Georgian Poetry the Third; Wilfred Owen’s Busy Month; Sassoon and Nichols Together in the Country; the Rout at Cambrai Continues, with Phillip Maddison; We Meet Lady Cynthia Asquith, as she Entertains a New Zealander, and Doubts

December! First of the last months! I wasn’t sure we would make it to December, 1917, but somehow we have. In celebration, there will be an entire volume of “month poems,” some excellent and topical, some indifferent and timeless, in rather a b ad way: December 1917 will see the release of Georgian Poetry III, a volume notable for bringing several of our poets together, at least between two covers. Later this month Isaac Rosenberg, finishing his own works in the alphabetical layout, will happen upon Siegfried Sassoon and read him for the first time.

 

Now Sassoon is, in one important way, a very generous soul: he is generous to his readers, especially those who came afterwards and interest themselves in his solipsism. There are the two piles of autobiography, the letters, the poems, and… ah, but he has been neglecting the diary. It was a place for notes on combat, cris de couer, and, once upon a time, his sporting doings.

So, now that he is a poet of protest no more but not yet a Mad Jack returned unto the bosom of the only men worth having as comrades and followers, what is the post-Rivers, pre-redemption Sassoon to do? Which of the various Siegfrieds will come to the fore?

So far, at least, he is having his cake and eating it too. Visiting his mother, he is at once George Sherston, fox-hunting man, and Siegfried Sassoon, habitué of London literary drawing rooms:

Went on leave November 29. Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Weirleigh. Bob Nichols came for Saturday and Sunday…

Which means Nichols will depart tomorrow, a century back, with their somewhat inevitable, somewhat unlikely friendship cemented; and then, on Monday, the diary will resume its oldest form: a hunting journal.[1]

 

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford

Sassoon’s other recent friendship–a far more momentous one–has reached a period of enforced cooling, as Wilfred Owen has been exiled to Scarborough and all-day duties as a Camp Commandant (not that Owen wasn’t trying to keep things simmering). Owen is on his own again, but he has begun–he has been started, as it were, and he is refreshed, driven. For those who didn’t follow the link above and read all of Georgian Poetry, then, here is a shorter and more aspirational document, looking ahead to the month’s accomplishments:

 

And what of the ongoing war?

 

For The Master of Belhaven, today was a day of false alarms. Standing-to from 5 a.m. until 9, they expected news of the assault of the German Guards Divisions, but his batteries, on the far flank of the Cambrai action, eventually stood down.[2]

 

So our war story, for the day, is carried on best in fiction. Henry Williamson‘s Phillip Maddison had yet another climax–and anti-climax–to his manifold military experiences. His Machine Gun Company is called into the line to stem the German counter-attack: the British near-breakthrough of November 20th has become a German near-breakthrough, and Williamson seems to take a cruel pleasure in depicting the routed and panicked men who stream back past “286 M.”

Phillip himself, though “windy” and teary, is back in heroic mode, fighting in his pyjamas and helping to hold the line on what was, by all accounts, a desperate day. But in a bitter irony–Williamson perhaps intends this as a microcosm for the belated bureaucratic reckoning which will come for the commanders at Cambrai–Maddison’s commander, Teddy Pinnegar, is blamed for the Machine Gun Company being in the wrong place, even though this happens as a result of Phillip’s decisions during last night’s march… It’s all very confusing.

The day ends with Phillip guilty, feverish, diagnosed with trench fever by an American doctor, and sent to Blighty–not grateful, as he has been in earlier, more fearful times, but rueful that he has let his commander down and is going home sick rather than with a heroic wound. The climax of the book’s non-military action will come in England over the next few weeks, as the war and Phillip’s romantic escapades come together at last.[3]

 

Finally, with the new month, I’d like to introduce one more–just one more!–society diary.

Lady Cynthia Asquith has few connections to anyone we know. Except that she is a daughter of two “souls,” her mother a Wyndham (the grace on the right) and her father Hugo Charteris, the Earl of Wemyss; her brothers Yvo and Hugo (“Ego”) have both been killed in action; she is a confidante of D.H. Lawrence, secretary to J.M. Barrie, daughter-in-law of the ex-Prime Minister (her husband, Herbert Asquith, still serving in uniform and most evidently away from home was Raymond‘s younger brother), and, generally, friends with all of the smart set of society still left in England.

Which includes Bernard Freyberg, a New Zealandish interloper on the group who has earned his stripes (and stars) as a member of the Argonauts and, now, a hero of the Naval Division’s land battles. Lady Asquith will become a prolific author, but already, a century back, it’s clear that, surrounded by war and loss, she knows how to write warriors very well. Ardent lovers, however, are another thing altogether…

Saturday, 1st December

Went down to Brighton by 11.40 to spend the day with Freyberg. He met me at the station. He is staying at the Royal York, but we drove straight to the Metropole for luncheon. He was looking better and had a fine appetite. With his youthful face and the insignia of his anomalous rank (his medals and preposterous number of gold stripes), he is very conspicuous and much stared at—obsequious deference from the waiters. I insisted on taking him to Professor Severn, the phrenologist, but he was hopelessly out about him, marking him low for self-esteem and concentration…

We walked to dinner at the Metropole. He told me of his wonderful swimming exploit in Gallipoli, when he swam for four hours and landed naked and alone, and crawled quite close to the enemy’s trenches and lit torches. His eyes shine and he becomes poeticised talking of military adventures, and I was touched to see his eyes fill with tears once when he was talking about his men. I find him very, very attractive.

He drove me to the station to catch the 9.40. He made love to me all day with simplicity and sweetness, and I don’t know what to do. Several times he said he thought he had better not see me any more, and I suppose I ought to take him at his word: it is the candle that should withdraw, the moth cannot, but it would require considerable unselfishness on my part. I should hate to give him up altogether—conscience tells me I should. He kept asking me if I would have married him had I been free. I enjoyed the day very much—injudicious as it was.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 197.
  2. War Diary, 414-5.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 333-49.
  4. Diaries, 374-5.

Kipling’s Tales of the Rout at Cambrai; The Master of Belhaven Learns of the Debacle; The Darkness of Toby’s Room; Jack Martin and Edward Brittain in Italy

Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, is back in the swing of things, with his battery to the south and east of the Cambrai conflagration.

