Happy Birthday Richard Aldington; A Painful Encounter for Vivian de Sola Pinto; A Different Sort of Protest from Siegfried Sassoon; Duff Cooper is Saved by Alice; Ivor Gurney’s Delightful Present and Grim Portent

It’s a busy day, today, in England and France…

Today is Richard Aldington‘s twenty-fifth birthday and, having been newly trained as an officer, he was able to take a weekend’s leave and spend it with his wife, the poet H.D., at her rooms in the village of Brocton. It was a happy and productive time:

That birthday weekend she reassured him and helped him take stock of his situation. He wrote to [a friend]: ‘I have been thinking over writing, translation & similar matters & under the encouragement of my wife I have begun to try to build up the ruins again!’

With H.D.’s support, he was tackling the problems the war had brought him as a writer: the lack of time for any sustained work, the limited opportunities for publication–and, worst of all, his ‘writer’s block’, arising out of his not having the luxury (unlike Pound and Eliot) of being able to ignore the war and yet feeling that what he could write about it was weak and inadequate…[1]

Now if he would only date his manuscripts…

 

In any other regiment, Vivian de Sola Pinto would be a literary giant; in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, he is more of a minor memoirist. But it it really is a very good memoir–just short on hard dates, alas–and it’s not quite fair to the man that he will only feature prominently here as a supporting character, both tactically and literarily.

He arrived in France in April after long service–and a long illness–in Egypt, and recovery at home. Tonight, a century back, his current tour of duty will come to a sharp end.

On the night of 8th July, after completing our usual patrol of no-man’s-land I led my men over the bank into the sunken road. It was bright moonlight, and as we dropped on to the road, we found ourselves in the middle of a number of men in flat caps, obviously a German patrol. For a moment English and Germans stared at each other in amazement. I had my loaded revolver hung round my neck on a lanyard and in my excitement I raised it and fired into the mass of strangers. I thought I had fired one shot, but found afterwards that I had emptied all six chambers. I certainly hit a man near me and saw him fall. Then I saw a blinding flash and heard a tremendous roar. The next thing that I remember was regaining consciousness on a stretcher in our front line with a bandage round the bottom of my face and my mouth full of blood, feeling that, perhaps, my lower jaw had been blown off. Later I learnt that after I fired my revolver a German threw one of their stick-bombs, which exploded above my head and knocked me unconscious…

At the dressing station Pinto learns that his jaw is intact, but that “various teeth were knocked out and pieces of bomb were lodged in my tongue and left cheek.” Eating became something of a challenge in the short term, as, even equipped with a rubber tube, “it tended to spout out through the hole in my cheek.”

There followed a very long and uncomfortable journey on a motor ambulance to the railhead, where I was carried on my stretcher to a hospital train by two stretcher-bearers in strange uniforms with broad-brimmed hats like those of boy scouts. ‘Americans!’ I said to myself, and was thrilled by the thought that American units were now in France…[2]

Remarkably, his recovery will be so swift that Pinto will not see Blighty, but instead move directly from the American hospital to a convalescent home near Dieppe…

 

Duff Cooper has not been shot in the face. But he’s still taking his transition into the army rather hard.

July 8, 1917

I arrived in London at about 5 and went to my flat which seemed very desolate with everything put away. It was still raining hard. I telephoned to everyone I knew but not a soul was in London. Then a great cloud of depression came upon me and I felt even more miserable than I had been at Bushey and without hope.

This is a private diary, and surely he showed a stiffer upper lip–not to mention charm and wit–to the outside world. But still… it’s a bit melodramatic! Which befits, I suppose, one of the last of the devoted friends-and-pursuers of Diana Manning. But today, unexpectedly, Cooper turns a corner, emotionally. It must be the radiant love of the divine Diana, right?

Nope–maybe tomorrow. Today, it’s a stiff drink and a dose of Lewis Carroll that does the trick.

I went to the Junior Carlton, drank a pint of champagne and some sherry with a small dinner and read Through the Looking Glass. As if by enchantment my melancholy left me and I knew that I should not be unhappy again. Courage came back to me which I had lost, and I despised myself for having done so. I went back to my flat, changed into my uniform, spoke to the Montagus who had just returned and motored down to Bushey feeling perfectly happy.[3]

 

This sort of mood shift–and its means–might be one of the very few things that Cooper could share with Ivor Gurney. But Gurney’s spirits rise today through the usual pleasures: good food and fond memories of home. And alas that his reading, today, is significantly less fantastic.

8 July 1917

My Dear Friend:

…This village is still delightful, and today the weather is perfect.

Two days ago, I had a dinner of salad and deux pain-beurres. It was perfectly wonderful to have such a dainty meal after aeons of shackles (Englished — skilly: stew.)

Your parcel has arrived, and thank you very much for it. Especially the lemonade powder and the fruit, which are summery things; but do not suppose that the cake, cheese, biscuits and OXO go unappreciated.

Gloster county is packed full of beautiful things, and pink dogroses of the most delicate miraculousness find place therein. Also wild strawberries by the million, and would I were on Coopers Hill looking over to Malvern and Wales while easing my back at times. O God, that goes too deep though!

Then the letter turns on a dime–its import, that is, even though the tone remains light.

We are having really a pretty easy time now, and this means Over the Top, I think. Well, let come what come may, as the Victorians said, I shall have had my day. (And a — poor one at times.)

Alan Seeger’s poems must be interesting. I like “I have a rendezvous with Death” very much…

I have no change now, but next letter shall contain a 5 fr note to be applied to the purchase of Ralph Hodgson’s “Poems”, for you… Or would you prefer the Second Book of Georgian Verse…?

A Frenchwoman told me she never heard French soldiers sing half so much as English. This pleased me, and indeed 7 Platoon has been songful of late…

Your sincere friend,

Ivor Gurney[4]

Singing, then, and thinking of the summer beauties of Gloucestershire… and remembering another soldier’s prophetic/poetic rendezvous…

 

Finally, today, an update of sorts on the Siegfried Sassoon drama. First–and this will prove significant–Robbie Ross is now on the case.

8 July 1917
Hotel Albion, Brighton

Dearest Siegfried, I am quite appalled at what you have done! I can only hope that the C.O. at Litherland will absolutely ignore your letter. I am terrified lest you should be put under arrest.

Let me know at once if anything happens.

Ever your devoted

Robbie[5]

Sassoon has made an interesting choice–out of idleness, he will claim, but perhaps more truly out of a semi-conscious instinct for self-preservation. He informs his influential friends of his dramatic action when it has only half-begun: the letter is sent to Litherland, but the “Statement” is not yet published.

