The Battle of Neuve Chapelle Begins–Wilfrid Ewart Goes Forward; Rupert Brooke Addresses His Imaginary Widow

img009The first planned British offensive of the war began today, a century back, at 7:30 a.m. The objective was the town of Neuve Chapelle, several miles behind the British lines.

Or, rather, Neuve Chapelle was the operational objective. The strategic objective was to break through the German trench lines, allow the cavalry to ride through the gap into the open country beyond, and drive on the important industrial city of Lille.

And then there was grand strategy, i.e. strategy considered in light of politics: the objective in that sense was to demonstrate the willingness and ability of the non-professional units of the British army to take to the offensive, plumping national pride and satisfying the doubts of their French allies.

It would soon be clear that the attack failed in all of these objectives, save perhaps the last. Although many of the units were still led by survivors of the fall fighting, the participation of Territorial units in the battle (along with the increasing presence of New Army units in other parts of the line) was some proof that Britain would follow tough talk with action.

But for the first three hours or so, the battle appeared to be a tactical and operational success, perhaps the best few attacking hours that the British would have until 1917. Then the early success turned to stalemate and disaster, and the pattern for so many such operations over the next several years was set: attacking troops can usually take the initial enemy positions, but then they become bogged down, exhausted and confused, difficult to reinforce or relieve, and vulnerable to counter-attack.

The tale can be briefly told, and then on to our writers. Artillery preparation was considerable–as many shells fired were fired between 7:30 and 8:05 as in the entire Boer War. (But far fewer, of course, then would accompany the attacks of 1917 and 1918.) Strategic surprise was achieved too, and the first units that advanced were able to overwhelm the outnumbered Germans, taking hundreds of dazed prisoners and several lines of trenches.

The attack was led by two British and two Indian Divisions–this was the last time that units of the Indian Army took such a prominent part in a major assault on the Western Front–and their greatest success was in the center. As the map above shows, the location for the attack was chosen by the staff because it represented a slight bulge, or salient, in the German lines. (Like compulsive dermatologists, map-bound strategists enjoy smoothing out the integuments of the army, fearing a sort of chafing of armies.)

The attack quickly even out the line, or most of it. But the salient was so small that any undestroyed enemy position could enfilade (i.e. fire across a line of troops from the side) the attackers as they went by, and this is exactly what happened. Some of the newly arrived units of artillery lacked crucial pieces of stabilizing equipment, and they were firing on ground still soft from the months-long soaking. As he watched his guns slide back into the mud, necessitating a complete re-sighting after each round, one regular artillery officer lamented the elephants, left behind in India only a few months before, which were so useful for hauling out mud-mired guns.[1]

With some guns firing so slowly, a handful of German machine gun emplacements were left intact, and they killed hundreds of advancing British troops in only a few minutes. Even outside of the swath cuts by these guns, the advance slowed, then stopped.

There were difficult technical problems here–unavoidable structural issues. This is almost the end of that long run of human history in which we somehow made do without wireless communications, and so coordination quickly fell apart once the infantry moved out of the immediate line of sight of their starting positions. These inevitable difficulties were, however, made much worse by the foolish British decision to allow a divided command with a fully articulated pyramidal chain of communications.

Messages were sent back, carried by runners picking their way over broken ground, under fire, moving much more slowly than Wellington’s dispatch riders had galloped over nearby ground a century before. And once they reached the start positions they still had to pass back through battalion headquarters, then up to brigade, to division, and through two different corps commanders before reaching General Douglas Haig, at this time the commander of the British First Army, still subordinate to Sir John French but in operational command today. Then the messages would start down the same chain, branching out to the artillery, often providing information about the relative positions of British and German troops now several hours out of date.

Almost all of the British gains had come by 10:00 in the morning, and, even though the German forces behind were thin, little was accomplished throughout the rest of the day. Behind the German lines, reinforcements were toward the front, and preparations began for a counter-attack.

