T.E. Hulme Commissioned; Bernard Adams Reports on a Night’s Work; Raymond Asquith Reports on a Working Holiday

After two harrowing days in the Fricourt trenches, John Bernard Adams stands aside as a memoirist, letting his official company commander’s pen provide a terse, businesslike coda to the little burst of violence which has killed three of his comrades.

SPECIAL REPORT–C 1 Section (Left Company)

The mine exploded by us opposite 80 A at 6.30 P. M. last night has exposed about 20 yards of German parapet. A working-party attempting to work there about 12.30 A.M. and again at 2 A.M. was dispersed at once by our rifle and Lewis-gun fire. The parapet has been built up sufficiently to prevent our seeing over it, sand-bags having been put up from inside the trench. Our snipers are closely watching this spot.

J. B. P. Adams, Lieut.
O.C. “B” Coy.

6.30 A. M.     20.3.16.[1]

The point here is, simply, “so it goes… on and on, in a war of attrition.”


Time now, perhaps, to catch up with Raymond Asquith. Two days ago he announced in an uncharacteristically chipper letter to his wife Katherine that he was about to head to Lyons,

on a confidential mission. It will take me a couple of days and is rather a windfall. Anything to get away from St Omer and introduce a little variety into one’s life, though the ‘mission’ itself is not intrinsically very sensational. . .

Today, a century back, secret agent Asquith has a happy update:

This visit to Lyons is really the most agreeable thing I have done since the war began. I got here at 4 yesterday morning after rather a stuffy night journey; with just time for a small dinner at the station buffet at Paris. The place is very full owing to a fair which is going on, and I had to drive round the town sometime before finding a bed, but in the end got a very good room at this Hotel, with a bath which I have made the most of. It is one of the most charming towns that I have ever been in, a great manufacturing place of 1/2 million inhabitants–silk-making, shell-making, dyeing–every kind of industry–but not a whiff of smoke or a sign of a slum; broad streets, wide squares, handsome houses, excellent food and quite admirable wine. The town is built rather like Bath round an amphitheatre with one open side looking out towards the Alps, the rest steeply banked up towards the Cevennes…

I had tea yesterday in the highest part of the town, from which you see a fine panorama of orderly streets and the two great rivers the Rhone and Saone with their quays and bridges flowing together at the southern end of the town and beyond the town a wide green plain stretching away to Mont Blanc, which shows very plainly perhaps a 100 miles off, its precipices glistening with snow. But the atmosphere of the place is so wonderful, full of life and colour and effervescence under a hot and brilliant sun–A more utter change from the north of  France it is impossible to conceive, or from England either for that matter. It is the gayest town I have been in since Venice. There are a lot of French Colonial troops about—in appearance at any rate, much superior to ours–Senegalese with Beardsley faces. Zouaves with baggy braided trousers and moors with turbans of spotless linen, far handsomer than Othello. Best of all, no khaki, so that I am quite an excitement to the populace and the most charming looking women—the only ones in France—throw me every now and then a voluptuous leer.

Our boy has been starving for society. The holiday gets even more entertaining:

This change of paper is because the vice-consul (British) came in to my hotel and made me walk up the hill to lunch with his chief at a pleasant villa on the top, and then I walked back and am finishing my letters in the consulate. The consul and his wife are both very pleasant friendly people and the vice-consul is a most agreeable youth who was at Winchester and Oxford–long after my time. He showed me the sights yesterday, and in the evening took me to a play called Je ne trompe pas ma Femme [I don’t cheat on my wife]—quite well acted but not less boring than plays usually are in spite of the curtain rising upon a man and woman (illicitly) in bed together. The vice-consul took a fancy to the woman and wanted to go round with me afterwards and talk with her: but I very nobly refused: (a) I am very chaste (b) because the woman was very fat (c) because I hate talking to a woman in a language which they know better than I do. No. Je ne trompe pas ma femme.

I start back again after dinner tonight, and shall breakfast with my chief in Paris, report the results of my mission and then, I fear, back to St Omer. A very pleasant little holiday. I hope I shall find lots of letters from you when I get back.[2]

One wonders: does Asquith regret being parted from his regiment in the trenches as much as he had insisted he would? His silly little “intelligence” mission and this trip to the theater spanned exactly the same time as the proud old Royal Welch (only a few ticks down the seniority/prestige meter from Asquith’s Grenadier Guards) lost three officers to run-of-the-mill trench duels. Pointlessness, safety, comfort, and occasional entertainment as opposed to pointlessness,discomfort, sudden death, and esprit de corps…


Lastly, an update on T.E. Hulme’s martial identity: he was commissioned into the Royal Marine Artillery today, a century back.[3] It has been a strange, herky-jerky sort of war for Hulme. He charged into uniform as a ranker in the sui generis Honourable Artillery Company at the very start, saw some action in the trenches during the first winter, and has been wounded, discontented, out of action, a productive polemicist, and, briefly, an infantry subaltern. Neither fish nor fowl, he will now take his vast energy and unbiddable personality to the big guns…


References and Footnotes

  1. Nothing of Importance, 194/206.
  2. Life and Letters, 249-50.
  3. Ferguson, The... Life of T.E. Hulme, 219.

Siegfried Sassoon in Verse and Prose, Singing Springtime and a Subaltern; Robert Graves and T.E. Hulme Give Thanks to Eddie Marsh

We begin today with Robert Graves, getting back in touch with Eddie Marsh.

15 March 1916

My dear Eddie

It’s rather trying, having to go back into the trenches after a three months’ holiday, especially trenches like this where the two parties are so exceedingly embittered against each other: I have to get used to all the old noises, from the crack! rockety-ockety-ockety-ockety-ockety of a rifle bullet, to the boom! …swish …swish …Grr …GRR! …GRR! …ROAR! of a fifteen-inch shell and there are a lot of new terrors since last December. The specialité here is ‘canisters’, round, tin, barrel-shaped trench-mortars filled with about twenty pounds of the highest explosive. About ten or twelve times as much stuff is handed round now than when I first came out, but I always enjoy trenches in a way, I must confess: I like feeling really frightened and if happiness consists in being miserable in a good cause, why then I’m doubly happy. England’s is a good cause enough and the trenches are splendidly miserable…

Eddie, it seems, has been sending his lost protegé’s books to the young poets at the front.

Thanks ever so much for [Rupert Brooke‘s] Letters from America most of which I had already read in S.S.‘s copy the afternoon I came back here…

Carelessly–or ingenuously–Graves wanders off from the subject of Brooke, first onto the writings of Samuel Butler, whom Graves loves and Brooke quoted, and then onto those of that fellow fusilier, the one who Eddie sent the book to first:

I think S.S.’s verses are getting infinitely better than the first crop I saw, much freer and more Georgian. What a pity he didn’t start earlier! I suspect Gosse of being his retarding influence–‘keeping me to my moons and nightingales and things,’ as S.S. put it himself yesterday–but this is private.

He has written a perfectly ripping one about a mutual friend of ours called Thomas, a subaltern in this battalion whom I believe I told you about before–did you see it?

This is David Thomas, and the poem Graves mentions must be the sonnet “A Subaltern.”

And with the coming words, a worthwhile picture. There are a few old wartime photos of Thomas, looking awkward (to our eyes) because of the high-waisted uniform and half-grown-out haircut. But Sassoon loved Thomas, and with this recently unearthed school photo, taken shortly before the war (the photos were published in news reports of the rediscovery in 2014), one can see why.

A Subaltern
david thomas

David Thomas, in his cricket team photo, no less.

He turned to me with his kind, sleepy gaze
And fresh face slowly brightening to the grin
That sets my memory back to summer days,
With twenty runs to make, and last man in.
He told me he’d been having a bloody time
In trenches, crouching for the crumps to burst,
While squeaking rats scampered across the slime
And the grey palsied weather did its worst.

But as he stamped and shivered in the rain,
My stale philosophies had served him well;
Dreaming about his girl had sent his brain
Blanker than ever—she’d no place in Hell….
‘Good God!’ he laughed, and slowly filled his pipe,
Wondering ‘why he always talked such tripe’.

Robert Graves remembers Thomas–or writes him, memorably–as “simple, gentle, and fond of reading.” But he was indeed an athlete, playing cricket and rugby at school, and, in the First Battalion, inside three-quarter, while David Pritchard played fly-half and Graves full-back.[1]

So Sassoon’s liberties are half-liberties. He first knew Thomas in the summer, at Cambridge, and Thomas indeed had stood, handsome of a summer’s day, with cricket bat in hand.

As for poetic development, well–yes. Sassoon is still his facile, smooth-rhyming old self here, but the blunt wit is coming unsheathed too. If you’re going to go in for hard, jarring turns from England, Summer, and the Breathless Close to rats, rain, and trenches, you needed to have a light, steady hand on the wheel, and Sassoon does. And then there is that grim/naughty reference to Henry Newbolt’s Vitai Lampada–every reader would recognize the reference, in 1916, and the challenge to the pieties of the older generation would be clear. A quick turn, a sestet’s jab–but also the future of Great War poetry laid out before us.

But moods, of course, are moods, and chronologies thick enough will not be bullied into something other than an awkwardly uneven, always-straight line. Here’s what Sassoon was writing, a few miles back, while Graves was praising (but not wholeheartedly, never wholeheartedly) his “perfectly ripping” poetry. I remind the reader (this is great!) that Graves credits himself for Sassoon’s turn away from stuffy, Gosse-ian, pre-Georgian poetic affectation (with considerable justification, but not enough for such complete credit to be taken) toward trench realism.

March 15

Looking across Morlancourt to the west from the hill where our billet stands, at 11.30 on a spring day. The last two days have soaked the earth in pure golden sunlight and warmth, leaving the air warm even when darkness had come and the stars were out. An air-plane drones overhead, and big prosperous clouds move slowly across the blue, trailing skeins and webs of white, flocks of them, far away to the edge of the sky, the furthest ones like pearls in their texture of light and vapour.

