Final Farewells for Billy Congreve; Robert Graves is Spared, but Siegfried Sassoon Mourns Him, and Looks a Century Ahead; Vera and Edward Brittain to Part

Major-General Haldane sent his two aides-de-camp to escort Billy Congreve‘s body to Corbie today, a century back. Then he sat down to write a letter to his widow, in which he praised Congreve’s commitment to duty and described soldiers picking “wild poppies and cornflowers to lay upon him., for his love for his brigade was amply returned by all ranks.”

At Corbie, Billy’s father, Lieutenant-General W.N. Congreve, commander of XIII Corps, met the body.

I saw him in the mortuary, and was struck by his beauty and strength of face… I felt inspired by his look and know that he is ‘helping’ me, as he used to say, and that he always will do so. I never felt so proud of him as I did when I said goodbye to him.

A lot of flowers were sent by kind people, amongst them wild mallows from the fighting line by some of the men. These I had put into the grave… I myself put in his hand a posy of poppies, cornflowers, and daisies… and with a kiss I left him.

There was a formal funeral, with General Congreve and Private Cameron, Billy’s batman, following the coffin.[1]

 

And as Billy Congreve was taken to his final resting place, Robert Graves was rising from among the dead:

The next morning, the 21st, when they were clearing away the dead, I was found to be still breathing; so they put me on an ambulance for Heilly, the nearest field-hospital. The pain of being jolted down the Happy Valley, with a shell-hole at every three or four yards of the roads, woke me for awhile. I remember screaming. But once back on the better roads I became unconscious again.[2]

With Graves telling the story of his own dreadful wounding, there’s no point in doing as we usually do and withdrawing quietly to the corner, keeping our critical eyes respectfully downcast while the source texts tell us of mortality and grief. Graves lives to tell the tale–of course he does–and he even more or less maintains his irreverent tone.

But that doesn’t make it a tale in which all death’s sting is drawn. And that sting is an inapt, archaic analogy: death is not a sting, it’s a stick-bomb in the face, and no man but a friendless, childless orphan can smother the fatal blast completely.

Graves is down, but the fragments have spread beyond him, a burgeoning concentric scatter of dreadful rumor…

At some point overnight, the Royal Welch were withdrawn from the line. The few unwounded survivors of the fight at High Wood spent a terrible night in bivouac near Mametz Wood.

…some, even of the hard-bitten, showed signs of the strain through which they had passed now there was no more need to key themselves up. Everyone lay down where he found himself and slept, though the imaginative shouted, cried horrors, and gesticulated in their sleep.

The morning demanded an accounting for those lost. Of a battalion that had gone into the wood only a few hundred strong, 31 officers and men were confirmed killed, 29 men were missing, and 189 officers and men were wounded.

But these are the corrected numbers. Graves, whom Colonel Crawshay saw when he was still lying abandoned at the dressing station, was at first counted among the dead. There are letters to be written, telegrams to be sent, and letters to the families of dead officers take precedence…

But on the battle front itself, news travels fast, by word of mouth. General Congreve learned by telephone of his son’s death the very day it happened, and the news of Graves’s demise will take little more than a day to reach the other battalion.[3]

 

Siegfried Sassoon‘s diary, especially in these days since he was “left out of the next show” as punishment for his foolhardy daring at the Quadrangle, has had more than a touch of self-indulgent teenage melancholy (he is, however, twenty-nine).

Today, however, he writes like a heroic Greek wife, left behind on the home beach, scanning the horizon.

July 21 8.30 a.m.

Transport (and us) moved-to hill south-west of Dernancourt yesterday evening. Battalion expected to return from trenches about midnight…

The Seventh Division were coming out after over a week in the show. The sun went down in glory beyond the Amiens-Albert road, horizon-trees dark grey-blue against the glare, a sort of mirage in front on the golden haze and aura of brightness… The low sun made it all look very peaceful and gracious—the cool green of unripe oats, and darker wheat, and the naked skyline starting from Corbie. The eye follows the Bray-Corbie ridge, and then sweeps round to the old English line ridge—beyond one can just see the top of Mametz Wood….

We waited at. the crossroads for the Battalion from 11.30 to 5.30. I walked about most of the night, saw to moving tents up the hill, which had to be done at the last moment. The road where I sat was a moonlit picture (I sat among some oats and watched the procession of the Seventh Division). Guns and limbers, men sitting stiffly on tired horses—transport—cookers—they .rolled and jolted past in the moonshine. Then, like flitting ghosts, last began to come the foot-weary infantry—stumbling—limping—straggling back after eight days in hell—more or less. They came silently—sometimes a petrol- (water-) tin would sound as it rattled chiming against the bayonet at the side. Then moonshine and dawn mingled their silver and rose and lilac, and a lark went up from the green corn…

We have been three weeks lark-less. Can this be a good omen?

As dawn broke, and I came down the hill again, I heard the dear skirl of the Second Gordons piping into their bivouac—a brave note, shrill as the lark, but the Jocks were a weary crowd as they hobbled in. Before dawn a horse neighed twice, high and shrill and scared. And then I began to see the barley-tops swaying, lightly against the paling sky. And the hills began to gloom in the dusk, stretching away and upward, and the huge trees along
the river stood out dark and distinct and solemn. The campfires burned low. The east was beginning to be chinked with red flames and feathers of scarlet…

In re-processing this glorious bit of prose for memoir, Sassoon adds a flourish that fires the cockles of my heart, for rather obvious reasons. Wait for the end!

An hour before dawn the road was still an empty picture of moonlight. The distant gun-fire had crashed and rumbled all night, muffled and terrific with immense flashes, like waves of some tumult of water rolling along the horizon. Now there came an interval of silence in which I heard a horse neigh, shrill and scared and lonely. Then the procession of the returning troops began. The camp-fires were burning low when the grinding jolting column lumbered back. The field guns came first, with nodding men sitting stiffly on weary horses, followed by wagons and limbers and field-kitchens. After this rumble of wheels came the infantry, shambling, limping, straggling and out of step. If anyone spoke it was only a muttered word, and the mounted officers rode as if asleep. The men had carried their emergency water in petrol-cans, against which bayonets made a hollow clink; except for the shuffling of feet, this was the only sound. Thus, with an almost spectral appearance, the lurching brown figures flitted past with slung rifles and heads bent forward under basin-helmets. Moonlight and dawn began to mingle, and I could see the barley swaying indolently against the sky…

The Flintshire Fusiliers[4] were a long time arriving. On the hill behind us the kite balloon swayed slowly upward with straining ropes, its looming bulbous body reflecting the first pallor of daybreak. Then, as if answering our expectancy, a remote skirling of bagpipes began, and the Gordon Highlanders hobbled in. But we had been sitting at the cross-roads nearly six hours, and faces were recognizable, when Dottrell hailed our leading Company.

Soon they had dispersed and settled down on the hillside, and were asleep in the daylight which made everything seem ordinary. None the less I had seen something that night which overawed me. It was all in the day’s work — an exhausted Division returning from the Somme Offensive — but for me it was as though I had watched an army of ghosts. It was as though I had seen the War as it might be envisioned by the mind of some epic poet a hundred years hence.[5]

This is not Sassoon’s first throw-forward of a century (although it’s really the same one, re-purposed) and it’s a lovely crescendo of purplish prose. If any epic poets have answer the call, I do not, alas know of them–but courage, hexametric dreamers, Siegfried is with you!

 

But the terrible shock follows immediately. When Sassoon picks up his diary later in the day, today, a century back, he is bereft:

And now I’ve heard that Robert died of wounds yesterday, in an attack on High Wood. And I’ve got to go on as if there were nothing wrong. So he and Tommy are together, and perhaps I’ll join them soon. ‘Oh my songs never sung, And my plays to darkness blown!’—his own poor words[6] written last summer, and now so cruelly true. And only two days ago I was copying his last poem into my notebook, a poem full of his best qualities of sweetness and sincerity, full of heart-breaking gaiety and hope. So all our travels to ‘the great, greasy Caucasus’ are quelled. And someone called Peter will be as sad as I am. Robert might have been a great poet; he could never have become a dull one. In him I thought I had found a lifelong friend to work with. So I go my way alone again.[7]

 

Such are the strange disjunctions and dislocations that the chaos of war can cause even when–irony redoubled–those in closest proximity to the scene are most mistaken about what has happened. If Graves were dead, I wound end the post sorrowfully, here.

But since he’s not, and since it has been quite some time since we’ve heard from Vera Brittain, it seems a good opportunity to remember the more happily wounded, and also to stave off the misery of those who believe Graves dead by recalling the joy of those who were reunited so swiftly after death’s near miss.

But we’ve missed Brittain lately not because we have been busy with the men of the Somme, but because she has. Camberwell Hospital is overwhelmed with patients and she has been working non-stop–and the living person most important to her is conveniently on hand.[8] When–and what–would she write? he has not been writing. But now, it seems, this odd idyll of pain, work, and a blissful lack of anxiety is about to come to an end.

1st London General, 21 July 1916

[Edward] is leaving the hospital on Monday as the further treatment he requires cannot be obtained here…  The doctor has promised to get Edward 3 months leave, which is very pleasant, & then of course there will probably be light duty after that…

He will be safe, then, for some time. In Testament of Youth, Brittain describes the slow process by which she coaxed her brother to tell her of the horrors of July 1st, and of his own admirable performance in rallying his terrified men, in the few daily minutes they could spend together when she was off duty. “The relief of having the great dread faced and creditably over was uppermost in his mind just then,” and Edward was gay and happy.

But things have clouded, now: memories of terror have returned, and Edward is visited also by the mother of another officer, listed as “missing” but almost certainly dead. He is in severe pain, and worries that nerve damage in his arm will end his career as a violinist. But… he is still safe for now, and what else could matter? Vera’s letter to her mother turns to other matters.

We don’t know what to do to get through the work & I often have to go without off-duty times. We have got the Hospital absolutely full to overflowing now, and yesterday we were actually told that somehow or other we have got to find 520 more beds! That will make us nearly 3000; I don’t know how we are going to do it… our meals get cut short, & we get so tired we don’t know where to put ourselves…

To this she adds, in the memoir, two interesting notes. Prepared for the “Push,” the authorities rushed reinforcements of new V.A.D.’s  to the hospital, but most of these immediately became sick or had minor cuts become infected: their immune systems were not up to the task of a hospital full of men with septic wounds. And to get through the long, exhausting hours in which so much pain was (necessarily) being caused to the wounded men, Vera–still an “idealist,” still so recently a provincial young lady–whispered to herself two verses of Kipling’s Boer War-era “Dirge of Dead Sisters:”[9]

(When the days were torment and the nights were clouded terror,
When the Powers of Darkness had dominion on our soul–
When we fled consuming through the Seven Hells of Fever,
These put out their hands to us and healed and made us whole.)

(Till the pain was merciful and stunned us into silence–
When each nerve cried out on God that made the misused clay;
When the Body triumphed and the last poor shame departed–
These abode our agonies and wiped the sweat away.)

References and Footnotes

  1. Armageddon Road, 195-6.
  2. Good-Bye to All That, 219.
  3. The War the Infantry Knew, 243.
  4. The fictionalized Royal Welch. I may crown this opus with a complete list of made-up Regimental names--another glorious host.
  5. Complete Memoirs, 361-2.
  6. Graves's apparently prophetic "The Shadow of Death."
  7. Diaries, 97-8.
  8. Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, their close friends, are both safe in England, too.
  9. Letters From a Lost Generation, 267; Testament of Youth, 283-6.

Three Writers Down; The Royal Welch Fusiliers Before High Wood: Frank Richards a Runner and Robert Graves in Mid-Stride; A Letter from Harold Macmillan and a Phone Call for General Congreve

The Battle of the Somme continues, with the British forces near the center of the initial assault pushing north into the German second line. This phase is usually called the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, and the map below will help situate us: the contour lines the snake over the north of the map show the height of the ridge–and of the aptly named High Wood. Mametz Wood, now securely in the rear, is just to the south of the western section of this map.

