Elsie Knocker Speaks, but Sarah Macnaughtan Testifies; the Modernists Open Fire on the Old Guard

The first reviews of war poetry are in! Today’s Egoist, a new and soon-to-be influential modernist journal, published a review of the first major war anthology, Poems of the Great War. This had been knocked together largely from the from the early newspaper poems of the Edwardian grandees, with proceeds to benefit the National Relief Fund. The review, by the American Imagist John Gould Fletcher, is scathing.

You’d think that a Modern journal would use a modern poems of the great war coverweapon on an army of fools and knaves, but no: it’s a hatchet job. Fletcher begins by mocking the cover illustration (right), which is, admittedly, pretty horrible, mixing the old “pitiable rape (of Belgium)” imagery with the sickly sight of a young boy trying to draw his father’s sword. I do hope the war lasts long enough for that likely lad to grow up and skewer himself a Hun!

Fletcher continues by hacking off a rich harvest of low-hanging fruit–the lackluster laureate Bridges and the egregious Newbolt both use the same tub-thumping and theologically problematic half-line “and God defend the right!”–and taking other mediocre poets to task for improbable rhymes and intensely myopic sentiments. The review concludes with a very contemporary “buy it anyway, support the troops” line, which then morphs into a final strained joke: and then mail it to the Germans so the war can end in laughter! It’s a bad-accurate review of a bad collection.



In Boulogne, where Dr. Monro’s Ambulance Corps now worked, the wounded of were arriving in their thousands. We can strengthen our largest chorus even further, here, with Elsie Knocker–a trained nurse, an apparently omnicompetent motorist and mechanic, but not, as yet, aristocratic and/or famous.[1]

Although she has seen much action in Belgium, this is Knocker’s first glimpse of the industrial scale of the hospital operations in the rear areas.

I went on duty at the station at two o’clock and found the whole place simply swarming with wounded… We got back here at 9.40 having fed 2,300 with soup, cocoa and tea and bread and dressed the wounds of perhaps 150. It was an extraordinary sight, particularly when it got dark and the station lights were lit. Everywhere there were men, sitting on trucks and barrows and the few chairs we could offer them, standing about with heads, arms, shoulders tied up, limping about and even lying on the platforms just as they were. One man I saw lying flat with his head pillowed on a loaf of bread. They had come straight down from Ypres where they say a terrific battle, worse even than Mons and Le Cateau is raging…

One poor man died in the station, one or two were off their heads, all had more or less severe wounds though the majority could get about with assistance.The hospitals here are so full that they could only take in the very worst cases and the rest had to go on. Of course we could not possibly change all or anything like all the dressings, although three nurses and two doctors were fetched during the pm. It was however working under awful difficulties; first the swarms of people through whom you had to push your way; then the shortage of hot water in sufficient quantity (such masses were required for the feeding as well as the dressings, the water here is so bad that we are not allowed to use it unless boiled for dressings or even for cleaning our teeth!); then the almost complete absence of instruments – very few of us had thought of bringing anything down as this had never happened before; then the fact that every lot of dirty water or lotion or blood or anything had to be carried down to a drain and emptied.

It was really wonderful the way our store of wool gauze and antiseptics held out, but it taxed them very severely and we have got to lay in heaps more. I made and applied a jaw bandage out of another one and the nurse was quite surprised to find that I knew how![2]

Strangely, Dr. Monro’s corps provides its own ironic juxtaposition–almost a trench-to-London-club-level (or overwhelmed-dressing-station-to-Oxford-quad-level) split circumstance. Sarah Macnaughtan has been taking a few days off, and gives her diary a squadron’s worth of name-dropping:

2 November–I have been spending a couple of nights in Dunkirk…

Dunkirk is full of people, and one meets friends at every turn. I had tea at the Consulate one afternoon, and was rather glad to get away from the talk of shells and wounds, which is what one hears most of at Furnes. I saw Lord Kitchener in the town one day; he had come to confer with Joffre, Sir John French, Monsieur Poincaré, and Mr. Churchill, at a meeting held at the Chapeau Rouge Hotel. Rather too many valuable men in one room, I thought–especially with so many spies about! Three men in English officers’ uniforms were found to be Germans the other day and taken out and shot. The Duchess of Sutherland has a hospital at our old Casino at Malo les Bains, and has made it very nice…

She reverts to form, however, in the same entry, and again records the heroism of the younger women of her corps. This anecdote, though written today, must belong to a few days previously:

Mrs. Knocker came into Dunkirk for a night’s rest while I was staying there. She had been out all the previous day in a storm of wind and rain driving an ambulance. It was heavy with wounded, and shells were dropping very near. She–the most courageous woman that ever lived–was quite unnerved at last. The glass of the car she was driving was dim with rain and she could carry no lights, and with this swaying load of injured men behind her on the rutty road she had to stick to her wheel and go on.

Some one said to her, “There is a doctor in such-and-such a farmhouse, and he has no dressings. You must take him these.”

She demurred (a most unusual thing for her), but men do not protect women in this war, and they said she had to take them. She asked one of the least wounded of the men to get down and see what was in front of her, and he disappeared altogether. The dark mass she had seen in the road was a huge hole made by a shell! After steering into dead horses and going over awful roads Mrs. Knocker came bumping into the yard, steering so badly that they ran to see what was wrong, and they found her fainting, and she was carried into the house. At Dunkirk she got a good dinner and a night’s rest.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. A pretty bad spoiler, aristocracy-wise, but if you want to learn more about Elsie Knocker, do also search for the Baroness T'Serclaes.
  2. Women in the War Zone, 80.
  3. Macnaughtan's published diary can be found here.

A ‘Where Are Our Writers?’ Round-Up; The End of the Royal Irish; The Madness of Julian Grenfell; Lady Feilding Objects

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:[1] 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.”[2]


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[3]–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.[4]

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

Mother darling,

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.[5]

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…

This, too:

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.[6]


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.[7]

Oh but the war is young.

References and Footnotes

  1. This is not a real brigade... I thought I should clear that up, given that we will follow members of the Artists Rifles.
  2. There's a Devil in the Drum, 245-54.
  3. Judging from this site.
  4. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 228-30.
  5. Lady Under Fire, 18-19.
  6. Macnaughtan's account can be found here.
  7. Elton, C.E. Montague, A Memoir, 104.

Furnes is Overrun with Ambulance-Riding Writers; John Lucy Endures a Terrifying Day, and Exacts Revenge

First, today, Sarah Macnaughtan‘s diary:

23 October

The guns are nearer today or more distant, the battle sways backwards and forwards, and there is no such thing as a real ‘base’ for a hospital. We must just stay as long as we can and fly when we must.

About 10 am the ambulances that have been out all night begin to come in, the wounded on their pitiful shelves. All day the stretchers are brought in and the work goes on. It is about five o’clock that the weird tired hour begins when the dim lamps are lighted, and people fall over things, and nearly everything is mislaid, and the wounded cry out, and one steps over forms on the floor. From then till one goes to bed it is difficult to be just what one ought to be, the tragedy of it is too pitiful.