All day the heavy battery cannonade was kept up, and rumours were received of trenches lost and even batteries captured. Late this morning I got a situation report, and found things were worse than we had realized. The Hun had penetrated our line to a depth of 8,000 yards in places, and some batteries were lost, including A/107, which is sad, as it belongs to our division… it is the first time we have lost any of our divisional artillery.[1]

 

This is the fight that the Guards are still fighting. They have been defeated–driven back, at least, in the impossible task of holding a salient improvidently grabbed, while massively outgunned. Kipling sings the Second Irish:

The dawn of the 30th November was ushered in by single shells from a long-range gun which found them during the night. Half an hour after they had the order to move to Heudicourt and had digested a persistent rumour that the enemy were through at Gonnelieu, telegrams and orders began to pour in. The gist of them was that the line had undoubtedly cracked, and that the Brigade would move to Gouzeaucourt at once. But what the Brigade was to do, and under whose command it was to operate, were matters on which telegrams and orders most livelily conflicted…

And so it is the part of the Imperial Bard to describe a… well, an inglorious retrograde movement, perhaps, if not a rout. But then that is the benefit of choosing the size of your story: this is a British embarrassment, but still a proud day, of sorts, for the Second Irish Guards:[2]

Over the ridge between Gouzeaucourt and Metz poured gunners, carrying their sights with them, engineers, horses and infantry, all apparently bent on getting into the village where they would be a better target for artillery. The village choked; the Battalion fell in, clear of the confusion, where it best could, and set off at once in artillery formation, regardless of the stragglers, into the high and bare lands round Gouzeaucourt. There were no guns to back them, for their own were at Flesquières. As was pointed out by an observer of that curious day — “‘Tis little ye can do with gun-sights, an’ them in the arrums av men in a great haste. There was men with blankets round ’em, an’ men with loose putties wavin’ in the wind, and they told us ’twas a general retirement. We could see that. We wanted to know for why they was returnin’. We went through ’em all, fairly breastin’ our way and — we found Jerry on the next slope makin’ prisoners of a Labour Corps with picks an’ shovels. But some of that same Labour Corps they took their picks an ‘shovels and came on with us.”

They halted and fixed bayonets just outside Gouzeaucourt Wood, the Irish on the left of the line, their right on the Metz-Gouzeaucourt road, the 3rd Coldstream in the centre, the 2nd Coldstream on the right, the 2nd Grenadiers in reserve in Gouzeaucourt Wood itself. What seems to have impressed men most was the extreme nakedness of the landscape, and, at first, the absence of casualties. They were shelled as they marched to the Wood but not heavily; but when they had passed beyond it they came under machine-gun fire from the village. They topped the rise beyond the Wood near Queen’s Cross and were shelled from St. Quentin Ridge to the east. They overran the remnant of one of our trenches in which some sappers and infantry were still holding on. Dismounted cavalry appeared out of nowhere in particular, as troops will in a mixed fray, and attached themselves to the right of the thin line. As they swept down the last slope to Gouzeaucourt the machine-gun fire from the village grew hotter on their right, and the leading company, characteristically enough, made in towards it. This pulled the Battalion a little to the right, and off the road which was supposed to be their left boundary, but it indubitably helped to clear the place.

The enemy were seen to be leaving in some haste, and only a few of them were shot or bayoneted in and out among the houses. The Battalion pushed in through the village to the slope east of it under Quentin Mill, where they dug in for the night. Their left flank was all in the air for a while…

Tanks were used on the right during the action, but they do not seem to have played any material part in the Battalion’s area, and, as the light of the short and freezing November day closed, a cavalry regiment, or “some cavalry,” came up on the left flank. The actual stroke that recovered Gouzeaucourt had not taken more than an hour, but the day had cost them a hundred and thirty men killed, wounded and missing…

This is a tale that will need salting–or sweetening–with rough and ready humor, if it is not to leave a terrible taste in the mouth of any believer in the B.E.F.

A profane legend sprang up almost at once that the zeal shown by the Guards in the attack was because they knew Gouzeaucourt held the supplies of the Division which had evacuated it. The enemy had been turned out before he could take advantage of his occupation. Indeed, a couple of our supply-trains were found untouched on rail at the station, and a number of our guns were recaptured in and around the place. Also, the Divisional rum-supply was largely intact. When this fact came to light, as it did — so to say — rum-jar by rum-jar, borne joyously through the dark streets that bitter night, the Brigade was refreshed and warmed, and, men assert, felt almost grateful to the Division which had laid this extra “fatigue” on them.

But no–I’ve sold Kipling short. Or underestimated his loyalty to the twists and turns of the tale. He is a very great historian, in the old-fashioned sense,[3] and when a bitter day slews toward maniac joy and then back again, he leans into the curves…

One grim incident stays in the minds of those who survived — the sight of an enormous Irishman urging two captives, whom he had himself unearthed from a cellar, to dance before him. He demanded the jigs of his native land, and seemed to think that by giving them drink his pupils would become proficient. Men stood about and laughed till they could hardly stand; and when the fun was at its height a chance shell out of the darkness to the eastward wiped out all that tango-class before their eyes. (‘”Twas like a dhream, ye’ll understand. One minute both Jerries was dancin’ hard to oblige him, an’ then — nothin’, nothin’ — nothin’ — of the three of them! “)[4]

 

Some time ago we opened another entire European front–but then things became busy. Remember Italy? I had intended to give some of Sapper Martin‘s itinerary, as a sort of modern take on the ancient form, because nothing says “timeless military misery” better than a long, long march. But, as the narrative has been without excessively necessary details, I have been passing him over–I merely want to note, then, that his march reached 148 miles, today, a century back, at the end of its second week.[5]

 

But Martin is not our only man headed to the front lines in northern Italy. Edward Brittain was able to give his sister Vera an update today as well, on the occasion of his birthday. And, as you know, an army marches on its stomach, even in Italy…

Italy, 30 November 1917

We are fairly close to the line though not within artillery range; we expect to be closer very soon; at present it does not seem that we shall suffer from artillery anything like as much as we did in the salient… We have had some very hard marching lately but the men have stuck it wonderfully well. . . We have managed to buy a turkey for my birthday dinner to-night for the absurdly small sum of 7 liras…

In time there will be E.F. Canteens as in France, I expect, but at present we suffer from our dissimilarity in taste from the Italians. 22 seems rather old in some ways but young in others, e.g. I have only 1 subaltern younger than me.[6]

Happy Birthday, then, to twenty-two-year-old Edward Brittain.

 

And then there is fiction, which can choose many forms of escapism–or brutal realism. I mentioned Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room two days ago, and Elinor Brooke’s conviction that Sassoon’s decision to go back to the horrors of war was the only possible one. Today, her [fictional] diary describes what she herself is doing for the war effort: an art student before the war, she now assists Henry Tonks, the artist and toweringly influential teacher at the Slade, in his work. Working as artists and recorders of the war’s damage, they draw the faces of mutilated soldiers, in order to aid in pioneering attempts at reconstructive plastic surgery.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 414-5.
  2. I have taken the liberty of changing the great man's paragraphing.
  3. I.e. with the emphasis on story, on narrative, and not on any 19th century balance of facts or, still less, with any 21st century expectation of striving for unbiased perception.
  4. The Irish Guards in the Great War, I, 218-220.
  5. Sapper Martin, 149.
  6. Letters From a Lost Generation, 383.
  7. Toby's Room, 233-6.

Vera Brittain on Night Duty and Edward in Italy; Back to the Front for Carroll Carstairs; Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Nichols Sing for their Society Supper, but Wilfred Owen Misses the Party

It’s an unsettled sort of day, today, a century back, with new experiences that are none too welcome. We have, first off, a letter from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera, his first from Italy.

I am rather disappointed with this part of the country — we are close to where Vergil was supposed to be born and the city forms the adjective so often applied to him (even in Tennyson’s ode to Vergil) – it is flat and not specially interesting apart from its novelty.

Mantua, that is: and a much more mainstream deployment of a decent classical education than some of the heroically obscure place-references of Patrick Shaw Stewart and the other argonauts. But what clever chap can resist such a minor violation of the rules about revealing military locations?