As of this morning, the British have been driven out of High Wood, and the line generally runs across the central and southern reaches of this map. Elements of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers are moving up toward the Cemetery (between the 8 and 9, left center) in support of another assault of the Wood, while South African troops have made their name in bloody fighting at Longueval and Delville Wood (in the lower right of the map). Today, a century back, the 2nd Royal Welch will await their turn to enter High Wood, while elements of Billy Congreve‘s 76th Brigade will attempt to secure the rest of Longueval.bazeintin ridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Graves preserved and published this battalion order, still in its signalling grid, that he received just after midnight, i.e. at the very beginning of today, a century back. He has now–that politically unfortunate Special Reserve seniority of his–been given command of B Company:

To O.C. B Co. 2nd R.W.F. 20.7.16.

Companies will move as under
to same positions in S14b
as were to have been
taken over from Cameronians aaa
A Coy. 12.30 a.m.
B Coy, 12.45 a.m.
C Coy. 1 a.m.
D Coy. 1.15 a.m. aaa
At 2 a.m. Company Commanders
will meet C.O. at X
Roads S14b 99. aaa
Men will lie down and
get under cover but equipment
will not be taken off
s14b99, bazentin

A lesson in map-reading from Robert Graves. A detail of the above map, we can find square 14, quarter-square “b” (always the top-right quarter-square), and the crossroads in the very top corner (9, 9 on the x and y axes). Amusingly, we’ve got the maps available online and Graves evidently didn’t have his handy when he was working from the battalion order: the crossroads is not near the churchyard. See the next map, below.

Graves continues:

S 14b 99 was a map reference for Bazentin churchyard. We lay here on the reverse slope of a slight ridge about half a mile from the wood. I attended the meeting of company commanders; the colonel told us the plan. He said: “Look here, you fellows, we’re in reserve for this attack. The Cameronians are going up to the wood first, then the Fifth Scottish Rifles; that’s at five a.m. The Public Schools Battalion are in support if anything goes wrong. I don’t know if we shall be called on; if we are, it will mean that the Jocks have legged it. As usual,” he added. This was an appeal to prejudice. “The Public Schools Battalion is, well, what we know, so if we are called for, that means it will be the end of us.” He said this with a laugh and we all laughed. We were sitting on the ground protected by the road-bank; a battery of French 75’s was firing rapid over our heads about twenty yards away.[1] There was a very great concentration of guns in Happy Valley now. We could hardly hear what he was saying. He told us that if we did get orders to reinforce, we were to shake out in artillery formation; once in the wood we were to hang on like death. Then he said good-bye and good luck and we rejoined our companies.

At this juncture the usual inappropriate message came through from Division. Division could always be trusted to send through a warning about verdigris on vermorel-sprayers, or the keeping of pets in trenches, or being polite to our allies, or some other triviality, when an attack was in progress. This time it was an order for a private in C Company to report immediately to the assistant provost-marshal back at Albert, under escort of a lance-corporal. He was for a court-martial. A sergeant of the company was also ordered to report as a witness in the case. The private was charged with the murder of a French civilian in an estaminet at Béthune about a month previously. Apparently there had been a good deal of brandy going and the French civilian, who had a grudge against the British (it was about his wife), started to tease the private. He was reported, somewhat improbably, as having said: “English no bon, Allmand très bon. War fineesh, napoo the English. Allmand win.” The private had immediately drawn his bayonet and run the man through. At the court-martial the private was exculpated; the French civil representative commended him for having “energetically repressed local defeatism.” So he and the two N.C.O.’s missed the battle.

It is very like Robert Graves to seize on this story of triplicate absurdity–bureaucracy’s impervious shamble, pointless violence and exculpatory cant–and insert it here between build-up and disaster. And yet: given what we know of Graves’s punctilious preference for the yarn over the whole cloth of the truth–and given what we will read of the difficulty of getting any message to the advanced battalions today, this must be, at the very least, an anecdote-out-of-time.

But the Royal Welch were in a bad position. They had moved forward (from the crossroads of the meeting into or near Bazentin Cemetery) but then waited for hours in an area devoid of real cover–an area, moreover, which was constantly searched by German artillery, firing against the nearby British batteries or seeking to drop shells on the routes used by reinforcements and carrying parties. By about 10 o’clock, the battalion had taken something like 100 casualties. When the barrage increased, Graves ordered B company to move slightly back, and as they did so, a German “crump”–a large-caliber shell–exploded among them.

I heard the explosion and felt as though I had been punched rather hard between the shoulder-blades, but had no sensation of pain. I thought that the punch was merely the shock of the explosion; then blood started trickling into my eye and I felt faint and called to Moodie: “I’ve been hit.” Then I fell down. A minute or two before I had had two very small wounds on my left hand; they were in exactly the same position as the two, on my right hand, that I had got during the preliminary bombardment at Loos. This I had taken as a sign that I would come through all right. For further security I had repeated to myself a line of Nietsche’s, whose poems, in French, I had with me:

Non, tu ne peux pas me tuer.[2]

It was the poem about a man on the scaffold with the red-bearded executioner standing over him. (This copy of Nietsche, by the way, had contributed to the suspicions about me as a spy. Nietsche was execrated in the papers as the philosopher of German militarism; he was more popularly interpreted as a William le Queux mystery-man–the sinister figure behind the Kaiser.)[3]

One piece of shell went through my left thigh, high up near the groin; I must have been at the full stretch of my stride to have escaped emasculation. The wound over the eye was nothing; it was a little chip of marble, possibly from one of the Bazentin cemetery headstones. This and a finger wound, which split the bone, probably came from another shell that burst in front of me. The main wound was made by a piece of shell that went in two inches below the point of my right shoulder and came out through my chest two inches above my right nipple, in a line between it and the base of my neck.

My memory of what happened then is vague. Apparently Doctor Dunn came up through the barrage with a stretcher-party, dressed my wound, and got me down to the old German dressing-station at the north end of Mametz Wood. I just remember being put on the stretcher and winking at the stretcher-bearer sergeant who was looking at me and saying: “Old Gravy’s got it, all right.”

Dr. Dunn came up indeed, and treated what he called “a bad chest wound of the kind that few recover from,” and then sent Graves on to the dressing station near Mametz Wood. This was at present overwhelmed with casualties coming back from the bungled attack in front. So, following standard procedure, Graves, unconscious with a sucking chest wound, was left to die while medics focused on helping those who could be saved.

 

But it still goes on. Colonel “Tibs” Crawshay[4] was by now frustrated nearly to distraction. His battalion is being destroyed, deedless, waiting to be committed to an attack that is obviously failing (the wounded of other battalions in the brigade are streaming back), by a command structure so far back that it can’t possibly do the right thing soon enough.

The passage of messages… between front and rear was always a difficulty, and a vexation at both ends. Before the action Radford had been asked for by Brigade to be employed as a Forward Liaison Officer. He was detailed with some signallers to use Bazentin-le-Petit Windmill, 200 yards east of the Cemetery, as the forward post of a relay system.

bazentin to high wood

The Churchyard, the Windmill, and High Wood

(On the map at right we can see the ground covered between Graves’s crossroads and the churchyard. Each of the smaller squares (i.e. quarters of the numbered squares) is 500 yards long and wide, so they had moved by about that much. The crossroads can be seen at center, bottom, and the cemetery and the windmill are at 8b-c and 9a-b, respectively; High Wood is some 1400 yards away to the northeast, in the upper right.)

Captain Radford, seconded to the Brigade for signalling, describes the problem of communications, the heart of “command and control:”

At the beginning of the morning attack the enemy barrage cut the wires. The barrage smoke made lamp signalling impossible… the wireless set provided was for transmission only, so it was not known if messages were being received… Brigade was in poor quarters… in… Mametz Wood, nearly two miles from High Wood, although deep and roomy dug-outs made for a German division were in Bazentin-le-Petit within a few yards of screened view-points from which the face of High Wood and the Flers road could be seen. Advanced Brigade, so-called, in the quarry by the Cemetery roadside, was a mere relay post. This remoteness was laid down in a General Routine Order issued because of casualties earlier in the War. The Order was circumvented by Brigadiers who know when and how to do it, but times without number it warranted the utter negation of Command when prompt and authoritative decision was needed, especially if more than one unit was concerned. Prompt decision and action were essential this day, ‘yet none of our Brigade Staff came within hundreds of yards of its dissolving units.’ The cost in all the lower ranks of preserving some General of brigade and division, and some members of their Staffs, is beyond reckoning, but must be stupendous.

 

Frank Richards‘s account of this attack is fascinating. A trained signaller, he was one of the men sent forward under Captain Radford and took up a position in the mill. Briefly, then:

We had a good view of everything from here, but we also found that when we were exchanging messages with the wood, the enemy would have an equally good view of us, especially when we were flag-waving… by 10 a.m. they had put up one of the worst barrages that I was ever under.

Richards has set up this moment well. A day or two before, a fierce barrage had left a man mortally wounded–Richards uses the transparent euphemism “hit low down”–and his buddies contemplating killing him to stop his agony. As they deliberated, a stretcher-bearer “went mad and started to undress himself. He was uttering horrible screams and we had to fight with him and overpower him before he could be got to the Aid Post.” The man died before any action was taken, but then Richards’s pal Duffy is also hit “low down.”

…it was a bad wound and I knew his case was hopeless; but he was conscious…

As Richards and three men carry him back, a shell splinter narrowly misses Richards’s foot.

Although Duffy was dying on the stretcher he noticed it as he hung his head over the side and said “Hard lines, Dick! If a youngster had been in your place he would have had a beautiful Blighty wound through the foot. We old ones aren’t lucky enough to stop one that way. We generally stop one the way I have done.”

Duffy dies not long after reaching the aid post, and Richards returns to action. Today, then, his parting words hang heavily. As the shelling picks up pace, five of the men in the brigade signalling post on the hilltop retreat to a shell-hole “absolutely useless and terror-stricken.” Richards has to summon a runner to write down a message as he reads it.

When I was about halfway through it, he gave a shout; I turned round and found him groaning on the ground. A shell splinter which must have passed high up between my legs had hit him in the thigh. It was a nasty wound…

Near-emasculation has become a strangely persistent theme, perhaps to counterbalance the fact that these of all wounds were impossible to introduce into polite company in 1916…

Nor does the message that nearly killed Richards get through. After the advanced signalling team is hit by shellfire, the flags are abandoned and Richards is ordered to run messages–literally run, since no more swift or more advanced form of communications is working–between brigade headquarters and the brigade’s advanced battalions in High Wood. He sees terrible things passing through the debatable valley. On one run he passes a trench full of men as he goes toward the wood, then re-passes it minutes later and sees that it is full of corpses and scattered body parts.

Richards has seen a lot, but today moved him to a rare note of protest:

I have often wondered since them, if all the leading statesmen and generals of the warring countries had been threatened to be put under the barrage during the day of the 20th July, 1916, and were told that if they survived it they would be forced to be under a similar one in a week’s time, whether they would have all met together and signed a peace treaty before the week was up.

Then, true to his “old soldier” persona, Richards ends the chapter on a different note. The Royal Welch took heavy casualties, but the well-born men of the Public Schools Battalion suffered even more.

It was the custom that all parcels that arrived for men who were casualties should be distributed among the survivors. The Commanding Officer of the Public Schools Battalion kindly sent a number of mailbags full of parcels for distribution among our men. We lived on luxuries for the next few days.[5]

 

Back, now, to Captain Radford’s account:

The supply of runners was soon exhausted and was not replaced. At noon I went to Brigade to report the futility of it all…

Ironically, as he left his post to protest its futility an earlier order from Brigade finally reached some of the forward battalions. It was hours late, and in urging reinforcements into the Wood it referred to an earlier stage of the attack, but it nevertheless gave Colonel Crawshay of the Royal Welch the excuse he needed to move forward. The battalion had been at roughly half-strength when it came up, then suffered many casualties and detached a good number of men for carrying parties and duties such as Richards’s signalling station. Only a few hundred men formed up. By the time they had organized, covered the shell-strewn near-mile to High Wood, and fallen out into attack formation, it was nearly 2 o’clock.