There will be two more days of eventful fighting, but as for today, none of our familiar writers were in the leading units. Most of those now in France and Belgium were with the cavalry reserve or stationed on quiet parts of the line. Only Edward Hulse‘s 2/Scots Guards were moved up into the battle zone in direct support of the attacking units. But Hulse did not write today–instead, I’ll quote from a comrade-as-yet-unmentioned, Wilfrid Ewart. We will look into Ewart’s novel when the time comes, but today (and tomorrow) we’ll read from a vivid letter home about the attack.

Stephen Graham–of whom we caught a brief glimpse at the outset of the war, in remotest Central Asia–will eventually join the Scots Guards and befriend Ewart. Much later he recorded, at second hand, some context for Ewart’s recollections:

Bullets sang and spluttered in all directions. There was a series of rushes and rests wherein one saw men in the midst of life cut off, stricken down, shaken away. Ewart saw them dying, and I remember when talking of the battle with him, the lingering surprise which was his at the enchantment of death, one moment full of lusty life, the next chalky white and still as a hewn tree.

But these rushes brought the Scots Guards nowhere near the new front lines. Ewart’s letter, written shortly after the battle, begins the story of what will be a harrowing night and day:

Towards evening the guns died away, and after dark we changed our quarters and lit a fire in the trenches. We stood to arms most of the night expecting to attack or be attacked at any moment. But no order came.[2]

 

While several thousand British soldiers were dead or dying, shot by the untouched machine guns on the flanks or the recovering Germans in several reserve trench lines, Rupert Brooke was contemplating his own death and literary posterity from his berth on the Grantully Castle, now approaching Lemnos. Today it is Ka Cox, an older flame than Lady Wellesley or Violet Asquith, who gets the farewell letter.

Dear child,

I suppose you’re about the best I can do in the way of a widow. I’m telling the Ranee that after she’s dead, you’re to have my papers. They may want to write a biography! How am I to know if I shan’t be eminent? And take any MSS you want. Say what you like to the Ranee. But you’d probably better not tell her much. Let her be. Let her think we might have married. Perhaps it’s true.

My dear, my dear, you did me wrong: but I have done you very great wrong. Every day I see it greater.

You were the best thing I found in life. If I have memory, I shall remember. You know what I want for you. I hope you will be happy, and marry and have children.

It’s a good thing I die.

Good-bye, child,
RUPERT[3]

This is a strange, strange letter, even by Brooke’s standards. He had been in love with Ka Cox, and pursued her. In 1912, when they at last slept together, it was his first time with a woman. It seems to have terrified him, not least because of a subsequent pregnancy scare (although not only because of the pregnancy scare: his prudish/misogynistic reaction to female sexuality seems to have been immediate). This was the year of Brooke’s mental breakdown, and the two fled to Germany, where they could be together without scandal. He half-heartedly proposed marriage, but after the pregnancy ended (apparently with an early miscarriage), and she had nursed him back to health, Brooke fled, dumping Cox unceremoniously, and sharing his opinion that she was “defiled” and impossible. He, however, moved on into an affair with Phyllis Gardner, an overlapping obsession with Noel Oliver (which ended with similar wild recriminations and nasty letters accusing her of lewdness and depravity) and then took his sexually recuperative trip to Tahiti.

Now, convinced that he is headed to his death, the cruelty and sexual neurosis are whittled down to one line of generously dramatic fault-acknowledging. Which is better, one is forced to confess, then not revisiting one’s worse moments on one’s imagined deathbed. (He is, again, currently healthy, sailing about the Aegean, and unburdened by actual orders specifying an attack.)

And then the ghost of the abjured romance and near shotgun wedding returns: Ka, can pretend to be my widow!

Brooke is very enamored of the idea of his own tragic death. And isn’t it noble of him to apologize to a woman he’s treated so badly… and to invite her to become a sort of pseudo-Havisham, wildly mourning (one assumes) the husband who never was.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See MacDonald, 1915, The Death of Innocence.
  2. Life and Last Words of Wilfrid Ewart, 22-4.
  3. The Letters Of Rupert Brooke, 669-70.