…Then I ride out toward Albert and Méaulte, with larks carolling very clear and two solemn black-and-white dogs staring at me from outside an R.E. hut on the ridge where the reserve-trench line is dug. From the slope, looking northwest, the country rises and falls, spare green and drab and brown, to a skyline of trees in tiny delicate silhouette, with occasional dark line of woodland, the white seams of trenches dug in the limestone, and here and there a road winding away to nowhere (or the German territory, unexplored and sinister)…

And everywhere the rural spirit of the neighbourhood has been chased away by shells and soldiers, and supply-sheds and everything else; the very sky has lost its once bird-held supremacy, and isolation; but to-day is fair with clouds in the blue, and something of the spirit of the old countryside shines from the distant scene, as if it strove to assert itself in the early promise of spring, and the flowers would return to find their earth unchanged and the slaughter ended.[2]

Not Gosse’s “nightingales,” but (everybody’s) larks–and caroling, no less. There’s no hard-edged realism here, instead we find realism as the leavening in very prettily written, carefully observant prose. Things are “sinister,” and “chased away,” and there are trenches scarring the land. But without the drama of the sonnet, with its beautiful subaltern foregrounded, there is balance here. Sassoon is loading the image he has evoked, but delicately–we would have to know that he has been writing “ugly” bits and ruminating on his own likely demise in the summer offensive to “know” (or even to guess) that the sinister note is supposed to be the dominant one.

But criticizing poetry is hard; harder still poetry and prose together. And there are the doubly strange yokefellows of war and chronology. Back to Graves’s letter to Marsh, then:

S.S. and I have great difficulty in talking about poetry and that sort of thing together as the other officers of the battalion are terribly curious and suspicious. If I go into his mess and he wants to show me some set of verses, he says: ‘Afternoon Graves, have a drink… by the way, I want you to see my latest recipe for rum punch.’

…We are a disgrace to the battalion and we know it… It’s a great standby to have S.S. here in such society, though one or two of our brother officers are exceptionally nice…

Yours affectionately,


Sassoon, it is clear, was able to maintain his somewhat wary yet enthusiastic relationship with Graves while staying clear of any lasting social taint…


Five days from now T.E. Hulme will be officially commissioned into the Royal Marine Artillery. Which gives me an excuse to read this undated letter into the record. Crossing postal paths! Who doesn’t know Eddie Marsh?

67 Frith Street, Soho Squ.

Dear Marsh

I passed my medical exam today… I should get my commission in about 5 days…

I am very delighted to have got it, and extremely grateful to you. I am sure that I stood no chance whatever of getting it if it hadn’t been for your help. Again thanking you very much for the trouble you have taken.

Yrs. Sincerely

T.E. Hulme[4]

References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 178.
  2. Diaries, 41-2.
  3. In Broken Images, 42-44.
  4. Ferguson, The... Life of T.E. Hulme, 219-220.

Ivor Gurney Receives a Tempting Offer; T.E. Hulme on the Powers and Imagination; Noel Hodgson Sketches One Nameless Death; A Shock of Despair for Vera Brittain

We have an unusual diversity of both style and substance in four pieces today: a private parody, a public hectoring, a tragic sketch, and a bad dream.

First, Ivor Gurney, while moving from one muddy, miserable English training camp to another, received today a well-meaning but hilariously inapt circular. The Royal College of Music, interested to know what it might do to aid its illustrious members in easing any “difficulties in arranging for the maintenance of their professional musical interests during their enforced absence” is forming a sub-committee. This august body may be able to provide for its members “a temporary teacher for their pupils, a reliable deputy to take over their position, or a responsible representative to gather any royalties from publishers that may accrue.”

Given that it had been sent to a penniless  composer who had left the college in order to serve in the ranks, the circular is treated by Gurney as a pleasant joke, an accidental parody of the sort of “bumff” that battalion officers were always receiving–usually during a German barrage–asking them to count the number of boots, missing mess-tin-lids, nearby windmills, or non-conforming Protestants in their platoon. Flipping over the letter, Gurney wrote the following response:

I have experienced no great difficulty in arranging for the maintainance of my professional interests, for at best they were only slightly more than nil. As for requiring a temporary teacher, you could serve me little in this; but for any temporary pupils—a half a guinea a lesson of 10 minutes—I should feel most grateful. Your remark about collecting royalties happens merely to be ironic, and does not give me anything like the pleasure the other offer does—that offer to provide a responsible deputy for my position. My position is at present that of a private in the 2nd/5th Battalion of the Glosters, who are about to move into huts on Salisbury Plain. Any deputy, trustworthy or otherwise, would be most gratefully welcomed and fulsomely flattered, receive all my military decorations and valuable insight into the best methods of mud-cleaning with vocal accompaniment:

Yours truly,
Ivor Gurney[1]


Despite the mud–and the cleaning–Gurney is evidently in good spirits. Some of our more fortunate fellows, however, have managed to parlay their military service into some manner of professional success.

We have today another fusillade against the pacifists from T.E. Hulme, available here. It’s more interesting–and more amenable to summary and excerpt–than most. Hulme avers that pacifists who make arguments about expending so much blood and treasure just to adjust the European balance of power are suffering from a failure of the imagination, on two counts. The first of these is that this war might not be a temporary realignment of the Great Powers but will in fact determine Europe’s status quo for a half-century of more. Historical irony is against our man, here. But Hulme hits a grim jackpot with his other assertion, namely  that pacifists choose not to imagine that true German domination of continental Europe might occur, and what it would mean for the occupied peoples if it did. He can’t really see what is coming–on either the count of the Great War providing so temporary a “solution” or the true horror of German domination–but it sends a chill down the spine nonetheless.

He proves the first point–that small shifts now may prove to shape lasting changes–by means of an arresting, troubling metaphor:

One may illustrate this by a metaphor taken from the war itself. The line of trenches on the Western front has now remained practically unaltered for over a year. The position and shape of this line are the brute facts on which all calculations as to future military action have to be based. The apparently accidental details of its shape have to be taken into account, like the similarly accidental and irregular lines of some great natural obstacle, such as a range of mountains. They form the fixed data of the problem which has to be solved. But though now it seems fixed, there was a short period in which it was plastic; and all the accidental details of an outline which seems irregular as the course of a river are due to known causes operating inside that short period. The salient at one point, the concavity at another are perhaps due to the results of the events of an afternoon, when a general under-estimated the number of men required at one particular point, and over-estimated the number required at another. This provides an accurate parallel for the relation of this war to the future of Europe…


Hulme is unique among our writers in working both as a philosopher and as an author of pro-war broadsides. Noel Hodgson has a somewhat more typical range of literary interests. He writes poetry and he writes short stories (or “prose sketches,” in that they present themselves as observed scenes rather than polished tales) and he has enlisted his sister Stella to serve as a sort of literary agent. Today, a century back, she succeeded in placing his first prose piece,”Friday Afternoon in Flanders,” in The New Witness, where it appeared over the pseudonym “Edward Melbourne.”[2]

“Friday Afternoon in Flanders” is a workmanlike piece, a quiet melodrama of the “tragic slice of life–and death” type. It is unsurprising, but affecting, and not unskillful. Hodgson wishes us to see how simply and purely he observes and writes, but he also shows that he knows how to play the game of journalistic trench fiction. The piece wears its “straight from the front lines” bona fides with ostentatious lightness, but it invites the civilian reader into the world of war by seeking to instruct him (or her–but, really, him: he, the armchair warrior, the collector of borrowed Experience) in the arcana of the trenches. In this case that would be the sounds of–and proper terminology for–different German projectiles.

It is half-past four on Friday afternoon in a village behind the line. The only difference between Friday and the other afternoons is that it rains harder on Fridays, and this is no exception. The mile and a half of street which composes the village is ankle-deep in mud, except where industrious members of a Salvage Company are sweeping it to one side; in these places it is knee deep. Gloomily surveying the prospect is a drenched sentry, who looks as joyless as a teetotal Pacifist. Equally gloomy are six stalwart “grenadiers” in variegated steel helmets and a coating of chalk, who are unloading boxes of “Grenades, Hand” off a G.S. wagon with the contempt bred of familiarity. They are observed dispassionately by the inevitable French peasant, his hands deep in the pockets of Brobdingnagian pantaloons. Up to date the village is still “inhabited,” but the attentions of the Boche have become rather pressing during the past few days, and the commencement of an exodus is marked by an ancient dame who is wheeling two chairs down the street on a co-aeval wheelbarrow, and has succeeded in holding up a section of the Brigade Ammunition Column with its cargo of eighteen-pounder shells. Various small parties of damp infantrymen hurry across the street on their lawful occasions, and a couple of sapper officers are approaching with the “clip-clop” of muddy gum-boots.

Suddenly, all the figures in this scene stiffen into immobility; there is a sound like a giant cane being swished through the air overhead, and from the cottages fifty yards behind the sentry two little yellow mushrooms of smoke and brickdust rise and float away on the breeze.

“Whizz-bangs,” says one of the sappers, “better get under the Church; there’ll be another two in a minute.”

They cross the road and lean against the substantial church wall; immediately opposite the corporal of the
guard has come put and is surveying the damage with a dubious gaze. “Get your sentry under cover, corporal,” calls the sapper, and the sentry retires with alacrity.

The grenadier party, a hundred yards further along, have paid no attention beyond a cursory glance to see where the shells pitched; after all, if one worried over whizz-bangs, no work would ever be done. But the ancient of the wheelbarrow is already in a cellar, and a driver of gunners is pushing her vehicle into the gutter, out of the way of his wagons. The sapper is right; again the swish overhead, and the two mushrooms, this time a hundred yards further on, making the gunner’s horses jump and their drivers get to work with their whips.

At a lumbering trot the column passes up the street. The two sapper officers leave the sanctuary of the church wall and continue their walk in the rain. But before they have made twenty paces, both halt suddenly, and then with one accord leap for the nearest door. There is an ominous sound in the air, deliberate, oily and slow, s-s-swish, s-s-swish—a carpet-slippery sound—followed by a petrifying moment of silence—then “cr-r-rumph” a great cloud of black smoke, the crash of masonry and the air is full of whining fragments.

