Wilfrid Ewart in Bourlon Wood: What They Asked Us to Do Was Impossible; Doctor Rivers in Another Doctor’s Hell

The Battle of Cambrai has seen an unprecedented advance, a failure to break through, and stiff German resistance in another torn and terrible wood. The Guards have been called in, now–on both sides.

Although Cambrai is one of the few battles not to feature in his novel Way of Revelation, it provided the most harrowing moments of Wilfrid Ewart‘s war experience. At first light, three companies of the First Scots Guards were ordered to clear Bourlon Wood.

This of course was sheer open fighting, and quite different than anything we had done before except on field days.

But it didn’t last long. Machine guns pinned down one flank of the assault, and after several hours of stationary fighting it became clear that the British were outnumbered, and the attackers withdrew.

Then orders came up that they must try again, at two o’clock.

This was at 1.15, so there was not much time to arrange it, and I had the wind up as never before, feeling certain that it was impossible to take the place owing to the machine-guns which were supposed to be rushed with the bayonet…

It is now, I think, that the poor planning of the Cambrai offensive–the first few hours markedly improved in conception and execution, the rest abandoned to foolish hopes–becomes most clear.

There was a short and quite useless machine-gun barrage, no artillery. Just after we had gone over, Tyringham tried to stop us, as the Command realized the hopelessness of it, but it was then too late.

One company was “laid out together trying to rush the machine-guns.” The two guns then turn on Ewart and two men, out in front of his platoon, only fifteen yards away. They throw themselves down behind “a young oak-tree.”

The machine-gun fired absolutely point blank, but could not quite reach us on account of the tree… two Lewis Gunners… kept firing for all they were worth…working their guns in the open until they were killed. Every man was killed one after the other…

By this Ewart probably means every man among the Lewis gunners and their support teams. He is pinned down between the Germans and his men, watching the one kill the other, helpless. Some of his platoon are able to withdraw, it seems, but the Germans now begin throwing phosphorous grenades among the wounded, “which set light to them and burnt them up.”

Ewart and the two men are soon alone, and make a desperate retreat, crawling for the rear. One makes it, then the next is hit heavily (he will die of his wound). Ewart goes last.

I waited about five minutes and then did a lightning sprint on my stomach, and by all natural laws ought to have been hit–the bullets were knocking stones up into my face… It was an experience I shall never wish to repeat… what they asked us to do was impossible.[1]

The First Scots Guards were relieved that night, and due for a longer rest; but their Battle of Cambrai was not yet over.

 

So goes the latest of the war’s bloody battles. But what of those who have survived the earlier battles, their bodies undestroyed and yet not intact?

A good deal of the literature of the war has focused on the question of psychological trauma–“shell-shock”–and how it was diagnosed, treated, experienced, remembered, and written. We have, first and foremost, the poetry of the surviving soldiers who struggled with “shell shock” or post-combat “neurasthenia.” These are the most primary of sources, of course, but “shell shock”–with its dramatic traumas, unstable psyches, and uncertain social reception–calls out for third party treatment, as it were. The novel remains one of the best tools we have for exploring the human mind, and especially for depicting the attempt of one mind to reach another, over particularly terrible gulfs of experience. One series of such attempts, mediated through the mind of Dr. Rivers, becomes the central subject of Pat Barker’s incomparable Regeneration trilogy.

Readers of this project may remember that Dr. Rivers–pioneering neurologist, skilled and sensitive therapist, and father-figure-hero to Siegfried Sassoon–is currently on leave in London after a staff dust-up at Craiglockhart, and working on an academic paper about his work with “war neuroses.” Today, a century back (in the novel, at least), he takes the cruelest sort of busman’s holiday, going to the National Hospital to observe the methods of of Dr. Lewis Yealland, who has boasted of a 100% cure rate for cases of hysterical war neurosis. Readers of Regeneration will certainly remember this scene–it’s awful. Yealland is the villain of the piece, but as far as I can tell it (not far at all! caveat!) Barker represents his methods more or less accurately. Yealland takes patients who have been shocked/traumatized into mutism or who exhibit physical contortions that cannot be explained by physical injuries and he shocks them–literally–back into health.