Among the immediate actions Ross will take is to send a letter to Robert Graves, on the Isle of Wight. But today, a century back, Graves is still in ignorance of Sassoon’s action. His letters of today and recent days are all poetry–or, rather, about the placement of poetry. He is drumming up support for his own book and negotiating with Eddie Marsh about the next Georgian Poetry anthology–in which he, Sassoon, and Robert Nichols will be prominent. And in each of these letters to mutual friends he both praises some of Sassoon’s verses and takes behind-the-back potshots at other poems…

Ironically, then, since Graves is about to throw up his poetry-mongering to take up his friend’s dangerous case–Sassoon is risking not only disgrace but imprisonment and, theoretically at least, capital punishment–Sassoon himself has not been as entirely idle as he would have us believe. He has also been tending to his poetic fortunes, and recently wrote to complain about a sharp review–to Charles Scott Moncrieff, as it happens. And today, a century back, Scott Moncrieff replied:

I enjoyed your book much more than I have said, but I do confidently think that you are too ‘good at’ poetry to waste your talents on such London Mail storyette effects as you have secured in ‘The Hero.’ If I had written it I should talk about myself for years after, on the head of cleverness. But that is another matter.[6]

It’s busy times, these days, what with poetry, literary maneuvering, and attempting to provoke a court martial…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Whelpton, Poet, Soldier, and Writer, 152-3.
  2. The City That Shone, 202-3.
  3. Diaries, 56.
  4. The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, 174.
  5. Diaries, 179.
  6. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 361.

Siegfried Sassoon is Blighty Bound… and Eighteen Other Updates

Although I am almost as tired of writing extremely long posts as you are of reading them, so very many of our writers committed some sort of date-fixable act today, a century back, that I thought I should nod to the fates and survey everyone who showed up.[1]

After we wrap up with Siegfried Sassoon, withdrawn from the Hindenburg trench to the Hindenburg tunnel with a new “patriotic perforation” in his shoulder, and after we read the progress of Edward Hermon‘s widow, I will try to be judiciously brief with the others. Somehow, yesterday, Sassoon was not only seen and treated by the battalion Medical Officer, but was swiftly evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station. Within hours of being held back from an attempted one-man bombing war, he is tucked in and headed for Blighty.

April 17

After a blessed eight hours’ sleep (more than I’d had since last Wednesday) I waited till 5 o’clock reading Far from the Madding Crowd, when we got on board a Red Cross train of serpentine length. Five hundred men and thirty-two officers on board. Warlencourt is eighteen kilometres from Arras—quite near Saulty, where we stayed on April 7. We passed through Doullens about 6 p.m. and Abbeville at 8.30 and reached Camiferes at midnight.

An officer called Kerr is with me—one of the First Cameronians. He was hit in the bombing show about an hour before I got up there on Monday morning, so I’ve got some sidelights on what really happened.

At present I am still feeling warlike, and quite prepared to go back to the line in a few weeks. My wound is fairly comfortable, and will be healed in a fortnight, they say. I know it would be best for me not to go back to England, where I should probably be landed for at least three months, and return to the line in July or August, with all the hell and wrench of coming back and settling down to be gone through again. I think I’ve established a very strong position in the Second Battalion in the five weeks I was with them. My luck never deserts me; it seems inevitable
for me to be cast for the part of ‘leading hero!’

Things to remember

The dull red rainy dawn on Sunday April 15, when we had relieved the 15th Northumberland Fusiliers—our Company of eighty men taking over a frontage of nine hundred yards.

During the relief—stumbling along the trench in the dusk, dead men and living lying against the sides of the trench one never knew which were dead and which living. Dead and living were very nearly one, for death was in all our hearts. Kirkby shaking dead German[2] by the shoulder to ask him the way.

On April 14 the 19th Brigade attacked at 5.30 a.m. I looked across at the hill where a round red sun was coming up. The hill was deeply shadowed and grey-blue, and all the Country was full of shell-flashes and drifting smoke. A battle picture.

Scene in the Hénin Dressing Station. The two bad cases—abdomen (hopeless) and ankle. The pitiful parson. My walk with Mansfield.

Sergeant Baldwin (A. Company) his impassive demeanour—like a well-trained footman. ‘My officer’s been hit.’ He bound up my wound.[3]

As these notes suggest, there will be a good deal more to write about all this.

 

A few days after learning of her husband’s death, Ethel Hermon received the heartfelt letter from his long-time manservant Gordon Buxton.

Dear Buxton,

Your letter came this morning & I can never thank you enough for your loving care of him & your sympathy & prayers. I knew you would be heartbroken & that I should have all your sympathy as you probably knew as well as anyone could know how much we were to each other.

You will by now have had my other letter telling you that I have asked Gen. Trevor… to let you come home if it is possible as I simply long to talk to you… I seem to know all that pen & paper can tell, one just longs to talk to someone who was there…

I should leave it there, as we press on into this massively choral day. To summarize, Ethel also charges Buckin with seeing that her husband’s valuable and useful possessions are distributed to his friends, and that the items that had been personal, close to his body–“the old basin & cover & its contents”–be returned to her. She hopes, too, that he can care for her husband’s grave. Which he will do–and he will come home.

A British tank ditched in the German lines at Arras, IWM

Dear Mrs. Hermon,

I’m sending this note by Buxton who goes on leave today to report to you. He will bring the papers etc. found on your husband…

…a tank was caught up on the German front line… & the Boches were firing at it… there seems little doubt that one these rifle bullets hit your husband just below the heart… The medical officer tells me he thinks a big blood vessel below the heart was severed & that death was almost instantaneous.

Your husband’s horses are being sent to Div. Hd. Qrs with the groom…

I can only repeat how much I feel for you in your irreparable loss.

Yours very sincerely,

H.E. Trevor[4]

 

Kate Luard‘s parade of horrors (we’ve read but a little, lately) has abated, as the Arras push lags. So time for a stroll–and paperwork.

We have had a lull the last two days, and everybody has been off duty long enough to go for a walk in relays and pick Lent lilies, cowslips, and anemones…  I believe another stunt is expected tomorrow…

I got about 60 behind in Break-the-News letters the first few days of last week…[5]

 

Ivor Gurney, realizing perhaps that he is even more lucky to be wounded and out of it than he had thought, managed a post card today to Marion Scott:

Dear Friend: Still at the Base. No certain address. No certain tomorrow. No luck. No money. No damage to my arm, save a hole. Yet, had the boats been running, I might have got to Blighty…[6]

 

Let’s see: what else is happening with the Great War writers?

 

Christopher Wiseman arrived in Harrogate to visit John Ronald Tolkien, and to help him in compiling a memorial volume of their friend G.B. Smith’s work.[7]

 

In fiction, today is the key date in “The Colonel’s Shoes,” a curious supernatural shaggy-dog short story by Ford Madox Hueffer. It’s a tale told in retrospect that hinges on bitter, childish infighting among a few officers and plays out in the orderly room of their overworked battalion. Today, a century back, a vindictive captain writes up a Company-Sergeant-Major for perceived insubordination, and it will take a very, very minor miracle to set things right…[8]

 

And after the excitement of last night’s chaotic patrol, tonight’s action provided tension in a lower key for Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. Ordered to move forward under cover of darkness and entrench within 200 yards of the Germans, Pollard accidentally led his men all the way up to the German wire obstacles. But once again “Fritz was keeping a very bad watch” and Pollard and his men are able to withdraw to the proper distance and begin entrenching before they are discovered. Pollard being Pollard, he ascertains that the battalion on his left is in the wrong position and blusters back under fire to explain his prowess and sure grasp of the situation to the Brigadier, as well as the embarrassed colonel of that neighboring battalion…[9]

 

Rowland Feilding missed the first week of the battle, but it is now the lot of his battalion to hold trenches in the worst possible weather, and fight the same war of patrol and counter-patrol.

April 17, 1917. “‘Turnerstown Left” (Fierstraat Sector).

