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At some point overnight, the Royal Welch were withdrawn from the line.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