“Crumps, by Gad,” says the sapper.“There’s a cellar by the guard there,” and the two officers cross the road at a double and join the guard and two cooks in a cellar full of empty bottles under an estaminet. The Ammunition Column break into a clattering gallop, in which they are followed by the G.S. wagon. Through a distant door the last of the grenadier’s is disappearing, indifference shed like a garment, and the wheelbarrow has the scene to itself. Again the distant oily menace is heard; at the critical moment from a cottage door runs a soldier in shirt sleeves, making for the cellar opposite.He seems to move incredibly slowly. Cr-r-umph, and the recurring crash and thunder. When the smoke and dust clear away, a shirt-sleeved crumpled form is lying very still among the mud and rubble. A thin red stream mingles with the rain that washes into the gutter and round the legs of the barrow. In the distance can be heard the clatter of the departing column, and from the outskirts of the village the shattering cough of English howitzers hurling vengeance into some German billet miles away. The rain washes down on the white upturned face; all is peace again, and a grenadier appears in the street lighting the inevitable cigarette. Two stretcher-bearers materialise from somewhere, and bear away the “casualty,” a gloomy procession. “La-la,” says the ancient Frenchwoman, shaking her old head, and plods away with her barrow and the stain of blood on her sabots.

February 17th, 1916.[3]


Finally, today, terrible dreams of departure from Vera Brittain:

Thursday February 17th

It is just a week ago to-day since we said goodbye to Edward on Charing Cross Station. And now he is in the trenches. It is all unbelievable. The days are so long, & they drag so one after another. I woke up to such a shock of despair this morning because I had been dreaming about Roland–I don’t know what it was all about, but I know in the dream I was feeling a desperate longing to see and touch him, and he came in and I did touch his hand–oh! with such a thrill of infinite joy. And afterwards I saw Him standing in a street–Regent Street I think–in khaki, very upright and soldier-like. And then–I awoke to the reality.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, 61-2; War Letters, 54-5.
  2. Zeepvat, Before Action, 150.
  3. Verse and Prose, 48-50.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 316.

T.E. Hulme and Wilfred Owen Scribble On; Another Farewell for Vera Brittain; Siegfried Sassoon is In The Pink

Two of our foremost writers are up to the same old, same old today, while significant changes are upon two others.

T.E. Hulme is again doing double duty The New Age as both a philosopher (expounding further on his recent definition of “Religious Man”) and a pro-war-effort, anti-pacifist columnist. It’s not exacting thrilling reading… and so no more for lack of time.

And Wilfred Owen is, naturally, complaining to his mother of his daily vicissitudes–but at least he does so in a comical olde stylle:

Wednesday [10 February 1916] Hut B 11 [Romford]

Sweete my Mother,

How great peace of heart did your own beloved handwriting give me this morning! Mary’s card came (to the Hut, at least) simultaneously.

Thus I was all yesterday without a word. Very unhappy was I; nor did I find courage to write, even had I time, for I was Hut Orderly and drudged for 13 hours without a break…

This afternoon we all had a Throat Inspection by the Doctor. He passed everybody’s in the Hut but mine: says I have a granulated pharynx. (2 or 3 lumps on the back wall) You remember Dr. Mathews attacked these with Silver Nitrate in 1913. The Medical Officer says I should get them removed… I am going tomorrow morning to see the M.O. privately—to find out whether the army will pay expenses…[1]


Vera Brittain took the day off today, in order to go with her mother to see her brother Edward to his train. After numerous disappointments, reassignments, and “last leaves” that ended with him sent back to camp, Edward Brittain is at last bound for France. Vera will come to write about her emotions at sending her closest confidante off to where his best friend and her fiancé had been so recently and so pointlessly shot down, but she did not write today, a century back, and I thought it might make sense today to let a third party assess the situation.

Victor Richardson, the third of the “Three Musketeers” of Uppingham is now alone in England, his progress toward France delayed by a serious bout of meningitis in 1914. He has neither had Roland’s chance at suffering and a heroic demise nor Edward’s quasi-shameful series of military rejections. He is, for the moment, somewhat like Vera: left behind, and earnestly striving to close the experiential gulf.

On the 8th, Victor had written to Vera that he was “glad for Edward’s sake that he is going out now, as I think he wants to; but it is very difficult to be pleased that anyone one loves is going out there.” He would write again soon with reassurance, having parted with Edward yesterday, a century back, and leaving him “happy and cheerful.” Victor is extremely eager to reassure in any way he can, and tries to wring significance from Edward’s forced cheerfulness:

I am so glad of that, because I am sure all that sort of thing is so absolutely essential in an officer out there.

But this reassurance from a brother officer, to a sister, about her brother, soon turns to the inevitable subject of the vanished member of their circle.

I always think that with Roland, the gaiety and geniality of His personality must have been almost as great an asset as His devotion and thoroughness… Mrs Leighton said when I went there the week before last, that it was very extraordinary that we three should have been such great friends, as we were all so unlike each other. I don’t think I have ever realised the truth of this before. Another strange thing was that when we were all three together we often did not get on at all. It was the more strange because any two of us were linked more closely together by affection for the third. I am afraid I was largely to blame. Edward was always so much cleverer than I was, and I think I may have been a little jealous of him where Roland was concerned…

I hope you do not mind my writing like this about the three of us, but you know that our friendship is the most valued thing I have ever had, or ever will [have], and now that you are His representative it seems natural to talk to you about it.[2]

Vera’s thoughts, too, put Edward in relation to–and, in a way, subservient to–Roland. Upon learning of his pending departure, two days ago, she had written the following:

He would go just now, when we all feel the dreadfulness of it most. Had he gone six months ago, it would not have seemed like it does now; because then there was someone in the world who mattered so much beyond everything. But now–he is all I have, all there is to fall back upon… I cannot feel anything but an utter, utter weariness. There comes a time when nothing has power to move one much. There are limits to one’s capacity for realisation. I have reached those limits.[3]

This moment of despair is, of course, only a moment. She pulled herself together, today, to go with her mother to Charing Cross and see Edward off, “on one of those grey, unutterably dismal afternoons in which a London February seems to specialise.” A bad day. But she will remember Victor Richardson’s consolations–many letters, dinner every other week–with a gratitude that doesn’t often show up in the diary:

the healing balm of his unself-regarding sympathy… His unmitigated kindness, his gift of consolation and his imaginative pity for the sorrows of others, still impress me…[4]


A departure today for Siegfried Sassoon as well. I have been making fun of him from time to time (with help from Robert Graves) for the evident immaturity of his earlier poetry, and, lately, for his mood of cheerful, vapid, but nonetheless doom-expecting lyricism. He has not been writing much poetry, and there was “The Redeemer,” a one-off sally into bad-war negativity, but he has yet to really function as a war poet. There hasn’t been enough war, for one thing, but it’s really more that, while Sassoon has been assiduously posing in a poetical manner and writing beautiful bits of description in his diary along with the occasional verse, he hasn’t yet sat down and done what a poet must do–namely see, and write.

But today, a century back, he wrote “In the Pink,” taking a scene of billets life and a cliché of unforthcoming letters home, and turning it into a blunt, effective bit of trench realism.

In The Pink

So Davies wrote, ‘This leaves me in the pink’.
Then scrawled his name, ‘your loving sweetheart Willie’.
With crosses for a hug: he’d had a drink
Of rum and tea; and though the barn was chilly.
His blood ran warm, for once; he’d pay to spend;
Winter was passing; soon the year would mend.

He couldn’t sleep that night; stiff in the dark
He moaned and thought of Sundays at the farm.
When he’d go out as cheerful as a lark
In his best suit to wander arm in arm
With brown-eyed Gwen, and whisper in her ear
The simple, silly things she liked to hear.

And then he thought; to-morrow we must trudge
Up to the trenches, and my boots are rotten;
Six miles of stodgy clay and freezing sludge.
And everything but wretchedness forgotten.
To-night he’s in the pink, but soon he’ll die;
And still the war goes on; he don’t know why.

February 10[5]

Is the final couplet heavy-handed? Yes. The lapsing into (slight) dialect may not be to every reader’s taste, either. But it certainly is a change–this is apparently a plein air poem, taken down direct from life. Jean Moorcroft Wilson is convinced that Sassoon “was almost certainly inspired by the sight of the Machine-Gun Officer shivering in his blankets on the floor from a combination of alcoholic poisoning and cold feet, though he denied this.” (Meaning, I believe, that Sassoon denied the inspiration, rather than the Machine-Gun officer denying his addiction and/or moral failings.) As well he (whoever “he” is) would–drunkenness, implied fear, and the use of know-nothing contractions do not befit the officer class, whether on a trench floor or in a poem.

This is not a major poetic breakthrough, but it is nevertheless a significant departure from his prior form. Only once had Sassoon really left lyric poetry (usually in its flowery, navel-gazing form) behind, and then to write parody (of Masefield, which, as Graves astutely noted, “turned into rather good Masefield–” but the point stands). Here we have no such guise for the poet, and yet neither is he identical with the subject of the poem.

I’ve expounded upon my pet prosodic theme of “hammer-blows” before, and I find here that Wilson is very close to the same metaphor, writing that the final couplet (which even Edward Thomas has recently put to similar purposes) is used “to drive home the ironic point–” that point being the distance between the simplicity of the soldier and the speaker’s (or poet’s) point of view. It’s really not much of a poem–but, again, it’s a trench scene, it’s fairly honest, and it’s real. It’s the first solid glimpse of an escape route away from lyric solipsism, a first turn down the long mine tunnel toward the unexpected explosion of real war poetry…[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 379-80.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 228-9.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 315-6.
  4. Testament of Youth, 249-55.
  5. Diaries, 59.
  6. See Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 233.

John Bernard Adams Waxes Homeric; Advice for Tolkien: Make Haste, Before You Come Out to this Orgy of Death and Cruelty; T.E. Hulme has no Patience for Pacifists, nor Wilfred Owen for Measles

A nice little bit of trench-gazing again today from Adams, but first, quick updates on three other writers.


T. E. Hulme is going after the pacifists once again in today’s New Age. His latest target? The venerable Bertrand Russell–it’s less effective, really, than when he can get a German stalking horse to chase down.