I think this year must be accursed. Never was a fouler day than to-day. After a wet night it is still raining this morning, and the wind is howling dismally, but overhead. There are points, after all, in being in a trench. The French seem to have made a spectacular re-entry into the arena yesterday, but they must have been greatly handicapped by the weather, like our men at Vimy.

Last night we captured two big Prussian Grenadiers (unwounded) on our wire. They were brought to my dugout at 2 a.m., looking frightened—with their hands still outstretched in the orthodox manner of the surrendered prisoner who desires to show that he is not armed; coated with mud; one bleeding from a tear from the wire; but neither seeming too unhappy. If one only knew German this would be the proper time to extract information. They are too scared to lie much. Later, when they find out how kindly is the British soldier, they become sly and independent.[10]

 

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, whose harrowing summer was followed by a long spell of peaceful staff work, was sent back to his battalion today, a century back, taking over C Company of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers. We hear time and again how officers pine for their comrades and their men when they are sent off to safe billets and cushy staff positions–not so Griffith, who “set off despondently” to return to the hardships of the line.[11]

 

And with another Kitchener battalion of the Royal Welch, David Jones is also heading back toward the front.

On the 17th, in wind and sleet, they left for divisional reserve at Roussel Farm–the cold mud so deep that it took hours to pass through 400 yards of communication trench. They arrived at 3.30 a.m.[12]

 

Henry Williamson “wrote a lot of letters” today, including one to his mother enclosing a piece of army propaganda about German demoralization and one to his father describing the roar of the big naval guns, the sight of a British tanker driven mad by the gunfire concentrated on his tank, and the recent transaction of parcels: cake and bullseyes to Henry in France, and souvenirs–including “2 tin boxes of bombs, etc., and 3 lovely helmets… & a saw bayonet”–sent home.[13]

 

Vera Brittain remains too far from the front, and full of worry. To her brother Edward, today, a century back:

I have to keep on writing letters, because the vague bits of news from France that filter through to us make me so anxious to receive them. From the long list of names that appear in the telegrams there seems to be a vast battle going on along the whole of our front & the French one too, but it is very difficult to make out at all what is happening. Is Geoffrey anywhere in the Bapaume direction? The longer the War goes on, the more one’s concern in the whole immense business seems to centre itself upon the few beings still left that one cares about, & the less upon the general issue of the struggle. One’s personal interest wears one’s patriotism rather threadbare by this time. After all, it is a garment one has had to wear for a very long time, so there’s not much wonder if it is beginning to get a little shabby![14]

Looking back on this night, she will add these thoughts:

Yet another night’s red moon, I thought, looking up after finishing Edward’s letter at the ominous glow in the unquiet sky. Another night, and still no news. Is Victor still alive? Is Geoffrey? Oh, God–it’s intolerable to be out here, knowing nothing till ages afterwards, but just wondering and wondering what has happened![15]

 

Jack Martin, in billets at Dickebusch, took today to write out fairly lengthy pen-portraits of some of his comrades… but I’m only human…[16]

 

Vivian de Sola Pinto, working for weeks now at the Bull Ring near Rouen, records today’s date–I would guess a scrap of his orders was preserved, for there are few dates and few such specifics in his book–as the occasion of a “huge fatigue party” that spent the entire day loading lorries. But it was also a memorable occasion because the station from which he was to supervise the loading contained a sergeant and two classes of furniture: a comfy chair and a biscuit tin.

With wry approval de Sola Pinto notes the sergeant’s insistence–“a fine example of what I would call a manly spirit of volunteer subordination”–that the officer take the better chair, despite the fact that both of them “knew he was an infinitely better soldier than I should ever be.” de Sola Pinto insists on taking turns, but recognizes that the Sergeant’s principled, if nominal, subordination “actually enhanced” his dignity.[17]

 

George Coppard, recovered from the accidental shooting in the foot, arrived today at “Camiers, a reception base for drafts.”[18]

 

C.E. Montague wrote both a letter and a diary entry recording his view of the battle from close behind. Wise though he is, he still feels bereft that his old companions are in battle and he is not. And he shows what a man with the time for literary composition on his hands can do. This is a good mix of eyewitness reportage and refined “battle-piece” history.

April 17, 1917

…Behold me again in the midst of our long-drawn battles—-meet incidents of our long-drawn war.

I saw the beginning of this one, before daylight on the morning of the 9th, from a little height above our front, from which I could see all our guns flash off together at the second of starting, like a beaded line of electric lights all turned on from one switch, and then each of them turned on and off and on again as fast as possible by a switch of its own. At intervals beyond this line of flashes there were the big geysers of flame, and dark objects visible in the middle of it, spouting up from our mines under the German front trench; and then at every two or three hundred yards there went up signal rockets from the German trenches, that seemed like visible shrieks to their artillery and supports to protect them from our infantry, who, they knew, were then on their way across from our trenches. I could see all this going on along several miles of front, and it was strangely dramatic, though all expressed through lights in the darkness alone, until the day broke and we could see our infantry already beyond the second line of enemy trenches and sauntering across quietly to the third, with our barrage of smoke walking steadily in front of them like the pillar of smoke in the desert—only of course it cannot give complete safety; and now and then the line would have a gap made in it by a shell and would join up again across the gap, and go strolling, with the strange look of leisureliness that an infantry charge of the scientific kind has now, until the time comes to rush the last few yards and jump down into the enemy’s trench.

It is grievous to to think that my battalion has twice had this great moment since I left it last midsummer, and that I may never know any more thrilling contact with the enemy than mutual sniping and a little reconnoitring of ground between his trenches and ours. The only compensation, so far as it goes, is that I see much more of the war and of the front as a whole, and the battlefield of the moment in particular, than one sees when engaged in honest regimental labour.

And in his diary:

Miles and miles of our front begin to dance in the dark, with twinkling and shimmering flashes. Suggests a long keyboard on which notes of light are being swiftly played. Then, from points all along German front, signal red and white and green rockets go up. Also ‘golden rains’ of our liquid fire, and one or two mine volcanoes. Dawn breaks on this firework show. Then on to a huge earthwork, an outwork of Arras citadel and lie on safe side and look over with fieldglass. Our infantry visible advancing in successive waves to take the second German trench-line N.E. of
Arras. Disquieted flocks of rooks. Then to Divl. H.Q., to find good news.

 

Charles Carrington‘s writing is honest, balanced, and well-informed. But he generally takes pains to, as they say, accentuate the positive. His morale and that of his unit’s was generally good–they have not despaired, they are more grim and more devoted to each other when they have started, but they would not acknowledge any sea change in their motivations, etc. But some days–and some nights, like last night, a century back, as they pressed up through the wreckage of this second push at Arras–were enough to drive a man to madness, despair, and self-slaughter. Last night he huddled under trench mortars; today was worse.