The 2nd Royal Welch entered High Wood in something like replay of the 15th entering Mametz Wood. Thick foliage, fallen trees, enfilade fire and bursting shells, confusion, no real sense of where the Germans were, the shattered panicky remnants of the earlier units… but the 2nd Battalion was a highly experienced battalion built around a core of prideful Regulars, and they cleared much of the wood in a furious “bush-mêlée” that the chronicle essentially cannot describe. Furious, and incredibly costly: there were 150 casualties in the batalion, perhaps more than half of the men engaged in the fight. Every single officer who entered the Wood was either killed or wounded.

And then, crippling anti-climax. The Welch and the other battalions of the brigade are now ordered to fall back because the farthest parts of the Wood are untenable due to German machine gun fire. But these machine guns had never been addressed by any part of the attack plan. So have they been sent, twice, to assault a position, at great cost, when it was never thought to be worth holding? Or is the staff at Division and Corps level so callous and foolhardy that they are willing to spend hundreds of lives to take a place and only then decide if it is worth the taking?

The interloper from the Divisional Staff who arrived in the early evening had no satisfactory answer.

Nothing, however, was so maddening as his parting remark, “the General has the situation in hand”–spoken with a straight face. The situation never was grasped. Fumbling fingers far away had trifled with opportunity for hours…[6]

Dr. Dunn’s chronicle is woven from the words of career soldiers, regulars of a proud regiment not given to undue carping about the higher-ups (and supplemented, too, by a few temporary officers and tough old soldiers and non-coms). These are not the disillusioned volunteers crying out against chateau generals. And yet their history, today, is one of foolish attack plans, horribly wasteful standing orders, poor management, and craven overconfidence–it’s not the chateau generals that did for their plan of attack, but rather the remote brigadier and the indifferent, ignorant, map-besotted divisional general–their few miles over hill and dale is more than enough for complete incomprehension.

The fog of war is to a certain extent inevitable, but there is no excuse for generals who believe that they can collate fragmentary and out-of-date reports, glance at the map, and know the truth. Decisive action in effective ignorance is worse than resignation, especially when there are capable officers actually on the scene. These generals are fraudulent seers and cold-eyed killer kings in one person, and all the worse if, in telling themselves that it’s tough job and someone has to do it, they don’t even realize what they are doing.

 

Apologies for the outburst. It’s a century gone, no? Anyway, this concludes today’s entry as far as the Royal Welch go. There is much more to come, of course–we will not leave Robert Graves lying on that stretcher under the eaves of Mametz Wood. But there was much fighting elsewhere on the Somme, and two more of our writers have been hit.

 

Amidst the staccato beat of calamity and notification, there is a more hopeful stroke, today. Harold Macmillan, too, has been wounded on the Somme:

I don’t know whether my postcard has reached you. I hope it didn’t frighten you. I wrote it as soon as I got down to the Bn. dressing station and had seen the Doctor.

Both my wounds are luckily very slight…

Macmillan had volunteered for a patrol, either last night or the night before, to ascertain the location of nearby German positions.

I said I would go, and I took 2 men, both of whom I knew and trusted.

We got out a good way and I think we obtained all the information that we wanted. Unfortunately, just as were were going to come home, about 2.30 a.m. we were spotted by a German bombing post in a sap. They challenged us, but we cd. not see them to shoot, and of course they were entrenched while we were in the” open. So I motioned to my men to lie quite still in the long grass. Then they began throwing bombs at us at random. The first, unluckily, hit
me in the face and back and stunned me for the moment… the men never moved or ran till I gave the word… A lot of flares were fired, and when each flare went up, we flopped own in the grass and waited till it had died down…

…I was able to master myself, and it was not till I got back in the trench that I found I was also hit just above the left temple, close to the eye. The pair of spectacles which I was wearing must have been blown off by the force of the explosion, for I never saw them again. Very luckily they were not smashed and driven into my eye…[7]

The rest of Macmillan’s letter–which omits the grim details of his men returning fire and killing at least one German at close range–is concerned with letting his family down easy. These are slight wounds, and he would only be sent to England if it so happened that the hospitals in France were still filled with the more seriously wounded. His duty, he explains, is to find a way to stay in France and return to his duties as soon as may be…

 

Finally, today, and worse, we have a family that won’t be notified in the usual way.

Billy Congreve was a conscientious Brigade Major, and when his brigade’s attack on Longeuval (see the first map, above) was held up, he went up himself to investigate. From a former German gun-pit he observed the front line and the German positions now under attack, ignoring warnings of nearby snipers. Exhausted after several days with little sleep and much movement around the battle zone–including multiple trips to bring in the wounded after failed attacks–Congreve seemed to the men around him to be depressed. He may have become incautious. And he was very tall.

Only minutes after Robert Graves was hit, a mile or two to the west, apparently killed but actually at the first stage of an excruciating odyssey, Congreve stepped down from the gun-pit into the main trench, and was shot through the neck. A sergeant standing next to him saw the bullet hit.

He stood for half a second and then collapsed. He never moved or spoke, and he was dead in a few seconds.

 

It’s unfortunate that this death reads here almost like a lost detail, a swallowed anti-climax of the already endlessly brutal Somme. This is not intentional, and it’s mostly unavoidable: Congreve had lost a volume of his diary, and if he began keeping another one it seems not to have made it home. So he fell silent, here, months before he was silenced.

congreve

Major Billy Congreve, VC

Congreve was a formidable soldier. Boyishly handsome and gangly, he was cool-headed and brave and had seized the opportunity of the war to swiftly advance the career he had just begun. A twenty-five-year-old (brevet) major, he had twice been decorated for gallantry, and his performance in the extreme situation of the last few days will soon earn him a posthumous Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest decoration for valor. This award had also been won by his father, W.N. Congreve.

And so the passing of the most terrible news began not with the usual grim race between the bureaucracy’s telegram and the notes of fellow-officers, but with a telephone call from 76th Brigade back to 3rd Division, and then across to XIII Corps Headquarters. A Brigadier General Greenly gave the news to General Congreve:

It was at a very important and critical moment, when the Corps were on the point of carrying out a very important and very daring operation, and where the direction of the corps commander was of the greatest importance. When I told him what had happened he was absolutely calm to all outward appearance and, after a few seconds of silence, said quite calmly, ‘He was a good soldier.'[8]

Billy Congreve was married to Pamela Maude on June 1st, and there was a brief honeymoon, but he parted from his wife in mid-June to return for the planning of the Somme Offensive. I don’t know this for certain, but it seems unlikely that he could have known, then, that he would become a father, in March. When the little girl is born, her father will be eight months dead.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The very battery that Rowland Feilding admired yesterday. It would seem, however, that the valleys on both sides of Mametz Wood have attracted the same black comedic nickname... Or perhaps I am confused: in any event, this "Happy Valley" is north of the wood, not the "Death Valley" south of it...
  2. "No, you cannot kill me."
  3. This is not the oft-trotted-out "that which does not kill us" quote, but rather an oddly off French translation of a line in "Unter Feinden," which reads "Sterben? Sterben kann ich nicht!" or "Die? I can't die!" Suffice it to say that Nietzsche's complex and contradictory writings are just about the last thing that can, or will, get a fair shake in the British Army of the Great War. Which is why, of course, Graves is into them...
  4. If General Blackader anticipates Atkinson, surely this is a Monty Python name, avant la lettre.
  5. Old Soldiers Never Die, 186-92.
  6. The War the Infantry Knew, 229-41.
  7. From Downing Street to the Trenches, 207-9.
  8. Armageddon Road, 193-4.

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.

Billy Congreve Takes on Eighty Germans; Alfred Hale Walks On

Billy Congreve, a walking, talking, fighting rebuke to anyone who might scorn a staff officer, took matters into his own hands today, a century back. In misty darkness in the early morning hours, a battalion of his 76th brigade attacked a stretch of German trenches in the St. Eloi sector. Their advance was soon held up by a number of Germans firing from a mine crater behind their former front-line positions.

Some context here, on the lack of context: Congreve is not on headquarters staff, scribbling away in a chateau miles from the front. He is serving as brigade major, i.e. chief of staff to a brigadier, located at brigade HQ, well within the range of the heavy German guns. He is quite close–or can choose to be quite close–to the four infantry battalions who do the dirty work.

Which is why his experience does not give us any idea what the larger strategic purpose of these attacks was, if any. Was the German line on the high ground? Was there some direct threat to the British position? Surely not. Or was this one of those situations in which the evenness of trench lines or a sense of local moral domination (i.e. “the upper hand”) was deemed to be worth a certain measure of blood? I don’t know. But Congreve was involved in planning several local assaults that took place in the wee hours of today, a century back. Around dawn, Congreve went forward to see for himself.

He found confusion. Some British troops were pinned down by German fire, but now a white flag was waving from the crater. This is exactly the sort of tactical confusion that leaves even the bravest subalterns uncertain of what to do. Plans and conditional orders can only be so detailed, and to rush forward to seize an opportunity could easily lead to a “friendly fire” disaster, given the slow speed of communication with the rear in these pre-portable-radio days. And this scenario, too, sounds exactly like one of the numerous (and rarely substantiated) stories of German ruses.

But Congreve chose an optimistic gamble. He took one officer and four men with him, drew his revolver, and approached the crater, determined to accept the proffered surrender. He describes the result in a typically modest letter:

Imagine my surprise and horror when I saw a whole crowd of armed Boches! I stood there for a moment feeling a bit sort of shy, and then I levelled my revolver at the nearest Boche and shouted ‘Hands up, all the lot of you!’ A few went up at once, then a few more and then the lot; and I felt the proudest fellow in the world as I cursed them.

The official tally was one crater of presumed tactical significance acquired, and 5 German officers and 77 men captured. Captain Billy Congreve will be awarded the D.S.O. for this exemplary display of courage and initiative.[1]

And so it happened. And, of course, if history ran otherwise, it might have happened differently…

 

Now then: from the dashing and decorated career soldier to his exact temperamental opposite. This would be Alfred Hale, the timorous and aging gentleman of leisure and musical enthusiast who has lived in fear of conscription for some months now. Today’s date has a different significance for him. Lately he has been enduring the unmilitary male’s version of the post-box fear.

…on my return from my evening walk, as well as in the morning, [I always looked] out for the dreaded calling-up notice that never came…

When out for my after-tea walks with my dog, walking in the melting snow on the edge of the common under trees, and looking down at my brown walking shoes, I would imagine myself marching along with others in khaki, and would feel that it might not be so bad after all. I would build castles in the air as I went along, in which the Colonel of my regiment-to-be figured, and the special nice home job the kind old military gentleman would give me to do–perhaps ending in a commission for Home Service, who knows? Then back again to the old dread, once more.

But 3 April came and went. and there was no calling-up notice. One was supposed to report oneself on this date if a calling-up notice had not been yet sent, and was liable to arrest if one did not. I ignored this press-gang threat, needless to remark, as did most people, I believe…[2]

 

This breaks up the lovely parallel of opposites, alas, but we need a brief update on the Master of Belhaven. He’s a man in a hurry to get home. Yesterday’s diary entry was headed “Kemmel” and described the methodical demolition by shell-fire of a German observation post. Today his diary bears witness to the bewildering proximity of combat to the comforts of home.

1, St. James’s Terrace, 3rd April, 1916

Home once more. I left Dranoutre at 3.30 a.m. and rode into Bailleul, getting to the station at 4.30… The train started punctually but was dreadfully slow, taking till 10 o’clock to get to Boulogne… a beautiful crossing–the sea was like glass. We landed at Folkestone at 1 p.m. and after a little delay got off, reaching Victoria at 4.30… It is impossible to describe one’s feelings of delight in living on one’s own comfortable house once more… It is hard to realise that only this morning I was in action![3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Armageddon Road, 187-88.
  2. The Ordeal of Alfred M. Hale, 31-2.
  3. War Diary, 167-8.