We marched through the city yesterday — it is old, picturesque and rather sleepy with narrow streets and pungent smells; we have been accorded a most hearty reception all the way and have been presented with anything
from bottles of so-called phiz, to manifestos issued by mayors of towns; flowers and postcards were the most frequent tributes. Some of the country we passed through was very fine; apres la guerre finie there are several places where you and I might like to stay a while…

But Vera has other things to worry about, today–or rather tonight.

That same evening I was sent on night-duty to an acute medical ward. Since each of my previous night-duties had become a sharp, painful memory of telegrams and death and brooding grief, I did not welcome the change, and wrote to my mother in a sudden fit of despondency, deepened by the renewed recollection that Edward, my fellow-survivor, was far away and depressed:

“I feel very old and sad these days, though Sister ‘Milroy’ . . . tells me she feels like my mother when she goes out with me, though she’s only eight years older. I wonder if I shall ever be eight years older, and if the next eight could possibly be as long as the last three. I suppose I am saturated with War, and getting thoroughly war-weary, like everyone else.”[1]

 

Carroll Carstairs, our American officer of the Grenadiers, was in the area as well, returning to the line after leave.

Trains! French trains… I watched the smoke from the engine drift into separate wisps that looked like shrapnel bursts. Leaning back in my seat, I felt myself being carried along by destiny itself.

The drums reminded me that I was back again, feeling, in the process of a slight readjustment, unreality in the midst of the greatest reality. While I was away the Battalion had moved by route march from Ypres to the Somme.[2]

Which is but a way of indicating that we will, shortly, as well.

 

But first, once again, to London. Today’s most interesting event, from a war literature point of view, was a crossing-of-paths between the two most significant soldier-poets of 1917, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Nichols. Robert Graves is the key node between the two of them, having been enthusiastically talking them up to each other for months and very hopeful that the three shall form a musketeerish bond, but he is on duty in Wales, and actually in command of the garrison of the Royal Welch at Rhyl. Which was perhaps a good thing, as the three together might have made for an explosive stew of intense eagerness and disparate social anxieties.

Instead, the two poets met with the capable Robbie Ross to smooth the way. Tonight, then, was yet another soldier-poet dinner at the Reform Club, and it might very well have gone badly. Nichols’s Ardours and Endurances has been “the hit of the season,” but Sassoon’s assessment was not favorable. He is surely correct that Nichols was “not as good as Sorley,” and posterity has certainly agreed–but that would be getting ahead of ourselves. But it should be fairly obvious that the poems will not wear that well: they are pretty, but they ring hollow in too many places. Nichols was (too) confident in his talent, but then again he knew himself to be a lightweight in terms of military service compared to Sassoon, that well-known fire-eater and wearer of the MC, and that easily could have been a point of unpleasantness.

Had Nichols suspected that Sassoon knew himself to be the better poet–or if he knew how much Sassoon shared Graves’s scorn for his personal failings (i.e. Nichols’s adventures with shell shock and venereal disease)–it might have degenerated into a butting of heads or a competition in offense-taking. And Nichols had either missed–or chosen to overlook–the rather pointed use of the word  “ardours” in “Fight to the Finish,” which suggests that Sassoon recognized him for a bit of a phony and was willing to take a shot at him in print.

So, again, it was lucky that they had Robbie Ross, “expert conversational masseur.” The dinner went well and the friendship began, but the three did not retire thereafter to Ross’s flat in Half Moon Street, the decadent chambers to which Wilfred Owen had recently been initiated. No: they had been set up! Ross, after dining with them, duly delivered the two poets to a literary gathering at the home of Sibyl Colefax, “a rising society hostess, a ‘duchess-snob’, who liked to collected literary lions.”

Once they arrived, the poets, bait for the real prey–society eminences–learned that they were expected to perform. Nichols had done such a public reading before, and was a happy ham. He went first, melodramatically declaimed his verses, and then, even worse, was followed by a piano interlude of ragtime tunes played by Ivor Novello. Sassoon was thus perfectly primed to displease, and he certainly tried to, reading “The Hero, “The Rear-Guard,” and the famously controversial “They,” with its soldier “gone syphilitic” and blunt mockery of conventional religion.

It’s hard to tell if this was Sassoon just being “tough,” or, rather, whether he was trying to needle Nichols (who had seen nothing as horrible as the Hindenburg Tunnel, but did indeed know the horrors of syphilis). If Sassoon was “genuinely impressed” by Nichols, as one biographer has it, he was also irritated by his performance, which caused Sassoon “acute discomfort.”

But in any case Sassoon was a poor reader and he was out of every one of his various elements–this was not the sort of crowd that would either be impressed by a minor gentleman-sportsman from Kent with an MC, charmed by the handsome young jock-aesthete, or approving of quiet aloofness as a substitute for active wit.

Was he trying to shock the bourgeois? Perhaps, but one should credit him with a more nuanced appreciation of class: this wasn’t that crowd either. These were experienced high society women, flying far above the mere bourgeois, and three and a half years into the war. Lady Cynthia Asquith only recorded Sassoon’s shyness and prominent ears, while Vita Sackville-West, not surprisingly, saw through the ambitious Nichols, calling him “a horrid little bounder.”[3]

But what does that signify? At least the poets performed, and the ladies had something to say. Sassoon still had some dwindling notoriety as a protest poet, and some might notice that his poems “shocked” to good effect. Nichols was popular, and he delivered the goods, no matter that they are second-rate. The two will soon be invited back again, to enliven our last blogging December with their tales of the war’s largest literary waymeet…

 

Unfortunately for Wilfred Owen, however, his luck has run out–or it hasn’t yet run away enough for such things. He was in London too, today, a century back, on the way back home after visiting his cousin Leslie Gunston, and went to the Poetry Bookshop, where he was pleased to exchange winks with Harold Monro when a customer spoke of Sassoon. But then he was off to Shrewsbury, unaware that Sassoon and Nichols were with Ross…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 392; Letters From a Lost Generation, 382.
  2. Generation Missing, 118.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 423; Ricketts, Strange Meetings, 128-131.
  4. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 283.

Vera Brittain on Disappointment and a Sporting Chance; Lord Dunsany Abrim With Affection; Rudyard Kipling “Superfluous and Impotent”

First, today, we have Vera Brittain elaborating on what her brother’s departure from France for the Italian front means to her.

24th General, France, 12 November 1917

Father’s letter about Edward going to Italy … arrived to-day. It is very hard that he should have missed his leave after you have waited all this time, & as for me, half the point of being in France seems to be gone, and I didn’t realise until I heard he was going how much I had counted on & looked forward to seeing him walk up this road one day to see me. But I want you to try & not worry about him more because he is there, because whatever danger he meets with he could not possibly be in greater danger than he has been in the last few months…

And, apart from the disappointment of not seeing any of us, I think he will be very, glad of the change; no one who has not been out here has any idea how fed up everyone is with France & with the same few miles of ground that have been solidly fought over for three years. There is a more sporting chance anywhere than here ……. If only I get the chance of going I will; not that it would be so much advantage now, as now that the whole Western front is under one command I expect people will be moved about from Italy to France & vice-versa just as they have from one part of France to another, & won’t necessarily stay the whole time in either one or the other……..[1]

She’s not wrong, but it’s worth remembering that these aren’t simply the words of one member of a family of four excessively devoted to its one soldier. Her parents may well be assured by the fact that he will be somewhat safer in Italy. But Vera wants to be close to Edward, in several senses, not just because he is her beloved brother but because she is the last of the four young men she loved, in one way or another. They wouldn’t have seen each other often, but now they will not see each other for a long time, and distance is something to be feared…

 

Lord Dunsany has been writing home regularly, lately, and he was apparently very gratified to receive a return letter from his wife Beatrice, in which she copied out a poem he had mentioned hearing part of, Wordsworth’s Ode to Duty. Very thoughtful of her indeed, but still… this is a strangely fulsome letter.