Yealland believes, as most men once did, that such symptoms are merely the result of a failure of nerve–of a sort of hysterical cowardice rather than damage that has been done to honorable and healthy human beings. So, armored with contempt–Barker portrays him as so thorough a bully that he has no idea he is, in fact, torturing war victims–Yealland uses physical pain and pressure, including electrical shocks and even cigarette burns to force men to speak or unbend their twisted limbs.

It works: they walk again, and speak; they even go back to war.

Enough summary–if this sounds bearable, then read the book. You will come to see the scene–once its horrors are half-forgotten–as a clever piece of fiction, and a major step toward what becomes the most important theme of the trilogy. Not Sassoon’s growth or the renunciation of his protest, but Rivers’ journey from mere saint to fellow martyr: he becomes a witness to the harrowing of the lost generation, one of the few older men in Britain who, through their proximity to the minds of traumatized men, sufferer the war themselves.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Scots Guard, 148-9.
  2. See Regeneration, 223-35.

Duff Cooper: “The Dance is Over;” Wilfrid Ewart Arrives in Bourlon Wood; Wilfred Owen Directs the Staff

Before we go to Cambrai–and then back to England, where the battle’s losses are hitting home–we have Wilfred Owen reporting to his mother on his new assignment, his first spell of “Home Service” and “Light Duty” after the long and happy interlude at Craiglockhart. He is in Scarborough, one of his Regiment’s reserve bases, and he is playing an entirely unfamiliar role. But I should let him explain:

23 November 1917 6 (Reserve), Bn. Manchester Regt.
Northern Cavalry Barracks, Scarborough

Dearest Mother,

I have been put on a species of Light Duty which I little expected: I am Major Domo of the Hotel. There is a Mess President, the Doctor, Capt. Mather, whom I knew at Witley, and like very much; there is also a Food Specialist…

I have to control the Household, which consists of some dozen Batmen, 4 Mess Orderlies, 4 Buglers, the Cook, (a fat woman of great skill,) two female kitcheners, and various charwomen!

Owen is not exactly “Major Domo,” but rather “Camp Commandant” in the incongruous setting of a seaside hotel full of reserve officers of the Manchester Regiment. It is strange for the gentle, middle class poet to be managing domestic staff, and in the coastal town where his family once holidayed when he was a teenager.

He seems amused–at first–and so amuses his mother:

They need driving. You should see me scooting the buglers round the dining-room on their knees with dustpan and brush! You should hear me rate the Charwoman for leaving the Lavatory-Basins unclean. I am responsible for finding rooms for newcomers, which is a great worry, as we are full up. This means however that I have a good room to myself, as well as my Office!

I keep two officers under arrest in their rooms; & spent a dismal hour this morning taking one of these for exercise.

I get up at 6.30. to see that the breakfast is ready in time.

I spent this morning in Correspondence, and Inspection of rooms, working from 5 a.m. to 12. This afternoon I ordered from the Grocers and the Greengrocers vast quantities of food…

The list goes on, as his lists often do, so we’ll skip a bit:

It is interesting work but hardly ‘lighter’ than a Platoon Commander’s!

But here’s an irony: though safer, this sort of job is a danger to the thing Owen most values, now:

Confound this business mood which possesses me! It, as much as the busy-ness of my hours, will prove disastrous to my poems. But things will slack down next week, and so shall my temper…

I think I am marked Permanent Home Service.

He is not.

Always your own

W.E.O.[1]

 

Now to France, where Wilfrid Ewart was in Bourlon Wood, which has become, as these unexpected woods tend to do, the center of a vicious fight, the sort of place where advances bog down and horrors multiply. It was “a nightmare sort of place–pitch dark and none knew its torturous ways or quite where the Germans were.” His battalion resisted the urge to panic–a good thing, as the German counter attack that was rumored did not materialize. Not yet: but their machine guns are thick in the far side of the wood.