Bimbo Tennant Misses a Birthday, but Enshrines a Goddess; Farewell to Billy Congreve; Richard Hannay Faces the Temptations of the Flesh and the Delights of Reunion

Billy Congreve has been a bit of an odd duck here–he’s a cheerful professional soldier, a promising son rising in the family trade, and very happy to be swiftly promoted to staff work. And now he will be the odd man out. His career is flourishing, but his diary-keeping is not. The diary will trail off after today’s entry, at least in part because the duties of a conscientious brigade-major involved constant travel through the entrenched areas and left little time for reflection. We will continue to check in on Congreve, but we leave his regular diary appearances on something of a high note. Although he doesn’t mention it himself, he was “mentioned in dispatches” on New Year’s Day, the third time he had been so honored. This is the very bauble which had eluded Edward Hermon, and Congreve’s award may illuminate why: Hermon has been tidying up after battles and non-combat battalions; Congreve has been driving on a brigade, organizing raids, and pushing himself into the danger zone as often as possible–use those “category” links on the two names and compare!

Nor is that all: a century and two days back, Congreve was awarded the Military Cross for his actions at Hooge. He has now been recognized both for efficiency and for gallantry–and he leaves us in the chipper, unreconstructed Victorian vernacular he has maintained throughout more than a year of combat:

17th January

Some of the Belgian batteries are now being withdrawn. This is very sad, for we all love them. They are such sportsmen and shoot like blazes whenever one wants them to. Our grenadiers gave the Boche 150 rifle grenades, and the Belgians let go their salvoes in fine style.[1]

 

Congreve is the high-achieving son of a military father, but Bimbo Tennant has been a thoughtless boy:

17th January, 1916.
Most Darling Moth’,

I have just this moment remembered that your birthday was 14th, and I have not written to say how much I love you. It is impossible to state this amount in writing, but please forgive me for having remembered as late as this. I pray that we may both live many many more years as happily as we have lived together for 18, for there is no one who loves his mother more (or with better reason) than I do.

What do we have, then, for a belated present?

This afternoon we go back to trenches, and out again (D.V.) in 48 hours. Now that I come to think of it it was on your birthday that the Boche shelled my lines, and I am sure that you were there looking after me, as Nanny saw you once beside my bed when I was ill, do you remember?

…It is now lunch time and I must stop. Please don’t think I don’t always think of you, darling Moth’. This is just a short note to let you know how much I love you and how happy I am that you’re my mother, and not some one else’s. I am longing to see you, darling Moth’…

And now “ God bless us–every one” (as Tiny Tim said), and may we soon all be together after this wretched war is over.

Ever your devoted Son,
Bimbo[2]

Never in the field of human conflict has an officer directly responsible for the lives of dozens of grown men sounded so much like an eight-year-old boy. A sweet eight-year-old boy–but, still.

And there’s another perfect little incident here. He had forgotten her birthday when it was occurring, but afterwards, in reporting to her on shelling that caused several casualties but might have caused more, he suddenly realized something…

This is an excellent example of what letters bring to the ample, slovenly table of this project. Bimbo has not outlined or researched, you see, and so we see get to witness a thought emerge in the precise historical moment (just before lunch, European time, a century back.) He is indulging–apology dispensed with–in the pleasures of chronicle, telling mother just what happened. But now, pen poised in mid-air, he emplots events into a certain sort of story: what had been experienced as good fortune without evident cause is now refigured, a few days later, as the protective magic of a semi-divine maternal guardian… he may only be half serious (or then again he may be a good deal more than half serious) but it’s interesting to see that sort of thinking so near the surface. Is there magic there? Can mother protect him? The recitation of past events has become a story, now–it means something.

But it is lunch time now, and I must stop.[3]

 

And what of Richard Hannay? Today, a century back, is the designated day of rendezvous in Constantinople. But where are his two co-conspirators? The quest stands on the edge of a knife–or, in this eminently proto-Bondian solution, it must be felt for in the murk of exotic night life. There’s nothing for it but to head to a smoky cantina and trust to luck–and, of course, to the British colonialist’s instinctive confidence, sense of entitlement, and casual racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism:

We walked straight through the cafe, which was empty, and down the dark passage, till we were stopped by the garden door. I knocked and it swung open. There was the bleak yard, now puddled with snow, and a blaze of light from the pavilion at the other end. There was a scraping of fiddles, too, and the sound of human talk. We paid the negro at the door, and passed from the bitter afternoon into a garish saloon.

There were forty or fifty people there, drinking coffee and sirops and filling the air with the fumes of latakia. Most of them were Turks in European clothes and the fez, but there were some German officers and what looked like German civilians—Army Service Corps clerks, probably, and mechanics from the Arsenal. A woman in cheap finery was tinkling at the piano, and there were several shrill females with the officers. Peter and I sat down modestly in the nearest corner, where old Kuprasso saw us and sent us coffee. A girl who looked like a Jewess came over to us and talked French, but I shook my head and she went off again.

Presently a girl came on the stage and danced, a silly affair, all a clashing of tambourines and wriggling. I have seen native women do the same thing better in a Mozambique kraal…

Next, more drugs and a huge huff of rabid orientalism:

In a twinkling the pavilion changed from a common saloon, which might have been in Chicago or Paris, to a place of mystery—yes, and of beauty. It became the Garden-House of Suliman the Red, whoever that sportsman may have been. Sandy had said that the ends of the earth converged there, and he had been right. I lost all consciousness of my neighbours—stout German, frock-coated Turk, frowsy Jewess—and saw only strange figures leaping in a circle of light, figures that came out of the deepest darkness to make a big magic.

The leader flung some stuff into the brazier, and a great fan of blue light flared up. He was weaving circles, and he was singing something shrill and high, whilst his companions made a chorus with their deep monotone. I can’t tell you what the dance was. I had seen the Russian ballet just before the war, and one of the men in it reminded me of this man. But the dancing was the least part of it. It was neither sound nor movement nor scent that wrought the spell, but something far more potent. In an instant I found myself reft away from the present with its dull dangers, and looking at a world all young and fresh and beautiful. The gaudy drop-scene had vanished. It was a window I was looking from, and I was gazing at the finest landscape on earth, lit by the pure clean light of morning.

It seemed to be part of the veld, but like no veld I had ever seen. It was wider and wilder and more gracious. Indeed, I was looking at my first youth. I was feeling the kind of immortal light-heartedness which only a boy knows in the dawning of his days. I had no longer any fear of these magic-makers. They were kindly wizards, who had brought me into fairyland…

We get a whirling tumble into drugged-out terror–by way of the 19th century tradition of hash-infused adventure Romances–and then, well, here goes the cold water:

Then suddenly the spell was broken. The door was flung open and a great gust of icy wind swirled through the hall, driving clouds of ashes from the braziers. I heard loud voices without, and a hubbub began inside. For a moment it was quite dark, and then someone lit one of the flare lamps by the stage. It revealed nothing but the common squalor of a low saloon—white faces, sleepy eyes, and frowsy heads. The drop-piece was there in all its tawdriness.

The Companions of the Rosy Hours had gone. But at the door stood men in uniform, I heard a German a long way off murmur, ‘Enver’s bodyguards,’ and I heard him distinctly; for, though I could not see clearly, my hearing was desperately acute. That is often the way when you suddenly come out of a swoon.

The place emptied like magic…

We were done, and there was an end of it. It was Kismet, the act of God, and there was nothing for it but to submit. I hadn’t a flicker of a thought of escape or resistance. The game was utterly and absolutely over.

Hannay and Peter are marched to a waiting carriage and brought to a large building, evidently a prison

I guessed that this was the governor’s room, and we should be put through our first examination. My head was too stupid to think, and I made up my mind to keep perfectly mum. Yes, even if they tried thumbscrews. I had no kind of story, but I resolved not to give anything away. As I turned the handle I wondered idly what kind of sallow Turk or bulging-necked German we should find inside.

It was a pleasant room, with a polished wood floor and a big fire burning on the hearth. Beside the fire a man lay on a couch, with a little table drawn up beside him. On that table was a small glass of milk and a number of Patience cards spread in rows.

I stared blankly at the spectacle, till I saw a second figure. It was the man in the skin-cap, the leader of the dancing maniacs. Both Peter and I backed sharply at the sight and then stood stock still.

For the dancer crossed the room in two strides and gripped both of my hands.

‘Dick, old man,’ he cried, ‘I’m most awfully glad to see you again!'[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Armageddon Road, 181-2.
  2. Letters, 105-8.
  3. Letters, 108-9.
  4. Buchan, Greenmantle.

Christmas in England with Phillip Maddison, Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen, Charles Carrington, and Vera Brittain; A Peaceful Day in France for Hector Munro, Siegfried Sassoon, John Adams, and Olaf Stapledon; Billy Congreve and Bimbo Tennant Strive to Keep the Hate Alive; George Coppard Succeeds

Christmas Day was warm and rainy in northwest Europe, a century back. But it naturally brings us a blizzard of date-able experiences. First, today, our happy huntsman Siegfried Sassoon. He is so happy, in fact, that he seems to stray from Wartime-France-as-Edwardian-Kent into Tolkien‘s future-past Shire:

This country looks very attractive in the mild rainy weather. Rode after lunch out by Warlus and back through the woods behind Mericourt. The Somme valley looked fine in the twilight; and the country westward with its wooded ridges against the yellow sunset low down under the dark clouds; the many little roads winding away over the slopes, wet roads gleaming in the last light climbing and sinking, the roads that lead to the nowhere of romance. Dear are these fields and woods, dear the solitary trees against such evening skies. I am glad to be alive this Christmas, riding home in the dusk (after a day with the hounds), the little horse stepping it out, and my heart musing in the old silly way–then only the bare brown fields and the dark woods.

And as I rode up Warlus road in the gloom I met an old man with leather leggings and a great blue cloak with a pointed hood, and he stopped to peer at me, as if he were startled at my young face and the gallant little horse, so lighthearted–a dragon-slayer, perhaps. I slew the dragon in my heart when the war began, and it was only a little wheedling thing after all. The Angel is still there, Poetry, with bright wings prepared for flights into the dawn, across the cold hills, O joy–‘wild and calm and lonely.'[1]

Christmas night was jolly, by the log fire, the village full of maudlin sergeants and paralysed privates.[2]

(Paralyzed by drink, that is. Avert the omen.) Yet surely Siegfried (his namesake, too, a dragon-slayer) should have stayed his horse and hearkened closer to the wisdom of this Picard Gandalf?

 

In the very same battalion as our angelic dragon-slayer is John Bernard Adams, who chose a more traditional–or at least more indoor–Christmas. Sassoon reveled in horse and countryside, while Adams took advantage of free Saturday bus rides into the nearby city of Amiens, and found his angels in the architecture, swimming in infinity:

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Notre-Dame D’Amiens, 1915

Of course I went to see the Cathedral that Ruskin has claimed to be the most perfect building in the world; indeed, each Saturday found me there; for like all true beauty the edifice does not attract merely by novelty but satisfies the far truer test of familiarity… down in the mud I had forgotten, in the obsession of the present, man’s dream and aspirations for the future. Now, here again I was in touch with eternal things that wars do not affect…

I was at vespers there on Christmas afternoon, and was then impressed by the wonderful lightness of the building: so often there is a gloom in a cathedral, that gives a heavy feeling. But Amiens Cathedral is perfectly lighted… my imagination flew back to the building of the cathedral, and to the brain that conceived it, and beyond that again to the tradition that through long years moulded the conception; and beyond all to the idea, the ultimate birth of this perfect creation…[3]

He goes on at some length–but, then, it is a wonderful building.

 

Now to several of our soldiers still in England.