Blood-stained mattresses and pillows are carried out into the courtyard. Two ladies help to move the corpses. There is always a pile of bandages and rags being burnt, and a youth stirs the horrible pile with a stick. A queer smell permeates everything, and the guns never cease.The wounded are coming in at the rate of 100 a day.

The Queen of the Belgians called to see the hospital today. Poor little Queen, coming to see the remnants of an army and the remnants of a kingdom! She was kind to each wounded man, and we were glad of her visit, if for no other reason than that some sort of cleaning and tidying was done in her honour. Tonight Mr. Nevinson arrived, and we went round the wards together after supper…[1]

Now, the letter to her sisters:



23 October.

My Dear People,

I think I may get this posted by a war correspondent who is going home, but I never know whether my letters reach you or not, for yours, if you write them, never reach me. I can’t begin to tell you all that is happening, and it is really beyond what one is able to describe. The tragedy of pain is the thing that is most evident, and there is the roar and the racket of it and the everlasting sound of guns. The war seems to me now to mean nothing but torn limbs and stretchers…

The tone is more precise, her emotions somewhat more controlled than in her diary. And she spares her sisters the really grimy details, such as the “horrible pile” of used bandages. But the message, except for a final “don’t worry about me” bit, is similarly unsparing:

I don’t think anyone can realise what it is to be just behind the line of battle, and I fear there would not be much recruiting if people at home could see our wards. One can only be thankful for a hospital like this in the thick of things, for we are saving lives, and not only so, but saving the lives of men who perhaps have lain three days in a trench or a turnip-field undiscovered and forgotten. As soon as a wounded man has been attended to and is able to be put on a stretcher again he is sent to Calais. We have to keep emptying the wards for other patients to come in, and besides, if the fighting comes this way, we shall have to fall back a little further.

We have a river between us and the Germans, so we shall always know when they are coming and get a start and be all right.


As Macnaughtan noted in her diary, the liberal journalist and writer H. W. Nevinson (father of C.R.W. Nevinson, who will become the one indispensable English painter/engraver of the war) joined our merry scribbling band of nurses, drivers, and orderlies, today, and

was at once set to work on an ambulance that wandered through roads and level fields deeply pitted with shell-holes right up to the gates of Dixmude, which was flaming in several places, the bombardment being very severe (October 23). All the windows were broken, and the streets covered with shattered glass that crunched under our feet as we walked to the centre of the blazing town. Only dogs and goats were to be seen, searching in vain for their human friends. But Belgians still held the place, firing from the windows of the houses till the flames or shells drove them out. At the entrance of the town, near the bridge over the Yser, a private house had been converted into a dressing-station, and there the wounded were dragged in for the stanching of blood and the simple amputations, rapidly executed by two doctors, while two priests attended the dying.

Filling our ambulance cart with the due number of “cases,” Lady Dorothy Feilding and I drove them back to Furnes, and in the long ward there, as we passed from one appalling sight of anguish to another, a nurse of some literary reputation said to me, “Would rulers make war if they saw this? ” And I could only reply, ” Yes, they would.”[2]

The nurse–although I don’t believe she is actually a trained nurse–is of course Macnaughtan, who had published several novels.

It’s fun to contrast enfilading (as it were) accounts like this, and it’s worth noting, in a counter-riposte to Nevinson’s dismissive reply, that Macnaughtan’s letter shows her to be thinking on slightly different lines.

It’s tempting to suppose that Nevinson’s memory is off by a letter–would the rulers? Sure. But could they, if, as Macnaughtan suggests in the letter to her sisters, potential recruits knew what awaited so many of them in an overtaxed hospital ward?

Either way, of course, the “nurse of some literary reputation” is wrong and the wise old liberal lion is right: the pity of war, even with the eventual publication/publicizing of its horrors, has not led to its abolition.

And yet one of the big questions that sits athwart this project’s line of advance is whether the new literary reputations that will be forged, especially for those who dredge poetry out of the pity (and the horror), will affect the calculations of rulers–or, at the least, democratic rulers. Will the horrors of this war make it harder to begin the next one, harder to recruit a mass army? Yes, to some degree. But that is only to shift the burden… so it’s hard to declare in advance any sort of political victory for poetry.


When we left John Lucy yesterday, the Royal Irish were working to complete their new defensive positions.

The following morning the Germans came at us.

It was the beginning of the end for us, for we had now arrived at the place of our destruction, and our fine battalion, still about seven hundred strong, perished here, almost completely, in the following five days.

Lucy is coming to the climax of his story, and at this point–rather belatedly, if one has been reading his book straight through–he introduces the men of his section, providing pseudonyms and swift characterizations. These are a bit rote and suffer from being introduced already under the shadow of doom. But never mind: there isn’t space here to take in what becomes a classic squad/section war story, and we’ll read instead close to Lucy’s account of his personal experiences.

The night was spent rather comfortably in the firing trench, as a few old campaigners had snuck off to find straw pallets–when they should have been working to deepen the trenches or extend the communications trenches which did not yet “communicate” to the rear.

In the morning Lucy’s section dug for a while, then rested. If we are to suspect the novelization, we would do so here. Lucy writes that he was cleaning his fingernails when the first shell came over:

A tearing sound, increasing in force, caused us to raise our eyebrows, and petrified us all into watchful stillness. Our minds were fixed on the rumbling noise of an approaching shell, an uncommonly loud gasping kind of noise, as if the projectile was making efforts of its own accord. It was the loudest shell we had heard in transit to date… There was a terrific thump which shook the ground, and quite a pause, then a rending crash, so shatteringly loud that each of us believed it to be in his own section of trench… The monster shell had burst well behind us in amongst the houses of the village. A huge black cloud rose slowly up and bits of brick and hot metal kept clattering to the earth, even as far as the trenches, for about half a minute. The tiles flew off a whole row of houses leaving a gaunt skeleton of rafters against the sky, and then, when we thought that was all, one house caved in on itself and slowly collapsed…

All that long day the heavy shells came slowly down with thud and crash, their concussion alone shaking landslides from the back and front of our trenches…

Thus is vivid stuff. The cliches–raised eyebrows, petrification–are minor impediments, and the attribution of monstrous intent to the inert falling projectile is more original than it might seem–a bit of magical realism in an unlikely place. And the slow fall of the house is nothing so much as a proleptic vision of a late 20th century cinematic cliche.

The shell was from an enormous siege gun–firing shells with a diameter of 12 or perhaps 15 inches–and more came, generally aimed at the village of Neuve Chapelle. More dangerous to the Royal Irish themselves were the ordinary field artillery which now begin accurately firing into the trench.

A ‘whizzbang’ [a much smaller gun of 77 millimeters, named by the British for the sound of its high-speed approach] came into our trench and stuck unexploded in the back wall; another blew in the bay on my right, and yet another scattered the sandbags from the top of the traverse on my left, under which I was crouching. I willed myself smaller and smaller, and prayed like the devil.