Ewart is now very much amidst the remnants of the attack of two and three days ago. It is as if the Cavalry and the Highlanders are still suffering the loss of our Edward Horner and E.A. Mackintosh: Ewart writes that, late in the night tonight, “[w]e… found some very windy Highlanders and dismounted cavalry…” shattered forces who are being replaced, now, by the Guards. Tomorrow, it will be the turn of Ewart’s First Scots Guards to try to push through the wood.[2]

 

Yesterday, a century back, Duff Cooper was gazetted as a “full blown Officer in the Grenadiers.” Today he was on leave in London, celebrating by playing bridge with a friend…

We had just finished two rubbers and we had settled down to a game of skip when Sybil came in and said she wanted to speak to me for a minute. I left the room feeling rather annoyed at her mysterious ways. On the landing she said ‘Edward has been killed and Diana is waiting for you outside.’ I went down and found Diana standing by the area railings crying. We got into a taxi and drove away… Edward meant so much in our lives. I loved no man better… By his death our little society loses one of the last assets that gave it distinction. to look back on our Venice party now, only four years ago, is to recall only the dead. The original four were Denny, Billy, George [Nairne?] and Edward of whom not one remains. The most precious guests… were Raymond and Charles… Only Patrick and I remain… I being to feel that the dance is over and that it is time to go.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 508-9.
  2. Scots Guard, 146-7.
  3. Diaries, 60-1.

Henry Williamson and the Rumble of Jutland; Noel Hodgson Renounces, T.P. Cameron Wilson Writes a Soldier, and Bimbo Tennant Worples Fey-ward; then Friendships, Farewells, Transfers, and Wedding Bells

A strange day, today, a century back. For a good two centuries, Britain’s security was guaranteed by its navy. For the last 22 months, that navy has had little to do, and all eyes were on the enormous expansion of the unloved younger son of the military family. There were a few famous chases and cruiser actions, and there was the submarine war, but confidence was high that should the German fleet–and the rapid expansion of that previously negligible body had been one of the most important catalysts of Brittain’s alliance with France and Russia–ever venture out into the North Sea the Royal Navy would treat it much as it had treated the Spanish Armada.

Yesterday, a century back, the battleships and battle cruisers of the German navy came out at last. The complicated plan involved separating the two major elements of the British fleet and using a screen of submarines to torpedo the slow capital ships. It failed almost immediately, since the British battle cruisers steamed through the submarine line before it was fully prepared, but the beginning of the battle nevertheless went Germany’s way. I do not have a good grasp of naval warfare, and this battle–the only truly big steel-ships-and-guns battle in European history–is quite complicated, but, hopefully, a brief summary should suffice to prepare us for the responses of various Britons.

Despite the superior gunnery of the British fleet–and, once combined, its greater size–the initial engagement revealed a major design flaw that resulted in the swift sinking of three battle cruisers. Reading up on the battle after some years is shocking, even after–in fact because of–my many-months-long immersion in trench warfare. The British ships were well armored against broadsides, but when a few German shells hit at long range, they plunged through the thinner armor over deck and turrets. Exploding below decks, their blasts rushed through the open hatchways that connected the British guns with their magazines deep below decks. Naval combat, too, has its special horrors: flash fires spread through steel rooms; ships are saved only by flooding burning areas before ordinance is ignited, drowning the men who remain below to save those stationed higher up; if the fires are not contained, the chain explosion of shells tears the ship apart; concussed and burned men who are thrown clear are likely to drown.

The Queen Mary was struck twice and rent by internal explosions, capsizing and sinking within minutes. Twenty men were rescued, 1,266 died.

The Invincible may have been hit only once, but this shell too plunged through and ignited a magazine. Invincible broke in half and sunk in ninety seconds. 1,026 men died, and six–blown through the air from their positions in a turret and a fire-control mast–lived.

The Indefatigable was hit several times and also blew up, settling quickly as internal explosions tore out its keel. Although more men may have been blown clear, they would have been sucked under by the displacement of the sinking ship. 1,017 men died, and only two survived long enough to be rescued.