Young Charles Carrington had joined up as soon as he could–in the summer of 1914, when he was only seventeen. Therefore he had been left behind when his battalion embarked for France in the summer, to anguish miserably with an unhappy reserve unit. Until today, a century back:

On Christmas night I crossed in a troopship to Le Havre, being extremely seasick all the way.

Next will be base camp at Harfleur and practical training in the “Bull Ring.” Then the trenches, with the Royal Warwickshires. Carrington was “secretly gratified that I had reached my goal irregularly”–he was “eighteen and eight months old.”[4]

 

And our Artists’ Rifles are taking turns going on leave. Edward Thomas has got his, and spent several days at home, reunited with his entire family, his son Mervyn having just returned from nearly a year in America. Wilfred Owen, slated for the next leave rotation, had to spend Christmas Day in Romford. A promised Christmas parcel did not materialize, but the day was far from a washout. As he tells his mother in a note penned tomorrow, he managed two Christmas Dinners, one in his hut with his platoon mates, and the other at the Williamses, a local family whose sons he had befriended:

Your dear, lovely letter reached me this morning. It was the one thing lacking yesterday to make my Christmas the happiest possible, away from Home. I had no letter, parcel or card whatsoever yesterday; but I had my consolations. The Plenty that overpoured in our Hut of good things was noised all over the Camp. In our Hut ‘it snowed of meats and drinks…’  I had scarcely accomplished my last nut, at 3 o clock (we sat down at 1.00) when my Boy Scout came for me. And not long after I got to the house, we began my second Christmas Dinner, rarely good… Afterwards we played Charades, exactly as we played at Home…

We went to Church Parade this morning as well as yesterday. The Major read the Lessons.[5]

 

And back to France, where Frank Richards has settled into trench warfare better than most. The quintessential old soldier, he is now assigned to the signallers of the 2/RWF. Signallers were a sort of privileged caste–they had their own work to do (the repair of telephone and telegraph lines seems to have taken much of their time) and it was dangerous work, in well-shelled places–but they also had much more freedom of movement and were exempted from ordinary fatigues.

We had a grand Christmas dinner. We bought two chickens and pinched seven. We eighteen signallers had plenty to eat that day…[6]

Another older soldier–but young in the trade–was Hector Munro, a.k.a. Saki, the satirist. And he’s got some light verse, today, in a letter to his sister:

Am spending a quaint Christmas in a quaint town. The battalion is in the trenches.

While Shepherds watched their flocks by night
All seated on the ground
A high-explosive shell came down
And mutton rained around.[7]

Tidings of comfort and joy. Ah, but there is a war on yet.

George Coppard is stuck holding down the fort–or, rather, the machine-gun nest on a sandbag-breastwork “island” in the flooded British front line. Worse, the first hours of Christmas Day were the last hours for Mr. Clark, an unusually tall officer who had been hit by a traversing machine gun late Christmas Eve. It was impossible to evacuate him over the open, flooded ground, so he died where he was hit, and his body stayed there throughout the day.

Our thoughts turned to home and our loved ones on Christmas Day. No letters came; no parcels; nothing. The soggy rations were of the meanest kind, the only pretence at Christmas being a few raisins covered with hairs and other foreign matter from the inside of a sandbag. Stretcher-bearers came after dark for the dead young officer. They had a terrible job carrying him over the duckboards.

It so happened that Jerry was fated to pay a penalty for the officer’s death; at least that was the way we chose to look at it. Later that night we became aware of activity in front of the German positions opposite us, where the ground rose slightly. Voices came clearly across No Man’s Land, also the sound of hammering. In fact it was the most careless bit of enemy movement in our experience, causing us to wonder whether it was thought that, because it was Christmas night, we would refrain from hostile action.

Although mere enlisted men of a humble line regiment (this is sarcasm aimed at Raymond Asquith, who ordered a basically identical maneuver a few days ago), Coppard and a comrade took the initiative, moving out from their island in order to stalk the German working party. This time, at least, British technology ably abets British aggression:

Leaving the rest of the team on the island, we took the Vickers with muzzle-extension attached and a full belt of ammo. We stealthily worked out way thigh-deep in water until we came to a point fifty yards clear of the island, where we lay on a mound of wet earth…

For a few moments we listened to the noise and chatter coming across No Man’s Land, which gave us true direction. I fired a Very light into the darkness. Its brilliant white glare clearly revealed the figures of twenty or more Jerries spread out near their wire to a width of thirty yards. The majority of them wore the kaiser-like spiked helmets. Giving them no time to disperse, Snowy pressed the trigger of the Vickers, and I fired a second Very light. The flare burst, casting its glare on the tottering ghost-like figures as they fell. Swiftly, as if wielding a two-edged sword, Snowy plied the hail of bullets. Two Jerries ran into their wire and were trapped.

Coppard, as if suddenly aware of what he is describing, shifts belatedly into the passive voice.

The ground where the enemy had fallen was raked with fire, to finish off any crafty ones who might be feigning death. The second flare had just about burnt itself out when the firing stopped. The whole thing lasted no more than thirty seconds.

Coppard and “Snowy” withdraw, and later contemplated repeating the exercise. But this time, guessing that the noises were from German stretcher parties removing the wounded, “we stayed our hand.” That–then, there, for them–was the line that separated civilization from savagery. But ordinary civilized warfare did not preclude the ambush of Christmas night working parties.

The age-old sentiment of ‘goodwill to all men’ meant nothing to us then. With ten million men under arms on the Western and Eastern fronts, the expression was invalid. Jerry retaliated with whizz-bangs and landed one within five yards of our position. This was close enough in view of the scanty cover of the breastwork.[8]

 

Bim Tennant, too, was hoping for a little sport on Christmas:

I spent a quiet Christmas day in the trenches, killed a large ratto with a stick, and crawled out, armed with pistol and 2 bombs, to within 20 yards of the Boche trench… We met no hostile patrols, and after listening awhile we came back. Two men were with me…

 

Congreve Christmas

This original sketch by the popular Heath Robinson was inscribed to Billy Congreve, the artist’s Christmas gift to the staff officer

One of our other eager young officers, Billy Congreve, has been up to… well, we don’t really know, since a volume of his diary has gone missing, and the next has been sparse of late. But he has had leave, and he has been busy: two days ago his engagement to Pamela Maude was announced in The Times. He’s back at the front now, and, love affairs and calendars aside, he is in agreement with George Coppard: let the Germans have it. And Congreve, a staff officer with the 76th Brigade, has a considerable ability to affect the local course of the war. So, with the holiday looming, and the engagement announcing, he had drawn up an elaborate plan for a special “hate,” or local raid/bombardment plan, a semi-private celebration.

But above brigade is division, and yesterday, a century back, “a wire came in from the division… saying ‘No action is to be taken by us on Xmas Day which is likely to provoke retaliation on the part of the Germans.'” Congreve expostulated with his diary, “Was ever such an order given before?”

With the hate on hold, Congreve was forced to settle for decorations of holly and mistletoe, and a special parcel:

This morning when I awoke I saw hanging above me a large sack. For some time I was too sleepy to realise what it was, but eventually remembered. It was my Xmas stocking. Almost all its contents were from Pam–parcels of sweets and books, and a silver banknote holder. I had a happy time.

When the Germans opposite began singing, Congreve was forced to pass along the divisional orders to restrain a trigger-happy battalion: “I had to say that we had been ordered to be peaceful, though I think Boche hymns do almost call for artillery retaliation.”[9]

 

Olaf Stapledon is peacefully pining for a letter from his intended, Agnes Miller. She is a regular correspondent and the postal service is formidable–but then again she lives in Australia and he is at a Field Ambulance post in France.

Christmas Day in the Afternoon. It is a warm damp afternoon, with soft greens and greys in the sky. Everywhere there are little water-color pictures, so to speak–trees, flat fields and sky… This morning I spent chiefly in decanting petrol from drums to tins, a patient-ox-like sort of work. Now come cocoa & Xmas cakes, then talk, writing, reading, Xmas dinner and soon afterwards bed…

It’s weeks and weeks since I heard from you. There have been no mails from England for some days, but even before that it was weeks and weeks, i.e. over a fortnight. If you knew how I am longing for that letter…[10]

 

Last of our Christmas soldiers, then, is Phillip Maddison. Half-constrained by the biography of his creator–Henry Williamson, too, spent this portion of the war with a non-combat battalion near London–our Gumpish knockabout New Army officer will nevertheless be given cause to reflect on the difference between this Christmas and last. His cousin Willie will write him a letter about his own Christmas in France, this being Williamson’s heavy-handed way of roping in the stock historical point-of-emphasis for today, a century back–namely the non-repetition of The Christmas Truce (although we have seen, have we not, how varied were the local conditions vis-à-vis killing on Christmas.

Christmas Day this year was somewhat different from the one we shared last year, outside Ploegsteert Wood. This time an order came round that there was to be no fraternisation. To see that this was carried out the Corps commander ordered the guns, both heavies and field, to start shelling at 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve. The old Ger. sent over very little by way of retaliation. It turned out that a deserter coming into our lines some days before had spoken of their programme of festivities, and exactly at half past ten at night, or half an hour before Berlin midnight, the batteries concentrated on a particular spot where a dinner was to be held, with Christmas trees and candles, and blow it all to hell. The comment of our C.O. was that “the honours of Christmas Eve belong to the British”.[11]

 

And Vera Brittain, after night duty and a Christmas morning service at Camberwell Hospital, traveled to Brighton and spent a sleepy day. Knowing that news of Roland Leighton‘s safe arrival was unlikely to come until the morning, she fell asleep early, with happy anticipations for the morrow.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A Gordon Bottomley quotation, wouldn't you know.
  2. Diaries, 27-8.
  3. Nothing of Importance, 79-81.
  4. A Subaltern's War, 19; Soldier From the Wars Returning, 79.
  5. Collected Letters, 370.
  6. Old Soldiers Never Die, 138.
  7. The Square Egg, 90.
  8. Coppard, With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 59-60.
  9. Armageddon Road, 178.
  10. Talking Across the World, 118.
  11. The Golden Virgin, 115.

Robert Graves is at Home in the Hills; The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke X: Roland Leighton Lays it Down; Bimbo Tennant on Trenches and Tennis; Billy Congreve on Rats, Cats, Catapults, and Ghosts

Robert Graves was born and raised in Wimbledon, but he has discovered that he is most at home in Wales, indulging his interests in Celtic culture, walking, and climbing. Today, a century back, on leave and on holiday with the family, he takes a long walk on the beach with his father, Alfred Percival Graves. Robert will often pretend to exasperation with his fuddy-duddy father, but it seems that, at least in the older Graves’s eyes, the lad  was shaping well, and father and son had drawn close under the shadow of war. His requests for reading–A Shropshire Lad, what else?–were very promising, as was his increased interest in religion. Today, father and son went to visit an Oxford don vacationing locally, and talked of family, poetry, and the future…[1]

 

Meanwhile, in France, Roland Leighton, and a few hundred thousand others, prepare.

France, 11 September 1915

I have been rushing around since 4 a.m. this morning superintending the building of dug-outs, drawing up plans for the draining of trenches, doing a little digging myself as a relaxation, and accidentally coming upon dead Germans while looting timber from what was once a German fire trench. This latter was captured by the French not so long ago and is pitted with shell holes each big enough to bury a horse or two in. The dug-outs have been nearly all blown in, the wire entanglements are a wreck, and in among this chaos of twisted iron and splintered timber and shapeless earth are the fleshless, blackened bones of simple men who poured out their red, sweet wine of youth unknowing, for nothing more tangible than Honour or their Country’s Glory or another’s Lust [for] Power.

Well now. I ask a great deal of readers–a great deal of reading, and never mind all that remembering. And then I preach at great length about the literary nature of all this… so I am glad that the day-to-day conceit of A Century Back is doing one of the things it is supposed to do. Nip out the century, and, while you and I were still abed, Roland Leighton was putting a shovel through the rotting corpses of conscripts, and thinking of how poetry was not quite doing its job.