…In the morning, when we advanced unopposed, I passed the corpse of a British sergeant, not of my regiment. He lay on his back holding a revolver in his hand, shot through the throat at such an angle that I wondered if it had been suicide. If I had been suicidally inclined that night would have driven me to it.[19]

 

Edwin Vaughan and his battalion have been following the attack as well, and he writes voluminously of these days. But given his sensitive nature and penchant for drama, I don’t think he would mind my making this the representative incident:

At the Epéhy crossroads, we found a huge cat squatting on the chest of a dead German, eating his face. It made us sick to see it, and I sent two men to chase it away. As they approached it sprang snarling at them, but they beat it down with their rifles and drove it into the ruined houses. Then we covered the body with a sack, and went on.[20]

 

But we’ll end in Britain, in safety, and in the boudoir, where Duff Cooper has also been engaged in dire combat. Patrick Shaw-Stewart has been called back to war, but Cooper’s worries about other adversaries have pushed him closer to total war. Or, at least, to warfare unbefitting a gentleman. During Diana Manners‘ temporary absence from their long house party in Scotland he had been “obliged”–this is four days ago, a century back–to take a bath in her room. Where he opened and read her locked diary.[21]

It was rather vile of me…

It was, and we’ll skip the justifications. Amazingly, Cooper is both moved by learning “how much she loved Raymond” and urged to take action against his living rivals for her affection, including one Wimborne and a Lt-Col. Wilson who, of course, is known as “Scatters.”

There is no reference to me in the diary that I could quarrel with but I do not think she loves me… I rose from the perusal of this intimate diary which I had no right to read, loving, liking, and admiring her more than before.

And somehow this added up to progress. Cooper confessed his deed and was not banished. In fact, by last night he was reading her pages of his diary, then listening in agony outside her door while she (scandalously) entertained “Scatters” in the wee hours of today, a century back, and then returning in before dawn to wake her up with recrimination.

She cried and reproached me bitterly with not trusting and spying on her. I felt in the wrong and implored forgiveness which only after long pleading she granted. Then we had a night of the most wild and perfect joy. The best perhaps we ever had.[22]

And somewhere, every dawn, some men attack, and many sighs are drained.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This may be--I joke here, almost completely, and with full apology for trespassing on the sanctity of life-or-death experience "from my armchair" (three words which I omitted from the Memoirs yesterday; but the armchair was only one possible destiny, for Sassoon)--the centennial blogger equivalent of Sassoon's mood at the very end of his escapade, yesterday, a century back...
  2. See Sassoon's "The Rear Guard," at the bottom of that post.
  3. Diaries, 156-7.
  4. For Love and Courage, 355, 358.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 114.
  6. War Letters, 155.
  7. Chronicle, 100.
  8. War Prose, 159-69.
  9. Fire-Eater, 209-11.
  10. War Letters to a Wife, 168.
  11. Griffith, Up to Mametz and Beyond, 138.
  12. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 153.
  13. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 119-20.
  14. Letters from a Lost Generation, 334-5.
  15. Testament of Youth, 339.
  16. Sapper Martin, 60-4.
  17. The City that Shone, 190.
  18. With a Machine Gun, 106.
  19. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 145.
  20. Some Desperate Glory, 95-6.
  21. What, I ask you, is the point of all of that fancy classical education if Cooper can pull up and manage some allusion to Actaeon, transformed into a deer and torn apart by his own hounds after seeing Artemis in the bath. Perhaps, as he considers leaving the Foreign Office for the Army, the vengeful hounds of his old hunting partners, become ravening ghosts, perhaps, are a bit too frightening to contemplate.
  22. Duff Cooper Diaries, 50-1.

Vera Brittain Laid Low, Dorothie Feilding Disappoints a Wonderfully Brave Man; Isaac Rosenberg Strives to Stay in with Marsh; Ivor Gurney on Everything and Cake Too

A number of writers are busy today, a century back. There is going, coming, preening, editing, boasting, chatting, wagering, wondering…

 

In the “record time of five days” aboard the speedy Britannic, Vivian de Sola Pinto, drained and ill after months of fever, has reached England:

On 10th October 1916 we were steaming into Southampton Water on a chilly, wet, misty English autumn afternoon. It was thirteen months since I left England, but mentally I seemed at least half a century older than the callow youth who stood on the top deck of the Northdown on that fine September evening in 1915 and dreamed of a triumphal entry into Constantinople.[1]

 

Vera Brittain, who had been outward bound on the very same ship, perseveres in finding a note of romance and adventure in her first overseas service–despite being very ill, she seems rather pleased with the hubbub in this letter to her brother Edward. Solar topees! Empire and travel!

Imtarfa Hospital, Malta, 10 October 1916

The day before we landed at Malta, 16 of us, self included, were quite suddenly seized with some variety or other of fever, but whether dysentery, malaria, enteritis or some other species no one seems to know . . . I am very much better now and my temperature is down to normal again . . . Everyone here is very busy trying to trace the origin of our disease so as to find out exactly what is the matter with us . . . We have had quite 12 doctors in here, sometimes, five at once. Three of them are lady doctors, all very charming too, in khaki tussore coats & skirts, dark blue ties & solar topees. I am quite tired of giving my name (& wish it was Jones so that I didn’t have to spell it every time), my age, my detachment number, particulars of what I had to eat lately, etc etc. They have taken blood tests of various kinds . . .[2]

 

Nor can I pass up this episode in the strange life of Lady Dorothie Feilding. Romance! Adventure!

10th Oct

Mother mine–

Life is really very odd isn’t it? I told you Hughie’s friend of the Cornwall, Mr Vaughan RN,[3] you saw in London, turned up here! He got permission through D.I.D. who knows him, to spend 3 days leave out here as he wanted to see me again. He turned up here with the mail on the lorry one day & we put him up at our barracks & Jelly & I took him about in the car with us to show him things & fed him at no 14. He is a very nice soul, I like him very much, but was so sorry because before he left he asked if there would be any chance for me to marry him & I had to say I couldn’t. Poor soul, he’s always had a very lonely time of it through life & was very devoted to his gunner brother who was killed not long ago at Ypres. You remember his writing to me about it when I was home don’t you?

I think men are wonderfully brave sometimes at making up their minds don’t you? Everything really is very odd these days. The days when things weren’t odd seem so far away, almost like a dream.

This sudden proposal of marriage–from a friend of her dead brother who has lost his own brother–puts Lady Dorothie into a reflective mood. Even more unusually, it seems to plunge her into a mode of plainspoken self-expression.

A lot of blessés [wounded] the other night. Poor poor devils. But the more one can help them right out here at the pulse of things the more this actual work means to one. I can’t describe it, but it’s very real, & it means more to me everyday some how.

God bless you dear & goodnightD[4]

 

Isaac Rosenberg writes from the other end of the social scale. Laboring with a salvage unit on the Somme, he does his best to keep up the tenuous but crucial connections he has to London’s literary world. In this letter to Marsh he is careful–I think that’s the word–to praise the divine Rupert as well as their mutual friend Lascelles Abercrombie (whose interest in Rosenberg is due to Marsh’s recommendation). Does Rosenberg lay it on a bit thick?

[Postmarked October 10, 1916]
22311 A Coy 3 platoon
11th K.O.R.L. B.E.F

My Dear Marsh,

You complain in your letter that there is little to write about; my complaint is rather the other way, I have too much to write about, but for obvious reasons my much must be reduced to less than your little. My exaggerated way of feeling things when I begin to write about them might not have quite healthy consequences…

My Lilith has eloped with that devil procrastination, or rather, labours of a most colosal and uncongenial shape have
usurped her place and driven her blonde and growing beauty away. I have written something that still wants knocking into shape I feel too tired to copy it out, but later on I will, if you care to see it I came across that poem on clouds by poor Rupert Brooke. It is magnificent indeed, and as near to sublimity as any modem poem.