 

The news of yesterday’s disaster be absorbed by our writers over the next few days, but the battle continued overnight and into today, a century back. The British fleets drew together, and a running battle was fought as the Germans, their plan negated despite the destruction of the three battle cruisers, withdrew toward their bases. Although they mostly eluded the British Grand Fleet, one modern German battleship was sunk, along with ten smaller ships, while the Royal Navy lost eleven more (smaller) ships.

In the wake of this sudden carnage, the debates began–and they continue. But for our purposes another simple summary will do: Jutland is a very good example of a tactical victory that is also a strategic defeat (for Germany, that is). Britain, when the number, tonnage, and quality of the ships are factored in, had lost roughly twice as heavily. And let’s not forget human lives: more than 6,000 British sailors died in the two days, and “only” some 2,500 Germans. That is very much a “battlefield,” or tactical, defeat. But the German Imperial Navy and gambled on a sortie and been stopped–it returned to its bases and there would be no more serious attempts to destroy the British Grand Fleet, ergo something of an “operational” draw and a strategic defeat.

As tactics gives way to strategy, so strategy yields to Grand Strategy (which seems like it should be capitalized). If the Royal Navy could not be defeated, then Britain could not be assaulted/invaded. It could, however, be besieged/ blockaded. Therefore, in order to starve Britain, Germany would keep its battleships in port, turning instead to its submarines in a broadcast campaign against merchant shipping. So in the failure of the German fleet to defeat the British today, a century back, there originates a straight line which leads to the decision to wage “unrestricted” submarine warfare, and thus to the significant U.S. presence in Europe in 1918, at the time of the breaking of the European armies.

 

After all that blood and steel, it feels curious to return to our usual matter of little movements among writerly soldiers. But Henry Williamson, never able to resist putting his Gumpish alter ego on the outskirts of all the war’s most famous actions, provides the link.

Phillip Maddison, having been trained as a machine gun officer (this much following Williamson’s own experience), now headed back to France, recalled from a home leave to arrive in time for the “big push.” There has been drama, culminating in a nasty quarrel with his old friend Desmond over the woman they both… admire. This is the appallingly thin (character of) Lily: a wan, unfortunate girl, ill-used, and now rising toward nineteenth century middlebrow novel sainthood through her improbable and steadfast love for Phillip…

Her first, partial martyrdom was to an abusive older man. Her second is to her creator’s thematic imperatives. The events of spring 1916 are chronicled in a chapter entitled, amazingly, “Lily and the Nightingale.” After the quickening of love and the noble decision to resist desire and wait, Phillip is packed off to France (while Williamson was in fact on convalescent leave). He arrives today, a century back, and Williamson allows us, surely, to date his arrival:[1]

Phillip tottered off the gangway at Boulogne having, as he said to his companion from Victoria, catted up his heart, despite the fact that the crossing from Folkestone had been made in sunshine on a blue and waveless channel. Fear had taken the heart out of him: fear of being sick: fear of the idea of having to face machine-guns again. The apparition of death from the back of his mind had come forward to share his living thoughts, so the voyage had been a semi-conscious froth of nausea, of endurance despite abandon.

While the transport had been crossing, with its destroyer escort, there had been a constant heavy thudding of guns. Either the Big Push had started, along the coast towards Ostend, or there had been a naval battle. When the ship docked, they heard: the German fleet had come out, and there had been a tremendous battle in the North Sea…[2]

 

Once again I have failed in my resolution to streamline this project. But we march from great battle to great battle, and we mark the last month before the Somme with not one but rather three or four “month poems.”

First, I want to suggest reading an excellent and spectacularly a propos prose piece by Hector Munro (a.k.a. the prominent prewar satirist Saki: Birds on the Western Front is of a feather with much of our reading.