My Darling Mink,

You’ve been a most dear Mink to me always. Words cannot express my gratitude. Perhaps I seldom tried to express it, but you knew it was there however much concealed. God bless you.

Pony[2]

 

After a family letter and an ominous missive to the beloved wife, we come to a business letter between two of the great (if not particularly good) men of the age–or, perhaps, Titans of the Age of Imperial Confidence that the Great War brought to an end… but Rudyard Kipling‘s letter to Theodore Roosevelt on the perniciousness of German propaganda becomes, in the course of a few paragraphs, something quite different.

Bateman’s
Burwash
Sussex
Nov. 12, 1917.

Dear Roosevelt:

Thank you very much for the book and the letter with it. Like you, I am rather aghast at the psychology of the Pacificist – and I should be more so if I did not know how long and how effectively Germany has worked upon them all over the world. If you go back far enough you’ll find that Marx – a Hun – was at the bottom of the rot. There must always be, I suppose, a certain percentage of the perverse among mankind to whom cruelty and abominations make a subconscious appeal… Someday the U.S.A. will awake to the fact that she too has been exploited psychologically by the world’s enemy…

I hope you have got some news from Kermit. The young villain hasn’t sent me a word since he went East so I am sending a chaser after him…

Kipling gathers himself, then, and turns back from worrying over Roosevelt’s son to discussing the latest positive developments in allied hate:

I hear very good accounts of your men at the front in France. They are not penetrated with any excess of love for the Hun: and I expect that by the time they have had a few thousand casualties they will be even less affectionate. The Hun has a holy dread of the U.S….  Hence his desperate whack at Italy – and all the propaganda that made the break in the Italian Army. It’s a long, long, and peculiarly bloody business that we are in for: but I maintain that the Hun’s temperament will impose his own destruction upon him.

But Kipling, in a revealing moment in this letter between a famous writer and a former president, suddenly comes all the way back in a moment from matters of grand strategy and vengeance to the overwhelming pain of personal loss.

Looking back these three years I find I have lost nearly everyone that I ever knew: John’s death gives one a sense of superfluous age and impotence. I hope you’ll not have to go through that furnace. With all good wishes and sincerest admiration believe me

Yours ever
Rudyard Kipling[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 381.
  2. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 147.
  3. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 472-3.

Jack Martin and Edward Brittain are Caporetto Bound

Today brings a clarification–in plain English–from Edward Brittain. It doesn’t address the matter directly, but it confirms what his recent Latin epistle made clear–relatively clear, that is, if one can call upon “the elusive shades of Pass Mods.” He is leaving (for Italy, along with his entire division), and soon–and with no chance for leave to see his sister Vera, even though she is but a short journey away, at Étaples.

France, 4 November 1917

It is awfully hard to command a company when you have a rotten memory like I have; I have to put every blooming little thing down or else I should be in a mess in a few hours… I tried to get 2 days or even 1 local leave but it wasn’t really possible as Harrison went rather suddenly and is now struck off the strength and so, unless I make a mess of it which I suppose I shall do sooner or later when I have been sufficiently discouraged, I am to remain OC company.

. . .  If you don’t get letters from me for a bit you will not be surprised nor will you stop writing to me when opportunity allows.[1]

As Vera Brittain told us yesterday, she will write to their parents that her brother’s sudden transfer removed “half the point of being in France.” But she has quit nursing before, and this time she will soldier on, hoping for no further bereavement.

 

As it happens, Sapper Jack Martin will be part of the same mission. The situation is still considered severe enough (the Caporetto offensive began only eleven days ago) that several divisions will be rushed off without delay. Martin records the news in his diary, and makes it clear how well understood it is that the purpose of the swift reinforcement of Italy is “moral” as well as strategic.

4.11.17

Our destination is Italy. While I was on duty Jessie had a parade of the Signals and told them that the part of Italy to which we are going is inhabited by a very poor peasantry and we must be kind to them. From what I can make out we have got to raise the morale of the Italians as well as fight the Austrians.[2]

Third Ypres, now in its death throes, has been considered an allied success. But given the collapse of Russia and the near-Collapse of Italy, confidence will not be high this winter. And the Germans are already planning to gamble it all on one throw, come spring…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters from a Lost Generation, 380-1.
  2. Sapper Martin, 123.

Another Last Hurrah for Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and Ten Pounds of Distance; Ivor Gurney is to Convalesce; Edward Brittain is Bound for Italy

Today, a century back, was a day of departures.

In Edinburgh, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen spent a last evening together at the Conservative Club before Owen left to begin his leave and eventual return to duty. Sassoon will remember a hilarious evening of bad poetry–but that was last week. What Owen will remember is an inspirationally amicable meeting with an awkward post-script. Sassoon left him at the club–curfew at the hospital, after all, while Owen was going directly to a night train en route to Shrewsbury–with a sealed envelope, to be opened only after they parted.

Owen, naturally, waited no more than a minute or two. He hoped, perhaps, to be in possession of some grave confidence or juicy secret. Instead, he was in possession of a ten pound note and a suggestion that he use it to enjoy his leave.

I sat on the stairs and groaned a little, and then went up and loosed off a gourd, a Gothic vacuum of a letter, which I ‘put by.’[1]

The groan is generally interpreted as being directed at the money, or the assumptions that preceded such a gift. It is a strange situation, surely: Sassoon is wealthy and his wartime activities were never curtailed for want of funds; Owen is not, and could indeed use the sum to enjoy his leave, but while friends might ask each other for loans–even “loans” that will not be repaid–this unsolicited parting gift would have felt more like a tip than a favor. Owen is not in immediate need, and so a gift of money implies an assumption of social inequity. At least I think that’s how the class system worked in such a case.

But the groan could just as well be for the general inadequacy of the letter, its mere friendliness when Owen might have hoped for something more passionate. But he is not offended, really, it’s the groan of a joke gone wrong, not of agony and betrayal. The best evidence for this will be Owen’s very passionate reply–but, as he writes above, his first draft (the “gourd, a Gothic vacuum” is a reference to the bad poetry they have been mocking together) was not fit for sending…[2]

It’s an amusing coincidence, then, that the Cambridge Magazine of today, a century back, carried “The Wooden Cross,” one of Sassoon’s less satisfactory attempts at a memorial poem, written for his old hunting friend Gordon Harbord. Harbord, neither intellectual nor literary, had old claims on Sassoon’s affections–and that was a friendship that would never have included an unsolicited bank note in a sealed envelope…

 

Ivor Gurney, also near Edinburgh, is also leaving–or, at least, it was today, a century back, that he got the news:

3 November 1917

My Dear Friend: Well, to business, (probable.) Chuck out — Tuesday. London 7.30. High Wycombe, Friday Morning. Gloucester Sat: night (as late as can be.)