Not so long ago, there was a girl who frequently praised Rupert Brooke, and sent his poems to her boyfriend–and there was jealousy. But if Roland had tried before to break it gently to Vera Brittain that Brooke was no favorite of the cynical subaltern, he now pulls no punches.

Sometimes, you see, I must play the referee: Nor should he! It is absolutely true that “disenchantment” is not now–and may never be–the majority mood of the serving soldiers. It is also true that many will continue to see patriotic self-sacrifice as a worthy endeavor, whatever the situation of the actual war (support the troops!), and that many of these will prefer old-fashioned, stately poetic diction.

And sometimes I nod to “balance” and then call them as I see them, playing critic rather than arbiter: these famous lines of Brooke’s are irresponsible, destructive, and untrue. Poetry permits metaphor, yes. But blood is not wine, and it is not sweet, and calling it so because it sounds familiarly poetic and pretty is not just prettily unoriginal poetry but bad poetry. And no one should get to tell the actual youths how they feel about spilling it, at least not in such sweeping, subtlety-obliterating ways.

But I’m only getting in the way. Preach, Roland:

Let him who thinks that War is a glorious thing, who loves to roll forth stirring words of exhortation, invoking Honour and Praise and Valour and Love of Country with as thoughtless and fervid a faith as inspired the priests of Baal to call on their own slumbering deity, let him but look at a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull and a shin bone and what might have been Its ribs, or at this skeleton lying on its side, resting half crouching as it fell, supported by one arm, perfect but that it is headless and with the tattered clothing still draped round it; and let him realise how grand & glorious a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into a foetid heap of hideous putrescence. Who is there who has known & seen who can say that Victory is worth the death of even one of these?

Excuse this morbid letter, but it is my mood of the present.

And now I really must go to sleep–even although it is four in the afternoon![2]

It’s awful, but it’s worth noting, too, that this is another characteristic Great War irony: digging to prepare for a new “push” to win the war requires this foul re-acquaintance with the previous attempts to do so.

 

Bim Tennant is digging as well–but further behind the lines. And he is new to this and not yet in the thick of it. And he is writing home to the enveloping Lady Glenconner. To what degree do each of these facts explain the vastly-different-from-Roland “lovely little war” tone of his letter?

Saturday,
11th (or is it 10th) [it’s the 11th] September

My Darling Moth’,

I’m so sorry I haven’t written to you very lately but I wrote to Daddy when we were away digging trenches, and I expect he showed it to you. We had two days’ digging and worked 8 hours per day. We marched home (back here) after work on the second day. It was a nine mile walk so it wasn’t a bad day’s work. Of course I myself didn’t work eight hours a day as I had to walk round and see that nobody dawdled (Nannie’s word), but I managed to have a go myself every now and then with the result that I developed several blisters. These, however, didn’t worry me nearly so much as the fleas…

Could you send me three or four pairs of fairly thick socks, and a couple of khaki silk shirts (light) with collar attached, and a couple of pairs of long drawers reaching to the socks, and, if possible, of silk? The steel cap arrived the other day and is a great success…

Yesterday was Flick’s birthday (Fletcher) and we had a small dinner party… It was quite fun. This afternoon I am going to play tennis with Mademoiselle Bellanger in a few minutes…

Please write soon (I’ve had no letter from any one for two days).

Ever your devoted Son,

BIMBO[3]

Tennis! Two days! Disregarded shoveling blisters seem like the best physical representation of high-spirited, combat-innocent leadership that we could ask for. Roland, then, is beginning to be callous(ed).

 

Billy Congreve has been out longer than almost any of our writers, and as deep into the horror of the trenches as a staff officer is likely to get. For several nights he had been assiduously roaming the awful trenches around Hooge–a warren of positions bombed, shelled, mined, taken and retaken, and now flooded. He is very concerned–more than most staff officers, it would seem–that any new brigadiers and battalion commanders in the division familiarize themselves with the muddled terrain (or, rather, sub-terrain).

On the night of the 7th-8th Congreve led two other officers out to the front lines by Hooge.

We were likely to meet a Boche patrol, so went pretty slowly. I knew the ground best and went first. We found the trenches in an awful state, all blown to bits and a great many dead in the ruins of them. These poor fellows were in a bad way and the rats made me feel horrid, like wanting to be sick. However, they reduce the bodies to skeletons fairly quickly–such rats they are, big as rabbits, and so bloated that they hardly take the trouble to run–beasts. It was rather jumpy work. We stalked a tree stump for several minutes at one time…

This horror flick version of a Boy’s Own Adventure continued the next night, Congreve bringing along a different companion.

I found some fine cellars in the one but last ruin of the north line of houses. One has to drop in through a hole, but once inside it is fine: two rooms, tables, chairs, and a full-length looking-glass, a truly astonishing thing to find in Hooge. There was a Daily Mirror of May 30th which had not been read, so the cellar was, I think, last used by the cavalry before we relieved them.

Cameron saw a black cat ( I saw it too), and he said that we were going to have bad luck… It must live in some hole in the ruins and I suppose gets plenty of victuals by eating rats…

It was very quiet up there; the Boche was working hard at repairing and strengthening his works and our people were not doing enough to hinder him. I got them going with rifle grenades and catapults, but unless one forces them to do things they are quite content to sit down and do nothing. They are like children, the modern officer and NCO. One had to start them on a game and then they love it and go on playing it till they get bored, when one has to invent something else to amuse them!

Today’s entry reports on the goings-on of last night. Time for some sketchy ethnic profiling:

An Irish regiment last night was working on the old… line and, after working a short time, the whole 400 bolted! The whole affair, I think, started due to the Irishman’s fear of ghosts. The line, as I have said, is very full of dead in all sorts of conditions. That and the rats were too much for their nerves. Whatever it was, they came back and had to be driven out again by their enraged officers. Of course it’s very bad, but almost laughable…[4]

And on that rather odd note, we bid farewell to Billy Congreve for more than two months, as he closes one volume of his diary.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 132-3.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 165.
  3. Letters, 14-17
  4. Armageddon Road, 170-2.
  5. The next volume--slight spoiler here--apparently described the northern actions accompanying the battle of Loos, but it was destroyed in an accidental fire in the headquarters office in November.

Vera Brittain on Those Left Behind; Charles Sorley at Long Leg; Alan Seeger Takes a Roundabout Route to an Anniversary; Bim Tennant is in Great Spirits; The Congreve Clan Mills About Hooge, From General to Scout

A very long post today–but there’s a novel sort of child-endangerment to reward persistent readers at the end. Meanwhile, normal life resumed, today for Vera Brittain. But can it, quite?

Tuesday August 24th

I went back to the Hospital, and because all interest in it had gone, tried all the harder to think it was interesting. At 6.0 Mother & Father came home, having been on a wild goose chase. Edward’s battalion had certainly gone out, but he himself, to his great disgust, had been left behind with 8 other subalterns including Thurlow to be attached to the 13th Sherwood Foresters (which is the reserve battalion at Lichfield). The reason for this was that the 11th had 38 officers and 8 had to be left behind. These were not necessarily the least competent or the youngest, but the ones the C.O. liked least. Edward has never been able to get on with him, and Thurlow has had this dislike reflected on him. Both Edward & the C.O. are probably to blame. Edward says he is shifty & not a gentleman, and probably shows he thinks so rather more than discipline admits as wise. He means to try for the Artillery again but I do not suppose that will be much good & he will just have to wait till they send him somewhere, whether he waits six weeks or six months.

When we were going to bed I told the family I was engaged to Roland. They received it first as unsympathetically as I expected; I don’t mean this was because of Roland as they both like him as well as they could like anyone so completely above their understanding. But they would have adopted the same attitude towards my engagement to whoever it had been. Father with his usual tactfulness said it seemed very ridiculous because of course Roland wouldn’t come back. I felt inwardly very angry indeed but merely said I thought that all the more reason for being engaged to him while he did exist.

Dear lord. Although it makes me wish it were possible to see Papa Brittain through eyes other than his daughter’s. Can he be this hurtful and obtuse? Or, allowing a more charitable interpretation, how bumbling, really, are his attempts to save his daughter pain?

Vera, perhaps, needs the spark of parental adversaries just now. Is the familiar pressure of opposition better than leaning into the emptiness of potential loss?

But it is a consolation to me to think that I am privileged beyond anything they have ever known, in loving Roland & being loved. Neither of them has the vaguest notion of the love of man and woman & its glory & inspiration and sacrifice.[1]

She suppresses all this in today’s letter to Roland, only asking after their original connection, the friend and brother whose military career has been so rocky so far:

Buxton, 24 August 1915

Apparently Edward is not going out with the battalion. They have 8 supernumerary officers and the Division has suddenly refused to have more than 30 going out with each battalion… Apparently he is very depressed about it all and has mad ideas of trying again for the Artillery. Write to him and find out for yourself about it…

Tell me honestly, does this eliminating him mean he is not much good or that the Colonel doesn’t like him–or is it just luck? I want to know really what you think…  I am sure he’s not a bad officer–he is too keen for that.

Roland, still in London on the last day of his leave, is in much better spirits–it’s a gentler transition then being suddenly thrown back upon the starchy bosom of one’s provincial home. (A slight irony: usually it’s the soldiers who are bewildered by the plunging transition from the normalcy of home into the cautery of battle, and vice versa.)

The Howard Hotel, London, 24 August 1915

In a way I am glad that I am going back tomorrow. If I cannot be with you I prefer to be as far away as possible. How much would I not give to be able to hold you and kiss you again even for a moment! And not being able to, I feel an insane desire to rush back to France before I need, and leave all to memory as all that matters is already left.

I have just written to your Father. It is entirely informative–not interrogative, and merely a brief & slightly formal notification of what the world is pleased to call our engagement. I should prefer that the world knew nothing about it; but that unfortunately is impossible.[2]

So. They are engaged–on their own finicky, hifalutin’ terms–and the leave is over. I feel almost as drained as Vera. But there’s a war on, and duty calls.

 

Having been overwhelmed with Buxton, Lowestoft, and London, it’s time to catch up with a few of our soldiers stationed at points further east. First, Charles Sorley, who wrote a brief note to his mother today, a century back:

24 August 1915

Our work and routine is still the same as ever. We are like the fielder who is put at long leg when a good batsman is at the wicket: not because the batsman will ever hit a ball there, but because, if the fielder in question were to be removed, he would…

This is the best argument I have yet read for the unique usefulness of cricket as a source for tactical analogy. Then again, I haven’t really pursued that quest…

Thanks also for the books. There are now enough to keep our Company Mess going for some time, as time for reading is nearly as limited as time for writing–but by no means quite as much so, because one is often free from duty but in a state in which output is an effort but absorption easy and delightful.[3]

A good reminder both of the importance of reading and the difficulty of writing–our letters are rarely written on the worst days, or in the most exhausted of states. They sing an upbeat song of life in the trenches.

 

And Alan Seeger, his regiment of the Foreign Legion pulled from the line weeks ago for reorganization, is on the move again–or seems to be. We’ll jump back a century and four days and pick up his diary:

August 20.–We were ordered to be in readiness at any moment… Got off shortly after four. Marched to Auxelles-Bas, where, branching to the right, all prospect of going toward Thann and the theatre of fighting near Munster was dissipated.

A beautiful morning as we crossed the continental divide, which separates the waters that flow into the Rhône and the Mediterranean from those that fall into the Rhine and the gray North Sea. Eastward into the sunrise stretched away the fair plains of Alsace. Moments of memorable emotion as we marched singing down the winding road that led us off to this glorious goal…

I am sitting now under a giant pear tree on a green slope outside the town, enjoying the most beautiful landscape as it fades away gradually in the dying daylight. Wide lowlands stretch away–fields of richest green, cultivated acres, hamlets, groves–bounded toward the southeast by the “many-folded mountains” of Switzerland that rise, crest after crest, each one more faint, toward the far clouds pink in the sunset. The boom of the cannon can be heard, more distant now, in Alsace. Two captive balloons are up along the line of the front. An aeroplane returns toward Belfort from a reconnaissance beyond the lines. A convoi of motor lorries raises the dust along the white road eastward. Automobiles dash back and forth. Exquisite peaceful summer evening. The green on forest and field has not begun to be browned yet, but already in the evenings the chill of Autumn is beginning to be felt. Moments of peace, sweet melancholy, resignation, self-content…

Seeger is keeping his hand in with some natural description and beautiful writing, yes–but he’s also preparing himself for the Next Big Thing, for a potentially heroic role in a late summer offensive. But soldiering rarely works out so prettily.