And good news on the medical front: Wilfred Owen may not have a serious cold after all! Or measles, for that matter.

Wednesday [Postmark 3 February 1916]

I have not given way to Measles, and, am not going to. My cold is much less severe than yesterday: a genuine change sets in. The apparent recovery on Monday was an artificial one, brought about by deceitful drugs. Would I had taken ‘Bromo-Tablets’, and never revived at all!

About 5 men remain well in this hut; and more measley ones are carried off every day…

Always your W.E.O.[1]

A weight off of all of our minds.


John Ronald Tolkien, meanwhile, continues to prepare for active service. Or, rather, his friends would prepare him. Heading toward Tolkien today in the post are two letters pushing publication of his verses. Dora Owen, the wife of a school master who admired Tolkien’s Goblin Feet, wrote yesterday to praise other poems which he had sent her and to suggest potential publishers. She will include one of his poems, eventually, in her anthology of “fairy” verse.

And G.B. Smith of the T.C.B.S.–the fast, if fraying, group of four creatively-minded school friends formed–wrote back to Tolkien with similar urgings: publish your poetry now, because it’s good. He even suggested the same publisher that Owen had mentioned, Sidgwick & Jackson.

But for Smith there is something deeply personal–or, rather, deeply collective–about this desire to see his friend’s work in print. Tolkien is still in training, but Smith is in France, and in danger, and thinking of the Big Push. We have seen over and again how the proximity of death prods young writers to assess the state of their writing–most specifically whether it will have the power to outlive its author. But an unpublished manuscript rarely wins literary immortality… Usually the fretting over such status is a matter for diaries or letters to mum. But some of these soldiers are fortunate in their friends. Smith writes, today, a century back, that

my chief consolation is, that if I am scuppered to-night. . . there will still be left a member of the great T.C.B.S. to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. For the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the T.C.B.S. Death is so close to us now? That I feel–and I am sure you feel, and all the three other heroes feel, how impuissant it is. Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four!

Thus Tolkien should hurry into print, for the sake of his friends and, in anticipation of Smith’s predicament, for his own sake as well: “You I am sure are chosen….. Make haste, before you come out to this orgy of death and cruelty.”[2]

It is easy to see the sympathy here, and the similarity of style. “Orgy” is not quite a Tolkienian word, but then we have “impuissant,” “are chosen,” and “make haste.” There is a little awareness, surely, of the affected diction: these are boys who love Romantic Medievalism–William Morris and all that–and know that they are slightly behind the times, somewhat too pure. But they are sincere–the “death and cruelty” prove it. Like other well-brought-up young men, they volunteered, but not with a foolish eagerness to “scrap” with the Germans and to get some man-hunting in while the season was on. Duty calls, but it is important, in the meanwhile, that the old dreams of writing beautiful things are alive and well. And that they are in sweet, quiet, tough-minded opposition to the war and everything it brings.


But both war and life are in the offing, and many of our writers prefer to live in the moment, and write it, and no other. They are nobly represented today by a stouthearted winter-in-the-trenches piece from John Bernard Adams.

3rd Feb. Another beautiful February morning. Slept quite well, despite rats overhead. O’Brien and Dixon awfully dull and heavy; can’t think why. Everything outside is full of life; there is a crispness in the air, and a delightful sharp shadow and light contrast as you look up Maple Redoubt.

Meditations on coldness, and how it unmans—on hunger, and how it weakens—on the art of feeding and warming, and how women realise this, while men do not usually know there is any art in keeping house at all!

Meditations, too, on the stupidity, slowness, and clumsiness of officers’ servants.

Dixon’s snores make me bucked with life; so, too, this same clumsiness of the servants. Lewis came in just now. ‘Why are you waiting, Lewis?’ I asked. ‘I thought Watson was waiting to-day.’ (This after a great strafing of servants for general stupidity and incompetence. ) ‘None of the others dared come in, sir,’ he replied, in his high piping voice, and a broad grin on his face. Oh! they are good fellows! Why be fed up with life? Why long faces? Long faces, these are the bad things of life, the things to fight against. . . .” So did my vision of the Third Army School bear fruit, I see now!

One of the excellent things about Adams’ memoir is the way in which he cleverly–but not subtly, not misleadingly–makes use of the difference between diary and memoir. By emphasizing his commitment to represent the day as it really felt then, he keeps us aware of the way in which writing-in-the-moment is only completely (let that slide) true in the moment. You need retrospection–memoir, history–if you are to represent a longue durée of more than thirty seconds.

So there’s a bit of drawing-room comedy in the dug-outs today. Until one is reminded of other moments of reality:

Philosophy from the trenches. Does it cover everything? Does it explain the fellows I passed this morning being carried to the Aid Post, one with blood and orange iodine all over his face, and the other wounded in both legs? It always comes as a surprise when the bombs and shells produce wounds and death. . . .

Of course it does. Hundreds and thousands are thrown and dropped and fired for every hit. And it’s especially surprising, perhaps, to the man who cops it. But another scene, tonight, a century back, and an irresistible (for me at least) reverie:

10 P.M. Great starlight. Jupiter and Venus both up, and the Great Bear and Orion glittering hard and clean in the steely sky. I wish I had a Homer. I am sure he has just one perfect epithet for Orion on a night like this. I shall read Homer in a new light after these times. I begin to understand the spirit of the Homeric heroes; it was all words, words, words before. Now I see. Billet life—where is that in the Iliad? In the tents, of course. And the eating and drinking, the ‘word that puts heart into men,’ the cool stolid facing of death, all those gruesome details of wounds and weapons, all is being enacted here every day exactly as in the Homeric age. Human nature has not altered.

Why thank you, Bernard! Here were have, all at once, the basic proposition of history–circumstances change, while human beings remain fundamentally the same–and a major plug for the beating heart of the classics. And we have something, perhaps, to set Adams apart from Smith’s wistfulness, above: Adams is having a lovely war, and he is not merely proposing that human life has continuities that stretch back to Archaic Greece. No: he is suggesting that there is significant cultural continuity between his experience and the representation of warfare in the Iliad. Julian Grenfell would agree. But he–let’s be frank–was a madman. Can we really use Homer?

And did not Homer tell, too, how utterly ‘fed up’ they were with it all? Can one not read between the lines and see, besides the glamour of physical courage, the strain, the weariness, the ‘fed-upness’ of them all! I think so. ‘Νóστος’ is a word I remember so well. They were all longing for the day of their return. As here, the big fights were few and far between; and as here, there were the months and years of waiting.

Very true–amazingly true! And yet. Nostos is most typically invoked to describe the epic longing for home of Odysseus, who spent ten years accomplishing it. There could be nothing more different than the storms and pitfalls of the Odyssey, on the one hand, and the “leave train starts at 6:00, dinner and a show in London” of the current war. Endless epic skirmishing, too, is very different from a war of attrition. It may not be taking Troy, but it is meat and drink for the heroes.

But Adams is not wrong to read “fed-upness” into the heroes of the Greek army: there is sickness in the camp, chafing under bad leadership, longing for something different. But the heroes again, are fed up with unsuccessful war, with war stripped of “decisive” battle–not with war itself. Or is Adams remembering not the heroes but Thersites,[3] one of the little surprises in the Iliad that helps to prove it a great work of literature and not merely a shining reflection of a strange and vanished culture? It is one thing to acknowledge “fed-upness” in description of war and another thing to see it as a challenge to the gory institution itself…

And on them, too, the stars looked down, winking alike at Greeks and Trojans; just as to-night thousands of German and British faces, dull-witted or sharp, sour-faced or smiling, sad or happy, are gazing up and wondering if there is any wisdom in the world yet. Four thousand years ago?[4] And all the time the stars in the Great Bear have been hurtling apart at thousands of miles an hour, and the human eye sees no difference. No wonder they wink at us. And our mothers, and wives . . . the women-folk—Euripides understood their views on war. Ten years they waited. . . .

Must go to bed. D—— these scuffling rats.

This is almost Stapledon-worthy–but for the persistent pleasure in war.

Adams the memoirist now glosses this reverie. Up the Classics!

Frequently I found my thoughts flying back through the years, and more especially on star-lit nights, or on a breathless spring evening, to the Greeks and Romans. Life out here was so primitive; so much a matter of eating and drinking, and digging, and sleeping, and so full of the elements, of cold, and frost, and wind, and rain; there were so many definite and positive physical goods and bads, that the barrier of an unreal civilisation was completely swept away.

This is terrific evidence of the ways in which the widespread education in the classics shaped the outlook of so many of our officers. Tolkien and Smith’s preference for the neo-Medieval is a minority opinion–even a very slight sort of rebellion. But Adams’ reverie under the stars here is just as romantic, just as uncritical as any white knight pose. Good reading, yes. But lousy history.

Which is o.k., because this is evocation, rather than commentary:

Under the stars and in a trench yon were as good as any Homeric warrior; but you were little better. And so you felt you understood him. And here I will add that it was especially at sunset that the passionate desire to live would sometimes surge up, so intense, so clamorous, that it swept every other feeling clean aside for the time.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 378.
  2. Chronology, 77-8, citing Biography, 86.
  3. Thersites is one of the rare "commoners" given a speaking role--even more rare than enlisted men here! In keeping with the straight-ahead Greek notions of aristocracy, he is distinguished both by his low social position and his general awfulness: he is weak, ugly, cowardly. And yet he does manage to speak for the non-heroes, the men who are in the tenth year of their war and can count on little in the way of reward...
  4. No more than three and change...
  5. Nothing of Importance,118-122, 124-8.

Vera Brittain on Recklessness, Trust, and Heroism; Birthday Horror with the Royal Welch; Another Grenade on Kate Luard’s Watch; T.E. Hulme on Modern Man;

We rarely bother, here, with historical events on the grand political scale–what does a humble Tommy or an overburdened company officer care about such celestial epicycles? But two such things today will have direct effects on the serving troops–one relatively minor, but immediate; the other very large but slow to be realized.

Following the decision made by the war cabinet in December, the Military Service Act was passed today, a century back, by parliament. Conscription of unmarried men aged eighteen to forty will now come into effect on March 2nd. One assumes that the punning date is coincidental, but nevertheless: those who would like to imagine that they marched first had best volunteer in the coming weeks.