There’s a bit of luck; owing to slight indigestion (presumably due to gas; wink, wink!) I am to go to Command Depot for two months — a sort of Con: Camp in Khaki. I hope they will keep me for two months, and then of course, if the indigestion isn’t cured……….

This can be read as a Conspiracy to Malinger, but it needn’t be. Gurney is an old soldier, now, and certainly in no hurry to rush back for a winter at the front, what with his weak stomach (never mind his troubled “nerves”) and his ability to serve the army elsewhere, in his capacity as Convalescent Accompanist.

And, perhaps, get a little time to compose…

No, the song is not done, when I’m with you perhaps. Two months Con Camp! O Composition…

with best wishes: Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

 

Finally, today, a date of which I’m not terribly sure–Vera Brittain remembers it, however, and probably with good reason, and apparently because it was the date she received a letter from her brother, not far away in the Salient:

But on November 3rd, when the Flanders offensive was subsiding dismally into the mud and Edward was daily expected home on leave, a brief, mysterious note came from him, written in the vaguely remembered Latin of the Sixth Form at Uppingham:

Hanc epistolam in lingua Latina male conscripta…

It is with a frustrated humility that I insert that ellipsis: Vera Brittain copied out the whole Latin letter. I can’t unpack it all, anyway, but the beginning reads: “This letter, written in bad Latin…”

It’s a creative attempt to foil the censors, but rather a silly one. If the idea is to keep classified information from the Germans, doubting their ability as Classicists hardly seems the wisest choice. Edward does, however, use further circumlocution (so to speak) to hint at the crucial news, and Vera is able to figure it out. But before she fully absorbs the significance of the letter, she turns it into the means of settling a score:

Calling desperately upon the elusive shades of Pass Mods, I managed to gather from this letter that Edward’s battalion had been ordered to join the British and French Divisions being sent from France under Lord Plumer and General Fayolle to reinforce the Italian Army. When I had recovered a little from the shock, I took his note to the C. of E. padre, a burly, rubicund individual whose manner to V.A.D.S was that of the family butler engaging the youngest between-maid, and with innocent eyes asked him to translate. As I had suspected, he had not the remotest idea where to begin, and after much protest about the thinness of the notepaper, and the illegibility of Edward’s clear handwriting, he was obliged, to my secret triumph, to confess his ignorance…

After putting one over on the hapless clergyman, she reflects on what the transfer might mean.

Well, it does make it necessary to mention, very much in passing, another of 1917’s major strategic developments.[4] The Italians have lately come close to collapsing under a strong Austro-German offensive, which is now threatening the Veneto. But, as always, “close” means little: winter is coming, and the Germans, perturbed by the tactical success around Ypres and the arrival of the Americans, are withdrawing their troops from the Italian front to send them to France. Italy will not collapse entirely under merely Austrian pressure, but the allies must go and show the flag, regardless.

For Vera Brittain, however, the calculus was more simple: Edward will be safer–probably–but farther away.

Although I was glad that Edward had left the Salient, I couldn’t help being disappointed that he was going so far away after I had manoeuvred myself, as I had hoped, permanently near him for the duration of our wartime lives.

“Half the point of being in France seems to be gone,” I told my family, “ and I didn’t realise until I heard he was
going how much I had . . . looked forward to seeing him walk up this road one day to see me. But I want you to try
and not worry about him more because he is there . . . no one who has not been out here has any idea how fed-up everyone is with France and with the same few miles of ground that have been solidly fought over for three years. There is a more sporting chance anywhere than here. Of course there has been great talk about the migration . . . and all the men whose units are going are very pleased.”[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 504-5.
  2. See Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 279-80.
  3. War Letters, 230.
  4. It seems that I may have succeeded in entirely avoiding mention of the Russian Revolution--it does crop up in the seventh paragraph or so of Gurney's letters, from time to time, but I often trim those. This is not simple negligence but rather a decision born out of a combination of despair at giving a decent big picture view along with all these closeups and a commitment to the principle that, in this sort of project, things should only matter to readers if and when they matter to the writers.
  5. Testament of Youth, 390-1.

Edward Brittain Brings His Sister into the Salient; Lord Dunsany Returns to the Somme

Today we have an odd pair: two letters going the wrong way, as it were, letters written to our writers rather than from them. Ah, but there are connections! Of a sort!

First, we have a letter from Lady Dunsany dated today, a century back, thanking her husband for his recent letter from the front: “I have had many wonderful letters from you in my life but I really think the one from Amiens the best.”

It is pretty good indeed–not surprisingly, as it is one of the very few letters quoted in his biography (although with its own proper date, hence its placement here). The letter Lady Dunsany refers to must have been written a few days ago, a century back, and read today. It is a combination of the ruins-of-the-Somme description (of a piece with the Master of Belhaven‘s recent mini-masterpiece) and a tale of ironic proximity; a practical back-to-the-front piece and a bit of horror-tinged fantasy. The Vincent-Price-Reads-The-Bible tone and Romantic diction are pure Dunsany, who always likes to evoke a mood of supernatural fascination, is somewhat abashed to find that this tone/diction/mood fits the reality of what he sees so well. And, lest we be accused of insisting upon seeing a writer’s war-writing through the lens of his work in other genres, Lord Dunsany himself invokes fantasy illustrations–the greatest fantasy engraver of them all, as well as his own best illustrator–in order to indicate the effect he is striving for:

One of the blacker dreams of Sidney Sime, illustrator

What a changed town! …I came as it were as the connecting link between the battalion and the lights of London, as a missionary between the 20th century and the ancient abomination of desolation… For half my journey lay through the abomination of desolation, for the other half France smiled; and I noted that we have no way of knowing where we are, that it is autumn. Verily such a journey as I made this morning was never until recently made by man. Imagine Warerloo, Sebastopol, Ladysmith, Pompeii, Troy, Timgad, Tel el Kebir, Sodom and Gomorrah endlessly stretching one into the other; and twisted, bare, ghoulish trees leering downward at graves; and scenes very like Doré’s crucifixion and realities like the blackest dream of Sime; tanks lying with their noses pointing upwards still sniffing towards an enemy long since stiff or blown away in fragments like wounded rhinoceros’ dying. Imagine the wasted ruin of a famous hill that once dominated all this, now no more than a white mound with a few crosses on it, standing against the sky to show that Golgotha was once more with us. And over all this dreadful triumph of iron over man, and the spirit of man over iron, one feels that Nature is smiling softly to herself as she comes back with all her flowering children over villages that are no more than famous names and farms and roads and bridges that none can trace but those who remember them. At Albert in the Cathedral the desolation culminated, as though the Kaiser had knelt there before Satan to hear the Lord’s Prayer said backwards and receive the blessings of Hell, and we passed thence into happier fields like one who wakes from dark dreams on a summer morning…[1]

 

Edward Brittain, too, is picking up the thread of an earlier letter. his account of today, a century back, is the other sort of return, however: the return from the front lines to the blighted rear, which offers a contrast not with the living land of the untouched zone but with the deadly pits of the front line. The first job is to record the losses.

