wash up and dress for dinner.
We can, again, take his words at face value: he doesn’t adore war because it is a righteous cause that’s like a picnic outing; he adores it because it’s good fun, subsumed into some larger plan and therefore without that curdling threat of ennui.
And now to the very north of the battle, where French marines and the haggard remnants of the Belgian army are being pushed back toward the Belgian coast and on to Calais–and British ambulance drivers are hard pressed by eager journalists eager to turn them into eye-catching copy.
Tuesday, Oct 27 1914
I am simply crying with rage — Beavis & Munro will take tame correspondents about with them — at present Ashmead Bartlett & Philip Gibbs are glued onto us & I have just been making the hell of a row as having got the old Chronicle with Gibbs’ account of Dixmude & dragging me into it all. I think Gibbs was more of a gentleman than to make a fool of me like that, & it makes the whole thing so sordid to look as if we had pet reporters to advertise us. Robert [de Broqueville] & I have been so mad. This morning we have just stuck our toes in & say we leave the damn show as soon as a reporter comes near us, & in fact have kicked up such a stink since this Chronicle slush this morning that I think that will now will be a thing of the past.
It is such a shame using me as a lever in this disgusting way…
Lady Feilding doth protest about the right amount, I suppose. Having said her piece, she then moves on to a discussion of new equipment and drivers that her mother might arrange to be sent over–a far cry, this, from the sock-and-cigarette mongering of the soldiers’ letters. But she returns to her betrayal at the end of the letter:
Oh Mother I am sick over this reporter business — I do hate it so — it’s so cheap & undoes all the nice feeling one has inside of being able to do something.
One sympathizes with Feilding, of course: she is being head-patted by chauvinists who are selling papers with her exploits. It’s nice, too, that she is indifferent to the idea that her exploits can be… exploited… for the good of the cause. Won’t a dashing young Lady spur imitators, donations, even–acting as a tacit flourish of the white feather–further enlistment from young men who see an implicit challenge to their honor in all these danger-flaunting acts of sacrifice on the part of a (well-born) young woman? When she let a reporter ride shotgun couldn’t she imagine that “daughter of an earl” might end up above the fold?
And should we not suspect that Feilding doesn’t really merit the plaudits she is receiving? We’ll eventually get to Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker–other young women of the corps, and rather more firmly committed to being dashing–who were not yet getting their due and were annoyed by Feilding’s celebrity. But even without the looks-askance of other notably heroic young women it is tempting to suspect that the young aristocrat’s courage and competence are being exaggerated.
Yet they weren’t. It’s a good thing we have Sarah Macnaughtan, who not only declared Lady Feilding the de facto leader of the ambulance corps (not the impression that one gets from reading Gibbs, and even Feilding gives a great deal of credit to de Broqueville) but admired the courage of all of the younger women. A few days ago she wrote:
Most of the women who go [on missions to rescue the wounded] are very good chauffeurs themselves, so they are chosen before a person who can’t drive. They are splendid creatures, and funk nothing, and they are there to do a little dressing if it is needed…
I am rather surprised to find how little the quite young girls seem to mind the sight of wounds and suffering. They are bright and witty about amputations, and do not shudder at anything. I am feeling rather out-of-date amongst them.
Finally, a check-in with one of the most important war writers, C.E. Montague. He, too, is feeling rather out of date. And yet, though not a young man any longer, writing today to his father he sounds like one. Tongue in cheek? Yes. But between gritted teeth, between which he has also taken the bit, just above his firm jaw and below his stiff upper lip. He’s going to go, you know:
At the office we begin to hear of colleagues who departed as second lieutenants in August now blossoming into captains and what not. One of our dramatic critics has got to the war as an interpreter, another man is driving a motor ambulance, several have enlisted, and all the rest want to be war correspondents. My own slender chance of ever seeing any of the fun depends on the remote possibility of Kitchener’s accepting a battalion of 1000 fit and hardy old cocks of 45 or more, of whom I am one, who have been picked, for their winds and limb, out of 3000 vessels of mature ardour, and are now awaiting his pleasure. Probably he will say he will be blowed if he spends time in drilling us old crocks as long as the striplings of 38 continue to come in.
Oh but the war is young.