Carroll Carstairs in the Thick of It; Eddie Marsh Sees a Desert Sandstorm

Today we continue to follow the adventures of two distinguished aesthetic types: the young American Carroll Carstairs (albeit a young American of the British Grenadiers) and the London art-and-poetry mover-and-shaker Eddie Marsh. They are, of course, in rather different circumstances.

First, Carstairs, in the Salient, with a precise chamber piece on bombardment:

Our new Company Headquarters was an exceptionally large and powerfully built pillbox. A hole in its side made by a direct hit from a British heavy enabled one to measure the thickness of its walls—three to four feet in depth. The floor was uneven with fallen debris and masonry and the air was foul. Eaton was writing a requisition of some sort
in his notebook. The pay-sergeant had arrived about rations. The room was crowded with runners, orderlies, servants, stretcher bearers and the sergeant-major. I observed them with a kind of expectancy as the first British, shell, like tearing silk, came whizzing overhead. In a breathless second every gun in the crowded British area had opened fire. It was a signal for which the Boche was waiting, as shell after shell came crashing around us. Our pill-box, solid though it was, trembled like a frightened man when a shell landed with more than ordinary proximity. On and on it went, this demoniac uproar that sundered air particles and spun them into everlasting reverberations. The earth was splitting up—splitting its sides—what a joke! Blinding flash after flash lighted up the faces of the men, too appalled to be scared. The angry clang of metal struck against the exterior of the pill-box or whined through the air in an agony of search, while we waited for the shell that would send us to eternity. But hell itself can get out of breath, and there came a gradual let up.

Dawn showed no paler than the faces of officers and men.

With the morning light we found a German corpse in our pill-box half buried in clay and mortar. Hence the terrible stench. With great difficulty he was dug up, and given as decent a burial outside as haste permitted.

Eaton and I went along slits that had now a welter of fresh shell holes around them, while the company itself had miraculously escaped. The men gazed at us with white expressionless faces and I thought how like death a face became when utterly wearied out.

About four in the afternoon our artillery was hard at it again. Guns—guns—guns the whole world was made up of them. Thunder cut up for cannon mouths, thunder at last free of the heavens and running wild over the earth—lightning, sneaking under the earth and kicking it full of holes. All night the earth shook and the air vibrated with the noise of guns and shells—English guns and German shells in an endless, terrifying din of reiteration.

A direct hit on our pill-box rocked the place like a boat caught in the trough of the sea.

There was no sleep for anyone…[1]

 

Eddie Marsh, private secretary to the new Minister of Munitions, Winston Churchill, has a rather different view of the war as he catches up on the last few days of his diary:

Tuesday, 19th

Left Paris after luncheon and drove through Chantilly and Compiegne, the junction of the Aisne and the Oise, which Lord French used always to speak of as ‘Gompienny, the junction of the Iny and the Wheeze’…

We then motored via Ghelles and Attichy to Noyon—the scenery of the Aisne valley, till about Attichy, was most lovely and peaceful—then we came to the trench-warfare scenery—blasted like the Somme, but now all overgrown with all sorts of wild flowers…

Next day we started at 8.30, with Captain Hall as bearleader. We motored to Albert, and on to Arras on the other bank of the Ancre, so as to pass the scene of Freyberg’s exploit at Beaucourt. We walked over part of the ground, all rank with weeds and wild flowers, and with bits of barbed wire everywhere…

But privilege is not just position–it’s also information. The V.I.P. knows what everyone else must simply be content to assume: there will be another attack tomorrow.

The Scherpenberg is the sister-hill to Kemmel—not so large, and about five miles to the West. They are the only hills for miles and command magnificent views. At three o’clock there was to be a Corps barrage, in preparation for to-morrow’s battle. We went up and watched it from the windmill at the top of the hill. The windmill is in full work, and felt exactly like being on a ship at sea. The old Belgian miller kept coming up and down past us and giving orders in shrill uncouth Flemish. In a field at the foot of the hill a man was calmly ploughing, and about two miles farther off the barrage was going on. Punctually at three there was a line of flashes on a long front, from just beyond Ypres on the left to Kemmel on the right. We couldn’t hear the guns, as the wind was the wrong way—but the whole country beyond the line of flashes became veiled in what looked just like a desert sand-storm, dotted with great bursts of black or white smoke, in the air or on the ground. The Huns answered, but not very vigorously. Both sides sent up ‘sausages’, till there were eight or nine in the air, and a few aeroplanes went up, but not nearly so many as I expected, and I was disappointed that they didn’t attack the sausages . . .

And that is that–it’s as far as Marsh’s diary goes:

For some reason which I can’t remember, I wrote no more.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A Generation Missing, 100-103.
  2. A Number of People, 261-4.

A Shot Unheard in Britain

It would be strange not to mark today’s date, this being a Centenary-of-World-War-One project. And yet it isn’t really fitting, either. Of all the many British authors I have read, only a handful even discuss the assassination. Their stories start later, perhaps with the dawning awareness of late July, but more typically with an abrupt lurch on August 4th (when I had originally intended to begin this project) or, in many cases, even later, when they entered the army or reached France. Today’s date is only significant in retrospect, and can only be a sort of place-holder, the solid fact that casts the unseen shadow over all that sunny innocence. A war writers go back and mention it, but we’ll mark that sort of remembering tomorrow–after all, most people in England who did get the news got it the following morning, with their paper.

Instead, although I am not pretending to even pretend to consider to pretend to cover the continental literature of the war (although sometimes I look at my unread copy of Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 and shed a tear) I recently stumbled across this eminently Middle-European account of this afternoon, a century back, and thought it would be another way of quickly marking the beginning of the great cascade of fact, futility, nationalist idiocy, and mobilization timetables. Here is how Stefan Zweig, (he’s so hot right now!) then in the imperial capital of Vienna, remembers that afternoon:

I was sitting at some distance from the crowd in the park, reading a book—I still remember that it was Merejkovsky’s Tolstoy and Dostoievsky—and I read with interest and attention. Nevertheless, I was simultaneously aware of the wind in the trees, the chirping of the birds, and the music which was wafted toward me from the park. I heard the melodies distinctly without being disturbed by them, for our ear is so capable of adapting itself that a continuous din, or the noise of a street, or the rippling of a brook adjusts itself completely to our consciousness, and it is only an unexpected halt in the rhythm that startles us into listening.

And so it was that I suddenly stopped reading when the music broke off abruptly. I did not know what piece the band was playing. I noticed only that the music had broken off… Something must have happened. I got up and saw that the musicians had left their pavilion… I noticed that the people had crowded excitedly around the bandstand because of an announcement which had evidently just been put up. It was, as I soon learned, the text of a telegram announcing that His Imperial Majesty, the successor to the crown, Franz Ferdinand…[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday, 215. Is this a seminal text on white noise, or the ironic uses thereof?