The bombardment went on and on with no infantry attack, and the men of Lucy’s section began to crack. One man began “seeing signs and portents” in the clouds, another loudly “began to bemoan his fate.” Lucy is frank about his own state:

My limbs were trembling. I cursed them… my throbbing head was being jerked by every painful heart-pump. My senses were strained to the breaking-point concentrating on the special shell that was to kill or maim me, or trying not to concentrate on it.

One of his men is wounded by a fragment, sent back for treatment, bandaged, and returned to the line. Others fall asleep, their bodies shutting down under the stress of the bombardment.

“Toward evening,” the Germans attack. Here’s a good early war irony: because the tactics of close artillery support of an infantry attack have yet to be worked out, the attack brings great relief to the beleaguered Irish. The German guns stop–and the defenders finally have something to do.

The relief was unspeakable. We… [were] men once more and no longer cannon fodder.

The Germans, either mistaken about the location of the British trenches or relying on the effectiveness of their bombardment, are advancing still in dense “‘columns of lumps.” They present an easy target to the trained riflemen of the Regular Army.

We let them have it. We blasted and blew them to death. They fell in scores, in hundreds… The groups melted way, and no man was able to stand in our sight within five minutes. The few survivors panicked, and tried to keep their feet in retreat. We shot them down through the back. A red five minutes…

We had cancelled out our shell-tortured day with a vengeance.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. There's a mistake in the Women in the War Zone excerpt here, which, alas, led me a merry chase. The editor glosses "Mr. Nevinson" as "[the war artist]." It's actually the future-and-futurist war artist's father, whom I will introduce in a moment. The full (published) diary and the letter cited below can be found here.
  2. Nevinson, Fire of Life, 299.
  3. There's a Devil in the Drum, 217-225.

Sarah Macnaughtan Has a Few Words For Those So Swiftly Home From Belgium; Francis Grenfell Buries a Trooper and Thinks of Poetry

Last week was a busy week in Anglo-Belgian adventurism. First Churchill and the Naval Division were going to save Antwerp. Then, perhaps, it was all about the beau geste–because nothing was going to stop the Germans. And then, the Germans duly not stopping, it was about saving as many marines and Naval Division infantry as possible. And then they were home (or most of them were, since thousands of prisoners and casualties were left behind) and it was all about the remarkable courage of the retreat… time to celebrate valor, however questionably employed.

Sarah Macnaughtan is still in Belgium.

16 October

Today I have been reading of the ‘splendid retreat’ of the Marines from Antwerp and their ‘unprecedented reception’ at Deal. Everyone appears to have been in a state of wild enthusiasm about them, and it seems almost like Mafeking[1] over again.

What struck me most about these men was the way in which they blew their own trumpets in full retreat and while flying from the enemy. We travelled all day in the train with them and had long conversations with them all. I find the conceit of it most trying. Belgium is in the hands of the enemy, and we flee before him singing our own praises loudly as we do so. The Marines lost their kit, spent one night in Antwerp, and went back to England, where they had an amazing reception amid scenes of unprecedented enthusiasm!

I could not help thinking, when I read the papers today, of our tired little body of nurses and doctors and orderlies going back quietly and unproclaimed to England to rest at Folkestone for three days and then to come out here again.They had been for eighteen hours under heavy shell fire without so much as a rifle to protect them, and with the immediate chance of a burning building falling about them.The nurses sat in the cellars tending wounded men, whom they refused to leave, and then hopped on to the outside of an ammunition bus.[2]


Well, how dare she! It was a long march and… very valorous and stressful. Besides, the men of the Naval Division are hard at work preparing to return!

Rupert Brooke, for instance, was in London, dropping by the Poetry Bookshop, visiting old friends and lovers, and taking in Peg o’ my Heart at the Comedy–which sounds serious.[3].


In Belgium, the war was quickening again to the south of Ypres. Francis Grenfell‘s squadron marched through Ploegsteert, a Flemish name which would soon be very familiar in England, and probed toward the river Lys, where they found the bridge at Pont Rouge

strongly barricaded, and the enemy entrenched on the far side of the stream. Francis asked permission to swim the river, and when this was refused he begged for reinforcements so as to carry the barricade. To his disgust, however, he received orders to retire. “Before leaving we buried Private Lake at a farm 800 yards south of the Pont Rouge. Owing to our nearness to the enemy we had to carry on the burial service in the dark, which was not nice. At the service I said, ‘Here lies a brave British soldier who has died for England and the 9th Lancers, and no man could do more.’ Then I said the Lord’s Prayer, and afterwards thought of the poem to Sir John Moore.”[4]

I’m glad for this–sad though the occasion is. I’ve remarked before on the fact that Francis and Rivy were neither the brightest nor the most literary of our young officers: they were polo players, well-bred jocks, dutiful rather than impassioned in their reading. Yet much of our story–the story of the stories of the war–rests on Fussell‘s insistence that very many officers and soldiers–and not just the most literary ones–saw the war through the poetry they had read.

Francis Grenfell, too, has the Oxford Book of English Verse in his head, if not his haversack.


References and Footnotes

  1. The relief of the siege of Mafeking during the Boer War was greeted with wild celebration at home in Britain, and thus the place name--ripe for transmutation into verb form--became a byword for silly, disproportionate celebration by a civilian population that doesn't really have any skin in the game. An apt allusion indeed.
  2. Women in the War Zone, 48-9.
  3. Hassall, Rupert Brooke, 468. Jones's generally more forthcoming biography--Rupert Brooke, Life, Death, and Myth, 368--seems to lean heavily on Hassall here
  4. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 211.

Robert Graves Stews; Sarah Macnaughtan Acknowledges A Lady Commander; The Lion of Somerville Roars

Sarah Macnaughtan is now a member of Dr. Munro’s Ambulance Unit.

Or is she? Macnaughtan declares her loyalties today, and not to Dr. Munro. You can’t get much more brief-and-pointed than this.

St Malo les Bains 14 October

Lady Dorothie Feilding is our real commander, and everyone knows it. She goes to all the heads of departments,is the only good speaker of French, and has the only reliable information about anything. All the men acknowledge her position.[1]


Again we find an interesting contrast, and one I hadn’t planned on: instead of the frustrated young provincial woman, her feminist victory (i.e. Oxford) hollowed out by the disappearance of so many young men into the various training camps and adjutant’s offices of the New Army, we find a young woman’s academic success looking vegetative indeed compared to the derring-do of the hardly older but far bolder Lady Feilding.

So here’s Vera Brittain on her early days at Somerville College. She is not yet seriously contemplating the “sacrifice” of her academic ambitions to the war effort–in fact such thoughts, toyed with in September, are completely absent in the early excitement of her first term, and I have no idea if she has read the early press on the exploits of Feilding et. al.–but she is taking on Oxford with some of the same zeal displayed by her countrywomen in Belgium. And who knew that Oxford’s first women students played Lacrosse?