Second, Noel Hodgson‘s “Renunciation” doesn’t quite qualify as a “month poem” because it was published on this very day, a century back, in The New Witness:

Take my love that died to-day.
Lay him on a roseleafbed,–
He so gallant was and gay,–
Let them hide his tumbled head,
Roses passionate and red
That so swiftly fade away.
Let the little grave be set
Where my eyes shall never see;
Raise no stone, make no regret
Lest my sad heart break,–and yet
For my weakness, let there be
Sprigs of rue and rosemary.

Brookeish, and sentimental, but not bad for all that. And can we read toward the turning of the poetic tide just a bit? I don’t think so, really: this a beautiful death for a gallant soldier, beautifully mourned. But if we imagine how a head might “tumble” or why else a grave might be unmarked… but no.

In addition, Hodgson will shortly write a prose sketch set today, a century back. June 1st 1916 was Ascension Day, and for Hodgson it brought back memories of a school days’ ramble one Ascension morning, an expedition with a friend, after birds’ nests, in the early morning light.

And I remembered the chill of the water round our middles as we forded the river, where the mist still hung in wreaths, and the heavy dew on the grass. We took a grebe’s nest, I remembered, and a reed-warbler’s…

I remembered, too, how, as we sat in a cottage and ate lemon-curd and bread, a clock struck eight; and how we girded ourselves and ran, and were in time for callover at nine, whereby was great renown to us for many days; and how I slept, in my oaken seat at matins.

But his companion that day was Nowell Oxland, killed at Gallipoli. It must have been a day of melancholy thoughts for the often high-spirited Hodgson. He is young, full of life, a believer in divine Providence and a patriot, and yet he is unwilling to leave thoughts of despair unexpressed, unwilling to betray memory, denying its pain by sentimentalizing the past or putting loss to utilitarian (not to say militarist) purpose. What else would we ask, really?[3]

 

Third, then, Bim Tennant, gallant and gay, wrote a rather lengthy fairy tale fantasia in verse at some point during this month. He thought highly of the strange-but-charming “Worple Flit.” But I shall content us with an excerpt. And no follow-up questions, please: though I love this unquiet-ghost-of-William-Morris sort of stuff in principle, just today I have no idea what is going on in Bimbo’s little world:

And as we jogged along the road, the night grew wondrous fine,
And out of the Hills the Hill-folk came, and the Down-men, all in a line,
Their packs right full of their elfin gear, and their flasks of their trollish wine…

And their talk was soft as a cony’s back, and swift as a whippet hound.
‘By the puckered cheek of my barbary ape! ’tis an ill sight we see,
The glamour of England fades this day with the folk of the South Countree.’

The good folk passed and silence fell, save where among the trees
Their elfin jargon echoed back and sighed upon the breeze,
Like channeling mice in barley shocks, or humming honey bees.
‘Now by my chin and span-long beard,’ I heard the beldame cry,
‘I wot we ha’ missed the Dairy Thief ‘mid the good folk flitting by.’

But scarcely had the word been said, when down a lapin track,
Behold the goblin slowly come, bent double beneath his pack,
And slow and mournful was his stride, for ever a-glancing back.
‘Give ye the luck,’ the beldame cried: ‘give ye the luck,’ quo’ she,
And the Dairy Thief he doffed his cap, but never a word spake he.

Then over a knoll and under a stile, until my eyes were sore,
I watched him go; so sad an elf I never did see before…

Silent I stood and thought to hear across the open Down,
Some lingering lilt of a goblin song from pixie squat and brown,
Or perchance to spy some faerie dame in her dewy cobweb gown.
I search’d and found ne witch ne folk, but as I stood forlorn,
Three green leaves flickered to the ground, of oak and ash and thorn.

Poperinghe, June, 1916.

It is very strange indeed, to read a poem like this–there’s an ode to a Nightingale, too, this month, borrowed from Boccaccio–with such a place and date affixed.Such verse should be the text for some winsome Pre-Raphaelite woodcut, and yet it comes from an ante-room of hell on earth…

 

Fourth, then, T.P. Cameron Wilson weighs in. I have been slow to pick him up–and I still, given the low volume of writing that I have in hand, resist making him a “Category” all his own–but he elbows in rather nicely. Who is he writing to, today, and with a poem? Why, Harold Monro, of The Poetry Bookshop, of course.