And as for the immediate grand political event on the calendar, well, today was the Kaiser’s birthday.

Nothing says “bizarre medieval war of personal umbrage mixed with modern mass war of attrition” quite like celebratory dynastic bombardments unconnected to any strategic intentions. Our three Royal Welch officers are all in the countryside with the First Battalion or on various courses, but Dr. Dunn reports on the carnage:

The Kaiser’s birthday… German guns are more active even than yesterday, when we had 14 casualties… The Archie [anti-aircraft] guns on both sides were blazing away at the aeroplanes, and their shell-splinters rained on us this morning. One whir-r-r ended in a thud and a cry, “oh,” from a seated man. His wrist was broken. He had barely exclaimed when half a dozen men scrimmaged for the nose-cap that hit him, and two grovelled between his feet to get it. There were those who collected nose-caps and driving-bands as connoisseurs collect. Most men in their early days were interest in souvenirs; some were easily satisfied, not a few lost their lives souvenir-hunting.

Dunn is ostensibly a chronicler, and generally a decorous one. But the placement of this anecdote–and the dour head-shaking at the antics of souvenir-hunters–becomes a short, sharp drawing-out of a historical lesson, a proposed imbuing of “chance” and horror with a particular, dire meaning: do not rejoice in the blighty wound or the near-miss, because cruel Providence may only be sighting-in her guns. Dunn’s narrative continues:

Relieved at night… This has been an uncommonly active tour, our casualties greatly exceed the weekly average. Dewhurst, returning off leave, met his company stretcher-bearers carrying down one of the dead; following them was a man with something in a sand-bag. As money, letters, and other personal possessions were taken off the dead and sent home, Dewhurst asked, “Are these his effects?”

“No, sir, it’s his pal”; for of a second victim of the same shell only parts of two limbs could be found.”[1]


Dr. Dunn’s approach bears an interesting comparison here to Sister Luard’s. If sudden death from shellfire is the typical numinous, terrifying incident of front-line service, then accidents play much the same role a few miles back. Last week, Luard reported on the aftermath of local children playing with an unexploded shell. Yesterday, it was grown men, and serious play, with hand grenades:

Wednesday, January 26th. We’ve been busy with a bombing accident to-day. A sergeant-major was killed, and two officers, and two men wounded, who have now been operated on. The baby has gone home, but the boy is still here.

Thursday, January 27th. One of the bombed men died this evening on the operating table. He was the one who threw it: it exploded in two seconds instead of five, when it had only left his hand a yard.

Luard, writing a diary rather than a chronicle, nevertheless resists the lure of interpretation. A faulty fuse–shoddy work? Lloyd George’s fault? Random chance? Cruel nemesis? The ordinary, well-spread-about cruelty of war?

Probably the last. But there is work to be done.

The poor little officer who got badly bombed went down on the train this morning dressed in bandages. He is an Australian, and knows no one in England, so I gave him G.’s address at the last minute in the Ambulance; perhaps she can get someone to hold his hand a little, when he gets to London. He clutched the envelope gratefully.[2]


T.E. Hulme is doing double duty in today’s New Age, writing both “War Notes” against the arguments of prominent pacifists and “A Notebook,” in which he continues to contextualize his two favorite modern philosophers–Moore and Husserl–in light of the historical development of philosophy’s conception of humanity’s place in the world. Hulme explains himself a bit better in this piece than in several prior ones, and the gist of his argument is that there have been three anthropological stages: first there was medieval, “religious” man; then there was the Renaissance, and “humanist” man. Now modernity is upon us, and Husserl and Moore are taking us toward a new, modern man. Toward–but not yet all the way there. So far, I think, philosophical summary may enlighten us about the life of the writing soldier… but I’ll let any enthusiasts of modern philosophy and political invective follow the link if they desire more detail, and head back down into quotidian, human-scale misery.


Vera Brittain wrote to her brother Edward, today, a century back, telling him all she has recently learned about the circumstances of Roland Leighton’s death. It’s painful reading.

three musketeers

The Three Musketeers, from left, Edward Brittain, Roland Leighton, Victor Richardson (Oxford University)

1st London General Hospital, 27 January 1916

I enclose this enlargement from the camp group. Don’t you think it is very good? I do; it gives an excellent idea of all of you. Roland looks like a desperate poet; Victor is very much Sir Galahad gazing after the Holy Grail; and you are–just you, with a very slight touch of the bedside manner. Anyhow, I am glad the only photo of the Three Musketeers is worth having. I have sent a copy to Mrs Leighton, also to Victor.

I got two letters yesterday which, except in the sentiments they expressed, were a striking illustration in contrasts. One was from Roland’s servant; the other from a Captain Adshead who was a subaltern in the same company as Roland w hen they first went to the front.They seem to have been great friends, for although as far as I remember Roland never mentioned him, yet He took him a good deal into His confidence & showed him my photograph.

Captain Adshead is engaged too, so perhaps that was the reason, & it is the reason also why he sympathises so much with me. The servant’s letter is very quaint & pathetic; I have at the moment sent it on to Mrs Leighton, but you shall see it when I get it back. He had been His servant ever since He joined the Worcesters, & had accompanied Him everywhere even to the VIIth Corps Headquarters & the Somersets. The man seems very much distressed & lost without Him. He says he loved Him dearly & that they were such good friends he feels he has lost a brother, & can’t believe He is really gone but that He must be only away on long leave. He gives all the details of His death, but I knew them mostly before & the letter is valuable to me more as a tribute to Him than as a source of fresh information. He does say, though, that in his opinion Roland ought never to have risked going out in front of the line as there was bright moonlight that night & the Germans, who were only 100 yards away, must have been able to see Him with ease. That gives one a little light. Somehow it is all too like Roland in his more rash moods. One can believe that He had been safe so long & trusted in his own luck so entirely that He was beginning to trust it a little too much. And He should have been so careful that last day of all. Yet it is so like Him to have allowed recklessness to overcome prudence just the one time it would be fatal, & to be all the readier to take the risk just when it was greatest…

This sounds right–the “trusting his luck” bit. But nothing could be more futile than an inquest of the rational, irrational, and non-rational calculations an officer under such varying pressures might make. A dead officer.

Robert Graves has a famous bit about calculating what risks to take when, but that–like this–is ex post facto streamlining of a fraught mental process, using conceptual short-cuts (the mathematics of probability; “trust” and “luck”) to parse a decision that cannot be completely penetrated by the conscious efforts of even the very same mind, later on. To say nothing of the questing intelligence of grieving survivors–these decisions, more than most, are a black box, drowned fathoms deep.

In her first reaction–in yesterday’s diary–to these letters, Vera allows herself darker speculation, for a moment:

And I ask myself in anguish of mind “Was it heroism entirely–or was it partly folly?” Certainly at points the two qualities come close. Some people, such as Father, would call all heroism folly; and, in fact, all heroism is to a certain extent unnecessary from a purely utilitarian point of view. No one would have accused Roland of shirking if he had remained in the 4th Norfolks & been now at Lowestoft instead of in a grave in France.

Well, this we have seen from the officers’ point of view, too–Raymond Asquith recently, for one. And although their families are very different and there is a significant age and class gap, Roland might have proved to be very like Asquith. Then again, Roland seemed to enjoy his brief service with the staff, while Asquith professes to disdain his…

And yes: no one would have openly accused him of shirking. But then again many young men would think less of him all the same. And that would rankle. And Vera knows him well enough:

But heroism means something infinitely greater & finer, if less practical, than just avoiding blame, & doing one’s exact stereotyped duty & no more–& “heroism in the abstract” was His ideal. But during the night–& I scarcely think in the after-time I shall quite be able to describe just what sufferings have been mine during these dreadful nights, I thought of the Heroism, whether touched with recklessness or not; that caused Him to go out in front of the line into the bright moonlight & led to the sacrifice of all that meant so much in the world, all that was so exceptional and brilliant & fine. And I looked out of the ward window to the tall church-spire & to the dark banks of clouds with rifts between them of bright moonlit sky, & cried in the bitterness of my heart “Dearest-oh Dearest! Why did you?”[3]

This terrible pain is muted in today’s letter. This is anticlimax, but perhaps some readers will find, in an echo of Vera’s process, relief in forensic detail. So I will close by excerpting a good deal of what remains.

Captain Adshead’s letter is long & perfectly charming. I will quote some of it to you. . . ‘I was returning from leave when I heard the awful news–my thoughts at once were of you and his mother . . . I wish I had been with the battalion at the time for then I might have seen every detail and perhaps been able to tell you of every little thing that happened until he died. But I have enquired of several people including our medical officer, who got him away. From each I found out that he was cheery up to the last–he was as conscious as I am now. He said he was in no pain at all–only cold–and by and by he said he felt comfortable–and the doctor tells me that he certainly did not think he was going to die. He talked to everyone around him quite in the ordinary way.

‘Then he was taken to the hospital and after several hours was operated upon & seemed to survive it well. What happened afterwards I cannot quite understand–it is a technical reason that I do not understand. As far, as I can find out, he seemed comfortable but very weak–though perfectly conscious and still under the same impression that he was not badly hurt. And then it seems he passed away quite quickly & without word or warning of any kind . . . If only I had been here I might have been able to find out something or he might have given me some message for you. But I can find none at all. I hope you will take comfort when you know that his was not a lonely death–that all the officers & men felt it so keenly. Do not feel that he was lonely–& yet he must have been, for my last wish before I die would be to have my mother and my girl with me before I went.’ . . .

I really think now we have found out pretty nearly all about His end that is to be gleaned. He obviously had not the slightest suspicion–and one can scarcely even blame the doctor for not telling Him as they appear to have been startled by what happened.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 178-9.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 38-9.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 309.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 225-7.