Wednesday October 14th

I hardly know myself these days & yet in a way I seem to know myself too well. I live in an atmosphere of exhilaration, half delightful, half disturbing, wholly exciting. College, far from turning one out a type, seems if anything to emphasize what is individual & make one want to emphasize it one’s self. I had a Lacrosse practice to-day – the first time I have played for two years. I meant to do Logic after dinner, but instead I sat in Miss Hughes’ room & tried the effect on her of some of my ideas about religion. While we were discussing & I was emphasizing various points in my customary dogmatic fashion, she let it out that by the 2nd & 3rd year people I am considered one of the “lions” — perhaps the “lion” of my year. Evidently impressions are made in a short time, but it certainly does seem short to have appeared exceptional even among the exceptional. Such a reputation requires living up to, & perhaps that is
the reason for my queer exhilaration. Miss Hughes seemed to think me the kind of person whom people either adored or hated; she seemed to think I might be hated by all my year at the end of a term; I am quite indifferent to people’s opinion of me, but I do not think I shall be, as people here are not jealous & resentful as they are at school; there really is not much opportunity.[2]


And one of those scholarly young men–the sort of boy who would go to Oxford as a matter of course and was therefore (of course) very glad to put off that fate–is stuck in Limbo. He is neither here–in school or training–nor there, in action.

Robert Graves wrote to his brother John, today, with an update on his uncertain progress. Because Graves had joined the Special Reserve (the “militia back door”) of the Royal Welch he could at any time be sent out to the second battalion in France. But he wasn’t: he was untrained, and–far worse–perceived as sloppy and unsporting. So while classmates and friends were learning their trade with battalions of the New Army, Graves was drawing the least glamorous assignments available to regulars. Today, a century back, he was

“…still in this horrid place [Lancaster] guarding prisoners of war with no immediate prospect of relief, & so my men (as I am now—for this last fortnight—left in charge of the Fusilier detachment) are very restless & are always dashing out of barracks, which is a huge musty fusty dusty disused Wagon Works with a great stretch of bare fence where the active Tommy can easily climb in & out in the dark. This morning a fellow called Kirby who had just been sentenced to 168 hrs cells slipped away from the military escort leaving the worthy police gaping after him. The German prisoners an the other hand are as quiet & peaceable as little bleating baa-lambs & give no trouble at all.”[3]

Graves is far from the bloodthirstiest of our lot, but he was a young man stuck babysitting, and it would have pained him to know that, as he wrote, A and B companies of the second battalion were having “a brush-up with some German Uhlans” (cavalry) near Bailleul.[4]


And last, a regular officer adjusts to the new tenor of things on the western front. The 9th Lancers, soon to be involved in the First Battle of Ypres, were held back today while the infantry of the 4th Corps attacked across wet, foggy, industrialized territory. Francis Grenfell noted in his diary that “the war was affecting the spirits of all a little: there was much more seriousness than when I left.”[5]

Damnable, this seriousness.


References and Footnotes

  1. See Women in the War Zone, 48.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 118.
  3. Quoted in Graves, R.P., Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic, 116-7.
  4. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 32, with Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 70.
  5. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 210.

John Lucy Dodges Shrapnel and Fate; Sarah MacNaughtan Falls in with Lady Feilding, Whom All The Cowardly and Inefficient Have Learned To Fear, and the Virtuous to Love; Rupert Brooke Reports a Missing Gift

We pick up John Lucy‘s account from yesterday, when the Royal Irish Rifles were in support. Today they attacked, in one of those grand old unsupported open-field advances that would soon become impracticable.

We played a good game with those German gunners. As each salvo of shrapnel burst we dashed ahead under the smoke plumes, and moved so rapidly that we gave them no chance to range us accurately. We avoided halting at hedges and lines of trees.

This manoeuvre was repeated again and again, and the ruse succeeded, so that at last we got so close to the hostile battery that we cold hear them pulling out their guns one by one and galloping off. Their covering riflemen cleared out. German signallers or observers dropped out of trees and surrendered as we went through. This steady making of ground was good fun…

The fun turned ugly. They advanced two miles, handed their positions over to an English regiment, withdrew to rest, and were recalled within hours to discover that the German artillery hadn’t galloped all that far. They had retreated, re-established the guns, and poured shrapnel into the other regiment before they could dig in.

This, by the way, is why open-field advances without artillery support were soon to be a thing of the past. Lucy doesn’t mention machine guns, and he reminds us that the German riflemen were lousy shots–all it takes is a battery of light artillery. A handful of horse-drawn guns can withdraw and set back up more quickly than infantry can advance and entrench, and that’s enough to batter an advance to a halt. Even semi-accurate fire of shrapnel shells will fill the air with thousands of pieces of metal; without trenches to shelter in this could cause very heavy casualties indeed.

The Royal Irish now found themselves manning the positions they had taken in the morning, but now they were surrounded by corpses.

Our hand entrenching tools were too small to make good cover quickly. Even if we had had picks and shovels it would have taken us over an hour to make any kind of entrenchment that would protect us from shells…

This looked decidedly unhealthy, and we were badly frightened men for the next ten minutes or so, expecting a repetition of the fire that had so easily destroyed our English comrades, but the obvious very often does not occur in war, and no more shells came over. We dug feverishly. we lost no one of our section that day or night.[1]

This terrifying non-lesson is a good lesson in how difficult it was to learn from the chaos of such a fluid tactical situation.

13 October

We had an early muddly breakfast. Afterwards we all got into our motor ambulances en route for Dunkirk. The road was filled with flying inhabitants, and down at the dock wounded and well struggled to get on to the steamer. People were begging us for a seat in our ambulance, and well-dressed women were setting out to walk 20 miles to Dunkirk.

I began to make out of whom our party consists. There is Lady Dorothie Feilding – probably 22 [actually 25, a week ago], but capable of taking command of a ship, and speaking French like a native; Mrs Decker, an Australian, plucky and efficient; Miss Chisholm, a blue-eyed Scottish girl, with a thick coat strapped around her waist and a haversack slung from her shoulder; a tall American, whose name I do not yet know, whose husband is a journalist; three young surgeons, and Dr Munro. It is all so quaint. The girls rule the company, carry maps and find roads, see about provisions and carry wounded…  Our party seems, to me, amazingly young and unprotected.[2]

So Sarah Macnaughtan is rolling with the coolest ambulance unit in Belgium, now–she is evidently a trade-up from the pathetic figure of May Sinclair. And how does Lady Feilding feel?

When Antwerp fell on the 9th it became evident that all the English & French troops the far side of Ghent would have to retreat to prevent them being cut up on the flank… it was awful for the poor Belgians, mad with joy when the English arrived to see them beating a retreat after 2 days, & leaving poor little Ghent to its fate without so much as firing another shot to keep them back. Well all the troops had left by the evening of the 11th, a Sunday, & at 1am on Monday morning we were told the Teutons were at the gates & all the wounded had to be evacuated at once. This was done by train to Ostend, except just the English Tommies we were told to take in our ambulances as they were to be kept separate. What a night it was having to dress them all & pack them & our belongings up. Some of the latter we had to leave behind & trust to getting them after the war… I was miserable at leaving Ghent like that in
the middle of the night & being obliged to bunk after all the Ghent people had done for us — but our ambulances would have been begged & our work over so we had to lump it. But I mean to get back into Ghent with the English army or die in the effort from wrath & indignation if nothing else.