Siegfried Sassoon Pedals Away from His Past Life, Stephen Graham lolls in the Altai, Phillip Maddison Shivers in the City, and Peter Jackson Dominates at the Net

Stephen Graham, intrepid journalist and travel writer, will not officially qualify for inclusion in our great game for quite a while–he will not see France for more than three years. But he did see some unusual sights at the beginning of the war, and his rather syrupy writing should carry a day like today, as we teeter on the edge of the Last Summer’s Last Weekend–1914’s week is one day ahead of ours, today being, a century back, a Friday.

Thousands of miles from any of the rest of our correspondents, hanging around one of the outlying settlements of a tottering and backward empire, Graham was nevertheless a witness to the accelerating effects of technological progress. A century on, we tend to overemphasize the extent of our globalization and interconnectedness. Things move faster now, but the shrinking of the globe had, in the most fundamental ways, already occurred, a century back: even the Tsar had a telegraph system that moved his orders thousands of miles in a matter of hours.

I was staying in an Altai Cossack village on the frontier of Mongolia when the war broke out, 1,200 versts south of the Siberian railway, a most verdant resting-place, with majestic fir forests, snow-crowned mountains range behind range, green and purple valleys deep in larkspur and monkshood. All the young men and women of the village were out on the grassy hills with scythes; the children gathered currants in the wood each day, old folks sat at home and sewed furs together, the pitch-boilers and charcoal-burners worked at their black fires with barrels and scoops, and athwart it all came the message of war. At 4 A.M. on July 31st the first telegram came through, an order to mobilise and be prepared for active service. I was awakened that morning by an unusual commotion, and, going into the village street, saw the soldier population collected in groups, talking excitedly. My peasant hostess cried out to me, “Have you heard the news? There is war.”

A young man on a fine horse came galloping down the street, a great red flag hanging from his shoulders and flapping in the wind, and as he went he called out the news to each and every one, “War! War!” Horses out, uniforms, swords!

…The Tsar had called on the Cossacks; they gave up their work without a regret and burned to fight the enemy. Who was the enemy? Nobody knew.[1]

In his next book about his Russian and Asian travels, Graham gives us perhaps the most far-flung Englishman Abroad version of a Last Summer piece. He imagines England, now that it is

holiday time, the end of July, the Englishman’s great liberation moment when, even if he goes on working in office or factory, he ceases to work hard and lazes at his work. His wife and family have gone to the seaside. He will join them in a week or so. Meanwhile he is “camping out at home.” The young man is buying stout boots and greasing them for tramping, is scanning maps and guidebooks, and making absurd tables of mileage, prospective hotel bills and expenses.

And where is Graham?

Just outside the Cossack settlement it was late summer, and the glossy peony fruits were turning crimson from green, opening to show rows of black teeth – seeds. But as you climbed upward toward the snow the season changed, and it was possible to recover the lost spring…

It was comparatively easy to reach districts where it might be thought no foot of man had ever trod–primeval moss-grown forest…

Above this jungle was a stretch of steep mountain-side sparsely grown with young firs, and then grey, barren, slippery rock. Wonderful shelves and chasms, fissures, precipices, and ways up without ways down, boulder-strewn tracks and founts of bubbling water, milk-white streams, crystal streams.

Most days I spent by the side of a little mountain river, where I built a sort of causeway out of rocks, diverted the channel, made a deep bathing-pool–enthralling occupations. Here also I had a bonfire, made coffee, baked potatoes, cooked red currant jam. Strips of red currants hung like bunting on some of the bushes, and were so thick that you could pick a potful in a quarter of an hour. Here also I sorted out and re-read thirty or forty copies of The Times, saved up for me, with letters, at the post office of Semipalatinsk–all the details of the political quarrel over Ulster, the resignation of Sir John French (as he was then called), of Colonel Seely, the vigorous speeches of Mr. John Ward, the brilliant defences of Mr. Asquith. We seemed to be running forward silently and smoothly to an exciting rebellion or civil war in Ireland, and nobody seemed to deplore the prospect of strife. The Government, nominally in favour of peace at all costs, were incapable of preventing their opponents obtaining arms, and were, therefore, allowing their friends to arm. On the whole we seemed to be tired of the dull blessings of peace, out of patience with peace. Yet we were not ready for the strife that was coming, though certainly in a mood to take arms. It is astonishing that with our many international characters – those diplomatical journalists of ours – we did not know what was coming, or no one was at pains to undeceive us….