Siegfried Sassoon a High-Hoped Youth; Raymond Asquith Contemplates Poodlehood; T.E. Hulme Harries an Aesthete; Vera Brittain Writes Roland Leighton’s Remains

T. E. Hulme is at it again today, a century back. His “War Notes” column in The New Age–available here–sardonically proposes taking on “artistic” pacifist writers one by one. The target of Hulme’s ire today is “a particularly foolish specimen of the aesthete” who “has written a book on Art” and, what’s worse, a pamphlet on “Peace at Once.” The target is Clive Bell, already an influential art critic (and brother-in-law of Virginia Woolf), whom Hulme excoriates for his wealth and snobbery.

The basic tenets of pacifism Hulme swats aside without engaging, homing in instead (nastily, but effectively) on the contradiction between Bell’s lionizing of the artistic impulse and his refusal to imagine that some men may truly believe that the national cause is worth dying for. To pity the poor non-intellectual who volunteered and died is obnoxious, now, to Hulme, who is beginning to be converted into a fierce sort of democrat–the proper emotion, whatever one might believe about the futility of the war–is a “generosity of mind” that should propel the artist into the ranks alongside his countrymen. (To a pacifist, of course, this is not a democratic impulse or evidence of cowardice resisted. It is a surrender of principle to social anxiety,to a herd impulse to destruction.)

Hulme, essentially, is angry that someone who chooses not to fight can condescend to soldiers while praising the higher instincts of certain modern artists. And it is personal, of course. Of the urge (positive, in his view) to fight because less privileged men are suffering in the trenches, he writes:

It was probably a reason of this kind that made the sculptor Gaudier Brzeska go back to France. It is sickening to think that a man like this who showed promise of becoming a considerable artist should be killed, while this wretched artistic pimp still survives.

Hulme’s friend Gaudier-Breszka had, of course, been killed in June, after returning home to France to take up arms. There is more than one way for guilt and anger to shape a man’s feelings about the war.


An interesting juxtaposition, now, between the tough-talking Hulme–who was booted from Cambridge and spent last winter as an enlisted man in the trenches–and the impeccably sardonic Raymond Asquith. It is surely the sign of a card-carrying Coterie member that he can joke with the mother of his two young daughters about the necessity of dying a fighting officer’s death.

13 January 1916

. . ..I need a prop just now for my tottering self-respect. It seemed to me that my only point (if any) was to be a potential corpse. And now I am merely a barrister without a fee, and about to become a poodle without a muffin. However, as you say, now’s the time. I certainly should have been very much bored by 6 weeks of steady drill…

If this project has brought little enough joy down through the intervening century, it still chafes the cockles to know that I may have played some small part in bringing the phrase “poodle without a muffin”–by which Asquith seems to mean being a non-fighting soldier (or de-regimented officer) on the staff–down into the 21st century.

The Court Martial is fixed for next Monday, the 17th. I don’t yet know where. Ian Colquhoun came back yesterday–rather a sweet man of his type–arrogant, independent and brave. He is quite indifferent about his case and hardly interested, enough to talk about it.

Ah, well. It sounds like he’ll need a good lawyer. And, by the way, Asquith’s contempt for the Gael is not limited to the Welsh:

I got sadly bored during my 2 days with the Scots Guards–a dreary mess…  [the commander was] quite without vitality or interest: the others were a very Scotch doctor, a very Scotch adjutant, and a still more Scotch minister…[1]


Siegfried Sassoon, meanwhile, is as happy as a muffin-sated poodle. He considers himself to be certain, come spring, of a glorious death, and he is still living the happy marriage of his “indoor” and “outdoor” selves: lots of cross-country riding followed by some “fine writing:”

To-day I rode out about 2.30 in half-a-gale of wind from the north, and the huge gloom of a storm driving across the valley. As I went down the hill to Warlus I saw a very noble picture. A rampart of approaching rain, slate-coloured, blotting the plain; the foreground striped with vivid green and rich umber, lit with a gleam of sun, and a grand arc of iridescence spanning the storm. A distant farm-cart with two horses, one dark, one white, was the one thing needed to make the whole suitably impressive—and it was there—the miniature of toil, so tiny—and the cloud sky high, so grand.

Riding on toward Belloy the heavens were divided, the goldfringed darkness of the storm on either side, and between them the glory of windswept blue; it was like the thought of two nations divided by war. And then the road climbs and becomes the street of Belloy—ramshackle houses, white-walled, their roofs patched with green moss—here and there a touch of pale peacock-blue from a door or shutter. And four solemn geese had the village to themselves; four wise birds, footing slow, contented in their survival of the Christmas feast, most seemly in their gait, these matrons. As I turned in my saddle to look back at them, two children in blue had run out at the sound of clattering hoofs and were staring after me. Still was the street, sheltered from the gusty afternoon. At the hill-top the chateau, grey-roofed and snowy-walled, showed me its many windows, standing among trees—no face was there to see me pass. Only a bronze lion guarding the well in the centre of the tangled lawn. Huge clouds were flying in glory as I rode home through the wooded ridges between. Magpies watched me from a wood.

The country looked wild and lonely and splendid. A silver spinney of graceful birches welcomed me like a brother, as I rode among them; my heart spoke to them as the wind speaks to their answering boughs. How strange it is that I came to the war prepared to suffer torments and to see horrible sights; and I have found hours in heaven, and noble counties at my feet, and love inhabiting the hearts of men. Somewhere Hell awaits me, but it will be a brave place, where no devils are ramping.

As old Bridges says:

If thou cans’t Death defy.
If thy Faith is entire.
Press onward, for thine eye
Shall see thy heart’s desire.

Beauty and love are nigh,
And with their deathless quire
Soon shall thine eager cry
Be numbered and expire.[2]

Not terribly subtle, is it, to be quoting Robert Bridges’ poem, entitled (and addressed to) “O youth whose hope is high?” And it’s typical of Sassoon’s half-innocence to be quoting–with faux-familiarity–the High Victorian sentiments of the reigning Poet Laureate while casually disregarding the Christian context. He’ll take a little scenery, a little beautiful doomed youth, a light disinterest for the meaning of war or salvation… and trot on toward a vividly evoked sunset.


Finally, today, a terrible confrontation for Vera Brittain.

January 13th, Keymer

I arrived at a very opportune though very awful moment. All R.’s things had just been sent back from the front and they were all lying on the floor. I had no idea before of the aftermath of an officer’s death, or what the returned kit, about which so many letters have been written in the papers, really meant. It was terrible.

Another cruel after-irony of the experiential gulf. She tried–so hard–to be there with Roland, to learn what it was really like, to understand. But faced with the physical remains of Roland, she realizes that she too has been an uncomprehending reader.

Mrs Leighton and Clare were both crying as bitterly as on the day we heard of His death…

Everything was damp & worn & simply caked with mud. All the sepulchres and catacombs of Rome could not make me realise mortality & decay & corruption as vividly as did the smell of those clothes. I know now what he meant when he used to write “this refuse-heap of a country” or “a trench that is nothing but a charnel-house”…

All that was left of his toilet luxuries came back–a regular chemist’s shop–scented soap, solidified Eau-de-Cologne etc. We no longer wondered why he wanted them…

This is awful (terrible, horrible–it drags us down into the muck of sad, leached adjectives) but for Vera it was clearly important, and terribly necessary. As she so often used to do when writing to Roland, she will rework and extend her diary entry in a long letter, tomorrow, to her brother Edward.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Life and Letters, 234.
  2. Diaries, 34-5.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 305-6.

Ford Madox Hueffer is Under Attack; T. E. Hulme on an Army of Conscripts, and Incompetents; Wilfred Owen Volunteers an Unwillingness to Volunteer

Late last year the redoubtable Ford Madox Hueffer (morte Ford, but not just yet) and his partner Violet Hunt had released a book of stories. Today, a century back, he suffered “the most vicious personal attack ever made in print” against him. Which, given his outspokenness, pushy Modernism, and general delight in provocation, is saying something. So let’s quote from the review by one J.K. Prothero, writing in The New Witness:

Mr. Ford Madox Hueffer has written a series of stories under the title of Zeppelin Nights; and Miss Violet Hunt has collaborated with him. There are flashes of Miss Hunt’s genius dispersed throughout the volume, and one is sensible that she has made a heroic attempt to leaven the mass of Mr. Hueffer’s dull offensiveness. But the fugitive gleams of patriotism supplied by the lady are not sufficient to redeem the ponderous panic of the co-author. It is generally supposed that Mr. Hueffer is not exactly of pure European extraction, and this book certainly tends to confirm such impression. The following lines, descriptive of London cowering in the throes of Zeppelinitis, seem to indicate that the writer’s fear of bodily hurt is more acute than one associates with men of our blood…

Yes, the reviewer is insinuating that Ford Madox Hueffer is a poltroon and a coward, and that this fact is due to his Jewish blood. Even in 1916, as we will see, there was a general perplexity about whether to respond first to the errors of fact, extrapolation, or interpretation.

One could point out that Hueffer is not Jewish, but rather of Christian English and German “extraction.” Or one could ask why an English writer’s interest in Continental writing (Hueffer, unusually, read several languages, and had not only lived in Germany and France but collaborated with Conrad–a Pole, by Jove!) should lead, as it apparently does, to an attempt to slander him as “not exactly of pure European extraction.” Or one could query the leap from the action or atmosphere of a book to an attack on the personal courage of its author. But this would be the most hopeless course, surely–is this reviewer someone with whom we would want to take up the critical question of distinguishing an author and his work? No, and not least because he does a hilariously bad job of it.

After a long quotation and a lengthier disquisition on the shamefulness of Hueffer’s portrayal of Londoners–he shows them expressing a fear of death-by-Zeppelin rather than totally committed to demonstrating their sang froid–Prothero lets us in on the author’s secret: Hueffer’s familiarity with the “non-European” sections of London has taught him what true cravenness is, and thus enabled him to pull of the authorial feat of traducing honest (fictional) Englishmen… such committed bigotry needs more skillful expression if it’s not going to simply look silly.