But this is no professional letter–it’s a chilling, tale well-told, ready for a Great War memoir or some latter-day omnibus of the short-form uncanny. Memory, and death, it seems, are the themes for June the First:

1.6.16

I wish you were here, with your sympathy and your power of laughing at the same things as the man you’re with — laughing and weeping, almost, it would be here.

Here’s a thing that happened. When I first “joined” out here I noticed a man — a boy, really, his age was just 19 — who had those very calm blue eyes one sees in sailors sometimes, and a skin burnt to a sort of golden brown. I said to him, “When did you leave the Navy?” and he regarded this as the most exquisite joke! Every time I met him he used to show his very white teeth in a huge smile of amusement, and we got very pally when it came to real bullets — as men do get pally, the elect, at any rate.

Well, the other day there was a wiring party out in front of our parapet — putting up barbed wire (rusted to a sort of Titian red). It is wonderful going out into ‘No Man’s Land.’ I’ll tell you about it one day — stars and wet grass, and nothing between you and the enemy, and every now and then a very soft and beautiful blue-white light from a Very pistol — bright as day, yet extraordinarily unreal. You have to keep still as a statue in whatever position you happen to be in, till it dies down, as movement gives you away.

Well, that night they turned a machine gun on the wiring party, and the ‘sailor boy’ got seven bullets, and died almost at once. All his poor body was riddled with them, and one went through his brown throat. When I went over his papers I found a post-card addressed to his mother. It was an embroidered affair, on white silk. They buy them out here for 40 centimes each, and it had simply “remember me” on it.

And they say “don’t get sentimental!” I wanted you then, to — oh! just to be human.

We had to collect what had been a man the other day and put it into a sandbag and bury it, and less than two minutes before he had been laughing and talking and thinking. . . .[4]

A Soldier

He laughed.
His blue eyes searched the morning,
Found the unceasing song of the lark
In a brown twinkle of wings, far out.
Great clouds, like galleons, sailed the distance.
The young spring day had slipped the cloak of dark
And stood up straight and naked with a shout.
Through the green wheat, like laughing schoolboys,
Tumbled the yellow mustard flowers, uncheck’d.
The wet earth reeked and smoked in the sun . . .
He thought of the waking farm in England.
The deep thatch of the roof — all shadow-fleck’d
The clank of pails at the pump . . . the day begun.
“After the war . . . ” he thought.
His heart beat faster With a new love for things familiar and plain.
The Spring leaned down and whispered to him low
Of a slim, brown-throated woman he had kissed . . .
He saw, in sons that were himself again,
The only immortality that man may know.

And then a sound grew out of the morning,
And a shell came, moving a destined way,
Thin and swift and lustful, making its moan.
A moment his brave white body knew the Spring,
The next, it lay
In a red ruin of blood and guts and bone.

Oh! nothing was tortured there! Nothing could know
How death blasphemed all men and their high birth
With his obscenities. Already moved,
Within those shattered tissues, that dim force,
Which is the ancient alchemy of Earth,
Changing him to the very flowers he loved.

“Nothing was tortured there!” Oh, pretty thought!
When God Himself might well bow down His head
And hide His haunted eyes before the dead.

Is this the sailor-boy himself, mildly alchemized to verse, and a victim of shell rather than machine gun? It hardly matters, and today’s assemblage of dated found-object-writing seems both more numinous and more depressing than usual.

 

So nothing more in the way of commentary. But still, on this busy but less-than-Glorious First, we have a few updates for the month:

 

John Buchan, an invalid at the beginning of the war and no spring chicken, has become an all-but-official propagandist on the (prop-a-) grandest scale: between his voluminous quick-fire histories for Nelson’s and teh very popular Greenmantle, he must be one of the most-read war writers going. But this month he finally went: like C.E. Montague, Buchan has been absorbed into the expanding bureaucracy of the Intelligence branch. He makes his first visit to France early this month–just missing his friend Raymond Asquith at G.H.Q.–and will begin touring and writing from within the military-journalistic complex.