The poem I like best of modem times in Abercrombies Hymn to Love, It is more weighty in thought, alive in passion and of a more intense imagination than any I know….

Do write when you can.

Yours sincerely

Isaac Rosenberg[5]

 

A more comfortable poet-patron relationship is that between Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott. Miss Scott has helped Gurney immensely, and it is due to her that his poems are beginning to be read and his compositions have been several times performed. But she is a local sort of patroness, content to hover in that gray area between benefactress and amanuensis. Gurney seems eager to please, but he does not fawn–and the very prolixity and disorganization of his letters may be a sign of trust…

He has recently received both a number of parcels and a set of comments and corrections of his work–body and soul together. Two days ago he wrote in thanks:

8 October 1916

My Dear Miss Scott: We are in rest, and at present I myself am in quiet, with a sore foot that has compelled a little respect, so here’s a letter. I do not know whether the packet sunk the other day had any of my letters on board, but hope not. There will be bloody fighting if the Germans sink our parcels; if you have sent one I have not received it yet, let us hope frightfulness has not been carried to so extreme a limit. All the things you send arrive in good condition…

A long ramble about her corrections to his work, his hope for poems and music to come, and somewhat sanguine celebration of recent victories…

The Verdun victory is a very great one, do you not think? The Marne; the Thiepval — Contalmaison — La Boisselle… Verdun. Belles victoires!

…The truth is, as Hardy says, that the English fall back on stoical fatalism; and whatever it is they believe, it is not Christianity. They go to Church, and desire something spiritual, but it is nothing the Churches give them. They are fine, but self-reliant not relying on God…

Sore foot indeed. The chatty letter goes on at some length, and includes a rough poem draft (“Robecq”). Only two days later–today, a century back, Gurney is writing to Scott once again, full of literary exuberance.

He segues from praise of otheres’ books and their praiser’s–“Did you read G K Cs[6] review of Masefields “Gallipoli” in the Observer? O, it is a noble piece of praise”–to gentle mockery of his own work. He quotes his own recent “Serenity,” then mocks its incompleteness, as if to say “this is poetry, fine, but poetry is lacking…”

Nor steel nor flame has any power on me.
Save that its malice work the Almighty Will;
Nor steel nor flame has any power on me;
Through tempests of hell fire I must go free.
And unafraid; so I remember still
Nor steel nor flame has any power on me
Save that its malice work the Almighty Will.

Which is all very well; but what about Mud and Monotony? And Minnies and Majors?

A just question! Gurney sounds more like St. Francis than a poet of modern war. But he is all over the place, of late–this is another letter that shows either the effects of a tired and harassed infantry private writing fluidly about whatever is on his mind at the moment or evidence of a manic phase of mental illness–or both.

Gurney has high hopes for victory:

If I had £20 — a large supposition — I would bet the end comes . . .  by the end of November 5£. By Christmas £10. By End of Feb £15 and by August £20. You will not convince me that such already panicky losers will hold out long…

And then, weirdly, the supposed retreat of the German defenders turns from a note of triumph to a strangely pathetic scene, before veering into black comedy: “Stand-to” is the dawn ceremony at which the front line infantry all come on duty (during the night they work, or rest while taking turns as sentries) together to repel any possible dawn attack. As a display of readiness (and also as a way of enforcing that readiness among themselves) they all fire a few rounds.

No Man’s Land is in the last degree desolate, and nothing could seem sadder than the old willow tree I shoot at during Stand to. There are no Germans and one must shoot at something at Stand to. It was partridges that a
corporal discovered two days ago. He shot 3, but as he had to wait till evening again, the rats got one more than he did. No bon.

Without segue, Gurney now produces a “trench dialogue.” It seems that I have worked too hard today to present a bouquet of different century-back words and experiences… Gurney himself provides multitudes…

Trench dialogue

Cook drops bacon in the mud.
(Cook). — !———–!!! — !
(Passer by, sympathetically) No bon, eh?
(Cook). Compree me explique no bon?
(Passer by.) Na pooh fini, eh?
Cook Wee, no — bon at all.

Such accomplished linguists our gallant soldiers have already become.

Or. Trench Dialogue no 2

Entitled Rations

Prometheus Unbound (off duty.) General expletives.
Chorus (Sympathetic silence)
Prometheus No Bon! No Bon!!
Chorus Dont compree.
Prometheus Compree no grub?
Chorus Whatt!!
Prometheus. Compree no——– grub?
Chorus (dejectedly) Me compree. Wee, Wee. (Goes off to spread the news.)
Prometheus HE comprees! And me.

These are the real Trench dialogues. The Spurious may be told by their unlikeness to these models, so Greek in their perfection of form…

What is going on on with Gurney and these strange almost proto-Beckett playlets? An excess of good humor? Simple capering for Miss. Scott’s benefit?

In the end, Gurney returns to the private soldier’s postal necessity–the chance of caloric subsidy via parcel:

May I request that your next parcel be more substantial with a cake and some sort of paste. Anchovy lasts a deuce of a time…

Will you send me, sometime, the 6d Edition (Nelsons) of Wild Wales? Or that which once was 6d? It is a wonderfully companionable book, and long, beautifully trench-fittingly long; although one skips so much in Borrow.

Body and soul together…

Best wishes to you, and for the quick return to health of all the invalids:

Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The City That Shone, 182.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 278-9.
  3. Royal Navy, rather than registered nurse...
  4. Lady Under Fire, 168-9.
  5. Collected Works, 312-3.
  6. Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
  7. War Letters, 105-9.

Rudyard Kipling’s Advice to a Young Cadet; Crossing Paths on the Brittanic: Vivian de Sola Pinto is Blighty-Bound; Vera Brittain Sees Lemnos, and Thinks of Rupert, and Roland

Rudyard Kipling has a diverse correspondence. Today, a century back, he wrote to his nephew Oliver Baldwin, who joined the Cambridge Officer Training Corps in May. It seems that eager young Oliver sent his uncle a sort of crib sheet for platoon drill that he had devised…

Bateman’s / Burwash / Sussex/ Oct. 3.1916
Dear Sir

I am much indebted to you for your kind thought in sending me your latest work “Platoon drill” which I have read with great interest. The style strikes me as crisp and well-balanced though here and there a little staccato. The plot fascinates me immensely in spite of the absence of the feminine element. There is a vigor and movement about it which never flags and the interest continues to increase up to the end where No. paces the Interval. This scene is conceived with masterly grip and insight and the sudden disappearance of Interval after being paced held me breathless. I should be happier if you had not left your readers in doubt as to the fate of Remainder; or, may we, haply, look for a sequel in which he married Double March. But enough of Literature, however good.

I always try to primly remind readers that letters are terrible barometers of mood. One sets oneself to a task, and nearly anything can be concealed during those minutes of writing. Even if the writer strives for total honesty, he or she is writing and reflecting, disturbing the essence of experience with the act of observation… and even if these hurdles are overcome, the writing will in any case only encapsulate the mood of those few minutes. A rat, a nasty meal, a trench mud-slide, a sudden barrage–or a parcel, an unexpected leave or relief, a warm and dry dawn–and all will seem very different…

And then, lately, I have been harping upon the implied duty of so many of these letters–the pressure that shapes them into something other than a naked record of the writer’s feelings. Usually, that duty is to demonstrate to a wife or mother at home that things are cheerful, bearable, and not particularly perilous.