But the next bit is sillier. Prothero turns to the identity of the character “Serapion Hunter…” and somehow digs himself into a deeper hole:

The end of the book, however, shows us Serapion Hunter, the teller of these tales–devised, according to Mr. Hueffer, to find ‘mental rest… just as the inhabitants of that old Italian city of Florence found refuge in the dreary institution of the Decameron,’ grown tired of living in a cellar garnis; and having decided that death is by no means the most terrible thing in life, shaking off his paralysis forthwith enlists–possibly under the influence of Miss Hunt. This is quite obviously the European view of things. The view, which is quite as clearly un-European, insists that the horror of the ‘Night Hag’ ‘slowly upspreads from its nodus on the panting human breast where she squats and crouches… until moon and stars and all clarity of thought and vision are blotted out under the loathsome burden. . . . We lay helpless and could only long in our bitter abjection, for the dispelling crow of the cock, for the gay noises of dawn.’

For this condition which Mr. Hueffer aptly describes as ‘abjection,’ there is only one cure.[1]

Right. Or, no–wrong, and idiotic, and disgusting. But still, right: “Serapion Hunter” is an obvious authorial stand-in. But not for Miss Hunt.

Ford shepherded the book press-ward but left Hunt to see it published. He, despite being unmilitary, overweight, and much older than most subalterns (he’s forty-two) has accepted a commission in an infantry line regiment.

Rarely has a hatchet job seemed so perfectly miscalculated. It’s a slip and a fall and a thunk and a quiver in a nearby door, et voila, the targeted adversary can lay his hand on a most convenient weapon, and return fire…


After all that, the pugnacious political philosophy of T.E. Hulme is almost weak tea. But he was at it again, today, in the New Age, writing both as “North Staffs” and under his own initials. In the former piece–both are available here–he rather acidly makes a united discussion of the incompetence of the British army (specifically in the Dardanelles campaign), the unwillingness of the political leadership to shake up the old institution for the sake of greater efficiency, and the recent decision to begin conscription. Hulme takes the peevish, principled, and practical point of view that it is unfair to both suddenly introduce conscription where it has never existed before and to expect these new soldiers-by-compulsion to serve in a hidebound 19th century army, swollen to monstrous size. Then, ten pages later, the insubordinate subaltern is more openly discussing G.E. Moore, Husserl, and the possibility of a “Neo-Realist” middle path in philosophy…


Finally, today, Wilfred Owen. Who, come to think of it, stands in somewhat amusing juxtaposition to the non-poltroon subaltern of the Welsh Regiment and the ex-grunt of the Royal Artillery Company–perhaps our two most heavy-hitting writers currently in uniform, and two who could very easily have escaped the combat they have endured and/or will endure.

Owen, whose relatively late decision to volunteer now must seem like a near-run thing (for all those who enlist now will be viewed as trying to escape the looming ignominy of the just-passed conscription law), is still not eager to go.  This is one of the first times we’ve heard of one of our young officers seeking a middle ground–not between Nominalism and Platonic Idealism but between their personal military analogues: an absolute avoidance of war or an earnest quest for the quickest route to the greatest danger. Owen, rather reasonably, objects that he would prefer to learn his trade before beginning it:

Thurs. [Postmark 6 January 1916] [Postmark Romford]

…You may be surprised to know that I had a Commission offered to me today. Are you yet more surprised to know that I refused it: Lancashire Fusiliers, just going into Fighting Line. And I haven’t fired my Musketry Course. I can tell you no more. A list of names was read out, and we said Yes or No according to our feelings!

…Your W.E.O[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. See Ford Madox Ford, The Critical Heritage, I 122-4.
  2. Collected Letters, 375.

C.E. Montague Larks About in a Rat’s Nest–Golumptious! T.E. Hulme Takes on German Nationalist Propaganda

C. E. Montague, sent to France despite not being completely recovered from his grenade accident, is beginning to show his age. All the route marching in France has worn him down, and he has twice spent time in hospital. Back to duty, he has now been assigned to serve as a Provost-Sergeant (i.e. part-time military policeman) at a base depot, and the threat of being classified “permanent base,” i.e. unfit for front line duty, hangs over him. But this 48-year-old non-com is still kicking, and still even has a young man’s romantic appreciation of war:

Dec. 30, 1915

We crocked sergeants had a great Christmas feast in our little mess here. As I speak bad French, and most of the British army speaks none at all, I had to do the Xmas shopping…

It is lovely to see our big guns, hidden like larks’ nests on the open face of the country, banging away at the Germans…

Montague even hymns the beauty of seeing German aircraft driven off by British AA fire, and of the lights of the line at night:

Every few minutes the whole sky glows out with a sort of outward pressure of swelling light, when a star shell bursts; and then the illumination pauses a moment, at its climax, and contracts inwards again. Golumptious. The one thing of which no description given in England has given any true measure is the universal, ubiquitous muckiness of the whole front. One could hardly have imagined anybody as muddy as everybody is. The rats are pretty well unimaginable too, and, wherever you are, if you have any grub about you that they like, they eat straight through your clothes or haversack to get at it as soon as you are asleep. I had some crumbs of army biscuit in a little calico bag in a greatcoat pocket, and when I awoke they had eaten a big hole through the coat form outside and pulled the bag half through it, as if they thought the bag would be useful to carry away the stuff in. But they don’t actually try to eat live humans…[1]

A lark’s nest and a hungry rat; no, a rat’s nest and a lark–Golumptious!

One senses that Montague is hamming it up a little, indulging his boyish nature for the benefit of the friend he writes to… so we can chalk this up to high-spirited humor rather than simple-minded excitement at the proximity of Real War. Yet an old liberal journalist in uniform might be thought to feel the tug of some sort of critical reflex…

And then there is our younger, already wounded, sort-of-radical-modernist, sort-of-conservative ex-soldier (officer) journalist, T. E. Hulme. Writing in today’s The New Age, Hulme is war-noting rather than philosophizing, but the two writerly poses, wouldn’t you know it, seem to be mutually influential. “T.E.H.” the philosopher and “North Staffs” the military commentator are working over some of the same ideas.

Most of us who read both pacifist and warlike literature experience a strange vacillation. When we read the pacifists we begin to understand the reactionaries, and when we read the reactionary exaltation of the heroic virtues, we begin to look for the first time with sympathy on the flat rationalism which takes individual comfort to be the principal aim of existence. After examining pacifist democracy at close quarters we begin to play with the notion that the anti-democratic theory of the State may be true, but further acquaintance with this again drives us back to the flattest individualism. In the end, however, the war puts an end to this vacillation. In a way, which I shall roughly describe below, war brings precision and definiteness to our political ideas, and so does us some slight service.

It will not come as a shock to those who have been reading him to learn either that Hulme has a low opinion of the human ability to draw a straight logical line from core beliefs to the actual actions we take (in this he anticipates a prominent trend in current neuro-pop-science, or, otherwise, exercises a formalized but nonetheless common and timeless good sense) or that he is willing to explain our poor transferal of abstraction into action by means of a foray into formal logic.

After the logicking has been concluded, Hulme follows up with a dense but quite interesting assault on German apologists–the sort who would argue that Germany is fighting from freedom from British commerical-imperial tyranny. Hulme sets out to show that their defense of “German ideals” (as well as their critique of British democracy, an angry elaboration of the old “nation of shopkeepers” canard) fails because it attempts to excuse–or even celebrate–militaristic aggression by cloaking it in a philosophically elevated but essentially bone-headed conception of “the state.”

One of the greatest benefits of our “commercial” spirit is that any Englishman would at once feel this conception of the State and its consequences to be rubbish. Amid many foolish recruiting appeals, I do not remember one which asked us to die “for the State.” I never met a soldier who ever thought of this war as anything but a stupidity. . . a necessary stupidity, but still a stupidity. .  .  (So much so that he is even reconciled to the necessary stupidity of generals.) And this I think is the greatest justification of our attitude that I know.

There is good argument here, although the target author, Werner Sombat, a prominent German Economist and sociologist, seems to be a fairly paperish tiger. There is some laughable stuff, here, as Hulme quotes his adversary at length.

“The commercial people cannot understand war. The most disgusting example of this is the praise given to
the Captain of the ‘Emden,’ for sportsmanlike conduct. On another occasion, some imprisoned Englishmen
offered to shake hands with our soldiers like footballers after a match, and were astonished when they got what they deserved, kicks on a certain part of the body…
“We must get rid of this poison of sport in our midst. We must cultivate only those games which prepare us for war… Away with Tennis, Football, and Krikett!
“So must we Germans (like the Greeks) go through the world to-day with proud, elevated heads, in the certain conviction that we are God’s people. As the German bird, the Eagle, soars high above all other animals, so must the German feel to all the other peoples, whom he sees at infinite depths below him.”
Then Hulme breaks in to torch the tottering paper tiger:
In this breathless silence one can almost hear the rustling of the “von” as it drops from the princely heavens on our energetic author.

So Werner Sombart looks like a fulminating German idiot, bent on suffocating all natural individualism and replacing it with a proto-Fascist assertion of individual identity with the state. Propagandistic mischief managed. But then historical irony–our knowledge of what Germany will become, after this war–drains the laughter into grim silence:

“We have no desire to accumulate possessions… We leave that to the English. But when it is necessary to extend our land possession to find room for our increasing population, we shall take what is necessary for this purpose. We shall set our Foot on places which strategically are necessary for the preservation of our untouchable strength… for Germany is the last dam against the filthy stream of commercialism.”

And, of course, there are others closer to home than the British on whom to blame the “commercial” contamination of Germany’s pure soul… and… yup, there it is. A brief skip around the internet confirms the fact that Sombart, in 1934, will link the British commercial spirit with the Jewish spirit and declare it to be the antithesis of the German ideal…

There’s a later, anti-Nazi book, apparently, but allow me to tentatively claim–having read absolutely nothing of Sombart’s work other than what has been presented by Hulme–that this is a very good example of… well, what? Why theorists shouldn’t write war books? How crusaders always turn on the Jews? Yes… but, more fundamentally, it’s a particularly egregious example of a broader pair of truths: war pollutes philosophy, and propaganda in service of national aggression will always be morally flawed.

Ah, but isn’t Hulme also a philosopher writing propaganda? Yes. But either he’s better at it, or the British motivations in this war are purer (less impure) and ethically superior to the German. Or, you know, both. Hulme is not a war-monger, as the last quotation shows. Or, at least, he is careful to temper what might appear to be war-mongering. What should have been a bluff opinion piece on how to win the war (like the previous efforts of “North Staffs”) has become an essay that only indirectly addresses why it is important to do so. It seems, in fact, more interested in teaching a lesson on the good and bad applications of pure thought to political reality.