 

Billy Congreve, recently awarded the DSO for his conspicuous gallantry in April in the Salient, is home in London on leave. An active leave: today, a century back, he was married to Pamela Maude at St Martin-in-the-Fields, with the Bishop of London presiding. The honeymoon will last a few days only, for the young brigade major is needed back on duty.[5]

 

And Herbert Read, whose sporadically preserved writing about his experiences as an officer of the Green Howards has been of little use here yet , will return to the front this month, after recuperating from a barbed-wire-related injury.

 

Then there is Isaac Rosenberg, warned to be ready to depart for France at a few hours’ notice. He has just mustered up the courage to tell his devoted sister, Annie, that he is bound for the front.

I asked my boss for the day off and went to Aldershot. It was bleak. I didn’t see a soul except Isaac coming towards me from the other side of the high fence. Talking to him through the wire I said, “But Isaac you’re not fit.” He said, “I’ve been examined, and passed.” I asked him to let me go and see the medical officer. He wouldn’t let me do it. I asked him how much money he had, and he replied “One shilling.” I didn’t know whether he needed anything, but had ten shillings with me, which I gave him. I wasn’t with him more than an hour. I stood there begging him not to go. He said goodbye and disappeared into the distance…[6]

This is a sister’s anguish at the coming suffering and agony of suspense, but it’s also hard not to see the poet reflected in his poem. Moses had much to say about slavery and oppression, about violence and the potential human heroic response…

 

Finally, then, Siegfried Sassoon, in a brown study. The problem is, once you’ve left, where is home?

June 1

I can’t read or enjoy poetry at all since I came back here. Two new officers in C Company since Stansfield
went–G. Williams, who was hit a year ago; and Morris–Sandhurst one. Neither of them at all interesting. Heard from Robert Graves, now at Litherland; he says he ‘wants to come home—to France’. I only wish he would.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Yes, it could be yesterday as well, but the knowledge that the sound is naval gunnery would point more toward today.
  2. The Golden Virgin, 205.
  3. Zeepvat, Before Action, 178-82.
  4. Housman, War Letters, 299-300.
  5. Armageddon Road, 190.
  6. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 136.
  7. Diaries, 70.

Wilfrid Ewart Is Hit; The Nursing Sister and the Cavalrymen Are Ready in the Rear; Brooke Gets a Rave Review

Yesterday the British First Army mounted a successful surprise attack at Neuve Chapelle, surging forward on a front two miles wide. But the attacking troops then suffered heavily (a euphemism for several thousand violent deaths and several thousand more gruesome wounds) wherever their artillery had failed to destroy a few German machine guns. Worse–from the point of view of the generals if not the embattled troops–the attack then bogged down, the command and communications procedures utterly inadequate to the problem of maintaining an advance.

Today the “battle” was in a transitional phase, no longer a matter of surprise and dangerous mass advances in the open, but a slow slog of moving up reinforcements under fire, consolidating positions, and, for the Germans, planning the inevitable counter-attack.

We pick up from yesterday Wilfrid Ewart‘s account of the supporting advance of the 2/Scots Guards–also Edward Hulse’s battalion.

At four a.m. orders came to move in half an hour. As it was gradually getting light the battalion advanced in file across some fields under fairly heavy rifle fire to a line of breastworks which we found already occupied by the East Lanc[a]s[shire] Regt. in reserve. The confusion was considerable as we were all trying to get cover from the German
shrapnel which was now growing very heavy as the light grew, and we began to lose men. My half company was wedged together on one side of a dangerous gap which had to be crossed to get to the other half.

Word came down that we were to attack at 7 a.m. I must admit I never spent a more disagreeable hour in my life than between 6 and 7 a.m. of that morning. The anticipation was much the worst of the whole show.