Arrived at Ostend no one knew what to do – all the party were squabbling. Munro losing his silly head & running round in circles & there seemed nothing to be done but trek home & try & get out to France – a doubtful event. When I suddenly ran into Théresè de Broqueville [the daughter-in-law of the Belgian Prime Minister(!)] in the
street by the purest luck and they were most awfully kind to me & helped me get the ambulance to Dunkerque… Such a job as I had to get my coven under way. None of them up — half of them lost & Munro insisting on picking up futile lady pals of his all along the beach & affixing them to our ambulance when we have already 3 times as many awful females as we can digest or need.

Ouch! There, presumably went Sarah Macnaughtan. But back to the fussy Scots Doctor and the young witch who has, in her own estimation at least (and with a rousing endorsement from the overlooked Macnaughtan) take over the operation.

He’s a well meaning & enthusiastic little man, but as to being in charge of anything or anyone let alone himself, it’s a jest. He has to be looked after just like a good natured biddie.[3]


And look who is safe at home and making light of his losses:

Rugby, Thursday [13 October]

[To Frances Cornford]

I have to report that your sleeping-bag was heavily shelled & demolished by fire in Antwerp last week. Awfly sorry. We all pay our little bit, these days.

Best love,



References and Footnotes

  1. There's a Devil in the Drum, 204-6.
  2. See Women in the War Zone, 48. It's odd that Macnaughtan doesn't mention Elsie Knocker here.
  3. See Lady Under Fire on the Western Front, 14.
  4. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 622.

Sarah Macnaughtan Joins Some Pretty Young English Girls Masquerading; Francis Grenfell Carries On; John Lucy Waxes Lyrical

As the allies retreat in Belgium, more and more of our British writers are concentrated in a small area. Sarah Macnaughtan, of Mrs. Stobart’s ambulance unit, crosses paths today, a century back, with Dorothie Feilding, of Dr. Munro’s. Lady Feilding will have her say tomorrow.

12 October

Everyone has gone back to England except Sister Bailey and me. She is waiting to hand over the wounded to the proper department, and I am waiting to see if I can get on anywhere. It does seem so hard that when men are most in need of us we should all run home and leave them.

The noises and racket in Ostend are deafening, and there is panic everywhere. The boats go to England packed every time. Some ships lie close to us on the grey misty water, and the troops are passing along all day.

Later. We heard tonight that the Germans are coming into Ostend tomorrow, so once more we fly like dust before a broom. It is horrible having to clear out for them.

This evening Dr Hector Munro came in from Ghent with his oddly-dressed ladies, and at first one was inclined to call them masqueraders in their knickerbockers and puttees and caps, but I believe they have done excellent work. It is a queer side of war to see young, pretty English girls in khaki and thick boots, coming in from the trenches, where they have been picking up wounded men within 100 yards of the enemy’s lines, and carrying them away on stretchers.

Dr Munro asked me to come on to his convoy, and I gladly did so: he sent he sent home a lady whose nerves were gone and I was put in her place.[1]

The plot thickens: we have corroboration here for the courage under fire of Lady Feilding and friends, and for the unsuitableness of another volunteer: the lady sent home was May Sinclair. After being shoved out the back of an ambulance by Elsie Knocker on the 10th, she had spent the night of the 11th tormenting a wounded British soldier with her ineffectiveness: “She was unable to lift him; she disturbed him with her continual coughing; she annoyed the doctors and nurses by summoning them continually. The next morning, she was removed from the case. Her brief career as a nurse was over.”[2]


John Lucy, after the death of his brother and the shattering of his regiment on the Aisne, had had a few weeks of rest. Pulled back from the Aisne front relatively early, the Royal Irish Rifles had received reinforcements and been resupplied. They were moved west and north by train to Amiens and then marched north. Thus they joined the “race to the sea.”

On the 12th of October we were marching through a flat country of many villages about five miles north of La Bassée, and once more found ourselves listening to the sound of field-guns. that roused some of us and depressed others, and there was much speculation as to what was happening in front, and what part we should play. I hoped that we might not suffer as we did on the Aisne. The men became quieter on hearing the booming of the guns, and a pregnant calm pervaded the whole column. The men took hold of themselves, and marched a little quicker, as they will to danger. Did they feel, as I did in my bones, that we were heading for the last round-up? I cannot say. Strong and young and virile, the soldiers moved in unison. My mind embraced my comrades, and my spirit fondly bound them, and swept out protectingly over them in prayer, while my body pulsed to their marching, their inevitable and terrible yet innocent progress to another rendezvous with death.

I realize, dear reader, that I’ve been piling on many entries from many correspondents (but now that Antwerp has fallen, we have only a nurse or two left in the field, plus our handful of pre-war soldiers–the red line thins), and one lamentable consequence of this is that I have neglected the sort of stock-taking commentary that I hope will become a more prominent feature of the project. So here’s a bit.

We have to call Lucy out. This passage is an unusually obvious example of the influence of later writing on his narrative. His book is not closely based on an extant diary–like many others, it combines recall with some sort of name-and-date support from published sources. Now, it would be foolishly naive to posit some Maxwell’s Demon of a membrane that is able to allow fact to pass through into the writer’s mind without any admixture of language/concept/idea. Even if a fact can come through almost entirely clean of adhering language–mere dates, mere names–it will bring through along with it little sticky clumps of concept, trailing tendrils of ideas that had connected it to its previous context and will never be lopped off in transit by any barrier. There is no way, in other words, to read up on your war without that reading affecting your writing of your own experience.

Lucy is an honest chap–this is a good war book, but he is not a practiced writer, and sometimes there is so much clear influence of other writing on his prose that we must wonder how “pure” or “accurate” his recollection can be. It’s not just throwing the latterly shopworn idea of “innocence” into a sentence describing the return of troops to battle.

Reread that last line of his: not only is it so generalized that it is hardly proper to attach it to one particular day of his personal history, but it is so clichéd that it blocks our access to the feelings it tries to represent. And it ends with a cliché that may in fact be a quotation (perhaps intentional, perhaps not), of a famous poem yet to be written by another of our soldier-writers. Things have been historiographically and epistemologically calm here, of late, but don’t relax your guard. Fix Fussell bayonets and beware of the influence of (published) writing on (autobiographical) writing.

But back to business. the Royal Irish opened into skirmishing order and advanced into the village of La Couture, moving through retreating French cavalry and into support of another British infantry battalion.