France, 24 October 1917

I will be a little more expansive to-day as we are a long way back from the line and I don’t think it matters my telling you whereabouts we have been. When the Bn. went into the line last time I was left behind to be O.C. Details (about 150 NCO’s and men); on the night of the 16th Lieut. J.W Jackson of C coy. was killed; on the night of the 17th Capt. Whyatt commanding C coy–one of the original officers of the battalion, he joined 3 weeks before me in 1914–was killed; on the morning of the 18th Lieut. Groves whom I mentioned to you the other day was badly wounded, 1 Sergt. and 3 men being killed by the same shell and Whittington who is also in A coy. went down with shell shock; as Clark was on leave this left Harrison by himself and only one officer in C coy, both companies being in the support line which, as you know, always gets the worst of the shelling. Consequently I got a message on the night of the 18th to go up the next morning which I did and joined Jack in a filthy bit of trench, nearly got killed the same night changing to another support fine, spent the next day in a pill-box, the night in a sap and got out safely in the morning. Jack also got out safely. Of course we lost quite a lot of men: some of them had only just joined but we might have come off worse considering that we were in the most pronounced salient just E of Polygon Wood — one of the worst bits of the whole front during the whole war…

It feels as if we’ve heard some variation on that “one of the worst bits” line about ten times in the last month…

Not long ago, in order to connect to a slightly mis-dated bit of her memoir, I skipped ahead in order to explain Vera Brittain‘s changed approach to front-line correspondence. She doesn’t want to try to correspond with her brother–the last young soldier she really loves–when he might be in the front lines. Because any delay, any ominous word… so she had told him that she couldn’t take it any more, that she doesn’t want to write letters that, in the doom-laden magical thinking of a member of the Lost Generation, mid-loss, could somehow cause him to not receive them, and her to begin fearing the post–or its absence–a few days later. As she explained that “his activities so distressed me that I seldom wrote to him at all, superstitiously believing that if I did he would certainly be dead before the letter arrived.” (Were this the early 21st century rather than 20th, some reference to Schrodinger’s Cat–either slightly inaccurate or slightly ironic–would be necessary.)

Edward, who has lost the same three close friends and no doubt sees more intense superstitions on a daily basis, doesn’t object to the irrational basis of his sister’s sudden failure as a correspondent. But neither does he accept it: he doesn’t seem to have anyone else left with whom he can discuss the truth of the war, and he needs to keep writing it. It’s not hard to imagine Edward composing lines of description to send to his sister as shells land and men around him are hit. Perhaps he believes that if his letter to her is unfinished he can’t be killed, yet.

In any case, he objects, and rather pointedly, too:

I quite understand why you didn’t write during the interval but, if possible, please don’t do it again or else I shall not tell you when I am about to face anything unpleasant and then you will not be able to help me face it…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 144-5.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 379-80.

David Jones Explores the Uses of His New Military Military Vocabulary; Vera Brittain Looks Toward Winter

Yesterday we left David Jones headed for London, having neatly delayed his leave until his parents had finished moving house. For a quiet former art student, he made quite an entrance:

On 15 October, when he arrived at Victoria Station, he was, as usual, crawling with body lice. He went straight to his parents’ new semi-detached house, called Hillcrest, at 115 Howson Road in Brockley. Without stopping, he went through the main door at the side of the house and up the stairs to the bathroom, removed his uniform and  underclothes, and threw them out of the window. In a recent letter, his mother had insisted that he discard his clothing in this way. (Although leaves were unannounced, his mother had known he was returning–she always did, his father told him and, laughing, said, ‘Your mother isn’t Welsh but she’s a bit of a witch.’)

Looking out of the window, he saw his sister approaching the pile of lousy clothing and shouted, ‘FOR CHRIST SAKE, LEAVE THE FUCKING THINGS ALONE.’ The profanity astonished her–such language had never been heard in the Jones home. Himself appalled, he watched his language at home from now on. After bathing, he put on his civilian clothes, which no longer fit…[1]

 

Shocking, indeed. In our other bit for today, a century back, an altogether more refined former-provincial-young-lady writes to her mother, also of matters of leave and of cleanliness. Vera Brittain is an experienced nurse, but she is still new to her latest assignment. Her brother has been out since July, however, and as an officer in a line battalion he has some reason to hope for leave soon.

24th General, France, 15 October 1917

I hope Edward’s leave soon comes off as it would cheer Father considerably to see him. I am afraid it is no use looking for any signs of me for at least six months; the leave of the old people here is very much overdue & of course we have to take ours in rotation with them……..

We are still in a great rush & taking convoys every day; I have had a heavy day although I have managed to get off this evening.

I am at the moment sitting in an extremely cold bath hut (occasionally conversing with Sister Moulson who is doing the same thing in the next door bath room) waiting for the hot water to be turned on … you have to sit in the  bathroom and wait as otherwise all the baths get taken.

This is going to be a dreadfully cold winter, & every day the rain teems down, very cold & heavy.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 167-8.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 379.

Robert Graves Makes Colorful Plans; High Quigley Gets His Blighty; Vera Brittain Learns the Meaning of Emergency

Around lunch-time, today, a century back, the Graves family’s worries were alleviated by a telegram announcing that Robert had spent the night at the Nicholsons’ home. Robert, twenty-two, is entranced by Nancy, all of eighteen, as is she with him. They are thinking of marriage, already, and of collaboration: she is a painter, and will illustrate his planned writings for children.

In Nancy, Robert had discovered a woman who shared his growing conviction that there was something better and more true in the myths and legends of childhood than in the terrible ‘reality’ of the adult world’: When Nancy showed Robert some of her paintings, which included illustrations to Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, he found that ‘my child-sentiment and hers–she had a happy childhood to look back on–answered each other.

Graves spent the morning running errands, but he also dropped in on Edmund Gosse and then said an early good-bye to his family. Graves is bound for Scotland, but first he returned to Nancy, having dinner with the Nicholsons and then going with them to a revue, Graves’s first-ever experience of popular entertainment of this sort. He must have been in an excellent mood when he caught the night-train for Edinburgh, and another meeting with Siegfried Sassoon[1]

 

It’s been only two days since we heard from Hugh Quigley, portentously preparing for battle. He was right to worry about a wound–and lucky.

Le Treport, 12 October, 1917

I got that comfortable wound I mentioned in my last letter: some intuition must have told me what was going to happen. The pain is not too great, although the right leg is useless just now; the doctor says it will come in time. I am expecting to be home in two days…

Our division had the pleasing task of making a bold bid for Passchendaele: of course, the officers told us the usual tale…

But none of us knew where to go when the barrage began, whether half-right or half-left: a vague memory of following the shell-bursts as long as the smoke was black, and halting when it changed to white… I was knocked out before I left the first objective, a ghastly breast-work littered with German corpses. One sight almost sickened me before I went on: thinking the position of a helmet on a dead officer’s face rather curious, sunken down rather far on the nose, my platoon sergeant lifted it off, only to discover no upper half to the head. All above the nose had been blown to atoms, a mass of pulp, brain, bone and muscle.

After this horror, a concessive clause under absurd pressure:

Apart from that, the whole affair appeared rather good fun.