We were ordered to advance in line of platoons… Directly we got out in the open we came under very heavy rifle fire and shrapnel. We could only advance in short rushes, taking cover whenever possible, and it was impossible to keep the formations.

This was about half a mile west of Neuve Chapelle, the country being absolutely open, only slight depressions in the ground here and there. Then there were the inevitable ditches full of water, and at one point I had to wade through with the water up to my chest. So I got wet to the skin and my rifle and bayonet clogged with mud. We came through the German trenches, losing heavily the whole way across.

The German trenches were too ghastly for words, full of their dead and ours, mixed with upturned earth, helmets, pistols and equipment. I came upon a Grenadier officer rather badly wounded but don’t know his name. Finally we fetched up in a slight depression in the middle of an open field with the Germans about 300 yards in front, the Grenadiers on our left front. Exactly how we were situated I don’t know, but we lay out there for three solid hours under a shell fire that seemed to come from every side except one.

Fortunately we were screened from their machine guns, and as long as you lay on your face the rifle bullets whistled overhead but shrapnel burst as regularly as clockwork within twenty or thirty yards and scattered earth over one every time. The high explosive coal-box things make an awful row and shake the earth but are not so dangerous.

After an hour or two of this I was ordered to go forward with two platoons and join the Grenadiers. I had hardly got on my feet and was jumping over a ditch when I caught it in the Ieft leg and took an unceremonious toss into the ditch. It hurt a bit for a time, but Warner and Seymour were next door, so there was no confusion. Five minutes later Seymour got a shrapnel bullet through the head. A doctor who had come up from the Scots Fusiliers was badly hit about five minutes after that. After two hours more lying out there, there was a lull, and I started to crawl back. By this time our men had begun to dig themselves in. When I got halfway across the beastly field the shooting and shelling began again harder than ever, so I crept into a shell-pit and lay there in company with a dead man thinking my last hour had come…

Finally after crawling about three-quarters of a mile I got into the lines of the Devon Regt… I found 2 Scots Guards stretcher bearers who dressed my leg and gave me a lift to the dressing station. In due course I got down to the motor ambulance on the road and was taken to Estaires and thence to Merville the same night. Thirty-six hours there and then I came down by tram to Rouen. The wounded people were very harrowing on the way down. One poor chap, an officer in the Irish Rifles, died next to me in the motor ambulance and another in the train. Three-fourths of them seemed to be hit in the head.[1]

 

Ewart will recover, and we will be hearing from him again when he does. In the rear areas through which Ewart evacuated, several of our cavalryman were once again waiting in vain for a chance to get into the battle. Julian Grenfell breakfasted at 3:00, paraded at 4:15, and spent a long “filthy dull cold day” hoping for the command to advance. He will write to his mother that “it was horrible to sit there doing nothing, while the foot-sloggers were running into Machine Guns.”[2] Our two Life Guards, Crofton and Hamilton, spent the day in much the same manner.

 

Just a little further back, the Nursing Sister was mobilized as part of the enormous medical response to the battle.

Thursday, March 11th

…an emergency call suddenly to clear the hospitals at R. to make room for 600 more expected from the Front. We are being rushed up again without being stopped at Rouen for the first time on record, so I suppose there is a good deal doing…

It is a comfort to remember that the men themselves don’t grudge or question what happens to them, and the worse they’re wounded the more they say, “I think I’m lucky; my mate next me got killed.” The birds are singing like anything now, and all the buds are coming out, and the banks and woods are a mass of primroses.[3]

 

And as far off as London and Lemnos, today marked a major day in the skyrocketing (skylarking?) fame of Rupert Brooke, as the Times Literary Supplement reviewed New Numbers, praising his work in particular and printing the 1914 sonnet sequence in its entirety. He will soon be finding many readers, as well as readers in high places.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Life and Last Words of Wilfrid Ewart, 24-7.
  2. Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 271, 292.
  3. The Diary of a Nursing Sister, 223-4, available here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Dear child,

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

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

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

It’s a good thing I die.

Good-bye, child,
RUPERT[3]

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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