Things began to boil up. The Germans advanced to attack our front battalion. Houses began to fall in the village and red brick-dust clouds mingled with the yellow and white of exploding projectiles… all thoughts except the job of fighting were now forgotten, and here was the old army at its best. To get at the enemy now was the work in hand, and past feelings of fear or sorrow were completely cut out by the fighting men. No time for that now.[3]

This is another curious piece of writing. This was no rousing pre-battle moment but a long day in support, during which several officers of the regiment were killed and a number of officers and men wounded by shells and bullets that had overshot the fighting line ahead. Lucy also remembers the appearance in the line of a divisional general–rare, and, for this particular general of the old-school, final–and the news that day of a military execution. The Royal Irish were bitterly unhappy to learn that a British soldier–of another regiment–was shot at dawn for the crime of abandoning his post during battle.

Already they can see what military justice cannot: that cowardice means something different when considered from a chair by the fire in a base camp than when seen from the perspective of a soldier who has spent long days being shelled in a trench.


We have another soldier who has lost a brother. Francis Grenfell, his wound healed, rejoined the 9th Lancers today, and learned that they were about to go into action. Back with the regiment, he takes a bit of solace–terrible solace–from the strange lot of identical twins. He wrote to his uncle that “several still call me Rivy… I am so glad it goes on.”[4]

References and Footnotes

  1. See Women in the War Zone, 47-8.
  2. See http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/ideasv62/raitt.htm.
  3. There's a Devil in the Drum, 200-202.
  4. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 209.

Antwerp is Evacuated–Buxton Too; We Update Our Popular “Where’s Winston?” Series; Rupert Brooke Trudges Through an Inferno; Henry Williamson Gets More Bad Socks and Frank Richards Gets a Bad Officer

Vera Brittain is packing for Oxford. It’s a great day: escape velocity from the gravitational pull of provincial young-ladyhood has at long last been achieved.

But she’s going up alone, without all the likely young subalterns. And Roland’s harsh words about the utility of college life are haunting her.

Thursday October 8th

I spent all day packing & getting ready for going to Somerville tomorrow. Surely now, even though college life be narrow & its seclusion, as Roland says, a vegetation, I may begin to live & to find at least one human creature among my own sex whose spirit can have intercourse with mine. Any life must be wider than this lived here; Oxford I trust may lead to something, but Buxton never will. If Roland & Maurice & Edward had been going I should have felt quite differently about it, especially in the case of the former, for then I should have had a certain joy to temper the possible feelings of strangeness. Edward ought to have gone to-day, & Roland, like me, tomorrow. We might even have met on the journey — but now?[1]


Sarah Macnaughtan describes a long day indeed, beginning with a sleepless night under fire in the cellar of an Antwerp convent:

Nearly all the moving to the cellars had already been done — only three stretchers remained to be moved. One wounded English sergeant helped us. Otherwise everything was done by women. We laid the men on mattresses which we fetched from the hospital overhead, and then Mrs Stobart’s mild, quiet voice said,’Everything is to go on as usual.The night nurses and orderlies will take their places. Breakfast will be at the usual hour…’

We sat in the cellars with one night-light burning in each, and with seventy wounded men to take care of. Two of them were dying. There was only one line of bricks between us and the shells… We sat there all night. We just waited for daybreak. When it came the firing grew worse.Two hundred guns were turned on Antwerp, and the shells came over at the rate of four a minute. They have a horrid screaming sound as they come…

Mrs. Stobart’s unit stayed with the wounded under increasing fire all day long, until:

About five o’clock the shelling became more violent, and three shells came with only an instant between each. Presently we heard Mrs Stobart say,’Come at once’,and we went out and found three English buses with English drivers at the door. They were carrying ammunition, and were the last vehicles to leave Antwerp…  As we drove to the bridge many houses and sometimes a whole street was burning. No one seemed to care. No one was there to try and save anything. We drove through the empty streets and saw the burning houses, and great holes where shells had fallen, and then we got to the bridge and out of the line of fire.[2]


Rupert Brooke and the rest of the Anson battalion had escaped the inferno of Antwerp the day before, and

had one hour’s sleep, from 2 to 3, in a wet field: and we very nearly walked into a German ambush. It was rather a miracle we got away. but the march through those deserted suburbs, mile on mile, with never a living being, except one rather ferocious looking sailor, stealing sulkily along. The sky was lit by burning villages and houses; and after a bit we got to the land by the river where the Belgians had let all the petrol out of the tanks and fired it. Rivers and seas of flame leaping up hundreds of feet, crowned by black smoke that covered the entire heavens. It lit up houses wrecked by shells, dead horses, demolished railway stations, engines that had been taken up with their lines and signals, and all twisted round and pulled out, as a bad child spoils a toy. And there we joined the refugees, with all their goods on barrows and carts, in a double line, moving forwards about a hundred yards an hour, white and drawn and beyond emotion. The glare was like hell…

After about a thousand years it was dawn.[3]


Before we head back to England, in search of Sir Winston, a note on the command structure of our most scrutinized battalion. The 2/Royal Welch, after several quiet weeks on the Aisne, was now being transferred north and west as part of the massive (and futile) relocation of armies known as the “race to the sea.” Nothing more than that “[Major] Geiger was sent home with appendicitis, so [Captain] Stockwell was given A Company.”[4]

Why is this significant? It merits only a line in the semi-official battalion history. But it mattered to the men of A company. Private Frank Richards, our canny old soldier, is an excellent source for the homely details of this period: they were issued with new coats, to replace those lost on the retreat, but no packs; many men wore scrounged bits of civilian clothing, with Richards himself anticipating Monty Python by wearing a knotted handkerchief on his head in place of his lost service cap. And for the detail, too, of how much one’s company commander matters. The new commander of A Company

was a First Battalion officer and the majority of us had never seen him before. We were loading a train when he first appeared on the scene and he commenced to rave and storm, saying that everything was being loaded up wrong and that we were a lot of ruddy idiots…

In any battalion of men there were always a number of bullies, and it’s natural to expect one or two among the officers: our new Company Commander was agreed to be a first-class bully. Bullies as a rule are bad soldiers, but he was an exception to the rule.[5]

The company soon nicknamed Stockwell “Buffalo Bill,” and it is under this sobriquet that Richards will refer to him. We will hear a great deal more about this unusual character, and soon–as soon as the 2/Royal Welch can be hustled back into action.


And where was Winston, as his dashing relief effort in Antwerp ended in a headlong and costly defeat?[6] Dodging shells and exhorting the last ditch defenders? Piloting the last of the evacuation boats, stogie clamped between his teeth? Heroically directing the fire of the guns while lesser men slump exhausted in their hammocks?