It’s a transition, in a letter, and we shouldn’t make too much of it… but this is the madness of war in one pivoting sentence. Quigley pursues the idea:

You know how excited one becomes in the midst of great danger. I forgot absolutely that shells were meant to kill and not to provide elaborate lighting effects, looked at the barrage, ours and the Germans’, as something provided for our entertainment–a mood of madness, if you like.

Well, yes, madness: he’s gotten there himself.

Next comes a detailed description of the assault, including a mad Highlander screaming at them as they move deliberately behind the walking barrage, and a comrade stopping to loot a German corpse. It is far more horrible than his breezy letter made it seem, but his claim about the uselessness of the rifle–at this stage, at least–is borne out.

We got the first objective easily, and I was leaning against the side of a shell hole, resting along with others, when an aeroplane swooped down and treated us to a shower of bullets. None of them hit. I never enjoyed anything so much in my life–flames, smoke, lights, SOS’s, drumming of guns, and swishing of bullets, appeared stage-properties to set off a great scene. From the pictorial point of view nothing could be finer or more majestic; it had a unity of colour and composition all its own, the most delicate shades of green and grey and brown fused wonderfully in the opening light of morning. When the barrage lifted and the distant ridge gleamed dark against the horizon, tree-stumps, pill-boxes, shell-holes, mine-craters, trenches, shone but faintly, fragmentary in the distant smoke. Dotted here and there, in their ghostly helmets and uniforms, and the enemy were hurrying off or coming down in batches to find their own way to the cages…

Then, going across a machine-gun barrage, I got wounded. At first I did not know where, the pain was all over, and then the gushing blood told me.

Quigley follows a German prisoner back to a dressing-station, and is then carried back over the rear areas of the torn battlefield:

…a wilderness of foul holes littered with dead men disinterred in the barrage. One sight I remember very vividly: a white-faced German prisoner tending a whiter “Cameron” who had been struck in the stomach. In spite of the fierce shelling he did not leave him, but stayed by him as long as I could see. I confess my first feeling of deadly fear arose when on the stretcher. The first excitement was wearing off and my teeth were chattering with cold.

There was a German shrapnel barrage to get through, too, which killed more than a few of the wounded and stretcher-bearers. Wounded, but carried through this secondary maelstrom safely, Quigley praises the Medical Corps very highly:

…my stretcher bearers, R.A.M.C., were good stuff, afraid of nothing, and kind-hearted, apologizing for any jolting. How they kept it up during that ghastly 10-kilometre journey is a mystery. I would rather go over the top than suffer that fatigue.[2]

 

Quigley’s curious and florid prose-style has been a welcome addition here, but many of the more experienced veterans are still professing their inability to describe the horrors of Passchendaele. (Will time tame his style?) Vera Brittain, for instance, waits at a mid-point in the lines of evacuation that begin with that German prisoner and those heroic stretcher-bearers:

24th General, France, 12 October 1917

Someday perhaps I will try to tell you what this first half of October has been like, for I cannot even attempt to describe it in a letter & of course we are still in the middle of things; the rush is by no means over yet–Three times this week we have taken in convoys & evacuated to England, & the fourth came into our ward all at the same time. Every day since this day last week has been one long doing of the impossible–or what seemed the impossible before you started. We have four of our twenty-five patients on the D.I.L. (dangerously ill list, which means their people can come over from England to see them) and any one of them would keep a nurse occupied all day but when there are only two of you for the whole lot you simply have to do the best you can. One does dressings from morning till night. I never knew anything approaching it in London, & certainly not in Malta. No one realises the meaning of emergencies who has not been in France. Nor does one know the meaning of ‘bad cases’ for they don’t get to England in the state we see them here; they either die in France or else wait to get better before they are evacuated…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 183-5.
  2. Passchendaele and the Somme, 147-53.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 377-8.

A Shell Inscribes a Line in Edward Brittain’s Hand; Hugh Quigley Girds for Battle; Herbert Read Welcomes the Conquering Heroes; Isaac Rosenberg Goes Under the Weather; Phillip Maddison Goes from Safety to the German Lines, and from the German Lines to G.H.Q.

Today, a century back, brings a welter of writing–wry, wet, windy, and ominous.

 

Hugh Quigley knows that he about to march back into the thick of things, and so he writes, to someone he loves, with the cruel candor of the soldier before battle:

I expect this will be the last letter you will get from me for at least ten days. You know what that means. I can only only hope to get out safely, or, at worst, with a comfortable wound. If the same fate happens to me as to Peter, I have done my duty, according to conventional standards. By higher and more ideal standards, it is too perverted to be called duty at all, if it does not immediately help to stop war and avoid sacrifice.

Our men are growing more confident everyday; in fact, one could almost go into battle now with a bag of provisions and a walking-stick. The rifle plays only a small part, for the enemy invariably throw up their hands when the infantry approach…

Quigley’s confidence is more than a bit overstated, but then again this is a letter home, a last letter before combat, meant to reassure. Or something along those lines. While it is true that the rifle-toting infantryman is increasingly just a pawn in an artillery war, the idea that there will not be any fighting necessary in an advance against German pillboxes is ridiculous, as we have seen so often, recently.

Regardless, Quigley is soon back in a full-blown romantic mode: he even finds a “curiously apposite” French poem on a scrap of paper.

This paper was lying beside a tombstone under the shadow of a great church. I spent an afternoon wandering round that church, sentimentalizing to my heart’s content, with no one to disturb me and no one to utter bald consolations about the price of life. The slow passage of time came to a sweetness of thought, not melancholic, not poignant, just a lingering tenderness and a faint regret, tenuous as a web of sun in the tree-shadows. High chestnuts, browning through shimmering gold, dropped solitary leaves with a faint pat on the flat stones or rustled them through the wire-enclosed wreaths hanging from grey crosses, half-ruined, green with a decay of beauty, so that the harmony of life came very close to death, reality to dream…

You will see the old sentiments cannot die… They are worth something more than this, farther and higher… Not ephemeral, but progressive and continuous on a way of perfection…

Each man prepares for the ordeal of a tour in the trenches in a different way. Quigley, it’s safe to say, complicates the stereotype of the enlisted man’s “this leaves me in the pink” letter before battle…[1]

 

And Vera Brittain, who has lost a fiancé and two close friends after letters more or less like that one, has decided that she can’t hang on every turn of the front line/reserve/rest rotation of her only brother. So Edward writes to her today, only when he is safely out of the latest mess. I include this letter mostly for how it begins:[2] with a mark made by the war, not just on a day, a century back, but in a single moment:

France, 10 October 1917

— That curious dash because a shell made me jump. This is rather a filthy place… We haven’t had a mail for 3 days owing to our sudden move and so I expect there will be a letter from you when it does come. I am very glad you have written some more poems so as to make enough for a small volume; I will ask Mrs L[eighton] about it; I believe you were thinking of Erskine Macdonald before. By the way why haven’t you sent me any of your new poems as you know I should like to have them?[3]

 

Isaac Rosenberg has just had leave–his first–and has been writing poems. But the heavy rain of the last few days has done no good for his always-problematic lungs. The weather will save him, perhaps, if it doesn’t kill him: today, a century back, he went sick with influenza, which for a man of his physique is certainly more dangerous than ordinary trench duty.[4]

 

Comfort and the fortunes of leave are also on the mind of Herbert Read, guilt-stricken at having missed his battalion’s part in the Passchendaele battle. He can make amends by preparing decent beds for them all: having been held back in reserve and appointed billeting officer, he spent a long day’s negotiation with the inhabitants of a poor northern French village–“Mais c’est la guerre, as they all say.”