This is good writing, but it also may represent a change in Hulme’s own beliefs. He has always been an enfant terrible, a brutally effective haranguer, and an instinctive reactionary. Now, with his first-hand experience of the war, he has come to doubt the wisdom of charging abstract-thought-first into extreme and untenable forward political positions. In another section of today’s essay, where he explains how various assumptions about the nature of the state are proving incorrect, he declares that

I believe that this war has greatly, to their own surprise, converted many men to democracy.

If one accepts–as we tend to do, these days–his insistence that pacifism and democracy need not go hand in hand (those were the days!) then it is tempting to conclude, with his biographer Robert Ferguson, that “it is his own conversion, and his own surprise, to which he is referring.”[2]

References and Footnotes

  1. C.E. Montague, 120-1.
  2. The... Life of T.E. Hulme, 240.

Bim Tennant Wants Cigarettes and Family Credit; T. E. Hulme Wants Younger Generals and an Objective Philosophy

Thursday, 16th December, 1915

Darling Moth’,

I got your letter last night, thank you so much for it… The Company is very short of cigarettes and I should be very glad indeed if you would send me some (3000 or so?) Woodbines for them…

I am reading Mademoiselle de Maupin which is very good, I think. Osbert and I are dining at the Hotel de
Ville to-night. I believe the food is good…

We shall (D.V.) go back to trenches on 20th for Christmas… Osbert is not very well, I hope he hasn’t got pleurisy. Being unmonied when in London, I bought divers (i.e. waterproof) articles at Cordings, and put them down to you. I hopes this is “a’wight?”

…Darling Moth’, all my love to you.

Your devoted Son,



Sweet nothings, then, from Bimbo the Guardsman Returned, but fulminations from perhaps our least cutesy writer. T.E. Hulme is a serious man for serious times, and his writing for The New Age is naturally authoritative and deliberately aggressive. Today’s topic (available here) is why, exactly, the British officer’s first experience–his first forceful deprivation of his volunteer’s innocence, that is–is to discover that his army seems so hopelessly unprepared.
What is the reason for this? It will not do to explain this by saying that the Germans are naturally a more ingenious people than we are. The facts of the history of industrial inventions prove the contrary. The facts, at any rate, are sufficiently obvious, and, in this respect, the war has been a process of education for the simple Englishman. Everything seems to conspire to produce the impression on his mind that in these things we must be naturally inferior to our enemies. It is the only conclusion which seems possible for him to draw from the data presented.
Take the case of the simple subaltern going out to the front for the first time-at the end of last year shall we say–with his head full of the ideas of Germany presented to him by his daily newspaper. The first sight of the actual front will be at night; for troops, except in very rare cases, do not march inside the two-mile area behind the trenches in daylight. They might be “spotted” and get shelled. The first actual sign of war that he will see will be right along a very long horizon (for the front is for the most part very flat)–a constant succession of rising and falling rockets and “star” shells. He will see this long before he gets to a distance when he can hear occasional bursts of musketry firing. The officer who described this to me said he thought this the most depressing sight he had ever seen, particularly when it was in the drizzling rain. The path of a rocket is itself as pure form very expressive of melancholy. It rises only to fall hopelessly again, a constant state of “coming down like a stick.” When a rocket goes off on a fine night at a fair, the excitement of the light, and the upward rush, to some extent weakens the depressing effect of the actual curve described. But when it is in drizzling rain this is eliminated, and we get to the depressing effect of the curve in all its purity. No greater expression of hopeless futility can be imagined than this long line of vainly labouring rockets.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve mostly read his rough-hewn letters from the trenches and his swaggering philosophical arguments, but I hadn’t realized that Hulme was capable of this level of finely ironized description, even in service of a straight (journalistic) argument. Nor is Hulme one of our starry-eyed innocents–I think we’re meant to feel a strong sense of embarrassing British innocence in these fizzling, limps curves. But he does have a point to get to, here:

The purpose of this continual succession of rockets and star shells is to provide an illumination which would enable a night attack to be immediately discovered, and perhaps enable them to spot the “reliefs” coming up to a trench, when they might catch them with the machine guns… Our simple Englishman will naturally assume, then, that half of these rockets are sent up by the English, and half by the Germans…

Sad to say, however, when he actually gets to our trenches he will discover that all the rockets, without exception, are German; that not one is English. When for a few minutes there is a stoppage, the people in the English trenches may get nervous, and someone may fire off from a brass pistol a kind of penny squib, vastly different from the soaring lights of the enemy. It will probably sputter out uselessly halfway between our trenches and theirs. The event is such a rare occurence that a sporting section may raise an ironical cheer…

One could give a dozen similar instances, all of which go to confirm the explanation which will probably be given him very early after his arrival by another simple subaltern who has been out a little longer than him: “You’ll soon drop newspaper notions about the Germans. You soon learn to respect them out here. They are a damned sight cleverer than we are in these things,” etc.

Hulme then rejects the notions that the Germans are more industrious or ingenious than the British, and adduces evidence of clever innovations by British subalterns. The difference, he believes, is that these stay local, while valuable German innovations spread rapidly. Why?

I think the cause a very simple one. A new idea is of no use unless it is taken up by a commanding officer (a brigadier or a divisional general) and forced upon all the officers under his command, the majority of whom will, of course, not be ingenious, or fond of change. Such changes require decision and energy, as well as adaptability. But these are exactly the qualities which you can only expect from the young. And practically all our generals are old men…

I think it can be put down to a great extent to the age of our generals that

(1) what little inventions are made by our officers are never spread systematically;
(2) that we are so slow even in imitating the Germans.
His primary example is a good one–Hulme, after all, is both a practiced essayist and a practical philosopher, but he is also an infantryman with first hand experience of the messy, nasty first months of trench warfare.
It became clear nearly a year ago that in this war musketry was of very little importance; and that the principal weapon of infantry in the attack should be the hand-thrown bomb. But musketry was a great tradition in our Army… The result of this is that it has taken us the best part of a year to realise the change in the conditions of the attack, to realise the decreased importance of musketry, and its replacement by bombing. At any rate, it has taken us all this time to draw the full consequences of an appreciation of this fact, consequences which the Germans drew long ago. From letters found on captured officers it has been found that quite early in the year bomb-throwing formed the principal element at the sport meetings which the Germans often get up to amuse the soldiers in reserve behind the lines. We have realised this now, and on Salisbury Plain and all the other similar centres the men in training are taken out to actual trenches in the Plain, and exercised in attacks by bombing both by night and day…

Yup–that all sounds about right. There will be dissenters, but it is becoming increasingly clear that learning the throw-and-dash tactics of a grenade attack is much more important than quick or accurate shooting from cover–although, interestingly, Hulme does not mention dedicated snipers or anticipate the way in which a higher concentration of machine guns can almost completely replace “musketry.”

I don’t wish to stray too far from the war, but it is somewhat remarkable that Hulme–a recently commissioned ex-wartime Territorial private, waiting for his first assignment as an officer–is producing not only military journalism but philosophical criticism. A second series–also appearing in The New Age and signed “T.E.H”–presents a sort of lecture series on Hulme’s philosophical progress.

Hulme had been a mathematical prodigy, but an uneasy (and self-educated) student of philosophy. For many years he was attracted by the idea of a search for real moral truth, but disappointed by what he felt was a lack of rigor, of precision–what he calls, in today’s “A Notebook,” the “scandal” of philosophy. But he explains that he has recently begun to find a way out of this difficulty, with the help first of the philosopher G.E. Moore, then of Edmund Husserl:

The best account I know of the sense in which Philosophy may be a science is that given by Husserl in Logos, 1911… All that it is necessary to keep in mind here is that Philosophy may be a patient investigation into entities, which although they are abstract, may yet be investigated by methods as objective as those of physical science.

(P.) Pure Philosophy.
(H.) This should be the critique of satisfaction; but instead it is, as a matter of fact, an entirely uncritical acceptance of Humanist views of man’s nature, and destiny.

These two ought to be clearly separated. What you actually do get in philosophy, is a presentment of these humanist ideas, with a tremendous and overwhelming appearance of being impersonal objective science. You get something perfectly human and arbitrary cloaked in a scientific vocabulary.

There is a lot here, but it’s relevant: this is a man passionately devoted to one wing of what we think of as artistic Modernism–the Vorticists, his friend Jacob Epstein–and looking for a holistic worldview that will satisfy his distrust both of weak-tea “Humanist” philosophy and of religious consolation, his preference for both an objective ethics and a hierarchical aesthetics, and his practical bent. Of all of these, it is the practical bent–notable in his “War Notes,” above–which seems to be most relevant to Hulme the former soldier and future officer. There is a bull-headedness, a passionate disregard for the quotidian, in Hulme, but it’s hard not to see in this outpouring of energy into political/military and philosophical journalism a settling seriousness, a drive to get it all figured out before he goes back to the war…[2]

And so he will: Hulme promises to mount his own account now of the possibility of truly objective philosophy by means of what he calls–although he is unsatisfied with the label–a “critique of satisfaction.” This will continue in subsequent issues of The New Age. I should note that the goal of achieving an objective philosophy that rejects the very idea of idealism yet also rules out the motivation of individual “satisfaction” (like so many Supreme Court nominees claiming that they interpret the law without reference to their own experiences, which is to say their mind) is profoundly alien to this project. History as it is experienced and written by individuals is, at best, a shifty agglomeration of subjectivities. Fie on objectivity, on aesthetic hierarchy, and on anti-religious, anti-Humanist preachers of pseudo-mathematical certainty…

Nevertheless, it’s unique, here, to read a personal philosophical exposition in journalistic “real time.” Hulme would be severely irritated to have his writing read as part of a super-subjective project, and he would surely fulminate that he is not expressing his “war experience” but rather narrating an approach to truth. Well and good…


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters, 93-5.
  2. See Ferguson, The... Life of T.E. Hulme, 221-7.