No: back safe in London, as ordinarily befits a cabinet minister. Dressed for dinner, in fact. Here’s part of a letter that Raymond Asquith will write, tomorrow, a century back, to his wife:

I found some work to do here, so am staying till tomorrow, the 3.30 train. I dined last night at Downing St and found them all rather gloomy—P.M., Grey, and Winston, specially the latter who had relied on the French to cooperate with his Naval Brigade in saving Antwerp. When it became clear that the French couldn’t or wouldn’t do this the Belgian army threw up the sponge and for the last 3 days has been making for Ostend in motor buses. The Naval
Brigade (Oc with them, but apparently not Patrick who is Embarkation Officer at Dunkerque) got into Antwerp some days ago and have been fighting in the trenches there, but were to begin their retreat last night in the direction of Ostend. If they reach there safely they are to be brought straight home again to complete their Education. Bluey told me at luncheon yesterday that the whole of our 7th Division was in Antwerp, but Winston at dinner said his men were the only English there – a curious difference of opinion on an important point…[7]

So to clear that up: the Prime Minister’s eldest son will describe, to his wife, a dinner at which his father and the foreign secretary Lord Grey (Mr. “Lamps Going Out”) hear from the First Lord of the Admiralty that his little expedish to Belgium (which they, in fairness, approved, if with the reservations that he apparently lacked) may or may not have cost the life or freedom of, among several thousand others, the Prime Minister’s son (and Raymond’s younger brother) Arthur “Oc” Asquith and Patrick Shaw-Stewart. Rupert Brooke goes unmentioned, but this is his crowd, now–he has already dined with Oc and will count Shaw-Stewart among his closest friends.

And no one at 10 Downing Street really knows which division is where.


And last–and as yet generally least of our regulars–Henry Williamson sent a postcard home from camp today:Williamson 8 Oct 14Apologies for the crappy scan, but I do hope you can read the brilliant beginning:

Thanks very much for the cake clothes [HINT HINT] Please don’t show grandpa this letter, because I am sorry that the sox are too small and too thin for the feet but thank him…”

The letter continues with a sock census: the nine I have are fine, thank you, “so really don’t want any more, except that pair you are making for me.” Other requests do, of course, follow.[8]


References and Footnotes

  1. Chonicle of Youth, 115-16.
  2. From Women in the War Zone, 45-7.
  3. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 624-5.
  4. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 69.
  5. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 32.
  6. As is clear from Macnaughtan's account, thousands of British troops did not make it out, and became prisoners of war.
  7. Jolliffe, Raymond Asquith: Life and Letters, 196.
  8. Williamson, Anne, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 27-8.

Rupert Brooke is in the Trenches; Lady Feilding and Sarah Macnaughtan Evacuate the Wounded; Thomas Hardy Reminds Us of What We Have Lost

We pick up Rupert Brooke’s account of his Belgian adventures with the Naval Division early this morning, a century back:

…I lay down on the floor of a bedroom for a decent night’s sleep. But by 2 the shells had got unpleasantly near. A big one (I’m told) burst above the garden: but too high to do damage. And some message came. So up we got–frozen and sleepy–and toiled off through the night. By dawn we got into trenches, very good ones, and relieved Belgians.

Sweetheart, this is very dull. And it doesn’t really reflect any state of mind. For when I think back on it, my mind is filled with various disconnected images and feelings. And if I could tell you those fully, you might find it wonderful–or at least queer. There’s the excitement in the trenches–we weren’t attacked seriously in our part–with people losing their heads and fussing and snapping. It’s queer to see the people who do break under the strain of danger and responsibility. It’s always the rotten ones. Highly sensitive people don’t, queerly enough. ‘Nuts’, do. I was relieved to find I was incredibly brave! I don’t know how I should behave if shrapnel was bursting on me and knocking the men round me to pieces. But for risks and nerves and fatigue I was all right. That’s cheering…

A ‘nut,’ in this context, is, I believe, something like a dandy, or a dumb, fashionable socialite. This is a bit of a snap judgement/unsupportable generalization–but an interesting one. Nor should the light tone fool us, here: this seems like real relief. He’s not making a grand claim, nor is he revealing uncertainty with self-mocking banter. He’s spinning a tale for Lady Wellesley, but amidst the raconteurishness there’s a bit of stillness here as he tells her the answer–incomplete, but promising so far–to the question he’s been asking himself every day since August 4th.

It’s a big relief to find out that you are not a conspicuous coward.

At 6.30 on the second evening the forts away on our left had been smashed and the Belgians had run away (probably) and the Council of War in Antwerp had decided that we’d have to get out. So we stole away from the trenches…[1]


Sarah Macnaughtan, senior orderly with Mrs. Stobart’s Ambulance unit, found less novelty in the Antwerp debacle than Brooke did.

7 October

It is a glorious morning: they will see well to kill each other today.

At lunch-time today firing ceased, and I heard it was because the German guns were coming up. We got orders to send away all the wounded who could possibly go, and we prepared beds in the cellars for those who cannot be moved.The military authorities beg us to remain as so many hospitals have been evacuated.

The wounded continue to come in. All the orderlies are on duty in the hospital now. We can spare no one for rougher work. We can all bandage and wash patients. There are wounded everywhere..

One of the Marines told me that Winston Churchill was ‘up and down the road amongst the shells’, and that he had given orders that Antwerp was not to be taken until the last man in it was dead.

This is, happily, a bum rumor. But what does it say about Churchill and the politician’s love of the gesture that this is even plausible enough to be a current rumor? No–the gesture has been made, and now it is time to flee. Almost time.

On Wednesday night, 7 October, we heard that one more ship was going to England, and a last chance was given to us all to leave. Only two did so; the rest stayed on. Mrs Stobart went out to see what was to be done…[2]


And Lady Feilding, working her way into the danger zone, takes a moment to catch her family up on her adventures:

Oct 7th 1914

In a convent hospital. Waiting for orders.

Well, life has been a hustle these last 2 days & I’ve had precious little time for letter writing. The last 3 nights have been very busy for us as some of our detachment have been up all night each time to help bring in wounded from the station to the hospital that were being sent into Ghent from Antwerp as they don’t want any wounded to be left there in case the Germans should collar it…

So 300 came in one night & 500 the other & going the other way are trainloads & trainloads of British Tommies. It’s rather awful to see the two trains meeting & thinking how little the reinforcements know what they are in for.

it is of no small interest that this sort of observation–the observer at the midpoint, watching the forward march (or train) of Innocence slide by the ambulance train of Experience–comes, at this early stage of the war, largely from women. The Nursing Sister saw and wrote essentially the same thing. Soon, the voices of the nurses and ambulance volunteers will be outnumbered, and more or less drowned out, by the officers–Brooke’s “sensitive” officers, at least–who suffer the trenches, witness martyrdom, and come back not only Experienced but disenchanted, even (briefly) rebellious.

Yesterday we got our 1st bit of fieldwork – real fieldwork – we have been able to get yet. We are generally put under the command of a military doctor who suffers from severe funk & won’t let us really get hold of people that otherwise just die in the trenches for want of being fetched…

A note of pride creeps in to the nonchalant bravado here. O.K., it shouts. But then again, this war is a mess, and things like rescuing wounded during a defeat are not yet organized (nor will they ever be–armies plan for stalemates and advances, not defeats). So who is going to do it, if not a plucky youngster?