It is astonishing to look back now to those serene and happy weeks in the Altai and to feel the contrast of the innocence of Nature and the devilish conspiracy in the minds of men. If there are devils in the world, black spirits as opposed to white spirits, what triumph was theirs, what hidden ecstasy as at the coming triumph of negation. Behind the screen of this silence horns were blowing announcing the great feasts of death, the blasting of the temples wherein the spirit of man dwells, the orgy of ugliness and madness.[2]

Awfully purplish prose, even though Graham is looking back from a comparatively near future–it feels as if the spectres and trumpets, so blatantly super-imposed, shade the memories of July to a hew of technicolor wistfulness we can’t quite trust.

Still, like Vera’s daily diary summaries of¬†The Times, a nice way (I hope) to sneak an ironic reminder of how much the gaze of the war’s future participants was, that summer, astray. They gazed at the pretty flowers, whether in the Altai or Kew Gardens, or they stared in consternation across the Irish Sea…

 

Back home in Kent, we pick up Siegfried Sassoon after his day of cricket and stormy pianoforting.

Next day, which was July 31st, it seemed that any form of movement would be preferable to the intolerable suspense of waiting for further bad news… A good long bike-ride, I decided–even if it didn’t stop me thinking–might perhaps enable me to think with a less benumbed brain.

Bicycling to Rye–a distance of thirty miles which I covered without dismounting–I felt very much as if I were pedalling away from my past life. My unseeing eyes were on the dusty road, and my brain was automatically revolving the same ideas over and over again. In the leisurely contentment of normal times I should have looked at the country and remembered how I had ridden over it with the Mid-Kent Stag Hounds. I should have stopped to note some place where I jumped a fence into the road or a stile out of it. That sort of thing had now been wiped off the map. Germany, France, and Russia were all rumoured to be mobilizing. As for me, I was merely resorting to restless exertion while disentangling my mind from its reluctance to face the fact that the only thing left or me to do was to mobilize myself into the Army… Having achieved this decision, which seemed embarrassingly heroic, I approached Rye feeling more relieved than elated…

I ate a big tea, lit my pipe, and stared seaward toward Winchelsea from the friendly terrace of an old inn on what had once been the city wall. Having renounced independence of action (joining the army meant that, I assumed) I now felt immune from any sense of responsibility… I should have been quite put out if someone had told me that there might not be a war after all, for the war had become so much my own affair that it was–temporarily and to the exclusion of all other considerations–merely me! It even occurred to me that–whatever else I might be in for–there was no more cause to worry about money. And I did not need to be reminded that–not many days ago–I had been faced by a deplorably unfertile future. I was clear of all that, anyhow.

And so our Siegfried, however much he usually dawdles, trailing the play of his more mentally agile acquaintances, is a good step and a half ahead of everyone else–it’s only Friday, with the Fateful Bank Holiday Weekend still in the future, and yet his mind his made up.

It’s curious: is this about patriotism (yes–or at least in the same basic sense that all “gentlemen” thought it incumbent upon them to volunteer if they were fit; Sassoon is just quiet about that) or about escaping debt and poetic dead ends (a little bit, but he could have continued to dawdle at home indefinitely)? It’s also the larger and more diffuse question of the meaning of life in late youth: as indolent as he was and as slow as he makes himself out to be, Sassoon was not a fool. Neither was he a cynic, nor a hedonist. He was wealthy, but he felt he needed to do something, and so the war, even with his lack of jingoism or bloodthirstiness, was welcome.