10.x.17

They came in shortly after midnight, very weary and ready to drop down and sleep anywhere. It isn’t three weeks since I left them, but it was like greeting long lost friends… It isn’t only fancy that makes them seem to have aged five years and more. They have gone through what as probably the most intense shell fire since the war began.[5]

 

Finally, today, we have a date-in-a-novel, a time-stamped activity from our strangest and most carefully calendrical fictional war book. Henry Williamson himself missed the summer and Passchendaele because of a long stint recovering from symptoms that may have been simple illness or may have been worsened by gas or the psychological toll of his service in the winter and spring around Arras. But his enormous semi-autobiographical sequence on the life of Phillip Maddison elongates the author’s combat experiences, compresses his time at home, and puts the protagonist always where the action is. Phillip Maddison never misses a battle.

Today, a century back, his heroic mentor, “Westy,” has turned up again as well, and this time Phillip plunges in unlikely fashion into the German lines (as he has done several memorable times before, including during the Christmas Truce and at Loos) as a sidekick rather than as a lone ranger.

Before sending us over the top, as it were, Williamson dutifully gives us a potted military history of the “Fourth Step” of Third Ypres, a.k.a. the “Battle of Poelcappelle.” Which is all well and good,[6] but sits rather jarringly with the most Gumpish of the many Gumpish moments in the series so far. I will quote and then summarize, as best as I can.

(The whole sequence of novels is a slog, but so very interesting: there is an unprecedented devotion to raking oneself over the coals of memory while raking out the embers of traditional military history at the same time–just not well-enough written to enchant other than a devoted reader over several thousand pages.)

The day after the fourth step had been launched, two men, each with a long stick in his hand, were walking on one of the many duck-board tracks lying parallel to the Wieltje-Frezenberg road, alongside which was an almost continuous row of 18-pounder field-guns….  The senior of the two, whose diminutive scarlet gorget patches on the collar of his ranker’s tunic were concealed under a woolen scarf, carried, in addition, a map-case.

“I don’t see how the infantry can possibly move in this weather, Westy. Must the attacks go on?”

“If only the Chief could have had his own way, and attacked up here last May, instead of down south, as demanded by Joffre… Third Ypres was put off in 1916, and again last spring. With the results that everyone can now see–only everyone, as usual, will draw the wrong conclusions.”

Well, Westy, you didn’t really answer the question.

Now commences the aforementioned Gumpish adventure, a sort of shark-jumping in the Passchendaele mud. It’s ridiculous to find this (over and over again) in a book that is generally concerned both to represent the progress of the war from a young soldier’s point of view and to dwell on the very real push-and-pull between rashness and cowardice, confidence and self-loathing that seems to have riven Williamson’s character, as well as that of his alter ego. Ridiculous, and suited more to a pot-boiler than an attempt at literature/transmuted memoir, but nonetheless fascinating. If Williamson had a slightly steadier hand, we could even begin to make the argument that his sprawling Bildungsroman is actually an argument that the realist novel is a poor sort of form for telling war stories…

The setting is this: “Westy,” the clear-eyed, far-seeing, casually imperturbable Cassandra of the Old Contemptibles, has become a sort of minister-without-portfolio for the staff, charged to roam wherever he will and report on the “real” situation without regard for the normal channels of command. He takes Maddison forward with him into the front lines, where another assault–the “Fifth Step” of the battle–is about to take place. Commandeering a platoon of Lancashire Territorials, the two adventurers cross into no man’s land near the town of Passchendaele itself, and find a crucial hole in the German defenses.

So far, only the freelancing of Westy and Maddison is ridiculously far-fetched. There does seem to have been a disconnect–mostly environmental and unavoidable (and to some extent a product of bureaucratic awkwardness and scale management and inefficient traditions)–between the enormous effort put into planning an attack in the weeks and months before it and the failure to process any knowledge of German plans and movements during the days when the pending attack must have been obvious to them. The strategic plan must be, to a large extent, inflexible, but there is a horrible sense that while the attack could be built to respond to reports from the front in the last days–to adjust to the adjustments made by the defense–the will just isn’t there. It’s such a big bureaucracy, and the top planners are so very far from the trenches…  The British guns mass on known German positions, there are raids and counter-raids, withdrawals and new positions… and the machinery of the attack clicks slowly forward…

More or less alone in a gap in the vaunted German defenses, “Westy” writes out a dispatch, describing the tactical omission and opportunity. But while he is doing so the green subaltern of the platoon they have borrowed blows a whistle, as if he were on parade or mid-attack. Alerted, a German machine gun opens up, Westy us shot through the chest–his eighth wound–and it is left to Maddison to save the day.

And here’s where it gets interesting. Maddison–touched now by the hand of of the divine and possibly dying West–is suddenly, once again, brave and resolute, decisive and dashing. But he is also on a segment of the line where he is known to various officers, and not well liked. He has a significant reputation for both shirking and for wild immaturity, and so the perils which spring up to prevent him from getting Westy’s report to the men who must read them are not just physical obstacles like broken country and German bullets, but also the enemies of his past, among his own army.

Calm and collected, Maddison takes off, D’Artagnan-like, but find that he must explain himself to an officer who knows him from his days a misfit and lead-swinger.. He is disbelieved, disrespected, place under arrest, and then left alone with a horse and an easily-bluffed enlisted man. So Phillip Maddison, veteran of First and Third Ypres, Loos and the Somme, turns horse-thief, and gallops off to G.H.Q… and there, dropping dead with exhaustion and telling a strange tale, he is warmly listened to, fed and bedded, and made to tell his tale to the assembled mucky-mucks. There is good food and wine and cigars, but also the confident formality (of the very well-bred Englishmen). The unkempt messenger is heeded, and a better plan is put in motion… Phillip has saved day, and will have a pleasant rest at G.H.Q. before returning to his ordinary duty as a transport officer in a humble Machine Gun Company… And Henry Williamson leaves us wondering–is this a personal triumph in the face of the cold indifference of strategy? Is the implication that the Staff, with its cigars and clean clothes and expensive liquor, is nonetheless doing the best it can by men like Westy (not to mention all those thousands of platoons in the front lines? Or are the two worlds as incompatible as they feel, since the distance between the two seems to have grown greater after the unlikely gallop of our hero from one to another, rather than smaller?

I’m not sure. The simple answer, surely, is that when Williamson is writing of a time when he was abed in England, he works from a military history and indulges himself by writing a Boy’s Own Paper adventure. Whether this means that he was unable to consistently write a giant realist novel as a consistently realistic “War Book,” or simply unwilling to do so, is another matter.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Passchendaele and the Somme, 144-7.
  2. If there is an image of it available somewhere, I didn't find it with a desultory search, alas.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 377.
  4. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 172.
  5. The Contrary Experience, 111.
  6. It seems a relatively clear and balanced history of the battle as seen from the decades afterwards, and didn't Tolstoy do much the same thing, after all?