In this letter the duty is almost the opposite. Kipling recently wrote, in quiet, strongly-worded, irrational umbrage, an attempt to stave off the official death of his son, nearly a year after he was actually killed. Today he writes to a bright young relative who will be going out there, before too long… and when he his done with his joke, Kipling writes with very great affection.

Buttons, my dear.

We were rejoiced to get your letter on the typewriter that pretends to be a pen. We really are coming to see you if we can ever get away from our jobs here. And what tales of absurdity and complications we have to tell you! I am trying to imagine you as an Instructor. You probably do it very well since you have a false air of never being shocked or upset–which is the whole essence of wisdom and success in this world. Also, you ought to have filled
out a bit on the square…

I have understood from several quarters that Cambridge is a sink. The kind of animile now being recruited can’t hold his liquor as a rule. As to women, I imagine there is more and more variegated venereal now in England than at any time of her rough Island story. So for the love of Goodness look out! They ought to be inspected.

Do you ever get any leave? If so do you always spend it in town? If so why not let us know? And further if otherwise why not come down here for a week end. It’s long since we’ve had a rag together and the billiard table is simply mildewed from lack of use.

Dear love from us all. You’ll make a really a. 1. Officer in time and I daresay you feel it.

Ever your affectionate old
Uncle Rud.

Is there anything you want that there is at Bateman’s that we can send you?
Rough socks; mitts, etc. etc. are plentiful just now.[1]

It’s impossible not to read this letter with “My Boy Jack” in mind. But Kipling musters a jest–though this is a time when they are few–and puts on a brave face for a young soldier-to-be. It’s the postscript, I think, that can give us the confidence to say “yes, Kipling is playing up a part here, not writing from the heart.” A boy officer at Cambridge is not in great need of socks and mittens, no matter how strenuous the training. But soon he will be, and they will provide much needed comfort, and no protection at all against shot or shell…

 

When I began this project I envisioned reading so many memoirs and letters that every few weeks or so two writers would turn out to be–previously unbeknownst to history!–rubbing elbows in a communications trench, somewhere. A little silly–it’s a very big war–and beside the point, but still. We’ve had quite a few “paths crossing” nonetheless, but this one is far afield–or, rather, overseas.

Vera Brittain arrived today at Mudros, the major British port on the Greek island of Lemnos. There she will disembark from the great Britannic and board a smaller vessel for Malta.  Meanwhile, Vivian de Sola Pinto, an officer of the Royal Welch whose overseas service has been with the 6th battalion, at Gallipoli and then in Egypt–was carried aboard. De Sola Pinto had seen Lemnos before, during the pre-Gallipoli dithering of 1915, but he is in no condition to enjoy it now. In combat on the Suez Canal in early August he had fallen ill with sunstroke and dysentery, and–after evacuation by camel-litter and long weeks in an Alexandrian hospital–he is now being sent back to blighty.

…on 1st October I was carried on to the hospital ship Letitia, which took me to Mudros. The great harbour was now almost empty and most of the huts and tents on shore had disappeared. However, there was one enormous liner there. It was the Britannic, the sister ship of the Titanic. It had been completed in 1914 and had been taken over immediately and turned into a hospital ship. With a number of other sick and wounded men I was transferred to this monster…[2]

 

Vera Brittain, heading in the opposite direction, is bored of the great liner and charmed by the beauties of the Aegean–at least from a distance. Arriving in Greece, will she think of the ancients in their glory, or the miseries of nearby Gallipoli? Ah, well, she has a more recent hero still.

Tuesday October 3rd

Once again we got out of bed early, this time to see the Archipelago. We saw now that we were being closely escorted, by a British battle cruiser, a British torpedo-boat & a British destroyer. We stayed for some time watching the sun rise over the Greek Islands. In the afternoon after sailing safely through three rows of mines we reached, Lemnos & anchored in Mudros harbour. Seen from a distance the Aegean appeared to gleam with great jewels–golden islands with purple shadows, set in a deep blue sea. When we got nearer we saw that they were of a rocky, hilly, sandy nature, golden-brown rather than red, & in many cases covered with brown scrubby grass…

We were told that on the Island are the graves of three Canadian Sisters, who died nursing in the camp hospital  there. The place was grim & sinister looking yet there was a queer unaccountable fascination about it which would not allow me to take my eyes from it nearly all the afternoon. And I am very sure that the vision of that momentous curve of Lemnos in the rich desolation of the. Aegean will remain in my mind long after the more splendid visions of Naples have almost passed away from it. A mist came over my eyes as I looked over this lonely place where Rupert Brooke died, and I remembered so vividly the first time I heard his poems, when Miss Darbishire read them to me at Oxford one evening in May soon after Roland had gone to the front.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 403-4.
  2. The City that Shone, 182.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 330-1.

Will Streets Saves his Undying Splendour; A Less-Than-Splendid Parade for Vivian de Sola Pinto

Will Streets wrote home today, a century back, with the coming battle much on his mind.

I am just forwarding the sonnet sequence that I have been working at lately. It is not quite as I would have liked it, but it will have to do now. The next month or two will see me in a position to endeavour to have a book printed or see me beneath the sweet soil of France. I cannot tell you why. Only accept the statement and keep it to yourself.[1]

Thus Streets complies with the letter of the law about not discussing military operations in a letter home. Would that such coyness about the coming attack were necessary…

As for the sonnets, well. Streets, a largely self-educated miner, is producing rather stilted and extremely traditional verse–the cycle, in praise of Britain’s war effort, is to be called “The Undying Splendour.” Is there no hint of realism because his outlook on the war is so thoroughly positive, or rather because he wants to write poetry that “elevates” instead of describing or questioning?

Here, then, are two short samples from the sequence, which is less an exercise in pro-war poeticizing than it is an attempt to write a sort of history of the war in the High Formal Manner. Streets works through pre-war England before getting down to the details–the sixth sonnet is entitled “Belgium.” Next comes the inevitable response, a declaration of purpose from a man of the New (or Kitchener’s) Army.

VIII. THE CALL

Like solo flute above an orchestra
Freedom was heard calling her brave sons
To save a nation ravish’d by the Huns…

IX. YOUTH’S CONSECRATION

Lovers of Life! Dreamers with lifted eyes!
O Liberty, at thy command we challenge Death!
The monuments that show our fathers’ faith
Shall be the altars of our sacrifice.
Dauntless, we fling our lives into the van,
Laughing at Death because within Youth’s breast
Flame lambent fires of Freedom. Man for man
We yield to thee our heritage, our best.
Life’s highest product, Youth, exults in life;
We are Olympian Gods in consciousness;
Mortality to us is sweet; yet less
We value Ease when Honour sounds the strife.
Lovers of Life, we pledge thee Liberty
And go to death, calmly, triumphantly.

The tenth sonnet, actually entitled “Sacrifice,” is less Brookean than it is intensely Christian. Streets was a devout Methodist, and sacrifice means more to him than patriotic platitude–though, as we see, it includes that as well. In general, the sequence tries to cover everything and so muddles through a number of themes without really coming into its own.