Still, bicycling home, he realizes that he has decided to involve himself in an enormous and terrible struggle–a better thing to be a pawn in than to contemplate from without. Back home, he dismounts with “a sinking sensation in my middle,” and the latter-day Sassoon suddenly throws this telescopic view of one fateful day into binary vision.

Observing that bicyclist from to-day, I find it difficult to imagine and share his emptiness and immaturity of mind, so clueless, so inconsequent, and so unforeseeing. Confronted by that supreme crisis, he rides to meet it in virtual ignorance of its origins and antecedents… Confused and uncomprehending, he has no precedent to guide and instruct him.[3]

This is a bit thick–another last crashing chord for the Last Summer theme of Perfect Innocence, albeit with the emphasis falling the blindness of foresight rather than the richness of hindsight–but it’s not unfair. Sure: we can wonder, here in the after, why there was so much complacency when politics had been so volatile for so many years (although there’s your answer right there…) and we might hope that a firmer understanding of history would head off such immaturity in the future (sure! Why not?), but the crucial note is a true one: there has been no big European war in more than a generation, and no British involvement in such a conflict in ninety-nine years. There is no one to instruct him.

 

The willingness to ironize, to complicate the past and retell pristine experience as a protest against what will come,is very familiar now–a staple of war writing. But it wasn’t then. A more typical approach is that of Gilbert Frankau, a popular middlebrow novelist of the war. Here is the knowledgeable and skilful Peter Jackson, on holiday in Berkshire:

Peter, playing brilliantly at the net, and Patricia, backing him up accurately from the base-line, defeated their opponents in three straight setts [sic]. Followed [sic again, it’s an affectation] tea, a languid paddle towards Shiplake, the dressing-gong, stiff shirts and low frocks, auction bridge…

July the thirty-first, Nineteen Hundred and fourteen ! Already the Beasts in Gray–murder, rape, and plunder in their swinish eyes–were abroad. Already the Crime, so long premeditated, had been committed. Even as these four sat at their game, less than fifty miles away from them, up in London, amiable old gentlemen of Westminster were scuttling hither and thither, incredulous, anxious to compromise, fearful.

“Two no trumps,” said our Mr. Jackson.[4]

Follows snark. The style is clunky, and after Sassoon’s Sassoon, it is jarring to read of a protagonist whose mental processes are so thinly drawn, whose thoughts chime in Capital Letters along with the fussy and bombastic narratorial voice…

 

Less sensitive, if perhaps even less subtle, is Henry Williamson’s¬†rendering of his alter ego’s last Friday in the office.

It was Friday, the last day of July. Desmond was home from school… Willie was arriving that afternoon at Waterloo; Monday was August Bank Holiday. Then, very soon, camp at Eastbourne! Life was tremendous fun, really. [Williamson’s emphasis.]

And yet–and yet–somehow, under everything, a feeling of coldness, of longing, of dread, was growing; and the feeling became entered on the talk of war, which, stealthily, and in secret, was a thing to be desired. War–everyone spoke about it… Secretly, awefully, fearfully, one part of him desired the excitement that was war to become more and more; while another part of him quailed before a vast, fathomless darkness.

When the news comes in that the Lutine bell has been rung, the older men of the office suddenly drop their eminently British assurances that business will proceed as usual–all the Mr. Darlings suddenly wonder what the long weekend will bring, whether business will indeed proceed on Tuesday.

Young Phillip, yet to figure out that his larkish enlistment in the Territorial Army will now mean something very different than a second-holiday-ish camp at Eastbourne, nevertheless accepts the verdict of his current superiors: war is all but inevitable. Williamson makes quite sure we know the confusion this wreaks in the soul of a simple British boy:

Phillip felt a cold shiver pass through him, and then the fearful longing for war, like a dark spectre.[5]

References and Footnotes

  1. Graham, Russia and the World, 1-2.
  2. Graham, Through Russian Central Asia, 248-52.
  3. The Weald of Youth, 270-73.
  4. Peter Jackson, 47.
  5. How Dear is Life, 116-19.