Well when we got up to where guns were popping, the old Belgian doctor got such a funk he just threw himself out of our bus & refused to go on, so we blew kisses to him & left. A sentry told us of where some wounded men were lying up in the trenches close to the river, so we left the car & carried our stretchers to go & look for them. We found most of them were men well enough to work their way back further so they had gone, but there were 2 others – an officer & a tommy very bad indeed lying right up by the river. It was five kilometres to walk each way carrying stretchers &
taking cover & walking over slippery banks the last bit. Also coming back was pitch dark & it was 8.30 by the time we got them to the ambulance…  The poor beggars had been lying there since 5am that morning & would have died if they had had the night out as well, which would have been the case if it hadn’t been for us…

This morning grand tableau! Our doctor funk pal we had thrown out, went to the military authorities & said we disobeyed his orders & in fact raised Hell generally & today we have [been] put right back & not allowed to go anywhere near anything & that is what happens every time we break out a bit & try & do what really is needed…[3]


Thomas Hardy had a letter published today in The Times (collected here). It’s a condemnation of the destruction of the cathedral at Rheims, rather rote. It begins as a half-hearted banging of the semi-official-propaganda gong–what barbarians the Germans are to attack this masterpiece–before swerving for a more characteristically Hardy twisting of the knife of fate.

Hardy had once been a church architect, and he is at pains to inform us that we should not fool ourselves into thinking that such a structure can be adequately restored after the war: “Only those who for professional or other reasons have studied in close detail the architecture of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries are aware that to do this in its entirety is impossible…much of what is gone… is gone for ever.

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 624.
  2. From Women in the War Zone, 45-7.
  3. Lady Under Fire, 7-8.

Ghastly Days in Antwerp for Sarah Macnaughtan; Rupert Brooke Arrives

Julian Grenfell and the rest of the Royal Dragoons at last embarked today, a century back. They loaded their horses aboard ship during the wee hours, enjoying a “lovely night with blazing moon, which was very lucky.”[1] And Gilbert Frankau received a commission in the East Surrey Regiment–presumably with the help of his Public School bona fides–and began, perforce, gathering material to be loosely fictionalized (largely under the theme of  “officers, corrupt and incompetent”) in his next novel.


In Antwerp, Sarah Macnaughtan, serving as an orderly with Mrs. Stobart’s Hospital Unit, was very much in the thick of it. The unit had set up a temporary hospital in a philharmonic hall, which was already filled to capacity.

6 October
I think the last two days have been the most ghastly I ever remember. Every day seems to bring news of defeat. It is awful, and the Germans are quite close now. As I write the house shakes with the firing. Our troops are falling back, and the forts have fallen. Last night we took provisions and water to the cellars, and made plans to get the wounded taken there.

All these last two days bleeding men have been brought in.Today three of them died, and I suppose none of them was more than 23.

The guns boom by day as well as by night, and as each one is heard one thinks of more bleeding, shattered men. It is calm, nice autumn weather; the trees are yellow in the garden and the sky is blue, yet all the time one Iistens to the cries of men in pain. Tonight I meant to go out for a little, but a nurse stopped me and asked me to sit by a dying man. Poor fellow, he was twenty-one, and looked like some brigand chief, and he smiled as he was dying.[2]


Let’s again go to Conan Doyle as our semi-official (meaning “rousing, uncritical, and journalistic to a fault”) historian. He reminds us that while the Royal Marines, i.e. the trained professionals of the Naval Division, had now spent two days in the trenches around Antwerp, our first Kitchener-ish units have now arrived (these are not technically New Army formations, but they are similar ad hoc formations of barely trained volunteers–in effect Churchill’s New Land Navy).

On the night of the 5th the two other brigades of the division, numbering some 5000 amateur sailors, arrived in Antwerp, and the whole force assembled on the new line of defence. Mr. Winston Churchill showed his gallantry as a man, and his indiscretion as a high official, whose life was of great value to his country by accompanying the force from England. The bombardment was now very heavy, and the town was on fire in several places. The equipment of the British left much to be desired, and their trenches were as indifferent as their training. None the less they played the man and lived up to the traditions of that great service upon whose threshold they stood. For three days these men, who a few weeks before had been anything from schoolmasters to tram-conductors, held their perilous post. They were very raw, but they possessed a great asset in their officers, who were usually men of long service. But neither the lads of the naval brigades nor the war-worn and much-enduring Belgians could stop the mouths of those inexorable guns…[3]

Oh Good, stereotypical stuff: “play the man,” brave “lads,” the leap from good will and the presence of proud “traditions” to a reasonable hope of military efficiency. Well. It’s difficult to rate the effectiveness of a formation when it has been sent, too little and too late, into the face of the “inexorable” German siege artillery, so perhaps the substitution of general praise for their conduct is less egregious than usual.

Here’s how Rupert Brooke described his day:

So we got out at Antwerp, and marched through the streets, and everyone cheered and flung themselves on us and gave us apples and chocolate and flags and kisses, and cried Vivent les Anglais and ‘Heep! Heep! Heep!’

…Every mile the noises got louder, immense explosions and detonations. We stopped in the town square in Vieux Dieu; five or six thousand British troops, a lot of Belgians, guns going through, transport waggons, motor-cyclists, orderlies on horses, staff-officers, and the rest. An extraordinary and thrilling confusion. As it grew dark the thunders increased, and the sky was lit by extraordinary glares. We were all given entrenching tools. Everyone looked worried. Suddenly our battalion was marched round the corner out of the din through an old gate in the immense, wild, garden of a recently-deserted château. There we had to sleep. The rather dirty and wild-looking sailors trudged over lawns, through orchards and across pleasaunces. Little pools glimmered through the trees, and deserted fountains: and round corners one saw, faintly, occasional Cupids and Venuses–a scattered company of rather bad statues–gleaming quietly. The sailors dug their latrines in the various rose-gardens and lay down to sleep–but it was bitter cold–under the shrubs. It seemed infinitely peaceful and remote. I was officer on guard till the middle of the night…[4]

I have my issues with Rupert Brooke and his fraught and often petulantly hostile way of representing himself and his experiences, but he’s a good writer. So is Conan Doyle, obviously, but in a different way.

Doyle’s great work is invention–and heavily rational invention at that–wherein wit and reason must flash and fire and reality fall back and dig in. Brooke, whatever else he is doing (this is from the same long and intermittently flirtatious letter to Eileen Wellesley that I quoted from yesterday), is describing real experience, and he has the skills for this. As a poet his better poems, like this letter, describe the world justly, yet suggestively. (His more famous, weaker work, is prone to pseudo-philosophical declamation. Oh yes, the sonnets are a-comin’.)

Sure, Doyle, posing as a historian, has a battle to describe, while Brooke can share with us the sights and sounds of subjective experience and the ironic strangeness of entrenching in a garden of love. All I’m saying is that this juxtaposition is why I prefer–why this project dotes upon–literature-describing-personal-experience-of-the-war, and not history per se.

References and Footnotes

  1. Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, #222.
  2. From Women in the War Zone, 45.
  3. Conan Doyle, The British Campaign in France and Flanders (A History of the Great War, Volume One), 198.
  4. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 623.