But, as Streets writes, it is unfinished: he hasn’t yet had the luxury of advanced schooling or, it would seem, of sharp-eyed mentors and friends who can read his work and help him improve it. For now, he is sending his poetry to safety…

 

And here’s a nice contrast. From a serious and decorous laborer-turned-soldier to a highly-educated and skeptical subaltern. Vivian de Sola Pinto is still in Egypt with a Kitchener’s Army battalion of the Royal Welch, where last week’s news is still to be acknowledged.

Ceremonial parades were now the order of the day and the old spit-and-polish tradition of the Army was revived…

Another terribly long and exhausting ceremonial was a memorial service held on 14th June for the death of Lord Kitchener, the news of which had reached us about a week before when we heard the newspaper boys shouting one morning: ‘Velly good news today, Lord Kitchener dead.’ The first part of this announcement was, of course, merely a salesman’s slogan. On this occasion I wrote: ‘We were all half-dead when we got back to barracks as we had been on parade for 7 1/2 hours in blinding hear without food or drink of any kind.’ These elaborate military shows were doubtless intended to impress the Egyptian population. Perhaps they did.. Their only effect on our troops, however, was to make them regard the whole business of soldiering, and especially the High Command, with a bitter cynicism, summed up in the refrain of a song which was now often heard on the march:

‘Bullshit, bullshit: it all sounds like bullshit to me.'[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Piuk, A Dream Within the Dark, 70.
  2. The City that Shone, 178-9.

Easter in the Trenches, and Elsewhere: A Poem from Will Streets, Tea with Bimbo Tennant, Siegfried Sassoon in Paradise, Raymond Asquith Head Over Heels, George Coppard in a Mined Redoubt; New Correspondents from Aberdeen to Alexandria

Will Streets did not lead a well-documented life. This is a shame, and one which I have not done much here to rectify. It’s  hard to follow a story if the dated fragments are spread too far apart. But I do want include a poem he wrote today, a century back, and so I should remind us a little of just who he is. John William Streets was an eldest son, and bright, and, as he wrote in a letter earlier this year, he had both drive and promise:

I had dreams, I had ambitions, because I strove even in boyhood after learning, after expression. But because I had love (I am proud to say this) I drowned all my ambitions of a brilliant career.

The love he writes of is love for his family. Streets was not the son of a school master, a professor, a writer and school administrator, a landed scion of a wealthy mercantile family, or a peer.[1] He was the son of a coal miner, and the eldest of twelve children. So in his mid-teens he went to work down the Derbyshire coal mines: twelve hour shifts in the pits, six days a week, for fourteen years, until the war came. The wonder, then, is not that his verse is less polished than most of what we read, but rather that he wrote so well despite his truncated formal education. Streets read whenever he could–and sketched, and painted–and, a committed Methodist, he dreamed at one time of becoming a clergyman. Instead he became instead a private of the Sheffield City Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment, one of the early “pals” battalions of Kitchener’s army. In 1915 they were briefly in Egypt; in March of this year they arrived on the Somme.

Many of our British writers, raised in a culture long steeped in Christianity yet–for most–without either much emotional intensity or the direct sensual appeal of Catholicism, were struck by the ubiquity of Christian imagery in rural France. The most irresistibly symbolic sight was the crossroads shrine with a crucifix, damaged by shellfire, looming over the men marching toward fear, pain, and death. Streets, the North Country Methodist, deserves to get a word in today, Easter Sunday:

Small chance of a service. How the mind flies back to past times when we used to sing ‘Christ is risen!’ Out here it is hard to believe that. We pass wayside crosses on which hangs an effigy of Christ, and we feel that Christ is crucified. We feel that the keynote of this world is sacrifice, that men are marching to Calvary.[2]

Sensible prose. And here’s the poetry:

O sweet blue eve that seems so loath to die,
Trailing the sunset glory into night,
Within the soft, cool strangeness of thy light,
My heart doth seem to find its sanctuary.

The day doth verge with all its secret care,
The thrush is lilting vespers on the thorn;
In Nature’s inner heart seems to be born
A sweet serenity; and over there

Within the shadows of the stealing Night,
Beneath the benison of all her stars
Men, stirr’d to passion by relentless Mars,
Laughing at Death, wage an unceasing fight.

The thunder of the guns, the scream of shells
Now seem to rend the placid evening air:
Yet as the night is lit by many a flare
The thrush his love in one wild lyric tells.

O sweet blue eve! Lingering awhile with thee,
Before the earth with thy sweet dews are wet,
My heart all but thy beauty shall forget
And find itself in thy serenity.

 

And how was Easter at the other end of the social scale, in the rear, among the staff? The Honorable Bimbo Tennant confides:

This is only just a love-line to tell you how I loved getting the little Andalusian charm, and what a happy Easter I spent. It was a beautiful day, and I went to the Holy Communion in the morning. Then I went to enquire after General Ponsonby who has not been well the last day or two. After tea I rode leisurely about 2 1/2 miles to the 55th Co. R.E., with whom I spent a most delightful evening. They had a good pianist so we had ‘moosit’ and great fun.[3]

 

Siegfried Sassoon is rather less social in his habits, less convivial in his moods. He continues to write in a mode of alternating melodramatic passivity: a hunched and forward rush toward action (and fierce writing) when in trenches, then a subsidence into a sort of lazy, aesthetic, pastoral back-float when in reserve. Today, sent away from his battalion for a month of “school,” (one wonders: is this due to long-gestating bureaucratic processes, or have his recent escapades been worrying his superiors?) the country boy took in the landscape once more–even the cityscape.

April 23 (Easter Sunday)

Out of trenches yesterday; the last two days have been wet and horrid…

Easter and church. Started 8.45. Amiens 11.15—miller’s waggon and four horses—Corbie church with two towers, and the chimney-stacks.

After this last period—since Tommy got shot—though spring was on the way, and trees putting on a vesture of faint green, though the sun shone on many days—yet most seem to have been dark and unhappy—since March 26 I have done eighteen days in the trenches, and those days and nights are a mechanical and strained effort.

Coming away from it all—to find the world outside really acknowledging the arrival of spring—oh it was a blessed thing—the journey on a sunny morning, pleasantly blown by a north-west wind, about twenty-five miles in a sort of motor-bus—the landscape looking its best—all the clean colour of late April—the renewal of green grass and young leaves—and fruit-trees in blossom—and to see a civilian population well away from the danger-zone going to church on Easter morning—soldiers contented and at rest—it was like coming back to life, warm and secure—it was to feel how much there is to regain. Children in the streets of towns and villages—I saw a tiny one fall, to be gathered up and dusted, soothed, comforted—one forgets ‘little things’ like those up in the places where men are killing one another with the best weapons that skill can handle.

And water—rivers flowing, taking the sky with them—and lakes coloured like bright steel blades, their smooth surfaces ruffled by ripples of wind—and a small round pool in a garden, quite still and glassy, with vivid green blades of iris growing along the edge. The great city of Amiens, Sunday-quiet, with the cathedral lording it beyond the gleaming roofs, sombre and unshining-grey, ancient, like a huge fretted rock or cliff, a train moving out of a station when we halted at the crossing-gates with rumble and clank of wheels on the rails. I had not thought of a train or seen one since I came from England seven weeks ago (it was at this very moment, on a Sunday, that I left Waterloo, and saw the faces of my people left behind as the carriage slid along the platform, all the world before me once more, and the unfinished adventure waiting to be resumed).