August 24.–Likelihood of an offensive in Alsace is not so good now. The reason we came here was to put in six days work on the second line defenses, each regiment in the division doing its turn. This done, we return, they say, to Plancher-Bas! We have already done two days hard labor renovating a second line trench…

News of the fall of Kovno makes these times very grave. This means the breaking up of the last Russian line of defence and the beginning of an indefinite retreat into the interior. How much of this army will be destroyed or fall into the hands of the Germans, as a result of this latest manoeuvre, remains to be seen. Things look badly for the Allies. The only hope of ultimate victory that I can see is the Balkan States marching with us. Today is the anniversary of my enlistment.[4]

 

Let’s catch up as well with Bim Tennant, newly deployed Grenadier Lieutenant, loving and beloved son. Back two days to the first of the inevitable Transactional Parcel Request Letters. But then, in a series of quick paragraphs, he hits almost every other note familiar from others’ early letters home:

Sunday, 22nd August

Darling Moth’,

The lovely parcel from Fortnum & Mason has just come, and very welcome too. Langley didn’t put in my valise the lovely oilskin sheet convertible to a cloak, which we bought. Will you inquire concerning it?

I am extremely happy here, and rode today with Flick (Fletcher) two miles out to lunch with the 1st Battalion, which was very nice. I am very lucky to be in his Company, he is the nicest Captain I have ever had over me, and if one or two people go sick (as they may being not thoroughly recovered from their wounds) he will be second in command, and I shall command the Company, which would be great for me, wouldn’t it?

He just sounds so young. So young. Does he worry that mother worries?

I wouldn’t be anywhere else but here, for the world, darling Moth’, I am on the highroad of my life! and any deviation therefrom would break my heart.

By the way, please send me my camera and some films. Aeroplanes buzz round here all day, and this morning I heard big guns for the first time. I crossed myself.

A notable step of the “approach” narrative. The requests for comforts and luxuries, the assurance of perfect happiness, then the assurance of perfect faith. He bounces back and forth between these two themes now. This letter, after so many stately, patiently composed (and/or diligently edited?) missives, puts me in mind of Henry Williamson–all that sentence-by-sentence bouncing about.

I saw Oliver Lyttleton in St. Omer; he is on some one’s staff. I wouldn’t have a staff job for anything…

Doth he protest too much? I doubt it. I think this is legitimate high spirits, rather than a sense of creeping guilt that his enthusiasm is directly related to the chance that his family will have to cope with bitter bereavement. He’s just so excited! God be praised who has kept us off the staff and away from boring, safe postings in this hour!

We couldn’t get a padre this morning, so we all made dozens of copies of “O God, our help,” and “Nearer, my God, to Thee,” and Flick conducted a very nice little service…

Hoping to see you in two or three months’ time, God bless you, darling Moth’.

Your devoted Son,
Bimbo

Something like Henry Williamson, although in place of the abrading self-doubt and confessions of fear we have brimming confidence. And, as far as we can tell, a much happier family. And, yes, a well-connected, gently bred family as well:

Tuesday night,
24th August, 1915
Darling Moth’,

I am still very well and in great spirits. The Divisional General (Lord Cavan) sent for me yesterday and shook hands with me, and said he was glad I was doing so well and that he was sure I’d be a great Grenadier: he asked me my age and so forth…[5]

Yes–and did he note down your name as a promising future company commander, or did he betake himself to a private chamber to weep at the pity of sending a boy into an endless war of attrition?

 

Speaking of well-connected families, time now too to look in on Billy Congreve. And who do we find with him but the entire Congreve clan, minus Mater. Two weeks ago Billy was dining with Dads after his (Dads’) 6th Division recaptured the Hooge crater. On the 15th he was once again free for dinner, and learned that his younger brother Geoff, a midshipman on leave, was visiting. Visiting the actual trenches, in and around the charnel house of Hooge. Young Geoff

saw all the gruesome sights there were to be seen. He came back with various Boche loot and intends taking the articles back to his battleship.

This is a strange sort of portent, for where Geoff went as a tourist, Billy and the 3rd Division soon returned to fight, and work. He wrote out his frustrations on the 21st:

Here we are, holding Hooge again. We hoped against hope that we were on the Canal line for the winter… Now all our work goes into others’ hands and we come to this beastly place, where everything has to be done over again.

Hooge is in a poor way… The dead bodies, old and new, made everything so fearfully slow, for one cannot dig a yard without coming on some grim relic which has either to be reburied or dug round…

The following day the family’s ranks were once again reinforced. This is a bit hard to believe, but, apparently, the 3rd Congreve boy–Christopher–also visited Dads. He was on the continent for the summer and was now to stay with his Father in and around Ypres for a few weeks. He was in uniform, so visiting the front lines to see the sites (and the occasional shell) was easily arranged.

Although it was a boy scout uniform–Christopher Congreve was twelve.

This sort of whimsical insanity we can’t linger on–there is too much singular fatuousness to get to.

Yesterday, Billy Congreve was taking stock of the line around Hooge. The front-line trenches were now so close to each other that no patrols were needed to bomb the enemy positions. There were “at least 250 dead Boches and a good many of our fellows” in the bottom of the crater.

I heard today that we are likely to have to do a further attack on this front. Of all places to choose on the British front, I suppose this is the worst. I only hope the General puts his heels in and refuses point-blank to do any such mad thing.

Well, let’s bring ourselves up to date…. what would you guess he wrote today?  Can we guess?

24th August

There is no doubt that we are to do this attack. General Allenby was here again today, and I suppose has bullied the General into the job…

This is bad news. And awful generalship, from the myopia and bull-headedness to the social dynamic: a bad choice is pressed upon a senior commander by means of a “bullying” superior.

It’s worse news strategically, and among the first of the many harbingers we will have of the next Offensive, at Loos.

I believe that our show is merely to co-operate with something big down south, which will mean the old game of not getting enough gun ammunition. Apparently modern tactics call for these feint attacks, though I can’t see that they do any good.[6]

 

And one last note, symptomatic and symbolic of a campaign in its death throes: today, a century back, Aubrey Herbert was evacuated from Gallipoli with advanced dysentery.[ref]Fitzherbert, The Man Who Was Greenmantle,
167.[/ref]

 

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 264-5.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 144-5.
  3. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 301-3.
  4. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 148-51.
  5. Glenconner, Letters from my Sons, 2-7.
  6. Armageddon Road, 166-8.

Victory and Atrocity Near Hooge; Alan Seeger Climbs the Highest Heights in the Vosges, While Aubrey Herbert Sees the Lowest Lows on the Beaches of Gallipoli; Lady Feilding Merits a Medal

We must credit Dorothie Feilding with an admirable consistency to her inconsistency. She has been recognized for her bravery before–presented a medal by the King of the Belgians himeself–and laughed it off. Today she was presented with anther medal, the French Croix de Guerre, a significant honor. But she will forget to mention it in her next letter to her mother, adding a hasty post-script (and a ribbon-cutting) about her friend the Admiral Ronarc’h’s Gallic kisses as he presented her with “rather a nice bronze medal.” And a few days after that she will play it down even further in a letter to her father–rather coyly, as the old soldier will recognize the honor for what it is:

I am glad you liked the photo too of me & the Admiral. You know the old dear presented me with a damn fine tin cross the other day. The French ‘Croix de Guerre’, a sort of Military Cross minor to the Medal
Militaire. The Admiral said some very nice & touching things to me when he gave it me, & said it was the one gave him most pleasure to give of them all because it was genuinely deserved. Nice of him wasn’t it? I enclose you a bit of the ribbon so that you can see what it’s like. The cross is a nice little bronze one with crossed swords & not gaudy like the Belgian order.[1]

Never mind: enclosing snippets of ribbon to both parents would suggest, wouldn’t it, that the gay and girlish Lady Feilding is sensible of the honor, and proud of being recognized for her undoubted courage.

 

A family reunion today on the ramparts of Ypres, to discuss the successful re-unstraightening of the line near Hooge. Billy Congreve‘s 3rd Division had been involved in the initial seizure, while elements of the 41st Brigade–including Donald Hankey, who was wounded, and Billy Grenfell, who was killed–bore the brunt of the German counter-attack. Just two nights ago it was the Sixth Division, commanded by Billy’s father, Sir Walter Congreve, which retook the battered bit of ground.

congreve july 19 1915crop10th August

Went in early to the ramparts and saw Dads who told me all the news. They hold a line (I think) from the crater to somewhere near Bull Farm and then down to the Marsh Houses, then back to Zouave Wood. This is a strong line which denies Hooge to the Boche, but I think that they will have to shove forward a bit when things get quieter. At present we do not hold the stables.

They killed a lot of Boches during the attack. The Durhams were especially fierce owing to Hartlepool (the Zepp was it, or the cruiser shelling?). About fifty Boche were found hiding in the crater and they were all dealt with most unmercifully. Dads told me a nice (?) story…[2]

The story–with comical dialogue in dialect–involves an old soldier of the Durham Light Infantry telling General Congreve about how he took a pratfall into a trench atop a “poor old white-bearded Boche,” whom he then kills with his bayonet. The implication is that the fifty Germans captured in the crater were killed. Is this true?

And what about this suggestion that the Durhams are motivated to atrocity by the memory of a German attack on civilians, in December? Plausible, and to some extent familiar… but haven’t we learned that the “Remember the ______” formulation belongs to the purple press and not to the fighting soldier? Hasn’t Roland Leighton, who hails from the same stretch of coastline (more or less) already made it clear that soldiers in constant danger are aggrieved at the idea that they should take great offense at occasional civilian suffering?

This is a rumor–an easy, if ugly, rumor–passed on at second or third hand to an officer who wasn’t there. But then again it’s Billy Congreve, an officer who has seen much, and much of the worst, and whose diary generally seems careful and truthful. Did the Durhams really do it? And if so, why?

 

At Anzac Cove, on the Gallipoli peninsula, things were going from bad to worse. Aubrey Herbert, who had no actual military assignment and had won the distrust of the high command with his attempts at negotiating local truces, now did what seemed to him the only decent thing, and addressed himself to the most wretched element of the terrible situation–the wounded.

August 10th

At the hospital no one knew who was chief since poor Manders had been killed. The doctor on the beach said he could not keep the wounded there longer, he was losing them and his men from rifle fire…

Herbert then led an impromptu evacuation–but he was the only one among the British who could understand the pleas of those left behind:

The wounded Turks were left. They called to me pitifully in the night and at dawn. Later I went back and gave them a drink and shifted them into the shade, when they all grew pathetically cheerful…

The condition of the wounded is indescribable. They lie in the sand in rows upon rows, their faces caked with sand and blood; one murmurs for water; no shelter from the sun; many of them in saps with men passing all the time, scattering more dust on them. There is hardly any possibility of transporting them.

We did all we could but amongst the many it was impossible. There was enough water for all, but wounded men without cover in that sun would have drunk a river dry, I did my best for the Turks… An order had come that they were not to be evacuated before all our own men had gone; this is natural but was of course an order of lingering death. However I kept them alive with water…[3]

 

Finally, today, Alan Seeger turns a route march in the Alps into a Romantic nature walk.