I may often write as if Sassoon is unaware of the extent to which his moods and writing change as his military position changes, but he is clearly conscious of some of the oscillation. And yet he gets carried away: he mentions men dying, and weapons–but are they really here today? Are these things palpable, horrible? Not when he refers to the “adventure.” Or fortune:

And now fortune has given me another space to take breath and look back on the grim days. Four blessed weeks in a clean town with fresh companions and healthy routine of discipline and instruction, and all this in the good time when spring’s at the full. At the end of May I shall return to the Battalion, eager and refreshed, and glad to be with my fellow-officers again (but one wants a rest from their constant presence to really appreciate them). O yes, I am a lucky dog.

And at 7 o’clock I climbed the hill and gazed across the town—the red wrinkled roofs of the great jute-factory below and the huddle of grey roofs with their peaceful smoke going up in the quiet air. I turned along a grassy, tree-guarded track that led to where a half-finished house stood, red and white, overlooking the town, with a lovely wood behind it. Sunset was fading, with a long purple-grey cloud above the west: and oh the wood was still, with slender stems of trees, all in their vesture of young green—and bluebells were on the ground, and young fresh grass, and blackbirds and thrushes scolding and singing in the quiet, and the smell of wet mould, wet earth, wet leaves, and voices of children coming up from a cottage below the hill. It was a virgin sanctuary of trees, and blessed peace for my soul and heaven for my eyes and music for my ears; it was Paradise, and God, and the promise of life.[4]

 

This is not Sassoon meant by “the promise of life,” but it will do: yesterday, a century back, Katherine Asquith was safely delivered of a boy. A telegram, it would seem, reached the happy father today:

Intelligence,
G.H.Q.
B.E.F.

23 April 1916

My Angel

You really, are a wonder. It seemed hardly possible that you would get the sex right as well as the date. The whole thing is a triumph of organisation which the Government would do well to imitate. What with the Resurrection, Shakespeare’s death and now Trimalchio’s birth, I hardy know whether I am standing on my head or my heels today. Shall we send him into the Cabinet or into the Grenadiers? Have you arranged a marriage for him yet? or will he have to attest? If so I shall raise the cry of “weaned men first”. Above all, does he give away any of your guilty secrets or might he so far be mistaken for my own?

High spirits well-earned. Even Raymond Asquith can’t be a cynic on the day he learns of the birth of his son and and heir–but he can manage conscription/breast-feeding jokes and note the religious and literary observances of the day… They will name the lad not Trimalchio (the reference is to Petronius, and it’s a pretty funny in-utero nickname) but Julian.

My sweet, I do hope it was less long and tiresome for you than the other two and that you are already beginning to feel well again. But the last I suppose is too much to hope. Still a boy must be much less of a shock than a girl and will beckon you on up the hill of convalescence . . . Darling angel, I adore you.[5]

 

An Eastertide birth, and a happy cynic–but there was killing too, and there were more lucky escapes.

George Coppard, one of our few other voices from the ranks, spent Easter in the line. And, no, this holiday merited no truce:

On the morning of Easter Sunday the Germans blew up two mines in the redoubt. The blast from one of them knocked Mr Wilkie off his feet. We saw the bulging piecrust slowly rise before the centre burst, hurling the vast mass upwards. In a few moments the descent began and the ground shook with the buffeting. We squirmed to the side of the trench like frightened rabbits. One piece of earth, no more than two ounces in weight, struck the nape of my neck. I had a black-out for a short while, but apart from a stiff neck for a week, I was none the worse for the tap. The Queen’s lost men that Easter morning from the two explosions, which destroyed the front line where they were standing. Jerry made no attempt to capture the craters.[6]

No attempt: this was punishment only, then, the ordinary violence of attrition: what the soldiers liked to refer to as a “hate.”

 

I want to close today’s overstuffed holiday dinner with that most unpalatable of addenda: seed corn. Easter is a memorable day, plus there the date’s significance for English letters, and so two writers who will arrive on the scene here rather late (once the Somme has opened up gaps for filling, as it were) are worth visiting with today, if only to provide some linkages later, when they become prominent contributors here and diligent readers wonder about their origins.

Vivian de Sola Pinto wore glasses, and so he went up to Oxford in 1914. By 1915, however, he was in, commissioned from the OTC into a Territorial battalion–of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, naturally. By late 1915, Gallipoli; then illness and exhaustion, and Alexandria. After shuttling around several Egyptian hospitals, de Sola Pinto was back in Alexandria and on the mend. Nothing like a day out, sacred and profane, Western and Eastern, ancient and modern…

On Easter Sunday, 1916, Anson and I had tea at the fine Greek patisserie of Athenaios, one of our favourite resorts, and then went to hear a service at a Greek Orthodox church with its gaudy silver lamps and ikons and congregation squatting on the floor. From there we went on to a Roman Catholic church w(h)ere we heard a powerful sermon preached by a French monk. We ended the day with dinner at Bonnard’s excellent French restaurant and a visit to an open-air cinema where we saw a Charlie Chaplin film with dubbings in French, Greek, and Arabic…[7]

 

Eric Linklater is a schoolboy still, reading Classics and English in Aberdeen. But not for want of trying. Linklater had enlisted in a Territorial battalion in August of 1914, until the two most common–and generally, if not universally, disqualifying–handicaps for a boy of his station were discovered: he too was very short-sighted, and he was also fifteen. So back to school it was. Linklater will not find a way into the army until next year.

Today, a century back, he was celebrating an auspicious day, (and enlarging, for us, upon Asquith’s reference to this anniversary, above):

I remember too–but now with shame–another occasion that provoked laughter almost as boisterous, and with far less cause. Its date is firmly fixed in history–it was 23 April 1916–and the newly appointed Professor to the Chair of English Literature and Language at the University had been persuaded to deliver, to the boys of the Grammar School, an address in celebration of the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death… Professor Jack–Alfred Adolphus Jack… was still a stranger in Aberdeen, and both his appearance and his voice emphasised a strangeness that I and my rascally companions found risible beyond restraint. He was a highly coloured man with a thick growth of hair, the hue of oranges, a bright pink face, and brilliantly protruding blue eyes. He had, moreover, been trained to outmoded rhetorical style–reminiscent of Victorian drama–and he was in love with his subject.

To express that love he advanced slowly to the rostrum that had been set up for him–he leaned forward across the lectern–and in a voice whose high-pitched peculiarity was aggravated by his inability to pronounce the letter r, he slowly declaimed, with a measured pause between his words, ‘Fwee — hundwed — years — ago today — Shakespeare died!'[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. That would be Brooke, Sorley, Graves, Sassoon, and Grenfell, all but Graves born within a year or two of Streets.
  2. Piuk, A Dream Within the Dark, 60-1.
  3. Memoir, 190. This letter is dated "20th" in the Memoir, but this must, due to the Easter reference be a mistake.
  4. Diaries, 57-59.
  5. Life and Letters, 259-60.
  6. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 73.
  7. The City that Shone, 175.
  8. Fanfare for a Tin Hat, 49.