Le_Ballon_de_Servance_vu_du_Ballon_d'Alsace

The Ballon de Servance, seen from the Ballon d’Alsace

August 10.–Yesterday the whole brigade marched up to the top of the Ballon de Servance… It was one of the finest and most memorable walks I have ever taken. This was largely due to the weather. After weeks of rain (it is raining now again this morning) it was our luck to hit on a day of unbroken sunshine, not a cloud in the sky of almost tropic blue. After leaving Plancher-les-Mines the road was extremely pretty up the deep, wooded valley of the Rahin. Then came the long climb up the military road. The summit of the mountain is cleared and covered with grass. Here, favored by the fine weather of one day in a hundred, the most wonderful view spread out before us. Southward, 236 kilometers away, Mont-Blanc rose in isolated grandeur above the chain of the Jura. Further east stretched the whole snowy line of the Alps–the Jungfrau, the Wetterhorn, the beautiful mountains that I first saw at Berne a little over a year ago with André–even more romantic and more enchanting now for their great distance.

Ballon-Alsace-Alpes-vues-du-DSC_0018

Peaks of the Swiss Alps Seen from the Ballon d’Alsace

After lunch I strolled away alone and found just the right point of view, where the grassy summit sheered off precipitously into the deep valley-head, dark with pine forests and full of the murmur of the stream. A sunny haze covered the plains of upper Alsace. Two captive balloons were all the signs of war that were visible. They hung there, little specks in the distance, a good deal lower than my perch on the mountain top. I sat about an hour absorbed in the beauty of that far view of the Alps that filled me with nostalgia and love of the loveliness of Earth. Strange that the last time I looked on the Jungfrau was in the company of Count von Liebermann, lieutenant in the 5th Regiment of the Prussian Guard. This was on the Thunnensee in Switzerland. I wonder where he is now… [4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 101
  2. Armageddon Road, 165.
  3. Fitzherbert, The Man Who Was Greenmantle, 166.
  4. The Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 144-6.

An Invocation of Robert Nichols; Edward Thomas Enjoys His Shrunken Horizons; Vera Brittain on the Fruits of Labor and the Danger of Brooke; “Dads” Congreve is on the Attack

We shall soon have a new poet in France. Robert Nichols (Winchester, Trinity [Oxford]) is fairly typical of our New Army subalterns: twenty years old at the outset, gently bred, poetical–and certain that his destiny must bring him into the great combat of the age. Nichols is of the mildly Romantic/rebellious subset of Public School Boys, however–a self-styled pagan in the manner, perhaps, of Rupert Brooke–and he was not physically robust. But he was determined to join the army, so, like Siegfried Sassoon, he made good use of a horsey local major. The same retired officer who doubted his ability to march with the infantry gave him a crash course in horsemanship and then smoothed his way into the horse artillery, and by the end of August Nichols had been commissioned into the Royal Field Artillery, a member of Kitchener’s First Hundred Thousand.

New artillery units were equipped more slowly than infantry units, and required much more extensive training to get into fighting shape. Naturally, Nichols remembered this as an idyll:

That year of training is the happiest I have so far experienced. I had everything (save one) the heart could possibly desire–the sky over me, beautiful horses, loyal companions in the men, an officer whom I intensely admired as my major, a definite and, in its way, noble creed–for I never thought of killing: if ever I thought of the future I was merely certain that I should be killed.

A common certainty, and one born as much of childhood reading as from the increasingly dire news from the front. In a way, this is as good a one-sentence recapitulation of the New Army subaltern’s first-year mindset as we could ask for: happiness and horses and comradeship in the open air; hero-worship and tragic Romantic certainties.

Such a first year also provided a great deal of time for writing, and Nichols breaks a bit from the familiar mold of the poetickal subaltern in his early success–he has gotten himself published before getting himself into battle.[1]

 

Invocation

Courage born of Fire and Steel,
Thee I invoke, thee I desire
Who constant holdst the hearts that reel
Beneath the steel, beneath the fire.
Though in my mind no torment is.
Yet in my being’s hazard mesh
There run such threads of cowardice
That I must dread my untrue flesh.
Therefore possess me and so dower
The sword’s weak spot that the true blade
May not in least nor direst hour
Betray the spirit unafraid.

This poem appeared today, a century back, as something of a harbinger: The Times has seen fit to publish a special “War Poems Supplement,” which put Nichols among such famous names as Robert Bridges, the reigning Poet Laureate, and our two pole-star elders: Hardy (‘Song of the Soldiers’ [i.e. ‘Men Who March Away‘) and Kipling (‘For all we Have and Are’). There are younger men, too, names familiar (Walter de la Mare) and more familiar still: Julian Grenfell‘s Into Battle is, of course, re-published as part of the collection.

It can hardly stand out, this “Invocation,” among such august company. But it should. Older men–non-combatants–must cede much of their enormous literary authority when it comes to describing the feelings of the warrior. (And the glorious dead occupy an entirely different category of influence.) If there is a young man in uniform standing humbly in the rear of the literary horde, shouldn’t the stout men of the fore-front open up their ranks and permit him to advance?

Which is why it’s important that Nichols does not make the mistake that Brooke did (so say I, and Edward Thomas, and Charles Sorley, although pretty much everyone else still loved it…) and proceed directly from pre-martial introspection to the prettily-posed contemplation of death, with no real combat-questioning in between.[2]

 

Nichols considers his own death, but instead of indulging in an almost masochistic savoring of the prospects of  martyrdom, he squarely addresses the challenge that will be posed before death might come–the test of combat itself. It’s a formal poem in rather stilted diction, but it’s also honest and comprehensible: I want to be brave, and I intend to be, but I fear the weakness of the flesh.

 

Speaking of Brooke, and Brookeishness, Vera Brittain is indeed having second thoughts. But first–having committed much of herself to the tedium and unpleasantness of war work–she is pleased to report hard-won words of encouragement.

Monday August 9th

I was paid a little reward to-day for all the work I have done at the hospital. When Nurse Olive & I were doing Smith she said she had saved him up for me to help her because she likes me to help her best, she then  said “We do miss you when you go off, it’s just like one of us. No other V.A.D. has been much use to us before! In fact we could get on much better without the majority of those who have been here!” I was pleased, naturally, as I suppose it shows a certain amount of adaptability and is at any rate getting near a proof of my dictum that a person of real intellect can do anything he or she chooses.

It’s the turn from the emotional and physical demands of nursing to the thought of intellectual promise that does it, I think:

…I had been subconsciously hoping that Roland would not see or hear too much about the Rupert Brooke poems because I knew all that they would make him feel. He could do as good work himself–and though I would not draw him back now if I could, yet when I think of his abilities and possibilities and of how his wonderful youth and life and personality may be shot into nothingness any day, any hour, I get fiercely angry at the waste of it. It is true that this kind of machine war is a trade.[3]

This is passing strange, given that she has several times recommended the poems to Roland. Forgetfulness? Dawning realization and a guilty conscience? Odd.

And as for the idea that the war is a “trade” and thus unworthy of the sacrifice (that Brookean word) of the brightest of bright young things, well. Perhaps it’s true, but why should this, of all the terrible dawning realizations about the war, be a cause for despair? It could even be made light of: Charles Sorley has (mostly) shelved his poetry and hidden his intellectual lights under a bushel, but, as we have seen, he is quite capable both of making light of all this tedium and labor and of seeing Brooke’s achievement for what it is.

Oh you are clever, Roland and Vera, but young, perhaps. Younger than Sorley, although the same age. Looking backward, it is hard to understand why Vera would keep crying up Brooke only to worry that his fame would discourage Roland. And yet, their relationship has always been marked by a bit of sparring–flirtation through intellectual challenge. Can that be part of what is going on? Vera has seemed devoted, almost submissive in many of her recent letters. But she will neither surrender her right to intellectual enthusiasms nor her commitment to supporting–with tactical goading, if necessary–Roland’s future intellectual achievements.

 

And in London, today, Edward Thomas of the Artists’ Rifles catches up on his correspondence.

My dear Robert

I am a real soldier now, inoculated and all. My foot has come round & I am rather expecting to go right through my 3 or 4 months training & already wondering what regiment I shall get a commission in. It seems I am too old to get a commission for immediate foreign service. That is, at present. They are raising the age by degrees. As things are now I should spend at any rate some months with my regiment in England, perhaps even find myself in one only for home service. But I want to see what it is like out there.

That last sentence is a bracing reminder that this project is not–not yet, at least–utterly off course. Edward Thomas should have other things on his mind–and he does. Or did. The months-long agonizing at the turning of the two paths was harrowing, but, now that he is in uniform and under drill and discipline, the immediate worries about family and livelihood have faded, and–as we will read in a moment–the edge is off his new poet’s hunger to achieve recognition. In their place he recognizes (and, writing to Frost, is able to honestly admit) the same simple desire foregrounded in the writings of so many younger men. It’s war. It’s the great event of the age. It’s the stuff of… all my my boyhood reading, all my youthful self-questioning. I want to see what it’s like out there.

It has made a change. I have had 3 weeks of free evenings & haven’t been able to get my one surviving review written. The training makes the body insist on real leisure. All I am left fit for is to talk & cleaning my brass buttons & badge. Not much talk… The men are too young or the wrong kind, mostly…

I stand nearly as straight as a lamp post & apparently get smaller every week in the waist & have to get new holes punched in my belt. The only time now I can think of verses is on sleepless nights, but I don’t write them down. Say Thank you…

The letter turns to a discussion of mutual friends and literary acquaintances, and of what they are doing with their time now. It’s not so subtle, is it? Thomas is no braggart, and no pitiful measurer-by-other-mens’-reputations either. But now the means of measurement have changed. He respects other literary men based not on what they have recently written but on whether or not they have chosen to volunteer. Several men that he now mentions are overage, but others have simply chosen not to answer Kitchener’s call. There is only Masefield–like Thomas, he is married, well into his thirties, and supporting children–who has chosen full-time hospital work, and Hulme, the one soldier that Thomas mentions here. (Thomas knows that he has been to France, but not yet, apparently, that he was wounded and has returned.)

Excusable, certainly: the war has intruded upon life, and life choices are now lording it over mere writing. Thomas implies that he has let himself be swept along, once again, onto the easier path, the path now being travelled by thousands: “You are not going to tell me I ought to have had the courage not to do this.”

No. But I’m not best pleased that, in this very same letter, he is a bit snide about the loyal, loving, and ever-helpful Eleanor Farjeon, describing her as “distributing herself about the country–as usual”–even as he writes her the usual sort of breezy, confiding letter.[4]

In this, Thomas gives Farjeon much the same impression of his new state of physical and mental simplicity. The relief of service, or servitude?

My dear Eleanor

…I am now beginning to wonder what regiment I shall get a commission in. But I shall hardly get to camp in much less than a fortnight. So we ought to meet in town…

How can you walk in this weather? I never knew it so close and these patent-leather-lined caps don’t improve it… I have conspired with God (I suppose) not to think about walks and walking sticks or 6 months or 6 years hence. I just think about when I shall first go on guard etc. I simply can’t do my one review.

Yours ever Edward Thomas[5]

Thomas is not writing, and were he to scribble down those late-night verses, they would not discuss Fire and Steel and Death. For now he chooses simply to march–not walk–and to avoid all thought of what may come after.

 

We’ve been in England often enough, these past few weeks, and the Dardanelles as well. But, fatuous or not, the war of position grinds on in the bleakest bits of Belgium. The 6th Division launched a pre-dawn attack this morning, a century back. The objective was, once again, the Hooge crater, retaken by the Germans not two weeks before.

It’s no longer such a small army, but it can still feel like one. In operational command of the assault was “Dads”–Major General Sir Walter Congreve. Billy will be seeing him tomorrow, to discuss the family trade as it pertains to the mine-shattered, corpse-strewn wasteland of the southern salient. We will hear details of the assault then.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Charlton, Putting Poetry First, 39.
  2. I have no evidence that anyone reading this blog enjoys my Monty Python references, but it has just occurred to me that Rupert Brooke's poetic arrival might well be imagined, from an elevated critical viewpoint, as looking much like that of the Judean People's Front Crack Suicide Squad.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 231-2.
  4. Elected Friends, 88-9.
  5. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 154-5.